Archive for January, 2011

WoW: More Dungeons

I’m writing this a day late. Saturday, I pretty much spent all day taking Oleari through quests and dungeons. I respecced her a bit, changing her Shaman specialization from Enhancement to Restoration, for the specific purpose of making her more party-oriented — I had chosen Enhancement for the same reason initially, thinking that specializing in buffs would be similarly useful to others, but it turns out that Enhancement mainly means enhancing yourself. Self-buffs are always a troubling bit of design. If a spellcaster can spell himself up into a more powerful fighter than a warrior-type, why bother having warrior-types? And if he can’t, why not just roll up a warrior instead of bothering with the self-buffs? There has to be some kind of tradeoff for it to make sense. Well, the WoW Enhancement Shaman has at least the disadvantage that you have to take the time to cast your enhancement spells, and most likely drop a totem or two as well, which I suppose means a dedicated warrior would be able to respond to a sneak attack better. But this is all speculation from someone who hasn’t even hit level 30 yet.

I’ve been through all of the dungeons that were initially available in the Dungeon Finder (more are added as you level up), and while the experience has been mostly more pleasant than my first stupid dungeon, there’s one aspect of that first attempt that I haven’t been able to shake: doing a dungeon properly usually takes me two tries. Usually there’s some in-dungeon quest goal that I miss the first time through — some gathering-quest that I don’t pursue adequately until it’s too late, or some quest-giver who I didn’t notice until after the boss he wants me to beat is already beaten. Everyone else seems to already know the basic dungeons by heart, which means that they’re off and away before I get a chance to read the quest descriptions fully — particularly when the tank (who takes point, and thus sets the pace) is a Warrior, because they have a motivation to rush from one encounter to the next before their Rage meter empties. Maybe next time I should research the dungeons in advance.

The only dungeon that I completed in only one sally was the Wailing Caverns. There was some kind of dream-god in the form of a giant snake in there, or something like that. I couldn’t tell you the details. I’m sure it was all very important to the quest-givers, but again, I was too busy trying to keep up with the party. It went pretty smoothly: I managed to keep people healed, and everyone agreed in the end that it had been a good team. But after the last boss, when people started leaving, I still needed to pick flowers. That was a side-quest within the dungeon: some herbalist or something wants samples of a rare flower called Serpentblossom that only grows in that dungeon. For most of the run, I kept seeing it reported in the message window that various other people had found them, but I wasn’t seeing any myself, mainly because I didn’t know what to look for. So after the end, I was faced with the task of scouring the dungeon for flowers alone. Except that I wasn’t alone: one other member of the party was in the same situation, and we helped each other search, chatting a bit as we did so — he gave me some help with the less-obvious parts of the interface. This was a lot more like the kind of party experience I had come to Azeroth expecting than the frantic slaughter-race that’s turning out to be the norm.

I did take Oleari through Shadowfang Keep, even though I had already conquered it with Pleasance. I didn’t finish it this time. The end boss, one Lord Godfrey, seems to be particularly tough. Pleasance’s team had difficulties with him as well, I recall. Every once in a while, he performs an attack called Pistol Barrage that can easily take out most of the party, if they haven’t taken cover. Fortunately, you get warning when he’s about to use it, but as the party healer, taking cover means losing my line of sight on the tank, and thus, for a little while, my ability to cast healing spells on him. Perhaps the tank should have sought cover as well? Does Godfrey stand still or something when he’s preparing a Pistol Barrage to give you that opportunity? Regardless, I was blamed. Keeping the tank alive is the healer’s job, so if the tank dies, it’s the healer’s fault. There were exasperated cries of “wtf shammy” and intelligence-belittling exhortations to just stand there and heal him, as if I had been doing anything else. Before quitting the party, the tank instructed me to delete the character and start over with a new one. So, yeah, not as pleasant an experience as Wailing Caverns. I wonder how much this is due to the party, and how much due to Shadowfang Keep being a morale-breaker?

