Supernatural Sagas: now with more sex!

May 29, 2009

The supernatural has always been an alluring topic for entertainment.  Usually it involves our world, but with superhuman (and subhuman) creatures thrown in to add drama, sex, and danger.  There’s been a serious resurgence in supernatural entertainment — particularly that involving vampires — over the past decade, though, that has caused it to expand from a niche market to an all-encompassing fad.  The love-it-or-hate-it Twilight franchise, HBO’s hit series “True Blood”, and rumors of a new “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” movie are just a few of the many examples of society’s affection for all things paranormal.  Books are where many of these supernatural franchises germinate, and the ubiquity of fanged heroes and witchy heroines is almost hackneyed.

Ask anyone who considers himself a bookworm (particularly one who enjoys alternative genres like fantasy, horror, and sci-fi) if he’s heard of Anita Blake; no doubt he’ll respond with an emphatic nod followed by an annoyed groan.  Laurell K. Hamilton’s long-running series that follows the eponymous necromancer/federal marshal isn’t the first to combine elements of mystery and crime dramas with the supernatural, but it might be one of the most well-known.

The saga of Anita Blake is famous for having fallen victim to one of the many tragedies of serialized tales: overabundance.  Overabundance of characters, overabundance of plot, overabundance of sex.  Sex is perhaps the thing for which most readers decry the Anita Blake series.  Though romance has always been a significant part of Anita’s life, it was a supporting theme to the first few books, limited so that the main focus — the crime, the mystery, etc. — could be at the forefront of the book.  As the series went on, the books became increasingly focused on Anita’s love live — or sex life — than on her job.  As a way to make certain Anita has sex at every opportunity, the writer even cursed her with a vampiric love disease — the ardeur — that makes her ill if she doesn’t fornicate regularly.

Hamilton defended her books by pointing out that female sexuality is rarely explored in literature, and implied that, if Anita Blake were Andrew Blake, the fuss about all her (his) sexual encounters would be much less intense.  I think that’s a fair assessment.  What Hamilton seems to misunderstand is that her fans are not angry with her for allowing Anita to be a sexual being.  They’re angry because Anita used to be a round character — one who conveyed strength, intelligence, and talent while navigating a male-dominated field — but has been reduced to a sex-crazed cardboard cutout of her old self.

There are two other book series I’ve read that exist in the same genre as the Anita Blake books and that have managed to avoid garnering collective groans from readers.  At least so far.  While the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris and “The Hollows” series by Kim Harrison have not cultivated quite as much of a following as Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, they at least are still providing solid, profitable volumes that stay true to their origins.  Below I compare and contrast the three series in an attempt to determine where Hamilton went wrong, and what Harris and Harrison are doing right.

Similarities

Strong, but not invincible, female heroines

Much like Anita Blake, Sookie Stackhouse and Rachel Morgan (the protagonist in “The Hollows”) are supernatural, independent women.  Where Anita Blake is a necromancer (among other things), Sookie is a telepath and Rachel a witch.  Rachel and Anita are both connected to law enforcement or crime fighting in some way, and though Sookie is merely a barmaid at a small town tavern, she is something of an amateur detective.  Like any good protagonist, these three ladies are flawed.  They have moments of weakness, they face villains more powerful than they, and they know their limits.

Power progression

As with any typical hero(ine)-based tale, the three protagonists become more powerful or more knowledgeable as the series goes on.  As they face increasingly strong villains and dangerous situations, they learn new things about themselves or the worlds they inhabit.  Anita becomes more involved with the Were factions and gains new powers over the dead and undead alike, Sookie constantly learns of new supernatural elements while simultaneously navigating their political structures with the ease of a seasoned diplomat, and Rachel discovers that she has nearly limitless talent in her witchy abilities and has the potential to be an incredibly powerful witch.

Decaying morals

No, I’m not talking about Anita’s sexualization — that has little to do with morals, in my opinion.  What I mean here is that, as the protagonists “power-up” every time they encounter a hazardous situation, they simultaneously loosen their stance on their moral codes.  Anita swore she would never get involved with vampires in any way, and yet she aligned herself with Jean Claude (her vamp beau) early on in the series.  Sookie considers herself a devout Christian, yet she’s killed a woman and has exhibited many behaviors that would shock her pastor.  Rachel is firm in the first book that she will never practice the potentially dangerous ley line magic (as opposed to her own, safe earth magic) or deal with demons, yet she puts herself in situations in which she must do both.

I don’t mean to say that any of these characters were wrong for the decisions they made that challenged their morals.  In nearly every circumstance, the women had no choice but to do what they did in order to survive or save someone.  It’s merely an observation.

Differences

Villains

The villains that appear in Anita’s world are mostly flat.  They are bad baddies who do bad things and don’t have a sliver of goodness in them.  There are a few exceptions, and Anita has certainly met her share of anti-heroes — people who do bad things for good reasons or who do enough good to counteract the bad.  For the most part, though, Anita is able to take out the bad guy (or gal) without much remorse, feeling certain that he or she was too much of a menace to her world to go on breathing.

Sookie and Rachel face more complex villains.  Often the bad guy is someone the women were close to, or who were wholesome enough to avoid notice until they went too far.  Many of the villains are anti-heroes, meaning the bad things they do for good reasons are just too much on this side of bad to ignore.  Most importantly, this means that Sookie and Rachel are much more wounded by the fate of the villains, recognizing their humanity in spite of the evil deeds they perpetrated.

