VR and Latency: Carmack’s Thoughts

doom2-oinksThis post originally appeared over at our sister site Metaverse Health.

John Carmack is a bit of an icon in gaming circles, and he’s also one of the people that’s supporting the Oculus VR consumer headset that’s on the near horizon. I’d very stupidly assumed (having not read any biographical details on him until today) that he wasn’t that deep into the coding / science of things like this.

He’s just posted a nice piece of work on the challenges of latency in virtual reality. If you’re from a computer science background you’ll get a lot more out of it than I did, and even I could appreciate just how critical latency is in this sphere.

Latency is of course an important consideration anywhere but Carmack shows just how far we probably have to go to make VR headsets that give an accurate perception of real-time movement in physical space. It’ll happen of course – and I still want an Oculus now.

Mini Diablo 3 Help Guide

Like the odd few hundred thousand others, I jumped into Diablo 3 at launch. It’s quite a bit of fun, but it’s also very challenging in parts. I thought as I went through I document some key strategies / tips to get you past particular hurdles.

So read on below if you’re stuck! This post will grow as I progress through: apologies to non-players for this short interruption to normal programming.

The Weeping Hollow: how do I defeat the group of Grotesque?

This took a couple of goes but basically you just need to down one of them and when it explodes into corpse worms, the others die as well. So just target one and you should be fine.

The Weeping Hollow: where is the Cemetery of the Forsaken?

Head north-east of the initial checkpoint – there is a path, follow that for quite a while and you’ll eventually hit the entrance.

Defiled Crypt: how do I defeat the monsters that appear out of the funerary urn?

It depends on your class but any AoE option you have might work. I had to change my Wizard’s primary mouse skill over to an AoE one to win out.

Cathedral: how do I defeat the Skeleton King??

This is the not surprisingly the most challenging fight of Act I. As a Wizard I died a good 15 times before I got the winning strategy, which was: constantly spamming Diamond Skin as soon it was off cool down. In between I used Magic Missile on the Skeleton King until the extra skeleton mobs spawn, then I used Arcane Orb to kill them all as quickly as possible as they drop healing orbs that you’ll need to keep going. Once you get that routine down, it’s just rinse and repeat. For all classes, just ensure you kill the extra mobs asap, and of course have your Templar with you.

 Alcarnus: how do I defeat Maghda? 

Ok there’s a few things you need to do to keep yourself alive. First, avoid the swarms of insects she sends out by running away / dodging them. Second, when she summons the Thralls, concentrate on them as they drop health globes. Then it’s pretty much rinse and repeat.

The Vestibule of Light: how do I defeat Iskatu?

Thanks to a hint from this video, I worked out that changing my skills over to Archon form as a Wizard allowed me to easily defeat him but focusing my Disintegration Wave on him. For other classes you basically need to find the best skill combo you have that minimises damage while you pound away.

Eve Online FanFest panel accused of mocking suicidal player

CCP has launched an investigation after an Eve Online panel at its FanFest convention was accused of mocking a suicidal player.

Eve Online player Kestrel wrote to CCP and Eurogamer today to complain about Thursday’s Alliance Panel presentation.
The presentation, delivered by one of the CSM council members and moderated by a CCP employee, featured an in-game communication between two Eve Online players where, according to Kestrel, one of the players clearly indicated suicidal thoughts and showed “obvious” signs of severe depression.

“When this communication was shown to the audience the presenter, along with part of the audience of players and CCP representatives present all had a good laugh,” Kestrel said. “The presenter went on to encourage other players of Eve Online to harass this player in the hope that he would eventually be compelled to act on his suicidal thoughts.
“This player’s in-game contact information was provided. I found this section of the presentation to be in extremely poor taste.”
The panel was broadcast online as part of the streaming of the popular FanFest event, which showcased Eve Online, Dust 514 and World of Darkness.

In response, CCP issued a statement criticising the “abhorrent behaviour” that occurred.


Via www.eurogamer.net

The Power and the Passion: Star Wars gamers

As a gamer of 30 years standing, I still manage to get very excited by an upcoming game release. If that game is related to an iconic childhood brand like Star Wars, then that excitement grows even more. That’s why, for the past couple of years I’ve been running a website devoted to covering the upcoming Star Wars MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic(SWTOR) . For those unaware, game developer Bioware has licensed the LucasArts behemoth in what is one of the largest game development tasks ever undertaken: the voice scripts alone run to over 40 novels in length

The stakes are very high overall: Star Wars fans are a picky lot and demand a product faithful to the lore of the Star Wars universe. The hardcore Star Wars fan is another beast altogether. They create fan fiction, read all the books and comics, and have played most if not all of the games that have gone before. I should know, as I interact with them on a daily basis – I’m more of a casual fan who loves the movies and has played Lego Star Wars.

