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I’d love a virtual world/MMORPG mashup

Second Life isn’t a place I spend much time now, though my posts about SL continue to be get the most traffic and my daily companions also have unused, long time SL avatars. I’m more active in ArcheAge than ever. I left my drama-filled guild and now spend most of my time with my game family and a few friends, caring for our land, transporting trade packs for cash, running dungeons, hijacking enemy vehicles, and poking at enemies who are too highly geared for us to do more than annoy. One couple I know from AA met in SL and now live together and others were active SL residents for years.

One of those friends recently remarked that a mashup of AA and SL would be fantastic. He was thinking about the houses in AA, which are little more than storage locations with very limited opportunities for self-expression, but I think there’s a bigger point to pull from that. MMORPGs could benefit from the sort of interpersonal expression and connection that SL enables. I’m not just talking about sex (though if it’s an adult game, why not?), but the ability to dance with friends, stream your own music in your home, cuddle on a couch, etc.

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From a game standpoint, SL suffers from a lack of things to do. I know some of you will be tempted to jump in here and lecture me about the fine clubs, performances, creative opportunities, experimental game areas, etc. Believe me, I know!  I love those things. Yet most of the time I’m in SL, what am I doing? Remaining relatively stationary in my surroundings and talking with one person or a small group of people. Exploring areas together is difficult without using voice chat to coordinate. We could play a short game, but those are rudimentary at best even if the graphics are jaw-dropping. However, I can move my avatar in ways I’ve designed, have whatever appearance I like, invite people to my completely customized home, and have a visual replication of real human interaction.

Every MMORPG I’ve played offered limited expression and interaction. While Second Life puts creation in the hands of the residents, so each avatar and home can be unique, MMORPGs tend to be stingy with customization: putting costume dyes in a cash shop, requiring multiple purchases or crafting steps to add a graphic overlay to a small number of items, and building up demand (and therefore cash flow) by releasing some items as untradeable rare drops from cash shop chests. As far as interaction, some have interpersonal emotes and allow families/marriages/partnerships. But really, they are games and designed around activities, not social life. When I’m in AA, I might be talking with friends just as I would be in SL, but we’re simultaneously doing something, even if we’re in transit to an island on a ship, planting ginseng seedlings, or laying in wait to ambush enemies.  It’s possible to run out of things you want to do, but there are always more things you could.

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Can you imagine how exciting a combination of the two world types could be, though? Strong game mechanics, with daily events, quests strings, dungeons and raids, crafting/farming/fishing/etc, PVE and PVP, accompanied by rich personalization and interaction? A player-driven economy that also includes items created by those players? A multitude of things to do at any hour of the day, plus all the tools needed to make a comfortable sanctuary if you don’t want to leave your virtual home? When I was a solo player, I would have appreciated more choices to have a unique appearance. Now that I’m more social, the limitations of rigid furniture poses and car radios that play the same loops of music really bug me. I suppose I’ll keep dreaming of an open platform MMORPG that is truly the best of both worlds.

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2016 in Gaming

 

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Friday night in virtual worlds

It’s been a rough week: I haven’t felt well, the news has been lousy, and I’ve been frustrated and lonely in my online worlds. I’m bored in ArcheAge, though I’m finding some amusement in traveling the oceans, killing sea monsters for drops to upgrade my clipper. Other than that? Blah.

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Second Life hasn’t been much better. SL is a huge space and new users have always complained that it’s hard to find and meet people in it. Well, let me assure newcomers that it’s not much easier for someone shy who has been there a decade! I jumped around the Destination Guide, often finding myself alone in a sim. The biggest crowds were at sexually oriented sims; I don’t shy away from those and I’ve met some great friends at venues with names that would instantly stop my mother’s heart, but I’m not ready for that sort of interaction. I visited a couple of the formal dance venues but I’m a lag snob and a room full of flexi gowns is a disaster. Standing at the side of the dance floor in my light(render)weight mesh gown, I felt like a prissy wallflower. Hmmph. I’m open to meeting people but also wary, as my heartache about Jakob comes to the surface easily when I’m in SL. Someone who meets me now might get a tough facade or thin ice over raging sadness instead of my normal personality.

So, I was delighted tonight when I got a group notice from Hesperia Templemore announcing an imminent performance by Red Heaven featuring Joel Eilde. I hadn’t heard Joel perform in the past but Templemore has never disappointed me and I headed right over. The crowd averaged 50 avatars, which is a considerable number for one space, but his stream was clear and the music was enjoyable. I tipped liberally — the artist, GM/host Bee, and the house — and I hope to go to another show there soon. (Related real world anecdote: I met my husband for lunch at a sandwich shop on Thursday and as we left, I wanted to tip the young woman who had been playing the guitar and singing in the corner, “if she has someplace I can put it,” I said. My husband said that she did, described the white can to me, and added, “After being in SL this long, I can find a tip jar!”)

