Monthly Archives: July 2013

IGDA Does Obsidian: An Evening With Feargus Urquhart

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It seems I joined IGDA — the International Game Developer’s Association — at an absolutely amazing time.

If you’re unfamiliar with the organization, it’s a worldwide group that allows students, professionals, and newcomers to the gaming industry to network and get their voices heard.  Each chapter hosts its own meetings and events that can be anything from a deliciously nerdy social event to the sharing of invaluable information and advice.

On the evening of July 23rd, Feargus Urquhart, CEO of Obsidian Entertainment with over twenty years of experience in the industry, gave a very special presentation for IGDA members where he discussed the ins and outs of project management as it relates to making good games.  You know Obsidian if you’ve played Fallout: New Vegas, Neverwinter Nights 2, or KotOR II.  Though these games are not without their flaws (a fact which Urquhart admitted in a very tongue-in-cheek manner during his presentation, something that gave an immediate +10 to respect for him on my stat sheet), they make it readily apparent that Obsidian and its myriad teams have a good grasp on how to build a game with a solid core.

I heard about the presentation through the IGDA Orange County Facebook group and arrived at Obsidian Entertainment’s headquarters in Irvine, alone and extremely nervous.  I’ve had a few encounters with other members of the game industry, and while many of them were incredibly positive and enjoyable, I’ve also found a lot of resistance and coldness towards newbies like myself who are trying to get their career started.  If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told that my dream of getting into game design and story development is stupid and that I’d probably never succeed (despite none of the naysayers in question ever having seen my work), I wouldn’t need to have a career.  As I stepped through the double-doors into the breakroom where the presentation was to be held, all I could think of was a scene straight out of some 80s teenager movie where the conversation stops and every head turns to glare at me until I drop my notebook and run, weeping, back to the car.

Instead, I found a huge group of some of the kindest and most engaging people I’ve ever met.  They were happy to answer my questions and showed genuine interest in who I was and what I’m currently working.  I had beginning development tools suggested to me left and right.  I may have started the evening hiding in a corner with my bunny earrings and a can of diet Coke, but I ended it laughing and shaking hands with incredible individuals who I hope I am one day able to call my colleagues.  I have to admit that for the past couple of months I’ve had so much snark and nastiness dumped on me that I was beginning to seriously reconsider whether or not I should keep trying to break into the industry.  After my fantastic experience at the IGDA July event, however, I find myself with a renewed hunger and strength towards achieving my goals.  I am encouraged.  I feel, with one hundred percent certainty, that I am on the right path, partially due to the other IGDA members, and partially from discovering over the course of Urquhart’s talk that my own mentality and development principles match up quite neatly with the tried-and-true lessons he was teaching.

A video of the approximately hour-and-a-half-long combined presentation and Q & A session will be available to the public on YouTube in the near future, but for the time being, I’ve got a Hello Kitty notebook chock-full of notes to share that will hopefully illustrate how incredible this event, and the opportunity to attend it, was.

Feargus Urquhart on Project Process

Throughout the presentation, Urquhart used real-world examples from Obsidian’s development history to explain each point and make them simple to understand, even for someone like me who has never worked for a studio.  His witty delivery and willingness to answer questions kept the experience engaging; by the time he had finished, it felt like mere minutes had passed.

Urquhart began by listing some of the terms you might hear when talking about the style of development used in a particular project:

  • Waterfall
  • Agile
  • Traditional
  • Modified X
  • Gant Charts
  • Jira
  • SharePoint
  • Scheduling vs. Tasking

I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t supply brief definitions of each for those of us who’d never heard those terms used in a development context before, but there is now this amazing thing called The Google to give an opportunity for some self-study later on.

“No one thing works,” Urquhart emphasized, “and it won’t work for the whole project.”  Hard work and attention to detail are the catalysts needed to ensure an awesome end product, and part of that is asking yourself at various intervals whether or not the original plan is really working.  Determinations like these are easier when using smaller teams with clearly-defined goals for each along with, of course, passion for what they’re doing.  When each group knows exactly what they intend to accomplish, project process can only lead to good things.

The main focus should be quality rather than adding more stuff, which can be said of many creative endeavors, including cooking — add too many spices to your dish and they won’t enhance the flavor, they’ll clash and turn what could have been an amazing dinner into a confusing mess of tastes.  Urquhart cautioned that RPGs are perhaps the trickiest types of games to develop while adhering to this mentality, and that in the case of sandbox games like Skyrim, the scope and expansiveness of a game does actually become important, but even here, it’s important to remember that players want an overall experience from a game, not just more “stuff.”

Quality should also be the focus when selecting development tools.  You’ll know you have a good set of tools in use if you can use them to make as much game content as possible in an efficient manner without having to deal with a ridiculous amount of bugs.  Smart usage of tools with a small team as previously discussed will allow more development without having to sacrifice quality.  Reviewing, verification, and adjustment when needed as a project progresses will ensure that everything shapes up nicely in the end.  Even if everything seems to be going great, “make sure what’s done is done,” Urquhart says, verbally triple-underlining the last word in his sentence.  Don’t just assume that a task is finished, verify it to prevent as many last-minute scrambles and crises as possible.

This is actually the point in the presentation where Urquhart said the one thing that made me absolutely certain that I was heading in the right direction.  “If you review and verify something, you can adjust it to make it better.”  Sound familiar?  It’s only the Overlord Bunny Official Game Design Motto.  And if Feargus Urquhart agrees, then… well, I must not be too far off the mark.

The next point focused on the importance of moving forward — not just talking back and forth about something until you’re blue in the face, but actually doing it.  Communication is, obviously, an important part of the design process, but there comes a point when everything constructive has already been laid out and any further discussion is just killing time.  Choose either option A or option B and try it out, which is usually a cheap and easy process even if the first choice ends up being a bust, Urquhart assured.  Only by taking action can a team move forward and allow the project to progress.

Urquhart suggested that the first approach to any project should be a simple question: is this fun, and does it feel good?  If the answer is “no,” find a way to bring it up to speed.  A project should be analyzed piece by piece before adding any more content.  “Developer debt,” as he called it, must be avoided — if the first part is lacking, there’s a debt that the developers have to the players to make up for it as the game continues.  Get too far into developer debt by settling for lower quality or fixing it later, and you’ll be hard-pressed to crawl out of that hole.  This is why Urquhart stresses the importance of a hearty alpha-testing process, using Blizzard Entertainment as an example of how an extensive alpha leads to an incredible and much more polished product.  I was very impressed by this praise and respect, since it seems that trash-talking Blizzard has become the trendy (and incredibly unprofessional) thing to do, but Urquhart quite clearly proved that he has the ability to see the entire picture and recognize the good without succumbing to the kind of juvenile “rivalry” bias that seems to plague the industry.  Yet another reason to listen intently to the words coming from this man.

From here, Urquhart gave us a more visual context for the concepts of simplicity and a manageable start.  Start with one room, and once that’s been reviewed, verified, and adjusted as needed, add another room and a hallway.  If you begin your project by delving right into the sprawling metropolis that houses your single room, you’ll be doing yourself — and your players — a great disservice.  Only after your rooms are built should you determine how to build and render the rest of the world.  By building outwards from the core in the manner, you’ll ensure a solid foundation for the rest of the project.

We were reminded of the importance of using good developer tools, but also that good does not necessarily mean complicated.  Urquhart recommended that a toolset should only be as complicated as it absolutely needs to be, and that even if it means fewer options overall, being able to do them well, quickly, and without constant crashes is still the most important aspect of your selection.  Decide what to make and find a way to do the smallest amount of work in order to answer the most questions.  Though games are a modern way to tell a story, they are not the written word; they’re a unique animal entirely.  What would work in a novel won’t necessarily translate well to the screen, and, as Urquhart points out, your game is only as good as what’s in front of the player.  Promising that something is going to be great carries less weight than providing something tangible that is already good.

Before moving to the next stage of production, there’s a series of questions that must be asked:

  • What core gameplay needs to be done?
  • What do we want to learn?
  • What doesn’t need to be final?
  • Are there too many people involved right now?
  • What can we cut?

Urquhart illustrated this by explaining how voiceover work does not necessarily need to be finished for alpha testing.  Small cosmetic changes can be made at a later date rather than delaying the entire process and possibly leading to a higher cost for the studio.  Involving fewer people doesn’t mean firing them, merely switching them to other projects once their work has been completed, like an assembly line.  The example given here was that you don’t fire the programmers once the code is done, you hand them something else to do and continue on with the other teams whose work is not yet complete.  Again, he stressed, critical review, assessment, and adjustments are needed to figure out when “finished” really means finished before moving on.  The development stages look something like this:

  • Prototype: Focuses on core gameplay, nailing down pipelines, samples of game art, and figuring out a development toolkit.
  • Vertical Slice: Similar to a demo (but not usually released publicly, or at least not at E3 or similar conventions), this is a fully-finished section of the game that shows off the game’s tools and features.
  • Production: Making the smallest game you are comfortable with.
  • Alpha: Making it better (and sometimes, bigger).
  • Beta: Fix any bugs.

