Dragon Age and Tolkien’s Orc Problem

4 11 2009

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So now that it’s up, I can tell you that one of the reasons blogging has been so light for the last week is that I have been hip deep in reviewing Dragon Age for G4. It’s brilliant and amazing and I spent close to 50 hours over the course of five days playing through it and I’ll probably do it again with a different character. If you’d like to read the rest of my take, check out the full article on the G4 Web site. This particular post isn’t about the quality of the game, which is beyond question for me. It’s about the problem that I had with the Darkspawn, the main threat to the world the player faces.

Here’s the problem. Like the Orcs or goblins in Tolkien’s world, the Darkspawn are an embodiment of absolute evil. They are like locusts, driven to destroy, unable to be negotiated with and seemingly incapable of any higher desire than to burn, crush and destroy and make more of their kind. In short, they’re a typical rampaging fantasy horde that exists merely to provide sword fodder for the player to hack through millions of them without the annoyance of feeling guilty. That bothers me. I don’t like unredeemable fantasy monsters. It was one of the awful influences of Tolkien that turned me off of fantasy for many years.

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Now, I’m not a pacifist. I’ve supported wars in the real world knowing that real people on both sides would suffer horrible deaths and injuries because of it. Even as I did it though, I never bought into the simplistic propaganda that those on the other side were irredeemably evil or anything less than human. War is a serious matter, requiring serious deliberation with full appreciation of the consequences of legally sanctioning the killing of other sentient beings. Even when the cause is just, the process is tragic. Like my recent bout of guilt fighting the Morroval in Moria, I’m wondering how to feel about the Darkspawn I’ve killed. (Yes, I know they’re not real and that “it’s just a game.” That’s hardly the point, is it Captain Metaphor?)

What makes the moral simplicity of the Darkspawn especially glaring in Dragon Age is the incredible level of characterization the other races and societies are given. Every character and race in the game has realistic, multi-layered set of motivations. They’re not purely good, nor are they purely evil. Even the “villain” the player faces throughout much of the game is given a believable, though twisted, sense of moral purpose for the actions he takes in defense of his homeland. In fact, at one point one of the character’s henchmen, when asked about the actions she takes, scoffs at the player. “It’s really easy to be an adventurer,” she says. “No one weeps for the death of an ogre. It’s much harder when you’re facing enemies who look just like you.”

She’s right and it’s to the game’s credit that despite the threat they pose, the Darkspawn are actually in the minority of the foes you’ll face. One of the toughest choices you’ll face in the game is deciding which side of a Dwarven royal succession struggle you’ll support — knowing that whichever way you choose, you’re going to have to kill a lot of dwarves whose only real crime is choosing to support the side the player didn’t pick.

No such grace is granted to the Darkspawn, though. They are sword fodder, there to be killed in order to rack up the experience points. Yet the darkspawn wear armor. They carry swords and medical supplies. Clearly they have a culture — someone must be forging this stuff — and value life, their own if no one else’s. Who are they? Are they sentient at all? If they’re nothing but locusts, then they’re not truly evil, are they? This was the reason why in Sufficiently Advanced Magic I chose to avoid having an “evil race” and made sure to explain the motivations for why two nations are at war. I have my sympathies and they come out in the book, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to retire Tolkien’s orcs once and for all.





Is Moria the Promised Land?

21 10 2009

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Here’s something interesting that jumped out at me while playing Turbine’s Tolkien-themed MMO The Lord of the Rings Online on Saturday. The Morroval are monsters that live in Moria that the player must battle. These half-woman half-bat demon things are an original Turbine creation based on small references to “fouler things than orcs lurking in Moria” in the books and Morroval NPCs are programmed to issue various statements during battles. Some of them are hints on how to fight them. If one says “Protect me, my sisters!” that’s your Loremaster’s clue to dispel corruption because they’ve got a nasty protective enchantment that can make them really tough to kill. One thing that they say really got me and made me think though. Just before they die they’ll ask the player “Why do you attack us in our home?”

