Thursday, June 27, 2013

Take a Look at Banner, Michael!

Hey, look! I got my banner!

I've been pretty surprised at every stage of my experience with Mass Effect 3 co-operative multiplayer. At first, I was surprised that it even existed: who put online multiplayer in my single-player RPG? Then I was surprised that I was playing it: why did they create the Galactic Readiness system that "forced" me to play multiplayer to get a better ending in single-player. Then I was surprised that I was enjoying it: hadn't I given up online multiplayer after the original Half/Life? Then I was surprised that I was getting good at it: who would have thought that a nearly-naked space monster setting all the things on fire would appeal to me so much? And now, I'm shocked that I've beaten all the challenges and, somehow, gone out near the top of the huddle.

I've already described how I started out as a Bronze-only player, just repeatedly playing an Engineer (Human or Salarian, rarely Quarian) up to level 20, then promoting and doing it again. That was pretty fun. I started to expand my horizons a bit by participating in the Weekend Challenges. Early on, these were insanely difficult challenges that I wasn't even tempted to tackle; I think that Week 2 was "Extract against Reapers on Gold," to which my response was "Hahahahaha NOPE." But, there were also Community Challenges that you could participate in (for example, a total of 10,000 extractions against Reapers for all players on all difficulties), and achieving these would give lesser but still nice rewards.

Later on, the weekend challenges got more specialized, to the point where even weaker players like me could beat them. Something like "Score 50,000 points against Cerberus" would go much more quickly for Gold players, but I could do it just by playing enough Bronze games. And, as I started beating more of the weekend challenges and getting commendation packs, I started getting some really good weapons like the N7 Hurricane.

My purchasing system was all messed up throughout the entire game. I later realized that, as everyone says, what you should do is buy nothing but Recruit packs at first, which will upgrade your starter weapons and, more importantly, give you Common Mods for those weapons. A mediocre weapon with good mods is actually often better than a strong weapon with no mods. Along the way, you'll occasionally unlock Uncommon characters and weapons. After you've maxed your mods, move on to Veteran Packs, which will unlock another six characters and a higher tier of weapons and mods. Finally, once your Uncommons are maxed, switch over to the top tier of Spectre, Premium Spectre, Reserves or Arsenal Packs, which will give you the highest tiers of weapons, characters, mods, and gear.

The advantage of doing it this way is that the middle-tier cards in your packs will give you more high-level single-use consumable equipment. From the beginning, though, I had pretty exclusively purchased Premium Spectre Packs, which guarantee 2 rare cards and a higher chance of ultra-rares. This was actually pretty exciting... sure, it would take 6 Bronze games to buy a single pack, but I was able to get early access to some fairly exotic items like the Vorcha Soldier, Volus Engineer, Omni-Capacitors, Shredder Mod, and Black Widow sniper rifle. So that was cool. The down-side, though, was that the middle slots of my packs were often unlocking, say, the Avenger II or the Shuriken III. At the time, that didn't really matter. However, much more recently when I started making the transition to Gold, it was frustrating to be so short on consumable equipment, and I started to wish that I'd followed a more conventional path from the beginning.

However, because I'd been so good at unlocking Rare characters and weapons, I was actually able to make a ton of progress on the Challenge system once they added it to the game. Many challenges take one of the following forms:
  • Extract 10 times as character X.
  • Complete 200 waves as character X.
  • Score 140,000 points with weapon Y.
  • Score 50,000 points with power Z.
 So, with access to so many weapons and characters, and their corresponding powers, I could make huge progress just by playing lots of Bronze and Silver games. In fact, in some ways this made things easier, at least for the Extract and Waves challenges, since that tends to go much more quickly on the easier settings.

Along the way, I was being gently encouraged by both the weekend challenges and the standing challenge system to try new things. It broke me out of my Engineer Only rut and made me appreciate newer characters. Sometimes I would just use them until a single Challenge was over, and then never use them again. Other times, though, I would really click with a certain playstyle, and put them into a permanent rotation.

I definitely became a much better player as a result of all these changes. Playing weapons-heavy classes forced me to improve my aim, sharpen my reflexes, and figure out exactly where the head was on every enemy. (It's not always where you'd expect!) Playing power-based classes prompted me to dig deeper into the surprisingly rich and strategic Explosions system, and helped me learn how to coordinate my build in the lobby with other players (even in the absence of any microphones). Playing tanky classes made me acutely aware of which enemies had a sync-kill and when and where they could use them. And on, and on.

For a while, I thought that I'd retire my Mass Effect multiplayer playing once I unlocked either the Squad Elite or the Spectre Mastery banners. The former requires a wide variety of interesting achievements, including reviving squadmates, using your missile launcher, and extracting a certain number of times. The latter is more of an endurance achievement, and requires scoring a large total number of points, completing a large number of waves, and winning many medals (of any kind).

After I won the Operator title by completing Squad Elite, though, I decided that I wanted to take a crack at Gold. For my very first game, I took my favorite character, a Vorcha Soldier, loaded him up with my best equipment, took a deep breath, and launched into a Gold match against Reapers on Firebase: Ghost. It was... painful. Embarrassing, even. This guy is a beast on Silver, able to tank lots of high-level opponents at the same time. On Gold, though, I died on the very first wave, facing nothing but 3 cannibals. I learned my lesson, started playing more conservatively, and, with tons of help from my squadmates, we made it to a successful extraction.

