The Fall of The Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic has garnered a lot of criticism in the first year of its existence. A lot of that is well deserved, but I think some of the criticism is a result of residual blowback from other recent fumbles on BioWare/EA’s part, specifically the controversies revolving around Dragon Age II and Mass Effect III. That being said, it has been a long and somewhat rocky road for the fledgling MMO with a star franchise pedigree on its own accord.

First off, I love The Old Republic and BioWare for what they accomplished best: bringing the rich, fulfilling storytelling BioWare is known for into the open-ended world of an MMO. I loved the epic scale of Knights of the Old Republic and this new iteration recaptured that feeling of being the hero for me again. Having recently broken my WoW addiction last year, my introduction to SW:TOR was like playing an entirely different sort of game. I thrilled to the story I was playing through as my Jedi Knight and was especially excited about the various story hooks with previous storylines, specifically that of the fallen Jedi Revan. When I finally faced off against the Emperor and ended his reign, I truly felt like I had won the game.

The problem is.. the game continued on after that. Now for an MMO, that’s the point: to have a never-ending experience. But when the last month and a half is spent in a deep, enthralling storyline, the abrupt loss of that story and immersion left me with the same MMO grind I had left less than a year earlier. My time in SWTOR stopped being about pushing forward some fantastic narrative and became a daily regime of repetitive quests and group instances with the express purpose of getting better gear. It was like going to a five Michelin star restaurant, having the most satisfying meal you can imagine and then having to go into the kitchen and wash your dishes.

I have a job, I don’t need my entertainment to feel like a job.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not limited to SW:TOR; every MMO ultimately ends like this. It’s a flaw (to my way of thinking) in the entire genre. World of Warcraft has been the same for the last 8 years. Rifts, Guild Wars I & 2, Everquest… every MMO ends up being an exercise in grinding and gear acquisition. The problem with The Old Republic is that it tried to be more than its peers -especially WoW– but ultimately achieved far less.

World of Warcraft is successful in the same way that McDonald’s is successful: by mass producing a consistent product that is familiar and easy to consume.  People don’t play WoW because of its consistent innovation; it’s the same game just with a new coat of paint, year after year.  Yet -like McDonald’s- they excel at what they do and people respond by continuing to subscribe.  As such, WoW is a tough franchise to beat.

The problem is that SW:TOR even tried.  I applaud them for ambitiously gunning for the biggest game in the market.  However, to accomplish that, you need to be able to grab those subscribers and keep them.  The Old Republic certainly got everyone’s attention with the highest initial subscriber base in the history of MMOs.  Now, popular logic tells you that a large portion of those people are dilettante games, only truly playing your game for the first month, but they still had a large subscriber base, even factoring those losses in, enough to become competitive with WoW.

Unfortunately, in their attempt to “out-big” World of Warcraft, they created a expectation they were unable to fill.  They started the game with more servers than any game before The Old Republic; this created too many servers with too light of populations per server and so players became bored and left in larger numbers than would be expected.  They created a fantastic, story-driven experience; yet, once gamers finished their class story line, they were left with a game that was functionally identical to WoW and felt an enormous let down at the degradation of their playing experience.  They started the game with more instanced flashpoints (dungeons) and operations (raids) than WoW had after its first year, but inevitably paled in comparison to the amount of instanced areas World of Warcraft currently has; this is not a fair comparison of course and few people if any even do the Vanilla or Burning Crusade areas anymore, but gamers are fickle by nature so it’s not surprising.

I think the biggest mistake BioWare and EA made was in overestimating the sophistication of their audience.   In some ways I think they felt that a superior Star Wars franchise would provide them a comfortable advantage.  For all of its faults, Star Wars is still a fun game and very well written.  Still, Star Wars -even the currently more attractive Old Republic portion- is no longer as powerful of an intellectual property as it once was, thanks to the wear and tear of time and George Lucas’ antics.  That aside, the greater failing is simply that gamers are far more demanding and less forgiving than BioWare gave them credit for.  Plus, the SW:TOR‘s audience is substantially different than the audience I think they were aiming for: the longtime fans of the earlier iteration, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  The assumption was that MMORPG aficionados are also RPG aficionados, which unfortunately is not true.  The sad fact is that most MMO gamers love the game not because of a deep storyline, but because of the mechanics of the game.  MMOs are a lot like collectible card games: it’s not the experience that matters, it’s the acquisition.