The more I think about that, the more I think that that statement must be deliberately provocative. The storyline in the Mines of Moria expansion is that the death of the Balrog has created a power vacuum in Moria and various factions in Middle-earth are moving in to take advantage of it and claim Moria and its treasures for their own. Throughout the game, the player is supporting an effort by the dwarves to reclaim their ancient home and will see Mordor and Isengard orcs fighting against goblins and other creatures that have been living in Khazad-dum long enough that they could conceivably be considered “native Morians.” Here’s the thing, though — if you apply a post-modern filter to this storyline, shouldn’t your sympathies lie with the Moria goblins and the Morroval?

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Think about it. Khazad-dum was abandoned 7,000 years earlier when the Dwarves dug too deep in their search for Mithril and released the Balrog. That the Balrog is evil isn’t in doubt but what blame do the goblins who took up residence in the abandoned halls of Moria hold beyond doing what they needed to to survive under the brutal tyranny of the Balrog? At what point do the crimes of the past become irrelevant to the modern era? Yes, the Dwarves were kicked out of their home into a diaspora and have finally returned, but by what right do they claim land where hundreds of generations of goblins and Morroval have lived and died?

Even worse, there doesn’t seem to be any common ground between the three factions that could broker any sort of structured solution. Of course while hopeful peacemakers attempted to do so, the Dwarves would continue to build and expand their illegal settlements in the Dolven-view and the Twenty-first Hall while the goblins and Morroval fight back with what weapons they have — stealth, surprise and terror. It’s an endless cycle of violence where killing begets killing that merely begets more killing.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it leads one to make a moral equivalence where there really isn’t any. Yes, each side has some historical validity to their claims but ultimately my sympathy goes to that side that ultimately carries itself with greater moral elevation despite the often tough choices that war can create. In such a case, my sympathies must ultimately lie with the Dwarves not because of what the Morroval or the goblins do to them, but because of what goblins and Morroval do to each other and the kind of culture they create for themselves. Goblin and Morroval culture is one of stark brutality where the strong dominate the weak through murder and fear and rule by force is the norm. They make a virtue of killing and death and under their care Khazad-dum — a land of grace, beauty and freedom literally carved from the unforgiving Earth — became “Moria,” the Elvish word for “Black Pit.” No, the Dwarves are hardly innocents but when choosing between the imperfect and those who consciously choose evil (no matter that some of their claims may be justified), I’ll take the imperfect every time.

Any similarity between Moria and a particular country in the Middle-east is purely coincidental, by the way.





Getting Carried Away in LotRO’s Hall of Mirrors

19 10 2009

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After a hiatus of about three months, I spent last Saturday night doing something I haven’t done in a while — playing The Lord of the Rings Online. Now I love that game and if I had all the time that some of my guildmates seem to, I’d have at least half a dozen 60s instead on one along with a level 27 Champion and a few alts all hovering around 20. MMOs are like relationships — you occasionally need to take a break to see other games. (Please don’t tell my wife I wrote that.) I actually made a good bit of progress on my epic quests, finishing the first half of Volume II and finally convincing someone to take a trip to the Mirror-halls, one of the new three-man instances.

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Here’s the thing about the Mirror-halls. I love a lot of the stuff that Turbine does with their instancing and dungeon runs. There’d nobody better at telling a story in an MMO through the medium of dungeon design. They’re also really good at making the environment a more interactive and interesting part of a dungeon run. It seems to me that the mirror-halls is one their biggest missteps in the game. The big challenge in the mirror-hall is to reclaim the place from the merrevail (evil female demons) that have taken up residence in the place by adjusting the huge rotating mirrors to once again bring light into the place. That means that players have to run around adjusting these huge mirrors while fighting against wargs and morroval who are trying to keep the place in darkness. The place is a huge puzzle and is incredibly confusing.