The challenge of course with any MMO is creating a great product that builds a big enough base of players to make it viable. World of Warcraft is the leader in the space, with most others in a distant catch-up game as far as subscriber numbers. SWTOR is well-placed to make a big splash in that regard. The story is there, the history is there and there’s no shortage of MMO players looking for a new thing. The power of the franchise is also likely to be strong enough to attract a new audience to MMO gaming.

SWTOR has been in active development for well over three years, and one of the biggest obsessions of those following the game is when it will be released. Bioware are stating a 2011 release is still on the cards and the game demonstrations to date show a game that’s looking pretty polished. The hard part observing from the outside is determining whether those snippets of game demonstration indicate a game close to completion. This is where the passion issue comes into it. The fans of the game are desperate to get their hands on SWTOR and the lack of a firm release date drives some of those fans to distraction. SWTOR’s official forums are riddled with speculation on release date and that’s likely to intensify with each week that passes. Others tend to caution against a rushed release, happy to wait a little longer to increase the chances of a great game.

For Australian fans there’s another source of friction: rumours of a delayed release for our region. ABC TV Australia’s Good Game set off that little firestorm with some tweets from the E3 games expo in the United States. It was backed up by a Fairfax gaming journalist http://www.theage.com.au/digital-life/games/blogs/screenplay/e3-diary-day-4-20110613-1fzn6.html – in both cases it appears the information came from a PR person at Bioware’s parent company Electronic Arts and in both instances the information was far from definitive.

I’m here to tell you that those mentions have set off one hell of a reaction amongst what we call the Oceanic community of SWTOR fans. Bioware have refused to comment on rumours (and I bet they get a lot of them) and because the story broke over a weekend there’s not been a lot of response at all. You can imagine how that has gone down with some fans. I’ve seen forum posts arguing for picket lines at the Electronic Arts offices in Brisbane to coincide with an upcoming games expo. Petitions have been created, phone campaigns are being discussed (again to Electronic Arts offices in Australia) and there’s generally a lot of agitation. All of the angst is over some unverified information from a PR person. For what it’s worth, I’ve done some research and spoken off the record to some other journalists who attended E3: the information appears not to be set in stone but there’s certainly some active consideration occurring of a staggered launch. The SWTOR FAQ addresses the issue by stating that:

Star Wars: The Old Republic will be released simultaneously in various countries of the world and the service will be localized in several languages. More details on this will be released at a later date.

Some are taking that as confirmation of a worldwide simultaneous release – others like me aren’t so sure.

The issue places Bioware in an interesting conundrum. If a delayed release in Australia is intended, then their management of the issue has been shown wanting – or at least their parent company’s PR people have let them down. If a simultaneous worldwide release is still the plan, then they have some work to do in getting the PR messages right with their parent company. Either way – it’s just another example of the passion of the fans of a game and the pressure that places on a developer to deliver the goods. Nothing gets people riled up more than perceived discrimination and if a staggered release does occur, it’s easy to argue that that’s exactly what it is: favouring the larger markets.

That said, I’ll stake my collection of Star Wars figurines on the fact that even if a local delay does eventuate, most people will still sign-up and use workarounds to be up and running as soon as possible. That’s what passionate fans do. I’ll still be on the picket line with all the hardcore fans though.

(This is a slightly altered piece that was written for ABC Technology)

A detailed map of Orgrimmar vendors and trainers

PLEASE NOTE: FULL MAP AND KEY IS NOW LOCATED HERE

How to use this map: find your trainer in the table and match the number or letter listed in that cell to find it on the map. Enjoy ;)

(full size version here)

Virtual worlds and social good: a striking example

Over the years of covering the virtual worlds industry, one of the highlights has been seeing grass-roots fundraising efforts. Using my own country of Australia as an example, significant amounts of money have been raised for the 2009 Bushfires and this year’s series of calamities in Queensland. There’s already planning under way for events to support those affected by the horrendous events in Japan over the past week and Linden Lab are doing their bit as well.

Add to that ongoing initiatives such as Relay for Life and you have a well-established means of making a difference. All of these examples come from Second Life, but at a wider level some serious initiatives are starting to see the light of day.

