Category Archives: Game Development

A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes, Then Terrifies The Shit Out Of You

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Almost a year in the making, I’ve finally done it.  I start working in the game industry on Monday.

Everyone I’ve told has been jumping for joy and acting like I cured cancer.  The sentiment is appreciated, and I’m definitely not ungrateful for the job or rolling my eyes or anything, but it’s sort of mystifying for me.  Sadly, this position isn’t in creative development or quest design.  It’s a very important stepping stone to get there, and I’m thrilled to finally be able to work in my own industry, but as a kid, I never celebrated second place or almost or close, not when I knew right on the money or champion would be within reach.  I’d acknowledge the fact that I made it as far as I did, but I wouldn’t kick my heels up and say “WELP, this is it, close enough, I’m done.”

This is also why the mod I’m working on for Civilization V is taking forever and a day.

More importantly, what no one tells you about accomplishing a life dream (and do not misunderstand me, just getting into the industry is one of them) is that it is terrifying as shit once you actually achieve it.  Before, it was an abstract concept, a “yeah, I’d like to do that someday” where you always had the thought in the back of your mind that not everyone gets to be an astronaut or a ballerina and that somebody’s got to be around to make the sandwiches at Subway, so all you can really do is work hard and never stop until you a.) get there or b.) die.  Now you’re sitting there with an itinerary for your first day in front of you realizing that this is it.  This is where you find out whether or not you’re actually good at it.

Getting the job is one thing.  Being able to deliver is another thing altogether.  It has nothing to do with being confident in your own abilities — I know I’m good, but am I good enough?  Did the interviewer misjudge me and make a bogus recommendation that I have no way of living up to?  Am I going to finally get into a studio only to look like a total moron by the end of my first week?  I’ve devoted all of my resources and most of my life to this, even going so far as to put the game industry ahead of myself and my relationships.  To go down in flames now would mean that I sacrificed a good 90% of my life and all of my financial stability for nothing, not to mention that I don’t want to let anyone down.  I hate letting people down.  Every rejection letter I received up until this point, I felt like it was a slap in the face to every friend and family member who believed in me.  When I notoriously screwed up my phone interview, I was too embarrassed to ever follow up with the recruiter I’d been working with, even just to say “thanks for trying,” because I felt like my failure made him look bad in the eyes of his colleagues — “you think THIS loser would be able to do the job?  Hahahaha, go back to recruiter school.”

Not to mention my battles with PTSD and a complex mood disorder.  I think I’ve got them pretty well vanquished for now.  Despite no longer taking the medication that ended up incapacitating me, I can still do things that were once completely unimaginable, including leaving the house and talking on the phone.  Where once I was so agoraphobic that I couldn’t even handle being on a high-population server in World of Warcraft, I’m doing my grocery shopping with my head held high, even splitting up with The Fiance when we get there so that we can grab what we need from opposite ends of the store.  I’m chatting with the cashiers.  I order my own food in restaurants instead of hiding behind the menu and wishing that everyone else in the building would just evaporate.  But there’s always the lingering fear that I’m going to relapse, that one day I’ll wake up and be unable to make it into work because the world outside my window is just too terrifying.  There’s the worry that I may randomly burst into tears at the office or that someone will sneak up on me as a friendly prank and I’ll end up flipping them down onto the floor with my foot pressing down on their neck until somebody manages to snap me out of it (it’s happened before).  I’m terrified that even if I’ve made it this far and I can actually kick ass at the job, the Sha of Mental Illness is going to show up out of nowhere and ruin everything.

And then, of course, there’s the normal “new job” jitters — am I going to like my boss, is my boss going to like me, is this job actually going to be as great as it sounds, that sort of thing.  The game industry has its own set of “what ifs” to contend with, things like “what if the entire office is made up of dudebros who aren’t going to ever take me seriously or give me a chance in CDev because I’m a chick” or “what if I fuck something up so badly that the entire game is a failure and it’s all my fault and I ruined everything?”  I’m agonizing over what to wear on Monday.  The dress code is Standard Game Industry, i.e. the unofficial uniform of jeans and a hoodie, but do I want to go that route and blend in?  Do I maybe want to wear something a little cuter and more feminine, or will that make me seem prissy and unreachable?  How much makeup do I wear?  Should I just skip makeup altogether?  Will black eyeliner prevent them from taking me seriously as a colleague?  Oh God, is too much grey showing in my hair right now?

