Thursday, January 1, 2015

Runescape, Part 2

            In a sleepy little village out in the countryside, a young boy yawns awake, stretching in the morning sun. He groggily dresses himself and stumbles outside to check the mail. It is at this point that he glimpses a lone figure riding in on the horizon. The boy squints, and when he recognizes the special mailman his eyes widen in surprise and his face lights up. Tripping slightly in his haste to turn around, he rushes back around the corner to his house and bursts through the door.

            “Papa!” yells the little boy. “Papa, Mama, come quick come quick!”
            The father of this young lad creaked open his door, looking disgruntled and rubbing his face. “Alphonse, why must you wake us so early on a holiday?” he said.

            “I saw him!” said Alphonse, bouncing on the heels of his feet. “I saw him Papa, I saw the special mailman!” 

            The father blinked in surprise, instantly awake. He eyed his son with eyebrows raised in skepticism. “Alphonse, you know that cannot be true”, he said. “It is too soon, you must be imagining things.”

            “I did see him, Papa, I swear!” his son protested with urgent eyes. “He was right outside, riding towards town! Come on, come on!”

            At this the young Alphonse grabbed his father’s arm and started pulling him outside. Sighing at his son’s overactive imagination, the father allowed him to direct him and the two walked out of the house and around the corner. Squinting as his eyes adjusted to the early morning light, the father shielded his eyes with his free hand and looked towards the village entrance where his son was repeatedly and enthusiastically pointing.

            “Oh my” he said softly, blinking in disbelief. “Could it really be...?”

            Soon after a bell rang throughout the village, its inhabitants all gathering in town square to see the father and his son ringing it. Most villagers were groggy and confused, but one of them pushed to the front of the crowd and spoke up.

            “What’s the meaning of this?!” said the father’s next-door neighbor, a thick man with a swarthy moustache, currently still in his nightcap and slippers. “Has yer boy been playing tricks again? It’s the holidays; all of us should be in bed!”

            “No, no it’s no trick!” said the father, joyfully waving an envelope in the air. “The alarm is real! The special mailman has come!”

            “Ha!” said the neighbor, crossing his arms and furrowing his brow. “Ye’ll not fool me with that nonsense! It’s only been but a week since the last delivery! I can’t be expected to believe we’re to get two deliveries in a week. Such a thing hasn’t happened since my grandpappy’s time!”

            “No really!” said the father, jumping off the platform in the center of the square with his son and motioning for everyone to gather round. “It’s the genuine article! It was just dropped off; look I’ll read the letter!”

            Everyone in the village crowded nearby, trying to get a look as the father opened up the envelope. He pulled out the letter, unfolded it and held it up in front of him, and read aloud as follows:

            Dearest Sirs and Madams,

            I have contacted you to inform of a most encouraging circumstance. Today, on the first day of the New Year, I have hereforth released a new post on my blog.

            Warm Regards,

            “My word...” said the neighbor in disbelief, mouth slightly agape as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his forehead.

            Alphonse climbed up on his father’s shoulders and threw his hands in the air. “The blog has been updated!” he cried.

            And the people did cheer and whoop and raise their hands in exultation. Then they got busy all throughout the village setting up for the customary celebration. Food was prepared, decorations were put up and the town bustled with excitement and wonder. The village laptop was placed in the center of town square, and the entire village gathered round it and seated themselves. Alphonse and his father were granted the honor of the first reading, and as they spoke the words aloud people laughed and cheered and there was merriment abound for all to see.

            Upon the end of the post the village started going through one by one; each doing their own reading so that they might enjoy for themselves and see the humorous pictures of canines wearing headgear, among other jovialities. They threw a great party in the meantime, with dancing and games and more. At night, they lit a massive bonfire near the center of town. And the drink flowed like a river through them, and the laughter of children lilted through the air, and the people did feast upon the beef, and fowl, and pork, and breakfast cereals, and there was much rejoicing. The people were satisfied and filled with joy that night, as much joy as man could muster. For the blog had been updated yet again.

   yeah, I’ma write more about Runescape.


            So last time we got distracted with ghosts, talked about Runescape, realized I should talk about old Runescape first, and got distracted with that. Today I’d like to actually talk about the new version of Runescape, to see how far it’s come. Sign-up was fairly easy, and so we arrive at the beginning of my adventures: the character creation screen.

