Mittwoch, 3. März 2010

Open letter to MMOG developers

(I initially posted this on the writer hive of, but sadly got no responses at all. From what I have seen so far the writer hive is used for trolling. Until now I haven't found any common properties of entries that do get dozens of responses and those that don't receive any attention. The latter being about 90% of the pieces posted there. Anyway, maybe someone will enjoy this.)

Dear MMOG developers,

how are you? I am sad. Why am I said I hear you ask? Well, because you make me feel cheap, dumb and gullible. Seeing yet another MMOG fail at the beginning of the race and taking a look at the reasons why Star Trek Online is a D.O.A. product, I start to wonder. I sincerely think you need my help. And not just my help but the help of a lot of MMOG enthusiasts all over the Internet. You know, the internet? The platform you are trying to succeed in and where a lot of the people live, that you are attempting to cater to?
Here's a fun fact about the internet: if you actually just took one hour of your daily development work to get to know your audience, your competition and your market, you would make the most amazing game. Don't believe me? Well, I didn't expect you to. The decision is up to you: read on and learn at least one new point of view that will make your current project a better product or stop reading here and continue poking in the dark.

Still with me? Great, let's get started then.
Since you are still reading, I guess you are either one of the companies that is shooting for the next MMOG bestseller or one of those rare studios actually trying to create an immersive world that enriches the term "escapism", creating a legacy for both your future fans and yourself. I am not one to judge your motives and either way is fine with me. Even if you are one of the former, you just might provide us with a couple hundred hours of enjoyment. Now that we've loosely established your destination, let's talk about the path. Almost all of the following ideas are a conglomerate of opinions, criticism and suggestions available on the net, nothing observed by me exclusively.

First and foremost, take your time. I can't stretch this enough, because even in 2010 every company save for a few exceptions discard this most basic rule. And chances are, you are one of them if your company name doesn't start with a "B". "When it's done" is not an infamous gamer quote by accident. Releasing an unfinished product is like ripping a newborn from his mother's womb a couple of weeks early. Chances of deficiencies are high while the chances for survival are slim. Let me say it again. Take your time! Do only release the game in a state you and 99% of your team are satisfied with.

"But the publishers and the deadlines...", I hear you cry. Well, two things. First, get a competent person to be the link between your studio and the publisher. Somebody with street smartness, an impeccable understanding of the market and some solid marketing knowledge. Essentially, this person's job is convincing the publisher, that every additional dollar invested now is worth plenty of dollars later. And that every month or team member stripped now largely increases the chance of not even covering the development costs, let alone make a profit. A failed MMO is a stigma a developer won't lose easily and also makes the publisher look bad for forcing it onto the market prematurely.
If they don't believe you, present them with subscription graphs and cases analyses for the following: Vanguard, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, Aion. This is a fight you absolutely have to win, for yourself and the publisher, since they will refuse to see it that way until your efforts pay off.
Second, this is the point you'll have to decide if you're in it for a few quick bucks or actually make a game people will love and hold dear even years after the last official game server has went down. Of course you have got costs to cover, people to pay, families to feed. If you venture into the development of an MMOG, the most complex kind of game there is, and both you and your publisher expect a quick payoff, please refrain from doing so. Make a shooter, a RTS, a movie license platformer or an iPhone game. It will be better for all of us. If you are prepared for the hardship of several years of development on the other hand, go for it.

Moving away from development time, you might be interested in what you are supposed to spend your precious months and years on. Here are a few clues.
People do not care about franchises. If your game is good, it will attract tens of thousands of players quickly enough. If it is rubbish, even a Pixar Universe MMOG would hit rock bottom within a few months. There are about as many successful franchise MMOGs (e.g. World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings, Ultima Online) as previously unknown franchises (e.g. EVE Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Guild Wars). No brand name will guarantee you success if players don't get an experience worth their money and time. Just let Age of Conan, Warhammer Online and soon Star Trek Online teach you a lesson.

Learn from the past. There have been wildly successful MMOGs in the past. Not necessarily from a commercial point of view, but seen through the eyes of the fans, you know, those guys who really pay your bills. They were extremely innovative for their time and only withered due to the computer graphics craze of the last decade. If you want to make a game driven by player interaction, closely study Ultima Online and EVE Online. The economy systems in both these games are built on the shoulders of thousands of players. If you want to have competetive player interaction in your game, take a look at Dark Age of Camelot, EVE Online and maybe Guild Wars. None of these games has the dreadful two faction model every game nowadays seems to be so fond of.
No factions, three factions or countless factions, take a pick. But please get over the whole idea of, "Well, both of them consider themselves the good guys and the other side the evil ones, that's deep, right?" Because it is not. It is shallow rubbish. Two competing sides are the most boring a MMOG can get. Note that I also refrained from using PvE or PvP. Both these terms are pretty much outdated and the lines between them have blurred substantially. Chances are, your marketing department will use them in a wrong way and players will have wrong expectations what your product will be about. So be careful about throwing them out there.

Graphics also do not save your game. If somebody buys your game because it uses the newest DirectX 11 shaders to visualize the spray of some remote waterfall or the pollen hovering over a meadow during sunset, chances are pretty high, the same person will drop your product for the next graphics craze being released. We want long-lasting substance, remember? So go for a graphics standard 90% of your potential market can comfortable handle.

Presentation on the other hand matters. This is different from graphics. After seeing the same texture for the hundredth time, people will start to abstract and only notice new textures and colors. The once highly detailed graphics will blur. Presentation goes more along the lines of color concept and animation. Blizzard and Mythic have done amazing jobs with most of their zones in World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online, so take a look at those as examples for good coherent design.

