Unless you’ve been living in a galaxy far, far away you are likely already aware of the now infamous /getdown bug in Star Wars: The Old Republic. This bug allows you to drop aggro by simply using the in game emote /getdown (the TOR equivalent of /dance in every other mmo – damn, I knew this game would be revolutionary). This “exploit” has been allowing players to duo content intended for much larger groups by using a method called pong kiting in which one player attracts the enemies focus, then drops it to the support character as they both do damage. This lead to an e-mail being sent out to users stating that dancing has been banned except for designated “dance zones”. Use of the /getdown command outside of designated dance spots will result in an account ban. The e-mail has since been declared a forgery by Bioware, but still has lead to countless jokes.
It should come as no shock to anyone that I love games. However, what I really love is the meta-game of manipulating their mechanics to my benefit. My childhood was spent finding the most elaborate pathing, hex and other exploits in any game I could find. In single player games, this is all in good fun. For example B(DK) and I spent hours cracking into Morrowind, prancing through the skies at near light speeds. [editor’s note - any prancing on my part is purely conjectural - (B)DK]
In online games though, there is a whole new element. These (hopefully) balanced and elaborate game worlds require players to be on an even playing field if one’s accomplishments are to be honored. Regrettably for various game designers (*cough* Verant *cough*) this moral dilemma failed to stop me. Even after countless (7) of my accounts were banned in one of the earliest of MMOs, I could not be stopped. In fact, although no one should bring this up, I believe P is still rather salty about me getting his account banned for teleporting one of his characters into an epic keyed dungeon before anyone else had seen it.
One day I’ll share more of my Norrathian hijinks, but for now what I want to discuss is the opinions of the community. Is bending the mechanics and / or issues of a game world something that should be punished? Or should we plow forth like the chosen one bending these worlds into our play things? If you were threatened with account suspension, would you still exploit for loots and glory?
I can tell you how I would answer. And so can Trisha Whistlesong.
(+10 nerd points for those who get that final reference)
B(DK) recently posted an illuminating piece on World of Warcraft’s new Transmogrification feature. This feature, at first, really appealed to me. Despite the exponential increase in available stat bonuses, it’s been a long time since I’ve been excited like I was when I first fleshed out my Dungeon Set. Reliving these memories, albeit in a superficial way, really excited me. Additionally, the amount of variance in appearances will certainly vastly increase and this has to be a good thing for a game with less character customization options then the earliest Bratz entries.
It wasn’t long after the visions of my Undead Warlock strutting around in his Dreadmist Raiment began to fade, however, that I remember that Transmogrification isn’t that fucking cool after all.
Blizzard has done a great job of bringing MMOs to the mainstream. Thumbing through my contacts one could find an eclectic stable of humans of all variants that have at one time or another caroused in the taverns of Azeroth (and beyond). That said they have never really pushed the boundaries of current MMO development, and appearance slots are no exception.
Transmogrification may be a unique and fun word to say, but in application it is nothing more than a limited appearance slot system. EverQuest 2 introduced appearance slots with LU38 (September 2007). Lord of the Rings: Online has had them since launch (and supports multiple “costumes” that you can define and swap between at any time). If Blizzard has done anything for this mechanic beyond giving it a ridiculous name, they’ve reduced the usefulness of it. Appearance slot mechanics of other games do not require you to change the appearance of an item, but rather “wear something over it” thus maintaining the original items appearance if you ever wish to return to it. They also tend to offer loads of appearance specific items to outfit your character in.
In the end though, it does excite me knowing that after my next return from Azeroth torpor and drooling over the first avatar I see, I may not round the corner to run into another dozen all clad in the same “epic, rare, legendary” armor as the first.
I’m also awaiting the day I get to write another response to one of B(DK)’s post and entitle it, “Why Housing in WoW Isn’t That Cool After All”
This is not a persuasive argument telling gamers to move outside and feel the sunshine. No. Video games are another form of entertainment media that we consume for various reasons. Sometimes we run outside, and sometimes we read, watch and play media. Yet I must say, video games, in their current form, cannot replace physical activity. As often as I’ve been playing Battlefield 3, it fulfills a different, yet completely legitimate, need when compared to something like laser tag. Specifically, tactical laser tag.
The tactical means restriction. In video game language, this is a hardcore mode. Weapons need reloading (and aren’t made of Fisher-Price plastic), only head shots count and rather than running around a dimly lit neon colored sex dungeon players dash about a faux city landscape.
I visited a laser tag location obviously inspired by Counter-Strike. We planted bombs (a suitcase with a keypad), hunted down VIPs (during our match, a short fat kid) and protected vital locations. Clambering through an urban jungle gym for over an hour, my legs started to tire. My tactics shifted as fatigue became a factor in the tactical equation. Exhaustion intensified the already intense.
Video games have tried recreating fatigue. Operation Flashpoint had your character gasping for air as his aim became erratic. An aesthetic and mechanical implementation. Sports games (at least when I still played them a decade ago) featured bars that represented how tired your character was. Bar isn’t full anymore? Pull the quarterback out.