Romance

Yes, the meatiest issue is saved for last.  This is largely what many readers attribute Anita’s downfall to, and the most potentially controversial aspect.  In order to understand why the romance in the Anita Blake series has gone too far, I have to first examine the use of romance in the other two series.

Sookie Stackhouse

Sookie’s saga is about two parts mystery to one part romance.  However, all the events of the books were kicked off by Sookie’s interest in her first love, vampire Bill Compton.  While many readers follow the series in order to be a part of Sookie’s adventures, a great majority are more intrigued by which supernatural beau Sookie will ultimately end up with.  There is a fairly small amount of sex in the novels, but Sookie is no prude.  Despite being a virgin in her early twenties until the events of the first book (spoiler?), Sookie is obviously very comfortable with her sexuality, and is intimate with a handful of men.

Particularly notable about Sookie is that she frequently admits to being horny, to lusting after various men, and to knowing that she is a desirable woman.  One minor pet peeve here is that Sookie’s narration is done in a Southern vernacular, meaning that the author (through Sookie) uses demure euphemisms for sex, sex organs, and orgasms.  Otherwise, though, Sookie has no shame about her sexuality.

Rachel Morgan

If Sookie is a 2:1 ratio of mystery to romance, The Hollows series follows more of a 5:1 ratio.  Rachel does have romantic interests, and she certainly has sex, but the intimate nature of her relationships is not as much of a focal point as the other elements of the story.  Her boyfriends drive the plot in a couple of the books, but otherwise they are secondary to other plot threads.  When the story moves to a point at which she is pursuing a man, or being pursued, Rachel displays much of the same confidence and self-awareness as Sookie.  She knows what she wants from a man and she isn’t ashamed of her sexuality.  The writer occasionally gets more personal and describes a sex scene involving Rachel.  Everything is done in careful euphemism — not as homespun as Sookie’s, but still reserved — but it manages to titillate nonetheless.

Notable about Rachel is that she is the only one of the three protagonists to question her gender preferences.  Anita is very firmly hetero (at least as far as I have read — to Danse Macabre), never including women in her trysts despite seeming pretty comfortable with bisexual male partners.  Sookie claims to be fully heterosexual, though she is much more casual about it, only mentioning it once or twice.  Rachel, however, starts the series thinking she’s as hetero as the rest of the leading ladies, until her increasingly intimate friendship with bisexual vampire Ivy makes her wonder.  I’m not trying to imply that all books need to address alternative lifestyles; I just find it worth noting that Rachel is the only one of the protagonists who considers it.

Then there’s Anita.  Her ratio of plot to romance has flip flopped over time, until it favored romance and sex to such a degree that major plot threads from the earlier books were left hanging.  What began as a love triangle — Anita must choose between werewolf Richard and vampire Jean Claude — has turned into an orgy of suitors: Asher the bisexual vampire, Micah and submissive Nathaniel the wereleopards/strippers, Jason the werewolf and one-time platonic friend, along with the few she’s bedded merely to curb her ardeur.

It’s almost comical when I list them out like that.  Hamilton implies that Anita catches so much flak from readers simply because she’s a sexual woman, and that a man would not be so poorly received.  Perhaps, but if the man in question was sleeping with four female strippers, one of whom feeds on sexual energy and one who wants him to dominate her, I’d guess there would be plenty of complaints.

Like Sookie and Rachel, Anita is a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality, and that’s definitely something to applaud.  However, Sookie and Rachel manage to save the day whether they stop for a sex break or not, where Anita risks succumbing to her illness if she doesn’t carnally feast every few hours.  Where her sexual liberation could be seen as empowering, her slavery to  her sexuality is degrading.  The fact that she can’t do her job, even live her life, without having sex constantly makes it seem as though she needs sex in order to be useful.  Turning her sexuality into a disease belittles it.

But enough about the illness, and enough about the similarities and differences.  Anita was already very sexual prior to her infection.  Perhaps the thing that most frustrates readers is that Anita has abandoned her ass-kicking, vampire slaying roots to become a nymphomaniacal vampire ally.  Were Anita able to combine these two facets of her personality, she would be seen as a woman who is both sensual and dangerous, loving and strong.  To separate them, to decide that Anita can’t effectively be a bad ass if she spends most of her time between the sheets (or in the shower, or on top of the desk, or wherever), Hamilton is implying that women can only be one or the other: sexually competent or professionally competent.

Rachel and Sookie are women who manage to be simultaneously sexual and professional.  Sookie is even victim to the same problem Anita has — that virtually every man she meets is attracted to her — but she still manages to do her job at the bar, solve the crime, and save the day.  Rachel has her own relationship problems, not to mention her intriguing connection to Ivy, but she is able to take down demons and vampires alike and would never miss a bust because she was too busy getting busy.

Anita . . . not so much.  If the ardeur is on her, or if her romantic entanglements need to be sorted out, Anita can’t be bothered to finish solving the crime.  For instance, the 12th book, Incubus Dreams opens a plot line regarding a boy’s murder.  Anita doesn’t manage to solve the murder before the end of the book, but says in the epilogue that she’ll help the police with the investigation.  So far, through Book 16, there’s been no resolution to this plot line.  Yet, there was an entire book — Micah — devoted to developing Anita’s relationship with the wereleopard, including many graphic sex scenes.

