Return to Skyrim

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For the last couple of days I’ve been diving into Skyrim again for the first time in quite a while. It’s a comforting, familiar friend, and I’m greatly enjoying a couple of mods that I’ve downloaded. I also took the opportunity to purchase all of the games DLC which I hadn’t yet had a chance to play, and this has served as a welcome excuse to get back to the game, because frankly I’m utterly bored of all of the major quest lines in the vanilla game. I’ve yet to really get round to playing any of the DLCs, except for purchasing a plot of land in Falkreath to construct my house, but the hunting guild mod I’m playing is surprisingly in depth and compelling, and actually makes hunting animals a viable way to make money in the game, which suits my bow wielding wood elf.

I’ve always had a strange relationship with Skyrim. The prevailing Elder Scrolls theory is that people usually love the first game in the series which they played more than they love any other Elder Scrolls game. For me, that was Oblivion, which is perhaps the most maligned entry in the series since it’s post-Daggerfall releases. Having taken some time to play a fair chunk of Morrowind, and 150 hours or so of Skyrim, I can certainly see why people had the complaints about Oblivion which they did. It’s world was a bland reimagining of medieval Europe, the map wasn’t very interesting, the character models seemed oddly cartoony and ugly, and many of the more wacky and silly skills available to players in Morrowind had been removed, seemingly never to return to the series again (goodbye levitate!). Cyrodil was just a less interesting place than Morrowind’s Vvardenfell, and offered a far less complex society to master the nuances of. One of my favourite things to do in Morrowind was to read the in game books detailing the Dunmer homelands relationships with the empire, about its great houses and their animosity towards one another, about the simmering resentment between native Ashlander tribes and the settled Dunmer population, about the complex nature of it’s religious structure and how that interacted with the Imperial religion, about it’s unique relationship with slavery. It was just a more interesting place than Cyrodil, and whilst reading those books offered me no tangible reward, obtaining a deeper understanding of the world I was inhabiting was it’s own reward.

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Skyrim, if anything, has gone further down the road of removing many of the skills and RPG mechanics of the Elder Scrolls series. Even small things like the ability to mix and match armour sets for customisation is further reduced. But, you can never level the accusation at Skyrim that its world is boring. To my mind the world is the best thing about Skyrim, beyond doubt. Half of the time when I jump in to the game, all I do is simply wander the roads and hills, and see what I can see. Even after playing quite a few characters in the game, there is so much I haven’t seen, and I still find new quests and dynamic events. Spotting something interesting off in the distance and then slowly winding my way there, seeing what adventure I meet on the way, is for me the best part of the game. It’s unfortunate though that the game seemingly has to sacrifice everything else in order to create that amazing world. NPCs are almost uniformly bland and generic, the quests aren’t very engaging at all, the core RPG mechanics have been simplified, combat amounts to running backwards holding shoot/slash. But such is the strength of that world, that it’s enough to hold the whole experience together.

I don’t know how long I’ll be playing Skyrim. For some of the reasons described above, it’s never quite grabbed me the way some previous Elder Scrolls games have. But, right now I’m having fun running around and hunting dear and foxes for a living, levelling up my skinning skills, and jumping into the odd dungeon when the mood takes me. It’s not perfect by any means, but on its day Skyrim can still offer one hell of an RPG experience, and nothing quite matches those moments when you lose yourself in its world, and drown in the detail.

What’s So Bad About Open World PvP?

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I think it’s pretty fair to say that PvP is PvE’s far less popular cousin in the overwhelming majority of (themepark) MMOs. Sure, most games offer some sort of instanced PvP, but it’s usually a sideshow to the ‘real’ game, and too much dev time being devoted to it is likely to cause consternation from the wider player base. And, what PvP is there is unlikely to be massively significant in terms of the rest of the game. Open world PvP is pretty uncommon these days, but the release of Archeage has brought it back into discussion with players who don’t normally opt for a playstyle often considered ‘hardcore’.

My own history with PvP is a little chequered. My first MMO was Guild Wars, but the first MMO I played with PvP was World of Warcraft. I rolled on a PvP server, and in fact open world PvP was the only kind that ever interested me. It felt organic, real, and far less contrived than battelgrounds. It was also much more welcoming to a complete PvP newcomer than the more hyper-competitive battlegrounds, where mistakes are not tolerated peacefully, noob or not. Sure, getting ganked is an inconvenience, but considering it’s almost entirely consequence free, it never bothered me to any great degree. I engaged in a little instanced PvP in Star Wars the Old Republic, but something about PvP for it’s own sake doesn’t really appeal to me. Also, there is only so much huttball you can play before you never want to hit that queue button again.

