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Archive for the ‘Confessions of an MMO Addict’ Category

For two years now I’ve been sitting on a half-finished continuation of my Confessions of an MMO Addict articles, which detailed (and yes, admittedly in quite arcane detail) my experience of playing the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMO) Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO). The further in time I got from the experience itself, the less relevant and interesting it seemed to me. When last I left off in this series, I’d just returned from six weeks travelling around South East Asia. What lay ahead of me was an even more intense indulgence of my already dangerous gaming habit.

What follows is mostly from two years ago, with continuations. It is worth pointing out that I wrote this whole series with the idea in mind that I was creating both a personal account and a historical record. It might seem fanciful to imagine that my blog or its content will still be readable in, say, two hundred years time, or of interest to historians for that matter, but should it be the case, then it might prove insightful to anyone interested in the detail of game mechanics, online social habits and the psychological impact of online gaming. As someone with a PhD in history, I greatly appreciate the efforts of those who have made detailed records of their present in the past. It is for this reason that I included so much detail in these accounts. In several hundred years time this period will be seen as the time of earliest origins in an entertainment media – computer gaming – that is already well set to dominate the future as a means of narrative storytelling. If I can make some contribution that might furnish future history PhDs with primary source material, then I’ve to some degree justified my education : )

 

Confessions of an MMO Addict, Part VI

“God I’ve been asleep so long, I’ve been away

Back from software limbo the natives call today

I let their promises bind me

I let seductive logic blind me

I embraced a machine, I went through the routine,

And I hid from the people who were trying to find me.”

– The Church, Tantalised

 

I had hoped that my holiday to South East Asia would help me kick the Dungeons & Dragons Online habit, but I returned to Sydney a desperate junkie. My travelling EEE PC, bless him, had struggled to render the game at all and I had been forced to play solo, with the sound off and graphics turned down to minimum. All I could manage was to farm low-level dungeons on the easiest level for collectables, to buy and sell from the brokers and thus make money on the auction house. It had, in reality, been the very worst sort of grinding, but it kept me going on those heavy hotel-room nights on the road. I couldn’t wait to get back to my desktop, log in, team up with some random bunch of heroes and play the game on full specs in magnificent wide-screen. My New Years resolution had been 1680 x 1050 and I was aching to go from the grind to the grandeur.

Sadly, my return to Sydney also marked the end of my relationship with S. I hadn’t exactly been the best companion much of the time and I was, quite rightly, let go, so to speak. I was a terribly sad way to end things, though it was at least amicable. I was left feeling pretty awful all round – not entirely enamoured with myself. What, however, was most alarming, was that I didn’t really mind all that much. I was used to being mildly unhappy and at something of a low ebb. Nor did my response have much to do with S herself, but it was all about my being so utterly consumed by the game. Without a partner in real life and working part time, I was almost entirely free to game at will.

When I hadn’t been playing the game during my trip, I’d spent my spare time using the DDO Character Planner to experiment with multi-class character builds so I might build these characters upon my return. Now that I was back, however, I realised that my first priority must be to take Hallifax Bender, my long-standing stalwart bard hero and favourite alter-ego, to level 16, the then level cap.

This target was really part and parcel of a grander scheme, which was to achieve 1750 favour with the various representatives of the different Houses of the city of Stormreach. The city contained four different wards, largely populated by the different, major player races. There were the Elves of House Phiarlan, the Halflings of House Jorasco, the Dwarves of House Kundarak and the Humans of House Deneith. These different districts tended to specialise in different classes, and earning favour with them allowed access to certain privileges in the form of new vendor options, buffs and useful reward items.

The city of Stormreach was run by a group of people known as the Coinlords, and currying favour with the Coinlords was of particular importance as this granted extra inventory space. There were also the mysterious Twelve, the Free-Agents, the Church of the Silver Flame and the Agents of Argonnessen. If one achieved 400 favour on a single character, it unlocked the Drow race, whilst earning 1750 favour allowed one to build a character with 32 build points, as opposed to 28. This was by no means insignificant, and for those who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, I shall elaborate.

The six principal attributes of a Dungeons & Dragons character are Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma, and, in the original rules, these scores were generated by rolling 3D6, or 3 six-sided dice. This produced scores ranging between 3 and 18, with the higher score being the better. As it was such a significant disadvantage to have a 3 or, indeed, anything below 8 in an ability score, most players rolled 4D6 and ignored the lowest scoring die to generate their attribute scores. There were always other fudges allowed, such as rolling the numbers first, then allocating them to each particular attribute, or, for example, subtracting a point from one attribute score to be added to another. In the pen and paper days, as was so often the case, it all hinged on the famous “DM’s discretion.” In other words, if the Dungeon Master said it was OK, it flew.

The character creation system in DDO took the dice out of character generation altogether. It followed a similar pattern to that used in Neverwinter Nights and was designed to ensure game balance, so that players would neither roll a completely crap character, nor spam the generation process until they rolled an uncannily high set of numbers, as one could do in Baldur’s Gate for example.

The system worked as follows. Each character would begin with a base score of 8 in each ability, and be granted 28 points to allocate to the aforementioned attributes. The cost of allocation was one for one, until the score reached 14, at which point any subsequent increase would cost two points. After 16, however, any subsequent increase cost 3 points. Thus, for a human character, it would cost 6 points for a starting Strength of 14, but 8 points for 15, 10 points for 16, and 13 points for 17. One could choose either to focus on particular attributes or go for a broader spread. With non-human races, who had racial bonuses or penalties to particular attributes, say, for example, Elves, who have a racial bonus of +2 Dexterity and -2 Constitution, the starting score would be lower or higher accordingly, as would be the bar at which increasing the attribute began to cost more. Thus, the starting Dexterity for an elf was 10, and raising it to 16 would cost 6 points, whilst the starting attribute for Constitution was 6, and raising it to 12 would cost 6 points, whereas an increase to 14 would cost 10 points, with any further increases costing 3 build points per attribute point.

It therefore made a not insignificant difference to have 32 build points with which to commence a character, allowing the player either to increase a class’s most important attribute, such as wisdom for clerics, or to avoid penalising another less important attribute. It also gave one the option of increased specialisation or flexibility, the latter being particularly important with multi-class builds.

I have documented elsewhere my obsession with creating characters, and DDO was the most dynamic means yet for testing the efficacy of certain builds. It was not only the functionality of the characters that interested me, but the personality I’d give them through their name, style, appearance and, where I could be bothered providing it, their biography.

Before I could really go to town and start creating a whole slew of new characters, I needed to advance Hallifax to level 16 and hit that much coveted favour target. The process took me no less than a month and a half of solid play, every weeknight, every weekend, with occasional breaks when exhaustion became so overwhelming that I simply couldn’t concentrate any longer. Even then, I often pressed on, both impressed by and ashamed of my incredible ability to endure.

Yardley The Scissors Bruce in the Vale

As I ran Hallifax up through levels 12, 13, 14 and onwards, I was continually coming across new quests and explorer areas I’d never seen before: The Vale of Twilight, The Orchard of the Macabre, Ataraxia’s Haven, The Menechtarun Desert, The Ruins of Gianthold and The Reaver’s Refuge. The novelty of running these areas for the first time kept my enthusiasm for the game at a very high level, despite the hit and miss nature of the groups in which I found myself. One of the greatest attractions of computer games is the ability to surprise and to fascinate through exotic locations, interesting challenges, impressive artwork and terrifying opponents. DDO had a lot to offer on these fronts and sharing the experience with random people, especially when they too shared my enthusiasm for the task at hand, made it all the more pleasurable.

Dimension door in the desert

The higher level quests were, on the whole, more colourful and complicated than some of the low-end dungeon crawls, though there were certainly a few outright slogs. In so many ways DDO failed to live up to the true promise of Dungeons & Dragons. It was too fast-paced, magic items were as common as muck, most players were focussed on end-game builds, rather than the journey, which invested them with an impatient zeal to farm as much XP as possible. Almost no one tried to role-play in character, and those who did were generally ostracised for not acceding to the meta-game narrative. By metagame narrative, I mean talking about the game as a game, not as an immersive role-play experience; discussing the mechanics, the structure, the rules and parameters rather than the story or narrative.

The 3.5 edition Dungeon Master’s Guide states:

“Any time the players base their characters actions on logic that depends on the fact that they are playing a game, they’re using metagame thinking. This behaviour should always be discouraged, because it detracts from real role-playing and spoils the suspension of disbelief.”

It was, indeed, immersion breaking, to have some nerdy kid ramble on about his weapons, or whatever inane thoughts were on his mind. All too often it was this metagame narrative that drove the conversation; babble about character builds, favour-farming plans, crafting, magical items, the effectiveness of spells, special attacks, strategies, boasts about lucky loot hauls etc. Much of this could have been contained or disguised within a more theatrical role-play, yet almost no on in the game was interested in doing so. Add to this the fact that so many players were non-native English speakers, lacked microphones or were unable either to hear or interpret chat, and you had a situation where communication in the group was largely limited to the task at hand, discussed in the plainest possible meta-game language.

Once players knew the game well enough, metagame thinking became the only sort of thinking. This was, of course, very sensible as knowing the mechanics of the world and the tendencies of the game designers made it possible to make better predictions about what lay ahead. Also, for players who had run quests several, possible hundreds of times, there was, quite simply no mystery remaining, only the satisfaction of a swift, efficient, error-free completion. The game did not foster an environment in which role-play was at all practical or desirable for people joining pick-up groups, though it could be, if one were able to play regularly with the same, like-minded people. For the vast bulk of players, this was simply not possible.

Jyzze with an extravagant companion

Whilst in many ways DDO seemed very different from Dungeons & Dragons, it was oddly true to it in other ways. Many of the quests involved treks through long, complicated dungeons, replete with traps, riddles, tricks, monsters and loot, locked doors, secret passages and illusions. The impossibly long corridors under the city of Stormreach and in the ruins and settlements surrounding it resembled those of E. Gary Gygax & co.’s earliest dungeons. They were classic dungeon crawls, which, if mapped onto pen and paper, would not be entirely out of place in a pile of First Edition modules. The principal problem, however, was the pace at which they were run. If the quest Walk the Butcher’s Path were played as a pen and paper game, it might take an entire day of careful dungeon-crawling between mob fights to complete. Yet, in DDO, an efficient party could smash through it in nine minutes, possibly less, with everyone running the entire way, as is most often the case.

Winter in Stormreach harbour

This high-octane, fast-paced dungeon crawling was very much de rigueur on all servers and almost every group contained a player, if not several, with sufficient experience to spoil the surprises by giving advance warning of what was to come. It was a very useful preventative, but stripped the game of immersion and, at times, suspense.

Despite these short-comings, the game was still thoroughly enjoyable, especially when running quests for the first time. Some of the lower-level quests could seem quite bland, but things certainly became more diverse and colourful as time went on. The exciting newness of the locations and challenges, the landscapes and environments – be they interior or exterior – was sufficiently immersive in itself. As Hallifax Bender first began to make his way through higher level quests, I was also very fortunate in finding good groups who did not spoil the excitement, but rather encouraged it. I mentioned in earlier instalments one stalwart companion, a bard by the name of Holz, with whom Hallifax regularly ran. Though I had started playing the game some time before Holz, we both hit mid to high levels at roughly the same time, and thus experienced many quests for the first time together.

By the time Hallifax finally hit level 16, the in-game level cap had already been lifted to 20. I found some good people and made the final push for 1750 favour out in the craggy, burning wastes of Gianthold, with its depressing, relentless brown and purple landscape. Despite my great love of the character of Hallifax and my pride in his many achievements over what had now been more than a year of gaming, I knew that the instant I hit 1750 favour I would be abandoning him. So it was that, that same afternoon, I created two new characters; Barronio Morrowind and Snowfell Vanish of Mirabar.

Barronio Morrowind

Shortly prior to this, as Hallifax was clambering towards level 16, the Favoured Soul class had been introduced to the game. Favoured Souls were Divine casters, using essentially the same spells as Clerics, yet with a spell progression and spell point allocation similar to Sorcerers. Barronio was an attempt to create a versatile, combat-capable support character and, with my usual zeal for experimenting with multi-class combinations, I made him a Human Monk / Rogue / Favoured Soul. I’ve mentioned earlier that I don’t always get it right with multi-class character builds, but that depends on how you look at it. When it comes to the end-game, at level 20, they are unlikely to hold up as well as specialist characters, largely because in a twelve-member raid group, all the bases are already covered and such diversity of talents is not required by one single player. Indeed, in the end game they tend to be too compromised in all their fields to be as effective as the specialists. That doesn’t make them useless, yet it makes them seem somewhat second tier to the pros.

At lower levels, however, and, I would argue, all the way through to around level 15, their effectiveness was unquestioned. Barronio Morrowind, on account of his mixed talents, was not only a formidable combatant with great durability and incredible saving throws who regularly topped the kill count, yet he was also a maxed rogue splash who, with spells and a backpack full of wands, could act as a back-up healer and buffer. I should also give myself some credit for equipping and playing him with expertise and precision. His rise was meteoric and he was always appreciated as a standout character.

Snowfell Vannish, meanwhile, was another indulgence of my multi-class zealotry. An Elf Monk / Wizard / Rogue, I too saw him as a combat-capable support character. The plan was originally to take him to level 2 in Monk for the abilities, saving throws and armour-class bonuses, level 5 as a wizard to access haste and displacement on top of other protective spells, then put the rest in rogue. After several months of play, he finished up Monk 2 / Wiz 5 / Rogue 7, at which point I decided to retire him for a good long while.

Clive Morrowind, another multi-classing experiment

Snowfell’s effectiveness was also incredible, if I may say so myself. He regularly smashed the kill count using unarmed attacks, was practically unhittable, could boost the whole party with haste in moments of need and was a top notch trap-monkey and sneak artist. Playing him was also very satisfying in that, strangely, a lot of people didn’t see the point of the build, nor could they determine what his role was, but he never failed to impress. Indeed, he was the only character I ever had who made it past level 10 without dying a single time. Ultimately, I decided that, for the sake of durability, he should in future only level as a Monk, but even then, I suspected that his effectiveness beyond level 14 was doubtful.

