Remembering Fun

Positivity means rainbow ponies!

I decided to go back to World of Warcraft.

Just kidding! But that does make a good first line to a return post, doesn’t it?

Since the last time I posted on this blog, something I intend to rectify beginning now, I’ve spent a good amount of time considering our attitudes as gamers. Now, we’re as varied as the ocean is deep, so this isn’t meant to be a wholesale generalization, but I think we get into ourselves into cycles of negativity that are downright poisonous in the name of feedback. Writing for MMORPG has shown me that in the comments section. Reading some blogs reinforces it. There’s no question that we love this genre, so why do so many people insist on tearing it down?

Writing about what we don’t like is easy. We’ve all done it at some point or another. When a developer crosses that red line and barbecues your favorite game, we’re hurt and need to vent. No harm done. I notice that a lot of us, though, especially the ones who have been around a while, tend to be extremely critical. 30 days after launch and 200 hours later the game is “out” of content? My gosh, it’s almost like these games take time to develop!  Or how about these developers putting patches in for the other guy? I’m waiting on my raid/battleground/hotfix people! Bananas.

My question is this: if you’re always posting in the negative why are you still around? These games are actually pretty cool!

I had a conversation with a friend about World of Warcraft. Now, this is a girl with multiple max level characters and a /played over 1500 hours. She told me how the game was wrecked, how Blizzard had destroyed it, and precisely how bad of a game it really was. Since she left WoW, that’s been the theme for every MMO to follow. After spending dozens, if not hundreds of hours playing the thing. I don’t get that people! Not one bit.  And not to offend this fair dame, but I’d say you lose the right to call a game bad after its entertained you for 100 hours. Or 1000. If we go by sheer hours, WoW might be the most entertaining game ever made. Tell that to Mr. Darkfall.

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We have a tendency to squeeze ideas so tight that we forget to have fun. We focus on what should be, what could be, and what was. We ignore that the old games we talk about still exist and are no longer good enough for us. Games like Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, and EverQuest have received “modernizing” patches, but come on, is anyone really going back there to play? But you know, many of us have our roots there. Fun, joyous roots many of us wouldn’t trade for the world.

I’ll be honest, how I played MMOs has changed drastically over the last two years. I even wondered if they were for me for a while. But I also squeeze ideas, like the potential of connected worlds. I love that this community is passionate and that so many people present themselves with intelligence, wit, and charm. You guys are stinkin’ awesome. I even like theorycrafting and armchair design. The epic journey of progressing through an MMO has been a metaphor for my being a part of this community. I can’t see souring or looking back on this genre as anything other than a foothold for my online life and a place to share with friends.

As a return post, what I really want to share is this: this is an incredible genre with a lot to love. That’s why we’re here. Trolling people with blog posts and inflammatory comments really just highlights how out of touch you’ve become. It’s great to talk about the problems and postulate on how the latest games are being designed but I really want to remember what it is that brings us all here. Fun. Not the serious business of gaming. The world will not implode if Star Citizen or Wildstar fail, I promise, and we will have something awesome here.

We’re good apples. We have a good core. One that has provided thousands of hours of enjoyment. How can anyone say that’s bad?

It’s good to be back.

Bloggers disappearing and why I’m one of them. But not really.

In light of the recent conversation about the state of MMO blogs, I thought it was about time I popped in and reminded you that I’m not dead. See? LA DEE DA DEE DA! Now that you know I’m not a zombie, I think it’s about time for an update!

To get to the topic presented in the post title, when I read Wilhelm’s recent post, I felt a little guilty for contributing to the perception that MMO blogging is somehow on the decline. I don’t think that’s the case at all, but I can see where it would come from. A lot of the veteran bloggers have disappeared or moved to social media. Content consumers are radically shifting their focus over to Twitch, YouTube Let’s Plays, and podcasts. It is a changing landscape and blogs are the old guard that was and is and ever shall be.

That last part is important. MMO players are an opinionated, devoted bunch. Our games are deep and we like to sink into them. I don’t worry about MMO blogs disappearing because when we’re not playing them it’s damn fun to get into the mental gymnastics of theoreticals and what-ifs and adventure journals. It’s a vicarious means of play. I don’t keep track of daily page views much any more because I don’t update as often as I used to. Look to the right, though. My subscribers are higher than they’ve ever been. My blogroll is longer than it’s ever been, and needs to be updated with at least a dozen others I’ve added to my RSS reader since my last update. Every week day, there are no less than 10 MMO-related blog posts to read. We may not all know and interact with each other as much as we once did, but the scene itself is stronger than it ever was. Even in the Warhammer era when I and many others got started.