The reasonable part of me points out that as long as I don’t sashay into the office wearing a cocktail dress and Jessica Rabbit hair and makeup, I’m probably okay and nobody will even pay me any mind, but those “what ifs,” man, they’re brutal.  I can only imagine what a wreck I’m going to be after I get into the specialization I’m aiming for (hell, just thinking about it, my brain is screaming “WHAT IF YOU CAN’T COME UP WITH ANY GOOD IDEAS BECAUSE YOU USED EVERY BRILLIANT THOUGHT YOU WILL EVER HAVE IN YOUR DEMO PORTFOLIO?!”).

To answer your next question, yes, it is extremely exhausting to be me.

But I’m not going to run away and hide, because I’ve worked too hard and struggled too much to get to this point.  My foot is in the door, and I keep reminding myself that I am extremely good at what I’ll be doing and will probably be fine.  Everyone I’ve spoken to at this studio has been a great human being so there’s absolutely zero reason to expect anything different when I get there on Monday.  And if someone has a problem with my eyeliner, they can go fuck themselves.  I am the Bunny Overlord.  Let’s do this shit.

The-best-foundation-for-a-flawless-look-is-the-blood-of-thines-enemies

 

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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.

 

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.

Won’t Somebody Think Of The Children?

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One of my favorite parts of World of Warcraft is getting to celebrate the holidays in-game.  It’s a week or two of festive decorations, chances at special vanity items, and themed fluff quests to serve as a distraction from the regular grind.  There are Azerothian counterparts for the major American holidays — Hallow’s End for Halloween, Pilgrim’s Bounty for Thanksgiving — and even versions of holidays from around the world, such as Day of the Dead and Chinese New Year.  Children’s Week runs during the same timeframe as Children’s Day, a real-life Japanese holiday celebrated on May 5th.  The questlines are easy; just take an orphan around the world, receive a battle pet as a reward, win.  There’s no grinding of tokens or special dungeon bosses to take out, no purple gear or mounts to drive yourself nuts over.  With the advent of account-wide pets, having enough alts means you can theoretically get all of the available pets in one year.  It’s the only holiday to have an achievement that encourages you to come back year after year, which I managed to screw myself out of by deleting the character who had 2 out of 3 already because I am just that smart.

For Children’s Week, players are tasked with taking various orphans for a whirlwind tour of the world, buying them small tokens of affection, and playing with them.  It sounds tedious, but it’s actually pretty heartwarming.  The Dalaran orphan quests lead you to the Bronze Dragonshrine, where they encounter a future version of themselves who has ascended to great heights within their communities, a reminder to us all that even if you come from very humble beginnings or lives of hardship, you can still accomplish amazing things.  In Orgrimmar (or Stormwind, if you’re rebel scum), the questline ends with the purchase of a rack of foam swords for all of the children living in the orphanage, who excitedly run around with their new treasures proclaiming your excellence.  I’m still waiting to find out what’s up with the Shattrath orphans, though.  Apparently Zaladormu and the other Keepers of Time know something about their future deeds, but they’re keeping mum on the subject.

The problem is that unless you know where to go in the first place, or just happen to stumble upon the quests, you’re going to miss out on all of it.  There’s no breadcrumb quests leading you to the three orphanages.  I’ve been playing the game for eight years and only this year did I find out that there was an orphanage in Dalaran that offered its own questline, which saddens me because I can’t help but think of the designers whose work is being missed thanks to this oversight.  Nor is there any kind of decoration that shows up in the cities to let everyone know that yes, there is a holiday this week, which seems like a missed opportunity considering the event’s Japanese heritage and the introduction of craftable origami creatures for the Inscription profession.  Mists of Pandaria, while primarily pulling from Chinese mythology, also shows some elements of Japanese and Korean influence; using some of the decorative lanterns and kites already added to the game could make sprucing up the cities easy.