Since then, I've spent the last month mostly playing on Gold. It's a much tougher challenge than the games I'd been playing before, but also seems to attract stronger players, and has pushed me to continue improving myself. I started to think that the Best of the Best banner might be achievable, and looked at what it would require. The biggest obstacles were the "200 waves as X" challenges, which would be time-consuming but could be done easily in Silver; the N7 Mastery challenge, which would require promotion 60 characters from Level 20; and the Map Mastery challenge, which would require a minimum of 120 Gold games to complete.

I decided to try and tackle these in parallel as much as I could. As an ideal setup, I would be using a new character (for 200 waves), with a new weapon (for 140,000 points) and/or power (for 50,000 points). I would start with him or her in Silver for at least a few matches to get used to their mechanics and develop a strategy. Depending on how confident I felt with them, I might jump up to Gold as soon as level 12 (for a character like the Batarian Soldier), or wait until nearly hitting 20 (like the Asari Valkyrie), or forego Gold altogether. As soon as I hit level 20, I would promote the character. Then, I would pick the highest-level class of my remaining characters, see what Challenge I could beat with that, and then start the cycle again. Thanks to character cards, I could usually get my classes up to level 8-10 before I even started playing them, so I could jump right into Silver with a somewhat-decently-leveled character.

By the time I finished up my Aliens challenges (with the 200 Waves requirements), I was getting close to N7 Mastery. I promoted a few more times while running characters around in Gold, then stopped once I reached 58 promotions, figuring I'd stick with my favorite classes at Level 20, and then promote them at the end after finishing my Map Mastery requirements. By this point I had basically settled in on a favorite kit for each class, and in the absence of any requirement for a particular challenge, I generally stuck with them:
  • Adept: The vanilla Asari Adept was my go-to, particularly in a lobby with other Biotics. (Weirdly, the Asari Justicar was one of the very last kits I unlocked, even though she was added to the game long ago.)
  • Sentinel: The Vorcha Sentinel is a more-powerful version of my beloved Vorcha Soldier. He's still a high-risk character to play... I often end the game at the top of the score charts, but also die more than anyone else.
  • Soldier: Lots of good options here. Batarian Soldier is probably my favorite, but the Turian Marksman was fantastic for completing Weapons challenges, and the Turian Havoc has great survivability.
  • Infiltrator: My favorite class to play in Gold. I unlocked the Turian Ghost very late in the game, but he ended up as my single favorite kit to play. The AIU was another late addition, and she was a lot of fun; I switched to her whenever I had a lot of Shotgun Rail Amps. The Geth Infiltrator is also fantastic, and my go-to when I have a stockpile of Drill Rounds.
  • Engineer: Weirdly enough, the Volus Engineer was my favorite to play in Gold. It's tough to get a handle on playing Voluses because they have so dang many options at their disposal (cloak! boost! bubble!); once you have the hang of it, though, they're incredibly survivable, and if you play them well, they can be a big asset to your team. I loved pairing him with the Scorpion; on certain maps, I could single-handedly block off an entire corridor or room against any number of enemies with him, thanks to the endless mines and explosions and staggers.
  • Vanguard: It's unimaginative, but I do love the Krogan Battlemaster Vanguard. I try to play him exclusively against Geth, but he's a beast, and can easily tank two Primes simultaneously.
Early on in ME3, I primarily relied on the wiki to research kits and plan out builds and strategy. The official forums have a lot of useful information, but the signal to noise ratio is pretty abysmal. Fairly recently, though, I've found a fantastic resource in an unlikely place: Reddit's MECoOp subreddit, which has collected together an amazing set of incredibly pertinent data: the Big Bad List of Builds, a ranked collection of different builds for each kit, along with often-useful discussion on the quirks of each build; and the ME Co-op College, a set of essays that clearly explain every aspect of the game: shield-gating, armor, the store, moving from silver to gold, soloing, etc. This was the perfect find for me, since all the information was located in one place, and it was curated such that I could find the most useful data quickly without wading through a lot of fluff.

Along the way, I stopped finishing near the bottom of the score charts, and now often end in first or second place. Of course, score doesn't really matter in this game - credits are what everyone wants, so as long as a mission is completed everyone will be happy - but it makes me happy to feel like I'm elevating my team and performing at a higher level. In a weird way, it makes me think a little of my changing attitudes towards physical fitness. When I was in school, I absolutely hated sports and gym class, which were focused on dividing into teams and creating winners and losers. (The fact that I often lost couldn't have helped.) In my adulthood, though, I've discovered the satisfaction that comes from pushing myself personally to improve and grow stronger, whether it's through hiking, cycling, whatever. Similarly, I have no interest in video game systems that force me to defeat another person, or suffer that ignominy myself; but, I love tracking my own progress and seeing myself improve over time. If I can help other people have better games because of the actions I take, so much the better!

