Tag Archives: gaming

Overlord Bunny’s Extra Life Charity Stream! Won’t Somebody Think Of The Children?!

Standard

Despite being quite neatly crushed under a mountain of work, exhaustion, and wedding stuff, I always had grand plans to sit down and write a blog post about my upcoming 25-hour charity stream for Extra Life, a foundation directly benefiting Children’s Miracle Network hospitals across the US.  Originally, I was afraid that I’d be writing it with nothing towards my $200 goal.

Well, I have good news — thanks to the kindness of some amazing people on Twitter, it’s not even the day of the stream and I’ve already surpassed that goal.

So yes, I am here with my donation meter raised nicely to the tippy-top, but I’m not stopping there.  I’m still accepting donations on my Extra Life fundraising page, and will be through my charity stream starting at 8 a.m. PST on November 2nd.  100% of the money donated goes straight to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, FL, which is the hospital that saved my life as an infant and has gone on to save many more children in their time of need.  Through top-of-the-line medical services and a hefty dose of love and care, All Children’s has done so much for this world that no gushing recommendation or praise can do them justice.  I’m eternally grateful to them, since without their expertise I would not be here right now.  That’s why even though I’ve moved to California, I’m still playing for my hometown hospital — though I wish I could play for every single one of them, because all of the Children’s Miracle Network hospitals deserve our support.

The charity stream itself will be broadcast on my Twitch channel.  I don’t have a concrete list of games I’ll be playing, but there’s bound to be some World of Warcraft, maybe a bit of Hearthstone as long as everyone promises not to make fun of my skill deficiency, and the potential for some FFXIV: A Realm Reborn.  Beyond that, my Steam library is pretty terrifying in its meatiness, so there’s no telling what I’ll choose as the night wears on.  I may also switch over to the XBox for some Batman goodness.  Since I won’t be able to stream from the console (at least, not that I know of), I’ll be giving out my gamertag if and when that happens so that people can verify that I’m still going strong!  I’m also hoping to be able to snag some dear friends to hang out with me on voice-chat during my PC gaming escapades, and once sleep deprivation hits me full force, I’ll probably end up also broadcasting some demented Overlord Bunny Puppet Show or interpretive dance number or something.

(As a fair warning, though, later in the night I will likely need to maintain radio silence while I game, since my computer is in the bedroom and The Fiance will be sleeping.)

I hope to see you on the 2nd!

 

Advertisements

The Overlord’s Creep Spreads To Blizzard

Standard

My previous estimation of “I’ll still be updating this blog even if I am focusing on BlizzPro right now!” may have been a bit optimistic.

It’s been a couple of weeks, and I am happy to report that I haven’t blown anything up or set anything on fire yet.  In fact, I’ve been able to do a ton of new, shiny stuff:

  • I’ve managed to build up a pretty decent library of articles over at BlizzPro — use this link to access the archives of everything I’ve written so far, including my new weekly Behind the Lore series!
  • The sausage fest formerly known as the HearthPro podcast has been inundated with glitter and raspy lady-voices thanks to my being elected as their third co-host! Though my first appearance was technically in the Special Beta episode, my actual debut as a co-host type and not just a guest is in Episode 4.  New episodes are released every Monday!
  • It finally happened — Internet Celebrity Status has been unlocked.  I now have more followers than I do people I’m following on Twitter (and no, I didn’t just go ahead and unfollow a bunch of people to get it):
    internetcelebritybunny
  • Hearthstone’s closed beta happened.  As you may have gathered by my inclusion on the HearthPro podcast, I got in.  I am a Baddie McBadderson with a win/loss ratio so crappy that the random matchmaking system often has trouble finding someone on my skill level.  At first it made me a little sad, now I take it as a point of pride that I may very well be the worst Hearthstone player ever.  Fame and fortune will be mine.
  • Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has been invaded by a small odangoed Lalafell thaumaturge named Bunny Sagan (spoilers: it’s me).
  • I toured some tiny little indie game company you may or may not be familiar with, I forget what their name is… Hurricane?  Tornado?  Oh, no, Blizzard.  I toured Blizzard.