The addition of a Pandarian orphanage would also be great here, not just for sake of keeping up with the expansions, but also from a lore perspective.  How many Pandarian children have found themselves orphaned since the parting of the mists and the violent battles against the Sha?  Character models for these orphans would be easy, since Pandaren are a playable race for both Horde and Alliance.  The same could be used for both, or the difference could be as subtle as different colors of clothing.  There’s certainly tons of important landmarks in Pandaria itself that could be used in the questlines.  Here’s a quick and dirty example of what the chain could look like:

Children’s Week
Offered by: Matron Geum-Ja (and yes, that totally is a Sympathy for Lady Vengeance reference)
Objective: Use the Pandarian Orphan Whistle to summon your orphan.
Turn-in: Orphan

An Inky-Dink Operation
Prerequisite: “Children’s Week” completed
Offered by: Orphan
Objective: Take your orphan to walk on the mystical waters of Inkgill Mere.
Turn-in: Orphan

Doin’ Fine At The Shrine
Prerequisite: “Children’s Week” completed
Offered by: Orphan
Objective (Horde): Take your orphan to the Shrine of Two Moons.
Objective (Alliance): Take your orphan to the Shrine of Seven Stars.
Turn-in: Orphan

Just Tillin’
Prerequisite: “Children’s Week” completed
Offered by: Orphan
Objective: Take your orphan to the market at Halfhill.
Turn-in: Orphan

I Wanna Go Fast
Prerequisite: “An Inky-Dink Operation,” “Doin’ Fine At The Shrine,” and “Just Tillin'” completed
Offered by: Orphan
Objective: Enter the Sky Race with your orphan.
Note: This is done like the “Ridin’ the Rocketway” quest in Azshara, where the player enters a cloud serpent vehicle with their orphan out and the two are taken on a scripted flight path around the racetrack.
Turn-in: Orphan

It’s Bugging Me…
Prerequisite: “An Inky-Dink Operation,” “Doin’ Fine At The Shrine,” and “Just Tillin'” completed
Offered by: Orphan
Objective: Take your orphan to meet the Klaxxi at Klaxxi’vess and buy them an Amber Figurine.
Note: Amber Figurine purchasable from Klaxxi Quartermaster only while this quest is active.
Turn-in: Orphan

Back To The Orphanage
Prerequisite: “I Wanna Go Fast” and “It’s Bugging Me” completed
Offered by: Orphan
Objective: Return to Matron Geum-Ja with your orphan.
Turn-in: Matron Geum-Ja

The reward for completing the entire quest chain, in keeping with the spirit of the other Children’s Week lines, would be a choice of battle pet:

Of course, the design team has their hands full right now with the upcoming 5.3 patch and future storyline patches to expand our Pandarian adventures, so it’s likely that deviating from those deadlines to update a once-a-year event with new content won’t be happening anytime soon.  That being said, I’ve got my fingers crossed that they take a moment to re-evaluate School of Hard Knocks, an achievement required for the For the Children meta-achievement which is, in turn, part of the significantly larger What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been.

It seems like I’m not the only one out there bemoaning this achievement, either.  I somehow managed to get it completed back in 2009, but The Fiance is playing through the Children’s Week content for the very first time and I’m finally able to see what a colossal time-sink and pain in the ass it really is in its current incarnation.  It’s standard for the holiday meta-achievements to include at least one PvP achievement, which I think is only fair; after all, designers have to cater to both the PvP and PvE players out there as best as they can in order to keep either side from feeling neglected.  The problem is that the objectives for this particular achievement leave both camps out in the cold.