Why did I make the jump to bigger sites and columns instead of staying independent? Maybe I value independence a little less, especially when I can pay my car insurance doing what I’d spent years doing for free. For my part, I hit a point where I needed to assess how I was spending my time. I enjoy blogging. I will always do it. But is it benefiting my family? Am I contributing to my own personal growth? No on both counts. You could argue that engaging in discussion an open thought is character building, but that’s not what I mean. My writing skills haven’t improved as a result of this blog in a long time. I can crank out a paper quicker than your average grad student, sure, but voice and mechanics aren’t going anywhere. I benefit from working with an editor like MMORPG’s amazing Bill Murphy. Just as importantly, it’s nice to be published and to have your name out there.  I’m under no illusions that I’m someone anyone anywhere knows and that’s fine with me. But I would like to get a body of writing work under my belt so that if I want to sell an article, I have the experience to do that.

And I got into this for conversations. Writing at different outlets opens the doors for meaningful interaction with fellow fans. I like that.

The moves I have made have been good for me. I’m producing more content than I have in the last year and it’s not just limited to writing. Ferrel’s and my podcast was picked up by MMORPG not long ago and has allowed us to talk to some really wonderful guests. I’ll be interviewing RIFT’s Bill Fisher in just over an hour. That excites me. I’ve spent so long thinking about MMOs that being able to have a conversation with key people who make them, and then realizing they’re just people — gamers like us — is fulfilling every time. I even like the business side of it: emailing marketing people, coordinating with fellow writers, the works. It’s the next level of what I started here.

Things have happened in the last year that I never expected nor sought out when I started writing about video games almost five years ago. The forward movement has been fantastic and really fulfilling.

And I owe every single bit of it to the MMO blogging community. If it wasn’t for other writers like Syp, and Spinks, and Wilhelm, I never would have even begun nor continued when the going got tough.

And on that note,  I’m happy to announce that I’ve been brought on to write at ZAM. If you’ve ever been to WoWhead (and who hasn’t) then you know the company. I will be doing a weekly column titled Experience Points as well as covering some news. They are a fantastic team and I am overjoyed to be a part of it.

So for my part, I’m not going anywhere. This blog will stay hosted and it will stay updated, even if less frequently than before. I just hope you guys continue to follow me into the new wilds of different websites. This is where you can find my writing:

And of course, Game On: Epic Slant Press Edition. The podcast from a couple of MMO bloggers/blog readers like yourself that happens to have industry support (we’re so lucky with that — still amazes and humbles me).

Gaming For the Greater Good: ingenious charity projects which have changed our world

It feels like the video game industry – and, more importantly, its consumers – have just about cast off the shackles of social stigma. Mainly owing to the explosion of mainstream gaming, it’s no longer commonly seen as a pursuit of the lonely nerd (or violent psychopath in the making).

The act of making a good game is finally being considered the art that it is. Not only are more people enjoying them, but it’s no longer a niche pipe dream to study it for career purposes, as evidenced by the increased enrolment at NYFA’s game design school.

Of course, we’ve still got a long way to go to address gender inequality and representation within the industry, but for the most part it’s finally being recognized as no less innocuous than enjoying movies. With the rise of MMO gaming in particular, it has even grown to become a hyper-social art form.

But what the diminishing number of detractors fail to acknowledge is that gamers, on the whole, are a very charitable lot. Not only is this industry an economic behemoth, but it also generates a hell of a lot of money for good causes around the world…

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… and here are some of the (frankly ingenious) ways are going about it. There are many others, of course, which we may not have heard of; do let us know of your favorite fundraising ideas or projects in the comments below if you don’t see them covered here.

Taking a Very Long Walk

Did you know that one in every three videos uploaded to YouTube feature footage of people playing Minecraft?

Okay, that was entirely made up but it certainly seems that way sometimes. Minecraft videos have become such a large genre in their own right that some of the more charming and eclectic personalities have managed to turn it into a full-time job.

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One person who wasn’t expecting such success was Kurtjmac. He set out walking West towards the edge of the Minecraft map; while practically infinite in every direction, there is a point at which a natural barrier springs up as physics break down. These ‘Far Lands’ are so far away that it’ll take Kurt roughly twenty years (at current video upload rate) to reach them.

He started out unknown, and became a hero. After two years of walking, Kurt has amassed over 200,000 subscribers – early into the series, Far Lands or Bust, he capitalized on the growing popularity to solicit donations for Child’s Play charity.

He has now reached well over $100,000 in donations. He continues to walk as you read this.

App Developers Join the Movement

The founder of the Global Gaming Initiative, itself a fine cause, started up a self-funded app game studio two years ago regardless of having no prior development expertise.

Its debut title, Sidekick Cycle, is due for release any day now. The game is a downhill racer, with the protagonists delivering bicycles to African children who otherwise have to walk hours in order to attend school…

… and the kicker is, 50% of all sales from the $0.99 game will go to buying bicycles for real-life African children in the same situation. For every 387 copies sold, a new bicycle is purchased.

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It’s a smart way of helping a great cause, and before anyone balks at the 50% figure, consider that Apple will take 30% of the iOS sales and what little is left probably won’t even cover development expenditure.

