Tales from the Backlog: Champions of Krynn

Champions of Krynn

If you’ve been paying attention to my site, and I don’t blame you if you haven’t, but I tend to play two types of games: MMOs and Old-School. I will occasionally boot up a non-MMO game that has been made in the past 5 years, but that’s a rare event for me. I’m generally immune to the rush that I must play the absolute newest stuff. My rationale is that if it’s claiming to be really good now, it’ll also be really good in a few years, too. The benefits of this thinking are obvious: when I do go to purchase the game, it’ll be at a steep discount, bug fixes will have made the game more stable, technology improvements mean I’ll be able to play at the highest graphic settings, and I’ll still be getting the same quality story and gameplay as if I bought it on day 1. Also, the lens of time better shows which games are actually considered great games than the day one impressions do. Good games are like good wine, they last and seem to improve with age.

However, when it comes to *really* old games, sometimes the lens of time is tinted with too much rose-coloring. One question I find I ask myself all the time is were the games I played when I was a kid, the games that have shaped and molded my gaming interests today, were they any good? If I go back and play them now, will I still find them enjoyable? One such game series I remember having a very hard time with when I was younger, but I was still very enamored with them. Namely, the SSI Advanced Dungeons and Dragons “Gold Box” series of games based on the Dragonlance universe. And since I’m a fan of playing games in order I set on to find and play the first game in the series, Champions of Krynn.

Champions of Krynn

Just trust us on this one, it’s opulent and not just cracked stone walls. Opulent.

Abandoned, But Not Forgotten

When looking for the game, my first attempt is to always find a legit copy first, unless doing so is price or sanity prohibitive. For example, the game seems pretty easy to find on Ebay, but I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time I owned a PC that actually had a 3.5″ or 5.25″ floppy drive drive on it. SSI, the maker of the game was acquired by Mindscape in 1994, and eventually was acquired by Ubisoft in 2001, who retired the brand. In fact, you can’t even find Champions of Krynn on the Internet Archive, although you will find the game’s sequels. A 25 year old game, you’ll forgive me, but I gave up on paying for it and instead went to my favorite site for the games that have lost their respective owners, Abandonia. To make up for it, I’ll make a donation later to one of my favorite charities, and maybe one to Abandonia as well as soon as my browser informs me that Paypal isn’t being attacked anymore (there… didn’t take long). Karma and I have a funny relationship and I don’t want to upset that balance.

At this point, I’m pretty proficient with using DOSBox, so getting the game to run was pretty easy. If you want to check out the Options file I use, which I have tweaked over time, feel free. And after loading up, then spent the rest of the night trying to build a party based on a version of Dungeons and Dragons that was out of style by the time I entered high school. I decided to stick with your standard party makeup of pure classes, and then balanced out races as appropriate. For naming, I crowdsourced by sending out a tweet, and taking the first people to reply or favorite the post, just to make it a little more social.

Champions of Krynn

THAC0?! That should really say “Rocket Science”.

The Party of Champions

First we have our Lawful Good Half-Elf Knight, Windcaller. The Knight is an interesting class, mostly for a mechanic you just don’t see in games anymore, a class that will straight up give away all the money they find. Knights have taken a vow of poverty, and as such will donate any money you hand them as soon as you get back to town. Giving away loot? What nonsense is this! The trick is, of course, to not hand them any monies. However, gold doesn’t seem to be that important so far, so keeping it from him is kind of mean. Donate away, my friend. The tradeoff is being able to cast Cleric spells at higher levels.

Next, we have our Neutral Good Mountain Dwarf Fighter, JerseyJim. Jim’s a close friend of mine so no offense on the Dwarf part, I needed a dwarf, and having all humans is rather boring. Fighters seem to be… well… Fighters. Strong on the front lines, and hard to take down… sort of. Jim seems to be one of the first ones knocked down being right on the front lines and so far the game seems to employ a lot of cheap one-hit methods. Anyone in magical Sleep or Hold are taken down in one shot, for example. One.

Champions of Krynn

Dammit Jim! Crit by a Rat?!

