Friday, December 30, 2011

Article: Games Aren't a Storytelling Medium (Yet)

When I think of videogames, I think of Mario.  Most Mario games are basically the same:  you control the character's movements, defeat enemies, and gain some fun super powers that add variety, like throwing fireballs or flying.  This formula has been there since Super Mario Bros., and has continued through Super Mario Galaxy 2.

There have been many spin-offs, but at heart, Mario is a guy who bops on Goomba heads and whacks around a dragon-turtle beast.

Did I mention you rescue a princess?  Oops, I forgot.  Also, did I mention Mario is a plumber?  I guess it slipped my mind considering it has no bearing on the gameplay whatsoever.

The Princess is no more than a plot device, and serves as your ultimate reward each game, but when you play Super Mario Bros., is it even necessary?  In fact, is she necessary in any Mario game?

Bowser sure is an important character, being the boss and all, but defeating Bowser is a reward in itself.  When you beat another player at Chess, you don't need to receive a lollipop for a job well done; winning is its own reward.

Indeed, playing is its own reward, and there is no need for a story to hook you in.  In fact, consider this part of the story in the manual for Super Mario Bros.:

"The quiet, peace-loving Mushroom People were turned into mere stones, bricks, and even field horse-hair plants, and the Mushroom Kingdom fell into ruin."

No, seriously.
I guess that means when Mario breaks a brick block, he's killing innocent Mushroom People.  Did you know that?  Is it relevant to how you look at the game?  I suppose if you care that much about it, you could try playing Super Mario Bros. without breaking a single block.

But nobody cares because story was not important in that game, and for that matter it's not terribly important in most Mario platformers.

Now don't get me wrong, I love Mario.  He's my favorite videogame character, the universe he inhabits is beautiful, and if there is one mascot that will forever define videogames -- not just Nintendo -- it's going to be Mario.

But Mario is proof positive that you don't need a story to make a great game.  Indeed, most early games had no story, except for text adventures.  No story necessary in Space Invaders, Pacman, Frogger.  Not much of a story to Pong, either.

These days, games have big stories, and often great stories can make or break a game.  With the depth stories in games get into nowadays, players are often participating in interactive novels.

This is, of course, quite a good thing.  Imagine if movies never got off the "let's watch a train drive by" stage.  Eventually you'd be watching "Trains Driving By in 3D!"

The leap from movies making simple "moving images" to creating a new form of stage play turned the medium from a tech demo into an art form.

But first, movies copied stage plays a little too much; they did not understand that, being a different medium, there was a whole avenue of art called cinematography which could be exploited and used to create something beyond a recording of a stage play.

Eventually it was figured out, of course, and now we have a repertoire of tricks with the camera that change the medium drastically; cinematography is both an art and a science.

When videogames first came out, they used interactivity as the thing to show off.  You played board games on your television!  It was only after some time that developers began taking storytelling seriously in videogames, getting beyond the novelty of the technology to finally make art with it.

Unfortunately, just like movies in its early stages, videogames based their storytelling off another medium.  And just like movies in its early stages, games didn't use their new technology to its potential to create art in the medium.

By this I mean that videogames either concentrated their efforts on gameplay over story, like in Super Mario Bros., or took story over gameplay, like text adventures.

The standard story-over-gameplay model today.
These days, while equal time is usually spent on both story and gameplay, they are not married, but rather are split up into different jail cells.

Gameplay is the thing the player does, which is fun and engaging in its own right; story is the thing the player watches or reads, separate from the gameplay entirely.

A cutscene, a dialogue box; these are static, non-interactive tools game developers use to tell their story, and it is understandable that, when games were first developing storylines, such devices were necessary because human civilization has pretty much kept storytelling locked in as a non-interactive, linear art form.

But now, games should have sufficiently improved their technology that stories can be interactive, through the same gameplay the rest of the game uses.  Play God of War and see that the story is clearly separated from the gameplay.  The gameplay is fighting and exploration, and the story is a study of the character's past and how he arrived in the mess he is in.

The game begins to merge the two at the final boss battle, when Kratos faces a bunch of zombie versions of himself; in essence he is confronting his inner demons, which is what God of War was always ultimately about.  The player finally gets to interact with the story through the same gameplay he's always used throughout the game, and the story (which was restricted previously to cutscenes) merges with the gameplay.

Ok, ok, it's not a perfect example, but we have so few to work with.
It's very rare that games merge the two parts of the game together.  Often, the more complicated and epic the story, the farther from the gameplay it goes.  Take almost any RPG and you'll see the divide pretty clearly.

Even games which try to give the player meaningful choices to sway the story, while interactive, don't require the same style of gameplay as the majority of the game.  Most dialogue options are like this; when a game is primarily combat-based, dialogue options are a poor attempt to give the player something to control.

Some games do much better in giving the player control over outcomes.  When characters live or die permanently as a result of the player's actions, and the option always exists to keep them alive or let them die based on the player's skill or choices during the main gameplay portions, that is as close as we've come to games truly mixing gameplay and story.

Even linear stories in games can still be just as interactive, even if the player has no control over where the story goes -- the player may not have control over the outcome, but they do get to lead the character(s) through the story.

By this, I do not mean leading a character through a room of baddies to watch the cutscene on the other side.  I mean that the game requires the player to act out the story through gameplay.

Perhaps we need to shift away from the genres we have today, as most of them do not work well to allow interactive story; or perhaps we need geniuses that can figure out ways to make the current mechanics tell the stories.

If you don't know why she didn't just get a Phoenix Down, we're on the same page.

I think there are still plenty of videogames today that maintain the classic definition of videogame; Angry Birds would fit pretty well at home in an arcade cabinet next to Pacman and Q-Bert.
But there are also many games which are technological marvels, but are half-game, half-movie.  Some want to call these "interactive movies" or "interactive stories", but they are neither, since the interactivity (the gameplay) is far removed from the story itself.  I would call these game/story hybrids, or mixed media.

We are getting closer to interactive stories as game developers try to take big risks with games like Heavy Rain, but the day has yet to come when I can use such a term on a videogame.

Perhaps the current closest interactive story to be found is LARPing, which allows players to improvise and create stories as they go, or at least change the main thread sufficiently to personalize it to their taste; but of course the LA in LARP means there is nothing digital about it.

I have no problem with stories being separate from gameplay (and most of my favorite games have separated stories, or almost no story at all), but when games actually use their primary mode of gameplay to tell their stories, that will be the day when games have truly begun to explore their medium as a storytelling art form.

Until then, we're still just mixing media.

Like this.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Article: Crafting a Massively Single-Player Online Experience

I don't like playing videogames with strangers.  Nothing ruins fun like a stranger getting in your face and calling you a n00b.  It's bad enough to see it on a screen, and all the worse when it's assaulting my ears.

Other times, like in MMORPGs, players are well-meaning and friendly, but are unintentionally harming the experience, either by role-playing just the wrong amount (too little breaks the mood, too much is hokey), or by harassing me with guild invites, party invites, requests to trade, etc.

So when I play MMOs, I either wish to personally know the player I am in a party with so we know we mesh well beforehand, or I just prefer to play alone.

When it comes to playing alone, it seems MMOs don't spend the time to craft great solo experiences.  True, playing solo in some ways defeats the purpose of MMOs, but I like think that if the option is available, time and care should be spent on it.

So this article is going to be a thought experiment in what an MMO with an ideal (or at least decent) solo experience might look like.  It won't change the game very much; it'll just take a couple of tweaks to go a long way.

This article does not fix every problem with MMOs.
For instance, let us suppose an MMO offers a standard layout of populated cities along with instanced dungeons/levels.  These dungeons would be instanced on an individual basis, so that one player does not see another while in a dungeon, but players see each other in cities, where trade and dialogue can occur.

This already happens in some MMOs, but in others this feature is surprisingly missing.

Of course, party play should certainly be allowed, but this should be an option that is opt-in.  This prevents players who want to play in parties from harassing those who don't, decreasing aggravation and wasted time on both sides.

All that the restriction feature would entail is:  players who want to play in a party cannot invite soloers to join their party.  Nothing would interrupt the soloer (in fact the soloer would have no idea the invitation was sent), and if the option were an icon, the partier would be unable to click the invite button.  If invitations were a hotkey, a message would pop up saying "This player is not accepting invites."

A simple checkbox in a menu to enable party play is all that is necessary, or perhaps a hotkey/combo that is not likely to be accidentally struck, like Shift + Scroll Lock or something.

I hesitate to say that soloers and partiers should have separate servers, because for some reason many MMOs do not allow players to switch a character's server, or do allow switching but charge a fee for it.  To me switching servers should be a free and automatic exchange, but if there is a technical restriction, I would not want a player who begins as a soloer and wants to join a guild later to be screwed.

So the option should always exist, but players enter the world as individuals and can enable guilds and parties at their will.

Beyond that, quests/missions and dungeons/levels should be designed with both solo and party play in mind.  If the designers want to create a level that requires a party, that level should be non-existent to a soloer.

A soloer should never feel left out of content because of their play choice, so party-only content should never come up.  It should seem to the solo player as though such content was never created, or solo-only content replaces the multiplayer content.

The same should occur in the reverse, so that partiers do not accidentally begin a solo quest or feel as though they are missing out on content because of their own play style choice.

This can be accomplished by that same simple checkbox/hotkey that enables party play.  Once the player enables party play, all solo quests disappear and are replaced by party quests.

Another solution, however, is to simply create levels that are designed for both, which has the added bonus of avoiding doubling the cost of development.

If a level is designed to require two players to stand on separate switches to open a door, for instance, the solo version could be identical but for an additional crate that the player can move onto one of the switches.

This is not always a feasible design, however, especially with party-designed levels that need to feel as though every member of the team is valuable, and can't just be replaced by a crate.

A possible, but terrible, solution to this is to have soloers be accompanied by an AI character that can fill the role of another party member.  This is an awful idea for two reasons:  1.) AI is not where we need it to be for a solid experience; and 2.) A soloer is not going to want an AI helper.

Any party member, whether an actual player or a bot, entirely defeats the purpose of solo play.  A soloer wants to feel as though they are a hero without a sidekick; someone who needs only himself.  Batman is so much cooler when Robin isn't tagging along.

So the best design strategy for players' enjoyment is to create levels specifically for solo or party play, and hide them when the player has disabled them; but for development costs, the best design strategy is to create levels that can do double duty.

Beyond level design, other aspects of an MMO go a long way to help a soloer get the flow:

Certainly, character customization becomes a high, high priority.  Soloers want to feel like individuals, not clones, so if a player sees a clone of his character in the game, it breaks the experience.