Virtual Economy Comes Good

While developers CCP could be arguably accused of getting the most out of their paying subscribers, it’s undeniable that EVE: Online is a damned good space MMO.

They also can’t be faulted for their fundraising efforts over the years.

While the in-game economy of EVE can be dauntingly complex for the beginner, the PLEX for Good initiative is very straight-forward: players are able to purchase a PLEX license (a tradable item good for 30 days of game time) and assigns it to the designated charity player account, run by CCP. The developers then convert the fee paid for the license into real money and give it directly to the Red Cross while shouldering all fees (such as VAT and payment processing) themselves.

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To date the scheme has raised over $108,000 through virtual charitable donations, with $44,000 alone being raised for those affected by the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan when the scheme was first unveiled.

Its’a Me!

The idea behind Mario Marathon is a simple one – a team of folk play through every game in the Super Mario canon, livestreaming as they go and not stopping until all the games are done or the donations dry up.

Marathon-style play is not a unique concept, but what makes this annual fundraiser notable is the level of support it has garnered.

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As of 2012, the team have raised over a quarter of a million dollars for Child’s Play. Just think about that: $348,207 over the just four events, going to help sick kids around the world. At the time of writing, the 2013 event is just about to start and since every year tops the last it’s anyone’s guess how much more will be added to the running total this time around.

Turning Rage into Aid

Just over a year ago, you couldn’t go anywhere in the gaming community without seeing indignant rage over the conclusion of the Mass Effect franchise. Quite rightly, too, since it did amount to a short-changing over what was otherwise a compelling series.

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Some clever fans saw this as their opportunity to do a world of good, and the ‘Retake Mass Effect’ charity drive was formed. Not only did it raise $80,000 for Child’s Play by similarly displeased fans, but it also became one of the driving forces behind BioWare getting their act together and addressing the issue with the Extended Cut release.

The only sad note to the tale is that the Retake Mass Effect campaign was forcibly closed due to fan confusion (who thought their donations were in part funding a re-release). Who knows how much it would have ultimately risen if the drive were handled better.

Site Hacked, Probably Through Spam Comments, Fixed Now.

In case you happened to find this blog looking for something to help you pee easier, let me clarify things a little bit. We don’t actually sell prescription drugs here. Sorry. I do have a cautionary tale for you.

See, for the past few months I’ve noticed a Google search of “gamebynight” turned up a description with common comment spam. Not the whole, just a couple words mentioning cheap prescriptions. It was weird but not knowing any better, I assumed Google’s search bots had picked up on a spam comment. Looking at the site itself, nothing was amiss. Google’s problem, right? Wrong.

What actually happened is my site was hacked. Don’t worry, no one signs up for jack squat here, so you’re not at risk. Still, it made for a long night.

I got what’s called the Pharma Hack. Apparently, this bit of nastiness exploits a vulnerability in WordPress to inject snippets of comment spam into Google’s search returns while changing nothing on the site itself. To find it, one has to locate and delete certain files in plugins and themes. If you’re like me and have tried a lot of both over the years, you can probably relate to the amount of build up I had. Using the guide linked above (published in 2011), I searched and found nothing they said I should find, yet this web scanner reported two infections within my about page and the entire MMORPG category.

On top of just plugins and themes, the exploit is also known to generate infected database entries. That’s the nuts and bolts behind the site, in case you’re unfamiliar. Kind of like your computer’s registry and just as dangerous to touch. Thankfully, my exploit hadn’t gotten that far.

Not finding any of the easily identifiable files, I began searching the commonly exploited files in my plugins, themes, and WordPress installation. After a half hour or so of scouring and finding nothing, I gave up and took the other option: I cleaned house and deleted everything. Every plugin and every theme (including the one you’re seeing now) was wiped out. Every image had its permissions changed. All of that build up was taken out. I scanned again and came up clean.

The question is, how did it happen and it’s the most troubling part about the whole thing. Nobody seems to know for sure. It’s an exploit, that’s the only thing we’re sure of right now, and, ironically, most often roots itself in the Akismet spam filter folder (does anyone know of a good alternative?). But how does it get access to the server and database in the first place? My computer is clean, so it’s not a keylogger or password based.

Some theories pin it on a (yet unknown) vulnerability in the comments. I think this is probably close to the truth. The spam being injected in my site description was almost verbatim the kind of crap that passes Akismet’s spam filter. This is troubling. As if it wasn’t bad enough that our sites are accosted by drug spam dozens of times each day, now we’re at risk of getting our search results poisoned. All to drop a link no one in their right mind would click.

If you own a WordPress blog, always make sure to update it. I wasn’t always the quickest updater but I wasn’t terrible either. One, two weeks tops. This was a royal pain in the ass to clear up. The fact that the removal guides were totally non-applicable to my situation tells me that the hack is still being updated. With any luck, the WordPress team has patched it out already, but let my trouble be a learning experience. Probably a good idea to give your site a scan at the link above.