As a side-note, it was interesting to see how my rankings changed as I played. When multiplayer first launched, there was a single ranking, the N7 rating. This tracks how high you have leveled your classes, and how many times you have promoted a character. I'm pretty sure that it was intended as a quick indication of how experienced a player was, but in practice, it wasn't very useful: many of the best players had N7 ratings of just 120, since they liked playing multiplayer and always kept Level 20 characters around without promoting; other players like me had significantly higher ratings, but weren't terribly talented.  Once BioWare added the Challenge system, though, the Challenge rating gave much more useful information about how experienced players were. If a player had one of the more difficult banners, like Hardcore or Nomad, then you would know that they had played the game a lot to achieve it; conversely, if they had one of the weekend challenge banners or no banner, they were probably fairly new to the game and/or a casual player. Similarly, a higher challenge rating tended to correspond to a stronger player. Finally, players with higher-upgraded rare weapons often were veterans; granted, they could have simply bought them with Real Money, but even then they tended to play better.

(Why does this matter? It doesn't, really, at Bronze or Silver. On Gold, though, most players will be investing limited consumable resources in their games, and spending a lot of time, and they really want to complete that Wave 10 objective. If you're in a lobby with 4 players who all look experienced, have strong weapons, and have Level III/IV equipment, then you can probably cruise through a Gold challenge in less than 20 minutes. But, if most of the players have a Challenge rating of less than 100, and are wielding weapons like the Avenger IV, and don't have any equipment, then either the team will wipe, or one more experienced player will end up burning all of his Cobras, Medi-Gels, and Ops Packs, and it will take him or her 45 minutes to drag them all through to extraction. That's not fun. These quick looks help experienced players rapidly evaluate their lobbies, and either quit or, in rare cases, vote to kick if some people don't belong there. Not that it's the players' fault; for some asinine reason, BioWare set the default search for matches to "Any Difficulty" instead of "Bronze Difficulty," so there's a steady influx of unprepared newbies trickling into the higher difficulties.)

I also noticed some trends in my relative standings over time. In addition to your raw N7 and Challenge point ratings, the game also tracks your overall standing on a global leaderboard. I'd taken a multi-month break from multiplayer, so when I returned, I think my Challenge ranking was just something like 50%; interestingly, my N7 was still quite high, I think something like 10%. It didn't take very much playing for me to rocket from Top 50% Challenge ranking up to Top 10%; I strongly suspect that most players will only casually play a couple of games and score a few incidental Challenge points, so anyone who starts actually playing multiplayer for the fun of it will quickly outpace the crowd. However, after I reached 10%, I stalled out there for quite a while, even when I was actively playing a few matches every day. Based on this, I would venture a guess that roughly 10% of the player base is fairly active; so, even though I was winning points while playing more matches, the other 10% were also gaining points at roughly the same rate, leaving us at overall similar rankings.

Then, within a relatively short timespan, I moved from 10% up to 5%. I wish I could remember exactly when this was, but I think it might have been around the time I transitioned to Gold. That makes sense on a few levels - Gold matches offer a lot more points, so it's quicker to complete point-based challenges (which includes every single Weapons challenge) on Gold than Silver; also, I was now accessing an entirely new set of Challenges, and so had a larger pool in which to progress. As an alternate explanation, since I was typically working on multiple challenges simultaneously, I also tended to go for a while without completing any of them, and then wrap up a bunch at around the same time. There are big point bumps from the top-tier challenges, and hitting a few of those at around the same time may have been what vaulted me up.

From there, it was a slow and gradual progression upward. I ended up in the top 2% of both N7 and Challenge ratings. So... yeah, I really can't consider myself the "Best of the Best" if I'm not even in the top percentile; but still, it's something I'm pretty happy with.