The creation of these two characters was just the beginning of a massive expansion of the playing roster. I went to town coming up with further multi-class builds, most of them following more traditional combinations that were tried and true. There was my ludicrously named Elf Ranger / Rogue / Monk Applefrost Loveblossom; the equally keenly named Drow Rogue / Ranger / Bard Honeydrop Sundew, the specialist Elven wizard whose name I borrowed, Faffle Dweomercraft and several others, some of whom were ditched shortly afterwards as failed experiments.

Many characters came and went and the quality of my game-play rose continually with experience. I gradually became far more familiar with the higher-level areas which improved my capacity there at the cost of my sense of wonder and excitement. I met many excellent people and played with my fair share of irritating dead-shits as well. As time wore on I stopped caring about the outside world altogether. I lost interest in my friends, family and other activities. I was impatient whenever other responsibilities arose and often accepted invitations to things, to which I would invariably fail to turn up.

Once in the game, however, I was unstoppable. The insatiable desire to start new characters never went away, however, and so I rarely ever took my characters through to level 16 or beyond. I’d usually make it into the teens, or at the very least to level 8, then switch out onto another toon and run them up. I often sat there, staring at the screen, scrolling up and down my list of characters wondering – who do I want to play? Once the game had switched to free to play mode and the option was there simply to pay for additional privileges, such as extra character slots, I bought up a good few and soon had 15 different characters on the one server: Lucessa Rainsinger, Rhodon Froste, Lusetta Sorrowdusk, Yardley “The Scisssors” Bruce, Jyzze Badajon, and Swimm Lantern to name a few.

When new servers were opened and announced, I logged straight in and created a whole host of characters, in effect reserving names that were otherwise impossible to have as they had been taken from the start. Names such as Summer, for example, which can only be used once on any given server. On the Sarlona server, where much of my gaming took place, I’d had to run with Summerr – in the time-honoured tradition of variant spelling to get around the unique name issue. It was a fair compromise, I suppose. Most of these characters I never returned to and, I must admit, I feel a bit guilty in retrospect for denying those names to others. In some ways it was like having multiple personalities, and I would always, to some degree, try to be in character, at least in my own mind.

Bethanie, fresh off the boat at Sorrowdusk Isle

Time flew on by and, seven months after returning from South East Asia, I was more immersed in the game than ever. My first real attempt to break with DDO came in March 2010 when I travelled to India for two months. I had no intention of playing the whole time I was there and felt a wonderful sense of liberation once I was away. That trip to India, which I have written about elsewhere, was one of the key experiences of my life. I took over twelve-thousand photographs, wrote a lot, met great people and visited amazing places. I thought I had pretty much shaken off the DDO experience once and for all.

Upon returning, however, after a few nights of dedicated photo-editing, the desire got to m and I logged back in to DDO. As was typical of my habits, I instantly created a new character – Jasparr Krait of Luskan – who was a dual heavy pick wielding kensai fighter with rogue and ranger splash. I enjoyed being back so much, and was so enamoured of my character with his Tom Selleck Moustache, that I became lost in the game again for the next two months.

Jasparr in the Orchard of the Macabre

My second serious attempt to exit the game came in July, when I was asked to mind a friend’s parents’ house in Paddington. Despite the gnawing desire to stay with the game, I decided not to take my desktop with me and try instead to free myself of the addiction. I succeeded quite admirably and, were it not for a sinus infection that lasted a month, I would have used the time even more wisely to reconnect with friends etc. Soon after this, I briefly moved back to my own parents’ house before another move. I thought I might have shaken off the bug and logged in only intermittently. Yet, shortly after moving and settling into my new house, the bug got me again and I was back in Stormreach, hacking and slashing and zapping my way to glory.

The lovely Honeydrop in the Vale

There’s an advertising campaign about quitting cigarettes at the moment, which states that every time you quit, you get better at it. In the first instalment in this series, I’ve described that final moment when I deleted the game and never went back. It was a tough decision, but it was made a lot easier by having walked away so many times before. It ultimately came when I realised I was not getting the same joy from grouping any longer, as my patience had worn thin over the years. There were also too many elements of the game that required a lot of grinding. To be effective at the highest level required running the same old raids on scores of occasions in the hope of looting the desirable crafting materials, of which there was no guarantee. It was just too frustrating and nowhere near as much fun as the low and mid-level ambitions of levelling and developing the character build. When I realised I’d had enough of the low and mid-level game, and believe me, I did it to the absolute death, there was simply nothing for me any longer.

Minotaur fortress

One of the more curious bosses

Like any MMO, the game’s growth continued from its inception. As it progressed, I found that generally the updates improved elements of the game. The new quests, character classes and races, new look armours and outfits, the new prestige class options for clerics and sorcerers were all welcomed. There were, however, a couple of major changes that, in my mind, changed things considerably for the worst.

The first was the introduction of Guild Airships. This in itself was a fantastic thing – they made it easier to get around, provided an exciting place to visit and gave being a member of a guild some real oomph. Where they were flawed, however, was that the best airships offered characters the chance to buff themselves to quite a ludicrous degree, giving them so many simultaneous bonuses that people began to joke about it as God Mode. This also created a huge disparity in many quests between those with ship buffs and those with none. It also created an often long and frustrating wait to begin a quest because players would insist on getting ship buffs first. In the end, I got fed up with it all.

Airship interior

I did, however, create my own guild: The Frozen Spine. This might sound like an awful medical condition, but was actually an homage to Icewind Dale and the Spine of the World Mountains. It was fun to have my own guild and to buy an airship – the cheapest and least attractive to begin with as it was level-restricted. Yet, in the end, it just felt like something else to manage in game, when I was already busy enough with the auction house and so on.

The other upgrade that I especially didn’t like was the new crafting system. Indeed, this was the final straw. I would have welcomed this in theory, and did so initially, yet the consequences of it were, in my opinion, dire. Within weeks the auction house became flooded with countless replicas of the same item, and instead of selling their excess loot to the brokers in the market place, most players simply broke it down into magical essences etc. The items that were sold to the brokers were then bought en masse and deconstructed by wealthier players, so that the brokers never had anything left to sell. In effect, this killed one of my favourite in-game hobbies.: shopping for second-hand goods and finding overlooked treasures to sell at auction. In many ways, for me, DDO was like a grand, fantasy-themed episode of Bargain Hunt.

Dual-wielding +2 Tennis racquet holders of Greater Potency

When that pleasure was gone, I felt such a sense of loss that I didn’t really want to hang around any longer. I didn’t like the sort of rinse and repeat grinding and farming that it encouraged and the process itself was rather tedious to carry out. I’m sure I might have given it more of a go, but at that late stage, when I was already looking for an exit, it just seemed like a disappointing nuisance.

A fine day for getting your armour rusty

At least I had a good last hoorah. In my last phase of play, between February and April 2010, I spent a lot of time running as Jyzze Badajon, a sorcerer specialised in electrical spells. It was awesomely good fun and I was impressed with how much I nailed not only the build, but also the performance. Despite my lack of experience in the highest level quests, all of which I’d done at least once, I was pretty hard to beat in the rest of the game. Jyzze was a wonder, so good in fact that he often spoiled the fun by killing everything before anyone else could swing a weapon.

New quests, new locations

Jyzze with trees

Jyzze

Jyzze in Gwylans

There was something wonderfully visceral about using maximised Shocking Grasp and Ball Lightning and despite spamming these spells, I never seemed to get bored of them. Still, even this had its limits, and ultimately, it was the same old arenas, same old dungeons, same old mystical, magical settings. Perhaps it’s not at all odd to think how bland and run of the mill they could be after a couple of years.

 

As the game slowly became less appealing, so the outside world grew in stature for me. Then, over the course of a couple of months in 2011, I slowly emerged, blinking, into the real world. It was the Arab Spring that dragged me back to reality. I became so engrossed in the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and the subsequent civil war in Libya that I went from running DDO to live-streaming Al Jazeera full time. I also took up writing about the revolutions and spent a lot of time researching Middle Eastern affairs further. Suddenly the world was very exciting again, with the onset of what seemed like a major historical shift in that region. It was a long-overdue re-engagement with reality.

I got my life back on track with other new projects, a new partner and, leaving the dreadful embrace of the machine, embraced instead a more active life. I fell in love again and, when in June of that year, it all ended in tears, the revolution was completed. That break-up proved the best misfortune I’d suffered in years and, after some deep despair and depression, another move and frequent visits to a psychologist, I came out fighting and haven’t looked back. It all made me realise what a low gear I’d been rolling through life in, and just how much underlying depression there was after having spent so much energy in preceding years writing unsuccessful novels.

Since then, despite the occasionally overwhelming desire to re-install the game and log on just one more time, I’ve been, as my old friend Justin would say, “keeping it clean.” Ironically the strongest desire to play again hits me when I’m most bored with computer games. It’s because, deep down, I love gaming and likely always will, but what is missing most of the time is the human element. Online gaming might be anti-social with respect to the real world, but it’s a highly social activity within the context of the game. The game itself has moved on with new character classes, higher level advancement, new adventures and the like. In many ways I’d love to have a look at it, but the idea of going back and not quite knowing the deal helps keep the game at a further remove.

I can’t say definitively that I will never again lose myself in an MMO, and with the Elder Scrolls Online coming out some time this year, there are dangerous waters ahead. Yet, I learned so much from this experience and know how to manage my urges much better. There is too much to do in life that is too important, and I just cannot afford the time any longer for such devotion to a game. It seems a lot easier these days simply to say no.

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“Give me back my broken night, my mirrored room, my secret life, it’s lonely here, there’s no one left to torture.” – Leonard Cohen, The Future

On the 19th of June, 2009, I flew out from Sydney to Singapore to visit my girlfriend’s (S.) family for her mother’s birthday. It was the first leg of a five-week tour of South East Asia, taking in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and beyond, should time, money and will allow. In the preceding weeks, I had been doing nothing whatsoever but playing Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) all night and dragging my sorry ass to work the next day. Not an overly onerous burden, considering I was working part-time as an ESL teacher, yet, when I came to board the flight, I was physically and mentally exhausted.

Being someone who has enjoyed a boom-bust cycle of personal discipline over the years, ranging between some quite emphatic extremes, I figured the trip was a good opportunity to put some distance between myself and the game that had, for the last two months in particular, swallowed up my life. I was, in truth, in the grip of a full-scale, hardcore addiction. I could think of nothing other than levelling my characters, working the auction house and teaming up with equally afflicted, yet entertaining and very companionable individuals the world over, to hack, slash and magic our way through hordes of enemies. I was sleeping roughly three to four hours a day and staying awake by drinking enough coffee to blow the head off a rhinoceros. The trip to Asia would be a chance to rest and heal, and to break away from the clawing cravings and heavy withdrawal I suffered whenever I was not logged into DDO.

That, at least, was the idea. However, as soon as I arrived in Singapore and logged into a local unsecured wireless network, I began to wonder how on earth I could stomach five weeks without even so much as the auction house. What, really, was the point of the internet after all? It was all very well reading the news, researching intended destinations, updating Facebook and sending the occasional e-mail, but it lacked the more direct interactivity of a gaming interface. Then I got curious. Travelling with just a carry-on sized day pack as I have always done, but having, as ever, found room for a laptop, in this case, my EEE PC, I began to wonder if this mini PC could handle running DDO. After all, it had roughly the same specs as my previous, considerably larger laptop on which I had initially played the game when in Cambridge two years before. There was only one way to find out, and, in one of those fateful and, I suppose I should say, regrettable moments, I went to the DDO website and set in train a download of the game, which was still being offered on a trial basis.

It took me a couple of days in various locations, on various wireless connections which I managed to snake, before the download and installation of the game was completed. In the meantime, I did my second best to be sociable and hold my end up in various family situations. I’ve always been rather crap at knowing where to put myself when surrounded by other people’s families, especially where children are involved, as I seem to lack the skill to talk to them. I hung around and made conversation, was polite and even jovial at times, yet I felt a strong inclination to retreat, whenever possible, to the privacy of whatever bed I was sleeping on at the time and surf the net. That is, of course, when not sightseeing or participating in some group activity such as dinner or lunch. I certainly did retire early a few times where I might have been social for longer, though this had as much to do with my shyness around people as it did with my internet addiction. I know that S. wasn’t exactly happy with me because I didn’t make enough of an effort socially, and she could detect my mental distraction, but I was out of sorts in more ways than one, and the colossal gaming withdrawals didn’t help. I was finding it very difficult to concentrate or shift my mind away from the narrative of the game.

When the time came to fly out from Singapore to Cambodia, I felt greatly relieved, largely because I knew that once there, the location and events would occupy both my time and mind and I would not have time to hunker down and watch the game files download. Anyone who is prone to watching downloads tick along, staring at bit-torrent data-rate graphs or hanging on every small creep of an installation bar, waiting for those satisfying forward thrusts, will know what I’m talking about. Visiting Angkor Wat was going to be a buzz and if that didn’t drag me out of my torpor and turn my mind back to its love of history, ancient societies and foreign cultures, then there was no hope for me whatsoever. After all, I did have a PhD in history.

The good news was that our flight to Siem Reap had this effect. Once on the ground and in the taxi with Panha (pronounced Pun-yah), who was to become our driver for the next five days, I was dragged back into the real world by the contrasts of Cambodia. Siem Reap was dusty and alarmingly poor, for the majority of the locals anyway. The tourists, who brought money and work opportunities, but also drove the local prices far higher than any Cambodian could afford, had the luxury of staying in nice hotels for next to nothing. There were all manner of services to cater for tourists, and not much of a local middle class to enjoy them. The tourists even had their own street, which I dubbed Tourist Street, where everything was comparatively clean, modern and freshly painted.

We stayed in a cheap but very nice hotel on a less touristy, muddy road, with a lean-to brothel opposite and men selling sun-dried chilli snails from old carts. Siem Reap seemed ostensibly to be a peaceful and functional place, but with the Global Economic Crisis kicking in, most of the locals dependent on tourist dollars were suffering, with follow-on effects for the rest of the very poor population. Panha dropped us off at the hotel and we negotiated a price with him for the next few days. Once we’d checked in and showered, we went straight back out and he drove us to Angkor Wat itself, where we had breakfast in a café, watching the temple through a haze of dust and orange sunlight.

It was the first of several very long, hot and exhausting but rewarding days, and it was always a relief to return to the hotel to eat and refresh. The hotel had advertised wireless internet, though when I tried to access it on our first evening, I found that the signal did not reach as far as our room. I moved into the reception area where it was usable, but very slow, only really suitable for checking Hotmail and Facebook. I was annoyed about this, but let it go, knowing that I was, after all, in Cambodia, where internet access was not my top priority. Still, when on day two, they offered us the chance to move to a room at the front of the hotel, near reception, we took it.