Then we have our Chaotic Good Qualinesti Elf Ranger, Royalite. Rangers are strong melee as well, but also decent at range. They seem to be very versatile, and Royalite is happy with being a ranger, so it’s all good. I have no idea what the difference between elves are, there is also a Silvanesti elf, so maybe it’s just character flavor. Having elves keeps you from being one-shot, as elves are resistant to sleep and charm… but elves, though. You never want too many of them.

Then there’s our Neutral Good Kender Cleric, Syl. Clerics are an absolute necessity. When resting, the only way to heal is to use the Cleric’s spells, and the game calculates the time when resting for the Cleric to memorize a heal spell and cast it, and rememorize it. Thankfully, it does this automatically with the Fix command, but you’re vulnerable to wandering monsters while resting, so it’s tricky. On top of that, Clerics can charm and hold, cheap tactics, but effective for one-hit takedowns. Syl didn’t reply to the tweet, but I was listening to a podcast of Battle Bards and Syl was praising her Lalafell in Final Fantasy XIV, so I decided to make her our diminutive Kender in homage. Kenders are a race that have an infectious charm and are good at finding trouble, and Syl was happy with that.

Champions of Krynn

Just trust us. They’re evil.

Then we have our True Neutral Human Thief, Grilledcheese. Thieves are very squishy, being held to Leather Armor only. They make up for it by being able to backstab, finding traps and doors, and leveling super quick. Oh, leveling is interesting. Leveling can only take place if we return to an outpost, which isn’t that bad, but each class has a completely different leveling table! With the same amount of experience, a level 5 Thief is only a level 3 Knight. So you have to keep track of each characters experience individually as it won’t tell you if they’re ready to level, either. Excel spreadsheets FTW.

Finally, we have our Lawful Neutral Human Red Mage, BC Jayson. Jayson’s a big Ultima fan, so I hope he doesn’t mind having a D&D character. Cross-geekery, you know how it is. Mages are as you would expect: super squishy, but bring out the big guns. Mostly Sleep spells are used at lower levels, sadly, but they knock out up to 4 enemies at a time and then a follow up long range dart provides the instant-kill. So cheap, but still effective.

Champions of Krynn

Thankfully the “Journal” isn’t a copy of 50 Shades of Grey, as this could’ve got really awkward real quick.

First Impressions, Very Rosy

Champions of Krynn is sooooo old school, though. Maybe *too* old school. First, the game doesn’t hold any punches and every fight that is scripted as part of the story is a party strength check. If you can’t beat it, well then you might have to try again with different strategy (or luck), rest up and choose different spells, or level, and the baddies will use every cheap trick they have. So saving all the time and loading again are common practice. On top of that, the game allows you to lower the difficulty, but doing so nets you less experience, so playing on Easy eventually under-levels your party. As any other game, the middle difficulty is the way to go.

On top of that, to save game size (3.5″ disks, don’t forget) and to have a form of DRM, every time there is an important plot point instead of just telling you the story, the game points you to it’s physical Journal and tells you which entry to read. You could read all the entries and spoil the story, but there are false-entries posted throughout the Journal, just to trip you up. It’s fascinating the methods like this developers used when their resources were limited.

Champions of Krynn

Dammit Jim! Just kidding. It was *everyone’s* fault this time. Falling asleep in the middle of combat and all.

So as of this writing, I have cleared the first level of the first dungeon. You’d think this would be a quick endeavor but, oh no, this has taken quite a few sessions already. Leveling in D&D is a rare event, but each character has leveled a few times, leading me to wonder how long this game actually is? Is it only just a couple of dungeons or will this take me forever to play?

I’m not sure I’ll stick to it to see the end, but I do enjoy a good D&D session, so you never know. Those graphics, though. The best part of the game is easily the strategic combat. The story seems very basic and pandering, though, and the graphics were considered dated even for 1990, so I’m not sure if the combat alone will hold my interest. We’ll see, though, it *is* classic D&D, afterall.

//Ocho   

P.S. – Also, I want to give a big shoutout to Xander of Holosuite Media fame for hosting Casual Aggro as part of their blogger linkfest. Holosuite Media has a ton of great people and great podcasts to check out, which I highly suggest you do. I especially am fond of Beyond the Veil, their podcast on The Secret World, but they have podcasts for all kinds of games.