Reflections on Our Interview With Mark Jacobs

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So here’s big news I thought I shared but didn’t. MMO Radio was picked up by MMORPG.com just over a month ago and rebranded Game On: Epic Slant Press Edition. (And we get to maintain creative control!). That makes us the official podcast for the site, which is quite a bump from what either Adam or I expected when we got started. It’s also taken some getting used to, having that much more accountability, but it’s been for the better and I’m loving it. One of the best aspects to the move is having more accessibility to developers than we’ve ever, or probably could ever, have had before. Enter this last Sunday when Mark Jacobs, now of City State Entertainment, stopped by to talk a bit about Camelot Unchained.

I was saddened that I couldn’t be there and it actually reflects just how new this “greater accessibility” thing is to me. I emailed my awesome editor on Saturday asking if Mark might be willing to join us. I’m used to week-plus turnaround times, and we record Sunday, so I was thinking it would be a few days at best. Within 12 hours, we got the email back that Mark would be happy to join us. I couldn’t be there but Adam did an outstanding job on short notice. Good work, buddy!

I couldn’t have asked the interview to go any better. Mark was a great guest and didn’t seem reserved in the slightest. He talked about crafting, building, sieges, endgame, horizontal progression and more. The man even commented on launch cows from a catapult. Some listeners might expect that frankness with just over two days left in the Kickstarter, but I didn’t.

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A lot of interesting information came out of the talk, too. For example, the role of builders in the siege process. Fear not, crafters, it sounds like your efforts will be could be the linchpin for successful sieges. I loved hearing about how pivotal they will be, that crafters will be their own class, and that the preparations for war won’t be limited to just armor. Crafters will play a central role in building siege gear, upgrading fortresses, and repairing each cog in the war machine. The more I listened, the more excited I got. This could be the game that finally elevates crafters to the role we’ve always wanted them to be in: important, valued, and able to make a name for themselves both on the war field and off.

I also found Mark’s discussion of endgame and horizontal progression enlightening. We all know that vertical endgame’s exist and thrive for a reason and Mark knows it to. He’s seems set to make sure we feel the same satisfaction in progress even without different ranks of Fireball to attain. He also says a lot that’s enthusing for keeping the battles raging, even without PvE spawns to fight over. Resource collection sounds like it will be an important part — but we knew that much. Listen to how he describes it, the position of experience he shares from, and tell me that he’s not prepared to design around the issues we’ve been voicing. That’s reassuring.

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I’m also beyond the point of condemning the man for Warhammer Online, even though some players refuse to let it go. He fell on that sword when the time came and he owns his responsibilities — more than, really, because to hear him describe it, the buck stopped with him. It takes a level of humility to stand before audiences time and again and own his mistakes. In the last section of the show, Adam asks him what he would take or change from his prior development experiences. His answer was great: embracing the small team at CSE like he did at Mythic, designing for the audience and staying reasonable, and not over-shooting just to under-deliver. Their philosophy is poised to create a game that does what it sets out to very well and, if that building video is any indication, pretty creatively too.

Another note: What happens if they don’t make their funding? I was particularly curious about this one since a lot of people seem to be banking their hopes on Camelot Unchained. I was rather surprised to hear Mark frankly say that he may have to re-assess the amount of interest there actually is in this kind of game. If they hit ~1.9M, they’ll almost certainly re-launch their campaign with lesser funding goals. That’s great. I plan on playing the game primarily because it’s bucking a lot of industry trends and could really prove something to the major players out there (WoW is impossible), but I worry that the game not seeing daylight could prove a different, more harmful message.

If you haven’t yet and the game appeals to you in the slightest, consider pledging. They need your support. Even if they don’t make goal this time around, your donation (which may won’t get collected if they don’t hit 2M) could ensure the game comes back for round two.

And hey, if you listen to the show and like it, please drop us a line on the page or leave a review. We’re coming onto the iTunes feed after it’s been live for a few years, so your reviews will honestly help us get the word out.

Defiance: The PC MMO Totally Unprepared for PC!

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I suppose it’s about time I share some of my thoughts on the latest entry to our MMO library, Defiance. My enthusiasm for this game has ebbed and flowed during the PR cycle but never much broke lukewarm. To be honest, I felt like an outlier. When most of the internet seemed to join in a collective squee over the prospect of a combined MMO and TV show, I was busy standing on the sidelines contemplating just how prone to failure the whole thing was.

Don’t get me wrong, I realized that it could be cool, but let’s be frank: SyFy is the network that brought us Camel Spiders; they don’t exactly have a nose for quality. So Trion’s big follow up to one of my favorite games of all time, RIFT, would be an unproven entry into a incredibly difficult to break into genre and tied to a TV show that likely be cancelled by its third season? Not optimistic, despite my penchant for finding the positive in things.

