7 Gold and 9 Sapphire Shards

by Theo Dentchev

Usually when or if one boasts in an academic setting (school) it has to do with how much they’ve done and/or how well they’ve done it. If you’re going to seek praise from your professors, it’s usually by saying something insightful, or turning in some impressive, hard wrought work, or displaying your breadth of knowledge on a subject by incorporating things learned from outside of class.

Today after class I made a point of going up to my professor and informing him that I had earned 7 gold and 9 Sapphire Shards. In Lord of the Rings Online. And I was damn proud of it.

Things weren’t always like this. There was a time when I didn’t even know what Sapphire Shards were, or why they mattered. Let me take you on a journey back in time…

It’s August 27th, and I’m attending my first Worlds of Wordcraft class. I find out that we’ll be playing Lord of the Rings Online. I’m pretty excited, since I’m a Tolkien fan. Despite that it still takes me a week or two before I get around to buying and installing the game.

Fast forward. I’ve installed the game, and I’ve started playing. I’ll spend an hour or two, maybe once or twice a week. Once I get past the intro area I start playing a little more, but still at staggered intervals. I might play for a a good chunk of a Saturday, go up a few levels, and then not play again for a week or even two.

And this goes on for a good month and a half. Then comes fall break, and everything changes. 4 days, 3 gold, 5 levels, and countless boars slain. Late nights spilling over into early mornings, sleeping through the afternoon. I played LOTRO pretty much every day. I didn’t mean to. At first I just intended to do as I always had, play a lot in one day, then not a play again for a while, and spend the rest of my break studying for a midterm I had on Tuesday, and writing most of an essay I had due on Wednesday. Then, I don’t know what happened, but somehow I found myself drawn to the game, unable to stop playing for hours on end. I fit the mmo gamer stereotype: no (or very limited) social contact, only taking breaks for food, sleep, and going to the bathroom. Well, maybe I didn’t go that far; I watched tv, hung out some with people in my dorm, etc. But I never did get around to my studying or essay writing. So I found myself not sleeping, late Monday night/early Monday morning, feverishly studying for the exam I was about to have in a few hours, crashing after class, and waking up in time to write a relatively poor essay in time to hand in on Wednesday.

Then later that same night I was back on LOTRO, questing, selling, neck cramping. And today I was boasting to my professor about how much gold I made and how I had hoarded some valuable crafting items (Sapphire Shards).

So, what can we learn from all this? Clearly the only logical conclusion is this: LOTRO is a highly addictive substance that ruins lives, tanks GPAs, and should be made illegal in the United States.

Or just that it can be highly engaging, simulating many aspects of real life in a fantastic world, and it provides its players a very real sense of fulfillment for completing certain tasks or reaching certain milestones. And that I need to work on my self control, or I’m going to fail my classes.

While I’m certain that I’ll be able to better regulate my LOTRO intake in the future, this experience has given me a new appreciation for the depth of the game and how engrossing it can be. I also have a new understanding of how some people can get sucked into it and, without proper self control, let it impact their lives in a negative way. I do believe however, in the correct quantity, playing LOTRO or other games can be a really enjoyable and enriching experience, and can open up a whole new world to explore with real people to meet and and interact with.

– TD

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How to Play

by Theo Dentchev

A lot of people out there believe there is only one way to play a video game: as the developers intended. These people think that anything not explicitly defined in the game is off limits, and everything has to be done within preset parameters.

Then there are those who believe that there isn’t any one way to play; do whatever works. There are no preset parameters: anything is permissible so long as it doesn’t break the game. Basically, provided that a certain tactic is available equally to all players, if it doesn’t stop the game you can (and should) do it.

The former group would say the latter group is “ruining the game.” I hear it all the time in forums. And it seems like the majority of people belong to the first group. The second group usually consists of a minority, but one which is more dedicated to and knowledgeable about games or a particular game.

So who’s right?