Okay, so there's precisely one instance where cloning is expected.
Along with that, if the game offers ways to further customize characters in-game, such as changing clothing, armor, weapons, and the like, then there should be a sufficient variety of models of the same kinds of equipment.

For instance, suppose completing a particular quest rewards a player with an armor item that adds +2 defense.  If that piece of armor were a single, invariable item with a specific name (Leather Jerkin of Defense), every soloer who completes the quest will receive the same item.  Then a soloer will spot another player in a town with that item, and the illusion of being the only one to go on that quest (and therefore a unique hero in the world) is lost.

To fix this, either offer visual swaps of the item (the player can choose between a black, brown, or red Leather Jerkin of Defense), or offer equal stat-ed items (the player can choose between a +2 Jerkin, +2 Pants, or +2 Boots).  Offering such visual variety prevents a city of clones, and helps with immersion.

For the best player experience, offer multiple types of equipment with the same stats; but for development costs, offer palette-swapped equipment.

These are only a couple of tweaks that would help solo playing and soloer immersion in an MMO.  Some of these are simple tweaks, although the best solutions require more development time.

Without features such as these, I often feel that soloers are given the backhand by MMO developers, as though they are not the ideal player, and therefore do not warrant such time and effort in developing for.

However, often players who are new to a game want to spend some time exploring on their own, or need a closed-off tutorial for a short time before entering the larger world, and there is no shortage of solo tutorial stages in MMOs.  While the hand-holding aspect of those tutorials can be eliminated, the same attention should be paid to crafting the single-player experience throughout the MMO.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Development Log: The Sacrifice - Part III: 1st Half of Level 2

After making an alpha or proof-of-concept of level 1, I decided to dive right into level 2.

To separate the look of each level, I've decided to make each have a certain color scheme and theme.  So while the first level was mostly wood with hints of marble, this level would be mostly marble, with hints of red.
The red being blood and fire.
Level 2 naturally flowed from the idea of ending level 1 in a secret chamber, where imps came out, so I decided to make level 2 a fortress made and run by imps.  The majority of the enemies here are imps, although demons, spectres, and both kinds of humans make appearances.

I am also thinking of making Barons of Hell be the boss of this level, to create a hierarchy of demons that reign in Hell.  Imps are the peasants of Hell, and Barons are, well, the barons.

Since we have a full fortress here, rather than just a church, the level is a lot bigger, and being only about 60% done, it's already much larger than level 1.

Everything so far except the really long stairs, which you can see beginning at the bottom.  If I showed that, there would be no detail in this pic at all.
But then I had to consider, what is it a fortress of?  What could it be protecting, or damming?  I decided upon the storyline that the fortress acts as a gateway between Hell and Earth.

The devil-worshipping cultists, then, while having stumbled upon something great, are still small fries.  Their only connection to Hell is the fortress, and they think Imps are a big deal.

But enough of this backstory; it doesn't come out much so far in the grand scheme of things, especially when you're playing moment-to-moment.

So the player begins by going down a very long stairwell that ends in the main circular hallway of the fortress.  There are bodies at the top of the stairs where previous cultists have gone, only to be killed immediately upon entering the unholy place.

Most of the doors require keys, but one room does not.  It is a dining room.  Or perhaps it is dinner theatre, since two men are standing on a table fighting each other when you enter. 

I pretty much ripped this right out of King's Quest: Mask of Eternity.  I have no shame.
Of course, the place goes nuts when you walk in, and everyone tries to kill you.  My hope is that, if timed right, one of the two men on the table will shoot the other one in the attempt to shoot you, and it will appear as though they were fighting each other all along.  I've been trying to use the AI to the best of my ability to create these set pieces.

Also in the dining room is a body roasting in a pit, on what is the closest DOOM offers to a spit.  This is also right by a pile of bodies, showing that imps use the sacrifices given from above as meals.  There is also a shaft nearby that the player can't see quite yet, and I would like to incorporate the shaft back into the first level, or perhaps the third, so the player can see where the bodies are dumped.

"Sorry, sir, lobster is not on the menu today."
There are also planted trees which are mostly rotten scattered in the walls.

Just past the dining hall is a torture room with a viewing area.  Although there are imps watching the torture show when you walk in the dining hall, the player probably won't see them because they hear the commotion and come running.  I've tried to block the sound so the imps don't notice until you come up to them, but the effect is more cheesy than anything, so I left it with only the implication of a viewing spot.

Although I suppose you need those little binoculars to see from the balcony.
In the torture room there are both demons and humans, all kept in separate cages, except for the center cage where demons and humans have deathmatches.  This also gives off the suggestion that Demons are wild creatures in Hell, not nearly as smart as the humanoid Imps are.

There is a secret chamber in the torture room where confiscated weapons are kept, so the player can stock up.  The torture room is meant more as a bonus area than as a necessary area to go.

There are a few more extra areas that provide some depth to the story.  One is the shaft I mentioned before, where bodies pile up, and the player can reach a previously seen but unreachable armor.

You were supposed to be one of these.
There is also a room that has a couple of imps in it, and a second, smaller room next to it with a chainsaw.  If you look carefully you see papers on a desk.

This is actually the head landscaper's office, and he has both his own planted tree and a few bottles of water (Health pickups) to it.  As well, the walls in the hallway outside his office are crawling with ivy.  I hope that this is obvious, and if not, it at least appears to be an office of some kind.

Even Hell has paperwork.  That's why it's Hell.
Past that hallway is another torture room, but apart from the rowdiness of the main torture room or the dinner theatre is a room for more private affairs, where one or two imps can get up close and personal with their victim.

This room is being renovated, however, with a new tree being planted in the wall.  There is a tree in a pot, and a step ladder to climb up, as well as a couple of imps working to get it in the wall.

Past the tree the player will discover a network of tunnels where Demons and Spectres roam free.  The player can walk behind the walls to see the dining room from a new angle, as well as find a body of a man who was hiding there.

I am considering making the cave system much larger and maze-like, perhaps with bonus detours that can lead the player to some nice loot or cute vignettes.  Perhaps the landscapers have their own little hangout here.

A very very dark cave.  Going for as much of a natural lighting feel as possible.
Eventually beyond the cave system the player will come to a place where a second tree is being planted in another huge hall.  The player can pick up a blue key here, and find his way back to the main circular hallway.

There is also a hall that connects the rectangular hall and the private torture room, with a hidden backpack.  This is the "proper" way to go, but if the player went this way, they would see the blue key and be unable to reach it.

"How do I get up there?"
After coming back to the main hall, the player can use the blue key to open another door, leading to self-immolation chambers which mimic the cultists' similar chambers in the previous level.  This is meant to provide some continuity and show that the cultists get their ideas of Hell straight from this fortress.

This is where I am, at the moment.  I have a whole other section to complete.  I've been trying to come up with some new features that seem fresh and interesting, instead of mirroring the other side of the level.  I am considering keeping with the self-immolation theme and saying that this wing of the fortress is meant for imps to torture themselves.

After that wing, the player will come back out in the rectangular hall again, and back into the circular room.  The player will then be able to open up the center circle and find a throne room which will have a Baron or two, and a red key, which the player will use to get out of the fortress, going back up the stairs the way he came.

Overall, so far, level 2 seems to be working out much better than level 1.  Not just for the detailing and the size, but for the challenge as well, due to the fact that the set pieces don't get in the way of a fair fight.  It's extremely tough, but possible if you have a good strategy, and you don't feel trapped at any point.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Deconstruction: MYST - Part VII: The Mechanical Age

Once in the Mechanical Age, the player finds a fortress that vaguely resembles a gear.

They don't call it the Mechanical Age for nothing.
The fortress is quite small, revealing only two bedrooms, a basement, and a control room at the top (in fact it always made me wonder why Sirrus and Achenar got their own rooms in most ages when Atrus didn't get his own).  However, both bedrooms have hidden chambers, which reveal more disturbing facts about what happened in this age, including an electrified jail cell in Achenar's room and a note to Sirrus about taxes.

At this point, the player should feel a sense of wariness in regards to Sirrus, but complete horror at Achenar.  However, Achenar seems to have a moral problem with taxes, but not with torture?  That seems odd, and so the player may think that Achenar only has a fixation with torture devices as a hobby rather than actually using them.

In Sirrus' room, there is a telescope, which shows a skeleton hanging on a mast.  This only occurs when the fortress has been rotated the correct way, so not many players may notice it.  But if they do, it may appear as further proof that Sirrus is the immoral brother, and Achenar just seems wacky in the blue book from imprisonment.

But if the player is wrong, they'd be trusting the wrong brother.

Looks legit.
So the player should really start to question everything, whether either brother is trustworthy, or neither at all.  But the player, judging by the number of ages left to go, assumes that not true harm can come just yet from giving another page to one, the other, or both, so the player may pick up a hidden blue or red page in this age to bring back to hear more of one brother's side of the story.

One of the problems found in this game is that the player can only pick up one page at a time, and this has a wholly negative effect of slowing the game down, making the second visit to an age tedious, and breaks flow in general.  In addition, when a second page is picked up, the first disappears and reappears where it first was found, which is completely nonsensical.

This ends up being a frustrating feature of MYST, which was fortunately corrected in RIVEN, where the player can hold an inventory.

Beyond that, there is also a fortress manipulation device at the top of the fortress, and a replica in Sirrus' room which teaches the player the audio cues to understand which direction the fortress is facing.

Would have been nice to have on the actual controls.
A second problem arises if the player goes to the Selenitic Age before going to the Mechanical Age, because the audio cues for the fortress rotation and for the tram ride are identical.  If the player goes to the Selenitic Age second, they might remember or have written down the cues and can navigate the tram maze easily.  If they enter the Selenitic Age first, they have to learn the cues on the fly, which can lead to much frustration.

This problem is not easily solved, however.  Perhaps Cyan could have forced the player to enter the Mechanical Age before the Selenitic Age, but that would have destroyed the notion of non-linearity and the option for the player to roam freely and explore.

Hold their hand or let them starve in a maze.  The decisions game designers have to make.
Excusing this (since we are still in the Mechanical Age and haven't yet truly come across this problem), the player finds some interesting objects through the age to play with, but the first real puzzle comes in when trying to figure out how to get to the control room.

Rotating the elevator with the basement control panel is not particularly difficult; however, understanding to get out of the elevator after pressing the button takes some thought.  Most people don't expect to leave an elevator after pressing a button (unless they're a prankster, I suppose), but this elevator gives an extra moment for the player to leave before the doors close, giving a clue as to what to do.

Once the player figures this out, rotating the tower with the audio cues and collecting the four symbols necessary to find the linking book is a breeze.

Once back on MYST island, the player gets a little bit more information from one of the brothers, then must go back to the Mechanical Age to get the second page.  Or, if the player has already decided which brother to trust, they may move on immediately.

