Reading is Fun

It is summer, or close enough.  Schools are out.  In some places it just gets too hot to do much of anything.  All good reasons to pick up a book.

Personally, I love reading.  I may not do it as much as I’d like, but I also love video games, TV, movies and a bunch of other things.  Even still, I read at least a chapter a day of whatever book I’m currently working on.  For me, the best part of reading is letting my imagination fill in the blanks, to build the world in full that the author outlines.

Heading off to college in the fall?  Or perhaps you are sending a kid off instead?  The National Association of Scholars recently put out a report analyzing 290 summer reading programs for incoming freshmen.  The links to the report and the list of books from the programs are here.

Of course, those books aren’t for everyone.  Most of them are about broadening the world view of incoming students, and few of them are books many people would pick for fun.  I’ve only read two, maybe three, books on that list.  On the other hand, Amazon has put together their summer reading page which includes lots more popular fare.

For me, I’m reading Boneshaker now and then I’ve got a pile of books, most of them you can find in my library here on the site.  And I’m always open to more.  So, what are you reading this summer?

The RPG for the MMO

Dig through enough of my posts here and you’ll find a few about managing expectations.  It is, in my opinion, one of the fundamental elements of success that most people simply ignore, usually while their marketing team is lying to them.  You have to ensure your audience is approaching your product expecting the product you are actually delivering.  In order words: avoid misleading or overselling.

The people at BioWare are poised to bring us a new MMORPG at some point… probably 2012.  Which means we will all get to play it for a couple months before the world ends.  Or maybe Star Wars: The Old Republic is the apocalypse that destroys the World (of Warcraft) prophesied by the Mayans.  That’s all speculation, and I’ll never call any game a WoW-killer, but BioWare, or at least some people from there, has no problem going around talking about how awesome their game is going to be.

Last week, we got this:

BioWare designer and writing director Daniel Erickson told CVG that the Mass Effect studio had been disappointed by the “lack of fun” in other MMO titles on the market.

He said: “In the early days when they first announced that there were MMOs, like the existence of them, I knew in my head what that meant – because I played Role Playing Games. It was just giant Role Playing Games.

“And then MMO [games] showed up, and it wasn’t that. It was the ruleset to an RPG: There was combat, and there were areas, but that was all. Someone had left out the module. There was no story, there was no point. You just kind of wandered around. And that hasn’t really changed all that much over the years.

“We’ve always had that thought in the back of our heads: That Old Republic should be all the things we thought an MMO would be in the first place – which is all the parts of an RPG. Which means – and this is the most radical idea – it should just be fun. Like, just fun to play. You shouldn’t be trying to ignore all of the content to get to the end as fast as possible.”

And there was much responding and on-topic posting: Tobold, Zubon, Darren, Jaye, Tuebit, Syncane, and more.

To me, the thing to watch here is the lead.  BioWare is out there telling everyone that their game is going to be totally story driven, non-grind based and essentially the complete opposite of the bulk of the content that exists in most games.  Will they be able to deliver?  Will people want it if they do?

Personally, I’m both excited and wary of what they have to say.  I want more story, I want things to matter… but I don’t want to be isolated from the world in a directed story, I don’t want to play a single player game with multi-player features tossed in (and especially not for a monthly fee).  At this point, BioWare has shown me some things and they’ve told me some things, but I haven’t actually seen the game unfiltered through marketing yet.  They haven’t yet shown me the answer to “How does it feel to play?”

I’m keeping my eye on them, but I’m tempted to just ignore them until they get much much closer to release.


In MMOs, faster, easier leveling is a poor substitute for engaging leveling.  The goal should be to make your game always fun to play, not fun to play through once and then help people speed past or skip the “boring parts” on future runs through.

Left 4 Dead

I am a little late to the party.  Left 4 Dead released back on November 17th, 2008, and I remember, months before, vowing that I would buy it on that day.  Considering that that day marked one full month of being unemployed, I didn’t buy it.  Most people I know who own Xbox 360’s did, and I got to listen to a lot of talk about how cool the game was.

The Tuesday before Christmas, a friend of mine gifted me with Left 4 Dead.

Quite simply, this is probably the most fun game I own for the 360.  Playing alone is often tense and thrilling.  Playing with others is frantic and heart pounding.