P.P.S. – After the massive traffic spike I had yesterday, thanks to a popular developer RT’ing my post on Ultima 7 and EA, I was kicking myself that my blogroll hasn’t been updated since, well, since this blog was created. I have went through and updated it to a list of 25 glorious and amazing sites, which you should definitely check out.

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A Personal Argument Against the Always-On Trend

So last Sunday I was all set up to write a post about crafting in The Secret World, how there is no real guide for it, and essentially make a guide for those not really knowing what to do with the random runes and dust they pick up. However, my Comcast internet would have none of it. Trying to play the game for research was an abysmal failure. Every mob I fought would straight-up slaughter me during a lag spike. My once strong download speeds without packet losses, lag, latency, or jitter, great for gaming and watching streaming video has, over the past week, degraded to the point that my primary hobby is fully out of commission.

Now, I’m relatively tech savvy. I built my own gaming rig, I know a thing or two about the multitude of OS options out there, and I’m asked frequently by friends, family, and strangers for tech advice. So, when I encounter network problems, I generally know how to approach them. After going through all the checks and rechecks, the problem is not my router, it is not my cable modem, nor is it my computer. The problem lies outside of the tech that I can affect, and now I must rely on Comcast to come and attempt to fix the problem, which could take weeks (or as a friend lovingly told me about dealing with Comcast, possibly months). Lovely.

Gaming wise, though, I have been stuck on The Secret World. Trying to play it now is utterly futile. Any MMO I would play is futile. Without a stable and reliable internet connection, there is no point in even trying.

But ANY game needing a full-time internet connection is out, for possibly weeks. With the current trend in gaming this would also means games like Diablo 3, SimCity, and if I had the next generation XBox, literally any game I would own for that console. These aren’t just MMOs, games where always being connected gives you the benefit of community, these are single-player games with unnecessary multi-player extras tacked on. But yet, if I owned them, I would now be completely unable to play them.

So, tell me, honestly, who hasn’t this happened to? Who hasn’t, at some point, lost usable service? Apparently,  if you have Comcast as your service provider, which in my area Comcast is the ONLY choice for wired internet and holds a monopoly, service drops are frequent and the norm. Getting lines repaired could cost me more out-of-pocket expenses (on top of my monthly fee) and take weeks or months to fix. I’m sure it’s not just Comcast, though.

If there is any physical component, and hardware involved in your network, that hardware is capable of failing. Sometimes there is nothing you can do about it, either. It’s not a question of how or why, but when.

So who is this shift in the always-on trend really supposed to be benefiting? With Microsoft telling us to just #DealWithIt, EA being named the worst company in America due to gamer backlash from it, and Blizzard straight-up not caring, it is certainly not the gamers. And yet, gamers will still throw money after money at these games and think nothing of it. Think nothing of the possibility of having their single-player games servers being shut off, or the possibility their hard-earned money is going  to a purchase that can instantly become as useful as a paperweight (less, even, a paperweight can still hold down papers).

I hope companies like EA and Blizzard really are getting the message that this is not acceptable. We, as intelligent people making intelligent purchases, should not give them a single dime for any product that demands these always-on connections. We’re simply paying them for the privilege of giving them more power. Power that they, frankly, don’t deserve. Give us real reasons as to why an always-on connection is beneficial, or options to use it or not, put the power back into the consumers hands.

Until then, I’m voting with my wallet, as it seems the only language these companies understand.

// Ocho

Shroud of the Avatar, DRM, and Why the Gaming Industry Should Take Notice [SOTA]

Blizzard, EA, and apparently now Microsoft, too, have thrown their companies full-ahead into the age of Always-On DRM. In other words, you must always have a stable Internet connection and be communicating with their servers at all times in order to play their games in an effort to crack down on piracy. The issue of always-on DRM is one that has been long in coming with the industry having finally taken the leap and now making the worst fears of gamers a reality. So far we have seen massive server problems, delays, and stoppages preventing players who have purchased games like SimCity and Diablo 3 with their own hard-earned money from accessing these games. Games that could have easily been played without the need to be connected at all!