I shan’t here describe the many pleasures of the sightseeing we did with Panha over the next few days, suffice to say that we visited most of the major temples and spent hours wandering through them.

It was remarkable experience, despite the thirty-seven degree heat and hundred percent humidity. I was especially out of sorts with the weather, but inspired by the overgrown ruins and hungry to get good photographs. On the latter score, it turned out to be more hit than miss,  partly because I was so hot and bothered that it was difficult to concentrate, but also on account of problems with haze and glare, which were exacerbated by my cost-cutting purchase of a cheap UV filter. Still, we saw everything we had come to see, along with plenty of other extras courtesy of Panha’s local knowledge.

On the fourth day we decided to take a break from the temples and Panha drove us to the floating village of Chong Khneash on the edge of Lake Tonle Sap. This long collection of houseboats and barges along the river mouth left us filled with wonder and despair; both for their remarkable way of life, and their almost complete lack of facilities and services.

I took a lot of photographs, but shooting these truly dirt-poor people felt almost pornographic, and I still feel guilty about how little we tipped the two guys who took us up the river. We had paid for tickets and thought the boat operators received some of this money, but only found out later that the company selling the tickets kept all the money and the boatmen lived solely on tips.

Spending so many days immersed in ancient ruins, and, indeed, modern ones, it was inevitable that I should crave a game of Civilization at the end of the day. This not being an option (I had already tested Civilization IV on the EEE PC and whilst it ran on minimum specs, it was too frustrating to be worth the effort) and, with the internet now available in our new room, albeit, at the pace of a sun-dried chilli snail, I used the hours at the end of the day to complete the installation of Dungeons & Dragons Online. It was only on our final evening, as we prepared to leave, that I at last had the opportunity to see if it would actually run.

I fired it up and was surprised to see that it did indeed run, albeit jerkily, with the sound off, and all the graphics turned down to minimum. I would also only be able to play it solo, as the computer could not handle rendering too many toons on screen at once. The cooling fan was already whirring and whistling at the highest pitch. It was hardly ideal, and I soon thought about abandoning it altogether. Yet, rather than doing so, partly fuelled by a passion to experiment with different character builds, I created a character called Byronne of the Sword Coast in honour of my favourite campaign world, The Forgotten Realms. It was another fateful moment: I had the chance to walk away, to give up in the face of such graphical retardation, yet, rather than giving up and uninstalling the game, Byronne was to become our fourth travel companion, much to the detriment of the rest of the journey. If you’re wondering who number three was, well, it was Bilby 1.0, of course.

When we arrived in Hoi An in Vietnam the following day, I discovered, much to my displeasure, that there was no internet connection in the hotel. Again, I knew it was not exactly the end of the world, and probably to be expected, but I did feel a deep sense of disappointment. I should probably point out at this stage that I have been, on and off, rather spoiled for internet since having had broadband at Cambridge from 1999. Indeed, it was then that I first really started to use the internet on an everyday basis, having previously been a here and there hotmailer. Despite using an old Pentium 1 or some equally dire rig back then, the cable connection was extremely fast, for the whole town had been wired up. After four years of this, I just assumed this was how the internet was for everybody. Even at the British School at Rome in 2003 we had a relatively fast internet connection, despite being attached to the Vatican’s server. This naturally prompted me to download as much porn as possible, partly for my own depraved entertainment requirements, and partly to see if they would hit me with the cosiddetto Inquisition Virus, about which we often joked.

When I returned to Australia at the end of 2003 to discover the joys of dial-up, I nearly died of shock. How people could be living in such backward circumstances in what was ostensibly a modern country, if a little intellectually and technologically retarded, was beyond me. For the next couple of years I struggled, before returning to England to find the entire country wired up to broadband and many cafés and pubs offering free wireless internet. I found this to be the case across much of Europe as well, even enjoying free, fast wireless internet at the airport in Bratislava, of all places. If poor old Slovakia could get its shit together in 2006, why on Earth couldn’t Australia, or Vietnam for that matter in 2008?

Only at the best of times does patience become me. With the stifling, coffin heat knocking me for six, alongside the frustration of nagging DDO withdrawals, I found an outlet for my agitation in the hotel swimming pool. Fortunately, there was much to see and do and, despite some tensions between S. and myself, we found Hoi An to be a very beautiful place. It was when we arrived in Hanoi, after visiting Hue, that the trouble started.

Hanoi is a pretty incredible place. It was wonderfully chaotic, dirty, run-down, ramshackle, and hung with the most captivating electrical wiring. Countless wires ran from each pole, stretching across and along the streets to a plethora of fuse boxes. In some places the electrical wires hung down to street level and had to be ducked under to access the pavement.

There were cables lying unattached on the ground, cables dangling precariously from junctions, cables crawling through tree-tops like a spawning of snakes. Everything seemed shabby and neglected. The state of the buildings in the old quarter was a sorry sight, some with no rooves, some with tarpaulins across the front, most in dire need of repair and paint, yet it was all very beautiful in the eyes of someone who loves decay and ruin. It was also crazily busy with constant traffic and activity.

The first night we arrived in Hanoi marked a terrible turning point in our journey. As we stepped off the coach that evening to be surrounded by taxi drivers, whom we tried initially to ignore as we had a map and planned to walk to our hotel, S. , in dodging our would-be chauffeurs, stepped awkwardly and went down hard on her ankle. Two minutes later, we found ourselves sitting on the edge of a building coming to terms with the fact that her ankle was in fact quite badly hurt and that she would not be able to walk. I was highly annoyed, not with her, but with the circumstances, as I had been determined to avoid taking a ride and was instead, looking forward to walking to the hotel. I have never liked depending on anyone when I travel, especially not people who thrust themselves in my face. Ultimately, despite my having told the drivers to clear off because they were hanging around like seagulls, too obviously gleeful that S. could not walk, we had no choice but to take a taxi to our hotel. It was when the taxi dropped us off on the wrong street and we were left standing there with absolutely no idea where we were and S. unable to move, that my frustration overwhelmed me. I’ve had only a few such moments in my life, but the end result is a sort of Tourettes supernova, wherein I scream “Fucken cunts! Fucken cunts! Cunts!” at the top of my voice for a minute or two. I did so, and having vented, stood like a prat, wondering what in hell to do next.

The sad upshot of all this was that, despite being an expression of my frustration and anger at finding ourselves in these circumstances, after a long and unbearably humid day, it inevitably seemed to S. as though it were partly directed at her. I think she was both shocked and deeply hurt, and understandably so. When I become angry, it takes me a while to achieve equilibrium and wasn’t until we finally made it to our hotel room, via a rickshaw driver, that I got around to apologising. It was an apology which, I think, was ultimately insufficient to assuage the bad taste left by my brain flip. I was also deeply ashamed of myself, having travelled alone for so long and in so many places and having dealt with difficult situations with far greater panache. In rather childish manner, having an audience was all that was needed for me to vent. It was, no less, a tanty of the worst sort, and was in no way dignified by my failure to throw myself on the ground and writhe.

It didn’t help matters that, over the next five days, finding myself with an internet connection in the hotel room at last, I spent much of the time when we weren’t sightseeing, playing DDO. Instead of giving my attention to S. and attempting to make amends through good behaviour and general sweetness, I was instead running an extremely low-res Byronne of the Sword Coast through low-level quests in Stormreach harbour, on the easiest difficulty level, collecting collectables and putting them up for auction.

I lay there at night, long after S. had gone to sleep, beating living hell out of kobolds and making packets of virtual cash from selling Deadly Feverblanch. Admittedly, we weren’t used to spending a lot of time together, but my detachment only made things more awkward. The fact was, however, that I was in the full grip of an addiction and, as is so often the case, almost all other concerns were completely eclipsed.

The trip to Halong Bay, where we spent a rainy night on a junk, proved to be something of a tonic. Kayaking around the limestone karsts, and, indeed, through a low, flat hole in one to a secluded bay, was a lot of fun, as was bombing from the top of the boat.

Yet, when a day later, we flew out of Vietnam and arrived in Bangkok, it was time to talk again about where things were going. I tried to apologise further for my behaviour overall, only now realising just how awkward I had made our time together, but the greatest impressions are always left by deeds and not words. The fact was that I could not get the desire to play DDO out of my head and it had completely skewed my sense of priority. I had, on the whole, been irritable, restless, bored and frustrated, despite the many awesome experiences we enjoyed. I do hold the heat and humidity to account to some degree, as humidity has always been my kryptonite, but there was no excuse for not being more consistently nice to S. She knew it, and I knew it, and when she flew back to Australia after a couple of days in Bangkok, as had always been planned, I had a lot of soul-searching to do.

I was, however, also entirely free to game! That night I changed hotels in Bangkok to ensure I had an internet connection, booked a flight to Chiang Mai, went out and got some dinner, then bunkered down with my computer. It was the first time I had had internet access for a couple of days and I now found myself slapped in the face. The trial period had expired and I could not get into the game without an active account. In order to start the trial, I had been forced to create a new account with a different e-mail address, as for some reason they would not allow me to log in with my active account. Simple, I thought, I just need to pay and have the account upgraded to full status and all will be well. This should have been simple enough, but as they were, at that time, still selling the game at retail outlets, the only way to activate the account was, in effect, to buy a copy and insert the serial number.

I was filled with despair, for I had been hoping to indulge myself throughout the rest of my trip after long days of sightseeing and photography. The following day I set off into Bangkok, wondering where on earth I might find a computer game store. I’d done some research on the internet and lined up a couple of shopping malls with games shops, but once downtown and in the thick of it, I found the shops mostly sold console games and next to nothing for PCs. What were the chances, I wondered, of finding DDO here in Bangkok? I tried to remember if I’d run with any Thais in game, but could only recall Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean gamers. I asked one of the chaps in a shop and he directed me to another shopping mall, two block s away, but once I got outside, I had no real way to orient and my map was inadequate to the task, so I wandered about ineffectually for some time. I was about to give up altogether and pursue other missions, when I finally spotted this huge shopping centre across a footbridge.

I hurried on in to find myself in a veritable warren of commerce. This place had dispensed entirely with the spacious, luxurious shoppig experience, and gone instead for cramming as much as humanly possible into the space. And the space was massive. The building contained level upon level of countless tiny shops, counters and hole in the wall outlets. Different levels seemed to be dedicated to different products – one was electronics, another was mobile phones, and another seemed entirely dedicated to computer games. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, and went to town flipping through thousands of games in plastic folders, no doubt illegal copies produced locally or in China. I was having no luck, however, and noticed that none of the games sold in these shops were MMOs. No doubt because there is no getting around registering online, and thus the need for a unique serial number. I pushed on with my quest through the forest of shops, and finally, after almost an hour, found what appeared to be the only honest retailer, who sold games in original boxes. It would be an understatement to say I was astonished when I spotted Dungeons & Dragons Online sitting on the shelf.

Back at the hotel, I went straight to the website and tried to insert the serial number and update the account. Yet there was another hitch. The account would not accept my credit card and gave me an error message. When I searched online to find discussions of said message in forums, I soon learned that the problem was caused by my attempting to use an Australian credit/debit card, with an account I’d registered to Australia, whilst in a foreign country. It was clear immediately that the only option was to get someone in Australia to log in for me. But who could I trust with this task, who would be available, and just how sad would I look when the purpose of the task became clear?

I turned the Facebook instant messaging service on (I loathe its intrusiveness and leave it off at all times) and got busy contacting friends. I first tried a work colleague, Chris, then another friend, until finally I manage to rouse my old buddy Demitri to take care of it for me. This had all taken several anxious hours where my frustration at being so close and yet so far was building all the while. In the end, already frustrated from not having been running for a month, I went downstairs to thrash it out in the hotel pool.

Finally, around ten PM that evening, Demitri had sorted things for me and I was free to log back in. When I ran Byronne of the Sword Coast across to the mailbox to collect the fruits of my previous labours, I felt like a junkie shooting up after a long, long wait. It was a case of goodbye Bangkok, hello Stormreach.

When I arrived in Chiang Mai two days later, I found I had booked a very appealing old hotel room with polished wooden floors and a vast, built-in wooden bed. It was a large room on the top floor which opened onto a wide balcony with a table and chairs on it. The view across town to the mountains was stunning, especially at dawn and sunset, and over the next few days I was to spend a lot of time out on the balcony taking photographs.

Already somewhat disappointed with my attitude throughout the holiday, and realising that the only way to avoid further regret was to make sure I used my time wisely, I signed up for a couple of excursions on my first two days. On the first day I visited a Hmong village, up a dodgy road through the forested hills in heavy fog, then visited a gorgeous Buddhist temple on top of a mountain. That evening I attended a banquet with traditional Thai dancers as entertainment.

On the second day I went on a longer journey to an elephant “school” where I rode one of these magnificent beasts.

At the end of each day I would lie down in bed, armed with milk and cookies, and farm the hell out of quests for collectables. I was very content here in Chiang Mai and had no intention of going anywhere in a hurry, despite the clock ticking before my flight back to Australia out of Singapore. I took things easy on day 3 and wandered around town, but when it started to rain, I had every excuse to return to the hotel and game. It was on day four in Chiang Mai that the sickness really set in. I was attempting to book a flight to head elsewhere in Thailand, when the internet crashed. I contacted reception to get them to sort it, going down there in person to encourage them as politely as possible, for the staff at the hotel were lovely, but there was no progress whatsoever. I paced about my room, cursing and shaking my fists at this horrible twist of fate. Give me internet! Come on! But there was no progress whatsoever and, whilst the signal remained strong and I was connected, there was no internet in the pipe.

My frustration grew over the next four hours, until I knew the only solution was to take matters into my own hands. They had reset the internet on at reception, so I figured the problem must lie with the local wireless router on my level. I had already had a cursory look about the place for it, but hadn’t seen it anywhere. After wandering about with my EEE PC, however, testing signal strength to get some idea of the router’s location, I finally found it in a cleaning cupboard. I restarted the little bastard and, hey presto! the internet was back on.

