She’s baaaaaack

May 24, 2008

Reviving this moribund blog 🙂

A word or two about my personal history… which I carefully avoided discussing in the earlier incarnation of the blog. My name is Susanna Cumming, I’m 48, I live in Santa Barbara CA, and I used to be a professor of linguistics. Still am, technically, for another few weeks; my resignation is effective July 1. It’s because of this change that I feel I no longer have to keep my identity as a gamer distinct from my “real life” identity; as a professor I worried about what my students would think if they ran into me in this context and what it would do to my professional reputation, but that isn’t a concern any more, and Dr. Jekyll can finally merge with Ms. Hyde 😉

At some point, starting around 40, my interest in linguistics and my commitment to academia in general began to wane. There were a lot of reasons for this, but I’m not going to get that personal. Suffice it to say that this culminated in a decision about six months ago to leave linguistics, leave the academy, and try to find some other way to make a living. So far I’ve been exploring three routes: (a) technical writing/documentation; (b) editing, especially academic editing; and (c) game journalism. (a) seems to have the greatest potential to provide a good income with health benefits; (b) is probably the easiest to get into with the resume I have; but (c) would just be really, really, fun, and so far it’s the one that seems to be working out for me.

Surfing CraigsList for job listings, I ran into an ad for an internship as a game writer with the SF-based startup GotGame. When I saw that their application form mentioned “junior, senior or recent college graduate”, I laughed, but I went ahead and applied anyway, on the rationale that from the perspective of geological time, 1981 is recent. Expected to be tossed out on the first pass, but I wasn’t, and a couple of weeks later I was in. It’s a six-week unpaid internship designed to help people trying to break into the industry get a body of work online and help them meet people and make contacts, which is exactly what I need. They’ve already posted my first piece: my first publication on games under my real name 🙂 Anyway, more on that to come.


Titan Quest Played

July 8, 2006

Well, I’ve been playing Titan Quest more or less nonstop for a week and a half, so it’s time for a review. It’s a fine game, very fun addictive gameplay. There are a couple of caveats which might prevent the game from appealing to some people, but by and large it’s a must-play if you like the “action RPG” genre.

Environments

The Ancient Greek environments I got to see in the beta were good, and things keep getting better and better. The final act, in which you travel from Babylon (in modern Iraq) through Mongolia to China and visit the Jade Emperor is nothing short of spectactular. Incredible vistas and fabulous monsters all given mood and depth by the “eye candy”: sumptuous water, fog, grass, lighting and shadow effects. If I have a quibble about environments, it’s the fact that although they are all hand-crafted — no random generation here — nonetheless some of them (especially caves and tombs) look as though they were random. Interiors tend to be mazes of rooms with no particular architectural or geological rationale and a certain sameness. There are a million little caves that all look more or less alike. It’ll be interesting to see what can be done with the included editor to make spicier interiors. However, most of the game is outdoors, and the outdoors is brilliantly realized.

Classes and Difficulty

This is the area where Titan Quest shines. 8 “masteries” or classes, and you get to pick two. Every mastery has several different trees, and because skill points are a relatively scarce commodity, you will be forced to specialize in two or three trees (and perhaps a couple of miscellaneous skills) in each mastery… so even the same mastery could be played twice taking completely different skills. The magic of this game in my opinion is playing around with interesting combinations of skills and seeing what works. No doubt in a few months there will be a handful of standard builds, but for now it’s wide open and anything is possible.

For anyone who is interested in exploring the skill trees, here is a very nice talent calculator by Stonedonkey. Note that you get three skill points to spend per level (level maxes at 65), and that you can spend the points on specific skills or on raising your mastery. Raising your mastery gives you access to more skills and it also boosts your stats, by different amounts depending on the mastery.

The game has three difficulty levels: Normal (easy), Epic (harder), and Legendary (very hard). It works like Diablo 2: you have to finish each level to get access to the next. Pretty much any build will get you through normal, or at least up to the second half of Act 3. At that point, however, some builds begin to show themselves as much more effective than others. From my own experience and reading the forum, it’s apparent that some masteries are much more lethal than others; in general, casters are much easier to play than melee characters. If you are the sort of gamer who thinks a game should be “balanced”, this is a problem. But in a game with only limited, unsupported pvp, balance isn’t particularly the goal. As my friend Amarlado said, “I like choosing between ‘challenge’ and ‘god mode'”.

Phat Lewtz

Titan Quest is a very item-heavy game; items play almost as important a role as skills in advancing your character. Drops are more than plentiful: after killing a few monsters and opening a chest there will be stuff spread all over the landscape. Most of this stuff can be ignored, however. The system is similar to Diablo II’s, but not identical. Gamebanshee has a complete database of TQ items here, if you want to check out what’s on offer.
There are five “levels” of drops: broken, normal, magic, rare, epic, and legendary. All of these items have base stats which are random in a certain range based on type and material, with different and successively stronger materials for normal, epic and legendary difficulties.

Magic items have one or two extra modifers which are reflected in an item’s name, via a D2-style prefix and suffix system. Rare items also have one or two modifiers; however, at least one of them is a “rare” modifier, which are typically more valuable. For instance, a regular mod might increase your intelligence by a fixed amount, while its rare equivalent increases your intelligence by a percentage, meaning the item gets more powerful as you level up.

Both epic and legendary items are equivalent to D2’s “uniques”: they are hand-crafted with special mods (some of which you won’t find on non-unique items), and every one has its own unique graphics. Legendaries are simply especially good epics. There are also D2 (or WoW) style item sets: wearing more than one item from the same set gives you extra mods as a bonus. Sets may be either epic or legendary.

There’s another special category of items quite unique to TQ, namely “monster armor”. Certain classes of monsters, such as centaurs, arachnids, gorgons, djinns, and tigermen, have their own armor pieces with special base stats not found on ordinary pieces; they may also have special rare modifiers, and of course they have their own graphics. Monsters in TQ, as in Morrowind and Oblivion, have their own inventories, and they can only drop what they were wearing or using; so if you see it you can get it, and in some cases it may be very worthwhile.

Finally, there are charms and relics, an item enhancement system. Charms drop from monsters (for instance, pieces of boar hide drop from boars); relics are rare drops or from chests or quest rewards. You need five matching charm pieces, or three matching relic pieces, to make a whole. Each piece has a value by itself; it adds a minor modifier, such as a small armor bonus from boar hide. Combined, the complete item has the total value of its parts plus a semi-random additional modifier. Any item except epics and legendaries can have one charm or relic attached, which means you can customize your gear for the stats you need. Charms and shards drop at a fast enough rate that you can use them even on equipment you don’t plan to keep very long; they’re a great way to help random gear fit your build.