It wasn’t until I began my journey with Eve Online that I fully began to appreciate the beauty of open world PvP which takes place in an environment that provides palpable consequences for victory or defeat. More than anything though, it broke down that barrier that PvP is a hostile world full of nasty, evil people hoping to ruin your fun. Sure, someone may blow you up as you float through low sec, but speaking to them quickly dispels any notions of them being bad people, they are just playing the game their way. The thrill of your first few PvP encounters in Eve is a truly memorable thing. The shaking hands and heightened pulse, the sweaty palms and fumbled mouse clicks. It all feels so palpably ‘real’.

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Shortly before Archeage release there was a lot of discussion, triggered in part by Syp over at Bio Break, about whether the game should run a PvE only server, in contrast to it’s current open world PvP setup. I must confess to being one of those firmly in the camp that believes that there are already a lot of games that offer PvE gameplay, and something different is what this genre really needs. But one thing this debate made me wonder is, what is so bad about open world PvP? I mean from what I can gather with a quick Google search, getting killed in a PvP encounter in Archeage offers no consequences for the loser unless they are on a trade run, in which case you lose your trade pack and the resources involved in obtaining that, and losing a boat to pirates whilst sailing effectively amounts to a repair bill.  This is in stark contrast to a game like Eve where every defeat means a lost ship and flying home in your pod. So, what exactly are people worried about with regard to Archeage? Having to walk from the respawn point?

I sometimes feel that what’s partly at play here is a sense that the people who kill you are doing so to spite you in some way. That you are the butt of someone else’s joke. A figure of fun for them. I may be totally off the mark here, but I sense that some seem to think that PvPers who gank people are not nice people, that they are people who are looking to ruin your evening. I genuinely believe that’s very rarely the case. Most times in a sandbox oriented game like Archeage, people are simply looking to achieve the goals that further enhance their own playstyle. I can understand why people may not want to partake in PvP if they simply aren’t interested in doing so, but if Archeage is a game that you’d like to play but the PvP aspect puts you off, does the possibility of getting ganked every now and again really completely outweigh any possible fun you might have the rest of the time you’re playing?

I’d really urge people who are on the fence about playing a game with open world PvP to give it a go. You might enjoy the thrill of real danger more than you expect. If that game is sandbox oriented like Eve or Archeage, maybe you’ll find yourself forming alliances and friendships to help protect you, or teach you to avoid danger. Maybe you’ll form groups of righteous vengeance to hunt down those who pray on the innocent. Maybe you’ll hire mercenaries or bounty hunters to bring a reckoning to those who’ve done you harm. Or maybe you’ll just end up liking PvP more than you thought. If not, that’s cool, but surely it’s worth a try?

LOTRO Academy

Tonight I am making a brief and temporary return to the fabulous LOTRO Academy. This Lord of the Rings Online podcast has been providing players with info, guides, and discussion points since 2010. I had the pleasure of being a co-host on the show for about 35 episodes, and had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun whilst doing so. In the end, I began to drift away from LOTRO and university took up more and more of my time, meaning it was time to say goodbye to the show.

I will be recording a small part with Branick this evening for their 100th episode! A remarkable feat for any podcast. Congratulations to Pineleaf, Mysteri, Draculetta and everybody else who has been involved with the show over it’s lifespan so far. Once again I’m impressed by the dedication and staying power of the LOTRO community even this deep into the games lifespan. I can only thank Branick for giving me my first role in a podcast, and without that I’d almost certainly never have become involved with the Contains Moderate Peril podcast, where I’m having a wonderful time.

So keep an eye out for the upcoming episode 100, it should be a good one!

A Moment of Weakness

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I’ve been looking with some interest for a while now at The Repopulation’s development. Recently, they made a change to the level of backing required to access the games alpha from $150 to $100, as well as turning the alpha servers on full time and not just for occasional tester weekends. So, for the last couple of days I’ve been dipping in and out of the alpha, but of course, I can’t tell you anything about it at all because of the NDA which is in place. However what I can talk about is that odd feeling that comes over me sometimes when I suddenly become all consumed by the notion that I must have the thing I want, and RIGHT NOW damn it.

In truth I imagine this is partly why so many game offer up some form of paid alpha/beta, apart from the fact that people are demonstrably willing to pay for it, it is clear such offers do appeal to a certain kind of gamer who must have all the things, and I can be one of those sorts at times. I almost paid into the alpha a week ago, and the feeling that comes over me at such times is a little hard to describe, but I get almost sweaty palmed with the anticipation of having something I’ve wanted for so long. I’ve never spent this much on alpha access before, and it felt like a lot of money to speculatively throw at a game that I may not end up liking as much in practice as I did on paper, but in some sense I’m happy enough to support these kind of titles monetarily even if I don’t fall in love with the end product. I’m just pleased to see these kinds of games being made.