The second part of presentation - animation - can not be stressed enough. One of the most common complaints about new MMOGs is about bad animations. Chances are, you will not be releasing a purely spaceship driven MMOG like EVE Online, so people will judge the way your world moves. Robot-like movement or stick-figure animations are a huge turn-off for players, because it will keep them from identifing with their avatar or perceiving their surroundings as alive. I recall reading a bit a couple of years ago. It was talking about the animation designers for the Warcraft games regularly taking trips to their local zoo to study animal behavior and movement. You don't need to go all out like they did, but get your animations sorted out and if motion capture is the only way, go for it. I am not saying you will need realistic movement of your tree branches, though. Remember, long-lasting substance, not highly detailed fleeting star.

While we're at the technical side of things, let's talk infrastructure. Loading screens are bad. No need to put this into perspective, it destroys game flow and is another big let-down when talking about immersion. And immersion is all games are about, right? Instanced dungeons and zones are fine, but both of these can theoretically be precached and entered without a loading screen. We're not in the 90s anymore, the loading screens need to be reduced to a minimum.

Now, everyone familiar with the server infrastructure of a MMOG knows that instancing is necessary to take care of the thousands of players on one server. But depending on your game, your backbone needs the capability to deal with the MMO aspect of your game. Most games fail at this. It's actually rather annoying that the respective developers don't grasp that a repeatedly crashing server due to large-scale player combat reduces the whole MMOG concept to absurdity. If battles of several hundred (or dozen) players is one of the key features of your game, then make sure your engine can deliver just that. Until know only a handful of games actually pulled this one off, so get this one right and you are one step closer to success.

The points mentioned above leave you a lot of freedom with respect to two major development key points. The what and the where. Or, in MMOG terms, the genre and the lore. From a lore point of view, we don't care if you go for space, fantasy, postapocalyptic, steampunk, cyberpunk, real world, super heroes, mafia, ninja, pirate or mythology related. Most of us have seen enough elves and dwarves for a lifetime, but wouldn't be able to resist if they were presented to us in a brilliant way.

However the subgenre sets the course for your game and your potential customer base. And as far as MMOGs are concerned, no subgenre has been dried out yet. Yeah, we've already seen plenty of attribute- and item-driven RPGs to date, but if you were to deliver something character-centered much closer to the roots of pen and paper roleplaying or LARP, it would sell like hotcakes. Or some multi-faction combat MMORPG with a focus on team/guild/alliance interaction. Learn from the past, mix it with your own creativity and the sky is the limit.
And please do not make the mistake of following current genre trends. Firstly, they will probably be gone when your game releases, so this will not be a selling point for your game. Secondly, the fraction of gamers to always jump on current trends will also jump ship as soon as the next best thing comes around. Not the ideal target audience for a game with long-lasting substance. If you want to do a third-person steampunk MMORPG with platformer elements, don't ditch it because postapocalyptic FPS are currently popping up left and right.

Well, my dear developers, I think I covered most of the things I had in mind. It's up to you to make the best of it. But please do not discard this before considering at least a single point from this letter. Your team, your publisher and your newly acquired fans will be thanking you, when your game rises like a phoenix out of the scorched earth that is the MMOG genre of early 2010.



Retrospective - Games finished in Jan/Feb

So as it turns out, getting rid of my last MMO subscription was a good idea. Suddenly, there was so much time to enjoy all the things I had missed out during my 5 year addiction. And those things amount to a lot as I have found out.

Let's start with games, shall we? During the first two months of 2010 I managed to finish 5 games and dabble in numerous others.

Mass Effect
I bought this only because a friend of mine recommended it to me during the Steam holiday madness. Until then it had flown under my radar completely. Turns out this one of the best RPGs I have ever played and since I have been sick of elves and the whole fantasy routine for a good while, Mass Effect gave me the chance to return to my science fiction roots. I found myself uniquely challenged by the moral dilemmas at least half a dozen times throughout the game, resulting in a slightly more Paragon character despite my attempt to go Renegade on everyone and everything. The narrative was great and although it struck me as odd to do the side missions when the galaxy was in danger, most of those side missions were worth my while.
I did have my issues with a few things though, the AI of the teammates being number one. Although "only" I played a soldier on normal, I had to finish a good majority of indoor fights on my own and would have had the same problem with the outside encounters too. Luckily I specialized on sniper rifles early on and managed to eventually frag everything from a lowly droid to a thresher maw with it.
The dialogue system is great although I thought the whole charm/intimidate mechanic would have been way more interesting, if they didn't go hand in hand each time. Hard to describe but I think if the characters are fleshed out well, some of them will allow for renegade reactions and other may spark paragon options. Both at the same time every time struck me as odd. This is a minor thing though.
All in all Mass Effect was a great experience and I hope I get to spend a lot more hours in this particular universe in the future.