So, BioWare/EA misjudged their audience and now The Old Republic is being pushed to a hybrid free-to-play (F2P) system.  This is good in the sense that more players will surely begin playing the game again and with a system of micro-transactions in place, EA will continue to make money on their product.  However, F2P usually doesn’t earn the type of money required to maintain a big budget property at full capacity.  The strength of SW:TOR was in its storytelling and cinematic quality.  That will inevitably go away.  I doubt we’ll see an expansion that continues the various class plot lines, at least not with the quality and depth the game originally had.  That’s a shame because an MMO that gives you a solid story line to follow is a rarity in the market.

At worst, The Old Republic will most likely become a niche game, much like Lord of the Rings Online.  I doubt it will enjoy any true type of resurgence, because the path they have chosen is gong to severely limit their potential for anything more than just small, periodic updates with new content, but without adding any true depth or complexity to the game.  As for myself, I might return to SW:TOR sometime in the future, but I’m content with being free of an MMO for now.  Still, I’ll miss the MMO that it could have been.


Review: Albert (iOS)

There are many way to approach a review of Albert for the iOS. With its whimsical art style and quick short puzzles, Albert could be easily defined as a children’s game. Yet, there’s a depth to the experience and gameplay that means it’s also very accessible to an adult player. The short, varied tasks that you perform varies from task to task and are kept very short, maybe 2-3 minutes apiece. This makes Albert ideal for a little fun on breaks or in an elevator, although some of the tasks would surely have people looking askance at you.

The unique allure of Albert is that it makes use of all of the special functions of the iOS platform. Of course the swipe and the tilt technology are used wonderfuly in the game, but the game also has you blowing and whistling at your mobile device. The game also utilizes the Retinal Display of your device for truly charming -and sometimes stunning- three-dimensions visuals. All of the images were created by Chloé Mazio and her style is felt throughout the game. Albert truly makes use of all of the special functions on your device and weaves them together for some quick, easy fun.

I’m not going to say that Albert is the pinnacle of what the iOS platform is capable of. It is a simple game and very short. However, it does represent a gateway application of sorts. With companies beginning to pay more attention to mobile gaming as a viable platform, it is very important that examples exist as to what the platform is capable of. Albert does this. It is an excellent example of some innovative ways that the iOS can expand gameplay to move than the tap and swipe we’re all so familiar with.

Is it a deep and engrossing game? No, it’s like popcorn, light and fluffy but not very filling. Does it hint at some exciting possibilities for gameplay in the future as well as add more variety and viability for the iOS as a gaming platform? Very much so. Albert was created by Fingerlab and is currently free on iTunes. The free version comes with 10 tasks, but you can purchase another 10 for $1.99. I’m not sure I’d say -given how quickly the free 10 task went- if doble the tasks is really worth $2.00, but it’s definitely worth downloading and playing the free version.

Mass Elect 3

Earlier this year, BioWare released Mass Effect 3, the final chapter in (perhaps) the company’s most lauded franchise. The game had an extensive universe and incredibly immersive gameplay, the best of which was the way it had players influencing events in the game with their choices. For five years, players developed characters that they truly invested themelves into. When Mass Effect 3 came out, a majority of the players felt that the conclusion to the game failed to live up to expectations since it was seemingly independent of in actions they took, invalidated much of the universe and character building they had engaged in and ultimately failed on a storytelling level. For months, gamers around the globe engaged in a bitter debate about the game, devoting hours towards dissecting the game or formulating complex conspiracy theories about hidden endings. In the end, BioWare and Electronic Arts released a revised ending which simply explained the conclusion better but didn’t revise or redact anything substantially.

In the end, it was an impressive –if futile– example of the influence and power of young gamers today. For once, a major corporation was forced to answer to its consumer base and discuss issues on a level playing field.  While little was actually changed, it at least showed how today’s youth -more importantly, gamers– could find a voice and affect the system.

Too bad it was used on such a pointless argument for such an inconsequential gain.

The governance of America has been degrading over the last 20 years.  The business of politics is no longer about the exploration of competing ideals, but about the fine art of obfuscation.  We’ve ceased to take our representatives to task about their lies and misinformation, allowed laws which degrade our democracy and tip the balance from the popular majority of the United States towards the selective hands of the entrenched few.  This election we are seeing the results of laws that grant unparalleled power to those with unlimited funds.  Truth is lost in the din and clamor of rhetoric.

We need individuals who are still idealistic and impassioned, who will not be swayed by a deluge of advertisements designed to mislead the careless voter.  If we can muster the collective will to browbeat a gaming company because we didn’t like the last five minutes of their game, what changes could we effect if we turned that blazing intent upon the people who guide our country?  However, to do that, gamers must become adults first:

Now, there are two possibilities here. Either (a) this gentleman is purposefully trying to sabotage Gretchen Carlson’s interview or (b) he is a legitimate interviewee. I strongly suspect it is the first possibility. While I’m never opposed to disrupting the Fox News disinformation flow, this sort of prank is not a positive step towards doing it. The way to become involved in the discussions of our time in a positive manner are by engagement and refutation. Acting like you’re stoned and stating that your choice of candidates was based upon a basketball game simply marginalizes any valid opinions you may hold and reinforces the opinion that young adults are inattentive, frivolous and (worse) inconsequential to the political process.

