Onwards, Into the Stygian Abyss!

Ultima Underworld

My last few posts have been a little… heavy handed. I go through waves, I’ve found. A few posts of pointing out gaming’s psychological tactics and obscure cultural norms here and there, trying to get those who may be imbibing the kool-aid a little too deep to at least notice what flavor it is. But this here corner of the internet is about gaming and the celebration of the artform! To that end, I can’t make *every* post thought provoking, there has to be a wave of fluff, too. So, let me tell you about my latest gaming habits!

I’ve found myself lately pulled back into the comforting arms of nostalgia, a gaming haven I head to periodically which I love. Using a new system I’ve devised to make headway into my backlog, which has been working nicely, the RNG gods have decided the game I am to play is Ultima Underworld. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Ultima Underworld

Goldthirst, huh? I wonder what motivates this dude…

 

This comes at an great time. We are currently going through a wave of resurgence of all things Ultima. Broadsword picked up the license of Ultima Online and has been running with the 17 year old game, Shroud of the Avatar is coming along nicely picking up a dedicated community as it keeps moving in development, and still in the funding stage of it’s Kickstarter, Underworld Ascendant, a rework of Underworld, is ~ 80% funded with 2 weeks yet to go.

Ultima Underworld itself, though, is one of the cornerstones of gaming as we know it. Almost 23 years old, Releasing in 1992, it is noted to be the first role-playing game to feature first-person action in a 3D environment. One of the real OGs of gaming here. Paul Neurath, Underworld’s designer, when asked in an interview said I brought an early Underworld demo to the West Coast to show some folks, including developer friends. I recall how their jaws dropped wide as they watched the demo. You could see in their eyes that the gaming world had shifted. It even released before Wolfenstein 3D, and many shooters and RPGs to follow credited Underworld as an influence: Bioshock, Gears of War, The Elder Scrolls, Deus Ex, Half-Life, Tomb Raider, System Shock, and pretty much any game that lets your character move around in a 3D environment.

Ultima Underworld, Level 1 Map

For 1992 the addition of a player-annotated in-game map is mind blowing.

 

So how does it hold up? After a few hours, pretty dang well. Lighting, food and hunger mechanics, platform jumping, swimming, melee and ranged combat, magic, hiding, faction-based NPCs, thieving, trading and reputation, armor and weapon degradation, sandbox style gameplay, and an in-game map with the ability to add player-created notes. The only parts that don’t really hold up are the music, with a midi track that Dosbox has a hard time translating, and the main plot, so far relying on the outdated trope of “rescue the princess”. These can be forgiven, though. The game is old enough to buy itself a drink and times have certainly changed. Remember Troll dolls? They were at their height of popularity in 1992! That voice acting, though.

Ultima Underworld, Hagbard

Apparently everyone saw this girl but nobody decided to do anything. Well, it’s not like they throw the *nice* people into the Abyss.

 

We’ll see how far I get. These jawns weren’t known to be the quick jaunts of today. Taking weeks to complete was a serious badge of honor back then. However, I’ve already made it past any previous attempt, and I’ve already learned a whole bunch of new things (there’s a resurrection mechanic! I never knew that!).

Onwards, my friends, into the Stygian Abyss!

//Ocho

So what are *you* playing? Anything interesting?

A Gaming Questionnaire

Neverwinter

Allow me a little narcissism. It seems a gaming questionnaire has been circulating among my fellow game blogging compatriots lately, started by Jasyla at Cannot Be Tamed (Thanks, Jasyla!). So, why not? A little survey occasionally is good for the soul, and it gives you a little more insight into my particular point of view, if you’re interested. Also, it’s my site and I’ll post whatever I want, whenever I want, thank you very much.

1. When did you start playing video games?

My memory does not extend that far back, to be honest. I want to say… 8 years old? Which would give me gaming cred for about 25 years now. Looking back, my parents were amazing to me growing up. They purchased me an Atari 7800 and I played the heck out of that thing. Still have it in my basement somewhere with a full bin of games. Good ones, too. Saints. My parents are saints.

2. What is the first game you remember playing?

Donkey Kong on an old CalecoVision. Literally. I don’t know how old the CalecoVision console was at the time I was playing on it, maybe 7 years old, but it’s the oldest game that flashes back to me.

Intel Core i7

Core i7, in case you’re curious.

3. PC or Console? 

These days I’m all about the PC. I’m not going to go into the whole “PC master race” nonsense as it’s just that: nonsense. However, my PC is the most versatile piece of technology I own. The choice was either have a game console that is just a game console, or a PC that is a game console plus a million other things. A PC is just more efficient to own, even if it is a little more costly.

4. XBox, PlayStation, or Wii? 

To me, it doesn’t matter. I’ve owned a Playstation 2 that I took apart and put back together a hundred times (I use to buy broken ones, fix them, and sell them again at a profit), I own an XBox 360 and a Wii. Now, they all accumulate dust. If I got the latest iteration of any of them, they’d probably do the same. I’ll give the Wii credit for the most versatility with it’s free use of Netflix and capability as a DVD player, though. Wii Sports is still fun, too. 🙂

Ultima 7

The OG of RPG’s, as far as I’m concerned.

5. What’s the best game you’ve ever played? 

Ultima 7. Totally rose-colored-glasses here, but at the time, Ultima 7 was a mind-blower. I played it on my parents IBM, and the game took up a whopping 20 MB of space. Comparative to today, that’s like a game taking up about 700 GB. But the experience was amazing. Ultima 7 was one of the first “open world” games I remember. There was a storyline in there somewhere, but every NPC in the entire game had a daily schedule that included their home, their work, lunch breaks, after-work activities, dinner, socializing, etc. You could attend concerts! Mine for ore! Craft swords! Bake bread! Compare this to other games at the time and there was no comparison. Ultima 7 would be similar to Skyrim today, but if Skyrim let you play in more open world.

