Archive for February, 2011

WoW: Acceleration

Oleari is now level 40, which gives her the right to purchase faster mounts (and the skill necessary to ride them). I’m told that in older days, this was a major purchase, something people had to save up for. For my part, it barely put a dent in the cash that had piled up in my account simply as a result of doing quests. Revisions have made this aspect of the game easier, and many other aspects as well.

Raising your reputation with the various NPC factions became much easier when faction-specific tabards were added to the game. The tabard used to be a purely decorative item, a display of team spirit, but now, they can effectively display your sponsor’s logo instead. Raising your cooking skill at high levels used to involve practicing advanced recipes that use rare spices you have to hunt for, but now you can raise it a point or two every day through a simple daily quest. And, of course, there’s the rapid rate at which new characters gain levels now. I’ve been playing for only a little over a month now, and I haven’t been playing every day, and a largish chunk of that time was spent with other characters than Oleari, but still, I’ve reached level 40, advancing at a rate of more than one level per day. And that’s without ever actually trying to level. That’s just the result of playing the game and pursuing quests, many of which were actually too low-level to yield any experience.

People can complain about this, about how the newbies don’t know how easy they’ve got it. But I think it makes a lot of sense for an ongoing MMO to accelerate like this, partly because it gives the newcomers a chance to catch up, but mainly because the reasons for not speeding things up vanish over time, as new content gets added. When there wasn’t a lot of content yet, they had a motivation to space it out, to make sure that the players didn’t exhaust it too quickly. If they lost players who were frustrated by the endless grinding, they probably also retained players who would have left if they had nothing more to do. But now, there’s enough content to last a new player for months even if they consume it as fast as they’re comfortable doing. So why not give them access to what they’re paying for? It can only lead to fewer players deciding that the game is a waste of their time and money and terminating their accounts.

There are a lot of ways that WoW‘s dominant position is self-reinforcing, and this is one of them. Any new MMO challenging it will have the handicap that it hasn’t spend the last six years developing new content. I recall this being cited as a particular problem with Age of Conan, its lack of stuff for advanced players at launch-time. But was WoW any better when it was new? From what I’ve seen, the dedicated players are generally pretty adamant that WoW has gotten better over the years and no longer deserves its early reputation as a pointless grind-fest. Which is to say that even the die-hard players admit that it did deserve that reputation, once upon a time.

Gish: ANBUKaptain’s Lament

So I was finding world 3 difficult once again, and I started thinking that maybe I’d stand a better chance of getting through it if I played on Easy difficulty. Reluctant to start over and lose my progress, I sought online to see what difference it made. My guess was seven lives instead of five. The truth: infinity lives.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. You still get only five lives per game, after which you can continue, but your score starts back at zero. But that hardly matters to a score-ignorer like myself. The big difference is that when you run out of lives and continue, you continue from the beginning of the level, not the beginning of the world as in Medium difficulty. This makes the number of lives per continue unimportant. Suddenly, legitimate incremental progress is possible! You still have to make it through each level within a single life, but with as many do-overs as you need. Even a player who aims to finish on the highest difficulty setting would find this useful as a practice mode. And as a result, I’m already partway into world 5, which may be the last one. (Steam’s description says something about “34+ story levels”, and there are seven levels per world, so. I suppose the vagueness is justified by the presence of “warp zones” off the main track.)

Now here’s the fun part: This is the page where I learned the above. This person really doesn’t like the game at all, and has fairly detailed complaints, although they mostly come down to the same thing: that the game provides insufficient guidance in the use of its frankly unusual mechanics — or, less charitably, “I didn’t figure stuff out, and I’d rather blame the author than myself”. Either way, there was a communication failure there that I think I’ve mostly avoided.

He’s somewhat coy about exactly what he didn’t figure out, and I don’t really understand why, considering that these are anti-spoilers he’s talking about, information that makes the game worse if you don’t have it, as his own experience shows. I will say what he does not: Gish has the ability to throw small blocks. You do this by getting the block on top of Gish (by turning sticky and rolling over it like a katamari), then, when its weight is deforming you, stop being sticky and tense up to resume your shape. There’s one part in world 4 where you have to get three blocks (out of a larger number available) up onto a ledge that Gish can jump to easily, but not while carrying a block: “carrying” means sticking to it, and turning sticky tends to adhere you to the floor and prevent you from jumping. ANBUKaptain apparently got past this by painstakingly building a staircase out of blocks and then somehow hauling blocks up it without pulling it apart — only to then get killed later in the level and start over again. This is clearly the wrong way to do it, not least because it’s less fun.

