Not Dead Yet

October 5, 2009

It’s been over a month since I began playing Champions Online, a game I neither followed prior to launch nor believed I would ever play.  It wasn’t until two to three weeks before the game launched that I started to experience any sort of interest in trying the game, and that only because of a (at least in my mind) lack of quality MMOs to play with.  Now that I’ve been playing for a good four or five weeks (including the open beta and head start) I feel comfortable transcribing a few thoughts about the game.

Overall, I am really enjoying Champions.  Many have said that the game is good for casual play — the sort of game one can jump in for an hour every couple of days or make endless alts — and that’s accurate.  Others have pointed out the game’s similarities to its predecessors, such as City of Heroes and, to a lesser extent, World of Warcraft.  There’s no denying the truth to those statements, either.

One of my champions using jet boots to navigate Millennium City.

One of my champions using jet boots to navigate Millennium City.

Beneath the surface, however, CO is a unique and fun game that offers enough familiarity to be comfortable to new players while providing neat innovations to the genre.  My thoughts on the subject are probably best expressed in list format, so without further ado…

Character Creation: What can I add that others haven’t already said?  It’s amazing, but complicated.  It’s beautiful, but not polished.  Basically, there’s a wealth of options available for character design, but like most systems in which there are numerous options, there’s a high probability for confusion.  What option did I have to choose to access those funky shoulders?  Why can’t I find the tiger stripe design for these pants?  Why does this cowboy shirt look like it was spray painted on my character’s body?

Probably the best aspect of the character creator for me are the body sliders.  The face sliders leave something to be desired: my champion has either a small, pouty mouth or a wide, thin-lipped one.  The body sliders, though, are awesome and provide for countless proportion options.  Much to my surprise, it’s even possible to make a female champion who is not overly sexualized (and can even look — gasp! — chubby and flat chested), such as my most recent creation who resembles a female body builder.  One complaint is the lack of female hairstyles, as many of them are…kind of ugly.

A tailor is easily accessed from most major quest hubs and offers reasonable prices on costume changes.  At various levels the character gets extra costume slots, for a total of (I think) four.

PvE Content: There are two aspects of PvE content that merit their own categories later (nemesis and dungeons) but this category is for the overall analysis.  The short version: I’m pleased with the PvE Content available for the game.  To speak at length…

The tutorial zone is fun, but gets old.  Fortunately it has been rumored that players will be able to skip this once they’ve gone through once on a character.  The second tier of newbie zones are great, particularly because around level 10 or 12 the player goes through a more difficult quest that takes them to a larger zone in which the landscape is changed to reflect the character’s accomplishments.  For instance, players in Canada must stop a…well I guess it’s a demon?…from creating a huge storm that…well, whatever it does…and when the player is finished he comes back to a (relatively) peaceful Canada in which the storm is gone but a new set of problems have begun.

Millennium City is very well-designed with lots of neat areas to explore.  The majority of the quests are done outside, with a few taking the player inside instanced buildings.  This is a nice change from City of Heroes, in which nearly every quest required the player to visit an instance.  Another quick note about questing: while the basic formula for quests follows the standard norm, there is no emphasis on grouping as there was in City of Heroes.  Players in CO can quest solo or in a team, with only a few challenging quests requiring a group.

Of the higher level zones, I’ve seen only one: Monster Island.  It’s much like the other zones in layout and design, but the quests seem a tad more challenging.  Also, there is an extremely powerful jackal NPC who offers the player the chance to best him to receive his treasure.  When the player does so, the player is flagged for PvP and other players are invited to come join the fray, battling the NPC and each other for the ultimate prize.  At least, that’s what happens in theory, as I’m too low to have done it myself and have not seen it happen.

PvP Content: Without PvP content, I’m not sure I would enjoy CO quite as much as I do.  There are arena cage matches in which two teams face off, free-for-all open air (but still instanced) matches in which players race to score ten kills, and higher level matches that incorporate some of the actual Champions NPCs getting into the fight.  There are a few abilities that seem far too powerful, but aside from the extreme advantage of teleportation there is nothing I’ve seen that really needs a nerf.  Healers appear pretty powerful and often can out-heal even a crowd of other players’ DPS.  There’s obvious pros and cons to that power, but it’s something worth mentioning.

Classes?  Powers?: Champions Online’s system of free-form power selection is something that I thought would be confusing or complicated, but it’s actually quite simple once you grasp the basics.  Warhammer Online offered a similar variety of powers in that it had 24 distinct classes, but ultimately I find the free-form power selection to be superior to even a wide variety of class options like WAR provided.  And while there are certain powers that many people seem to take (regeneration is clearly quite popular), I have found that there’s enough variety in both players and powers that I never run into a cookie cutter build.

Particularly unique is that there are a few different ways to activate powers in CO, all of which do something different.  Tap powers mean the player hits the power only once for each application, sort of like a rogue in WoW using sinister strike — it leads to button mashing.  Charged powers have a bar that fills up and can be released at any time, for better benefits but higher energy cost the more it fills.  Powers that are maintained are like charged powers in that they have a meter, only the meter starts at full and then decreases as you hold the button until the meter empties or your energy does.

Some powers have neat little effects.  For instance, one of my characters has a single target heal that can either be tapped or charged.  If I tap it, it does a small heal that doesn’t do much.  When I charge it, it does a long heal that, depending on one of my stats, heals for much more, often around a half a bar of health.  However, if I tap the power when I’m targeting a friendly player, I receive energy for every tap I do.  This is a great thing for healers — imagine priests in WoW tapping a button while targeting friendlies to get back mana.  Using this, my energy bar fills up very quickly and I’m then able to do a long heal on the friendly player.  Often the many taps I’ve done have been able to sustain him while I waited for the energy to fill.