6. What’s the worst game you’ve ever played? 

Crusaders of Might and Magic. I was a big fan of the Might and Magic series, and had just finished one of my favorites of the series, World of Xeen, before playing Crusaders. Boy was I let down. Crusaders was more of a first-person-shooter style, but not, and a very linear gameplay. Totally different than any other Might and Magic title. It was my first real game that I finished and thought “Well, that… was not good.” It may not actually be the worst, I’m sure I’ve played worse, but since it was the first it sticks out the most.

7. Name a game that was popular/critically adored that you just didn’t like.

Any game that has the words “Call of Duty” or “Battlefield” in their title. I gave them a good shake a few times, and though I’m a fan of shooters, I just couldn’t get into the whole realistic military setting. Felt too glorified. War, realistic war, is not a game and what soldiers do is necessary in defense of one’s country. Glorifying realistic modern military in the gaming space is irresponsible, in my opinion.

Rusty Hearts

I am heartbroken that Rusty Hearts is shutting down, I really am.

8. Name a game that was poorly received that you really like.

The one that jumps to mind is the soon to be shut down Rusty Hearts. As a MMO player, it was a refreshing game to play. One of the first MMO action titles, too, it had a silly/serious manga style story with an artistic gothic painting-like atmosphere, a soundtrack mixing light jazz and hard rock, easy to jump into and interesting dungeons, and abilities that made you feel like a badass from the very beginning. It will be shutting down on September 15th, 2014, though, and it never reached any real following. It’s a shame, really. It was a lot of fun.

9. What are your favourite game genres?

MMOs, First Person Shooters, Point-and-click Adventures, Indie Games, Most things Elder Scrolls and Might and Magic, and really anything. I’ll try anything at least once.

10. Who is your favourite game protagonist?

Ooooooo…. it’s a tossup between Guybrush Threepwood or Faith. Mirror’s Edge is one of my favorite games, mostly because Faith is such a badass and for the game’s originality. As for Guybrush, I haven’t seen a character learn to swordfight in a more entertaining way.

Mirror's Edge Awesomeness

One of the first FPS’s I’ve played that didn’t need any S.

11. Describe your perfect video game.

One which will deliver me a beer and pizza while I’m playing it. Make it happen, people.

Really, I have no perfect game. I see video games these days as works of art, meant to be appreciated for what they are, not how they live up to some definition of perfection. I am no artist, so who am I to tell the artists how to make their masterpieces? Imparting expectations on artwork is futile and only leads to disappointment.

12. What video game character do have you have a crush on?

Who is that woman behind the protagonist on the Mass Effect 2 box cover? Yeah. Her. No idea why. Don’t even know her character, haven’t even played Mass Effect 2. Maybe it’s her hair?

13. What game has the best music? 

Guild Wars 2. Tough question, though. There is a LOT of really good game music out there. Thankfully, at least MMO music is covered by the Battle Bards Podcast. I still think the best video game music piece going is the Civilization IV intro, though. I even wrote up a post about this once…

14. Most memorable moment in a game:

That I can remember: BioShock, the twist near the end. More recent: pretty much the entirety of To the Moon.

Gabriel Knight, Sins of the Fathers

Gah. Goosebumps got me again…

15. Scariest moment in a game:

I have a hard time not saying The Secret World for this one. Too many good ones, but the part that sticks out the most is Issue 7: A Dream to Kill, inside the Nursery. Opening the room with all the dolls for the first time gave me goosebumps on top of goosebumps. Creepy dolls always get me.

Also, the scene in Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers when Gabriel attends the lecture and falls asleep. The dream he had made me instantly stop playing the game when I was younger.

16. Most heart-wrenching moment in a game:

The self-sacrifice by Dupre in Ultima 7: Part 2. The first time I played it, I was dumbstruck. I didn’t even know games even had emotional depth until that moment.

17. What are your favourite websites/blogs about games?

Who wants a shoutout?! I can’t list all of them, I’d be here all day. If you’re reading this right now and have a site of your own… it’s you. No, really, it’s you. I’m fascinated about your opinion.

I follow Massively sort of religiously, but I don’t usually agree with most of the GOML commenters who just want the “old days” to come back (“Get Off My Lawn”… I feel #GOML needs to be a thing), but I love reading all the experiences that my fellow bloggers have in every game they play. I’m truly fascinated in how we can each be playing the same thing, and have a multitude of different reactions to it. In my mind, that is what makes video games art.

To The Moon

Uplifting, but overall a very sad tale.

18. What’s the last game you finished? 

Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood or To The Moon, I can’t remember which I finished last. Both excellent games in their own right, though.

19. What future releases are you most excited about? 

Shroud of the Avatar, but that could be because I’ve already invested so much into it.

20. Do you identify as a gamer?

I do, yes. Not 100%, though. I also identify as husband, friend, coworker, disc golf player, techie, and a multitude of other identities. Gaming is just one part of my identity, but I won’t deny it’s existence. I think Mr. Kuchera really hit the nail on the head, and I can’t say it better than he can.

Walking Dead Season One

Not really a “game”, but I don’t care. So good. There’s a reason Walking Dead is at the top of most gamer’s lists.

21. Why do you play video games? 

I like to be told a good story, be it by book or movie, or any other medium. Books allow a story to be more descriptive where all the action goes on in your head and allows your imagination to run wild. Movies are more about the visual and audio components of a story and hit hard viscerally, but are a lot shorter.

