Let There Be Sims

June 2, 2009

It’s here!  It’s finally here!  The Sims 3 launched in the US today!  My gaming boredom is finally over!

I’m really excited about this launch, as I’ve been playing The Sims franchise since the original game (and SimCity prior to that).  Since I haven’t had much time to explore, and since my blog posts tend to be ridiculously wordy, I’m going to try to make a series of short posts about the game over the next several days.  I’m hoping to provide a few screenshots, some helpful information, and general impressions of the game.  (Click on screenshots below for larger view)

So first up: Meet Girl Unplugged, the Sim!


That’s my sim self, watching television with Boyfriend sim and looking very bewildered.

After only a few hours of play, I have to say I’m very impressed with the game overall.  It’s a great addition to the franchise and improves on areas that desperately needed work from the previous games.  The designers were also smart to leave in various aspects of the game that were working well, leaving players with a product that is new and shiny but still maintains the same “feel” of the previous games.

MoodletOne interesting addition to The Sims 3 that is one of the things you’ll first notice is that two of the more annoying need meters, environment and comfort, have been removed.  Six need meters remain — hunger, energy, social, hygiene, bladder, and fun — but there is also a neat new feature called the moodlet system.  Many of the things your sim does, from going to the movies to eating a hearty meal to having a good night’s rest to smelling the stinky garbage, will create a moodlet that affects the sim’s mood positively or negatively.

For example, I built my sims’ home on a lot that overlooks the sea.  All of my sims get a permanent moodlet called “beautiful vista” that gives them a constant +20 bonus to their mood meters.  The moodlets also seem to be affected by your sim’s traits, as a neat sim will always be “disgusted” by a dirty dish (-10 mood) while an evil sim will be “fiendishly delighted” (+25 mood) whenever something unfortunate happens to a sim nearby.

The moodlets can be permanent, like the “beautiful vista” moodlet, or temporary.  You can see in the picture above that the smiley face moodlet — something that has to do with how much fun Boyfriend is having watching television — will sustain him for seven hours.  A “disgusted” moodlet, like the one my sim gets whenever she sees anything dirty in the house, will last until she leaves the area or the mess is cleaned.

Moodlets are a fascinating mini-game on their own, as you never know what activity might cause a moodlet, or how sims with various traits will accrue them.  It’s a system that I would never have thought of myself, but now that I’ve used it, it seems indispensable.

Finally, a screenshot of my sims’ beautiful vista, the view from their back porch.



Meet the (Newer, Sexier) Team

June 1, 2009

Between my inability to find a game that holds my attention and my renewed excitement for the game because of its recent content patch, I’ve been playing a lot of Team Fortress 2 lately.  That will change when The Sims 3 launches tomorrow, but that’s another blog post for another time.

I subscribe to Digg’s gaming feed, which means I see one interesting story out of every fifty that hits my feed reader.  The gaming section at Digg is rampant with sexism, from the almost daily articles that list the sexiest female video game characters of all time to the comment sections that are typically filled with negative opinions of female beauty (hint: if she doesn’t have a body like Lara Croft, she’s unworthy of a Digg user’s affections).

Criticizing Digg users, or Digg in general, is yet another blog post for another day, though.  I only mention Digg because, among the usual Top 10 articles and booth babe videos, occasionally a link will come down the line advertising something along the lines of “TF2 — with chicks!”

Parodies of TF2 are pretty common, perhaps because the characters are so iconic.  Along with a Left 4 Dead version and a rendition of the characters done with papercraft, an all-female TF2 cast is just one of the many interesting takes on the game.  While looking through the various female TF2 images recently, though, I realized that the majority of the depictions share a common feature: the lady versions of the classes are extremely sexualized.