Given the sheer amount of loot drops in this game, finding good gear is not too difficult, but of course finding the perfect piece for what you want is. Gear can be traded in multiplayer games, but there’s no simple way to transfer loot to another character in single player, so if you like twinking, you’ll have to get an accomplice to help. This is one of the most requested features on the forums. There’s also no “stash” or central storage area, but there is a huge amount of inventory space — you earn a total of three bags as you progress through the game, greatly expanding your original backpack.
Editing Toolset

I played around with the map editor a bit. It has a nice interface, much easier to use than the Elder Scrolls construction set that comes with Morrowind and Oblivion; but it’s also somewhat more limited in what it can do gameplay-wise. It’s also highly modular; three apps are provided, and making a mod involves frequent swapping between them and a lot of building and compiling of different assets. There’s no scripting language, but there is a rich set of triggers that can be used to link events and start and progress quests. It is limited to creating new maps; you can use the editor to look at the original game files, but you can’t modify the game directly, and you can’t move characters back and forth between custom games and the original game.

I haven’t tried this yet, but I gather you can use the editor to modify gameplay settings: the working of skills, spells and so on, and ingame forumulas used to compute the outcome of combat and so on. That means that anybody who wants to try for better game balance or an overall harder or easier game can do so.

The editor is apparently rather unstable; it crashed several times as I was working through the included tutorials. Still if this modding community is as persistent as others I’ve been in, I think we’ll see some very interesting mods in a little while.

Conclusion

Titan Quest isn’t a perfect game; for a first release for a new company, however, it’s brilliant, and it is apparently having remarkable sales despite a lack of prerelease publicity. I got several friends hooked on the demo who are now happily leveling characters and playing with builds. Have tried a bit of multiplayer; if you meet a boss that your build can’t deal with it’s nice to be able to call in a friend and get it out of the way, or make complementary characters to cut a swath through the demonic hordes. Of the issues that people tend to get incensed about on the forums, most have been mentioned; I should add that some have problems with crashes or slowdowns, crashes can lead to character corruption and loss, and some people report trouble staying connected in multiplayer. These problems only affect a few players, though, and they’re not out of line with the level of bugs that typically affect new releases. There has been a patch already which apparently has cleared up a couple of the most severe problems, and no doubt additional patches will be forthcoming.

It is a fun, simple, fast and very beautiful game with deep skill and item systems. Definitely recommended.


Piracy

July 6, 2006

Some thoughts on the issue of software piracy, inspired by reading a debate on the Titan Quest forums about the Securom copy protection scheme. Posted in this thread. Perhaps I should say that there are a couple of occasions on which I have TRIED piracy. Been seduced by the promise of getting a game early… a game I had already paid for… or in one case… a game I was beta testing, where the beta disk was late.

As it was put by one of the tempters: “the red pill or the blue pill”. I chose… the bad one 😦 but it failed, in all cases, fortunately, leaveing my ethics bruised but my grasp of the principles stronger than ever 😉

And also, that I know people who routinely use the “try before you buy” approach. One of whom says that he always pays if he plays a game for more than six hours… and I am fairly sure he sticks to that rule. Nonetheless… it isn’t right, as my gut always tells me.

Read the rest of this entry »


This and That

June 23, 2006

I refuse to fall into the blogger's trap of making excuses for not having posted in a while. But I will talk a bit about what I've been up to gaming-wise. Some news about the new WoW expansion, more on Titan Quest, and an old favorite made new: Diablo II with voice.


WoW: under the Shadow

The long-awaited patch 1.11 finally came out on Tuesday. It's big, featuring Naxxaramas, which is a HUGE new raid instance (18 bosses, about twice the size of the others). It's an enormous ziggurat that hovers above the undead-riddled area of Eastern Plaguelands. There's also a related world event, an invasion by the undead Scourge, featuring smaller floating ziggurats which spew out undead at locations around the world. And lots and lots of related new quests, a new seasonal festival, and the usual gameplay tweaks and improvements and concomitant bugs 🙂 I've been in Naxx to peek, but my guild hasn't raided it yet; should be doing that tonight, if enough people are "attuned" (there's a small but costly prequest required to get in). Naxxaramas is supposed to be very difficult, starting at the level of the hardest two bosses in the Temple of Ahn'Qiraj, whom we have killed but not with any consistency, so it should be interesting. I'll write about it when I've seen some more.

Also this week my guild is undergoing a leadership transition, so we're working on "change management" as some of our officers like to say. Our old Guildmaster, who has been leading the guild for about a year now, has left the guild. He managed to do it without being too disruptive or causing a lot of "drama"; he has lasted longer than any other GM of a raiding guild on our server (as far as I know) before being overwhelmed by the stress. He has been a strong leader and I've come to like and admire him; but the guild needs to go on. It's a time to be there and raid and keep things going.

Titan Quest: tingling with anticipation

I've continued to play the Titan Quest demo off and on, and to peruse the TQ forums at TitanQuest.net. This forum has a small but articulate and intelligent community, and several game developers and the author of the strategy guide read it and frequently post. Following instructions from the forum, I went so far as to hex edit my demo characters to unlock access to some of the skill trees not included in the demo, just to play around. (I've planned a hunter-storm character for my first run through the full game, which will give me access to cold and lightning enchanted arrows and a variety of slowing effects, retaliatory damage, and a pet.) I'm anticipating this game rather eagerly at this point; it should be out next Tuesday. I was lucky enough to win a free copy of the game in a contest at TitanQuest.net, which of course makes me even happier.

Incidentally, I completely withdraw my earlier reservations about the item system in Titan Quest. Something which I did not appreciate at first is that every creature you encounter in the game will actually drop what they are using to fight you, which is randomly generated but suitable to the monster type. So if you kill a satyr archer, they might drop a broken crude pine bow, or they might drop a bow with a couple of magic modifiers, in which case they will have been using the same bow against you during the fight. I haven't witnessed it, but the developers have said that enemies will even pick up and use equipment dropped by other enemies if it's better than what they had. This is exactly the way enemy itemization works in Morrowind and Oblivion, and it adds a lot to gameplay to know that to obtain an uber item you will first have to win it from something that has been using it on you. Enemies also have classes and skills just like players, so they will use against you the same abilities you can use against them.

Even in the first six levels included in the demo you can get a lot of very nice items with unique art and stats. I can't wait for Tuesday.

