The North remembers that winter is coming in April

Goodness, but April is a busy month, what with the launch of ESO and Camp NaNoWriMo. I haven’t got much to say about either. Yes, the launch is buggy, because that’s what a launch is. The bugs aren’t what matters. What matters is, how many more times am I going to create, delete, and recreate my character because I change my mind about her hair?

As for NaNo, this is my first year at camp. I set my goal at 30k because what I’m doing is really more of an extended outline than actual writing, full of things like: And then she arrives in town. Describe town. And sees the ghost. Describe ghost. But that’s okay. My goal for April is just to get the story straight in my head from beginning to end, work out what my characters would do or how they would react to certain things, and flesh out some scenes if and where I can. I’ll actually write the thing, um, later.

But none of these activities, nor the activities of normal non-April life, can compete with what happens on Sunday:

Game of Thrones is back, and the North remembers, bitches!

Obviously some lemon cakes are in order, at the very least. The ones in A Feast of Ice and Fire are delicious. (I use the traditional recipe because frankly, the modern one looks harder.) If you haven’t got A Feast of Ice and Fire, time is running out to get it before you have to make something icy and/or fiery for Sunday, so you’d better get going on that.

Am also considering making a pie of a certain flavor, even though this isn’t the season for it. That may make no sense to some of you, but the book readers, they know.

Will you be watching? Are you doing anything special for the premiere?

Emphasis on Elder Scrolls, not on Online

I had a lot more fun with this past weekend’s beta test of The Elder Scrolls Online than I did with the previous one, and not just because I was promised a monkey. (Although the monkey, obviously, did not hurt.) People kept saying to stick with it until level ten or so, and then the game would really “open up.” I can say for sure that’s not what it was, plus I still don’t know what they mean by that, because I never got any character past level seven. It’s okay, that’s what I do with betas; I’m a lot more interested in a horizontal sampling to get a feel for things than I am in the vertical progression of a character who is doomed to deletion in a few weeks. And it’s a good thing, too, because it took me several characters in various combinations to figure out that my MMO mindset was causing me to do it wrong. And that is why I had more fun this time.

I knew going in, having experience with Skyrim, that the class and skill systems in ESO are very different. But even with that knowledge, I was still starting characters by picking a class first. And why shouldn’t I? Since the age when such things were conducted with dice rather than keyboards, class has always defined your character. This has been reinforced all the way through MUDs, to WoW, Rift, and countless others. GW2 made weapon choice important too, but it still took a distant back seat to class.

Here is my tip for other MMO veterans who may approach ESO the same way: don’t. First pick a playstyle. Then a weapon. Then a race. Then a hairstyle. Once you’ve got those really important details worked out, pick a class.

Okay, maybe it’s not that trivial, but it’s certainly not more important than anything else. Let’s say you want to be a mage, and by mage you mean, you want to stand back and fire off magical pellets of badness. What makes you a mage in that sense is one thing: holding a staff in your hand. That’s it.

And here’s why: because the class skills you put on your toolbar are not basic attacks that are meant to be spammed. If you start a sorcerer and then immediately look around for your fireball or shadow bolt or mind flay, you’re doing it wrong. Same with weapon skills, for that matter. The things you put on your toolbar are not part of a rotation or set of casting priorities as such; they’re geared toward a specific purpose – crowd control, finishing moves, DoTs, escape maneuvers, and so on. That’s why they only give you space for five. And that’s why your resource pools will not be sufficient to spam them non-stop.

Your basic attacks, the spammable ones you will use as filler when you haven’t got something specific to cast, are your light and heavy weapon attacks. And because of this, your weapon, more than anything else, determines your playstyle. You want to do ranged damage, all of the time? You will need a destruction staff or a bow. You want those ranged attacks to be sneaky? Only the bow will work for that. Which class you use these weapons with is a matter of preference and flavor; sorcerers make great archers, and dragonknights make great fire mages. Some classes have more in their toolkit for certain roles than others, but any class can be a tank, a healer, a stealth-attacker, a caster, a melee face-smasher, or any combination thereof (unlike other games, hybrids are okay, even welcome, here). What those roles do require is specific weapon choices.

So my advice is: figure out what you want to be. Then pick the best weapons (you can swap between two) and armor types (you can mix and match as you like, so have a look at the skill lines for all three) for the job. Then have a look at the options for class, weapon, and other skills, and decide what you want on your various toolbar sets – do you want to be extra slippery, like a lot of burst, prefer DoTs, need lots of panic buttons, enjoy kiting and CC? Let those things determine your class selection. As soon as I started doing it this way, I had a lot more fun coming up with combinations, and I was a lot more successful at the gameplay itself. (And who doesn’t have more fun when they’re crushing enemies and not dying?)