At this point, if this is the only age the player has visited, the question basically becomes: which is worse, death or taxes?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Development Log: The Sacrifice - Part II: Level 1 First Draft

Level 1 is a short level that introduces the player to the hub, and gives the player something realistic and earthly before dragging them down into the chaos of Hell.

Since Sacrifice begins in the normal world, and since the hub needs to make sense as a place you would visit over and over, I decided to make the first level be the church that the cultists worship in.  So once out of the sacrificial pit, the player finds the nave of the church with wooden pews and marble altar (and a crucified body on the wall).

Church always seems to fill up from the back.
There is a mass in session, so there is a priest (one of many) giving a sermon at the altar, with the cultists in the pews.  I decided to separate cultists from priests by having normal cultists be pistol-wielding, while priests are shotgun-wielders.

The nave has a front door that requires a yellow key.

Keeping up with the theme of sacrifice, the next corridor beyond the nave has a series of self-mutilation rooms, where individuals cut themselves and pour their blood in basins as an offering to Satan.  In a way, these replace Catholic confessionals, since the cultists would have no need to confess their sins except to gloat, rather than to be forgiven.  The player finds a blue key in one of these chambers to gain access to the next area.

Like shooting fish in a... self-mutilation... barrel...
Next, the player goes up a long staircase to a tower room where the main priest has his office.  On the easiest and medium difficulties, this area remains sane, in that it seems that humans are running the show.  However, on the hard setting, imps make their first appearance here, showing that the resurrection of demons is already a lot closer than you think.

Beyond the tower room, the player winds back down and goes even further until he reaches the catacombs.

The staircases are hidden on the map because I want the player to have the sense of impossible architecture, as though the staircases overlap.  DOOM does not allow this to actually happen, but I thought the spiraling stairs, from the inside, would give off the impression.

The catacombs are in the shape of a ribcage, which the player can see on the map, with the coffins representing the empty spaces between the ribs.  The player enters and exits from the throat.  One coffin has its lid removed, revealing not only a body but the yellow key, which the player needs to open the front door in the nave.  This coffin is where the heart would be in the ribcage.

Ribcage catacombs with the player standing where the heart/key is.  Also you can see most of the level from here, except for the spiral staircases that are hidden from the player.
On medium, the catacombs are the first instance of imps, showing that, while they exist, they do not yet appear to control the cult.

The player must come back up the spiral stairs, through the head priest's office, back down the other stairs, through the corridor with the mutilation chambers, and back to nave, all of which are now crawling with new baddies.

Once the player makes it to the front door, however, I had an interesting time trying to come up with an excuse for why the player can't just leave and be done (besides that it would be a very short game).

So here comes the first instance when things aren't quite right.  The player can see the way out (so it appears), but is blocked by a switch.  I considered making the switch blockade simply a brick wall a la The Matrix when Neo gets déjà vu, and I might go back to that in the end, but I thought it might be a better tease to show that there is the gate right outside but impossible to reach.  Throughout the episode, I will be making a lot of little moments that make the player feel ill-at-ease with the logic of the world, especially considering there is so much order elsewhere.

With the original DOOM levels, the design had no logic to it, so there was no real feeling of unease at things being not-quite-right because everything was not-at-all-right.  So for this mod, I'm trying to at least start off with a solid grounding in reality (this church looks quite a bit like a church), and spice things up with surprises and odd ways to navigate the level, until it eventually becomes flat-out surreal by the end.

So the switch reveals a hidden door behind the altar which leads to the proper exit.  This brings us to the second level, which I am currently working on (I'm about half done).  Since the player is exiting through a hidden door, rather than a more logical exit, the player should wonder what the heck they're getting into.

On the easiest setting, this is where the first imp appears, as a tease of what to expect from the next level.

For each difficulty, I tried to make it seem natural for the enemies to be in the areas they are in, while still being lenient enough to have solid gameplay and great fights.  This has a secondary effect of slightly changing the storyline, which I always want to be careful about.

One of the problems I know I am currently having with this level is that the corridors are too tight and there are few opportunities for cover.  The stairwells aren't bad, because the enemy has the same disadvantage as the player, but the pit, the nave, and the catacombs all suffer from the same problem: you walk into a room and get blasted on all sides.  I'm thinking I'll need some major restructuring to get the set pieces to work for gameplay.  I think they work well visually, and the player can figure out what each room is supposed to be, but it doesn't make for fair fights.

The gameplay video you see is on the easiest difficulty setting, partly because I just want to show the level without too much trouble, and partly because the difficulty gets a little out of control on higher settings.  Sometimes I can't even beat it on "Hey, Not Too Rough", so I'm sure I need to revisit the level architecture to get something with a decent challenge without the player being handicapped by the level design.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Development Log: The Sacrifice - Part I: Overview

Sacrifice is a nine-level DOOM mod with a story and level design that works from the broad-strokes overarch to the fine granularity of individual rooms within levels.

The main thrust of the level design is to take the linear level sequence of DOOM and turn it into a hub-and-spoke design.  So levels 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 will have the player retracing their steps through a central room to get to the next spoke, while levels 2, 4, 6, and 8 require the player to go deep into a level and wind up back at the beginning to exit.

Each level and room should tell its own tale with detailing and enemy placement, as though little vignettes are taking place that the player stumbles upon.  Rather than placing enemies for the sake of obstructing the player, each enemy should have a reason for being in the location that they are in.  This also requires rooms that can serve for three purposes, since different amounts of baddies happen with each difficulty level.

Using the basic theme of Hell inherent in the enemy design and textures of DOOM, Sacrifice takes you down to the depths of Hell and back.  In Sacrifice, you play an infiltrator, gathering intelligence on a cult of Devil-Worshippers by pretending to be one.  You are a low-ranking recruit in their circle, but you hoped to rise in the chain and gain greater access to their secret information.

Before you can, however, you are selected to take part in their sacrificial ritual -- and you are the sacrifice.  You are meant to go down into a pit (so as to be closer to Hell) and shoot yourself in the head, killing yourself, since to the cult, self-sacrifice of life is the ultimate sacrifice, and Satan is pleased by such sacrifices.

This back-story gives the player a reason to start with a gun, which is something I struggled with concocting for the scenario.  It's a little convoluted, I think, and I may change it later.  (After all, it's easy to change back-story when DOOM's back-story itself takes place in the manual.)

I may have the player be a Devil-Worshipper who simply doesn't want to end his life, or changes his mind on the whole thing, or wants to raise the Devil in a different way, or whathaveyou.  Whatever I end up with for player motivations, the scenario all starts off the same: you are in the pit, and you are supposed to shoot yourself, and you decide to climb out and sacrifice some other Devil-Worshippers instead.

So you begin in the sacrificial chamber, at the bottom of the pit (I think of something like that scene from Temple of Doom without the lava).  The sacrificial pit room is the central hub which the player will come back to again and again.

There are five doors leading out of the chamber, though only one opens.  The player will discover, as the game progresses, that red flames around the doors indicate that they cannot be opened yet, green indicate the player may enter, and blue indicate the door has been previously opened.  This shows the player what they have so far accomplished and how much they have left to go in a rough way.

The hub-and-spoke idea, given that DOOM is obviously linear, means that the levels have bits and pieces copy-pasted to provide continuity and appear as hub-and-spoke.

So the Player, at the beginning of level 3, will begin where they left off in level 1, after making a circuit through level 2.  My hope is that this makes the levels appear more seamless than the original DOOM, which, through its map screen between levels, showed individual buildings clearly marked, making the levels themselves as episodic as the game.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Development Log: January Engine - Week 5

I figured out the weird keyboard error in regards to flash games and WASD controls not working.  Turns out it's Comcast's Constant Guard that messes up keyboards, changes screen resolution, crashes Google Chrome, and a host of other problems.  Now that that's uninstalled, I quickly added WASD controls back.  (You can still use the arrow keys if you prefer, as well.) 

I had thought initially that the problem was a Flash or Chrome thing, but it was magically something that you would think would be completely unrelated.  If you have Constant Guard, uninstall it immediately.  The Norton product that comes with it will still be installed and working on your computer.

Beyond that, I spent the majority of the week working on the inventory system.  I knew I wanted the player to be able to look at their cards, open new booster packs they find, hold onto cards not in their deck, and swap out cards in their deck.  The player can't swap out cards, but the rest is functional.

As I created the inventory, however, I also came up with an idea to allow the player to change the rules.  The player will find rule sets that change some conditions, such as max health, max/min cards in deck, and may also limit what cards the player may use in their deck (I'll have to revamp the card system to allow another variable or twelve that limits which cards are allowed with which rules).

At present, there is only one rule set, so it's mostly just for display at the moment.

There is also functionality for unique quest items, although I have none to test yet.

One bug is that when you pick up a new booster, the inventory menu hasn't refreshed to show that you picked one up, so you need to check your deck to clear the top level inventory menu, then click OK, then the "New Booster" option will appear.  Currently, if I fix that bug, then a new bug pops up:  if you leave the inventory while checking your deck and then enter back in, you will see the cards you were looking at, plus the top level inventory menu overlapping.  I figure the refresh bug is a nicer bug to deal with.

Also, I am sure that you can get the booster from the first NPC an infinite number of times.  That'll be fixed next week.

I find that I spend a lot of time rearranging the code as I discover it's necessary to do so to implement a feature.  Oftentimes, before I can even implement the feature, I reorder the code, then spend an hour fixing bugs that have appeared as a result of that.  This is definitely due to the fact that I'm coding on the fly rather than preplanning or engineering it beforehand.  It's a lesson for the taking.

But I'm enjoying it; I'm learning how to hack things to fit my desires, even though I'm certainly not programming as the language was designed.  I think it's because I never got a strong education in object oriented programming; most of my programming skills come from learning Pascal in high school, and I can't say I was "taught" any OOP in college, so only traces of the structure and vocabulary stuck.  I understand the theory behind inheritance, for instance, but the implementation kills me, so I avoid the headaches that come with it.

I've heard of structures called Singletons, though I never learned them (they aren't in AS3 anyway), so instead of creating one for the inventory, I just made static variables, while the overworld and battle systems act as singletons in function, if not in name.

I also want to design the engine so that the user who wants to make worlds/levels can edit one file without touching the rest of the code, so the maps, npcs, enemies, card types, and more are all in one fairly clean file of variables that can be edited without too much trouble.  I bet this is terrible practice, so I may split them up soon, but hopefully it will remain as user-friendly as I can possibly make it.


