In a Dungeon Together: Gaming From Afar.

There may be a 1,000+ miles between us but for the hour that we are talking, planning and fighting for our survival, on each of our own monitors, it’s as if she is in the room with me. Despite her lumbering British internet, and with the help of Steams great online technology, we are able to laugh, cooperate and collect shinies as a pair of cartoonish knights in, Three Rings’ developed, Spiral Knights (published by SEGA).

Gaming from afar has become something much more to me than the weekend gaming sessions amongst friends. The “Pond” between my girlfriend and I this month has created a scenario were these gaming sessions are the most important and endearing I have ever played. Even in a Free To Play game with simplistic (not to be confused with bad) graphics and simple game play (a strength of Spiral Knights) – our sessions together are comparable to none.

I have played uncountable gaming sessions amongst friends in online worlds of blockbuster developed titles. On multiple occasions my friends and I have just eked out a win over the ‘blue team’ or just barely fell to defeat to the Russians but, none of those moments have satisfied me the way my sessions, in a casual dungeon crawler, with my girlfriend have.

Online gaming amongst couples is a unique experience. Their is an unmentioned connection that plays into the games adventure at hand. The role of protecting each other, unknowingly at first, between the coop couple produces an added level of drama and interaction to the experience. You know the character representing your significant other is just that, a character representation and nothing more. Knowing it is just her avatar doesn’t completely sway you from that little sadness that hits you when she falls in battle to a poisonous jelly mass, a rabid squirrel, a fire firing tower, or a dusty skeleton (man she dies a lot). That added sense of realism is not something a game can do on its own and that is why the experience is so unique. The parameters for engagement in the game comes from outside influences.

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Credit to www.trowzarium.blogspot.com for the pic.

Who knew Jello could be so dangerous?

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A coop couple can share time and understanding together by gaming from afar. They can work together, communicate and overcome. They can also garner a little insight that if they can, together, conquer monsters in a cramped dungeon, they can conquer issues, together, in a modest apartment.

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Free to Play: The Death of Single Player Campaigns?

Will free to play [FTP] be the death of the enjoyable and immersive single player campaign? Will the new and continuing stream of ‘no charge’ game play become the substitute for the detailed story driven games we talk about with friends? The continued trend of developers offering FTP games could definitely have an impact on the single player experience.

Recently Steam, the leading source for digital gaming downloads on the PC, started making free to play games part of their distribution practice. This significant development by the most significant distributor is a sign of things to come. FTP is here to stay, has been for awhile, and is growing in popularity and quality.

Valve is even in route to develop their own FTP game (http://www.ology.com/technology/valve-working-free-play-game). Other big developers jumping on board include EA (Battlefield Play4Free) and Bohemia (Arma 2).

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Battlefield Free2Play doesn't look like the FTP flash games of old.

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Will the FTP genre replace the single player option though? Not entirely. Though the trend of developers going the FTP course seems pretty overwhelming at the moment take a look back to the massively multiplayer online [MMO] start-ups of the late 90s and early 2000s. Look in particular at Blizzard and World of Warcraft. Did it stop them from creating enjoyable single player experiences? No, just look at StarCraft II and, with fingers crossed, Diablo III.

The FTP craze will settle a bit. Developers will see it for what it is, another income generator of many. The business model of today (even more so for online based operations) are multiple sources of income, and that is what FTP is, that is what a MMO is – and that is what a game with a solid single player experience is as well. The real winners will be us gamers, and those developers who can combine those aspect effectively.

There will be some effect on single player campaigns. Some developers, whose sole focus is FTP, will muddy the waters with stitched together single player campaigns attached to, what they hope is, a micro transaction money maker. This has already been seen and will continue. Those who make FTP their focus and increase their audience appreciation (and therefor their subscription bases) with a worthy single player experience will rise to the top.

As gamers we will adapt to the new landscape of FTP and subscribe, spend money (micro-transactions), and support the communities of FTP games that make complete games. Those developers who market their games accurately by only making polished online experiences their focus will have an advantage over companies who try to market an all encompassing game (i.e. single player, online and micro-transaction based play) that gets nothing right.

One of the most dreaded words in PC gaming…

One of the most dreaded words in PC gaming…PORT. Port, a reference to a game whose target platform and design basis were meant for the console and then ‘transported’ over to the PC. A game whose graphical, processing and control scheme were designed for the limited abilities of the console and then package into a version for play on the computer. Port, a game that does not fully take advantage of the graphical, processing and advance control abilities of even the average computer gaming rig.

The underlying and most hurtful reason this term is so frightening to a computer gamer is because some of the greatest franchises of computer gaming past have eventually become a CPU port rather than CPU focused. Franchises that were developed on the computer, played, moded and improved by the computer gaming community changed focus and dumb themselves down for the consoles.

A topical franchise that has gone through this transition is Bethesda’s (originally a CPU focused developer) The Elder Scrolls series. Prior to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion this game series started and grew out of the computer gaming community. From its first iteration The Elder Scrolls: Arena, in 1994, up to The Elder Scrolls III: Bloodmoon and its expansions, The Elder Scrolls series was about freedom of choice and exploration. It was also about listening to the gaming community and incorporating mods into new games in the series, a virtual evolution. The focus on the computer gaming community changed with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, when Bethesda focused on tapping into the console money pot and putting those who got it there (PC gamers) on the armored horses backside.