Having gotten so used to the internet over the last few days, I was flooded with relief when I regained access. And, just as a desperately thirsty man drinks insatiably when he finds water, I booked the ticket then plunged straight into an orgy of gaming. With my flight back to Hong Kong via Bangkok not leaving for another two days, I thought about the many options before me in Chiang Mai, but ultimately, spent most of the time gaming. Be it on the bed with milk and cookies, or out on that wonderfully spacious balcony, I was a happy man. I swam in the hotel pool in the morning, ate a hearty breakfast, then went back to bed to game. I made sure I took a trip around town each day, venturing to some very interesting places like the local, non-touristy markets and taking a lot of photographs of workers.

Yet, after two or three hours, in need of another shower, I would buy a carton of milk and two packets of cookies then head back to the hotel room. I always planned only to stay a while before going out again, but this didn’t exactly transpire. What baffles me is how, in retrospect, it all seems rather foolish, whilst I recall at the time being extremely happy. I loved that hotel room, I loved Chiang Mai, and I loved every bit of what I was doing there.

When I finally returned to Sydney after five and a half weeks away, having spent the final week in Hong Kong and Singapore, it wasn’t long before I had the chance to log in at last on my desktop and give Byronne of the Sword Coast a proper run for his money. How big he looked, how magnificently detailed, and how wonderfully rich he was after all my efforts! I now had two paid accounts on Dungeons & Dragons Online and, it soon turned out, one less girlfriend. I was in a state of emotional flux, both caring and not caring in equal measure, and I did what any hardcore gamer would do in such circumstances. I went out, spent some of my last few dollars on a big fat bag of weed and settled in for a total lock-down for the next few days. Editing the photographs could wait, for there was much ado in the city of Stormreach.

Inevitably, those days would stretch into weeks and the weeks into months. Far from putting any distance between myself and my obsession, I had managed instead to become even more deeply immersed in the game. With no one other than myself for company and not especially interested in anything other than reading the New Scientist and going to the cinema, there was little that could distract me from gaming. I was now free to give the bulk of my time to DDO. Bring it on!

ps. This was first posted in April 2011, then taken down some months later. I wasn’t comfortable with the content and thought it reflected poorly on my character, but in retrospect, I’d prefer to have it out there as it stands, as it belongs with the other pieces in the series.

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“You are hardcore, you make me hard. You name the drama and I’ll play the part.” – Pulp, This is Hardcore

 

So it was that the bug got me. I fell into my computer screen like a man tumbling into his own soul. When I sat down with a steaming bowl of coffee, slipped on the wireless headset and logged in, I was gone for all money. There was no television show, social occasion, book, magazine, song, meal or girl that was capable of luring me away from the widescreen world of Xen’drik. Apart from standing up every half hour to rearrange the pillows and stretch, there was little incentive to leave my ergonomic chair.

This business of stretching became an important part of staying in top gaming shape. If I wanted to be on the ball, if I wanted to be at my sharpest, I needed to be comfortable and alert, with good mouse and keyboard position and a comfortable, supportive posture. Sitting in a chair for a very long time can have some debilitating effects on one’s body, and I began to develop a syndrome which I called “Chair-leg.” It was the continuous pressure on the back of my thighs which caused them to stiffen and take against me and I was forced to institute a regime of exercises, rather like those advised on long flights. Often I would lean against the window sill and work the hamstrings and thighs, all the while conversing with other players or watching the social panel for an appropriate group to appear.

Yet, even with these exercises, the cumulative effect of staying up all night and pushing myself to new heights of effort, whilst remaining professional throughout, caused my body a great deal of distress. When I went running, in the real world, my legs would take twice as long to loosen, my chest heaved with fatigue and my joints seemed without suspension. I would struggle through the first fifteen minutes before my muscles finally reached a more fluid state, after which I felt as though I had cleaned the slate to some degree. My body still worked, it was just a good deal slower to start.

The good news was that, in game, I was becoming better by the minute. Hallifax Bender might not have been the best character build, but I knew his capabilities so well from so much solo play, that it was often Hallifax left picking up the soul-stones and bringing the party back to life from a near wipe.

Hallifax was Mr Versatile; he was the classic jack of all trades and master of none and his inventory was full of fixes for difficult situations; potions, wands, scrolls, elixirs. Hallifax could outsprint just about anything; he could hide, sneak, heal, and buff, or fight, charm, hold, disorient, blind, mesmerise and confuse his enemies. He was relatively durable and die-hard to boot, which meant, if knocked unconscious, rather than bleeding to death he would automatically stabilise and eventually come around with 1 remaining hit-point. How often Hallifax picked himself up off the floor of a battle and crept away to live another day, I cannot say, but he certainly came to be appreciated on many occasions, much to my pleasure.

When I sat down each night at my computer, it was usually with a great sense of expectation. In the first phase of my addiction to group play, I was happy to run any quests at all on account of their being largely new to me. After about a month, however, I began to lead my own groups, encouraged to some degree by having regular team-mates like Holz Amboss, Hallifax’s bard buddy. Being in charge of the group was a real buzz, especially as I’d like to think I was a good boss. I tried to be as democratic as possible and to show consideration to new players; just as I was happy to take advice from other players who knew the quests better than me, often, in effect, putting them in charge. The fact was that people out there needed my help and I needed theirs. Total strangers, though they did not know it, were depending on me, just as I was depending on them. Without each other, we couldn’t complete most of the game, so it was, in effect, necessary not only to put a party together, but to find good people and work with them as much as possible.

Before continuing the narrative of my fall into runaway addiction, I should like to digress a while to examine the pleasures and the mechanics of group play in Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO). The game is not especially different to other MMOs in its basic structural elements, so the system will no doubt seem very familiar.

It is difficult, across many time zones and, with differing social and work obligations, to organise a solid, regular group to play with in an MMO. This means that most players wind up in PuGs (Pick-up Groups) which have come together through an LFM (Looking for men). This means, in effect, that one player puts up an advertisement on the game’s social panel designating the task at hand, be it a quest, series of quests, wilderness exploration, or a raid. The player specifies the level range for the characters, the types of classes they are looking for – tanks, healer, casters, ranged etc – the difficulty level and, ideally, some further information either to entice or discourage particular players.

These additional statements can often be rather abrupt, ranging from the negative “No noobs,” to the positive, “all welcome!” I perennially used the line “Team Players” and often included my own SNZ – “Strictly No Zergs.” Zergs, of course, being those who rush ahead, either spoiling everyone’s fun by killing everything first, or getting killed themselves and costing the rest of the group in experience points and the need for a rescue mission. Requests for players might also be very specific, such as: “Need Wizard with Ooze Puppet”, “Monk with high wisdom” or “Must have boots.” Some players prefer native speakers of a particular language, usually English or Chinese in my experience, whilst others prefer only to have players with microphones. Either way, a well-written advertisement can make a big difference in avoiding ambiguity and bringing in players quickly.

Any player who sees the advertisement can simply click on it to join the party, at which point a request will be sent to the group leader. It is then up to the party leader to decide whether or not they wish to have the person on board. The ideal party is one with a balance of classes, though the best balance may vary considerably with the nature of the quest. Most groups, however, require a healer and a couple of melee builds to take the heat, and many quests can be done without the added bonus of a rogue, caster or buffer.

Once a few players have joined, particularly if a healer has joined already, the ranks can fill very quickly. More experienced players will simply make directly for the location of the task, but some will require directions or even escort. A good group leader should always ask the new recruits a) if they can hear, read and understand his or her communications and b) whether or not they know where they need to go.

Often groups will undertake missions without a full party or will start before everyone is present. Depending on the difficulty of the mission, it might be possible even to solo it – if you know you can take the heat, head on in with a hireling. Yet most higher level quests on, for example, Elite difficulty level, will require a solid group with a dedicated healer, trap monkey, caster and some hardcore DPS.

Putting a good group together should be a simple enough task, but it often proves very difficult to get good help. All too often, despite several thousand people being logged in on the server, there are simply no healers available within the level range of the group. This shortage of healers was almost always the largest obstacle, though it could also be difficult to find a good wizard or sorcerer. Even rogues, who are usually plentiful, could be difficult to come by. This despite the fact that multi-class characters with a rogue “splash” – ie. one or more levels of rogue with trap skills maxed through cross-class skill allocation at levelling – could more often than not, if built correctly, handle all the traps anyway. Many quest runs can be significantly delayed whilst the group waits to fill, or waits for that important missing element. This is much less of a problem at low levels, where hirelings will suffice, but at high levels, the failure to attract a healer can lead to abandonment of the plan altogether.

One problem for me being in Australia was time-zoning. The quietest time on the servers, when marketplace instances could drop from 5 to 2 (a system for regulating overcrowding with large simultaneous server populations) were between 1800 and midnight. If I played between the hours of midnight and the middle of the afternoon, however, when America was awake, I had far less trouble. It was a commonplace to have people join the group who had just woken up. “Mornin’ y’all.”

Some players would begin playing very early. “It’s five thirty. Another cold morning here in Philly. Just got the wife off to work. Got a pot of steaming coffee and ready to roll.” Often the more friendly and talkative players would speak about where they were; the weather, the view, the temperature, the politics. It was always fascinating to hear amusing local anecdotes or to imagine the spaces these people inhabited. Players would also often have to vacate their seats in emergencies, such as when their dog did something crazy or a knock came at the door. This could be either amusing and team-building or highly annoying, depending on the nature and length of the interruption. Most of the time, fortunately, grouping was a positive experience; especially when players were professional, positive and relatively relaxed about things.

The above image shows Yardley “the Scissors” Bruce in a random group of not especially well-dressed adventurers, being buffed by the healer and bard. Buffs are, of course, positive spell effects, skill bonuses and the like, which can either effect individuals or the entire group. A well-buffed group, particularly where specific magic defences are required, can make for a far more polished run. Being faster and stronger, having increased immunity and durability, being harder to hit and hitting a hell of a lot harder usually makes life considerably easier. Yet, beyond this, it also brings the group together and creates camaraderie. Just as everyone loves a good healer, so everyone loves to be well-buffed just prior to commencing the run. It instils the players with confidence, provokes thanks all round, and has an effect not entirely unlike sharing a meal together.

Group play is what makes MMOs, but grouping is a real mixed bag and raid groups, where up to twelve people need to coordinate their actions, are ripe for catastrophe. Raids can be rather intimidating as they have an air of exclusivity about them. More experienced players are especially keen not to see a raid go pear-shaped, and the LFMs are often brutally honest about what is expected. Inevitably, there is a first time for everything, but carrying noobs is not the average raid-runner’s favourite hobby. With so many players in the same team and such potential for miscommunication and confusion, the main principle is to stay together; if you don’t know where to go, follow someone who looks like they do.

The best groups are those that communicate and the best means of communication is a headset and microphone. Many players don’t use them and many players have very limited or no English, so it isn’t always possible to communicate via speech, or even text. Some players will abuse the mike to converse continually and often rather tiresomely about whatever is on their mind or the minutiae of the game, which can be terribly immersion-breaking. Having said that, there was nothing quite like the amusing banter that could take place. I’ve had some uproariously funny conversations with people who were drunk, stoned or high on coke; people who were cool, intellectual, nerdy, hip; people from Spain, Israel, the UK, Brazil, China, Singapore, France, Canada, Korea… I ran several times with a comically stereotypical scotch-swilling Scotsman, who had the decency to play a dwarf barbarian and spoke with a gruff and bantering brogue, with US soldiers at their base at Guam, with bored English housewives, with pot-smoking US college students, with Greek travel agents, a female Turkish IT student. The game could be quite fantastically social.

On the whole, however, people having and using microphones is a positive thing, especially where the other players are intelligent and know what they are doing.

A good leader will take control of the group and ensure that everyone works together; giving directions, delegating tasks, ensuring all players are accounted for and, occasionally disciplining those who are causing problems. A good leader will see new players as an opportunity to teach, and not as a burden on the group, especially where they are playing a trickier class, such as a rogue, healer or caster. Ideally, however, most people will know their role and how to make the most of their abilities. There is nothing quite like seeing how effectively a completely random group of people can perform together.

Take a look at the above picture. Each of these individuals is a human player, sitting in front of a computer, somewhere in the world. If I remember correctly, this group contained players from Korea, the US, China, Brazil and myself, from Australia. I’m the chap with the long fringe, white moustache and beard on the far right of the group – Hallifax Bender, after his custom hairdo. We are in the Vale of Twilight, a high-level wilderness area with a bunch of high-level quests scattered around its geography. To enter the area, players must be at least level 12, though entering at that level, without back-up or some serious equipment would be suicide.

This group consists of players between level 15 and 18, which, because of the relatively slow levelling in DDO, means all have put in a considerable amount of playing time to get here. Each of these players will be very attached to their “toon”. They have played this character for potentially hundreds of hours, not only developing their build, so far as path of advancement is concerned, but also choosing equipment they felt was in some way characteristic of their personality. Some players can be very vain about the armour they wear and the weapons they wield, along with other, more permanent details such as hair style and colour, facial features, skin tone and, at a most fundamental level, chosen sex or race.

One of the joys of grouping is simply seeing who turns up. Often players will make their presence known from the start; talking or typing a lot. Often players will become apparent through their actions; be it hammering away in the front line, healing or casting to great effect. Occasionally a player can remain relatively unnoticed in a group before suddenly coming to the fore in a moment of need, or after the departure of another character of similar class who was so good as to leave them in the shadow. It can also take some players time to warm up and get into their role. It can take players time to get comfortable with the group, to know that they can voice their questions or opinions in comfort. Often when a party leader quits and logs out, the remnants of the group will stay together; making decisions in a practical, democratic fashion, electing a leader, and getting new personnel. I often had the pleasure of stepping into the role of leader; coming from the backline to the front, taking the star and calling the shots. As in real life, people appreciate good leadership, especially where one leads by example.

Most non-English speaking players will have sufficient English to type and can give or follow instructions without too much trouble, but there are always those who are unable to communicate in the language at all. One can only hope that they know what to do, or at least have the good sense to follow others. I have run often in completely Chinese groups, with the players speaking Mandarin to each other. It was always very interesting and presented an extra level of challenge, wherein the pressure was on to perform well and stay with the group. Often I found myself playing more sharply than ever in such situations, channelling the panic into a whirlwind performance.

