Friday, December 8, 2017

EA's Star Wars Battlefront II's "Lootboxes" Stir Controversy, Calls For Government Regulation

By Bixyl Shuftan

One would think most anything with the name "Star Wars" connected to it would be a moneymaker. But with EA's recent release of "Star Wars Battlefront II," the result has been controversy and trouble, with the company loosing billions in stock value, and talk of the government getting more involved in the computer game industry.

The controversy revolves around the issue of microtransactions. Microtransactions in games are nothing new. Those familiar with free games online, such as "Forge of Empires," "World of Tanks," and others offer players the chance to buy in-game credits of some kind which can be used to purchase ways to advance the player. Gamers can be accepting of this in free games, such as the "wallet warrior" jokes in "World of Tanks." But with games the player had to buy up front to play, not so much. In 2011, the makers of "Eve Online" were faced with a revolt of angry veteran players when reports came that they would soon offer microtransactions that could affect gameplay. More recently, Blizzard introduced the ability to buy "loot crates" for it's recent hit "Overwatch." This raised some eyebrows, but as the items were just cosmetic and didn't affect gameplay, there was some controversy, but less than what would come later.

Then came EA's Star Wars Battlefront II. Although it has a story mode, the game seems to be primarily around it's multiplayer mode and PvP combat. The games "Star Card" system is a requred part for player advancement  In October, it was revealed that the loot boxes in the game were a key part of the Star Card system. Since they could be purchased, this quickly led to criticism of the game being "pay to win." As the contents of the boxes were random, and they could contain either common items or rare ones, there were charges that they were a form of legal gambling, one accessible to teenagers. Gamespot game the game a 6/10 review, saying "the biggest hurdle that Battlefront II will need to overcome--for its simultaneous attempts to balance microtransactions with genuine feeling of accomplishments--is deciding on what type of game it wants to be." Shacknews also gave it 6/10, "The loot crates diminish its value greatly, and it's a shame EA forces them down your throat as part of the core gameplay."

With the Battlefront controversy on top of the earlier Overwatch loot boxes, there were comparisons to online gambling, a form that could exploit young teenagers. Then government officials began making their moves. Belgium's Gaming Commission began an official investigation of both Battlefront II and Overwatch to see if the loot boxes were a form of gambling, which could mean the removal of the games from play from the country and the makers given huge fines. One politician from Hawaii openly criticized Battleftont II, "This game is a Star Wars-themed online casino designed to lure kids into spending money. It's a trap." It's unclear if the second sentence was a deliberate quoting of a "Return of the Jedi" line.

Financially, the controversy has not been good for EA's bottom line. The price of the company's stocks has dropped, causing their total to drop by 4 billion dollars, with some estimates going higher. Although the price was already dropping before the loot crate fiasco, this latest mess shook the confidence of investors further. It is ironic that a company's attempt to get even more money out of a game players already put a good amount of money down for, the deluxe edition costing 79.99, and the regular version 59.99, at one store, ended up causing it to lose money.

In response to the criticism, EA removed microtransactions from the game, saying they would be gone until further notice. "We’ve heard the concerns about potentially giving players unfair advantages. And we’ve heard that this is overshadowing an otherwise great game. This was never our intention. Sorry we didn’t get this right. We hear you loud and clear, so we’re turning off all in-game purchases." A new system for the Star Cards is being developed, though whether or not microtransactions will appear in any way is unclear. In response to the threats of government intervention, some from various gaming companies formed an organization with the purpose of the industry self-regulating itself on issues such as loot boxes. Whether or not these moves to steer governments away from starting to regulate the microtransactions of online games remains to be seen.

Sources:  Polygon, Venturebeat, Gamespot, Gamesindustry, CNBC, The Verge, Forbes  

Bixyl Shuftan

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

"I May Be Done" The Husband of A Warcraft Couple Talks about His Wife's Passing

By Bixyl Shuftan

When it comes to computer games and marriages, we often think of the electronic entertainment as a source of friction between a wife who couldn't care less about computers and a husband who is unable to put aside the addiction he developed while single. So when we hear about a couple that goes dungeon-whomping together, it sounds like a match made in heaven.

But what happens when one of the couple passes away? What happens if it is "game over" for a gamer's "player two?"

This week someone posted a link on Facebook to a thread on the "World of Warcraft" forums, "I May Be Done," in which an "Acktion" described how he and his wife ended up playing the game together for years, and his loss and sorrow now that she was gone.

My wife passed away on 10/05. They say the fact I was sitting right beside her, waiting for her to wake up so we could hit Darkmoon Faire and Brewfest together and had no idea when she left is a good thing. That it means she was at peace and the transition was easy and painless.

I don't know anything about that. I'm trying to take their word for it. But, all I can feel right now is pain and loneliness.

I had actually picked up World of Warcraft when it first hit the shelves out of Beta.

I corrupted my wife to it sometime during Burning Crusade.

By the time Cataclysm came out, we were both housebound disabled. At the time, it was more difficult for me to sit up and play for very long than it was for her. I managed, but frankly only because she wanted me to play with her. And then, not for very long before I had to rest.

Sometime in Mists, we corrupted her son (my step-son) to our WarCrack addiction (and she somehow managed to finesse our much reduced finances to pick up a second account since she no longer had room to make new characters) even though she'd become largely bedridden and played from a laptop on a hospital style lap tray.

Sometime during Warlords of Draenor, he got married and his wife joined our band of happy fanatics.

We typically only played together or with one or two friends or a couple of my former students who'd stayed in touch. And, frankly, I really only played to be with them, doing something with them which we could all do.

Ok, mostly I was playing because she was pleading, begging, or nagging me alternately to come spend some time doing one of the few things left she could enjoy as she became bedridden and it hurt her for me to touch her most days.

She loved World of Warcraft. Perhaps I did too, but it was mostly my love for her that drove me to continue adding expansions I could no longer fully explore since raids and pvp and many of the things I once enjoyed were beyond my declining abilities.

