Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

Creative, complex web comics reach for audience beyond the funny pages

For most readers, comics come in two flavors: the venerable, kid-friendly stuff on the funny pages and the intermittently hilarious panels on the editorial page.

But the web has created a new kind of comic — a thousand new kinds of comics, as varied and eccentric as the people who read them. Just as blog publishing has turned everybody with an Internet connection into a political commentator, anyone who can draw stick figures can start a comic and build an audience online.

In fact, my favorite comic is nothing but stick figures. It’s called The Order of the Stick, available at www.giantitp.com. Creator Rich Burlew started OotS in 2003 as a kind of parody of/tribute to the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game. Early strips were full of story tropes and gamer in-jokes, but Rich has matured as an artist and a storyteller — crafting a brisk, engaging story full of nuanced characters and deeply satisfying plot twists.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

August 20, 2009 at 15:08

Posted in Columns, Games

Dear Bioware, Please save me from your new Star Wars game

I’m going to write about the new Star Wars game today, but this is not a preview. This is a cry for help.

I spent three happy years playing “World of Warcraft,” and three years playing “Ultima Online” before that. I could hedge my language and try to wiggle out of it, but the technical term for my condition is “addict.”

I kicked my Warcraft habit last year when the novelty finally wore off. I played every class in the game and even tried my hand at high-level raiding for a while. Then the Lich King expansion came out and I realized if I wanted to keep up with my guild I would have to have to work my way through 10 more levels of crap.

I did everything I could to relieve the boredom but at that exact moment the game became work. Kill 20 of these, collect 10 of that. Carry this item to this person and spend 30 minutes watching an animated bird carry you across the world. I couldn’t take it anymore. I actually grew to resent the game. Logging in felt like a job, a duty — a chore I had to complete before I was allowed to do anything “fun.”

It was a strange feeling, to feel contempt for something I used to be addicted to — like I had suddenly developed an allergy to ice cream or come to despise the sight of cupcakes. Perhaps I should thank Blizzard Software for ruining their game. They killed something I loved and let me get my life back.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

July 30, 2009 at 15:24

Posted in Games

The Agency brings superspies to the MMO arena


Here’s a video from Sony’s new game The Agency.

At first glance it’s a James Bond-style superspy and mercenaries game that you can play in a persistent world with other players, but it’s got some innovations that I’m really looking forward to.

In this game you’re not just managing your character, you’re actually building your own spy agency, collecting NPC operatives who will work for you and perform missions while you’re offline.

That’s the part that really grabbed me. The notion that you can assign tasks to your operatives right before you log off the game. You can assign sub-agents can infiltrate enemy bases or set your Q-Section to work on an amazing gadget and they’ll make progress on that goal while you’re at work.

Your agents can even “phone home” and reach you in the real world, sending emails or text messages to alert you when those tasks are done.

That’s a powerful concept that I haven’t seen done before. You know your guildies are still playing when you log off World of Warcraft, but when you introduce the NPC labor element, you end up with a game that never ends.

You can break up your real world life with updates from the game and (hopefully) get real-time info about what rival agencies are doing. At the highest level, this could turn the game into a kind of active-passive balancing act, where you turn your non-game time into a kind of passive NPC chess match and back it up with real time raids when you get home.

I’m not particularly interested in first-person shooters, but I love the idea of being a spider in the center of this web, dispatching agents via text message to sabotage my enemies while I work on TPS reports.

I’ll be curious to see how well this is implemented, and what it will look like when other companies take it to the next level.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 26, 2009 at 09:03

Posted in Games

Carebear confessions: Thrills, heartache await online tournament players

Think of a world before the Internet; when you had to leave the house or make a phone call to put someone in a state of incoherent rage.

In the old days you had to cause an accident, steal a parking space or cut somebody off on the freeway to make them want to kill you. These days, you can inspire outrage and thoughts of murder without even leaving your chair.

The Internet is a nested collection of new frontiers, and each new activity offers a new way to ruin someone’s day.

It’s easy to find a dance partner if you’re willing to fight about politics or religion. Just find an online forum and let your inner child loose.

Forums are enough for most of us, but if you really want to provoke people you can go for extra credit in the world of online games. There’s nothing quite like the thrill, or the level of anger that can be achieved, in player vs. player combat.

In the old days, arcade games pitted you against the machine. But even the best computer opponent can eventually be conquered by a human player.

Human opponents are much harder to deal with, and now that we have the Internet, they are much easier to find. The purest form of player vs. player combat can be found in games like “Doom,” “Quake,” “Counter-Strike” and “Half Life.”

You can customize your avatar and select equipment to match your style, but each player starts with the same basic chance of success. Games like this are a true test of skill. You might get frustrated when opponents gang up on you or use cheap tactics to win, but those losses don’t really cost you anything.

Just hit the reset button and start again.

But what if you couldn’t? What if your equipment didn’t respawn out of thin air every time you got killed? What if every simulated “death” cost you hours of tedious work?

That was the world of online role playing in 1997. The first graphical MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) was “Ultima Online,” created by Origin.

I bought “Ultima Online” immediately after launch and experienced all the early bugs. But the worst aspects of the game weren’t bugs. They were put there on purpose by a team of programmers who (I can only assume) enjoyed beating up geeks in high school and fed like vampires off the power of human suffering.

“Ultima Online” was a uniquely “realistic” simulation of a fantasy world. The early game allowed you to take up hunting, farming, tailoring, cooking, leatherworking and a host of other professions using objects that looked like real world tools.

