Sunday, September 22, 2013

Minecraft Ship Battle

By Bixyl Shuftan

On the evening of Wednesday Sept 18, the night before "Talk Like a Pirate Day," Nydia Tungsten wanted to do something with Minecraft. She mentioned she was uploading a "map" onto a new server, and invited people over.

Logging on, I found myself in the water, and had to swim for it. Getting to the surface, I found two ships, one with a pirate flag, the other with an English one. Both had four large openings on each side. I swam to one, and was told this was going to be a battle between the two ships. How would the ships fight? Looking around on the deck, I found above each of those holes I saw were loading mechanisms and buttons. On the other side of the deck were chests full of dynamite.

What we were supposed to do, at least once the signal was given, was to load the dynamite into the bottom part of the "cannons," press the piston button, then repeat a few more times. Then load another couple pieces of dynamite on a hole on the side. To fire the "cannon," one had to press the button to ignite the stacks of dynamite down below, which was to act as propellant, and *quickly* ignite the dynamite acting as the "cannonball" before it was launched, and scramble back a few feet. If all went right, a piece of ignited dynamite would be launched toward the other ship, where it would do some damage if it hit or blew up close enough.

But it was tricky to use, and I don't think I really got the hang of it. Once I figured out what to do, well, what came to mind was the expression "knowing just enough to be dangerous." I ended up blowing up the cannons when I fired them the way the girls were, leaving a huge hole on the side of the ship. It seemed to be safer to just fire the propellant, and wait for the gunner on the other ship to slip up and go boom. It seemed to work, as more often than not the other ship would end up unable to fire before ours was. The result was one or more of the other crew grabbing a sword, and swimming over to board us. I never could find the crate where the swords were, but the others on my team were able to beat them back. The exception was the "guys vs girls" round, in which the girls were just merciless with the stickers.

Eventually, it was time for some of us to go to bed, and the Minecraft ship battles came to an end. At least for now. Perhaps another day, It'll be time to once again "strike the colors."

If only I could get the hang of firing that blasted cannon.

Bixyl Shuftan

Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Feed The Beast" and The Minecraft Building Contest

By Bixyl Shuftan

Since the Minecraft "Angels Village" server was updated, and it's contents wiped away, the attention of the game's players in the Sunweaver and Angels groups switched to the FTB, aka "Feed The Beast," servers set up by both Kit Repine and Nydia Tungsten. Kit's initial server went from a shack set up near the spawn point for anyone unfortunate to drop in at night to a small stone fort with an ever-expanding underground chamber and tunnel network. Valkyrie McGil built an impressive build on the cliff next to the fort.

Jasmine quickly noticed the wide variety of tools the FTB version of Minecraft offered, from robot miners that could clear out sections of underground for stone and ores, to better suits of armor, including one with limited flight ability, and some nifty gadgets. One I found useful was a mechanical arm that acted like a combination diamond pick and gun. One could use it against zombies and creepers, but it had a strong recoil. Another was a pair of boots that kept one from getting hurt when falling from a great distance. It's a safe bet most Minecrafters ended up back in their bed after making a misstep at least once. One gadget some players had fun with was the "Portal" gun, which acted like the one in the game. One fun thing that came later were the funny hats that one could collect from mobs they appeared on at random.

But building these tools and toys required machines, machines that required energy. Exploring around, I came across a few oil fields some distance away. Those were one source of energy. But Jasmine's bigger machines required more. One interesting feature of "Feed The Beast" was accessing other worlds, or overworlds in Minecraft jargon, besides the Nether and "The End." Some of these places were quite strange, such as one in which players could end up damaged from sunburn if not wearing certain types of armor, which put us in the same position as a zombie or skeleton. These worlds could be accessed through portals, but they could also be traveled to and back via special books, leading to this part of the game being called "Mystcraft," after the popular computer game Myst in the 1990s. Besides places to explore, Jasmine used them as a source for mass quantities of energy-supplying lava and lots of ores.

All these features were certainly a contrast from the Minecraft we'd first set foot it, and it came with a price. Lag began to become a problem. And then, the servers would start to occasionally crash. This became quite frustrating to players and server owners alike. As it turned out, "Feed The Beast" was the combined result of over a few hundred Minecraft modifications cobbled together. Little wonder it could get unstable at times. And then came the server updates, which would sometimes wipe out what was made.

