Manifold Mischief

Mission reviews, essays, and documents of record regarding The Matrix Online. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sugar Shack 66: MxO: The End, Part Two: Really The End

Looking back, it’s time to post Part Two. Thanks to Vesuveus for reminding me! Two parts follow. One’s a reflection on the end of the world and its characters. Then some feelings on how SOE lowered the boom and lowered the curtain.

1. How the World Ended.

The great poet P.B. Shelley wonders in "Mont Blanc" would the world matter if we were not here to witness it all. And what of a world that purges all observers? What will happen to those we have known for years, in our absence? More to the point, what will happen to us?

The Merovingian, having survived many a previous Matrixy catastrophe, has started to migrate to safety all he holds dear or at least interesting. Perhaps he has found some means of sequestering himself in the Desert of the Real until some unknown, unknowable future when his empires of desire will once more flourish and bring hope to the desperate. Long may he survive and prosper, and long may Persephone succor him.

The dazed, blinking bluepills will be resettled into the cool podded sleep. In unconscious bliss, they will never know what they were or what they have lost. Their mechanical overlords, the machines of loving grace, will engineer some new means of calibrating their electrical systems. Perhaps in the long night soon to engulf us, Pace and Grey and their colleagues will confer to learn from past losses to more perfectly serve the system. Past iterations of the Matrix left us the Angels, 01, and the seething Valkyries. In some future, in some other reality, intemperate adventurers will encounter swarms of nattily suited Agents, all against a backdrop of personalities we can scarcely imagine. But one thing we can be sure of: their hair will never be mussed.

Annihilation will take them all. In that one mad moment before oblivion engulfs them all, all the hopes and all the fears of all the exiles and all the bluepills will flail and fail. Late this coming Friday night, the floating population of Exiles, like the obsessive Hypatia and the cryptic Mr. Po, will instantly freeze and be locked out of time. Their passions will be lost, and their yearnings and furies will have the soul stripped from them, stored forever on idle backup tapes. No, not forever, until someone, somewhere at Sony decides to save some money by decluttering the off-site archives. Then, our sleeping world will go the way of last Christmas’s wrapping paper, perhaps recycled, but certainly expunged. There will be no future when an angry god will wake and seek his rightful place; there will be no god, no world, and no future.

The mighty winds that blow the emerald code through the steely canyons downtown will settle and still, and their angry code bits will eddy into crinkly piles of static. In perpetuity they will fret and simmer, lost with none to observe, frozen like insects in amber. The windows downtown will all grow dark. The restless traffic will fall silent. The yearning searchlights will grow blind. The lyric drone of DataMine will choke and fail, as the entire construct subsides into incoherent bits, like one colossal data cluster collapsing into itself in a scream that none will hear. And that’s just in the first ten minutes of death.

So will pass the Matrix, this maddening world that has preoccupied me for so many years now, from the first time I watched and felt with Neo as he made his journey to self-awareness, and understanding the love of others. With it I watched my children grow into a world that would someday leave me behind. Through it I learned their language and culture, and shared in its trivial intricacies. Occasionally it was a refuge from stress, though seldom without guilt at the ones I felt behind, however briefly. When death struck my family last year, it lost all color and feeling; only slowly could I return, and then never feeling the same as before. I could never forget the former life, and sometimes would watch the marching bluepills and the fretting mobs and envy them their peace and calm. I would see the world of code, still the same, and wonder what had happened to the woman I had been before, also watching them. They evoked for me the world I had lost. Yet the ties to my guild, and the ties to their enemies, gradually restored pleasure and purpose.

What will survive? For many of us, megs and megs of screenshots, or vast video archives will let us touch the pleasure of the lost world, to bid it adieu as it recedes. Most will move on to other games, perhaps with better luck. Time will tint our memories with sepia, and our furious fights and drama will come to seem like items in an old stamp collection.

For myself, I do not know. I came to MxO because I loved the Matrix, not because my time management goals compelled me to choose an MMORPG. For me, nothing can substitute. I will likely go with my guild, even as my family shake their heads at me (before going back to NeoPets and World of Warcraft!). Fortunately, my friends and in-laws don’t know of this secret love of mine that scarcely dares to speak its name. Who wants to be labeled as a geek?

My ever-lasting thanks to all who labored to craft such great beauty from such cold code. May it always flow bright and gold for them.

2. How the Game Ended.

Afterthoughts at Thanksgiving.

1. The last weeks of the Matrix were intense, and everything it should have been: new stuff (often small but cool), classic mishes, lots of socializing, and a dev that spent some time ingame, interacting with customers. Obviously I’m easy to satisfy! Like an end-of-the-world pot-luck, lots of people brought cool stuff to the game. The closer we came to the end, the more Bayamos et al unlocked new features. A lot of the effects were so great, so pretty, and so easy to do (even I could get them to work!), that it was hard to understand why Walrus and company never thought of (or, more likely, couldn’t be bothered) making them available to the community. Really, it was worth getting FRAPS just for long, lingering vids of dancing, fighting, running around with wings, datamining, and running new effects.

The last hours had some people in tears, for different reasons. For some, tears of sadness at watching a world pass with nothing to replace it. For others, tears of frustration at such unrealized, botched potential. I had no tears, only calloused resignation; the game team had long since lost my love. I liked seeing Recursion consistently at “Medium” for a change. Seeing old friends again was a deep pleasure; seeing old enemies was a deep vexation, and would have been worse, but for liberal use of “Ignore”. The end for me came with my clan in the same location where we had ended beta, gathered with those we loved to face the inevitable, surrounded by dead special agents, and gently pulsating data-clusters. For my meatwadded eyes, the sky was Sati-perfect. Walrus’s systemed “thanks” to all of us was a nice gesture that would have meant so much more had he made some slight effort to, you know, support his game more.