I cancelled both of her accounts less than thirty minutes ago.

Sharley will no longer be running beside Acktion.

Lubov will no longer be guarding Panaceah.

All of the characters I have built specifically to run amok with my beloved are now as alone as I am in this home we once shared.

The game has been brought up by our children whom I couldn't love more if they were flesh of my blood, by friends who have stopped by or called to give their condolences. I have told them that I'm not sure if I will ever be able to play again. And I'm not.

Just hours before she slipped from this mortal coil of Earth, my beautiful bride was logging out of Azeroth content because she'd managed to take, if not all sixty characters, at least the ones she was going to this month to the Darkmoon Faire to do their profession quests.

Right here, right now, I think I vastly prefer to remember her competing with me to see which of us leads our guilds in achievement points than visiting Azeroth without her.

That may change. I may be lured back by our friends and family. But not for awhile if ever.

In the meantime, thank you Blizzard for giving her Azeroth to make her last years on Earth so pleasurable for all of us who ran with her.

As of the writing of this article, there were thirty-seven pages of responses, and growing, "This was the most beautiful, yet heart-wrenching tribute of love and life I've ever read." Mostly of people expressing their sorry and trying to offer comfort, "If you decide you want to return to Azeroth someday. We'll still be here, and we'll welcome you back with open arms." "I've sat here for several minutes trying to figure out what the hell to say, or how I can help. I'm not sure how much it matters, but know that we're here for you." Some had their own stories of loss. One brought up a poem that was part of one of the game's quests. One of Blizzard's forum managers would post, "Blizzard sends its condolences to you and your family as well friend. Thank you for telling your story and it warms my heart to see that something we do had a part in it. Loss is never easy but it does get better. Take all the time you need. Real life always comes first."

The man, under his other character name, would later comment, "I realized at the time I wrote it that the overwhelming majority of WoW players would have absolutely no idea who we were or, if we are honest, care much beyond a brief  'oh, that is sad.' But, Lubov (or Sharley on her Horde main), did have many friends in the game that I felt I should at least try to let know she was gone. And this was the only way I could think of. I certainly didn't expect such an outpouring of warmth from strangers. Well, strangers to me, although she might have known you. I'm afraid she was the one who was good with people. And I definitely didn't expect to be notified that my post here on her behalf would be picked up elsewhere as well."

"for what it's worth, I (the OP) and our son, are aware of the outpouring of well wishes both here and other places my original post has turned up. We do thank you for those well wishes and, indeed, feel the comforting touch of my wife and his mother in your kind responses. Thank you. ...  Peace be with you all. Don't forget to make your own day as good as you can. And anyone else's you conveniently can as well. Your support voiced here has helped ours immensely."

When gaming communities at times seem full of little or nothing but immature players who think of nothing but themselves, this is a reminder that they're full of people with heart.

Bixyl Shuftan

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Ultima Online Turns Twenty Years Old

By Bixyl Shuftan

It seems people have been playing Massive Multiplayer Online games, or MMOs, for ages. It was twenty years ago yesterday. For many, the first they ever played was "World of Warcraft," which started in 2003. But MMOs have been around for a few years longer. It was twenty years ago this week that the first MMO that achieved much popularity, "Ultima Online,' was launched on September 24, 1997.

Ultima Online was a spinnoff of the "Ultima" series of games of which the first was sold in 1981. It's entry in Wikipedia describes it's beginning as "partially designed as a social and economic experiment" in which "the game had to account for widespread player interaction as well as deal with the tradition of players feeling as if they were the center of attention, as had been the case in single-player games." The idea for the game is credited to Richard Garriot. There were previous games that allowed hundreds of players at once, but "Ultima Online significantly outdid these games, both graphically and in game mechanics." The game was probably the first to have "a craft-based and player-driven economy," as well as offering progress through skill levels and player vs player combat.

It is notable that originally, the game was going to include an artificial life engine that "would affect animal behavior, potentially creating new adventure possibilities in an organic manner." But it never made it past beta development as, "We thought it was fantastic. We'd spent an enormous amount of time and effort on it. But what happened was all the players went in and just killed everything; so fast that the game couldn't spawn them fast enough to make the simulation even begin. And so, this thing that we'd spent all this time on, literally no-one ever noticed – ever – and we eventually just ripped it out of the game, you know, with some sadness."

One of the games more memorable events occurred in it's beta in which the in-game alter-ego of Garriot, Lord British, was successfully killed by a player character. Lord British was supposed to be invulnerable to this kind of attack, but a server crash had made him vulnerable. This event is considered by some to be the most memorable event in early MMO history, and led to the saying "If it exists as a living creature in an MMORPG, someone, somewhere, will try to kill it."

Ultima Online was the first MMO to reach 100,000 subscribers in popularity, having done so within six months of it's release, and by July 2003 reached its peak at around 250,000 players. But after this, the game's numbers would steadily decline, going back to about 100,000 in 2008 and then had less than one percent of the the total market share of MMOs, probably due to the introduction and great success of World of Warcraft which would dominate MMO gaming for about a decade. Developed under Origin Systems, in 2004 Origin folded and the game was managed directly by the parent company Electronic Arts. In 2006, Mythic Entertainment merged with EA, and the game came under it's direction. In 2014, control was transferred to the Broadsword studio.

Ultima Online still active. To celebrate their twentieth anniversary, they had a real-life party in Herndon, Virginia, near Washington DC. They also have a new content arc, "The Shattered Obelisk." So after twenty years, presumably with some of it's original players still at it and some new ones who weren't even born yet when it first came around, "UO" is still offering players the chance to do some monster clobbering and dungeonering.