The other bit of MMO baggage I had to leave behind to have fun here was simpler and more basic: I had to have a Skyrim kind of attitude. In a single player game, you don’t rush. You do not want to level quickly. How is a game worth sixty bucks if you’re through it in a week, right? An MMO is the opposite: endgame is the game, and leveling is a chore to be completed as quickly as possible. When I tried playing ESO like an MMO, going from one quest to the next with a constant eye toward progression, I was bored and frustrated. As soon as I stopped thinking about leveling and just started playing – literally playing, like a toddler who isn’t trying to reach anything or do anything particular with that toy truck, but merely wants to goof around with it for a while – I started having fun. The way I have fun in Skyrim. I don’t feel like doing this quest? No problem. I’ll just run around over here for a while instead, and something is bound to happen.

I think the game needs more somethings of that nature: more to explore and collect, less gating behind specific quest chains. (Especially when the gate is bugged, so you can’t move on to the next zone, ever, because the quest is broken. I’m looking at you, Abomination of Hate.) So don’t rest on your laurels, ZeniMax. I am still going to need a house. Soon.

Ok then

I asked for pets. I asked for something cool to collect. And ZeniMax has answered my call. I get a monkey!

Well why didn’t you say so before? I am in, Elder Scrolls Online.

I actually mean that, because I am like a small child and easily distracted by fun shiny things. But for the more serious gamer, I should also note that TESO has some great changes being implemented by launch, including collision detection, which I’m pretty excited about. You know, not monkey excited. But still excited. Some highlights of the changes:

  1. NPC collision detection. I know some people were hoping for more, but I think their reasons for not including it between players are sound.
  2. Players will be transported directly to their starting city after the tutorial, rather than being trapped on an island.
  3. More animations. This may sound like a small thing, but I think it’s a big deal. Combat felt so bland in the build I played. Having things spiced up a bit, combined with collision detection, will be a huge improvement.

Click here for more about the changes. (The linked video has been authorized by ZeniMax and does not violate the NDA in any way.) These changes will not be part of this weekend’s beta event, as they’re still going through private testing.

Many of my criticisms of the game still stand, but it’s going in the right direction. Combined with a recent dip in WoW excitement, it was enough for me to preorder. I’ll switch over my sub for a month or three, enough to make the initial investment in the game worthwhile. Maybe even longer if it can pull me in; it seems like they’ll be making changes right up until launch, so you never know. But my prior points about the pitfalls of a subscription game still stand. If they want to keep my attention long term, I’m going to need a house.

And a stable! For my horses! Which I hear we get to name! It’s all in the details, folks.

ZeniMax, please inspire me to give you my money

Well, now that ZeniMax has lifted the NDA for The Elder Scrolls Online, I’m free to tell the world how I feel about the beta. If only I knew how I feel about the beta.

I was deeply excited for TESO, because Skyrim! Plus MMO! My two favorite gaming experiences, mashed together. It’s got to be like chocolate and peanut butter, right?

Well, sort of. Except not really.

The graphics are beautiful. I love active combat systems. The lack of traditional class boundaries, and the resulting freedom with which you can build your character, is refreshing and intriguing. Overall, this is a good MMO. But it’s also a bit… bland. Lacking in personality.

By necessity, it lacks the immersion of Skyrim because it lacks the interactivity. The NPC’s never accuse me of being a milk drinker or discuss their histories with arrows to the knee. I can read books, but I can’t take them with me. If I see a cool vase, I can’t pick it up and bring it home. In a massively multiplayer environment, this is all understandable. My issue isn’t that these things are missing, it’s that they haven’t been replaced with anything.

Skyrim always made my character feel alive. Here, my character isn’t really a character in the true sense of the word. There are no ways that I’ve encountered yet to develop her as more than just a means of killing things. I want cool, fun things to work on. A house I can customize and use to display my books and trophies of battle would be best. Lacking that, pets. Unusual mounts. Cool rewards for achievements. Titles. Personality.

Because without those things, I’m not invested. I’m not attached. And it also leaves a decided lack of things to do. So far the game promises questing, PVP, crafting, and then if you want, more questing. I’m sorry to say, I’m not finding this to be enough. I’m sure they’ll tack on something raidy, but even then. We’ve seen all this before. Maybe if I say it a third time, I can conjure it up Beetlejuice style: where’s the personality?

