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Archive for January, 2010

While having some fun viewing different STO fans’ pictures of their characters and bridge crews on this thread (thanks, Syp!), I came across an interesting bridge crew picture and commented on it to my better half.

“Hey, this crew is pretty diverse,” I said, when he looked over my shoulder. “They have a couple of aliens, a few different ethnicities, a Borg and two blondes.”

“That sounds like a joke waiting to happen,” he responded. “Two blondes and a Borg walk into a bar…. Three Borg leave?'”

I may be biased, but that was the funniest thing I’ve heard all morning.

What would your punchline to the joke be? Suggestions in the comments!

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I am bowing out of the Social Responsibility in Game Development conversation before I become too disappointed in the human condition and this becomes a political blog. But first, a comment I left on how all deviations from the idea of the default human are equal:

Why, it was only within my parents’ own lifetime that a couple like my better half and I would not have been able to have gotten married in several US states due to the People With Depression not being able to marry the People Without Depression Act. As it is, we are lucky to live where we do because there are still places where my partner could be assaulted or killed for being openly arthritic. Even at work, I have hidden the fact that I am severely myopic because I am afraid I’d lose my job – I’m not a protected category under anti-discrimination laws. It is especially distressing to think about the places we are not able to freely travel to because a world leader recently declared that there were no people with asthma in his country, because it is illegal to have asthma there.

In short, good points! Homosexuality is not “normal” and all differences in the human condition are exactly the same.

Star Trek Online’s headstart begins today Friday at 10AM PST, so let’s all get back to gaming and forget that we have differences of opinion again!

Edit: I am obviously more bleary-eyed than I thought, as it is clearly Thursday and not Friday.

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What, did we cure that too?

Darren of Common Sense Gamer has a thought-provoking post about the issue of representation in gaming, and rather unlike myself, I actually bothered to comment.  I have several other thoughts about the subject, though, so I am posting the overflow here.

Darren, and others in his comments, seem to wonder how much representation is enough, for minorities of all shapes and sizes, or rather how much is too much – how can one game represent every type of person in existence, and more importantly, should it be expected to? Is that a responsibility of a game, a noted method of escape and fantasy, to represent every minority, every uncomfortable reality, every frailty of human existence?

I can understand the resistance – it seems excessive on the face of it – but with a little consideration I pointed out in my comment that the apparently Herculean task of representing anyone and everyone at all largely comes down to a robust character creator and then a very few additional options if one wants to go down the path of portraying a romance. Furthermore I realized that none of this should have an effect on the story the game is trying to tell at all; unless a character’s ability to reproduce with their partner is paramount to the plot, I’m not sure why Soldier McHet needs to be straight at all. The key word here is option; if you want to be Soldier McHet, I believe it should be possible. I do not believe that the presence of other options should affect any player’s opinion of the game or story at all.

Further on the subject of representation, I continue to struggle with my fantasy life versus my real life representations in each new game. On the one hand, I would like to create an idealized character I enjoy looking at while I play. On the other hand, there is no shortage of tall, leggy redheads running about the game world, so why bother, amirite? What I usually end up doing is attempting to create a character that looks more like an idealized me. The reason I usually end up doing so is because I figure, if I don’t, who will?

This also has the effect of highlighting the number of game worlds in which someone who looks even remotely like me does not exist. I am a visible minority in my place of residence, the USA. Many games ported from Asia, with their singular skin tones and three hairstyles, are guilty of rendering me non-existent. Sometimes I play them anyway. Sometimes I am just sad. Who wants to not exist? Why would I want to fantasize about an idealized world in which I do not exist?

In worlds  in which diversity consists of aliens with different physiologies, or magical universes with talking Orcs, or the ability to blow yourself up with fire you summoned from your very own soul, please don’t ask someone to be pleased that they have been “cured away” by magic, by fantasy, by futuristic science and medicine. It’s really not that hard to imagine that we are there, if you try just a little. Trust me.

Edit: The Border House has thrown in its two cents.

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Ground Creep

I’m about to unleash a highly controversial and unpopular opinion about Star Trek Online in this blog entry. I’ve debated whether I’m quite ready to put my sanity on the table for questioning, but my feelings are too strong on this matter. I simply can’t contain it any longer.

I really, really like ground missions. There. I said it.