If Laurell K. Hamilton wants to write erotic fiction, she can go ahead.  She already has, having branched out to a second series following a world of sexual faeries.  The Anita Blake series, however, began as a supernatural crime saga and has devolved into a supernatural romance series.  It’s obviously Hamilton’s prerogative to write what she wants, but it shouldn’t surprise her when it causes her to lose a number of readers in the process.  As evidenced by Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse and Harrison’s Rachel Morgan, complex female leads who have active sex lives can exist, and they can even continue to be powerful bad asses.  If Anita Blake could regain some of that bad-assery, perhaps those former readers who think of the series with a collective groan can regain interest in the curly-headed, penguin-loving necromancer.


Dropping Achievement-based Gaming

May 22, 2009

One of the biggest complaints I hear from veteran gamers is that games these days rely too much on achievements.  Warhammer Online’s Tome of Knowledge was a great example of the influx of achievement-based games; ninety percent of its purpose was to track your achievements.  World of Warcraft, previously only somewhat reliant on achievements, even went so far as to implement their own achievement system with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion.  Achievements

Possibly one of the best known achievement systems is from Xbox Live, a system that provides players with a gamerscore based on their achievement points.  In gaming today, it’s not enough to feel the pride of having beaten a level or killed a specific monster — you have to see it carved on a stone tablet along with the number of rats you’ve exterminated and the amount of times you’ve clicked on yourself while naked.

In many cases, achievements don’t merely provide bragging rights; they often come with a reward of some kind.  In WAR, that meant a special tome tactic, cloak, title, or trophy.  For WoW, players who accumulate some ridiculous number of achievements will get access to a rare mount.  It seems like this is one of the main arguments from those who don’t like achievement-based gaming: that it only rewards achievers, while other player types get nothing.  In other words, achievements become compulsory instead of optional, especially when the rewards are more significant than a shiny ribbon to hang on your belt.

Team Fortress 2, like many first person shooter games, has its own achievement system.  Valve dressed up the achievements with clever names and cute icons, but they’re standard fare: kill x players with x weapon, heal x health in one life, and so forth.  When Valve began updating the TF2 classes, they implemented unlockable weapons that could be obtained via completing achievements.  In most cases, three unlockable weapons were available that were obtained at three levels of achievements, i.e. weapon A at 10 achievements, weapon B at 20, weapon C at 30.  The expected amount of controversy was spawned and has continued ever since.  One side thinks the system is fair, the other doesn’t.  Count me for the former, but, like many younger gamers, I’m an achiever (when I’m not a killer).

A new shitstorm is brewing in the TF2 community this week, as the latest update goes live.  The largest content patch to date, this update includes the sniper update, the spy update, three new maps, and a change to the unlockable weapon/achievement system.  Boyfriend and I discovered this last night when he was randomly informed that he had received the Razorback, the sniper’s new unlockable shield, despite the fact that he was playing a spy at the time and had not completed any sniper achievements.  I experienced a similar event when, while playing a pyro, I found that I had received the Dead Ringer, a new spy unlockable.

We thought it was a glitch, but soon realized it was intentional.  Yes, instead of obtaining unlockable weapons via completing achievements, the weapons will now be obtained via drops, similar to an MMO.  Evidently it is also be possible for players to receive duplicate drops of weapons they’ve already obtained, as I unlocked the Sandman, a scout weapon I’d earned previously.  You need only take a look at the game’s official forums to see that the new system is just as controversial, perhaps more controversial, as its predecessor.

The good thing about the new system is that it is much more equitable.  Tying the weapons to achievements was unfair to players who didn’t have the skill or patience to complete them.  There was also a number of ways to exploit to obtain achievements faster — like joining an empty server with your friends and farming the ones you could manage with only a few people — that undermined the system.  Making the weapons obtainable only via a completely random drop evens the playing field somewhat.  Casual players will have a chance to obtain the unlockable items, and hardcore players will still have a better chance to obtain them because their increased playtimes will improve their drop chances.

Unfortunately there is also a down side to the new system.  The most obvious one is that the achievements are now reduced to bragging rights.  Some achievers will still complete achievements for a sense of fulfillment, but otherwise it’s unlikely that players will strive to complete them.  They’ll be seen as more of a novelty — a notice that pops up when you happen to complete one, but isn’t particularly exciting or rewarding.

The other problem is that one controversial playstyle is being replaced by another.  Instead of basing unlockable content on achievements, the focus is now on grinding and play time.  Where a skilled player could possibly complete a full set of achievements in a few hours, now that player may be in game for days before finding one of the weapons.

If there’s anything anti-achievement gamers hate more than achievements, it’s grinding.  Yet grinding is what TF2 has chosen to be the primary means for obtaining unlockable weapons.  Is it fair?  Perhaps — it’s as fair as anything random can be.  Is it gamebreaking?  Certainly not — the unlockable weapons are nice, but the game is playable without them . . . unless you’re a rabid achiever looking for fulfillment.  Is it smart?  Well . . . that remains to be seen.  TF2 is introducing a lot of new things to the game that blur the lines between MMO and FPS — such as headgear slots that may eventually have attributes and an inventory system with 50 slots (for health packs? items?) — and some purists may not appreciate that.

For me?  So long as TF2 continues to be the kind of game that I can abandon for several weeks and come back to without a significant change in the game’s feel and play style, I’ll be happy.  If it gets to the point where I have to play continuously to keep up, like an MMO . . . well, I wouldn’t be happy then.  I play TF2 when I want a break from MMOs; I don’t want to play TF2: The Mini-MO.