Diablo II: OMG we can talk!

After I wrote about it here, my friend Maztec picked up Diablo II again after many years, and he persuaded me to try out the multiplayer game with him, which I had never experienced. About the same time another friend, Jason, told me about Google Talk, a little chat program with built-in voice. After a relatively minimal amount of fussing we both got it operative and connected to a TCP/IP game of D2, with voice chat hosted by Google.

I found the multiplayer game much faster than single player; not quite as relaxing though, since there is somebody else to keep up with. And with no loot-sharing system, stuff goes to whoever grabs it first, which adds a wrinkle to item acquisition (although since Maz and I are both cooperative players, naturally we were passing each other items we couldn't use).

Voice chat is great for a frenetic game like this; you don't have to pause the action to type. Of course I had to make the usual adjustment which goes with putting a voice to somebody with whom you've been communicating for years in writing only; suddenly they are embodied, and you are confronted (for better or worse) with aspects of their personality that might have been muted or muffled by text-only communication.

I was familiar with this adjustment from the time when my WoW guild switched to Ventrilo for raids. It took me weeks to get comfortable with it, since at first I found that processing information in so many channels at once made it very hard to attend fully to any of them. And some people I had no problem with in text became inexplicably annoying in voice, whether because people who aren't agile with the written language can simply express themselves more fully in talk, or because all of the additional social and emotional information that comes with speech told me more about them than I wanted to know.

Of course it was a pleasure talking to Maz, and I'm overall very pleased with the results of the experiment. I'll be happy to continue with this mode for multiplayer Titan Quest and Uru Live.


Titan Quest: Titanesque or Titanic?

June 11, 2006

Just played the demo of a new lil hack-n-slasher, Titan Quest. I enjoyed the demo; actually played through it three times. I will certainly pick up the game when it comes out in a couple of weeks. A few thoughts on the demo:

The success of Diablo and Diablo II spawned a whole new genre of games, conventionally called "action-RPGs". They resemble action games in that the primary player activity is combat rather than exploration, quests, or puzzle-solving, and RPGs because they take place in fantasy worlds and involve some kind of character development, through skills, attributes and equipment. They're also common called "Diablo clones" or "Diablo-killers", since emulating Diablo's success has always been a goal of these games' developers; games in this genre can't be discussed without reference to Diablo.

I've played quite a few of these games through the years, from obscure titles like Darkstone and Nox and Harbinger to the more successful Sacred and Dungeon Siege I and II. Dungeon Siege II was just released last Fall, and it has an expansion coming out fairly soon, so I will be making quite a lot of reference to it in discussing Titan Quest, which in fact resembles Dungeon Siege as much as Diablo.

Titan Quest is set in the ancient world, encompassing locales in Greece, Egypt and China. This distinguishes it early from standard fantasy RPGs which must create their own universe, lore, and bestiary from scratch; TQ can rely on myth and history to provide exotic yet familiar creatures and conflicts. Graphically, it is a full-3D game but it has a fixed-angle (though zoomable) overhead camera. (In this respect TQ plays a little more like Diablo than like Dungeon Siege; the Dungeon Siege camera could be rotated around your party.) TQ is a single-player game with a coop multiplayer mode; unlike Dungeon Siege, where you play a full party, you control only one character.

The graphics in the demo are clean and pretty, and there is limited physics in the game. It's clear that a lot of thought went into small details. Notable is the way grass and bushes move as you pass through them, the way enemies fly through the air after a strong blow, the way the light changes and shadows move through the day/night cycle. I was impressed with the character animations of the villagers; rather than standing motionless they feed chickens and engage in animated arguments with each other. As in virtually every fantasy game you will fight skeletons in TQ, but these skeletons are quite delightful ones that burst from the ground when you approach and rattle satisfyingly when struck.

Having only played the demo I can't say much about story, but it appears to develop through quests almost exactly as in Diablo and DS. The world is dotted with NPCs who give you quests or simply chat, providing color and background and gameplay information. The dialogue is fully voiced, with the villagers in the Greek starting setting speaking with funky accents; and some of them have a good deal to say. One villager narrated most of the myth of Herakles; and even the "talking signpost" characters, who are there to tell you where to go and what to do, would not say the same thing every time you click on them. You can't expect to find NPC AI or schedules or dialogue trees in a game like this, but they fill their function of moving the story forward with grace.

Leveling is experience-based, like Diablo; you gain experience points by killing and completing quests, and after a certain number of points you move to the next level. (This contrasts with use-based systems like Dungeon Siege or the Elder Scrolls games, where you gain points by excercising particular skills.) At level up you get 2 points for attributes and 3 for skills. Attributes are the usual culprits — strength, dexterity, and intelligence — but you can also add points directly to your health and mana pool.

The class/skill system is probably the most unusual feature of TQ; and, with itemization, it will make or break the game. As in DS character creation is a simple affair; choose a gender and tunic color and you're off. Your first choice comes at Level 2, when you choose your first Mastery, or class; you add a second Mastery at level 8. The developers are promoting this as a 24-class system, but in fact it's an 8-class system with dual-classing… which is fine, as it certainly leaves plenty of room to experiment with different builds. This resembles the Dungeon Siege II system, which also lets you take more than one class. The class choices are not too original, but with 8 to choose from, the standard archetypes have been broken down a bit. There are defensive and offensive warriors, a frost/lightning mage, a fire/earth mage, a rogue, a hunter/ranger, a druid/healer, and a necromancer.

The skills themselves are arranged in a prerequisite structure, like both Diablo II and Dungeon Siege; but the abilities that have prerequisites seem to be improvements of the base ability rather than separate, related abilities. The most original feature of the system is mastery level. To gain access to higher level skills, rather than needing to be at a certain experience level, you have to put skill points into the mastery itself. Adding points to the mastery gives you stat bonuses as well as providing access to more powerful skills; so there are always decisions to make about whether to max out lower level skills or devote skill points to the mastery instead for later access to the top tier of skills. Although the game gives you a lot of skill points to spend, it seems pretty clear that a good deal of specialization is going to be optimal within each mastery; it looks as though perhaps the best strategy will be to pick just one of the prerequisite paths within each mastery.

As with both Diablo and Dungeon Siege, there are lots of both randomly-generated and unique items in the game, which fall like rain when you kill a swarm of critters or pop a chest. There is also an item enhancement system: you can pick up small charms that add stats to an item, and if you find multiple pieces of the same type of charm you can multiply the charm's effects. The item system looks promising, but still quite a lot more limited than either Diablo or Dungeon Siege's. Items are not restricted by class, and there seemed to be basically two sets of weapons and armors, caster and fighter, with variations based on material and random stats. It's probably unfair to judge the itemization based only on the demo though. Time will tell how much real variation there is.