I’ll make no bones about the fact that I was dubious about the state of ground combat prior to playing the game for myself, and even then I had reservations and requests for improvement. Whether I’ve merely grown accustomed to its handi-cam visuals or Cryptic has actually improved something server-side or some combination or third option entirely, I find myself looking forward to a mission that will require me to beam down to a planet/ship/facility and get some work done. After a careful survey of the other person whose opinion matters to me as much as my own (I swiveled my chair around and asked my better half), the verdict is unanimous. Ground missions are fun.

Last night we had the opportunity to put out fires in a research facility with a fire extinguisher, mixed in with tactical combat. We got to spray stuff with foam! We put out every fire in that facility, long after all the enemies were dead and their hostages rescued, just because we could. We probably would have set a few fires if it would have meant we could then spray some more foam at them.

Later, after beaming down to a planet, I went into aim mode with my pulse rifle, waded into some water, and found my character strategically taking cover behind a well-placed reed while a Gorn picked up chunks of earth and hurled them in my direction. If I could have paused the mission right then and there to take it all in for a moment, I would have; in fact my only quibble is that combat is so fast-paced that I can never manage to get screenshots of the cool moments.

If Cryptic manages to achieve its goals in the latest State of the Game with improving the Genesis System, I may never come back up for air.

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We have finally reached that first of desirable goals in Star Trek Online – “Create a Klingon Character.” How exciting! I did not opt to create an actual Klingon warrior for my KDF-side character, since I already recruited a Klingon as my Science Officer:

My Science Officer, after some cosmetic surgery

Instead, I have decided to go with a lovely Orion girl who will cut you.

In a stunning display of originality, I named her Elfeba

In a stunning display of originality, I named her Elfeba

Unfortunately I have not yet had a chance to check out the Klingon side of the fence, as I have been focusing on getting my Federation character to level 11 so that I can try out a Science Vessel and see if it gels with my playstyle. So far I am Lieutenant 7 and counting. I would love to be able to say that it has been a grind getting to this point, but the truth is I have barely been paying attention to my level; the ability to create a Klingon character came as a shock to me. Every day we learn more about the mechanics and depth of the game, while playing longer and longer gaming sessions than we originally planned to indulge in.

I’m going to miss my Federation character when the open beta ends. I may eat my words at some point, but right now I don’t think I have it in me to roll even one alt in this game. I haven’t felt this connected to a single character since I played in the Fallen Earth closed beta, and That’s A Good Thing.

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This morning, Massively put up a preview detailing the planned end-game of Allods Online (already playable in Russia), where the focus will be on player-controlled ship vs. ship combat in the Astral between allods. I had previously done some reading up on this aspect of the game and this newest article further confirms that Allods Online is unique, compelling, deep and complex. The Astral Ship combat looks completely amazing. And I will never get to see any of it.

I haven’t played Allods Online since the second closed beta, when I found out that the PvP lands that open up in tier 2 areas are non-consensual. I simply do not have the time or the inclination to allow my gaming experience to be affected by someone else who wants to fight me when I do not wish to fight, neither do I have the time/inclination to consistently travel in groups to afford me protection against enemy player ganking. I think Allods looks like a fantastic game, I’m pleased to see that it’s being well-received by virtually everyone who tries it, and I wish it every success, but it is not a game that I will be able to enjoy for that reason alone. The reveals about the central activity of end-game content consisting of player-run ships only cement my decision not to invest any further time and effort into the game.

I am used to being excluded from high-end game activities; after all, I am about as casual as they come. I have played Guild Wars for nearly 3 years now, and I have never been to the Underworld, the Fissure of Woe, or the Domain of Anguish, not to mention the high-end Eye of the North dungeons. I am limited by time, by skill, and by group composition (I am guilded, but don’t have 7 good friends to run dungeons with at any given time, even if there were no other barriers to entry). However, there is so much to do in Guild Wars, so much story to live and re-live, so many other avenues of advancement such as skill and armor collecting, faction building, metagaming and titles, casual PvP, etc. that I have never really longed for those dungeon experiences. They are not a fundamental aspect of what it means to play Guild Wars, unlike the raiding endgame of WoW or now, the Astral Ship combat of Allods Online, and I regret that about those games.

Allods Online and Star Trek Online have taken diverging paths with regards to their ship combat, and I am glad for it, because it provides two options for two playstyles, and I welcome the opportunity to choose. After all, I wouldn’t want every game to be as accessible as STO any more than I would want every game to be as co-operative heavy as Allods Online.

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After the server apocalypse that prevented us from being able to play all evening Wednesday, my better half and I managed to get a nice few hours’ worth of STO open beta fix last night, and I’m here to report our kudos and criticisms for the experience.