(If you don’t own TF2, you can try it for free for the next two days during the game’s Free Weekend.  The game is also on sale for a limited time for $10 from the Steam store.)


Surviving WoW Itch

May 16, 2009

I mentioned recently on Twitter that low points in game release cycles are bad for me.  It’s not that I don’t have other hobbies to fall back on; I’ve actually been catching up on my reading a lot lately and am writing like a madwoman.  The problem is that any lull in gaming, any significant amount of time in which I’m not consistently playing an MMO or other engrossing game, sets off an automatic reaction in brain that tells me the time is ripe to return to World of Warcraft.

It’s certainly true now more than ever.  For the first time, I’m out of the loop on WoW.  I haven’t played in a year, I missed an expansion release and major patches, and have very little knowledge of the state of the game.  Unlike other slow gaming periods, WoW’s pull is especially strong this time.  The only major thing holding me back from reinstalling is that Boyfriend is decidedly against returning to the game.  I won’t play without him; I did that a few times with WoW and it was too depressing.

So in the meantime, we’ve been searching for another game to play.  I mentioned in a previous post that my farming experience in City of Heroes left me soured on the game, likening it to the boredom one feels after going through a game in god mode.  We played earlier this week for a few hours, but it wasn’t the same.  I’m definitely excited about the Going Rogue expansion, but until that comes around, I think I’m done with the game except for casual play.  My last post, in which I discussed the sniper update (which has evidently been expanded to include a spy update as well? or it’s just a spy update?) for Team Fortress 2, got me back into playing TF2 some, but as enjoyable as that is, it isn’t a long-term option.

The game I’d been betting on to cure my WoW itch was Champions Online.  I hadn’t been interested in it until Syp posted his first impressions of the game.  That, combined with the good experiences I had in CoX and the need to resist the WoW urge, had me eagerly anticipating the release of the superhero game.  Unfortunately, it was announced today that the launch has been delayed.

The Sims 3 is still on schedule to release early next month, so that’s one option.  It’s a solo experience, though — as much as I’d like it to be a co-op experience with Boyfriend, we’re both a bit stubborn about being in the “driver’s seat” of the game — and ideally I’m looking for a game we can play together for the long-term.  The Sims 3 will likely be a game that I play when I’m home alone and have some free time, or when we’re doing our own thing in the evening.

With no other new games on the horizon that we’re interested in, Boyfriend and I tried Runes of Magic last night, for the first time.  We didn’t get higher than level 6, but I’m afraid Runes of Magic just suffers from the same flaws every other free-to-play MMO I’ve played does.  It’s clunky, it’s gritty, it’s rough, and it isn’t a fun experience.  It feels more like a job than a game, and the problems we encountered when we first tried to install the game made it even worse.

The most difficult thing about trying out new MMOs or going back to older MMOs (like CoX, WoW, or, as Ysharros suggested, EQ2) is that Warhammer Online, as flawed as it is, has ruined me for other MMOs.  WAR has so many great features that I feel like I can’t live without — public quests, quest item inventory, no durability on items, secondary targets, and so forth.  They’re little things, but together they add up.  I’d imagine that, as fun as going back to WoW might be, I would be frustrated with durability, with random quest drops (and the fact that they’re usually one-per-mob instead of shared for all group members), or with other little annoyances.  And WAR certainly has its share of annoyances: small bank inventory, lackluster crafting system, and horrible clipping issues being only a few of them.  Many of its great features are now must-haves, though.  It’s definitely a boon for Mythic; if their modern features keep players from leaving WAR for older games, they’ve succeeded.

While I discussed this problem with Boyfriend — the fact that WAR has so many significant features that other games don’t — we started reading more about 1.3.  A lot of the improvements are really exciting, not to mention the huge content update coming with Land of the Dead.  It’s not a certainty yet, but there’s a good possibility we’ll be resubscribing to WAR when 1.3 goes live (my favorite thing about modern computers with their massive hard drives: no need to uninstall a game permanently).  It’s impossible to tell if Land of the Dead will be the shot in the arm that WAR needs, but it’s at least worth a shot.  It seems clear that Mythic is aware that much of the game needs improvement, as they continue to tweak and add content consistently.  I like game designers who aren’t complacent, who recognize that their game is far from perfect.  Fortunately Mythic seems to be working nonstop to remedy that fact, and I appreciate it.  If the new improvements to WAR can cure my WoW itch, I’ll be even more appreciative.


Boom, Headshot!

May 13, 2009
MeetTheSniper

Image by Julia Lichty

For my entire blogging career, I’ve been a part of the MMO blogging community.  I’ve followed MMO blogs and written about MMOs almost exclusively.  I’ve even been known to hold an attitude of superiority over those gamers who play single player games exclusively, or who prefer console gaming to PC gaming.  I don’t play MMOs exclusively, though, and from time-to-time I can get excited about a non-MMO game (The Sims 3 anyone?!).  One game I especially love that isn’t a part of the MMO world is Team Fortress 2.  The only first person shooter I’ll play, and, for my money, the best.

For those who don’t follow TF2, the game designers have gone through a series of updates over the past year or so.  Four of the nine classes for the game have received an update, which includes enhanced achievement goals and special weapon rewards.  The fifth class that has been chosen to receive an update is the sniper.  The TF2 blog has been dropping hints about what a sniper update might entail.