Ben There, Dan That
Point'n'Click adventures. In the nineties I played all of the LucasArts games, Discworld one and two, Simon the Sorcerer and everything that ended with "Quest" and provided "Use" and "Take" as viable actions. Sadly, I lost all interest in this genre with the atrocious Monkey Island 4. I hadn't played Grim Fandango and Discworld Noir yet and until today those are missing from my gaming vita. A friend of mine got into the TellTale series of Monkey Island and Sam'n'Max last year, but to me, these games were abominations of the original games and I wouldn't touch them while in a hazmat suit.
"Ben There, Dan That" (BTDT) and "Time Gentlemen, Please" were mentioned quite frequently by RockPaperShotgun during the last months of 2009, so I picked both of them up during the above mentioned sale on Steam. 2009 also saw the release of a few highly acclaimed Point'n'Clicks, such as "The Whispered World" and "Machinarium". Was this the return of the dead genre or could these be regarded as enthusiastic necrophilia?
I finished BTDT on a laptop in maybe three to four hours during the reinstallation of my PC. I though it was genuinely entertaining and a fitting heir to their hilarious ancestors of the last century. It provided just the right amount of british humor, meta jokes and pop art references. The puzzles were both funny and easily digestible to spend a nice evening with Ben and Dan, the two unlikely heroes.
I can't wait to knock out the second game of the series one of these evenings and hope Zombie Cow Studios will follow up with a new episode sometime this year.

It is hard to talk about Braid without spoiling too much for people who have yet to enjoy it. Which is something I suggest everybody remotely interested in games should do.
I find the whole indie gaming scene deeply fascinating but only to a point where I don't have to buy everything that comes out and has a vocal fanbase. By now I own three indi games and have about ten on my wishlist. Most of the time they are cheaper than AAA titles, but only provide a limited playtime. Most of them are deeply creative and even revolutionizing, but a lot of times they are not entertaining at all or too hard to pick up. I will think buying an indie game over a lot of times, because the cost of two to five indie games make up the cost of a AAA title. And I know I will enjoy the hell out of something like Fallout 3 of Mass Effect 2 and get at least 50 hours of playtime out of either of them. I am not so sure about the five indie titles providing me with the same.
Now getting into Braid I noticed just that. I also picked this up during the Steam holiday sale and like Mass Effect 1, I got it dirty cheap. Having finished it I would have been okay with a 10€ price tag for an indie game. If I was to earn any real money on a regular basis, 15€ also would have been okay. I do not attribute that to the roughly twelve hours I got out of it, but to the experience as a whole.
While I am not yet sure where I stand on the story of the game (I get the accusation of the game being pretentious), the game mechanics are ingenious and I firmly believe several people working on this game would have ruined the ingenuity of Braid.
Adding a third (and even forth) dimension to a twodimensional puzzle platformer is about as clever as it get's in my book when it comes to this dear old genre. Despite it's occasionally complex levels, I managed to finish the game and that alone was a very challenging task. Even without any of the hidden content discovered. A few frustrating levels even had me motivated enough to come back on a daily basis until I had finally beaten them. I am glad to have played this and to me Braid is one of those titles every child (and grown-up) should play at one time during their gaming live.

Where do I begin? Imagine a highly polished threedimensional platformer on your favorite console. Throw in the whacky art style of the cartoon network series from the nineties. Mix that with a upside down read copy of "Psychology 101". Now you have Psychonauts.
This game is very colorful, freaky and entertaining on many levels. The humor functions on the same subliminal level of all those modern animated movies, that feature jokes for both the parents and kids, neither of which will get those punchlines targeted for the other group. The majority of the jokes are aimed towards a grown up audience and that's where the game works against it's presentation. The candy look probably gave a lot of people the wrong idea about the game, putting potential customers off.
Somehow I regard this game as the good twin to the underrated nineties game "Sanitarium". Both are basically focusing on the same topic, one from a grim gothic perspective of suffering, the other as an insane LSD birthday party with all the kids from the neighborhood. The unique design of each level keeps the suspense up until the very end and portrayed the nature of the human mind extremely well.
This game is a blast to play, even if you're not studying psychology. It's also a prime example of a working incorporation between story and gameplay. Mechanics and content working hand in hand. This should be an obligatory game for anyone studying or learning to be a game designer.

Knights of the Old Republic
Luckily, I installed this and it's successor as soon as my PC was reinstalled a while back. Two weeks ago I was anxious to finally breeze through Half-Life 2, a plan that swiftly broke apart (more on that another time). So I was sitting there on a lonely friday night, browsing through my start menu. 'Well hello there, Knights of the Old Republic...' 10 days later I finished the game, successfully conquering the galaxy as the new Dark Lord of the Sith.
It was nice to play this game shortly after having spend about the same amount of time with Mass Effect 1. It was interesting to see both the recurring mechanisms and ideas and the evolution of BioWare's games over the years. I am now even more excited about finally diving into Mass Effect 2 later this year and seeing how they have taken it to a next level.
Curiously enough I managed to reach the Sith end of the Force-o-meter fairly quickly. I hadn't even been named Padawan yet and I was already leaving a trail of burning corpses. I even executed Juhani before she had a chance to reconsider the light side. Too bad as I found out a bit later, she would have been a nice addition to the team. So I ran with Bastila/Jolee and HK-47 (my favorite NPC in that game) for pretty much all of the game, since I knew I had no chance to drag sexy Mission to the dark side with me. The other characters didn't appeal to me that much. I probably wouldn't even have chosen Bastila if it wasn't for her force powers. Her nagging was unbearable at times. I didn't quite get why they implemented the option to go Sith right from the start when it didn't influence the main plot at all safe for the last one or two hours.
From a gameplay perspective, the force powers dumbed the game down a lot and starting at roughly level 15 until the end of the game every encounter could be easily won be spamming area crowd control, area damage and area heals. Why the dark side version of Bastila has been implemented a lot weaker than her light side twin is beyond me. Most of the talents dark Bastila had were basically useless for the few hours you had left in the game. The only challenging fight was the very last one, which became a lot easier because I had almost all the grenades and health packs I found throughout the game saved up. The rest was just a hit and run exercise. Okay, I played on normal at that point, but I didn't notice any improvements in the difficulty when I switched from easy to normal towards the end of Taris.
From a presentation perspective I have to say that this game destroyed some of the Mass Effect magic. I wouldn't call it recycling, but a good proportion of the "Wow!" graphics in Mass Effect had already been tinkered with in KotOR. Mass Effect's graphic engine is newer or course. Why they dropped the kickass idea of the characters looks being altered by the good or bad side in ME1 is beyond me, but I have gathered that they reimplemented it for ME2, so I am excited about that.
Finishing KotOR rather impressed and at the same time reading a lot of whining how Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 didn't reach the high level of RPG that Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights provided, I am considering to revisit those titles at some point in the future. It has been a long time since I played Baldur's Gate 1 and all the BioWare games between that and KotOR have passed me by. At least I can't recall ever giving Neverwinter Nights a try.

