When I was younger, I used to enjoy browsing comic stores, used books and music stores, and computer game stores. Now that I'm in my 40's, the only stores I go to are Wal-Mart, Loblaws, and the SAQ. Comics, with very rare exceptions, are too juvenile, preachy, or pretentious for me to even look at anymore. I find it harder and harder to find music I'm interested in, and I just can't be bothered to dig through musty stacks looking for a book I'll probably never read anyway.
But I never thought I'd give up on computer games. From the earliest beginning of home computers, I've had one -- not to write, program, or process data, but to play stoopid, time-wasting games. And I loved every minute of it. I played the sprawling turn-based strategy games, I played the geeky role-playing games, I played the puzzle games, I played the real-time strategy games, and I played the action games. (I never played any sports or driving games though. I feel it's important to point that out.) And I loved them all.
But now the buzz is almost gone. I've tried getting into a few of the recent offerings, but I can't even finish the demos. I now have what most people assume is the curse of the young: a short attention span. It must be this fast-paced, consistantly-challenging lifestyle I find myself with. The games bore me.
But one game in the last year got my attention and kept it for a few months. World of Warcraft was fun. (I wrote about it a bit here.) It was easy to get into, could be played for short periods or much longer sessions, and had enough variety that when I was getting bored with one activity, I could switch to another. Eventually, I sucked all the entertainment out of it that I could and quit, but for a while I was very entertained.
WoW is a MMORPG, a Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Game. In these types of games, a virtual world exists online where you can meet, interact, and fight other real people from around the world. Clever marketing people have decided that these games are the wave of the future, so computer game companies are busy creating their own virtual worlds for their nerd customers to inhabit. There are dozens and dozens of different games available, with many more under development.
Luckily for cheapskates like me, all this competition means free access to the games. Because the companies are each desperate to create 'buzz' for their offerings, many offer different varieties of 'demos' to allow potential customers to sample their games. Rather than buying new games for the next little while, I think I'm just going to take mini vacations in these alternate universes. And luckily for the readers of this blog, you will get to read about my upcoming adventures. Try not to get too excited.
Read the extended entry for my poorly written exposé of Eve Online.
The first alternate universe I decided to visit was Eve Online. I've written about this game before, and it has consistently been rated as one of the best MMORPGs out there. It sounded interesting. It's a sci-fi game set in one massive universe (every Eve player is in the same 'realm' as everyone else). It's also been portrayed as a 'libertarian' game -- the economy is real and complex, and it's up to the player to decide how to play and what to do. It's not a virtual sandbox -- as I found WoW to be (not that there's anything wrong with that) -- it's a real virtual universe!
Okay, sure. Let's see what it's like. The avatar I entered this universe with was FibDynamo. I tried to create him to look as pathetic and wimpy as I could, hopefully to force other, stronger players to take pity on him and not chew him up into dogfood. I think I did a pretty good job.
I was forced to endure 'training' before I was allowed to go out into the universe and make my fortune -- and it was a good thing too. The game is complex and the tutorial lasted for a few hours. I had to learn how to navigate, communicate, trade, fight, and manage assets. I was led through an interminable tutorial by a sexy AI voice right out of a mid-seventies sci-fi movie. You know the type: British, female, cold but hot at the same time. Once I was trained, she bid me farewell and I was out on my own in a massive universe.
I had a small ship with a small 'civilian' laser for defense, a mining laser, and a tiny cargo hold, and a few personal skills with which to make my fortune. There were thousands of stars in the galaxy, each with a few planets, each with a few moons. I could go to any of them. (Well, try anyway.) There was over a hundred thousand other players in the same galaxy, each my enemy or perhaps my friend. It was quite an exciting moment. It was hard to think of what to do, or where to go.
But I did have a contact. An 'agent' would give me missions ('quests' in any other MMORPG) I could do for a bit of spare cash. Though there was an interesting story behind most of them, they were all simple delivery jobs. Go to planet A, pick up cargo, deliver to planet B. Repeat. And there I first ran into the biggest problem with the game: traveling takes time.
To go somewhere, you select your destination on the star map, turn on your auto-pilot, and wait. And wait and wait and wait. It takes a little while to get to your destination. First your ship will use your 'warp drive' to travel to a 'star gate' within the system you're in. Then you'll decelerate and fly slowly towards the gate. Then your ship jumps to a new system, engages your 'warp drive' again, and flies to another 'stargate'. Most trips were about five jumps, but I heard from other players that they were regularly making twenty and thirty jump journeys.
It's fun to watch the first few times. The game is undeniably beautiful to behold. Because the blackness of space would get dull after a while, the artists have livened it up with fanciful nebulae everywhere. And for some reason, as I warped within a system, I would always have close flybys with gas giants, though in reality it would be pretty unlikely that a straight path between two points in a solar system would have any scenery to look at. But even with these decorations, after a short while the trips get kind of boring.
There is a truly fantastic economic simulation at the heart of the game. Raw materials are mined and refined into commodities which are used to create a bewildering variety of goods. Each system has a separate market, and prices for these goods are based on real-time supply and demand. Careful study of prices will uncover lucrative trade routes, but your profit margins will dwindle over time as prices reflect the new conditions you've introduced.
In a week of playing I never entered into combat once. As a wimpy newbie, I kept to 'secure' areas of space where a police force would come to the rescue of anyone under attack. I almost had one encounter though. After finishing the last jump of a journey, the autopilot doesn't take you to dock with the starbase you're traveling to. It leaves you floating by the stargate. Since there's a good chance you're now watching TV, or in the kitchen getting another beer, of taking your dog for a walk, this is an ideal spot for pirates to hang out and kill without resistance. Luckily I was paying attention and I watched as a much larger ship than mine headed towards me. 22kms. 21kms. 19kms. 17kms. He was still just a dot. I let him get within 10 klicks before I engaged my warp drive and headed to the starbase. Sorry buddy.
Soon I was in a rut. I would take one of these delivery jobs, stop off before docking with each starbase to do a bit of mining to fill my cargo hold, and then head off to the next job. I was an interstellar trucker. Supposedly the best part of the game is joining a 'corporation' to work with other players, but knowing I wasn't going to keep playing prevented me from getting involved. For me, this game requires too much time and dedication. But if you're one of those people that spend the day in front of a computer, it might be fun having this game running minimized on a corner of your desktop. But to actually sit down and play? I don't recommend it.