I think one of the most innovative parts of this game is the scenario design.  Rather than try to build one whole coherent story encompassing the entire disc, each scenario, of which there are 4 included with the game, is a separate story of its own.  In the first scenario, your group of survivors start on a roof top and you can see the hospital in the distance… so your plan is to cross the city to the hospital, which has a helipad, and call for help.  The second scenario you start out on a road heading to one town you think might be safe, and since it sits on the water you might be able to find a boat and escape.  Scenario three, your band of intrepid zombie fighters are making for the airport, looking for a plane ride out of here.  And in scenario four, you are just trying to get the hell out, but wind up at a farm house with a radio that allows you to call in the Army to your location for a rescue.  Every level of every scenario has multiple paths to the end, and playing through is an organic experience.  While in many games repeating a level gets easier unless you force up the difficulty level, with random spawns and some randomization on supplies and the dynamic AI (The Director), even playing through the same level on the easiest level of difficulty is fun time and time again.

The reason I think this scenario design is so innovative is that is sets a precedent, it manages expectations, so that in the future Valve can release new scenarios, and it doesn’t need to be a continuation of the story, or just a pack of multi-player maps, but they can drop a new mini story of a handful of levels, creating another separate game experience, without changing any of the existing game but also not feeling it is outside of the existing game.

I look forward to the downloaded content for this game.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

12 out of 13 nots
for thrilling family fun and 3D awesomeness

Nearly two months ago I was lucky enough to be able to go to an early screening of Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Rather than just simply retelling the Jules Verne novel in the present day, this movie takes the approach of “What if the character in the book had been real, had gone to the center of the Earth, returned, and told his tale to Jules Verne?”  So you wind up with a scientist (Brendan Fraser) whose brother vanished ten years ago while doing research on seismic activity, and now the same seismic pattern is appearing again, so he goes off in search of answers, with nephew in tow.

This movie is pure action adventure family fun.  And I highly recommend it to people with kids… and even people without kids.  Even as an adult I certainly was never bored.

One of the best things about this film, however, is that it is in 3D.  And it is not the old red/green blurry 3D.  This is the new digital 3D like you may have seen in last year’s Beowulf or the 3D version of The Nightmare Before Christmas or to some of the IMAX nature films.  Filmed with a pair of digital cameras that approximate the distance between your eyes, without the special glasses you’ll see two images nearly overlapping, but with the glasses on you’ll see the action almost literally jump off the screen.  And to top it off, the movie only blatantly abuses the 3D angle a few times at the beginning with shoving a couple of things toward the audience for thrills and laughs.  After that, you just feel like you are watching an enhanced film where many scenes just feel more real than you are used to.

Definitely, if you are going to see the movie, try your hardest to see it in a theater that is showing the 3D version.  It is worth it.  I just hope more movies get made in 3D, because it was a blast.

A Car for the Zombie Apocalypse

One of the central preoccupations of my life is ensuring that I am prepared should the dead rise from the grave.

Okay, not really, but it is fun to pretend sometimes…

In any event, when I saw the products from Gibbs Technologies, I couldn’t help but think that they might come in handy should the improbable happen.  Especially the Humdinga.  Going from 4 Wheel Drive to gliding across the water is sure to safer than driving around looking for a bridge to cross the river the undead have chased you toward.

Now if they could just make it a hybrid capable of running on full electric, full gas, or any combination thereof, I’d be set.


11 out of 13 nots.
for Card Counting fun and the best recent use of old Cowboy Curtis 

A couple years ago while watching yet another poker tournament on Bravo or some other channel, they ran a TV special about other card games, and their coverage included Vegas security and mentioned a book called Bringing Down the House.  Surprisingly, I’d actually heard of the book before and even snippets and summaries of the story it contained, but that special was enough for my wife to decide she wanted to read it.  She got the book (for Christmas or her birthday, I forget which) and she read it… then I read it.  I loved it, and at the time I recall thinking to myself, “Somebody should make a movie out of this!”

Well, they did.  It’s called 21 and it comes out tomorrow.  I managed to see a screening of it a few weeks ago, and I have to say that they captured the book pretty well.  Not exactly, of course, but the spirit of a team of people using a card counting scheme to win money in Vegas.