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If you were a PC gamer you could be on Bethesda's backside...with armor, for a cost.

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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion had to dumb down its graphics and AI, lower the onscreen animations and later, gouge its players for extras that should have been included in its original release (see above). Needless to say it left a bitter taste in the CPU players’ mouths, like they had just eaten a mud crab they found by the lake – bland, brown and lifeless.

The newest game to this franchise is scheduled to release on a marketer’s day of delight, 11/11/11. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was looking pretty and hopes were high that Bethesda was looking to come back to its roots of the PC. The developer was even talking about improvements made that were moded into Oblivion (i.e. improved archery, improved NPC AI). Then there was E3, then there was Skyrim’s lead producer Craig Lafferty, then there was this interview…

http://www.pcgamer.com/2011/06/08/e3-2011-the-elder-scrolls-v-skyrim-interview-consoles-are-our-lead-skew/

Rich McCormick’s comments below the video on www.pcgamer.com makes some solid points that still gives me hope for a good game but perhaps doesn’t quite squash my port concerns.

“Skyrim’s still looking really good, and will take as long to finish as the PC RPG classics of yore. And, as Lafferty says in the interview, Bethesda are ‘still really big on the ‘go where you want’, play how you want from the very beginning’.”

Hopefully Bethesda hears our ‘Dragon Shouts’ and pays heed to its CPU roots while still tapping into the console’s dragon hoard.

Fool Me Once, Shame On You…

Can I recover from being spurned by a true love? Am I able to forgive and believe that which is dearest to me has truly changed? She does look different. Honestly, she looks gorgeous compared to when we last parted ways. She looks smarter, acts smarter and, even appears, to care about changing her ways. I don’t know. Can I forgive Star Wars Galaxies [SWG] and commit to her in her new and mature form of Star Wars: The Old Republic [SWtOR]?

You’ve appeared to pick up a few tricks from the time of our last soiree, the kind of tricks that would be useful in the bedroom (expanded dialogue options). Frankly, you appear to be a completely new person (New developer [BioWare] and is in no way tied to SWG except for the the Lucas lore).

The hype behind us potentially dating is persuasive (see this years [2011] E3 cinematic trailer below) and your friends say you are really a new person (previews have been reassuring). I remember that being the case before we dated last time too… Months and months of your friends saying I should date you (huge marketing push with SWG prior to its launch). “You were meant to be together,” were the words coming from my closest friends but none of them actually had spent any time with you (out of my gaming friends from those days I was the only one who actually purchased SWG).

I also remember your requirements of monthly dinners out (monthly subscription fees) rather I actually saw (played) you or not. I couldn’t say no at the time. You were everything I hoped for in a girl (game), but hope and actuality ended up being miles apart.

Now you want me back again and I must confess, you do seem shiny and new. Your implants and nose job (SWtOR graphics engine is amazing for an MMO) look great. I mean your makeup free look of the past was earthy (SWG was coated in the color brown) but your wrinkles would quickly show.

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SWG's Earthy Brown

SWtOR "implant" enhanced look.

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I don’t know. I mean, things are different but there are some glaring similarities. I’ve heard your promises before and you will have a lot of friends that will bide for much of your time and require me to share you (guilds for SWtOR have already been established). Also, loyalty to you will require almost all my free time (MMOs can be very time consuming) and will I get out what I put in (Will quest be rewarding and dynamic as promised?).

Well I have changed too. I don’t jump in head first like I used to. I like to make informed decisions rather than rash ones (read reviews extensively). I think I will wait until other people get to know the new you (player feedback) before I start saving for that engagement ring again.

The Roles of Rivers: Waterways in game play

Passing over the historic Brazos River this past Memorial Day weekend I flashed back to Fallout: New Vegas [FNV] and the time spent exploring the Colorado River and its shorelines. I heard the distinct sound my character would make as he started to drown and gulp for air, trying to sneakily reach a distant shore. I saw John Marston, of Red Dead Redemption, herding cattle (no, not nerds) against the river’s current in hopes to rope out a future for his polygon family. I visualized screenshots of Bethesda’s upcoming Elder Scrolls Skyrim and the beautiful rivers rendered with its new engine. I then swerved back into my lane and finished crossing the bridge.

Were I almost met my watery death, the Brazos River.

What this brief brush with wet death brought to mind, other than “Watch the road!”, was the huge roles rivers play in games. At times rivers act as a game’s protagonist or as a roadblock to exploration. Some developers use them to create a natural looking “invisible wall” that your character can’t pass – I’m looking at you Left 4 Dead. As in FNV, a river can play an integral part to the storyline and an actual enabler to exploration.

In real time strategy [RTS] games rivers can be (as is the case in real life) an asset that can garner you resources or positional advantages – a fine example of this can be seen in the entire series of Civilization games. In a war focused RTS a river can help protect your main base’s flanks, a tactic I used to my advantage constantly in Relic’s Company of Heroes.

The bridges of Company of Heroes Lyon map made protecting my flanks a bit easier.

As was the case this year with the Missouri and Mississippi, real rivers around us can create stories of their own with each flood. They can bring new twist and turns to the world’s geography and to a game’s narrative. Rivers were the basis of cities in early America and provided life, and death, to those around them. The same can be said of rivers in video games but without the actual pain of loss or the excitement of life…unless you’re me, were at times the difference can become like the water, murky.