That being said, Walrus and “team” once more unerringly chose mediocrity for the end. A single dev was borrowed from another project for massive efforts, like popping a red-bit vendor, who still sold anniversary shirts no one could buy. Dracomet’s obscure quizzes were surely a delight to old-time videogamers; for me they might as well have been about soccer scores in Bengali. And after years of hearing how damn fragile the damn database was and how any effort to tinker with it would precipitate Armageddon, it was refreshing to see just how easy it was to make everyone 100th level with four billion or so info without breaking the system. (And in passing, let me note what a pleasure it was to stop by Data-Mine and slap Raeder to death.) Clearly, where there is a will there’s always a way. Too bad no one had ever felt like making the effort. And as much as I enjoyed trying new abilities from pills, such as Razor Attack and Wall Kick, I couldn’t help asking myself what had been the big deal that they had not been able to make these available years ago. Clearly the System and the Simulation were way more resilient than anyone had imagined. Too bad no one had bothered imagining. Oh, wait, I can see it coming- they would have _unbalanced_ things. Like it would have made such a big difference!

Unlike most, I don’t blame SOE for closing MxO. If a game’s not paying its way, they’re sure not under any obligation to pour money into it. And it was not the recession. Now, from the long view of a few months, I think many of the problems were there from the outset, in terms of high-level management of the game’s development. And, for a change, here I don’t mean Walrus. MxO, I believe, was his first game. Where were his mentors? His steering committee? His sponsors? More support would have made him more successful, I am convinced. But that is not all. After a time, the MxO community grew toxic. You could see it rabid and frothing on the forums. But ingame too, the sexist and racist abuse, the incessant personal attacks, were all signs of a community gone bad. For me this is the greatest mystery and the greatest tragedy. How to create a positive, nurturing community? How to stop people from being twits? These days I am watching my daughter play Maple Story, and this game seems to have been more successful here, though at the cost of a lower level of interactivity. And no emotes!

Some might blame gameplay for the failure. But I don’t feel this is true. I’m not sure anyone ever made the effort to reach out to lapsed subscribers to get a feeling for their reasons for leaving, but it would have been invaluable. Ironically, some of the most annoying, vociferous whiners posted almost daily on the forums. No problems with gameplay could ever stop them from coming back (much to my personal dismay). However, no amount of gameplay makes up for a venomous play environment.

And so the world ended. Nothing dramatic like beta. No story explanation of why we were all dying. No eyes in the sky (unless you provided your own). Just some casual looting, denial grinding, lots of dancing (always fine with me), and a sprinkling of devil-may-care exchanges with Walrus, Virrago, with some typically terse, cryptic exchanges with Dracomet and 9mmfu. The final impression of half-hearted miscellany was like when you’re unprepared for your four-year-old’s birthday, and you rummage through the kitchen looking for _any_thing he might think was special: trade show tchotsckes, old Halloween candy, a glowing pen, a forgotten slinky, a few candy canes from last Christmas, some unopened TicTacs, and a few shiny pennies plucked from your purse. Happy birthday! And that’s all, folks! Wake up!

2. I’ve discovered I was completely wrong about something. Rarebit’s departure had nothing to do with self-generated hacks created by some ingenious players. The Nerfocelot exploit was done from the players’ side, not from the admin console, which I must say makes it very impressive, if ultimately pointless. But I suppose this qualifies as one sort of player-generated content!

3. Incredible talent thrives at mxoemu.info. Through nothing but sheer scary brainpower they have created a working version of MxO than will run on your computer. There’s no server, no player interactivity, no abilities, and (big sigh) no inventory. But there is still the whole wide world to wander in, including the matchless graphics and the great music. I got my son to set it up for me; smarter people will be able to do it themselves. Besides all the standard locations, there are also available several intriguing constructs which were built but never populated or developed. And I finally got to see the White Room!

4. Many MxO refugees have washed ashore at SWTOR, where there’s been talk of settling on a common server, an idea which I strongly encourage. That way you know right from the outset who your friends and enemies are.

5. How apropos at Thanksgiving to be thinking of MxO, which gave so much and could have given even more. Thanks for such depth of soul for an artifice of code.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sugar Shack 65: MxO: The End, Part One

Recently, I spent several weeks on Syntax grinding merv rep, and then grinding through the 12.X missions three times, and then grinding endlessly for 60 Function Data (60!) for three of the fabulous webbed Blood Noble Blouses. I got all three in one night. I wore one to see how it looked, chilled for a bit, and then logged, feeling fulfilled and wondering what I would set for myself for my next goals. I was thinking of maybe doing the same thing with Zion, perhaps, to get a few of the Zion caps. Or getting a fourth Area K coat. I felt relaxed and fulfilled that night.

Then the next day I read Walrus’s incendiary post. The two-month clock had been engaged on the simulation’s self-destruct. But unlike the architect’s destruction of Zion, there would be no provision for survivors.

How did we get here? We started with such hope, and we will succumb with such loud silence. For me it’s not hard to see where the disease all began. Hold on while I take off my gloves and set aside my rose-colored spectacles.

Bad decisions from the top on down, with ineffective management, starting with the previous owners of MxO, back to Monolith and beyond. The game changed hands several times, and there seems to have been a lack of consistent vision, to say the least. Plus the re-orgs cost time, energy, and brain power. The technology of the game worked well, but there seem to have been serious disjunctions within the game team. As a result, while there are matchless graphics and glorious vistas everywhere, the actual game-play is more of an after-thought. The absolutely inevitable cause-and-effect result of this is that dumpy little games my son used to play, like Runescape, grow and thrive, while our beloved simulation is about to take the big sleep. This goes straight-as-an-arrow back to management. Who was the program manager? The design manager? Pull their jacks, and right now!