Careful not to be blinded by my magnificence.

            We start off on the right track, it seems. Though there aren’t any races and it’s perhaps not as insanely deep as some other games, character creation in Runescape allows a fair bit of customization. There’s plenty of styles and colors, and although the character models aren’t great for today they’re a TON better than the ones from the original Runescape. Having created something gloriously hideous enough, now I just have to enter my name...


            It seems my typical name of late is taken. On one hand, part of the reason I made up this word is so that things like this would never happen. On the other hand, this is the internet and I really should’ve anticipated anything even vaguely approaching real words to be snatched up. It’s okay, I’ve been in situations like this before. My time on the internet has trained me in what to do if a name I want has been taken and I care not for dignity or common sense.


            Well, apparently I’m not as much of a special snowflake as I’d thought. Well I wasn’t about to give up here, I had a huge stockpile of these little, ah, name garnishes in store. Fortunately my next one, XGenericideX, was successful and I was launched into the opening. There was a brief introductory narrative to static pictures that seemed to actually have some dignity to it. Then I was dropped into in-game graphics, and we were given the start of our compelling and unique narrative: Some dwarf bloke runs up to what is presumably your house and says bad stuff is coming and you’re going to be a hero that stops it because, I dunno, he’s got a feeling about it. Not much for beating around the bush, are you?

            I’d like to take a moment and talk about MMOs, because why are you on my site if not to listen to some random unqualified shmuck ramble about game design? You see, I’ve played a number of MMOs in my day, which have been all over the map in terms of variety and quality. There are lots of difficult hurdles to overcome to make a successful and satisfying MMO, but I’ve found generally there’s one aspect all but the best seem to struggle with: immersion.

            World of Warcraft gets a lot of both shame and praise, and perhaps I’ll do a more detailed write-up on my time with it another day. But this is one thing it got right, or at least more so than any other MMO I’ve played. They created a massive world full of races, factions, points of interest, things to do and so on. Then they gave you some direction when you started the game on learning to fight and going out into the world to adventure. But what they didn’t do is make you important, or define any of your character for you. There are a lot of reasons WoW was more immersive than other MMOs (big seamless world, good writing, atmospheric music, etc etc), but one of them was because of this balance they struck for your character.

To break up this wall of text, here is another picture of a dog wearing a hat.

            Other MMOs tend to screw this up in one of two directions. The first and much more common these days is to make your character super important. They are the chosen one, the hero of so-and-such, and the person who does all the important things that change the face of the land. Typically the introductions to these games (and perhaps important solo quests later) are instanced so that the player is isolated in their own little chunk of the world to perform pre-determined hero tasks without interruptions from others. The instanced chunks feel like a single player game rather than a world because, well, they are. Even outside them the thought in the back of your head that everyone is the chosen one, instead of you being a person with identity that’s part of a larger force, can undermine your enjoyment.

The second way MMOs screw this up is by giving your character nothing at all to start with but also, and this is important, nothing to build off of. Some old MMOs may seem to allow for a better sense of immersion; since they gave you so little to work with and you could imagine yourself as any character you wanted. But if you aren’t given any starting point and the game doesn’t seem to care much about backstory or world-building then people won’t care to get immersed in the situation either. The last game I tried, Ragnarok Online, seemed to have this problem a little (although it was certainly worse in other games like Maplestory). The world doesn’t really take itself seriously (or at least most of the writers don’t) and the whole thing is set up less like a real place and more like a game. One way or another, these immersion issues matter to me.

Look at it this way: I don’t want to spend countless hours clicking on things to grind for a stat increase. But if instead I’m exploring unknown jungle ruins while slaying forest trolls in search of Odin’s Ever-Burning Axe, well...depending on the game, I still might not want to. But at the very least it sounds more interesting. And all else being equal, assuming the combat, the world, and all that is good, then the second is notably better. That texture, those rare moments where you can allow yourself to really enjoy just being in the world, are a huge part of the appeal. MMOs are some of the only games that can build up a world such as this, because even just the fact that other people exist and you can interact with them means the world is naturally easier to invest yourself in as a place rather than a game.