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I grooved to the music and had a couple of conversations, and all in all, that’s a pretty good night in SL.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2015 in Art in SL, Gaming

 

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Endgame and being a little less solitary in ArcheAge

My husband is out of town this weekend and I’ve spent too many hours playing ArcheAge. I joined a guild with the character I play most often, hoping that someone could teach me PvP techniques now that I’m almost maximum level and have passable gear. I chose the wrong guild for that, but spending time with some of the players was enlightening.

Nothing says tough like a bustier and denim mini-skirt, apparently. This is cloth Auroria armor, not a costume.

Nothing says tough like a bustier and denim mini-skirt. This is cloth Auroria armor, level 50+.

Though I’m primarily a solo player in MMORPGs, I enjoy doing 50-person raids in AA and I’ve done a couple of dungeon runs with pick-up groups. Those reminded me of the joy of having a good team I can count on, like the days in PWI (Perfect World International) when I could do a run with my friends, comfortable that everyone knew how to play his class as well as the particulars of the dungeon and bosses. Adrenaline, camaraderie, and the satisfaction of doing something well; those were a blast. Since I’m afraid of falling while my leg heals, I’ll probably be indoors a lot this winter and it would be good to have some friends online to play with. Jakob has lost his ability to use a computer or his smartphone now — the cancer in his brain has taken too much — so the person I spent time with in the past is no longer around and I don’t have the heart to go back to Second Life yet. (Yes, it’s awful. Deep breath. … Ok now. )

I joined my AA guild’s TeamSpeak channel on a couple nights, mostly listening to the three to five others who were there. There was another woman who sounded like she might be my age or older, who talked only about the pets and children in her home. The rest were men, though they mentioned that the guild may have more active “girls” than guys right now, and they were happy about that fact. Though most of them play female characters because of their sex appeal and they love the sluttiest costumes, they seem to welcome female gamers as equals and friends.

The guys seem nice, but they’re not going to shatter any gamer stereotypes. At least two of three have jobs in retail. They watch anime, argue about superheroes and board games, and despite spending lots of cash and hours each day in ArcheAge, they also play other games and are intensely watching for new alpha and beta invitations. While I pronounce the game “ark age”, they pronounce it “arch age”, which is damned awkward to say. Then again, they also pronounce “chalet” as “shall it”. Clever, resourceful, friendly guys who are willing to work hard to reach a goal, but not paragons of academic achievement.

However, I find their approach to this game tedious. The leader has the philosophy that all guild members should be farmers and traders to earn money for a few months, until we can afford for everyone to have fantastic gear, and then we can start running dungeons and raids, etc. Ugh. I do plenty of farming, gathering, and mining, but since I’ve never owned land, at least I have the challenge of hiding my “illegal” farms on public land or finding places to acquire resources. I know where pearl oysters spawn in the oceans or where you can feed and milk an NPC’s cows, for example. The guys were talking about how much they make by their farming and fishing methods — not counting that they have to buy land, buy supplies, pay taxes, buy boats, buy vehicles, etc. — and I can easily earn double or triple that with no investment, simply by grinding high level mobs for the materials, gear, and cash they drop. Though the different paths are part of AA’s appeal to me, I didn’t join to play Farmville. I may have to find another guild.

Yesterday I participated in my first naval warfare in AA and it was awfully fun, though very confusing at first. I know some of the daily raids cold and my husband chuckles at my fervent swearing when the raid general doesn’t communicate or participants don’t listen, leading to the boss wiping out half the raid. I like learning the strategies and improving my gameplay. There still are many things to do and yes, this being an MMORPG, I do need to work toward better gear for endgame activities. Maybe I’ll keep playing for a while, maybe I won’t, but I don’t see the point of playing in a style I don’t enjoy.

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2015 in Gaming

 

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Lessons from a failed launch

The relaunch of ArcheAge this weekend is snafu. There are three elements contributing to most of the player anger: a disregard for global time zones, an unusual game element (land), and inconsistent communication. I’ve been inside companies when we had to rollback a disastrous launch and I’ve been an impatient user, so I think it’s interesting to look at what went wrong and the lessons to be learned for other shared virtual spaces. There are a couple parallels to the early days of Second Life as well.

a carefully planned ArcheAge prank

a carefully planned ArcheAge prank*

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It helps to know a couple things about this particular MMORPG before I continue. If you want to play the game ArcheAge in English, you play a version localized from Korean by Trion Worlds. They run clusters of North American and European servers. When they do a new release or event, they base the schedule on US Pacific time and it is simultaneous on all servers. For example, the servers were scheduled to relaunch yesterday at 1:00 pm PDT. ArcheAge is unusual among MMORPGs in that it has a player-driven economy and there is an important, limited, nonrenewable, location-dependent resource that is first-come, first-served and can be held indefinitely: land.  Having a large, well-placed farm/home can make a huge difference in the profitability of trade runs, which is a main method that players earn in-game gold for gear and supplies.