One such initiative is being driven by a leader in the social gaming sphere, Zynga. Creators of the (in)famous game Farmville amongst others, Zynga.org is devoted to raising money for worthy causes, using Zynga’s worlds as the vehicle. It marries two very powerful forces: virtual goods and a desire to help others. Using the current Haiti disaster as an example, 1.5 million dollars was raised and significant amounts are expected for the current tragedy in Japan:

Twelve hours after the earthquake struck, on Friday, March 11th, 8pm pst, Zynga launched in-game initiatives that made donations possible across a number of our most popular games, including: CityVille, FarmVille, Zynga Poker, FrontierVille and Words with Friends. Vampire Wars is now live with a campaign, as well, and YoVille and FishVille will soon launch theirs.

The impetus for doing non-profit work is always multi-faceted. Aside from the obvious aspect of being community-minded, most companies also know the good PR such activities draw. The huge number of social virtual world users is an obvious area where demonstrating good corporate citizenship is increasingly important. Zynga because of its size has drawn some substantial criticism over some aspects of its games / worlds, and initiatives like this help balance the equation a little.

Hard to find places in World of Warcraft Cataclysm

Now that Cataclysm has launched, I thought I might document key parts of the new content that have got me stuck, and the solutions. Apologies to regular readers who are non-WoW players – nothing to see here ;) For everyone else, I’ve divided the issues by each region and am assuming you have at least followed your map to the rough location.

Hyjal

The Ruins of Lar’Donir (location of Alysra): at the very top centre of the Hyjal map – WoW shows the location south-west of it for some reason, which threw me for quite a while.

The Barrow Dens location: immediately to the right of the Lar’Donir Ruins.

Darkflame Ember: it’s in the brazier with the purple flame – I just had to adjust my camera view to see it.

Dark Iron Laborer: These are found within the portal on Lightning Ledge. It’s obvious unless you log out and come back the next day in which case you may do what I did and run around outside the portal wondering where they are.

Cindermaul the Portal Master and the Tome of Openings: he’s also found in the portal on Lightning Ledge (the topmost portal on the map). There’s been reports that the chest he drops can’t be accessed – I got the Tome of Openings from his corpse.

Spawn of Smolderos: This one was a little embarrassing – I had taken the quest then logged out. I then couldn’t work out where on the map the Spawn of Smolderos was until I finally realised it’s a summons from the quest item provided to you.

Deepholm

Bottle of Whisky: this is found on the airship itself, just go down the flight of stairs on the middle of the ship’s deck then keep walking straight ahead to the northernmost room and the bottle is there.

Uldum

Scepter of Orsis: I felt really silly on this one – all you need to do is click on the same spot you handed the previous quest in to.

High Priest Amet: don’t be thrown by the quest question mark – the entrance is via stairs on the side of the dam wall walkway along the top.

Piece of Rope: Just kill the skeletons for the pieces

Harrison Jones ‘See You On The Other Side’: lots of reports of glitches. I needed to relog once and turn around and Harrison appeared. Some people have had to abandon the quest and pick it up again.

107 quests – need one more: Most likely one you’ve missed is in the Cradle of Ancients – kill a Diseased Vulture and you’ll pick up a final quest.

Twilight Highlands

The Only Homes We Have Quest: You receive a bucket in your inventory – I’d just missed receiving it.

World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm: lessons for virtual worlds

A Cataclysmic Westfall

I’ve covered my experiences with World of Warcraft a couple of times here, and I’ve now been playing for more than three years. Even if you don’t play, you may have heard that Blizzard Entertainment are about to release the third expansion / fourth instalment for World of Warcraft, called Cataclysm. It’s a fairly standard formula now for MMOs – release an expansion every couple of years to keep current players interested, draw back some of the player base that may have already left, and ideally drag in a bunch of new players. Cataclysm is likely to do all of those things, but on top of that I’d argue it’s caused an interesting phenomenon: a fairly widespread sense of loss. It’s also I believe set a new standard in transitioning to a new expansion. Let’s look at both issues in a little more detail.

The loss

This expansion involves a continuation of the WoW storyline whereby Deathwing causes an enormous amount of geographic upheaval on Azeroth. Think tsunamis, earthquakes and the like. There’s now water in a lot of places where there were villages / encampments / quest zones. There are now gaping chasms in areas, including key cities like Stormwind. It’s very exciting to explore all the changes, but that’s also where the sense of loss kicks in. Over the past three years, I’ve become attached to a lot of areas in the game, and I’m actually not happy that some have changed. Take Gadgetzan for example – one of its key striking features was the fact it was in the middle of a desert. Now it has water right at its eastern wall. Although I never would have thought so, I miss how Gadgetzan used to be. Like any loss, over time I’ll incorporate it into my experience but I’ll still remember what it used to be like.