Titan Quest is good-looking and highly playable, with an intriguing character development system. I look forward to finding out whether it lives up to its potential.


C’thun Down

June 10, 2006

Wanted to note that on June 8 my guild finally killed C'thun, the end boss of the Temple of Ahn'Qiraj, the third and currently the hardest of the three raid instances in the game. Ahn'Qiraj is populated mainly by egyptian-style giant stone critters and enormous bugs; the instance is a mix of ruined temple and underground bug lair.

C'thun is an interesting fight. He is an Old God, or part of one, who had been lying quiescent for millenia. He starts out as a giant eyeball with gaze attacks and tentacles which spawn from the floor. When the eyeball is dead his body or husk emerges (Phase 2). In this stage he cannot initially be harmed, though he is continually attacking the raid via giant tentacles. A mouth tentacle will periodically pop up and swallow people, landing them in the stomach, a separate room. Here they must attack two tentacles while being injured by digestive juices. When the two tentacles are dead, C'thun's body on the surface becomes vulnerable for a brief period, until his stomach tentacles grow back.

All in all, an interesting and imaginative encounter; a nice change from humanoid critters and dragons. Although there are still two more optional bosses in Ahn'Qiraj — a giant burrowing sandworm and an enormous slime that must be frozen and cracked to defeat it — we are ready now for the challenges of Naxxaramas, the new instance coming in a patch sometime in the next few weeks. 


Intermission: Diablo II

June 7, 2006

I am going to continue on with the Elder Scrolls series, but recently after reminiscing with some friends about Diablo II, I felt the impulse to install it and play a bit. So, a couple of remarks while it's fresh 🙂

I played the original Diablo when it came out, and loved it. Diablo was the first graphical computer game to use the formula of the so-called "roguelike" ascii-graphics games: the dungeons and critters and treasure were randomly generated, so the game played differently every time. Daggerfall of course did this too, in a vast, sprawling full-3D game; Diablo was a less ambitious but more polished little isometric 2D game. Movement and combat were the simplest possible point-and-click. It could be played either alone or in coop multiplayer mode; I played these games before I discovered the joys of multiplayer gaming, so can only comment on the single-player game. There was one town and one dungeon, a 16-level affair that started in the old cathedral that had been occupied by demons; there were four levels each of four different tilesets, cathedral, catacombs, caves, and hell. Besides the random dungeons Diablo had random items; and it was the itemization system that propelled the series past the other hack-n-slash games of its time and of many years afterwards. Both found and bought items were generated and named randomly using a "prefix and suffix" system where particular enchantments were associated with particular modifiers. Unlike other graphical CRPGs of its era, you never knew when or where or even whether you might find the Breathless Sword of Kickassedness, and this motivated players and kept the game fresh months and years after it had been beaten the first time.

I loved Diablo I, which in addition to its ever-changing maps and treasure also had a haunting atmosphere and a story which was not epic, but was nonetheless well-told via a series of conversations with townsfolk and small quests that sent you deeper and deeper under the town. When I heard of a sequel I began to follow its development closely on diabloii.net, an excellent fansite that flourishes with much of the same personnel to this day. I followed every screenshot and snippet of story as they were released. I was disappointed not to get into the closed beta but I did make it into the stress test, a large-scale beta designed to test server capacity; this was my first experience in full-on pre-release fan mode, and I was hooked.

When I got the game home — within minutes of its arrival in my local EBX — and started to play, my expectations were more than fulfilled. It retained the basic features of the original — random maps and items — and realized them on a much larger scale. While Diablo I was almost entirely underground, much of Diablo II plays out on the surface, with only occasional relatively shallow caves, dungeons and tunnels. There are four "acts" in the original game, and a fifth was added in the Lord of Destruction expansion pack; each act however comprises a large number of different tilesets, so the territory you play in seems vast and varied. Each area has a town and a number of wilderness regions; pastures, desert, jungle, the depths of hell, and in the expansion, a snowy mountain peak, plus several interior and cave tilesets in each region. And of course mention must be made of the "secret cow level" full of halberd-wielding bipedal bovines, originally an easter egg and developer joke, but ultimately a critical source of items and experience.

These enormous areas are packed full of gameplay. Enemies, of course. Large packs of ordinary monsters, which generate in random combinations so that different skills are required on different playthroughs and exhibit varying group and individual AI. Randomly generated and named mini-bosses with random special abilities which they share with their guards. Fixed bosses related to quests, and a challenging end boss in each Act, whose defeat is necessary to progress to the next Act. There is also treasure galore, not just from the enemies, but also from chests and urns and boxes and barrels and in beds and under rocks… in short, all over. And there are other features, such as shrines and wells that give temporary buffs.

Like Diablo, Diablo II has a number of different character classes to choose from (eight with the expack), which provide radically different gameplay possibilities, from the skeleton-summoning Necromancer to the brutish Barbarian. Diablo II however departs from the original in adding a complex skill progression system, or Skill Tree. Every level up yields a point, and the player must choose where to spend it among skills divided into three areas per class. For instance, an amazon can spend points in bow, javelin, and passive skills; a mage can choose frost, fire, or lightning. (The talent system in World of Warcraft is clearly derived in most respects from Diablo's skills.) You can put points in multiple areas, but there is also a prerequisite system; advanced skills may require more basic skills from the same tree before they can be used, which encourages specialization. And finally, there are skill synergies, whereby points spent in one skill may improve another skill as well. For instance, an amazon that spends points in any lighting-based skill will have damage added to their Lightning Fury attack. The net result of all this complexity is that one character class has several different viable builds. A bow Amazon plays significantly differently from a javelin Amazon or a spear Amazon.

As in Diablo, the story is fairly simple, and progresses mostly linearly, through a series of quests with expository dialogue from NPCs and through brilliantly executed CG cutscenes between acts. This is not a game with a rich detailed fantasy world behind it, like the Elder Scrolls series; but the story is compelling and drives the player forward. It essentially involves a race between the player and a demonic figure, who turns out to be a corrupted avatar of the player/hero from Diablo. The player is always just too late to prevent the demon from accomplishing its goals, and even the finale of the expack leaves one with the unsettling feeling that one didn't quite win. If the goal is to keep the player playing, this approach is fiendishly effective. This effect is magnified by the fact that there are three difficulty levels with significant differences between them; enemies don't simply become stronger, areas also get larger, boss fights get more complex, and new encounters are added. Each level is only unlocked when the game is over at the previous level. So the game is not "beaten" until one has played to the end three times.