Trion’s plan to correct some imbalances was to launch three classes of server after a 48 hour maintenance period. The stakes for being in the initial login rush differed considerably between them:

  1. Legacy — No change from when the servers went down on Thursday except that they were updated to the 2.0 codebase. A delayed launch inconvenienced users on these servers because they couldn’t play, but that was the extent of the impact.
  2. Fresh Start — These are new servers that only allow level 1 characters to be created: everyone has to start over. The existing servers are grossly imbalanced in favor of older players, so theoretically, these would put everyone on equal ground again. Of course, some players were twitching to find exploits and many headed for Fresh Start servers were thinking of it as a race to the level where they could claim land.
  3. Evolution — These are new servers that each contain the population from two discontinued legacy servers. I think its fair to say that these are the angriest players. If they owned land on a discontinued server and wanted land again, they had to be prepared to sign on the moment servers came up and rush to stake their claims. We were also told that namespace conflicts would be handled in order of login: if someone on the other merging server had the same name as my avatar, the first account to sign in could keep the name but the second would have to change. So, even if the land rush wasn’t an issue, some people were anxious about keeping their names. Trion had assured us that we would be given compensation packages of in-game stuff and credits for going through the merger, but they would not reveal the contents before the servers went down. (I should say that this was all a lot of meh for me. My avatars are on an Evolution server, but they don’t own land or have names I care about. Getting a compensation package is a bonus in my situation, because all I really lost was possible playing time.)

At the scheduled launch time yesterday, the authentication servers had a problem and only about 10% of login attempts were successful. Those 10% of players gleefully grabbed land on Evolution servers and created characters on Fresh Start, but then Trion noticed the issue and took all the servers offline. They provided sporadic, uninformative updates as the players’ forum posts grew angrier. Finally, after five hours, they announced that servers would remain down and launch would be attempted again on Sunday. They also made the controversial decision to rollback the servers to their state before that small percentage of people logged in. Any land they claimed was gone, any new avatars created were erased, etc.

Some learning points from this experience:

A global userbase means that time zones must be considered. There are two issues when it comes to Trion’s management of ArcheAge: accurate communication of times and reasonable accommodation. Sure, time zones are tricky, especially with the inconsistent use of Daylight Savings Time. Trion generally lists times in both PDT and GMT and has made mistakes in translating between them in the past. The times they give are untrustworthy. This is something that Second Life has addressed by making the in-world clock consistent, pegging it to the time in California, and listing all events in SLT (Second Life Time). While this puts the responsibility for translating to local time on the users’ shoulders, most of us are capable of working through the calculations, using world time clocks, or asking. That is far better than to be unreliable.

Having users in time zones from -12 UTC to +12 UTC means that simultaneous events will always be a problem. Trion initially decided to launch North American and European servers at the same time. NA users with weekend jobs took Saturday off, EU users planned for a late night, and those in Oceania set their alarms for the wee hours. Each hour that launch was delayed upset those groups more and more. The announcement that the launch was pushed back to Sunday was infuriating to players who had planned their weekend around this (or those in Oz and NZ who had to be at work or school during the new launch, on their Monday).

For the rescheduled launch today, Trion took a better approach. They decided to start the European servers at 1:00 pm GMT: first the Legacy servers, then the Evolution servers after 30 minutes, and finally the Fresh Start server.  North American servers will follow with a similar phased rollout at 1:00 pm PDT. I’m writing between the two rollouts and this seems to be working better. There are some disconnect problems and one server went down for an hour. The European Fresh Start server reached its population cap in less than 10 minutes, triggering a login queue. Trion has already adjusted the times for the North American launch based on things they learned this morning; I’ll see how that goes in a few hours. The EU thread on the forums isn’t happy.

In Second Life, global time zones present less of an obstacle because almost all events are created and run by residents; it’s a world, not a game. As I’ve traveled around SL doing research, I’ve found Russian, Japanese, and Australian areas that are hopping when I’m staring at my coffee with bleary eyes, but are ghost towns during US prime time. Those of us with friends on other continents have learned how to negotiate and shift our schedules to spend time together.

One element can unbalance the whole world. Land is a real problem in ArcheAge because of its implementation. I don’t think it can be fixed while it has the qualities I listed above, being important, limited, nonrenewable, location-dependent, first-come first-served, and able to be held indefinitely. Land is the reason that people are crushing the servers when they go live, and losing money and time associated with land seems to be the biggest complaint.

It makes me think of the early years of Second Life, when the most desirable locations were on the SL mainland near telehubs. The land there was gobbled up and resold or leased at sky-high prices. Then, free point-to-point teleporting was opened, disrupting the importance of location, and private islands began springing up and offering rentals in a more controlled environment than the mainland. Brokers and landlords can still charge premium rates for particularly nice or high-traffic locations, but nowadays, there is so much land it’s no longer a cause of imbalance. There’s another key difference: if you don’t own/rent land in SL, you are not denied access to functions of the world. It’s easy to find free places to change clothes, open boxes, spend time with others, or create. In ArcheAge there are some products that can only be made with machines built on owned land; non-landowners like myself have to buy those items from other players or do without.