The problem is that this is the the one area I’ve seen where Turbine’s creativity really ran away with them. Considering that this is a three-man instance and such instances were created to be challenging as larger content without the need for the huge time investment or a ton of people, why on Earth would you then go create an instance where even if you know the pattern you’re going to spend a huge chunk of time running up and down through confusing corridors turning mirrors just so in order to get just everything right? Then after all that, you follow it up with a boss fight that’s just brutally hard? Come on guys! Pick one or the other. If players are going to invest the time in getting the puzzle completed, would a simple tank n’ spank boss fight be too much to ask? Conversely, if the challenge is the fight, don’t make us fight the landscape getting there as well. This may be just me but having both at the same time smack of the classic World of Warcraft 40-man raids where every step had to be choreographed to within an inch of it’s life.





The Tipping Point? Nexon Reports 36% Growth in 3Q

17 10 2009

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Game Informer is reporting that Nexon’s America had a 36% jump in revenue in the third quarter. Between this and things like Dungeons & Dragons Online switching to free-2-play and the really fun League of Legends being offered for free I’m starting to think we may be reaching a tipping point where game developers are realizing that the traditional methods of revenue generation from gaming are being supplanted by a whole new method of monetizing products. What makes this especially interesting is that this is Nexon America, not Nexon as a whole which was already a successful Korean developer. Nexon America is a separate business entity designed to sell it’s products in the Western market. It’s apparently working.

The key of course is offering products designed with that kind of business model in mind and overcoming the impression of F2P being the catch-all for crap games not good enough to be sold at retail. In the case of Dungeons & Dragons Online, the game was always good. It was just saddled with the wrong business model. The design of DDO was always more suited to small groups of friends pushing their way through the content at a much slower pace than the ticking clock that a $15 a month subscription fee would allow. So what you had was people bulling their way through content over and over again in pick-up groups because they felt like they had to play to justify the expense. What people are finding now is that they can go through the game at their own pace and spend money or not as it suits their game style. From what I understand, the result is people spending a lot more money than they ever did as subscribers.

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The thing about Turbine is that they essentially lucked into an F2P game by virtue of having DDO. This isn’t something that would work with The Lord of the Rings Online because the game structure is completely different. Nexon, on the other hand, has games that explicitly built around this kind of mechanic. If you get the majority of your gaming news from hard-core gamer sites like IGN, GameSpy or GameSpot you may have never seen or heard of Maple Story or Mabinogi. If you’ve seen some ads for it you may have dismissed it as the cutesy free-2-play MMO that “real” gamers wouldn’t give the time of day. When I was PC editor for GameSpy I know I’d get calls constantly from PR reps throwing games like that at me that — blinkered as I was by the “real” games that were sitting on my desk — I’d just ignore and dismiss. To be fair, a lot of them are really bad knock-offs that aren’t worth your time. The beauty of being out on your own though is the opportunity to explore areas of gaming that you’ve missed (I’ve become a hard-core Mafia Wars fanatic). I’m beginning to realize now the kinds of experiences that I’ve missed out on.

Take Mabinogi. On the advice of a friend I downloaded it and started playing and I immediately couldn’t believe how good it was. Mabinogi is a classic example of a game that doesn’t push the envelope as much as origami it around into a new and pleasing experience. Everything you might expect from an MMO is there — questing, leveling, killing monsters, crafting. Rather than the more linear experience that suddenly levels out into lateral advancement after the level cap is reached though, Mabinogi is a broad-based experience from teh get-go. It’s a game that encourages you subtly through things like the “Part-time job” mechanic to really explore and do different sorts of things during the same play session. Rather than mindlessly grinding through monsters or quests, I found myself in Mabinogi really running around and dabbling in the many different things to do. It’s got a fun arcadey combat system and randomly generated dungeons that actually utilize items in your inventory to create them.

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More importantly, it’s got the kind of wide progression scheme that encourages you to get involved on your schedule rather than the game’s. Without those huge time-sucking raids or the kinds of tricks that encourage players to devote big chunks of time to make any sort of measurable progress. That’s the kinds of things you need to justify a monthly fee. If a player doesn’t feel like they need to be in the game in order to advance, they’ll begin wondering just what they’re paying all that money for. It’s also why people feel like they can only play one subscription-based MMO at a time. For most people that’s World of Warcraft, the king of that sort of vertical-based progression scheme.