Maybe – almost certainly – my expectations were too high. But there’s a reason for that: they’ve invited my expectations to be high by placing themselves in direct, mutually exclusive competition with mature, feature-rich MMO’s. People always defend launch titles by reminding us that such-and-such game didn’t have a lot of features at launch either. Which would be a valid point, if it was 2004. But they’re not competing with the launch versions of other games; they’re competing with them now.

The subscription model has a lot going for it, and it’s not bad in and of itself. But in this market, I think it’s a poor business decision. At least, unless you’re going to offer a one-year subscription at an extremely deep discount to anyone who pre-orders, say, or some other means of making it negligible until you’ve had time to ramp up the game. Because there are a lot of people out there right now who’ve been playing MMO’s a long time, with a core group of friends and/or family, and the fact of playing with those people is more important than the game itself. So either the whole group will play something, or none of them will.

As an example, in my house gaming is a family activity, and there are four of us who play. Which means when you offer a game for the industry standard fifteen dollars a month, you’re not actually talking about fifteen dollars a month, you’re talking about sixty. The upshot of this is, we’re not budgeting for more than one sub game.

Currently we’re playing WoW. (Yeah yeah, I can hear your game snobbery from here.) I’ve been a WoW player on and off for eight years, and right now my subscription is active for one simple reason: there’s just a lot to do. Without even getting into the standard endgame PVE and PVP, I’ve got pet battles (you have no idea), collecting mounts, collecting achievements, my little farm, various activities around the Timeless Isle, leveling alts. My experience is varied and fun and doesn’t get boring. And soon, with the addition of garrisons in the next expansion, there will be even more to do.

So what is ESO offering me that can compete with all of that? Why should I spend my sixty dollars here instead? This is what I’m asking myself. If you’ve got the answer, by all means, enlighten me in the comments. I haven’t pre-ordered it yet. But I’m still rooting for it. I’m hoping the next beta event will knock my socks off.

Things writers can learn from Skyrim

Video games aren’t known for their high quality storytelling. They tend to be derivative and clichéd and trope-embracing. You want to give people something familiar to work with as they jump in to play, and while you’ve got to have both story and backstory, you don’t want any of it to be particularly hard to figure out. Nobody wants to spend more of their gaming time trying to work out who Jon Snow’s mother is than actually killing stuff. Or, in the case of me and Skyrim, decorating their house, because I really only kill stuff in support of my search for a really good vase to put between the shelves in my library. Stop judging me!

But plot and characters aside, setting is where video games like Skyrim shine. Forget that it’s a story about killing dragons by scolding them really loud. That world feels real. And yeah, because graphics. But also because a lot of effort has been put into making you feel like your story isn’t even most of what’s going on in that world, let alone all there is to it.

Very few of the NPC’s in that game are nameless. They have more specific and personal things to say than “Death to all who oppose us!” when you click them. (Not that I object to “Death to all who oppose us!” I always answer my door with either that or “The reckoning is at hand!”) They have histories and petty arguments with their neighbors and quests of their own to deal with.

Same goes for every town and city. They’re not just sets you’re passing through so you can sell all the junk you’ve picked up. (Or, you know, stolen. From corpses.) They’ve got politics and threats and complicated histories. Okay, and sometimes also vampires, which annoy me as a story element, but I’m not saying the game is perfect either.

The point is, Skyrim always feels like a place that was living before you came along, is continuing to live all around you as you go through your storyline, and will keep right on living after you leave. And I wish I saw this done more often, and better, in novels. I don’t mean high fantasy – people who write high fantasy pretty much know they’ve got to create a whole world – I mean everything. Horror. Romance. Thrillers. I wish the authors of stories about accountants drinking coffee set them in meticulously constructed worlds.

Not that it’s easy. It can be very hard to toe the line between providing enough detail to make the reader feel like they’re there, and boring the stuffing out of them by spending two paragraphs describing a chair. And every reader has a different threshold. But I love reading about what they ate at the Hogwarts Halloween feast and Joffrey’s wedding feast. I love all the bits of history Tolkien scatters around. I love Derry and Castle Rock and the way Stephen King takes the time to flesh out even the most minor character, and I love everything Jasper Fforde does, ever. I love Tom Bombadil. There, I said it.

The common thread there is that I don’t want to read your book, I want to fall in. And nothing kills immersion like shrinking your world down to the size of your story.