While I gear up for an impending comic review and try to refocus my brain on Actually Producing A Blog Post, I figured I’d share some of my experiences and impressions of my journey through the hallowed halls of Blizzard Entertainment’s Irvine campus, or what some might call Nerd Disneyland.

Blizzard isn’t just one enormous building — it’s several enormous buildings.  I was only able to tour the World of Warcraft hub (“only,” she says) and that on its own took about two and a half hours to cover the lobby and the second floor.  The lobby is home to the infamous Blizzard Museum, kept safe by a life-sized hyper-realistic statue of Nova Terra and a bank of computers where you can log in on your StarCraft 2, Diablo 3, or World of Warcraft accounts and kill time while you wait.  It’s also where you’ll stumble across the giant Horde and Alliance plushies that so many people take photos with, something I should have planned ahead for, since they ended up photobombing this otherwise amazing photo of myself with my tour guide, the devastatingly handsome Monte Krol:

Other than clearly being a male model so talented that he can ambi-turn with the best of them, Monte is the voice of the male goblins in World of Warcraft and the game’s Lead Tools Engineer.  He’s been with the company for thirteen years, just shy of receiving the commemorative shield given to employees for 15 years of service (they receive sword at 5, a ring at 15, and the Lich King’s helm at 20), so he knows where all the cool stuff and secret candy stashes are.

The Blizzard Museum is not only a repository for awesome concept art, character bios, and community appreciation — StarCraft 2 shoutcasters have their very own plaque in the eSports exhibit — it also features a StarCraft 2 voice changer that you can mess around with to sound like Abathur or Izsha if you follow the instructions given on how to manipulate the small soundboard hooked up to it.  To answer your next question, yes, I made poop jokes as Izsha.  I’ve got you covered, guys. (Not with poop.  Ewwww.)

The second floor of the World of Warcraft building is where all the magical creative stuff happens.  It’s home to concept artists, quest designers, and the most impressive collection of official Warcraft figures I’ve ever seen just in one guy’s office.  One of Blizzard’s core philosophies is “embrace your inner geek,” and their employees have definitely run with it based solely on their office decor.  They go all out on making their work environment comfortable, which sometimes means decorating their workspace with hanging vines, tropical plants, and dim lighting to look like a balmy jungle.

No, seriously, I forget whose office it was, but it was one of the most glorious things I’ve ever seen.  I’m pretty sure he was even using a specific color of lightbulb to get the full effect.

Everyone I spoke to, even the team Leads (who were undoubtedly swamped with Patch 5.4’s impending release), were more than happy to explain to me their roles in the development process and even just to chat.  It didn’t feel like anyone was reading from a script or being forced to interact, and that sense of welcoming really was appreciated.  About halfway through the tour I ran into Greg Street, a.k.a. the infamous Ghostcrawler, and I can honestly say that he is really a pleasant and kind-hearted guy when he’s not being screamed at and threatened by the denizens of the internet JUST AS TERRIFYING AND HARDCORE AS YOU THINK HE IS.

(Don’t worry, Greg, your secret’s safe with me.)

Across the courtyard from the World of Warcraft building is the fabled Blizzard Library, guarded by more lifelike statues of Illidan and Jim Raynor.  The library itself is small, but stuffed with every tabletop RPG manual, graphic novel, or programming reference guide you could ask for.  They even have a gigantic console gaming and Blu-Ray section for their employees to borrow from.  If I could have a library card from anywhere, it’d be from there!

The tour ended not in the gift shop — sadly, they don’t have one — but in the campus’s cafeteria.  If you follow any Blizzard people on Twitter, you may have noticed them talking about how good the food is.  After sampling it for myself, I can safely say it was a better dining experience than most restaurants I’ve been to.  Vegan, kosher, and halal employees always have options available that are not just “a salad” There is an ice cream machine and a spread of just about anything you could possibly want to eat that day.  This isn’t typical “pizza or hamburger” choice, this is more like “Stuffed Greek Burger” versus “Tofu Veggie Wrap with Watermelon Salad.”  It makes sense, though, when you figure that a lot of these employees are spending at least two of three mealtimes at work; good food means they’ve got the fuel to make it through the long hours.

