Thursday, August 28, 2008

Weekend Whammered

So, courtesy of a $5 purchase at Fry's, I found myself in possession of a key to unlock access to Whammer's (Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, aka WAoR, WAR) preview weekend. Whammer is the next big thing in the Massive Multiplayer Online Game (MMO/MMOG) industry. Even better, the makers of Whammer, Mythic, lifted their NDA so I can actually say what I think (gee, lucky you). This preview weekend was for this last weekend only and will be supplemented by an open beta slated to start September 7th, followed by early access to the released version before the general public (the latter, as long as you purchased the game). Beta releases still fall in the bug-fixing stage and the application was peppered with feedback forms soliciting information during the course of play, and was understood to be lacking in aspects intended for the general release. Judging by past betas, beta characters will likely be wiped whereas early access characters will persist as long as purchased product key is offered up. Nevertheless, at well over nine gigs of download and at this late date, one can expect this beta to have much of the same look & feel of the final product.

That's not always the case: Funcom apparently pulled off an industry hail-mary between the beta and release of Age of Conan (AoC), which was said to be plagued by problems and apparently foreshadowed yet another disasterous MMO launch from an industry keen to tap into the huge revenue stream presented by Blizzard's World of Warcraft (WoW) phenomena, but often without the wherewithal to put together a product that will ultimately stand to the test of thousands, or what all competitors hope to be millions, of players. In Funcom's case, probably through caffeine and other stimulant-induced development overdrive, managed to overcome most of the issues that haunted their beta and deliver what is oft-stated to be one of most successful product releases since WoW's own launch years ago. To date, AoC is the only competing MMO, a fact noted by Blizzard executives, that has managed to take a noticeable bite out of WoW's marketshare, and that that bite being very overstated, being really no more than a nibble. How at 400k players, AoC qualifies as a success whereas EVE Online (EVE) is considered a more niche MMO at 250k excapes me. I would think compared to WoW's 10.9 million, both are rather niche. Still, the fact that 60% of WoW players who left for AoC seemed to have left WoW altogether, presumabely for AoC but possibly for other titles, has provided some notice, one might presume concern, for Blizzard executives and shows that WoW is starting to show it's age, with the inference that that lucrative revenue stream that has flowed and swelled each year into Blizzard's accounts is at jeopardy of being channelled into other coffers. Put another way, if only WoW's monthly fathful can be lured to pop into other gaming temples to partake, they might be seduced to convert, congregate, and hence tithe at a new fount of fun.

With such a hope, Mythic, supplemented in development funds after their purchase by Electronic Arts (EA), hopes to spin the Warhammer franchise into gold, and not the virtual kind mind you. For those that don't know the history, there is also said to be a bit of rivalry between these titles. The original Warcraft and Starcraft RTS computer games were originally developed by Blizzard as spin-off products for Games Workshop's successful roleplaying and miniatures tabletop wargames, Warhammer Fantasy Battles, and Warhammer 40K. Due to a falling out along the way, they were rebranded, leaving superficial and obvious similarities but no direct tie between game universes. If any of that is at all true, then the irony is that both Warcraft and Starcraft have eclipsed their inspiration to dominate the computer game arena. Though Warhammer FB and Warhammer 40k have continued to success on the computer and game consoles in various incarnations and continue to be successful in their miniatures forms, nothing to date has equaled the raging monetary success of the Warcraft and Starcraft titles through all their incarnations, including and especially WoW.

I predict that Warhammer Online will be a success. In fact, given the horde of Warhammer miniatures players that will be tempted to try out an MMO, if only for the Warhammer name, success seems almost guaranteed as long as the product is viable and captures some of that Warhammer feel; Whammer is and does. But niche success is not what EA Mythic, nor any vendor I would argue, is after. There has been a continual parade of MMOs since WoW's breakthough that have embarked on the seas of public fancy, with dreams of plunder and fame. Many it seems have either sunk on their journey, landed and died or are dying via subscriber starvatation, or have washed ashore, barely clinging to life in a market landscape that cannot support them all. Yet more come, lured by the sirens' call of money - a lot of money. Blizzard's annual revenue is stated to be somewhere between 1.1-1.3 BILLION dollars anually, WoW contributing most of that. Though subscription rates in the hundreds of thousands guarantee a profit stream, the ROI is not titanic, given the time to develop these monster offerings. Game manufacturers, who had been quite content before with the raging success of two-hundred thousand monthly subscribers consider such to be niche titles nowadays - sustainable and perhaps a small cash cow for new offerings - or at best something that will grow over time but will never be the market dominator. I suspect this shift in perspective has something to do with the WoW banner that each company holds up when attracting investors. The problem is, use WoW as a showcase for potential, understand that investors will expect WoW-like returns - which in turn puts pressures on development to deliver and deliver early.

