Playing Alone, Together: Feelings on SWTOR’s Beta

This past weekend, I was firmly entrenched behind cover, shooting people with a sniper rifle that fired red lasers at my enemies.

No, I was not playing GI JOE: The Rise of Cobra: The Video Game. Instead, I was playing an Imperial Agent for Star Wars: The Old Republic’s final beta.

There were a variety of ways I could go about talking about the game, but then I realized there’s only one way I can really dissect my feelings regarding my time here on the beta. I want to talk about SWTOR in reference to another well-made game that is, at this point in time, technically superior to this game in many ways, but still feels less fun to me on a personal level that I can now explain after having played SWTOR’s beta.

I have always believed that stories are important, and I play video games to experience stories I would not be able to enjoy in my life otherwise. I began playing video games as a soloist, with RPGs as my main staple, and they’re still the type of games I generally like playing even if I rarely finish a story. I like to play video games by myself, but I hate the feeling of being alone.

Star Wars: The Old Republic addresses all those issues for me in a way that Rift, for all its impressive technical feats. never could.

I played Rift with one of the most solo-friendly builds around in an attempt to experience a world, but the world, for all its intriguing lore, felt empty on a sense of scale that I could not accept. Cities were not grand, the game world was a lone continent, and I knew in the back of my head that the quests I was doing were still variations of things I had done so many times before.

In comparison, SWTOR’s stories allow me unparalleled access into a universe that has a strong lore component and is loved by many. I visited parts of planets, earned my own starship, and felt the scale was much grander than that of Rift’s world.

SWTOR also has features that allow the story component to emphasize the paradox of playing alone without being alone. In Rift, the system allowed people to group together without necessarily interacting, so long as the rift gets sealed or the quest gets completed and everyone gets their loot. In SWTOR, I can group with people and share a story with them through the quest we’re on or the instance we’re in, and we can even discuss how we want to proceed in a moral decision as a group if we chose to do so as roleplayers (or we could just let the RNG decide through our rolls).  At the same time, there’s no penalty for not grouping other than missing out on easily outleveled content that provides another story among the many high-quality cutscenes and voiced content that’s already a part of the game.

As someone who tries to spread the word about respecting individual differences, I feel like I’ve been remiss in doing so. I know that, whether I did it in public or not, I mentally dismissed this game as a “WoW clone with voiceovers.”  or “Rift in Space with Cutscenes.” I’m happy to be proven wrong.

I will admit that SWTOR is still not perfect, and I will state for the record that I think it implements some things that I think WoW did as well in the past, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The thing is, if you take a page from a solid game like WoW or Rift and you add a feeling of purpose and a strong reason to pursue the actions you want to pursue, then you’re role playing all the same, and in this case, it makes me feel the dual nature of being a kid who loves RPGs and the 28-year old adult who likes company: SWTOR makes me feel happy to play and have purpose, and it makes me even more happy that I have like minded individuals to share the joy of the same stories with.

To end, perhaps something even more controversial needs to be said.

When I played SWTOR, I felt like I was playing a Single-Player RPG with Social MMO elements. Some people would take that as a justification that SWTOR is not an MMORPG. My take on it is simple: As long as the game has the RPG and the MMO in it, and the way it’s prepared is just right for an individual’s tastes, then it shouldn’t matter if it’s an MMORPG or something more akin to a Single Player RPG with MMO elements. They offer the same thing :fun. That said, I definitely had fun playing the SWTOR beta, and I look forward to trying out the Republic Trooper at launch.

Shower Thoughts Week: Differences in Freedom and Structure and the Nature of Play

Stabbing Dragons in the face in Skyrim

Shower Thoughts Week will feature a week-long series of of posts discussing ideas about games after having thought about them while bathing.

Skyrim, Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR), and Saints Row: The Third are three games that are currently on my mind. The entertainment value of these three games is rather high, though these games share differing amounts of freedom and structure in their gameplay mechanics. I wanted to spend a few moments talking about my thoughts regarding these games from an “I’ve just had an extremely long thought experiment in the shower and am struggling to recollect my thoughts” sort of frame of mind.