And that will be it for the games I've played and finished during the last two months. Next up will be the titles I dabbled in and maybe a few thoughts on recent movies and TV series.


Mittwoch, 20. Januar 2010

2010 - So Many Games, So Little Time

2010 will be a weak year for MMOs. We covered that already and first open beta reviews of Star Trek Online solidify my prediction of yet another epic case of death on arrival. Big licenses mean nothing in the unforgiving genre of "WoW and it's retarded siblings".
I am almost certain that Cryptic will fail miserably and even if all the die hard trekkies subscribe for just one year they probably won't break even financially. Seeing Age of Conan, Warhammer and Aion crash and burn has made a sceptic out of almost every MMO gamer, me included.

People have grown more and more impatient with new MMOs. If you don't deliver all the basics and then some within the first two to three months (let's remember the first month is complementary for all western MMO games, so people will play at least that long), you're dead. There won't be a second Lord of the Rings Online, because that game was released at a time when players and developers still cared for each other and it filled a niché that doesn't exist anymore. There also won't be a second WoW, a statement that needs to be addressed in seperate blog post.

If I had to put my money on an MMO not kicking the bucket (or even succeeding) this year it would be Allods Online. I probably will not play it, but I'll closely follow how it performs. First reason would be the few new gameplay mechanics the game is trying to introduce. Strengthening guild teamplay and mixing fantasy elements with space combat still sounds like a splendid idea, even after Aion failed to implement that as its key feature. The second reason is a totally different one: we have yet to see a wildly successful micropayment MMO. Thinking about it I largely favour this model, even if it means selling items or other gameplay related services and thus giving paying players an edge over the casual, that logs in to play two nights a week.

So, since I don't expect the door towards the third generation of MMOs to be kicked open in 2010, I will spent the year catching up on some classic titles I've missed out on as well as devoting my time to the few top titles to be expected this year.

The New Ones
These are the games I am actively looking for in 2010. There are probably a few games missing from that list and I only included PC games. I do own a Wii now but the console still doesn't strike me as a single player machine (except for Mario Galaxy of course) and I don't expect any new big license games to be released on the Wii with the successor around the corner.

Mass Effect 2
I am currently playing Mass Effect 1 for the first time with my first character. My last real offline RPG was Morrowind and the respective addons. It's nice to see that the genre has come a long way in the last years. Although I will not finish ME1 before ME2 is released, I will surely check it out, since it's the best non-fantasy RPG I've played so far (bite me, Star Wars fanboys).

Starcraft 2
This is a must since Starcraft is a legend (can somebody say eSports?) and a lot of people - me included - devoted a lot of time, sweat and blood to that game within the first 4-5 years. It was the trailblazer for dozens of bad and half-bad RTS flooding the PC gaming market around Y2K and will reignite the RTS genre. Although I despise Activision and my admiration for Blizzard is crumbling, I think I can't pass up on this one.

Left 4 Dead 2
To me, the FPS genre is going through a dry spell right now. The half a dozen Doom clones (of which FEAR was probably the most promising) and the myriad of WW2 and modern day shooters are pretty uninspired. And if the biggest selling point of a CoD Modern Warfare 2 is breaking the taboo of killing harmless civilist targets, then I weep for this genre.
The only games that stuck out to me are the two Left 4 Dead ones. I always thought, that coop shooters were introduced way to late, so I'll check L4D2 out, if Steam should offer it for a reasonable price during the expected easter sale.

Torchlight Multiplayer
If I remember correctly, the announcement for multiplayer implementation of Torchlight stated Q2 of 2010. I admire the single player version very much and bought it for 50% off during the crazy Steam christmas sale. I still haven't played any character past level 10 though, since it still is a dungeon-crawling, item-grabbing game. As a recovering WoW addict, I am still too annoyed by this concept. If the multiplayer version is worth it's money and fans will do amazing things with TorchED, the free game editor for the Torchlight engine, I will definitely spend a couple of dozen hours this year hacking and slaying.

Zombie Cow Studios' next adventure
I really loved "Ben There, Dan That" and recently played the first minutes of "Time Gentlemen, Please!" Both adventures do give me hope for the Point and Click genre as a whole and I am anxious to see what the two guys will be doing next.

Duke Nukem Forever
Although I'd like to pretend I'm just kidding, I want to keep an open mind towards all the secrets and mysteries surrounding the return of the Duke. If it really comes to life, I will definitely check it out one way or another. Like with a lot of 25-30ish people, Duke Nukem 3D was my first LAN game, that got me hooked on PC gaming, fast-paced shooters and LAN parties.