And that’s not all. Content design also should have received more attention. The gangs should have had some background. We should have had weapons better than bug-spray for the Corrupted. What qualifications did Chadwick have which merited his being put in charge of our world and our story? And the biggest, baddest decision of _this_ year: Rarebit letting some twerp abuse the administrative console, costing him his job, costing MxO its single developer, and costing us our world. And a big shout out to the addled moron behind “nerfocelot”. May someone do to you what you have done to us all. And then some!

Bad Communications. I’ll start with Walrus. Cheap, short notes, in the size of a text message. combined with screenshots from a one-minute visit to Mara, would have done a lot to make people feel like he gave a damn. Too bad he couldn’t even be bothered making the effort. Back when MxO first went live, the XP system was completely different from beta. Too bad they didn’t feel like telling us. The callous tone of Raijinn’s and Walrus’s recent notes. Thanks for nothing, we can all see how fast you’re trying to wash your hands and be rid of us all!

And anyone who’s tried to read 9mmfu’s Delphic posts will agree that communications has never been one of the qualities associated with the MxO team. In fact, after five years I am still not sure what some of the buffs on my clothes mean. And the awful, vague explanations of what the attributes mean make me wonder if the technical “writing” staff for MxO were not refugees from writing the tax code. Rarebit was usually exceptional in his communications, but paradoxically only started this when nearly no one else was left. A huge team of developers, but only when they were gone was there much communication at all. Yet another example of great leadership.

Weak QA. I don’t mean little things like graphics glitches. I mean stuff like the immediate post-beta problem of people leveling too fast. The management’s response was to dis-reward people for excessive speed. What? Not rewarding efficiency? That makes sense? But the key thing was that they still did not understand how people would play, and completely underestimated the time involved in reaching 50. Another example of this inexplicable ignorance is the time when some of the devs (including Walrus, iirc) came in to PvP the players, and were roundly trashed. It’s a bad space where the players know more about the game than the devs. SOE's miserly disinclination to provide a test server is a priceless (so to speak) example of penny-wise and pound-foolish.

And related to this is bad practices. How is it possible that the game’s management could merge nine servers into three, but cannot merge three into one? Is their documentation that bad? Were they so careless? And the “CSR”s who run amok like Brewko, did little to encourage us. His captious, fractious, and flat-out wrong bannings were so irrational, so misguided, and so whimsical that I was frequently aghast. How could anyone make sense out of such irrational behavior? Was he uninformed that the CS in CSR means Customer Service, and not Congenitally Spiteful? Is there any other business where behavior like this would be tolerated? Anyone who reads the transcripts of his interactions with players (the forceful renaming of the Tetragrammaton is the first that comes to mind, followed closely by the sheer stupidity of the data-mining fiasco) can see that this is a guy who needs training in customer service and power management. Could someone please re-start his meds? This is all the more galling when you compare this “service” with the world-class customer support I’ve seen given to my son by Blizzard on different occasions. So the best practices are out there for good customer service. It’s just that nobody can be bothered applying them for us.

And let’s not forget mean-spiritedness. Sony owns the Matrix IP stuff for gaming, and can’t be bothered making it work, yet perversely refuses to let the customers do anything with it. And Brewko- oh, wait, I already mentioned him.

The community” was one of the reasons people endlessly trotted about when challenged as to why they stayed in the game. Now, looking back, I wonder what they were smoking. Where’s the community? The MxO forums often became such hissing, flaming cesspools of bile that I could hardly stand it. So I mostly posted in my clan’s forums. Where did all the jerks come from? The frothing hysteria from MCDOE? OMG, who took away their pills? The prolonged personal attacks and baiting from Endless? Were they having such problems with insecurity in high school that they had to get it out of their systems by baiting everyone else? And the other hormonal, young teens out there….where will they go be angry now? Think of the children! To be honest, one relief from the end of this game I so love is that I will be spared the incessant whining about how MxO is doomed, and how things used to be so good. When I posted highlights from 2008, it quickly turned into a whine-fest. And when I oh-so-politely and positively asked when we might expect some management communication, the “community” started such a froth-fest that the entire thread was banned. Way to go guys! Guess it’s back to NeoPets for you now. Similarly, the leaks of the LESIG list- what was the point of that, exactly? Punishing those who contribute time and effort for us all, however imperfectly, is supposed to strengthen the community how, exactly? It’s the sort of thoughtless, self-centered destructive behavior you expect from children, not from adults. If this is the community, then maybe it’s time we all gave it a rest.

Naming Names. I have a list of people I have come to despise over the years. But why give them the gratification of being named? And Sattakan has always counseled discretion. Instead, I’ll be naming those I’ll remember fondly, next time.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sugar Shack 64: The Year in Review

Sugar Shack 64: The Year in Review

Another year has come and gone! For many of us, 2008 was a colossal bummer from beginning to end. My life was marred by death in the family, financial trauma, new responsibilities, and my son preparing to leave us for college. Off the top of my head, I can hardly think of anything from 2008 I will ever savor or look back on with a smile, at least publicly. Amidst this seething chaos, the nightly forays into MegaCity were a blessed relief, where the worst that could happen was dying. For redpills 2008 was eventful: lots of new content and constructs, reforms, decommissions, and controversy. Here’s what I remember most vividly.