Dungeons: There are many instanced quests in CO in which the player must defeat a named end boss, but often these are able to be accomplished solo or with only one other player.  When I talk about dungeons, I mean instanced areas that don’t require a quest to enter and require nearly a full five person team to complete.  So far I’ve completed two dungeons in CO, both of which were difficult but fun.  During my first experience I was fortunate enough to run with a group who had done the instance before and therefore knew all the little tricks.  In my second experience, however, it was only Boyfriend, a close friend, and myself (doing content a level or two below us), none of whom had run the dungeon before.

Dungeons in CO are sort of like public quests in WAR, except the stages usually aren’t timed.  If one has a quest to enter the dungeon, one’s quest log will simply say, “Go to Dr. Destroyer’s lab.”  It isn’t until one enters that one learns what the objectives are.  They’ll appear to the left side of one’s screen and will only be revealed in increments as one accomplishes each task.  In the dungeon we did last night, there was a puzzle in which we had to use four consoles to move a magnet around a room.  It took us a while to figure out how exactly to move the damn thing, but once we had it down it went quickly.  Another room was an assembly line that kept spawning robots, eventually faster than we could kill them.  Eventually I realized we had to shut off the assembly line by activating a series of consoles.  Just when I thought I’d done it, I realized I’d only turned off one of two assembly lines.  D’oh.

Nemesis: The nemesis system is a great feature in CO.  Players can only access the nemesis content once they reach level 25, a barrier that I think is a tad too high.  Since this game encourages altoholism, there will likely be many players who don’t make it to 25 until their fifth character, and at that after months of play.  Since the nemesis system is such an awesome feature, I feel that it should be available slightly earlier, perhaps at level 15.  Especially considering that, as I read elsewhere, the player will have many nemeses throughout the game.

For those who aren’t playing or who haven’t reached 25 yet, the nemesis system allows the player to design a nemesis using the character creator.  All the options are available to customize your nemesis, and the player can even choose his nemesis’ powers, though only the default frameworks are available.  No real power customization allowed here, so the nemesis is either all ice powers or all dual-blade powers (for instance).  The player can then choose the nemesis’ attitude — Mastermind (evil genius), Savage (like a thug sort of…), and Maniac (think The Joker) — and his minions.  There are quite a few minion options, such as zombies, ninjas, soldiers, gangsters, and so forth.  One problem here is that none of the minions are female.  None.  There are female minion NPCs running around the city (at least a few) but there are no female options here.  Hopefully that would be improved in the future.

Once the player has created his nemesis, he must complete an instanced intro quest that right away puts him face-to-face with his nemesis.  The nemesis gets away of course, but that’s to be expected.  After that, any time the player is outside an instance and killing mobs or destroying objects, there is a chance his nemesis’ minions will ambush him.  Occasionally they might drop clues that lead to quests, with the ultimate quest being another encounter with the nemesis.  I’ve read that eventually the player’s nemesis is defeated and taken to jail, and that the player can then create a new nemesis at some point.  I’ve yet to reach that point in my nemesis content.

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No doubt there is some significant aspect of the game that I’ve yet to comment on (just as I type that I realize I haven’t discussed crafting), but these are the things that I am most concerned with.  As I said above, the nutshell version of this post is that I am enjoying Champions Online and will continue playing it.  There are definite negatives: some quests are buggy, graphics are a tad disappointing, some quests get repetitive.  But overall I think it’s a solid game that will appeal to many players and will likely maintain a following much like City of Heroes.  It will never be the best game out there, but it’s fun and worth spending a few dollars and a few hours on.


The McGees Make the Big Time

June 30, 2009

Pete from Dragonchasers asked me to think about doing a follow-up to my previous post about Keeley and Lianna, my homeless Sims.  I played the duo for a few hours after making that initial post, so I have a decent amount to report.

As time went by, the ladies accrued lifetime happiness points.  These points are earned slowly over time, but can also be supplemented by bonus points earned through wish fulfillment, e.g. Keeley wishes to go to the park, she goes there, she gets 150 points.

Since it’s hard to satisfy many of the more materialistic wishes, (buy a TV, buy a computer, etc.) gaining points has been slow going.  Eventually Keeley, the head of the family, was able to earn enough points to purchase a few rewards.

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The rewards offered in The Sims 3 range from discounts on book store purchases to fast metabolism to a “mid-life crisis” in which your Sim can change her traits/lifetime wish.  For Keeley, I chose the steel bladder reward, which reduces her restroom needs to a single daily trip.  I figured that she has a lot of practice holding it in, seeing as how she lived without a private bathroom for a while.  I also gave her complimentary entertainment, a reward which allows Sims to see movies and sporting events for free (she probably hides under the bleachers) and “Discount Diner,” a reward that lets her eat at local restaurants free of charge.  Maybe they’re giving her food they’d throw out anyway?

When Keeley isn’t working at the supermarket, she’s toiling away in the family garden.  Not only does the fresh produce act as a great meal replacement for the hungry ladies, but it also sells for a hefty sum at the grocery store, perfect for supplementing the family income.  Another great thing about gardening is that farming Sims will often get random opportunities to grow produce for neighbors which can be turned in for a cash reward.  The woman below asked Keeley to grow three “outstanding” tomatoes for her (your produce is rated based on your skill at gardening).  As a reward, the woman gave Keeley about 500 simoleons and became friendlier to our homeless heroine.

Jobs

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Meanwhile, Lianna graduated from high school with an “A” average and has found a job at the local book store.  She helps her mother with the gardening when she can, but she prefers spending her free time with an old friend from school, Mortimer Goth. Mortimer is a famous Sim from the game franchise, most notable for being a pre-made Sim in the original Sims and Sims 2 games.  In The Sims 3 (which is a prequel to the other two games) he begins as a child.  Lianna met him at school and befriended him, ultimately spending much of her time in the Goth’s house when she needed a break from the park.