For the other classes, the weapon rewards were typically improved versions of the standard weapons — pyro’s flamethrower is replaced by a flamethrower that does critical damage when fired from behind, scout’s standard melee-capable baseball bat is replaced by a baseball bat that can knock a ball into an enemy player and stun him, and so on.  The designers admitted that they had a difficult time determining what sort of improved weapon to give snipers in place of the standard sniper rifle.  The sniper rifle is already ridiculously overpowered if used properly.  It functions exactly as you’d imagine: the sniper waits in a concealed area, targets a player who either doesn’t see him or can’t reach him, and fires, causing an instant kill if it’s a headshot.  How do you improve on that?

The designers determined that they can’t.  At least, they can’t improve on the sniper rifle itself.  In a recent blog post, Robin Walker of Valve discussed the problematic nature of the sniper update:

You’re often killed by [the sniper] while you’re engaged with an enemy in the foreground, and most of the time the Sniper is so far away it feels like you couldn’t have dealt with him even if you didn’t have enemies nearby. In fact, the Sniper’s goal is to create that relationship: he specifically wants to fight enemies outside their engagement range, because that’s his primary advantage.

We chose the goal of designing an unlockable that encouraged the Sniper to get a little closer to his target. We want him to give up some of his primary advantage in return for something else, so that enemies he kills feel like they were engaged with them, and feel like they could have survived if they’d just managed to fight a little better.

Enter The Huntsman.  This is the first part of the sniper update and was revealed yesterday.  It hasn’t been explicitly stated whether The Huntsman will replace the sniper rifle or the sniper’s alternate ranged weapon — the machine gun.  Nevertheless, it seems like an intriguing addition to the sniper.  For the most part, I’ve found the unlockable weapons to be a bit hit or miss.  The heavy’s unlockable gun, for instance, isn’t something I enjoy using.  I also think the scout’s unlockable gun has its drawbacks.  I think I could enjoy The Huntsman, though.

From the text in the update promo, it sounds as though players who are shot somewhere other than their heads (which would insta-kill them) will be pinned so that the sniper can have a second chance at shooting them.  Robin wrote a clarification post saying that, no, The Huntsman doesn’t stun.  “It pins dead/dying players.”  I’m still confused.  Why use the vague term “dead/dying,” if all The Huntsman does is pin dead players to the wall?  Doesn’t that term imply that “dying” players, as in players who have been wounded but are still alive, will also be pinned?  I’m hoping we’ll get more clarification on this soon.  Giving the sniper the ability to pin players who are still alive, allowing him a chance at a second shot, would be extremely powerful.  It would also be in line with the scout’s unlockable stun bat, which gives the scout (or his teammates) the opportunity to have a free shot at the enemy.

I haven’t been playing much TF2 lately, mostly because I’ve been playing MMOs instead or doing other leisure activities like writing or reading.  The sniper update will be a great excuse to return to the game when it is finally released.  I was just starting to play the sniper a lot before my play time decreased, so I’ll be interested to see how the improvements affect my opinion of the class.

It’ll also be fascinating to see how the update affects balance issues in the game.  There was a lot of anger about the scout’s seemingly overpowered update, so you can bet there will be plenty of opinions about the sniper unlockables.  I think the sniper was pretty middle of the road in terms of power, though, so maybe it won’t be so terrible.  It’s not like they’re updating the demoman or the spy, arguably the two most ire-inducing classes.  I do not look forward to the day that the demoman gets an unlockable weapon.


The Decline of Farmerman

May 10, 2009

It’s old news to anyone who follows the video game industry, but last week Positron, lead designer for City of Heroes, informed players that Mission Architect abuse (i.e. farming missions) will no longer be tolerated.  He followed up two days later with a second post on the official forums, this time to clarify his previous post with a Q&A about the topic.  I predicted — in a previous post in which I discussed farming missions — that City of Heroes developers would eventually do something to prevent players from participating in farm missions.  Some bloggers wondered if the CoX devs, when designing mission architect, already predicted players would create massive farming missions and didn’t care.  Evidently that wasn’t the case.

In my post, I concluded that farming missions were a tolerable addition to the game.  I reasoned that I didn’t have to participate in them if I didn’t want to, but that I had the option to do so if I wanted to quickly level an archetype I had never tried before.  Another thing I didn’t mention in my post but that works as evidence to support the implementation of farming missions is that farming already existed in game prior to mission architect.  Players were already abusing the system, as Boyfriend experienced firsthand when an elite level 50 character power-leveled him and four others through a mission.

My first claim about farming was wrong, though.  I felt like I didn’t have to participate in farming missions if I didn’t want to, but ultimately that feeling turned out to be false.  For the past two weeks, very little has gone on in the CoX world other than farming missions.  Characters around my own level were more interested in being auto-sidekicked to level 42 (a feature that isn’t unique to the farming missions: anyone can join because you all magically become level 42 or 46 or 50 or whatever) and powering through farm content than they were in doing level-appropriate content.  There was no interest in doing radio missions, a mainstay of CoX leveling prior to mission architect’s launch, and there was a similar lack of interest in doing non-farming mission architect content.  It’s possible I could have scrounged a group together to do something other than farming missions, but it would have taken ten times longer than the time it takes to form an MA farm group.

I’m not whining about farming missions.  Far from it.  I had a fun time participating in them, and loved getting several characters into the 20-30 level range.  I felt comfortable playing a blaster for the first time, because I no longer had to worry about being squishy.  Healing is superfluous in MA farms, for the most part.  Plus, if I happened to die, I only had to wait a few moments before I leveled again and was automatically resurrected.