Let’s look at the PvPer’s plight: during Children’s Week, the required battlegrounds are inundated with inexperienced and undergeared players who are only in there to get their achievement.  The players who are there to earn honor and who are actually concerned with victories have to spend this entire week gritting their teeth and expecting a string of losses.  I was watching when The Fiance entered a battleground and was promptly kicked because he had his orphan out.  Simply put, the general attitude coming from the PvP group seems to be “we don’t want you here,” and I understand their frustration.  It’s the equivalent of trying to do a raid and having the other 24 members show up in greens without having read any boss strategies beforehand.  Does it excuse the insults and harassment being flung around?  No, not at all, but tensions are definitely running much higher than normal this week.

The Fiance is not a PvPer.  He had fun doing the easier battleground achievements in Winter’s Veil and Hallow’s End, but he isn’t interested in PvP otherwise.  He doesn’t have a PvP set or spec.  He plays on a PvE server because he wants to avoid PvP situations as much as possible.  Without basically being carried through each objective, he has zero chance of being able to complete the achievement.  Instead of making progress, he’s being called every nasty name in the book, singled out by the opposing faction, excluded from groups where he might have the opportunity to get the achievement out of the way… if Hard Knocks wasn’t required for the metas, he wouldn’t even “inconvenience” the PvPers by entering their battlegrounds to begin with.  But he has his sights set on the Violet Proto-Drake mount, so his only option is to either keep trying and failing, or giving up altogether.

School of Hard Knocks should not be removed from the requirements.  The holiday events already have a strong lean towards PvE, and just as there are many PvE players who would rather eat their own hand than enter a battleground, there’s plenty of PvPers for whom having to do regular quests or any kind of PvE content is a slow, agonizing death for their enjoyment of the game.  Including a PvP element for them is the best way to throw them a bone that doesn’t involve the addition of an entire alternate line of achievements that cater to their preferred play style — it’d be cool to have both PvE and PvP paths that lead to the same end, but would require a great deal of work to implement.  The trick here is to simplify the objective itself so that it is still enjoyable for PvPers, but not completely out of reach of those who choose to focus on PvE.  Currently, for completion, a player needs to summon his orphan and:

  • Capture the flag in Eye of the Storm
  • Assault a flag in Arathi Basin
  • Assault a tower in Alterac Valley
  • Return a fallen flag in Warsong Gulch

These are all highly-specific events that can quickly become impossible when you’re fighting against 29 other players to complete them.  There aren’t enough opportunities in a single 15 vs. 15 round of Eye of the Storm to capture the flag.  Some serious teamwork is required in order to make these happen, and while Blizzard as of late has been trying to encourage social play and working together within the game, it’s a lesson that’s just not sticking.  Whether it’s because we’re all jaded after eight years of play and have, in turn, caused even newer players to exhibit that same malaise when it comes to being considerate, or perhaps due to the lack of accountability for one’s attitude that seems to have tagged along with the implementation of cross-server groups, expecting an entire battleground to “play nice” has sadly become a mark of naivete.  Without being lucky enough to find a pre-made group specifically going for the achievement — I keep seeing this suggestion, but have yet to actually see it implemented — there’s just no way it’s going to happen.

If the objective were changed to something much more general, such as tasking the player with winning 10 battleground matches or getting 100 honor kills with their orphan present, there would still be an element of challenge and dedication required in order to complete the achievement, but it would be much more accessible for non-PvPers.  It would put it more in line with the difficulty level of G.N.E.R.D. Rage or With A Little Helper From My Friends, a welcome change from its current status as the hardest PvP achievement required for any of the holiday metas.  PvPers might even see some of their frustration alleviated as the focus shifts from completing specific tasks within the battleground itself and more towards playing to win, meaning that even those who usually are PvE-only will be putting their best foot forward to ensure victory.  Until these tweaks are made, however, I feel bad for The Fiance and all of the other players who will be kept from receiving their proto-drake this year because of this single achievement.

 

Children’s Week is pretty enjoyable in its current incarnation, but with even the most minor of changes could still be better.  Much like the orphans we’re asked to take care of, all it really needs is for someone to remember to come and visit it from time to time.