The sad fact is that young adults should be the most important constituency in any political arena. Aside from the obvious fact that they have the most potential to affect change over a longer period of time due to their relative longevity (compared to older voters), they also are more likely to donate their time and be more devoted to a cause. Having children and a mortgage as well as other ‘mature’ adult concerns both consumes a large portion of one’s free time as well as makes us far more likely to be complacent in how we approach important issues. We are seeing that on a daily basis.

Older adults are less likely to research complex issues or engage in independent fact-checking. We are more likely to select a single source of information or a tight collection of sources that exclusively support the same assumptions. We are disinterested in demanding transparency and honesty and more accepting of dishonesty because we’re too absorbed by more immediate concerns to care. We are misled on a daily basis and we’ve ceased to care.

That is why engaging younger adults in the process is so essential. They have the motivation and the idealism to pursue the issues and demand more from their government. To do that, they need to make themselves a political force, to demand respect and honesty in how they are treated. Unfortunately, this video does not help in that mission. I applaud the humor of the video, but we need to focus on challenging information aggregators like Fox News on the veracity of what they say. We can’t earn create a better political system by trolling the monsters under the bridge, only by exposing them to the light of day.  We also can’t effect change if the most important thing to consume our passions is the games we play.  The world is has no pause button.  Put down the controllers and care.

Being Out, Looking In

I have this friend -I’ll refer to him as ‘God‘ for now- whom I’ve known for a very long time, about twenty years. We met in college and became very good friends, even though we have a very ‘Odd Couple’ aesthetic at times. He’s quite lassez faire about many things whereas I’m a little more tightly wound. ‘God’ has a taste for the dramatic whereas I’m much more reserved. Yet, for all of our differences, we stil are very similar in many ways and I can honestly say that ‘God’ is my best friend (somewhere Bill Maher’s head is spinning).

‘God’ is also quite gay and was my first true introduction to homosexuals and the gay lifestyle. I didn’t know this about him at first. ‘God’ was not closeted but did not advertise his lifestyle either. For those in the know, there were signs, but I didn’t know until he told me, around 2 years after we first met. Since then I’ve met perhaps two of his boyfriends but went clubbing with him extensively for two years, as a ‘friend of the family’. Over the years, I’d never really given it much thought. I knew he was gay but it was just another aspect of who he was, like his taste in truly crappy movies (Master of Disquise? COME ON!) and refusal to eat vegetables of any kind. Ultimately, it was important to me only because I knew that it was important to ‘God’.

Around two years ago, ‘God’ suffered a mini-stroke caused by a blood clot in one of his legs. It did not impair him mentally (well, not any more than he already was: he LIKES Master of Disquise after all!) but it did physically disable him to a large degree. He’s a big guy -somewhere between 300 and 400 lbs- so it limted his physical mobility greatly. He is in near constant pain and is prescribed a melange of blood thinners and pain killers. He cannot stand or sit for extended periods of time and this has prevented him from being able to have a career or social life of any kind. As such, he is now living a meagre existence, relying on government subsistence.

On Sunday, July 22nd of this year, I woke up to an email from ‘God’. In it, he stated that he intended to shut down lines of communication with family and friends and would stop eating, drinking or taking any of his medications. Essentially he was committing suicide by inaction, by not nourishing or medicating himself. In the email, he spoke at length about his disability and his loneliness. My wife and I agreed that I needed to go see him immediately.

When I arrived, ‘God’ was chagrined but ultimately very pleased to see me. As it was, two more of his friends had also come to see him upon receiving the email. As a group, we sat and talked for several hours. In many ways, it felt like a wake, sharing our mutual histories and commemorating the times we’d shared with ‘God’. While all of us indicated that we were there to comfort ‘God’ and supported whatever decision he made, I think we all were hoping he would reconsider his plans. In the end, he did and is doing well today. However, during a private conversation I had with him, he explained to me more about why he was making his decision to allow himself to die and the revelation both shamed me in my ignorance and discomfitted me.

The primary reason that ‘God’ was allowing himself to die was because he was lonely. He lamented that he longed for the type of friendship, love and companionship I shared with my wife. His disability and resulting lack of self-worth had played a significant part in preventing him from reaching out and finding someone to share his life with, but the far greater obstacle was his family and the current attitude towards homosexuals in America today.