First: Cryptic has finally made a Lifetime Sub for STO available. I don’t trust my judgment on these issues, as I previously considered buying the lifetime sub for Hellgate: London (but didn’t, thank goodness), and I did go so far as to purchase the lifetime sub for LOTRO, which has in no way paid for itself given that I don’t really enjoy the game and my better half despises it. We wrestled for a moment with the thought of taking advantage of the deal for STO (financially viable or not – nearly $500 for two gamers is kind of absurd!) but decided against it. We are leaning more towards buying the year’s subscription instead. We hope to still be playing STO in a year’s time, but with the year sub being the equivalent of only 8 months at the $15/mo rate we are comfortable that we won’t be locked in for an absurdly long time should our interest wane in 6 months or something.

People are not happy with the limited character slots that STO is providing (two Federation slots and one Klingon slot, plus another two slots if you take advantage of the exclusive subscription offers), and I’m personally baffled that the slots are going to be so limited as well. On the other hand, speaking for myself, I have little interest in rolling alts right now because the content requires more dedication thus far than other MMOs I have played, and furthermore the customization options and bridge officers are really working hard to quell the need I have to roll up other characters just to see how they’d look. The only thing I feel locked into with STO is my class; I still haven’t decided which I’m going to go with at launch, and that seems like an awfully big decision to not be able to experiment with. It would have been nice if you started as a general-skilled Ensign for the tutorial and first few missions, with all class kits available to you, and then you could choose a specialty a little later.

Second: I would like to register my disappointment in what I understand to be the crafting portion of the game. I could easily be mistaken, but if the material crafting based on collecting anomalies merely consists of handing over materials to an NPC to create an item for you, that sounds almost exactly like Guild Wars. Unlike my view on most features of Guild Wars, I’ve come to quite like crafting in other games and I was hoping to have a little nook on a station somewhere where I could fit together items and invent things. To be fair, I’m not sure how well that kind of thing would fit into the Star Trek universe; sure, Geordi might have jury-rigged a few items in his day, but I wouldn’t say it was a full side profession for him. So I simply note my disappointment and move on.

Third: We got to sample the Genesis System for the first time last night, to mixed results. I’m really unhappy with the inability (bug?) to tackle an anomaly as a group, or to come to my group member’s aid in his own existing mission. Several of the anomalies we investigated spawned bugged missions, usually in the form of directives to locate items that did not seem to exist, or that did not spawn in enough numbers to complete the mission. I would give an arm for the ability to scan a system and have it mark spawn locations on the map for me once I was within a certain range (say 20km) rather than flying up and down the map hoping to glimpse something I might need.

I had one combat mission, one bugged exploration mission, and two successful exploration missions, so it would seem the Genesis system is the way to go if you want to get away from the patrol and combat missions. My better half had less luck, with one successful and one bugged exploration mission, three trading missions that he could not complete for lack of resources, and one combat mission. There were some lovely scenes in those systems, though, and plenty of opportunities for me to just pause and take screenshots of every square inch of my surroundings. (Pro-tip: you can only pause for 45 seconds at any given time while in a ground map, but the pause timer regenerates when not in use.)

Now I have to choose my next course of action for our upcoming weekend gaming marathon. The gamer in me wants to avoid the Genesis system now, because I didn’t sign up with my partner only to play this game together alone, and because the bugs made the overall experience pretty frustrating. The beta tester in me wants to spend more time with Genesis in order to provide bug reports and feedback so that we can get to the point that we do want to play around with it more. I regret that I was not as rigorous in bug-reporting as I could have been last night, since at first I wasn’t even sure what to expect or how things were supposed to work. I hope to have some good feedback for the Cryptic team this weekend.

All bugs and issues aside, we still ended up gaming longer than we’d planned last night, under the guise of “I just want to finish this one thing/I just want to try this other thing….” so I feel the game must be doing something right.

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I have found it very interesting reading reviews of Star Trek Online being posted across the blogosphere (Syp from Bio Break has compiled a cross-section here). Since the NDA has dropped, I have started seeing more positive reviews – the theory being that those most disappointed with a game in beta are most likely to break NDA because they don’t care about being kicked out – and that has put my mind to ease somewhat on whether there will be a sustained population to play with in the coming months. I have been reading the negative reviews carefully as well, because it often amuses me to see people criticize the very features that appeal to me most in-game.

