July 2009 Archives

I don't usually just post videos without much to say about them, but CCP's put out a new trailer that really gets to the heart of why Eve is different from every other MMO out there at the moment.  This one highlights a player event, but the same could be said of the metaplot's potential:

The Butterfly Effect

"The body's in here, detective -- manager said another renter complained about the smell, so he opened it up and found the body.  Called us right away," explained the uniform, leading us towards the cluster of squad cars and the coroner's van.

The smell as we walked into the small self-storage facility nearly had me putting my lunch on the ground -- this guy had been dead a while, no doubt about it.  From the looks of things, he hadn't come to a very pleasant end, either.  His neck had been slashed from ear to ear, though there didn't seem to be nearly enough blood for him to have been completely exsanguinated.  Decomposition had been at work for a while and it looked like this place had a rat problem.

"Christ.  Fucking freaks," I heard Chance mutter.  Under the rotting corpse and the blood that was there, some sort of white chalk pentagram had been drawn, ringed with the "mystic" symbols that we'd started to see more and more the last couple years.  Used to be you could count on it all being a bunch of wannabes or deranged cultists, but these days, you never knew.

"You think that's bad, look up," said Paulsen, the forensics geek.  He pointed up towards the ceiling, where someone had painted another strange symbol, nearly two meters across, in red paint.  Except it wasn't paint.

"Jesus.  The Feds are going to be all over this one.  You got an ID on this guy?"  I didn't expect that anyone had found his wallet, but if we got lucky and he'd been fingerprinted at some point.

"Working on a DNA match, but so far nothing.  I'd put time of death at at least three or four days ago, but I'll know more once I get him back to the lab."

Any reader of this blog has probably figured out that I'm a big fan of Shadowrun, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year (and I finally broke down and bought 4th Edition -- I'll be getting one of the numbered Limited Edition hardcovers when they are released (I assume around GenCon, though no actual street date has been announced).  I haven't played the game in a long time, and to be honest I'm not too fond of the direction the new edition took with the setting -- it's much more Ghost in the Shell these days than Neuromancer -- but I still have a lot of fondness for the game, and for the people who write it.  I would really like to get back to the game again.

My favorite period in the canon Shadowrun timeline is around 2055, the tail-end of the Dowd/Findley heyday that I've talked about before.  However, one period I've always thought I'd love to try running a game in is the period right as the world is still coming to grips with all the changes of the Awakening.  Magic is still relatively new and strange, the Matrix is just coming online, elves and dwarves are starting to come into adulthood and orks and trolls have been around for barely a decade.  The megacorporations are still solidifying their positions and the old order is making its last stand, as the Eurowars rage.

To steal a trick used by NSDM's Cold War scenarios, here's some comparisons between 2032 and today.  In 2032:

It might just be the fact that I'm rewatching the first couple seasons of Homicide: Life on the Street lately, but I think it'd be really cool to run a police procedural sort of campaign in this period, with the players playing homicide cops during a time of change.  I'm not sure I'll ever get to, but I think I might try playing with the idea some and writing some fiction set in that period, if nothing else.  I've been toying with the idea for quite a while, and this is sort of a way to keep me from letting myself forget about it too much.
I read two articles recently that made me think a lot about the way I think and how I see myself.  I don't know if I would say I have low self-esteem, but I do know that I am monumentally insecure, and I suspect the vast majority of my most annoying character traits come from that.

First was from Squaremans, his first article in a new series called "The Process."  He discusses the working relationship of three directors, and how an honest dialogue is important to their creative process.  That same sort of relationship is the one I want to have with the people I work with, regardless of the field.  Luckily, where I work now, I do have a very honest relationship with my coworkers -- if I screw up, I can count on them to call me on it and vice versa, and we can all count on each other to own up to our mistakes and point out our own errors.  I'm not sure if I have always been wired this way or it has just grown out of my working environment organically, but now I find it difficult to work without that kind of honest back and forth.  This has, unfortunately, gotten me into a bit of trouble when I work with people who don't work that way, or when I am not in a venue appropriate to that sort of discussion.  The people who know me well can probably guess as to what I'm talking about.  I'm slowly learning to self-censor a little better, but I think I will always crave this sort of brutal honesty.