Data-Mine

The first major content of the year was Datamine, whose innovation evolved in stages: great wealth, fidgety security, tragic backstory, daunting boss fights, and paranoid plundering in a massive free-for-all free-fire zone. The latter was not as much fun as I expected it to be, and I had not expected it to be fun. I soon lost track of how many times FH pwned me; around the time I lost count, it stopped annoying me. I liked the variety of venue, the convenience of cash, and the cramped coziness of architecture and encounters.

Besides this, I savored the awesome new items, particularly the SSR glasses and the SSR gum. Along with this, I liked the seemingly inadvertent recycling of very old content, such as the Hyperjump Beta and the Mobius Code, since it opens the possibility for recycling more old items, such as blue frags or (please! how I hope!) translocation programs. Still, most people seemed to wail about this, and it has not been repeated. However, the great idea of creating a new construct persisted, as we soon saw.

Sati’s Playground

Unlike most of MxO, which displays such a somber, edgy style and tenor, Sati’s Playground seems more whimsical. It’s small and cozy, with toy boxes, rippling ninja scarves, and even a pink gi. I have yet to score a single one of the Playground items, but enjoyed the great times helping others farm and design strategies for overcoming the sleepwalker menace. Often I stood at the edges gazing out across the misty void, wondering what might lie in the island skyscrapers, cars, and trees. Once I thought I glimpsed a tree whose fruit consisted exclusively of FM-1500 pistols. Definitely fun.

Valkyrie Mishes

The great downtown venue got some serious love this past year, for instance with the Valkyrie mishes, deriving from a rich blonde bombshell who loiters near Pillsen North, tormenting the nearby wisps and horrors with her frosty demeanor. There are enticing hints of backstory (reminiscent in this respect of the great Pandora’s Box arc) and the history of Pace here; if they are true, then make sure you stay on Pace’s good side. The outfits and eye effects pleased, as did the items. Besides some good clothes, there were spectacular spectacles, some of which easily rival the epically hard to get SSR glasses. And on top of that, there were some great non-buffed items too, namely the lush, buttery gold-colored spurs and plumage. This is a great, worthy money sponge.

Story Developments

Others in my clan follow the story more closely than I do, and I accede to their judgment on this. Most interesting to me was gradual emergence over the year of a world larger than the one we have known for years. The overrides and the wireframe invaders all hint of a vaster world, with its own culture, motivation, and politics. And at the same time this larger world beckons to a future, I felt myself drawn to the past with the seeming return from the dead of Trinity or some semblance of who she was. It’s promising. I’ll wager on her making her way to the Westview apparition of Neo’s body at some point.

Promising too is the use of our great backbench of characters, ranging from new a mission for the Chessman to Rose and Hypatia wandering the streets, to expanded use of the neighborhood contacts in story-related missions. There are dozens of them, and many who it would be great to see in expanded use, like Mr. Po, Lotus, the Chef and the Jeweler: NPCs with distinct personality, style, and language. Along with features such as pills for gang leaders’ RSIs, this is a good example of leveraging the existing character base. Great to see.

New Approach

The new approach to organizing story, events, and critical missions excited enthusiasm and opprobrium late last year, along with significant high-end content and the toughest set of encounters since the wasteland corruptors. Not everyone who plays posts on DN1, and not everyone who posts on DN1 posts about this, but there’s been no shortage of heated discussion, with occasional insight. LESIG has been, as they say, “re-engineered” to a less central role in advancing the story. Since the less savvy, less mature set at MxO has always enjoyed frustrating what others create, the LESIG program was plagued with leaks (I remember reading on one site’s forum smug posts about how much fun it was to gin up controversy), and was for its leader(s) more hassle than it was worth. Thus the curve of ROI curled against it. Props to all the players who put their 50s on the backburner to start over with new, unknown characters to make a better world. But I digress. The new approach, in essence, lets us run the “critical missions” as often as we want, and adds stuff to farm. This I kind of like. On the other hand, the missions are currently only available to those of level 30 or higher, and the end-missions are definitely not soloable. That being said, during the recent Winter Holiday, I was able to grind through the 30s in less than a week, so this should not be regarded as so major an issue as some may think.

Greatest of All: Email

For me, the email system enhancement early in the year was the greatest, most influential, most satisfying change of 2008. We received a massive, glorious overhaul that allowed is to scroll through everything (I’d forgotten I had blue code frags!) and to append up to 12 items to a single email!! The great benefit of this is that it gives a definitive solution to the problem of inventory space, which has bedeviled players and devs since the days of beta. Now, with up to 300 emails, each with a maximum of 12 items, even shopaholics and clothes-horses like me have been satisfied. This must be the greatest thing to come out of 2008, by far!

This is not say there is no room for improving a good thing. At some point I would like to see this enhanced with the following:

- I’d like to be able to email stuff to myself on different servers. I’d be willing to pay for this as a service.
- I’d like to be able to set up email folders.
- I’d like to be able to email singletons to myself or other characters of mine.

Puzzling, Odd New Stuff

Updates included major additions of content, such as the two constructs, as well as dozens of relatively minor ones. Some of them were significant, whereas others seemed less so: the sheen on the floor at Peg’s Diner, typos in mission texts, and a new mission from the Chessman. Some were surprising: emotes for “confused”, “deafened”, and “pickupdesk” in Update 53, for example. The new emotes were certainly welcome, yet the selection was baffling. After all, over the past five years there have been several lists of desired moods, including couples-dancing and smoking. The recent ones must have come from some other source, since I do not remember anyone ever clamoring for the ability to emote deafenedness. It may be that these are left-overs from some years-old to-do list that is only now receiving attention. Similarly, can it really be that the dev team has time to worry about things like adding pants to women’s Gis? One can only speculate how devly priorities are established.