If you want to schedule your own tour, Blizzard’s official site explains what you need to do.  There’s no cost, and it’s the opportunity of a lifetime to see where your favorite games are born!  Keep in mind, though, that spots are very limited and may require a bit of patience to get depending on how many other tours have already been scheduled or phases in the development cycle that may see the campus closed to visitors.  All in all, it was a great experience, and only a little bittersweet for me.  Getting an inside look at how Blizzard operates has only made me hungrier for a desk of my own there.  One of these days…

Overlord Bunny Goes Pro!

Standard

Folks, this morning I found something amazing in my inbox.

As of today, I am officially BlizzPro‘s newest editor.  This means that I will regularly be contributing news articles to their most glorious of websites so that you, the players, can stay informed of the most exciting changes in Blizzard Entertainment’s gaming lineup — live events, PTR thrills, patch notes, the works!

What does this mean for my blog?  Well, probably not too much.  I’ll still be writing original gaming articles here (I’m hoping with the same frequency), and of course, you can always catch me on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.  If you’re not much for the social networking but all about the gaming, I’m also noobing it up pretty regularly on Battle.Net as BunnyOverlor#1766 or on Steam as BunnyOverlord.  Noticing a pattern, yet?

I’m also hoping to start livestreaming my gaming adventures on my Twitch channel — I’ve done one “test” show with the fabulous Miss Bonekitty and a whole horde of stinky zombies just asking to be set on fire, but I’m still working on some technical stuff with it as well as figuring out a regular time that works for everyone.

I don’t have any articles up on the site yet, but that will be changing soon!  In the meantime, head on over to the sparkly new BlizzPro Forums and say hello!

A million thanks to all of you for your support and reads, by the way — I legitimately could not have done this without you all listening to my voice and spreading the word.  I may not be as internet-famous as some, but damned if I don’t have quality over quantity.

IGDA Does Obsidian: An Evening With Feargus Urquhart

Standard

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!

Standard

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

Standard

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!

civ5mockup

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.

Patch 5.3: Well, That Escalated Quickly

Standard

I’m a little delayed, I know, since Escalation, World of Warcraft’s third content patch for Mists of Pandaria, was released about a week ago, but I’ve been a bit distracted by other things.  The bright side is that it’s given me a week to really delve into the content and see what the community at large thinks about it.

The first two patches were pretty expansive, introducing new areas, new factions to earn rep with, and taking several days or even weeks to complete.  It was almost overwhelming the first time I stepped into the 5.2 content — the mobs were a bit challenging, even with my shadow priest’s excellent gear, and the list of Things To Do was as long as my arm (granted, I’m kind of short and stubby, but you get what I mean).  Just when I thought I’d finished it all, I discovered the Isle of Giants and honestly at that point was so winded by everything else I said “screw it, I’ll go back and do it later.”  I still haven’t even gone into LFR for Throne of Thunder.  I was actually a little nervous once 5.3 was released so quickly, thinking that I was going to be hopelessly behind until at least 6.0.

Yeah.  Totally finished 5.3 in a day.  Hot damn.

This is where the first grumbles I’ve heard come in — compared to its predecessors, Escalation is really small.  Yesterday I heard someone say that she hated it because “there was no climax” to the story.  Let’s look at the definition of “escalation”:

es·ca·late  (sk-lt)
v. es·ca·lat·edes·ca·lat·inges·ca·lates
v.tr.
To increase, enlarge, or intensify: escalated the hostilities in the Persian Gulf.
v.intr.
To increase in intensity or extent: “a deepening long-term impasse that is certain to escalate” (Stewart L. Udall)