Having teamed up with a bunch of strangers, having gathered together for a common purpose, having greeted each other, having shared a little conversation, there is the moment when the avatars come together for the first time. This is always interesting – to see the style, dress and build of each group member. Often players spend a little while admiring each other. “Hey man, nice armour”; “What’s that helmet, it’s cool?”; “Is that Sparkstriker you’re wielding? Nice.” When waiting, the more expressive players will use emotes to show their frame of mind throught their avatar: Dance, sit, sleep, laugh, cry, taunt, flex, threaten, wave and the like. As surnames are only displayed above the avatar itself and thus visible when characters are within sight or in the viewing window when selected, on coming together, players will also admire each other’s names where applicable.

When a good group comes together, across different nations, continents and time-zones and every player is free to stay a while, it’s possible to run with the same team for positively hours on end. I made many strong in-game friendships with players with whom I’d been to hell and back. Six, seven, eight, nine hour sessions through long quest chains, raids, wilderness runs etc. It can be very sad when someone leaves after being in the party for several hours. So immersed can one become in the group dynamic that the absence of a character is as recognisable as the absence of a person. Of course, the only response is immediately to recruit someone else and hope that whoever answers the advertisement, wherever they might be, will also be a good player and a decent person.

The greatest pleasure of grouping, however, is actually performing well as a group and as an individual. Good players will appear, in the game, quite literally as heroes. In tough fights, good tanks will take and handle the aggro, good healers will be quick with their remedial spells, DPS characters will slay their enemies in lightning swift, often astonishing fashion, and casters and crowd-controllers will slay, disable, disorient, stun, freeze, charm, fascinate, burn and disintegrate their enemies.

Saving the lives of other characters through quick and skilful action is one of the great joys of the game. The camaraderie that comes from a timely rescue is a wonderful thing: save someone’s skin and they will warm to you; heal someone well and they will love you; crush your enemies and see them driven before you and you will earn immense respect. I’ve often been in both situations, standing over incapacitated companions, swinging like crazy and slaying everything that came at me, or lying on the ground, my avatar unconscious, watching the blinding skill of a party member as they took the heat and dispatched our opponents.

Dungeons and Dragons Online has a dynamic combat system, where each weapon has a reach and one strikes by clicking mouse-buttons, aiming at one’s opponents. This is far superior to combat in many other MMOs where a target is selected and the attack is automatically directed at them, often repeatedly, within the timeframe of cooldowns, so that a player is not required to steer their weapons into their enemies.

Thus, DDO is hard work – combat is exhausting as one is forced constantly to manoeuvre in battle, select opponents, and actually swing one’s weapon into them. The speed with which a player does this is paramount, as is the effectiveness of the attacks that they direct. With so many hours of practice, having rather deft fingers from 20 years of speed touch typing, and being something of a maestro on a mouse, I was often able to move and attack quite considerably faster than other players. Yet, of course, there were countless other players with both awesome skill and superior equipment and running with them was a pleasurable challenge. Good players will recognise other good players and often strong bonds can develop through this mutual respect. From the point of view of the game, it is the avatar, the embodiment of the player, one sees and respects.

It is always nice to receive compliments. The best compliment I ever received in game was simply “wow”. It was Jasparr Krait of Luskan, Fighter / Ranger / Rogue, my favourite hit-man, a dual-wielding heavy pick kensai, whose speciality was making straight for the casters, stunning them with a blow and taking them down with devastating critical hits as they stood immobilised with their heads ringing.

Whenever I played Jasparr, I felt immensely capable and regularly proved my worth by massively outstripping the rest of the group on the kill count.  After having played the game for as long as I had, I grew very bored with the rather unimpressive soundtrack provided by the game, and so I created my own. I put together a lengthy playlist on iTunes called Fantasy Backdrop, which I piped through my headphones in place of the in-game music. Mostly the soundtrack consisted of classical music, film soundtracks, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers, or other fantasy games such as Baldur’s Gate, Morrowind, and Oblivion, but I also threw in a few songs which seemed appropriate to certain characters, such as Hells Bells by ACDC and The Hitman, by Queen. It was this song that was to become the signature tune of Jasparr Krait:

http://bit.ly/12MNgt

Grouping was by no means always a satisfying experience, and proved, on many occasions, to be more frustrating than it was worth. As with all internet forums and MMOs there are always trolls out there who seek to cause annoyance to other people or pick fights at the drop of a hat – just read the comments under any Youtube video. Fortunately there are not that many trolls in DDO, but they come in many shapes and sizes. Some simply step inside quests, do nothing and sit in the entrance to leech experience points. Others actively sabotage groups because they have developed some impossible to determine grudge against one of the other players for no apparent reason. Some take exception to every simple error or slight by another player and make life difficult for everyone by being unnecessarily rude about it. Others completely fail to follow instructions, can’t wait to open chests and kill half the party by setting off traps, despite clear warnings. Sure, people make mistakes, but all too often players are just plain stupid and either overestimate their ability or simply ignore advice and directions.

The very worst character I ever had the misfortune of grouping with had the awful and alarm-ringing name of Aussiegem Downunder. I shuddered to think what sort of fool would produce such a character, yet, in need of a cleric to furnish the group with heals, I accepted her request to join my group. We were running the second series of Necropolis quests and this character joined as we were entering a flooded tomb. The quest involves a lot of swimming, and some form of Underwater Action item, a Waterbreathing spell or skilful swimming between air pockets is required. I made sure that everyone in the group knew what was required through both text and spoken word.

Despite this loud and clear message, as we swam through the first stretch of water, Aussiegem suddenly began to lose hit points, and then, as from nowhere, “Ping!” she was dead.

“What happened?” I asked, surprised and disappointed as her death had just cost us 10% of the experience reward. I got no response and typed the message. “What happened?” Other players simply placed “?”s in the party chat.

Aussiegem took a while to respond, but when she did, it wasn’t especially helpful. “I think I drowned.”

By this time I had already swum back and collected her soul-stone. We had no means of raising her from the dead, as she was, after all, the cleric, so I carried the stone along with me, en-route to the shrine, which was some way off. In the meantime, I asked if she had some form of Waterbreathing item or spell. I also encouraged her, as a cleric, to take the spell if she needed it when she rested at the next shrine.

Sadly, however, she didn’t seem willing to take any of this advice, and after having used the resurrection shrine and come back to life, she promptly drowned again in the next stretch of water. I couldn’t quite believe it, and was annoyed already, because in truth I could have solo’ed the quest with Jasparr and only brought other people for the rest of the series.

I took her back to the shrine once more.

“What happened?” I asked. This time she replied more promptly.

“I’m only playing with one arm. I got stuck.”

Oh dear, I thought, an amputee! Poor girl, must have an impossible time navigating with just the keyboard. How does she do it? I’d best go easy on her then.

The next time we swam, I stuck with her and led her to the next chamber. This time she made it, and, after the fight, there was a chest to loot. Aussiegem, to whom I now felt some slightly restored sense of sympathy, got her loot and, hey presto – she found a Ring of Underwater Action! This was quite a rare drop and, as the rest of the group can see what drops for other players from a chest, I suggested, both in speaking and in text, that she put it on immediately as it would enable her to stay underwater as long as she liked. There was no response in the party chat and I feared the worst. I retyped the message and re-iterated it over the mike, but still got no response.

Off we went again, into the next stretch of water, when suddenly, “Ping!” she drowned again.

This time I was really pissed off. No one, however much of a noob, who was a native English speaker and perfectly capable of receiving my written and spoken commands, should be capable of such a total and utter balls up.

“What the hell happened?”

“I think I drowned again,” she typed.

No shit Sherlock. “But why didn’t you put the ring on?”

“What ring?”

“The underwater action ring. You looted it from the chest two minutes ago. I told you about it. We all told you about it. Check the text.”

There was another long pause, then, after two minutes she wrote:

“I’m playing with one hand, I’ve got me baby on me lap.”

I believe I deserve some credit for the restraint I showed at this point. I was not only hugely annoyed, but also disappointed because female gamers were few and far between and most of them were excellent. Aussiegem was giving them a bad name.

“OK,” I typed in response. “Stay dead, I don’t need you. If you can’t be bothered playing the game properly, especially when playing a class that requires you to be on the ball, don’t burden groups with your half-arsed, non-existent efforts. I’m booting you as soon as this quest is done, and if you can’t work out why, it’s your own problem.”

Sure enough, I left her for dead and didn’t bother taking her back to the shrine. She still got the end reward at completion, but I wasn’t about to escort her to the chests. I booted her after completion and swore never to group with her again. When, some weeks later, I was running Jasparr out in Gianthold in another chap’s group, she joined and my heart sank. I hoped to goodness that in the weeks that had passed something might have changed, but when she died twice reaching the quest entrance, I knew we were in for a similar ride. I panicked, made an excuse, apologised to the group leader without saying a word and quit the party.

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“The meek shall inherit absolutely nothing at all, if you stopped being so feeble you could have so much more.” – Pulp, The Day after the Revolution

 

Clearly there was something wrong with me. I was hooked on a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game (MMO), had been playing it for almost nine months, and not once, since I first signed up, had I teamed up with other players. You may wonder why anyone would solo a game that is optimised for group play, but then you’d be failing to take into account my somewhat shy nature when it comes to approaching strangers.

It wasn’t entirely true that I had never played in a group. I had briefly recruited my friend Steven to play with me for a week when I first signed up, but after his departure, I avoided grouping with any other players. It was unfortunate because, apart from the fact that it was extremely difficult to advance without grouping, as most mid to high-level quests were sufficiently challenging to require more than one player, I was also missing out on a hell of a lot of fun.

My reluctance to group was especially odd because, on the rare occasions I’d done it in other games, I’d thoroughly enjoyed it. Admittedly, however, this was not generally with strangers. At the end of 2005, before I left Sydney for Cambridge for the second time, I’d spent a good few nights staying over at my old buddy Mike’s new house. He hooked up two computers and we played some long, heavy sessions of Neverwinter Nights. It was an awesome gaming experience, for we were playing a very excellent series of modules written by a community member and posted free to www.nwvault.com called The Aeiland Saga. The game combined the very best elements of a good story, excellent challenge, exciting locations and plentiful surprises. Mike and I were enthralled to say the least, though I likely more so than he, and when it was over, I was gutted.

I also managed to get my brother on board and we too played some Neverwinter Nights modules before my departure. Firstly over a LAN connection at our folks’ place and then via the internet. Once I was back in England, we linked-up through the multiplayer server and teed-up times to play together; me lying on a double bed in my house in Sturton Street, early in the morning, and he at his desk in the spare room of his house in Brisbane, late at night. I was, of course, playing none other than Hallifax Bender, my favourite altar-ego.

I had also experienced playing in groups in World of Warcraft and this had been a largely positive experience. I’d been impressed by the willingness of completely random strangers to offer help and support, and to go out of their way to assist with something from which they had nothing to gain. Still, my group-play experiences were limited and, when I signed up to Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO), I, in my stupidity, spent nearly nine months playing the game solo.

As a consequence of this, I’d reached an impasse. I had several characters on the Sarlona server, but none of them had advanced very far. I had managed, through many hours of blood, sweat and tears, to get Hallifax Bender to level 8 and several other characters, such as Tollande Rollmops, Bethanie Brinsett, Summer Thingis, Hondeydrop Sundew, Badajon Yarnspinner and Arnalde Holdfast to around level 5. It was, however, difficult to go much further as there were few quests in my level range that I could complete solo. What I had managed to do, however, was master the workings of the local economy, and, through the harvest and sale of collectables, my toons, despite their inadequacies, were loaded with gold pieces.

There came, at this time, a very significant update to the game which made a lot of important structural changes and introduced new features. Most prominent amongst these was a decrease in the penalty for characters of higher level completing lower-level quests, some important graphical tweaks, and the introduction of hirelings. Again, just at a point where my interest in the game was flagging, when I was spending most of my time simply buying and selling things on the auction house to make virtual money, these changes brought me right back into the game with renewed enthusiasm. The introduction of hirelings was a godsend. Hirelings could be purchased for a relatively small sum from vendors around the city of Stormreach and they gave a player the opportunity to, for example, have a cleric in the group who would heal automatically, thus freeing up the player to focus on combat. They could also be commanded via a hotbar that allowed the player to cast the hireling’s spells or use their abilities directly.

For someone in my position, who had played the game for so long as a solo-artist, having to perform all my own tasks and make continuous tactical withdrawals from combat to heal myself, this was a huge blessing. Now, with a cleric hireling in tow, healing my sorry ass every time I got hit, I found I could make much faster progress. The problem was that this still only really allowed me to take on quests at a low difficulty level and usually below my character level; partly because of the considerably greater difficulty of many mid-level quests, their length and complexity, but also because I was running toons I’d made a long time back who were not especially well thought-out.

What hirelings also did for me was to open my eyes to the far greater potential for completing quests with back-up. Within the space of a week, using hirelings had become not so much a norm as a necessity, and, though frustrated by their occasionally dodgy pathfinding and response times and restricted to one hireling per character, I began to ponder how much better a real human would be at providing such services; indeed, how much better it would be with a full-time rogue, another tank or melee build, a caster, an archer and a buffer, for example. Slowly, like the long thaw at the end of an ice-age, it was beginning to dawn on me that I should re-examine my seemingly baseless embargo on grouping. It was time to harden the fuck up, and I went out and bought a new top-shelf wireless headset. I was resolved that, the next time someone invited me to join their group, I would accept the offer.

It wasn’t long before I received a cry for help. A level 16 wizard called Kalsto, who was running quests on Elite difficulty for favour – ie. the cumulative reputation from quest completion which brings in-game rewards and privileges – needed someone to pull a lever for him in part 2 of the Delera’s Tomb quest chain. There were many quests that could not be completed solo because they required different characters being in different places simultaneously and, despite the fact that hirelings could now be utilised to perform such tasks, it seems this chap was fixed in his belief that the only way around this problem was to use a human player. Thus far my experience of the Delera’s Tomb quests was entering part 1 with Hallifax Bender and getting shredded by a spectre before I made it past the first major obstacle. What had impressed me, despite the rather relentlessly bland interior of this poor dead girl’s tomb, was that the Dungeon Master’s narration was done by none other than E. Gary Gygax, the father of Dungeons & Dragons. There was even a memorial shrine to him built just around the corner in Delera’s very large graveyard, added to the game after his death (Raise Dead spell pending, we hope). Not knowing the quest at all, I felt reluctant to join with this chap as I didn’t want to screw things up for him. When I explained this, however, he assured me it was all good and that he would tell me what to do. Thankfully, he was noob-friendly!