A game design document, or pitch, is typically just a couple of pages long and is less a listing of features than it is an explanation of them.  This means that rather than saying “two levels with monsters and traps,” you’d start off with something like “The player will start on the Ice level, and, moving forward…”  The player experience is what will define deliveries; later, you can go ahead and list all of the parts for assignment and tasking.  Tasking should be used for short term goals, scheduling for long term.

In short, it seems that project process could be summed up with “keep it simple,” but what’s the real “Secret Sauce,” as Urquhart put it?

  • Discipline.  Stay on target, use your process, and remember that more does not necessarily mean better.
  • Communication.  Talk about your goals and your progress, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Pragmatism.  Realize that something that’s new, hard, and unique won’t necessarily be good.  Making a game means making people happy, not exhausting them.

Urquhart pointed out that while creativity and passion are obviously important as well, these three principles are absolute requirements for a successful project.  “Games are fun to make, hard to make, and a collective, creative endeavor,” he stated, earning more than a few chuckles of agreement from the veterans in the audience on the second item.  The presentation itself ended on this note to thunderous applause and the floor was opened for questions.  Urquhart seemed not just willing, but eager to answer every single question, and in fact had to be reminded that time was running out, at which point he proceeded to answer three or four more, ensuring that no one went home unacknowledged.

I couldn’t be more pleased with my experience, and I’m glad that I struck up the courage to attend despite currently being just another freelance dreamer.  If there was any downside at all, it’s that I was able to see enough of Obsidian’s processes and viewpoints to be even sadder about recently being turned down for a job on one of their upcoming projects — they don’t just make great games, they’re also some of the most down-to-earth and visionary people you’ll find in the industry, exactly the type of people I want to work with, especially on a long-term basis.

Special thanks to the IGDA Orange County chapter and their sponsors for putting on such an amazing event and, of course, to Feargus Urquhart for giving up his evening for all of us who attended.|

EDITED: The video has now been made publicly available — I highly recommend that even if you’ve read the article, you give it a watch, as it’s much more entertaining and I’m sure I haven’t done justice to the concepts prevented by Feargus Urquhart.

 

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Publishing This Book ISBN A Pain In The Ass

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In 2012, I did something I never thought I’d actually be able to accomplish — I wrote a novel.

My NaNoWriMo winner’s certificate is framed and hanging up on the wall above my desk, right under my Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp diploma, because I may not have been able to give my mother a degree from Harvard, but dammit, I was able to prove that I can write and apply waterproof makeup.  I’m just as proud of them as anyone would be of a Ph.D (though how badass would a doctorate in Mermaid Sciences be?  Answer: extremely).

I’m proud of my manuscript, too, although for a month or two after NaNoWriMo ended I almost threw it in the trash because of the sheer amount of snobbery coming from others in the writing community about anything written in that thirty-day crunch — I’m pretty sure that if any of them knew I actually cranked out over 50,000 words in just twelve days, they’d burn me at the stake as a heretic.  I read article after article on self-publishing where some “established” authors went so far as to say that anyone thinking they’d produced something of merit for NaNoWriMo was deluding themselves.  It was my first venture into the social aspect of being a writer and rather than getting that special feeling of empowerment that comes from being among like-minded people, I got a nasty case of heartburn and three panic attacks.

In a way, I understand where some of them are coming from.  Most people can’t write that quickly and end up with an A+ project at the end of it.  NaNoWriMo attracts a lot of amateur writers, and while I will support and encourage the absolute shit out of anyone brave enough to pick up a pen and paper (or a keyboard, I guess, because none of us have legible handwriting anymore), there’s a good chunk of them who could probably benefit from a few more practice runs.  And that’s okay!  There is zero shame in that, because we all have to start somewhere if we want to learn what works and what doesn’t.

I’m not saying I’m the next Sylvia Plath or Stephen King or anything like that, but I began my writing career in early childhood.  School, of course, taught me the Art Of The Stringent Deadline, mostly because I was a horrible procrastinator who’d wait until the night before a huge essay was due to even write the title on the page.  Very few of my classmates could pull such a feat off and still get a passing grade.  I was cranking out five-page manifests, single-spaced, in about two hours and receiving an A every single time.  In my freshman year of high school, I was the youngest person to ever be accepted to the school newspaper, and I didn’t even apply for it — my English teacher submitted one of my essays to the instructor in charge of the paper, who immediately waived the “you must be at least a sophomore” requirement to get me onto the staff.  There, the deadlines got even tighter, since we published once a week, and if we got our articles done early enough we could spend the whole time dicking around in the library pretending we were researching stuff instead of looking up genitals in the encyclopedias there.

Also, I’m pushing 30, so I’m old and therefore have had plenty of time to practice this whole working-quickly-and-well thing.

I’ve had poetry published a couple of times (not in those scammy hardcover books where everybody gets accepted), but I’ve never actually held on for the long haul and finished a novel, much less published it.  Of course I have fantastic dreams of getting my book picked up by a major publisher and ending up with a movie deal and merchandising rights, but the chances of that happening are miniscule.  Besides, I don’t write for the money — if you do, you’re in the wrong business, because your royalties paid amount to somewhere between “jack shit” and “six cents” — I write for the possibility that someday I will walk into a library and find my book sitting on the “New Arrivals” shelf.

And that is where the trouble starts.

I will be self-publishing my book, which is absolutely great, but the vast majority of publishing houses offering such a service do not include ISBN numbers for free.  Obtaining one costs about $125, and that’s not even touching the fees I’d have to pay if I wanted to get it copyrighted (I probably do, because I don’t want to have to shank anyone for stealing my work).  It may not sound like a lot of money to most people, but I’ve been unemployed for five months, so coughing up that much is impossible for the time being.  Without an ISBN number, my book won’t end up in any libraries.  I’m a huge supporter of libraries because of how many amazing authors they’ve introduced me to, and the way that they open up access to reading material for those who don’t have twenty bucks to shell out for their own copy of a book.

“So just make it available for free download,” some might suggest, but that still doesn’t put my book in libraries, and, believe it or not, there are still plenty of people out there who don’t have an e-reader or the patience to read through a whole novel on a computer screen.  I definitely want an electronic version out there, but while I’m a Kindle owner who will extoll its virtues to anyone bored enough to listen, an e-book doesn’t look spiffy on a bookshelf.  You can’t feel its weight in your hands or smell that amazing papery book smell, nor can you run your fingers over the glossy cover and yeah, okay this just started sounding like porn, I’m sorry.  But I think I’ve made my point.

Plus, no matter how proud I may be of my work, or how many times people tell me “no, it’s good, you’re fine,” there’s still the pesky matter of that Impostor Syndrome thing where I somehow still manage to believe that it’s crap and I’m an embarrassment to myself.  I’m actually afraid to read back over it.  I tend to read as I write — right now, I’m hearing every word in my head, analyzing each sentence, each word choice, making sure that the syntax is good and I haven’t written “homosexual” instead of “homogeneous.”  It saves me from having to go back and edit everything later, because if I do, I will inevitably find some unforgivable sin that only I notice and end up trashing the whole thing.  I can’t tell you how many finished short stories I’ve lost that way.

(My high school poetry notebook, however, really was deserving of the trash bin.  I was listening to a lot of Kittie at the time because I was a teenager and didn’t know any better.  To be fair, I’m pretty sure everyone has at least one shameful relic like that lying around.  Some even end up getting it published.)

I’m at a loss, really.  Even though I’m not looking for huge profits and have zero expectation of becoming a bestselling author, it’d be really nice to make at least maybe five bucks from book sales at this current stage in my Jobless Bum history.  From everything I’ve found, however, if I want to be able to get my work out there, my only option is to go through somewhere like Lulu, which means no ISBN, no major distribution (at least going through Amazon, well… hey, freaking everything’s on Amazon) unless I wanted to order a bunch of boxes of them to pass out at local bookstores, who wouldn’t sell them anyway because of the ISBN.  Everything pretty much comes down to that silly number.  Do I get it out there sooner and sacrifice my chances of possibly doing something greater with it in the future?  Or do I hold on and wait for the day that I might actually be able to go at this the complete way?

This ongoing internal debate, ladies and gentlemen, is why Observe still hasn’t been made publicly available.  I kind of feel like a jerk about it because I talk about writing so much and how I’m a writer and write wrote writing writer written blargh, yet I really have nothing to show for it other than a one-draft .pdf that I’m too terrified to do anything with.

The life of an artist.

 

Swinging Sharp And True With Diablo: Sword of Justice

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Back in 2011, Blizzard paired up with DC Comics to produce a five-issue miniseries called Diablo: Sword of Justice, set a couple of decades after the Lord of Destruction expansion to Diablo II (but still before the events of Diablo III).  It follows Jacob, the fugitive son of a mad northern king, and his desperate search for answers to a strange plague of violent insanity that threatens to overtake Sanctuary completely.

No, not THAT far north.

Not THAT far north.

Sadly, not even the epic writing of Aaron Williams and brutal art by Joseph LaCroix couldn’t save us from a far greater threat than any epidemic: General Usage Comic Decay.  It happens to the best of us; a favorite comic, after multiple reads, lending to friends, and being crammed onto the shelf between much sturdier-bound books begins to show wear and tear.  The corners of each page bend.  Colors fade.  But Blizzard and DC are both in the business of making heroes, and just as it seemed we’d have to retire our individual issues to the world of bag-and-board, they showed up to save us all with the Sword of Justice trade paperback, available to preorder from Amazon and Barnes & Noble in both physical and digital formats for a July 16th release date (or hardcopy purchasable as of July 9th via the Blizzard Store).