 

 

 

Noblegarden: It May Be Noble, But It Ain’t Novel

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Either I just have a lot to say lately, or I’m subconsciously going on a blogging binge because I know that for the next two weeks I’m going to be pretty much off the grid while I drive across the country with my mother and The Fiance and make my bunny den of iniquity anew in Irvine, California.

Originally I was going to write a joke review of Blizzard’s prank line of kids’ computer games in celebration of April Fool’s Day (which, incidentally I would play the Hell out of even as an adult), but there’s more important things that need to be dealt with here, namely the Noblegarden event and just how frustrating and outdated the damn thing really is.

I completed Noblegarden, the World of Warcraft version of Easter, in 2009 according to the date stamp on my achievements.  Even back then, it was a major pain in the ass for relatively little payoff, other than some RP costumes and a companion pet.  There was no special dungeon fight as there is in Brewfest and Hallow’s End, no crafting patterns like the ones offered by Winter Veil and the Lunar Festival… of the in-game holidays, Noblegarden was pretty much one extremely lame duck.  Tokens in the form of Noblegarden chocolates could be obtained by doing circuits around various towns in the beginning zones until you were dizzy and hoping that you were able to click on the holiday eggs containing them before one of the other 100 people trying to do the same thing did.  I got my Spring Rabbit and the achievements for the What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been meta and swore never again.

This year, however, The Fiance is playing World of Warcraft with me and since he’s new, he doesn’t have any of the Noblegarden stuff.  I’ve helped him with most of the others whenever possible, so I decided to log on today and see if the celebration had changed at all in the past four years.  Technically it had, in two very vital ways:

  1. Now there’s a mount you can buy for 500 chocolates
  2. CRZ is enabled in the egg-hunt areas

Holy rabbit shit on a shingle, Batman, I regret complaining about how hard it was to get eggs all those years ago.  The effects of cross-realm zoning extend past merely dumping tons of extra competition onto everyone; oh no, now we get to experience the delays caused by CRZ, where it takes one or two seconds for the game world to “update,” meaning you could have just blown past a whole group of eggs and not realize it until it’s too late.

The spirit of competition in Noblegarden is just flat-out ugly.  You’ve got people swearing at you, insulting your sexuality, and threatening to kill your dog through every conceivable channel of communication for getting to an egg before them, even if you did so in a completely fair-and-square way.  Players are using the biggest mounts they can to park on top of eggs and prevent others from clicking on them.  Some are keeping the loot window for the egg open, making it unclickable for anyone else until their buddy gets there to snag it, or to distract people from hitting other spawn points (and keep in mind that if they’re forcing the egg to stay up like this, that’s one less egg spawn that can pop for others).  If Blizzard was attempting to encourage friendly competition with the egg-hunt mechanic, all they’ve managed to do instead is foster more opportunities for harassment, cheating, and overall poor sportsmanship.

There’s still no holiday boss battle — prime opportunity missed to really push the Darkmoon Rabbit encounter, especially since this year the Darkmoon Faire and Easter are happening during the same week —  and no real questing beyond the unbelievably difficult task of collecting shell fragments from 20 eggs and turning in half of your hard-earned chocolate for a woefully impotent Noblegarden basket that works like a rogue’s Sprint ability.  With so many people in the area to begin with, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference.  Most of the egg hunters I see are using flying mounts, which are pretty much a no-contest win against any temporary speed boost, especially with the zoning-in delays I mentioned previously.  Those 10 chocolates are such a pain in the ass to gather that they’re better applied to purchasing a spring outfit for the achievement or putting them towards the mount or the pet.  In previous years, I would have recommended just farming the gold to buy the pet on the auction house, but since 5.2, any achievements granted for obtaining a pet during the holidays now require you to actually earn the pet.  Just getting an extra from a friend or buying one no longer counts.