I think the first question that need to be addressed is where does the control of the developers end? Some people tend to treat the game designers as akin to Gods; their word is law and should not be broken. I think that the second group would argue that the developers role ends (in large part) the moment they release the game. From then on the game is in the hands of the players. Essentially, the developers have given us the tools and it’s up to us to decide how we’re going to use them. The developers are not omniscient; they can’t predict every single combination someone out there might try. So naturally there will exist tactics and strategies that they were unable to foresee. And there will also exist exploits of the programming which escaped their notice. Should exploits be used? As I noted earlier, the stance for the use of exploits would be that as long as everyone has equal access to them and they aren’t game-breaking they are fair game. People against them would say it’s somehow immoral or unethical; it’s cheating. But is it? What’s the difference between abusing a programming oversight and using a strategy which the programmers didn’t foresee? The answer is there is none. And in the case of the latter that first group of people will use a different word to describe it: cheap. It goes hand in hand with cheating, since both aren’t “honorable” ways to play.

I think perhaps that is somewhat motivated by the fact that in competition, PvP, players don’t like to lose, and channel that resentment towards the tactics of the player. Rather than admit they were responsible for their own defeat, some people would rather be in denial and lash out, try to discredit their opponent’s victory to make themselves feel better. But then you might point out to such a person that they could do the same thing. A common response is that exploits or “cheap” strategies “take the fun out of the game,” and that they would rather win “legitimately” (according to their arbitrary code of honor) rather than win using cheap tactics or “cheating.” They claim they would derive no satisfaction from such a win.

The problem with that position is that they conveniently forget that fun is subjective. For some people the challenge of strong tactics and exploits makes the game more interesting, as they have to think of new ways to address these tactics, and either new tactics are found or everyone uses that one strategy. And if does turn out that everyone uses one strategy, inevitably people will start to find ways around it. Some people will still be better than others. The metagame will evolve. Provided the game is deep enough of course. And if it isn’t, if there is only one strategy (like tic-tac-toe), then that’s just a deficiency of the game. There’s nothing wrong with exploring the limits of a game and seeing how adaptable it is. That’s where the real allure of playing beyond the basic guidelines provided by the designers lies.

And really if you don’t like losing you have three choices: play in an isolated environment where the gameplay and players are artificially limited in their development, or change, adapt to the new strategies which are emerging and overcome them or perfect them. The third option is, of course, to stop playing. It’s better than complaining anyway, for all sides.

So I tried to start this off from an objective perspective, but I think it’s been clear for a while now that I’m quite biased towards one side. I will say though that at one time I used to think like the first group, believing in the concepts of “cheap” and “unfair.” Heck, I still lapse into that sometimes when I lose and frustration clouds my mind. But even then the cold voice of logic underlies it reminding me that those are just artificial constructs of my invention, and that the reaction is born of resentment. If you want to actually improve as a gamer, you’re going to need to learn to shed those notions and adjust your attitude to a willingness to learn from those that crush you, and one day you might actually return the favor. If you don’t you won’t ever beat them.

– TD

LOTRO: Not Quite There Yet

by Theo Dentchev

Video games today are the closest thing we have to a commercially available virtual reality like that in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Lord of the Rings Online is in many ways quite similar to the Metaverse. You have an avatar, you can interact with other avatars of real people in real time, and you can even have houses in various neighborhoods. Of course, all of this is much more limited that in is in the Metaverse; your avatar is only customizable within the confines of the pre-made models and features (you can’t code your own), interactions with other players are much more limited in terms of facial expression and body language (sure you can type “lol” and your avatar will laugh, but your avatar can’t be made to mimic your real life body and face movements), and while you can change the furniture in your house you can’t do much about the structure of it.