One thing about the Godfrey debacle worthy of special note: at one point, someone asked something about the healbot I was using, and /facepalmed when I revealed that I wasn’t using one. Are bots simply expected in WoW? It would explain a thing or two about everyone else’s behavior. It probably doesn’t seem like you’re taking things particularly fast when the computer is performing most of your actions for you. But if this is the case, it’s a big change from my Everquest days. Bots were considered a form of cheating back then; they might even have been a bannable offense. Cheating or not, I can’t say I see much point in playing a game without, y’know, playing it. But then, a lot of people clearly feel otherwise — otherwise, the infamous Chinese gold farms would never see a profit.

Eufloria: Basic Tactics

So, I’ve played a bit more of Eufloria. My progress through the campaign mode has slowed. There are 25 levels, and my first session took me through levels 1-10, but my second only took me through 11. It seems easy to get into quasi-stalemates, which surprised me a little, because you’d think that whichever side has more trees would be able to just outproduce the other. But there seems to be a population cap for each asteroid, or perhaps a production cap — a total number of seedlings beyond which it won’t produce more until some of them get killed. Probably the latter, because that’s the mechanic used for the orbital defense platforms occasionally produced by the defensive trees. It’s easier to observe with them because the limit there seems to be one per asteroid. But I’m really not sure about the rules, and I’m going to have to learn more before I play much further, either by finding info online or just by observing things more closely.

The tactics so far haven’t varied a great deal: you wait for your asteroids to build up an army of seedlings, you send them to storm enemy asteroids. Defense seems to be a lot easier than offense, at least at the stage I’m at — I’ve only recently received defense-enhancing gimmicks like aforementioned orbitals, and if there are corresponding offense-enhancers, I haven’t reached them yet. This encourages turtle-and-rush gameplay, with a substantial delay in conquering asteroids when you’re in rush mode, because it takes a while to claim them fully: even if the enemy isn’t defending an asteroid, it only changes ownership once your seedlings have worn down its “energy” by sacrificing themselves.

The one useful tactic beyond this I’ve found so far is divide-and-conquer, splitting the enemy territory into separate pockets. And it’s kind of interesting how this interacts with the movement rules. There’s a limit to how far away from the asteroids you own your seedlings can go, and there’s a limit to how far they can travel in a single jump between asteroids, but seedlings are quite capable of using an asteroid you don’t own as a stepping-stone to get to their destination more efficiently. And the enemies are no different. If you attack an enemy asteroid, the enemy will often send seedlings from other asteroids to defend it. If they have to go through an asteroid you own to get there, and if that asteroid is bristling with defensive trees and orbital platforms, you basically get to take shots at the enemy forces for free. I’ve got to try taking more advantage of this, by doing things like repeatedly sending small waves of seedlings at two separated asteroids in order to make the enemy keep shuttling back and forth through my defenses.

NyxQuest: Depth

The background art in NyxQuest does a more advanced version of the parallax scrolling that the coin-op games of yore utilized to deliver an impression of depth. Rocks, toppled pillars, and monumental statuary in various states of disrepair dot the dunes behind the action, losing focus with distance — there’s probably a transition point where 3D rendering is replaced with bitmaps, but it’s handled so smoothly that I couldn’t tell you where that point lies. In the haze at the very back of each level lies something distant enough that it doesn’t move at all, and the implication of distance makes it easy to suggest enormous size as well.

Such objects are far enough from the action that they’re clearly just scenery. But towards the end of the game, there are two things that suddenly bring the background to the fore. First, there’s a stealth-oriented level appropriately titled “Fields of Argos”. In the extreme distance is a colossal archway supporting a gong-like circle, which, the player soon learns, bears an eye in its center, as vast as Sauron’s and potentially as destructive. It spends most of its time closed, but periodically a sound plays, warning the player that it’s about to open and you’d better find a pillar to hide behind before it spots you. It’s a bit nervous-making when this happens for the first time, because the game seems to be breaking its own rules, suddenly making the background art, formerly static, suddenly not only active but deadly.