Video games, though, allow you to interact with the story itself. A great mix of other styles, games allow you to be immersed in a world, not just be swept along with the plot. To be able to explore a world’s nooks and crannies as well as the plot. To walk alongside the hero/heroine and feel their accomplishments as your own.

This is why I play games. Simply, I feel they are one of the best ways to interact with a good story.

Thank you for reading, folks. If you want, take the survey yourself! As I said, I’m always curious to hear your thoughts, too.

// Ocho

Unintentionally, I Just Bought My First Collector’s Edition #SotA

Shroud of the Avatar

I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. In a way, I feel tricked but I don’t. I’m still working out my feelings on this one.

First and foremost let me just say that I’m not of the same mind as (it seems) some of my fellow bloggers, that we should treat our favorite game companies as charities. I fully believe in the process of natural selection, even for businesses,  and simply put, if a company’s product isn’t worth the value, I’m not going to shell out more money to them just to help keep them afloat. No, my money needs to be earned by these companies. If I drop money on a subscription price and box fee, then that product better be heads and shoulders above the same entertainment I could get for a similar price elsewhere.

But one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. We don’t all have the same perception of value. To one person, having four concurrent subscriptions is a great value as they can drop into a game at any time, and the world will be waiting for them. For me, having any more than one time-based subscription is a waste of money that could be much better spent elsewhere. My time is valuable to me, a lot more than any subscription price, and if that one game doesn’t give me enough value to justify a time-based price, I’ll leave to another game that justifies my time & money more. Economics, in a nutshell.

But yet, I have now pledged up to the “Explorer” tier in backing Shroud of the Avatar, and it’s because of a very slippery slope.

I won’t lie, I’m a big fan of the Ultima series and Richard Garriott. So, an Ultima successor in feel (not in actuality due to copyright), without intervention from Electronic Arts, where the creators have a very open development? This makes me very happy, and I was more than happy to open my wallet to see this come to pass. But I didn’t want to open it too far… after all, I have a high perceived value of the finished product but the finished product doesn’t exist. So at first I kept myself in check.

Shroud of the Avatar

The Slippery Slope

My first purchase was for the $33 “Pioneer” tier, as I had missed the 1st and 2nd Responder tiers. This would get me a digital copy of the game. I could access the alphas and betas, too, but I wasn’t so interested in them. I’m only interested in betas to get a taste of what the game is, and not to help them test. I’m a bit selfish like that, but realistically I’m not their employee, I’m a consumer. Betas have turned me off quite a few games, too, so I tend to avoid them if I can help it. Total Spent: $33.

But wait. This is just for Episode 1! There are more episodes! I did not realize this at first. Well, what tier has THOSE, too? It ended up being the “Royal Artisan” tier, with Episode 2 & 3. Now, if I’m reading this correctly, each episode of the overall game will use the same engine, but be entirely separate. Similar to Guild Wars. Cool. I like that. And having all of them put together is like having a Transformers of Ultima. Even cooler. I could see myself playing all of them and adding another $47 for the next 2 episodes ($23.50/episode), when the first was $33, seems like a good deal. Total Spent: $80.

That’s where I stopped for a long time until I found this page, which noted a promotion from Alienware to upgrade your pledge by $20. Sweet! Using the coupon (as easy as clicking the link and signing into Shroud’s page), suddenly I was bumped up to $100, which was now the “Virtual Collector” tier. Total Spent: still $80.

Shroud of the Avatar is going to come in *FIVE* episodes, though. So far, I’ve only pledged for the first three. So, looking once more at the tiers, to get all five would be the “Explorer- All Digital” tier, for only $20 more. So, two more at $10/episode is a much better deal than before, so I jump on it. Total Spent: $100

Just for giggles, and I’m already so well vested like a poker player deep into a hand, I check out the next tier. The “Explorer” tier, and see that it’s only $5 more, and I get quite a few nice tangible physical items, like a *cloth map*, a collector’s box, the soundtrack, a game manual, and physical media. I don’t really care about most of them, but those cloth maps play my nostalgia strings like a lute, and for only $5? I have to. I have no choice. Total Spent: $105.

Now the next tier is at $150, and that’s where I draw the line. A collector’s coin and a “mysterious trinket” are included, which starts playing at my curiosity, but I’m not an extra $45 curious.

Shroud of the Avatar

Is It Worth It?

I don’t know how to feel about this. On one hand, I’m getting quite a bit. Every episode, a cloth map, and so many digital goodies I won’t know what to do with myself (no, really, the list is ridiculous… I added it in the postscript). On the other, Episode 1 hasn’t even come out yet! Let alone episodes two through five! Have some control, man! You just spent $105 on a game that you’ve only seen a very rough part of (and boy, was it rough)!

What a slide, too, from $33 to $105. As a previous salesman, I use to do this to customers all the time. “Oh, hey, you’re already spending $50 on books, how about a $5 bookmark?” It wasn’t even that difficult. As long as you kept the additions logical and less than 20% of the total, you could double a sale pretty easily. It plays off a lot of psychological tactics: overestimated future use, fear of a wasted purchase, the increase of the perception of value based on the more you spend, sunk time and costs, etc. and I feel I just had all of that psychology, that I am well aware of, used against me.

I guess time will tell if I am really happy about my purchase or if it was a waste.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

// Ocho

P.S. – If you want to get in on the Shroud of the Avatar Pre-order, that $20 Alienware coupon is good for new purchases, too, as well as current pledges. $25 for the first game isn’t bad at all if you’re an Ultima fan, story fan, or sandbox fan and are on the fence.