Nowadays, Lianna and Mortimer have become even closer, with Lianna often spending the night at the Goth’s mansion outside of town.  Keeley and Lianna have already built their outhouse (complete with shower and toilet), but Lianna is too fascinated by Mortimer’s fancy furnishings to resist taking a luxurious bath, the first she’s ever taken since losing her home.

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When not eating out of his fridge or using his bathtub, Lianna can often be found swiping treasures from the second floor of Mortimer’s home.  She reasons that the spoiled rich kid probably won’t miss the odd lamp or window dressing, and readily takes the items home to decorate her growing household.

With the income earned from Keeley and Lianna’s part-time jobs, as well as what they earn on the side from their vegetable farming, the ladies have been able to expand their house quite a bit.  When I was finally able to afford a full room addition to their outhouse, I was faced with a tough decision.  Do I give the McGee’s a kitchen, in which they can cook their own meals, or do I give them a bedroom, in which they can finally get a good night’s rest?  Ultimately, I opted for the bedroom.

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The women are both extremely tough and hardworking, though, and it wasn’t long before I was able to add a kitchenette to the small shack.  One thing to note about refrigerators in The Sims 3: Sims can cook meals with ingredients they already have on hand (e.g. a salad with tomatoes, mac and cheese with a piece of cheese), cook any meal they have the proficiency for by paying a small fee for the ingredients ($6 for spaghetti, $54 for roasted salmon), or eat “quick meals” which cost nothing.  These quick meals do not require ingredients and are simply available for Sims to eat as much as they want.

I made a decision early on that I would not allow Keeley or Lianna to consume a quick meal.  The meals include cereal, bread and jam, soup, ice cream, and juice.  My thought process is that the women are just too poor to keep such staples on hand.  When they eat from their own refrigerator, I only allow them to eat something they have the ingredients for, whether through growing them or purchasing them from the store.  No convenience cooking for my ladies!

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Eventually I was also able to add a second room to the house, allowing both women a sense of privacy.  You can see in the picture below that the house is nicely furnished.  I mentioned that Lianna can swipe things from other houses and public places; the things she swipes can be used in her own home.  The only items I actually purchased in the picture below include: the beds, the fridge, the countertops, the stove, the sink, and the fire alarm.  The dinette set, the lamps, the side tables, chairs, candles, and stereo — all stolen by Lianna.

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As Lianna got more and more confident about her home life, she felt increasingly confident in her relationship with Mortimer.  Confident enough that she felt ready to move their relationship to the next level.

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I’m not certain whether Mortimer likes Lianna for her spunky, go-getter attitude or simply because he’s looking to rebel against his rich family by dating the poverty-stricken lass (or is it a white knight complex?) but like her he does, as he agrees to go steady with her.  Lianna likes Mortimer a lot, and, accordingly, I stop asking her to steal things from her boyfriend’s house.  Except when they really need something, like a new dresser.

Things got serious enough with Mortimer that Lianna decided she wanted to marry the angsty young man.  Keeley seemed to approve as well, as it was her wish to see Lianna get married.  The McGees saved enough money to book the Sunset Valley beach for a wedding party and invited all their close friends to witness the marriage.  It was a lovely venue, especially since being on the beach meant Lianna’s bare feet didn’t look out of place.

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I didn’t want Lianna to move in with Mortimer, as taking up residence in the large manor would be contrary to the experiment.  I also wasn’t keen on Mortimer moving in right away, as I figured he’d be uncomfortable living in the small shack-like abode with his wife and his mother-in-law.  Unfortunately, the game does not give me this choice.  “Newlyweds must live together” it told me when I tried to cancel the dialog box it presented me with to move them in to one home or the other.  I couldn’t find a way to bypass this, so I reluctantly moved Mortimer in with the McGees.

Along with his emo wardrobe and his full selection of guyliner, Mortimer brought a whopping 7,000 simoleons to his new family.  This is more money than Lianna has ever seen, and a greater sum than Keeley has had access to in years.  It’s obviously enough to build a much larger home for the family (perhaps with a baby room?) and keep the McGees comfortable for a while.

And that’s where the story gets boring.  Once Keeley and Lianna no longer had to struggle to make ends meet, their story was no longer very interesting.  They were just two mundane Sims living with a third, pre-fab Sim in a mid-size home next to a lake.  Assuming Mortimer got a part-time or full-time job, they would have even less need to scrimp and save, as the third income would no doubt put them well within the middle class range for Sim society.

I think a lot could be said her about materialism, wealth, and homelessness, but ultimately I think it says one big thing about The Sims 3: it’s easy to play.  Maybe I’m just a Sim expert; it’s entirely possible, I’ve been playing the franchise for a while, and not casually either.  With all the resources available in TS3, though, I don’t see how a family can go very long before striking it rich.  There are so many tools in the game designed to make Sims happy, that it’s almost impossible to make them unhappy.

I’m not one of those people who likes to torment Sims, but I can’t help but notice that tormenting them is an impossible task.  Between public restrooms, wild plants and free picnics, public showers (pointed out to me by the fabulous Ysharros), and free entertainment, there’s really no way to keep a Sim down.  New players need only to take their Sims over to the gym to have most of their needs fulfilled — hunger from the kitchenette, bladder and hygiene from the locker room, energy from the numerous plush sofas, social from interacting with local Sims, and fun from watching the gym’s free television.

Obviously a real homeless person couldn’t mooch off of a real gym like this.  Perhaps that’s the answer to Burkinshaw’s Alice and Kev experiment.  He must have implemented some kind of special “house rules” to make sure his Sims remain in poverty and relative unhappiness.  Otherwise, if he fully took advantage of all the resources at the Sims’ disposal, he would have seen, as I did, that homelessness isn’t an epidemic in Sunset Valley.


Alice and Kev, meet Keeley and Lianna

June 23, 2009

One of the biggest stories in PC gaming recently is the brilliant Sims 3 blog Alice and Kev.  Author Robin Burkinshaw created a father/daughter duo of Sims, turned their lot into a rundown park, and played them as “homeless” Sims.  The blog is fantastic and a great read, even if you’re not a Sims 3 fan.  Burkinshaw updates daily with interesting, concise posts detailing the lives of the insane Kev and his unlucky, good-hearted daughter Alice.