Sources: Ultima Online, Wikipedia 

Hat tip: Hamlet Au

Bixyl Shuftan

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Eve Online: The (Goonswarm) Empire To Strike Back

By Bixyl Shuftan

Eve Online was once described as "Second Life's Evil Twin." While not a sandbox virtual world, players do have a lot of options in playing alone, or part of a group, to mind one's own business, or raid other players. What would be branded as "griefing" in Second Life can reap rewards here, and raiders can and will enjoy the "yummy tears" of the targets they've successfully demolished. One faction in Eve Online that's been around for years is Goonswarm. Supposedly, it was where a number of former Second Life griefers ended up when they got bored and left, heading to Eve. But it also had some men of obvious distinction, such as Vile Rat who was one of those killed in the terrorist attack on the US Embassy in Libya in 2012.

Factions often form alliances that can and will fight major wars over territory and resources, and sometimes revenge. But in early 2016 came what was billed as "The Largest PVP War in Gaming History." The biggest alliance known as The Imperium, led by the "Goonswarm Federation," threatened smaller alliances in low-security space with invasion unless they paid up protection money. But instead of giving in, some of these alliances formed a coalition and to the surprise of onlookers, the Imperium suffered a major defeat. As a result, old enemies of The Imperium "quickly came out of the woodwork," and what became known as "World War Bee" was in full gear, "with over 60,000 players around the world choosing sides." The fight has also been called "The Casino War" as the owner of an Eve gambling website began bankrolling the war effort against The Imperium. The result was a series of defeats for The Imperium as key stations were overrun and factions left it. The Imperium's strategy was to try and outlast it's enemies, then retake what they lost.

Finally on August 2, there was an announcement that The Imperium would be on the march again. And soon close to a thousand capital ships from Goonswarm moved to a strategic location close to two areas held by their enemies, sometimes called the "Moneybadger Coalition." The goal of the ships there seems to be to mainly harass the enemy for now by sending numerous lone ships to multiple hard to defend locations. "Massively" writer Brendan Drain felt, The Imperium's plan was a "highly aggressive" one, not to worry about losing the economic war, "relying instead on it's huge industrial and (cash) farming base ... to replace lost ships quickly. That sounds good in theory, but losing the (money) war on paper can give the enemy a huge morale boost and a reasonable claim to victory, even if they concede star systems and lose citadels.

The "Casino War" hasn't seen a fight yet on the scale of "The Battle of B-R5" in which over $300,000 USD worth of ships went up in flames. But in a game noted for not just massive battles, but suprpising political moves, backstabs, and drama, a lot can happen. About the only thing writer Drain felt was certain was, "with the game's largest and richest alliances involved, at the very least we can be sure that some very expensive stuff is going to explode."

Source: Massively

Bixyl Shuftan

Monday, August 7, 2017

More on Sansar

 By Bixyl Shuftan

On Monday July 31, Linden Lab finally opened it's new virtual world of Sansar. After visiting two of it's locations, my initial impression was the place had promise, but still needed a lot of work. Afterwards, I decided to look a little more for a better overall impression.

I would visit several more locations. One was highlighted in the Sansar Atlas: "Orgin Cinema 360." A second I had heard about in preview articles, "NASA  Apollo Museum" by LOOT Interactive. Two were from Maxwell Graf, "Respite" and "Rustica," the latter which was part of a preview video. Another was "Chess" by Lillani. Two more looked like places by less experienced builders, "Driveable UFO Bumper Cars" and the "Freebies Museum." And I decided to check the place done by SL video maker Draxtor Despress, "114 Harvest," and check Luskwood once again.

Of these four, the NASA  Apollo Museum I found to be the most impressive. There was a video screen with footage about the Apollo program, a display of a Saturn V rocket lying on the floor on it's side, and a display showing the path of the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission took. For a someone interested in the space program, this would be very cool. Another detailed place was the "Orgin Cinema 360," which was described as a former arch-villain's lair now converted to more peaceful use. The center area was a 3-D panorama movie view, and stepping out, there was a detailed circular walkway. There was one moving object, a camera, that panned around. Below me were fans that whirled around.

They looked good. But as a Second Life resident, I couldn't help but notice what they didn't have. There was no interactivity. There were seats at the Orgin Cinema, but you could not sit down. You were limited to inside the movie area and the walkway, and that was it. While there were objects in the distance, you could not get to them. Orgin Cinema also took quite a bit of time to load, much more than a normal teleport in Second Life. And while the Apollo area looked great, unlike Second Life, you couldn't click on something for more information.

Maxwell Graf's "Respite" and "Rustica" had more room to walk around, and "Respite" had a very detailed,building, with a "rustic" look, the sound of a crackling fireplace. But you couldn't get up the stairs, and the sound of the fire was constant until you got some distance away from the dwelling, and then it was completely gone. I was about to walk around a while, but eventually I came to the end of the island. But once I got too far into the water, I "fell" down into some gray abyss. Rustica was a huge area of mountains and valleys. It looked less  like a detailed build and more about demonstrating how big an area in Sansar could get.

"Driveable UFO Bumper Cars" and "Chess" were small demonstations of what limited capacity for interactivity Sansar has at the moment. The first place was a gridlike driving area with several saucer shaped simple vehicles one could hop in by walking up to them, and pressing the "1" button. One could then "drive" the saucer by walking/pushing at it from the inside. I did notice it was possible to flip over the edge if you hit it hard enough, and pushing further, you would fall off into the abyss. After a few moments, you would respawn back to where you first appeared. With "Chess" it was possible to push against the pieces and move them. But when I tried to move one, I ended up moving a few, knocking over one. And there was no way to pick it back up.

Two places I haven't seeing on the Sansar viewer atlas after the first day were it's Luskwood area and "114 Harvest" by Draxtor Despres. I contacted Tengu Yamabushi in Second Life about the area that had seemed little more than a simple rocky savana. He told me Linden Lab had taken it down temporarily, "Seems you're not supposed to use a logo for the thumbnai. Who knew? ... Supposedly there's a policy, somewhere, that says the thumbnail has to be an in-experience screenshot, and no logos. Of course, not knowing that, I created a bog-standard-template world. And since it had no unique content, then, (I) just slapped a LW logo on it.  My bad."