Besides being a lot less fragile than regular comic books, the trade paperback contains a fascinating appendix of preliminary sketches for each issue cover, main characters, and some of the more intricate interior panels.  It also looks badass on a shelf or left laying around for your friends to drool over, and much more “grown up” than a bunch of comic books stashed in a shoebox, if you’re one of those “adult” things I keep hearing about.

LOOK.  LOOK AT IT.  IT'S SHINY. (Seriously, though, high-quality gloss finish paper for the win.)

LOOK. LOOK AT IT. IT’S SHINY. (Seriously, though, high-quality gloss finish for the win.)

It’s also significantly cheaper and easier to purchase the trade paperback now if you missed the original release of each issue or are just now discovering the rich lore of Diablo.  At just under $15, that’s only $3 per issue, versus the inflated prices I’ve seen for the individual comics — if you can even find them, that is — often hitting as high as $50 or $60 for the complete set.

Newcomers to the Diablo games need not fear being hopelessly lost with the content of Sword of Justice, either; being a lore expert is not a requirement to enjoy the story, which stands tall on its own even with limited prior knowledge of the series.  It begins with a short recap of the fall of Arreat given in by Bahman, a blind storyteller who seems to be just another peddler swallowed up by the bustling marketplace he calls home.  A hooded figure has listened intently to his words and now, as the tale ends and the crowd disperses, steps forward to impart upon the old man his own recollection of the horrors surrounding Arreat’s destruction, but is cut short when Bahman whispers to him that he has seen a man following him in a vision, and if he wishes to escape death, he must move quickly to seek what lies beneath a mountain peak in the northwest.  Somewhat shaken, the mysterious traveler sets off in the direction indicated, and thus begins the story of Jacob…

Jacob’s homeland has been overrun by a terrifying madness that imparts an unquenchable thirst for blood and flesh upon its victims.  Even his own father has fallen beneath its scythe, ordering that his own wife, the Queen, be executed for some imagined treason against the throne.  Jacob can only watch in horror as his mother is beheaded for crimes she did not commit.  He confronts his father in his chambers, but what starts as a simple accusation quickly turns to a fight for his life, ending with his sword buried deep in his father’s gut.  With his dying breath, the King, in a moment of lucidity, cryptically warns his son that “the blood will mark” him.  Now a wanted murderer, Jacob must stay one step ahead of the soldiers chasing him if he intends to find a cure for the madness that has destroyed his family, and may soon leave all of Sanctuary in ruins.

And that’s all you get, because the story laid out in Sword of Justice is so rich that it has to be experienced for itself.  Spoilers just can’t do it… justice.

YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH

YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH

Jacob’s last name is never given, nor are his parents ever named beyond their royal titles, but the Queen’s execution seemed so familiar that I initially wondered if they weren’t intended to be the Mad King Leoric and Queen Asylla.  Asylla, however, wasn’t even a part of the lore until Diablo III (although her execution took place during the time of the first Diablo game), and her death was at the hands of the treacherous Archbishop Lazarus, who does not appear in Sword of Justice either by name or by inference, thus the similarities are likely coincidental.

One thing I really appreciated about the series was the portrayal of the two main female characters, Shanar and Gynvir.  Both are written as strong of mind and body, and neither of them are toting around breasts bigger than their heads.  Compared to most other women in fantasy environments, their costumes are pretty reasonable, as well.  Any midriff exposure is actually far more conservative than anything you’d see on a summer day in Southern California, and their breastplates don’t appear to be in danger of triggering a nipple-slip should they lift their arms too high.  Though Shanar’s costume features some pretty steep slits up the side of her skirt, there’s no side-butt or sheer panels.  Gynvir’s armor looks like it could actually withstand a decent battle, although the bottom half shares some similarities to Shanar’s; to be fair, these designs are identical to what appears in much of the game art, but I’m just grateful to see that no further artistic “liberties” were taken to hold male readers’ interests.  In the sketch appendices, there are actually a couple of proposed versions for the cover of Issue #2 that would have had Shanar in what I like to call the “Slave Leia” pose, but they were scrapped in favor of a side-view that actually has her towering over Jacob, rather than at his feet making bedroom eyes.

Shanar, a wizard with a wit sharper than any sword, only relies on Jacob’s support in the most basic of ways, such as needing his help to stand up after unleashing a particularly strong spell twice in one battle, which she makes clear is not a spell that’s intended to be used so rapidly.  It isn’t because she’s a female, and thus weaker; from her explanation, even the strongest male wizard would find himself drained in the same situation.  It’s also worth noting that she is of Asian descent, as is the wizard class in general according to Diablo game art, but not fetishized or marginalized by the use of offensive stereotypes — her dialogue does not indicate any accent or broken English, and she proves to be anything but demure.  She doesn’t throw herself at the male characters to try and get out of tricky situations; she throws it down.  In fact, at the end of the comic, one of the soldiers refers to her in a manner she finds offensive, and she happily calls him out on it.  When he continues to try and insinuate that she really wants him despite protestations to the contrary, she doesn’t back down, but makes her displeasure and disgust over it known.

The tactically skilled barbarian Gynvir is similarly independent and unwilling to take on her “traditional” gender role, shown in a later part of the story taking over a group of soldiers and chastising them for their lackluster performance just as well as any male leader would.  Nor is she written as uneducated or typical “barbarian-stupid”; she speaks just as eloquently as Shanar and Jacob.  She is fearless, and shows a great mind for strategy without which the group of adventurers would have been unable to progress.  Would Joss Whedon approve?  Absolutely.  And then he’d probably stab Jacob through the heart with space debris.

We’ve already established that Aaron Williams does amazing things with words, but artist Joseph LaCroix is not to be forgotten.  The stylized “sketchy” style fits in well with the battle-filled storyline, and the often bleak color palettes lend to the sense that evil and ruin is really lurking behind every corner.

I hear goat is actually quite delicious.

I hear goat is actually quite delicious, you know.

Continuity in each panel is typically good, with only a few errors, the most noticeable of which is a panel in which Shanar’s eyes go from brown or black to a vivid shade of blue and it doesn’t appear to be due to lighting or magical invocation.  There are plenty of bloody clashes, but none of them are overly gory to the point of ridiculousness, and LaCroix manages to capture the frantic movement of the battlefield in a way that has to be seen to be believed.

Whether you’re a long-time Diablo fan or just getting your feet wet, or even if you’re just a fan of awesome comics, Diablo: Sword of Justice cannot be overlooked.  Sanctuary — and your bookshelf — needs you.

 

 

 

Getting A Clue: How Not To Be A Jackass To Mentally Ill People

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The following article contains talk of abuse and suicide that may be triggering for some people.  Please proceed at your own risk.

It’s no secret that I’ve been battling PTSD and a complex mood disorder for most of my life.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  For a long time I did keep it hidden, because every time I would mention it to someone I’d either get a horrified look and rapid subject change or a response that they absolutely, positively believed was not blindingly offensive.  As the years went on, however, I realized that keeping my mental illness a secret was partly responsible for the abhorrent behavior of others.  It didn’t merely justify to them that yes, this was some horrible, terrible, no-good very bad thing to be ashamed of (spoilers: it isn’t); it ensured that they’d go through their lives operating off of false information that would otherwise never be corrected, unknowingly hurting who-knows-how-many other people in the process and making themselves look like awful people.

Although over a quarter of adults in the United States are diagnosed with some form of mental illness each year, there are still plenty of those out there who have never experienced it for themselves or been anywhere near another person who has.  Even if they had, there’s a decent chance they’d never know due to the stigmatization of mental illness as some kind of deep personal flaw rather than what it actually is — a sickness that the afflicted has no more choice or control over than if they had been diagnosed with cancer.  The answer’s right there in the second word, for God’s sake, illness.  It’s not just there to fill space.  Most of the mentally ill people I know are nowhere near as “out” as I am because they fear (sadly, rightfully so) retribution from family, friends, or even employers.  Studies show that they are up to 7 times more likely to be the victims of violence compared to the rest of the population, and those numbers are likely even higher in reality due to how horribly underreported these crimes are, mostly because of the shaming, patronization, and doubt that mentally ill victims know they will face at the police station or on the witness stand.

I have many horror stories that I could tell in order to paint the same, bleak picture.  Once upon a time, I was just a kid with a mood disorder, a chemical imbalance in my brain with a genetic component that really wasn’t anyone’s fault, just luck of the draw.  As time went on, people figured out ways to use it against me or as an alibi for themselves — “she’s delusional” or “you can’t trust her perception of things,” despite the fact that mood disorders don’t cause delusions or altered views of reality.  They got away with it because most people automatically assume that mentally ill = “crazy” = all “crazy” is like what you see in the movies with straitjackets, padded cells, and voices.