P.P.S. – By the way, here is the list of what the “Explorer” tier gets you (if you pledged during the Kickstarter itself)…

  • Episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5 (Alpha and Beta Access, Developer Blog Access)
  • Blade of the Avatar Novel by Tracy Hickman, “The Story of Mondain in the World of Sosaria” by Richard Garriott, Akallabeth Dungeons and Dragons Campaign
  • Physical: Cloth Map, Collector’s Box, Media, Soundtrack, Manual
  • Digital: Runic Translation Print, PDF Artbook, Soundtrack
  • In-Game: Creature Taming Call Ability, Early Skill Access
  • Teachable Emotes: Darkstarr Salute, Adventurer, Pilgrim, Immortal Adventurer, Founder, Royal Artisan, Virtual Collector, Explorer
  • Titles: Benefactor, Pioneer, Adventurer, Immortal Adventurer, Founder, Artisan, Royal Artisan, Archivist, Royal Archivist, Cartographer, Royal Cartographer
  • Items: Replenishing Snowball Box, Founder Shield, Immortality Fruit, Ankh of Virtue Necklace, Founder Cloak, Royal Elderberry Plant, Last Name, Star Citizen Cross-Promotion Item, Non-Combat Pets, Benefactor Tunic, Darkstarr Cloak, 1-use Crystal Sword, Founder Tunic, Starter Melee Weapons, Indestructable Artisan Tool, Starter Ranged Weapons, Iolo’s Lute, Darkstarr Metronome, Indestructable Crafting Tool, Starter Founder Armor, Family Crest (of your own design), Framed Cover Art, Framed Map.

… Wow.

Ultima VII is One Giant Reference to How Terrible Electronic Arts Is

Ultima 7

I’ve been following Syp’s playthrough of Ultima VII very closely, as it is by far one of my favorite games of all time, and remembered that Richard Garriott placed TONS of easter eggs in the game. Every party member of the Avatar’s group is some reference to someone Garriott knows, for example. Iolo is a reference to bowyer and composer David R. Watson, Iolo’s wife Gwenno is a reference to Watson’s wife Kathleen, Chuckles the Jester is a reference to one of the founders of Origin, Chuck Bueche, and Shamino and Lord British are references to Garriott himself. In fact, Sherry the Mouse is based off of one of his former girlfriends and the actress portraying Sherry at the Royal Theatre in Britain is dating Garriott’s alter-ego Shamino!

And all of these references are just the icing on the cake for us Ultima fans. They give nods to previous Ultimas played, to the developers themselves, and really added to the enjoyment of the game. However, it never occurred to me until recently to dig a little deeper. The deeper you go, though, the more you start to see something disturbing. Namely, Garriott did not like EA from the start, and he made that clear in Ultima VII.

Warning: I know this game came out in 1992, but SPOILERS AHEAD. Ye have been warned.

Ultima 7, Guardian, EA

— The Guardian Represents Electronic Arts —

The big bad menace of Ultima VII is called “The Guardian”. He is a huge red dude who wants nothing more than to enter the world of U7, Britannia, and destroy it. He accomplishes this by getting into the minds of the people, and pushing them to help the Guardian enter the world. Many worlds have already fallen to his evil. He is referred to by the wisps as “vain, greedy, egocentric, and malevolent”.

So how is the Guardian the representation of EA? The Guardian is called “The Destroyer of Worlds”. Origin’s motto: “We Create Worlds”. Also, Origin saw EA’s way of doing business as immoral. According to Origin, EA’s method was not only to make games, but also to interfere in others ability to do so. EA suing Origin probably didn’t help.

Ultima 7, Elizabeth and Abraham

— The Murderers Elizabeth and Abraham… E & A —

Elizabeth and Abraham are two figures that figure prominently in the storyline of Ultima VII. Elizabeth and Abraham are two of the founding members of the Fellowship, the pseudo religion the Guardian has a hand in, similar to Scientology, and travel from city to city collecting funds and convincing the important people to build Fellowship branches.

E & A seem well intentioned on the outside. Big surprise, though, the Fellowship turns out to not be on the level, and E & A help out in assassinations of those who speak out against them. E & A? Killers.

— “Create Love” is Slaughtered by E & A —

Inamo, Ultima 7, EAOne of the very first scenes of the game, the Avatar is tasked with finding the killer of a murder that has just occurred. The blacksmith Christopher has been ritually murdered. At the time, this was ridiculously graphic. He had been tied down, had his extremities severed, decapitated, and his blood filled in buckets. His assistant, the Gargoyle Inamo, was also run-through with a pitchfork.

What does Inamo’s name mean in his own language? “Create Love“. Who killed him? E & A. Yup.

— The Destroyer’s Power Over the People Comes From The Cube, The Sphere, and The Tetrahedron… EA’s Logo —

Might as well save the best for last. In the Avatar’s travels across Britannia he finds out that he needs to destroy three structures, “generators”, which give the Guardian his power. The Cube helps broadcast the Destroyer’s voice to his followers, the Sphere helps disrupt the moongates and trap the Time Lord in his prison, and the Tetrahedron helps to disrupt magic through the land.

The Cube, The Sphere, and the Tetrahedron are symbols of the Guardian’s evil. Remind you of anything?