Mythic was said to be shielded somewhat by a massive cash infusion from EA so that items previously on the shelf were back in production, though several key features will still be absent at launch, such as key tanking classes and cities for some of the races. So how did Mythic EA do judging by my eyes over this weekend? Well, to be honest, though I devoted many hours last weekend to try the product out, that demands on my time would not allow for anything other than a cursory examination. So take what you read as being simply superficial observations in the context of personal preference and not a good valuation of the product beyond that context. Games are like movies and books, each title speaks to its own audience and people find such that best fit their own personal tastes and are valuable only if you lean towards the same kinds of material in a similar manner. For myself, I tend to value MMOs as a casual social function to hook up with IRL friends, and value their environment and storytelling (quests) immersive experience - which puts me squarely in the PvE camp, admittedly though I have a blast when mixing in PvP and love to go on PvP jags as a welcome break. I also have an admitted short-MMO-attention span and will jump titles, being more interested in the mechanics and game aspect, rather than in creating any long-term presence.


Whammer is intended to be a subscription-based MMO with a monthly fee ($14.99), same as WoW, like EVE, like LOTRO, like AoC, like Pirates of the Burning Sea, like Dungeons and Dragons Online, like City of Heroes/Villains, like Everquest (EQ), like Star Wars Galaxies, like Final Fantasy XI (FFXI), like Tabula Rasa, like Huxley, like Vanguard, etc, etc, etc. Does anyone see a pattern here? Does anyone see a problem here? Well, I suggest the problem is that these vendors are starving themselves of revenue by trying to outdo WoW in ways other than monthly revenue model and, often, even pricing. An interesting thing about products is that you tend to go with what you know. Before Macromedia was ingested by its competitor, Adobe, I once went to a product review where Macromedia was showcasing it's new line, including Freehand. We oohed and ahhed and rightfully admitted that Freehand was a better product than Adobe's Illustrator on many counts. Why then was Freehand a minority product at probably less than 5% of market share? Why did, in a crowd of hundreds, only two people who were admitted Illustrator users, commit to switching to Freehand? Because people like to go with what they know, despite their products perceived inferiority. There's just more efficiency, less new learning, less cost, and a realization that your product will probably rip off those fancy new features given time anyway - which Illustrator did. I guess it won't come as a shock then that every MMO on the market is derivative of others in some way, in most ways, and that process is ongoing, with even venerable WoW not above incorporating "new" features in their forthcoming expansion that already exist in current competitors like LOTRO. And beyond that, something very particular to virtual worlds in general, you tend to go not with what you know, but with who you know. Unless you're a game jumper like me who just follows the fun, MMOs are also social ventures where you build up an online relationship of friends and associates; you're less inclined to try out a competing product because you'll miss your friends and whatever social distinction and ego-loot you wasted half your life in accumulating when your MMO alter-ego (emphasis on ego) goes away and you're a miserable peon again, possibly mimicking your real life.

In order to break through that tough skin of resilience and "loyalty" in such a lop-sided market, competing vendors really need to start thinking about ways to entice users into trying their products by being cheaper and more accessible AND better since better is almost required but not enough. Several of the above MMO products, at least to my thinking, are far superior to WoW - having learned from WoW to do what WoW did and cherry-pick the most successful vendor's (that would now be WoW) best features and either ignore or improve on the worst. But trying to steal WoW's thunder by costing the same is admitting defeat before the battle. Cost, trouble and especially sad farewells of leaving friends and associates (and armour) behind who will not exodus the old venue will always give the homeground advantage to WoW. I think one of the shocks for the Turbine's execs was how many people were willing to pony up a one-time $200 for a lifetime subscription to LOTRO in lieu of the normal monthly fee option. Though LOTRO has a healthy population that's growing, it's estimated to be quite small for all the quality that LOTRO presents and certainly when compared to WoW or upstarts like AoC. Just imagine if LOTRO had lowered that fee a bit. People who just cannot stomach the thought of another monthly subscription fee, especially in this economy, might be enticed if the fee was only a third of that fee or there was a fixed-price pay-up to reach that mark. The sucker punch is that, like micro-transaction and "free" MMOs, you still get people to pay, just through expansions and other extensions of an optional menu of ala carte bonuses and items and expansions, so the savings are somewhat illusionary.