Here’s how most characters started life in “Ultima Online.” First, you pick a template based on characters from high fantasy. You could be a warrior, a wizard, a thief or pick from a dozen other fantasy stereotypes.

You’d pick your starting skills, get familiar with your newbie equipment and hit the road, ready to tame the wilderness with steel and magic. You’d emerge from the safety of a major city …

… and immediately get jumped by a pack of bandits controlled by other players. The bandits would hit you with four or five precisely timed spells, drain your life to zero and stand over your cartoon corpse. Then they would laugh at you and take your stuff, leaving you naked, cold and dead.

You’d run back to town for a free resurrection and realize you had no money, no equipment and no way to earn anything.

So you delete that character and start again. But this time you decide to play it smart. You start with a crafting profession and earn some money before venturing into the big bad world.

You start a brand new tailor/swordsman, buy a bolt of cloth with your newbie gold and spend the next four hours making cartoon hats. You make 20 hats, sell them to the vendor and earn enough to make 20 more. The cycle continues, your skill increases and after four or five hours of tedious clicking, you finally have enough to buy a suit of armor.

You buy the best equipment you can and head for the wilderness … where you are jumped by the same five bandits who killed you the first time. They hit you with five simultaneous spells and you’re dead again. If you’re playing on dialup, you were probably dead before you had time to react.

The bandits say, “Hey, this guy actually had stuff!” and you get to watch while they strip your corpse and distribute your armor between them.

In 1997 this was called “entertainment” and companies could actually make money doing it to people.

Origin ended up fixing most of these problems by 2000, but in the early days, “Ultima Online” was like an interactive “Lord of the Flies.” These days, player vs. player combat is planned and consensual and losing doesn’t really cost you anything.

Players who lose a fight in “World of Warcraft” don’t lose money or equipment and it’s relatively hard to die by accident. PvP combat is restricted to special servers and to people who deliberately make themselves eligible for it.

But there’s one popular game that still does things the old-fashioned way. It’s called “Eve Online,” a sprawling space simulation that allows players to buy spaceships and forge realistic careers as miners, warriors and captains of industry.

“Eve Online” lets you start your career in protected zones, but the real money (and the real fun) are waiting in no man’s land – waiting in areas controlled by pirates and mercenary corporations.

“Eve Online” believes in real challenge, real combat and real loss. Just like in the early days of “Ultima Online” you build up your starting money in the safe zones and take your chances in the shark tank.

Successful “Eve” players have to band together to achieve any kind of success, selling their souls (or at least their play time) to player controlled corporations that provide starting money and rudimentary protection for new players.

This element of real world cooperation makes “Eve” more challenging, and more rewarding, than other games of this kind. Once a year these player organizations meet on the field of battle to compete in a grand tournament, and unlike most video game events, the losses suffered in this tournament represent real investments of time and energy.

It costs a tremendous amount of in-game money to finance participation in these tournaments and if your fleet is destroyed, there’s no friendly Game Master waiting to give it back.

That means a tournament victory is as much a testament to financial management and organizational skill as it is a measure of real combat prowess.

This element of real world risk adds a level of drama to “Eve” that no mere dungeon raid can match. The monetary units may be fictional, but the time invested is very real. The ships lost in tournaments can represent hundreds of hours of collective play time.

So remember “Eve” and “Ultima” next time somebody ganks you in “World of Warcraft” or gets the drop on you in “Call of Duty.” This play style is not for everybody, but I’ve seen enough PvP to respect it. I may be a “carebear” who spends his time running missions in safe zones but the latest round of tournament videos were so cool, I’m considering a walk on the wild side.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 3, 2009 at 18:27

Posted in Columns, Games

Jeff Goldblum wants you to get a life

When you finish Jurassic Park: The Lost World, Jeff Goldblum actually tells you to turn the game off and go outside.


Written by Michael B. Duff

December 18, 2008 at 17:45

Posted in Games

Eidos orders journalists to hold bad reviews

A year ago this week, game reviewer Jeff Gerstmann lost his job. After 11 years of overseeing editorial content at GameSpot, after earning a reputation as one of the most honest and most entertaining reviewers in the video game industry, he was let go.

The gaming community thinks Jeff lost his job because he gave Kane & Lynch — a shallow, foul-mouthed travesty of a game, a 6.0 review, at a time when its publisher, Eidos, had just spent thousands on an elaborate wall-to-wall advertising campaign.

The story seems simple enough. Jeff embarrassed a major GameSpot advertiser and lost his job. But a year later, it’s still just a story. Eidos assures us that Jeff’s firing “was purely for internal reasons” and was not related to any publisher or advertiser.

Both parties have signed legal agreements that keep them from talking. Gerstmann and GameSpot have moved on, but gamer suspicions remain.

Eidos was widely regarded as a bullying, sleazy company, but there was no hard evidence to prove it.

With legal agreements in place, we’ll never really know if Eidos was involved in Gerstmann’s termination, but this time we’ve caught them red-handed.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

December 3, 2008 at 14:21

Posted in Games

It's time to tell the truth about Dungeons & Dragons

Geek hobbies take a lot of heat these days, but it’s hard to think of a hobby that has been maligned as thoroughly as Dungeons and Dragons.

The largest gaming convention in the world is GenCon, originally held in Lake Geneva, Wis. – the birthplace of D&D. Lake Geneva was home to the game’s creator, Gary Gygax. This year GenCon decided to honor Gary by collecting money for his favorite charity, specifically the Christian Children’s Fund.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

November 21, 2008 at 13:56

Posted in Games