In time of upheaval and crisis, communication must be proactive. Most of the information shared with ArcheAge players comes through one senior community manager and I think she tries to do her best. Yesterday, though, updates were originally every half hour, then spaced out to an hour (and was late). Then we were promised a major update “momentarily”, which turned out to be 30 minutes. The information was usually updated in a post pinned to the top of the official forums, but that post instructed us to follow ArcheAge on Twitter for the latest news. That would be great, except that the last updates weren’t posted to Twitter until much later. If you say you’re going to give an update at a certain time, it can’t be late. If you say Twitter is the best source for news, you must keep updating it.

Another communication difficulty came from Trion’s decision not to announce the contents of the compensation packages for merging players until the servers were down. I’m seeing a lot of complaints from players saying they would have done things differently if they knew what the compensation would be; holding onto property or selling it, for example. Perhaps Trion didn’t want to give players an opportunity to try to game the system, but the result was that people had to guess and gamble.

There’s also a communication problem between Trion and the game developers in Korea. It’s rather remarkable, but I’ve seen a few occasions where Trion has announced, “This new event/item will have X qualities,” and then it launches and the details turn out to be something else entirely. Event rewards were described as aesthetic-only “weapon skins” in a live stream, but they turned out to be fully-functional weapons. We were told that if there was a namespace conflict in this merger, the first user who logged in with the shared name could keep it and the second would have to choose a new name. In the attempted launch yesterday, however, they discovered that conflicts are actually being determined by the age of the character: whoever created a character with that name first gets to keep it and the newer character’s name must be changed. Too often, Trion seems clueless about the product they’re distributing and the concept of testing.

My server is scheduled to open in 65 minutes, so I’m going to take a nap and then see how it goes. Maybe companies who try to run virtual spaces — games or worlds — in the future will understand the basics that seem to elude Trion, but I’m hoping they soon begin to learn from their mistakes.

Update: My server did open, about an hour later than scheduled, and I was one of the lucky players who received all of the promised treats from Trion immediately. Horrible UI led me to make a mistake, though: one of my characters had a name conflict, and the UI showed me the image of my female character Tsofia. “Strange that she’d have a conflict,” I thought, and I typed in a new feminine name. Much to my chagrin, it turned out to be a male alt who had the name conflict, and he was then a very masculine, tough fellow with a girly name. Grr. So, I gave him a gender reassignment. Poor fellow is now a super girly blonde with pigtails.  So far, I hate how crowded the new server is, but I’ll have to see how it is in a few days.

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*In the image I used to illustrate this post, the big grey guy is a world boss. His normal position is to the left on the stone floor and he’s inactive unless you get very close. Some mischievous player carefully planted a row of trees in front of his spawn location, waited a day for them to grow, then lured the boss out. The result was that he was blocked from return, remaining active and with a larger area of effect (my avatar is just beyond the limit where he could lasso her in). A second instance of the boss respawned in his normal location.  My avatar is level 51 but I have crap gear; I was startled and killed by this guy once, but I was able to escape him on two other occasions. I can’t imagine how many lowbies he took out before someone removed the trees and he reset.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2015 in Gaming

 

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Robots, MMORPGs, and the usual suspects

Archeage Waiting

The MMORPG I play (sort-of, for now, that’s one of my alts above), ArcheAge, is offline for a couple days while they perform server balancing. If all goes well, on Saturday the game will return and I’ll log on to find my avatars moved to a new server with approximately double the population of the old one. This isn’t necessarily a good thing for a solo player like me. The NA/EU distributor of ArcheAge makes large, frequent errors when porting over the Korean content to us. It would be comical if those errors didn’t often cost players lots of time and/or money. Some players didn’t follow the instructions for packing up their homes and farms and may be stunned to find months of work erased because of their own mistakes, too. I signed on to watch the last minutes of my server’s life yesterday. A player pasted the lyrics to REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” into faction chat and it was an appropriate send-off. I’m waiting for the restart with hope but low expectations.

Robots! Two mining robots from different companies encounter each other on a rocky planet. Their skills complement each other. Can they work together?

 

On to a couple of personal updates. Jakob remains in the hospital but is conscious, mostly coherent, and able to swallow soft foods like custard. I wish his whole ordeal was over but I don’t wish for him to be gone. As for me, I’m hobbling quite well but still restricted to putting only 50% of normal weight on the leg I broke. Cross your fingers that the surgeon clears me for normal walking when I see him next week. Large sections of my shin remain numb and the scar where he inserted the metal plate is grody to the max, but except for some stiffness in my knee I feel ready to go. Besides that, physical therapy is tedious and I’d rather get back to yoga classes.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

 

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Video game summer school

As someone who enjoys video games, even those I’m lousy at playing, it’s no surprise that I think gaming can provide unintentional learning opportunities. Of course there are games that target specific skills, but I’m seeing many ways that even the MMORPG I’ve been playing can be educational.