Which is why I think that micro-transaction MMOs, if they ever manage to a) get over the cultural barrier in their penchant for grinding b) manage to get some quality writing and content will be the most likely challenge to WoW's market dominance. He who gets the most money wins, despite the revenue model. And if people paid more attention to the fact that Guild Wars (GW), which does not have a subscription fee, but bases its revenue model on expansion sales has sold millions and millions of copies and still has millions of users, despite also being rather long-in-the-tooth - gee, guess who's the real winner in the take-home sweepstakes? The answer is, unless you're WoW or GW, it's not any of the above. And my guess is it also won't likely be Whammer. So for cost, Whammer won't be more than other vendors, but since game-jumpers like me who have no real loyalty and leave for the next new thing aren't a good basis for long-term revenue stream, Whammer, coming as late as it does into the market, will really have an uphill battle seducing established MMO players away long-term. They might have a better job bringing in new players who adore the Warhammer brand name but who are new in general to MMOs. For Whammer's sake, let's hope so.

Combat & Quests

(/yawn) Sorry? What did you say? Sorry, let me read that quest text again: OK, it's no secret that all MMOs pretty much all use the same types of quests: kill x, get x, carry this, find this, rescue and escort some hopeless git, yada yada yada). Whammer cannot likely find a new paradigm, nor does it even seem to be trying. But given the wealth of lore already extent in the Whammer universe, can this MMO create engaging quests that hook me and move me through the story? Well, perhaps I was just distracted by the ugly graphics and bad animations but though I should have been engaged, I wasn't. Whammer really doesn't ease you into the world, and help you get a sense of your character's place in it all. Oh yes, you get the basic quests and if you know about the lore, you're probably ready-set-go. But compared to stellar quest writing as exists in games like LOTRO, and certainly AoC's maturely written quest lines - especially those on Tortage, Whammer is snoring boring. And there's little attempt to help you create that construct that makes for more emotional engagement (which means I'll want to log in and find out what happens next in my "personal" story). I mean, the Whammer races are full of nuance and rich lore and backdrop - and yet, Chaos felt as cookie-cutter as did Dark Elves as did High Elves. Greenskins maybe had a better feel and more time with them might have helped verify that. For someone who was not already versed in Whammer lore, I would find it pretty disjointing. I mean I know the factions are at war with each other - but why? And more to the point, why should I care? I was pretty much dropped into the world and quests were an excuse to go whack-a-mole - despite a veneer of racial context. Not until I got into the Public Quests, and that probably more due to the fact that that quest mechanic was fun rather than the quest itself, did I find myself getting engaged. And this is from someone who knows the backstory. I think not having a good springboard into the world probably left me with that sense of distance which is so regrettable because of any titles with a huge wealth of engaging lore to draw upon, Whammer would be among that number. Perhaps Whammer suffers a bit from being the offspring of Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) developers married to an offshoot of a game where lore and story were merely a backdrop of getting together for a massive battle. Stories in Warhammer miniatures are like building a lovely sand-castle but where the real act is the tearing down and the anticipation of the destruction and carnage to come. The real story is in the battle and anything that comes before need only been a pretext for the action. And the quest writing for this game, the game itself in fact, feels much the same rote mechanism of laying out the props, terrain and dressing for that battle.

Do I get the sense that the quest NPCs had any real depth or personality behind them? I did not. Certainly AoC's uneven yet slowly expanding quality voice-acting has yet to be matched. But even LOTRO and WoW, through just good story writing, managed more presence than Whammer did from what I experienced. And I'll have to hand it to LOTRO for a nice touch in that quest givers remember and respond to your character based on past actions, which even if its a bit of flavor text, helps preserve some of that epic story feel. There were some small exceptions but overall, Whammer quest-givers were as bland and forgettable as the environmental textures around them.

But, let's give props to Whammer that, like AoC, quest drops are more like they should be in a game to help cut down on the needless tedium of grinding. No more liverless boars or tongueless turtles that you find in WoW. But again, this should be a given, so it's welcome, but something that many if not most MMOs are doing now.

Public Quests are one of Whammer's strongest points and my personal favorite. I can't say how much fun it was to play in the Public Quest areas: general open areas tied to a quest where the goals and rewards can be contributed to by anyone in the area and therefore a chance at the lucrative (virtual albeit) rewards. Funny thing about virtual worlds, but I often find myself a bit shy in a crowd - even a virtual one. With open game arenas like those presented in Whammer's public quest area (which were not zoned or instanced in any way), you simply discovered them and when the short timer reset (if you happened upon them too late for the loot rolls at end), you could just pitch in and lend a hand next round and pretty soon you're on your way to meeting people. It's a great feature that many other MMOs would do well to borrow (as apparently Whammer did I am told, as this feature is/was part and parcel of another MMO: FFXI). In fact, being an avid observer of virtual world use in general, not just those for gaming, I would say that activity zones where people can just opt into an event or game or fun challenge without invitation or a need to partner or group or ask permission is a great feature that would benefit any communal medium for its social draw and benefit. The ones I experienced in Whammer consisted of three linked events comprising the overall quest and really did more than any of the other quests to help capture that faction feel for self-definition as regards character and a character's place in the overall world.