The final two levels have a roiling oversized sun sitting on the horizon, shooting missiles at you — and by “at you”, I mean in the general direction of the camera. By this point, you’re armed with cursor-aimed lightning, and can try to shoot them down before you have to dodge them. It’s a tricky thing, though, because doing so involves paying attention to two things, first-person shooting and third-person platforming, independent and simultaneous, one with each hand. I found that most of the time I couldn’t do both effectively at the same time, and had to stop moving in order to shoot and stop shooting in order to move.

The lightning itself adds a significant sense of depth too, because it’s the only thing that suggests a space in front of the action. Lightning blasts originate at the player. This is the point that most clearly shows the game’s platform of origin. On the Wii, you’d most likely actually be pointing the physical controller at the screen, producing a sense that lightning bolts are shooting out of the controller, through the screen, and into the gameworld (albeit only manifesting as lightning bolts once they’re through the screen). Playing with a mouse, it’s much more indirect and abstract: the actual motions of my hands and mouse represent in-world action without resembling it. I kind of wonder how other people perceive this. When I play games, I don’t normally feel like the gameworld is an extension of my physical space. Being absorbed in a game is, to me, like being absorbed in a book: the real world around me is forgotten, as in a dream. But this is a geekish phenomenon, and geeks are perhaps more comfortable with thinking outside their bodies than most people. The popularity of the Wii (and now the Kinect) among people who aren’t otherwise gamers could have a lot to do with the way it lessens that abstraction, making the player into a physical part of the action.

NyxQuest: Who is Nyx?

Well, who is she?

The game’s cutscenes presents her as a sort of aerial nymph who lives in the clouds, who lives a lonely existence aside from Icarus’s visits, and who never ventures down to the surface until the start of the game. (And for good reason: her powers of flight are too limited for her to get back home.) And I assumed at first that she was just a character made up for the purposes of the game. Which she is, in this form. But, looking her up, I find that, like God of War‘s Kratos, she shares a name with a pre-existing mythological figure, and no mere cup-bearer or servant. Nyx is night. The essence of darkness. She’s one of the primordial gods, older than the gods of Olympus, older than the Titans, older even than Death. She’s Death’s mother, according to Hesiod. For once, it seems completely appropriate to use the phrase “before the dawn of time”, for what precedes dawn but night?

So far is the mythic Nyx from the angel-winged ingenue in this game that my first impulse is to dismiss it as a simple coincidence of name. There are plenty of people in the Spanish-speaking world named Jesus, but most of them don’t walk on water. But when you think about it, the game’s Nyx is an enemy of the sun. I can easily see her ultimate triumph at game’s end sending Helios away for a while, which is to say, producing nightfall. We’ll see how it goes. Regardless, it’s easy to see the story here, of Nyx’s perilous journey through the sun-scorched lands, as a reversed version of the more typical solar myth, like Ra’s barge passing through the underworld every night so he can be reborn in the east. Which, I suppose, would make it a repeating story, with Icarus falling every day so that Nyx can begin the search for him anew. Poor Icarus.

NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits

The other day, an acquaintance of mine was talking about NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits, and I figured, hey, I have that from one of my Steam bundles. I should give that a try. The fact that she had been talking about frustrations with it didn’t register with the part of my brain that forms gaming desires, apparently.

NyxQuest an indie 2D platformer rendered in 3D (a combination that seems to be fashionable right now) with puzzly bits and a Greek mythology theme. It basically has a princess plot, but gender-swapped: you play the part of Nyx, a woman with wings who lives in the sky, looking for Icarus, who flew up to visit her on a regular basis until his famous accident. Clearly they’re playing fast and loose with myth here, but what game doesn’t? Icarus’s fall to earth from flying too close to the heat of the sun is reinterpreted as him becoming the first casualty to the sun itself declaring war on Earth. The whole game seems to take place in ruins in the desert, signs of the wrath of Helios. It’s a little unusual for a 2D platformer to have this kind of consistency of setting, it seems to me. Usually the designers like to swap tilesets every few levels to produce a (somewhat artificial) sense of variety: a forest level and a factory level and so forth. Even though I recognize this kind of variation as shallow, I kind of miss it.