And things in the story are definitely increasing in intensity.  The Darkspear leader, Vol’jin, has the backing of both Horde and Alliance to take over for Hellscream and his harsh, often irresponsible rule.  Voices of dissent are becoming louder.  How long will it be before a real move is made against Orgrimmar and Vol’jin is declared Warchief?  Is he truly a better option than Hellscream?  Are there other players lurking in the wings?  The answers, presumably, will be coming in 5.4.  With a couple more planned content patches still being worked on, bringing the story to a major pinnacle now would mean that everything to follow would either have to match in epic scope or would be a steady decline back into “blah,” and that’s really not the most engaging way to tell a story, especially in an interactive form of media like a game.  Rocketing straight to “ULTIMATE BADASS OF ULTIMATE BADASSERY” without any real build-up is cheap and unfulfilling, especially when there’s so much to look at with regards to lore.

Speaking of lore, complaints have also been rolling in about how it’s dumb that the Alliance would be helping to put Vol’jin on the throne… wait, is it a throne?  Big spiky chair?  Place where the Warchief sits?  Whatever.  But Hellscream has already crossed lines that Thrall would have avoided altogether.  Remember the fate of Anduin Wrynn at the end of 5.1?  Under Thrall’s rule, the Horde and Alliance didn’t exactly have a truce, but Hellscream has proven himself to be a steamroller of destruction not just for his own people, but for the Alliance, as well.  It is in everybody’s best interests if the proverbial loose cannon is replaced by a more reasonable leader.  Given the Darkspear tribe’s main goal of just trying to rebuild their home post-Cataclysm versus command-and-conquer, a little cooperation from the Alliance (entirely possible, given Anduin’s tendency to seek peace rather than war) could mean that these two factions might even be able to reach a cease-fire.

It’s also been said that Blizzard is showing clear favor to the Horde with 5.3 content and that the Alliance don’t have as immersive or enriching of an experience on their side of the fence.  I haven’t brought an Alliance character through, but I will just point out that since the beginning of World of Warcraft, the Horde have been claiming that the devs are favoring the Alliance while the Alliance claim that the devs are favoring the Horde.  I played both sides of the same server once and let me tell you, the arguments were exactly the same except for the faction names being switched around.  Even if there really was “favoritism” going on in this patch, I can almost guarantee you that 5.4 will shift focus the other way and ultimately balance everything out.  Mists of Pandaria is proving to have one of the most intricate and expansive storylines yet, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that there’s always a method to the madness.  I have complete confidence that by the end of the Mists content, everyone will be sitting in there chairs going “OHHH!  That’s where they were going with it!”

In addition to drawing out the dramatic tension in the storyline, 5.3 is also serving as a great catch-up for those who don’t have regular access to raids, are trying to gear out alts, or who have just started playing.  During the Battlefield: Barrens event, players can complete a weekly quest to gather 100 each of four different materials and turn them in to receive one Radiant Mojo.  When combined with a piece of Latent gear, which has a decent chance to drop off of the very mobs being killed to complete the quest or can be purchased in exchange for more materials, the Radiant Mojo will create a piece of item level 489 gear specific to the player’s spec and class (489 is on par with Valor gear).  In one week, I ended up with three sets of shoulders, a pair of pants, and a belt.  Before combining them with the mojo, the items aren’t soulbound, meaning you can trade with other players for pieces you need, sell them for profit, or send them to alts.  It’s an amazing alternative to having to grind out the “oldschool” Pandaria reputations and run heroics ad nauseum to get Valor points — the payout for heroic runs in Mists versus Cataclysm is incredibly small.  With each patch, Blizzard has been making it easier for players to get caught up with their rep.  In 5.1, we got commendations that would allow all characters on our account to receive a major boost to rep gains as long as one character had received at least Revered status with the faction that the commendation was purchased from.  5.2 gave us work orders on our farm and the ability to “star” reputations while running dungeons for extra reputation towards that faction once per day.  Golden Lotus rep is no longer required to serve as a gateway for Shado-Pan and August Celestials quests.  The Latent gear offers an alternative to the grind so that new or hopelessly behind players can focus on newer reputations that offer higher item level rewards.