So it was that Badajon Yarnspinner, my 6th-level Bard / Rogue / Barbarian, found himself standing inside Delera’s tomb with a master of the arcane arts. At level 16, Kalsto would receive no experience for the quests whatsoever, despite them being on elite difficulty. I too would receive nothing other than favour, on account of Kalsto’s level and the fact that I was being power-levelled, as the game called it, because I was grouped with a player four levels or more higher than myself. Kalsto buffed me in a way I’d never been buffed before: Blur, Stoneskin, Haste, Displacement, Jump, Protection from Evil and all manner of elemental resistances, and my job was simply to stay alive and keep up whilst he torched all the undead with maximised, extended Firewall spells.

I followed in his wake, marvelling at how rapidly all the spectres, wights, ghouls, ghasts, skeletons and wraiths died in his walls of fire. Kalsto would simply dance around the undead, practically untouchable behind all his buffs, luring them all into the flames. It was an awesome display of power, and we quite literally ran through each area, often simply ignoring half the trash that was not of a mind to follow us. What really got me excited, however, was that, by virtue of these quests being run on elite, all the chests were dropping far better loot than I was used to and I quickly saw that if I should stick it out, I might get a nice piece of equipment or two.

When it came to my turn to pull the lever, however, I quickly ran into trouble. Kalsto stood by the iron gate he needed to access, whilst I stood across the way in an alcove next to a large metal lever. I pulled the lever and, suddenly, a bunch of skeletons spawned and attacked me. I tried desperately to pull the lever a second and then third time, as I had been instructed, for Kalsto had to progress through a series of gates, and just managed to do so before the undead swamped me. I put up my shield and defended as best as I could, determined not to die and suffer the shame and embarrassment. I hammered and pummelled with everything I had, but I was getting smashed to bits and was forced to flee. I must have run through half the length of the vast tomb we had already traversed, healing myself and fighting to stay alive. Eventually, I managed to get into a tight corner where I could fight against one attacker at a time and was able to beat down the skeleton horde that had set upon me. When Kalsto joined me a few moments later and blasted the last remaining skeleton to pieces, I was still alive and much relieved. He was very apologetic. “Sorry man,” he wrote, “forgot about those spawns.” We were all good, and I felt oddly pleased with myself. All that solo training had done me the world of good in keeping my sorry ass alive.

I followed Kalsto through the remaining quests of the chain in search of loot, and surprised myself by being useful here and there in disarming traps and opening locks. I don’t think Kalsto was very fussed about the loot himself, but I certainly was and enjoyed picking the locks on the two extra chests after the boss fight in Thrall of the Necromancer. When it was all over and we parted ways, I was buzzing like never before. Not only had the experience been brilliantly good fun, but it also showed me just how much more of the game I could explore and enjoy with proper support. I sold and auctioned my loot, went to the tavern to rest and repair, logged out and hit the sack, exhausted but thrilled. I couldn’t get the game out of my mind and dreamed of what I might do next time I logged in.

Despite my enthusiasm, it wasn’t until two nights later, on a Tuesday, that I had the chance to play again. I was checking the post on Bethanie Brinsett, when I received a tell from a barbarian called Kazorn asking for help in running the quest Gwylan’s Stand. Again, this was a quest I did not know at all and replied stating that I was unfamiliar with it. They were desperate for a healer and said not to worry, so I agreed to join the group and met them in the city’s Elven ward, House Phiarlan. Now that I was with people my own level, and now that I was expected to heal the entire party, I found myself in a very different situation. I had no experience playing a healer in a group and soon found that I was not only running desperately short of mana, but that I had insufficient wands in my inventory. Gwylan’s is a sprawling quest, set amongst ancient ruins overrun by bugbears, minotaurs, hobgoblins trolls and evil elves, and I struggled to stay with the group. It didn’t help at all that the tanks were zerging all the time, ie. charging ahead and not waiting for everyone else, so I soon got completely lost and separated from the rest of the team. Fortunately, however, the group’s rogue, Quinthel, a nice American woman, took me under her wing and helped me find everyone else in the rather confusing collection of entrances and exits. She also gave me a bunch of healing wands to assist in my job, as I had come into the quest both low on equipment and not really understanding what was required.

Once I caught up with the other players, I devoted my efforts to healing them, but they weren’t especially happy with me. I was annoyed at this reception because they had urged me to join their group anyway, despite my reservations and despite my having told them I was unfamiliar with the quest, but I was also disappointed with myself as I wanted to do as good a job as possible. In retrospect, having later had a great deal of experience as a healer, I understood that it was entirely their fault for zerging. As many clerics write in their Bios, “I can’t heal stupid.” If you want heals, don’t run away from the healer.

What did please me very much, however, were the rewards of the quest. Not only were there six or seven good chests in it, but it paid roughly 8000 experience points, which was vastly superior to the sorts of returns I was used to. If I could make so much XP in half an hour, compared with several hours of more stressful solo slog, then surely grouping was the way forward.

After Gwylan’s I switched to Badajon and rejoined the same group. I now had the pleasure of listening to one of the other group members  slate my efforts as a cleric, unaware that I was the same player! I took it on the chin, knowing he was being unfair, but also knowing that, were I placed in the same situation again, I wouldn’t be unprepared. My worst fear of grouping had always been looking like a noob, and sure enough, I had done, but I had survived. Not only that, I had learned from the experience in a way I wouldn’t forget. No amount of solo play could have taught me as much about being a cleric.

Now, having switched to back Badajon, I looked forward to playing a character who was not quite so pivotal in the group. The chap who had slated me soon left, along with Kazorn and a couple of others, and Quinthel took over the party, recruiting further players as replacements. The plan was to run the Waterworks quest chain on elite next; something I’d solo’ed repeatedly, though not on elite, and which had taken me a hell of a long time to master. Now, again in a full group of six, with a rogue, ranger, wizard and surplus bard, though forced to use a hireling cleric owing to the difficulty of finding a real one, I finally felt as though I had arrived.

The time tag on the above screenshot says 04.57AM, Wednesday morning, May 20, 2009, and it is indicative of how utterly immersed I became on this occasion. It also shows Badajon topping the kill count by a considerable margin; not surprising considering I was the principal melee character in a group with no real tanks, but still impressive in my books for being my first group venture as a fighting build. Countless hours of solo play had taught me how best to use what I had at my disposal and now, with decent back up, I found that, when it came to fighting, I was quite formidably fast at doing what needed to be done; faster than many others. I wasn’t such a bad player after all. Woot!

What I loved most of all was the camaraderie. Never before had group play in any game been so visceral or so much fun. In a game that was played completely live, with no re-loading of saved games possible, let alone any saving of the game, everything was played out in real time. It was thus important to act fast, to act together, and to communicate. My Gwylan’s Stand experience had taught me what happened when players didn’t communicate, but this second group looked out for each other, stuck together, and no one died. There was friendly chat, jokes, exchanges of advice and information and, in the space of a very short time, I felt sentimental towards the other players. If someone fell behind or got into trouble, we went back and helped them. We praised each other’s efforts, laughed at our mistakes and were generous with things we looted and did not need. When the session finally finished at around 0530 AM, I was exhausted, but completely high on the game. Computer gaming had just achieved a level I had never really dreamed of, and it had been staring me right in the face for so damned long.

That evening was the beginning of a long, long period of sleeplessness. Once I started grouping properly, I could not countenance going back to the old ways. Being in a party made everything easier, quicker, and a hell of a lot more fun. It was a brilliant thing to talk to people over the voice-chat, or to communicate by typing. My stagnant learning curve took off like a shot and I found myself developing an intimate knowledge of quests, dungeons and wilderness areas that I never could have dreamed of achieving solo. I soon found myself chatting with people from all around the world, though the Sarlona server was largely populated by American players. I made friends with several players and ran with them repeatedly; started to recognise other player’s avatars around town, in groups, on the social panel, and thus began to feel like part of the community; a true resident of Stormreach. I was surprised by the demographic make-up of the players. Most people were in their twenties and thirties, and there were many players who had, like me, been playing Dungeons & Dragons since first edition. As totally and utterly nerdy as it might seem, it was a dream come true for a D&D tragic like me to find so many other people like-minded people, who shared the nostalgia for the game.

I soon learned that it was pointless trying to role-play in a game like this. Apart from the fact that many players had limited English, it was rather too much to expect everyone to get on board and in character, especially when parties often broke up after a single quest. To role-play would require a dedicated group of players who met regularly, and anyway, it was interesting enough meeting such a wide variety of personalities.

It wasn’t long before I saw my chance to take Hallifax forward and switched to running on him as often as possible. He was, perhaps, my strongest build and most groups liked to have a bard along to enhance their combat prowess with songs, and to buff and haste them. When Hallifax began to level rapidly, I was thrilled. He had been at the coal-face for so long; the true pioneer of most of the challenges I had faced in my solo days. After the first runs on Bethanie, it had been Hallifax who experienced most quests first and he had died countless times, finding himself hopelessly outgunned. Now, at last, surrounded by good people, Hallifax began to shine like a true champion. Other players warmed to him and would express their delight when Hallifax joined the group. No doubt this was because I was enjoying the game so much that I was always laughing and joking. Hallifax was always ready with a quip, just like all bards should be, and, just as a bard is supposed to do, I felt I regularly lifted the group’s morale. It was on Hallifax that I met one of my longest running online comrades, another Bard by the name of Holz Amboss. Holz was an Australian like myself, and a relatively new player. He was intelligent and well-spoken and always good company and we teamed up for many consecutive nights, playing well into the wee hours, laughing and joking our merry way through quests. Holz and I taught each other a lot; we filled in the gaps in each other’s knowledge, exchanged money and equipment where necessary, and always made sure that people in our group were happy and well looked after.

For the rest of that month of May and halfway into June, I played DDO at every given opportunity. I no longer cared about sleeping at all and stayed up until dawn almost every night, when there were many more players online. I advanced Hallifax to level 12, indulging in ever more challenging and interesting quests. The game was far more colourful than I’d ever imagined, with some truly classic quests and beautifully rendered areas to explore.

There were so many quests that even after six weeks of continuous group play, there was still a huge number I was yet to run. Very rapidly, the game began to consume my entire life. I doing no writing whatsoever, slumping my way through the days in a dream-like state of chronic exhaustion, keeping myself awake with killer doses of coffee and sugar, codeine, ibuprofen and paracetamol, and then trying to make up for it all every Saturday night when I stayed at my girlfriend’s house and slept for about twelve hours. I kept up running and took no time off work, but I was just making it through my lessons, teaching English as a second language. I was a walking wreck, and we were about to go to South East Asia together for a five-week holiday. I began to have terrible withdrawal fears, in advance of the coming break. Would I really be able to live without DDO? There was  only one way to find out…

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“Money, it’s a gas, grab that cash with both hands and make a stash. New car, caviar, four star daydream, think I’ll buy me a football team.” – Pink Floyd, Money

 

Years ago, as a young man experimenting with narcotics, there was always a line I never crossed – heroin. My principal concern was that I’d like it and, let’s face it, liking heroin is not a good career move. I knew already that I had a tendency towards addiction. I’m a creature of habit and once I get a taste for something, be it music, computer games, reading, writing or running, I tend to crave it to the point of suffering withdrawal.

Despite my reservations about Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMOs), so far as narrative, atmosphere and game-play were concerned, I knew that were I to begin playing one, I might well be sucked in. I had watched my friend Chris struggle to extract himself from World of Warcraft (WoW) and had read sufficient anecdotal reports of the addictive qualities of Everquest (EQ), so I knew just how addictive these games could be. I had already suffered long years of devotion to games like Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights and Civilization III and IV, for which the craving to play was often very intense. To quit Civilization III I had had to smash the disc to pieces, though I then found I could download the entire game through Limewire in about 15 minutes and the battle went on.

Civilization IV hit me even harder  – at times I could wrestle with it for a sleepless week, in which I ghost-walked from one game to the next. When I visited my brother in Brisbane, it was traditional to start a game of Civ on the Thursday night I arrived and we almost invariably played until well after dawn, thus smashing ourselves to bits for the rest of the weekend. After a snooze and a café breakfast, we would drive home in the car, talking about how we must not play the game again that day, but if we were to do so, which civilization would we play: the Babylonians or Egyptians? By the time we were home, we had already lost the fight and fired it up immediately. Fortunately, Civilization is now long behind me.

I thus had every right to fear MMOs. This fear had particular resonance with me because, as a writer, I needed my spare time to write. It was easy enough to turn up to work and teach English without having to think too hard, however exhausted I might be, but to write required me being focussed and alert and having a clear head. I needed what I was writing to be the dominant narrative in my thoughts and not to be distracted by, for example, thinking over of the offensive strategy I planned to use against the Aztecs.

Bored with the games I’d been playing, and wanting a more lively experience, I found myself mulling over the idea of giving Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) another go. I thought hard about the possible implications, the time-wasting, the craving, but decided I could keep a lid on things. After all, one of my strongest qualities, in stark contrast to my ill-discipline, was the ability to discipline myself when necessary. All I needed was a set of rules, such as ensuring that I slept sufficiently, continued writing, and did no gaming during daylight hours. If I could make myself work, then play would be my well-earned reward, and I had managed, except during occasional periods of obsessive play, to maintain this balance for the last ten years. Could an MMO really be that addictive? Would I really not be able to walk away? I decided to take the risk.

So it was that, towards the end of 2008, I signed up for the ten-day free trial of DDO and sat down to play. I had, of course, played the game for a week two years ago at the time of its release, so this was really a return. When I first played it, however, it had been on a not especially powerful laptop and, in order to avoid lag, I’d had to experience it with the graphics turned down. Having recently built a seriously powerful computer to cope with my heavily pimped Oblivion, I was now able to ramp the graphics up to max. When I finally fired it up, having downloaded all the patches, it looked significantly more attractive.

The first character I created was Bethanie Brinsett, an elf rogue I intended to make a multi-class cleric. I was basing all my ideas of character creation on the types of builds I’d used in Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2, which was a good starting point in theory, but would ultimately have very different outcomes in DDO. It would be a long while before I’d learn the pros and cons of certain builds in this context, but to begin with I was impressed by certain innovations the game had made to the rules.

First and foremost was spell-casting. Rather than the old system of allowing a caster to memorise a certain number of spells, which could be cast a set number of times each per rest period, the game introduced a mana pool which allowed the caster to memorise the same number of spells as in the 3.5 edition rules, but to cast each spell as many times as desired, according to how much mana was available. The higher level the spell, the more mana it required; spells cast using metamagics such as Maximise, Empower or Extend, also cost more mana. It made casters a lot more versatile and able to cast far more often.