The Sims 3 allows users to package their content — Sims, clothing, items, houses, etc. — and share them online with other users.  Naturally, Alice and Kev are available for free download from The Sims exchange.  I was intrigued at the thought of playing homeless Sims, as my playstyle in the game tends to be very perfectionist.  There were several things I didn’t like about Alice and Kev, though, namely their traits and their physical looks.

So I decided to create my own homeless Sims.  Meet Keeley and Lianna McGee.

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Keeley, on the left, is a brave but absent-minded mooch.  She’s also frugal and loves fishing.  Her daughter, Lianna, is brave as well (I think she has to be, having grown up homeless), loves the outdoors, has a green thumb, and is a kleptomaniac.

I figured Keeley, a woman who probably only recently became homeless due to the bad economy, would rely on frugality and the kindness of others to help her through her tough times.  Lianna, on the other hand, was only a small child when they were evicted, so she’s grown up with traits that are more suited to survivability — particularly stealing.

Burkinshaw mentions in his first post that he “removed all of their remaining money” when he moved Alice and Kev into their abandoned park.  I wasn’t sure if Burkinshaw used a cheat to deplete their finances or what, so I was faced initially with the task of making these homeless Sims genuinely poor.  I remedied the problem by purchasing the largest lot available (I think their family started with 17,000 simoleans and the lot cost 14,500) then dumping the rest of the money into trees, which cost a few hundred simoleans each.  Creating ponds on lots doesn’t cost anything, so I made a nice scene for the ladies to sleep next to.

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When reading Alice and Kev, you’re struck by how devastating their situation seems to be.  Alice is frequently starving and exhausted.  Neither has access to a shower, so they must rely on strangers letting them use their facilities (something that doesn’t happen often — only a Sim’s close friends will let him have free reign of their home).  I’d guess that Burkinshaw created his own personal set of rules to keep the story going longer, but I decided that I wanted my own experience to be a little different.  Instead of remaining down on their luck, I wanted Keeley and Lianna to succeed in Sunset Valley.  I decided that I’d do whatever I could to keep them mostly happy and fulfilled, while simultaneously saving their money to build a house piece by piece.

The biggest obstacles for homeless Sims are hunger, bladder, and hygiene.  Keeley and Lianna can go into town when they need to socialize, they are able to catch a decent amount of rest on their park benches, and there are a few ways to  have fun for free in Sunset Valley (more on that later).  Burkinshaw mentions, correctly, that very hungry Sims will typically be automatically fed if they’re at work and school.  If a Sim’s bladder is also very full when she’s at work or school, usually she’ll relieve herself before leaving for the day.  I’ve noticed that Keeley, who works part-time at the grocery store (4 hours a day, 5 days a week), won’t eat at work unless she’s extremely hungry — her mood bar must be less than 15% full.  Lianna, on the other hand, can usually snag a free lunch at school so long as her hunger bar is below 50% full.

With Keeley’s hunger not getting satisfied, she turned to other options.

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When Sims visit Central Park, there are usually at least a few of these picnic blankets lying around, complete with full picnic baskets.  Any Sim can sit down and grab a plate for free, though the basket seems to disappear after about four servings.  They usually replenish by the time Keeley needs another meal, but if not, she always has another option.

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There are several wild plants growing all around Sunset Valley.  I’ve seen onion plants by the beach, lettuce vines near a lake, and, most importantly, apple trees in Central Park.  The park has several healthy apple trees growing on the grounds, just waiting for a hungry Sim to collect.  Any Sim (teen or older), regardless of gardening skill, can harvest apples.  On the first day, Keeley walked away with 15 apples and 5 limes, all of which she and Lianna can eat raw to satisfy about half a bar of their hunger needs.

Seeing Keeley harvest the apples reminded me that gardening could be a wonderful opportunity for the ladies.  The produce they grow can be eaten raw or sold to the grocery store for cash.  The only problem was that one of the ladies needed to acquire at least one skill point in gardening before she could plant something (in The Sims 3, you can plant whole fruit in the ground and grow it).  In order to acquire this skill, they would need a book shelf which, when purchased, includes three manuals, one of them about gardening.  I resigned myself to the fact that the ladies would not be able to garden until they could afford a book shelf.  Then I remembered that Sunset Valley is lousy with book shelves.

Sims can visit their friends’ (or acquaintances’) homes and use their stuff, within reason.  Lianna made friends with the Goths, a famous Sim family, and visits their home often.  She can watch the Goths’ TV, play on their computer, or use their toilet.  Showering, raiding the fridge, and sleeping are entirely off limits, though.  Where Lianna had the Goths, however, Keeley didn’t have any close friends who would invite her in.  Maybe because she smelled bad — she uses the park toilets to relieve her bladder, but the sinks are not very effective for improving her hygiene.  Instead, Keeley took a trip to what would become the ladies’ favorite place in Sunset Valley: the library.

The library has book shelves full of novels, children’s books, and, fortunately for Keeley, instructional manuals.  Keeley was able to learn how to garden in the library in just a few hours.  She used her newfound knowledge to plant some of the produce she’d gathered, and now the McGee family has a small home garden.

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Meanwhile, Lianna heard about the benefits the library offered and took a trip there herself, where she discovered it was a nice, quiet place to do her homework.  It also has public restrooms, a nice couch for napping, and a computer.  Lianna was thrilled to see the computer, and she quickly jumped on to fulfill one of her most challenging moods: fun.

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Since Lianna is a kleptomaniac, she loves to steal whatever she can.  The AI in the game is such that Lianna will occasionally steal things on her own free will, though it’s pretty rare.  Otherwise, I must manually force Lianna to steal something — though she certainly doesn’t resist the opportunity.  So long as it’s night out and no one is watching her, Lianna can opt to “Swipe Something.”