DMazd0DWsAALzwO

// Ocho

P.S. In case you were wondering, here’s a  history between Origin and EA:

— The History of EA and Origin —

Origin Systems was created in 1983 as a way for Richard Garriott to capitalize on his game-making talents. Up until then, Akalabeth, Ultima I, and Ultima II had all been published by other publishers who took advantage of Garriott’s work.  The California Pacific Computer Company bought the rights for Akalabeth and Ultima I, and Sierra On-Line bought up Ultima II. It was issues with Sierra that caused Garriott to finally form his own company. Origin’s first game was the next in the series, Ultima III, which helped them to get through the great video game crash of 1983. From there, Origin produced further Ultimas IV, V, and VI, Wing Commander 1 and 2 and many other games. By 1988, Origin had about 50 employees under it’s umbrella.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate was released in April of 1992 and is greatly considered the pinnacle of the Ultima series. At the time, Electronic Arts was a big competitor of Origin. At one point, the bigger EA took Origin to court, which ended in a costly out-of-court settlement for Origin. Origin believed the games they made were works of love, and saw EA as trying to get ahead any way they can. In September of 1992, though, Origin was acquired by Electronic Arts.

Under EA’s banner, Origin went on to release a lot of great games like the rest of the Wing Commander series. However, the quality of the Ultima series started to drastically suffer. The last game, Ultima IX was, well, it was stunningly terrible. The storyline had been scrapped multiple times due to EA’s interference, the systems had been pared down to almost nothing, the majority of the team was pulled away to work on Ultima Online, and Electronic Arts would not waver on the release date. Ultima IX was not received well by the community, to say the least. Not long after, all games being worked on by Origin, like Ultima Online 2 and Ultima X, were canceled and Origin was shuttered by EA.

EA still owns the name of the Ultima franchise, as shown in their Free-to-Play, Pay-to-Win, iOS title Ultima Forever, which is a reimagining of Ultima IV. In my opinion, reimagining one of the greatest RPG’s of all time as an iOS P2W App is a huge slap in the face to the original and the series.

However, Richard Garriott has a new offering in Shroud of the Avatar, the “spiritual successor” to the Ultima series which features just enough similarity to not trigger any copyright issues. As far as can be concerned it currently looks like a successful endeavor having raised over $3.3 Million in funds, is extremely open about it’s production (as it should be), and has been having periodic Alpha weekends for it’s supporters. I have personally played in the first Alpha, and I must say they look to be on the right track. More than graphics and features, the Ultima games had a specific “feel” to them.

In one of the best compliments I can give to the game, Shroud of the Avatar has that feel.

P.P.S. – According to Mr. Garriott, the plans to include all the “EA is the root of all evil” plots had already been so ingrained within Ultima VII that EA gave them their blessings to continue with them in place. I couldn’t imagine if U7 had turned out any other way, really, so I’m certainly glad they let them proceed.

Richard Garriott, EA, Origin

Listmas 2013: For My 100th Post, My Top 10 Favorite Posts on Casual Aggro

Today’s list, in celebration of Listmas, is going to be one that is a little self-aggrandizing. Forgive me, but I think I have a little reason to celebrate: This, right here, is my 100th post!!

Alright, 100 posts is not a big deal to some people who post daily, who can make that number in a couple months. But that’s not how I roll, I’m certainly not as prolific, and writing was by-far not my best subject in school. In fact, I’d still find more pleasure in working on a math problem that takes up three pages than write a three page paper. I think I spend way too much time fiddling with my text, making sure it’s as error-free as possible, and overall I’m still pretty hard on myself.

Yet, I’m still here and still posting, because deep down I feel like I am making a positive contribution to this hobby. I feel like I am making a difference, no matter how small, to this burgeoning industry, and I’m glad to be a part of such a huge, positive community.

So, for your enjoyment, here are what I consider to be my top 10 favorite posts of what I’ve written so far.

Guild Wars 2

10) Really, Why Are There Levels in Guild Wars 2

To this day, I’m still not positive why there are levels in GW2. As a form of measure of character improvement, I know it’s been around for ages, but I still believe there are better measures. Abilities, Gear, etc. I had the thought a while ago, that the whole reason why we go through the gear grind is simply to make content easier for us. That those who want difficulty truly don’t really want it. A leveling curve, if you keep up with it, just makes all content feel like the same difficulty. I’ll have to write more on this later…

9) NBI: List of Blogging Do’s and Don’ts

I started blogging during the first Newbie Blogger Initiative back in May of 2012. Alright, 100 posts in 20 months, that’s still 5 posts per month, which is still pretty good. But when the second Newbie Blogger Initiative came around this past October, I was a veteran. I had seen the horrors of blogging, and came back with stories and advice to give. This was not only a post to help the New Newbie Bloggers, but an acknowledgment of how far I have come.

Star Trek Online, Vault, Shuttle

8) Time Gates and MMOs Don’t Mix

Star Trek Online, for a while, had the brilliant idea to make some content only available during a small period of time. This made no sense, especially for those of us who don’t play a game all the time, or play casually. Keeping players away from playing content is just a terrible idea. Thankfully, they came to their senses. The content now can be played at anytime, with benefits for playing at specific times. Much better.

7) A Personal Argument Against the Always-On Trend

 I love MMO’s, but one of the key features of MMOs is that you’re online while you play them. But for single player games demanding that you always have an internet connection just to play them, under the guise of DRM, where you get no benefits from the internet connection, doesn’t make much sense. If I need to be connected, give me a good reason to be.

Battle Bards

6) Top 5 Favorite Video Game Music Compositions, A BattleBards Inspiration

Confession: Music was a big part of my life for a long time. In high school, I sang in the choir, was a member of the select choir, was a part of the band, and was a part of every musical production. Out of high school, I initially went to a big music school, was a part of a prestigious choir, and learned a lot about musical composition. Then, I was a part of student-run theatre organizations, starred in more musical productions, and then got offers to start working in New York theatre off Broadway, which I did for a couple minor productions.