Or read on to the next log, where things get mighty different after a hiatus...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Flash game recommendations

I've been sick the past couple of days and need to recuperate so in lieu of a normal post with a dev log or something I figured I'd give a few links to some of my favorite flash games:

Awesome Dungeon Crawler:  Monster's Den:  Book of Dread
Awesome Music Game:  Punk-O-Matic 2
Awesome Platformer:  CatGrim
Awesome Racing Game:  Cyclomaniacs
Awesome Tower Defense:  Cursed Treasure: Don't Touch My Gems!
Awesome Zelda Clone:  Hero's Arms
Awesome Zelda 2 Clone:  Chibi Knight

That is all.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Five months in...

Over December, I'll just be trying to keep up with the schedule I have.  Since we've been amidst the holidays since Halloween, generating content for this blog and working on projects -- as well as searching for a job -- is all plenty enough to handle, so I won't be trying to make myself any busier.
This thing will keep me busy enough.
But I've still got two major experiments in the works, and one or the other will eventually get finished and posted for a kind of test pilot.  If either of them are successful, I think the blog will change a lot.  I don't think either will get completed this month, just because of the holidays, but I'll be trying to get something new off the ground next month.

Until then, "more of the same", as it were.  But, like my unexpected vacation in Azeroth proved, you can never plan things too well.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Deconstruction: King's Quest - Part II: The Plot

The story of the King's Quest series starts off simply, and gets increasingly complex.

At first, each episode is standalone and self-contained, but by the fifth game, they make back-references and continue unresolved threads of previous games.

Like this tangent.
King's Quest I is simple: the Kingdom of Daventry is falling apart, due to three magical treasures having been stolen from the King, and it is your job, the faithful servant Sir Graham, to reclaim the three treasures.  Upon presenting the treasures to the King, he names you his successor, and dies.

King's Quest II has Sir Graham as the new King, and decides he needs a wife to bear children.  He looks into the Magic Mirror (one of the three magical treasures), and sees a woman in a far off land held in a tower.  He decides to rescue her, and upon doing so, she falls in love with him and marries him.

The third game disappointed many fans because the player did not control King Graham.  In fact, through 90% of the game, the player had no idea what this game had to do with the other two.

In King's Quest III, you play a boy named Gwydion, who is a slave to a wizard named Manannan.  The wizard tends to kill his slaves when they turn eighteen, and you are nearly that, so you have to escape.  To keep the wizard from capturing you, you turn him into a cat with his spell book.

You then explore the land, eventually find your way back to Daventry, and rescue Princess Rosella from a dragon.  Princess Rosella is Graham's daughter, and as it turns out, Gwydion is Graham's son, Alexander, who was stolen as a child.

"Gwydion was a silly name anyway."
In King's Quest IV, you take control of Rosella, and you are tasked with finding a magical fruit that can bring her dying father back to health.  Along the way, she meets a man named Edgar, who asks her to marry him.  She denies him and leaves to save her father.  This is a subplot to the now more complex plot, but it comes back in King's Quest VII.

King's Quest V has you playing King Graham once more, and his family (and entire castle, for that matter) has been kidnapped by Manannan's brother Mordack, who wants revenge on Alexander for turning Manannan into a cat.

During this adventure, Graham meets a girl named Cassima, who Alexander falls in love with.

In King's Quest VI, Alexander goes off to rescue Cassima, working as a direct sequel from King's Quest V.

King's Quest VII splits its time between two characters, Rosella and Queen Valanice.  They are teleported away from each other, and must find their way back home.  Rosella runs into Edgar again, and allows him to court her, giving him a chance.

King's Quest VIII became the death knell for the series, when the player took control of Connor, a peasant with no relation to the King's family.  Everyone in Daventry has been turned to stone, and monsters have inhabited the land.  You must find pieces of a Mask of Eternity and put them back together again to save Daventry.

And it had a different ruler of the underworld for some reason.
King's Quest VIII was a disappointment to fans, beyond the gameplay already discussed, but also in terms of story.  Since the player does not control anyone related to King Graham, it felt more like a diversion or side-story.  Sierra might have known this would be the reaction, due to the initial reaction of King's Quest III.

Although this is a brief synopsis of the games and how they tie together, the games tend to get much more in-depth as they go on, usually adding a subplot where the player character must save the land they are in, particularly in King's Quest IV, V, VI, and VII (I and VIII involve this being the main quest).

Also of note is the increasing complexity and non-linearity of the games.  King's Quest IV and VII boasted two endings, and VI offered many variations on the ending.  King's Quest VI also offered multiple routes through the game, as well as multiple solutions to some puzzles, and VII continued the tradition of multiple solutions (although in the case of VII, this did not change the plot in any considerable way).

The plots of each game will be covered more in-depth as I go over each game in turn, but it is important to see the co-dependences and crisscrossing of plot points as the series continued.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Development Log: DOOM Mods

I've always enjoyed making DOOM levels since I first discovered the Doom Construction Kit in Middle School.  I think it was perhaps my first foray into designing and creating actual levels into a computer; before then, I drew level designs on large pieces of paper for a Sonic the Hedgehog sequel.

Probably something where Tails got to be the main character.
DCK was immensely enjoyable, and if anything cemented my desire to be a game designer, that was probably it.  I designed levels small and large, as well as episode-long level sets.

Unfortunately, they have all been lost to time.  When DCK stopped being compatible with later computers, I thought my DOOM design days were over.

It took all the way to the end of college before I decided to look for DCK again, and found a similar program called Doom Builder 2.  Now, to keep my level design sensibilities sharp, I've decided to design DOOM levels again.

Why DOOM?  Why not Unreal or Portal?  Although I could design levels for those, I find the simplicity and restrictions of the older game to be more enjoyable challenges.  I like the idea of trying to create a story out of a completely non-story-driven game, especially by storytelling through level design and gameplay.

My basic philosophy is that the player should generally be able to understand why everything in the level exists.  If they can't, it's not a particularly well-designed level.

Despite the amount of praise I give DOOM in my deconstruction of it, and despite the fact that the levels are awesome gameplay-wise, the buildings simply don't make architectural sense.  I have yet to understand how the Hangar looks like a hangar.

Helicopters ain't gonna land in that muck.
Since I started to get back into the groove of designing DOOM levels at the tail end of college, I've been designing some one-shots and some full-episode mods on and off when I have some free time.

So every once in a while I'll pop a dev log on Scattergamed that discusses a level I've completed, and I'll have it available to download.  Of course, it's not a flash game, so you'll need to have DOOM to run it.  But I'll also try to have plenty of screenshots and possibly video walkthroughs if you can't.

These won't replace the January Engine dev logs, and the January Engine will still be my top priority, but I thought it would be a good chance to show some of my level design through these mods just as I show my programming and gameplay design through the January Engine.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Development Log: January Engine - Week 4

It took me a while to get back in the groove of programming the January Engine, but it's coming along now.  Unfortunately the holidays may cause sporadic updates on it.

I've added NPCs, which you can talk to by clicking on them.  Originally I had it so you walked up to them and bumped into them to talk, but I thought that was kind of silly.

"And he clicked the purple N, and the N talked, and he saw that it was good."
There are also health pools now (blue squares with "H" in them), which restore you to full health.  This is useful because now after finishing a battle your health stays the way it was when the battle ended, instead of automatically regenerating.

You can also die now.

I added some colors just so the screen isn't purely black-on-white, although when I start adding "real" placeholder art it will all change.  But in the meantime, the colors allow you to know what you're doing at a glance.  For instance, you quickly memorize the color scheme for the battle cards, so you spot a "Damage 3" card just by color without having to read it.

I also learned how to embed images, although I won't be adding any art until I actually learn to make something decent.  I tried making a simple dirt square a couple of times with bad to worse results.  A friend sent me a link to a Gamasutra article on 2D art for programmers, and currently I have yet to make any art remotely on par with the article writer's.  Basically, I'll add art when it looks better than the textfields.

I also restructured the code so the Overworld section is not in Main; it's its own class like the Battle Class, so pretty much the only things in main are the ENTER_FRAME check that determines if a battle should occur (and wipe out the Overworld) and bring back the Overworld when the battle is over.

I don't like ENTER_FRAME checks, because I feel like there is a better way to accomplish something.  ENTER_FRAME always seems to me like a waste of memory.  Instead of the event listener, I think there should be an event shouter, if that makes any sense.  Unfortunately, there is little in the way of making that work, so I just try to remove the ENTER_FRAME check whenever possible.

I also added an inventory button, which doesn't work, so don't bother.  I think I'll be making that functional for next week's log.  The inventory will allow you to look through your deck and see what cards you have.  Eventually I intend to make the deck customizable, so you can swap cards in and out to get a deck to your liking.  But that'll probably be much later.

So next week I think I'll be trying for that inventory functionality, as well as making the enemies move around.  I might also have art, if I'm not too frustrated by it.  I figured I could always make intentionally bad art, but it's tough to even get up to bad quality.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Article: Crossing Media

I've heard it said that when you try to turn a videogame into a movie, you've already lost; you're trying to take two art forms that are so different that you might as well make a movie out of a painting.

On the surface, a casual movie-goer and game-player might think it would work out fine.  Action games = action movies, and there is no reason game-based movies should be terrible, apart from Uwe Boll.

The stuff nightmares are made from.
Yet a more critical viewer/player understands that gameplay doesn't translate well, and no matter how intriguing or cinematic the story of a game might be, the story would need to be changed to clear out the repetitive gameplay, which would become repetitive action on the silver screen.

But I find another alternative to these two views.  I agree whole-heartedly that no matter how great a game is, translating it into a movie is a futile exercise in wasting millions of dollars.  But I also think that certain games -- some which are subpar in the first place -- can come out strikingly good in the theater.

Mostly because some games should never have been games in the first place.

Some games suffer from poor gameplay because not enough resources went into design and too many resources went into the writing and the visuals.  When this happens, it is because the lead decided to tell a story first and make a game second, and that decision shines through the entire product.

So when a game has long cutscenes and gameplay that appears to be tacked on, perhaps that gameplay should be un-tacked and a movie or TV show or mini-series or anime should be made out of the story instead.  Perhaps it should even be a book.

Ok, maybe not.
I am a writer myself, and I often come up with ideas for stories.  As I come up with the premise, I also decide how it should be told.  Will I write a short story, a play script, a screenplay, a comic book, or a game script?  Each has its advantages and disadvantages.  Each helps to give off a certain feeling and help along what I am trying to achieve.

If I think the storyline best fits in a game format, I have to come up with a genre and mechanics that help incorporate and intermix the gameplay with the story.  If I can't do that, perhaps I picked the wrong medium.

Some game writers are struggling novelists, that don't understand how gameplay should interact with a story.

In fact, I've heard that it's easier to get into Hollywood screenwriting and move to game writing than it is to start in games, so often game writers actually did write movies first and never quite got out of the trappings of screenwriting.
Heck, when I check out game writer job postings, if you don't have game experience, movie or even prose writing experience is considered the next best thing!

