Sunday, 6 July 2008

Joysticks at the ready

I originally started playing Star Wars Galaxies fairly early on in its life and pretty much instantly fell in love with what I saw.

No, this isn't going to be a bitch and whine fest over the guys at SOE celebrating SWGs 5th anniversary (Don't even get me started on that one).

It pretty much consumed a lot of my off-duty time. But in October 2004 the game got a whole lot bigger with the release of the first expansion - Jump to Lightspeed.

If you were to flash back about 10 years before that period and you would see the beginings of my gaming addiction taking form, along with my love affair of sci-fi.

When I was a teenager I used to mess around with my dads home pc and often get shouted at for screwing around with stuff he thought I didn't understand. He would get really pissed at me if I installed a game without consulting him about it first.

After a while I learned that my dads overall knowledge of computing wasn't so hot and all I had to do was hide the shortcuts and rename the directories and he had no clue!

And so it was that I had many happy hours after installing TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance. My father remained blissfully unaware of this little addiction of mine until he came home from work one day and I'd forgotton to hide the joystick!

However, I digress as usual.

The Jump to Lightspeed expansion gave players who were so inclined the opportunity to fly many different types of ship (depending on your faction of choice) and enter space combat above the planets they'd been happily exploring for the previous 11 months.

The chance to eventually fly a YT-1300, a Tie Advanced, an A/B/X/Y-wing or even a Firespray Interceptor like Mr Fett used to fly was just too awesome for words.

In addition, each faction had 3 flight schools (for lack of better words) with their own missions and storylines. These schools were the means for progression by both killing a shit ton of enemy fighters and carrying out scripted missions to gain advanced training.

I am quite proud of my accomplishments in SWG space having mastered the Pilot profession 5 times, trying out the Imp (twice), Rebel (twice also) and Privateer schools!

All this mounted up to having almost 2 games in 1. Your friends not online to go hit the Geo caves on Yavin? Fine, head up in to Kessel space and take on the gunboats if you're man enough!

The reason I bring up these painful memories (*sniff* RIP Galaxies) is that, despite the blatant gap in the market for a decent Sci-fi MMO, there have not been any decent space sims on the market for quite some time now either.

...until now.

I may be getting ahead of myself but this looks like a big ball of awesomesauce as far as I'm concerned.

The reports I've read over at Massively indicate that the company behind it (Netdevil) has learned from its previous mistakes with titles such as Auto Assault and is not planning on releasing this game until. it's. ready. - a philosophy that several other game development companies could do well by adopting imho.

I've already applied for the beta and, if space sims are your thing, would suggest you do too. If you have already applied, you may want to take a trip back to their site as they are asking people to re-apply.

Now all I have to do is convince the lady of the house that the HOTAS Cougar is a worthwhile and essential purchase!

If you're looking to read up on more of what they have planned, you can either head on over to the official site or read the reports at Massively or TenTonHammer.

Having read many of the articles released so far, I for one am looking forward to this release.

Friday, 20 June 2008

FunComs "After Sales Care"

Alternate title "How to ignore your playerbase"


1 word.

3 letters (usually).

Such a tiny word, but a word hated by gamers the world over nonetheless.

Unfortunately, lag is a word which is currently being used in reference to Age of Conan a little too frequently for my tastes. The forums are currently rampant with players on both sides of the Atlantic complaining about degraded performance in-game, especially since the most recent patch.

This blogger himself has also had the misfortune to experience crippling latencies which make the game completely unplayable. One minute you're happily cantering along on your damned expensive horsey, off on your merry way to see the trader...

And then you notice it out of the corner of your eye.

That little green bar in the bottom corner of your screen. The one that keeps you happy. Safe in the knowledge that the little packets of information, flitting backwards and forwards between your client and the remote server, are happily reaching their destination.

But it's not little anymore. It's growing.

...and it's getting yellow.

...and then it's red.

Before you know it, your ping hits 8800ms and you travel back in time to 1955!

Or, more accurately, 9834ms ping followed by a disconnect from the game.

This has been a common occurrence for adventurers making their way through Hyborea. But, unfortunately, it's one which FunCom seem inclined to ignore.