Now that participation in MA farming missions is a bannable offense (or at least something strongly advised against), I’m at a loss.  Just as I had feared, farming missions partially ruined the game for me.  I worried that the insane progression speed would take me through content too quickly, and deprive me of the enjoyment of leveling.  For the most part, those fears have come true.  My highest character is still my defender, who only gained four levels through farm missions, but I have a number of level 20-30 characters who have never left Atlas Park (or Mercy Island).  I have three villain characters who are around level 20, and I have no idea what to do with them now that farming missions aren’t available.  What zone do I go to?  What content is available for villains?  Boyfriend says he’s heard villain bank missions are incredibly fun, but I haven’t the slightest clue where to obtain one.

We logged in about three days ago wanting to play one of our villain duos, but it was impossible to find other players interested in doing non-farming content.  We chalked it up to it being a weeknight and the fact that we were on villain side, which I assume is somewhat less populated than hero side.  It was annoying nonetheless.  The ease of farming missions has spoiled us, as I’m sure it has spoiled many players.  It wasn’t just that these missions provided a quick leveling experience and an insane amount of tickets; they also were easy to recruit for, had the awesome auto-sidekick feature that doesn’t seem as popular in other user-created missions, and could be completed without a rigidly balanced group.  Since architect missions can be accessed from any zone, Atlas Park became a huge meeting place for players again, which meant that getting a group together was ridiculously simple.

There was certainly a dark side to farming missions.  The obvious one that I’ve mentioned before is that it takes players away from the traditional game content and from more interesting user-created content.  Another problem I saw was that farming missions made players lazy and greedy.  CoX has a mission difficulty system — any user can change his difficulty setting (on a 1-5 scale) to make the missions he takes more difficult and rewarding.  If the leader of a farming mission neglected to set his difficulty to level 5, players whined endlessly about it.  As the farming missions were rapidly being banned, they became more difficult to find.  Strange variations popped up, some that contained less enemy monsters than the original version.  Again, I encountered many players who ceaselessly complained about the “lack” of enemy monsters (15 monsters to a pull isn’t enough?).  Farming missions were also completely devoid of roleplaying.  I play on Virtue, the unofficial RP server for CoX, and absolutely no one stayed in character during the farm missions.  Mostly people debated about whether World of Warcraft sucks and if they’d be playing Champions Online.

I’m not really broken up about CoX developers discouraging the farming missions.  Sure, I’ll miss some of the benefits I highlighted, but ultimately I think the game is better off without them.  I powerleveled my characters easily, but the experience was tedious for the most part.  There was little fun involved in killing the same kind of monster over and over again, on the exact same map.  The only fun I could really derive from the experience came from the number of levels I gained in each run, or how pretty my powers looked (X-ray beam looks awesome, as you might imagine).  Playing a farming mission was a lot like playing a game in god mode.  It’s thrilling for the first hour, but eventually you get bored and neither the vanilla version of the game nor the god mode version is much fun anymore.  We’re taking a week or so off from CoX in the hope that the lingering effects of the farming mission craze will have worn off by then.  I’m hoping that we will enjoy the game as much as we used to when we return, but I’m afraid it may be disappointing.  If that’s the case, well, the Champions Online previews that have been cropping up are starting to intrigue us, and there’s always Free Realms.


The Summer of Anime

May 5, 2009

The past few months have been pretty good for television.  Because I don’t have cable, much of my TV viewing is done via Internet, leading me to follow only a few series.  This past season, though, provided me with a lot of great shows for nighttime viewing — “Burn Notice”, “Ugly Betty”, “Big Bang Theory”, and “30 Rock” to name a few.  With much of my leisure time split between watching my handful of shows, reading, and gaming, I had very little time remaining for one of my other interests: anime.  The timing for giving up anime worked out pretty well, anyway.  Bleach had recently switched to filler episodes (despite having finished a filler arc only 10-20 episodes previously) and I had just finished several series of older anime that I was watching for the first time (Alice Academy, Onegai Sensei, and Best Student Council).  Boyfriend had convinced me to start watching Fullmetal Alchemist, but we only got two episodes in before I was ready for my break from anime, meaning I didn’t feel too guilty about leaving a series unfinished.

Now that most of my television programs are on hiatus for the summer, and there is still a full month before a new season starts (True Blood) or a new game comes out (The Sims 3), I feel ready to return to anime.  I’m especially excited to finish Fullmetal Alchemist, one of the few really famous anime series that I have yet to watch and one of Boyfriend’s favorites.  I constantly ask Boyfriend to name his Top 5 anime series, a task he can’t usually manage since he has seen so many and loved them all.  In honor of my return to anime viewing, I’m going to take on the challenge I usually pose to Boyfriend and create my own list of my Top 5 Favorite Anime Series.

5. Trigun

trigun_tva_top I considered leaving Trigun off this list.  It’s been a while since I watched it and there are a bunch of other anime series that I enjoy and have viewed more recently that could have made the number five spot in its place — Get Backers, History’s Strongest Disciple, Fruits Basket.  Nevertheless, I include Trigun because of its complexity and its depth.  There are plenty of anime series that have moments of darkness or deep storylines beneath the comedic fluff, but none can compare to the emotional journey that Trigun conveys.  The anime is one of those famous series that demands to be watched by anyone who wants to call himself an anime fan, a phenomenon I typically find obnoxious and tend to resist.  I’m glad I gave in and watched Trigun, though.  In spite of occasionally poor pacing and a few laughable, cringe-worthy villains, it’s a top-notch series and deserves its lauded reputation.