A person’s need for freedom and structure is so closely intertwined to an individual’s personality that talking about freedom and structure in play is something that ought to be handled with a certain delicacy.

As human beings, we paradoxically delight in finding a singular purpose to drive us, yet wish freedom in choosing our path towards achieving a goal. As people who play games, we find ways to extend the reach of our minds beyond what we perceive to be possible, enough to slay dragons, fly ships in space, and freefall in a near endless drop while gunning down enemies with no regard for conventional reality. Combine the two and multiply them by the number of gamers in the world, and you have a staggeringly large permutation of people who want to be satisfied by playing a game, but by various means. Increase the stakes exponentially with shifting tastes in entertainment, and you have a logistical nightmare for a single mind to handle.

Game developers in this day and age have realized that striking that balance in gameplay that allows for a game to appeal to every gamer at every time is next to impossible. To remedy this, they have perfected the means by which a “large enough” number of gamers can find enjoyment from play long enough for the next DLC or content update to be released for them to further support their continued enjoyment, a trait especially noticeable in MMORPGs. Either they choose that method, or they reward a gamer for possessing obsessive or addictive behaviors that make them wish to continue playing a product beyond its ability to bring joy into a gamer’s life.

As current preoccupations of a lot of gamers out there in my circles, Skyrim, SWTOR, and Saint’s Row: The Third are examples of three games that, at least for the purposes of the thought experiment I had, attempt to combine freedom and structure in different ways.

Skyrim possesses a large, epic, and foreign world with supposedly infinite quests. What I think actually happens is that the game places players in a large world, gives them the tools and understanding for advancement, and gives them structure through quests and freedom to skip quests and change tactics to suit their changing needs. The game doesn’t necessarily “end,” but when you have run out of a strong purpose to play, the game ceases to hold the same allure until a new downloadable content pack is introduced that extends the experience of purpose.

SWTOR takes a different approach. Provided with (I believe) 17 planets to explore, the game focuses on providing players with purpose by focusing on a strong, fully-voiced story to mitigate the feeling of repetitiveness brought about by having only a limited number of quest types. Instead of saying, “This is a world, have at it,” SWTOR says, “This is your tale, experience it.”

Of the three games, Saints Row: The Third is perhaps the hardest to explain properly. Freedom and structure are more or less balanced here, with a supposedly large number of activities to experience and enjoy in a relatively smaller-scaled area (compared to the scale of a country and 17 planets) like a city. The difference is that this game instead gives you the equivalent of contemporary wish fulfillment by providing you with an exaggerated and amoral real-world scenario, as if the game is saying, “This world is your oyster, enjoy the experience.”

In each game, freedom and structure combine to allow many people to find a respite from the stressors of the world. Enjoying a game and sharing the experience in a healthy fashion, however you choose to do so, is the nature of play. One of the end results of this healthy play of games is the passage of time, and these three games all allow for the passage of time to happen with a sense of fulfillment and relaxation.

There is an issue, however, when we overthink the nature of play (Ironic that I’m overthinking the nature of play to get to a point, but such is life). When we obsess over an aspect of a game, whether it be min-maxing a character, or hardcore raiding, or ganking, we diminish the fun behind the play. When we chastise others for enjoying a particular game because we think their game is horrid or lesser than our own, we cheapen the nature of social interaction derived from playing.

It doesn’t matter how different one game is from another from a functional standpoint, as they all serve the same purpose of allowing us to go beyond ourselves and enjoy a new experience with others sharing in that same joy. We do the games we play a disservice by enjoying them in complete solitude and isolation, or worse yet, at the cost of another person’s enjoyment of his choices.

If there’s anything I’ve learned this evening from taking a shower and thinking about video games, it’s that the freedom of our lives and the structure we ascribe to it are meant to be tuned and balanced, and we should try to find that same balance when we interact with other people in our day-to-day, whether it be through games, Twitter, emails, or showering with them interactions in the physical world.

In Skyrim: Going Down a Dark Path (spoilers)

Right now, I’m relatively powerful, but I still have trouble killing dragons. I have shiny Dwarven armor, and steel armor everywhere else, and I have a home and hearth for my use.