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Optimism for Core Gameplay. It’s Greeeeeeat!

Now that I’ve gotten my hands on the game and spent around five hours with it, I feel confident in sharing that I am both optimistic and extremely disappointed.

Let’s start with why I’m optimistic. The gun game is wonderful. I’ve been rolling around with sniper and assault rifles to clear out packs from a distance and then close in to finish the job. Lag is mostly a non-issue. Any time I’ve lined up a headshot it hits for critical damage. When it doesn’t it’s because the mutant was moving. Guns come in all flavors with a wide range of stats, much like Borderlands. You can also chain together kills for extra damage and see the effect of weapon modifiers (fire, electricity, etc) on enemies.

You spend the bulk of your time shooting or pressing “E” over things, so the gun play has got to feel tight. It does. I turned on the damage indicators, which really should be on by default but aren’t, and it’s deliciously satisfying to see the numbers fall off like rain.

And that right there is it: the reason for great optimism. Gun play is the core of the game and it’s a blast (no pun intended). It also helps that I’ve found the world a really interesting place to run around in, what with its terraformed landscapes and giant, lantern-holding mushrooms and all. The story quests pretty interesting too, but that may be a result of pretty much everything being a mystery. I’m actually looking forward to the show revealing more about the game world and big story events, though not having main points explained up front is as confusing as it comes.

I would also like to disagree with a fellow blogger I enjoy reading. In his post, he mentions that Defiance and RIFT are cut from the same cloth and that players who don’t like RIFT aren’t likely to enjoy Defiance either. Now, maybe I’m missing something, but apart from the dynamic events, the two games are nothing alike. RIFT has rifts, and Defiance has Arkfalls which, indeed, are very similar. But apart from this piece of shared tech, the games are nothing alike. Their gameplay styles are so vastly different that it would be like comparing World of Warcraft to Borderlands 2. I just don’t see that.

Even if you hated RIFT, it’s hard to argue that random, rewarding, and optional bits of cooperative content are a bad idea. Defiance puts its own, shooter-friendly spin on them, so I content that even if you hated RIFT, that doesn’t mean Defiance is a lost cause.

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Disappointments, Bugs, and Total Freaking Cluelessness

Now to the disappointments. Where do I begin? Oh, I know: Trion should be absolutely ashamed to have pushed this thing to the PC market in its current state. Defiance holds the distinction of being the first MMO to launch simultaneously across platforms. It’s also the first MMO that feels like it was never intended for PC in the first place. Which isn’t to say the console versions are so great, but without seeing them, all I have is a buggy console port that feels like an afterthought. Feels like an afterthought + bug ridden = connected dots.

And it’s not even a good port. You have three customizable graphics options. Bloom, motion blur, shadows on/off. There is no screenshot button or way to hide/customize the UI. Menu navigation is obviously designed for a controller with the nuts and bolts settings being stuck in a radial menu, because you know how necessary those are with a mouse and keyboard. Trion doesn’t even deign to put patch notes in the updater like they do with RIFT. Why? Because console players don’t care and they are the intended audience. (Someday we’ll have to have a talk about why it’s a terrible idea to target console players first with cross-platform MMOs).

This is the company that gave us RIFT. There are no excuses for this slap-dash job. They should know better. And in fact, I’m betting they do but pushed the game out the door to preempt the TV show. Are we enjoying are cross-media yet?

So here’s the deal. In the time I played, the game crashed to desktop three times. Once was due to hitting escape to access the menu. Turns out those of us with 100Hz+ monitors can’t open the menus with the keyboard without a convoluted workaround (an issue since beta). Chat doesn’t work in most of the first zone. There is no quest log and they bug out often. On multiple separate occasions I had to move on or abandon them. More than once I interacted with an object only to have it not give me credit. Dropping missions is also pain and requires stumbling upon the option on your fullscreen map. Since you can only take one mission at a time, prepare for a hike to pick it up again after.

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There’s more. Cover is inconsistent and trips you up as often as saves your hide. The reticle doesn’t line up correctly when using it either. If you’re peeking out from behind cover with your crosshairs on an enemy but the tip of your gun isn’t completely outside the cover wall, you’ll miss. When using a controller, vehicles will sometimes despawn after you’ve left them, hopped back in and try to move. Dynamic events sometimes disappear midway through completing them. Keybinds don’t save consistently. Mobs seem to spawn erratically and based upon your location to their area.

It goes on. There’s no easy way to tell your level. What the hell is an EGO rating? Your self-worth as an Arkhunter? How do you level up skills? What do these stats mean? What, how, where?! Someone should turn that into a theme song for Defiance. Nothing is explained. No-thing. From systems and mechanics, to the entire reason California went to the mutants. And so long as chat is broken, good luck getting an answer. It’s really pretty terrible.

Quest design is also rote MMO fare and does indeed seem a little repetitive on the “locate and tag” front. The combat missions are fun, though, and I often found myself killing enemies just because I could while on my frequent searches.