I've been an avid fan of two development studios for years. The first one is Blizzard Entertainment, no need to explain that. The other one is id Software. They are probably the most brilliant major developer. The roughly 30 people there create game engines and worlds that pioneer whole subgenres or set new industry standards when it comes to graphics, physics or other technological aspects of game development. Anyway, since Doom 3 was so so, and Quake 4 and Quake Live are just new iterations of old ideas, I am looking forward to their take on an postapocalyptic FPS RPG hybrid. Will we see things Fallout 3 or Borderlands haven't done?
Whether or not Rage will be released 2010 is unclear, since the updates from id Software have been scarce in 2009. I keep my fingers crossed.

Jumpgate Evolution
It's been awfully quiet around this once highly anticipated SciFi-MMO. I remember in late summer beta keys were thrown around my Warhammer Online guild. But as far as I know, no beta or release date have been announced lately.

Fairytale Fights
Black humor, cartoon graphics, a fairytale themed world and hack'n'slay action. Looks interesting and if there will be a sale for this on one of the pay to download sites, I'll pick it up.

The Old Ones
Trying to kick an old habit is not that easy. Ask a few people who tried to stop drinking, smoking or getting rid of any other addicting activity. Replacing the old, self-destructive hobby with a pro-active alternative seems the way to go in a lot of rehabilitation programs. Why am I talking about this? Because trying to stay clear of WoW will probably require me to keep my mind busy when I am bored. And happens a lot. So to make sure I have something to fiddle around with, I also assembled a list of already released games. All of these I regret missing out on. I also consider most of them as "must-have-played".

Dragon Age
I am yet to play Origins, game of the year 2009 for many people and gaming sites/magazines. I am currently playing Mass Effect and I am impressed of the giant leap BioWare takes with each new generation of their RPGs. I can only imagine what Dragon Age will be like. I suppose I won't tackle the game before summer, since I don't want to risk my diploma thesis by losing myself in yet another great immersive RPG game. But an addon is being developed and with all the praise the game and BioWare have gotten, it'll be the next logical step after finishing Mass Effect 2 (and my diploma thesis).

AI War
I've grown to like games from independant developers. World of Goo, Braid, the Zombie Cow guys - all of them are examples of brilliant ideas no big company would ever have pursued. But I am far from being a snob about only playing Indie games. It won't be long until Indie gamers will become the same elitist jerks that hardcore MMO players have been for years. Well, until Blizzard decided the 99% happy customer base was more important than the 1% satisfied elitist no-lifes.
Back to topic. AI War got really great reviews and is said to push the boundaries of the RTS genre as a whole. That's high praise for a one-person project. I want to see what the fuss is about and how a macromanagement-heavy RTS can be the biggest thing released in the last few years. Because let's face it: the RTS genre has been quiet and boring ever since The Frozen Throne was released. There have been short interludes with Company of Heroes or the Warhammer 40k games (which are basically all one game engine with different sets of graphics and single player campaigns). AI War, I want you to sweep me off my feet!

Fallout 3 (and all the gazillion addons)
I was a sucker for the first two Fallout games and I haven't heard anything bad about this one. Almost all of the negative reviews criticized points I am indifferent about (mostly disgruntled RPG players) and when people say it's the "better Oblivion", that's a plus for me. Having enjoyed Morrowind despite it's flaws I tried Oblivion for maybe an hour on a friends PC and to me it felt like Morrowind with better graphics. Sorry, but I don't buy the same game twice.
Apocalyptic or SciFi scenarios are just my thing, so Fallout 3 is one of those games I don't see myself ignoring forever.

Knights of the Old Republic 1 and 2
Around new years, a friend lent me both these games and Drakensang, a RPG made in Germany under the "The Dark Eye" license. I've seen Drakensang live on my roommates PC by now and have no desire playing it whatsoever. Looks and feels to steril and artificial to me. But the two KOTOR games have had great reviews and are both considered the cutting-edge predecessors to Mass Effect and Drakensang. If time allows, I'll have a look at one of them, although it's probably worth it to play both of them just for the story. But this type of RPG demands roughly 30 to 60 hours depending on how OCD you go about the side missions. Considering that I like the "old era" of the Star Wars universe a lot more than the modern age that the movies are set in, I think my time will be well invested.

Torchlight Singleplayer
Not much to say about that. See above.

After Torchlight and Fairytale Fights the third comic hack'n'slay that will try to cater to all the starved Diablo 3 fans that won't receive any Blizard love in 2010.

Well, I guess that's it for me and looking at the list I'll probably carry over roughly half of these into 2011. For more 2010 previews, check out "The Year Ahead" on RockPaperShotgun (Parts One, Two and Three) or the series "Coming Attractions" on Eurogamer.

Donnerstag, 7. Januar 2010

PC Gaming Reviews of 2009

2009 was a good year for PC gaming (or so I've been told). If you find yourself thinking "What was so great about gaming in 2009?", make sure to check out The RPS OMG Advent Game-O-Calendar 2009, Eurogamer's Games of 2009 series and for the MuMORPuGgers Keen and Graev's review should suffice.