Despite the bugs, interest in Minecraft persisted. Nydia took some time to clean up her new FTB server before inviting her friends over. Once she thought it was ready, she wondered how it could be tested.

"I wanted to test the latest FTB server, see if the problems were solved," Nydia told me in a conversation, "so … I thought what a better way to test it than to have my friends go NUTS with their builds." Nydia decided to hold a competion to see who could come up with the best build, "So I turned them loose with OP powers and kept an eye on the server." The rules were fairly simple, build a town a small group of players could reside in, " purposely left the build requirements vague, I wanted to see how they would be interpreted, and I must say I was NOT disappointed in the creativity that was generated. (I wasn't the) only one impressed either, the builders were as well when they got to see each other's builds."

The competition attracted a number of players, "We started with over eight builders, but due to their real-lives, some had to drop out, which was a shame really. The beginnings of their builds looked so promising. We had futuristic to medevil and even fairy tale fantasy. We even had some Anime thrown in, but unfortunately that one wasn't finished. … This will sound obscure to those not familiar with the series 'Girls und Panzers' it was going to be a city ship," a ship with a city built inside, "It qualified for the contest (laughter)."

"The way it was judged was very unique as well," Nydia explained,  "I have never heard of (Minecraft) being done like this at all. I left some of the judging be done by the builders themselves. The only reason I did it that way was I knew all the builders and knew they would be fair. They would judge the others, but not themselves. And I had 2 people here with me in real life that don't play MC (yet) to help me with the judging. And yes I did the live broadcast the event to help." Nydia put a live feed of what she saw into her video channel on the day of the judging.

One problem the contest had was the unstable nature of FTB Minecraft, and the contest was suspended and extended a couple times due to the server crashing, " I run it off my same system I use I thought it could maybe it could handle it this time, cant. … I wish I could invite everyone on to view the builds, but itwas just too hard on my system, I have 8GB of RAM with the server and (with) Second Life running, it would climb up to the 80% used area. If I was linked a would go into the 90s. More than once it got to 98%, if it went higher I would crash." Still, she persisted, "But we were able to finish the contest and have a lot of fun in the process."

Of the winners, Skylark's village came in third place. Valkyrie was second "by only a few points." Her village was near the server spawn point, and had crop and berry bush areas, with miniature golems gathering the fruit. For first place, it was "a tie between 2 good friends and Angels Jasmine and Shion (Winkler), it was so close it was almost a 3 way tie!"

Jasmine's place was a treehouse village with buildings set up on super tall trees, "t was a fully function town any elf would DROOL over with all the tech any mage would envy and then it had the walk ways between the massive trees to count as a city in itself." Jasmine tapped into another overworld via "Mystcraft" for the lava to power it, "Val went into the Nether to power all of her computers and tech as well." Jasmine's village had a diner in which automated machines could dispense a variety of foods with the press of a button. Kryxia Silverfall helped her out during the building.

Shion's town was build around a cathedral, as were some Medieval cities. It was the most detailed building, both inside and out. It had a harbor with ships, and a balista and a number of cranes around, to give it the look of a place still in construction.

For the winners, Nydia had a prize, "I kept the prize secret until the day of Judging I was able to offer the winner $50 USD or split it as it turns out, but they both turned it down. Sooo, I donated it to 'The Furry Gamer' group to help some of our members get into the rest of (the games we play). They wanted me to use it for my Angels, which I will do if it is needed. But I think it could do better for a group dedicated to having some fun. Thats what this was all about, having fun."

As good as the builds were, Nydia had to take the server back down. The FTB was just too much on her systems to keep up without crashes. But her new "vanilla" server, updated to Minecraft 1.62, was available. This newer Minecraft is commonly called the "horse update" due to its now including horses. They can be fitted with a saddle and "broken" for riding.