I’ll preface this by saying that, no, not all of the depictions I’ve seen are sexualized.  There are a few images that manage to create a concept of an all-female TF2 team that isn’t overly sexualized.  This “Ladies’ Night” image is more cutesy than sexy, this rendering of an all-female “Team Fortress 3” shows the ladies looking both menacing and feminine, and this drawing of a female engineer depicts a builder who is certainly attractive but whose feminine assets aren’t absurdly exaggerated.

Select_A_Class____by_ghostfire It’s fair to say, though, that the most well-known drawings of female TF2 characters are the ones that feature sexy, scantily clad women.  Arguably the most famous is the one created by Julia Lichty, pictured at right (click for full size).  Note the prominent breasts and skin tight clothing shared among all the women, even the sporty scout.  There is another line-up image created by T03nemesis, and while this artist drew a few of the classes in a slightly less sexual way — particularly the heavy and the demowoman, the latter of whom was inspired by “some crazy bitch [he] saw” — you can see that he also favors drawing the ladies with large breasts and tight, revealing clothing.

I’ve encountered a few other fan depictions over the last couple of months.  The following images of a pyro, demowoman, soldier, and scout (sadly I don’t know who drew them, so I can’t give credit) are drawn in a pin-up style.  In most of the drawings the body proportions are a bit more realistic, but the clothing and poses remain as sexualized as the others I’ve linked.

The point of this article is not to criticize the artists who are creating these images.  I enjoy looking at these images as much as anyone who appreciates the female body.  I even bought Boyfriend a bookmark from Lichty’s store that features her female spy.  I recognize that these illustrators are extremely talented artists and admire the work they’ve done.  No, the point of this article isn’t to criticize but to question.  Why are so many of the female versions of the TF2 classes sexualized when the original, male cast of TF2 is not?  Why is a female version of something automatically expected to be sexy, while a male version can be depicted as…normal?

tf2guysLooking at the original drawing of the TF2 cast (at left, click to see full size), there’s nothing very attractive about any of the men.  Sure, the scout is athletic, the spy is suave, the medic has chiseled features, and the engineer has a homey sort of charm.  But it would be difficult to say that the men of TF2 are sexy.  They’re not intended to be sexy, I’d guess because appearance isn’t significant when it comes to protecting intelligence or carting explosives.

A couple of the TF2 cast members could even be considered unattractive, when judged along the lines of typical American standards of beauty.  The pyro is overweight, as is the heavy, and the demoman — the token member of color unless the pyro is something other than white beneath that face mask — is a self-described cyclops.  We’re not exactly getting eye candy out of this game, and yet when artists decide to create an alternative all-female cast, they naturally head toward the sexier end of the spectrum.

I’ve opened up the opportunity to start an enormous debate about the sexualization of men and women, standards of beauty, and other controversial topics, but since this is a (mostly) light-hearted blog, I’ll try to keep it lighthearted.  If an all-female TF2 cast gets a sexy makeover as part of its depiction, I propose that the original cast of TF2 undergo a sexy transformation as well.  All I’m asking for is equity, people.

Why not make the scout, an extremely fast runner, look like a young Bruce Jenner (or better yet, his handsome son Brody)?  How about a heavy or soldier who looks like Vin Diesel or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson?  The sniper is an Aussie, so why not make him look like one of Australia’s sexiest exports: Hugh Jackman?  A digitally rendered Daniel Craig would make for a good spy update, thanks to his fame as the world’s most famous spy.  If not, then perhaps the world’s second most famous spy, “Burn Notice” star Jeffrey Donovan.  Obviously we’d need to see some tight muscle shirts on these updated models, or fitted t-shirts and curve-hugging jeans at the very least.

If I were an artist, I’d already be hard at work, sketching the newer and sexier TF2 cast.  Sadly, I’m pretty terrible with visual art, so unless one of my ten readers has the artistic capability and feels up to the challenge, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a sexy version of the male TF2 characters.  Because if there’s one thing that video game designers shun more than non-sexualized female characters, it’s overtly sexualized male characters.

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.


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.



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.


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

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.