It's not.  The next best thing to videogame writing experience is tabletop game writing experience, and after that is gamebooks.

There really isn't much like game writing at all, because it is so necessary to incorporate gameplay into the writing, and often nonlinearity, as well.  Novelists and screenwriters have their own challenges, but those aren't some of them, and there is no analogous challenge in those fields.

Showing screenwriting credits or novels shows off your style, sure.  It also shows your ambition and commitment to complete long-term projects.  But it doesn't show that you can actually write for games.

I can think of lots of games that can't become movies (or shouldn't have), but I also recognize plenty of games that should have been movies from the get-go.

On rare occasions, the boundary can be broken and games can be made from movies and vice versa.  However, this works best when an elaborate world is created and new adventures can take place without one medium copying the plot from the other.

Take Star Wars for example.  The movies were great, and should have been left as movies.  Game versions of the movies were not particularly noteworthy.

But Star Wars games started to get good when new stories and characters were created in the same universe.  You didn't have to be Luke anymore; you could be a Jedi from generations past, or an x-wing pilot on a side-story between movies, or anything.

In fact, I am in favor of expanding universes into different media, as long as the story gets created by the writer knowing full well what medium they're writing for, and knows the tricks and traps of that medium.

Otherwise, try turning a painting into a movie and see how that works out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

World of Charybdis


The following analysis is a discussion of my experience playing World of Warcraft.

I'm a game designer, not a critic or reviewer.  I say this so you understand where I'm coming from when I tell this tale.

I'm looking at this game from the point of view of both a player and a designer.  As a player, I explain my emotional state and my addiction to this game.  As a designer, I explain some of the design flaws that seriously damage the game and make it a completely unenjoyable experience.  The mixture of player and designer talk is sometimes a jumbled mess, but it shows, to the best of my ability, how my fried brain can comprehend this game.

If you truly enjoy World of Warcraft, feel free to discredit or ignore me; but if you are like me and like thousands of other players, and you're addicted to this game yet hate it at the same time, perhaps this will explain why.
The Meat of the Affair

So I happened to notice recently that World of Warcraft had a free starter pack where most features were available, and the only major restriction was that you were capped at level 20.

Since the only thing really stopping me from playing WoW is the monthly subscription, I decided it was finally time to try out the king of MMOs.  I am so late to the game that I might as well review Pacman, but I'll take what I can get.

I may have said in a previous article that WoW players have admitted to me that they don't enjoy it, but play it anyway because they're addicted.  If I didn't mention WoW by name in that article, then I'll say it now that is the game I was talking about.

They were all right.

In the few days I've played WoW (seriously, four days, which I swear were only three), I can safely say that it is a contender for the Most Addictive Game award*.  That's not an award a game should hope to win.  Because there is no way it is even considered for Most Enjoyable Game.**

*(Further research tells me it actually has won such an award -- and here I was being hyperbolic.)
**(It's won multiple Game of the Year awards and is consistently highly favored by critics, publications, and players.  I respectfully disagree.)

Trying to organize my thoughts after a WoW bender is like trying to write with a hangover.  So before I even get into the experience of the game, I'll give you a rough estimate of my emotional state.

Approximately this.
I dreamed last night about WoW.  I dreamed I just had one more quest to finish up, but I couldn't do it.  But in my dream, I wasn't playing WoW, I was in WoW.  I literally lived in that world.  The Tetris effect occurred in less than a week.

Even when I woke up, the dream I had been having was just one quest item away from complete, and I stayed in bed for hours trying to recreate the dream just so I could finish it.

I should have gotten up and walked the dog, given both her and myself some exercise.  I was too hungover with WoW to do so.

Before bed last night, I got a charlie horse because I'd been sitting at my computer for stretches far too long at once.  Normally, I'll get up and move around, get a cup of coffee, go to the bathroom.  But during my game sessions I held in my bodily functions as long as possible just so I could finish the next quest.

I found myself getting more and more frustrated with every interruption.  This is not uncommon with games, but it was worse than usual because it's an MMO, so there is no pause button.  If I was interrupted in a battle, I was dead.

I ignored my cat, who mewled and meowed and called for my attention.  I love my cat and will normally drop everything to stick him in my lap and pet him.

I stayed up all night multiple times, thoroughly ruining my sleeping schedule.  I am terrible at rearranging my sleeping schedule to a decent timing, so it may take me another week or two or ten to get back on track.

I didn't work on the January Engine; I didn't work on other projects.  Remember how I said in my last update to expect a new feature?  Not this month.  Not after this.  Not with the recovery time I need to get myself back on track.  If there's a new feature to be had this month, this is it.

The one and only time I took a break from WoW to do any work was to write and post the King's Quest Deconstruction Overview before jumping back into WoW.  At least I can say that WoW's grip was not so tight that I lost all sense of responsibility.  The same can't be said for everyone who plays it.

I did lose track of time, however.  I thought it was Thursday when it was Friday, and almost did miss posting anyway.  One of my days just up and disappeared.

When I was in college, they had counseling for WoW addiction.  I can see why people needed it.  I'm glad it requires a monthly subscription, because that's what always stopped me in the past.

Now I just uninstalled it, because I really don't want to have the temptation there on my computer, where it calls to me like a ghost outside your cabin porthole on the sea, calling in that eerie, faraway voice that just wants you drive the ship into the rocks and kill you.

Wow, WoW is a modern equivalent to Charybdis.  If you drive too close, you're sucked under, and you can't get out.

I feel like I grazed the edge there, and I'm lucky to make it out alive.

I've played some addicting games before, games with quests and achievements like the Tony Hawk series, Mario 64, etc.  Those games are so addicting that I'll play them again even after I've achieved everything there is to achieve; I'll just create a brand new file and start from the beginning.

This was a similar experience, but for two things that made this far worse:  1. This became addicting much more quickly and much more deeply than others I've played; and 2. There was nothing enjoyable in it.

Mario 64 is one of the most fun videogames in existence.  Perhaps the only thing that would make it more fun is if Nintendo made a Mario MMO that plays mostly the same.

But WoW is a frustrating, infuriating game, which makes it all the worse to get addicted to.

I know I'm not doing myself any favors by writing this, and I can probably scratch off ever working at Blizzard when I post this, but my god, I'm not sure it would be morally conscionable to not do so.

And here's the thing:  I love the Warcraft series.  The three RTS games and their two expansion packs, that is.  I think those are wonderful games, and it almost seems like a natural step to take the beautiful Tolkienesque world Blizzard created and make it a fully realized 3D MMO.

So to be honest, I'm not sure if I walked into WoW expecting it to be awesome or to suck, but whatever I was expecting, it wasn't what I got.  Perhaps I should have taken the warnings more seriously.  When people said they hated it but were addicted, I didn't think it was as bad as they made it out to be, or they were weak-willed.

If they're weak-willed, I am too.  So let me repeat how addicting this game is.  I was so hooked that if I didn't get out now and uninstall it, I'd never escape.


I can't believe it myself.  The only reason I did stop is because I maxed out one of my characters and completed every possible quest.  If there were more quests, I would be playing right now instead of writing this.

In fact, right now I do want to play.  I want to load up a character and go questing.  I almost want to pay that monthly subscription so I can go past level 20.  I'm having WoW withdrawals.

Trying to figure out why it's so addicting is the puzzling thing.  The satisfaction of leveling up quickly loses its charm, and half the time I don't even notice how far along my experience bar is getting until I suddenly woosh and glow.

So if it's not that, it's definitely the quests.  Finishing a quest is the buzz.  It's like a high to see the little question mark disappear, and when a new exclamation point appears over the same head, I groan.  Another one?  God damn it, I just want to be done!  I just want to complete all the quests!

The only momentary joy I get is when I get a new item as a reward that changes my character's look.  It's fun to see what the change will be, but complete disappointment if it's uglier.  It's even worse when I see someone else wearing the same thing, because that means they completed the same quest, but I'll get to that particular complaint later.  That's a biggie.

When all I get for a quest is xp and some money, there is still a little buzz, but not as much.  WoW seems to be a grind machine for a dressup game.  And you can't even dress your character the way you want, because usually one item is clearly superior in combat than another, so you will always pick it, even if it's uglier.

Heck, sometimes I found myself swiveling the camera around just to see the front of my character for a change.  If I spent time giving them a face, I want to see it!

But now we're getting into the details, so instead of simply nitpicking I'll try to relay my experience as best as I can about what happened when I played.

Like a good little reviewer, I decided to try one of every race and one of every class to see how each played, what the differences were, and to basically try to experience the whole game, top to bottom, as much as I could.  That is, as much as the free starter pack would allow.

I also wanted to try different, odd combinations.  I didn't want to just be a human warrior, an elf with a bow, or anything else right out of Lord of the Rings.

So first I made a cute little Gnomish Warlock girl I named Dailite ("Daylight" was taken, so I played with the spelling until one took).

I had no idea that in WoW, Gnomish Warlocks are about as common as Hobbits in LoTR.
Unbeknownst to me, one of the most common Gnomish phrases that is uttered every time you finish talking to one is "Daylight's burning!"  So that was unsettling.  I can't blame Blizzard for that; just a delightfully macabre coincidence.

Great start!

Anyway, the area you start in (what amounts to the tutorial level) was perfectly safe, and yet felt dangerous, compelling, and disorienting.  It took me up until a third character before I realized nothing will attack you if you're under level 5 unless you attack first.

But that's okay, I couldn't expect to not be a little disoriented without having any instruction manual to read.  But by the time I left the starting area, I felt good, in control of Dailite.

So far, so good, or thereabouts.

One of the first oddities came about when I was asked to be irradiated or detoxicated or something.  I needed to grab ahold of some flying contraption that would carry me across what amounted to a carwash.  I didn't notice what exactly I was meant to do, so I just walked through, went up the lift, and out.  My clothes went poof and I got normal warlock clothes.  I have no idea why.  I knew I did something wrong, so I went back and floundered about until around ten or fifteen minutes later I understood and did as I was supposed to.

My first impression was that this was terrible design.  Why would they allow me to exit the tutorial area without completing the tutorial?  Why did the arrow on the minimap point to the guy I was supposed to talk to after I rode the doodad, instead of pointing to the doodad itself?  Why would my clothes poof into something else?  Storywise, why would I need to fly through the radioactive carwash when I just ran through it six times?

Every one of these questions occurred to me, and at first I thought it was me.  Maybe the creators didn't expect a player to choose a Gnome their first time playing, so if they chose, say, a human, this kind of stuff would be better explained.

But I could chose a Gnome, and the first area was clearly a tutorial, so they obviously designed it for first timers, just like every other race.  In fact, just about every race goes through the same basic few quests in the beginning, so everyone can be brought up to speed.