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Usually she’ll go for the item closest to her.  So far she’s snagged two desk chairs, a desk lamp and a standing lamp, a folding screen, and an end table.  Very stealthy, that girl.  I’m finding her kleptomania very beneficial for the McGee’s, as I might be able to furnish much of their home — once I build it — with items Lianna has stolen.

As for building the house, it’s pretty slow going.  As I said, Keeley works at the supermarket part time.  She and Lianna also sell fish to the supermarket occasionally, when they get the free time to pull out their reels.  On a good week the ladies can come up with several hundred simoleans, but that’s very little in comparison to the cost of building a home.  Simply placing a wall panel barely wider than Lianna costs 70 simoleans; putting up the walls for a 2×2 outhouse cleans the McGee’s out of 500 simoleans.

Keeley and Lianna scrimped and saved, though, something Keeley is especially adept at with her frugal/mooch traits.  She can clip coupons to get access to discount items (usually a single piece of produce at the store) and can beg her friends for money or food.  Between her income at the store and the paycheck Lianna received for completing an opportunity her school offered to work at a corporate office for one day, the McGee’s were able to save enough to build an outhouse at their park.

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Inside, the ladies have access to a toilet and a shower stall.  The addition has improved their lives dramatically, as they are no longer depending on strangers for showers and don’t have to run to a public restroom to relieve their bladders anymore.

So far I’m enjoying the homeless experiment with Keeley and Lianna.  The Sims franchise can easily get boring if I don’t find ways to add interest to the game play, and creating homeless Sims has provided me with a great opportunity to spice things up.  I’m looking forward to seeing how long it takes the McGee’s to build their new home.  Lianna’s birthday will happen first thing during my next play session, so she’ll no longer be a teen, and Keeley isn’t too far from being an elder.  Will Keeley live long enough to see her daughter prosper?  Will Lianna be able to build a house in time to have a child of her own with one of the handsome townies?  Or will the family remain in poverty?  I’m eager to find out!


It’s Time to Roll the Dice

June 16, 2009

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Having managed to survive the intoxicating lure of World of Warcraft, I’ve been spending much of my gaming time playing The Sims 3 and Team Fortress 2.  Much as I enjoy both of these games, I still feel like something is missing in my gaming life if I’m not playing an MMO.  With the only MMO I’m even remotely interested in — Champions Online — not launching until the fall, it seems like I’ll be dealing with that empty feeling for a while.

In its place, I’ve turned to an alternative MMO experience: pen and paper gaming.

While I’ve had a few experiences with pen and paper role playing games, I’ve never found myself really immersed in the mechanics of a specific game, or played an arc that lasted more than one or two sessions.  When one of our friends suggested we try again, this time revisiting Exalted, I became much more invested in the game.  Where before my characters were kind of slapdash, I took extra care when I created this one.  Where I paid little attention to the game’s rules before, this time I took the time to learn as much as I could about the facets of Exalted (and other generic roleplaying concepts like combat) that I was unsure of.

As I revisited the old rule books, I was able to see just how much MMOs and other games have been influenced by pen and paper games.  Obviously it’s been streamlined over time — modern MMOs assign stats for you, and your abilities are common to a particular class or archetype rather than being able to pick and choose — but the similarities remain, and it’s fun to see how the “predecessor” to modern gaming looks.

The two major things that scared me off from role playing with our troupe in the past were the two things that are simplified in modern gaming.  One is combat.  While there are certainly people out there who know every detail of the combat process in their choice of MMO, and while weapon and armor itemization lends itself to massive calculations of damage, the average player can be ignorant of all of it and still be passable in combat.  That is, they don’t die to the average monster.

Not so in pen and paper games, where the player must have a wider grasp of combat mechanics than the average MMO player.  I know that when I played damage dealing characters (other than casters) in WoW or WAR, the only thing I really paid attention to was my weapon’s DPS.  With my new Exalted character, I need to know multiple stats for my weapon, which of my personal attributes and abilities affect my combat rolls, what my defense value is, and other complex systems.  I’m sure I’m in the noob phase now and will eventually feel completely comfortable with the combat system in our game.  As it is, I’m feeling very overwhelmed and am having to fight the urge to throw in the towel.

The other hesitation I have when playing with our troupe is the actual roleplaying part.  The part where you completely embody your character, narrate her actions, and improvise interactions with other characters.  Modern gaming gives players the option to take this out of the experience.  There are players who roleplay in MMOs; I’ve tried my hand at it recently when Boyfriend and I played City of Heroes, and many of my blogger pals are role players at heart.

However, it seems like the overwhelming majority of players approach MMOs with a non-roleplayer perspective.  While some might have roleplaying tendencies that don’t fully develop — naming the character, associating him with a unique personality, referring to your character by individual pronouns rather than possessive ones, e.g. “Sindira got xxxx piece of loot today” — it seems that many merely see their avatars as tools for playing the game.

Much as I like the idea of roleplaying in MMOs, I’m wary of doing so in real life, where I’m face to face with the people I’m interacting with.  Maybe it’s because I’m a product of the cell phone and internet age, where communication can be done entirely without seeing someone else.  Maybe it’s because roleplaying in a virtual game means having the excuse of typing to buffer reaction time, or maybe it’s just because I’m inherently shy and anxiety-prone.  Whatever the reason, getting into character has been hard for me in the past.

Boyfriend and I practiced some before the troupe met for the first session.  It had been a while since we’d tried pen and paper gaming, so I needed a crash course in roleplaying.  “You need to get information from someone, so you walk into a bar and utter a secret code phrase that’s meant to alert the person you’re looking for to your presence,” he said, giving me an initial situation.