So, why did I discover this capability that he did not? I can state right off that I did not discover it because I was looking for it. It’s just the sort of thing that you notice while noodling around — playing with the game, as opposed to just playing it. But my usual approach is quite goal-oriented, and I can easily imagine myself in ANBUKaptain’s shoes. I suspect the real difference is I replayed the first two worlds so may times, partly as a result of putting the game away for months at a time, partly because I was trying to find all the secret areas, partly because of the crashing. When you play through the same stuff over and over again, your brain starts looking for shortcuts, more efficient ways to do stuff. You become less methodical, more willing to take risks. There’s one bit in world 3 involving a series of hanging platforms over a lava pit; the first time I encountered them, I carefully jumped from one to the next, but eventually I discovered that you don’t even need to jump: get a running start, and you can just barrel over the lot, carried over the gaps by your momentum. I’m willing to bet that ANBUKaptain never made that leap. I probably wouldn’t have in other circumstances.

In fact, there’s one bit where I rather think I did miss the point until later. The world 4 boss chases you back and forth in a hallway whose ceiling sports three large stone blocks with crumbly blocks underneath them, supporting them. There was a similar set-up back in world 2, where I had passed it by jumping up, clinging to the crumbly blocks, and breaking them by tensing up and increasing my weight (and then getting out of the way quickly before I was crushed). The world 4 boss level makes this approach impractical: the ceilings are just a little too high to jump to, and the tiles around the crumbly ones are slippery ones, making it impossible to just climb the wall and move horizontally. I had notions of pushing loose blocks underneath so I could jump from a higher vantage, but my adversary kept pushing them away. At some point in this process, though, I discovered that I could demolish the crumbly tiles by throwing the loose blocks at them — difficult to do with any precision while you’re being chased, but easier than the alternative. And I suddenly understood something I hadn’t before: why there was a loose block sitting under those crumbly tiles back in level 2. I was supposed to have used it the same way.

So, the lesson here is to trust Edmund McMillen. If you’re doing something difficult and tedious, there’s probably a better and faster way. If you find a loose block, it has a purpose. And this suddenly makes me rethink another place where I found a seemingly-purposeless block, sitting on a sliding floor piece that I needed to shift but had difficulty getting a purchase on. I had gotten through that through awkward shuffling and stickiness, but now I suspect there’s a more elegant solution involving Newton’s Third Law.

WoW: Comic Moments

I’ve identified the goblins as WoW‘s comic relief characters, but really, there’s a lot of comic bits sprinkled throughout the game, including moments of self-parody. The first quest in the Hillsbrad Foothills area, for example, involves briefly taking on the role of quest-giver. You sit there on a horse, unmoving, with a yellow exclamation mark over your head, with a list of quests to give out to whatever adventurers ask for them. Three people come, and each is a player caricature: a clueless newbie (recently-raised undead still suffering from brain rot), a trash-talking bully, an arrogant twinked-out moron with stuff far above his level (“Yes, this horse IS made of STARS”). Their banter is full of pop-culture references and mocking of typical WoW quests (“Are there not bear asses to collect?”), and you meet each of them later, bailing them out of the trouble that their incompetent attempts at the quests landed them in. And yet, in the end, one of these story branches turns serious, and the character proves unexpectedly noble, sacrificing himself for the sake of the Horde. Just because something starts as self-parody doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

Or consider what happens in the previous section, in Silverpine Forest. At one point, you’re asked to singlehandedly take down the force field surrounding a city of magicians. There are several classes of human guards in Ambermill, including Ambermill Watchers and Ambermill Warders, but once you fight your way through them, you start encountering Ambermill Witchaloks. The thing that makes this joke actually good, rather than just a pointer at someone else’s joke, is their behavior: they shout overblown imprecations and cast spells that have basically no effect other than graphical effects that are flashy but kind of stupid-looking. To the unprepared player, though, they’re accompanied by a moment of panic. “Cower, monster, as I summon a veritable army of Wolfoids!” — and suddenly a mob of knee-high worgen spawns around you. Even weak monsters can hurt a lot when they attack in large quantity, so this scares you, until you notice that they’re just milling around and not paying attention to you at all. And it’s at this point that the witchalok taunts “Now you are surrounded by Wolfoids! What will you do? Where can you run?”