Combat? Hit a button and watch an animation, watch the numbers and eventually it dies. But will anyone care? I didn't. Combat was repetitive. Though later, I did unlock some buggy timing aspects that gave me a little variety in that one ability might unlock others and once I started getting the hang of that, I was finding myself getting more engaged and finally some of the intent of the game started shining through. But it took some time and effort for that to happen. Right off the bat, I wasn't having much fun. It reminded me somewhat of LOTRO, though I got the inkling that Whammer will eventually do a better job in keeping me focused on the combat, it still didn't offer the same level of engagement as AoC's simple 3-key targeting. Still, I got the sense that the method of this madness was very nuanced and was one of the potentials of this game, even if the visual execution - though varied - was a bit off. It still all felt very WoW-like, but with funky animations where blows didn't seem to quite connect with foes. Also, aggro radius was so minimal that my character was hardly in danger unless he/she wanted to be, and therefore hardly challenged. Quests became very boring as a result and PvE combat was a thing to be suffered rather than relished, as it is in AoC.

Death penalties: none, nada, no repair bill; runs back were short. Like that? Yeah, I did. But.... not sure if death penalties are always a bad thing as they do lead to a bit of caution and discipline and use of tactics. I think the summation is that I don't miss death penalties when they're gone, nor do I mind them much if they're there as long as they're not excessive, as EQs was said to be. Both treatments have some merit. And I have to say, WoW still has the classiest death experience - or did. I haven't played in ages and I think someone told me they got rid of the b&w ghostly vantage, which is a shame since it was beautiful and surreal. Whammer does have a repair function though, which is for damaged loot that can be reconstituted by a merchant to something nicely useful in many cases. Now that was a repair bill I was happy to pay.


Didn't see it; didn't do it. Did read about it in the PDF that came with the download though. Seems like there are more abilities to influence craft outcome than in WoW - similar to what LOTRO does in some ways, but more complex and to my mind, more interesting for its implied nuance - insofar as one can get from reading a manual and looking over intended interfaces. However, only a true test will bear that assumption out. I really can't stand crafting in most MMOs. I like the products of such because they help my characters look dudded out and their whack-a-mole abilities get nicely boosted but the means to those products are often dull dull dull process of hours of tedious gathering and used, as in the case of games like WoW and LOTRO, to disguise the fact that people have run out of things to do in the game. I don't know that Whammer will be any better, but at least the process adds a lot of complexity (hence wasting even more time but let's face it, some people, many people I'm guessing because these things keep getting added, like games with crafting complexity) getting "leet" and "uber" craft gear and abilities now to have some boasting and usefulness beyond whacking or sizzling things. And as proven by EVE's complex and studied virtual economy, rare crafting abilities can and will help your characters money pile grow, hence opening up other opportunities (sadly, like the real world, the lust for the bestest and mostest is everpresent and money, virtual or otherwise, is key if that's what you're after).


It has been said for graphics that the real deal will be in the installed product. The graphics in the beta download, in order to keep the file size down given it was already over nine gigabytes, was stripped of higher resolution textures and defaulted to medium/low. So there's no way to really accurately and fairly judge the product until release. Sadly, Whammer did not take a page out of LOTRO's book by giving out a disc in its preview package that included high resolution textures. Even so, since many who participated in the LOTRO preview did so via download, like Whammer, that game also was criticized for looking poorly - which when you think about how lauded LOTRO is for its environmental graphics, makes one wonder how many dissed the game and never looked back not realizing that they were missing key files. There is that maxim that you can only make a first impression once; I think for general public access like these open betas - best to not assume that everyone realizes the unfinished state of the product. Not everyone is that experienced or savvy about these things. And not including the high resolution textures as a seperate download or really overstating the point that the beta did not include final graphics I suggest was a mistake because it has led to the proliferation of rumour that Whammer is a somewhat ugly game, which may or may not be true. Insofar as an unfinished beta will allow then...

Character graphics were limited. I found very few of the "pretty" race faces to be appealing. If you're going for character as opposed to beauty - well, maybe a bit more choice then for your orcs and dwarves but really, character models and combat animations rather dull and limited - and actually I think Whammer really does less well than most other MMOs since WoW. Some of the incidental animations, like characters' hair moving or different poses adopted while standing still were welcome, but for the most part, the rather oddly rigid stance of standing and running mimicked the limited mobility. Sometimes I was wondering if they were taking being miniatures' game inspired a little too far. I had to check and see if there was a bit of plastic underneath my characters' feet.

Whammer, sadly to my mind but I think I understand the reasoning, went with a cartoony look from the school of WoW - certainly better looking - for cartoons, but toons nonetheless. I suspect this one done to help create the stability required for engaging in the huge PvP battles that will govern much of Whammer and pay homage to its miniatures roots as well as keeping the game accessible to a variety of systems. Still, it's hard to find a recent MMO that has worse looking character models in fact. Several "free" toony MMOs like Silk Road, Sword of the New World etc even manage to outdo Whammer. I would say, even venerable Guild Wars and its giraffe-necked creations looks far far better in this aspect.