Is it a life-changing loss? No – not even in the context of my character’s life. It’s more the jarring sensation of a new visual in place of three years’ experience. Expecting permanence in a virtual world isn’t reasonable, but it does happen to be a very human trait, as is a reaction of anxiety to change. It’s not a new issue by any means for virtual worlds, but this is one of the bigger examples. Once the full expansion hits the servers on December 7th, the scale of the changes will be fully apparent. I’m sure no-one will need counselling on their loss, but there’s certainly some interesting further research potential.

The transition

It’s a common story-telling technique: build tension over a period of time prior to a major event. Blizzard have done this with each of their expansions (although I felt the pre-Lich King one was a little half-baked), and the Cataclysm lead up has been no exception. I’ve really enjoyed the storyline over recent weeks and loved the feeling of crisis in Stormwind as the changes started occurring. Aside from the rightfully expected story transition, I’m equally impressed at how they’ve managed the technical transition to the new content. From what I can gather, essentially all of the content for the expansion is likely sitting on your hard drive now, with your license key purely unlocking it on the 7th. Additionally, a lot of the smaller new content can already be explored, helping to build excitement when it’s all revealed. Finally, the staged download of the new content works well, with background downloading as you play. Again, none of it is specifically surprising but the implementation has been relatively smooth and Blizzard deserve kudos for it.

The sum-up

On the gaming side of the virtual world equation, the means by which end users are hooked into the product are extremely well established. When an MMO is around long enough that people are emotionally affected by changes to it, you know they’re probably getting a few things right. Less rigid environments like Second Life, Blue Mars, OpenSim grids and the like, can only translate such lessons to a certain extent. What they can mimic 100% is integrating the technical side of things with the user’s experience. That hasn’t changed in decades but it seems there’s still a lot of catch-up being done in that regard.

True names: identity, safety and Blizzard’s Real ID

Identity is a perennial sort of a topic, and Activision-Blizzard’s Real ID programme has brought it back into the limelight. Unless you’ve been hanging out under a rock (which would, you know, be fine – especially from a sun-protection perspective) you’ve probably heard about A-B’s programme which is the first phase of tagging your time in Blizzard games (like World of Warcraft and Starcraft II) and supporting services, with your first and last name.

It’s rolling out initially to the forums and to some in-game communications. Quite what Phase 2 is, is not yet clear. One can only speculate as to whether it might be named after the US 2005 REAL ID Act.

The main focus right now is on the Blizzard forums; a place frequented by only an infinitesimal fraction of the user-base, as is normal for most official game and virtual environment forums. After Real ID is implemented, while you will still be able to read them in complete anonymity, posting will display your name (first and last), and you will have the option of adding your character name to that information.

The apparent aim is to reduce the workload associated with moderating the forums (and certain matchmaking and communications services), while simultaneously making them a nicer place to be.

Of course, if you’re under 13, Blizzard cannot legally display your name without your parent or guardian’s consent. An option for that, I understand, is part of the parental controls.

The biggest problem I see right here is one of disambiguation.

While online services almost all insist on unique names, in practice names generally aren’t. This isn’t normally much of a problem in average-sized, geographically-bounded social groups, but does become an issue for large enterprises – and particularly online where geographical boundaries are not key factors in constraining social networks.

Just how do you disambiguate between two John Fitzpatricks or Catherine Joneses? How about ten? How about a hundred?

The Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) gets around this by requiring all members to have a unique name, one that isn’t presently used by another member and hasn’t ever been used by a previous member of the guild. This eliminates ambiguity in crediting. The “J” in Michael J. Fox stands for “Andrew” – because, quite simply, his own name was already taken by another Michael Fox (1921-1996). An increasing number of actors need to select pseudonyms or change their names to register with the SAG.

Are you going to change your name to avoid being confused with that inflammatory arse on the World of Warcraft forums? No, I didn’t think so.

If someone with the same (or a confusingly similar) name to yours starts making an idiot of themselves – and people are people, it’ll happen – you’re more likely to distance yourself from the problem by distancing yourself from the forum and anywhere else associate with the game that your name might appear, right?

Anonymity is the default offline

We don’t normally think of anonymity as the default state, but it is. There’s 6.25 or so billion people on the planet. There are numerous occasions that we hand over our identification or give our names for one reason or another, but we generally do so only to people that we trust to handle them properly or that simply don’t really care who we are.

Do you know your barista’s full name? Do they know yours? Would you have any idea what their first name was if they didn’t wear a name tag?

We routinely caution our children not to give out their full names to strangers, or indeed to anyone that they don’t have a very good reason to trust (eg: a policeman).