I was ostracized throughout most of my time in school because I cried too much some days and others I’d talk rapidly and start fights and be completely uncontrollable.  The other kids called me “freak” and beat me up or told me to kill myself.  In fourth grade, I’d had enough and held a pair of scissors to my throat, tearfully pleading with the teacher to make them stop.  The teacher laughed in my face and told me to go ahead, do it.  When I finally spoke up about the sexual abuse I’d endured as a teenager, people I thought I could trust were sympathetic to my face, but immediately turned around and notified everyone else I’d told not to listen to me, that sometimes I got “confused” and “made things up.”  I got into a relationship with a man who would beat me, force himself on me, and then belittle and berate me to the point of more suicide attempts.  Again, I tried to speak up, to call attention to my plight, and I got a little further this time; people actually began to question him about what was going on behind closed doors.  His response was a sweet smile and hushed tone while he told them I was mentally ill, and he was so sorry for any trouble, that he tried to keep tabs on me and my “behavior” but sometimes I would be so convincing in my supposed delusions that I’d trick other people too, and I didn’t mean anything by it, really, he’d see about calling my doctor and upping my dosage but in the meantime please don’t let me trouble them.  It was a Hell of an act that lasted all the way until he closed the front door and threw me into a wall for snitching.  The night he tried to kill me by strangling me with an electrical cord, I managed to get away from him and run through the hallways of our apartment with him in pursuit screaming for help, for someone to call 911, but the news had spread like wildfire.  I was just having one of my “delusions.”  There was no need for them to do anything but lock their front doors and sit in silence, pitying the pretty girl who was so obviously sick in the head as to try and cause trouble for such a nice young man, what a shame, she’s so young to be that far gone.

I had trouble finding relationships at all, since most guys either didn’t want to deal with “a crazy bitch” (their disgusting words, not mine) or thought that they only had to love me when I was up, not when I was curled up in a ball on the couch, unable to go to work, get myself food, or do anything besides cry.  Another guy I dated forced me off of my medication because it lowered my sex drive and made me sleep too much.  I got lucky with The Fiance, who seems to be one of the only people out there able to see past my illness and recognize that yes, even if I do require a bit of additional care, I am still a human being who deserves the same love and respect as everyone else.

You, too, can join those elite ranks by knowing what you should never, ever say or do to your mentally ill friends and family.  I assumed that most of these things were just common sense and basic human decency, but after seeing this kind of shit one too many times:

Stop.

Gimme a second.

I realized that it was time for me to make a few simple corrections.

Much better.

Much better.

“All You Need Is Positive Thinking!”

There’s a bunch of variations on this one.  Sometimes all I need is to watch a funny movie, or pamper myself at a spa for the day.  Sometimes all I need is to immediately stop talking to whoever is saying this before I forget that they actually think they’re being helpful and legitimately don’t know any better.

Depression isn’t a switch you can flip on and off.  If the difference between being too low to even get out of bed and prancing around slinging rainbows and sunshine out of my asshole was something as simple as watching Zoolander, I would have that shit playing on a permanent loop in my house.  Yes, the brain is a powerful tool, and if you put your mind to something you’d be surprised at what you can accomplish, but it doesn’t really work when your brain chemistry is what’s causing the problem in the first place.

This is probably the type of thing I hear most often, and when I’m in the throes of a depressive cycle, it’s one of the most damaging.  At that point I already feel like I’m burdening my friends and family just by being alive.  I’ll smile and pretend to be magically cured while it eats away at me inside that “oh God, if this is what works for them, why doesn’t it work for me?  Am I that broken?  What if I’m not trying hard enough?  I’m never enough.  They really want me to do this but I’m failing, I’m failing them.  I hate myself.”

Instead, try asking if there’s anything that you can do.  The answer will probably be “no,” because short of medication there’s really not much that any one person can do to magically fix the problem, but it at least shows that you understand what’s going on, and a little understanding during these times can go a long way.

“You Should Go On Medication.”

Unless you’re a licensed physician and the person you are speaking to is a patient under your care, do not tell a mentally ill person that they should be on medication.  It’s rude.  It’s the equivalent of walking up to your grandmother and saying “Whoa, Granny, you should get a face lift.”  That person may already be on meds — some of them take a while to show any effect at all, and the simple act of getting someone properly medicated can take years of dosage adjustments and prescription combinations — and may actually have improved quite a bit already as a result.  No medication is 100% effective.  There are still going to be glitches in the proverbial Matrix.  But when it’s a matter of wanting to die for 27 days out of each month while unmedicated versus having a bad day maybe once every other month on meds, it’s a freaking nuclear launch forward.

There’s also a myriad of reasons why someone may choose not to go on medication.  Maybe they’ve tried, but haven’t made any progress with them (frighteningly enough, this can happen).  Maybe their medication has given them horrific side effects more debilitating than the illness itself.  Without insurance, the price of a 30-day supply for many psychiatric medications is astronomical; CVS quoted me $600 for my Lamictal.  Though there are many free or reduced-cost mental health services in various cities across the U.S., not every town offers them, and criteria may be different.  If you’re just making enough so that you don’t qualify for assistance, but can’t afford an insurance premium — not all insurance programs will cover mental health services, by the way — or to pay out of pocket, you’ll find your options horribly limited.

And anyway, it’s none of your business.  (If, however, somebody is talking seriously about hurting themselves, there are ways that you can and should step in.)  Other deeply personal things you shouldn’t ask unless they’ve indicated it’s okay to do so: if they’ve ever been hospitalized, if you can see their scars, how they “did it” during suicide attempts, etc.

“If You Don’t Quit Being Negative, I’m Not Going To Talk To You”

I’ve always felt this to be an abhorrent concept.  It basically says “Hi, I want to be your friend, but only when and if it’s convenient for me.”  Instead of issuing ultimatums to a friend who’s having a hard time, why not take the time to see if they need someone to talk to?  I’ve had this type of line used on me before and it’s extremely hurtful.  Imagine if a good friend of yours walked up to you one day and informed you that if you didn’t stop being taller than them, they’d cut you out of their lives.  It’d feel like shit, wouldn’t it?  Don’t do it to other people.

It can be hard to see a loved one in pain, and even more frustrating to realize that you can’t make it all better for them.  That much is understandable.  It’s the same reason that some people find it difficult to visit a family member who’s in the hospital for a severe physical illness.  With “invisible” illnesses, however, it’s easy to forget that the person you’re talking to is legitimately sick.  Remember that they are not just acting out for attention or to get special treatment.  They can’t help it any more than someone can help being paralyzed.

“You Don’t Have It So Bad Compared To x!”

The logic behind telling someone they shouldn’t be depressed because there are Darfur war orphans in this world is the same logic that would technically allow them to tell you that you shouldn’t be happy because Jay-Z is married to Beyonce and has like a billion dollars.  Depression is not a pissing contest and you are not the gatekeeper who decide what emotions other people are allowed to feel.

I get that it’s an attempt to put things into perspective, really, I do.  But with depression, there is no perspective.  It isn’t logical and it won’t listen to reason, even if the person who’s suffering from it really, really wants to.  If you’ve never been clinically depressed yourself, then I don’t think it’s possible to convey in words that bleak, hopeless feeling, the “knowledge” that there is no light at the end of the tunnel and nothing is ever going to get better.  It permeates everything around you and sucks all of the joy out of life.  You could sit in the middle of a Sanrio store hugging a Hello Kitty plushie and still feel lower than you’ve ever been before.  And I sincerely hope that none of you ever have to experience it for yourselves, because I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

“That’s SO Cool!”

No.  No no no no no no no no no.

My head nearly exploded the first time I realized that there are people out there who think mental illness is some kind of status symbol to be desired, to the point of self-diagnosing and claiming that they, too, suffer from (insert whatever happens to be “trendy” at the moment).  There is absolutely nothing cool or fun about being mentally ill.  You live your life in fear of discovery or, if you’re open about it like I am, trouble from other people about it.  The side effects of the medications you’ve been all wistful about?  They suck.  You might get lucky and just gain a ton of weight, or your sex drive might vanish, you could have seizures, cottonmouth, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, muscle spasms, neurological issues, suicidal thoughts (a.k.a. the shit they’re supposed to be preventing), and hey, some of them have a tiny chance of just straight up killing you even when taken in normal doses.  There’s a big difference between Prozac and Xanax.  “Happy pills” don’t produce any extra sense of euphoria or make the oontz-oontz on your iPod sound like the color Wednesday.  Typically, they put you into this emotional flatline where you’re not particularly sad but not particularly happy, either.  You just are.  It’s existence, pure and simple.  Yes, if you have PTSD or an anxiety disorder, they will probably put you on anti-anxiety medication… but they aren’t going to give you the “good stuff” right out of the gate.  They’ll probably give you something like Vistaril, which is non-addictive and has no effect other than making you pass the Hell out so that you’re too unconscious to be worried.  Stroll into the doctor’s office and announce you want specifically Xanax or Ativan, and they’re going to give you a very dirty look before asking you to leave.

Additionally, stop saying things like “oh man, I was so depressed that they didn’t have those jeans in my size!”  You weren’t depressed, you were disappointed.  No wonder there’s so many people out there who think that depressed people just need a hug in order to “snap out of it.”

“You Can’t Do x, You’re Mentally Ill!”