And this is smack in the middle of the grimmest part of the campaign I’ve seen yet — a story of cruelty and betrayal, containing the first major loss for the player’s side. At one point in this section, you’re assigned three companions for a mission, former Alliance leaders recently turned undead. They’re assigned to help you recover stranded troops hiding in a war-torn town. Instead, when you find the troops, they kill them, as punishment for their cowardice. They go on to turn against Lady Sylvanas at a crucial moment and become the bosses in Shadowfang Keep (which is a little odd if you play through Shadowfang Keep before this happens, but WoW is pretty full of counter-temporal weirdness right now). These same three are to some extent played for laughs, as they discuss the advantages of their new state, or send you on a tangential quest to recover all the pieces of an associate’s body so they can turn him undead too, and then immediately kill him again after going to all that effort.

Gish on Mac

One nice thing about the Steam Play initiative (Valve’s nascent cross-platform support) is that it makes it very easy for me to find out when games I’ve purchased become available for the Mac. This is an important thing to know for those games that don’t work right on my PC. Just the other day, I noticed that several of my indie bundle games had been quietly ported while my attention was elsewhere. My first instinct was to finally try And Yet It Moves, which I haven’t yet been able to get to run on my Windows machine at all, but I can’t get it to run on my Mac either: the download is eternally stuck at 99%, and attempts to run it anyway yield silly errors about the servers being busy. So instead I gave Gish another shot. I might as well; I’ve bought it in a bundle at least one more time since my last attempt, for something like five times total by now.

You may recall that the last time I played this game, it was crashing on me frequently enough that I figured out how to exploit the crashes to aid my progress. Without that help, the game is in a sense easier. I hold myself to lower standards, not seeking every secret or every coin, just trying to get through the levels as fast as possible. The first world breezes by when approached like this. It’s quite freeing; I get to do all the acrobatic stuff that I mentioned back in my first post — which, it turns out, I still remember how to do.

Which is fortunate, because it isn’t at all obvious, and this game has a pretty steep learning curve. In a recent online discussion, someone asked “Did anyone actually like Gish?” — to which the answer is obviously yes, because it won some awards, but it definitely doesn’t give the player the sense of immediate power and ease of movement that most platformers strive for, and that probably turns a lot of people off. Another discussion I recall pointed out how Mario 64 engages the player by making it look like Mario is really enjoying himself, running around and leaping into the air and shouting “Woohoo!”, to the point that it almost seems a shame to put the controller down and deprive him of his thrills. Gish enjoys himself too, opens his mouth wide in a wicked toothy smile when he’s fast and airborne, but it takes a degree of mastery to reach that point.

One thing I keep forgetting: one of the developers on Gish was Edmund McMillen, who went on to create Super Meat Boy. SMB is also too difficult for a lot of people (possibly including me, although I haven’t given up on it yet), but for opposite reasons: moving around in ordinary environments is almost too easy, with the result that you leap into sawblades all the time. At any rate, I give him credit for exploring extremely different points within the possibility space of the platformer genre, even if both of these games are at heart glorified Mario imitations.

WoW: Shadow Passed

Well, I’ve solved my earlier problems with the Trial of Shadow. It turns out that a simple edit to the config file tells the launcher to download all of the content for the expansions, including the graphics for the missing altar. This works because the launcher starts its downloading before it even gives you an opportunity to log into an account, so it can’t make decisions about what to download on the basis of your account permissions. It’s all quite legitimate, though. Even with all the assets on my hard drive, I can still only access the things that Blizzard wants me to.

That’s about all I have to say today. I had a longer post prepared about the merits of the Shaman’s “Ghost Wolf” spell, but WordPress keeps logging me out and devouring anything unsaved. Maybe tomorrow.

WoW: Quests of the Day

This week (and I think next week as well), Azeroth celebrates its equivalent of Valentine’s Day. It’s also still celebrating the Lunar Festival, with the result that the capital cities have two sets of decorations up at once, but what are you going to do? Overlap seems almost inevitable, because the calendar is lousy with special events of this sort. They bring with them time-limited content, which seems to be an effective way to get people to play more: I’m more likely to neglect a game if I think I can play it any time and get the same experience.