And why couldn't I see it in the atlas if it was back up? Tengu told me about one big problem with the viewer atlas, "It's very easy to miss in the Atlas. There's new stuff accumulating in there and there seems no way to filter/search for anything." Still, he had been doing a little more work on the place, "We have a tree now! : It's not much of a tree, but it's a tree. It's a 'Charlie Brown Christmas' (style) 'Luskwood' tree." When I was able to take a look later, there was a larger tree with stone stairs leading to a platform on it.

Draxtor has emerged as a supporter of Sansar, helping Linden Lab with recent promition videos. So I was interested to see what his place was like. But I couldn't see "114 Harvest" on the viewer atlas. Then I saw on the Moni's World blog an address to the place. Taking a look at the Sansar website, there was a search bar on it's atlas that was missing in the viewer. So I was able to locate a location that I had heard the location of.

Checking "114 Harvest," I found myself in front of a house in the suburbs a car having the license place "DRAXTOR."  The front door was open, so I went in, and the only door inside open was the one to the basement which had a sign "First Lifers Keep Out." Downstairs was a couch in front of a TV playing one of his "Fluffee" videos from a few years ago, with a small radio room connecting. Back out of the house, I decided to look around, and fell through a hole of come kind, falling into the gray underneath. Down there was a rubber ball I could push around. The only form of interaction I had at the place.

In short, Sansar has a lot of potential, but there's not much to attract your run of the mill Second Life user. One big disadvantage is it's not that easy to hold events there. Tengu felt it's appeal would be limited among his fellow Luskwooders, "I'm not really sure how it will turn out.  We at Luskwood aren't really interested in 'experiences', we're first and foremost a community.  And I'm not sure how well the Sansar platform fits an online community. Two particulars: live music and collaborative builds, Primtionary, specifically. No way to do either right now in Sansar."

It should be noted Second Life was much different from how it is now to how it was on day one, or even how it was when it was a few years old from day one. It used to be everyone had to pay just to have an account or even to rezz a prim. Teleporting was once possible only through teleport hubs, and when you did it could be a mess with everything up your backside. It would be a long time before there was anything other than human avatars available. Second Life, while good, needed to be better. And eventually it was.

As for how many will use it? That's a question only time will answer. But when Second Life came around, there were only a handful of other virtual worlds that were unknown to most. Today, it's fair to say the majority with computers have at least heard of Second Life. So why aren't more using it? Perhaps it's bad publicity or it's not the kind of virtual experience they want, which Linden Lab seems to be thinking. Or maybe most computer users aren't that interested in virtual worlds that don't involve blowing something up.

So Sansar may just end up a much smaller alternative grid like InWorldz, with a few people and making it's owners a little money, but not much. Time will tell.

Sources: Moni's World 

Bixyl Shuftan

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Game Review: Forge of Empires

By Bixyl Shuftan

One game that I've been seeing commercials on television for is "Forge of Empires." This strategy game was developed by Innogames, and can be played on one's browser, on Facebook, or as an app on a tablet or mobile. It was first released in 2012, and is described on Wikipedia as having 10 million players a year later. In the game, the player starts out as a small village in the stone age, and through the players progress, the people grow in size and technology through the eras.

Most of the action occurs on the city screen. Your city has a population, which is calculated through the number and type of residential buildings you have. Coin is collected from these residential buildings, which depending on the building can be from every few minutes to once a day, and the town hall which has more coin once a day. Besides coin,  you need supplies to build things. You get most of these though production buildings, which require a certain number of people. Supply buildings have a choice of six items to produce, from a small item that takes five minutes to a large one that takes twenty-four hours. Your people have a happiness level which goes down the more people there are, and when unhappy you get a penalty to coin and supply production. To make them happy, or even better enthusiastic as that gives you a production bonus, you can build either cultural buildings or decorations. Decorations take less space, but generally give less happiness. Both residential and production buildings have to be connected to the town hall by roads.

At the very beginning, you don't have the ability to do much, build trails, and stone age huts and hunter camps. By going to your technology screen and using Forge points you can research various technologies, which allow you to build military and cultural buildings, better residential and production buildings, decorations and roads, and more. The first few technologies  in the Bronze Age don't cost anything beyond the Forge points. Then they will start to cost a little coin and supplies, and in the Iron Age will start to cost some goods as well. The higher the technology, the more coin, supplies, and goods it will cost. Once you enter a new age, your town hall upgrades, and you get a few new abilities and a few other rewards such as a little coin and supplies. Beyond the Bronze Age is the Iron Age. Then come the three Medieval Ages, Early, High, and Late. Then com Colonial, Industrial, and so on. Eventually, one gets to eras beyond the present day that can only be imagined, the Arctic and Oceanic Future eras.

Military buildings are where your soldiers are trained. They require a certain amount of population available to build. Military units are used to both defend your city from other players, and one of two ways of acquiring areas on the continent map where you make your empire. You can either conquer an area by defeating the local forces in it's parcels, or you can negotiate and trade goods for parcels. Goods are produced by goods buildings, and have settings of four, eight, twenty-four, and forty-eight hours. They are needed to trade for parcels, and beginning in the Iron age to acquire technologies. Goods buildings only produce a few goods, unless you control an area that contains the good, in which case you get a production bonus of that good. Once you control an area, you can send scouts into neighboring ones to explore them. Sectors have a small reward  for taking them over by either peaceful or military means, either a little coin or supplies. Taking over an area grants a larger reward, either a production bonus, expansion, PvP Tower, a larger amount of gold and supplies, or medals.