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That’s my second avatar in ArcheAge. Like my first, she’s of the Argent class and she just reached level 47, but she’s a different race from my initial avatar and I’m working on different proficiencies with her.  Since I’m nearing endgame levels and I refuse to engage in PvP fighting or join parties, guilds, or raids, at this point I’m doing whatever amuses me rather than playing the game as it’s designed. That means a lot of stealthy farming and gathering, leveling skills so I can craft everything I need, observing chat drama, and wandering off the edges of the map.  It’s given me a lot off time to see what other people are doing in-game and think about those behaviors.

I’ve seen players develop incredibly detailed profit and loss spreadsheets, as intricate as anything in a first-year college accounting class. Making money can be a big part of the ArcheAge gameplay, either as a goal in and of itself or as a way to afford high level gear. Someone who successfully farms for profit in AA has to track his costs carefully: raw materials (seeds, saplings, baby livestock), feed/fertilizer/medicine, land costs, the cost of the labor points used to plant and harvest, the cost of buildings/storage and carts/ships for transportation. He needs to know where he can get the most profit from what he raises and balance that against the risk of piracy on long trade runs. He must monitor the prices of raw materials he needs but doesn’t grow himself, as well as keeping an eye on the auction prices for his products, which sometimes may be cheaper to buy than grow himself.

Farmers like me, who don’t own or share land but instead seek out hidden places on the map where they can plant, have a different set of variables to track. We incur a higher labor cost and the risk of loss through theft or griefing, and we might need to keep track of numerous spots and the time that each particular crop will ripen. If someone intends to farm for profit instead of just playing 3D Farmville, the bookkeeping is no small matter.

Others monitor auction prices with the diligence of Wall Street options traders, snapping up underpriced items and flipping them for profit. Though some use bots and plug-ins that are against the game rules, many simply keep track of prices, fees, and profits over time. I’ve seen a trader buy up all of the listings for one particular item, then relist all of them at higher prices with differing auction duration.

Social and strategic skills are exercised in an MMORPG, for better or worse. In ArcheAge, trusted partnerships can be important for commerce and crafting as well as fighting. It’s possible to play as pirates and criminals, though there is a peer trial and prison system that provides consequences to those actions. Because people who have played the game long enough to have good gear, equipment, and land have a huge advantage over new players, new players who want to reach the upper echelon need to be socially strategic, making connections and getting into a powerful or very helpful guild. Once inside a guild, all the political and interpersonal pressures intensify. I was so burned out by leading a guild in another MMORPG that it will be a long time before I choose to be an active member again.

Even people who like to explore on their own face puzzles that require creative thinking. How is it possible to reach the peak of that mountain? Is there a hidden path, or a slope that can be tackled with some difficulty, or might I have to find a higher peak beyond my render distance and soar over with my glider?  Plotting a path through a bunch of monsters without attracting aggro is mathematical thinking.

It may seem mindless, but even relatively low-strategy gaming requires more cognitive work than passively watching a movie. When my stepson was younger, sure, I would have preferred for him to read a book, build something, play an instrument, or get a job in his free time, but I knew that his MMORPG time was valuable in helping him develop social and conflict management skills. Now as I lurk at the edges of ArcheAge, I see another generation engaging their brains along with their fingers.

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2015 in Gaming, Learning

 

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Wednesday film: Understanding graphic settings in a game

World of Tanks is a hugely successful massively multiplayer online game. I rarely see it mentioned in the gaming media, but since my husband is an avid player, I hear about it all the time. He sent me a link to the video below.

Even if World of Tanks isn’t your jam, this 15 minute “Developer Diaries: Graphic Settings” piece is worth watching. Though it focuses on the graphics options in WoT, it gives a good explanation of various terms, shows how settings change FPS (frames per second), and clarifies why perceived problems are not always the graphic card’s fault. The video is professionally produced and clearly demonstrates the result of changing slider settings.

I think this video makes it easier to understand settings in other games or virtual worlds, too. Besides that, it’s just nifty to watch, and I give it bonus points for the quick glimpses inside the developer offices, with both men and women busy working on the game.

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2015 in Gaming, Video

 

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Return to ArcheAge

I did a speed review of ArcheAge last August, during the final hours of open beta, and I was unimpressed. Curious if things had improved, I installed it again in early June. It’s providing me some hours of mindless entertainment while I heal and I thought I should reexamine that review. Below is my character Tsofia at level 32. Because I’m a solitary player who hates PvP, my approach to this game won’t be the same as many others.

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In my first review, I liked the avatar customization system and that’s still true. There are a nice variety of options in the initial setup, allowing me to have a white-haired character with half her head shaved, a big scar down the center of her face, and purple eyes and lips. Body shape is not variable and all of the female faces are Asian, but that’s not a big deal.

