Greetings From Purgatory

Having the week of Thanksgiving off from classes has been nice, but I haven’t had a whole lot to feel thankful for.  My game design hit a bad turn, and I haven’t actually played many games so much as I have wasted a lot of time this week.

I’m still working on actually establishing a schedule of what to do, and when.  I seem to be a largely helpless soul who really can’t control his destiny all that well.

  • I blame MMORPGs.  They’ve somewhat trained me to grind away the hours endlessly doing nothing particularly enjoyable or productive.  As far as games go, MMORPGs certainly know how to occupy a quantity of your time, but they generally don’t do so at a very good quality.  They’re escapism personified but, at the same time, a very poor substitute for reality.
  • I blame my age.  When you’re 32-years-old, you’ve probably got enough sense in your head not to give a damn about picking up virtual trinkets. Consequently, I spent a lot of time in MMORPGs not playing a single character but rather bouncing from one character to another, which has actually strengthened my tendency towards cognitive dissonance.
  • I blame derivative design.  If MMORPGs were something more than grinds, perhaps they could have been something great.  It’s this desire for them to be something more that causes me to keep trying them, long after I knew better.

The bottom line is this: this is no longer an MMORPG-centric blog.  It hasn’t been for awhile.  The reasons are outlined above.  I’ve lost faith.  MMORPGs are no longer special, there’s hundreds of them, and they’re seemingly unable to do anything particularly interesting.

Other types of games, on the other hand – those have some potential.  They’re less focused on being a staging ground for mass hysteria and more focused on being genuinely entertaining.  The details are many and varied, but suffice to say a developer’s motivation changes when they’re not occupied with stringing people along for $15 a month.

Of course, part of the trouble is that I’m going through some things right now…

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X3:TC, Initial Campaign Completed, Endgame Forecast

Reading my save game information, subtracting the 3-12:55 “flying time” statistic from the 1-4:55 “time saved using SETA” statistic, I can say with a fair amount of reliability that I’ve played X3: Terran Conflict over the last week for a solid 2 days, 8 hours.  (With up to an additional 4-8 hours lost to resuming saved games.)

X3 Terran Conflict

At the end of my last Blog entry, I was wondering if this game’s end game was really worth it.  As of now, I’ve just finished the first chapter of the half dozen (give or take) in the game, the titular “Terran Conflict.” I’m now flying an extremely powerful corvette which can swat about 90% of the enemies in the game like flies.  Thus, I’m probably in a fairly good position to hazard a guess how the end game is like.

Well, in terms of how the end game feels in comparison with the beginning game, I would have to say that the main difference is simply that expensive equipment and ships are a bit more accessible.  Naturally, the more traders and facilities are working for you and the tougher the missions you have the gear to tackle, the greater amount of money you are making. Being able to afford better gear more frequently becomes inevitable.

Compared to smaller ships, bigger ships are understandably considerably easier targets, resulting in less enemy fire avoided, but are functionally invulnerable to ships a few classes before them because the shield generation exceeds what the opposition’s weapons are capable of putting out.   At the extreme top scale of things, you might have a prototype carrier (if not several) supported by a variable host of missile frigates, fighters, bombers, marine boarding parties, and so on. There’s even quite a bit of code support to keep them automatically resupplied.

The question becomes one of, “what is there to do once you have obtained great power in this game?” It’s a question I apply to many games that have the players grind away. What’s the ultimate purpose? If you’re getting more powerful simply to get more powerful, then it’s a very hollow thing. Having power loses all context without a goal.

Given that I have navigation relay satellites monitoring most of it, I can now see what’s going on in the X-Universe.  It pretty much involves a few roving packs of Xenon and Khaak in an otherwise relatively peaceful universe.  (The pirates are a comparatively benign threat that can usually be fended off by an adequately equipped freighter, with the possible exception of the powerful Yaki cartel.)

Though the game does attempt to scale threats based off of your current combat rating and the number of ships under your control, there’s only a few sectors of ultimate evil to purge – and I understand that enemies will respawn in these sectors anyway. So, regardless of whatever military power I might have at my beck and call, my ability to instill lasting peace of the galaxy is capped.

I could turn back to a largely economic pursuit, building some space stations to fulfill the various shortages in the universe.  However, the end result of this is mostly just earning money which I could use to buy more junk. When push comes to shove, it’s pretty much a bunch of pointless virtual pack-ratting against an uncaring universe.

So, no, I’d have to say that overall the end game was not particularly what I was looking for – insofar as finding a meaningful goal in a game is reasonable.

Oh well.  Wall of text about what I did in my 3 1/2 days of play follow.

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In The X-Universe, Massive Grinds Are Almost Frictionless

Good Golly, did I ever play a lot of X3 over the weekend.  It was split half between Reunion and Terran Conflict, as I learned I could pick up the v2.0 version of Terran Conflict for $10 from GameSpot as they made the transition to the $40 Gold version.

Compared to Reunion, Terran Conflict might still be an X3 game on the same engine, but it’s got about 4 years more features crammed into it.  Finding a exact feature list is hard, and that’s because it can basically be summed up in one word: more.  More equipment, ships, stations, factions, space to explore, and missions to perform along with various GUI improvements.

Majestic, Isn’t it?

I feel fortunate that I’m playing Terran Conflict a year after the game was originally released, because it was initially pretty bug ridden (whereas Reunion was fairly bug free).  Egosoft has been hammering out bugs ever since and releasing giant patches every few months.  As it stands today, the problems are minor – the worst would be occasional temporary lockups.