But ceaseless game design theories aside, how does this relate to Runescape? Well, it’s not so bad in this regard, as the game world gives context but seems to open up after the tutorial. But it does start off on the wrong foot with the whole prophecy thing. The thing that gets me the most about it is that it’s such a minor thing that could be so easily fixed. Every person does the same tutorial, has the same heroic destiny, and saves the same starting town from the same villain. That’s unfortunate enough, but even if they had just changed the flavor of it to take out the destiny part I’d find it less cliché and uninteresting. Ultimately though, it’s not a huge deal or uncommon for these types of games. It’s just a problem I wanted to talk about for a while, so now that I have, let’s get back to the play-by-play. Roughly the first thing I saw in the game was this.

Welcome to the city of endless fog, hope you enjoy your stay.

            All snark aside, this doesn’t look too bad. Granted, if you zoom in things get pretty dated and polygonal-looking, and there’s the fog keeping anything remotely far away from being visible. But still, I’d say a huge improvement from old Runescape, and not just in graphical fidelity. The art style seems to be using the cartoon-y angle more effectively than its predecessor, using vibrant colors and simplifying details so they still look good with the minimal texture size they’re working with. So now that I’ve been invited to fulfill my destiny and venture out into this vast new fantasy landscape, I do the obvious. I ignore all that and poke around the menus first.

I hope you like menus, because they comprise like half my screenshots.

            First we have the hero screen. We’ve got some general stats about the game here, nothing that exciting. We also have the skill system. Like the original Runescape, doing things increases your skill in them, pretty self-explanatory. One notable difference I see is that a good 1/3rd to half of the skills are now listed as “Member’s skills”. I’d need to play more to see how I feel about this. I can understand that certain things need to be gated off to paying players to keep free-to-play games like this running. However, I don’t know that large amount of skills, often in seemingly basic categories like ‘Agility’, should be the things to gate off. Regardless, it seems the combat from the original Runescape is somewhat intact, which is unfortunate. What is fortunate is another menu, which intrigued me...

Giving the people what they want. Menus. So many menus.

            Powers! The various Melee, Ranged, and Magic powers here seem to indicate that Runescape now has abilities that don’t require finite resources like runes, instead having their own cooldowns before repeated use. Now you might argue that this is just copying off of cooldown-based combat systems like WoW. Though I could see this being a downside to some, I have some points of rebuttal:

            1. The original Runescape combat was terrible and trying new things is a good idea.
2. Even if you’re not that fond of managing cooldowns, it at least requires some more thought and involvement than clicking your enemy and then clicking healing items until they’re dead.
3. This could potentially make the original system of runes more interesting if the game takes advantage of it. Skills can be the standard abilities and rune magic (which still exists) could be the rare and powerful stuff that makes it actually worth the effort/cash.
4. Seriously, have you seen the original Runescape combat? Bleh.

That all being said, even though this is a step in the right direction for me I have no idea how well it’s executed. There also seem to be a lot of skills locked for solely paid members, which continues to feed my worry that the game is drifting towards the dreaded pay-to-win territory. But I’m probably just paranoid; it’s not like everywhere I look there are member-exclusive things pressuring me to subscribe.

Ha! No one will suspect that I put this image after that statement on purpose.

            Okay, so there might be a bit of that. It’s not too bad yet, and like I said, I understand the need for paying customers. So misgivings aside, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and move on, as the community and social menus are boring anyway. Let’s see what else we have here...

Surprise, it was menus! I have taken you by surprise with my unexpected imagery!

            The gear menu is mostly what you’d expect, nothing to see in the first tabs until I actually get some equipment. But a notable thing is that the appearance tab lets you change your hairstyle and hair color at any time you want. On one hand, I think there is some value into having a preset character that doesn’t change hair color every day, and yet again we have ‘premium’ stuff that is no doubt member activated. However, it is kind of nice to be able to mess around with these things for free and at no consequence, so I’m gonna call it a net positive. Moving on in our voyage through the Great Sea of Menus...

Oh that’s kind of cool, you can view the games bosses. Wait a minute. Is he...wearing a Santa hat? That’s kind of adorable. I wonder if...

Yes! All of the bosses are wearing Santa hats! Even the ones where it looks wildly inappropriate! That’s pretty great. Oh, boss doesn’t have a Santa hat.

...because he’s covered in Christmas lights! That is the most festive Rock Golem I have ever seen.