Quests are a part of the game. These are given by personalities, such as advisers, foreign rulers, and others. The first ones help you learn the game by teaching you how to play. But they also offer rewards, such as coins, supplies, goods, military units, or even diamonds (more on those later). But they also add a sense of plot. Some quests can be skipped by pressing "abort," though they key ones can't be skipped. Some are a little silly, such as challenges and jokes from the jester. Others pit you against an adversary whom will take a number of quests to defeat. As you progress in eras, your advisors' clothing will change to reflect it. Eventually, you gain a close and trusted friend.

Eventually, you're going to run low on room for new buildings. Expansions will enlarge your city limits by a 4x4 area. They can be acquired by gaining territory, technological resources, or gaining enough medals. Over time, expect to make harder choices about how to use the land on your city as your next available expansion is quite some time away.

There are other players in the game. You can either help them by motivation a residential or production building, or by polishing a cultural building or decoration. Or you can attack them. When a player is attacked, the computer handles the defense of any military units the player has chosen for defense (if the player forgot to select, it's an easy win for the attacker). Beating the defense means the player has a choice of plundering a single building that produces coin, supplies, or goods. If someone is friends with you, he can't attack you or vice-versa without dissolving the friendship. Players can also form and invite people into guilds.

Being nice has a couple benefits.  You get a tiny amount of coin, and have a small chance of finding a blueprint. These are used to make Great Buildings. Players can also trade goods. This is desirable as your map will contain on average only two goods bonuses per era and you only have so much room in your city limits. If you need goods of a higher era than you produce, be prepared to trade slightly more of your goods to them, such as 25 marble for 20 iron, or 30 iron for 20 glass. You cannot offer more than twice the level of goods for another good. So eventually it will be desirable to shut down old goods buildings.

Great Buildings can be thought of as world wonders. They provide a combination or two special benefits such as city happiness, goods production, coin production, supply production, or attack and.or defense military bonus. To make a great building, you need at least one of the nine different blueprint pages of it, and the required number of several different goods. Each era has several different Great Buildings. It's possible to construct a great building after the era of it's designation.

Throughout the year, there are special events in which there are special additional quests. These can be holidays, the anniversary of the birthdays of famous people in history, or special events such as the World Cup. Sometimes there's also a minigame that offers points for a chance for a prize. These can be either decorations, coins or supplies, or maybe a special building that offers combinations of benefits not unlike a Great Building, but not as great. For completing special events questline there's usually a reward of some kind, often a special building and a portrait for your profile. Speaking of your profile, every so often the gave grants you an achievement, such as for having so many residential buildings or having produced to many supplies. You can post three of these achievements there.

One nice little minigame is the treasure hunt quest, in which you sent someone to get some treasure. These take a certain amount of time, after which he appears and will wait for your for a certain amount of time. If you pick up the treasure in time, you can send him off for a larger treasure. The first hunt takes just five minutes, a little coin or supplies, and has to be picked up within an hour. Larger ones take more time to complete, but have more rewards such as more gold or supplies, medals, or goods. The last hunt takes eight hours, after which the hunts start over.

One recent feature added is the tavern. Only people you've friended can visit your tavern, and vice-versa. As your friends visit, they fill up your chairs and put a few "tavern silver" coins in your collection plate. You also have a small chance of picking up a little silver and a forge point when visiting a friend's tavern. Taverns are small and simple at first, able to seat only a few people and without decoration. But tavern silver can be used to build and decorate them up and eventually they can become fancier places able to seat many people. Tavern silver can also be used to purchase bonuses for your city in the tavern shop, which can grant a resource boost, a boost to your military, or speed up your building time for a little while. Since the larger the tavern, the more silver is collected, most players concentrate on building up their tavern until it's quite large and fancy.

It will take many months of game play to reach the end of the Colonial Era, and the end of your first map. But as is so often stated, it's not the end but a new beginning. Beyond that are additional maps, and quests across your globe. If you like city and empire building games, especially those with a sense of history, Forge of Empires may be for you.

Bixyl Shuftan

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Game Review: Conan Exiles

By Bixyl Shuftan

"Conan the Barbarian," the tale of a heroic warrior in a fictitious and ancient time and place when people were terrorized by monsters and warlords, the "Hyborian Age" described as being sometime between the destruction of Atlantis and recorded history, made for many stories since the 1930s, and would eventually make it's way to television and movies, notably the movie made in 1982 starring Arnold Scwartzenegger. Video games of the character and story universe began appearing in the 1980s. In 2008 came the first MMORPG: "Age of Conan," Developed by Funcom and published in cooperation with Eidos Interactive. The player controls an ex-slave, whom after escaping the beginning quests lead to him or her killing the master then goes on to further adventures. The game received "generally favorable reviews," but suffered from a number of bugs and other problems that resulted in a number of complaints. Funcom did eventually respond to the feedback with bug fixes and new zones.

In January, Funcom released a new Conan MMORPG: Conan Exiles. This is an open-ended survival game in which players start with nothing and use the resources they find around them to make basic clothes and tools while fighting hazards around them, which may or may not include other players depending on the server, and soon building a base, either alone or in cooperation with friends. The player controls an "Exile" sentenced to death, and after being freed by Conan tries to survive in the Exiled Lands, the goals described by the makers of the game as "Survive, Build, Dominate."

The first step is choosing a server. They are categorized into PvP in which players can attack one another or their buildings, PvP Blitz, in which players have only a limited amount of time before the servers are wiped and everything has to start all over, and PvE, where players don't have to worry about being attacked by other players but can't attack them or their structures either. Each has servers in five different categories from purist, to roleplaying, the sixth option being to list everything available. Choosing the later reveals many hundreds of servers, including some "official" ones and numerous ones hosted by others, some of which need a password to enter.