Their piece on Aion is quite spot-on and in my opinion says it all.
Aion hurts the most. On the outside it’s a gorgeous game with an interesting art direction, great animations and most of the right answers. The first twenty levels are great. There is lots of content for the players and most of it is fun. Then you hit this slow patch. The Asian market’s love for mindless slaughter of little creatures bleeds through the Westernization. A year’s worth of patching becomes obvious as you run through a dungeon at level 25 and think “This rocks!” just to run through a dungeon at 30 to think “omg this sucks!”, come to find out the level 25 dungeon was added later. Then you hit a wall. There’s no content. It’s all a grind. If only the game had content! I found myself wanting to play badly but I couldn’t bring myself to log in knowing that I had about 50 hours of grinding ahead of me. Leveling up can take a long time and it can be difficult, but at least give me something fun to do. The PvP was one of those ideas on paper that sounds like it could work but from what I experienced it ended up just being a clusterfluck of timed fortress flips — a little work on changing some of the mechanics would be nice. That’s why Aion hurts the most. It’s fun but needs work. Showing us a movie of what’s to come just to find out it’s a “vision” and not stuff that’s actually on the way was a slap on the face.
Let's hope 2010 will be better. I will refrain from diving into Star Trek Online (mostly because I doubt it will be another LoTRO) and Star Wars: The Old Republic won't see daylight in 2010. So it may be a quiet year on the MMO front except for Cataclysm in November. Plenty of time to catch up on all the quality titles of '09 and maybe even '08.

Edit: I totally forgot about Allods. Unfortunately I just can't find the time to dive for more than my brief beta experience between level one to five. But at least in my book this is the most promising MMO title for 2010 and it may become the first flagship game for micropayment model.

WoW and the 2000s

Over the holidays, RockPaperShotgun (RPS) - my favorite source for everything related to PC gaming - directed me towards the Eurogamer's Lifetime Top 10 article. Make sure you read that and check those ten games to what you've been playing during the first decade of the 21st century. It's a very good read especially since they had several editors give their five cents about each game.

The reason for my post however is a different one. One of the games is, you guessed it, World of Warcraft. One of the editors to recognize the uniqueness and the impact on the industry was Oli Welsh, who noted, "I have played my main character for over 795 hours. I have spent - get this - 1.7 per cent of the last decade playing WOW."

My initial, sinister thought was 'Nerd!'. Almost every WoW player likes to pretend everyone but him has a problem with keeping their WoW time in check. But then two days back I talked to a friend about the article and this little number game got back on my mind. So to have a nice cuckle, I logged into my freshly reactivated WoW account (1 month in) and took a look at my total time played using RestFU. A little more than 400 days. Now this doesn't mean that I set foot into Azeroth 400 days ago, but that I have spent the equivalent of 400 days playing World of Warcraft. So since I am a fan of numbers I worked out some pretty weird facts about my... I guess it's only fair to call it "addiction".
  • The 400 days do not account for one deleted level 60 character (got hacked in classic WoW), several druids played to the mid-twenties and my beta characters for the US (level 20), Korean (Level 48) and European (two Level 30) classic beta. Let's just add another 20 days played, which I know aren't nearly enough.
  • Unlike Oli Welsh with his 800 hours I have spent 10080 hours playing WoW.
  • If I worked for just 5 Euros/hour for all that time, I would have earned 50400 Euros. That's the cost of a new Audi A6, a C-class Mercedes or a BMW type 5.
  • When being real about it, working laws would have only allowed me to work about half of that time (try finding a job you can work 16 hours a day for several weeks). That's still 25200 Euros, or a station waggon like a Ford Mondeo.
  • Considering the time I have spent 11,5% of the last decade playing WoW. That's two hours and fortyfive minutes per day, every day.
  • Since it has only been around for five and a half years (betas included), I spent nearly 21% of this period with one of my various characters. That's the equivalent of five hours per day.
  • Going even furter and taking into account the six hours of sleep I am trying to catch daily (though I've come closer to seven during 2009), WoW consumed 15,3% of my waking hours over the last decade and 27,9% over the last five and a half years respectively.
  • If we combine the 25200 Euros and the five and a half years, we are talking 4582 Euros per year. That's 382 Euros per month not earned. So instead of paying 13 Euros per months one might say I have been losing close to 400 Euros per months since WoW was released.
I think these numbers speak for themselves and from the people I've come to know these last five years, I am convinced that I am no isolated case. The good people at Eurogamer at totally right when stating that WoW can't be viewed as a traditional game that will be subject to competition anytime soon. Even the hundreds of hours I put into Quake 3 Arena, Starcraft, Warcraft 3 pale in comparison to WoW.

So, what do your numbers look like? When adding all that up, does it make you feel like quitting?

Mittwoch, 9. Dezember 2009

Learning Spanish - Obsesionado con Espanol

I decided to switch over to English. First of all because my writing skills are terrible (not only in English though) and I can see my grammar deteriorate every day. Having to look up basic verbs, nouns and adjactives more often than in the past makes me feel old and inapt. The few posts already made will be translated sooner or later, at least for practice.

It recently has come to me that I am quite lucky to have learned English at such an early age and such a quick rate. I can comprehend almost everything that isn't tainted by some obscure accent. Okay, I have my problems with spoken british dialect, although I enjoy listening to british English the most.

Here's the reason for the newfound appreciation of my English skills. For the last 3 months I've been taking Spanish classes once a week for two and a half hours. Since Romance languages are pretty logically structured and every bit of French, Italian or English helps to learn, I am confidentially cruising the textbook examples and exercises. But when it comes to thinking out of the box and applying all that wild grammar and vocabulary to form sentences of my own, I am rather challenged.

Today, learning English is considerably easy. Most western languages are stuffed with anglicisms, especially when it comes to vocabulary concerning industry, business or technology. A lot of movies and TV series are produced in English. Most of the significant publications in science and business are released in English. Long story short: learning English as a foreign language is a piece of cake. Learning Spanish isn't.