I continue to be unimpressed with the graphics. On my gaming laptop, I normally play ArcheAge with most graphic options set to High; there is a Very High setting above and several lower. I checked out the higher setting and things still looked flat, but High allows me to play for about an hour without overheating and yet be able to distinguish plants I need to gather from the surrounding environment. Things look nice enough. There’s just none of the “OMG wow!!” I’ve had while playing an MMORPG like TERA or wandering excellent builds in Second Life. Perhaps it’s a stylistic choice by the designers.

On the other hand, I’m impressed by the simple design of the armor my character is wearing. She is of the Nuian race and wears plate armor, which looks very much like the male equivalent except for some curves. No metal bikini! Of course, many of the female costumes available from the marketplace or special events are the usual blend of sexy/cutesy crap that I’ve grown used to in Asian MMORPGs, but those are an optional part of gameplay. If you want to run around tending your crops and killing slime monsters in a French maid costume, have fun! I’m simply appreciative that revealing outfits aren’t forced on everyone who wants a female avatar.

Transportation systems are varied and quite nice in ArcheAge. As you level, you’re given a mount (for my race, it’s a horse), as well as a rowboat and a starter glider, pictured below. Having all three of those available can provide some nice options. Don’t want to fight your way back out of an area after you’ve achieved an objective? Climb up something high and jump onto your glider, soaring over the heads of your enemies. The mount levels with use, can wear armor, and will provide some defense against attacks when you’re riding. In addition, you can teleport between save points, ride carts on the roads, or take airships. I haven’t explored sea travel yet. Navigation was a problem for me in the beta and sometimes it still feels clumsy — I suck at rowing my boat — but it’s generally smooth.

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I like the variety of character classes available in ArcheAge. There are 120, I think. Rather than choosing a class and then acquiring skills within that class, you choose skillsets that will then determine your class. Tsofia is an Argent; a healing, magic-using class that also has the Battlerage skillset, so she can wear plate armor and use a two-handed greatclub as a weapon. Since I’m a solo player, I’m not focusing on the party support skills available to her, but there are quite a few. She’s not squishy, can heal herself and her pets (mount and battle pet, a wolf hound), and can switch between physical and magical attacks based on the enemy. Those are all useful for soloing. This is very different from the initial levels I played in beta, where I was always running and dying. This character has only died once, when I stumbled into a group of monsters five levels higher than me and was attacked by several simultaneously.

When I first heard about ArcheAge, I was attracted to the idea of an open world where I could play through crafting, gathering, or farming rather than just being a warrior. I’m enjoying that now, though that approach is limited by Labor Points. I hate Labor Points. Like you would use Mana Points to cast a spell, you use Labor Points whenever you perform many actions, from opening a coinpurse looted from a dead monster to mining iron ore to making a healing potion. It’s easy to run out of Labor Points if you are a non-paying player, because they refill slowly only when you’re online. Paying $15/month for Patron level is probably worth it if you want to be a tradesperson or farmer, because you’re given a higher limit, a faster refill, and your points continue to refill when you’re signed off. I’ve been focusing on mining and metalwork and I burn through my points in no time flat.

Usually when I first play through a game, I watch the cut scenes and follow the lore. If nothing else, I’m curious about what the game writers and designers intended the world to be, before I go off and play however I want regardless of that intention. Right now with the pain and tiredness I’m experiencing, I don’t have the patience for those, so I’ve been skipping them and can’t comment. I’m sure they’re all fascinating.

To take a derogatory term and make it my own, I’m a carebear. I hate PvP (player vs player) battles, which could make the next levels of ArcheAge a pain in the ass. Except for your own race’s starter area, up to level 30 or so, all of ArcheAge is PvP. Though there are no PvE (player vs environment) servers, there are times of each day where a region is at peace. When that happens, PvP is not permitted. I’m still working my way through lower level quests, but I’m collecting more and more that will force me out of the safe zones. I’m not sure what I’ll do. If my play time happens to align with the armistice, I’ll do my quests. Nothing is stopping me from staying in the safe zone, mining and crafting and exploring, though I expect that will get boring. I chose the least active server on purpose and maybe the PvP areas won’t be so bad. We’ll see.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2015 in Gaming

 

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Urban planning is much more fun in game form

Though Jakob gave me a pet wolf to keep me company when he’s unable to visit with me in Second Life, I didn’t open SL all weekend while he was in the hospital. The weather was gorgeous and I spent some time puttering in my yard or sprawled on the deck, enjoying the sunshine. I also needed a distraction rather than a reminder of Jakob’s illness.

Screenshot of street view from Cities: Skylines game

Enter Cities: Skylines, available on Steam. It’s how SimCities should have evolved but didn’t, and it’s an engrossing game. I found it frustrating at first while I learned the game mechanics — how to move the camera, how to build a bridge, how to place stops for a bus line — but it’s simple to enable mods for unlimited money and unlocked progression milestones and play less carefully while learning.