Murphy’s Law at it’s finest.

However, Shroud of the Avatar, just 35 hours away from finishing up it’s successful Kickstarter venture (for which I am a proud backer) is bucking the new trend. Bucking it, hitting it over the head with a chair, and throwing it completely out the window. The 5th update given during the Kickstarter campaign, only 3 days after it started, came right out and said they were listening to feedback and decided to make the Kickstarter version of the game DRM free and thus could be played completely off-line.  5 days later, the 10th update kicked it into high gear and is making, what I think, one of the greatest methods of handling gameplay I’ve ever heard.

You can play SotA in 4 completely different ways. Single-player Offline (SPOff), Single-Player Online (SPO), Friends-Play Online (FPO), and Open-Play Online (OPO).

Single-Player Offline

Just like pretty much every single-player game ever made since the dawn of gaming, single-player offline is a DRM-free, completely offline version of the game. Your character is stored on your own computer, there are no micro-transactions, and the game is played entirely client-side, no internet connection needed. Any character you create will only be playable offline to prevent hacking or exploits to enter the online play, but you can still experience the full story.

Single-Player Online

Single-Player Online mode is a version of the game where once more you are the only player in the game. However, you connect to the server, receive content updates, and get to see any long term changes other gamers have made on the world. You play the game still entirely on your own, but it would be like a single-player MMO. This is like the instanced-solo dungeons that you see in games like Neverwinter, the original Guild Wars, or Star Trek Online. You see the effects of a changing game, can participate in the economy, but you don’t have to play along with anyone else.

Friends-Play Online

Friends-Play Online is the multiplayer that we see cropping up in numerous games these days. In effect, it’s the same as SPO, but you see other players that you have already tagged as friends. It works as a limited online experience and is described as “For those who prefer the quieter game with friends or maybe for those who prefer a more focused role playing experience”.

Open-Play Online

And finally there is the method of playing that is most like the MMOs we have come to know today, Open-Play Online. In OPO, you will not be seeing everybody, but when you enter an area you will see other gamers that the server thinks you should see. Based on your own style of gameplay, you will see strangers, but strangers you might have a connection with. If you enjoy role-playing, you might find yourself surrounded by players who also enjoy role-playing. Or PvP. Or grouping. I take it you would have to fill out a small survey about your gaming style ahead of time, but even the complete strangers you’ll meet in Open-Play you’ll still have some sort of connection to.

Also, not only can you play Shroud of the Avatar in these 4 different ways, but you can switch between SPO, FPO, and OPO almost at-will while playing!

I don’t use this phrase often, but this is Revolutionary. Seriously.

What are Yew looking at?

Just imagine if a game like Diablo 3 had launched with this system in mind. For those without the greatest internet connections in the world, they could enjoy the game off-line, just like they did Diablo 2. Or, they could create an online character and play the game solo with benefits like the auction house, or only seeing other friends they have played with through Battle-Net, or a version of the game that randomly grouped like-minded and skilled gamers together. Then, if the Auction-House was only available to players who played the online versions, that would be reason enough to play online for most people and DRM would’ve just been an afterthought. Under that model, I really could’ve seen Diablo 3 being named game of the decade. As it stands now, I’ll never even touch Diablo 3. See the difference, Blizzard?!

Playing on Portalarium’s servers is now a choice that is in the gamers hands. A choice that discourages piracy, not through brute-force like EA does, but by giving tangible benefits to those that don’t pirate, playing with others and seeing the game change over time.

Instead of being treated like a criminal, SotA is going to treat gamers like guests into their world. When you empower the gamer and give us a voice, it’s not surprising at all to see the pledge number edging ever closer to $1,500,000. Through this simple action, Portalarium, and Garriott himself, has shown that he wants to work with us gamers, not against us, to make the best gaming experience possible for everyone.