If you take the fairly considerable amount of time required to read through the mass of posts on the official forums, you'll notice a lot of irate paying customers who are not getting the answers they need and deserve.

Aside from one of the Dev Team popping on to ask people to submit their Tracert logs from their IP to the AoC server, there has been no further contact between the Devs/CMs and the playerbase except to inform us that they do not believe that the problem lies at their end.

After reading a lot of these threads there does not seem to be any commonality with the players which could link it to anything other than the FunCom side of the chain.

Router firmware, network drivers for motherboards, ISPs, VPNs, traffic shaping. You name it - it has all been discussed.

When all is said and done, the only thing all these people have in common is AoC. Many players also have active accounts in other games and have reported that all is well when they connect to them instead.

Already, throngs of people are threatening to cancel their accounts if their pleas are ignored for much longer. A not uncommon cry from the crowds when situations like this appear.

Despite AoC still being in its infancy, this is a pretty game-breaking issue and when threads on the topic reach the 500 post mark (with only 1 official response included) you have to wonder at the level of customer service being provided.

Especially so when the game has already come under fire for the level of response provided by the in-game petition system.

For now, I'm prepared to give them a fair crack of the whip and stick it out. Despite this issue there is still pure gold under it all just waiting to be given its moment to shine. And I genuinely do want to see that happen.

But I can't deny that I vehemently curse the unborn children of FunComs employees when a lagspike hits me at the worst possible time. It's just another of the annoyances that has plagued every online game at some point or another.

However it turns out, I'll do my best to keep you apprised of any developments.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Middle aged

As my 2 main characters approach and pass the level 40 mark in FunComs 'Age of Conan', I feel that now is the time to pass on my observations about the game so far.

Many other sites have covered the first 10 levels and they have done so very well. So, I will be concentrating on the grind proper; the experiences after you leave the starter isle of Tortage.

There are two ways to leave the noob zone at present. You can complete your class destiny quest, the night time single player mode, or you can speak to your class trainer and ask to forego the whole chain and be magically teleported to your homeland.

After completing the Tortage quests once through, the temptation is to just zoom through and get out of it much quicker the second time around. In my opinion this would be a mistake. Once you have played through the zones once, you get a feeling for how things are laid out, which makes your second and subsequent journeys far quicker.

You learn the most expeditious routes to complete your quests. Combine that with the fact that none of the quests are overly taxing and you can pretty much fly through them with ease and very little time spent.

In addition, 'The End Battle' which, as the title suggests, is the final quest in your beginner destiny chain is well worth doing. If not for the XP alone, for the loot that accompanies it. The drops off the bosses and mini-bosses alike are well worth grabbing, as is the reward for taking down Strom - the Tyrant of Tortage. The weapon you receive is class specific and will probably last you well into your 30s.

After kicking the crap out of Strom, Kalanthes of Ibis greets you once more and sends you on your way to your homeland. If you have read other reviews you will remember that Kalanthes is the first character you meet on your AoC journey when you find yourself washed ashore on the beach back at level 1.

One loading screen later and you find yourself in a much bigger world.

There are three Homelands (for lack of better words) in Hyborea for our intrepid adventurers: Aquilonia, Cimmeria and Stygia.

Those classes who head to Aquilonia will find their homeland vaguely reminiscent of ancient Rome. The architecture and clothing appears very much in the vein of Caesar's era and is beautifully rendered, as are all the maps I have encountered so far.

Its capital city, Old Tarantia, is a joy to walk around. Unfortunately, as it is a central location for players travelling through zones, it can become a bit of a lagfest at certain times of the day/week.

Cimmeria, in contrast, appears to have more of a Baltic feel to it. Cold harsh environments, living in a perpetual winter. The NPCs wear armour which has a Mongol feel to it and the bleak mountains and weather effects there lend a depressing air to it

Stygia, the zone which I have had the most experience with so far, is the homeland I am going to concentrate on for now.

The capital of Stygia, Khemi, seems to modelled on the stereotypical Arabic city. And an amazing job the guys at FunCom have done too. The bustle of activity in the Soukh, the distinct background music and the architecture all add up to a very well designed region.