It’s exciting that there’s an active modder community, developing items from custom buildings to improved management panels for public transportation to color correction and different lighting models. One of the things I love about SL is the creativity of other residents and I’m a huge fan of user-created content. The company-created content is good, as well. While writing this post I discovered that both the CEO of Colossal Order and the Lead Game Designer are women. Woo-hoo!  That shouldn’t matter, but until it’s more common, I think my moment of celebration is reasonable.

 

Jakob remains in the hospital but his sister says he is stable again. This was a close call; he was too weak and confused after chemo to remember to check his blood sugar, which zoomed upward to critical levels. Living alone isn’t very safe. I have mixed feelings about our upcoming trip. On one hand, I’ll be with him, so I can get him care promptly. On the other hand, that’s a lot of responsibility, especially in a small mountain village in a country where I barely speak the language. Thanks to Google Maps I’ve located a hospital about twenty minutes from where we’ll be staying, and I can explain his illness in German if needed. Thinking ahead gives me a little more confidence.

 
 

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Considering the impact of virtual gacha

Gacha machines have been spreading like wildfire through Second Life in the past couple years and they’re bringing a number of changes to the world. In fact, they’re so ubiquitous now that maybe we’re getting close to “Peak Gacha”. I think through my fingers sometimes, so let’s consider the impact they’ve had.

Trailer Park at Gachatopia

What are gacha?

Gacha originated as a type of toy vending machine in Japan that spread into virtual worlds. You can learn more about that history here. The word “gacha” is used in SL to describe both the machines and the items they vend, but for clarity I’ll only use it for the machines. Also, you might see the plural as either “gacha” or “gachas”.

In SL, gacha are chance-based vending machines. A typical machine will have several items — perhaps a themed collection or different colors of the same thing — as well as one or two rare items (a desirable color, extra detail, combination set, etc).  The machine is scripted to give common items more frequently than rare. With the price per play quite low, about 10-40 cents, playing several times to get the item you want doesn’t seem like much of an expense. The item you receive would sell individually for a significantly higher price.

Though a lot of them sell silly knicknacks and accessories, a gacha machine can vend anything. Below are a few examples from the March appearance of The Arcade, a quarterly gacha event. Decor, apparel, collectibles, even everything you would need to build a Tuscan hideaway (click image to see a zoomable version on Flickr):

Gacha selections from 3/15 The Arcade

The items can be given away or resold.

This is more radical than it sounds and key to understanding the appeal of gacha. Products sold in SL can have different rights conveyed to the buyer. Here are four possible permission settings:

  • Full permissions: The buyer can copy, modify, and transfer the item to someone else. This is most often seen in components for building and making apparel. For example, a mesh artist will sell a “full perm” version of a table, which the buyer can retexture and resell.
  • Copy only: Very common. The buyer cannot change or give/resell the item, but can make copies. A chair might be sold this way, allowing you to place as many as you wish without buying them individually.
  • Copy/Modify: Common. This setting allows the buyer to make changes to the product and copy it, but not give or sell it to another person. A pair of boots might be sold this way, along with the suggestion to save a copy before altering the size or texture.
  • Transfer: Previously rare. This made gacha items unusual when they were introduced and it’s why they are spreading in the manner we see today.

Generally if you want to give a gift of a particular item to another person in SL, you have to hope that the store offers a gift option or a has a vending machine specifically for gifts, or that the item you want is listed in the SL Marketplace. You enter the name of the other person’s avatar, pay, and the product is sent directly to that person. While this might be great for surprise gifts (I love surprise gifts, hint hint… wait, was that too obvious?), it’s not really a nice gifting experience. Searching for a transferable item is much harder and your choices are very limited.

Gacha provide giftable items easily and inexpensively. I keep a folder in my SL inventory called “Gifts”, to share some happiness or show appreciation. These are little things I’ve picked up over the years that have transfer rights; some are freebies, others are hunt gifts, but now the majority of them are gacha items. Also, if my Kay avatar gets an item from a gacha that is cuter or more punk than she would wear, I can give it to one of my alts. (In SL, every avatar is a separate account and you cannot share items between them, even if one person owns several accounts.)

The ability to resell items made gacha a radical element in the SL economy.

Long ago, stretching into the second wave years of SL (2005-2007ish), the least expensive way to buy furniture and other items was to search for a yard sale. Plenty of items had transfer permissions. Yard sales were usually just plots of land with stuff scattered around; buy an item for a few L$ and it was yours. Sometimes you’d find freebies being resold for a profit, but the profit was small. As technology advanced and creating high quality products required more skill, the atmosphere changed. Transfer rights were removed from most products and yard sales evaporated. You could still find some low price, generally low quality items alongside freebies, but a yard sale couldn’t generate enough income to justify the space anymore.