Some final random thoughts follow.
  • Favorite map: Probably Glacier. It's tiny, and claustrophobic, and brutal, and fast-paced, and incredibly fun, especially when you're with a strong team who can crush everything in record time.
  • Prettiest map: There are a lot of good ones. Hydra is probably the nicest. Jade is also great. 
  • Least favorite map: This depends a lot on objectives and team composition. London can often be stressful.
  • Hardest map: Hazard Ghost (but I do really enjoy this map - it's tough, but great atmosphere, and a lot of fun).
  • Ugliest map: Either Giant or Reactor.
  • Easiest map: Depends on the team, but probably Glacier, Giant, or White.
  • Easiest to solo: I swear by Ghost. I did both of my Gold Solos here. It's big enough that you can draw enemies away for the 4 Devices or the Hack objective, but broken up enough by the buildings that you can easily escape the enemies' line-of-sight.
  • Favorite kit: Ghost Infiltrator, with runners-up of Batarian Soldier, Vorcha Sentinel, and Geth Infiltrator.
  • Favorite sniper rifle: Black Widow. The Javelin is really cool, but requires more patience than I have.
  • Favorite assault rifle: Cerberus Harrier! Probably my favorite weapon in the whole game. I actually used to use the Geth Pulse Rifle a lot, mostly because I had it at Level X and it didn't weigh anything. Now that I understand how armor works, I'm a bit embarrassed by that.
  • Favorite SMG: Probably the Hurricane. I used my Collector SMG a lot on my Ascented Collector Adept, though, and that was a lot of fun too.
  • Favorite Shotgun: I didn't use shotguns a whole lot. The Reegar is probably technically the best, though it doesn't feel like a shotgun at all (apart from the limited range). Likewise, I loved throwing the N7 Crusader on my Turian Havoc, but it's very un-shotgun-y. I did like the Raider, whose two shots made it a bit more forgiving than the Claymore while still packing a huge punch.
  • Favorite pistol: Really hard to pick just one. The Acolyte was my most-often-used pistol in the endgame. The Eagle is a lot of fun to use, if not a particularly effective gun. The Blood Pack Punisher was both fun and effective, though challenging to use. The Arc Pistol was my favorite gun in single-player, and a great fit for certain classes. The Scorpion was a ridiculous and enjoyable gun. The Carnifex and Paladin were solid, satisfying shooters. And the Talon was a terrific pairing for most casters who didn't need the Acolyte.
  • Hardest enemy: Collectors, by far. In the early days of co-op, though, it was the Reapers, before Bioware toned down the Banshee's ridiculous reach.
  • Easiest enemy: Depends on the class and map, but usually Reapers (for any kit strong against armor) or Geth (for melee units or kits strong against shields).
  • Most frustrating enemy: Either Cerberus (sync-killing Phantoms, stomping Atlases, and charging Dragoons) or Geth (endless staggering stunlocks!)
  • Favorite ammo: Incendiary! Hey, I just love setting things on fire!
  • Favorite armor equipment: Highly class-dependent, but it's always fun to slap Adreneline III on anything. Putting it on a Drell Adept is just ridiculously awesome.
  • Favorite gear: Max Grenades, Warfighter Package, Shock Trooper, or Omni-Capacitors. I love the idea of the Geth Scanner, but never got mine up to a very high level.
  • Best weapon mods: Anything with piercing, on any weapon, stacked if possible. Follow-ups: Smart Choke on Shotgun or Extended Clip on Assault Rifle.
  • Favorite heavy melee: Batarian, with Krogan a close second.
  • Favorite dodge: Asari, though Vorcha was the most fun.
  • Favorite grab: Vorcha, hands-down. (And throats-off.)
  • Favorite cheer: "*Kssshhh* Let's get paid!"
  • Favorite activation sound: Vorcha howl.
  • Favorite weapon sound: The Harrier is very satisfying, but I'm going to go with the Javelin.
  • Favorite weapon look: Collector sniper rifle (firing) or Black Widow (stationary).
  • Most lamented missing race: Elcor, with Hanar a close second.
  • Favorite banner, apart from Best of the Best: I really like both of the Council Operative ones. The alternates for Earth Mastery and Lone Wolf are also cool.
  • Easiest mission: Assassinate targets.
  • Hardest mission: Almost always the 4 devices one; depending on map and team, it varies from annoying to impossible.
  • Favorite mission: Escort and Retrieve are challenging but really fun and tactical.
  • Favorite play-style: Run-and-gun as a squadron. It took a while before I could manage this as a caster class, but it makes things so much safer, faster, and more fun.
  • Biggest teammate annoyance: Lone wolf types who rush off killing things during a hack objective and die on the far side of the map.
  • Biggest annoyance: Credits that disappear after you leave a lobby. (Close second place: getting disconnected during the Extraction wave and losing everything [including your equipment!]).
  • Favorite sight: The shuttle flying in for retrieval in the last moments before the LZ is overrun.
So, that's that! And I do mean it. Despite my having said the same thing multiple times before, I'm pretty sure that I'm done with multiplayer - it's still fun, but my other gaming has suffered a serious slowdown while getting my banner, and I'm itching to jump back into Neverwinter Nights and a few other projects. I'll gladly hold onto my banner for posterity's sake, and bask in the weird pride that comes from having killed tons of fake monsters in a video game.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Everything You Wanted to Know About Video Games (But Were Afraid to Ask)

I was delighted to see that the Game Developers Conference recently added David Gaider's awesome talk on "Sex in Video Games" to the free section of their Vault. The GDC is a huge conference in San Francisco for professional video game developers, from the big AAA majors to the indies. This year saw two watershed presentations that should serve as wake-up-calls for their industry: Gaider's talk, which touches on important issues of representation, and the #1ReasonToBe panel, which addresses the conditions women endure while working in the industry. The GDC usually keeps videos of its sessions locked in their vault, only available to professional dues-paying members, and I think it was very cool of them to make an exception for these important talks.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Gaider is one of my heroes. He was a writer on my all-time favorite game, Baldur's Gate 2, and is the lead writer and one of the main creators of the Dragon Age franchise, my current favorite ongoing series. Beyond that, though, he's an interesting, thoughtful guy. He's always willing to engage with people on controversial topics (like homosexuality in video games), and combines an appealing personal humility with a strong sense of fair play. He'll call out his own fans when they're acting unfairly to one another, while also acknowledging the motivations behind their anger (which often aren't voiced).

This deep level of engagement with fans is cool, and I think it's pretty unique to see it from a staff-level member of a larger game development company (as opposed to a solo indie game creator). I first became aware of him because of his amazing work on the Ascension mod for Baldur's Gate: Throne of Bhaal. Basically, after Bioware shipped the game, he decided to spend some of his own time to tweak the ending; the fast pace of the production schedule kept them from iterating on it as much as they would have otherwise, and he felt that there were some things he would have done differently. It was never an official project or patch, just something that he did as a fan of the game, and then shared with the world.