The second article was Time's "Yes, I Suck: Self-Help Through Negative Thinking," which talks about how affirmations only tend to make people with low self-esteem feel worse.  This is a common problem for me; I tend to feel like the people I'm getting the compliments from are either trying to make me feel better or don't know any better -- yes, I know that sounds arrogant, no, I don't really have any retort to that.  I suspect that's another problem I can blame on my insecurity.  Part of this though, I think, comes from the working environment I talked about above, though.  If I'm not getting a good dose of criticism, I feel like people aren't being honest with me, and it drives me crazy.  The feeling I get is something stronger than simple frustration though, it's almost like I feel like I've been betrayed.  I realize this is probably insane, especially since they are more than likely trying to be nice to me, but I think over the years I've slowly become very suspicious of people who are unwaveringly nice to me.  Probably not the most redeeming quality, but it's hard to break out of.

I'm not sure where this particular aspect of my psychology comes from, but I think it goes pretty far back -- my parents have never been the coddling type.  They have always been very firmly on the side of the "teach a man to fish" philosophy, which has ended up being to my benefit, even if I didn't necessarily think so at the time.  They have always been supportive, but also honest about their feelings, with regard to my work (which, I admit, I sometimes feel they are a little too uncritical of) and everything else about my life, and I've come to expect it.  I really can't thank them enough, but I admit at times it seems like a mixed blessing.
"When everything is possible, nothing is interesting."  -- HG Wells

That quote from H.G. Wells is from a review of the last BSG episode, linked from a detailed analysis of said episode by EFF Director Brad Templeton, who says that the series finale was "most disappointing ending ever."  I don't know if I would go that far, but I was extremely disappointed -- I didn't write about it because I didn't end seeing it until about a month or two after it actually aired, and figured it was kind of late for that.

However, the more I read his analysis, the more I realized he was echoing pretty much everything that I thought about the episode (though I admit the bad science didn't bother my as much, partly because my grasp of biology and genetics is not quite as strong as his).  I think the most interesting part of his analysis for me was that it echoed a lot of the same general complaints I had about the plot of The Empyrean Age.  With the second Eve novel on the horizon, and nearly a year passed since that review, I thought I'd try to explain why I feel so strongly about the Eve storyline and why I keep coming back to it time and time again (even though I'm sure some of you are getting real tired of it).

Eve Online is a unique environment in that unlike nearly every other MMO or virtual world out there, there is only one "shard" for the vast majority of players (not counting the Serenity China cluster, which has a much smaller playerbase and I believe is run fairly autonomously).  Not only does this provide some very interesting gameplay dynamics, but it also provides a unique storytelling opportunity.

Part of this is the stories players create -- when BoB, Goonswarm, and the Northern Coalition collide in massive space battles, or hard-fought territorial contests, or daring espionage attempts, their actions have repercussions that everyone in the game can feel.  Unlike with a sharded game, I cannot isolate myself from events by moving to another server.  Even smaller scale events, like empire wars between small corps or simply pirates camping a chokepoint, can have repercussions throughout the game world, or at least in their local area.

However, it also provides an unparallelled storytelling opportunity for the game developers.  The fact that there is only one shard means that the story can be manageably changed based on player feedback (by which I mean gameplay-wise, not simply comments).  On a sharded game, this becomes impossible to manage as the various shards all go in different directions.  If you set up a conflict between two entities, the various permutations of events become harder to keep track of and adjust for, especially as they stack upon one another.  You end up having to keep a storyline group or at least a developer for every shard, something that probably does not get much return on investment, considering that some games have a large number of shards (WoW has over 200 shards for North America alone).

Eve has a tremendous advantage here.  With a single shard, they can create immersive plotlines that respond to player influence -- therefore getting more people involved in the plotline (at least emotionally) and increasing its value as a retention tool.  It also allows complex storylines that can be unfolded over the course of months or years, with ripple effects that filter through to everyone in the game, and created shared experienced.  Old Eve players, including myself, will still talk about momentous events in the game they witnessed -- I can still remember seeing the CONCORD battlefleet on its way to break the m0o blockade of Mara and Passari, way back in the months shortly after release, and there's plenty of other examples I could point to.  That event is especially interesting because it was driven by the actions of players.  Whether or not you think m0o was acting within the rules of the game and this was "unfair," or whether you think they were exploiting game mechanics, you cannot deny that they prompted an event in which the NPC world of Eve collided with the PC world.