There was drama too, with religious slurs and community rip-offs, but they just don’t make the list, any more than vomiting dogs do.

So, in contrast to the unimaginable catastrophes which, irl, came in swarms like sizzling hornets, ingame there was a lot to enjoy and a lot to appreciate in 2008. My confidence in the talents of our devs and their commitment gives me hope for the future, for our future.

This review and many others may be found at manifoldmischief.blogspot.com, along with other writings relevant to MxO.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Sugar Shack 63: Mercury Reloaded

A recent update shows the devs' pre-occupation with dotting i's and crossing t's. Though possibly 90% of the player population is level 50, they have been working to make things more accessible for new people, always a good thing. The collectors thronging the Uriah hardline are one example, and this cool new mish for Mercury is another. This new mission, designed for new redpills, is a very nice introduction to the world of the Exiles, showing quite well their diversity and their puzzling obsessiveness. I liked it.

I had forgotten just how accessible Mercury is. When I arrived at the Uriah South hardline, I saw things had changed. There was a new collector standing off to one side, a Codebase, looking for chopper keys of all things, and for no reason that I could see, pimping for the Machines (as if they needed help!).

Downstairs, I could see that Mercury had come up in the world. Of all the dozens of exiles scattered across the code-reefs of MegaCity, only he had rated a new mission all his own. And not only that, he had groupies now, too! As I approached him, I passed by no less than gushing attendants, eager to give me advice on staying in touch with him, and enlisting others to help me do his bidding: how to find him, run his missions, contact friends, etc. I never would have thought this from the first time I worked for him, but he obviously somehow caught the devs’ eyes, and was firmly on the Exiles fast-track. No doubt he would soon have his own construct and line of work gloves!

But the good times have not corrupted him yet, and he remains as personable and balanced as always, without Silver’s sinister obsessions. In fact, this new mish is all about the domestic and romantic entanglements of the Exiles. Very satisfying!

Honestly, this single adventure is more in the nature of an errand that a mission. Mercury is not just an inventor, he is a mechanic as well, and needs the keys to the car of his Exile girlfriend Pepper so he can finish working on it. She wants the car back quickly, apparently not being able to complete her unspecified “deliveries” downtown without it. Complicating all this is a third Exile, Raini, who’s been nosing about Mercury’s garage with a few members of her gang, the Five Points.

So what happens? You go, get the keys, fight some Five Points, and turn the keys over to one of Mercury’s guys, fighting some more Five Points along the way. Mercury gives you a letter of commendation which you give to Codebase, who then gives you an Industrial Jacket in exchange. And for a new player, the Industrial jacket has some very nice buffs.

That’s it! But other things unfold. The mission explores their personalities as well. Mercury is not the player he styles himself as (Raini dumped him, according to a mechanic, and good riddance!). Pepper is an impatient little twit, just as she is when you do her missions downtown. Raini is a menace that cannot let go. For a first mission, there are some very nice qualities to this:

1. Not too intimidating.
2. Introduces the Exiles, and gives you three names.
3. Not bad loot.
4. You learn about Mercury from his groupies.
5. You see the benefits of talking to everyone in an area before and after completing that area’s task.
6. You see how personalities drive events in MegaCity along with the war between Zion and the Machines.

For new people who’ve been getting nothing but Tyndall’s micro-managed missions this early in the game, this is a welcome change. Good variety, good background, and good loot. Nice work, and it makes me hope that other Exiles may be getting new missions and new background as well.

Sugar Shack 61: Synn: The End of the Line

As the code trickled and faded last night from my eyes, I felt unaccountably nervous. I had done so many exile missions (hundreds!), made some friends, made some enemies, scored some trivial loot, found many answers and more questions, and now this was the end. I hesitated, feeling at a loss. Had Dorothy felt like this, confronting the Wizard? Synn impatiently beckoned to me from the opposite corner. Like all the Exiles, she could only imagine her own self. For her, I would come and go like a stray thought at a drunken revel.

Synn has no club, no bristling band of angry followers. She stood (-660, 339) on the corner across from the Murasaki NW hardline, watching from afar the idling Black Tigers in the Yeung Park. Like them, she favored dark colors: tightly-zipped, grey leather that drew attention to her busty form and quirky blonde hair. She seemed evilly, eternally young; her voice was distant and cold.

1. The New Plague

Her first, trivial, mish involved putting “virus trackers” on two Machine systems. The first was a “Machine sorting station” and the second was a “listening outpost” used to monitor bluepill behavior. More likely the latter was a spy outpost directed at Zion, to whom Synn was going to offer the take. But Agent Gray would soon read my report, and be able to send them all the dummy traffic he wanted. Nice try!

These were straightforward tasks that a child could have done. I was disgusted that in the first one, I had to kill a bluepill to get a key to a locked room. This went very much against my nature, and I wish there had been some alternative, as there would be in the next mission. There, at least I could complete the mish without killing everything I encountered.

After hearing about the carnage, Synn remarked in her clipped style, “So far so good. Come see me again when you need a job”. Some new plague… “The New Pest” would have been more apropos.

Odd: One thing about this seemed strange to me. Sending me in through armed guards to insert viruses to steal information did not seem very stealthy. I can only surmise that this first, test mission was a diversion to distract Machine attention while a genuine mission took place elsewhere.