Environmental graphics are a mixed bag. The overall art design is really fascinating to someone who played in the Warhammer world, either in computer RTS or miniatures. So to virtually step through this world - there were some really great buildings, weapons, and structures to see. Several NPCs or dressing characters marching to war were stock out of game replicas - only moving - so how cool is that? (<-- yeah, geek factor - so what!). But the execution again was very disappointing, flat, well, again, cartoony. It was good looking for a cartoon world. But given the environmental richness of LOTRO, EVE, or even to some extent, AoC, very ho-hum. When you've seen dynamic shadows, specular lighting from a moving sun or moon, water, or clouds, as well as varied weather - it's really hard to get excited about something as dated looking as Whammer. In fact, Whammer reminded me of nothing more than Dark Ages of Camelot (DAoC), another Mythic title that I believe predated even WoW. I never played DAoC but I've seen it enough on YouTube videos to not get the sense that perhaps that the Mythic art department was falling back on old styles a little too much. Item variety, even for what little I saw, was actually quite good. I was presented with a number of very interesting upgrades, which if it holds true to endgame, bodes well for the game. Sadly, in the rush to get such a large offering out the door, item variety and textures can sometimes suffer - well often suffer, let's face it. Not everyone has the development resources of Blizzard and this aspect has a "we'll fix it later" aspect to almost all MMOs. AoC is rightly held up to lacking in such - characters at 80th level looking hardly different than at 30th. The items look fantastic for their detail, but the world has the uniform look of an Orwellian state for its lack of clothing options. Now, though this is an aspect of vanity, it does showcase what people are like within an MMO: object variety, perhaps more to the point, object recognition based on its graphics helps lead to that status aspect at a glance and people crave such. A good MMO will understand this need to cater to vanity and variety and Whammer, from what I can see, is well on its way to doing a stellar job, and certainly better than many.


I really had a good time in PvP. It was just like WoW (*ducks for cover*). It was fun, yet hardly groundbreaking. Since I was playing ranged classes, I probably missed out on collision detection (if they got close I died and that was that), which opens up a whole new world of strategic possibilities, so kudos to Whammer for that. But given the fact that AoC has collision detection already, the fact that Whammer introduced it into their version of WoW's battlegrounds is welcome but more a statement of what I think all MMOs should be doing anyways rather than something special in and of itself. Collision detection will I think really make for some very interesting and engaging, strategic even, uses in Realm versus Realm (RvR) combat (imagine a shield wall of armoured melee protecting your squishies). As for RvR areas, I did not experience them. My reading suggests that they are massive battle auto-flagging zones with capture goals. And the fact that hundreds of players can engage in open-air battles and sieges (with all those fun siege engines from Warhammer) is fantastic when you think about it. And the fact that they even reshape the world boundaries a bit, right up into the capital cities is huge - and might also be a huge pain if Whammer suffers from some of the faction imbalance that plagued WoW. But for general PvP, when you think about the fact that you might now be able to PvP in mobs numbering hundreds on a side, for anyone who's suffered through WoW's open world PvP or LOTRO's PvMP Ettenmoors stutter-fest on a crowded night, you really appreciate that its the game not the graphics that drive the fun in these sessions. And Whammer is crafted for the game and delivers fun through this kind of game it seems. But we'll have to see how they shape up post-release. And that is probably also indicative of DAoC roots and the intent of Mythic - to build upon the tradition of what is said to have been the best massive PvP game that ever existed, even if it means some compromise for graphics. But then I would argue that EVE manages to do massive battles and look good doing them.

One thing really welcome, something that was promised for AoC but has yet to makes its incarnation, is that you get XP for PvP. So instead of being tied to quests, you can exclusively PvP for levels or more likely do a mix as your mood strikes you - which is even better than what I get a sense of from what AoC intends, given that PvE and PvP bars are parallel, meaning an either or. In Whammer, it's both at once. PvP, PvE - whatever. You do, you learn - brilliant. And, unlike AoC, it was great to see it actually implemented in a game. In fact, the whole rewards structure for achievements and PvP and other was very well done and had me going for "one more" round of action, just to see what I could unlock in the way of titles, accomplishments, etc.


It was present but not something to make note of. Games like AoC especially, but to a lesser extent LOTRO, do a much much better job of ambient sound. But again, this might be a case of having to limit media files for the beta. For now, having experienced AoC's rich but never intrusive treatment, I'm not likely to be impressed by other vendor offerings. Sound in Whammer does what it is meant to do, seems accurate to the setting but did little to draw me in and was in fact absent in many cases when compared to AoC or LOTRO.