Nowadays, music is not so big on my list of hobbies, but I still have a deep appreciation for it. So, combining music and gaming in a podcast is like combining chocolate and peanut butter. It’s perfect. Syp, Syl, and Mogsy do the honors in the BattleBards podcast, and I haven’t missed an episode yet. One of these days, I’m going to write in and tell them my appreciation, but I think telling all of you fine readers and passing along their work is worth a lot more. So, if you enjoy podcasts, and you enjoy video game music, check them out.

5) Master of Orion and Syp: A Tale of Humanity

I do mention Syp a lot on this blog, but he was the one that initiated the Newbie Blogger Initiative, and so is a big inspiration for me. Syp was playing the game Master of Orion, and blogging about all the details of the epic battles along the way. I’ve never played Master of Orion, but during this series of posts, I was really drawn in. Mostly because he was using other bloggers names as the names for planets, and this added a fun depth of community. But, really, it showed why we love games that let us forge our own path, and that is that we can create our own stories.

Also, Mr. Joseph Skyrim over at his JVT Workshop is doing the same, but playing the awesome old-school game Darklands. Give it a read.

Shroud of the Avatar

4) Shroud of the Avatar, DRM, and Why The Gaming Industry Should Take Notice

Shroud is going to have a very open-ended way of playing their game. First and foremost, though, is exactly what the game is. Is it a single player game? Is it an MMO? What is it? The answer is a combination of both, but I think it’ll lean more toward the single-player. If you want to play Shroud, you can play without an internet connection single-player, you can play with a connection and still play single player, you can play solo where other community members affect your game, and finally you can play and have other players play alongside you. So, an MMO? Not really, but it’s a lot more than just your average single-player game.

3) The Best MMO Payment Model Ever

In this post, I take a hard look at payment models, and why there is such a passionate fight behind them. I weigh the positives and negatives of each model, and reason what would be the best theoretical payment model. Hint: It’s Buy-To-Play.

Perfect World, Neverwinter, Star Trek Online

2) For Love of the Grind: 5 Reasons Why We Grind

Grind. Even though it has 5 letters, it feels like a 4 letter word. Many people rail against it, and burnout of playing a game is largely due to how much grind that game makes you go through. However, if our games didn’t have grind, they wouldn’t be MMOs. Grind is a necessity in our games, but is also one of the worst forms of content. In this post, I go over reasons why we still grind, despite our passionate fights against it.

1) How MMOs Are Adapting the Psychology of Casinos 

Yesterday my wife and I drove down to Atlantic City to attend a timeshare presentation. They were very accommodating, but we didn’t fall for their tactics, which included loud music to prevent overhearing others, making a big deal when somebody signed up for one of the timeshares, trying to drive a wedge between my wife and myself so we would fight each other, and playing very specific music guised as background music. I think I heard “Let’s Hear it For The Boy” from Footloose multiple times. Dance music from 1984? Fascinating.

I’ve lived a short distance from one of the USA’s gambling meccas for my entire life, and they’ve just built a few casinos across the river from us in Philadelphia as well. So, when entrenched with the psychological tactics that the casinos use to try separating one from their hard-earned money, you tend to understand the tactics, see them for what they are, and either go along with them, or fight them. However, the same tactics these casino use work so well that MMO’s have picked them up as well. This post details a few tactics that both MMOs and Casinos use, and they may not be exactly what you think they are.

Star Trek Online

So, there you go. 100 posts. It’s been a fun journey so far, and one that I will keep up with for as long as I feel like I’m making a difference. Hopefully, I’ll see you at 200.

// Ocho

Listmas 2013: Top 5 Games I Am Really Looking Forward To In The New Year #Listmas

Mirror's Edge

A Happy Listmas to you, kind sir! What?! You haven’t heard of Listmas?! But, tis’ the Listmas season!

Listmas is the time of year when we bloggers get together and make lists! Why? To entertain! To inform! To annoy! To… well you get the picture. So I decided to join Mr. C.T. Murphy over at Murf vs Internet and Ms. J3w3l at Healing the Masses and am getting myself into the Listmas spirit with my first list of the season.

However, I’m not that imaginative. So sue me. My first list is a little thing to break the Listmas ice, if you will, games that I am really looking forward to in the new year. Now, I know, I read the same Massively article you probably did, that 2014 is going to be a big year in the MMO space. We’re going to have The Elder Scrolls Online in April, Wildstar, Everquest Landmark, etc. three games which are highly anticipated… and I don’t really have any interest. Maybe a little for Wildstar, but at this point, not a single one has really drawn my interest.

So what AM I looking forward to?

5) Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey by Red Thread Games

I won’t lie, I have actually never played The Longest Journey or Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. But this title, being created by Ragnar Tørnquist’s independent Red Thread Games, under license by Funcom, has caught my attention. I feel like, as a gamer, I have missed out by not playing The Longest Journey series. And after playing The Secret World for as long as I have, and loving it as much as I do, if the story is anywhere near as good, then I need to go back and play them as soon as I can. This iteration isn’t slated until November, so I do have plenty of time. But around that time, my dance card may be a little filled up with other games on this list…

4) Broken Age by Double Fine and 2 Player Productions

The second of  three Kickstarter funded games on my list so far, Broken Age is the name decided on for the big Double Fine Adventure Kickstarted what feels like ages ago. You know, who knows if this will even launch in 2014. It may not. The Kickstarter funded fully in March of 2012, and since then, they’ve been working hard on the project. I haven’t payed the greatest of attention because I really want to be surprised, but so far it looks like they’re pulling in voice talent from all over the place including both Jack Black and Wil Wheaton. And the artwork? I can’t wait.

