For Your Consideration

I have held, and will always hold, that it is the little things that matter most.  You can have two items, two stories, that are in large strokes exactly the same, but it is the little details that end up endearing one to a generation while the other winds up mostly forgotten, completely independent of its success.  The endearing tale could be one that hardly makes anyone any money but it a cult favorite for decades, and the “forgotten” one could make millions in the short-term and in a few years people barely remember that it existed.

Almost every MMO these days uses some form of the color con system.  Red often means that it is going to be hard or impossible to beat, some form of grey or green often indicates an easy kill, with shades of blue, yellow and more in between to let you know your chances if you decide to fight it.  And yet, beyond the color or number or whatever other indicator they use, there is nothing more. We are, at this point, expected to know what that means.

A giant diseased rat scowls at you, ready to attack. What would you like your tombstone to say?

Sometimes, however, I think we’ve lost something by moving entirely to numbers and UI indicators.  EverQuest added flavor to the consideration system by spelling it our for you, giving you your faction relationship and a difficulty assessment all in one quick message.  But the most important part of it was that while some information might be readily available in your targeting window, you had to actually /con the target to get the message.  It lent just a little push toward the RP in MMORPG, that your character, that you, had to stop and look the target over, reading his demeanor and body language, that your character was a hero who kept abreast of clan markings and signs of madness, that the hero you controlled, that you embodied, would be able to look at a monster and say, “Not only does that thing probably hate my guts, I’m pretty sure he’ll beat the crap out of me too.”

To me, it’s the words that made that happen, and it is the lack of words, the purely UI based blinkies and numbers that make my brain flip immediately to math and calculations and I wind up saying, “The level disparity will reduce my effectiveness to the point that I don’t believe my DPS is enough to bring his hit points to zero before he does to mine.”

It’s just one more things that brings me again to my conclusion that I seem to be out of sorts with so many MMOs because they’ve reduced themselves to being just games instead of being more than games.


I know that I am guilty of driving past a stranded motorist on the side of the road.  In the age of ubiquitous cell phones, I can almost safely assume that a person sitting out of traffic has called a friend or AAA or a towing service, or in the Atlanta area on the highways that a HERO vehicle will be along shortly.  I consider this to be acceptable.  Especially in the middle of the day, off the side of the road, this person is very likely to be okay.

However, when a car is stalled and is blocking traffic, I usually pull up and ask if they need help.  Most of the time they say no, whether because they don’t need help or because the bald goatee’d strange guy is asking I don’t know, but at least I’ve asked.  Occasionally, people even say yes, and I help them.  Not often, because the truth is that it is fairly rare for a car to actually die completely in traffic and not be able to get off the road.  I’ve had cars die a few times, but in almost every case I was able to limp them off the road.

Yesterday, the wife’s car died while waiting at a stop light.  She called me, I told her to call the service station we use and have them send a truck, and then I packed up my stuff and left work to go help.  In the time it took me to get there, more than 20 minutes, many cars had gone by her honking and yelling.  One guy did help her slightly, and pushed her car forward enough that people could get around her easier, but didn’t help her get out of the road.  After I got there, I witnessed a large number of people continue to honk and yell and drive around.  I tried to move the car myself, but it was slightly uphill and I wasn’t going anywhere.  Then a guy in a truck towing a trailer asked if we needed help.  I said yes, he actually drove to a nearby gas station, parked, and ran back over to help.  The two of us pushed the car through the intersection and into a turn lane out of traffic.

For well over a half hour, the wife sat in traffic as people honked and yelled, complaining and upset at the jam her dead car was causing.  Out of all of those people, only two bothered to help.  I find this indicative of most people in general.  They would rather sit and complain about something being crappy rather than to actually take action to try to make it less crappy.  So many people would rather be the victim than the hero if being the hero means they have to actually do something.

Dead Rising 2 – Case: 0

Dead Rising 2 drops next week and I’m really looking forward to it.  Three weeks or so ago, the Xbox 360 got a nice little exclusive prequel called Case 0.  If you are familiar with the original Dead Rising, you’ll remember that the story unfolds as a series of cases, unlocking each successive chapter as you complete the one you are in.  This tightly made bonus for the 360 seems to fit in nicely, giving the new hero, Chuck Greene, a path to Las Vegas, the setting of the upcoming DR2.

The one thing I enjoy most about the Dead Rising series is the stark contrast it has with the Left 4 Dead series.  L4D is clearly a high octane shooter.  Sure, you occasionally try to silently tiptoe past a witch, but most of the zombies in that world are charging at you at full speed.  Running is rarely an option, you have to fight to live.  The DR games, on the other hand, are populated with shamblers, zombies that shuffle their feet, walk, and sometimes even *gasp* walk fast!  Running is almost always an option.  This leads to Dead Rising playing more like an RPG, especially given its levels and character development.