Anyway, the really notable thing here is the platforming mechanics. For starters, there’s the wings. You know how in some platformers you can double-jump? Nyx can quintuple-jump. She can also glide briefly. But the really notable part is the ability to manipulate objects. After a while, you get the ability to grab certain items with the mouse cursor and either pull them along one axis (usually used to slide pillars up and down) or lift them and move them around. They still have a physical presence in the world while you’re moving them, mind you, and sometimes you have to be careful not to conk Nyx with a large stone block. But this also means that you can, for example, lift a block into the air and have Nyx jump and land on it so that she can jump again from higher up.

In-story, this sort of manipulation is supposed to be a sort of telekinetic power granted to Nyx by Zeus, but to me, it feels more like something that the player applies to the gameworld from without, rather like in Samorost. It also feels a little weird because it forces me to use both hands simultaneously and independently, controlling two different things in tandem. This is especially weird-feeling when the two hands cross over. It’s easy to come to associate the left hand with stuff you’re doing on the left side of the screen and the right hand with the right side — much of the game is spent travelling from left to right, which means that the right side is where manipulable objects first come into view. But there are times when you need to move a block to Nyx’s left, and it somehow feels awkward, which is interesting. I’m told that infants, in the course of learning how to use their limbs, don’t even try at first to reach their arms across their bodies, the left arm to the right side or vice versa — that it takes them a while to figure out that this is even possible, and that it’s a bit of a personal breakthrough when they do. This game makes me feel like I’m going through something similar, my first fumbling steps towards basic motor coordination.


The zoomed-in viewEufloria, like DHSGiT and Crayon Physics, is a game that I remember trying out in its more primitive pre-release stages, back when it was called Dyson. It’s essentially a slow-paced minimalist RTS, the sort that breaks everything down to its bare elements and then rebuilds them in a slightly different direction.

The setting is an agglomeration of circular “asteroids” sitting in a plane. On these asteroids grow fractal trees, and the trees are your fortresses and the source of your armies. They produce “seedlings” which are essentially little spaceships or fighter jets that go into orbit and harry intruders. You can send seedlings to other asteroids within a certain range, where they’ll do battle with any other plant empires present so you can claim the territory for your own and plant more trees. Planting trees uses up seedlings, so there’s a balance to be maintained between future growth and current numbers.

There’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s the core gameplay. I don’t know how much depth it adds, but I understand that there are game elements to be introduced that weren’t in the simpler version I played back when. That was one of the two basic criticisms of the original: that it was too simple, that there wasn’t enough tactical variation for it to be interesting. So I think that’s been fixed somewhat. The other criticism seems to still be in force. This is a game that lets you zoom in and out with the scrollwheel, from a wide schematic view of the entire level down to close enough that you can count the leaves on the trees. There’s a certain austere beauty to the zoomed-out view, where the seedlings shrink to dots and, en masse, flow like liquid, but it’s definitely at its prettiest when you’re zoomed in and can see the fractals and the individual seedlings going about their business. But — here’s the criticism — the game doesn’t really give you a reason to do so. You don’t get useful information from tree-gazing, and there’s no micromanagement to be done that you can’t do as effectively from the zoomed-out view.

And at this point, I find myself asking how this observation jibes with my comments about Bioshock. There, it struck me as wrong-headed to complain that the game didn’t force the player to appreciate all it had to offer. Why do I feel like the same complaint is more legitimate here? I think it’s mainly a matter of interactivity. My colleague who felt that Bioshock was stupid had refused to take advantage of the options it gave him. In Eufloria, unless there’s some mechanic I’ve yet to see introduced, there are no such options. The zoomed-in view is purely cosmetic, like clicking on individual troops to learn their names in Powermonger, only less story and more simulation.

WoW: Revisitation

The Lunar Festival has begun in Azeroth. Apparently this is an annual thing, and lasts for at least a week. You really can’t escape noticing it: in all the capital cities, people are setting off fireworks, because doing so starts a quest chain and a suite of Achievements involving a special festival-only zone, a hidden elfin glade where Horde and Alliance alike mix peacefully. There, you can turn in festival coins for special goodies. The festival coins, in turn, are obtained from guides who appeared in the various cities and towns, each guide giving one coin per customer. So ultimately the festival is a way to encourage people to travel around Azeroth, revisiting all the places you’ve been to already.