This continued through AURORA events; as flawed as they may have been, and I can't deny there were problems, they were CCP's best tool for tying the storyline of the game to the world of the players.  Few other games have that kind of strong connection -- by the very nature of their design, most MMOs, if they have a storyline at all, only have a one-way interaction, from NPC world to PC world, if that.  Now that they are gone, I think most of us in the Eve roleplaying community feel like a lot of the immersion and emotional reward of roleplaying has been lost.  Interaction between the game's storyline and the actions of players has been reduced to a few notes in the margins, a few news articles, and a medal for those of us in the Caldari militia.  This is a far cry from when I remember reading how Omerta Syndicate was blown away by an AURORA actor simply acknowledging their own backstory.

CCP has this kind of storytelling power at its disposal, but I feel like they have become too afraid to use it, largely as a result of some scandals that I think may have been somewhat overblown and could have been corrected without such a drastic measure.  Unfortunately, they have also made the choice to go from a very static setting to one that changes overnight based on, in my opinion, some unnecessarily outlandish events.  That is what I thought about when I read that HG Wells quote at the top of this post, specifically comments TonyG made at last year's FanFest about aspects of his book, about how science fiction makes anything possible.

I'm not going to rehash those arguments here -- you can look back and see what I've said before if you want.  What I will say is that the reason I feel so passionately about the Eve storyline, and wanting it to be as strong as possible, is because it is so unique, and because it has the possibility of showing that this kind of a dynamic, player-responsive storyline can actually work on a large scale.  This sort of thing has been done before, on a much smaller scale, with RP-intensive MUDs like Armageddon; they have a far smaller player base however, and are largely run as hobbies, not as businesses, so they don't have as good a chance of proving the argument that a good storyline has business value.

If the Eve storyline fades into irrelevance, if it becomes just a bit of decoration, then it becomes that much harder to make a business case for spending the money to hire good writers for games like this.  As someone who thinks that story is one of the most important parts of any game, and who feels that it is important that gameplay elements be closely tied to that storyline, I don't want to see that happen.  I admit, part of it is for selfish reasons -- someday, I'd really like to work in the industry on projects like that.  The larger issue, though, is that I think that is something of greater value to the art of game design and storytelling, and I don't want to see an opportunity squandered.
The last few weeks have been exciting ones for fans of old-school adventure games.  Last week, LucasArts brought several of their classic adventure games to Steam (as well as some of their other games, which I am less excited about) in a move I am going to tentatively call "genius."  I've been wondering when they were going to do something with their old catalog, which had been languishing for years despite some legacy CDs published a while ago.  The LucasArts adventures were the pinnacle of the adventure gaming genre, and it's disappointing that the genre has sort of faded into obscurity since the late 90s (much like space sims, sadly).

The four they've released so far -- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Loom, and The Dig, were all SCUMM games, which was one of the best adventure game systems of its time, and those games continued to stay alive thanks to ScummVM.  However, they are hard to find these days, at least legally -- and now I can buy it through Steam and have access to them from anywhere, which is nice.

Of those four, Fate of Atlantis is probably my favorite -- it feels far more like an Indy game than the last movie felt like an Indy movie.  But my favorites of the SCUMM games were the Monkey Island games; and tomorrow, LucasArts will be releasing The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, which updates the classic first game in that series with new graphics, sound, and a UI overhaul.



The best part is the price -- $10!  It's a steal, especially if you never played the game when it came out.  I admit I don't know how I feel about the new graphics; I think my favorite look for the game, artistically, is the cartoon-style art from the Curse of Monkey Island (Monkey Island 3).  Still, this is something that people have been asking for from a lot of classic games for a long time -- X-Com, for instance, which has seen a lot of "remakes" but none that quite capture the feel of the original.

Last week also brought the first of a new series of Monkey Island games from Telltale Games, a team that includes many of the original Monkey Island developers.  I have played through the first episode, and I'm not sure how I feel about it.