Concluding Thoughts

At its core, Defiance is fun and I’ve enjoyed my time there, but it’s also an unfinished console port and an incredibly weak effort from a company we know can do better. That said, all those bugs could be patched out and what it does well is the single most important thing it needed to do well. After playing around in the world they’ve created, I’m also convinced that if the show is decent, it could mean very interesting things for the game. Evolving story arcs in this setting could be fantastic and solve a lot of the concerns people have with quests feeling repetitive. Do the weekly installment!

A note on quests. I’m becoming more and more convinced that professional reviewers, like those at IGN, just don’t understand MMOs. At the end of the day, almost all any MMO offers is a variation on killing and collecting things, with possibly a touch of crafting. It’s a limitation of modern design that, yes, we are slowly moving away from, but, no, isn’t a reason to tear apart a game. Guess what? Tomb Raider was about killing and collecting things. Bioshock Infinite is about killing and collecting things. WoW, GW2, TSW, RIFT, LotRO and every other AAA MMO is too. Defiance does hit too frequently on the “find and scan” mission types, but to use that as the primary criticism when there is so much more on hand just tells the world you went in biased against MMO gameplay.

Review: SimCity (2013)

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SimCity and I have had a sporadic relationship over the years. Before this latest iteration, I recall playing SimCity 3000 and, being 13 at the time, finding it too complex not be overwhelmed. Yet there was something there that fascinated me. Even earlier than that, I recall playing the first entry in the series on my NES and laughing maniacally as Bowser came through and stomped down all of my handiwork. I know now that what fascinated me was the creation, the simulation, of something I would never lay hands on in my real life. That same creationist quality is back in this year’s SimCity, evolving and pulsing with thoroughfare-based progression, and I’m finally old enough to sink into the strategy of it all. The result is a game which steals hours like it does Simoleans, and if you’re not careful, will keep you building long hours into the night.

Welcome the New Mayor!

For those of you afraid of Origin, let me take a moment to assuage your fears. Origin doesn’t intrude on gameplay but enhances it through an integrated friends list and messaging. The server issues you’ve heard about are largely gone and in the entire scope of this review I only experienced one issue: my server being full a day after the more servers were opened up. While we could argue the merits of online gameplay, EA and Maxis have made it clear that offline isn’t in the works, so we are best to take the game as it stands, which remains an accomplishment.

Gameplay follows the expected model but features a robust tutorial that introduces basic gameplay elements before allowing you to venture into un-paved ground. The learning doesn’t stop there, however. As you lay roads and explore the potential your region, advisors pop up offering suggestions and additional lessons to deepen the possibilities of your city. Since these come as a result of gameplay, expect to make some mistakes and, if you’re anything like me, to have your second city be much better planned than your first.

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Breaking Ground

When you begin, you will lay roads and zone for residential, commercial, or industrial development. Rather than having you place individual buildings like past games, construction happens automatically. I was taken back by this at first since I had hoped for a greater degree of business control, but it soon becomes apparent that SimCity wants to concern with its larger game over incidental planning.

Rather than worrying where you’ll place your fast food chain, you’ll be adjusting taxes, developing industry, guiding mass transit, and making sure your citizens have plenty of entertainment to keep them happy. You’ll be worried about clean air and water, sewage flow, and how to provide enough electricity to keep the lights on. You’ll also be managing city services like law enforcement and fire, and making sure that each evolves alongside your city. Care must also be taken to maintain a delicate balance between workers and jobs, bulldozing buildings when it inevitably goes awry, and praying a zombie outbreak doesn’t happen as the plates wobble perilously upon their rods.

The progression system is interesting if a bit slow, but also results in a drip-feed of rewards which keep you coming back for more. Buildings begin small, like any little town, but as the amount of residents increase and roads are expanded to accommodate greater traffic, they evolve into complexes and full-on high rises. Every action you take has a reaction. When it’s positive, you’re encouraged to keep on developing and open up the next build tier or answer growing zone demands. When it’s negative you risk driving residents away, such as placing a nuclear power plant in the middle of a residential district. (In my defense, it was temporary, but my sims didn’t seem to forgive me… this is what we do to keep the lights on, people).

SimCity-Region-View

Old Boys’ (and Girls’) Club

Just when you think things are done, another problem arises. SimCity is designed for inter-reliance. No one city can do it all and so multiplayer, or single-player region play, becomes an important evolution of the franchise. With regretfully smaller city limits than past games, each mayor will eventually hit a wall providing for their citizens wants and needs. Rather than bulldoze and rebuild, he can enter the global market and request resources from neighboring cities.