And you can also fight. The true core of any game is the gameplay, with everything else, no matter how detailed or flushed out, being simply shiny accessories. In LOTRO, whatever else it may have in its vast universe, is at it’s core a PvE (player vs environment) game where the player fights all sorts of monsters in his various quests. The core of the Multiverse gameplay is to mimic real life, but without the limitations, but you can still have sword fights in it, thanks to some nifty code by Hiro Protagonist. In LOTRO you have a great deal of control over your avatar when fighting. I happen to be a champion, so I know a thing or two about virtual sword fighting. I can decide what kind of attacks my character will use and when. If I time it right I can fit in special attacks in between auto attacks, or I can have two special attacks in a row. I can heal, and I can run away (sort of).

But after reading Snow Crash I realize just how limited the gameplay really is. In the Metaverse skill is in part determined by how closely you can get your avatar to move the way you would in real life. In many ways it is like a fight in real life; you actually have to pay attention to how the other player is moving, and react accordingly by dodging, blocking, counter attacking. All of those are automated in LOTRO, determined by mathematical formulas and probability. In LOTRO you don’t even pay attention to the actions of your avatar or the enemy you are fighting. If you asked me to describe how a spider in LOTRO attacks I couldn’t do it. That’s because in LOTRO you’re just standing still face to face with your enemy, hacking away, and you’re paying much more attention to the health/power bars in the upper left, and the skill icons in you skill bar (whether they are available yet, or how much cool down time is left) than you are to the actual movements going on. Not to mention the fact that your movements don’t really have much of an effect anyway. I may have just used a special move that slashed my enemy four times, but the enemy will look just the same as it did before. In the Metaverse slashes actually have visible effects, such as severing the arm of an avatar from its body.

Reading Snow Crash makes me realize just how far off games like LOTRO are from achieving virtual reality, despite all the cosmetic similarities. And yet, there are similarities. If you compare LOTRO to early arcade games the difference is huge. We’re making strides, and who knows, maybe another twenty or thirty years from now we’ll have a Metaverse in Reality. In the meantime I’m going to go kill some spiders, and maybe I’ll pay a little more attention to the animations this time.

  • TD

What’s the deal with LOTRO cutscenes?

by Theo Dentchev

LOTRO starts off with some beautiful looking graphics, and a cutscene in which Gandalf sits at a fire smoking some pipeweed, telling you a story. Good stuff right?

And then you start playing the game.

In the first cutscene you encounter you’re most likely going to miss at least the first few lines of dialogue before you even realize that you’re in a cut scene. Why, you ask? Because the “cutscene” is just in game characters with text above their heads or in the text box at the bottom left of the screen. Don’t get me wrong, the in game graphics are really nice, great colors, good animations. But they’re in game graphics. Would it have been too much to ask for some cinema-like cutscenes? Or at least some sound instead of having to read dialogue. I mean, using in game graphics makes it so that at times it is difficult to notice immediately that someone else has started talking, and by the time you look to see the text above their head they’re already on to the next sentence. You could of course look at the text box in the bottom left, but then you miss whatever limited visual action might be going on. All in all this provides for a relatively poor form of storytelling.

Then again, maybe I’m just biased. I’m not quite old enough to have experienced the text based rpgs of the early days of gaming. In fact, the issue of my age is compounded by the fact that I didn’t really start playing video games (outside of pokemon on the gameboy color) until 2003 – very recently. And even then I didn’t really play rpgs as much as I did action-adventure games. So I am accustomed to playing games where the cutscenes are cinematic and the characters actually talk. I guess both styles of story telling (cinematic cutscenes and in game cutscenes) provide the same information, and you could understand the story equally well either way, but the presentation makes a huge difference. I will be better able to appreciate a story which I can enjoy and which is easy to follow.

I’m no game designer and have no idea of how difficult it must be, but would it really be that much harder to incorporate cinematic cutscenes into MMOs? Even if it is harder than doing for console games, games like LOTRO are supposed to have a strong focus on storytelling, so wouldn’t it be worth the effort to tell the story better? It would enhance the entire experience of the game, making it more immersing and engaging.

– TD

P.S I just realized that I haven’t gotten very far into the game, and it is still entirely possible there will be other cinematic cutscenes in the future. However, I still condemn the lack of such cutscenes in general, and the use of in game cutscenes instead.