If you ask the person serving you at the grocery checkout or your bank teller what their last name is, they’ll probably be reluctant to tell you. For many establishments it is against policy to reveal that information.

Large and heavily trafficked call-centres and customer-support services routinely assign pseudonyms to their staff to avoid issues of harassment. In smaller outfits, it’s rarer, but still sometimes done if a staff member has a particularly memorable, distinctive or unique first name – or if another front-line staffer has the same first name.

Why do we go through all of this?

Because we know it’s safer!

Or at least we think that’s what we know. It’s not something we feel comfortable taking a lot of chances with. Some of us are certainly practiced at having our names out in the public eye all the time, and dealing with all of the rubbish that inevitably seems to come with it. Not everyone is willing to put up with it.

Ask around among your friends. In any group of twenty or so, the statistical odds are that one of them has been threatened, harassed or stalked. And that’s not counting being online. With those sorts of odds, it isn’t a risk we’re necessarily willing to take.

Activision-Blizzard would like to think that the problem people will be shamed or peer-pressured into silence, while more reasonable heads will prevail and prosper. In my experience, though, the problem people usually have no issue with being associated with their names. They’re proud of their behaviour; or they don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks.

That sort of competitive/combative battlelust is thought to be common, but really it isn’t so much. It just stands out more. We’re told that the “The meek shall inherit the Earth”, but they won’t inherit online forums, that’s for sure. Not with Real ID.

And if that service really is going to be expanded to other areas, then perhaps the world really has found its WoW-killer.

Imagine if this sort of scheme was implemented on Digg, or Second Life, or Slashdot. What do you think would be the result?

UPDATE: Blizzard have now reversed their decision.

Three reasons social gaming on Facebook is declining

Over the past couple of weeks there’s been some focus on the fact that Zynga, maker of social games such as Farmville, had a big decline in users during May. Back in January we predicted some fatigue with those games, albeit in the context of ongoing big growth. The decline for Zynga and its flagship Farmville tend to shine a light on a number of issues that need to be resolved, particularly within Facebook:

1. The Spam Driver

One of the key components of the Facebook-based games has been the promotion of achievements within the game on a user’s Wall. Anyone who’s used Facebook knows this only too well, and the backlash has been considerable, to the point that back in February support this was hobbled. Fast forward a couple of months and you have the widespread drop in numbers. A coincidence?

The old notification spam may have been as annoying as hell but it obviously drew in new players, like any spam-like activity will. It may not be missed, but it’s certainly one of the factors that’s hit social gaming fairly hard. The upside is it will force game creators to make games even more engaging – a better growth driver than spam. Of course, the spam isn’t totally gone either – it’s just simpler to suppress.

2. WoW Without The Wow

Usng Farmville as an example, I only needed to play it for a couple of hours to realise how closely it’s modelled on an MMO framework. Everything from the grinding ‘quests’ and achievements system, through to peer competitiveness and in-world currency. The trouble is, Farmville doesn’t quite have the thrill factor of a hard core MMO. It’s not a fair comparison, but the point is that it’s hard for Farmville to keep innovating so that the endless tasks don’t seem frustrating or even pointless.

I’ve spent many an hour doing pointless / frustrating things in World of Warcraft for example – but it didn’t seem that way as there was always an enticing goal at the end of it. Sure, Farmville offers bigger an better houses / sheds / farming equipment but it wears thin pretty quickly. The challenge for social virtual worlds, like gaming more broadly, is keeping it interesting, and it seems there’s still some work to do. There’s also the issue these social worlds aren’t truly socially interactive: when my avatar can chat and farm with my neighbour, then I’m starting to get interested again.

3. The Trade Embargo

Whether it’s Second Life, World of Warcraft or Entropia Universe, one of the keys to their success has been the ability to make money as well as spend it. In some cases that can translate to hard currency – in others its the ability to earn virtual currency from selling goods that are no longer useful or have been created by their original user (here’s a great post on the growing focus on content creation). Sure, in Farmville you can do some limited selling but it’s the finesse of the more mature platforms that provide a lot of the enjoyment. When I can make decent amounts of real or virtual money in a fair way in a social world, then I’ve got even more incentive to stay there. Money isn’t a driver for a lot of people, but it’s more the link between that money-making capability and a more intricate community that makes the difference.

A reversible decline

All the issues discussed above are evolutionary ones to some extent – as social gaming continues to improve then one can hope their interactivity, creativity and overall engagement will improve also. I’m pretty confident the decline is a short-term one and to some extent a desirable one. Sanity checks like that can lead to better platforms and applications and that’s the way things appear to be heading.

Over to you: what are the gaps in social gaming that need to be filled?

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