Gaider has also been an active presence on the Bioware forums; I don't frequent them very often, because the mood can get very tense, but whenever I see a thread that Gaider has contributed to I'm impressed by his thoughtfulness and candor. I've sought out a few other interviews he's given, with Felicia Day and at conventions, but this GDC talk is probably the longest and most focused piece of his that I've seen.

And, it's utterly fascinating. Anyone who thinks that video games have any level of social relevance will probably enjoy watching this, and BioWare fans will particularly get a kick out of it. It's interesting initially from a historical perspective, as Gaider gives an insider's perspective on how BioWare first approached the idea of romances in BG2, almost as a whim. The thing that surprised me most was how it seems almost accidental: they were completely surprised by how strongly people responded to the romances. It's also interesting, and very encouraging, to see how deliberate their evolution was. BioWare paid attention when female fans complained about the Anomen romance, and as he wrote for later games (including Knights of the Old Republic), Gaider started to directly talk with women gamers to get a better idea of what they were looking for.

The talk covers a lot of ground, but I think that the core of it is about the fairness of representation. Any video game sends a message: even beyond the explicit content of the game and any plot it has, it is also sending messages about who it's intended for. As Gaider points out, for a very long time games have been almost exclusively marketed towards the young white male demographic. Even in spite of that strong slant, a large number of women and other people outside that demographic play games. He makes some good moral arguments for more thoughtfulness, but also some solid financial ones that game companies could use to justify changes: "How about if we at least try to not actively repel half of our potential audience?"

I have to admit that I realized a bit of myself in some of the anecdotes that Gaider shares. I have complained in the past when a character who I don't like hits on me in a game. For me, that's a relatively new experience. However, for a large number of players, virtually any time a character hits on them, it would be unwelcome. And, of course, it never occurred to me to think of that as unfair, until it happened to me.

While he has a strong message to share, I was very impressed with the measured way in which he shared it. Gaider is... well, he's Canadian, darn it! He's polite and thoughtful and humble. Whenever he brings up facts that support "his" side (47% of game players are female!), he's already anticipating the counter-arguments that could be made against it ("Those are just casual players!"), and gently suggesting responses.

Ultimately, Gaider is speaking to the game development industry, not people like me who just enjoy playing games and thinking and talking way too much about them. However, I think game players can get a ton out of this presentation - it helps illumine the way that game companies make decisions, and shows a possible path they might take into a better future.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

What a World

I treated myself a while back to The World of Thedas, a beautiful book that collects much of the lore and concept art for the Dragon Age franchise. (I also treated my brother to the same book in honor of his birthday, but I utterly fail at USPS, and so this post was sequestered for nearly two months!) It was a bit pricey, but absolutely worth every penny: from the gorgeous presentation to the high-quality materials to the extremely well-written prose, it's a fantastic addition to my growing trove of Dragon Age treasures.

I guess I'll start with the writing, because that's the part that most exceeded my expectations. This isn't a dry dump of information, but a very thoughtful presentation of the world's mysteries. The perspective is from someone within Thedas, writing about their own history, not from someone from our world writing about a fictional world. Like in writings about our own world, the book has high confidence in the accuracy of recent events, and the further back in history you go, the more it relies upon hearsay, rumors, and legends.

The book presents these in a really interesting way. Depending on the section of the book you are reading, you will hear a different interpretation of certain major events or ideas. For example, all people agree that the Black City lies at the heart of the Fade, because multiple people can see and verify that fact for themselves. However, the explanation of what, exactly, the Black City is will vary between different perspectives. The dominant orthodoxy, put forth by the Chantry, teaches that the Golden City was once the home of the Maker; when the Tevinter magisters sought to enter it, the Maker left, and the abandoned city is now black from the magisters' sins. However, the pre-Chantry Imperium believed that the City was once the home to the seven Old Gods of the Imperium. And the Elves believe that the City is the current prison of their own imprisoned deities. The book never definitively explains which of these theories is "true."

After finishing the book, I feel like it draws equal inspiration from The Histories by Herodotus and A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Like the former, this book casts a wide eye over a variety of cultures, histories, and religions. The author dutifully reports the tales he has heard, even the ones that contradict one another. He will explain what things he has seen with his own eyes, and may speculate on which claims seem to be backed up by evidence and which are not. He enjoys a good story, but won't invent stories of his own. Like the latter book, The World of Thedas has an often conversational tone, and the body of the book is regularly broken up with quotes from regular people. Some are important political figures, others slaves or peasants, others heroes and scholars. These help give a great deal of color and texture to the world: you aren't just learning names and dates, but getting a feeling for what it would feel like to be an elven slave in the Tevinter Imperium, or to play the Great Game in Orlais, or to confront abominations as a Templar. 

If you want names and dates, though, this book has 'em! There's a comprehensive timeline that runs the entire length of the book in the bottom margin. This covers the entire sweep of known history, from the founding of Arlathan past the recent events of Kirkwall in Dragon Age 2. This really helped me put events into perspective (comparing the early Blights that lasted a century or more with the recent Blights that were relatively quickly ended), as well as get a better understanding of the ebb and flow of power between the various nations in Thedas.