That’s the beauty of 5.3 — it offers multiple ways to achieve a goal.  Besides the alternate path to 489 gear, which is easily enough to get players into LFR, there’s also several ways you can get the materials needed to complete the Battlefield: Barrens weekly quest.  Mobs in the highlighted areas on the map have a 100% drop rate of the items you need.  There’s also physical objects that can be gathered, like barrels of oil or crates of meat, and have a chance to yield more materials than individual mob kills.  Occasionally a caravan, laden with the precious materials you require, will start out from one area in The Barrens and require your protection from raiders on the way to its destination.  Keep the caravan safe, and you’ll be given a crate of bonus supplies that contains a fair chunk of each of the kind required to complete your quest objectives.  If a caravan is overturned, those who get to the site quickly enough will find its contents strewn through the wreckage for yet another quick burst towards completion.

Arguments are, of course, being made that Blizzard is rewarding players who are one or all of the following:

  • lazy
  • noobs
  • casual
  • scrubs
  • (insert colorful accusation of homosexuality here)

Still others are sitting around in their gear from heroic Throne of Thunder and complaining that it isn’t fair because none of the gear offered in Escalation is an upgrade for them.  So essentially, those ranting about the Latent gear are either elitist or greedy, and definitely selfish.  These are the kids on the playground who want first pick of the swings and don’t mind pushing the smaller kids down into the dirt to get to them.  If they’re not having fun, then why should anyone else be allowed to have fun?  I imagine they’re also the type who, when losing at a board game, scream “I WIN” and knock all the pieces onto the floor.  As a funny sidenote, I’ve also noticed that most of these same kids claiming to be “oldschool” players who remember what the game was like “before easy mode” started playing World of Warcraft a full two or three years after I did.  If I really wanted to be a jerk, I could give these bullies a taste of their own medicine, but I’m more concerned with watching the player base grow rather than trying to impose some sort of social restriction that if you started playing after x date, you’re not allowed to do anything.  Oh noes, the purples are accessible to everyone!  The Legendary questline still isn’t.  Hell, I still need like 15 of the Sigils from the first part; I just don’t have the time or the patience to get them, and I’m fine with that.  So is every other casual player I know.  The hardcore and progression-based raiders are going to make up the majority of the I Haz Orange Weapons club.  The devs are not vomiting max-level gear all over everyone quite as freely as the vocal naysayers would have us believe.  It’s going to be okay, guys.  I promise.

Beyond the gear and the inevitable controversy surrounding it, we also get six heroic scenarios!  Hurray!  They are definitely more of a challenge than the original batch — bring your best game and halfway-decent gear if you want to succeed — but they’re still a quick and enjoyable way to get Valor points.  Even with the alternate path to Valor-quality gear, the Upgrade ethereals are back, and with reduced Valor and Justice costs.  Pet battles have been retooled a bit with regards to hit chance, and tooltips will now reflect this as a way to help battlers decide which attacks to use.  A new chapter of Raiding With Leashes has opened up with the obtainable pets dropping off of Burning Crusade-era raid bosses; finally, an excuse to go back to Karazhan!  There’s also one obtainable from turning in a Radiant Mojo to the Darkspear quartermaster at Razor Hill, a handful now available off of Throne of Thunder bosses, some Isle of Thunder and Isle of Giants drops, and a new wild pet for Northrend, which has the misfortune of being called an Unborn Val’kyr and looking like a baby angel.

There’s still a lot of value to Escalation, even if it doesn’t have the same epic scope to it as the other content patches.  The Battlefield: Barrens quest, however, is being treated as a world event, which means that it’s quite likely to disappear at some point, so get it done while you can!  My recommendation to avoid burnout (400 total materials is a pretty steep order to grind out, even if it is only once a week) is to split it up over 4 days.  With no new batches of dailies or factions to grind to Exalted, the general theme seems to fit right in with Vol’jin and his Darkspear trolls: “Take it easy, mon.”