Back to Case 0… I bought it last week and I’ve been fooling around in the little road block town of the game and it has me really excited to play the full blown DR2 when it releases, and at the same time it also doesn’t just feel like a teaser.  It feels like a complete game on its own, probably the best $5 I’ve ever spent in the marketplace.  And with the announcement of Case West coming to the 360 sometime after DR2’s launch, I imagine that’ll be a well spent $5 too.  If only all games in the Xbox Live Arcade could be this good.  Hell, if Capcom decided to just release a new mini game as good as Case 0 set in the Dead Rising universe every month, I’d be thrilled.

Anyway… if you liked the original Dead Rising and you still have a 360, I highly recommend Case 0.

The clothes make the hero.

Lord of the Rings OnlineArguably, the title is true for most MMOs since they are all pretty heavily gear/item based.  But what I’m talking about here is just the look of your character in game.  Over two years ago I wrote a post trying to find drawbacks in implementing a system that divorced form from function.  And just four months ago, I made another post on appearance items.  Now, thanks to Melmoth over at KiaSA, I’ve learned that Lord of the Rings Online is implementing a Wardrobe System.

What’s really interesting here is that they even went a step farther with their design than I imagined anyone would.  First, putting an item in the wardrobe will copy the name and look (no stats) and then you can sell, give away or even destroy the original item.  Let me say that again, if you like the look of an item but don’t care for it for any other reason, you can copy it to the wardrobe and then get rid of it.  Second, with some restrictions, your wardrobe is available to all the characters on your account on the same server.  Got an awesome looking hat that you want to wear on all your alts but it requires doing a high level quest and having certain reputation?  No problem!  Just put it in the wardrobe and all your alts can wear it!

This is one of those features that every MMO from here on out needs to copy.  The days of mismatched, ugly but good gear or self gimping with weak gear to look good should be over now.  As Melmoth says, no excuses any more.

Murder of the First

Text MUDs really didn’t have much of a perspective because they didn’t have a camera.  You entered a room and were given a description of the room.  Anyone in the same room was “within reach” and to get out of reach you left the room.  Once games went graphical, the camera became a part of the game.  On one side you have Ultima Online which followed the Ultima top-down isometric, decidedly 3rd person.  On the other side you had EverQuest which owed its perspective to Doom and Quake and other 1st person shooters.  Later on, EQ would free up the camera so that people could play in 3rd person, but the game was designed such that you didn’t really gain much from it (unless you were pulling, in which case you could use the 3rd person camera to look around corners and behind other obstacles).  As MMOs have moved on, pretty much all of them have opted for the more tactical 3rd person view.  Pulled back, staring at the back of your character, giving you an almost omniscient view of the world.  It is very popular, in large part I suspect because it makes the game easier.  When you can see around yourself in 360 degrees so that nothing can surprise you, life is more… predictable.

While playing the Star Trek Online open beta, I found myself really enjoying the space combat.  The ground game was pretty much your typical bland MMO, like WoW or City of Heroes.  In fact, it is almost identical to Pirates of the Burning Sea.  But the space combat (much like the sea combat of PotBS) felt more much… alive.  Even though it was pretty awesome, it still felt like something was missing, and it wasn’t until a friendly discussion and an offhand comment that I put my finger on it.  A friend said, “I wish you could fight from the bridge.”  And I light went on in my brain.

What is missing from Star Trek Online, and was missing from PotBS, was a more 1st person view of the game.  STO’s space combat would be incredible if you played from the bridge, had to set the view screen, keep an eye on tactical items like scanners.

In my discussions with other folks about 1st vs 3rd person view, many of them cited PvP as being a reason for 3rd person.  You need to be able to see if someone is stalking up behind your guy.  And that discussion caused another light to go on.  In EQ, when I played primarily in 1st person, I was my character.  I was Ishiro Takagi, monk of Qeynos.  When I played WoW, where 3rd person is the default, I was controlling my character.  I was Jason, sitting at a computer controlling the actions of Ishiro, Alliance priest.  Possibly owing to its roots in RTS games, WoW plays like a giant RTS where you only get one unit.  The immersion is gone.

Stepping outside MMOs, in recent years I’ve been playing more console games.  Back in the day, before I discovered MMOs, I played a ton of 1st person shooters.  Before I started spending hours camping spawns in EverQuest, I was spending hours racing for flags and battling for control points in Team Fortress for Quake.  In the last couple of years, games like Gears of War, which everyone else seems to go nuts for, just leave me feeling empty, largely because the viewpoint of the game is watching over the shoulder of a guy, not being the guy.  I loved Dead Space, but there was a distance from the character, even though the integration of the UI into the game helped I still wasn’t in the head of the hero.  On the other hand, Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 are just so awesome.  No longer am I looking at the back of the hero, controlling him, I am the hero fighting my way through the hordes of the dead.