The thing is, I’ve already been doing a fair amount of that lately. Completist that I am, I decided a few days ago that Pleasance really should be availing herself of all the opportunities that the greater Undercity metro area affords, particularly those that help with achievements down the road. There are “exploration” achievements, for visiting every named area in a region. 1I’m probably getting the terms wrong here. Continents are divided into what I’m calling “regions”, which are generally what you see when you pull up the world map. There are achievements for sampling the different kinds of food and drink, and for interacting with the non-hostile wildlife. Just from following the quest tree, Pleasance was essentially on her third region, but I sent her back to deal with the previous two more thoroughly. I wish I had waited until the Festival to do this.

Then there’s the deal with Oleari. At a certain point, the quests in Mulgore (the Tauren starting region) dry up, and you get assigned quests to go to other places — specifically, Orgrimmar and Silverpine Forest. Up to this point, I had been thinking of quests as divided up by race: there’s the Orc quest chain and the Undead quest chain and the Tauren quest chain. This is true at very low levels: each race’s starting area has its own set of starting quests. But after that, it’s more like there’s a quest chain for each of the two main continents. Pleasance and Crumbcake started on different continents, so I didn’t notice this from leveling them up. But the moment Oleari landed in Orgrimmar, she started getting offered quests that I had already done with Crumbcake. My fault for trying to run three characters simultaneously, I suppose. I should just pick one and run with it.

And if I pick one, it’ll probably be Oleari, because she’s got more potential to be useful in a group than Crumbcake, and because she still has the opportunity to not make some of the mistakes I made with Pleasance. (Oleari is trying out the fishing holes and sampling the local cheeses as she goes.) But I’m growing weary of treading old ground, and that’s a good sign that it’s time to stop this obsessive daily play. I’m not done exploring this game, and still have things to say about it, but I’m not married to it, and I think it’s time I started seeing other games again. We’ll be revisiting it by and by.

1 I’m probably getting the terms wrong here. Continents are divided into what I’m calling “regions”, which are generally what you see when you pull up the world map.

WoW: My First Stupid Dungeon

The quest tree in World of Warcraft eventually starts pushing the player towards multi-player activity. There are “elite” monsters that are best tackled in teams — I’ve managed one such alone (Chet the Slime-Breeder), if a warlock accompanied by a familiar can truly be said to be alone, but the only other elite I’ve beaten (Yetimus the Yeti Lord) was accomplished the help of two strangers, an ad-hoc group of people who were in the area and of the appropriate level, assembled specifically for that purpose.

Then there are the dungeon instances. This is an area where Blizzard has gone to some length to facilitate such ad-hoc groupings. There’s a special “dungeon finder” interface, which is not an interface for finding dungeons, but for finding people to accompany you into them (and then teleporting you in as a group). Playing primarily solo, I didn’t use this until I actually had a quest in a dungeon. In fact, I didn’t use it until long afterward — because of my lack of experience with dungeons, I had no idea what the quest-givers were getting at. All I knew was that they were asking me to go to places that, unlike most quests, didn’t get marked on my map. I figured they’d show up once I entered the right zone or something. This is the first of many misunderstandings that characterized my first dungeon experience.

The first dungeon I actually attempted was Shadowfang Keep, a haunted castle where some rebels against the Undead had fled. The game recommends this for levels 15-26. I was level 26. I had a particular blockage for starting on the quest that sends you there: the NPC who assigns it is in Orgrimmar, and Pleasance wasn’t even on the same continent as Orgrimmar. The only way to reach it is by zeppelin. As a newcomer to Azeroth, I didn’t know this; when I was first told to go to Orgrimmar, I wasted some time trying to follow the quest arrow which pointed towards the other continent, then gave up and pursued other quests, figuring I’d wander into Orgrimmar eventually if I kept exploring. I have a better grasp of how to locate stuff on the world maps now, but there are still aspects of the UI that I’m shaky on.