3) Might and Magic X: Legacy by Limbic Entertainment and Ubisoft

I started playing the Might and Magic series all the way back with Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen. Combined with Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen, this created a seriously epic experience that made a tremendous lasting impression on me. Since then I’ve played a few more of the series, but they didn’t have that same feel that World of Xeen had. Then they came out with the Heroes of Might and Magic series, and I played a ton of that as well. But the Heroes series is totally different than the originals, and though they are fun (and lengthy) strategy games, they don’t hold up to the initial Might and Magic awesomeness. However, it looks like Might and Magic X: Legacy will change that. Take a look at that trailer on the Steam page. That looks like it will be simultaneously back to basics, but in a modern way. This is set for a release in January, so it may be the first game I pick up.

2) Mirror’s Edge 2 by Electronic Arts

Alright. I’m not a huge fan of EA. I feel like they played a big part of ruining one of my favorite game series of all time, Ultima, with their intervention in Ultima 8 and Ultima 9 and for that, I will always see them in a negative light. However, not too long ago I picked up Mirror’s Edge in a Steam sale, played it, and was blown away. A First Person Shooter, where the protagonist doesn’t shoot. She runs, and jumps, and kicks, and slides, and bounds from rooftop to rooftop in this utopian world with a dark underbelly, trying to make right a terrible wrong. For me, it hit all the right notes. So, when I heard about Mirror’s Edge 2, I was really excited. So far, it looks like it has a 2014 release date, but we’ll see. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Shroud of the Avatar

1) Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues by Portalarium

The first RPG that I ever played was Ultima 6. It was a true game changer in my young world. Interaction with NPC’s was fully text-based with keywords. The game had an economy where you could make money without resorting to fighting. And the lore, the lore of the game had already stretched back 5 games before it. So, when Richard Garriott announced his Kickstarter campaign to create another game, not in the same world, but in the same spirit of the old Ultima games, I was right there. So last weekend, I jumped into Release 1, the first release of the playable Alpha for Shroud of the Avatar, and I came out of it a lot more impressed than I thought I would be. I’m going to expound more on this at a later date, but the overall impression I got was that it truly felt like an Ultima. I’m sure the text conversations I had played a lot into it, but I don’t care. I think they’re definitely on the right track, and with 10 months still to go before they release Episode 1, I’m sure they will get there.

So what are you excited for?

// Ocho

Shroud of the Avatar: Deck Building Combat? #SotA

Recently on the forums for the upcoming Shroud of the Avatar, Starr Long, one of the game’s executive producers and previous Project Director of Ultima Online, busted out details on upcoming available skills for the new game. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, to be honest. It’s quite the information overload, and without the game, out-of-context, it’s hard to picture. However, using other games we have played, we can make a few general assumptions on what we can expect.

Firstly, Starr explains that there will be two kinds of acquired experience: Crafting experience and Adventuring experience, which will give skill points. This makes sense. In Guild Wars 2, making hamburgers and salads somehow made you a better fighter. People found this awesome as they had an alternate method of leveling, which is always good, but if I go home and make 200 sandwiches, I’m not suddenly going to be more effective in a fist fight. Having Crafting experience separated from Adventuring is a good step.

He then goes on to explain that there will be no classes. Similar to The Secret World, Skill points earned in each discipline can be used to buy any skills you want, with more powerful skills needing the prerequisites underneath them. So, for Ranged weapons, you first pick up the basic skill Aimed Shot, which then forks to Active skills Disabling Shot & Piercing Shot, and the Passive skill Eagle Eye. Skill trees are found everywhere in almost every game, so this should be nothing new to anyone.

Physical combat has 8 specializations: On the offense there is Blades, Polearms, Bludgeons, and Ranged, and on the defense there is Light Armor, Medium Armor, Heavy Armor, and Shields. These seem pretty straight-forward, very Oblivion-esque.

Magic, too, seems like the style of Elder Scrolls. So far, there are 9 different styles: Sun, Moon, Earth, Air, Life, Death, Water, Fire, and Chaos. Every magic skill, apart from Chaos, appears to have it’s opposite style represented.

But throughout the post, he drops hints that combat itself might be something different than we are use to. For example, on spending Skill Points on Active Skills:

Adding skill points to Active Skills increases the number of copies of that skill the player has therefore increasing the frequency that skill will appear during combat.

Wait… what? “Increasing the frequency that skill will appear”? The wording he uses here is interesting. He doesn’t say “will decrease the cooldown of the skill” or “reduce the time in between attacks”, he says adding skill points to Active Skills adds to the “number of copies of that skill the player has”. I don’t know about you, but this is sounding a little like a card game style of combat.

There is a skill in Chaos Magic, too, which adds to this deck/card game style combat idea, the aptly named Tabula Rasa skill:

Tabula Rasa: Instantly discard all skills and replace with new skills

Discard and replace skills, huh? Okay. So far, then, we know Shroud of the Avatar’s combat will include copies of skills, which adding points to will increase the frequency that they will appear, and a magic skill to completely discard all skills and replace them with new ones.

Also in Chaos, there is the skill Chaotic Confusion which says it “randomly rearranges target’s skills”. Woah. This skill doesn’t seem like it would be very powerful in, say PvE, as the computer doesn’t care where it puts its skills, but in PvP, just imagine being thumped with an attack that completely rearranges your skillbars. In every game we play, that would feel pretty overpowered, unless your skills themselves are also being changed out consistently.

So are they somehow going to fuse the third-person 3D world that we are use to, with a randomized skill deck style of combat? I am intrigued, to say the least. Combat would feel very dynamic and fast-paced, especially if you’re not exactly sure what your next upcoming attacks may be.