For Love Is In The Air, the charm bracelets required for daily turn-ins and token purchases could be traded or sold freely.  I used that opportunity to help The Fiance get his holiday mount, since he works full-time and thus didn’t have as much opportunity to farm the Lovely Charms needed to make them.  The Noblegarden chocolates are soulbound, and as far as I’ve seen, so are the Noblegarden eggs that contain them.  This means that he might be able to get enough chocolates despite the insane competition for them to complete the achievements required for the meta, but his chances of being able to get the mount are pretty much nil.  Hell, even my unemployed freelance ass probably won’t come anywhere near the required number for the mount, and that sucks.

Granted, the development team has had their hands full, first with Pandaria itself, then with the new content patches, so I believe this is why the vast majority of the holidays haven’t been updated in quite some time, but I’m hoping that once everything dies down a bit, they’ll change Noblegarden so that it’s actually fun.  The simplest way to do that would be to get rid of the outdoor egg hunt and take a design tip from 5.2.  The Treasures of the Thunder King scenario, unlocked on the Isle of Thunder when a player turns in a Key to the Palace of Lei Shen to the appropriate NPC, would translate ridiculously well to the idea of gathering eggs, while at the same time giving everyone a fair shot at the prizes.  There’s a few ways this scenario, which I am tentatively referring to now as The Noble Hollow, could be accessed:

  • Keys to the scenario randomly dropped by world mobs
  • Keys dropped for all players in a group upon killing either dungeon bosses or that special holiday Darkmoon Rabbit battle they should totally be doing (RUN AWAY!  RUN AWAY!)
  • Like the Lovely Charm -> Lovely Charm Bracelet conversion, have an Egg Basket item that will allow players to gather the necessary festive items (special eggs, candies, etc.) to make an Overflowing Noblegarden Basket and access the scenario

The scenario could be run as many times as the player is able to gather the items needed to unlock it.  Drop rates could be tweaked accordingly to prevent chain queues that might make it too easy to purchase the special rewards while still factoring in its relatively short accessibility (1 week, versus several other holidays that last for about 2).

Players would have five minutes upon entering The Noble Hollow to keep a sharp eye out for colorful eggs while avoiding traps and slow-downs, just like the Treasures scenario.  The current boring Noblegarden quests could be changed to lead players to the scenario, such as the first key turn-in rewarding 5 chocolates, and another few of them (plus one of the Blooming Branches or other vanity items) upon completion.  After the time limit expires, players would then be transported back to the “real world.”

Here are some awful scribblings of mine:

Because I can't tell where the core interface begins and my modded UI ends.

Because I can’t tell where the core interface begins and my modded UI ends.

The real thing would obviously look a billion times better, but essentially, The Noble Hollow is an idyllic green forest, thick with trees, little patches of sunlight coming down here and there, patrolled by guardian rabbits (no, I’m not biased, I promise) who want to stop you from stealing the Noblegarden eggs.  Potential traps could include suspicious lumps of dirt from which lots of tiny critter-like mobs will spring and do just enough damage to interrupt your gather, having different colored eggs grant different buffs or debuffs on gather, such as an exploding red egg that will only give up its tasty chocolates in exchange for doing damage, a green egg that boosts speed, or a blue egg that grants a damage shield sort of like the old Retribution Aura from paladins, where any mobs attacking you take damage in return.  Maybe special, super-rare golden eggs could contain items, including but not limited to pets or mounts.  Also, I don’t know why I made the eggs sparkly.  That’d make them way too easy to find.  I’m invoking artistic license and the siren call of Photoshop brushes.

Setting the egg hunt up this way would level the playing field, so to speak, by changing the way that current Noblegardeners are left at the mercy of area population in order to complete objectives.  The player would still have challenges to face, but they’d be the fun kind, not the “oh my god why is this guy still camping the same egg spawn site he has been here for five goddamned hours” kind.  More importantly, the dev team would probably see more players actually experiencing the content they’ve worked so hard to create than they do with Noblegarden in its current aneurysm-inducing state.

I feel like there’s some joke I should close with about how I’m a Jew devoting her afternoon to designing an Easter event, but everything I come up with could probably be construed as offensive, so I’ll just leave this high-tech simulation of what a Noblegarden boss encounter should look like here.