Another plus was that spells affecting movement, such as Expeditious Retreat, Feather Fall and Jump, became much more pivotal in this very free-flowing game. One would rarely ever make use of such spells in the pen and paper game, as the limited number of spells one could use between rest periods meant it was usually more effective to preference offensive casting and healing rather that buffs.

The game also did a good job of calculating combat movement and positioning. Especially impressive was the way the way DDO handled things like flanking, making it an advantage to move during melee. The game even mimicked all the dice-rolls, going so far as to display a D20 on the screen, which could be coloured to the player’s liking, every time a roll was made. I’d always thought that the Dungeons & Dragons rules might be too complex or unbalanced to translate to an MMO format where it was necessary to avoid having great gaps between the effectiveness of the classes, but I was to come to learn that the rules actually translated surprisingly well.

Just prior to my rejoining the game, a new starting area, the island of Korthos, had been introduced, and for the first few days I found myself running around in this snowy island and its village. The village was besieged by Suhuagin and being terrorised by an otherwise benign white dragon under the influence of an evil mind-flayer. It had all the markings of an extended tutorial, but it played rather smoothly and I quickly became engaged.

What really hooked me was the free-flowing nature of the game. Despite the fact that, unlike WoW, DDO required area transitions from one map to another, and that all quests were instanced so that only a single individual or party could undertake them, and that the world was considerably smaller, with only one major city and, admittedly quite a number of surrounding areas, it seemed like a nice compromise between the open world of the MMO and the single-player gaming experience. The avatars ran, rolled, tumbled and swung with a very pleasing fluidity. The animations were well done and the detail on characters’ faces, despite relatively limited options for customisation, were above par for MMOs, where texture detail is usually sacrificed to ensure speed in crowded areas where bulk rendering is required.

To begin with I was pretty crap. Like all noobs, I was clumsy and slow, despite being well-practised with the standard WASD movement of first-person shooters. I didn’t know how best to make use of hotbars, knew little of the game’s quirks and workarounds, had no sense of perspective and proportion and didn’t really understand the significance of items I looted. I was also completely broke and didn’t know what I should be looking for. Nor did I know what quests I ought to do, or how difficult the challenge might be. I made a lot of fundamental errors; for example, not knowing that when I died, if there was a resurrection shrine within 10 seconds running distance of where I was slain, I could run to it and click on it to come back to life.

The starter area, however, was mercifully easy and initially I made the mistake of thinking the rest of the game might be equally easy as well. Ultimately it was, but only once I knew what I was doing, had the right build and some back-up. I shudder to think of how difficult I found many low-level quests in Stormreach Harbour, even on normal difficulty level. Of course, the problem was largely that I was trying to solo them, having, in my typically shy manner, decided not to group with other players. I could have learned so much more quickly had I had the sense to team up with other people.

I did, however, manage to recruit my friend Steven for a short while. He created a rather wan-looking chap called Relwan and together we ran around Korthos. The game was certainly considerably easier with another player on hand, and I taught him what little I knew about how things worked, including giving him very had advice as to how to build his character. Still, not having progressed from the 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, he was completely at sea with 3rd edition, so my advice was better than nothing. We played together over a few consecutive nights and I very much enjoyed having someone to chat with. We fought, tumbled, shrined and danced side by side, and for a brief while there I thought I thought he might stick it out. Sadly, however, Steven decided he’d had enough when the trial expired, and I was left bereft, with no company and no back up. It goes without saying that, on the back of this, I should have gotten over my issues and grouped with some other players, yet something held me back.

I don’t understand why I felt so shy. I am somewhat sociophobic and have a deep paranoia about what people think of me, so my biggest fear was being outed as a total noob, despite my countless years of Dungeons & Dragons experience in various formats. I chose instead to bide my time learning the ropes, developing an understanding of the economy, the context, the scope and what have you. Another problem was that I was afraid of not knowing the quests. I had no idea how sympathetic people would be and had seen many advertisements on the social panel with, in retrospect, rather unfriendly statements such as “Know the quest”; “no noobs” and the like. It didn’t give me confidence.

I always thought of joining groups, but just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it, even when players sent me a “tell” asking for help. And anyway, despite its frustrations, and this in the era before hirelings became available, I was very much enjoying the solo game. I thought grouping might be immersion-breaking; that, as had been the case in WoW, people would simply run through quests without explaining anything or bothering to role-play. I also feared that too few players took their gaming seriously. There were some truly awful-looking characters running about Stormreach, with ridiculous names like IKillU, DeathRage, YoMama, SmashYourFace, MeHealU and so on, that I thought these people were largely jokers. There were, of course, many very excellent looking characters, with thoughtful names and fine attire, who preferred, as I did, looking attractive or handsome rather than terrifyingly ugly. The question was, how, if I were to join random groups, would I be able to apply the shit-filter?

Ultimately, however, I was enjoying the game. Playing solo gave it the feel of a single-player game, but with the advantage of being in a living game-world with a real economy. Either way, it was working just fine for me and, by the time the ten-day trial was due to expire, I was already sufficiently hooked to sign up for a subscription. It was, to say the least, a fateful moment.

Having made a lot of mistakes with my first build, and having learned a thing or two during the trial, I decided it was time to create another character. It wasn’t long before Hallifax Bender was on the scene. Hallifax was a character I’d played in various different games – a swashbuckler in pen and paper D&D, a bard in Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2 – and this time around I made him look like a dark-skinned Norse god. I had spotted another “toon” hanging around the harbour with an enormous white beard and decided that I wanted one as well. I have always liked to play the dilettante minstrel and Hallifax Bender was my default name for such a chap.

I, as Hallifax, continued to blunder around like a fool, slowly improving my understanding of the game, enjoying the challenge, but also being constantly frustrated by my failings and inadequacies. Still determined to play the game solo, I had to use tactics and caution in every situation, and doing this for positively weeks on end actually proved to be excellent training in the game. I was forced to take things slowly, to read everything, to sneak and hide and surprise my enemies, and, wherever possible, to run to a safer position and hold my ground as best as possible. I slowly developed an intimate knowledge of all the low-level dungeons. Stormreach harbour seemed packed with quests and, to begin with, I spent all my time there. One reason for this was that I was told by a city guard that I could not access the marketplace, and thus, the other city wards, until I’d completed a certain quest chain called The Waterworks, which was proving very difficult for me. What I didn’t know was that I could have just bribed the guard! Noob.

The game continued to be a frustrating experience, but it also had me hooked. Once I’d begun, I devoted all my gaming time to DDO. I began to develop cravings to play, but during the first few months, I kept things under control and only played at night. I avoided overlong sessions and didn’t let the game get in the way of sleep. As a player, I was improving slowly but surely. Refining my tactics and knowing what to expect made a huge difference. Hallifax was hardly a killer build, as a Ranger / Sorcerer / Bard multiclass, he was too thinly spread to be very effective, but his versatility was advantageous for solo play. I mostly ran on Hallifax, but I couldn’t help myself from switching back to Bethanie here and there, nor could I resist the lure of creating new characters. I went back to a few old favourites. Arnalde Holdfast was reborn as a Paladin and Summer Thingis returned as a Ranger, though I was forced to call her Summerr on account of her first name already being taken. As the first name is the most important on a server, and all messaging and mail is addressed to the first name only, it cannot be duplicated.

I didn’t stop with Summerr, either, for I also created a rather hapless chap called Tollande Rollmops. I wanted to see if it were possible to make a purely arcane character work, one who began as a Bard, then took a level of sorcerer before advancing as a wizard. Again, I was locked into my Neverwinter Nights mindset, wherein I believed I could make such a build work and still engage as a melee combatant. Tollande proved, to all intents and purposes, to be almost entirely useless, though he later found a role as my principal auctioneer once I began to flirt with the auction house properly. Had I allocated his stats and feats correctly, he might just have worked as a versatile wizard and spell-point guru, but I was a long way from making full sense of how best to put such a build together. What I also lacked was good equipment.

The main problem I faced in the game, apart from my unwillingness to group, and some ill-planned builds, was that I had no money and was forced to use inferior equipment. It was only when I really began to get a handle on the local economy, after several months of play, that my circumstances began to improve. I figured that my fortunes might improve incrementally as I crept up in levels and slowly acquired more gold, but I could never have predicted the great leap forward that was about to come.

Only those who have played MMOs can truly understand the lure of the auction house. I suspect, however, that Wall Street traders and stockbrokers must go through a similar experience of anxiety, excitement, withdrawal, desire and lust. I lusted after gold as so many have in the past, though the money I set out to make was all, of course, virtual.

When first I began playing I had no idea as to how to make money. The one lesson I hard learned from WoW, however, was that, with the exception of vendor trash, there was potentially a market for everything. If I sold items to a shopkeeper in town, I’d get about 10% of their listed value; yet I could name any price on the auction house. For my first few months, I experimented with the auction house, putting pretty well every piece of crappy loot I found up for auction, including total rubbish like a Ring of Swimming +3 or masterwork weapons. Still, I wasn’t to know what was valuable and what wasn’t, and I priced them so thoughtfully, below purchase price, but above what I got from the vendors, that I managed to sell them. Naturally items would sell according to the laws of demand and supply, yet it takes time and experience to know what is in demand and what’s not. It also takes as long time to learn which items are genuinely rare. Interpreting the value of loot also requires an understanding of the game’s different classes. A new player who has only played a fighter is not going to understand immediately the significance of, say, a Superior Potency III Sceptre, which increases the damage of a wizard or sorcerer’s 1st to 3rd-level spells by 50%.

For the first few months that I played the game I was dirt poor. I’d pick up the crappy loot from low-level chests and sell it to the vendors and brokers for peanuts. I’d auction anything I thought might sell and made some extra pocket money. It took me almost a month just to accumulate 30k gold, which is a drop in the ocean in game terms, considering a decent weapon might sell for between 75k and 250k and possibly much higher. There were items on the auction house being sold for 12 million gold, though I didn’t actually believe anyone could have this kind of money in the game, which was, admittedly, rather naïve of me.

The turning point came with the arrival of my first Festivault. Festivault was the in-game festival which occurred around Christmas time, running for roughly six weeks. During this period, chests would also drop Gold, Silver and Copper tokens which could be exchanged with one of the festival jesters for cakes and cookies that cast spell-like effects in the same way scrolls did. The cakes and cookies, however, cast the spells as though by a high-level caster, say 10th or 15th level, thus giving them greater power, penetration and duration. They also had the advantage of being usable by any character at any level. Initially I used them myself  to assist Hallifax and co. in difficult situations, but one day, whilst checking the auction house, I noticed that certain of these cakes sold for quite remarkable prices. Or, rather, they were listed for a lot of gold, though I did not really believe anyone would spend so much for a single-use item. All the same, it was worth a shot, so I put the cake that cast Blade Barrier as a 15th level spell up for sale at 100k and waited. I didn’t have to wait long, for it was sold within an hour, and suddenly, for the first time in my four stumbling months of play, I had some halfway decent spending money.


I was already playing the game way too much, but it was Festivault that really got me hooked to DDO in a big way. My frustration with the game had been growing, largely on account of my very slow advancement and lack of money. Of course, had I bothered teaming with other players I may have learned the ropes a lot more quickly, but my shyness persisted. Festivault allowed me to buy my first weapons with magic effects on them; it allowed me to buy some decent armour and stack up on wands and potions. I knew that Festivault wouldn’t last forever, so I was reluctant to blow all the money at once and saved a few hundred thousand gold pieces for later times. When Festivault ended, however, I found myself back at square one. Yes, I had made a good deal more money than I’d dreamed of having and had significantly upgraded my equipment, but when the money finally ran out as it no doubt would, I couldn’t see how I was going to make any more of it, apart from the old slow grind.

What I did know was that experienced players had money to burn, and all I need do was find what they needed and grind it. I undertook a new study of the auction house, trawling through every listed item and noting their average prices. This was no small feat as there were countless categories and thousands of different items listed, but I was diligent, and, after all, my Festivault savings were running out rapidly. I needed to find other ways to make money – fast.

I went through my inventories to see if I had anything that might fetch a decent price, but all I had was vendor trash and nothing that seemed to be selling at any sort of decent price whatsoever. Then, one day, about two months after the end of Festivault, I looked again at the “collectables” category.

Collectables were things that spawned from different nodes throughout the game. These nodes took the form of mushrooms, clumps of moss, piles of rubbish and the like, or treasure bags dropped by monsters. From them one could harvest such things as a string of prayer beads, a sparkling dust, a lush cryptmoss, a shamanic totem, a deadly feverblanch etc. There were hundreds of different collectables which could be exchanged with collectors for items such as magic arrows, potions, wands, scrolls, or they could be used in crafting. I noticed now that many of these things were listed for quite staggering prices. A sparkling dust for example, of which I had several in my backpack, was listed at 90k. I hadn’t initially believed anyone would pay such money for them, because I knew nothing about their role in crafting. Yet, on this second look it struck me that with so many collectables listed, surely all these people who auctioned them weren’t deluded. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

I looked in my collectables bag and noticed I had a number of items that were listed at very high prices. I put a few on offer at a price just below the current minimum and waited. Sure enough, as had been the case with the cakes and cookies, within a very short space of time there was a bite on the line and my sparkling dust sold for 85000 gold pieces. Woot!

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Deadly feverblanch were listed at 75k each and I had 12 of them in my backpack! Within a couple of days, I’d put everything that seemed to fetch a good price, or a price at all, up for sale. When I sold a Lightning Split Soarwood for 650k, a Luminescent dust for 500k, and a Fragrant Drowshood for 250k, I knew I’d hit the big time. These more valuable collectables were that not easy to find, but nor were they all that rare. Playing as regularly as I did, I found I’d usually get one truly valuable collectable every couple of sessions.

Suddenly, within the space of a month, I had millions of gold pieces. I was now able to purchase elite equipment and blow money on potions and wands with abandon. I went on a spending spree, buying more powerful weapons and finer suits of armour. I began to collect Elven Chainmail, being especially picky about the appearance of particular suits. I might have been a noob on many levels, but my characters were starting to look a lot nicer than previously. They were also a lot more effective.