As I said, I preferred the art style of CMI, and the new games have one much more like Escape from Monkey Island (albeit much better looking), which I just feels....wrong to me somehow.  I know it's much easier to publish for, but it just feels like something is "off" about the look.  There is also a new voice actor for LeChuck, I believe, and at least in this first episode, he doesn't seem as good as the original -- to be honest, a lot of the voice acting in the new one seems a little lackluster, though I know some of that is because it has a much lower budget than the original games.

Overall, though, the first episode, while short, has some good moments and the puzzles are not bad.  The one complaint I have is about a series of auditory puzzles that mean it's pretty much impossible for one of my friends, who is hearing-impaired, to play the game.  This was disappointing, since she was a big fan of the first four, and I hope Telltale thinks about this sort of thing in the future.  It wouldn't be so bad if there was a way to turn on some sort of subtitles -- maybe that's something that can be retrofitted later.

The writing is not bad, but, sadly, I don't think it's quite up to the level of the originals (though I think my problems with the voice acting and perhaps a little of the character design are influencing my thoughts in this regard).  There were a few laugh-out-loud moments, but not nearly as many as in the first 2-3 hours of the other Monkey Island games.  It's probably hard to catch the lightning in a bottle of Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer, but I really hope they get better in the next four episodes.  It has been done before, after all:



Overall, I'd say it's worth the roughly seven bucks (5 episodes for 35 dollars), but honestly, for your gaming dollar, if you haven't played them, get the classics first!
Andrew Sullivan linked to a blog post on Feministe last night by a transgender woman  and it made me think about my own issues with gender and forms, and how that has affected me over the last ten years.  I have been far luckier than her; my family, my workplace, my doctor, even the civil servants I've had to deal with through my journey have been remarkably understanding and helpful.  However, I still wait for the other shoe to drop -- every time I've had to talk to someone about it I worry that this will be the time that it all goes wrong.  That is the threat that constantly hangs over my head and causes me stress, even if it never happens.

At the root of this are the fact that there are two "genders" at issue here -- legal gender and "biological" gender.  99% of the time, what actually matters is your legal gender, and this is where things get complicated.  Is it what is on your birth certificate, or your passport, or your driver's license?  Some states will never let you change your birth certificate.  Some won't let you change it until you have surgery (in the case of Illinois, it must be in the United States -- one of the reasons I went to Dr. Meltzer, aside from the fact that he's an excellent surgeon).  Some will let you change your driver's license before you have surgery.  The State Department will let you change your passport if you have a surgery date scheduled within a year.

But the bigger question is, why does legal gender matter?  Men and women should be seen as equal under the eyes of the law, so why does the state care what's on my driver's license?  Do I look like my picture?  Are they really going to be looking between my legs during a traffic stop?  It's kind of ridiculous.  There's no reason this has to be such a mess.  If someone is transgendered, they should be able to change that little M or F on their license or simply decline to have anything there.  And on 99% of forms, they are asking about legal gender -- and in most cases, it's completely irrelevant to what they are asking about.  Why does my gender matter when I'm opening a bank account?

And then we come to biological gender.  Here's where it gets complicated.  A doctor should probably know what your chromosomal gender is, simply because it does matter to some medical problems.  But most of the time, even before I had vaginoplasty, it doesn't help at all -- what is more important for the doctor to know?  That I was born male, or that I'm on female hormones?  That I was born male, or that I had vaginoplasty?  If I put an F on that form, and he doesn't pay attention to the rest of my medical history, now that I've had vaginoplasty, he may overlook the fact that I still have a prostate, or that I don't have a uterus, or something else that could cause problems.  That M or F doesn't tell the doctor anything that would be important for a problem where gender was actually an issue.  So the question becomes, when I'm filling out a medical form, is it asking for my legal gender (which is female) or my biological gender?  And which is more important?

Then there's the whole problem with emergency medical care.  There are cases where pre-operative transsexuals have been in accidents, and as soon as the EMTs discovered that their genitals "didn't match" they stopped treating them.  I'm sure that for most medical professionals that would never happen -- but the problem is, you don't know if it will, and in all likelihood you won't be able to do anything about it.  So you worry -- and that's one of the reasons I decided to have vaginoplasty, despite the fact that I didn't have strong feelings about my genitalia either way.  That's a problem that won't ever be solved by a form though, sadly.