Crossing The Design Line: An Indignant Review of Scarlet Blade

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OPENING DISCLAIMER: Some screenshots and links used in this article may be considered NSFW.  Proceed with caution, and also, stop surfing the internet at work.

Yesterday a friend of mine mentioned that they’d been participating in the open beta of Aeria Games’s new free-to-play MMO, Scarlet Blade.  Though my design goals really lie within snagging a spot on the World of Warcraft team, I figured I write enough about Blizzard games as it is and may as well take the opportunity to apply my creative eye to another title for once.

Then said friend begged “Please don’t tell anyone I’m playing this game” and I became mildly concerned as to what exactly I was getting myself into.

I knew from the get-go that there would be boobs.  Scarlet Blade’s official website features artwork of two female characters with only a few pixels meaning the difference between “barely covered” and “nip-slip.”  This didn’t really bother me, because I will happily play a scantily-clad lady character as long as she still kicks a significant amount of ass.  And to  be honest, boobs are awesome.  I actually like wearing low-cut shirts from time to time to show off my cleavage.  It makes me feel sexy, beautiful, and strong to know that I’m showing off for myself, despite what some other people may think about women in revealing clothing.

Launching the game was a moderate pain in the ass, since you can’t go directly to Scarlet Blade from your program menu — you have to fire up Aeria’s Ignite client (similar to EA’s Origin), sign in there, start Scarlet Blade, sign in a second time, then enter in a six-character numerical PIN on a keypad within the game itself where the numbers randomly shift around with every click.  You can’t accuse them of being lax in security, I guess, but their log-in procedures were dangerously close to becoming the stuff of internet memes.

Okay, Character Creation!  Pretty standard — choose your faction, then choose from six different classes and tweak appearance.  My unnamed-and-ashamed compadre mentioned that I might want to check out the Whipper class to satisfy my desire to play a curvy character for once in a game.  I took their advice and moved on to outfit select…

...Okay, well, yes, she IS curvy, that wasn't a lie.

I’m unsure if the game artists for Scarlet Blade have ever seen an anatomy textbook.

I still haven’t figured out what purpose choosing an outfit serves.  There are two “normal” outfits and two “lingerie” outfits to choose from and to be honest, they could have all been classified as “fabric scraps haphazardly glued to a sketch on the back page of a teenage boy’s homework” and fit together quite nicely.  When I started gameplay, my character wasn’t even wearing the outfit I chose.  From what I can tell, these fancy censor-bars are seen once on the creation screen and then never again.  But okay, whatever.  I mean, it’s not like they’re offering panty-shots on ambiguously aged character mo–

In my dedication to this review, I have now placed myself on a government watch list. I hope you're happy.

In my dedication to this review, I have now placed myself on a government watch list. I hope you’re happy.

But it’s not like you could buy something from the game’s cash shop that basically lets any character model you choose run around the game bare-crotched, right?

ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME, GUYS?

Oh, and that aforementioned hypersexualization of extremely young/innocent character types isn’t just in-game.  Check out the artwork in this blurb for Scarlet Blade:

SHE NEEDS AN ADULT

NO.

At least this one actually has large enough breasts to deter Chris Hansen for another day, but they still infantilize her by giving her a cute little stuffed animal to cuddle with.

The text on the blurb talks about “womankind” fighting to save the future as if it’s some kind of girl-power game.  Well, yes, it is, in that you can only play female characters.  The handful of male NPCs offer “sexual harassment” and “thinly-veiled double entendre” as the only dialogue options.  According to what’s outlined in quest text, you’re not even playing a real woman — they’re glorified Realdolls.  You’re controlling an “Arkana,” a mostly-naked, completely obedient (and demure, to the point that your character will blame, chastise, and belittle herself for everything that goes wrong), and anatomically impossible avatar to do your bidding.  Oh, and if the dialogue is to be believed, they all want to have sex with each other.