But, this overwhelming desire to buy games is a huge weakness of mine. It’s why my Steam library is populated with games I’ve barely touched since purchase. I often say that in some senses I’ve become more obsessed with buying games than actually playing them at this point. Sometimes it’s the more straight forward desire to get a good deal, the notion that I simply must buy this game now because it’s so cheap! It might never be this cheap again! This is patently nonsense, it will usually be cheaper at some point, but the pull of a good deal is a strong one. Other times it’s more like a feeling of desire that comes over me, and I feel as though I can barely resist a purchase. Luckily, I’ve actually reached the point where there are very few titles I know about and am hugely interested in that I don’t already own.

I know I’m not alone in this, and a basic glance at most people’s Steam libraries will tell you that folks tend to buy a lot more games than they play, but I think there’s a curious quirk of psychology at play here, and I’d be interested in whether any of you guys have a similarly overwhelming desire to buy games at times.

The Merits of Shorter Play Sessions

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In the past, one of the things that I’d always look out for when purchasing a game was the amount of playtime I would get out of it. The thinking went that more play time is always better than less, just in value for money terms if nothing else. The older I have got though, the more I have begun to appreciate the value of shorter games. I mean sure, I love my 100 hour plus RPGs as much as the next person, but recently I’ve developed a real appreciation for the smaller, more self contained experiences that shorter games can offer.

Gone Home is a perfect example of this. The entire thing can be finished in around 2 to 4 hours, but because of that it can comfortably be played in one sittings, which I find adds to the overall experience. I’m able to drink in all the details and progress whilst all of it is still fresh in my mind. This helps me feel more immersed in the game, and thus more driven to seek the conclusion of the story. Knowing I can complete something on a Sunday afternoon is a nice feeling, and whilst longer games make up the bulk of my playtime, having these little stories to romp through in a few hours is a nice addition to my stable of games.

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I guess the same can be said of games which work well with short play sessions. Although I don’t play tons of them, this can be a plus point to a lot of rogue-like games like FTL or Rogue Legacy. Jumping on for a short, fifteen minutes to an hour session, can be really rewarding. I’d also extend this to MMOs to some extent. Whilst in The Secret World I generally prefer to play for longer spells, to really drink in the details, mood, and atmosphere, I do sometimes log in just to do a 20 minute mission. But, whilst these games can be played in short bursts, it’s not quite the same as a completely self contained narrative experience that begins and ends in one play session.

It’s not so much a matter of time constraints that makes me appreciate shorter games, it really is the appeal of a short but rounded experience that has begun to draw me to them. I still largely play games which demand a more significant time investment, because I think that often has to be the case for there to be a lot of depth to the game, but it’s nice to be getting a bit more variety in what I’m playing. Plus, it’s nice to actually finish some bloody games for once!

Did WoW Ruin MMOs?

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A couple a days ago Sig over at Crucible Gaming put forward an interesting proposition; that he believes that World of Warcraft ruined MMOs by fostering solo play as the primary means of playing them. I have to confess, I started playing MMOs shortly after WoW launched, and I cut my teeth on Guild Wars before eventually trying WoW. So, as such I can’t claim the same level of first hand historical understanding of the early MMO market that so many in the blogging community can. But I do think WoW ruined MMO gaming, just not in quite the same way that Sig is putting forward, although I’m certainly sympathetic to his message.

To my mind, one of the greatest problems that WoW has created is a potential miscalculation in the level of interest there actually is in the MMO genre. No game has ever come close to matching WoW’s subscriber numbers which are currently around the 8 million mark, down from its height of around 12 million . Even games with huge launch hype and unbelievable budgets like SWTOR crow about selling a million boxes at launch. One million boxes. And that’s just boxes, not actual long-term subscribers. As this pattern repeats itself over and over again I think the question we have to ask is, do people want to play MMOs or do they want to play World of Warcraft.? Over the years I’ve begun to lean more and more towards the latter.

Sure, there are tons of MMOs out there now, but I don’t think that if you added the player bases of all of them together it would equal WoW’s peak subscriber numbers. But, big budget MMOs continue to launch and continue to fail to garner enough players to rival WoW or even come close. But of course, that hasn’t stopped many studios from trying to. That leads me to conclude one of two things: either that WoW is the greatest MMO ever made and nothing else can rival it, or there simply aren’t enough players willing to play other games, or at least not put down roots there so to speak. Based on my experience I simply have to agree with the latter.