Very martial and in keeping with the tone of the game, really helped me focus on the fact that my characters were at war. But otherwise, ironically uninspiring. Certainly music seemed far substandard compared to WoW's wonderful score. AoC and LOTRO also do a much better job, both with incredible music scores. For Whammer, I found that music seemed more as a required afterthought and dressing to the whack-a-mole events and indicative of the intent of what I take as more of a PvP venture then a story and quest exploration.


Whammer didn't crash my system but once (and that wasn't a system crash but a client lock. I just forced quit and restarted happy as could be). Those other graphically rich games crash me like mofos - so that's something to be said about Whammer graphics: like WoW's, they're hardly taxing and very approachable to the masses. I'd say they did this at risk of being dated but they seem to have purposely made them dated. Retro Whammer runs just fine and that's a blessing to be sure. And this really impressive when you factor that this game is still in beta.


I really liked the Tome of Knowledge interface that included not only quests, but social standing, awards, titles. This was easy to access, well-organized, and often contextual, as in I could right-click on the quests visible in my tracker (displayed on the screen) and if I forgot any details, I could find them easily as the book opened up to the right page. Map objectives were clearly indicated, though not as well as in AoC, pretty much the same and certainly a lot better than in LOTRO and WoW. This of course is a mixed-blessing in some ways as it tends to cut down on exploration. But let's face it, who doesn't run to Thottbot or some other such at the first sign of "can't find" anyway.

There was a wealth of information other information within the Tome including some very tantalizing hints at future exploits and accomplishments ready to be unlocked. "Good" MMOs tend to tease, a bit or a lot, in holding off access to ultimately valueless items or titles or abilities (except in the context of the game), where their exclusivity makes them a desired commodity among people who share the delusion that virtual items have real worth (which leads to virtual items actually being worth something since people can and do play even exorbitant money for something that exists only virtually - but that's fuel for another blog post). Anyway, this was a very nice feature as a lot of this stuff gets thrown all over the UI and can be a bit of a search in other games. Here's it was well organized and well at hand, and shows that Whammer devs were analyzing the competition to do what every good MMO (and product) should do: do the competition better.

I also liked the built-in key options and easy and varied binding options. It took me a while to get used to what keys could do what, but once I got the hang of it all, I was clicking away. I was annoyed however by the delay in getting my character to react to my input, but I'll put that down as an obvious beta bug. If there was some sort of lag indicator, like framerates or latency, I wasn't able to find it. If it's there, it should be as such is really helpful to analyze problems or at least give a heads up if you think you're about to drop connection so that your team can wait before launching that key attack.


Whammer is more about being a good game than looking good. Its strengths are in its well-organized support features like guild organization, the Tome of Knowledge, and offering several ways to level - and in its ability to apparently deliver on the massive battle feel. But like the wargames it derives from, I often felt that the content was merely dressing for a prepared battleground and of secondary importance, as were the graphics and other attendant media.

In a nutshell, I would say that the product is rich in context, which is not unexpected given a quarter-century's worth of gaming lore spun from the original products, even if that context is not fully explored as it could be for more emotional and storytelling engagement. The execution, therefore, is uneven. What results is what seems on the surface a fairly dated product that has a lot of shortfalls but when examined in more detail offers great potential and delivers a lot of fun, often despite initial concerns. In fact, I was surprised at how much fun I had once I got over my initial disappointment. MMOs based on intellectual properties share a lot of the same pitfalls as does anything based on a shared genesis. It's like reading a book and then going to see the movie. The book sent you to the movie but colours what you expect to see and almost sets the movie to disappoint at some level: same with MMOs. That said, though I was surprised in ways I hadn't expected, overall I was very underwhelmed and somewhat disappointed in the product. Compared to some already existing titles, Whammer seemed fairly lacking in several key points, though achieving high notes in others.

Still, whether you're a Warhammer fan, or an MMO player just looking for the next big thing, or you just need a break from WoW-fatigue, Warhammer: Age of Reckoning is certainly worth taking the time for a look-see and virtual spin. It's going to be a great game for some people. And anything that helps foster competition and diversity in this area of virtual interaction is welcome and will make for a healthier climate for everyone, WoW devotees included.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Top 20 most influential people in the MMO Industry (2007)....


...are listed here. But if you want to read the rationale behind the choices of those selected, that is the list according to Beckett Massive Online Gamer, you'll need to get their July/August 2008 issue. As a bonus, you'll also get a list of up-and-coming names that will possibly loom large in the 2008 list, along with other information about current and future MMO titles.