The item system in Diablo II is even richer than Diablo's. Items come in various qualities, from cracked to unique; the quality affects the number and level of modifiers the item can have. Some items are socketed and can be enhanced, through gems (which add modest buffs), jewels (which add multiple enchantments), and runes (which add buffs individually, and additionally can be combined to form "runewords" to add increasingly rare and powerful features). There are also item sets, which are good items in themselves but when worn together add extra enchantments. Moreover there is an object called the "Horadric Cube", obtained as part of the Act II questline, which can combine items to improve their properties: upgrade gems and potions, add sockets to an item, or randomly change an item's stats, for example. Many of these features were added post-release; besides the expansion pack, ten patches kept the game growing for years after release, with each one providing not just bug and balance fixes but significant new toys to play with.

Multiplayer was an afterthought in Diablo, but it was incorporated from the start in Diablo II, and a number of game features reflect this. There is no true single-player style save/restore system; all areas are rerandomized and repopulated each time you start the game, which means that if you quit with a zone half-cleared, you have to reclear a differently-shaped zone full of different enemies the next time you start up. The only progress that is saved is your quests and your waypoints, a system of teleporters that take you back and forth from town; a waypoint is activated only after you have visited it, so you can fast-forward to the last region you were in using the waypoint. Another artifact of the multiplayer design is the "corpse ghost run" feature familiar from many multiplayer games, where if you die, rather than just restoring your last save, you have to travel in non-corporeal form to your body and recover it, at some risk since whatever killed you may still be around (and with a penalty in gold and experience). As someone who primarily plays in single player mode, I found these conventions irrational and annoying; it would surely have been easy enough to add a save-and-restore feature for that mode only. But it is a small price to pay for the compelling features of the gameplay.

I played Diablo II heavily for years, and as I confessed above, I still pick it up from time to time. The graphics, at 800×600 resolution, are horribly blocky on my 1600×1200 monitor, and there are no more surprises, but the gameplay has just enough variation from random terrain and just enough interestingly different playstyles from the character classes and all their variants to be simple and stimulating simultaneously. And more than that, the next fabulous item find is always just around the corner.


The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall

May 31, 2006

I really should have started writing about the Elder Scrolls games sooner; the fact is, I feel guilty because lately I've been neglecting Oblivion for WoW. Oblivion is by far the better game gameplay-wise… but, well… my WoW guild needs me 😉 However, the TES series is the one which has probably had the greatest influence on my ideas about what a computer game can and should be; in my opinion, these are not simply the greatest RPGs of all time (although RPG purists will argue endlessly about whether they're RPGs at all), but the greatest computer games of all time. And the growing popularity of the series, especially Oblivion's phenomenal success, prove that this is not a minority opinion.

The Elder Scrolls series is developed by Bethesda Softworks, a small developer in Maryland. The series all takes place in the same universe, more or less in chronological order (though some "spinoff" games in different genres break the chronology). The universe is a world called Tamriel, which is populated by what at first glance appear to be the usual fantasy races… humans, elves, orcs, dwarves, cat-people and lizard-people. As the series develops though, these categories shift and depart from their usual archetypes.

These are big games, so I will cover them one at a time. And I never played the first game in the series, Arena, so I will pass over it. However, Bethesda now makes it available for free here; the curious can see for themselves.

The second game was Daggerfall (1996). (The best reference for it and the other TES games is the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages, now in Wiki form.) It was a first-person-only 3D game (with extensive use of 2D sprites for NPCs, trees and so on). It had a day-night cycle and also, more unusually, a calendrical cycle, complete with seasons and holidays. Daggerfall was an enormous sprawling mass of a game; its gameworld must be the largest ever, with thousands each of towns, covens, dungeons, shrines and other locations; and it was possible to travel on foot over the whole thing. This was made possible by random generation of outdoor terrain, dungeons, and most towns; a few basic "building blocks" were assembled randomly and populated with objects. The positive side effect of this was the feeling of an infinitely expansive world; the negative side effect was that there was a certain sameness to all these locations, since random generation isn't good at providing unique or unexpected features. There was a fast travel system, where you could click on the map and journey to your destination, so the random terrain could largely be bypassed. The dungeons however were unavoidable. They were sprawling affairs in all three dimensions; the game actually had a 3D zoomable rotatable dungeon automap, which I haven't seen in any game since, but that wasn't enough to save the player from becoming hopelessly gloriously lost.

The story was large, too: a huge main quest that I, and (from what I've heard) the majority of other players, never finished. The central premise was a fairly standard one: an object of supreme power that various factions in the game were attempting to get hold of for their own ends. The twists and turns, the complexity of the political intrigues, and the depth of the backstory provided in dozens of books found throughout the gameworld made it feel much more epic than most RPGs. The main quest sometimes paused for a period of time, encouraging the player to develop their character through exploration, sidequests and dungeon diving. There were five possible endings, depending on which faction you decided to give the item to; this created an interesting problem for the later games which took place after it in the timeline, and required some fancy footwork to accomodate in lore.

The sidequests, like the terrain, were randomly generated and hence infinite. Various organizations — temples to 9 different gods, shrines to the Daedra (roughly, demons who live on a separate plane of existence), martial orders related to the temples, guilds for Mages, Fighters, Thieves and Assassins (the Dark Brotherhood) all gave you random quests which you needed to complete for access to various guild services and perks. A complex reputation system related to faction membership and quest completion, and a set of language-related skills, affected what kinds of people you could successfully interact with.

Character creation options were diverse. There were 8 playable races in two genders each: Humans from three areas, i.e. Bretons, Nords and Imperials; Wood, High and Dark Elves; Khajiit (cat folk) and Argonians (lizard folk). Each race had starting advantages and disadvantages. There were 37 different skills and 8 attributes together with a few miscellaneous strengths and weaknesses such as weakness or resistance to certain kinds of magical attacks. There were 27 supplied classes, each representing particular combination of skills and advantages, but these were only templates, and serious players went for the "custom class" option, which let you mix and match using a point system. A huge number of different styles of gameplay were accomodated by the flexibility of this system.

Combat was a mixture of "hack 'n' slash" and stats-based gameplay. You chose an attack type by moving the mouse, but damage and hit chance were calculated based on your skills.