So how to build a place for the Angels there? Nydia soon had her answer, "that night when I finally had all the votes, I brought them all to my office at home (in Second Life) and told them who won, well, they started talking about each others builds, and before I knew it I had a build crew on my hands for the new Angels Village. … once in and started they met up with 'Hojo' another builder from the last world we had and he joined in"

Dropping in for myself at Jasmine's invitation, the place wasn't too far from the spawn point. Just walk down the road for a few minutes, and one would soon see the place, encompassed by walls. Inside, they had built a barn for horses (by Jasmine) and other critters, a town hall, an inn, an outdoor market, a mages tower (by Valkyrie), a cathedral (by Shion), a harbor with ships (also by Shion), and more. When Nydia saw it for herself, "I can sum it up with one word: 'Whoah …' "

So what was next for Nydia and her Angels & friends in Minecraft? She does have some plans, "in the future I am planning on having adventure maps for group play. I have a bit to learn still before I can start hosting events but it IS planned for in the future. We have had 'End raids' in the past and those were a LOT of fun."

So despite "Feed The Beast" acting a bit beasty, the action in Minecraft from residents of the Sunweaver and Angel's estates continues.

Nydia has a video of the villages during the contest judging donwloadable in the following link (here - 498MB).

Bixyl Shuftan

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Holocluck Henly on Disney's "Toontown" Closing

By Bixyl Shuftan

On August 20, the players of Disney's multiplayer online game "Toontown" got some unwelcome news. The game would be closing in a month. One of the more well-known Toontown players in Second Life is Holocluck Henly. I met up with him and asked him a few questions about the game.

So how was the game played? Holocluck told me, "You're a happy go lucky cartoon animal in Toontown, but humanoid robots called Cogs are trying to take over. They are based on corporate stereotypes and they are turning shops into office buildings etc. The toons fight back using silly slapstick gags. The cogs retaliate with corporate clich├ęs and office supplies. It,s intended for all ages, and like a classic cartoon people of all generations each get something out of it. … There are things you can do beside fighting cogs. You can socialize, you can play golf, race autos, fish, and more."

"An account comes with 6 characters sharing an estate where each of their homes are." The various toon types "are more preference and what you like to look and sound like in game. When you type to friends or use the vast library of pre-written phrases, your character makes animal gibberish to word balloons, different sounds based on questions, exclamations, one or several words etc. Originally only friends who traded special codes received outside the game could text chat. Everyone else was via the phrases and you could purchase phrases. But a few years ago they opened it up to parental permission and you just had to verify on the site and the inworld accounts could talk to each other. Still some words are not in the vocabulary and become animal gibberish. That's the other thing. if you were to read it, you saw 'arf arf ruff' in the word balloon for a dog for instance."

Of the toon types, "Originally there were cats, dogs, ducks, rabbits, horses, and mice. They aded monkeys and bears eventually, and then pigs."

"The amusing thing about the game was that so many adults played. many of them were parents whose kid may have started and then the parent got addicted while the kid moved on to something else." Ads at Nickelodian and Nick at Night attracted both kids and adults, "This was the ad: ( )."

Holocluck admitted he was "a great fan of the 30s-40s Warner Brothers" cartoons, "I'm a traditionalist." He stated he had learned animation "a few decades back. … I learned at a college owned by Disney called california institute of the arts. A few Disney veterans ran a character animation program. Toontown is 3D, I believe it utilizes Python. But it's the feel of a traditional cartoon, and some of the animation is just great. Going to Goofy's Speedway and watching Goofy walk around... to an animator it's very rewarding (laughter)."

"Being a Disney game, is that when you build your toon (when you first join the game) it can come in a combination of proportions. And each one moves differently. Same as the cogs, who have about three different basic physiques. they move different from one another in everything they do. That sounds a bit technical but I'm an adult and an adult cartoonist. I look at it a little differently. He smiled, "And then I drop a piano on the head of some lawyer robot."

I asked him about the attacks, and he answered you start with small ones and work your way up, "you start with a squirting lapel flower and a cupcake. These can be worked up to a geyser and a wedding cake." Attacks like the dropped piano need the help of another toon to distract the target first.

"Walking around Toontown is just great. there are several neighborhoods with themes. Obviously in the game you work your way in tasks and challenges from neighborhood to neighborhood. But the meticulous attention made to these, the names of the shops, the styles... and the last few years some things like hydrants and mailboxes have personalities and animate."

I asked Holocluck about the tasks, "They start off simple enough, a cog, fish something out of the pond. there is a narrative which flows through the neighborhood of some shopkeeper or other who was harassed by cogs or something was stolen etc. And as you achieve these you can carry more gags at a time, jellybeans at a time, get bigger, maybe handle many tasks at once. And eventually you fight the source of the cogs. Not for the faint of heart."