Once I had the quest, I opened the Dungeon Finder and got in the queue for Shadowfang, registering Pleasance as a damage dealer. The Dungeon Finder asks you to choose a specific party role, you see, so that it can put people together into balanced groups. Three roles are recognized: damage dealer, healer, and tank (the guy who tries to make the monsters attack him so that they don’t attack the more fragile teammates). It strikes me as peculiar that these roles are openly acknowledged in the UI. I mean, the concepts been part of RPGs for a while, but usually there’s some pretense that they’re emergent properties of the class abilities. Putting those three roles up front is essentially admitting that these are basically the only things you can do, and that all the multifarious character classes and specializations just funnel into these three points.

Anyway, I got into a group, with a couple of damage dealers and a healer and a tank. But the tank wasn’t a very good one, apparently, and the group voted to kick him out and recruit another tank after several of us got killed by monsters he was supposed to be keeping off us. And this is where the next bit of stupidity on my part starts. Apparently the healer was willing and able to resurrect me in place, but since I’ve never adventured in the company of a healer before, I acted on habit and “released my spirit” to run back to where my corpse lay. And that was a problem: dungeons change the death mechanics a bit. You respawn as a ghost at the dungeon entrance, but you turn back into flesh as soon as you enter the dungeon proper. In order to reach the rest of the party, I would have to get past all the monsters that had respawned in the way, and which I was incapable of defeating alone.

Well, no problem, I figured. The team will know what happened and come to get me. Also, I wasn’t the only one who died, so there would be other people showing up soon. Neither of these things happened. I put out some plaintive cries for help on the party chat channel, but no one seemed to be replying. I tried making a solo run to where the rest of the party was anyway, but just got killed a couple more times. Eventually someone else left the party and another guy wordlessly showed up, and I followed him around for a while, but then he just vanished. Meanwhile, the rest of the party was conquering the dungeon without me, while I wandered forlorn and confused in the few hallways available to me.

Then I noticed that my chat window was switched to the “combat log” tab. That’s why I hadn’t seen anyone talking. Presumably I had clicked it accidentally while trying to target the monster that had killed me. I’ve had problems with this tabbed interface before; at one point, I managed to detach it into a separate window that overlapped with the general chat and prevented me from reading either, and it took me a while to figure out how to dock it back in — mainly because I wasn’t looking for ways to dock it, I was looking for ways to get rid of it entirely. I’d still like to figure that out. None of the screenshots I see online have a “combat log” tab, so there must be a way.

Once I had normal chat back, the first thing I noticed was a bunch of “where is ple?” and “i think shes afk” and other such complaints. But even once communication had been reestablished, it was difficult to communicate my problems to the team, because they were things that for them wouldn’t be problems. I was told to “port to lab”. Presumably “port” was short for “teleport”, but Pleasance didn’t have any kind of teleportation capability, and wouldn’t know where “lab” is if she did. Then someone said “talk to the guy”, which in retrospect I recognize as instruction, but which at the time I didn’t even realize was addressed to me. I’m guessing that things become clearer when you’re used to the way WoW players talk in dungeons. “The guy”, it turned out, was an NPC standing near the entrance who I had spoken to once on initially entering it and ignored afterward, because he seemed useless. He wasn’t. His use was that he could teleport you to parts of the dungeon that the party had already visited. Perhaps someone explained this at some point while I was on “combat log”.

Eventually, I sat down in the entrance and said that I’d join them when at least two people came back to help me fight the monsters between my position and theirs, because if only one person came back, they’d just vanish without explanation like everyone else had done. One person came back, and patiently motioned toward “the guy” until I got the message. We did beat the boss, but not with the party we started with, because there had been some quitting from frustration by that point.

So, that’s my first dungeon experience. If it had happened in a single-player game, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but as it was, I humiliated myself and wasted other people’s time. Worse, I was robbed of the experience. I missed out entirely on the middle section, including a couple of sub-quests to take out secondary bosses. I had to backtrack through already-conquered areas just to get the quest tokens I needed.

So after I was done I gave it another try with a different group, and it’s amazing how quickly things go when everyone knows what they’re doing.