Perhaps it was an oversight, or a programming error, or anything, I'll never know.

But Dailite's journey was just getting started, so after completing the tutorial (finally), I got out of the intro area, forgot about that experience, and was happy to start exploring.

I helped out the gnomes for a while, running through the quests one at a time, being cautious not to overtask myself.  When I became more comfortable with the game, later characters would just talk to everyone with a quest for me, and I would stack them up and do a bunch at once.

When you choose to do one quest at a time, problems arise.  I would often enter a cave three times for three different quests, do the same thing over and over, getting increasingly annoyed that I already did what they asked.  Kill the boss in the cave, ok done.  Now kill five of creature x and five of creature y in the cave.  Ok, I'm sure I did that already, but since the quest wasn't active, all of the creatures of type x and y I killed didn't count, so I have to enter the cave and do it all again.  Ok, done, finally.  Now go back into the cave and collect object z from creatures x and y.


Well, let's check my inventory.  I tend to pick up everything that creatures drop, even cheap nonsense that I can sell.  But the object I need isn't there, because the creatures don't drop that object unless the quest is active.  So I go back in the freakin' cave again, kill a bunch more creatures, and it's not a solid drop.  That is to say, not every creature you kill will have the item.  So I need to kill twice or three times as many creatures as I should have to to get the right number of the item I need, then I go back and finally, after all that, I don't have to enter the stupid cave again.

This isn't just a problem with Gnomes, either.  This is a basic quest structure.

I started to dread having to find item z off corpses, because at least when the quest was "slay creature x" I knew exactly how many to kill.  I became increasingly frustrated when I killed a creature and it didn't drop what I needed.

Even more infuriating was after I discovered the trick of taking as many quests at once as possible.  Okay, I can enter the cave and kill x creatures and collect item z at the same time.  Excellent, two birds, one stone, and I only have to enter the cave once.

No no no, because when I get back to the guy who wants dead creatures, only after I complete that quest does he give me the next one to reenter the bloody cave and smite the boss.  If he gave me that quest on top of killing creatures, I'd be fine with that, but it doesn't become available until I've already been through the rigmarole, and probably already killed the boss the first time through just because he got in my way.

The only acceptable form of grinding.
Caves suck.  I know the entire RPG genre owes its existence to D&D, sprinkled with Colossal Cave Adventure, but my god we need to take caves out back and shoot them.  There was plenty of variety in locations, but despite this it felt like far too many were caves.  A cave or two is fine, but it seems like whenever the designers ran out of ideas, they said "Screw it, make a cave."

In fact, some caves were almost completely recycled in different locations.  I went across the world from Azeroth to Kalimdor and found cave layouts that were identical save for the enemies and finer details relating to quest objectives (there were flags in one, absent in another).  Even the location of the boss was identical.

I didn't mind fighting creatures in forests, lakes, hideouts, enemy strongholds, abandoned cities, on beaches, and even once in a destroyed pirate ship, but for every interesting and unique area, there was a cave to enter with the same three or four kinds of quests.

It became predictable.  A game as massive as an MMO should never be predictable.  Sure, it's understandable that tutorials per character need to be consistent to introduce new players, but once you're beyond the first major location, things should get mixed up.  I was thankful to play the Draenei because I don't think I had to enter a single cave as far as I played.

But back to Dailite's adventure.

Dailite was a tad difficult to handle.  At first I thought it was just me, but soon I realized Gnomes should pretty much not be allowed to be Warlocks.  Warlocks summon demons, and I had this big badass demon that looked like a DOOM cyberdemon crossed with Lord Zedd.  Sounds awesome on the surface, except the demon is about ten feet tall and Dailite is about two.

The demon just got in the way.  I had a difficult time getting the demon to move so I could click on a corpse to loot, or worse, to click on the enemy in battle!  I could hardly hit a thing because the demon took up so much screen space that I had to rotate the camera every time I saw an enemy because I couldn't see what I was doing.

But it's possible that, being that that was my first character, I just couldn't handle it well.  I also played a Dwarven hunter and a Draenei hunter, both which came with pets, and they were much easier to control.  I'm not sure if it was Warlock pet versus Hunter pet, or if it was just the size of the beasts, but I was frustrated with Dailite's demon much more than I should have been.

Or maybe they just like to take a little piece of Hell with them wherever they go.
Another oddity with some classes, particularly non-combative magic users, in their complete inability to autofight.  Once again, this could be me, but I couldn't figure out how to make some classes throw lightning or fireballs or whatever their standard magic attack is on right-click.  Right-clicking for melee and ranged fighters sends the character into an auto-attack frenzy, but magic users seem to think that auto-attacking means using their staff to club creatures to death instead of firing magic missiles, which is the thing they're supposed to be good at.  I don't even know why they wield weapons at all.

When using a hunter, they take out their crossbow or gun and just shoot from afar, but magic users don't think the same way and need their basic attack to be constantly clicked on (or press the 1 key).

I found it kind of funny, when I tried my first hunter, that the tip on the character creation screen says "good for soloing".  Yes, the hunter was great for soloing, but it was the only class for soloing.  Magic users were toast if the enemy got too close, and melee fighters were toast if they were ganged up on.

I tried as many of the classes as I could (Death Knight was not available), and found that only the hunter was even close to being enjoyable to play.  Every other class had something game-breakingly annoying about the way it played.

Yes, yes, the second M in MMO stands for multiplayer, and if I'm soloing I'm not getting the full experience.  I didn't do any raids or played with anyone I know.  But to me, even a game that is primarily multiplayer should offer a competent single-player experience.  If the game didn't offer a single-player option at all, that would be fine, like if every quest was an "Elite" quest requiring a party, and soloing was simply not allowed or not advised.  I would be okay with that, but because the game set up a series of solo quests, they clearly encouraged it, yet the only decent solo class was hunter.

I'm getting offtrack again.  Let's finish up with Dailight.

Nah, let's go further off the rails.  I want to talk about dying.

RPGs have always had a problem with dying.

If you die in a shooter, maybe you have to try the level over again, which is fair enough.  Sometimes you get a nice autosave in a safe area, and only have to try the challenge you died on over again.

In a classic RPG, if you die, you reappear at your last save.  Sounds fair enough on the surface, but that tends to suck.  You wind up back at a town that's far away from the godforsaken cave you had just been plowing your way through, because saves are few and far between.  A good classic RPG will at least resurrect you at a town with your current experience and items, so you don't have to load your last save.  Bad RPGs make you reload, and you have to grind your way back up to whatever level you were at.

WoW, on the other hand, is an entirely different story.  Your soul winds up at the nearest graveyard, and you have to run back to your corpse to regenerate.  Why this isn't the other way around, I have no idea.  You would think your corpse (if found by some other adventurer) would be taken and buried, and your soul would "wake up" where you died.  Of course, that might be even more annoying, but either way, the whole death mechanic seems like very odd design.

So, while you're a spirit you can't interact with anything; your task is simply to make it back to your corpse to resurrect.  You can also just resurrect at the grave yard, though I don't see the purpose in doing so, and after level 10 you are punished for doing so anyway, as if to discourage the worse option.

As if wandering the barren, monochrome landscape to find your corpse were not enough, sometimes you find it too early, and you have to wait before you can resurrect.


Do I need to wait for my body to decompose a little or something?  Why am I waiting to play?  I have to stand around and do a crossword until I'm allowed to jump back in my body.  Why does this make any sense, in the world or in the mechanics?  Who thought that would be a good idea?

While I'm on the subject of waiting, why do I have to WAIT TO LOG OUT?  If I want to quit the friggin' game, it shouldn't take more than two seconds.  I understand if they want to make sure I'm serious about logging out, maybe with an "Are you sure?" box and an OK/Cancel option, but I have to sit there for ten or twenty seconds to leave the game.  There is a cancel, there is no OK.

So here's two more fun facts about that: 1. Logging out isn't really logging out; it just takes you back to your character select, but you're still logged in.  2. You can EXIT immediately, which completely quits the game, but you can't LOG OUT immediately.  What is going on here?

So if I want to switch to a different character, it is in fact faster to quit completely, reopen WoW and log in again than it is to simply pop back to the character select screen.

And WoW is not the only MMO to suffer from this.  It blows my mind.
Okay, time to cool down, because these pervasive problems are some of the poor design decisions that led to my utter disgust with the game.  I don't want to be writing in anger; it's clouding my head about as much as this WoW hangover is.

So let's finally get back to Dailite, and see what she's up to, because this part of her journey is the part of the game I enjoyed.

She just got herself in a world of trouble.

She fell off a dam, got lost, and found herself in a scary marsh miles away from civilization.  I couldn't get back up the dam, and the place was surrounded by unscalable hills.  My god, was that place creepy and barren, especially in the middle of the night when Azeroth's sky mimics the real-world time.  Creatures I'd never seen before swam in the bog, water elementals crossed the land, and I found myself hiding and avoiding all confrontations.

I was lonely and frightened.  I felt like Dailite would have felt if she were real.  Holy crap, I'm completely off the beaten path, and it's exhilarating!  Even having a demon companion didn't help.  I was still a small, small girl in a big, big world; a big, big bog with big, big beasts.

After over an hour of wandering, hiding, and avoiding the enemies, I got to exhale when I found a road, and I took it until I found a tunnel, and two dwarves talking to each other. Civilization!  Thank the Gnomish gods, civilization!  They had exclamation points over their heads, indicating quests, but I didn't care.  I blew right past them and continued to take the tunnels until I made it back to a real village, sat by the fire, and quit right there.

Dailite was safe, and I was done with her.  She was actually only level 18, but I got her back to safety, and she was scarred for life.  No more adventuring for her, by gosh.  One little spill and she was traumatized.

In fact, I could have quit once I realized how much trouble she was in, but I had to see her safe.  Now that is awesome.  That is a good game.  I cared enough about my little Gnomish Warlock that I had to make sure she wasn't left out to dry.

After all that, after trying every race and almost every class, the best part of the game was when I messed up, when there were no quests, no people, just a frightened gnomish girl wandering a terrifying landscape.

Blizzard scripters must have spent tons and tons of time, energy, and money creating quests, creating this cozy narrative for soloers to play through, but ultimately the quests were nothing but an addiction machine.  The real amazing gameplay came in when I was far away from the preplanned route, off in territory too big for my britches.  It was like playing a survival-horror game.

I wasn't addicted to the game right then, I wasn't trying to just finish my quest, I was trying to see my little Dailite safe.  That wasn't addiction, that was good old fashioned flow.  That was engagement.  That was roleplaying.