The first thing that hits you as you start to wander around is the sheer scale of the game. As a starter zone, Tortage has three instances which give it a fairly big feel. It should not be confused here with the way in which the term 'instance' is used in other MMOs like Warcraft. AoCs instances are more like other zones which have players other than yourself happily running around inside.

After carrying out a few simple tasks in the capital, you are sent off to the main quest zone for that region. In the case of Stygia, this is a zone called Khopshef Province.

The province has several quest hubs scattered throughout the zone which lead you to find the next one through the quests given at the previous. As you level up, revisiting a hub where you have completed all the quests is advisable as more quests become available.

It is very easy to level up from 20 to 30 in this zone alone and, while the majority of the content can be solo'd, there are some quests which require the presence of companions.

For the most part, AoC tries its best to stay away from the 'Kill Ten Rats' philosophy, but this staple isn't always avoidable and you occasionally find yourself killing spotted hyenas for their tongues (apparently their incessant 'yipping' is keeping the villagers awake at night!). Why the poor spotted hyenas are taking all the shit for this is beyond me...I blame the striped ones myself with their all night oasis parties :P

It's worth mentioning that AoC also has instances in the classic sense of the word. The dungeons I have encountered so far are all graphically pleasing on the eye and are fun to run. On entering, you have the option to select 'normal' or 'epic' mode.

This is completely different from other games of this genre in that normal mode is designed for players to head in by themselves and epic requires a group as the mobs inside have approximately 30-50% more health than regular NPCs.

This is a good call by FunCom imho as they accept that not everyone wants to group to get their quests done. Or more importantly, given the time of day that some people are able to play, not everyone is able to find a group.

The only real issue I have had so far with questing is, on completion of a zone, it is not quickly evident where you should be heading to next. On my first time through, I had to rely on zoning into a new region and checking out the level of the local bad guys. While this does encourage you to explore more and get to know your way around, I feel that this could have been better presented.

Fortunately, players are already releasing levelling guides so the process should get easier as time goes by. But for the uninitiated it can cause teething problems.

Overall, when I compare my experiences of AoC with my past excursions into a new MMO, I'm impressed with what FunCom have accomplished. Bugs and performance issues aside, this game has a lot of potential. Given that sales indicate that they have already reached the 1 million copies sold mark, it's now a waiting game to see if they can rival Blizzard for customers.

There have been several gripes on the forums about the lack of end-level content by the addicts who have already reached level 80 (seriously...get a life?) but FunCom have already released a statement of intent for the next few months indicating that they are aware of this and are already working on it.

As long as they don't take too long on this as NCSoft made a similar mistake in Tabula Rasa which has been the sticking point for players over there for some time now. Players of that MMO have already started to highlight their concerns with their wallets - cancelling their subscriptions.

For now, this is a game well worth investing some time in. Every game needs a little time to settle down after the initial rush. So as long as you are able to accept imperfections from time to time, you wont be disappointed.

I'll report more as my characters progress.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

The need to MOD

As long as there are MMOs, there will always be people who think that they can do a better job.

Sometimes they're just bitter whiners complaining about a class nerf.

Sometimes though, they're clever, intuitive people who see a way to improve existing code.

I think that the first user interface mod for Age of Conan was out within a week of general release. The fact that the player community in many of todays MMOs can look at a new release and figure out a way to optimise the layout of the interface is both good and bad.

It's good because there are people out there who care about games and want to make things run more efficiently, while being easier to use. It's a bad thing because, quite frankly, the game designers should see these issues and improve their UI before release.

You could argue, I suppose, that the Devs allow the coding to be altered so that people can freely pick their own UI of choice.

However, I digress as usual.

Today I wanted to quickly highlight a UI mod for AoC which has been released and is an absolute godsend. Especially if you are like me and always need more buttons! It reduced the size of the original clumpy buttons and adds a 3rd row for buff options. The latest version adds even more room so I'm in mod heaven right about now!

In addition, if you are familiar with the standard UI, the change to the button size means that you now effectively have about 48 buttons down the right hand side of the screen!