The movie had good performances all around, though I especially enjoyed Laurence Fishburne as the casino security man trying to catch the people “stealing” the casino’s money.

Completely 100% worth the price of admission.

Hey You!

Yeah… you, the guy who just quit out of our Burnout Paradise Freeburn.  Look, I know you want to get all 350 of the Freeburn Challenges completed, we all do, but some of us don’t quit just because the guy in charge picked a challenge we’ve done before.  Hang around and chat and have some fun instead of being the assbag everyone is now calling you because you quit.

You do realize that we talk about you when you leave, right?

Yeah, and some of us even rate you poorly on Xbox Live.  Ever wondered why your carefully crafted star rating is suddenly plummeting?  Yeah, that’d be us.

If we confronted you, you might try some excuse like, “I had to take a break from gaming” but we know you’d be lying, because, Xbox Live lets you see all the people you’ve recently played with on your friends list, so we can see that you dropped our game, without a word I might add, and hopped in to another game, because the list shows that not only are you playing Burnout Paradise still, but you are Freeburning (and it even gives us an option to join the session you are in, not that we would, because you are probably just going to leave again).

So, next time, how about not being a cock and sticking around to play.  You might even try asking the host to pick particular challenges.  You never know, he might listen.

The guys at DICE get it

While my wife may lament the exclusion of female character models in the upcoming Battlefield Heroes, I can’t wait to give it a shot.  This video trailer for the game just shows me that the guys at DICE really do get it.  To have a great game you don’t need gritty realism with guts spraying the walls with every gunshot, you just need to have a game that is fun.

Damn that looks like fun.

The Pick-Up Group Dilemma

One of the banes of MMOs would appear to be, from scanning forums all over, the Pick-Up Group. More commonly known as a PUG, these are the random people you end up grouping with trying to accomplish goals in the MMO of your choice.

World of Warcraft has had the biggest impact of group expectations that I have seen due simply to the fact that when it comes to grinding experience points and other general gameplay every player can always say “Screw you guys, I’m going to go solo.” The only situations where that really isn’t true is most instances and raids. As a result, because every player has the viable option of soloing, they put up with less, but they also don’t try as hard.

Back in the age old days of EverQuest, where grouping was practically required because only certain classes could solo well and even then not everyone could do it (it made me weep sometimes to watch druids repeatedly screw up kiting), a player just couldn’t tell everyone to go away and run off by himself. You had to make the group work, or you had to find another group.

The good side of that is that the community on an EQ server was, in my opinion, much tighter than your typical WoW server. Forced grouping compounded with non-trivial travel and no rest bonuses for exp meant players tended to stick in one area for long periods and group with the same people again and again. Doing my tenure in Velketor’s knowing people meant that they understood I was a monk, a monk who knew how to pull, and capable of joining a group pretty much anywhere. When I went to look for a group in zone, it rarely took long at all for someone I’d previously grouped with to see me, invite me, and the fun would begin.

The bad side is that sometimes it was necessary to yell at people (or rather, to type at them furious in all CAPS). If you put together a full group at the front of Karnor’s Castle, proceeded inside to set up camp, and only then discovered that your bard was a spastic mental case, you might be forced to just suck it up and deal with him because even though he was crappy at his job, a crappy crowd control class was often better than no crowd control class. However, given that the spastic bard needed the group almost as much as you needed the bard, compromises would be met, adjustments to play style made, and the exp would again begin to flow.

City of Heroes is an example of a game that has tried to make the solo and group experiences equally fun. Almost any mission in the game can be done alone, but if you bring along five or six friends the mission will scale upward in a fairly predictable fashion. But, since the game goes largely without item drops and other things some MMOs depends on, CoH is actually able to provide a weird dichotomy between the two: solo play is much much more reliable for progression, you know your own class and you can go at your own pace; in a group, classes mesh together to provide new strategies but due to the size of the scaling encounters are usually more chaotic and “exciting”, providing a different rush than solo play. In both cases, you can flag your character or group to adjust the difficulty up or down to fine tune your experience.

Overall though, despite all the frustration bad groups gave me in EQ, I’d still prefer them to the eternally disbanding groups of WoW. CoH was a nice middle ground but might not mesh well with the item-centric design of other games.

What do you think about Pick-Up Groups?