4. Naruto

Naruto was the second anime series I ever watched (the first being Chobits, a good series but one that doesn’t make this list) and my fondness for it and the nostalgia I feel for it are what keep it in this list.  I started watching the series just before it began its first filler arc, devouring the 100+ episodes at an insane pace, sometimes staying up until 4am watching episodes.  I now follow the manga instead of watching the anime, mostly because the pacing of the anime is just atrocious now.  As much as I hate it when anime series resort to using filler arcs, I would rather the team behind Naruto do that than continue stretching brief arcs into multiple episode crawls. naruto1fg0

The heart of the anime sticks with me to this day, though.  The inspiring story of determination, the wonderful supporting cast, and even the music of the series (I have most of the opening and closing songs on my mp3 player) are all stellar, adding up to make a great series.  I’m only sad that the pacing has effectively ruined the current arcs, as it dashes any hope I had of collecting the DVDs.

3. Love Hina

galera-love-hina Who doesn’t love a good harem anime?  I suppose that statement isn’t truly accurate — I’m not a big fan of harem anime series and consider Love Hina one of the few that are worth viewing.  Unlike many harem anime series that I’ve seen/read about, Love Hina has a rich cast of characters.  The protagonist isn’t choosing among a group of carbon-copied girls — the big breasted one, the shy one, the slutty one, etc., though the characters do exemplify some of the characteristics of those archetypes.  Also unlike many harem anime protagonists, Keitaro is a truly likable guy who actually seems to earn the affections of the girls he encounters.  Those qualities, combined with a fair amount of fan service, plenty of comedic violence, and a few questionable references to one character’s ethnicity make for a wonderful and hilarious series.  The cast is also great, with Yui Horie — an adorable J-pop singer — lending her voice to the main love interest.

2. Bleach

If I had known two years ago that I was going to like Bleach enough to put it at the number 2 spot on this list, I wouldn’t have been so damned resistant to watching it for the first time.  For what it’s worth, I was such a diehard Naruto fan at the time that I felt incredibly skeptical that any other series featuring a teenager with orange hair fighting off baddies could be enjoyable.  Amusingly enough, it was because of Naruto that I finally agreed to watch Bleach.  Boyfriend was playing the PSP game Bleach: Heat the Soul and was fooling around with the collectible card feature, where gathering the cards unlocked little voice clips of the characters’ dialogues from the show.  I heard him play a voice one night and thought it sounded eerily similar to the voice actor for Sasuke in Naruto.  I was instantly intrigued and agreed to watch the show, excited to see what role the character (Ishida) had in the series.  Even more amusing is that I now associate the voice actor primarily with Ishida and less so with Sasuke, simply because I have watched Bleach more recently and more often now. 10xdqpy

The incident with the voice acting inspired my obsession with tracking voice actors in new series I watch.  Bleach happens to have a number of famous Japanese voice actors who have been a part of other anime series I enjoyed, even some on this list.  The actors for Vash and Wolfwood are particularly notable, as they play reluctant allies in Trigun and sworn enemies in Bleach.  Bleach also introduced me to one of my favorite artists, Yui, who performed both an opening and closing song for the series.

In addition to these little facts, I just generally love the series.  The characters are great, the fight scenes are epic, and the series seems to bring a novel approach to the genre, even if its “power up” style is somewhat formulaic.  I enjoyed the series so much that I started following the manga as well.  I’m a tad frustrated with Bleach for employing filler arcs so much lately, but it’s certainly better than enduring the snaillike pacing that Naruto favors.

1. Nodame Cantabile

It’s an anime about two music students.  Yeah, I was skeptical, too.  Boyfriend told me it was a great series, that he loved it and that I would love it.  When I asked him what it was about?  “Well, she plays the piano and he wants to be a conductor and they go to conservatory together, but he doesn’t like her.”  It seemed odd, and I thought it was going to be boring or weird or dumb.  I was absolutely wrong.  True, much of the series deals with music, but it isn’t boring.  It’s also true that the male lead doesn’t like the female lead initially, but it is a love story at its core and ultimately the two come together in the end, as you might expect.  There are some weird aspects to the show, but they’re extremely funny, the most notable being Nodame’s odd speech habits.

nodame-cantabile-paris-hen-sky-high-500x281I watched the series last year and felt content with the ending.  It was a full, complete series that ended well and on a high note.  Not a month later, Boyfriend discovered that a new season of the show was coming out that picked up where the finale left off.  I was cautiously happy.  I wanted more Nodame, but I worried that it would spoil the magic of the first season.  It turns out I was silly to worry, as the second season (dubbed the Paris Chapter) was just as entertaining as the first.

Despite their happy ending in season one, Nodame and Chiaki go through a number of trials during the Paris Chapter, enough to keep the story moving and make it just as addictive as the first time around.  The author of the manga had to put the series on hold due to pregnancy, but there will evidently be a new season of Nodame coming out later this year.  I can’t wait!  In the meantime, I watched the live action version of the series.  I was very skeptical, but it turned out great!  I’d never watched a J-drama before, and I really loved it.  The series is just so wonderful, with such an amazing story, I don’t think anything could be done to ruin it.