Daggerfall was also loaded with gameplay options, all much loved by fans; some have made an appearance in subsequent games and some haven't, but all of them are repeatedly requested. There was so much to do that completing the main quest was a side issue for most players; you could spend game years or even actual years just living in the game world with very little sense of repetition. You could complete quests for the Daedra Princes, amoral demon lords, to get access to artifacts of enormous power. You could reach the top rank of almost every guild. You could become a werewolf or a vampire. You could make your own magic spells and item enchantments, mixing and matching effects and adjusting their potencies. You could enter any building or shop and steal its contents; you could assassinate almost any NPC. You could catch and cure diseases. You could climb walls and ropes. You could buy a horse, a cart, a ship, and houses in the major cities.

Daggerfall's bugs were almost as legendary as the richness of its gameplay. Some of them were patched, others never were. They ranged from the gamebreaking to the entertaining or even helpful, such as the bug that let you fall through the floor in a dungeon and take a shortcut to your destination through the "void". This may be the reason why Daggerfall was not a massive hit like the subsequent games in the series. But it had qualities which have not been replicated, for better or worse.


Why I Raid

May 29, 2006

Raiding, in the context of massively multiplayer online (MMO) gaming, is grouping together with a large number of other players (usually all members of the same guild) to accomplish difficult game goals. Raiding successfully takes a large and consistent time commitment from everybody who participates, ranging from 4 hours a day on weekends to 6 hours a day seven days a week, equivalent to a full-time job. I've been raiding in World of Warcraft for almost a year: I joined a raid guild in June of 2005, and have remained in it ever since, raiding as often as possible — usually every day — aside from a two-month break earlier this Spring. My guild is currently on C'thun in AQ40; we got him (her? it?) to Phase 2 on Friday. Which translated means we are currently working on defeating the "end boss", the most difficult currently in the game — though that will change with the resease of the next patch in a couple of weeks.

Non-MMO players find the practice of raiding baffling, and MMO players who don't raid find it downright distasteful. They frequently assert that raiders are interested in loot rather than fun, and that raid guilds are anonymous or unfriendly places. They resent the perceived tendency of MMO developers to put greater resources into content that is available only raiders than content available to everybody. (One can argue about whether that is actually a fact in WoW — Blizzard routinely adds content for both raiders and non-raiders — but it is certainly true that raiders are continuously fed new large instances.) And they resent the perceived fact that the best "loot" — armor and weapons — is available only through raiding. (Again this can be debated, since Blizzard has put in two other tracks to top end gear — through Player-vs-Player combat, and through crafting — but the very best "legendary" items come only from raids.)

On any day a glance through Blizzard's raid and dungeon forum will reveal a few threads where this issue is passionately debated; this thread, which is a parody by a raider of the anti-raiding position, is an entertaining example, partly because a few posters in the thread don't realize the original post is a parody 🙂

Here I want to talk about raiding in World of Warcraft, demystifying it and pointing out some of its positive aspects. I have only belonged to one raid guild in one game, so my perspective is admittedly somewhat limited; any readers who want to expand on this in comments should feel free.

What is raiding?

First a few words about what a raid is in WoW from the point of view of game mechanics. A few MMO basics, which anyone familiar with the genre can skip:

In most MMOs the "gameworld" exists in a large number of different copies, called "realms", "servers", or (in terminology dating back to Ultima Online, the first graphical MMORPG) "shards". This is to reduce the performance issues that would arise from having millions of players in the same location. WoW has hundreds of realms, in the US, Europe and Asia. You can only play with others on the same realm as you.

Within a realm, the gameworld is divided into two kinds of areas. The "surface" world, both towns and countryside, is shared by every player on the realm. Scattered throughout the surface world are portals to "instances". Every time a group of players enters an instance, a copy of that area is created just for that party. That means that other players can't interfere with the state of the instance; thus instances work well for complex scripted encounters. Instances also preserve their state longer than surface areas; for example, bosses killed in instances tend to stay dead, unlike on the surface where they respawn within minutes, so in clearing an instance there is a sense of progress. Instances are restricted in various ways, including the number and level of players needed to enter the instance. Raiding takes place primarily in instances, although there are a few "surface bosses" which require a raid to kill; these encounters are designed so that competition between groups for the boss is part of the challenge.

Groups of players come in two types. A "party" is a group of up to five players. A "raid" is a collection of up to 8 parties, that is, up to 40 players. Technically speaking you can have a raid of any size, and there are instances designed for 5, 10, 15, 20 and 40 players. But when people speak of "raiding" in WoW they are usually referring to content that is designed for a full 40-person raid.

All of the 40-man content in WoW is also designed for players at level 60, the highest level currently in the game. So raiding as an activity is largely restricted to players who a) have played through a large part of the general content of the game, in order to reach level 60, and b) belong to a guild that is large enough to assemble a coordinated group of 40 on a regular basis.

The 40-man instances in WoW up to now have certain characteristics in common. They contain a series of bosses arranged in a more or less linear progression: one must kill each boss to reach the next (there are a few cases where there are "optional" bosses or different possible orders, but it's always clear what the end goal is). The instances reset once a week, so to reach the end boss one must be able to clear the whole instance in that amount of time; and no boss can be killed more than once a week by the same raid. The encounters are difficult and and diverse enough so that it takes both a clear strategy and some practice for a guild to be able to kill each boss. For instance, a boss may have several guards which have to be killed in a particular order, or all at once, or not killed but kept alive until the boss dies. Positioning is usually crucial: for instance it is often vital to keep most of the raid safe from particular attacks, by moving away or hiding behind walls. Particular class skills may be essential, such as priest mana drain, hunter tranquilizing shot, or specific elemental attacks. Aggro management — the direction of the monster's attacks to a particular target — is critical in many boss fights, and warriors may need to be able to keep all aggro on one person or alternatively to pass it back and forth among several warriors. The most challenging boss fights require perfect choreography, with everybody in the raid in the right place and doing the right thing at the right time for the boss to die. Mastering each boss takes from days to weeks. The material rewards are commensurately great; raid bosses drop the best equipment in the game.

The raiding experience

I belong to what you could call a "hardcore" raid guild: that is, a guild whose primary purpose is not only to raid, but to progress in the raid instances as fast as possible. We take pride in killing each boss before other guilds on our server, or scoring a "server first"; there is one other guild that presents us with serious competition, so we do not always win the race, but we usually do. Beating a difficult encounter is satisfying in and of itself, but there is also a certain thrill in being the first in our world to move forward into new areas and new content.