Here I thought I was addicted to Dragon Age, but something about X3 has exceeded even the attraction to well-crafted Bioware excellence, and I believe that is the promise of a truly epic end game experience.  The game starts you off as a fair nobody against a backdrop of a giant universe, but through regular diligence and heroics (and the almighty power of reloading saved games in the event of death) you can become the controlling entity of a a large armada.   Space battles can get really epic, and you can definitively shape the events of your X-Universe instance.

Dramatic “wooshing” sounds omitted.

Unfortunately, the building of said galactic empire takes a lot of time.  Starting anew with a small freight ship and a scout ship, it takes a several good trades (somewhere between 6 and 12 depending on the quality) to double my fortune adequately to purchase another freight ship.  That’s just my first two ships out of what will eventually be a personal fleet of dozens – even hundreds.   This is to say nothing for constructing space stations or raising marines.  While each thing you control is a potential workhouse to be exploited to generate even more credits, the task of generating enough credits to reach the end game remains monumental.

I did, at least, find a couple of good ways to cut corners:

  • A repair laser has been added to space suits.  Normally, a ship costs an amount to repair somewhat proportional to the overall ship cost versus the level of damage.  The repair laser does it for free (albeit slowly).  Paired with missions where you can buy damaged ships minus their cost to repair, the repair laser becomes a money gun that generates thousands of credits of value in seconds.
  • Another type of mission involves reclaiming stray ships which have lost their pilots.  Honest fellow that I am, I prefer to send these ships back to their owners.  However, sometimes that’s just not possible.  The solution?  Send that ship to the nearest dry dock and sell it for several times more than what you’re being offered to complete the mission.  Ethical enough considering it just gets blown up by the space cops when time runs out to complete the mission, but it does result in a hit to my reputation.

As damning as these might appear to the overall game balance, an odd 400,000 credits here is minor; this game is epic enough that even formidable-seeming shortcuts to fortune are minor in the grand scheme of things.

And trade, and trade, and trade…

I’ve found myself driving about in my scout performing missions while my Freighters are busily trading, and this is probably the way the scenario is meant to be played as it’s a whole lot more profitable than otherwise.  Most of the missions offer absolutely trivial amounts of credits, but the thing about the missions isn’t so much the credits you’re being paid as the opportunities they bring:

  • Finding something to shoot in X3 used to involve roving the space lanes frequented by pirates and hoping one appears.  You can still do that, but now you’ve also the option of taking a Fight mission (designated by red crosshairs) which brings (spawns) the enemy to you.
  • Trade missions (designated by a credit sign) include not only the aforementioned ship purchase opportunities but also trades you won’t normally find.
  • Build missions (designated by 3 green bricks) assure the dynamic growth of the X-Universe by instructing the player to see the difficult-to-program details of constructing new space stations through.
  • Think missions (designated by a light bulb) run a unpredictable gauntlet of odd jobs, including the aforementioned ship retrieval type.   I’ve found some good credits can made from the Asteroid scanning missions.  The covert missions are a good combat exercise.

Ima Chargin’ My Laser!

I hate grinds… or so I tell myself.  However, perhaps a large part of it involves having an adequate payoff, and something about the dynamic approach to X3‘s end game feels as though it has one.   Time will tell if this feeling is correct, as I could see things shaking out two ways:

  1. Hopefully, I’ll get to the end game and find that it’s constant excitement as I try to hold down my galactic empire versus the various threats that crop up at every corner, creating a nice Flow situation.
  2. However, it could be that upon my arrival in the end game I will find out the universe is completely uneventful, the computer-controlled alien races (my sole opposition in this single player game) are wimpy pushovers, and thus the entire game manifests as a whole lot of fluff and unrealized potential.

It’s too early to say for certain, but the early signs are encouraging.  The AI puts up a good fight, and there seems to be a whole lot more X-Universe than there is me.  X3:Terran Conflict is definitely a Mastermind‘s game, and I’m looking forward to playing more of it tonight.

I need to play less, create more.

I’m not sure what public significance this has, other than perhaps putting myself under a bit of peer pressure to get this done.

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So… Dragon Age

Dragon Age is currently rocking my world.

The main reason why? Final Fantasy XII’s Gambit system is here.   As I mentioned last year, I loved the gambit system.  It always annoys me that in RPGs that you can’t set up a bunch of standing orders for obvious situations – no brainers are not the kind of micromanagement that makes for a good game. For example:

    * Low on health? Drink a potion, stupid.
    * For most spells in any RPG, it’s usually obvious in what situations you should use them, so do it.
    * If you’ve got this ability that does a little extra at no significant cost (e.g. the usual Warrior “kick” ability) it’s pretty obvious you should hammer out that ability as much as possible.

And so on. The Gambit system (“Tactics” in Dragon Age) is all about this – you can set up certain conditions that certain abilities, items, modes are activated. All the unnecessary micromanagement in the RPG is streamlined while your involvement as a player is not eliminated because, after all, you set up the rules in which they happen.

On a whole other level, the main reason why is Dragon Age is rocking my world is because the storyline rocks. It’s very solid, and delivered in a very compelling manner. Bioware is known for presenting a cast of characters you can really connect with in their game, and the ones in Dragon Age are perhaps the most potent yet. The custom fantasy world they created for this game is also quite interesting in the minor details they introduced to the usual fantasy fare – the Darkspawn are really an excellent set of ultimate bad guys. Like Sauron’s Orc legions (LOTR) if he had twisted divine providence going for him. (No, that’s not a spoiler, that’s pretty much the entire intro movie.)

Those who say Dragon Age is a good substitute for Baldur’s Gate are suffering from nostalgia. This game is way better than any Baldur’s Gate game, it has whole new levels of mechanics and refinement that make Baldur’s Gate look like crap in comparison. It’s not just the gambit/tactics system (though that is a big selling point for me) but little things like having a unified party inventory.