Gacha Alley

In SL now there are regions devoted to the resale of gacha items, like Gacha Alley above and Gachatopia at the top of this post. Think of them as virtual flea markets, where resellers rent a table or storefront for their ever-changing arrays. Some of the resellers have themed their stores, arranging items from different vendors and events that fit a certain category, such as a toy store for kids or a pet store. Some put up signs showing the range of items that were offered in a machine, along with numbers of how many of each they have available. This has turned into a small business opportunity for some resellers; not unlike flea markets in the physical world, you’ll find semi-professional resellers alongside people simply trying to make a small profit from their extra stuff. And, as a new business opportunity appears, so do scams: I’ve heard of a few people who set up tables at pop-up yard sales only to have all of their items suddenly returned as the organizer vanished with their rent payments for the month.

Gacha reseller pet shop

At a resale location, you might pay a small markup over the original gacha price but there is no risk of getting an item you didn’t want. Rare items have a more substantial markup, as do boxes where a reseller has assembled a full collection. It reminds me of vibrant marketplaces in MMORPGs I’ve played, where some items can be sold player-to-player but others cannot. Rare drops or items in high demand sell for higher prices.

I’m seeing more and more gacha resales across the grid and in unexpected places. I’ve seen them inside stores of unrelated merchants, on the lawns of virtual homes, and in areas that have no other retail aspect (like the little flea market tucked away in a corner of Picklemoon, pictured below). Yard sales are back. Gachas have injected adrenaline into the veins of person-to-person, low-cost transactions in SL.

Hidden flea market at Picklemoon

They are hugely popular.

You can find gacha machines at special events that feature them, in the booths at fairs, at non-retail events (they might not have full vendors, yet still offer some gachas), and increasingly in retail stores. Some have one or two machines; others have areas dedicated to machines from past events and new promotions. Looking at the selection above offers some hints as to why they are so appealing. You might not need a pair of glasses with food on them, but for under 15 cents, wouldn’t they be fun for a costume party or to surprise a friend? For 20 cents or so you can get a pair of shoes which would normally retail for several times that amount.

The Arcade is so popular that techniques have developed to make the shopping experience better. You can get a HUD that pre-caches the sale images so that the scene will rez faster, there is an off-sim pirate ship that you can use as a shopping base, moving your camera onto the salesfloor instead of your whole avatar, and the organizers recently began selling early access: a limited set of 20 passes that allowed buyers onto the sim for four hours before it was open to the public. I don’t seek out many sales events but I always look through the shopping guide for The Arcade, and I usually stop in. I’ve discovered some of my favorite creators through their gacha offerings there.

Popularity is also driven by the urge to collect complete sets, which you can see in the Plushie Pals and artisan cookie jars above. You don’t have to collect them all, but you can, and people do. There are groups, mailing lists, and websites for gacha collectors. This isn’t a motivation I understand well, especially when virtual items can’t be removed from the SL servers and usually depreciate as technology improves, but it’s a considerable market. In the video below there is some discussion about the desireability of particularly rare collectible items.

There are gacha blogs, gacha forum threads, and live gacha discussions. There is a subscription service that provides virtual listings for buyers and sellers to make it easier for them to connect. Designing Worlds produced an excellent show a couple weeks ago covering the SL gacha phenomenon.

DW266 – Gachas in Second Life from Richard Elen on Vimeo.

Are there other impacts?

There’s a quote in the video above, a creator tells a yard sale operator that “yard sales are killing us.” I wonder if that’s true. Now that resale mechanisms have become more standardized and sophisticated, I suspect that the growth of initial gacha purchases has slowed or stagnated despite greater interest. However, merchants get longer life from their gacha items by continuing to carry the machines at their stores after events are finished. There is a conversation later in the video about how gacha might be hurting creators who don’t participate in the events. I think it’s like other marketing processes in SL — themed events, weekly sales, hunts, holiday areas — a lot of work to participate, but powerful for attracting new customers. There isn’t a world where you can plop a store in the middle of nowhere and expect it to be a success without repeated advertising/marketing.

Gacha items are more like things I buy in the physical world. I only get one copy but I can use or dispose of it as I choose.  That means that the items have value; I might have to sell some at a discount, but if I really needed L$, I could put out some tables and offer all my old gacha items. That’s a subtle shift in how I think about my digital property.

I’m not thrilled about yard sales turning up everywhere, however. That’s purely personal; specific resale regions are fine, but seeing piles of clutter where I don’t expect them reminds me of when I played the MMORPG Perfect World International. Players could set up their own resale stores in the main city. Each one looked like a hovering cat (or later, a red bull). The result was that the main city was laggy and jammed with cat shops.

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As I said at the top of this post, I think we might be seeing the peak of the gacha craze. They were introduced into SL about three years ago, were very popular in 2014, but I’ve heard others who dislike the yard sales, calling them “cheap” and “trashy”. If that attitude grows, it could shape the perception of gacha overall. It could also damage the craze if the professional resellers continue to grow, making gacha events seem like tradeshows for them rather than fun for individuals. It’s a delicate balance but it’s awfully interesting to observe.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2015 in Gaming

 

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