Now of course it’s also entirely possible that the problem is that we simply haven’t had enough variety in the genre for people to feel the need to diverge from WoW. It’s certainly true that creativity has stagnated somewhat, and we’re still, ten years on, in the midst of the “like WoW but different because x” formula of MMO development. I’m entirely willing to accept that I may be completely wrong about this, but I simply believe that WoW achieved the status of cultural monolith and nothing will ever come close to that again. But because of it’s success and the budgets and expectations of MMO studios, we’ve ended up with a “play it safely, give them what they seem to want” sort of marketplace. That is what I believe has ruined MMOs.

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Take  look at AAA gaming and you’ll see a lot of lowest common denominator let’s do what’s already popular sort of titles. This is in large part because the size of the investments required to make some of these game just do not allow for any risk taking. Another parallel can perhaps be drawn with the summer blockbuster movie market, which also offers extremely safe and rote output most of the times. Again, because the risk of failure is too great.

That is the position I believe the MMO market is in today, and that can only be improved by the proliferation of smaller independent titles as has happened in the wider games market in recent years, particularly on PC. I know I’ve argued this before, but that is what I believe the long term legacy of WoW has been; a stagnation of innovation in a genre that really needs some. I’m just not sure there will ever be enough players to create a WoW-like player base ever again, and maybe the people who continue to play WoW simply aren’t interested in playing any others, so let’s forget about them and move on.

TSW: Leaving Kingsmouth

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I’ve finally done it. For the first time in my 3 attempts to play The Secret World, I’ve actually finished Kingsmouth! I’ve never quite gelled with the game enough to get through this first zone before, but this time I’ve found myself quite immersed in the experience. I have been taking it very slowly, with only a few play sessions a week, which I guess is demonstrated by the face it’s taken me about six weeks to get this far.

The unusually dense manner in which content is dispersed has also contributed. There’s a surprising amount to do in the first area, and it really isn’t all that big in landmass terms either. You can traverse the whole zone in a few minutes, but you will be spending a lot of time running back and forth through the same areas, which I have to say makes it somewhat inexplicable that enemies continue to aggro even when you’re considerably more powerful than them. It leaves me with the impression that it’s a design decision to slow players down a bit and throttle their progression through the storyline. But some missions like the investigation ones, and even a few from the main storyline, have an indeterminate completion time, simply because they rely on smarts not numbers to progress. The time taken to decipher a biblical quotation may vary! Some investigation missions have taken me hours to finish, but I never find them a slog and I usually don’t look up any walkthroughs unless I’m totally stumped and even then I just try and find a clue. So, some people may blast through Kingsmouth, but for me and the way I approach the game, it’s taken a while!

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When I started playing The Secret World again my plan was to think of it as a single player game. This has helped my ability to not feel bad about only jumping in every now and again, and to feel like I can enjoy the game at a slow pace, hearing every line of dialogue, trying to complete every mission, and see every sight. I think this has been a big part of why I’ve had such a lot of fun with the game, but I can’t help but feel the draw of group content. I’m becoming more and more inclined towards finding a group of players I can join, but I don’t feel like I want to commit a lot of free time to scheduled grouping times. I’m keen to see the dungeon content though, just because I don’t want to miss out on any of the games storylines, so maybe I’ll just try some PUGs in the lower ‘level’ dungeons for now.

I’m really excited to really start digging into The Savage Coast, the games next zone. It looks very dark and moody, even more so than Kingsmouth, and the variety of enemies is a nice change after killing all the zombies all the time! The few characters I’ve met so far seem interesting, and it already looks as though the density of content in Kingsmouth is going to be mirrored in all of the other zones too. I’m also just starting to reach a point where I have more skills unlocked to start making better builds. I’m currently working on an affliction/penetration blood magic and blade build. It’s early days as I don’t have a lot of the skills I’ll need yet, but I’m pretty close to some build defining ones.

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Overall, I’m still really enjoying the game, and a casual approach has helped greatly I feel. I may get around to giving some of the group content a try soon, but it depends if I get the opportunity. I’m still glad I’ve subscribed as the knowledge that I’m building up store currency to buy more content whenever I’m ready for it is nice, and the benefits are ok as well. An hour long XP booster you can use every sixteen hours, a 10% store discount, and a some free items and bonus points to spend on limited store items.

Feel free to add me, my character name is “Lucks” and I play on Arcadia, Templar side. And I still have so many zones and all the DLC to go!