// Ocho

Diablo 3 Blurs the Line Between Single Player Game and MMO Even More

It wasn’t long ago that I wrote a post on how single player games are being treated more and more like MMO’s by the gaming community. Well, Blizzard has, with its latest offering, blurred the line between the single player game and MMO even further. Is Diablo 3 a single player game? Yes… and no. Is it an MMO? No… and yes. Here are some reasons showing the similarities of what can make Diablo 3 a new breed of MMO.

1) An auction house. First and foremost, Diablo 3 has an auction house. An auction house is a feature found in almost every MMO on the market. A place to barter, buy, and sell from other players, an auction house is essentially its own form of PvP. Buy low, sell high, corner the market on iron ore, etc. Diablo 3’s auction house takes a new twist by selling items with not just in-game funds, but also real money. Find an item you think would sell well for real money? Post it on the region’s auction house. If it sells, Blizzard takes a $1 off the top. If you then want to transfer the money to a PayPal account, Blizzard takes another 15% cut off of that. It’s a nice little racket Blizz has going there. Considering the drops in the game are randomized, if you play enough and find enough high quality items, you could potentially make Diablo 3 a side job! I wonder, though, how many people are going to claim any money made through the auction house on their taxes…

2) Public Play. When it comes to playing the game, you have a few options. You can play it solo, you can play it with friends, or you can set a “public” option and play with complete strangers. Playing with complete strangers is the cornerstone of the MMO. Sure, you eventually form guilds and then play with just your guild, but you usually find those guilds at first by playing with the random public, and Diablo 3 lets you do that.

3) Always On. You have to have an “Always On” internet connection attached to Blizzard’s servers to play Diablo 3. Blizzard recently just had the equivalent of “launch day blues” where on the day the game launched, it had multiple problems and the game’s server crashed. Usually, this wouldn’t be a huge deal for a single-player game, but for Diablo 3, it is. Certain features that Diablo uses, like the auction house or public areas lend credence to needing to always be connected to the internet and in this day and age, most of us ARE always connected to the internet. However, the internet isn’t always perfect. Comcast (or whoever your service provider is) could have some downtime, your router or modem could fail and you’d lose internet for hours or even days. Blizzard has essentially said “Too bad” to this, and demands all systems be connected at all times, just like an MMO. The difference is that an MMO’s primary content and focus is online play. A single-player game? Well… not so much. My good friend Tushar over at Technical Fowl has quite a bit to say on this matter, and you should check it out.

I’m 37, I’m not old!

4) Class Reveals. Diablo 3 has five distinct character classes: Barbarian, Demon Hunter, Monk, Witch Doctor, and Wizard. Nothing like choices to fit multiple styles of  play. However, each individual class has had its own separate reveal. Now, this could be an indication of a new age of gaming, in which every little scrap of information about an upcoming game, MMO or not, is heavily consumed up to and well after a game’s release. However, this is a trait that has primarily settled in the MMO space. Guild Wars 2, for example, spent months dragging out their multiple character classes, with each reveal showing videos, ability breakdowns, and a ton of screenshots. I didn’t see Skyrim flaunting its Battlemage class or that the Rogue (my preferable Elder Scrolls class) was a class being brought back, but every class in Star Wars The Old Republic got its time in the spotlight, and this is something new for single-player games.

5) MMO News Sites Can’t Make Up Their Mind! Have you seen Massively, lately? They initially placed anything relating to Diablo 3 in a “Not So Massively” tag, relegating it just like any other games that are popular, have multiplayer components, but aren’t as massive as they could be. However, as it got closer and closer to launch, they almost dropped the tag entirely and started giving Diablo 3 just as much space as other MMOs, sometimes even giving it the “Free-To-Play” tag. Its absolutely true, Diablo 3 has no subscription whatsoever, but then again, neither does my copy of Ultima VII.

When all is said and done, the answer to whether Diablo 3 classifies as an MMO is really “No”. The ability to play completely solo with nobody else around, even if you still have to be connected to Blizzard’s servers, takes a big ‘M’ away. However, by adding features never really dreamed up in any other single-player game before, Blizzard is setting a new precedent, and like it or not, we may see new single player games released from here on out change as a result.

Lets just hope they keep the necessary online connection to a minimum.

\\ Ocho