September 22, 2006

Auto Assault: Four Flats and a Dropped Transmission

In my mailbox today: the NCSoft newsletter. NCSoft publishes massively multiplayer games, including the popular City of Heroes. The MMO market is a scary place right now, with World of Warcraft serving more than 5.5 million subscribers and all of the other publishers wishing they could have a tenth that many.

I'm amazed at the flameout of NCSoft and NetDevil's Auto Assault, however. As a Mad Max-like fast action car shoot-em-up, the concept should have been bulletproof. But the gameplay was lackluster, to put it mildly. Not only did they merge all of their game servers into a single entity, but now I find that they're offering a free month of play as bounty for every friend you recruit to the game.

MMO players may like to play the games by themselves, but if they think that no one else is playing then the neighborhood turns over and they head to another game. If they're this desperate to boost the server population, I wouldn't be surprised if the engine drops out of Auto Assault by the end of the summer.

April 24, 2006

Star Wars Galaxies: Still Causing Heartburn in Folks Who Can't Walk Away

At the academic group virtual-worlds blog Terra Nova, IT associate professor Liz Lawley describes what she saw when she took her son to a Star Wars Galaxies "community summit" hosted by LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment in Seattle. Interesting findings: of roughly 200 attendees few were under 18, many hated recent developments in the game but still played because of the social ties they had developed, and it's a good bet that gamer conferences will lead to one chauvinistic idiot grabbing a microphone.

I'm still astonished that my little-read blog is still receiving comments from strangers on my December article on the game's PR fiasco. I can't explain the passion, and the persistent hard feelings, for this game. Then again, I can't explain why I still look in on the game's forums from time to time....

December 20, 2005

Feedback on the Star Wars Galaxies PR Post

Thanks to everyone who responded to my previous blog entry on the Star Wars Galaxies PR Disaster. For my friends and readers who couldn't care less about computer games, I'll have something less geeky up soon. :) In the meantime, I wanted to respond to a few of the comments that have accumulated to this point.

Be warned: In general, I'm going to be commenting more on the public relations problems than the game itself. I'm having the opposite reaction as Darniaq, who wrote that he is "way past tired of talking about the handling of the rollout." For me, how SOE handles this situation and how the press covers it is far more interesting to me, personally and professionally, than the game itself.

Continue reading "Feedback on the Star Wars Galaxies PR Post" »

December 16, 2005

Star Wars Galaxies: Anatomy of a PR Disaster

Developers of the niche field of Massively Multiplayer Online Games would kill for the kind of press access that LucasArts/Sony Online Entertainment's Star Wars Galaxies is currently getting. The New York Times? Christian Science Monitor? Wired? All in one week? Blizzard Entertainment's mega-hit World of Warcraft aside, the media still barely knows MMOGs exist. So this massive exposure is great, right? Well, let's look at the headlines:

This is beyond bad press -- this is a disaster for a struggling product in a marketing niche that depends on positive word of mouth to generate subscribers willing to pony up $15 a month. Star Wars Galaxies isn't at the end of its road yet, but it doesn't seem too early to slow down past the wreckage and take a look at how two massive corporations with one of the world's most popular intellectual properties managed to run through the guardrails.

Continue reading "Star Wars Galaxies: Anatomy of a PR Disaster" »

November 19, 2005

World of (Snore)craft

Some weeks ago I finally cancelled my subscription to Star Wars Galaxies, a massively multiplayer online game whose ambition and depth was no match for poor customer service, quality assurance, and production management. It was my first entry into the massively multiplayer genre. I'm now more fascinated by the concept of online persistent worlds and multiplayer gameplay than I have time to pursue it.

With SWG out of the picture, I'm left playing City of Heroes, a much less complicated superhero MMO -- perfect for people with limited free time, although much less intellectually engaging.

By far the most popular MMO is World of Warcraft by Blizzard, with hundreds of thousands more players than its nearest competitor. I've always been mildly curious about the game, and with the family away this weekend I finally have time to try out the 10-day free trial of the game at So, in between fits of housecleaning, I'm downloading and installing the game.

I started a long time ago ago. It took 45 minutes for me to reach a place in the queue to download the file in the first place -- a 2.8 gig file -- and another 30 minutes(?) for the installer to run, and now another 30 minutes for the game to shut itself down, download a patch, install the patch to update the game, restart, shut itself down, download a new patch....

For a free download, I feel like I'm paying with an awful lot of time to sample a game to which I'm not going to subscribe. No matter whether World of Warcraft has a million subscribers, it's technical obstacles like that which make online gaming such a fringe experience.

Edited to add: Finally got the game to finish loading and logged in. Chose a server to start playing. "(Server Name) is full. Position in queue: 46. Estimated time: 17 min." Why would anyone pay a monthly fee to wait in a line?

March 20, 2005

Get the CPU! Part I

Thanks to Lex, I've discovered the wonders of shivaSite and pinball emulation. Reminiscent of the MAME arcade machine emulation project, what you have here are a number of very dedicated people creating extraordinarily faithful virtual copies of classic and recent arcade pinball games.

Playing something like Terminator 2: Judgment Day on a computer is a little weird. On the one hand, the emulation software gets the physics exactly right. The bumpers and flippers, the table, and the ball behave just as you'd expect on a well-maintained arcade machine. On the other hand, you don't have depth perception working for you. It's a small, 2D representation of a large physical object, so it's harder to track the ball. I also forget to nudge the "machine" -- the idea of pressing a keyboard key instead doesn't gel for me yet.

During a singularly maddening week, this discovery actually helped me hold things together. Thanks, Lex.