Upon choosing the server is the character creation process. Characters can be either male or female and can be Cimmerian, Hyborian, or several other races in the Conan universe. Players chose one of four Hyborian Age gods the player follows, three of which allow you to build temples of the chosen deity from the start. Besides choosing skin color and facial features, one can also choose the size of breasts for females, and "endowment" or penis size for males. This feature has gotten the game some chuckles in some low humor conversations. When the character is complete, he or she is hung on a cross with a proclamation stating the character is condemned to death for crimes including three listed that are apparently picked at random. These crimes can consist of anything from "unlawful dismemberment" to gambling to deflowering a virgin to "impersonating a priestess."

Following the cutscene where the character is rescued by Conan, the player appears in the middle of a desert with the remains of a stone road ahead. Nearby is a stone sign warning the civilized away from the Exiled Lands "where savages make war upon one another" and on a rock is a waterskin with a little water and a message from another condemned man who choses to leave his water for the next person to find it and allow himself to die. Going along the road, one can gather plant fibers, seeds, and insects from bushes, and stones and sticks on the ground (press E button). Fibers can be used to make simple clothes, and sticks and stones into a simple axe and pick. Gathering these resources, and making items, will get you a small number of experience points. By the time the player reaches the end of the road, they should see signs of small mountains and greenery in the distance, and you should have leveled up once.

Leveling up gets you points that can be used to raise your attributes, such as vitality which determines how much damage you can take before croaking, strength whch determins how much force you can deliver with melee weapons, agility which helps you avoid blows as you wear heavier armor, encumbrance with allows you to carry more, etc. Leveling up also gets you skill points which are used for crafting skills. You start out with just a few, but need more such as "Experienced Survivalist" to make campires and waterskins, stonemason to make bases, walls, door frames, ceilings, and doors for basic structures, "Mercenary" to make stone swords and wooden shields, etc. Some skills are locked unless you know all the prerequisites, such as "Apprentice Craftsman" which does nothing by itself but makes available a number of other skills. All but the first few skills have a minimum level requirement to reach.

At first, you'll be only able to take on the weakest of creatures, such as rabbits and baby shellbacks. Imps, which look like short and stocky severly mutated humans, are the toughest thing you can take on with an axe and expect to live, and if your computer is being slow you may want to level up a bit first. Melee fighting inevitably means your health goes down, which will heal slowly when you're not fighting. It also means damage to your weapons and clothes, which can be repaired if you have the materials on hand. Antelope and gazelles do not fight back, but will run when struck. Unless they're cornered or somehow get stuck, taking them down with a melee weapon can be very difficult. You'll need a bow and arrows for them. Taking on mature shellbacks, crocidiles, and NPC hostiles is not recommended unless you have leveled up several times, and without iron weapons and leather armor you can expect even successful encounters to leave you hurting bad. Unlike Conan, don't be afraid to turn tail and run (press and hold the shift button).

If you get clobbered, you'll respawn back outside the Exiled Lands. So eventually you'll want to craft and place a mat. You will also get hungry and thirsty. And once either your hunger or thirst points run out, your vitality begins to drop. While eating raw meat can satisfy your hunger for a short time, it means food poisoning which will reduce your hit points a little, so this should be done as a last resort.

You can eat the bugs you've collected from bushes, and the fat grubs that can be gathered in places, but nothing satisfies like cooked meat. To cook the raw meat you find from monsters and animals, you'll need to make a campfire, or bonfire later on, and place it and some fuel in and start burning. To get water, go to a stream or pond and press "E," or the button where your waterskin is on your hotbar. Meat will eventually spoil if it is not eaten, and is not good for anything.

Logging out in the middle of nowhere is sure to get your body killed by a passing critter, or another player in a PvP server. You'll also want to make a place to store your stuff and stations to help you make things. So you'll need to build a base eventually. At first you'll only be able to make simple stone structures, but one has to start somewhere. You'll need to make an armorer's bench to make light armor and wooden targes (reinforced wooden shields), which later you can make heavier armor from. To make iron and bricks, and later on steel, you'll need to make a furnace. To make iron weapons and tools, and then steel weapons and tools, you'll need a blacksmith's bench. To make leather from hides, you'll need a tannery. To make aloe extract and potions, and later steelfire and other items, you'll need a firebowl cauldron. Iron can occasionally be found in the rocks in the south of the Exiled Lands, but its uncommon. To get a lot of iron, you'll need to head north, but the further north you go, the tougher the creatures, and NPCs, can get. So you will be needing the iron weapons and armor.

Sandstorms are another reason for shelter. If you're caught in the open, your hunger and thirst will rapidly rise until your water and food levels are gone, at which point you'll soon expire. Ducking in cover such as between rocks or next to a cliff face will help when there's no building nearby, but it's not ideal.

Combat in Conan is a bit bloodier than some other survival games such as Rust and Ark. Blood splatters, your weapon gets bloody, and the looser ends up in a puddle of his or her blood, often with limbs missing. Given the setting of the story universe, this is not a real surprise. One can chop up a human body like they would an animal or monster for it's flesh. And after combat I've often found human flesh in my inventory. As one of the dieties in the game is a god of canibals, this may have been for roleplaying.

But another aspect of Conan Exiles is likely to be more controversial than human flesh. The game allows for the capture and willbreaking of NPC humans for use as slaves, or what the game refers to as "Thralls." Using a wooden club, you knock out attackers and drag them back to your camp to put on a "Wheel of Pain" until they submit. The tougher the NPC, the longer it takes them to submit. Thralls can make things more convenient for characters, such as blacksmiths allowing for the faster construction of weapons, dancing girls giving a health boost, fighters guarding your camp, etc. One condition you can get from caves, corruption, will lower your stats unless you get healed from a dancer thrall.

So do you take on slaves, or not? Every NPC human in the game is hostile to you, so in a sense you're sparing their lives. And slavery is a part of the Conan story universe, in addition to others. Even "Star Wars" had slavery. Still, it's a touchy subject to some. When Bree Royce of "Massively Overpowered" wrote on the subject, she admitted to finding the subject "unsettling," even though she knew of people who roleplayed as slaves in Star Wars games. Her article drew over 200 responses from people whom either supported the designers' decision, opposed it, or were of mixed feelings.