Everything my guild does is organized around this goal; the progress of the guild is placed above individual gratification. The guild hierarchy is at least in theory a pure meritocracy: leadership and skill rather than longevity and connections get you to the top. We use a system of distributing loot which is designed so that the most active raiders are most likely to get the best gear. Since good gear makes a player more effective, this system produces a stronger raid. But we also make an effort to ensure that EVERY member gets good equipment, so all can contribute. Game resources obtained in a raid that are not allocated to an individual go to the guild bank to cover common expenses. Guild membership entails handing over control of your playtime to the guild: while we don't have mandatory raid attendance, there is an informal expectation that if a guild member is online they will be available for raiding if needed. A guild member who does not make themselves available to raid during raid times, or a guild member who is offline for an extended period without an explanation, will be booted.

The most interesting challenge of raiding, though, is not simply mastering a fight and killing a boss. It is in maintaining the social cohesion required to keep everybody together and focused on a common goal, in spite of considerable individual sacrifice, for weeks and months at a time. My guild is composed of a very disparate group of people. Members come from all over the US and Canada and several other countries. Most are male but there is a significant number of women. Members are (apparently) mostly straight, but not all. Members are diverse in their socioeconomic background; MMOs cost money and are not accessible to the currently very poor, but we have Asians and Latinos and people who have faced significant poverty as well as the usual gamer crowd of students and tech workers. Most members are in their 20s, but we have had a range from about 14 to 60-something. We have individuals but also families, husbands and wives and parents and grandparents. Politically, we cover the spectrum from far left to far right.

My guild is by far the most diverse community I have ever participated in. My RL friends are all pretty much similar in our politics, our economic situation, and our world view. In my guild, I can't assume that others will share any of the views I ordinarily take for granted; I am constantly forced to entertain perspectives that are completely alien to me, because they are held by people I have come to trust and respect through months of shared endeavors. There is much in guild discourse I don't like: while for a period the leadership attempted to enforce "politically correct" standards of inclusiveness, lately these have been abandoned, at least in "humorous" contexts. Pretty much anything is considered fair game if it is couched as a joke, and humor which in my world would be tagged as sexist, racist, and (especially) homophobic is commonplace. But joking smears are met with joking countersmears, and if one can manage that cleverly enough one will be rewarded with cries of "pwned" (roughly translated, "you win").

All of this however overlays a basic ideal of mutual respect. A direct, non-ironic attack on a guild member based on race, sexual orientation or gender would not be tolerated, and I believe that most guild members share the view that all guild members should be treated as equally valuable individuals. If any guild member is experiencing significant personal problems — illness, accident, the death of a family member — they are supported with a flood of expressions of concern and sometimes concrete help.

I don't mean to make my guild sound like a utopia of mutual love. Rivalry, politics, and antipathies come into play in the guild context just as they do in any association of humans. Raiding guilds especially are famous for what is conventionally called "guild drama", a name applied to any kind of open conflict among guild members. Members have virtual or real love affairs with each other, fight and break up. Someone gets angry and leaves the guild. Someone commits an offense and is kicked out. A successful or unsuccessful attempt is made to force a leadership change. Anyone who belongs to a workplace or a volunteer organization or a political organization or a sports team or a choir is familiar with all of these patterns of behavior; they are not unique to guilds, although sometimes it seems that they are more intense and more frequent in guilds than in other environments. Nonetheless, to me guild drama is not really a negative aspect of being in a raiding guild. It is simply a side effect of being human.

When I raid, I have to simultaneously carry out my part in the elaborate ballet of movement and skill use that is each boss strategy… and in the elaborate ballet of guild relationships, carried out in private message, in guild chat and raid chat and party chat. I watch with delight our progress towards the End Boss of each instance, and with equal delight the evolution of our social structures as guild members come and go. I've seen the lofty brought low and the humble rise to the top. I've been up and down a bit myself in the guild hierarchy. I use whatever eloquence and influence I have to make sure that the nice guys, the people with empathy and humor and maturity, wind up in leadership spots, and that the greedy and ambitious and vituperative and insensitive ones are edged out. Taken as a whole, over the long term my guild reliably rewards the helpful and punishes the selfish, because the guild never loses its focus on its goal of mastering the most difficult content, and this goal is best served when the leadership is wise and the members are altruistic.

So, the answer to the question "why would anybody want to raid?" is two-fold for me. First, for the satisfaction of overcoming difficult challenges, seeing everything the game has to offer and seeing it first; and second, for the satisfaction of finding a place in a complex social network, and helping it develop in a positive direction. I have made great friends, and a few antagonists. I have learned a huge amount about how people from different social worlds think and interact. I am perpetually striving to master the rapidly-changing language of the gamer, which is both highly conventional in its love of repetition, and rich in neologisms and new constructions that go far beyond the boundaries of standard English syntax. Raiding has broadened me at least as much as any journey overseas; and though it demands a huge amount in terms of time and dedication, it returns at least as much in friendship and pride.


Sim Society: a tiny utopia

May 25, 2006

One reason I like the Sims has to do with the way sim society is arranged. They live in a perfectly egalitarian world. Sims can be males or females, they have a variety of skin colors, they can be gay or straight or (kinda) bisexual, and they have different ages arranged into life stages: infant, toddler, child, teen, young adult (with the University expack), adult and elder. While the game mechanics impose a few restrictions on what activities members of these various groups can engage in and what kinds of relationships they have, compared to Real Life the restrictions are minimal. Sims are virtually incapable of prejudice.

Race and appearance

Skin color and other permanent aspects of personal appearance have no effect on the game whatsoever. The Nightlife expack added the Attraction gameplay mechanic, which gives each Sim a romantic preference for certain characteristics ("turn-ons") and a dispreference for others ("turn-offs"); but the only characteristics a sim can prefer are ones that are easily changed in the game, such as hair color (which unlike skin color you can change using a mirror), certain types of clothing, and temporary manifestations such as stink from low hygiene and perfume. There is no preference in the game for a particular "turn-on": it isn't possible to make yourself more attractive to most sims by wearing lingerie or perfume, for instance, since it is just as likely that a particular sim will be turned off by that as turned on. It is possible to be attracted to vampires, but vampirism (from the Nightlife expack) can be contracted and cured fairly easily; and robots (from the Business expack) are somewhat limited since they don't have hair or clothing. Being an alien (with green skin) or a zombie can have no impact on attractiveness, and you can't be especially attracted to younger people, older people, black people, white people, rich people or poor people.