That's what roleplaying is all about.  You're on an adventure, and you don't know where it will lead.  Any DM will tell you that no matter how cleverly they design their adventures, players will eventually find a way -- completely by accident -- to derail the adventure and change things drastically.  That's where the real fun takes place, the ingenuity, the innovation.

One of the best exercises for fiction writers is to create their characters, then throw them into situations that won't be in the novel, just to see how their characters will react.  It gets the writer into the minds of the characters so deeply that when they do start writing the real thing, the plot writes itself just based on the interactions of the characters, and everything flows without a hitch.  You don't get writer's block when you do this; the characters tell you what to write.

And this is the essence of an RPG.  You should be playing your character so deeply that you become them.  You are no longer you.  Playing preplanned quests that thousands of players have played before doesn't leave room for real roleplaying.  You're just playing a videogame, you're not experiencing the world, experiencing the flow.

I am about to discuss perhaps the most egregious gamebreaker WoW has to offer.  The annoyances of the logout, the deaths, the interface, the gameplay; all of these are nitpicks compared to this:

When you go on a quest, others are on the same quest as you.

That sounds weird, like it's not a big deal, of course others are on the same quest as you.  But the thing is, the NPCs act as though you're the only one doing it.  During a pitched battle it works, because you can imagine that the other players have been assigned different orders, or maybe the task you were assigned is too big for you alone.  But when you are asked to do something very specific that is very secretive, for your ears only, and someone else is just ahead of you, killing all of the enemies before you, it destroys any and all semblance of adventure.

Multiple times, I had a quest to kill a boss.  I head into the blasted cave to kill it, and the whole area is littered with corpses.  Someone else is already inside, taking care of business.  I follow the trail of corpses and see another player just leaving the final chamber.  I walk in.  There's the boss's corpse.  Ok, the boss is dead.  End of quest.

A medal and a cookie?  You're too kind!
But no, I don't get credit because I'm not the one who did it.  I get that from a gameplay perspective, but if this were really happening, the boss is dead.  I should go back to the guy who wanted me to kill him and say "Oh, hey, I know I won't be getting any sort of reward now, but I wanted to let you know that someone else killed the guy and the threat has ended."  Then the NPC should say "I like your honesty, here's a couple coppers for your trouble anyway."

So, boss is dead, but I can't just end the quest, so what do I do?  I wait for the thing to respawn, and then I get to fight him.

That does not suck me in.

Okay, so people disappear and reappear all the time, that's how half the NPCs work.  I've seen enemies respawn in front of my face.  I've seen a jail crate I just unlocked and opened magically close and refill with a new prisoner to rescue.  I've seen wandering NPCs enter a room only to fade away and reappear back where their movement started.  These are annoying bugs on their own, but that's another almost minor nitpick.

So why can't it be so that whenever I am soloing a quest, the other players can't disappear as well?  And obviously to those players, I should be the one disappearing.  That way, I don't feel like I'm doing what everyone else is doing.  Scratch that, I don't want to clearly see that I'm doing what everyone else is doing.

So I wait around for the boss to respawn only to kill him again, then I can head back and say to the NPC "So I killed the boss but he doesn't die, you know, he comes back; and your stock response about how the village is safe isn't cutting it and it's funny you made boots out of the creature's hide and I should be the only one in the world getting those boots but the guy that just killed the boss before me has them now and the guy that is a minute after me will have them soon.  Thanks for trying to make me feel like I'm a hero, but the programming is obstructing that feeling I should be getting."

I repeat, the only time I felt like I was my own character was when I was lost, alone, doing something that I don't think many people ever experience, and at the time I certainly felt like no one had ever done what I'd done.  I fell off a dam; sure, it was an accident, but I thought I was someplace new, someplace no one had ever explored, and the designers and artists had created this area that no one was even expected to find.  Heck, when I found the dwarves with the extra quests, I thought man, that's terrific!  They put so much attention to detail into this world that they even want to give me hidden quests!

More on them later.

Here's another sidenote about enemies respawning before I move on: I understand that enemies need to respawn, makes all the sense in the world, because by this point in WoW's lifespan all the monsters would be gone and Azeroth would be saved if they didn't.

But bosses are unique creatures, enemies with names and faces and storylines.  There is only one of them in the world.  And when I find it's already dead, or I can watch it being killed by someone else, all magic is lost.  Heck, I can even participate in the boss fight and not get credit for completing the quest as long as the other player started the fight.  (What is that nonsense?)

If players didn't get to see other players during solo quests, I could get into the game so much more.  Restrict seeing players to towns or warzones, so it seems natural that they would be there.  I think what needs to happen is that each player on a quest should be given their own instance of that quest, or the cave the quest takes place in, or what have you.

I'm willing to suspend my disbelief in everything else, if only I get the rush of feeling like the quest was tailored to me, that I'm the only one who found it, or I'm special in the world and the task was entrusted to me because it's something no one else can do.

The beginning of many races, when you're still in training, works great.  You are clearly a new recruit, and you're training with your fellow players.  But once you're out of the first level, you're supposed to break free from boot camp and become an individual.  A different face and hairstyle and funky armor doesn't cut it.  That is not all there is to customization.  Customizing the character is not limited to actually customizing the character, if that makes any sense; you have to customize the world for the customized player.

Videogame designers have known this for years.  My favorite example, and one I've spoken of so much it annoys my friends, is the various endings to Silent Hill 2.

There are three endings a player can experience on a first playthrough, and they aren't tailored to any conscious decisions you make during the game, but rather changes depending on your own personality that you inject into the character.  Different players will play their character in subtly different ways, from hanging around Maria too much, to not healing often when in dire straits.

The first time I played it, I got the best ending for me, and on subsequent playthroughs, when I intentionally looked up how to get the other endings, I found them excellent, but just not quite as satisfying a conclusion as the first I got.

Other players think their own natural ending was the best, because Silent Hill 2 understood psychology.

Player psychology isn't WoW's strong suit.

Obviously everyone is doing the same quests, but that doesn't mean it has to feel like it.  DMs know that the best stuff doesn't come from a preplanned adventure from a book.  When you make up your own quest, you know very well that this is a one-of-a-kind experience.  Your players are participating in an adventure that was tailored just for them, and no one else in the entire world is doing the same thing.

Like WoW, but orders of magnitude better.
When you play a single-player RPG, this feeling persists, even if it's not factually true.  Everyone who plays a Zelda game is playing the exact same adventure.  But since no one else is around, it feels like you are a lone adventurer, saving the world by yourself.  You're the hero, and no one else can claim that title.  Until tomorrow when you talk about it, at least.

But in WoW, you are obviously doing what everyone else is because you can see it happening before your eyes.  Fine and dandy for a battlezone or training grounds -- in fact it's warranted and required, because it makes sense in the storyline of the world and would feel barren and lifeless without other players -- but in other solo quests that require you and you alone, you might as well be on a rollercoaster in a theme park, doing the same twists and turns and loops that thousands of other people have twisted and turned and looped around before.

In fact, when I was only doing one quest at a time, I thought I was taking one of many possible paths.  I thought each NPC would offer me some new place to go, some new location, and it would be forever branching, and I might wind up anywhere.  That made me feel good as I played Dailite.  It wasn't until much later with other characters that I realized every single quest was variations on a theme, and that your path was completely linear.  If you veered off course from the singular pre-planned route, there was nothing around.  The world was void beyond the hand-holding step-by-step one-into-the-next quests.

But let's move on from this game-breaker.  I'll come back to it.

So I put Dailite away to rock back and forth shivering by a fire for the rest of her days, and started a new character.

Let's go in the opposite direction, I thought, so I made an Undead Warrior named Unfleshed.  Unfleshed was a silly name, more a descriptor than a name, really, and it made the NPCs that knew my name sound weird.  Can't blame Blizzard for that, either.  I'm a whiz at naming characters.

So anyway, I played for a bit, got two monsters attacking me at once, died, resurrected, and tried again.  Why an Undead would die with a soul going to a graveyard is beyond me.  It seems like if you've had your head chopped off you're pretty much done with that character.

I got up to level 9 with him, stealing pumpkins and all sorts of other silly things, but nothing felt quite as epic as Dailite's adventure.  She got to ride a flying machine and drop bombs on a battleground!

With Unfleshed, all I did was fight other undead.  What the hell?  Where's the humans and elves and dwarves I should be killing?  Why would I kill my own brethren?  Oh, I guess these undead serve one person, while those other undead serve another.  I don't care about infighting, I want to fight a real enemy.  Gimme some Alliance to slaughter.  Perhaps in later quests I would get to, but I never reached those quests because I gave up on Unfleshed.  It was flat out boring.

This expression should never be on my face while playing a game.
That, and I died way too often.  Melee fighters suck.  If more than one enemy gets to you, you're dead.  Redead, as the case may be.

In fact, no matter what class I chose, even the Hunter, 90% of the combat involved stealth, just so I could sneak up on enemies and pick them off one at a time, because I couldn't handle anything more.  As the hunter, with a critter at my side, I could handle two at the most.  Anymore and the fat lady sang.  All the armor and weapons and abilities I had did nothing.  It was simply a numbers game: if there were more of them than there were of me, game over.

Increasing frustration occurred when I was extra careful to get just one guy, targeted, began combat, then a second guy would pop out of nowhere and kick my ass from behind.  The worst offense was once when I was being extra sneaky, extra careful to get only one enemy at a time; I engaged in combat with one guy and barely started hitting him, and another enemy spawned two feet in front of me.  I had no time to react, he spotted me (not hard to do), and he attacked.  Without even a chance to escape, I was done for, through no fault of my own.  He just faded into existence and murdered me.

Okay, you want me to sneak and only take on one enemy at a time?  I'll bite, I'll work with that.  That'd be pretty clever as a design choice; not what I was expecting, but cool and different and interesting.  But when I think the coast is clear and I have a target in my sights and the game literally cheats me into death, that's either horrible programming or horrible design.

At no point should I ever witness an enemy respawning before my eyes.

One more gripe:  the game has clearly been made for me to sneak and be stealthy, and I have long range weapons to pick off enemies at a distance, so why am I not allowed to snipe bosses?  More than once, I stayed up on a ledge and sniped a boss while my beast jumped down to rip the boss apart.  Yet despite trying this strategy multiple times, the boss fully regained all his health when he got low for no apparent reason.

The first time this happened, I thought it must have just been that the boss had a healing spell or something.  Then it kept happening, over and over.  So I'm not actually allowed to employ a decent strategy.  Didn't this game evolve from an RTS series?  I know it's an RPG now, but it seems rather odd that they programmed the game so you're not allowed to employ a good strategy.  The boss knows your presence; your beast doesn't gain health back, and yet I'm simply not allowed to beat the boss with a tactic other than marching up to it and pummeling with melee, or standing three feet back to shoot, where he can easily give chase.