Apparently saying that my character is going to walk in and sit down at the bar isn’t good enough, or isn’t flashy enough.  There also seems to be some kind of dichotomy with pronouns, in that there is a difference between saying, “I walk into the bar” and “She (my character) walks into the bar.”  Either way, Boyfriend informed me that I needed to try spicing up my narration, a task that you’d think might be easy, seeing as I consider myself a writer.

I understand that narration is necessary in roleplaying games in order to give the other players and the storyteller a visual of what your character is doing, but to noobs like me it feels stiff, unnatural, and a little embarrassing.  And I’m very afraid of embarrassment — I went to drama class every day in fear of the dreaded warm-up vocal and body exercises.  In an MMO, embarrassment is still a scary prospect, but it’s easily remedied by ignoring the other person, ninja logging, or shutting off the power in the entire house.  With my friends, embarrassment has to be faced head on, fully experienced.  No good.

I’ve noticed over the past few times that we’ve tried to play pen and paper games (Exalted, then Scion, now Exalted again) I’ve tended to create a character who personifies the “strong and silent” type.  My first character was a little girl who was able to wield an enormous weapon with ease, but was generally quiet due to her tragic history and her being a shy little girl.

You might say that my current character is that little girl grown up.  They aren’t literally the same character, but the character I’m playing now is abnormally strong for a woman, has a tragic backstory, and is pretty introverted.  It makes sense that I’d play a character with poor communication skills considering my noob status, but it’s a trend I noticed that I hope to eventually break out of should we try a different game in the future.

We’ve only had two sessions — one for preparation and the other to begin the arc — but so far, despite my reservations about pen and paper gaming, I’m enjoying myself.  My discomfort with roleplaying has even benefitted me.  My character — very loosely modeled on Brienne of Tarth from the Song of Ice and Fire series — had to attempt to convince a group of soldiers that she was a damsel in distress.  I botched the roll for my performance, and the storyteller instructed me to act as though my character determined that, since the soldiers were always around other men, they probably liked manly women, and that she would do better acting tough with them than gentle.

My dialogue then garnered a lot of laughs, and as I said after the game was over, “If you’re trying to roleplay a bad performance, it helps to be a bad performer yourself.”  Maybe I can transition my character’s awkwardness to the forefront, perhaps using my tentative attitude toward roleplaying to enhance her own shyness.  I guess I’ve already broken the first barrier by causing laughter among my fellow gamers.  It’s all downhill from there, right?


Getting the Band Back Together

June 9, 2009

I don’t watch late night talk shows very often.  The hosts are typically unfunny hacks and I have very little interest in hearing about the personal lives of celebrities.  Occasionally I’ll watch to see the performers — Flight of the Conchords and Jenny Lewis, recently — or watch a comedian or celebrity that I’m especially fond of.  Recently I’ve been venturing over to the late night section of Hulu, clicking on clips from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon that intrigue me, like interviews with the magnificent Bill Hader.  One such clip was this morning’s most recent upload, an interview with “Zack Morris.”250px-SavedbytheBell3

If you aren’t a Fallon fan or just haven’t been paying attention, several weeks ago Fallon began a quest to reunite the cast of “Saved by the Bell” to mark the 20th anniversary of the show’s first broadcast.  The quest began with Dennis “Mr. Belding” Haskins agreeing to sign on for the reunion, and since then Lark “Lisa Turtle” Voorhies and Mario “A.C. Slater” Lopez have also agreed to be a part of the reunion.

Last night Mark-Paul “Zack Morris” Gosselaar appeared on Fallon’s show, in character, to promote his current acting project (a courtroom drama . . . snore) and to announce that he and Elizabeth “Jessie Spano” Berkley will also show for the reunion.  It was quite enjoyable to see Gosselaar acting as Zack again.  Except for slightly sunken eyes and a creased forehead, he looks exactly as he did 20 years ago.  I don’t know if it’s from cosmetic treatments or if he just aged well, but the man looks good.  My North American readers can see the clip on Hulu or on Fallon’s website.

I really like the idea of a “Saved by the Bell” reunion.  I loved watching the show as a child, though I can’t recall exactly how old I was when I watched.  The original air dates show that I was only 6 when the final season aired, so I was obviously watching reruns and just didn’t realize it.  Even so, the show was a big part of my formative years, and I have no doubt that it will live on as my generation’s nostalgic heirloom.

I was fond of many other shows as a child — I watched much more television back then than I do now — but none left the same lasting impression as “Saved by the Bell.”  Maybe because that show was so ubiquitous; it seemed like from my elementary school years to high school I could catch an episode on television somewhere.  Other (non-animated) programs that I enjoyed when I was younger — “Boy Meets World,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “Salute Your Shorts,” and “Clarissa Explains it All,” among others — all had good runs, but none had the syndicated staying power that “Saved by the Bell” enjoyed.  The only program that really comes close is “Full House,” but where “Saved by the Bell” had the occasional tender moment or moralistic message, “Full House” was nothing but eight years of very special episodes.

My own school experiences were very unlike those I saw on the show.  I mean, did anyone go to a high school like Bayside?  With date auctions, telethons, vicious rivalries with other schools, or an administration made up of a single principal who had enough time to socialize with a handful of kids on a regular basis?  Did your high school have a wrestling team that more than five people cared about?  A student pop band that performed at school events?

Yet, despite the unrealistic experiences depicted on the show, I felt a kinship with these unusual teenagers.  My high school may have been drastically different from Bayside, but I still enjoyed the show, maybe because of how unrealistic it was.  Zack and and the gang were special — students who had extra privileges, were especially popular and lucky, and who seemed to be at the center of all the school’s events.  It made me think that I could be special when I got to high school.  Of course, things didn’t quite turn out that way, but that’s an entirely unrelated matter . . .