            Okay okay okay! I have a sneaking suspicion that you expected that over six thousand words into my series on the new Runescape I should have actually told you about playing it. I don’t know where you got such a ridiculous impression, but let’s get to that to sate it. So being destined for greatness based on the random unfounded assumptions of some dwarf, our only option is to follow his advice and take the boat to the mainland; where we can leave our life of peace and quiet for one of constant physical danger. I see no flaws in the logic here, so we continue a grand total of five steps before unexpected zombies rise from the ground.

Hooray for tutorial fights. Honestly, this picture of me stabbing the air 10 feet from the zombie is about as exciting as the real thing.

            Allow me to describe the fight in detail. One zombie appears, and I click it. I walk over to it and stab it dead in one hit. Another zombie appears, and hits me for about 2 damage out of my 1000 max health. I then click on the other zombie, stab it (or rather the air in front of it) once, and it dies. I am then congratulated for my astounding martial prowess.

Don’t you patronize me.

            So after that riveting exchange, the dwarf concludes...nothing interesting really. It’s noted that zombies are unusual, big surprise, but then we go straight back to learning to fish, because now is clearly an opportune time. Now about fishing in this game, it...wait a second. Is that the edge of the world?

Yup that’s...that’s just...yeah.

            Well that’s...kind of disappointing. I thought the game had taken a step in the right direction by at least making the endless void sky colored. And since it has the foggy fade-in for objects too far away, you would think they would just use that as a border for the water rather than giving it such a harsh and unprofessional looking cut-off where the player can easily spot it. But whatever, maybe they didn’t think players would bother to look from this angle. I’m sure this won’t come up again.

            So anyway fishing is just like it was in the first Runescape: boring. You click a fishing spot and that makes you fish at the fishing spot, which grants you fish from the fishing spot. Huzzah. At this point we move on to the cooking tutorial, so we’ll just walk over to this campfire over here and cook some of these...wait, what’s that? Is that...could it obvious joke set-up? Why I think it is!

Well that was an impressively short amount of time.

            So yeah, they clearly don’t care about us seeing the edge of the world, at least from an overhead view. I suppose it’s not the end of the world (ha!), and it’s always been behind cliffs and such so far. I guess I’ll just pack in my disappointment and move on with my life, never to mention this again.

            So cooking is only slightly more robust than fishing. You click on the campfire, you select the type of fish you want to cook from a menu, and then if you have that fish you cook it. It isn’t exactly rocket science, although one kind of amusing thing was you couldn’t cook certain types of fish without a membership. I tried to get a screenshot of this, but I couldn’t enter the cooking menu now that I had already cooked my fish. So I went back to the fishing spot to grab another fish and...

I see absolutely no redundancy here.
<Also, wondering why people just left perfectly good fish on the ground.>

            So apparently my dwarf mentor, who thinks I have a magnificent destiny of great importance ahead of me, was only willing to loan me a fishing rod. As soon as the fish were in my hand he snatched that shit up, because like hell he’s paying for mine. And of course there’s no way to buy one in the tutorial village. Oh well, let’s just move on...

            So dwarfington and I come across an undead cow a little further up the road. In the thrilling battle that followed, it managed to do an entire 8 points of damage, scarring my 1000 hit point total beyond repair. On the upside, it actually lived long enough for me to use my starting power where I can hit something for a whole 10% more damage every several seconds. So...that was something.

            Undaunted by these epic duels, our heroes then decide to continue on our quest to teach me incredibly self-explanatory mechanics on the way to the boat. Our next stop is to drop by the quarry and have me learn the ins and outs of mining. I actually wandered a bit at this point of the quest. Not because the quarry was hard to access, but because...well, look, this is the “quarry”:

Wow, what a bustling hive of industry.

            So this is what passes for a quarry these days, huh? This is literally a, I dunno, twenty foot wide rock wall with some loose rocks at the bottom. I’m honestly afraid that I’ll kill the entire mining operation by using these veins (related note, can’t we just pick up loose rock instead of mining? Or are they supposed to be growing out of the cobbles?) You’d think they wouldn’t be able to keep mining these a single afternoon, let alone enough to employ anyone.

            Oh right, mining. You click on the rock and then you get smaller rocks from it. I hope that wasn’t too fast for you, wouldn’t want to overstimulate anyone. We then explain smelting, which is basically like cooking except we’re cooking rocks and the rocks make things we can stab people with. So that’s an improvement I guess. The smelting menu has a good portion of ore types blocked off for members, and this time I actually remember to take a screenshot.