Arcade to Console: A Shift in the Nature of Games

by Theo Dentchev

“There’ll always be the argument that video games are meant to be played for fun. Believe me, some of it’s a lot of fun. Video games are meant to be played at home, relaxing, on a couch, amongst friends…and they are, and that’s fun. But competitive gaming, when you want to attach your name to a world record, when you want your name written into history, you have to pay the price.”

– Billy Mitchell, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

In the above quote arcade game legend Billy Mitchell speaks to the difference between competitive gaming and what might be called “casual” gaming. But at the same time, in a way he’s comparing modern gaming to classic arcade gaming. “[Modern] [v]ideo games are meant to be played at home…on a couch,” and one might add with a gaming console, on a TV, whereas classic arcade games are played standing up in front of the arcade machine, usually in an arcade. Those superficial differences in location and method of playing are representative of a broader shift in gaming from the arcade era in the 80s to the console era of today, from more competitive to more casual, from a narrow to a broad appeal, and from more rule oriented games to games which utilize fiction much more heavily.

The underlying goal of classic arcade games is to get as far as you could, to achieve as high a score as possible without dying (and if you are good enough, to hopefully get your name on the high scores list), and thus they are inherently competitive. Arcade games also require great hand-eye and hand-thought coordination, as Twin Galaxies founder and referee Walter Day tells us in King of Kong. Someone playing an arcade game has to be literally thinking on their feet. The person has to be on edge, attentive, and motivated to keep standing there and competing at that game. This is in stark contrast to video games today, which are meant to be enjoyed while sitting back, sinking into your couch cushions, without needing to exert a great deal of mental or physical effort. Today’s games try to be friendly and open to new or “casual” gamers. They are much, much more forgiving than the arcade games of the past and no longer restrict players to going as far as their skills allow them; now even the least able gamer ┬ácan fully experience (and beat) most games. That isn’t to say that there aren’t still games being made which are or can be competitive out there, it just means the landscape has shifted.

Accompanying this shift is gaming becoming more mainstream. Whether the increased public interest in gaming is due to the increasingly casual nature of games, or whether companies are making more casual games to please the public, I don’t know. I figure it’s a combination of both. Most people don’t find the intensely challenging, and often frustrating nature of arcade games to be “fun.” They are more attracted to games whose rules present some sort of challenge, yet not one which is too difficult to overcome. But people also like flashy graphics, rich soundtracks, and complex stories. Arcade gaming did not have that. They didn’t have the greatest graphics (it was the 80s,still early in the development of video games), and while they had some catchy themes the music was pretty simple. As for story, sure, Mario (Jumpman) was trying to save Pauline (Lady) from Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong, but that’s about as deep as that story gets, and there’s really no resolution of the conflict (ending). And what about Pac-Man? What was he eating all those dots for anyway? Arcade games focused mostly on a set of rules, without much fiction. Modern games still have rules which the player must follow, but have added great amounts of fiction, mainly in the form of narratives and accompanying music, to the point that some games are considered more film than game (e.g. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots). That in turn has attracted a great deal of people to the gaming world, swelling its ranks with new, casual gamers.

Video games in the 80s were generally viewed in a negative light, with mostly “losers” or “nerds,” supposed rejects of society, congregating in dimly lit arcades, almost cult-like. Perhaps this was because games were still a new and relatively foreign medium. Or maybe the “price” needed to be paid that Billy Mitchell alludes to, not in quarters, but in time, dedication, and repeated frustration resulting from the difficulty of arcade games was too high for the average person to pay. Or was it because arcade games were too simple, only about rules and competition? Whatever the case may be, since video games have started heavily incorporating fiction and lowering the challenge the rules present, changing the nature of the games from competitive to casual, they have been propelled in a relatively short amount of time into mainstream recognition and acceptance. People find today’s games to be more “fun.” It’s not only nerds who play video games now, and although competitive gaming may still be discredited, even that is changing as people begin to play games like Halo for a living.