MMO games have proven to be the most successful virtual worlds to date, not only in terms of revenue generated, but in how they've captured the focus and time of millions of users. These games are so popular, they provide the opportunity for social uses and activities outside their intended function. I argue that any attempts to bring non-game virtual worlds more into the mainstream of the Social Web, let alone a comprehensive virtual medium, need understand and account for these social phenomena within their own solutions matrices.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Beauty of the Blowfish

I was amazed at how the fish effects were pulled off for The Chemical Brothers' video: The Salmon Dance. You would swear that they had used real fish. So I went and found an old blog post on Creative Review interviewing Framestore CFC's Ben Cronin, the VFX Editor for the video. The details left me even more impressed. Of course my favorite, like for most I think, is the beatbox blowfish. 360 individually drawn fish (I had been told it was 200) were created, with most of the animation and lip-synchronization done manually. I was impressed just watching the video but now - wow!

And yes, for you aquarium purists, the video mixes species that would never live in the same environment. Not only that, according to the interview, the blowfish is a composite of two different species and the squirrel fish has attributes scanned in from a fish market mullet. So just take it for fanciful fun - and fun it is.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Google Earth's impact on virtual discovery

Australian geologist, Arthur Hickman, now has a meteor crater named after him, thanks to his use of Google Earth. While cruising Earth virtually from up high, looking for channel iron deposits, Arthur discovered the now-named, Hickman Crater, North of the town of Newman, in Western Australia. Previous surveys in this mining area had failed to identify the crater, which stood out visually to Dr. Hickman's eye. He was able to have a fellow scientist corroborate his find by visiting the site and the rest is news history.

I thought the subtext of the news report, that Google Earth already has this demonstrated commercial geological value and use, was very interesting. I'd not known about it and wonder how many other scientific uses this and similar virtual tools are currently being put to. This discovery will no doubt inspire more such virtual "expeditions": eager professional and amateur virtual explorers will seek to add to our understanding of our own world, and thereby make a name for themselves, all from the comfort of their homes and offices.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Survey results for virtual worlds collaborative use

Results from a virtual world collaborative use survey undertaken by the Virtual Worlds Consortium for Innovation and Learning, Special Interest Group on Virtual Worlds, the Serious Second Life Group in Boulder, and the MetaverseU Network of Stanford University, have been published under the title: Virtual Worlds and Collaborative Work: Survey Results.

Survey sections are titled: Participants Profile and Background; General Issues and Questions about Virtual Worlds and Collaborative Work; Collaborative Work in Second Life: Now and In the Future; Collaborative Works Using Virtual-World Platforms Other.

The participants were mostly virtual world users or advocates, mostly with a Second Life affinity. There seemed to be a lot of unfamiliarity with other vendors. But there's some interesting surprises I found, such as: the preponderance (read enthusiasm) of business responders vs those from academia; management being seen as a hurdle to virtual world adoption; overwhelmingly positive outlook for Second Life for educational use but uncertainty that it will do as well for business collaboration.

It's a fairly brief document overall so certainly work a look. Though not necessarily comprehensive, it was thought-provoking, especially where I tended to disagree with the majority. It certainly made me think twice about my own opinions.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I know the avatar I'm talking to isn't real. But is she real?

Presence can be costly. It's a lot of overhead to consider. And one has to figure that the virtual world never sleeps. Logging into Second Life at different times, it takes on a European, Australian, or Asian tone. Companies have to figure that a visitor might pop in at any time.

Which is why AI avatar "bots" are being developed that can take on that overhead instead of having a real person. They work quite cheap - free in fact beyond their build cost and they don't take breaks. The initial ones are likely going to be fairly simple responders but there are rumblings of some very savvy ones (see Artificial Intelligence Applications in 3d Virtual Worlds) that can do a credible job of mimicking the responses of a real person.

This of course undercuts one of the basic presumptions of virtual worlds, that an avatar represents a real person. One of the interesting aspects of virtual worlds and MMOs is that people tend to treat an avatar at face value, as if they were what they appeared to be. If that avatar appears to be a human man or woman, you, as a virtual world user, would probably respond accordingly. Imagine a virtual world where someone can seed avatars to make a space seem more popular as if other people really found it engaging, making you think twice about stopping to take a look around at the offers. This is already being done in MTV Virtual Worlds: when an event doesn't draw in enough people, bots are seeded to dispell the impression of unpopularity. Or that person chatting you up and that seems so interested in your latest real world shopping adventure could be a bot mining you for buying trends. Or your new "friend,", taking advantage of how viral marketing works, just swears by Eau'dee'doh perfume or MuskOxen deodorant.

"Cogito ergo sum" doesn't quite sum it up any more, does it?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

We are who we're not

Second Skin is a new documentary that examines the lure and some of the dangers of virtual worlds, specifically the MMO games: World of Warcraft and Everquest.