This is what is missing.  This is what makes it so easy to casually cancel my MMO subscriptions and never come back.  I never feel like I am in the game, just that I’m playing it.  Sure, I could play many of the games out there in 1st person, but they aren’t designed for 1st person, they are designed for 3rd and playing in 1st puts me at a disadvantage to every other player.  I hope more games consider locking in and designing for 1st person in the future.

What do you think?

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible is an interesting read.  It is a story set in a world where superheroes exist, but the two points of view you are given are that of an evil genius super villain and a female cyborg fledgling hero.  The story begins with our villain escaping from prison where he had been incarcerated after his twelfth attempt to take over the world.  You get to see behind the veil most comic books keep in place as Doctor Impossible tries to contact old allies and track down supplies and avoid detection while he pieces together his latest scheme.  On the other side, the cyborg, Fatale, has been invited to join the reformation of The Champions, a superhero team that broke up years ago, whose main priority is locating a missing hero, CoreFire – who also happens to be Doctor Impossible’s nemesis.

I found myself excited and entertained throughout the book.  I was amused quite often by the situations and interactions.  Dragging comic books closer to reality isn’t something new, but the humorous touch in this book makes it well worth the read.  I’d recommend it to just about anyone.

Watching the Watchers of Watchmen

Have you seen Watchmen yet?  No?  Is the reason that you read some reviews and decided against it based on all the negative things they said?

One thing I have always talked about in my life is managing expectations.  Many times when people don’t like a movie or book or some other form of entertainment or experience, the blame can be laid at the fact they went in to it expecting it to be monumental and moving, “the best ever”.  With lofty expectations like that, rarely do those movies or books or whatever actually live up to them.  So, let’s take a couple paragraphs and talk about how you can review the reviews in order to distill what you need to know before deciding if you want to see Watchmen before you let someone else’s opinion get you to dismiss it out of hand.

If the review you read spent more than half of its words pointing out the flaws of the adaptation from the book to the movie, you might be able to completely ignore them.  First, did you read the book?  If not, then why do you care where the movie failed to convey the exact same message as the book?  You aren’t reading the book, you are going to see the movie.  The only thing that matters is if the movie is self consistant and works as a movie.  If you did read the book, are you expecting a shot-for-frame transfer of the book from page to screen, or are you looking for an adaptation?  Adaptation, by definition, means change.  Books are hundreds of pages long.  Movie scripts tend to translate as 1 page of script is equal to 1 minute of film.  Watchmen, as a comic, is over 400 pages long.  And while Watchmen the movie is nearly 3 hours long, 3 hours is only about 180 pages.  The movie would need to be around 7 hours long to faithfully translate the book to the screen.  So, when you go to see the movie, expect changes.  To be honest, it is best to approach Watchmen the movie as being “inspired by” the book.  If you love the book so much that you can’t possibly accept any changes made during its translation between mediums, then you probably should avoid the movie.

If the review you read spent a lot of time comparing Watchmen to Iron Man and Spider-man and other comic book films, it shows that the reviewer entered the theater with the wrong expectations.  Watchmen is not, and never has been, a story about spandex super heroes saving the day.  When Alan Moore wrote the book, his intention was to take all the current super hero elements, put them in a “real world” type scenario and turn them of their ear.  Its horribly violent, the characters are spectacularly flawed, the world is a cynical depiction of the worst aspects of humanity.  All of those things are what made the story so great and so shocking back when it first appeared.  Twenty years have passed, and elements of Moore’s grim and gritty vision of super heroes have rubbed off in all corners of the genre, but his vision is still much more bleak than just about everything that has come since.  Spider-man accidentally let his Uncle Ben die, and his life is spent trying to make up for that mistake.  Tony Stark built weapons that killed people, and as Iron Man he’s trying to undo the damage he has done.  These characters have flaws, but they are nothing compared to the Comedian or Rorschach from Watchmen.  Most comic books have characters who are driven by their one (or two or three) flaws to be better people and do good.  Watchmen is mostly about people who are a bundle of flaws who are driven by their one (or two or three) redeeming qualities to try to make the world a better place.  If you want to see a movie like Spider-man or Iron Man, don’t go see Watchmen.  It is just not that kind of film.