Yet none of this accurately simulates fatigue. The emotional impact of fatigue does not translate. Call of Duty has your character stop sprinting as he becomes tired. Seconds later, he sprints again. What does fatigue mean at this point?
Battlefield 3 is Forrest Gump. You can sprint forever. And you know, I’m okay with that. I want to sprint forever in Battlefield 3. As I’m forced to run across an entire map because a teammate gleefully decides to destroy my jeep (jerk), I realize how much I enjoy the ability to sprint indefinitely. The rules of reality are ignored for the sake of the game.
And I’m not ready for video games to replicate reality. Or maybe I never want video games to replicate reality. Having to hide and recuperate energy in a Battlefield 3 match sounds terribly uninteresting. On the other hand, perhaps unwrapping a Power Bar during a Battlefield 3 match would present another source of income. Sacrifice a little creativity for some commercialization.
Video games can find the most enjoyable aspects of reality and boil them down into a digestible experience. If I want to feel the rigors and exhaustion of combat (without the risk of death or serious injury), I have the option of tactical laser tag. Battlefield 3 satisfies competitive needs and wants of a different variety (and sometimes of a more numerical variety as I continue playing to better my win/loss ratio). It’s a differing desire that is at times hard to articulate. Am I looking for the sensations of combat but in a relaxing environment without combat’s negative aspects? Is it to fill competitive desires or maybe to fill a social need?
Yet, Battlefield 3 does take an emotion and create a mechanic. As bullets whizz by your character, your vision becomes blurry. You cannot see. You have become suppressed. Battlefield 3 takes the fear of death and translates it into a mechanic. Gamers do not feel the fear of death (as a person that is being suppressed in reality might feel), but instead find their vision blurred. Enemies and friendlies become unidentifiable. Time to find cover. Could fatigue take on a form like this? Would gamers want it?
It’s difficult. Maybe a developer could implement fatigue in an interesting manner like Battlefield’s suppression. Suppression, for me, differentiates Battlefield 3 from other first-person shooters and gives me a reason to return. The game rewards a successful suppression tactic (points, points, points!), and as my vision blurs, I do not become frustrated. I think, “shit, I better get cover.” Then I usually die.
Maybe past video game experiences with fatigue mechanics have soured my perspective. Perhaps fatigue evokes different emotions than suppression and is a human condition that most players and developers find unappealing. Yet as I crouched in a corner to catch my breath and reloaded my laser gun, I felt an intensity that is not matched by any video game. My brain wanted to slowly creep down a hallway, but my body disagreed. That’s an intensity that I do not necessarily know if I ever want in Battlefield 3. Yet, Battlefield 3 made me enjoy being suppressed. Huh.
I love Skyrim. I’m a level 66 Dunmer Magethief, Leader of the Thieves Guild, Archmage of Winterhold, Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, Dragonborn, etc etc. The ability to collect honorifics on my character like I collect acute afflictions on my real human body is enough by itself to justify the game’s existence. But this is a Bethesda game, which means that it reaches for the stars and ends up on a majestic mountain.
Skyrim is not, as reputed, a buggy nightmare. I’m sure you’ve eavesdropped on some anecdotal evidence. You’ve probably googled a video like this. There are bugs; this is incontrovertible. However, these are not significant, and reportedly quite rare if you haven’t cast your lot with Sony’s station of play, the third. (A high-end PC is the clear Champion of the Skyrim Brawl for Platform Supremacy).
The real flaws of Skyrim are elsewhere, revealed through careful but persistent rubbing. To wit:
Endless spelunking. While improved over the Lemmiwinksian tubing that passed as caverns in Oblivion and Morrowind, the subterranean areas still feel cramped and repetitive early in the game, with the ruins following suit soon after. Sadly, Bethesda has again relied on ruins and caves as the bread and butter settings of their quests. This detracts from the expansiveness of the game in that more often that not, when you try to accomplish something in Skyrim, you end up in a dark hole somewhere. Furthermore, every guild relies heavily on this questing format, so that the rank-climbing experience becomes somewhat homogeneous. Want to be a great wizard? Go find a magical staff in a cave. Want to be a brilliant musician? I left my lute in a cave; retrieve it. Want to be a mighty warrior? I heard there’s a shield in a cave around here.
Blackreach is a glorious exception to the preceding complaints.
The leveling system is preposterously unforgiving. I was only able to reach 66 after grinding skills in a way that was not unlike the drudgery of early EverQuest. It was a lonely, bitter task. I understand that the intention is for the player to gain skills as they quest, but the time it would take to raise these skills by questing (and not focused grinding) is astronomical. This is especially evident in the spell schools and the crafting professions. The ultimate result is that the narrative of the game world has the potential to progress much faster than the abilities of your character. I defeated the two main quests and still felt fairly wimpy after the fact. (I played on Adept, because I wanted to finish the game before 2013 - this parenthetical leads in to my next point.)