Judging by the trailer, it appears to be in the same vein of other documentaries, like Trekkies and Darkon, movies that gave us an intimate glimpse into the lives of people who are so drawn into fantasy worlds, that their fantasy lives become dominant factors in their real lives. It is understood and shown that for many, these events are purely fun and casual. Not everyone has the same degree of fascination or hunger for an alternate existence. But the true focus and power of these films is when we meet people who's fantasy lives become so excessive, they supersede anything else. Trekkies highlights social groups and individual lifestyles that gravitate around the Star Trek universe, showing how the Trek franchise and fan numbers have increased with each decade, where Darkon explores a live-action roleplaying and wargaming group born out of the success and interest in Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy-embellished history enactment. Though both movies show associated individual pastimes, what is ultimately underscored is that these are both social phenomena. Even individual pursuits mostly take place within a larger context: individuals associate in groups that congregate in even larger groups which ultimately engage in large-scale annual or semi-annual events.

I think part of the fascination with these movies is that they are in part cultural anthropology and in part, geek-voyeurism. We get to peek into lives that for most of us are very different. For many viewers, I think there is a trap that they can somehow feel superior for being so non-geeky, or at least less a geek. And yet, say what you will, for Darkon especially but even for Trekkies, the emphasis seems to be highly social and to bring about friendships, bonds, and human interaction. And this counters a commented upon trend in modern culture that people are becoming more insular and less community oriented than preceding generations. So regardless of how you might approve or disapprove of the lifestyles of the people shown, they are meeting and interacting with others, often in the flesh, forming life bonds and exercising social will. Socially, they will have succeeded in functioning in ways that many people who might disparage or judge them have yet to achieve in their own lives.

That said, Second Skin seems to show a different short of community altogether. Though virtual association can precipitate a real world gathering for romance or group meetings, for the most part the interaction is befitting the medium and done solely through virtual selves. Missing is the "meat-space" physical engagement and association of Darkon or the showcase of club and convention gatherings that underscores much of Trekkies. Though participants in both these group phenomena embellish their social interaction through virtual mediums, for the most part virtual or Web interaction functions to support and enhance real-world engagement. For those shown in Second Skin, it seems to be more the opposite: rare as they are, real world engagements seem to underscore and reinforce the main activities, which are solely virtual. If true, the effect in some cases would be to push the person back into the virtual medium as the basis for generating more such social contact.

What happens when alternate reality becomes more important and more meaningful than just a casual activity? All three films examine this question of obsession. The core physical activity of Darkon shows the most real engagement of self. Alternate reality is compartmentalized and though it drives a lot of activity outside of the events and might be one of the most important things in a given life, there is clearer distinction between fantasy self and the real world. With Trekkies, though we are given to understand that there is a broad range of engagement, we meet several individuals for whom the alternate world of science fiction influences not only their pastimes, but crosses over to become part of their dress, work, lifestyle, life choices, even their sex lives. It's really hard to judge by a short trailer, but with Second Skin, it seems to show people for whom their real world selves are not necessarily subsumed physically by the alternate reality, but where the real world itself is largely irrelevant because it has no meaning to a virtual existence. I'm guessing the folks shown in Second Skin share much of the same needs for acceptance, social status, success, and wealth with those in Darkon and Trekkies, factors that might very well be missing from their real lives and which are certainly missing for some of those shown. Mentally then, the only way to achieve these is solely virtual for the most part. And so their alternate lives tend to, I suspect more so than in Darkon and Trekkies, become dominant to the exclusion and proper functioning in the real world, according to how much they feel they need the rewards provided solely in their lives as lived through alternate realities.

There is another, perhaps even darker aspect to be shown as well. Though commerce and merchandising are a big part of all such activities, one of the lives reviewed in Second Skin is said to be that of a "gold famer." This is usually, but not exclusively, a person from Asia who works long "sweat shop" hours in front of a computer to feed their own hunger by feeding the world hunger for virtual goods, or the virtual currency to buy virtual goods. Since for many people, virtual status equates to real status insofar as they're concerned, there is a real market for such goods. A New York Times article last year estimated that the money generated from such sales was then $1.8 billion. Given the growth of virtual worlds overall, and the large numbers of new children's virtual worlds funded by commercial and media giants, one can expect that number to be much higher and to only increase over time.

Second Skin is currently being shown at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, where I believe Darkon made its debut. I have high hopes, that like the other documentaries mentioned, I'll soon be able to see it for myself on either the Independent Film Channel or via a video rental service like Netflix. Hopefully like those other fascinating perspectives into alternate reality and social groups, Second Skin provides an insightful, non-judgmental, and carefully balanced glimpse into real lives. I understand that most people who were featured in these documentaries felt the portrayal was fair and were mostly flattered by the attention. I hope that such is the same for those who are letting us get under their Second Skins.