I don't think that there's very much new information in here, in terms of raw data; most of the knowledge in the book has been presented before, either in codex entries or novels or conversations. However, much of it feels new, simply because you're able to pay attention to it and see how facts are related to one another. I feel like this is particularly true for the Tevinter: we've heard a fair amount about them, but had almost no direct contact, and so the bits and pieces we've heard (Old Gods, dragons, slavery, the Black Divine, etc.) don't carry the strong associations that we have with more familiar topics (Mabari, bards, the Arishok, the Fade). The book also excels at providing more flavor for things we thought we knew: the experience of life under the Qun, the chaotically piratical Felicisima Armada, the conversion of Archon Hessarian.

Personally, I read the book from cover to cover, and it reads well that way. Each chapter covers a separate topic: Races, Nations, Religions, The Fade, Blights, etc. They vary in length, with Nations being by far the longest. Every single page is a treat: some prose that continues the main thread of the chapter, gorgeous illustrations, the timeline, and often some side-bars that either quote from an authority (Brother Genitivi, a favorite of mine, makes a few appearances) or go into more details on a particular topic. The graphic design is excellent, and reminds me a little of "America: The Book." Because of this, I think that the book is also incredibly browse-able: you could pick it up, flip to any page at random, and have something interesting to read and engaging to view.

And, man, the artwork - it's incredible! They've included a ton of concept art pieces, going back about eight years. Some of these will show character designs - there's a great piece that shows a male and female Kossith side by side. Often they show impressive landscapes, which range from the gorgeous to the blighted. There are also about a half-dozen full two-page spreads, which are phenomenal, the kind of thing you'd love to hang on a wall.

I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of art styles on display. The Dragon Age games have a cohesive aesthetic, and I'd kind of assumed that Bioware must have a "house style" that their various artists used. That may be true when producing assets, but for concept pieces, there's a broad range of styles used by the artists. A few are very realistic. Some (particularly a couple of Fade pieces) look a bit like collage. There are some wonderful impressionist works. Others have a slightly cartoony look. I love them all! Thedas is a wide and varied land, and it's perfect to have so many different looks in the book.

If I had to pick a favorite piece of art in the book, it would probably be "The Harrowing", which depicts a young mage undergoing her trial. It's beautifully drawn, incredibly evocative, and feels like it's poised on the edge of a knife: a whirling mass of a malicious spirit spirals menacingly towards her; on second glance, though, you see what appears to be a benevolent spirit, reaching out from the front of the roiling purple mass, his hand inches from her shoulder. Is he seeking to warn her? To trick her? What will happen when they touch? The picture is filled with menace and beauty, and just a sliver of hope. I adore it.

There's tons of other great drawings as well, of course. The two-page spread of a towering statue of Andraste in a Chantry temple is stunning, with a strong red tone that seeps through the work, and an interesting interplay of light, between the mass of candles in the foreground and the powerful sunlight pouring through tall windows in the background. If one wanted to, one could make an observation about the utility of man-made light and faith, and how it is ultimately incomparable to the splendor of God-made light and truth. Or, also on a religious theme, there are many examples of Chantry art: impressive (and surprisingly bloody) stained glass windows depicting the life of Andraste, and a terrifically clever triptych, shown both in closed and in opened positions, which reminded me a bit of the Isenheim Altarpiece. Or there's the simple beauty of a Ferelden landscape, showing its beautiful green hills and a lone adventurer striding off to meet her destiny.

Because I sprang for the Collector's Edition, I lucked out and got a signed lithograph. It's yet another great picture of the Fade, and comes in a very handsome red portfolio. It's just a part of the fantastic packaging on this thing: it comes in an enormous box, weighing nearly six pounds. The inside is lined with a red fabric. A red ribbon ties the portfolio shut, and keeps the massive book in place. The book itself has an intricately designed cover, with a gold dragon sigil inset in an embossed black pattern. The page edges are gilt, which I typically despise, but actually works pretty well for this book. The book itself is massive, each page about 13" by 10" big. That makes the two-page spreads even more impressive, and even the more information-rich pages never feel too crowded. The book is less than 200 pages long, but feels fully satisfying.

By the time you read this, there's a very good chance that the Collector's Edition will be sold out. You can also buy the book from Amazon, at a much cheaper price. This doesn't have the incredible packaging and lithograph and stuff, but the actual book contents should be exactly the same.

Finally, I wanted to write a little bit about canon. I've mentioned before that I've really enjoyed the video tie-ins to Dragon Age, but haven't been able to get into the comics because of how their canon differs from the one I created while playing the games. I'm happy to report that The World of Thedas is extremely canon-friendly. It does cover events from the first two Dragon Age games, and makes their importance clear; but is written cleverly enough that you should be able to incorporate it into your own experience regardless of the choices you made.

I imagine that most people who want to buy this book are already Dragon Age fans, and people familiar with the series will probably get the most out of it, but it's an attractive and well-written book that could conceivably appeal to fans of speculative, world-building fiction, or to people who are interested in the games but haven't picked them up yet. In case you fall into the last category, here are a few words of caution:
  • If you haven't yet played Dragon Age 2, skip the chapter on Magic, which reveals a few plot twists in that game, including the ending. Also, stop reading the timeline after the Fifth Blight starts.
  • If you haven't played Dragon Age: Origins, you'll probably be spoiled on a lot of things, so you might want to put the book aside for now (other than checking out the art). Definitely skip the chapter on The Blight, and the larger sections on the Grey Wardens.
  • Most DLC is referenced within the book, but if you haven't already played it, I don't think the book's comments will be substantial enough to spoil you.
So, yeah. I think the book is a must-buy for people who are interested in Dragon Age lore; it's probably my favorite ancillary purchase to date. I don't think it spoils anything about Dragon Age 3, but it does a wonderful job of fleshing out the areas we expect to see in the next game (like Orlais!), and gives some fascinating insight into previously-mysterious topics like life in the Tevinter Imperium. It's even better than I expected, though: between the terrific artwork and the really thoughtful point-of-view narration, it's one of the best books of its type that I've ever read.