Yes, there are some things that I can’t do because I am mentally ill.  Part of my PTSD extends to my ability to drive — I can’t get behind the wheel of a car without having a severe panic attack — and only recently have I been able to feel “safe” enough to do simple things like take a bus by myself.  For years, I flew all over the country by myself without the slightest concern.  Then terrible shit happened and I found myself unable to even walk down a different aisle of the grocery store as my mother without my heart pounding.  Eventually it got to the point that I couldn’t even leave my house.  Literally.  Not in a cute and quirky “oh antisocial gamer girl teehee” kind of way, I mean that I was physically unable to step over the threshold without completely breaking down.

I’m happy to report that I’m doing much better these days, thanks to some coping exercises I learned in therapy.  I have to take things one day at a time, but even if it did take a little extra effort, I can now live a much more normal life.

I have, however, been “helpfully” informed that because I am mentally ill, there’s no way I could raise a child or even get married (and, on the flipside, The Fiance has had friends and family express the same concerns about me to him).  In their mind, they told me, it would be dangerous for the other people involved because I could flip out at any time and end up shooting my husband and drowning the kids in the bathtub, despite all of the studies stressing that the vast majority of mentally ill people are not and never will be violent, an all-too-common misconception that’s probably at least partly responsible for the violent crimes perpetrated against us.

At first I wasn’t even hurt, I was pissed.  Once I calmed down and realized that the person I was talking to was completely confused as to why I didn’t know this already and why I was taking it so personally, I took it upon myself to educate them a bit.

Mentally ill people are still people.  I have said this many times already but I will continue to say it until it finally sinks in.  It may require a few extra steps or a more roundabout way, but they can and will live productive and relatively “normal” lives.  This isn’t just a reminder for the general population, it’s also a very loving reminder for anyone fighting with mental illness.  I know what it’s like to feel that living like everyone else is impossible, that you’re always going to be “broken” and that life is going to be an uphill struggle for you no matter what.  But you can do it.  We can do it.  It may be hard at times, but we’ve made it this far already, and that’s worth something right there.  During your worst days, remembering this probably won’t make much of a difference, but tuck it away for the times that it can.  Let’s cheer each other on.

“Well, I’m Having A Hard Time Too, But I’m Not Sad About It!”

 

This is the one that really gets me.  Oh, thank you, wise one, why don’t you impart upon us your secrets of yoga or watching sunsets or “just smiling”?  Don’t forget to take your gold star-shaped cookie on the way out!  GOOD FOR YOU!

Everyone deals with things differently.  Everyone has different thresholds for stress.  Some people can take a lot, others not so much, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  What’s wrong is when these higher-threshold people decide to rub it in the faces of those who aren’t able to deal with things quite as easily, and that goes not only for those with a mental illness, but those who are just a little more sensitive as well.

A friend — though I’m rethinking the designation at this point — of mine posted this almost word for word as her Facebook status today, though she’s previously used just about every other “no-no” on this list.  She directed it to everyone who’s posted recently about having a rough time.  “Change your life if it’s so bad!” she insisted.  “I don’t want to hear about it!”  Instead of telling her to go fuck herself, I wrote this article, so at least some good came out of my aggravation.

“Outing” The Mentally Ill

Choosing to speak openly about your life with a mental illness is a deeply personal decision, and many choose not to do it because of the attached societal stigma.  Nobody has a right to do it for them.  It doesn’t matter if you’re telling another mentally ill friend that “oh, hey, Jessica has the same problem as you, you guys should talk!” or gossiping over coffee about how Billy Smith down the road had a creepy uncle that he still has nightmares about.  You wouldn’t call your friend’s entire family over for dinner and casually announce to them all that he’s gay.  (If you would, you’re a terrible person.)

Nor can you force a person to talk about their issues.  I dread telling people I have PTSD because their initial “Oh” of surprise is usually followed up by “…so what happened?”  I’m not comfortable talking about everything that’s happened to me.  Some things I may never be able to talk about.  Especially in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, dredging up the horrific events that caused it is not something you want to do.  Reliving those events can trigger emotionally devastating flashbacks resulting in months of nightmares and constant panic attacks.

I dream of a day when being mentally ill will be no more “shameful” to society than having astigmatism or a broken finger.  It won’t happen overnight, but we can get there, if only we’re all willing to open our minds and our hearts and stop being dicks to each other.

 

We Have RIFT-Off!

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Not too long ago, Raptr ran a promotion granting players using their desktop app a free copy of RIFT, the Storm Legion expansion, and 30 days of free play time for logging x amount of hours (if memory serves correctly, it came out to about 28 hours’ worth of play) in the trial version of the game.  I had been mildly interested in RIFT when it first came out, but at that time didn’t really have the time to invest in another MMO, so I was hesitant to drop $60 on it.  But here I had a chance to try it out in exchange for a few hours of my life as an unemployed bum, so I figured why not give it a shot now?

Since obtaining my copy, RIFT has gone free to play using an admittedly generous model.  Those who owned the game before the subscription change but do not wish to continue paying a monthly fee miss out only on some extra +XP and Notoriety (reputation) potions without having to lose out on character slots or zone access.  Had paid game time at any point in your account’s history?  Enjoy your heaps of Loyalty points, rewarded for each month you’ve ever paid, that can be traded in for vanity items from the cash shop.  It’s worth pointing out here that, as with Ragnarok Online 2, nothing you’ll find in the RIFT store is game-breaking.  Perhaps it’s even a little too generous, since the first week after the switch was a nightmare of crashing servers and extreme lag as curious players flooded the shards (servers), sending customer service wait times soaring from days to weeks for a response.  I don’t think Trion was expecting to gain so many new players, and as a result, got caught with their pants down; to their credit, however, they’ve been working diligently to solve problems that have arisen as a result of the population boom and kept the player base abreast of each issue with in-game announcements.  It’s actually somewhat hilarious, since their first ad campaigns for the game featured mild pokes at World of Warcraft, such as “you’re not in Azeroth anymore,” and Blizzard is in a prime position to troll them straight back with a “YOU WERE NOT PREPARED.”  Everything comes full circle, folks, especially on the internet.

The “Clone” Wars

Everyone I spoke to before I started playing insisted that RIFT was a World of Warcraft clone.  I went into the game expecting such.  After five minutes, however, it became abundantly clear that none of these people had ever played EverQuest 2, because if they had, they would have seen that it has far more in common with EQ2 than it does with WoW.  In fact, about the only similarities between RIFT and WoW’s current incarnation is that there are two factions and the talent trees are set up kind of like they were before they changed with Mists of Pandaria.

“But the UI is almost the same!” I’ve heard people insist, and while that’s true, EverQuest2 came out well before World of Warcraft with the same core UI that pretty much every MMO uses to this day.  And why?  Because it freaking worked, plain and simple.  A few people have asked me what I thought of RIFT, and my response is always “like EverQuest 2, but with much more polish.”  And that’s not a bad thing, because I’ve been having some serious nostalgia boners since my paid EQ2 account was cancelled (their free to play is not quite so inclusive, sadly).  Thanks to RIFT, I can relive…

Player Housing

Sweet mother of God, player housing.  I’ve had it on my wishlist for World of Warcraft for as long as I can remember, but it’s an opportunity that a lot of MMOs seem to miss.  Take a bit of instanced space, grant players the ability to add furniture, plants, pets, accessories, et cetera, and bam, you’ve got a fully-customizable mini-game.  RIFT offers dimensions of varying scale and complexity that fulfill the same purpose, both for the individual player and for guilds.  Each character can take on a very simple How To Dimensions quest just a few levels in that rewards them with the key to a small hilltop dimension called Warden’s Point and a treasure chest full of some basic dimension items to get them started.  Further dimension keys can be earned with special reward tokens, purchased in the cash shop, or bought for various amounts of platinum.  Once you feel you’ve dressed up your dimension to the very best it can be, you can choose to allow other players to tour your house, and even rate it, all much the same as EQ2.

But RIFT actually overtakes EverQuest 2 as far as player housing is concerned.  In EQ2, you can only rotate house items vertically or horizontally without having to use a third-party mod, which is sort of a bummer because it means you can’t easily turn a stained glass floor tile into a stained glass window by rotating it to fit on a wall.  RIFT, however, grants the ability to rotate in three dimensions by default.  Scaling, movement, and rotation are all further simplified by the use of arrows as visual aids so that you can more easily see what you’re doing with regards to these modifications.

Whereas EverQuest 2 featured a robust community centered around these digital dollhouses, it seems to be more of a niche aspect in RIFT.  Part of this may be due to the fact that after getting the key to your first dimension, RIFT pretty much leaves you to your own devices.  Want new items for your dimension?  Either purchase the finished product or find out where to buy the appropriate crafting recipes.  A few items can be randomly fished up if you’re lucky enough.  Unlike EQ2, you won’t find them as quest rewards or in reward crates from turning in artifact collections (more on those in a bit), nor can you set your companion pets to roam around your dimension as part of the scenery.  All in all, it seemed like they picked up on this great idea and just kind of let it drop.  The most recent RIFT patch, Empyreal Assault, introduced over one hundred new dimension items available for purchase, so I’m hoping that this is just the start of great things to come in the area of player housing.