A big issue in my opinion is choosing your desired dialect. The pronounciation in Spain is very different from that in Mexico. Both of these differ from the Spanish spoken in Cuba. Argentina is a totally different story and so on. Don't think of it as the cute "americans pronounce 'a' differently than british people" type of difference that most spoken english burns down to. Think of it as a Oxford scholar vs australian outback kind of linguistic conflict.
My Spanish teacher is a Mexican, so that settles that. Mexico is the country I am most interested in anyway. Mexican Spanish in my opinion is easier to speak for somebody who just wants to get by and doesn't care if he'll ever be mistaken for a true Spaniard. Pronounciation is fairly easy to remember and Spanish intonation in general has a nice rhythm to it.

So three months in, I am feeling that I am not progressing fast enough. I can tell people who I am, where I am from, what my hometown is like and all that smalltalk stuff you always learn first in every foreign language. Currently we are learning about food (fruits, vegetables, cheese etc.) and will have a pre-christmas get-together at a Cuban restaurant. All of this is very cute and catchy, but at this rate I won't be writing my first essay in Spanish for another 2-3 years, too long for my taste.
I am more of the devouring type. If I am genuinely interested in something, I obsess over it and suck up every bit of information I can get my greedy hands on. (This kind of situational OCD has proven to be hazardous in the past and will provide me with many sleepless nights for my upcoming diploma thesis.)

What are my options? Will I cave in to the hunger for knowledge or continue to torture myself with the bits of linguistic goodness trickling in each week? Should I try the self-teaching approach or will I lose interest when learning on my own?

Freitag, 13. November 2009

2012 - Die Apokalypse in High Definition

Gestern war es nun soweit und der lang ersehnte, heiß diskutierte neue Film von Roland Emmerich traf endlich auf der Leinwand ein.
"2012" setzt dabei die Reihe der Weltuntergangsfilme Emmerichs fort. In die Fußstapfen von Kassenschlagern wie "Independance Day", "Godzilla" oder "The Day After Tomorrow" zu treten ist sicher kein einfaches Unterfangen. Lest weiter um rauszufinden, ob es dem Streifen geglückt ist.

Die Hintergrundgeschichte von "2012" stützt sich recht lose auf den Maya-Mythos, dass die menschliche Zivilisation am 21.12.2012 enden wird. Im Film wird dieses Ende durch besonders starke Sonneneruptionen eingeleitet, welche besonders viele oder energiereiche Neutrinos durch's All feuern. Jene welche die Erde erreichen, durchdringen diese nicht wie sonst ereignislos, sondern heizen den Erdkern auf. Normalerweise ist unsere Kugel ja im Inneren flüssig und außen fest. Durch die Aufheizung schmelzen die äußeren Schichten immer mehr auf, bis die Kontinentalplatten wieder frei auf dem flüssigen Inneren umherschwimmen können. Soweit zur Theorie.

Der Rest ist typisch Emmerichsches Katastrophenkino mit einer kräftigen Portion Pathos. Die Menschheit eint sich (genaugenommen eigentlich nur die G8), nachdem die Katastrophe im Jahr 2009 schon absehbar wird, und bereitet sich auf den Exodus vor. Der junge idealistische Geologe, welcher die ganze Geschichte entdeckt, klammert sich bis zuletzt an den Gedanken, jeder bekäme die Chance, die Katastrophe zu überleben. Im Gegensatz dazu steht beispielhaft der Raffzahn, welcher für sich und seine beiden fetten unsympathischen Söhne zu horrenden Preisen Plätze im Exodusprogramm kauft. Selbstverfreilich bekommt der im Laufe des Films sein Fett weg. Ebenfalls durch den ganzen Film zieht sich die Geschichte des erfolglosen Schriftstellers, welcher schon vor Jahr und Tag Familie und Würde an einen Schönheitschirurgen abtreten musste. Glücklicherweise kommt er dank eines durchgeknallten Radiomoderators und einigen Verwirrungen im Yellowstonepark rechtzeitig zu der Einsicht, dass der durchgeknallte Radiomoderator doch nicht so durchgeknallt - aber trotzdem noch ein Radiomoderator - ist. Es beginnt ein recht spektakuläres "ApoKalypse for Dummies: Man kann nur weglaufen, wenn man noch Boden unter den Füßen hat" Spiel.

Ich möchte die Handlung nicht noch weiter vorwegnehmen, daher eher einige Beobachtungen, die nicht handlungsrelevant sind. Zuerst und das ist mir das Wichtigste zu sagen: Das Ende der Welt sah noch nie so gut aus. Sei es das Ausbrechen des Yellowstone Vulkans, das Auseinanderreißen der pazifischen und der nordamerikanische Platte durch diverse kalifornische Metropolen, das in eine Feuerhölle verwandelte Hawaii, hunderte Meter hohe Flutwellen, die durch asiatische Metropolen fegen und vieles mehr. Es ist imposant zu sehen, was die Tricktechnik in den 13 Jahren seit "Independance Day" dazugewonnen hat. Natürlich wird der geschulte Beobachter erkennen, dass das im Meer versinkende Los Angeles computeranimiert wurde, aber mal ehrlich: das reale Versenken einer 1:1 Kopie hätte den Budgetrahmen sicher gesprengt. Die Bilder sind eindrucksvoll und die damit entstehenden Kameraeinstellungen, welche vom Publikum mit weiten Augen und offenem Mund empfangen werden, platzieren einen Regisseur wie Emmerich einige Riegen höher als einen Michael Bay.