I don't reject gender outright, like some people do -- like it or not, those social constructs exist and the whole fact that I feel female while I was born male to me means that that construct has some grounding in biology -- granted, gender may be a continuum with two peaks, like I suspect sexual orientation is -- but the schizophrenic way society treats transgendered people certainly highlights the fact that arbitrary boxes do not fit everyone.

Consider the case of a transgendered woman who marries a man.  In many states, this is illegal because it is considered same-sex marriage.  A transgendered woman I know who lives in Massachusetts married her wife prior to the state legalizing same-sex marriage, however, because she still had an M on her birth certificate.  And then you have cases where a transgendered woman marries a man -- either because her gender has been legally changed or because of a bureaucratic oversight, and then after he dies, she is unable to file a wrongful death suit or carryout other legal action that a spouse would normally be able to do.  This can vary state by state -- adding more confusion, especially if you were married in one state and move to another.  It's a complete mess -- and means basically that a couple with a transgendered person in it requires a ton of extra legal work to convey the same rights a married couple would have, just like a gay couple.

Like Queen Emily, I think gender is going to be around for a long time.  But I hope to god that the law becomes less retarded in its regard sooner rather than later.  I'm not an activist, and honestly, the fact that I'm transgendered is not really important to my identity (though the fact that I'm a woman is), so most of the time I don't make a big deal about the fact that I'm transgendered.  But this is an issue where I can't avoid dealing with that fact, and it drives me crazy every time.
It's been over a year since CCP introduced factional warfare to Eve Online, and over a year since my corporation began its participation, and we've seen some sweeping changes to the way the game is played as a result, not all of which seem to have been good for the game, especially the roleplaying community.  While I am still wrankled about the storyline problems over the last year, that's not what this article is going to be about really -- I may address that in another post later.

The Good

  • Factional warfare managed to bring back small-scale skirmish warfare, at least for a time.  In our fighting on the Caldari-Gallente front, we actually saw a lot of small (10 or fewer people on a side) gang fighting.  There were some aberrations -- pushes by FOOM or other big corporations distorted things, when they could make 20+ person fleets alone -- but for the most part on that front, there was a lot of fun fighting with relatively little blobbing (more on this later though).
  • By a similar token, small, cheap ships -- tech 1 frigates, destroyers, and cruisers -- actually got a lot more use on the front lines, since they could get into the more restrictive complexes.  That's good to see, since it makes the game more accessible to the newer players in the game.  Tech 1 cruisers are still some of my favorite ships to fly, so it's good to see them getting a bit more use in the game, instead of being dismissed as "useless" compared to tech 2 ships and battleships.
  • The above two points managed to bring in a lot of new players to PvP, which was one of CCP's goals -- and a fair number of factional warfare participants did leave for 0.0 after spending time in the militia, notably the 22nd Black Rise Defensive Unit, which had been one of the most successful members of the Caldari militia.
  • Plexing introduced a new mechanic that did not necessarily favor giant blobs of the heaviest ships you can find, and allowed single, inexperienced pilots to make a difference, and new tactics to be developed (such as the "budget smartbomb doomsday").  That's good...but they have their own issues (see below).
The Bad