Perhaps later on, Funcom will update the game so no everyone is hostile, and it's possible for NPCs to freely join you, perhaps in return for food and goods (there's no gold in the game, yet). But until then players are left with the delemia.

The game is early release, and I have encountered some glitches and bugs. The most obvious, the game takes a while to load. At least it tells me "may take several minutes," and it does. Longer than Rust or Ark. Not only is this terribly inconvenient, it also means your character is vulnerable for that much longer as some monster or predator may come across it. Unlike Ark or Rust, there's no record of which servers you've been to. This means if you forgot where you were, you'll have to start all over again elsewhere. My experience with the official servers was a disappointment. These places had a lot of builds. One can't build a campfire to cook your meat within a certain distance from another player's build not of one's group. And there were so many in the official PvE servers I looked at, I couldn't find a place to build one. And as the campfires of others were locked so my character, this meant I was existing on bugs and grubs and always hungry until eventually dying of hunger or from being attacked by higher level beasts as I made my way north to search for a spot. When I checked out an official PvP server, it wasn't much better. I found a couple spots I could set up a campfire in locations impractical for building a base near. Unofficial servers were better, at least the ones I checked out. I didn't see many others, and had no problem setting up a campfire or base.

Like in Ark and Rust, the game is easier on a private server. Nydia's friend Mystic Xurina got one, and we've been playing on it a little. So there may be more to say about the game as time goes on.

If you're a fan of the Conan stories, or similar tales, this may be the survival game for you. But with it's longer loading times and the enslavement of NPCs as the only alternative to killing them, I can't recommend this game over others such as Rust and Ark. But the game is still in early release. Perhaps both issues will be improved as time goes on.

Sources:  Massively

image sources: Mystic Xurina,,,

Bixyl Shuftan

Friday, February 3, 2017

Latest Misadventures in Ark Survival Evolved

By Bixyl Shuftan

It's been over a year since I've written about Ark: Survival Evolved, the noted survival game in which players start off with their undies and their wits on a mysterious island populated with dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, and try to avoid dying from hunger, heat and cold, and the numerous predators whom see players as a snack. I first wrote about the game in July 2015, and did so again in August and September of that year. For those brand new to the game, you can read those articles, or watch this video review by "Nooblets" (link).

One of the game's most important news items over the past year was not an update, but a lawsuit. A former member of the development team had been accused of violating a clause of his contract, and filed suit for $600 million USD. The defendant threatened to have a legal notice to take down the game, which caused concerns the game might not be available for sale, or updated for those who had it, for a while. Eventually, the case was settled out of court for $40 million.

Recently, my friends of the "Furry Gamers" group decided to take another look at it, Nydia starting up her server again. She and her friends had previously made a number of bases across the south and east of the island, some along the coast, some a bit inland. Her main base was in the southwest, in the middle of what the map calls the "Southern Jungle." A year ago, it had been a relatively safe location, the only real problems when the occasional carnotaurus, or "Carno," one of the island's medium sized predators showed up. But the island has changed since then, some of which meant complications for us.

To begin with, the island has a couple new biomes. Swampland now covers some territory in the inland south, and a small part of the midwest coast. As you can probably guess, these are not places for beginners, and midranked ones should proceed with caution. The giant dragonflies and ants will swarm after you, the snakes will try to paralyze and eat you, and in the water are the megaphirana and the bloodsucking leeches. One curious but useful crtter are the giant frogs or beelzebufo. They eat the giant insects which can pester players, and can serve as high-jumping mounts. In the northwest and north central areas are icy areas covered with snow. Fur clothing is needed to survive the cold here for long, which will likely mean lingering on the outskirts to hunt for creatures that drop pelts, such as mammoths and woolly rhinos. This is also the home of dire wolves, canis maxdirus. As they hunt in packs, they can be dangerous predators. But they can also be valuable mounts.

There are new creatures outside these areas too. One is the Therizinosaurus, which my friends have dubbed the "killer turkeys." These medium sized dinos are plant eaters, but highly aggressive ones that will attack anyone getting too close. To make matters worse, these creatures sport long claws that would make Freddy Krueger proud, capable of piercing armor and inflicting serious wounds that can quickly take down a player. A group of two to three can be dangerous or fatal even for a player on a tamed carno mount.

Another problem dinosaur is the Troodon. Somewhat smaller than raptors, they are in some ways more dangerous. They have a venomous bite, and combined with their speed will quickly take down a beginning player, and fighting them while I was around Level 20-25, I would end up lasting just long enough to clobber one before passing out, vulnerable to anything else in the area. And as they sometimes go about in packs, this often means other Troodon, who made quick work of any one unconscious. They are nocturnal, making any night run more dangerous, as you may not notice their glowing eyes, until it's too late. That you can occasionally find eyeglasses on a corpse is a little unnerving.

Between the "killer turkeys" and the "sleepers," life at what had been our main base became more hazardous. A new fish, the sabertooth salmon, was easily avoided by us, but did clobber a critter or two of ours that ventured into the water next to the base. Finally when a few of the former managed to break down a wooden wall and kill several of our dinos before finally being taken down, the decision was made to move. So we began moving our critters to the nearby "Footpaw," settling in the plateau in the middle overlooking the rest known as the "Weathertop." We began building a wall to help keep out unwanted critters, though began noticing a few were spawning inside. The decision was made to persist, taming more critters to replace what was lost and to help patrol the place, a lot of dilos designated as "meat shields" as they were more easily replaced. This "Liberty Ship" strategy, so named as it reminded me of the United States having to replace it's cargo ships blown up by German U-Boats in the early days of WW2 with quickly made Liberty Ships until it could come up with better ways of fighting the enemy, was more than a little frustrating as our plans and building was slowed down. But eventually we had our base and fence.