Gender

Gender roles are almost nonexistent as well. Men and women are treated with perfect symmetry, in career, housework, and family; the one exception is in the matter of childbearing. To become pregnant you must be an adult woman impregnated by an adult or elder man; teens, young adults and elders can't get pregnant. But in a significant departure from reality (at least as I understand it 😉 ), there is an additional option: an adult male (and ONLY an adult male) can be impregnated by aliens and give birth to an alien baby. This is harder to achieve than pregnancy for a woman; there is a very small chance that any sim while stargazing with a powerful telescope will be abducted by aliens, and an adult male who is abducted will return pregnant. So even in the area of childbirth the Sims improves on reality and gives males the option.

In romance or marriage between heterosexual sims, either sim can invite on a date, initiate a kiss or a "woohoo" (sim sex), and make a marriage proposal. The animations associated with these acts show some assymetry: for instance, after woohoo one sim will be shown lying on their back while the other sim puts their head on the first sim's shoulder. Whether the head-layer will be the man or the woman depends only on who initiated the woohoo. For engagements and weddings, who is shown putting a ring on whose finger similarly depends only on which sim was active when the marriage event was initiated. In marriage, the sims will wind up sharing a last name; but this will be the last name of the sim who initiated the marriage event, and it could be either the man's or the woman's. From my perspective, this is a blissful level of egalitarianism.

Sexual orientation

Sims do have a sexual preference, but it does not have to be a very strong one, and it was mostly hidden until the Nightlife expansion pack was released; it was manifested principally in whether sims would spontaneously initiate romantic interactions when not controlled by the player. Nightlife adds a display of attractiveness for all sims a sim knows; only sims of one gender will be treated as attractive. Which gender is attractive is initially set in a teen sim by their first romantic interaction: they have no attraction at all until the first time they flirt with another sim, and that act sets their preference. This initial preference will be relatively weak, however. It is always possible to direct a sim to have romantic interactions with someone they are not attracted to; and if you have enough interactions with somebody of the non-preferred gender, eventually your sexual preference will flip. Thus even with Nightlife, sexual preference is a matter of degree, not an absolute.

Romantic animations between gay sims are identical to those of straight sims, and gay and straight sim couples can be engaged and joined using exactly the same interactions and rituals. A gay sim cannot be impregnated by their partner, of course; but gay couples, like any other sim who has the financial means, are free to adopt and raise families.

As far as I know, there is only one way the game shows a preference for heterosexuality. "Townie" sims are those provided by the program and not initially controllable by the player, unless they form a relationship with a playable sim and move in to their household. From what I can tell, all of these sims start out with a weak heterosexual preference. This can of course be overriden if they are made playable.

This is NOT the way it is in the real world, and in fact this is one of the most hotly contested battles in our culture today. I am intrigued by the fact that the developers of the most popular computer game of all time settled on an approach which is squarely in the liberal camp on this issue.

Marital status

A sim must be in love to woohoo with another sim, which if unrealistic is rather sweet; but there is no preference whatsoever for monogamy among sims, which given what I take to be otherwise wholesome standards in Sim society, I find a bit odd. Only sims who have the Romance aspiration will actively want to woohoo with many different partners, but no Sim is inihibited from falling in love with someone new just because they already have a lover, fiancee or spouse. Recently one of my sims who had a family aspiration canvassed his acquaintances for a suitable sim to marry. He quickly settled on a woman he knew, to whom he had a double-lightning-bolt attraction level. They had a whirlwind courtship; one dream date featuring woohoo both in the hot tub and in the car was enough to establish a love relationship. They went home together and he invited her to move in; she gladly accepted. I was puzzled however when I found he could not propose marriage to her. I checked her relationship panel and sure enough… both I and she had forgotten the inconvenient fact that she was already married to somebody else. Chagrined, I had her move out and go back to her husband; unfortunately it will take her a while to get over her love affair, since she still frequently manifests wants related to him.

Lack of prejudice based on race or gender is a lovely thing in Simland, but it seems to me that adding some kind of loyalty mechanic — a factor that would encourage most sims to have a single BEST friend, or MAIN squeeze — would enhance gameplay. One certainly wouldn't want to enforce this behavior absolutely, merely add a preference modified by a sim's personality and aspiration.

Age

Age is the one area where the sims game mechanics imposes some social taboos, effectively protecting the young from sexual predation by older sims. The first life stage at which a sim can engage in any kind of romantic activity is Teen; and then, they are strictly limited to other Teens. They can "go steady", but can't get engaged or married; and they can fall in love, flirt and kiss, but they can't woohoo.

The young adult life stage was added in the University expack, and is experienced only by sims who go to college. Young adult sims can woohoo and get engaged to sims their age or older (including, notably, with their professors), but they can't get pregnant, get married or move in with an adult till they leave college.

Conversely, elder sims are treated identically to adults with respect to sexuality. They can't bear children, but elder males can father them.

It is intriguing that the restriction of sexuality by age was the one area where prevailing social norms seems to have impacted the game design of the Sims; perhaps because this is one area where our society is relatively united, whereas it is divided on the sexual orientation and gender issues.

Games and Life

No computer game provides a fully realistic view of the world as we know it. Gamers are divided into those who think they want their games "realistic" and those who don't. For instance, in the Elder Scrolls community, there has always been a (sometimes bitter) debate about whether a RPG should require the player to eat, drink, and sleep to maintain life. These games don't, but one of the first mods provided by fans is inevitably a "realism" mod. Another perennial debate relates to the treatment of nudity, sex, love, and sexuality; and a nude mod is always the second mod provided for a new game. A third debate relates to the inclusion of children, and if they are included, what restrictions are placed on interacting with them. Children mods are harder to do, but eventually we get them. Then there is gender. Should games treat men and women characters (whether playable or unplayable) differently and unequally, with advantages generally to men (the "realist" position); differently but equally; or identically (the "idealist" position)? Every game comes down on these issues in a different place, and I will have more to say in the future about how they are dealt with in other gameworlds.

I'd like to go on record here as saying that I am NOT in general in favor of realism in games for its own sake. A game must seem real enough for us to believe in it and connect to it; but beyond that, "real" elements should be included just when they make the game more fun. Eating, drinking and even bathroom needs are essential in a game like the sims; satisfying multiple needs is the gameplay challenge in this world. In a game that revolves around slaying dragons, the dragons provide the challenge and there is no need for latrines.

As for social matters, reproducing in a fantasy gameworld the prejudices and bigotry of our real societies never makes a game more fun for me… unless its presented as an evil force to be vanquished. Give me in every game a sims-like utopia and I would be a happy gamer.