One part of the special content for this holiday is an extremely easy daily quest: a goblin merchant has set up a booth in every capital city, and wants you to share samples of his merchandise. One day it’s perfume, another day it’s chocolates, but the effect seems to be the same regardless: the people you foist it on wind up with a heart-shaped indicator over their heads for a period of time, meaning that they can’t be given another sample until it wears off. In the area immediately around the stall in Orgrimmar, where the player density is at its highest, it’s a veritable sea of hearts, and finding an uninfected subject can take a little doing. I think I prefer to do this quest in the less-populated Thunder Bluff, the Tauren capital. (NPCs are eligible victims, so the lower player count doesn’t make it harder at all.) There, it takes just a minute or so to complete the quest, which makes it the quickest way I know to get a daily under your belt. There’s an Achievement for completing daily quests on five consecutive days, and I’m definitely trying for that while there’s so little effort involved.

While I’m throwing around terms like “daily quest”, I should take a moment to describe the questing mechanics a little. Most quests can only be done once per character; daily quests can be done arbitrarily many times, but each can only be done at most once per day. There are particular NPCs who hand out daily quests every day, but not always the same one — they seem to choose one at random each day. Aside from the holiday folks, the only ones I’ve encountered are related to the Professions. There’s one fellow in Orgrimmar who gives a daily Fishing-related quest, rewarding you with an increase in Fishing skill and a grab-bag of stuff pulled from under a lake, and another who does the same for Cooking (with quests like slaughtering swine and protecting provisions from thieves), rewarding you with increased Cooking skill and tokens redeemable for advanced recipes. Notably, none of the daily quests seem to yield cash or experience, the usual questing rewards. Instead, they give you things difficult or impossible to gain any other way. (Past a certain point, it must be exceedingly difficult to raise your Cooking or Fishing skill through practice alone.)

You can always tell a daily quest by its color. Available non-daily quests that are of an appropriate level for your character are signaled by a yellow exclamation mark, both marked on your mini-map and floating above the quest-giver’s head, just to make sure you notice them. Dailies use a blue exclamation mark. There are also green ones, indicating flightmasters that you haven’t spoken to yet. Flightmasters let you rent flying mounts to take you on pre-set routes, but they can generally only send you to other flightmasters you’ve already spoken to. So, they’re an important enough part of the game infrastructure that the designers want to call special attention to them, but they’re not really quests. Normal quests that are too high-level for you to attempt, but otherwise available, are designated by a grey exclamation mark, which shows up over the giver’s head, but not on the map, presumably because there’s no reason to seek them out.

Quests that are below your level, now: they’re not marked on the map or above the head. But you can still do them if you want, and I’ve been doing enough low-level quests just to see the content that I’ve learned how to find them. Unlike most NPCs, questgivers with available quests have their names in green above their heads even when not selected. Also, anything you can interact with changes the cursor on rollover, and NPCs that you can talk to change it in a manner specific to the kind of conversation you can have with them: one cursor for mere talking, one for vendors you can buy stuff from, another for innkeepers, etc. Questgivers have a cursor containing an image of an exclamation mark — yes, the exclamation mark is more or less officially the ideogram for quest in this game. Even the quest log icon in the toolbar is an exclamation mark. Finding low-level quests thus takes a little more effort than level-appropriate ones, which the game eagerly points out. The game doesn’t really want you wasting your time on them; low-level quests give diminished experience, and usually no experience from combat at all. And yet, the game also rewards you for doing so with additional content, faction reputation, and, eventually, achievements. Just not with challenge. In theory, you could probably play entirely with low-level quests — there are enough of them that if you did them all, the reduced XP might not matter. And you’d have a very easy time of it. And that’s nearly what I’ve been doing myself, just out of a sense of completism.

WoW: Shadow and Substance

Maybe you’ve been thinking “It’s been a while since Baf played a DOS-era game. I miss those posts, with all their descriptions of encountering bugs and looking for ways around them.” If so, you’re in luck! I just encountered my first major, quest-blocking bug in WoW.