2. Crackdown

Last time Synn wanted the interception of important information. This time it’s papers from a courier (a “low-level” program). And it’s easier than it sounds! Go to the site and nose around. You discover a bluepill and an exile (named “Cockroach”!) planning to kill the courier. Explain this to him, and he gladly forks over the papers to you without a shot. Done! Alternately, you can kill him for the same papers, but why be direct? As Synn put it, “This just adds to your cred. Nice job.” And the “crackdown” is…where?

Odd: After I got the papers, I swung by to taunt the schemers. They did not seem to even notice I had them! This seems odd; it would have made more sense for them to have attacked me.

3. In Her Fear

Ostensibly, this seemed annoying: I had to go talk to a candidate for Synn’s organization. But when I arrived, the ostensible applicant attacked me! This led me to think that she would not be suitable material for Synn or for anyone else, and I definitely had no desire to watch her bob for apples at Synn’s Thanksgiving party. So I killed her. I fretted about telling Synn the news, thinking that she might question my motives in killing the aspiring Synner. However, when updated, all Synn said was that I had “come out of that well”.

Odd: For a serious plan to kidnap and interrogate me, I was puzzled that only one person had been sent. Am I so slightly regarded by Synn’s enemies? I only rate a single attacker? Huff! And, as any reader of the first two mission reports can attest, there would not have been much to report.

Odd: Also, why kidnap and interrogate someone like me who had been so little in Synn’s employ? Someone, somewhere, must be desperate to find out something about this fairly trivial exile. Perhaps she has an admirer who wants to know her favorite snack food or her shoe size.

4. Nudged

Once more, not very complicated, even though it’s supposed to be part of a scheme of Synn’s. Get some “incriminating evidence” from an obnoxious contact (“you’re not exactly what I had in mind” he purred when I arrived), kill someone, and leave the “evidence” on him. The reason for all this was not made clear. And who was meant to discover this “incriminating evidence”? And do what? More generally, Synn never really explains the reason of her missions, and you never have the slightest sense of what their purpose is. You are always regarded as a hired contractor and an absolute outsider. But I am not doing these for love, so I turned in my report with one hand, accepted payment with the other, and felt the great wheel turn.

5. The Wheel

Now you learn that the previous mission was to set a trap, and it is about to close. Apparently a Merv crew has been causing trouble for Synn and “her operations” one time too many. The plant last time brought them all in, and now you will take them all out. They are separated across the floor, apparently looking for something, and you can take them down piecemeal. That’s it! Synn remarks at the end, “you’re getting quite good at this” but has no further work she is willing to entrust to you.

Odd: In one room there is a mysterious locked cabinet, but I did not have pick lock loaded, and none of the enemies had a key. Thus the cabinet was left unopened, but the mission was completed nonetheless. Not sure what was happening with this. Rumor has it that it contained three FM-1500s, but no one will ever know.

At the end I felt disappointed. What were Synn’s “operations” which she was safeguarding? Who were her enemies? What did she seek? Did she have a larger plan or was she simply an idle schemer trying to be like others, like a less comely, less engaging version of Rose? Who even cared about her? For the life of me, after working for her I could not see why anyone would give her any thought whatsoever.

And that’s how my survey of MegaCity’s exile contacts ended: in puzzlement. Not that it was not a great ride, and in one of my next posts, I’ll review the best on International. For now, her missions are worth doing, since there’s a small amount of story behind them. However, of all the Exiles in International, hers and Rickshaw’s are the absolute weakest.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Sugar Shack 61: Thoughts on Inventory

Thoughts on Inventory

Way back in beta, inventory was a source of agony. We had just as many tabs as now, but each was only half as big. Incredible but true! A long campaign was waged, with yours truly one of those at the forefront, to allot more space. It was intoxicating when it was finally doubled. And definitely things have been better since then.

At the same time, the relentless drive for acquisition has quickly overwhelmed even this marginally generous allotment. Sure, many things like guns and clothes and boosters can be decompiled and recreated on demand. But in the years since beta, we have seen a torrent of items which cannot:

· PB arc materials. And man, are there a lot!: feathers, tissue samples, countersigns, etc.
· Story arc items
· Stat hack kits
· Teal pills
· Seasonal items, like the snowflakes, gifts, corrupted codes, Oracle cookies and brownies, etc.
· One off items like Burning Eye Coats and Awakening Glasses
· Stuff from the constructs like Widow's Moor lenses. Since you can't go back, you tend to stock up while you are there.
· Blue frags
· Fortune cookie fortunes- stuff like the "thoughts of Neo"
· Collector stuff like Greywolf Coats
· Fly in Amber rings

Players have responded to this with ingenuity unlikely to have been anticipated by the devs:

· Dedicated alts solely for use as mules; I have a couple, and so do many people.
· Use of ingame email to store items

The disappointing thing is that the suitability of these to accommodate inventory is likely to have been a pure accident. In any case, even these have been challenged by the large number of items which are “singleton” and thus not eligible for emailing or decompiling. You know what I mean here, the Pandora Box materials, the Seraphic Feathers, the Awakening Coats, etc. As a result, here in the middle of 2007, we have a collision of two things: the immovable stone of fixed inventory, and the irresistible, beautiful force of player magpieism.

Many people have discussed this; what solutions have been suggested?

1. Expand inventory yet again. This is apparently non-trivial, since one dev has posted that expanding this could trash the whole database of inventory. The dev 9mmfu sagely wrote in May:

“This issue unfortunately is the Database and character persistence, not our desire to give the community more storage.

“The upshot is that every character as a fixed allotted number of bits in the data base. These bits for the most part are all allocated to something at this time. Meaning it would be a huge and potentially catastrophic disaster if we monkied with the DB to try an accomidate a significate change.

“We are very aware of the limited space player's have some of that is intended and some of it isn't.