Multiplayer shines in this regard, because each city will only reach its highest potential when mayors consider the region rather than solely themselves. In other words, when multiplayer games are taken as shared undertakings rather than quiet, side-by-side mini-games, the potential explodes outwards. Entering into a multiplayer game with a surplus of industrial cities might drive a new player to develop their own with an emphasis on gambling. If another player comes in and sees a need for water services or fire coverage, they would be wise to place additional water towers and buy extra fire trucks. It is very much a give and take and forces the player to think larger than ever before.

This all ties into the new specialization system. Once a mayor has laid the groundwork, they can choose to differentiate their city in one of a number of ways. Each plot features natural resources, so one rich in coal might decide to specialize in coal mining. Another along the seashore might decide to become a tourist hot spot. Specializing a city adds to the strategic side of gameplay by opening up a number of new development options and objectives. It also reinforces cross-city play.

When cities within a region work together, they also unlock Great Works sites. These are massive undertakings requiring great amounts of money and resources for all involved. It’s delightfully rewarding to see your first work go up and know that it is one of the game’s great milestones. Building them also rewards the connected cities with development bonuses to tourism, education, and more, so it’s worthwhile to invest in their creation.

SimCity is also a visual and informational feast. You can zoom into street level or pan outwards to view a whole region. Changing the angle or zooming in provides a delightful cinematic motion blur. Buildings also construct in stages, so you’ll see them progress from the foundations, to scaffolds, to full buildings and then grow through their natural building progression as conditions allow. If you’re into data maps, the game also offers a number of overlays so you can see information flow by the building. Each Sim also has its own life and many will share their thoughts and concerns as cities progress giving a sense of life and activity fresh to the franchise.

Simcity-Traffic

Traffic Jam

While the game is a lot of fun, there are still a number issues that need to be addressed. Advancements have been made with the traffic system, but it’s still not perfect. Lots of bugs remain, both graphical and functional. To their credit, Maxis is doing a good job of addressing these, but some of them can have a profound impact on the game’s functionality. Certain buildings can stop working, city systems such as water and electricity can break down and not deliver correctly, and trading between cities is still iffy. That said, many of these will go un-noticed by all but the most attentive players. More noticeable is the inability to keep a city truly happy. While it may mimic real life and so be classified as part of the sim, it’s a bit disheartening to see a flurry of red faces when your response was to a previous flurry of red faces. Also, where is the undo button? This, to me, is one of the true downsides to the online functionality. It’s terribly frustrating to misplace an expensive structure and have to chalk it up to a loss because of a simple miss-click.

Final Thoughts

Overall, SimCity is still well worth the cost of entry. Before sitting down with it, the proverbial example of looking up to find three hours gone had been all but make believe to me. Here, however, it happened twice in a single week. The game has a way of drawing you in for “one more building” or “one more expansion,” while making you forget that each leads to the next, and the next, and the next. Is it perfect? No, that much should be clear after the last few week’s fallout. Thankfully a game doesn’t need to be perfect to be stellar. If you have a reliable internet connection and enjoy city builders, SimCity provides hours of entertainment both with friends and without.

Final Score: 8.5 out of 10
Pros: Deep, long lasting gameplay, great strategy, city inter-reliance
Cons: Bugs still need fixing, no undo button

My Return to Fallen Earth

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For my latest column at MMORPG, I made a return visit to Fallout Online Fallen Earth. It’s been over three years since I last checked in and a lot had changed, but even more remained the same. More specifically, all of the good parts — the crafting, shooting, exploring, humor, and stories — stayed in tact after the free-to-play conversion back in ’11. This was something I was worried about. The game didn’t seem to be doing too well and the freemium model was still finding its feet in a lot of ways. They could have destroyed the thing. I’m here to tell you, not only didn’t they destroy it, Fallen Earth is better today than it’s ever been.

For the life of me, I don’t know why more people aren’t playing this game. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot. I played at multiple hours each day over my two week window and there was always, always lots of people running around. I was Grand Canyon region, FE’s massive newbie zone, so I’m sure that had something to do with it, but chat was rolling, people were asking questions and getting help, and everyone seemed be having a pretty good time. One of the Game Masters was even in chat accepting duels from players. How cool is that?

What always made the game shine in my eyes was the combat, but I’ll admit, I wasn’t really looking forward to picking up the pea shooter I left off with. Something about getting headshots with paintball guns never sat right with me. What do you mean you’re bleeding? And no, you can quit faking dead right now. I gave you a welt, pal, so don’t pull this hemorrhage business on me.

Thankfully, GamersFirst threw that right out the window and give you a pistol right away. Ammo is also incredibly easy to make, so I never even came close to running out. That changed the game for me. When I used to play, it was stiffly-animated melee or crossbow all the way. Give me a high-powered slug thrower, why should I ever turn back? Most early players seemed to agree, because everyone, and I mean everyone, I ran across was going ballistics. They also seem to have done away with the “chance to miss” on headshots. Every time I lined up a shot, it did damage. That always drove me nuts last time.