The cooking menu was like this, except instead of not being able to craft obsidian non-members were prohibited to, for example, cook cod.

            Having properly told me how to click on different parts of the screen, our dwarf friend noted that there was some commotion down by the chapel. So we go there and, ‘lo and behold, there’s a necromancer raising the dead. To my knowledge, most chapels frown upon this activity, so we politely asked them to leave and they complied, as we were all rational, civil human beings.

            ...okay yeah, we kicked the shit of them.

            Though it still wasn’t exactly the most exciting experience I’ve ever had, this one at least qualified as a fight. The necromancer teleported around and had minions, so I had to move around and not just click a single target. I also had a new power where I could stun someone for a few seconds, so I actually could manage things somewhat to take less damage.

            Speaking of damage, I like that health is no longer equivalent to your health skill. It was that way in the original, so things tended to either miss (annoyingly common on both sides) or take huge chunks of your health away, because integers below 100 don’t divide well. Your health also now regenerates, which is nice, although so slowly that my few hundred points of damage from this fight only healed about halfway in my remaining 10 minutes of playtime. Anyway, the fight was concluded, people cheered for us and I forgot to take screenshots of any of it. Oh, except for the hat I looted.

Given that this headdress is relatively tall, can I refer to it as high fashion?

            Having saved the town from the necromancer, I now had nothing left to do but board the boat to the mainland. Eager to be out of tutorial town, I headed down to the docks. I was all ready to sail forth to a land full of adventure and intrigue and...wait...

Oh for fucks sake.

            Seriously?! The other edges of the map, even though I think they would be relatively easy to fix, I can understand. But this is the docks! The ship we are about to board literally extends past the edge of the god damn universe! You can see its “anchor” dangling away into the endless nothingness that is visible because you couldn’t be bothered to extend your water texture another 10 damn feet! How lazy do you have to be to...oh, just forget it! They obviously didn’t care when considering map boundaries, so why should I give them the courtesy? Let’s just get out of here already.

            So I board the ship, and finally I’ve reached the mainland. I can see people in the distance, I’m not surrounded on all sides by the edges of a tiny island, this is great! Now to adventure out into...what’s that now? You want me to immediately teleport to somewhere else? That’s...a little odd. I suppose you wanted to give players a tutorial on teleport points, but it just seems strange to take a boat all the way here, then immediately warp to another part of the country. Oh well. I took a quick screenshot of the teleport page, because it was another instance of a somewhat humorous amount of the screen taken up by membership icons.

Gee, I almost get the feeling that they want me to do something.

            I had been messing around with the game for a while, and this was closer to Christmas when I was busy, so I was about ready to stop here. Fortunately, after I teleported to the city, I saw something that pretty satisfactorily capped off this whole experience. Let me stress that this screenshot is literally the absolute first thing I saw in Runescape that involved other players on the internet.

Yup. Let’s get a zoom in on this conversation, shall we?

I feel like I could just label this picture “The Internet” and call it a day.

            Now as I have gone back and looked at these while writing this, I experience a dilemma. For you see, I can’t actually tell if these are real people. On one hand, their names are actual ones and they’re using capitalization, which is highly suspect for the internet. On the other hand, they look like people, are hanging out in the middle of the street, their names fit the character limit, and they’re missing a couple periods. So we have two possible outcomes here.

            The first is that the second I entered the actual world of Runescape I saw this gloriously awkward and stereotypical internet exchange purely at random from real people. Normally I don’t approve of people being terrible on the internet, but this example is harmless enough that I actually find it kind of adorable. The second option is that these are actually NPCs, which would mean that the people behind Runescape intentionally set it up so that the first thing in the game people saw was this example of low-grade internet sleaze that is for better or worse kind of emblematic of this game and free internet MMOs.

            Either way, I think I call this a win.

            Since that was about as convenient a conclusion as I could find, I stopped playing here. Perhaps one day I’ll return to Runescape and write about it more. After all, I didn’t get into the game proper much. But this alone gives us a sort of closure in its own way. It reminds us that some things may change about internet games. Some things may get worse, a lot of things may get better, but some don’t change at all. Because the internet will always be just a little horrible, but sometimes little enough that its reliability is actually kind of charming.

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