I was stunned, although clearly not surprised. The plight of Gay Americans is not secret. The institutionalized bigotry and hatred is barely disquised in our society, but I’d always thought about it in a very abstract way. My ignorance was not in failing to realize that the inequality exists, but in never considering what that truly meant. As a heterosexual white male, I’ve never truly experienced any form of concentrated discrimination. Intellectually, I can concieve of what facing that would mean, but not ever feel the true weight of it in my heart.

Especially troubling was his family. ‘God’ has been openly gay to his family for several years. His mother ostensibly supports his lifestyle, but neither his biological father nor his step-father mask their dissappoval. His step-father at least has the good grace to temper his disapproval with genuine love and affection for ‘God’. The sad thing is that although his mother supports his decisions, she does not defend him to her husband.  This is disingenuous: you cannot partially support someone’s life path. You are either an advocate for their freedom to live life in the way they feel compelled to live it or you are simply tolerating something you can never accept. The two are not the same. If you love someone and support someone, you defend them without reservation or resignation.

This is the problem with the discussion about gay rights today (or Civil Rights in the 60s and gender equality in the 20s); all people are completely equal or they are not equal at all. There is no margin for difference here. Those of a progressive mindset can no longer be satisfied with parceling out individual freedoms; we must work to ensure that everyone has the same rights, rights guaranteed under our Consitution: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Gay Americans are not looking to invalidate your religious beliefs, they are not trying to destroy your institutions or end your way of life. Gay people can be equal and gay and you can still be just as elitist and exclusionary as you want. These people just want to share in the same sense of family and partnership that heretosexual citizens enjoy: the right to see a hospitalized love one, the right to create a future with one another, the right to shared ownership and parenthood, the right to love whomever you want. They want the right to do all of these things and have these rights be recognized as equal, inviolable and inalienable.

I have long been aware of the injustice that ‘God’ faces on a daily basis, especially in such a backward, hypocritical state as Oklahoma. I could see what he faced, but I was always examining the situation, never experiencing it. It wasn’t that I didn’t empathize or desire to feel anything, it simply never had any emotional weight nor was placed in an emotional content. But in my discussion with ‘God’, I understood exactly what he faced every day: he was OUT, but always looking in, never being able to truly join the rest of us.. the straight Americans.  My previous marriage was a loveless marriage.  My wife was an adulteress and I felt trapped and alone, thousands of miles from home and unable to seemingly unable to escape my situation.  I felt hopeless and I know how soul-crushing that was for me.  Yet, that is nothing compared to what ‘God’ must feel on a daily basis.

People need to shed their bigotry and biases. Gay people are not evil, they are not corrupt. Embracing Gay Americans is not tantamount to embracing pedophilia or bestiality. These are not the same; this is a fallacious and ignorant comparison. Embracing Gay Americans does not invalidate or dilute any of your freedoms: your marriage will still be just as valid and as meaningful, your religion will still provide you with inspiration, you can still believe exactly what you want to (even if that makes you a bigot and a imbecile).

We can no longer allow an misinterpreted religious message to dictate our political decisions. That is a Constitutional directive: the separation of political leadership and religious oversight. We are free to hold whatever faith we wish, but we must legislate devoid of religious dogma or extremist fear. We must recognize that allowing individuals to pursue happiness is not the same as protecting their right to do so. We must recognize that all these people want to do is to stop looking through the window and seeing the rest of us living joyful lives and to come inside and join us.

Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

RedshirtsRedshirts by John Scalzi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Redshirts by John Scalzi is a wonderfully deceptive book. I already knew that the book was a satire of the ‘Red Shirt’ phenomenon in Star Trek, so I was expecting a humorous, though shallow, romp. What I did not expect was a genuinely humorous, satical reference to pop sci-fi that simultaneously was itself a very successful bit of science fiction. It’s wonderful the way that Scalzi is able to mix both a deep reverence and affection for the subject matter with a healthy criticism of science fiction and the tropes that sometimes diminish it.

The story revolves around Ensign Andrew Dahl and his circle of fellow ensigns, newly assigned to the Universal Union flagship Intrepid. Within a few weeks of coming onboard, Ensign Dahl and friends begin to realize that their fellow crewmembers behave very strangely indeed. They all seem to avoid certain members of the command crew and go out of their way to avoid Away Missions. As crewmembers start dropping, Dahl and his friends race against time to solve the mystery of the Intrepid and get away alive.

Redshirts is an easy, absorbing read. I found it very hard to put the book down and was constantly amazed with how Scalzi playfully used the source material to its best effect. I recommended it for anyone with an affection for pulp sci-fi in general and Star Trek specifically. In the words of another famous redshirt “Make it So“.

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