One of the issues I’ve not grown accustomed to while being in Skyrim is the nature of unintended consequences and everlasting regret. In life, you sometimes make a decision to alter the course of someone else’s fate, for good or ill. The thing is, it’s hard to make recompense for doing so, and harder still when you realize that, by trying to do something good, you’ve gone down a darker path than you would have realized.

In my travels, I had heard about a young man named Aventus Aretino, whom people were saying was disturbed. I hesitate to call him a boy, as he is too far gone in vengeance to be called innocent, and too far hardened to be the type of child who plays in the streets of a simple town.

I sought him out and found him trying to perform a ritual that would summon a dark power to aid him in a simple matter. I stepped in to try to stop him, and was instead mistaken for the dark power he sought.

With hope in his eyes, Aventus begged me to slay the headmistress of the orphanage he was heading to at the end of a week. He said that the headmistress was a cruel woman, and hinted faintly at the abuse of orphaned children.

Dark as his methods were, and strange as his request was, I remained silent, which he took as acceptance of the task. I needed to clear my mind of the darkness, and investigate if his allegations were true.

Heading to the orphanage, I found myself plagued by the thought of a child so warped by sadness and longing that he would drive himself to such dark methods to find peace. I needed to know the truth and let the authorities know of the travesty being committed if it were true.

The orphanage was quaint, but serviceable and, unlike the headmistress, was warm enough for the task of caring for abandoned and orphaned children. When I entered the main room, I heard the headmistress berating the kids and telling them they were unloved and that no one would ever adopt them because she would stop any attempt to do so. It broke my heart to know that Aventus’ claims rang true.

I was about to step back outside when the assistant of the headmistress attempted to talk to me in an attempt to explain the aberrant behavior. I knew she didn’t believe what she was saying, and so I remained silent.

I looked for a constable in that dark night, but none would talk to me about the events I had seen. It was as if the world had abandoned these children for an unknown purpose, and I could not do anything other than choose the happiness of the children and of Aventus with the assistant headmistress or the life of Grelod the “Kind.”

I went back into the orphanage that same evening, sneaking past the sleeping children, and ultimately, sitting behind the headmistress for what seemed like an eternity. Perhaps the unknown purpose the world had left for these children was to take me down a path of sadness as well, but I didn’t know it then. All I knew then was righteous anger mixed with the need to weigh my actions.

In any realm, there is free will that, in hindsight, feels like an illusion. We are bound by our minds to follow the path laid before us by our conscience, and whether we flounder or not in attempting to follow it, that is our path as set by our selves, immutable except through the loss of memory.

I gave up the path of law for the path of righteousness, or so I would have myself believe. I froze Grelod the kind that same night as she slept. I left the house, with no one the wiser. My transgression, I knew, would not be realized by anyone. Only that she had drowned in her sleep, frozen and blackened all over from debilitating frostbite.

The end of Grelod the kind was swift and merciful, I forced myself to think, and no one would know, I reminded myself.

I went back to Whiterun, to my own home, in the light of the morning. A courier had left a message for me as I entered the house.

Someone knew. Someone had come to tell me that they knew, and no amount of sleep or meditation would allow me to forget that like Aventus, I too had begun my way down a dark path.

In Skyrim: Lycanthropy and Madness, My Faithful Companions

The life of an adventurer is filled with trials. With death stalking me at every turn, I find that a stalwart companion can be good to have.

My only issue is that for myself, the companions who tag along with me are the insatiable lust for killing and the ramblings of a mad god.

In my travels, I have acquired lycanthropic powers that augment my physical strength greatly, but force me to feed on those I have killed in order to maintain my strength and lust for blood. I will not reveal how I acquired such a thing, but it was not the happiest day of my life to have fur where my scales used to be.

Furthermore, investigating an issue for a troubled old man lead me to enter an alternate realm of being, where I had to test my wits in order to escape the inner reaches of the mind of a dead king who was being tormented by Sheogorath, the Daedric Prince of Madness.

Despite leaving the place unscathed physically, I find myself always coming back to that day, feeling a bit unnerved. Would the Prince of Madness come for me one day to lead me on his path?