I have no idea how many of you are anime fans, but if you enjoy anime as I do, please feel free to leave your own top 5 list in the comments (or post to your blog if you need post fodder).  You needn’t be as detailed as I was, a simple list will suffice.  I’d also appreciate any recommendations you might have for new series to watch.  I’m a bit picky, but if you’re really fond of the series there’s a chance I’ll give it a shot.  One caveat, though: I really don’t like watching older anime series.  I watched five seasons of Ranma last summer and that was a stretch.  I also don’t like horror or, for the most part, space-themed anime series.  Otherwise, bring on the recommendations!  It’s the summer of anime!


It Takes a Village to Break a Game

May 1, 2009

With the WAR blogging community experiencing rapidly declining numbers and a general sense of burnout, I’ve found that many of my fellow bloggers who are still standing are beginning to feel worried.  I can’t say for certain what these folks are feeling, but they’ve at least expressed disappointment at seeing so many bloggers throw in the towel, concern for the state of the game if the community’s disinterest is an indication, and worry that they might start to see the benefits to leaving the community as well.  Those bloggers who haven’t decisively shut down their blogs have at least let their posting schedule lapse.  Only a few bloggers in the WAR community continue blogging on a regular basis, and they are the ones who express concern.

Image included because looking at a picture of my dog, Pavarti, chatting with the neighbor's pup is MUCH better than viewing some random stock photo.

Image included because looking at a picture of my dog, Pavarti, chatting with the neighbor's pup is MUCH better than viewing some random stock photo.

Whenever a big personality in a community leaves, it’s common for the community to experience a lot of confusion and worry as a result.  In World of Warcraft, this was typically represented by large raiding guilds disbanding, or popular server figures quitting the game.  Sure, there were players who saw these events as the catalyst for their turn in the spotlight, but the events led other players to question their own dedication to the game.  I think the declining moment for the WAR community was when Syp, now the author of Bio Break, decided to stop blogging about WAR at his WAAAGH blog.  Syp’s reasons were understandable — chief among them being that he was weeks away from becoming a father — and he promised readers that he would continue blogging about WAR at his new home, a promise he kept.  Ultimately, though, one the underlying reasons for Syp’s departure from the WAR blogging community was that he was playing WAR less than usual, and it seems like he is now playing the game even less, preferring instead to play Lord of the Rings Online and (as far as I know) the Champions Online beta.

I supported Syp’s decision to leave WAR blogging and move to writing on his side blog full time, but it made my devotion to WAR feel a little shaky.  As in my WoW example, I’m sure there were some bloggers who saw Syp’s departure as a means for them to garner more traffic, but I personally saw it as a statement about the state of WAR.  If one of the most dedicated and prolific WAR bloggers was leaving the community, what did that mean for the game?  Ultimately I stuck with WAR for a while longer, in spite of whatever doubts I experienced because of Syp’s departure, but it wasn’t long before I started spending less and less time playing WAR and, as a result, less and less time blogging about it.

But Syp was only one blogger among several.  Despite his status as an icon within the community, his move was an aberration — one lone blogger leaving the community for a less focused blogging career.  It wasn’t until the last two weeks, when several WAR bloggers and I all threw in the towel within days of each other, that the community started to look like it was on shaky ground.  If Syp’s move inspired some doubt in the community, what kind of reaction will the remaining WAR bloggers (and those who are just now joining the community) exhibit in the wake of these new losses?

The WAR community always seemed like something of a fluke.  Before the game launched, there were probably five to ten blogs devoted solely to WAR coverage.  That was a pretty reasonable number (though possibly somewhat high for a game that hadn’t been released yet).  Once the game launched there might have been a few added to the community, but otherwise it stayed pretty low.  It wasn’t until January’s Age of Blogging initiative — widely hyped on all the fansites and even the WAR newsletter — that the community swelled.  I never took a count, myself, but I read others estimate that the amount of WAR blogs was, at its peak, hovering around 100.

For a game with less than a million subscribers…it just seems unprecedented.  It’s hard to determine how many blogs are out there for other games, though I did my best.  A quick Google search provided me with less than 10 results for City of Heroes-specific blogs, and a Blogged search returned 580 results for “World of Warcraft blogs.”  Proportionately, many more WAR players extended their devotion to the game to blogging than WoW players did.  A lot could be said about WoW being more immersive than WAR (meaning that less WoW players are interested in taking time away from their play session to write about a game they’d rather just play), but that’s not really what I’m getting at.

More accurately, I’m trying to point out that the high number of WAR blogs was unusual for a game.  Is it because blogs are much more ubiquitous now, and therefore more likely to be used as a means of covering new games than before?  Is it because there was so much WAR coverage on blogs prior to the game’s launch that many WAR players had already been following blogs and were therefore more inclined to see the benefits of starting their own?  Both of those are possible explanations, among other reasons I’m sure.

To look that the larger picture, though, if the huge blogging community for WAR is unusual, if it’s not indicative of the game’s success or failure, then will the declining number of blogs have any effect on the game’s popularity?  With such an enormous fan community, one would imagine that a decrease in that community’s numbers would certainly portend something negative for the game.  Or not?  City of Heroes, like I said, has less than 10 dedicated bloggers, yet it just celebrated its fifth birthday this week.  We will just have to wait and see if the shrinking blogging community will have any influence on the game’s subscription numbers.  I posed this question in Warhammer Alliance’s podcast pre-show thread, hoping that the staff will consider passing it along to their next guest, Mythic’s Community Coordinator Andy Belford.  I’ll be interested to see what he (and you, my readers) think about the subject.