My story starts in Azshara, the region containing those goblin settlements I was talking about before. There’s a nice little suite of self-contained variety quests there on mountaintops inaccessible by normal means, a wizard’s Trials for testing his apprentices. These are essentially action mini-games. In the Trial of Fire, you have to dash around on a grid, avoiding the tiles that are about to erupt in magical flame. In the Trial of Frost, you have to collect scattered tokens while dodging the icy plumes emanating from rotating spheres. The Trial of Shadow is ringed with portals which emit shadow-creatures that you have to lure onto banishment runes set into the ground. Each of the trials not only gets you closer to completing the quest chain, it also has an Achievement for passing it perfectly, without taking any damage at all. I have two of those Achievements now — they’re not too hard once you spot the tricks. But the Trial of Shadow, I haven’t been able to pass. I haven’t even been able to start it.

The instructions at the beginning of the trial tell you to touch an altar to power up the shadow-emitting portals. There was no altar. I searched the area throughly, including looking down the mountainside. I tried leaving and coming back. Nothing. I spent some time doing dungeons — using the Dungeon Finder lets you teleport to the dungeons and back, so I could do this without leaving the mountaintop. I was kind of hoping that it was a temporary glitch and that if I spent a half an hour in a different zone, it would be fixed when I got back. When I got back, another player was just in the process of finishing the trial, but the altar was nowhere to be found.

When he was done, I asked him where the altar was, and he laughed. He led me to a patch of bare ground and said “This altar?” I protested that there was nothing there. I even tried clicking all around the spot, in the hope that I could interact with it even though I couldn’t see it, but no dice. He then stood on top of the alter and jumped up and down. Or so he says — it didn’t look like it to me. He didn’t even float in the air, like you’d expect if he were standing on an altar I couldn’t see, which has interesting implications for the underlying model.

Hitting up the web for answers, I found a lot of other people with the same problem, and a lot of spurious advice for fixing it. Abandon the quest, log out, log back in again, and start the quest again! No, that simply doesn’t work. The Blizzard support forums produced what I assume is the truth: for some players, the altar is replaced with a placeholder object. I’ve seen these objects around before: they appear as little cubes with a blue-and-white checkerboard pattern. In fact, the tokens I was supposed to collect back in the Trial of Frost appeared as placeholders. I think that the first time I saw them was in Silverpine Forest, where there’s a quest to gather blue-and-white cubical herbs. So you see that merely being placeholders isn’t a problem; you can click on a placeholder object as easily as anything else. But in this particular case, the placeholder, being much smaller than the object it’s replacing, apparently wound up concealed by the ground.

So, why are there placeholders in the released game? When I encountered them for the first time, I assumed that it was a matter of progressive download, like images in a web page: WoW lets you play while you’re still downloading content, and my earliest sessions came with an explicit warning that my experience may not be optimal yet. But apparently that’s not it. The altar object is missing because it’s not even included in the game I bought. It’s a mesh that was only introduced in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. The fact that the core game now relies in some ways on content only found in expansions is obviously a mistake, but it’s the sort of mistake that would easily go unnoticed by the developers, the testers, and the vast majority of the players.

Fortunately, there is a workaround: you can install the WotLK content on your machine even if you don’t have a license to play it. In fact, Blizzard offers a ten-day free trial for it, just like with the main game. Unfortunately, Blizzard doesn’t let you download the Wrath of the Lich King trial unless you’re already a registered owner of the previous expansion, The Burning Crusade. I may need to enlist the help of a more advanced WoW player here.

WoW: Goblins

I’ve been spending some time in goblin lands. I’ve been doing this because goblin NPCs are the most entertaining company of all the playable races. They’re also one of the newest playable races, having come in with Cataclysm. I suspect that these two things are connected — that, now that WoW is such a proven money-maker, the team behind it is granted whatever resources they need to polish the new content to a glossy sheen. (Not that you’ll find a glossy sheen anywhere in goblin territory.) Now, I haven’t bought Cataclysm, and therefore I can’t actually play a goblin character. But the expansion has effects in the core game, probably in part as a way of advertising the expansion.