January 27, 2004

Time Sink (Free)

The other thing that's kept me from writing or otherwise being productive is the online Settlers of Catan game, a Java rendition of the Best Board Game Ever. Since Will's birth, our time for board games and other socializing with friends has been at a premium, and I've really missed this game. Now I'm on a competitive ladder, ranking myself against players from around the world. And I'm pretty rank at the game, I must say.

Time Sink (Fee-based)

So against my better judgment, I'm giving the massively multiplayer online role playing game (that description's actually a genre name, frighteningly enough) Star Wars Galaxies a try. In addition to the cost of the softare package, you pay a monthly fee to access the game's servers. Without the fee, the software is as useful as TurboTax 1999 is for January 2004. You create a character, choose a profession -- think The Sims with zap guns, but without the bizarre subculture that comes up when you create a game without a plot.

The game's a graphical wonderland. Weather effects are particularly impressive -- sandstorms on Tatooine, blinding rain on other planets, and so on. The gameplay is sound if not spectacular, as you spend your time fighting either other players or computer-controlled Rebels or Imperials depending on which side you joined; or creating weapons, droids, houses and bioengineered creatures for other players whilst raking in the (virtual) cash. Of course, a new player's expectations should be lowered -- you'll be fighting small bugs and lizarrds and building tiny fireworks until you gain enough experience.

That experience-building grind, plus the sense that if I'm paying for it, I should get my money's worth builds up an inertia in Sony Online Entertainment's favor as far as keeping subscribers. If our finances hold up, I'll probably stick with the game as long as my circle of friends does.

June 1, 2003

Masters of Doom by David Kushner

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture
by David Kushner
Random House, 2003

Just about everyone has heard of Doom, id Software's groundbreaking and controversial first-person shoot-'em-up. No one outside of the gaming community is likely to know the names "John Carmack" and "John Romero," id's co-founders.

That pretty much consigns Masters of Doom to the remainder piles in about six months or so. Gamers who keep up with the industry gossip on fan websites might feel like they already know everything in the book, and non-gamers aren't really given a reason to care by Kushner, someone too close to the culture to be an effective tour guide. And Kushner's book is sloppily edited, as well. People and companies such as DWANGO are introduced a couple of pages after having been casually referenced, and at least one paragraph is cut off at page's end.

All that said, Masters of Doom is an interesting historical look at the state of the PC gaming industry from the late '80s to today. You get to see a lot of technology being born, young programmers coping with success with dysfunctional hacker personalities, and a decent philosophical conflict between Art and Work Ethic. The political fallout from the Columbine and Paducah tragedies aren't explored as much as they might have -- as a gamer Kushner's biases are on the table -- but the business conflicts are engrossingly detailed, as are the psychology and sociology of game programmers, hackers, and twentysomethings hunched in computer labs shouting "Suck it down!" to their networked opponents.

Plus, a real-life battle axe is used to great effect.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in today's gamer culture, and especially to anyone already familiar enough to get the inside references.

January 18, 2003


Patience, please, we're talking about online gaming here.

I'm one of the holdouts who still enjoys Tribes 2, a team-based "first-person-shooter" that has little of the gore of the Quake and Doom series -- instead there's plenty of complexity that rewards effective teamplay. That right there was one fatal blow against the game -- people with faith in human nature have never logged on to a public game server -- and the other blow was Sierra's repeated failure to stabilize the game. It would automatically download patch after patch, fixing bugs by introducing new ones. Penny Arcade illustrated it best. Almost two years later, the game is finally playable, and most of the antisocial players have gone to antagonize a fresher gaming community.

Most of them. I'm playing a game of Capture the Flag -- that's what all the FPS networked games are reduced to, really -- and find myself carrying the flag near our base. The other team has our flag, and I can't make a capture until our guys retrieve it. So my first impulse is to get the heaviest armor I can and hide in the basement.

Miss Manners would not approve. Such an act, I discovered, is called "turtling" in online gamer circles and is considered rather unsporting. One of my teammates yelled at me to get up there and fight, rather than hunker down and have the enemy pile on my location. I obeyed.

A few minutes later, still holding the flag, I run back into the base needing to change armors. As I wait in line for the inventory station, one of my teammates turns around and proceeds to ventilate me with his chaingun. He steps over my character's body, grabs the flag, and jets off.

Stunned, I chat to my teammates: (playername) just teamkilled me and took the flag. I call a vote to kick the player from the server as he replies: then next time dont turtle. He's kicked from the server. While he's carrying the other team's flag, which they recover. Needless to say, we do not win the game.

The problem with online gaming is that, sooner or later, you actually have to interact with other humans. The first videogame company that solves that problem will reap billions.

P.S. For an old audio dramatization of what online gaming is really like, performed as a send-up of overwrought Tribes fan fiction (yes, it apparently exists), click here for an MP3. It was written by my friend Mark Tebault, and amateurishly but amusingly rendered in audio by yours truly.

September 26, 2002

Behold the Power of Gamers

If this report from PCGameWorld is true, I'm in awe. Then again, it reads like a straightforward press release.

According to statistics tracked by Web sites offering the demo, nearly 1.2 million users accessed the Unreal Tournament 2003 demo between Friday night and Wednesday morning. The global Internet 'Traffic Index,' which tracks how fast information is transferred through the Internet, took a sizeable hit when the demo was released on September 13. As a result of so many people downloading the file, the average speed of the Internet worldwide was cut nearly in half.

Game (somewhat) more tweakedly!

"Tweakedly"? I must be really tired.

The well-adjusted lads at Penny Arcade have pointed me toward a tweaker's guide for Windows 2K/XP gamers. And I have given it to you. I'm reciprocal like that.

September 25, 2002

Game (somewhat) cheaply!

The wizards at AnandTech have just released their latest Buyer's Guide for value gaming systems. Nifty suggestions for those of us in a position to keep up with current PC gaming technology without spending a fortune.