But not everything new was out to get us. Jasmine found some dung beetles in a cave and tamed a group. This meant a source of fertilizer and oil as long as we kept feeding them droppings from our dinos, the oil saving us trips to the sea and its dangers. There was also a new kind of building available: the greenhouse. Building one provides a place for crops to grow faster.

However the greenhouse parts need crystal. In earlier times, this would have meant a flight over to bypass the dangerous critters on the ground. But there's a new threat in the air now. There's a large bird called Argentavis that while usually a carrion eater is aggressive and will attack nearby players. On the plus side, when tamed it has more stamina than pteranodons, and can be used to grip other players (useful for getting someone unconscious out of danger), or critters that aren't too heavy. A leveled-up Argentavis can be very useful for transportation, or getting smaller creatures you want to tame as they can be dropped into an enclosure until you're ready to tranq and feed them.

Exploring around, our journeys took us to "Herbivore Island" in the southeast. Accessible by raft or air, it's a place where players need not worry about carnivores, though the creatures there will still defend themselves if attacked. To our surprise and delight, we found some metal nodes there. This saved us risky trips to the mountaintops, though we still had to go there for obsidian and crystal, and we set up a refining base where we could make and haul back metal. We discovered that besides placing storage boxes on our wooden rafts, we could also place ramps, foundations, and walls. We turned two in to mobile bases, one which had storage space, a furnace, smithy, and a few mortal and pestles, the other which had large holding areas for luring larger creatures on which we were interested in taming. This included one T-Rex which we started taming on it's journey back, and once finished it was just a short walk from the shore to the case.

We've also tried our hand at raising baby dinos a little. Hatching one took a while and was something of a balancing act as the temperature had to be just right, requiring a heat source nearby to be turned on and off. But eventually, the critter hatched (check about 4:10 into the video). Nydia had to imprint on it, and then feed it a few berries. Later on, a special egg hatching area would be build with both campfires and air conditioners.

One recent change to the game was that hair is no longer static, but will grow over time. And after the update, the men in the server found themselves looking like mountain men with bushy beards, and once the hats were off with mops of hair. The women had long hair, but thankfully their legs were spared. Getting rid of the beards required learning the engram for scissors, and with those equipped, press and hold the right button, and a hairsyling screen comes up, in which men and lower the length of their head hair and beards, or cut everything altogether. Women only have the option to cut head hair. As the hair will still grow over time, don't throw away your scissors as you're likely to need them every day or two. They're also useful for cutting the fleece of a new animal on the island: sheep. So once "ewe" get past the "ba-a-a-a-a-a-ad" jokes, the wool can be used as a substitute for pelts, which can make the making of cold weather clothing a lot easier.

One new thing I've heard of but haven't tried yet is fishing. From what I saw in this "nooblets" video (link), one needs either tree sap or leech blood as bait, the latter which more fish will go after. Besides fish meat, one can apparently get a few other items, but high level players whom aren't risk adverse should be able to get most of them faster by other means except black pearls.

And there are other new critters that I haven't mentioned yet, such as giant beavers which do well at gathering wood, as well as being the only creatures besides players that build something: beaver dams, compys, little dinos that are slightly dangerous in packs, but can be tamed to be a kind of shoulder pet, Procoptodon, a kind of giant kangaroo, Paracers, which look like a giant cross between a horse and rhino, dire bears, woolly rhinos, and moose. There's also new items that I have yet see, such as lances for jousting, and high tech armor, which needs players to beat one of the "boss" creatures just to get one of the needed components. The boots would be very useful as they allow players to avoid taking damage when accidentally falling. The helmets provide unlimited oxygen when underwater and night vision, a GPS, and a targeting system that locates other players nearby. The chestpeice has a jetpack, and so on.

I should also note there's a new map available, "The Center," which would be an interesting change for players whom feel they've been on The Island to the point most every place is familiar. Instead of the dinosaurs being easiest on the beaches and getting more difficult as you go to the interior, it's more east to west on this map. The map started out as a mod, but has become an official part of the game. Another noteable mod that's gotten some attention is the Pokemon-inspired mod called "Pokemon Evolved." But as Pokemon is the property of Nintendo, which has demanded some fanworks be taken down before, it's unknown if the mod will be up indefinitely.

There is also a new version of Ark, "Scorched Earth" which takes place in an arid area where water is difficult to come by, sandstorms can damage outdoor equipment and some structures, electrical storms can shut down electrical equipment and disable firearms. This hostile place has many of the same creatures, such as the raptors and T-Rexes. But there are some new ones such as rock elementals, deathworms, thorny dragons, and others. But not everything is big and out to kill you. The place is also home to jerboas, which are really cute companions and useful as weather detectors. Then there are the whips, flamethrowers, boomerangs, and chainsaws. Sadly the game isn't free for those who already have Ark, but an expansion pack that has to be bought in addition to the game. There are also plans for an "Ark Park" virtual reality similator; an obvious take on "Jurassic Park." Hopefully their lawyers got the okay from Michael Crichton.

Earlier I've commented Nydia and a number of the Furry Gamers will have nothing to do with PvP-enabled servers. While there may be some where most of the players are friendly, going there as it's easier to find a place to build, there are some goons whose primary pleasure in life is making others miserable. "Nooblets" made a video commentary about a recent update that made it easier for high level PvP tribes to jump server to server, so they could potentially settle on a new world, wiping out all the smaller tribes and making themselves the only ones on the place, then once it's clear everyone else has fled going to another PvP server and starting over again, repeating the cycle of wiping everyone else out. This in his opinion would eventually be "The Death of Ark," at least for PvP servers.

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Well, that's it for now with the latest misadventures of me and the Furry Gamers in Ark. We'll leave you with this video Nydia did of her ark server. As she would say, "good gaming to you."

Sources: eTeknix, Gamerant,

Bixyl Shuftan