And now the name of the Whipper class makes sense.

And now it’s all clear to me why they chose to name this class “Whipper.”

That’s not even the most eye-rolling innuendo in the game.  The female NPCs you interact with will constantly accuse you of checking out their butt, admit to checking out your butt, ask you why you’re not checking out their butt… a good chunk of the script reads like it was written by the same teenage boys who designed the characters.

You had to phrase it that way, didn't you?

You had to phrase it that way, didn’t you?

Some of it honestly makes me wonder how many anime girl-shaped pillows were rendered too sticky for use during the game’s creation.

...wait for it...

…wait for it…

They seriously tack it onto every line of dialogue that comes out of a female character’s mouth.

......

……

And then this happened.

I can assure you that any grown man calling them "ta-tas" is cause for me to put my pants back on and leave the room.

200% done.

This is just within the first four, maybe five levels.  I started out trying to take screencaps of every ridiculous innuendo or tidbit of sexual harassment and I had to stop, because I was pretty much screencapping the entire game.

It’s pretty clear that Aeria is not trying to tell a story with this game.  The “lore” offered on the website is essentially the bastard child of Avatar and every single post-apocalyptic/mecha anime ever created.  The three spells I started off with used identical icons and I could not, for the life of me, tell you what was different about their effects beyond the fact that they had different titles — I think, anyway, the tooltips were so poorly designed that they could have been giving me a wealth of information and I wouldn’t have known.  Talent trees are massive and offer you the chance to put skill points into various spells without clearly explaining the benefits of each.  I didn’t even see a clear indicator of how to tell what oddly-named stats boost what aspect of your play and which are best for your class.  There’s no traditional stamina-strength-intellect setup; the stats in Scarlet Blade read like the Results screen of a Dance Dance Revolution battle.  Combat doesn’t have any real strategy beyond targeting an enemy and mashing a button until it dies.  Movement uses the WASD control scheme or click-to-move, but the camera is less than intuitive and requires the player to manipulate it themselves if they want to actually be able to see where they’re going, which can be awkward to do while moving.  Even the voice actresses sound unhappy to be involved in this game, with the audio quality making it seem like the entire sound department is using Windows Sound Recorder at best.

The entire point of Scarlet Blade, based on my experience with it, is to inappropriately touch yourself while staring at fake women (one-handed play made possible by the “click on the quest to auto-travel to the NPC or area you need” feature).  They’re marketing it as a regular MMO with an M rating, despite the fact that it’s basically an ecchi game with slightly higher production values.  I feel like if one of your armor sets consists of criss-crossed ribbons on top and what I’m pretty sure is nothing but a landing strip on the bottom (protip, character designers: a thong actually has sides and a back, otherwise you’re drawing fancy pubes) you’ve crossed the line from being able to market your game as a “mainstream” MMO and smack-dab into “seriously why don’t you just admit this is an ecchi MMO” territory.  As it stands, they’re not labeling their cheesecake, nor do they seem to have a terribly effective age verification system in place.  A precursory glance through the official Scarlet Blade forums in an introduction thread reveals profiles and photographs of players both male and female who, like the Sentinel class, do not appear to be anywhere near 18.

It’s also frightening to think of how many players out there may not be able to grasp the concept that the portrayal of Scarlet Blade’s women is completely mired in fantasy and should not be carried over to the real world.  The route of association goes like this: here is an anime-style character that you can treat like a sex doll, who shows nothing in “brains” but everything in the “genitals,” and now you go to a convention where you have real women dressed as anime or videogame characters, potentially scantily-clad.  Now look at how frequently cosplay harassment occurs and wonder to yourself, is this helping by being an outlet for these animalistic urges, or hindering by creating some very terrifying links in our minds?

I uninstalled Scarlet Blade after a couple of hours.  I just couldn’t deal with it beyond that.  I wanted to actually give it a shot, for it to just be a fairly generic MMO that happened to feature cleavage, but what I got instead was an example of how game designers and developers can so easily cross the line of “good taste.”