I'm thinking that MxO cannot be the only game or the only software product in the universe which needed to revise a database after it went into production. So, presumably this would not be like inventing the wheel or something? Fortunately this is not the only option.

2. Expand the code archive. I mean, 500 items was okay 2-3 years ago. But this is 2007! This is only a very partial solution to one part of the issue though. However, it has the merit of leading to my next point.

3. Allow currently non-decompileable items to be decompiled, with the code serving as singleton code items, only compileable into a single item. This would keep the sad, dull singleton restriction but free up space in inventory. Naturally this would work best with an expanded code archive. Otherwise it merely alleviates one problem at the expense of aggravating another. For singleton items, it should also be ordained that they cannot be lost when being decompiled. Otherwise this would not be elegant, to say the least.

4. Allow an additional mule character to store junk. Of course, being able to access the inventory from an alt while logged on with your main character would be a cool thing too. This would be tough, but possible, it seems to me. Related to this is:

5. Allow us to mail singleton items to alts on the same server. This would also reduce some of the pressure. I have a strong suspicion this is technically possible, since I know of at least one ostensibly singleton item which has been placed in email.

6. Bags of Holding. Quite common to many games. Incorporating this would not be like inventing the wheel or something.

7. Off-Character storage, as with banks, rentable storage depots, “hovercraft walk-in closets”, etc. Not exactly a revolutionary idea, I know. But obviously doable in many other games.

8. Permit the mail system to scan all the way down. How tough would that be? Currently the mail window can only allow about 50 number of items to be viewed. To see anything beyond this you have to delete existing items from the 50. Good luck trying to find anything from last year; you have to a major overhaul to achieve something as seemingly simple as seeing how many snowflakes you have. I have several blue frags. I can’t remember the last time I saw them, since doing so would involve effort on a par with spring-cleaning my house!

9. Allow us to append multiple items to email. If we could attach 10 or 20 items per email, we could live within the current constraints of viewing.

Of all these I am guessing that Option 1 is the best from the point of view of the players. When I watch my son play WoW and I see the huge inventory he has, I want to cry. However, from the point of view of devly convenience, I suspect that Options 8 and 9 are the least technically daunting.

Some people object to this, on the grounds that we should live within our inventory budgets. No one is saying people have to fill up their inventories. But since acquisitiveness is such a fundamental, simple human pleasure, frustrating it seems unreasonable.

Some people might think, “If you’ve filled up already, then even if inventory were doubled, you’d be back in a year wailing for more”. However, the current inventory limit was set more than two years ago, before we had anniversary t-shirts, blue frags, Neo’s thoughts, Oracle cookies, non-stackable corrupted stuff, and the slew of Pandora’s Box items, to mention but a few. That was then and this is now; such a request is quite reasonable considering the world we live in.

Let the devs review people’s suggestions, here and in the Development Roundtable, where many of the suggestions above have parallels. They have been so successful with so many things; I am sure they could be successful with this as well.

This and dozens of other writings relevant to MxO may be found in my blog, manifoldmischief.blogspot.com. Thanks to Walrus for the first doubling of inventory, ages and ages ago.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sugar Shack 60: Before You Die

Sugar Shack 60: Before You Die

It’s so easy to get jaded. You have your Flaming Eye Trench, your Awakening Jacket, your Beta loot, and you feel like you’ve been everywhere and done everything. But MxO continues to surprise me, years after the first time I hit 50. And as I contemplate yet another evening of trying to max my rep or watch duels, or farming for teal pills, I started to think of everything I had done and everything I had not done. There’s still such wealth in MxO that we all take for granted: the textures, the characters, the loot, the world. I thought I’d make a list of the things you should definitely do for yourself before crying out “There’s no content!”.

So, here is my list of things you should do in MxO, in no special order; please add onto it!

1. All the Pandora’s Box mishes, and gotten all the maxed items.
2. Role up and build up an alt, unbeknownst to anyone.
3. Done all the neighborhood contact missions.
4. Maxed your reputation.
5. Worked on something for QA.
6. Won an argument with wit rather than sixth-grade scatology.
7. Understand the rational for every organization.
8. Found and reported a bug.
9. Found and kept to yourself a couple of secret places where you like to hang out by yourself.
10. Worked on a player-run event, like Pilot’s Olympics or Sattakan’s sexiest red pill contests.
11. Wandered downtown as a noob, running for your life constantly.
12. Stood on the edge of the world, watching the lives that lie forever beyond your reach, until someone calls you for dinner.
13. Had Rarebit or Walrus answer an email of yours.
14. Been meatwadded by a dev.
15. Done something for your clan.
16. Gone to the White Room.
17. Shaken Agent Gray’s hand.
18. Successfully decompiled a level-50 item.
19. Successfully compiled a level50 item.
20. Gotten an area K coat.
21. Watched the setting sun in Chinatown.
22. Made your own clothes.
23. Eaten some cake alone, and some socially.
24. Fought to within 5 hp, and survived.
25. Argued with a principal (Agent, Gray, Niobe, etc.).
26. Gotten something from a principal (cookie, gun, mask, etc.).
27. Done something in character you would never have thought of doing IRL.
28. Done all the missions for the competing organizations.
29. Made your own sig.
30. Gotten the Union Hill access node key.
31. Spent substantial time in every construct, and gotten to know them.
32. Been Player of the Week.
33. Done the Stat Hack Mish solo.
34. Re-done your whole appearance.
35. Helped your clan survive a split or drama-storm.
36. Done a good job as an organizational liaison (not for the faint of heart!).