I don’t really know what role goblins played in the game before Cataclysm, but I assume it’s greatly expanded since then. I was kind of wondering how they would be plausibly powerful here: the D&D goblin, after all, is basically just one of the lower steps on the Evil Humanoid ladder, right above kobolds and below orcs. But in fact, Blizzard had established a precedent for goblins back in Warcraft II, where they drew less from D&D and more from Magic: the Gathering, which gave them access to crude explosives and balloons and similar unreliable, prone-to-backfire technologies. WoW takes that further, making them not just figures of slapstick violence with lots of explosions, but also Azeroth’s masters of industrial technology.

Note that WoW already had a diminutive, technologically-oriented race on the Alliance side: gnomes. Adding goblins as a player race is something of a step towards symmetry. Just how much symmetry there should be between Horde and Alliance seems to be something that Blizzard has seesawed about for a long time. (In the original Warcraft, the two sides were exactly equivalent modulo graphics until you reached the point where the more powerful spellcasters were available.) Gnomes and goblins are very different in style, though. Gnomes are portrayed as craftsmen who create marvelous clockwork devices. Goblins are more into fossil fuels, explosions, and despoiling the environment. Gnomish devices tick and whirr; goblin contraptions shudder and belch fumes. Every playable race has a special type of mount that characters of at least level 20 can buy and ride: the humans’ horses, the skeletal steeds of the undead, the wolves of the orcs. Gnomes get gleaming mechanical chocobos. Goblins get little three-wheeled go-karts with exposed engines. One of the first things you see when you exit Orgrimmar in the direction of goblin territory is a bunch of ungainly goblin-piloted mechs with buzzsaws for hands, busily clear-cutting the forest so they can strip mine the hills it’s on. Their disregard for nature is rivaled only by their disregard for personal safety. If you bring a goblin an unknown device as part of a quest, chances are that they’re going to poke and prod it until until it explodes in their face. There’s one quest where a lab accident set a bunch of goblins on fire, and they just run around on fire indefinitely.

The really important thing to understand about goblins, though, is that they speak with New York accents and Pesci-esque verbiage. This underscores the despoiling-of-nature part again — just as New Yorkers are content to live on an island that’s been almost completely paved over, so too would goblins pave the world if there’s a buck in it for them, or if they thought it would look neat. But more importantly, the mode of speech suggests an attitude, even an ethos. Goblins aren’t just ravening maniacs, they’re beings who do what they do because it fits their sense of cool. It’s just that their sense of cool involves heedlessness of consequences. This is probably also why they generally have the most aggressive style of communication, all “Whaddaya want?” and “You want a piece of me?”, even when addressing being three times their height.

As industrialists, the goblins are naturally also the Horde’s masters of commerce, and their various faction names all have words like “company” or “cartel” where other races would have “order” or “kingdom”. Looking over the special features of player-controlled goblins, I see the connection is made even more strongly there: goblins get discounts at stores and can access the bank from anywhere. Taken in combination with the accent, and given the treatment given to Tauren and Trolls, my first reaction is that they’re drawing from Jewish stereotypes. I’m certainly not the first to suggest this, either. But a quick google suggests that not everyone sees it: on forums where someone suggests it, it’s generally followed by vociferous denials and accusations of trolling (which are probably accurate). Let’s just say that nothing in WoW is just a racial stereotype, and that goblins definitely have stereotypical attributes all their own, apart from any real-world inspirations. It does, however, strike me as particularly problematic in this context that the goblins as seen in Warcraft II were suicide bombers. That was all very abstract at the time, but throw in identifiably ethnic attributes, and it retroactively starts smelling political. If I ever design a CRPG, I think I’ll leave out an explicit “race” mechanic just to avoid this kind of thing.

Faerie Solitaire: Difficulty and lack thereof

So, yeah. I played some more of this. It’s not the most sophisticated or compelling of games, but it’s easy to slip into and out of, and doesn’t require a lot of attention and doesn’t demand that you keep track of context between sessions, and these attributes make it well-suited for slipping in between other things. And I do intend to finish it eventually. Let’s take a look at what that involves.

The game is divided into 40 levels, grouped arbitrarily into eight “stages” of five. (There’s a set of five extra-hard “Challenge” levels as well, external to story mode and accessible from the main menu.) Each level consists of nine hands. So, that’s 360 hands in the main game (plus 45 in the challenge levels).