Also, the movie is more dramatic than action driven, so if you get bored when people stop fighting and start talking, Watchmen probably isn’t the movie for you.  Watchmen is more of a thriller or mystery than an action film, much like the book.  The story begins with the death of a former hero, the Comedian, and it follows from there as Rorschach tries to find out why someone would do it.  This isn’t the formation of a super hero team riding out to save the world… this is the remains of a dilapidated hero team who have been told we don’t want them to save the world anymore.

It may sound like I’m apologizing for the film.  People often mistake my “managing expectations” talk for that.  I just hate it when people say that anything categorically and globally failed just because it didn’t meet their personal expectations.  When I go to buy things from Amazon, I always read the negative reviews first, because someone pointing out their expectations and the failure of a product to meet those expectations gives me far more information about how I might react to the product than someone gushing about how awesome it is.  From reading the negative reviews of Watchmen, I determined that it wasn’t exactly the book, and it wasn’t a typical spandex super hero movie, and those two facts are all I need to frame my expectations before walking into the darkened theater.

In my opinion, and from my point of view, Watchmen the movie perfectly captures the tone and spirit of the book, even if it has to deviate in order to make a watchable running time.  It isn’t the best film ever made, but it is far far far from the worst.  And in the end, I enjoyed it quit a bit.

Iron Man

12 out of 13 nots
for fantastic heavy metal, both suit and soundtrack

This is how you do a comic book super hero movie.  The guys who made the Fantastic Four should be forced to watch this and maybe they’ll understand why their movie was crap.  Normally when a character from comics is brought to the screen, the first thing they want to do is tell you the origin of the character.  However, most writers/directors don’t seem to quite understand that you don’t have to start at the beginning and tell a linear story.  The audience, quite contrary to popular belief, is not stupid.  They may gravitate to more visceral experiences of things blowing up than the more cerebral dramas, but just because they enjoy simply uncomplicated pleasures it does not make them mentally deficient.  The Fantastic Four and Hulk movies dragged because rather than jump into a very interesting story and fill you in on the origin as they went, they decided to start at the beginning, which has little action and is a snooze-fest.  Daredevil, while suffering from other problems (mostly, in my opinion, a miscasting of Bullseye and Kingpin), at least the pace of the film works well.  With Iron Man they did decide to tell you the origin, but at least they were smart enough to weave the story of the film in with the origin such that they are not explicitly telling you the origin of Iron Man but instead telling you a story about Tony Stark during which Iron Man comes into being.  It is a subtle yet very important distinction.

Anyway, I’m not going to go into details of the film because it was awesome and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.  However, I do want to touch on the soundtrack, mainly because it too was awesome.  The use of rock music in the film was superb, and the song choices were excellent.  I was surprised pleasantly throughout the film as songs popped up and properly set the mood for the scenes, and even more surprised that they actually held off using Black Sabbath’s Iron Man until the end credits, because, frankly, using it anywhere else in the film would be like hitting you over the head with a hammer.

Fans of Iron Man should be pleased with the film as they did sprinkle enough “nerd knowledge” throughout to make the comic book geek in me smile without drowning me in comic references.

Fun, fast and fantastic, Iron Man gets a well deserved 12 out of 13 here… I’d have given in 13, but I do try to hold off perfect scores for stuff that is truly life alteringly spectacular.

The Unfortunate Truth of Success

Last week, Blizzard announced that they are working on another expansion for World of Warcraft… Wrath of the Lich King.

Needless to say, many people were underwhelmed.

I am too. The new expansion looks like its going to be The Burning Crusade part II. Ten new levels, more raid zones, and another couple of tiers of gear. Sure, there is something about hero classes, but from first glance they are either going to be pointless or they are going to be game breaking. In other words, very few people will bother, or the hero classes will be a requirement to proceed in raiding or participate in PvP.

As many in the blogosphere have pointed out, Blizzard has never really been known for innovation. Blizzard doesn’t invent wheels… or for a better analogy, Blizzard doesn’t design new cars, they take existing cars and trick them out in Fast and the Furious fashion.

And why should they bother to reinvent the wheel when they’ve already got 9 million people paying for the old wheels. If only half of their subscribers buy the expansion, that’s more box sales than some of the most successful games in history. This is the Unfortunate Truth of Success… once you have a stranglehold on the lead, trying to further outdistance your competition is a waste of money compared to coasting, enjoying a downhill ride that will net you more money than other people dream of at their peak.

I doubt I’ll be journeying to Northrend or fighting the Lich King. I canceled my WoW account over a month ago because it was clear to me that they are supporting only two types of play: Raiding and Solo casual. Want to PvP? Sorry, you have to raid (or farm gold, or buy farmed gold) to get the gear needed to compete. 5 man groups? Only if you want to grind cash, pots, faction of ramp up to raiding.

WoW lost me as a player, and they aren’t likely to win me back while they continue down this same worn path.