WoW: Choosing the Horde

You may have noticed that all the characters I’ve made so far are Horde. I suppose I should try out a character or two on the Alliance side at some point, but I feel like I’ve got enough different characters going concurrently already right now. The main reason I favor Horde is that it seems more interesting. The base Alliance races are the traditional Fellowship of the Ring assortment, with Gnomes standing in for Hobbits. The base Horde races are monsters. The Cataclysm expansion has confused this somewhat by putting Worgen (essentially, werewolves) on the Alliance side, presumably so they can fight Undead in an approximation of Vamps vs Lycans or Team Edward vs Team Jacob. But since I haven’t bought Cataclysm, I don’t feel like that affects me much.

At any rate, monsters are definitely the more interesting choice here. The CRPGs where you can play a human, elf, or dwarf greatly outnumber the ones where you can play an orc, troll, or undead, and even more greatly outnumber the ones where you can play an anthropomorphic cow. Monsters are expected to be more extreme than normal people in one way or another, and can have weird special abilities. I’m not sure either of these points really applies in WoW, though — yes, Undead get to replenish their health through cannibalism, but every race gets something, and I’ve already expressed disappointment in how a player character’s undeadness isn’t reflected in the game mechanics in most ways (such as what happens when you die).

Also, the traditional hero races seem like they make for a simpler story, and thus a less thoughtful one. Telling the tale of a Horde hero requires some ingenuity. How do you sell the role, make the player sympathize? In the case of Tauren (and possibly Trolls), they do it by making the so-called monsters into a misunderstood and oppressed minority with valid grievances against the self-proclaimed heroes. In the case of Orcs and Goblins, they do it by playing them for laughs and basically turning them into muppets, amusingly stupid creatures capable of slapstick antics. In the case of Undead, they go for broke and just make them fascinatingly loathsome.

WoW: Getting Twinked

Joining World of Warcraft at this late date means having friends who are far more advanced than you, and, unlike in single-player games, that means more than just tips and spoilers. One associate, skilled in the Leathercrafting profession, has gifted Crumbcake a full set of leather armor (some bits of which she was too low-level to wear at the time of gifting), and another gave Oleari thirty gold pieces — more money than all my characters put together had ever seen. In both cases, I think these were trifles for the givers, easily parted-with. (I certainly know firsthand that practicing a craft involves making more items than you have any use for.)

In MMO lingo, this is called “twinking”, derived from “twinkie”, a derisive term from the pen-and-paper RPG community for the worse sorts of powergamer — particularly the sort who brings to the table a character decked out in magic items that they claim to have obtained from another DM who isn’t available for comment. In this context, the word may be a corruption of “tweak”, as in tweaking stats for min-maxing, but this is one of those words whose etymology is long on surmise and short on evidence. I’ve seen the term cause some confusion; role-players aren’t the only subculture that’s assigned a distinct meaning to it. The one constant seems to be that it’s always an insult. A twinkie is something you don’t want to be.

Obviously the MMO has shifted the term in meaning somewhat, and consequently, getting twinked is no bad thing — there’s little suspicion of cheating when the rules are enforced by server code, and there’s nothing shameful about being the recipient of a friend’s generosity. Even using one of your own more-advanced characters to give a new one a leg up seems to be considered okay — even if the character didn’t earn that sweet armor, you, the player, did. Still, Blizzard considers it disruptive enough to the intended experience that there are mechanisms in place to limit it — the most obvious being that most items require a minimum experience level for use (including, a little bizarrely, food items).

Even as a recipient of this kind of help, I’m a little leery of the effect it’ll have on my experience of the game. Sure, I like dying less. But I also like meeting challenges, and the whole point of this is to make things less challenging. On the gripping hand, this game is really calibrated on the assumption that you’re going to have help from other players, if only through grouping. (Pleasance has even gotten up to a quest where the game specifically advises this.) One definite downside is that it robs some of the quest rewards of their impact. So Oleari completes a quest and gets a whole silver piece — so what? It’s even worse for Cumbcake: a lot of the quest rewards are armor. Advancing through the quest tree normally means a steady sequence of small improvements in your armor rating, but Crumbcake has jumped the queue, with the result that all of the armor rewards she’s been offered lately are worse than what she already has.

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