Or maybe it’s all because of Madden.

– TD

Harry Potter 6 or The Lord of the Rings 1

by Theo Dentchev

Which movie is better?

Some might say that the answer is entirely subjective, and so you cannot conclusively say one is better or worse. That’s true enough, but I’m not asking, “which one do you like more.” Rather which one is objectively better? I suppose to make that kind of judgment we will need to define a set of criteria for determining which is indeed “better.” I propose we look at and compare the following four characteristics commonly used when evaluating film: coherence, intensity of effect, complexity, and originality.

Let us omit discussing complexity and simply assume that both films are sufficiently complex. That is, they both engage us on several different levels and have relatively intricate systems of relationships. Let us also omit intensity of effect, as that covers a range of subjects which are more subjective than I would like, such as how vivid or emotionally powerful the film is.

Then let us begin with coherence, or unity, which refers to how well or clearly everything is presented in a film, and if all the loose elements are tied up by the end. Now, being installations in a series, both of our films don’t conclude their stories and naturally leave certain things unaddressed (left, we assume, for the sequel to pick up on). Though we have to keep that in mind, we can still compare the way the rest of both films are structured. In The Fellowship of the Ring all of the characters and events clearly and logically relate to each other and serve a purpose. Those that don’t are either being left for the next film, or are negligible and require careful viewing to catch. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince it is more fragmented, as though not fully completed, and in a way unrelated to the fact that it is to have a sequel. There are scenes and places which, in the context of the movie, make little sense and are unclear. A striking example can be found at the end of the film, when Dumbledore is confronted by Draco Malfoy atop the astronomy tower and eventually killed by Snape. Harry is hiding in the vicinity the entire time yet does nothing until after Dumbledore is already dead. His inaction does not make any sense and is completely dissonant with his character as well as with the nature of his relationship with Dumbledore. In the book his action is explained by Dumbledore immobilizing with a spell which does not wear off until either he dies, but in the movie it is simply illogical.

That last example is a good place to bring originality into the discussion. Yes, both films are adaptations of books and as such one might be inclined to say that the films cannot be original, but even in films which have a frequently used subject, originality can be found in the way that subject is presented. Likewise both these films display originality in the way they relate the story which they are adapting. Both do depart from the text, sometimes changing minor details, sometimes going so far as to omit entire portions of the book. However, the changes and omissions that are made in The Fellowship of the Ring are done so that the viewer is able to more easily and quickly understand the plot, as superfluous characters and events which serve to unnecessarily complicate the plots are shorn off (such as Tom Bombadil, who never appears in the movie, and the corresponding scene in Rivendell where it is suggested that the ring be given to him). The end result is a more streamlined work that, while differing in some places from it’s source, still tells a complete story and gives the viewer all the information they need to understand and appreciate it within the length limitations of the film meidum. In contrast, Harry Potter omits vital scenes (such as several memories of a young Tom Riddle which offer insight into his character’s motivations and also give more information about the horcruxes), while adding completely irrelevant scenes which do do nothing for the story other than complicate it (such as the burning of the Burrow, which never happens in the book and which goes on to appear again in the seventh book). The end result is that those who are not familiar with the source text will find it difficult to understand everything. While undoubtedly both have elements of originality, just being original without a purpose has no worth. The Lord of the Rings is original in a way which has a clear purpose and achieves the desired effect, while the originality of Harry Potter is haphazard and only undermines the film.

From those two respects The Fellowship of the Ring emerges as the “better” of the two films. Having not covered half of the criteria I suggested in the first paragraph, I could certainly see someone making an argument that Harry Potter is more complex or has greater intensity of effect to the extent that it makes up for its deficiencies in the other areas. Such an argument would have to be very convincing, and I myself am rather skeptical as to the possibility of such an argument existing. But maybe that is just my personal bias, and regardless of what objective judgments we might render, in the end they likely won’t be the determining factor in which film you enjoy more.

-TD