It's called WerikUI and can be found on the developers website here or through the Curse portal here.

Either way, it's a good start and I'll be keeping my eye out for more addons as the months progress.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Tempus Fugit

...and the hours melted into days and the days into weeks.

I don't believe that I suffer from the MMO variety of OCD, but the launch of a new game does tend to engender a type of tunnel vision in me.

At the moment, if I'm at home, I'm either asleep or online in Age of Conan.
If I'm at work. I'm either carrying out the random whims of my Boss or sneaking a peek at the the AoC forums or Massively for my daily fix.

In fact, if I'm honest, I usually have the websites opened up underneath any presentations or analysis he has me working on at the time.

I can see some of you sat here reading this and nodding sagely in agreement, having done the same on a regular basis at your own places of work.

Don't deny it! You know it's true!

Anyway, the one certainty in the launch of a new game is the plethora of bugs that accompany it. I think I've yet to see a brand new game go on general release with a perfect client, stable servers/connection and few to no bugs or glitches.

Emergency hotfixes and patches are so commonplace these days that people very rarely raise an eyebrow when they occurr.

Obviously they reserve the right to bitch and moan, but anyway...

AoC is no exception in this case and, while there can be no doubt that the game does have a high level of polish, the first few weeks have had their share of bumps.

The proof of this can be seen most prominently on the official forums, where fanbois, whiners, 12 yr olds and CM wannabe's alike gather to berate or defend the choices and actions of FunCom and it's this that I wanted to write about.

It's kind of like the Forums version of the Bartle Gamer Psychology results!

I guess I'd be 75% Fanboi 90% CM Wannabe 25% Whiner 10% 12 yr old!

Recently, the general threads have been plagued by people expressing their outrage at FunComs handling of the problems which have been identified in game.

Now I can't deny, I've already had cause to /petition a GM twice so far myself due to broken quests which prevent you from progressing your character past the starting zone of Tortage. When the Games Master finally arrived in all his/her lvl 100 glory complete with shiny armour, the service was definitely above average. They literally appeared to me and discussed the exact nature of the bug and precisely what steps I had taken before taking any actions to rectify it.

The actual problem was solved in about 2 minutes flat and I got a sense of the GM knowing exactly what to do and having a conversation with me - rather than some scripted macro responses that GMs from a certain other MMO are well known for.

That said, some people have had slightly different experiences in this area.

For example, seeing the following in your chatlog is not exactly reassuring:

>/Petition Status
> Your petition is currently 195 in the queue

As more problems are arising, people are reporting having waited for over 7 hours in many cases just to get their issue seen to. That's 7 hours of not being able to use your main character.

So what do you do?

You roll an alt right?


Ok, so there you are running around Tortage...again.

Doing the quests you've finished the previous or the same day...again.

And you decide to test a theory.

>/Petition Status
> Your Petition is currently 134 in the queue.

Cool! You can check the status of your problem while playing your alt. That should make things easier. I mean, if you can see how your fault is progressing in the queue while playing a different character, it must be tied to your whole account right? Not just one character.

Surely it must be...


So, over the next few hours you watch your place in the queue get closer to the top spot. And then, as you feel the tension mounting, you check one...more...time.

>/Petition Status
> You do not currently have an open petition.

W T F ??

You log back on to your main character only to find a buffered message from a GM. "We recently attempted to contact you regarding your petition 'Bugged Quest: Unable to leave Tortage due to quest-specific boss mob despawn', please feel free to resubmit your petition if the problem persists".


It doesn't exactly paint a positive image for potential customers. Especially following on from FCs pervious bad publicity of the Open Beta client debacle.

The fact remains that this game is still in its infancy. This isn't an excuse, nor should it be used as one. But I think that some peoples expectations are more than just a little unrealistic. Some gamers are already using the 'screw this, I'm off back to WoW' emo post with a little too much enthusiasm for my liking. These same people are more than likely lashing out in frustration without remembering why they came over to AoC in the first place.

...either that or they are actually Blizzard employees sowing the seeds of propaganda!