"There are four categories of cogs: the lawyers, the salesmen, the financiers and the bosses. Each has a headquarters and there's someone making them. (It's) Usually a behemoth of a robot in charge and up to 8 toons go in together to defeat them. There is usually a battle not unlike the ones in the streets or in buildings, a stream of four cogs at a time versus up to four toons at a time for about ten minutes. Then the special, direct fight with the one in charge."

"As an example, the cashbot CFO (chief financial officer) looks like a cash register for a head, a large body with dollar signs for the suit pattern, and the bottom half of him looks like tank treads. There are some toons who take to cranes (I do that) where we work with the other toons who disabled these special sentinels coming out from between the treads,. and we take large magnets and fling the things into the CFO in the middle. Then when he periodically gets dizzy we grab large safes and smack him." Holocluck laughed, "then we win! And we get some special perk. The fight itself may be different each type of cog."

I asked Holocluck what kind of perks did toons get for beating boses. He answered,  "Well for the CFO fights we get special phrases we can say which can endow anyone within range with jellybeans, more gags, or more laff. (Toons) don't die but our levels called laff can diminish in a fight."

For the lawyer cog boss battle, "in the case of the lawbot CJ aka Chief Justice, the CJ is blindfolded, love that one. After the cog battle there is a sequence where for a limited time the cogs are landing into the jury seats and we use cannons to shoot toons to replace them. When time is up the more toons means the scale in the center of the large room may be in our favor. There comes a sequence where once side of the room the cogs are lined up throwing evidence aka books at their side of the scale, and we throw on our side and run to restock etc from the witness. They occasionally skid their evidence on the ground to trip us. we gotta know to jump (grin). Oh and the giant gavels. gotta be careful where to stand." Holockuck laughed, "We win when the scale reaches down on our side."

One element of character advancement was deciding on what new skills to have, "as they advanced and added other types of gags … you had to leave one off. One gag was not for the cogs but for fellow tons: the toon-up." This move ranged, "from a tickle feather to a high dive act into a glass of water, making friends laugh during battle to being their numbers up."

"We had pets called Doodles which look like a 'Lil Abner' 'Schmoo,' and we could train them to do tricks and come out during battle for that. The animatons on those are marvelous and the personalities are very complex. That alone makes it a shame (Toontown) is leaving."

There were some special happenings during holidays. For instance, one could make a black cat character around Halloween. Besides those, "there are invasions, when a particular cog is everywhere at once. regardless of the type of building etc. when that happens everything is double value in your efforts."

That a major corporation like Disney  would make a game in which the characters spent much of their time fighting corporate stereotypes, Holocluck commented, "Well, there was an inevitable irony waiting to happen." Toontown would soon be closing.

"Last month, Toontown was hit by teen hackers and they closed it and the test servers, for about a week, to patch the game up. The test server never came back but they made up for things with free beans (money) and other perks to celebrate returning and for our patience." Holocluck sighed, "But face it, that's a resource. If they have to work on that, and if they're scaling down guess what leaves."

An article on CNN stated Toontown had experienced a "significant drop in user numbers." Holocluck admitted after ten years, things were not looking as rosy for the game as in the past, "Times have since changed. things have gone mobile, they lost many players in the past to sophisticated MMORPG like star wars or WoW." Although Disney promoted the game in the past with commercials on television, they weren't doing so now. With the public " looking to apps, etc., they just launched Inifinity and pushing that." Holocluck concluded that Disney felt, "Disney online is just in the way."

Holocluck stated Toontown wasn't the only game closing, "A friend in Second Life goes to 'Pixie Hollow,' another game. The third is 'Pirates of the Caribean.' All three are closing Sept 19.  I believe … Disney pulled the plug on the Disney Online project. There was news this morning of major layoffs at ABC as part of their downsizing plan."

So where might the players go after the game closed, Holocluck didn't have an answer, "Nothing will take the place of Toontown. It was a nice game for people who wanted light hearted entertainment and challenges, some funny mixed with getting back at the corporate world, and beautiful Disney animation."

When not playing Toontown for the next few weeks, Holocluck Henly manages the Starship Diner at Hydrangea (77, 173, 72). He also DJs for Relay for Life events.

One can check out Holocluck's Youtube stream for more Toontown videos, and his Flickr page for pictures.

Image credit: Holocluck Henly

Bixyl Shuftan