In Skyrim: Mundane Doings for the Average Argonian

For some reason, I could not think of a way to properly introduce Skyrim on to the blog, as its scope is as large as can be, with varying quests and capabilities being part of the equation of fun. I suppose I should start simply, then.

Meet Stillwater, my Argonian Jack-of-all-trades.After getting a stay of execution thanks to a dragon, he’s been doing all sorts of things to help the populace and terrorize the evildoers of the lands.

For starters, he’s… chopped wood, and frozen bunny rabbits and foxes for their carcasses. He’s also manipulated a set of relationships in Riverwood to allow a bard his comeuppance, because the bards I’ve met in this game tend to be a rather haughty lot. He’s mined, he’s dined, and he’s put swords to the grindstone for sharpening.

If that sounds rather boring, it probably is. It’s a testament, however, to the vastness of scope in the game, that one can do all those things, and still find time to kill dragons as the Dragonborn.

So far, nothing I’ve done has had far-reaching consequences for my game experience, though if there were far reaching consequences, I’d have this overwhelming tendency to research it in advance. For Skyrim though, I’ve found that some guides on enchanting that are most helpful, and I’ve only had to get help when I’m absolutely maddened by the nature of a quest.

Let’s end on a lighthearted note. Here’s an image of a dead foe who had his face caved in with an Ice Spike. Cheers.

Why Physical Copies Can Trump Digital Downloads (A Skyrim Post)

The Keen and Graev Twitter account announces that there’s less than 23 hours to go before Skyrim unlocks on their Steam account.

My Steam account says there’s approximately 32-33 hours left before Skyrim unlocks.

Comparatively speaking, to get Skyrim potentially sooner than other folks, I confirmed with the local game shop about physical copies coming in. According to them, the physical copies would come in on 11/11/11 anyway by mid to late afternoon, which is approximately 24-26 hours from now. Add to that the fact that Skyrim pre-orders in my country get a nifty coffee mug that should be nothing like the FFXIV CE tumblers, and you have the makings of an excellent reason to buy physical, as long as you do your research.

To sum up,

1. Due to time zone issues, the Physical Copy of Skyrim will arrive earlier than the unlocking of the Steam version.

2. I save on bandwidth as I won’t be downloading the game.

3. Free Skyrim logo-emblazoned black coffee mug with my pre-order for the long-haul gaming session that’ll happen in the evening.


Advanced Happy Skyrim Day, my fellow gamers!

Appreciating Minecraft’s Effect on Indie Gaming (Without Playing It Much)

Despite the many merits of Minecraft, I dislike the current state it’s in because it’s too sandboxy for me. Without any clearly defined goals set for myself to push through, Minecraft’s effect wasn’t that strong on me. I ultimately get bored playing the game after less than 30 minutes.

That said, disliking the game doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what Minecraft’s effect on me was.

While it could be said that my first Indie game purchase was Torchlight (Torchlight is, in fact, the first game I ever purchased through Steam, and my second Steam-enabled game after The Last Remnant), Minecraft was what really brought independent game development to the forefront of my game-loving mind.

Minecraft’s popularity and media coverage made many gamers take notice of independent developers and their many offerings, whether it be a storekeeper’s RPG in the form of Recettear, a roguelike like Dungeons of Dredmor, or a FPSS (First Person Santiy Survival) thriller such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

Indies these days allow for exceptional gameplay experiences that do not necessarily require a high price to enjoy. Indeed, with Humble Indie Bundles and Royal Bundles available to the public these days, getting into the groove of loving low-cost, high quality gaming is proving to be a steadily popular choice among the discerning gamers out in PC and Xbox 360-land.

Even now, Minecraft is probably the biggest example of what indie gaming is, but since there’s no formal definition for what an indie game is, I doubt it actually holds the title of biggest indie game in a person’s heart.

That game probably goes to whatever awesome game is out at the moment. It’s a fickle way of thinking, perhaps, but it also means there’s a lot of love to go around. While The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Saint’s Row: The Third are going to be the AAA hits I look forward to playing in the near future, it’s the indie games that’ll keep me company when the money is tight and gaming urge is strong.

Who knows? Minecraft may even get randomized quests for fun before 2012. At least, I hope it gives me a reason to play it again. I could use a good excuse.


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