I do believe that FunCom could do with a few more GM employees on their books to help in this formative period. Not only would this stop a fair few players from getting quite so pissed off but it would have the knock-on effect that those same players wouldn't then start whining on the forums like little biatches!

Sunday, 18 May 2008

A whole new world

Up until last night I had been on an endless stream of 13 hour night shifts. I'm not after sympathy here, far from it. I say this to give you an idea of how tired I was at 2am this morning when I finally logged out after my first session of Age of Conan!

I was one of the lucky ones who managed to get into the early access program and have therefore been happily running round DoT'ing things with unholy necromancer goodness!

Anyway, I figured that while my server was down for 2 hours maintenance, I could jump back in here and give you my impressions of the first 20 levels. I'm not going to go into too much detail as other websites such as Massively have done a far better job.

Overall, I'm pretty damned happy with the game.

OK, next topic.

Just kidding!

If you've read my other stuff, you'll know that quests are a bit of a gripe of mine. I always get a bit disheartened when venturing into a new game only to be confronted by some farmer who has a real issue with boars eating his fucking turnips etc.

But so far, FunCom has done a pretty good job with the interaction with quest givers. Instead of the standard accept/decline option, you have the ability to actually converse with your target much like the response options in the Knights of The Old Republic games. My particular preference at the moment is using the sarcastic options and being generally rude to the NPCs! I know they don't have feelings etc but it's nice to break from the standard format and be given a free reign.

The starter quests, up until you reach Tortage (the first multiplayer town zone), are nicely simple and introduce you to most of the common UI features. The first NPC who introduces himself to you upon your arrival on the beach also starts you down your personal storyline, a feature similar to LoTRO epic quest chapters. The main difference between these two being that, in AoC, you carry out the personal story in singleplayer mode at night time and are unable to receive help from your friends.

But by far the happiest point on this subject so far is that there have been decidedly few 'kill ten rats' quests.

/happy dance!

The combat system is fairly straightforward and doesn't take long to get to grips with. My friends seem quite happy with the melee side of things but I can only comment from a caster perspective. Each class has their mainstay spells and attacks which will all seem and look fairly similar up to about lvl 17.

Don't get me wrong here, they do look good. But I'm kinda waiting to see how spellweaving turns out, so stay tuned for more on that as I progress. You can't really expect a game to throw out their best stuff in the first five minutes of a game or you wouldn't be quite so impressed later on...or willing to journey there to find out what's waiting.

My only real grievance here so far is the UI. As well laid out as it is, there are a few tweaks or options which could have made things better imho.

Firstly, your bottom hotkey bar is quite blocky and takes up quite a bit of space. It has a similar sort of feel to the GuildWars design but you aren't limited to sticking with a set choice of spells or attacks.

Because you use the first 3 boxes for your melee attacks, you are effectively only left with 7 spaces to assign to spells/attacks. Now, even though you have other spaces you can assign to your other attacks, I always prefer to have everything close together so that I don't have to move my cursor around too much when I'm in a fight. You can see what I mean from my WoW UI below.

Regarding the melee attack buttons, although it is possible to move them, they are bound to the 1,2,3 keys which makes it really easy to use them if you are an old WASD user like myself. Hence you don't really want to bother moving them.

Second, there are 2 other rows that you can use but they aren't positioned in the most ideal place. Couple this with the fact that a misclick can make them re-align themselves horizontally (as default they are aligned vertically down the right-hand edge of the screen) and half your spells are now somewhere off screen!

But then you take a look at the distinctly non-cartoony graphics, the lush detail in the environment, the vast openness of the zones and you don't mind quite so much.

The one bit of praise I still have for Blizzard is in one of the few things I hope that FC will decide to follow and allow users to design mods for the UI. If we are eventually able to alter the UI to our own preferences then this will be a serious contender in my eyes.

Anyway, the servers are coming back shortly so I'll sign off for now. But keep checking back for updates.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Just don't


Do NOT click this link:


Don't say I haven't warned you.

This blogger and website accept no responsibility in whole or part for any loss of individuals' time or sanity incurred through clicking this link.

3 hours today...gone...just like that. I think it appeals to the obsessive compulsive in me!