The crafting game is really where it’s at, though. I lost so much time just going from node to node seeing what I could find and then piecing it all back together into something I could use. Everyone out there who complains that crafting should mean something, that it needs to be done right, needs to look to Fallen Earth. FE does crafting right. Not only is there a real-time queue, but with item wear and progressively improving recipes, you could play the whole game as a crafter, always be in demand, and be creating some of the best and coolest gear in the game. Especially vehicles. The only downside I see to this is that you still have to level up to gain AP and increase your skills. No combat-less play here.

But frankly, I don’t care. Fallen Earth has the MMORPG genre’s best take on on first-person-shooting out there. Melee not so much. Darkfall takes that award. Mimicking Fallout? Hands down.

And the cash shop can be wholly and completely ignored. I honestly don’t know how they’re making money. You are somewhat gimped playing free, but to be honest, I never once ran into a limitation. The slower crafting times are negligible for low level stuff and, really, I don’t think that much matters anyway. The whole game is open to you without paying a dime the entire way through. That’s pretty awesome, if you ask me. It also makes me feel a lot better about tossing down a few bucks when I do want a little booster.

Fallen Earth remains a diamond in the rough. If that same game released today, it wouldn’t be struggling right now. It would be met with high acclaim because it does so much of what people are asking for. I firmly think it was ahead of its time. People still wanted WoW-likes back then. Now, FE just fades into the background as one of the best games you’re not playing. So… go play it! ;-)

Worried About Wildstar’s Combat

Like many of you, I’ve been watching Wildstar for a while with eager anticipation. There’s something about that little title, maybe its sense of quirkiness, that has me intrigued. And action combat. We can’t forget that, especially since it’s my single biggest concern for the game right now.

Not the actual mechanics of combat, mind you. I’m actually enthused at the many-varied telegraphs for movement, even if it will kill communication during fights. But hey, that’s nothing new. What I’m more concerned about is the sense of impact when you actually hit things. It’s important, especially since a lot of people seem keen on comparing the game to TERA. You can say what you want about that game, what with its full fledged boob physics, but it’s become the gold standard for MMO action combat. It’s fun, satisfying, and game-making.

Back to Wildstar, I’ve watched a herd of the available gameplay videos and a disturbing number of combat encounters lack any sense of impact whatsoever. You can do a flippity-floppity sword swoosh all day long, but if the enemy doesn’t react, it’s a failure. I submit the following hypothesis: action combat without a sense of impact lacks satisfaction. It also begs the question of why bother. A sense of impact is important, right up there with maneuvers blending together into a tight orchestra of destruction. That’s why games like God of War succeed. Tight combat with every element working together in unison so you can feel the battle.

This may be totally wrong. Maybe I just haven’t watched the right videos or all of the animations aren’t in yet. That would be reasonable at this phase in development. Still, I hope they don’t go forward with the Warcraft style of hits that feel like misses. Considering how advanced their other systems are it would be a terrible oversight. And Wildstar systems with TERA-level combat? That would make for one heck of a game.

Updates and Upcomings; SimCity Owners: Grab Your Free Game From EA

I apologize for the recent quiet, readers, but it’s for good reasons, I promise. Most prominently is that I’ve been kicking up my writing across the internet. You can find more from me at Hooked Gamers, Vagary.TV, and most recently MMORPG.com than ever before. My grad work also wants more from me than ever before, as does my family and good will efforts, so balancing time for games and blogging has been a challenge. I’m not content to let things sit over here, though, so I have a couple of things in the works. Here’s what’s coming.

More, shorter posts: One of the more difficult things to manage is the sheer bulk of words I’m responsible for. On any given day, I’m writing anywhere from 1000-3000 words and sometimes much more. I still follow bloggers and journalists like a hawk and have things I want to comment on, so my plan going forward is to provide more frequent, shorter posts. I’ve aimed at this in the past, and we’ll have to see how it turns out, but that is my ultimate goal.

Bridging the site-gap: Most of you that continue to stop by here do so because you enjoy my writing and I thank you for that. Rather than ask you to add multiple sites to your readers, I plan to provide more frequent link posts pointing you towards my most recent work. It’s all video game related, with the exception of my weekly reviews of The Following, so it should be right up your alley. I would also like to start sharing my thoughts as I travel through new games for my Tourist column. This week is Fallen Earth, so I should have something so say about that shortly. Still a great game, by the way.

Independent Game Reviews: This is a personal project of mine and one of the key ways I would like to evolve the site. I review for different sites but not so much my own. I suppose I always figured that I needed an association to develop relationships in the industry but I don’t think that’s the case so much. I started this with Persona 4 Golden and I plan to continue it with SimCity next week.

On that note, those of you who have already purchase SimCity should stop by EA/Origin and claim your free game. The issues of last week were no doubt strenuous, so take some solace in a free copy of Mass Effect 3 or Dead Space 3. Both are a great bang for your buck, I promise you. A full list of games and instructions on how to claim yours can be found here.

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