  • At least in the Caldari faction, there seems to have been a homogenization of the roleplaying groups, which, in combination with the storyline's progression since last May, seems to have drained a lot of enthusiasm out of the roleplaying community.  CAIN really did not want to join factional warfare at first because we have no desire to support anything related to Heth, but in order to defend the State we really had no choice but to join.  Wardeccing individual corporations just didn't work out very well (as the Star Fraction and others are coming to the same conclusion).  This has been a loss for the game, in my opinion -- factional warfare isn't nearly as interesting as our war against the Acheron Federation or other roleplaying enemies was in the past.
  • In an effort to make factional warfare appealing to as many people as possible, it was also made as consequence free as possible.  Players and corporations can come and go from various militias (even opposing ones in turn), Caldari militia forces can base out of Federation militia stations, and changes in occupancy have no real game effect whatsoever -- it's just a scoreboard.  This has caused a disengagement of players from the actual progression of the war and few members of the militias seem to feel any sort of strong attachment to their faction, many of them changing sides overnight when things got boring.
  • Factional warfare isn't really a sustainable activity for most people.  The "rewards" of doing so are limited to titles that mean nothing, and higher factional standing that most of the roleplaying community already had.  Even the titles are not really attainable any way other than plexing, which is a rather boring and unskilled activity at least three-quarters of the time -- note that the Gallente militia has been relatively even with the Caldari in terms of kills, even while they were having systems taken from them left and right.  This is largely because the most active corporations in the Gallente militia were not interested in bothering with plexing, whereas those in the Caldari militia -- the 22nd and PERVS, and to a lesser extent CAIN -- put effort into it.
  • Factional warfare was designed as an introductory/transitional activity, which probably contributes to the above point.  For some people, that's not necessarily a bad thing -- the 22nd, FOOM, and a number of other corporations have left the militia with their new experience to try their hand in 0.0.  But for roleplaying corporations that want to align with the empires in the way that they've been doing informally for the last several years, it leads to more dissatisfaction and frustration.  After "winning" on the Caldari front, there just doesn't seem to be anywhere else to go for us.  This unfortunately feeds back into more dissatisfaction with roleplaying and the storyline in general (there's a lot of that going on, yes).
  • Factional warfare seems half-finished (largely because of the above points).  Despite being promised for years, it seems like the design was extremely simple and something that CCP thought they would come back to and improve later (and, in fact, they are doing that very thing now), but they waited too long.
The Ugly

  • Tama (and, on the Amarr-Minmatar front, Kamela).  A meatgrinder on an epic scale, where people feel compelled to fight and yet accomplish absolutely nothing.  This obviously wasn't something CCP intended, but it arose just the same.  It turned a lot of people off factional warfare as well, because they thought that was all there was to it.  I'm not sure of an easy way to fix that either.
  • Factional warfare seems to have only made the increasing disconnect between the player universe and the NPC universe in Eve more and more obvious.  The party line seems to be that "occupation" is only space superiority, and even that has relatively little effect on the people on the ground.  In my experience, that seems to have only increased dissatisfaction with the game's storyline and factional warfare in general -- many of the roleplayers I know see it as "dumbing down" the game or making roleplaying (and the storyline itself) increasingly pointless.  I can't help but feel some sympathy for this point of view.
  • Tied to the previous point, the whole plexing/bunker mechanic doesn't seem to make a lot of sense in terms of the game world, and it's such a transparent "game" that it hurts immersion, much like the mess that is sovereignty.
  • Pirates in the militias are extraordinarily frustrating, but if they are in yours you can't be proactive about them because of the standing hits.  This doesn't come up that often -- most of the pirates don't stay in the militias for the same reason -- but it's another almost unavoidable ramification of how factional warfare works.
  • Organizing a fleet of militia pilots seems even worse than herding cats.  I think every single militia has one or more "trusted" channels for specific corporations or pilots, and even then it's difficult to organize.  This isn't something easily fixed, but it's a bit disheartening to see 300 people in militia chat and no one actually interested in fighting, or anything more interesting than a giant blob (usually in a major center of fighting, like Tama).  All four militias are essentially the same as a horribly failing alliance, only one where no one trusts anyone else but their own corporation and people can decide for themselves whether to join or not.  Even worse, the militias are riddled with spies, and there's really no easy way for a new player to know which FCs can be trusted to know their stuff, or simply not to be griefers that are going to lead them into some nullsec gatecamp (though the latter certainly happens considerably less these days).
Overall, I have to say that factional warfare has been disappointing for me and the other players I play with.  This was essentially the same sentiment I had when I participated in the factional warfare roundtable at FanFest last year, and there were no substantial changes since then, so perhaps that's unsurprising.  While I am hopeful that it will be improve, the only change announced so far (giving factional warfare participants loyalty points for their activities) seems like a bandaid that really won't solve many of the fundamental problems with the mechanics.  Rather than call it a failure, though, I think I'd call it a false start, and one which has been allowed to linger too long -- only time will tell if it is allowed to fester like the sovereignty problem or if the devs will manage to make it a truly compelling feature of the game.

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