Friday, June 14, 2013

RPG Legacies

Have you seen the teaser trailer for Dragon Age: Inquisition? It's very good! The graphics look incredible (though I'm not a huge fan of the new look for a certain returning character), and it gives a great taste of the enormous scope of conflict in this game.

Of course, the immediate disappointment is that the release has been pushed back a year (from late 2013 to fall 2014), but the fan community has been encouragingly supportive of that. People want Bioware to get it right, and are willing to wait for a better game. This comic perfectly sums up my reaction to the news.

I've recently gotten involved in several online discussions that were kicked off by the trailer. With fans this passionate, and so little solid information to consume over such a long wait, it's inevitable that conversation turns to wild speculation and navel-gazing. One point that several people have brought up is the introduction of a new protagonist for this game. I've always assumed that we'll get a new character, but apparently some people have been hoping that they would be able to continue as Hawke, or even choose between playing as their Hawke or as their Warden.

Gameplay considerations aside, I can't see how this could possibly have worked from a technical perspective. Bioware already had a tough enough time translating several Dragon Age: Origins character models into Dragon Age 2 versions, and the results weren't always pretty. Given that they're moving to an entirely new engine for Inquisition, I don't think they could reproduce every possible permutation of character design that people could come up with. (Even that's leaving aside the fact that lots of people like me play with new morphing mods that allow for custom eye colors, hair styles, and more that Bioware never created in the first place.)

That said, I think there are some ways that they could squeeze in cameos for the Warden and Hawke, depending on your players' choices. One simple approach would be something like building a stone statue of the Warden in the courtyard at Weisshaupt. Because of the lower fidelity of stone, they would just need something that approximates your Warden: a Male Dwarf Commoner Rogue, a Female Elf Mage. If they stick on a helmet or one of those hideous mage cowls, it'll be relatively straightforward to identify as "your" Warden, without requiring a faithful copy of your in-game model.

Other than that, though, I don't see many opportunities for a Warden appearance, primarily because the Warden was mostly silent; I think most players have a head-canon version of what their Warden sounds like, and it would be jarring to have a full voice actor taking over "their" character. I can imagine people referring to the Warden (who might be leading a company of Grey Wardens, or running errands for Morrigan, or something), and perhaps a funeral or something, but probably not an active role.

I think there's a bit more opportunity to include Hawke. The same character model restrictions will limit exactly what Bioware can do here. However, Hawke has the huge advantage of having been a fully-voiced character, so as long as there's a reasonable explanation for hiding the face, I think Bioware can go nuts with this. I would love to run into Hawke at an Orlesian masquerade, for example.

But, anyways: given that we do have a new character, I'm very interested to see how they handle the ongoing continuation of each player's canonical story. Bioware has re-affirmed their intention to honor prior player choice; they haven't yet said exactly how they will do this, and given the support for next-generation systems it seems like it probably won't involve importing an old save game file, but I'm really glad to see that they're continuing the challenge of accommodating choice and consequence.

I've alluded to this on the blog before, but over the long run, I think their approach could be revolutionary. By using a fresh character each game, they avoid the "god problem" of leaving one character in too-powerful of a position to make sense in the next game; by allowing for continued stories, though, they can build compelling multi-game arcs (and just judging from the trailer, we'll be getting some powerful growths from seeds first planted in DA:O); financially, players are likely to want to continue with a franchise if they feel a sense of emotional ownership with the story; and finally, by daisy-chaining plots, Bioware can create short-term divergent player canons while eventually consolidating into long-term game canons. (My prior example: during DA2, different players will have different Ferelden monarchs depending on their choices during DA:O; however, by the time of DA:I, it's possible that a new monarch has taken the throne, thus allowing the plot tributaries to rejoin the main canon river.)

Since I have 18 months (*shudder*) to wait until I get my hands on this game, I thought I'd reflect on how other RPG series I've played in the past have handled continuation, and how it varies from the approach Bioware is attempting here.


The Ultima games featured a single character who continued through all 9 games in the main series, as well as several spin-offs. Interestingly, that single character was you: part of the fiction was that you, the person who is currently reading this blog post, gets transported into the fictional land of Britannia.

The story carried over  from game to game, but there wasn't any save importing, and really no overarching plot character choices. Within each individual game, you had a staggering amount of freedom: you could murder innocent peasants, poison Lord British, build a castle for yourself out of stolen barrels. However, each game had a single ending: you discovered the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom and gave it to the people of Britannia; or discovered Lord Blackthorn's plot, got the sandalwood box, and rescued Lord British; or whatever. This let the game's plots continue in significant arcs across multiple games (your actions in Ultima IV trigger dire consequences in Ultima VI), but every player will have the same major arc experience.