Anyway, as I said before, I like the idea of a “Saved by the Bell” reunion, but ultimately the only exciting thing about the whole event will be the anticipation.  Because, once they’re all reunited, what do we expect will happen?  Time will turn back, we’ll all be children/teenagers again, the actors will get into character, and the show will continue as if it never went off the air?  Sure, it’ll be cute to see everyone in the same room together, but what then?  It’s more likely that it will be an awkward moment to witness.  These people aren’t really the friendly gang that we came to know them as on the show, and though I’m sure Mario Lopez and Dennis Haskins will be very kind and generous to their fellow actors, some may be more awkward with each other than chummy.

Then there’s the cast members who haven’t been asked to be a part of the reunion, like the short-tempered Mr. Tuttle or Stacey Carosi, played by Leah Remini, as Zack’s love interest during the Malibu Sands summer arc.  No call for them from Fallon?  Or how about Tori, the brunette biker who had a short stint on the show in the final season?  She only starred in episodes in which neither Kelly nor Jessie appeared — the actresses would not renew their contracts for more episodes — and was an alternative love interest for the two male leads.  Tori may have only appeared in a handful of episodes, but I always thought she was a lot more interesting than Jessie or Kelly.  Yet there’s evidently no interest in Leanna Creel, the actress who played Tori, appearing on a reunion episode, at least not from Fallon.  There isn’t even a request for Hayley Mills, whose character Miss Bliss was the namesake for the show that eventually became “Saved by the Bell”!

Nevertheless, it’s rare to see the cast of your favorite show reunited.  If you’re a fan of the gang and want to see them on stage together, head over to Fallon’s website and sign the petition.  Only two cast members have yet to agree to participate, Tiffani “Kelly Kapowski” Thiessen and Dustin “Screech Powers” Diamond, so I guess the purpose of the petition is to convince the remaining actors that it’s worth coming on Fallon’s show.  Ordinarily I’d think getting Thiessen on the show would be the toughest challenge, but with Diamond’s amateur porn career going so well, it may turn out that he is the more difficult actor to get a hold of.


The Sims 3: Pet Peeves

June 4, 2009

Excited as I was about the launch of The Sims 3, and though I am still enjoying the game immensely, not everything in Simonia is rosy.  Lest you think I am a rabid EA fangrrl (because that’s what you are if you like a game, a rabid devotee of the company that makes it), today’s coverage focuses on those things about TS3 that irritate me.

Items

Syp mentioned in a recent post about the game that the item selection is somewhat limited, and that players must use their precious dollars to purchase additional items from the Sim Store if they want to add more variety to the game.  That, or wait for expansions which will undoubtedly have a few new clothing items, hairstyles, or decor items.

Syp’s right; the selection is pretty small when it comes to hairstyles, clothing, furniture, and construction tools.  Sure, the amount of items available when The Sims 2 launched was pretty small as well, building over time with expansions and “stuff packs.”  Also true is that the create-a-style feature, in which the player can change the color, pattern, and texture of nearly every item in the game, adds a degree of variety to the limited selection.

However, when the game launches with such a limited amount of items and the Sim Store — on launch day — has four new furniture sets available for purchase, one has to wonder if EA is simply angling for more money.  Players already paid $50 for the game, more for the collector’s edition; they don’t want to be asked to contribute more of their hard earned cash to gain access to items that probably should have been offered straight out of the box.

FishyThere are no hot tubs in The Sims 3, a popular item in the previous games and an alternative place for romantic Sims to woohoo.  (They were especially beneficial for two-timing Sims who lived in one-room apartments.  Bed occupied by your sleeping spouse?  Head out back and hop in the hot tub!)

Another thing missing is a large aquarium.  I made a new Sim recently whose lifetime wish is to have thirteen different species of fish swimming in aquariums in his house.  In TS3, this can only be done by buying 13 individual goldfish bowls and housing one fish in each.  Perhaps if there was a multi-fish aquarium, this lifetime wish would be less annoying.  Especially when you consider I have to feed each fish individually.

Customization

Don’t get me wrong.  Customization is AWESOME in this game.  There are immense opportunities for customizing anything and everything.  The character creation is especially dazzling, with endless possibilities for skin color, hair color, facial proportions, and more.

My beef with customization in The Sims 3 is that body parts do not have individual sliders.  Facial features have sliders galore, but the rest of the body has two: thin to fat and scrawny to muscular.  Sims are all the same height, have the same proportional figures, the same leg and arm lengths.  I know my recent post about Team Fortress 2 decried the oversexualization of female avatars, but I find the lack of a bust or waist slider in TS3 appalling.

Breast sizes for Sims stay relatively the same — small.  While this means we won’t be subjected to millions of user-created videos depicting tiny-waisted and huge-breasted Sim ladies, it also means that there isn’t much in the way of body customization.  I applaud the game designers for allowing the weight bar to go as far as it does; players can make extremely obese Sims.  However, even at the fattest end of the spectrum, the breasts are still fairly tiny.  It makes it difficult to be true to life.

It’s a very, very minor detail, but I don’t see why these extra sliders couldn’t be added.  Aside from the breast issue, I’m sure Boyfriend would have enjoyed making a freakish looking Sim with extremely broad shoulders and a teeny tiny waist, or ridiculously long legs on a very short Sim.  I was able to make this lovely, unique Sim (pictured below) with the character creator, but there’s nothing I can do to customize her below the neck aside from changing her clothes.  It just feels like a missed opportunity.

For the record, she's a plant Sim, not an alien or Princess Fiona.

For the record, she's a plant Sim, not an alien or Princess Fiona.

Traits

The trait system is a brilliant addition to The Sims.  Instead of having to assign various levels of cleanliness, friendliness, etc., Sims have five trait slots to fill from a list of many interesting traits.  I don’t have a problem with the system in and of itself.  No, my problem is with traits that are confusing or annoying.

See, when you create a new Sim from scratch, you can assign any five traits to him.  But if you grow a Sim — that is, raise him from pregnancy to adulthood — you can only choose his traits if his previous life stage (fetus, toddler, child, or teen) was successful.  Otherwise, the game will assign a random trait.  For the most part, I don’t mind the randomness; it adds more of a challenge where I otherwise would pick beneficial traits like “genius” or “lucky” or “neat.”