I wonder if I should attribute my gaming preferences to my MUD background, or to having gotten my start in graphical MMOs with Guild Wars, or the fact that, unlike what seems like every other gamer in the free world, I never did get into Everquest, WoW, UO, or Asheron’s Call. That very admission might be enough for many gamers to strip me of the “MMO” I place before “gamer” – when Guild Wars’ rightful place in the realm of MMOs is still actively being debated today, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.* However, this background clearly indicates that while I did spend many hours chained to my computer in pursuit of the next boss drop in StrangeMUD, grinding gold to score trinkets for my house, or hanging out in chat, buying and selling items on the auction house waiting for enough players to be available for a roaming group, this is not the same experience as someone who saw the world graphically open up to them for the first time in EverQuest.

The worlds of the MUDs I played were not worlds in the same way as MMOs; even if you had to travel across the continent to reach a destination, it would always be simpler and faster to create an alias for all your w;w;w;w;s;s;s;w;d;e;e;e;u needs and set your wimpy to 50% than to physically point your avatar north and start running, dodging mobs along the way. The death penalties could be just as harsh as in MMOs of the time, the need for grouping and a player-driven economy just as prevalent, but there was arguably less time spent living in many text-based worlds than in a graphical one. I never thought of the MUDs I played as anything other than games, even as friendships were forged in-game and maintained out of it.**

And so it is that I have no desire to see hundreds of people surround me in any given location in-game; instancing is my preference because they replicate the cozy feeling I had playing MUDs where even with hundreds of players online, only a dozen at most could be expected to be in the same room as I was. I have no problem with fast travel, as I bore of riding for half an hour studying the countryside after the first time. Graphics are paramount in any MMO I play; I chose my imagination and text descriptions over EverQuest in 1999. Death penalties repulse me, for even when they existed in MUDs, the use of aliases and city recalls generally made corpse retrieval no more time-consuming than a spirit run in WoW. Funnily enough, these are traits that critics attribute to so-called “WoW-kiddies”, or gamers raised on consoles, though I was making use of them in 1995.

Are these two styles of play so very divergent that we cannot enjoy the same kinds of games? Am I the only MUDder who sees the current evolution of MMOs drawing closer to her prior gaming experiences, while MMO gamers see those same games as moving away from the virtual world model that captured their imaginations?

Edit: I am aware that the branch of MMOs starting with EverQuest and those following its example are based on the DikuMUD model. I still maintain that they play differently enough to warrant asking the question.

*I choose to describe myself as an MMO gamer anyway, because it is the category I most closely identify with; I do not play FPSes, single-player games, or console games, while I have at least sampled most MMOs, and maintained subscriptions to several. Also, nyah-nyah-nyah. :)
**Having not played every MUD in existence, I cannot verify that no MUD exists as a virtual world. However, I’m not certain what this would look like without verging into MUSH or MOO territory.

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First of all, I would like to thank everyone’s favorite nuns with rulers, the fine ladies over at No Prisoners, No Mercy, without whose Star Trek Online closed beta key contest my better half and I would not have been able to play over last weekend. Thanks, Fran and Julie!

Our closed beta adventure was not without its minor flaws and glitches. We spent the first two days we had access to the beta simply downloading and patching the 8GB bundle, likely due to the last wave of CB testers flooding the servers for their own piece of the CB pie. There were also a few interludes of downtime that forced us to get up and stretch our legs, eat, interact with each other face to face, etc. but thankfully they were short-lived. We were ready to jump on to the servers as soon as they opened Saturday, and we were there until exhaustion took over on Sunday night. I did take plenty of screenshots while we played, but unfortunately because I used Fraps instead of Print Screen, my UI is everywhere and I won’t be posting those pictures. However, my thoughts and those of my better half can be found below.

The Pretty Pretty Princess Factor (Graphics): This game scores many points with me as far as aesthetics are concerned. It’s difficult to believe this is the same engine that Champions Online runs on, because the character models alone are worlds beyond CO’s in quality. The overall quality and the amount of detail on the models is reminiscent of Age of Conan – though not quite at AOC’s level – and the amount of customization available easily dwarfs it. While STO’s female avatars can’t take their shirts off and lay their chests bare to all who wander by, they can stand around with their hips cocked seductively if you so desire.

Costume customization was suitably understated, given that you’re fighting for the Federation, but the ability to wear the TNG-movie era uniforms or, with an easily applied code, the Wrath of Khan admiral uniforms, was still thrilling. In addition to this, I was able to customize every aspect of my bridge officers’ appearance excepting their race and gender, and in the case of choosing a new requisition I was able to choose that as well. I am normally an altaholic in MMOs, always seeking out different races/looks and ways of combining them, and I see STO scratching that itch for me simply because of the array of options available to me with my bridge officers. How this will play out when I’ve invested months into a main character remains to be seen – I’ve never gotten that far without going alt-crazy before.

Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting (Combat): Easy to learn, difficult to master? I was wary about ground combat even after watching several Youtube videos that showed gradual improvement over time, but I was pleasantly surprised when I was finally able to experience it myself. Ground combat was chaotic and adrenaline-pumping excitement for my partner and I, punctuated with moments of glee as we exploited exposures and vaporized enemies from time to time. My bridge officers proved competent, keeping us alive, moving about the terrain to flank our opponents, and promptly reviving the fallen. The only thing I would change is to smooth out the camera movement when following my character over the shoulder; the only way to avoid nauseating shaky-cam was either to zoom as far out or as far in as possible. My better half votes for the ability to move into first-person view as well.

Space combat was more slow-paced, but no less exciting. I have much to learn about maneuvering in a 3-D environment and remembering which key is the throttle and which lets me move upward, etc., but I enjoyed learning and making many mis-steps along the way to blowing up the hostiles. In space combat, I found I enjoyed looking for fights precisely because space felt so large that it was possible to avoid them. In other games I’ve played, I often come to dread combat after a time because the hillside/valley/forest/lakebed is frequently crawling with mobs and battles are inevitable without a stealth skill. Here, it was so easy to fly over, under, or around by such a wide margin that I was more often hankering for a good tussle.

The Story’s the Thing (Content): The first (and only) criticism I have of the game content so far is that there is only one initial path of advancement for each character. Having only made it to Lieutenant 6 in the closed beta, I was never short of things to do, and in fact left behind a long list of unfinished mission items. We also took part in one PvP battleground, though we periodically queued for others. However, when I think of going through the same content again during OB, and then again for Headstart, and then having to create yet another character for the retail release (to take advantage of my pre-order bonuses), I grow weary. I’ve already decided to sit out the headstart in order to keep the starter content somewhat fresh in my mind, so I’m concerned about the replayability for people who are even less inclined to repeat content than I am.

That said, we both greatly enjoyed the episode content we got to see. They had the same effect that Guild Wars missions and LOTRO Books had on me of making me want to rush to the next item to see how things turn out. I do not yet know if Cryptic is gating this content by level (like LOTRO or Age of Conan, who would give you story quests you had to level several more times before you were able to complete) or if they approach it more like Guild Wars where you can more or less choose to follow the story to its conclusion without having to deviate to “become stronger” in between episodes. I know which approach I prefer!

Other: In our testing stint, we were unable to check out the Genesis system and do any exploration. We had two non-combat missions that I can recall, which broke up the combat content nicely. While it was nice to have those as alternatives to the combat, we could not determine beforehand whether we would be fighting or doing diplomacy; Cryptic might want to make that more apparent up front so that exploration junkies and diplomats can cherry-pick their adventures. Then again, Star Trek is about exploring the unknown and taking things as they come, is it not? I haven’t yet come to a final verdict on how the combat vs. non-combat content is being handled.

Our Views: Ultimately, my partner and I are both looking forward to the open beta and the final release of STO. We don’t regret our pre-orders and we see STO shaping up as a game in which we will enjoy ourselves for some time to come while we look forward to more improvements and additional content down the line. We both level slowly enough that we don’t expect to run out of content or rub up against the endgame before there is anything to do there.

As a primarily fantasy MMO fan whose favorite game is still Guild Wars, I found many positive similarities to GW in STO, and what was different is intriguing and makes me want to dive in and learn more, instead of being frustrated that the setting has Klingons and Targs instead of centaurs and dragons. I am the casual Trek fan who is familiar enough with all of the series and major players, but who hasn’t seen any of the TOS movies except for Wrath of Khan (I’m more of a Voy/TNG fan). I do like the franchise, but I wouldn’t have thought I’d enjoy entering the Star Trek universe as much as I did this weekend.

My better half is the die-hard Trek fan and RTS gamer who doesn’t generally enjoy MMOs and who is eagerly awaiting his Constitution-class starship. He did express regret at one point that I was unable to join his ship crew and take over a bridge officer’s role, but he also acknowledges that since we tend to duo almost exclusively, a crew player game mechanic would probably cripple us when pitted against the player community at large. He chooses his bridge officers based on how hot they are, yet pores over their skill descriptions (Me: “They have skill descriptions!?”) and revels in planning out crowd control strategies.

I think we loosely cover two small corners of the STO player spectrum, and we give the title a solid two thumbs up.

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