The differences in difficulty levels are superficial. A.I. does not change in any noticeable fashion from one end of the scale to the other. Only health and damage done are adjusted. That’s it. So instead of being given the choice of hacking through mindless hordes OR strategizing about clever tactical enemies, the player essentially adjusts how long the fight will last and how many potions will be needed. High difficulty should not necessarily translate to better inventory management and shooting 10 times as many fireballs.
No flying. A shout that lets you command your own personal dragon is included in this game, but there is no flying. Not even as a skippable fast travel cinematic. A travesty. Even Link is flying these days.
Speaking of teh dag0rns, my major complaint with them is not their tendency to bug. Rather, it is that for brilliant supernatural beings with the innate ability to fly, THEY CERTAINLY STRUGGLE WITH FINDING A GODDAMNED PLACE TO LAND ON THE GROUND. I’ve spent a shameful amount of my precious time chasing dragons after successful Dragonrends simply because the trees were too dense or the terrain too rocky in that area. Many times, the dragon would just timeout. After a few minutes of not being engaged, dragons leave and end their events. The fact that I often chased long enough for this to happen speaks to the significance of this flaw.
Another flaw of dragon fights: The first fight is incredible. Over the next dozen or so, they go from great to pretty cool. After that they become a grim necessity. But once you get late into your character’s progression, and especially when you have no more need for selling or crafting dragon materials, dragon fights become obnoxious, fast-travel-confounding chores. You will have more dragon souls than you could ever use in your inventory, and you will be plagued by the moral implications of keeping a soul-hoard of ancient reptilian demigods for no discernible reason.
I could fill an equal space singing the multifarious praises of this game, but that has been done extensively, effectively, and elsewhere, and I am therefore uninterested. I do take exception to the “OMGSOBUGGY” narrative that has overtaken the Skyrim discussion. This discussion of Skyrim’s real weaknesses is an attempt to change that narrative to something more useful, and I encourage you to add observations of your own. We know why bugs happen, but flaws in design and mechanics as they were intended to be implemented are a far more important consideration when evaluating a game purchase.
As any veteran World of Warcraft player knows, WoWing is something one does in sporadic bursts of immersion. Therefore my accumulated playtime, utterly unprintable in its length, was not earned consecutively. It was gained instead through frenzied slaughtering binges, occasionally interrupted by lengthy periods of druidic hibernation. The slumber usually comes after a grueling and protracted task is completed, whereupon I experience a total collapse of motivation. Until 4.3, I had been deep in one of these slumber-states, recuperating from leveling a fourth character to 85- a fact that is nearly unprintable in itself.
Now I have emerged blinkingly from my wintry den, shielding my brow, drawn by the maddening siren’s song of transmogrification.
"What is this transmogrification?" quoth the uninitiated. “Will it turn me into something… unnatural?”
Nay. In the context of WoW, transmogrification is the process of applying one item’s appearance to another like item. The transmogrified item retains its original (ideally epic) stats while taking on the new (old) look. There are a number of rules restricting this process, but even considering those limitations, Blizzard has implemented an incredible platform for player creativity.
This is a significant development. What it represents is a massively mainstream game actually adapting itself to unconventional play with a fundamental shift in mechanics. Acting largely on the basis of customer demands, Blizzard has created a concrete convention that facilitates an abstract, unsanctioned playstyle which developed organically in the user base. How devastatingly post-structural!
Some background on the aforesaid unsanctioned playstyle: In recent years, as players have reached dizzying levels of power and hitpoints hitherto reserved for old world deities, soloing early-era raids has become an increasingly popular pastime. This could also indicate restlessness resultant from a general disenchantment with shortcomings in the end game. For my part, this is true. Given the rapidity of the WoW release schedule, rewards tend to obsolete themselves as quickly as you get them. This would not be a problem if the means for obtaining the rewards were obsoleted as rapidly, but they are on the contrary nearly static, especially for the PVP-oriented. (If I want a new set of battleground gear on my characters right now, for instance, I will have to endure about 20 hours of the same battlegrounds I’ve been playing for the last 5 years. Imagine a single Halo or Call of Duty title surviving for five years, limited to a selection of only six maps.) Structuring the end game in this way leads to an obscene amount of repeated content, which has caused many, if not all of my burnouts.
Certainly, this is not true of everyone, but I can only speak for myself. I personally know of players that retro raid in between sessions of hardcore WoWery, so this phenomenon is not necessarily a symptom of end game fatigue; it is simply a possibility that exists. Regardless, retro raiding has been ascendant for quite some time. A consequence of this trend is a profusion of gear from Ye Olde School and a yearning to rock that gear usefully. Enter transmogrification.
Say what you will about Blizzard’s cumulative customer service history and questionable intended developments, this feature is a win, and marks the most drastic departure yet from the authoritarian MMO purism of yore. Those of you who have played earlier, more draconian MMOs know that of which I speak; the mental hobgoblin that shrilly insists on adherence to the pagan idols of Lore and Fictional Integrity at a severe cost to the enjoyability of the user experience. Of the old ways, this is one whose passing will go unmourned in my corner of Azeroth, like the JRPGs and manual save features of yesteryear. Now if you’ll excuse me, my lockout on Karazhan is up.