Hold on, my cat is meowing.  Be back in a few hours.

"Ever since he started playing WoW, he stopped skritching my belly."
So where was I?  Ah, yes, Unfleshed was a bust.  The gameplay wasn't fun because I died too often and the quests were boring because it was mostly undead versus undead.  Eventually it just got too tedious and I moved on.

I next made a Dwarven Hunter named Brawnman (so stock I assumed it would be taken and was surprised to hell that it wasn't).

The moment a bear appeared at my side I said "Oh, crap, another beast."  Fortunately, either the AI is better for beasts than demons, or it was just smaller, but either way I just didn't mind it as much.  My bear ended up being extremely useful, wherein I could stay back and shoot while my bear meleed and kept the enemy away.

So I played the Dwarven tutorial, which was alright, then I moved on and wound up right in the same area Dailite had been.  Cool!  I thought.  I'll get to meet the same people, and get all new quests!

And here comes the crushing disappointment.

After the intro area, the gnome and dwarf have identical quests.  There was zilch difference.

That was basically cheating me out of new material.  I thought Gnomes would get their own quests, and Warlocks would get their own set of quests.  Neither was true; everyone gets the same quests if they visit the same locations.  No tailoring quests for strengths and weaknesses.

So, instead of sighing in disgust and picking a new race, I decided to replay the exact same quests all over again.  Why?  Because I was already addicted.  Despite having gotten to level 18 with Dailite, and having most material recycled for Brawnman, I actually got to level 20 with Brawnman, and fairly quickly too, since now I selected every quest at once and ran the gamut.

I was level 20 hours before I reached the end of the line, when I simply ran out of quests.

So I got all the way back to the quest with Brawnman where Dailite fell off the dam, and this time I simply avoided the dam altogether.  I completed that quest and more, until eventually the quest line led me directly to Dun Algaz, the tunnel system that brought me to the marsh where those two dwarves with extra quests were.

I hadn't found a hidden gem with Dailite after all; I simply skipped ahead about twenty quests.  Now the disappointment grew, as well as the dread that I now had to play quests in the very bog that freaked me out so much earlier.

Dreading the fact that the one good part of the experience would be ruined, and I was too addicted to stop myself.
Not that it mattered; the quests were the same basic stuff.  Find an item, kill a bunch of critters, kill more critters, find some more items, enter the cave and kill some critters and a boss.  Enter a different cave and kill a boss.  Ok, had enough?  You may move on.

By the time I finished Brawnman, I'd actually already made a few new characters, but kept coming back to him to reach level 20 and keep questing, because despite the monotony, as I said before (and as stated by the game itself), the hunter is the only class that is any good for soloing.

But next I tried a Mage Night Elf, and I forget her name, but quit quickly on her around level 7 because a bug broke the game and pissed me off too much to restart.  Basically I was in a you-know-what when suddenly I lost the ability to attack things, to click on things, to talk to things.  I could still move, but the enemies ignored me like I was completely invisible.  Of course, I had that ability, but it wasn't active.  This went beyond intentional invisibility.  I couldn't interact with the game in any way other than to walk.  As if my mouse was broken, except I could still rotate the camera with it.  I couldn't click on my spells or inventory and I couldn't even click the menu buttons.  I had to three finger salute to quit and restart.

So that went bust and I was too annoyed with her anyway, so I tried as many other combinations as I could:  A Tauren Paladin; a Human Priest; a Druid Blood Elf; an Orc Shaman; a Troll Rogue; and a Draenei Hunter (might as well try a new race with a class that I know works well once I've run out of other options).

I won't be able to get into too much detail with each race and class that I tried, mostly because they played the same (battle, die, repeat).

The Blood Elf was actually pretty fun for some reason; perhaps it was the setting that was surprisingly fresh.  I also found the Draenei decent, but I think that was because I used a Hunter.

After getting so bored by the story of the Undead, I actually stopped caring completely about all storylines altogether.  I boiled the game to its mechanics and just accepted quests without looking at them.  Eventually I learned to accept every quest I could, then check the map to see which ones I could knock out quick that were packed together.

The Troll storyline was really shoved down my throat, I felt; lots of voiceovers to try to keep me engaged, but I couldn't care less about the Jamaican stereotypes.  Since Warcraft III, they were a joke race, but it was unobtrusive in Warcraft III simply because they were mixed in with Orcs, and Kalimdor was a silly place anyway because of its Seussian scenery.  Trying to take Trolls seriously just didn't work.  Do they expect me to take Pandas seriously in the next expansion?

But back to classes:

I almost think Blizzard saying Hunters are great for soloing is their way of whispering "Hey, the classes are horribly unbalanced and this is the only good one."  I understand some classes are helpers that stay in the background and heal when playing raids or in groups, and if there were only a couple of those, that'd be fine.

And again, I know I'm missing the true multiplayer experience by soloing, but when they give so many solo quests (and I had achieved over fifty with at least two or three characters, and remember I was stuck at level 20), which fully encourages soloing, then there should be more than one class that's decent for soloing.

Well, now that this rant has reached twenty one pages, and my brain is winding down, I need to put my thoughts in order and try to sum this up for the TLDR crowd.

...No, I can't.  I didn't really get into a lot of the other major blunders of the game, particularly gameplay issues.  The most important part of a game is its interactivity, and no amount of beautiful scenery can hide that.  The gameplay is simply subpar.  I know it's an RPG, and RPGs aren't known for particularly thrilling and action-oriented battle systems, but they took an RTS interface and plopped in on an RPG.

If World of Warcraft were an MMORTS, that would be awesome and would probably work out fine; if the game was only about Raids and pitched battles, that would probably (no, too strong a word -- possibly) work out fine.

Heck, the bomb-dropping quest I played with both gnome and dwarf would have been awesome, but it was mauled by the controls.  I had to tilt the camera to see better, and even so the plane got in the way, then instead of just clicking on the spots to drop the bombs, I had to constantly reselect the bomb tool from my ability menu.  There is such a simple fix to that I wonder why it wasn't implemented.

Indeed, often when there is a quest item I am given and need to use, I have to add it to my ability list, select it, click the object I need to use it on, and then repeat steps 2-4 until complete.  On occasion the controls get switched up and all I had to do was right-click, which saved a lot of the hassle, but when and where I must to do one or am allowed to do the other is beyond me.

A lot of this is the little things, like how when you first create a character and you get that opening flyby with narration, you can see other players standing exactly in your spot and it looks like you have two heads and four arms and two swords on your back; or how the fire extinguisher in the human solo quest is a couple of untextured cubes, or how condors in the gnomish/dwarven area by the lodge are stuck in the "spread eagle" pose and don't move.

But minor glitches are acceptable if Big Rigs was released.
But all of that can be forgiven; those are just bugs that could be worked out (and in the seven years it's been out, you'd think those might have been noticed and fixed, or maybe they only appeared since Cataclysm, or only on the starter edition, but whatever).  Gameplay could be tweaked, content could be changed or added, and the game could be half-decent.  Still not worth the endless praise it's received over the years, but it could be okay.

The only two major gripes I have, then, are that the game doesn't make you feel unique and heroic, and that it is too addicting for its own good.

The former complaint is pretty much a failure on the part of the designers.  I hope they were intending to make players feel like they were truly part of this world, but the way the quests are structured in chain-link form, and the player interaction in solo quests, both destroy that idea.  Without these two strikingly huge changes, World of Warcraft fails to entertain on its most basic level, and becomes 100% grind.

The latter complaint is a cardinal rule of good business and bad game design.  Games simply should not be addicting; as I said in a previous article, if they are addicting at all, it's because they are fun and enjoyable, not because they're digital nicotine.

In my experience, WoW is digital nicotine, and many people I've talked to have told me the same, long before I tried it out and almost picked up the habit.  I'm getting a craving right now.  That is not a joke.  After this long diatribe about every broken aspect of the game and after stating how much fun I did not have, I still have the urge to make a new character.  I have the urge to pay for it, pay a nice monthly subscription fee and waste my life in Azeroth.

My own brain is trying to overlook all the negative aspects and convince myself that everything I just wrote isn't as bad as I made it out to be, just so it can get its fix.  My brain is a conniving jerk.

Isn't that a symptom of addiction?  Convincing yourself that something isn't as bad as you thought it was so you can do it again?  Don't alcoholics say "never again" after a hangover, and get another one next weekend?

That should not happen.  When I watch a bad movie, I don't watch it again.  When I play any other bad game, I stop playing it.  Heck, I'll stop playing great games when I run out of enthusiasm for them.  No matter what classic games in my deconstructions I praise to high heaven, I don't play any of them 24/7.  Yet WoW is making me itch for a virtual cigarette right now.  Roll up a fresh character and smoke it down 'til I burn my lips, then buy myself a carton and go to town.

The comparison will always be justified.

Is this what games have become?  World of Warcraft and its expansions have won tons of awards including Game of the Year, from multiple publications, and have been universally praised by critics.

How?  How does a game that creates addicts get credited as a great game?  Sure, I'll praise a game all day for what's great about it.  World of Warcraft has some beautiful views, some nice music, some cute dialogue and even some clever jokes ("The Kessel Run" quest made me laugh).  I already said before how I loved the day-to-night transitions, as well as being able to explore free of questing.  The game feels epic in scope and I can easily tell you I experienced less than 1% of all the content.  But quest-wise, I'm pretty sure I've done all there is to do.  The same four or five types of quests reoccur over and over.

"Why not stop questing?" You may ask.  Answer: because it's the quests that are addictive.  They exist and I must quest.  If WoW was a free-roaming game that had no quests other than what you discovered yourself, it could be pretty cool.  Heck, you accidentally find a landform-that-must-not-be-named and a boss and kill it and bring its head back to town and get a reward, all without being told, and it seems like your little secret that no one else knows about, and now you feel like an adventurer.

How about if NPCs give you quests, but they aren't in your face about it?  Instead of exclamation points and question marks, you just casually drop by and talk to random NPCs, and some of them give you quests -- casually, such that they don't appear on the side and remind you what you have to do.  Then you would definitely feel like you're the only one who discovered the quest, and you are under no obligation to complete it.

Holy crap, I just killed two birds with one stone.  I'm not claiming to be the best game designer in the world, or to know better than the dozens or more designers on the Blizzard staff, but I would have at least given this idea a beta test to see if it flew.

But now I want to do something to distract myself from the desire to play WoW.  I don't want to replace one addiction for another, of course, so I'll settle on a fun but non-addictive game to cleanse the palette.  Maybe I'll play Half-Life, or Mario 64, or God of War, or another MMORPG even.

Heck, maybe I'll work on the January Engine, since that's a project that's fallen by the wayside since this four-day fiasco.

Maybe I'll go walk the dog.