I haven’t done all these yet myself, but not for want of trying.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Sugar Shack 59: Rickshaw: The Inner Void

Sugar Shack 59: Rickshaw: The Inner Void

If you’re like me, and have gotten used to the control-freak high-maintenance Exiles like the Weaver and The Jeweler, you’re in for a big shock with this. Facing (at 90, 1, -300 in Kaede) the phlegmatic Sisters of Fate, oblivious to the spray of water dousing him from the nearby fountain, Rickshaw never seems to know what’s going on. He wins, hands down, for the sloppiest Exile in any neighborhood, from the tatty hat to the out-of-step shoes. Obviously, he shops at Goodwill on its off days. In fact, in his obtuse cluelessness, he’s right up there with Pepper and (less entertainingly) with Rose. When you show up, he says nothing about his story, or who he is or what he cares about. He just asks you to go run an errand. It’s like walking into your father’s study, and he gives you something to go mail. I took an instant dislike to him. He should have been one of the first Exiles I worked with, instead of one of the last; I’d have been more forgiving.

1. Mistaken Identity

“Hi, can you deliver something for a contact of mine?” That’s how it starts: full of soul and connection. Rickshaw’s slapdash, slipshod approach to his affairs is nowhere more evident that on this first mish. He gets the name wrong! Then when you arrive, you are greeted by a haughty Elite Guard who takes one look at you and sneers, “Feh. You don’t look like you belong here, pansy”. Most likely, he saves this for anyone working for Rickshaw. Eventually you connect with someone who knows nothing of Rickshaw or your mission, but demands to know your “sponsor”. Rickshaw’s feedback is: “Sure, fine, whatever. Hurry!” You have stumbled into a game played by Exiles, wherein they try to kill each other! The name is Exiles Underground Games (perhaps a reversal of the ancient, ancient GUE). It seems like something they’d play with paintball, if the paint was replaced by hot lead. Survive and you’re done. Rickshaw mumbles some barely articulate thanks. This time I counted my money twice, mindful of his sloppy approach to everything. After all, maybe he would overpay.

2. Let the Games Begin

You make a delivery to one Caroline, identified as the leader of the Sisters of Fate. The Step-Sisters of Fate might be a better name, since their leader has fallen under the sway of your ultimate target in this mish, the Ventriloquist, who uses her to send you off on a side-quest for a CD (a trance dance mix, I think). You victory over him frees her, and sets you up for your next adversary, the Necromancer. A little predictable, but not a bad mish at all.

3. Replay

An “operative” of Rickshaw’s, with a desired device, needs help. After a skirmish, you find out that she is dead. This sends you to the next scene, with Rickshaw crying “Kill more people! Go! Kill!”. You discover that your adversary in this mission, the Necromancer, has revived and controls the operative, now a resurrected automaton that he sends to fight you. Eventually you put them both down, but it was an unsavory first to be killing undead Exiles for the sake of a repugnant game. On the other hand, it was quite satisfying for me to send the Necromancer to join his unwilling servants in the chilly sludge of the Source.

4. Out of Bounds

You may recall that your dossier from last time at the end identified your next target as the Chameleon. Since this meant he could be anyone, it made things quite easy! Once again the careless Rickshaw wails about his “stolen stuff” (how like a child!). This time your contact has a search of his own, for the “White Knight Virus” (an allusion to the Chessman that is not developed at all). You know how this goes. Break in, firefight, loot, and off to meet your contact. Your contact, predictably, is the Chameleon, and attacks you. When I phoned Rickshaw, breathless, he cut me off abruptly- “You got all my stuff back?” I was mightily temped to hurl it in the river.

But wait! There was some gold here! One contact looked at me, took a long drag on a scented smoke, and reflected “Humans hurt Exiles because they fear us. Exiles hurt each other because they fear everything.” Great thought to ponder long after the game has run its dolorous course.

5. Game Over?

In this mish, you simply start by getting some lost plans from a safe, at which point you are pulled into your confrontation with the main adversary in this episode: Agent Lee and his minions. Agent Lee is quite engaging, and rather than fight invites you to take a chance with him and his two assistants. Give one of them the plans, and the door she represents is unlocked. Inevitably you get a fight, not a safe harbor. Just as inevitably Lee and his team engage you. As their banter suggests, Lee is (Big Spoiler coming!)…the Gambler, and aims to win at your expense. The dialog is well done, and there’s more characterization in this encounter than in everything Rickshaw does. In fact, “Agent Lee” deserves his own suite of missions!

At the end, among the smoking, coding corpses, you alone stand alive to tell the tale. You, that is, and Rickshaw, who blurts “I like you, Sugaree! You do good work!” before he sinks into surfeited silence. At least he paid me.

Bugs?: In a couple of the missions I noticed that the text displayed out of order. That is, at the end I would read my operator’s comments on what someone had said before I read the statements being commented on.

Conclusion: The concept of Exiles playing games with each other is ingenious. The observations about them and their motivations are unique. The plot machinations and speech of each adversary are well-done. In fact, they’re far more engaging than sleezeball Rickshaw! And I liked the way you seem to stumble into the whole thing, reminiscent of The Game or even North by Northwest. These are all great strengths. On the other hand, Rickshaw as a character has nothing going for him: no backstory, no alliances or motivation. And the way he dresses! Getting missions from a vending machine would be about as personal and personable as this. His frenetic behavior covers up an inner void and bad teeth.

Afterthought: I felt so anxious in my skin throughout the rush of Rickshaw’s pointless tasks. Everything was touched with foreboding. Only as I turned my back on him for the last time did it occur to me that a single Exile remained for me to do. And as much as I dreaded it, the end of the Exiles was fast approaching for me.