There is one trait, however, that I was unlucky enough to see assigned to one of my Sim children and it made playing the Sim a source of frustration.  That trait?  “Technophobe.”  Having a technophobic Sim is incredibly annoying for me, as my playstyle generally involves letting my Sims watch TV or play on the computer for entertainment.  Not so for the technophobic Sim.  She can’t stand using such devices and even refuses to be in the same room as an active television, receiving a negative moodlet until she leaves the room or it’s shut off.

While I’m sure there are some people out there who “fear” technology — who don’t understand, don’t want to learn how to use it, or fear that the rise of technology means the end of the world as we know it — I doubt that those people are so afraid that they can’t stand to be near a television.  Even if that kind of person is that frightened, and my Sim’s behavior is based on that fear, it doesn’t explain why she feels perfectly comfortable using her cellular phone.  She also feels fine using slightly older technology like electric lights, automobiles, and modern appliances.  But don’t get her near that computer!

One other trait that bugs me is the “vegetarian” trait.  I actually find the trait interesting and have assigned it to a few Sims, but it’s somewhat difficult to play.  Vegetarians can cook any meal that regular Sims can, with the exception of spaghetti, hamburgers, and hot dogs (all of which they cook a substitute vegetarian version).  That means they can cook the more ambiguous meals, eat them, and I won’t realize I’ve done something wrong until they’re running for the toilets 10 minutes later.  Ratatouille is one of the menu options, a dish whose ingredients — despite having seen the Pixar film of the same name multiple times — I am completely ignorant of.  Another ambiguous one is Eggs Machiavellian.  Do my vegetarian Sims consider eggs off limits?

Considering the length of this post, you might think I’m more frustrated with the game than I actually am.  I really do enjoy the game; I just wanted to make it clear that there are a number of things that disappointed me and things that could be improved.  Pets and universities will be a good addition to the game, as well as some of the other things I mentioned above.

In the meantime, I’m still having a wonderful time playing TS3.  I played TS2 on fast forward much of the time, trying to speed through my Sims’ lives to get tasks accomplished.  In TS3, I feel much more content to let the game run at its normal speed and simply watch my Sims live.  Following my plant Sim as she jogs through the neighborhood or pausing to appreciate the sunset over the river while she reels in a few catfish can be very relaxing.

Click for lovely full size view.

Click for lovely full size view.


The Sims 3: Day 2

June 3, 2009

I’ve been playing around with The Sims for several hours now, and I’m still sticking with my original positive judgment of the game.  I downloaded the free town, Riverview.  While it’s a very pretty area, ultimately I think it is a bit inferior to Sunset Valley.  The main town that ships with the game is more of a city or large town, where Riverview has a small town atmosphere.  Riverview doesn’t have a spa, a military barracks, a science facility, or other buildings, which means less job variety for your Sims and less opportunities to have fun in town.

That’s definitely one thing I love about The Sims 3: Sims are encouraged to leave the house often.  Even a Sim who works from home or is a stay-at-home parent wants to get out of the house from time to time.  If they don’t, they get a “Stir Crazy” moodlet that decreases their mood until they make a trip out of the house, even if it’s just down the street to the park.  Sims can go to the movies, see a sporting event or concert, get a massage from the spa, or eat at the bistro.  Jogging in Sims 2 consisted of your Sim running off the lot and disappearing, returning later sweaty and exhausted.  Now your Sim can jog anywhere on the map and you can follow him the entire way.

The main thing I want to talk about today, though, is the variety of ways that Sims can make money in The Sims 3.  In TS2, there weren’t too many options for Sims who wanted to work from home.  Open For Business provided a few interesting opportunities — toy making, flower arranging, or owning a home business — but otherwise it was limited.  Gardening and writing were semi-lucrative, but I was never able to make a living off of either profession in TS2.

This is no longer the case in TS3.  Having a full-time job at one of the city’s employers is certainly the best way to make simoleans, but there are many other ways as well.  Sims can find part-time jobs at a few locations — the spa, the grocery store, the mausoleum, or the bookstore — which any Sim from teen to elder can hold.  The hours for these jobs are typically in the evening, making them perfect for teen Sims who want an extra challenge.

Writing

I can make money by writing trashy novels? Must blog about this!

If your Sim wants to work from home, he or she has a number of opportunities.  Writing is much more robust than it once was: a sim can practice his skill; refine his skill; or write a novel from various genres such as sci-fi, drama, history, and many more.  Payments are made in weekly royalties that can become very profitable.  Sim Girl Unplugged’s lifetime wish is to earn 4,000 simoleans a week in royalties.  Sims also earn simoleans as they write, receiving a few bucks periodically by “submitting chapters” — an automated process that the Sim does without you needing to tell him to.

Sims can also earn money by selling fruits and vegetables acquired from gardening to the grocery store, and Sims who fish can sell their catches at the store as well.  Selling paintings is fairly lucrative, as a Sim with high painting skill can earn nearly 2k simoleans per painting.  Musically-inclined Sims can take their guitars to the beach or the park and play for tips, sometimes earning thousands of simoleans for a full day’s worth of playing.  Sims with the “computer whiz” trait can use computers to hack at night and earn money.

Finally, Sims will occasionally be offered “opportunities” at random to do activities that complement their skill sets.  A Sim who has high writing skill might be contracted to write a biography of a local Sim, or a gardener will be asked to supply a nearby restaurant with fresh produce.  These opportunities generally reward a sizable amount of cash and sometimes a boost to skills.

If your Sim is looking for a unique way of earning simoleans, consider using one of the expanded options provided for working at home or working part-time.  No longer does your Sim have to put in a full eight hours at the office; The Sims 3 allows Sims to use their skills and traits to gain profit.  Now if only writing was a lucrative job in the real world . . . nope, never gonna happen.


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