Sehen wir vom film- und tricktechnischen Aspekt ab, landen wir ziemlich schnell bei Schauspielleistung. Die ist durchgehend grundsolide und das ist in meinen Augen eine von Emmerichs Stärken: er rotiert seine Schauspielriege für jeden Film und wählt instinktiv passende Darsteller. Ich denke es ist für einen Regisseur ein Luxus zu wissen, dass die Filme sich selbst verkaufen und er keine großen bzw. männeranziehende Namen braucht, sondern seine Rollen frei besetzen kann. Natürlich sind Emmerich Filme aber keine Darstellerfilme. Spielraum zum Auftrumpfen wie bei Tarantino, Del Toro oder Rodriguez gibt es nur begrenzt.
Das bekannteste Gesicht ist John Cusack, welcher bisher eher selten in Actionrollen glänzte, seine Sache aber gut macht. Die weiblichen Rollen werden von der ewigen Nebendarstellerin Amanda Peet und Thandie Newton ("Streben nach Glück", "Mission Impossible 2") besetzt und laufen beide nicht so richtig warm. Ich denke aber, dass das ebenfalls typisch für Emmerich ist. Frauen sind schmückendes Beiwerk. Die Blumen am Fuß des ausbrechenden Vulkans. Der teurer Marmorbrunnen im nächtlichen Park, welcher von Junkies und Triebtätern durchstreift wrid. Für sie lohnt es sich, die Welt zu retten, solange sie dabei nur zuschauen und nicht etwa auf die Idee kommen, helfen zu wollen. Ich jedenfalls kann mich an keine weibliche Heldin eines Emmerichfilms erinnern.
Oben erwähnter Radiofritze wird von Woody Harrelson gespielt, dem Mann, der in den letzten zehn Jahren all die Rollen bekam, die in den 90ern Steve Buscemi gespielt hätte. Seine in meinen Augen erstklassige Darstellung des fanatischen Weltuntergangsjüngers hat die Vorfreude auf "Zombieland" Ende des Jahres nochmal gesteigert.
Doch wo Licht ist, ist auch Schatten und so wird der Antipath des Films überzeugend von Oliver Platt gemimt. Die Rolle des Staatssekretärs, der schon lange aufgehört hat, Menschen als etwas anderes als Zahlen in einer Statistik zu sehen, steht ihm gut und man kauft sie ihm in jeder Szene ab.

Logische Fehler bietet der Film wenige, wenn man gewillt ist, im Sinne des Unterhaltungsaspektes ein Auge zuzudrücken. Dafür gab es einige Irrwitze, welche einem zum Schmunzeln bringen. So sind die im Film gezeigten Staatschefs ein recht akurates Abbild ihrer realen Abbilder anno 2009. Deutschland wird von einer Frau regiert, der französische Präsident sieht eher wie ein Lebemann denn wie ein sorgengebeutelter Staatschef aus und der amerikanische Präsident ist ein aufrichtiger Schwarzer, welcher der Apokalypse lieber inmitten seiner Untergebenen im totgeweihten Washington D.C. entgegenblickt, als seine Haut zu retten. Die Köpfe der anderen G8 Staaten sind natürlich nicht so mutig, ausgenommen der italienische Staatschef. Dieser charismatisch und gut aussehende Zeitgenosse harrt in religiöser Vertiefung im Kreis seiner Familie und umgeben von tausenden gläubigen Christen auf dem Petersplatz der Dinge, die da kommen, um dann von der Kuppel des Petersdoms überwalzt zu werden. Bravo, signore presidente! Wieviel wohl der Mediengigant Berlusconi mit dieser Darstellung zu tun hatte?
Von den 3 Archen, welche im Endeffekt zu Wasser gelassen werden, teilen sich Russland, Japan und China eine, Deutschland, Frankreich, Italien und Großbritannien eine weitere und die USA bekommen eine eigene. Nunja, ich bin mir sicher die Auswahlkriterien für Teilnehmer des Exodusprogrammes waren hart.
Und seit gestern weiß ich nun auch, dass man mit einem halbend Dutzend Flugstunden im Sportflugzeug eine Antonov mit defekten Triebwerken zwischen einstürzenden Wolkenkratzern hindurchfliegen kann.

Zusammenfassend kann man nicht viel Schlechtes über den Film sagen. Aber irgendwie fehlt eben auch das Außergewöhnliche. Gerade da "2012" nur 5 Jahre nach "The Day After Tomorrow" kommt, der auch schon in die gleiche "Das Ende naht" Kerbe schlug. Mir würde spontan nichts einfallen, was den Film hätte besser machen können. Die Effekte waren gut, die Schauspieler gut besetzt und der Pathos wurde in erträglichen Portionen serviert. Die Geschichte war zwar grob durchschaubar, aber im apokalyptischen Unterhaltungskino wäre eine vielschichtige Geschichte fehl am Platz. Das Spannungsmoment kurz vor dem Ende, welches das Happy End noch einmal in Gefahr bringt, gehört genauso zum Emmerichschen Film wie das Zusammenführen aller Handlungsstränge kurz vor jenem Moment und das Überwinden der menschlichen Selbstsüchtigkeit im Angesicht des Exitus. Wenn man "Independance Day", "The Day After Tomorrow" und "2012" übereinanderlegen würde, könnt man wahrscheinlich sogar seine Uhr danach stellen.

Und so schafft es "2012" zwar zu unterhalten, aber nicht zu begeistern. Ich würde mich über einen Genrewechsel freuen, Herr Emmerich.

Und für alle, die das Ganze gern in Zahlen wollen: 7 von 10 Punkten.