Interestingly, the game handles the lack of character progression within its fiction. By the time you beat each Ultima game, you're a supremely powerful character who might know a ton of spells and be incredibly strong; when you start the next game, you're back to being a weak character again with no spells, no experience, and low skills. You can comment on this, and other characters will let you know that it's because of your travels between Earth and Britannia: you grow more powerful while in Britannia, but whenever you return, you go back to the original form of your old body. (As a child who read the Chronicles of Narnia, this explanation made perfect sense to me.)

Hero Quest / Quest for Glory

This was my first-ever RPG, and while it hasn't had the degree of influence as other games on this list, it's in some ways the closest to what Bioware is doing with Dragon Age. It may have been one of the first games to allow you to import a save from a previous game to the next, which felt exciting and incredibly rewarding. You could take a single character all the way from Hero Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero in 1989 all the way through Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire in 1998.

Personally, I felt a very deep level of engagement with the series because of this feature. I would happily spend a ton of time throwing rocks at scorpions to raise my Throwing to 200, wanting to max out all my stats so I could be as strong as possible once Quest for Glory III finally came out. However, raised stats were perhaps only reason to import. I don't believe that the game kept track of any player-specific plot decisions, and while later games would refer back to earlier events, you didn't get a personalized version of the story.

There were some interesting mechanical wrinkles to the import system. Sierra developed their own skill set for QFG, instead of borrowing from an existing one like D&D or GURPS. It evolved over time, and so a prior game's save couldn't always perfectly match a later game: sometimes new skills were added, or existing ones consolidated. In one case, an entirely new class was created: you could eventually become a Paladin, but initially this was only possible if you played as a Fighter or else imported from QFG2 and passed certain tests within the game.

While I adored the series, it never really took off; fans had to beg and scream to get Sierra to release the final game (which had been planned for some time in a multi-game arc). It never felt quite at home in Sierra, which focused on its pure adventure games. I wonder if it was too adventure-game-y for RPG fans, and had too many RPG elements for adventure game fans. Its problems may help explain why other publishers have been reluctant to invest in multiple-game, save-importing systems.

Baldur's Gate

This is possibly my favorite series of all time, and is by the same folks now working on Dragon Age. There are really two import points for this series: from BG1 to BG2, and from BG2 to Throne of Bhaal. Mechanically, imports are actually somewhat similar to Quest for Glory: your old character is moved into the new game with all of his or her skill points intact. It also runs into some of the minor oddities around rule changes that QFG experienced: BG2 added new weapon proficiencies, so if you imported a character from BG1, you would have a harder time mastering those weapons than if you started fresh.

The import from BG1 to BG2 carries over your character, but as far as I can tell, it pretty much ignores any plot decisions you made. Not only that, but it doesn't know about what happened to anyone who isn't currently in your party. This led to some odd situations, like people who you could have killed in BG1 showing up in the sequel. Fortunately, Bioware took this in good humor, adding dialog options like "Wait, I thought you were dead!" that you could use to manually trigger a ret-con if necessary.

The BG2 to ToB import was a bit more integrated. Your existing party all transfers to the new game, and if you were romancing one of your companions, the game remembers that and provides the final arc of your romance. None of the main plot is affected by the choices of the previous game - it doesn't matter whether you sided with Bodhi or the Shadow Thieves, for example - but I don't think it's possible to contradict earlier canon either.

The Elder Scrolls

From a business perspective, this is probably Dragon Age's biggest competitor at the moment, and the most successful fantasy RPG on the market. Unlike the other series on this list, there's really no form of continuation at all between games. Each game starts with a new character, in a new land, often a century or more after the events of the prior game.

The passing of time from the previous game lets TES get away with ignoring player choice. Like the Ultima series, you have enormous freedom in how you proceed within a single game, but the "big events" are all fixed and unalterable.

Speaking personally, I love getting lost within the enormous worlds of TES, but I don't feel the same excitement for the franchise as I do for other games on this list (and Dragon Age). I think that's at least partly because I don't feel the same level of investment in the story of each game. Tamriel will continue along, and be the same, more or less regardless of what I do, or whether I do anything at all. It's not bad, exactly; it adds to the feeling of this being a large, real, complex world; but I'm far less interested in thwarting Mehrunes Dagon's revenge than I am in finding out where Morrigan raised her child, or whether Tallis was able to rejoin the Qunari, or if Janeka is searching the Deep Roads for another Old God. Those are all stories I helped shape, and I'm more anxious to see how they're resolved.

With all the above in mind, I think there's a huge opportunity here for Bioware to create not just a great game, but a great franchise. The Mass Effect series demonstrated the potential of creating a multi-game arc where you didn't just import your character's mechanical statistics, but also kept track of the decisions they had made, and altered the universe accordingly. However, while I loved Shepard's story, it's going to be painful now for Bioware to continue the franchise with a new protagonist. (I'm also increasingly skeptical that they'll be able to satisfy fans with any Mass Effect games set in the future, given the incredibly varied universe-altering endings depicted in the Extended Cut.) In contrast, Dragon Age isn't really about the Warden, or about Hawke: it's about Thedas. Each character can change Thedas in small ways that will lead to repercussions down the line, and over time we'll be playing to see what happens next to our world, rather than what happens next to our characters. It's an incredibly rich premise, and one that could sustain this series for... well, potentially forever!