Artifact Collections

In EverQuest 2, you will occasionally stumble across mysterious shiny patches on the ground.  Clicking on them will reveal a collectible (and tradeable) item that can be added to a particular collection.  Complete a collection, and you can receive special collectible items that are only available as collection turn-in rewards, companion pets, dimension items, gear and weapons… the sky is the limit.  In essence, it’s a worldwide scavenger hunt, and your worst nightmare if you’re obsessive-compulsive like me.

RIFT’s artifacts are nearly identical, with the exception of the rewards.  Each turn-in grants a Lucky Coin, either as a stated reward or tucked away inside of a larger reward crate, which can then be turned in for companion pets, dimension items, mounts, or other vanity items.  The crates themselves are pretty lackluster, typically consisting of a couple of  potions and buff scrolls and a handful of coin besides the aforementioned currency token.  Some collections consist of the pages of a lost book; retrieving all of the pages and turning them into the collection vendor will grant you a completed copy of the book that you can click on to learn, which will store the text away for later perusal.  The books are almost like artifacts themselves, except there’s no achievements that I’ve been able to find that center on them, a seemingly missed opportunity for those with a love of lore and item collection.  EverQuest 2 offered a number of books that could actually be stored in player houses, many of which started quests or were rewards for completing them, but in RIFT, they are merely supplemental notes.

Art Style

I’ve heard several people complain that World of Warcraft’s art style is too cartoonish for them.  If you share that opinion, then you’ll probably like RIFT’s graphics.  Like EverQuest 2, it relies on a somewhat realistic style, eschewing unnaturally bright and vivid color palettes in exchange for tones that are much more likely to be found in nature.  Character features and proportions are also more in line with what would be actually possible in real life (assuming, of course, that elves actually exist).  Of course, since it’s a much newer game, it’s a bit more visually appealing than most of what can be found in EQ2.  Want to know how long an area has been in the game?  Look at the cheese factor of the graphics, and you should be able to figure it out.

That’s the main problem with realistic graphics — they go out of date much quicker than extremely stylized game art.  Look at L.A. Noire, which upon release was heralded as a breakthrough in photorealistic animation and design, and just two years later is much less impressive.  Hell, I remember picking up SoulCalibur III on release day, thoroughly beating it while freaking out over how realistic the graphics were, and then a few days after finishing SoulCalibur V going back to it for nostalgia’s sake and being totally confused as to why it now looked like a blocky, embarrassingly outdated mess.  The technologies behind creation and rendering are constantly improving, which is great, except that without doing a massive overhaul of a game’s visuals every six months to a year, the aesthetic aspect is left behind.  A cartoony art style may make some people roll their eyes, but it stays relevant for a heck of a lot longer than its more realistic counterpart.  RIFT looks decent now, but is already starting to look a bit dull in some areas, and as its visual stimulation becomes more and more lacking, Trion may find it difficult to keep some players’ interest.

Alternate Advancement vs. Planar Attunement

NOTE: Explaining these systems is a daunting task in some ways, so I’ve done my best here to go over the basics.  I highly recommend using the links below to do your own study and let people far more skilled at detailed explanations than I handle the finer points!

EverQuest 2’s Alternate Advancement and RIFT’s Planar Attunement are similar in that both are earned alongside regular XP and use skill trees separate from the regular talent trees to add supplemental buffs and abilities.  But where PA is used to grant small buffs and abilities related to completing elemental rift challenges, AA is a hybrid of both supplemental points and what would be considered normal talents in other MMOs.  The amount of regular experience gained can be lowered in favor of obtaining AA more frequently or raised for powering on through the levels.  Whereas you can only spend a limited amount of AA in each sub-tree, those used for Planar Attunement will limit you only by there being a finite number to choose from.  Dedicated RIFT players could, theoretically, earn enough PA to max out every single elemental attunement.

Planar Attunement can also be increased using consumable items that occasionally drop from planar rifts and are granted as rewards for achievements that require completing a set number of quests in each zone; higher-yield versions can be obtained by completing certain quests in the Storm Legion introduction line for Queen Miela and completing planar rift challenges for the Torvan Hunters faction.  No PA can be earned from any source, however, until level 50 (the original level cap), unlike EQ2’s Alternate Advancement, which unlocks at level 10.

But In General…

The story in RIFT is surprisingly unique, blending some sci-fi elements with the expected fantasy bits.  You are one of the Ascended, a hero resurrected and sent back in time to stop Crucia from destroying the world.  Rather than having factions warring over cultural expansion, the Guardians are those who choose to still follow organized religion and the Defiants are basically Atheists.  Neither side is particularly good or evil, but merely clash over their spiritual beliefs.  In fact, guilds and parties are not faction-exclusive; that is, you can have Defiants and Guardians playing and communicating together on PvE servers (PvP servers maintain their separation simply because, well, you know, that wouldn’t work out very well for PvP).

The Starting Line

The character creation screen offers a ton of options with which to customize your new hero, something that I love seeing in MMOs.  Though it does still rely heavily on presets, there’s enough of them in each category to allow for a good sense of individual identity, although the differences between a few of the facial presets were so slight that they were barely noticeable even on high settings.  I do like the fact that for dwarves, there are non-stereotypical features available (i.e. not everything is a square jaw and a bulbous nose).

I enjoyed the lore in RIFT so much that I was a bit disappointed upon discovering that there’s only two possible starting areas in the game — one for each faction — which means that leveling alts of the same faction becomes monotonous very quickly.  With each faction having only 3 races to choose from, the designers could even have added in a “shared” starting zone for two of them and had a separate one for the third if they didn’t want to design three separate areas; the story is definitely rich enough to support delving a bit deeper into the backstory and culture of each race.

Souls, Abilities, And Migraines

There are four classes to choose from — Mage, Rogue, Warrior, and Cleric — which can be further specialized using the Souls system, essentially an “oldschool” (read as: before Mists of Pandaria) talent tree where you can select the three paths available to you, either by choosing from a long list of available souls to create your own combination or, if you’re not a number-cruncher, from one of the many presets offered.  Your souls can be reset at any time for a pretty nominal fee, which is a good thing, because you’re going to be using the everliving shit out of that feature.

The theory of souls is neat, but in practice, it’s overwhelming and much more complicated than it needs to be.  You don’t learn new spells by leveling your character; you have to spend points in each of your soul trees in order to unlock them, and there are a lot of them to contend with. Many of them are identical (or at least nearly identical), which gives any rotations a sense of monotony further enhanced by laggy controls.  The global cooldown, or GCD, is supposed to be 1 second, but it ends up being more like 2 because all too often there’ll be an additional second’s worth of delay between pressing your hotkey and the spell’s execution, even on instant-cast abilities.  I’ve checked my connection during the worst of it and found no problems on my end, but from talking to other RIFT players, it seems to be a common problem.  Spell cast times for my Cleric have a baseline average of about 2 to 3 seconds with no “haste”-type mechanic available on gear while leveling, even well into the Storm Legion areas for the high 50s.  The only mitigation I’ve been able to find so far for cast time is in the various soul trees, and then they only affect specific spells.

The soul trees themselves feel bloated, with plenty of lackluster or PvP-oriented abilities that really aren’t useful to someone wishing to stick with PvE.  You could trim out three tiers from each tree and greatly improve the entire experience of speccing a character.  Options are great, don’t get me wrong, but there comes a point where the player is presented with so many of them that it becomes an information overload.  Creating a viable spec on your own, from what I’ve encountered, practically requires a Masters degree and a burnt offering to one of the Elder Gods.  Talents that sound great in the tooltip barely make a difference in your survivability or damage output.  Pick even a slightly wrong combination, and you’ll find yourself unable to face off with mobs of your own level.  There seems to be exactly one, maybe two viable combinations to use during leveling, though it’s admittedly not so bad before hitting level 50.  Once you do ding with the old level cap, however, prepare to frantically respec again, because…

These Aren’t Your Average Mobs

Ember Isle, previously the highest-level zone in the game, recently had its difficulty nerfed to fit in better with the rest of RIFT vanilla.  Storm Legion, on the other hand, is an exercise in frustration.  The disparity in hit points between regular mobs and yourself is nothing short of discouraging (you may have 11k HP, but a mob of your level will have around 57k) and they hit like trucks.  There were times that I felt as if I were trying to solo an equal-level dungeon, and that’s while using a spec that’s been confirmed viable for Cleric leveling.  If you have to take on more than one mob at a time, you’re probably going to die a horrible death.

Storm Legion is about the time that I stopped logging in regularly to play.  It’s been almost a month and I’m still stuck at level 57 because I got tired of being unable to complete even the most basic of quests on my own — The Fiance is always happy to jump in and help me out, but I don’t want to have to rely on him being around and take him away from what he’s doing just to finish a simple kill quest.  In Mathosia (the “vanilla world”), I could solo group quests.  Once I hit level 50 and left for the Storm Legion continents of Brevane and Dusken, I was quickly humbled.  The spec that you use from 1 to 49 is not going to cut it from level 50 to 60, and even when you find one that does work, you’re still going to feel terribly gimped rather than like you’re the badass hero selected for resurrection that the story claims you are.