In WoW you HAVE to devote time to raiding or PvP in order to advance once you reach the level cap and old content is abandoned once the majority of the player-base moves through it. Free to play games don’t need that and consequently they can devote less developer time to creating these huge content chunks. There’s certainly room in this world for both types of games but it seem like there are more people with limited time who would prefer the F2P model than the kind of “health club” mindset of the traditional subscription model that really only appeals to people with lots of disposable time. It’ll be interesting to see how Nexon does once its yearly numbers come out. If it does as well as it has over the last few quarters, I think more than a few big western game companies are going to sit up and take notice.

(and yes, I did put another picture of a sexy night elf in here.)





Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears

17 09 2009

My first piece for Gamasutra Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears just went up. As tough as it was to write, there’s nothing I like better than delving into the guts of the game industry and figuring out what makes this stuff tick. DDO is a classic example of a game hurt not so much by what was on the screen (I reviewed it over at GameSpy and while it was good then, it’s gotten much better) but by the decision about what business model to put on it. It’s amazing how sometimes the littlest thing can help or hurt a game — being in the right place at the right time, having a celebrity admit that they’re a fan, putting the wrong artwork on the box… The bottom line, as with the movies, is that nobody really knows anything before a title launches. It’s a lot of educated guesses and soothsaying. You can be smart and reduce the risk, but ultimately it’s still a roll of the dice. Are you listening, Mr. Kotick?
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In the mean time, I was once again impressed at the passion that goes into the people who work in the gaming industry. I’m not just talking about designers or producers like Fernando Paiz but also PR people like Adam Mersky and Atlus Online’s Jaime Ortiz (who’s a business operations guy). It struck me while talking to them that these are people who love what they do. It may be because this is still a relatively young and small industry where the first generation of pioneers is still around even as the third generation of money-men and MBA try to corporatize it, so enjoy it while it lasts. It’s not often you get to be present at the settling of a new frontier and this is a time in gaming that will never come again.

Hey! I just got an idea for tomorrow’s Angry Bear column!

Read Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears at Gamasutra.

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The Bitch is Back

14 08 2009

So this is interesting. Apparently Onyxia is making a comeback in World of WarCraft. As a causual-by-lifestyle-rather-than-choice MMO player, one of the interesting phenomena in any MMO is the social pressure to complete content. This happens because as the game ages and more and more of the player base completes end-game stories, raids and collects whaatever the current bleeding-edge loot there is to be had, it necessarily begins to create a bifurcation between those with the time to put in to the game and those who don’t. Put simply, no matter how nice the guild you’re in, it’s never easy to ask members to put their own character’s advancement on hold while they run you through a dungeon that has nothing to offer them. That leaves pick-up-groups with all of their attendent problems — and even these begin to dry up as new content comes in to the game.

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I’m facing this problem myself as I try to get my Loremaster in The Lord of the Rings Online to finish up some of the Book I epic quests. With Book II nearly completed and my play times so erratic, it makes doing so enormnously complicated. My guild is great and if I made an appointment, I’m sure they would help me out, but how many of those can you miss before they won’t trust you any more. That’s why I won’t do it.

From a business perspective though, it becomes even more problematic. It makes it ever more unlikely that once a player leaves, they’ll be able to come back. The longer the time between log-ins, the more catch-up the player has to do and the less likely they’ll be able to do it because of a lack of players at their level. World of Warcraft drives me crazy because of this. I loved the original game and it continually frustrates me how they basically abandon old content. I’d like to believe that this Onyxia re-vamp represents then perhaps re-visiting some this old stuff, but I doubt it. It seems like a promotional gimmick more than anything else. What I’d love to see is companies gradually lower the difficulty on old content until after a certain period of time, they become solo-able (with a commensurate drop in loot, of course). That would allow the entire player base to eventually experience all the content the game has to offer without alienting hard-core raiders.

Is this a problem that can be solved? Is this even a problem at all? I’ve heard MMO gaming likened to being on a bowling team. If you can’t make the time committment, don’t play. That does hurt considering how much I love this type of game, though.

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