The hands themselves don’t seem to get significantly more difficult over the course of the game. There may have been some variation in difficulty in the very earliest ones, when it was acting as a tutorial, but that was a long way back. Instead, the game increases the difficulty through increasing the criteria for passing levels. At first, all you have to do to pass is meet a certain minimal score (filling a progress bar) in each of the nine hands in a level to pass. Then it starts making extra demands, like “fill the progress bar within two minutes of starting a hand” or “win at least two levels perfectly” (that is, clear all the cards) or “earn at least $7000 over the course of the level”, and after that, it starts combining them, making multiple demands. Failure to meet all of a level’s demands means you have to restart it from the beginning, even if you passed each hand.

Even with these criteria, things don’t really get more difficult. Remember, you get to use your earned riches to buy power-ups, in the form of structures in Fairyland, that give you cheat-like special abilities. This easily offsets the increased demands of the levels — in fact, I have yet to lose a level in the main game. I have, however, tried and lost the Challenge levels. That’s how I know that the game is actually capable of making things difficult, and also how I know that the power-ups are effective. I just purchased the most expensive one, a “tree of life” that makes 1/4 of the cards that would start face-down start face-up instead. Lack of information is your chief enemy in this game, so this was clearly worth saving up for, even if I had to ignore some lesser power-ups to reach it. And now that I have it, I’ve managed to pass a Challenge level for the first time.

WoW: Types and Names

Azeroth is big. It’s not as big as space, but it’s still pretty big, and needs creatures of various sorts to populate it. There are something like thirty regions per continent, each with a couple dozen named sub-regions, and each of these sub-regions has at least three or four distinct types of native monster. And that’s not even getting into the dungeons.

But, of course, a lot of those monster types aren’t very distinct. Where an old 2D game would do a palette swap, WoW does a texture swap, and frequently a rescale as well, making the more powerful versions of a monster physically larger. (To some extent, it does this for PC races as well. Powerful NPC orc generals tower over the regular player orcs.) Sometimes the level is the only difference between two forms of a creature. Sometimes the different forms display tangibly different behavior, as when a humanoid monster race has members that cast spells. Either way, the game always tacks some sort of modifier onto the name to keep things clear. Thus, you have Quilboar Hunters and Quilboar Thornweavers, Plainstriders and Adult Plainstriders and Elder Plainstriders and Ornery Plainstriders, Swamp Crocolisks and Snapjaw Crocolisks and Frenzied Crocolisks. There doesn’t seem to be any general pattern to the choice of modifier.

There are also a great many types of equipment. A large proportion of the quests offer as a reward a special item that you can’t get any other way, or even a choice of two or three such items. These always have names that reflect the quest in some way: if you have a quest to find and kill a traitor, say, you might wind up with something like a Hammer of Treason, or Disloyal Greaves, or a Turn Coat. (Yes, they use these names as an opportunity for jokes.) Obviously there’s no pattern to these names either, but there do seem to be modifiers with consistent meaning among the items you find at random. For example, I’ve found several items named “Bard’s [something] of [something]”, like “Bard’s Gloves of the Monkey”. Apparently these are all leather items with a required character level somewhere between 11 and 15, providing a minor stat enhancement encoded by the “of” clause. It’s not surprising that Blizzard uses this sort of scheme, because the randomly-generated magic items in Diablo followed a similar pattern.

There’s a modifier “Fel” that I’ve seen a lot while playing as a warlock. I assume it’s a fantasy-world-spellingification of the English adjective “fell”, but it has a more specific meaning: it’s the WoW word for demonic energy. I suppose they didn’t want to actually use the word “demonic” lest it worry the parents, although I don’t really know why they’d bother, considering that this is a game that actually lets players summon imps and succubi. And, for that matter, “felguards” (demonic warriors available to warlocks specializing in demonology) and “felsteeds” (the coal-black demon horse with flaming hooves I mentioned once before). “Fel” is also used in the names of equipment I’m not powerful enough to use yet, as well as one region: the Felwood. It’s the one most wide-ranging made-up linguistic element I’ve noticed so far, although it’s possible that there are others.

In Mulgore, there’s a type of bird of prey called a Swoop. There are Wiry Swoops, Dread Swoops, and Defiant Swoops. I wonder if there are any swoops characterized by demonic energy? I suppose that if there is, I’d be unlikely to see it. There’s bound to be only one of them.

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