It gave me the feeling that Trion expects you to have run vanilla endgame content and geared up that way before starting on Storm Legion, which is a bit unreasonable considering the flood of new players coming in now that they’re free to play.  The vast majority of players are not going to go back and run this old content.  It’s unfair to expect them to do so.  My fingers are crossed that we’ll soon be seeing the same level of balance brought to the Storm Legion content, which could be achieved one of a few ways:

  • Nerf the hit points of regular mobs by about 15 to 20%
  • Cut enemy mob damage output in half
  • Buff player damage output by 50%

At this point, I can say that the original RIFT is a pretty decent game.  Storm Legion, however, is discouraging.  Challenges are great, but if you set the difficulty of the challenge too high, people are going to eventually hang their heads and give up, especially when they discover what kind of quests they’re going to be devoting most of their playtime to.

Carnage Quests

In Mathosia, you’ll run across a few carnage quests, which are grind quests (“kill x number of mobs” or “kill these specific named mobs”) triggered upon killing a relevant mob and featuring an auto turn-in.  Most of them are easily discernable by a gold sunburst at the beginning of their nameplate.  RIFT recently hotfixed these to require fewer kills — quests once requiring 16 kills now only require 12 — which was appreciated, because at this point in MMO development history, mindless grindfests are painfully outdated.  All in all, the carnage quests in Mathosia aren’t so bad.  There’s not too many of them, but there’s enough to give you a little XP boost from time to time.

Then you go through the portal to Brevane and Dusken.

Suddenly it seems as if a developer at Trion Worlds stood up in the middle of their workday and screamed “HAY GUISE, I LEARNED HOW TO CODE QUEST TRIGGERS!”, snorted his body weight in cocaine, and then spent the next week with no sleep cranking out carnage quest after carnage quest.  If there are 112 quests available in a zone, 60 of them will be carnage quests.  They come at you with such frequency that it borders on abusive.  And from a quest design perspective, they’re lazy.  There’s no storyline associated with them, you just kill a random mob, the quest auto-accepts, and you’re given an objective to complete.  Once you’re done, you can automatically turn it in, take some gold, Sourcestone tokens that can be turned in for decent (as long as you’re no higher than level 54) gear, and an amount of XP inferior to what you’d get doing regular quests, and stumble right into another one.  It’s a cheap way to pad out a player’s quest log without having to actually put much effort into doing so, and that is a real shame because the story behind many of these zones is absolutely fascinating, but gets cut short or, at times, even eclipsed by this cheap filler.

Cartography Woes

Here’s a question for all of you World of Warcraft players out there: remember Azshara?  Not the shiny, easy-to-navigate Azshara that was totally revamped with Cataclysm.  I’m talking about the Azshara of the olden days, when level 60 rogues would still farm those never-present slimes for the tablet fragments with approximately a 1% droprate and figuring out how to get from one side to the other was an hour-long ordeal.

Pretty much every zone in RIFT is set up like that, and there are no flying mounts.  Enjoy.

On the bright side, dungeon layouts are very intuitive and efficient.  Take a linear route through to each boss and quest area, and you’ll end up right back at the beginning for easy departure.  They should have let that guy work on the zone maps.

Hope You Like Rifts!

Possibly the most unique thing about RIFT is… well… the rifts.  As you’re questing in the various world zones, you’ll come across rifts in the dimensional fabric full of planar invaders aligned with a particular element, and I swear it’s not as Captain Planet-y as it sounds.  Defeating each round of invaders will lead to a new stage, and completing them all will close the rift and give you a hefty chunk of Planarite, which is used as a currency to purchase special abilities related to rift-hunting.  Lucky players may even find themselves rewarded with randomly dropped mounts, pets, and Planar Focuses (special equippable items that give passive buffs to stats and resists).

It’s a neat idea, but outside of the starting areas, these rifts are probably not going to be soloable for you at the appropriate levels.  The first couple of stages are easy enough.  The bonus stages, however, are timed, and if you don’t satisfy the kill objective before time runs out, the rift will disappear but not count as “closed” and cause you to miss out on loot.  Timed quests are one of my least favorite game mechanics, and this doesn’t help my opinion of them.  It’d be nice to see the timer removed, which would make closing these rifts a lot easier for solo players, especially since some of them will spawn roving packs of planar invaders while open that apparently have the same ninja skills as the Devilsaur of Un’Goro Crater and will thus murder you before you even realize they’re nearby.

Every so often, zone-wide invasions will crop up that grant everyone in the afflicted zone a list of objectives that must be fulfilled in order to end it.  Ending the invasion is in everyone’s best interest, as not only are the rewards usually pretty decent, but those traveling caravans of death I mentioned before?  Yeah, they’re everywhere.  They run roughshod over the landscape and, if left unchecked, will even take over main quest hubs, rendering turn-ins and safe travel impossible.  Unless there’s enough people in the zone to shut the invasion down quickly, or the objective is failed quickly enough (letting towns be overrun, wardstones destroyed, etc.), your best hope is to basically leave for a while and come back later when it’s over, although even after the invasion ends, invader footholds and mobile packs don’t disappear until they’re killed off.  It’s still very possible to return in 20 minutes and find five or six packs’ worth of invaders have taken up residence in a town you need to access.  What starts off as an innovative feature quickly turns into a massive pain in the ass.  A simple fix would be to set these invasions to only occur when x number of appropriately-leveled players are present in the zone; if this is already how it’s been set, then some serious tweaking of that variable needs to occur.

Crafting Is Pretty Okay, Though

I love crafting in MMOs, so upon finding out that I could have three main professions in addition to Survival (essentially Cooking and First Aid rolled into one) and Fishing, I did a little victory dance.  Despite RIFT’s similarities to EverQuest 2, they mercifully did not borrow the crafting mini-game.  Click on the item you want to create, stand near the appropriate forge or workbench, and let ‘er rip!  For smelting and refining lumber, you can eventually learn spells that will allow you to craft 20 bars or planks at a time, which cuts down on the time required by a huge amount.  Some crafted armor, weapons, and accessories can be improved by using special Augments that add a bonus to a particular stat, though even without them, they usually outclass quest gear by a small amount, meaning that YES, you actually have some incentive to level them as you go rather than waiting till max level!

Every day, you’ll have a random list of work orders that can be completed using your professions and turned back in to the crafting quartermaster in exchange for Artisan Marks.  These tokens can be used at certain vendors to purchase recipes you won’t otherwise learn from your trainer.  Each profession can also craft special items for dimensions, the recipes for which can also be obtained this way.

At crafting level 300, you’ll be able to do a weekly work order that requires some higher-end items to make a consumable lure that opens special crafting rifts.  These crafting rifts function like the planar rifts you’ll find across the world, but enemies will drop crafting items.  With the expense of the items required, however, I was a little disappointed to find out that each lure could only be used once rather than giving you a permanent spell with a 24-hour cooldown.

Fishing is, as in every MMO offering it as a learnable skill, boring to level.  Much like fishing in real life, I suggest cracking open a beer (or soda) to enhance the experience.  What makes it slightly less painful is the fact that it uses targeting circles for casts.  Remember when I got all Dickensian Orphan levels of wistful over changes I’d like to see in World of Warcraft’s professions? Yep.  When I wrote that, I hadn’t yet started with RIFT, but apparently I’m on the same wavelength as someone on the design team.

RIFT is, at its core, a good game, and holds a lot of promise, but perhaps what’s so frustrating about it is how many of its flaws are simple balance issues.  I give their development team a lot of credit for the rapid and consistent release of hotfixes that are finally starting to address some of these issues, but they’ve still got a little ways to go before achieving their full potential.

I Have Replaced My Social Life With Civilization V; No Regrets

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down in my new super-deluxe computer chair with every intention of writing something — some character backstory, a compendium on how to properly brew tea, anything at all — and ended up taking over the world.

During Steam’s Summer Sale (henceforth referred to as “that goddamned sale”) last year I dropped a pretty hefty load of cash on games since, you know, I actually had a “real” job and could afford to do so.  Among my many purchases was the Civilization pack, which contained Civ III – IV and all the DLC, and what I believe was a separate pack specifically for Civ V.  I had played Civilization Revolution for 360 and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I figured it was a pretty logical purchase.

Except then World of Warcraft happened and it sat in my Steam library for like a whole year, untouched, until a week or two ago I got bored with MMOs and decided hey, why not?

I quickly realized how horribly rusty I was when my first game lasted ten hours and resulted in a pretty staggering defeat at the hands of England.  Revolution was probably the worst installment I could have chosen to start with because compared to how much micro-management is required for the PC titles, it’s an utter cakewalk — I was playing on the hardest mode in Revolution, but failing miserably at rank 3 or 4 in Civ V.  I did not have my Warglaives of Azzinoth.  I was not prepared.  I cranked the difficulty down a notch and then the next thing I knew several days had passed and I had conquered the everliving shit out of half the leaders.

Civilization V is a remarkably pretty game.  Zooming in on the map revealed a level of detail on buildings, tile improvements, and troops that I honestly didn’t expect to exist.  Whereas some RTS games out there might cut corners on the aesthetic details in favor of focusing more on gameplay, Civ V proved to be a rather well-rounded experience on all fronts.  The in-game help encyclopedia answers just about every question you could think of.  If you choose to enable tip dialogues from your advisors during the game, you’ll see how dedicated Firaxis was to making sure that the game was accessible to players of all skill levels without being patronizing — the advisors will explain core mechanics as they are introduced during the game, but ultimately any decision-making is left up to you.  They simply offer information; you can choose to use or ignore it.