Starr then goes on in the post to talk about Crafting and the skill trees that will open up, and how recipes can be purchased, traded, or discovered, which seems similar to Guild Wars 2. The crafting disciplines of Gathering, Refining, and Production, though, sounds like Lord of the Rings Online.

All in all, comparing a game’s system prior to launch is, in a sense, an exercise in futility. We may see signs of what it may look like, but in the same way we know the different parts of a car’s engine and how they interact, the feel of driving is something else entirely. This concept of deck-style randomized skills, though, sounds intriguing, and I’d love to see it in action.

I’d highly suggest giving Starr’s post a read, especially if you have any interest in Shroud of the Avatar‘s development.

// Ocho

P.S. – Of course, I could be reading it the wrong way and be WAY off, or it may change completely before now and release… but speculation is kinda what we do, yeah?

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

Shroud of the Avatar vs Ultima Forever [LBSOTA and UF]

The Ultima cup runneth over.

As of this writing, Shroud of the Avatar, is currently in a fully backed KickStarter phase with 16 days to go. Launched by Portalarium and fronted by the inimitable Richard Garriott, Shroud of the Avatar is shaping up to be an unofficial successor to the Ultima games of old. But… what the heck is it?

At this point, it sounds a lot like an infomercial. It’s an MMO! It’s an offline DRM-free single-player game! New York Times best-selling author, Tracy Hickman! A dynamic world! It makes julienne fries! Okay, maybe not that last one… but it almost seems like it could at this point.

Despite my mentioning Britannia and LB giving his Twitter seal of approval, SOTA will not be taking place in Britannia. Copyrights and trademarks and whatnot.

To say the least, I’m excited. The first RPG I played way back on my parents old IBM back in 1990 was Ultima VI and I was hooked. I loved it. Having played all my gaming on an Atari 7800 up until that point, Ultima VI was a totally mind-blowing experience. Instead of sending planes through barns, inadvertently squishing captives with a helicopter, and jumping over an alligator’s head for the umpteenth time, here was a full fantasy world to explore! A fleshed out world, too. Stores were only open during certain times of the day, the inhabitants of the world all had daily schedules to keep. Can’t find that one guy you needed to talk to? If it’s around dinner time, check the tavern or try to head to his house. Ultima VII came out and playing it was a no-brainer. However, it strained my parents old system to it’s limits. Aside from the stuttering vocalizations of the Guardian from those damn Soundblaster settings, I remember it taking about 10 minutes to save a game to the hard drive, which was already filled to the brim with the game! 20 Megabytes! Compared to today, that’s like a game taking up about 450 GB. But my parents, being the saints they are, let me enjoy it.

What followed was a love of the Ultima series. To this day I’ve played Ultima IV, VI, VII, VIII, and IX to full completion. In fact, in order to make Ultima IX play I bought my first real computer upgrade, a new video card that I had to install myself. So, in effect, the Ultima series is even to blame for starting my love of modifying and building PCs!

Anyway, the Shroud of the Avatar site has a multitude of videos to watch about the future game including Garriott interviewing Greg “Dupre” Dykes and David “Iolo” Watson, which for any Ultima fan are definitely a must watch.

Ultima: Savage Empire part of the Worlds of Ultima series using the Ultima VI engine.

But what of EA and Mythic’s forthcoming Ultima Forever? When I first heard of the title, I was definitely intrigued, but the gameplay trailer stopped me in it’s first couple of seconds…

You catch that? “Coming soon to iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch”… did I mention my love of modifying and building PCs and playing those previous Ultima titles on PCs? I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that if you’re an Ultima fan, you’re most likely pretty knowledgeable of your PCs… so what are they thinking? The iPhone is popular here in the US, but I wouldn’t quite call iOS the most widely used system. For that I’d use Android. I’m sure there are a few techies out there who love their iPhone and got in on the ground floor when it was brand new, but they are far from the majority of current iPhone users. At where I work the tech department are all rocking Android. Android has that versatility and customizability that techs crave, and a recent article even posits that Android has a 70% market share! So initially snubbing the Android and PC crowd? When being an Ultima fan essentially EQUALED you being a whiz with your PC? Okay. We’ll see how that goes. Shroud of the Avatar, by the way, is primarily being developed for PC first and foremost with possible stretch goals to mobile.

Now, to be fair, when I asked them and on their Facebook page, they do state that they plan on releasing the title for other platforms as well, like PC and Android, but they plan on releasing those in their own dear sweet time.

So, essentially, it doesn’t appear that EA is really targeting previous Ultima players as its demographic. Huh. Well, that’s fine. The industry today is far different than the industry of the 1990’s. It’s more action oriented, it’s more social, it’s more about skipping fluff quest text and getting to the meat of the game. But, for me, that’s not really what I want from an Ultima game.

Ultima Forever certainly looks nice (the huge hulking Warrior is an… odd choice), you do get to party in the old Britannia, and I’m sure playing from your tablet will be awesome. But when it comes down to what is the heart and soul of what the Ultima titles were, what was behind the graphics, it was about the story, about the choices you make and understanding your choices have consequence. From the racial issues in Ultima VI to the yin and yang of good and evil in Ultima IX, the Ultima series is ultimately about striving to be a better person.

Truth, Love, Courage. Garriott has already proven himself worthy in this department. EA, and some of their recent decisions… well, we’ll see.

// Ocho

P.S. – Good Old Games is giving away Ultima IV for free and has every single Ultima game, putting them on sale often. Graphically dated, but still classics. Especially Ultima VII.

P.P.S. – For the Ultima fans out there, just because you really shouldn’t miss this, David “Iolo” Watson playing Stones on his lute (queued up to the right time):