The biggest issue I found with it was that the AI for workers building roads can often be a bit stupid.  Did another civilization’s Scout move in front of them?  Is there a building in the way?  Instead of being able to work through or even around the “obstruction,” they’ll throw their tiny hands into the air and give up.  The “Route-to cancelled!” message quickly became a source of jaw-clenching for me.  I can understand being unable to go through mountains (although Dynamite has to be discovered before learning Railroads, so technically they could just blast tunnels through it), but if you’ve got an Open Borders pact with another civilization, why not be able to build roads through their cities?  You can do it with city-states; why not other cultures?  As for troops blocking the path, let’s look at applications to the real world — if you consider the map to scale, there’s no way one group of Warriors or Archers is going to take up every square inch of a hexagon of land.  You’d ask anyone standing in your way to kindly step to the left or the right so you could continue building the road.  Previously established trade routes within my own empire would occasionally become broken, as well, but there was no indication of exactly where the break had occurred or what caused it.  Clicking on the message wouldn’t center on the problem, despite functioning for every other message in the game.

It also seems like successful trades and diplomatic discussions with other world leaders bore relatively little weight in deciding whether or not they’d become friendly with your civilization.  The general demeanor of the leaders appears to be randomly generated — some are warmongering from the very start and will hate you no matter how diplomatic you are in your relations with them, others are friendly right off the bat — but for those whose attitudes hover around neutral, it seems like there’s a mechanic missing to improve their opinion of you.  Even choices made outside of the discussion window, such as alliances with city-states and other civilizations, don’t seem to be as important as they should.  In most cases it seems like nothing you do matters, which is either a tongue-in-cheek commentary on real-life politics or an oversight.

Regardless of any perceived flaws, Civilization V is a solid gaming experience.  It takes a special kind of strategy game to be able to keep the interest of a casual RTS player like myself.  Most entries in the genre bore me after one or two games, unless they’re particularly story-driven like my beloved StarCraft and Warcraft III, but even without a plot beyond “take over the world,” I find myself with a frequent craving for more.

And perhaps it is that desire for more, more, more that’s led me to think of a few features I wish Civilization V offered as part of the core game experience, as awesome as it already is — although seeing them in a future update, or even in a Civilization VI, would probably mean I’d never leave my computer again, so maybe it’s better that they exist only in my imagination.

To begin, I’d love to see an in-game map editor.  Upon setting up a new game, you can tweak some basic geographic features, such as the general type of landmasses (everything from Pangaea to a world of tiny archipelagos), sea level, and worldwide temperature, but any finer control over landmass shape or topographical features is not available within the game itself — a quick perusal of available mods shows that there are some players who have made their own highly-customized maps using the SDK, like this amazing Westeros map pack by Supermull, but I’d like to see the map and scenario creation tools contained there merged with the game itself, as well as the ability to upload it straight to the Mods Workshop.

Players can also make their own civilizations using the SDK, but the process to do so is not terribly user-friendly.  That’s the main reason that I prefer to have customization tools built into the games themselves; many of the development toolkits require a level of technological knowledge that the average player just doesn’t have.  Being able to create your own leader by customizing their appearance and essentially building a civilization from the ground up is something that I feel could be appealing to anyone, even those who don’t necessarily have experience with development kits.  Hell, I’ll admit it — I’d make an Overlord Bunny in a heartbeat (although I’d end up using the SDK myself to replace all human troops with squads of attack bunnies, because that’s just how I roll).  The current mod community for Civ V seems small compared to other games, and I wonder how much of it is due to the often prohibitive complexity of its development kit, and the fact that it only appears to allow development for DirectX 9.

So let’s say Firaxis did add a Create-Your-Own-Civilization component to the game itself, one that didn’t necessarily allow in-depth tweaking of the game art (think more along the lines of a slightly simpler and more specialized version of XBox Live avatar creation) but still allowed player to tap into their imaginations and really become a part of the game.  It’s Quick-And-Dirty-Mock-Up Time!

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Obviously, the color palettes used there are just placeholders/approximations.  Any sort of customization like this would require a decent bit of extra work from the art department, so although I think allowing unnatural colors for skin tones would be a pretty sweet thing to have for anyone who’s ever dreamed of playing through an Ancient Astronauts scenario, the final shades would likely be much more traditional (and thus require a lot less work).  The same could also be done to eye and hair color if absolutely necessary, though I would mourn the loss of ability to make slightly more alternative — read: totes Goth — characters.

Features would be preset and specific to each available race.  For example, Caucasian 1 would be structurally different than African 1 or Asian 1.  I tried to make sure that all of the typical feature types were represented, but if I left anyone out, I apologize profusely, because I was just going off the top of my head.  Ideally, I’d love to see very in-depth facial manipulation controls, similar to what’s available in the Elder Scrolls game, but I’m not sure if it’d be possible to fit that neatly into Civilization just due to the difference in genre; some players just looking for a non-RPG experience might find complicated controls a bit daunting.  The option for more advanced control could be offered alongside the presets to make the best of both worlds.

A key note I’d like to make about the Weight control would be that I want it to offer not only muscularly thicker options, but also curvier ones.  It’s nice to see my own body type represented in games and I imagine there’s other chubby gamers out there who feel much the same way.  Civilization does deal with some historical events, after all, and many years ago being of the squishy persuasion generated envy, rather than ridicule, since it meant you could actually afford to eat regularly and properly.  But more importantly, it’s a great opportunity to really make a group of people that often are underrepresented in gaming in a positive light, rather than saving their depictions for cruelty-tinged comic relief or not including them at all.

The Age control would not only open that spirit of inclusion to older gamers — keep in mind that most original D&D players are still gaming despite being well into their 40s and 50s — but give players a chance to represent real historical figures who ruled as children, such as Tutenkhamun.

On the next page of customization controls (which I am far too lazy to mock up in Photoshop because this one took me like two hours to do), players would be able to select from preset themes for their empire, including those already found in the game as well as some specifically added for customization.  National Colors 1 and 2 would be reflected in troop garb as it is in the regular game, and by selecting from these various themes, players could alter the actual clothing style, too.  Who wouldn’t want to pick a Spooky theme and sack Rome with… a bunch of Goths?

I am not sorry for that joke.  Not one bit.

There would also be a list of special passive perks to choose from, maximum 2 per empire, much like the benefits offered depending on which of the preexisting civilizations are chosen.  Players could also choose any combination of 2 special troops or buildings for their civilization by selecting from a preset group of icons, naming them, and picking their role or benefit, respectively.  And of course, there’d be the opportunity to write up a brief history of their glorious civilization and leader, limited only by the number of characters used (because let’s face it, you get someone like me in there and you’ll end up with an entire textbook’s worth of material).

The ultimate dream would be to have these customized civilizations usable for multiplayer matches.  Balance wouldn’t be much of an issue, since any perks or benefits able to be chosen for custom play would be no different from the ones already in the game as far as mechanics are concerned.  If anything, it would add a whole new layer of strategy as players scramble to find the most helpful combination for the victory type that they seek.

Going back to what’s already in the game itself, I think it could be surprisingly fun to have a play mode where you’re the only civilization (city-states could be allowed or disallowed, depending on user preference), but can settle as many cities as you’d like and develop them until 2050 AD.  Challenge objectives could be given, such as to build a city in a particular area or produce x amounts of a particular resource per turn, all of which add to your end score.  I’d also like to see the ability to buy out city-states — you can purchase cities from other civilization leaders if they like you enough, although I’ve noticed that immediately after doing so, they tend to suddenly go from “friendly” to denouncing me — and to gift or trade troops with friendly civilizations to sway their opinion of you, although the latter aspect would have to be developed carefully to avoid giving off any slavery or prostitution vibes.

There’s already a whole slew of leaders to choose from, especially if you’ve purchased all of the DLC for Civ 5, but how about seeing an Inuit civilization?  Allow them bonuses to production from Whales and Oil resources, and give them the ability to manufacture and farm on ice and snow tiles.  The top and bottom of each map is covered in impenetrable ice that can’t really be settled; why not change that?  They could also produce a special caravel unit that can cut through the edges of the ice, making world exploration and navigation easier for them.  Arctic foxes and polar bears could appear on snow and ice tiles for trapping, not only by the Inuit, but also by any other civilizations brave enough to venture that far north (or south), although these other civilizations, except perhaps Siberia, would find it much more challenging for themselves to farm the inhospitable frozen tundra.  Sure, you could probably use the SDK to mod a civilization like this, but it’d be nice to see the often-forgotten Inuit and their rich culture represented.  The same school of thought could apply to the Aborigines of Australia, who would receive bonuses in desert-like climates.

In the meantime, I’ll be tinkering around with the SDK for Civilization V, seeing what I can come up with.  I’d like to make mod packs based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, Warcraft, Diablo, StarCraft… the sky’s the limit.  It’s just a question of how well I can learn the software, which is proving to be quite a challenge.

But before I get started, I think I’m going to try for that Domination victory.