This business of making money became highly addictive. I started grinding the dungeons I knew had nodes that dropped valuable collectables. It didn’t always work out, but I could usually collect enough in a session to make several hundred thousand gold pieces. The gold fever didn’t stop with collectables either. In the marketplace were brokers to whom one could sell loot for a slightly better price than regular vendors. These people specialised in things such as jewellery or clothing, armour or weapons, and what players sold to them could be re-purchased by other players. Now with more money, and able at last to shop at these brokers, it didn’t take long to realise that people sold a lot of very valuable items to them for a pittance. Again I began to experiment. I used my still relatively limited experience of the game to judge what would be of use to particular classes, studied the prices on the auction house, and began to purchase things. It soon became another vast gravy train and again, I was making hundreds of thousands of gold every single time I logged in.

When I later began to group with other players, I learned that my auction house skills and understanding of the market were quite exceptional. Many experienced players with high-level characters had money not because they worked the auction house well, but simply through gradual accumulation and the discovery and sale of higher-level, more valuable loot. I felt immensely pleased with myself and was popular, as so often rich people are, because I was generous with my money. I bought potions and wands for clerics, scrolls for casters, dished out funds when people were low on cash and even used gold to bribe the odd player whose services were needed to join my party and abandon the second-rate group of hacks with whom they were currently grouped.

On my first run through the Cursed Crypt quest in the Necropolis with Hallifax, I miraculously pulled an extremely rare item of loot called the Scourge Choker. It was a necklace that caused the character, when struck, to enter into an increasingly powerful rage that raised strength and constitution considerably. I really ought to have kept something so rare, but when I saw that it was listed on the auction house for twelve million gold pieces, I couldn’t resist putting it up for auction. Sure enough, it sold at that price, and after the annoying and pointless auction-house tax, I received just over 8 million gold pieces in one fell swoop.

The auction house was horribly addictive. Every time I logged in I would go straight to the brokers, switch through all the instances, buy up all the good equipment and take it to the auction house. It was a thrill checking the post when I logged in to see how much money I had made. It was a challenge estimating the chance of a sale, setting prices, taking a punt on some borderline things that might just be good for a sale. It took me almost forty-five minutes just to manage my finances each time I logged in, before I actually started playing the game. Some days, I didn’t even bother doing any quests and all I cared about was the auction house and the brokers. The other problem with the auction house was that, being on an international server largely populated by American, Chinese and European players, there were far more players on between midnight and the middle of the afternoon than at night, so in order to find more bargains, it was best to log on in the morning when more players meant more instances in the marketplace – to avoid player overload in public areas – and thus, in effect, more brokers with more loot.

Eventually, after two years of play, I was so good at making money and had so much floating around on various characters, that I wanted a new challenge. I switched from the Sarlona server to Ghallanda, started a new 1st-level character called Swimm Lantern and set about levelling him and making money. I raced through Korthos in a couple of hours, made my way to Stormreach and went straight through some low-level quests, collecting everything I could find.

After selling all the junk to vendors, I managed, after a couple of hours, to accumulate around 3000 gold pieces. I took this money straight to the brokers and bought a couple of useful level 1 items people had sold: Boots of Expeditious Retreat and a Cloak of Shield. These items allowed the owner to use said spells three times per rest, and were useful to low-level players. I knew only too well that experienced players starting new characters would look straight away to buy this sort of equipment, and, paying roughly 1000 gold per item, I put them on the auction house at 15k a pop. Sure enough, they sold quickly, whilst I was out getting more loot and collectables. At the end of my first session, I was already on 25k and now able to buy a greater number of low level items to mark up on the auction house. Within three days, I had hit level 5 and made my first million. Most players to whom I told this did not believe a word of it, one even called me a liar – so, in true school playground fashion, I showed him the money, said “suck on that,” and left his shitty group.

Still, I’m getting ahead of myself. For, it was just a few months after I first began to make money, about seven months after starting to play the game, that I finally accepted the invitation to join a group. I’d thought the game was addictive before, but things were about to go to an entirely new level. The longest waking dream of my life was about to begin.

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“Entertainment can sometimes be hard, when the thing that you love is the same thing that’s holding you down.” – Pulp, Party Hard

It was a simple yes or no question – “Do you wish to uninstall Dungeons and Dragons Online?” – and yet, like so many simple questions before it, it heralded a significant step in my life. I knew what had to be done, I knew that there could only be one answer to the question, yet for a moment I lingered, pondering the consequences. Could I really walk away from the City of Stormreach? Could I really abandon the members of the guild I had only recently begun – The Frozen Spine? Could I honestly leave behind the myriad pleasures of adventuring with friends and strangers in a virtual fantasy world? Would I ever see my wonderful avatars again? The likes of Hallifax Bender, Jasparr Krait of Luskan, Bethanie Brinsett, Honeydrop Sundew, Snowfell Vanish, Arnalde Holdfast, Lucessa Rainsinger, and Yardley “The Scissors” Bruce? Would I really never trade on the auction house again?

What had brought me to this decision was, however, a different set of questions. Did I really want to spend many of my waking hours thinking about characters in a virtual world? Did I really want to suffer further the anxieties of grinding, levelling, equipping my characters, searching for loot and waiting to find a decent group of people to play with? Did I really want to spend hour after hour on inventory management, arranging hotkeys, buying goods from the town pawn-vendors and selling them at profit on the auction house? Did I really want to spend another year in which I barely slept, in which I was merely a ghostly social presence on account of physical and mental exhaustion?

These activities, fun though they could be, were so time-consuming, so thought-consuming, so addictive despite being so repetitive, and ultimately, so utterly pointless, that I could not in any way justify their pursuit a moment longer. What had begun as a hugely fun, thrilling and exhilarating gaming experience then blossomed into an uproarious social experience, had ultimately become a part-time job which required most of my mental faculties, then a dreadful grind wherein I could barely think of anything else. Once I had passed the zenith of pleasure, it took a long while to reach the nadir of despair. I walked away and came back, I took holidays and tried to forget, but ultimately, the lure of the game was so great that only a significant and final step would do the job. And so it was that I pressed the “yes” button, and in an instant, my heart flooded with an unimaginable sense of relief. I felt as though I had put down a very heavy burden. And, indeed, I had.

One of the defining factors of an addiction is the persistence in doing something long past the point of it being any fun at all. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction in the following manner:

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in the individual pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviours. The addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioural control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviours and interpersonal relationships. Like other chronic diseases, addiction can involve cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

Addiction is generally seen as a physical and psychological dependence on drugs or alcohol, yet it can also be characterised as a continued pursuit of activities, despite negative consequences derived from such pursuit. Psychologists have identified many areas of addiction such as gambling, food, sex, the internet, work, exercise, television, pornography, religion, shopping and computer gaming.

I, it would seem, fell into the final category, though it was hardly the first obsession of my life. As a child I had, sure enough, been obsessed with pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons, to the extent that my brother and I once locked ourselves in my room and refused to come down to dinner as we did not wish to stop playing. Later, in early adulthood, I developed an addiction to cigarettes, alcohol and to marijuana, again with varying periods of intensity and rejection and relapse, all, fortunately, now a very long time ago.

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing games (hereafter MMOs) can be especially addictive, largely because there is always something to do. There is levelling to be done, there is equipment to purchase, there is loot to seek out, there is the auction house to trawl through, there are rare reagents to find… the list goes on. There are social obligations, group and guild activities, deadlines, events, and so many targets one can set for oneself that the mind boggles. Each game will have its own incentives to keep one playing. The problem is compounded if you have my habit of continually starting new characters or “toons” and running them up with some tricky, experimental build in mind.

Of course, it is also well to remember that everything is potentially very good fun, and people wouldn’t play these games if they weren’t enjoyable. The problem is the sheer amount of time and effort it takes for one to reach the endgame, if one ever gets there at all. It is estimated that players of World of Warcraft have already played for more than six million years in total. I must have spent positively thousands of hours gaming over the years, but nothing took my time away so successfully as DDO.

Much of the time it felt like great fun, though it was often difficult to tell. There is a significant difference between behaviour designed to stabilise one’s mood, and behaviour that produces genuine pleasure. Smoking cigarettes is not only about fulfilling a physical addiction, nor is it necessarily otherwise for the sake of pleasure, but it is also largely about the reassurance it brings from the anxiety of not smoking.

Similarly, people who check Facebook repeatedly often do it less for pleasure than to allay the fear of missing something, or of not being up to date. I won’t attempt to venture an opinion about addictions I have not experienced, such as heroin, suffice to say that where physical necessity is not involved, the desire to do something repeatedly is often driven by anxiety about not doing it, rather than the joy of doing it.

So how did it come to this pass? What drew me in, and what, you may be wondering, was all the fuss about? Well, allow me to explain.

I have always taken my gaming rather seriously. A little too seriously, in fact, for I was a snob about role-playing games. I felt I had a right to be so, however, having cut my teeth on 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons back in 1981, and having played a large number of early role-playing systems such as Middle Earth Role-Playing Game (MERP) / Rolemaster, Runequest and Traveller. Between us, my brother and I owned a large number of other role-playing systems, many of which we read but never played; games such as: Chill, Conan RPG, Call of Cthulu, GURPS, Palladium, Twilight 2000, Paranoia, James Bond RPG and Top Secret. We felt confident from a young age that we could sniff out a pretty decent rules system, and many games simply didn’t cut it; still, they were worth a look. D&D and MERP took the cake by a long shot, so far as rules complexity and functionality were concerned, and I was also most drawn to their themes and settings. The aesthetics of these games were essentially an offshoot of genre fantasy, yet as pioneers in the genre of fantasy role-playing, they had their own mood and style. So far as D&D was concerned, this style shifted considerably with the increased popularity of the game and the employment of better artists such as Larry Elmore, who gave the game a more air-brushed, commercial appearance, yet still retained and expanded the sense of epic fantasy.

The need to rely on the imagination with pen and paper role-playing has always been its greatest strength. Most individuals and locations are accompanied by a description, but not by a picture. Take the following example from module EX2, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, by Gary Gygax, first published in 1983.

“This largish room is cluttered indeed. Large, colorful rugs

lie on its hardwood floor. The walls are paneled to about

waist height, and metal brackets with strange, crystal-tipped

torches stick out of them. Several table and floor

candelabra also hold these weird torches. The couch,

chairs, tables, and other furniture are of unusual design and

workmanship. All around the wall are glass boxes that

contain dead insects, or else odd bits of brightly colored

paper stuck on a dark background, placed behind glass,

and framed with wood. Several small animals and birds are

sitting on shelves and tables. They are regarding you with

unwinking stares! In strange contrast to all of this are

numbers of crudely made weapon heads, possibly made by

cavemen, proudly displayed beside the arcane materials

and unknown insects. A large book on a table near the

windows has white pages covered with more small, colorful

bits of parchment. On either side of the windows are shelves

that, in addition to holding the small birds and animals,

contain devices that resemble sun dials stood on edge.

Nearby is a huge mirror (point of entry, possibly) fixed to

the wall. Across from it is a tall thing made of glass, wood,

and metal: a rectangular box at least 7’ tall.”

Once the Dungeon Master has read the above description to the players, a vivid image of the space in which they find themselves will take shape in their minds and they are at liberty to explore the place for clues or whatever it is they may seek. The Dungeon Master will, of course, have further information about the contents of the room, including any nasty or pleasant surprises that may be in store for the group of players, and the DM is also at liberty to embellish the scene at will. The players will also have a quite firm vision of themselves within this space, feeling anxiety and excitement in equal measure for their character who may be on the brink of finding some important information or wondrous item, being poisoned by a trap, falling through the floor, or perhaps facing an attack from the myriad dead animals about the room. As a child, I was constantly transported into these scenes which held me entirely in their grip as events slowly unfolded.

I don’t wish to go too deeply into the lure of pen and paper role-playing games, suffice to say that it is an experience I’ve never forgotten and always longed to return to. As we grew older my brother and I continued to play Dungeons and Dragons and MERP, only stopping when he left home after finishing school. Ever since I have longed to play the game whenever possible, but apart from a few sessions with friends in my final year of high school and an excellent pen and paper campaign in 1994/5 run by my friend Cody, along with the rare revival on a visit to my brother in Brisbane, the sessions have been few and far between. It is largely the difficulty of organising a game that makes it so impossible to play. It also requires a lot of time, a good large table, and a general absence of the nagging bullshit that constitutes adult life, like having to go to work, which is, let’s face it, practically a crime against humanity.

Thus it was, in this barren world without pen and paper role-playing, that I was forced to turn to computer games as a last resort. Computer games had long been an adjunct to pen and paper, yet their lack of graphical sophistication back in the 1980s made them a pretty poor substitute, especially as story elements were usually rather truncated. The first fantasy computer game that attracted my attention was called Phantasie II, which I used to play repeatedly with my friend Mike when I stayed at his house.

Though it was hardly driven by a strong narrative, its length and seemingly epic proportions made the advancement of our party of adventurers a story in itself. It was highly derivative of Dungeons and Dragons – much to our pleasure – and offered a large world to explore full of random encounters, caves, towns and the like. We were certainly very taken with it and for a while it actually superseded pen and paper gaming as a priority.

I have, elsewhere, described the circumstances under which I first encountered the 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons computer game, Baldur’s Gate, and thus will not go into detail here.

https://tragicocomedia.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/baldurs-gate-in-paris/

My discovery of it, in the year 2000 was, however, the long-awaited moment where something faintly akin to the pen and paper experience was replicated for me in a computer game. I became mildly obsessed with playing Baldur’s Gate at first and had a difficult time walking away from it, yet ultimately, I found I could regulate my interest in it and push it back to playing a mere hour a day. Baldur’s Gate 2, however, was so utterly gripping and engrossing that I could not walk away from it. I first got hold of it late in the year 2001, two weeks prior to flying out from Cambridge to Australia for a home visit, and I basically locked down for two weeks and did nothing else. I played it all day and night, smoking roll-your-own cigarettes, drinking tea and coffee and sleeping a bare minimum to maximise gaming time. Even in two full-time weeks of gaming, I only made it halfway through the game and was forced to walk away only by the pressing need to get down to Heathrow. Upon returning from Australia, with a deliberately perverse glee, I started from the beginning again and put my PhD on hold for another month. When I finally finished the game, I felt so awfully bereft that I kept replaying it, despite its having largely lost the ability to surprise me. Even in the face of the law of diminishing returns, I was still sucked in.

After Baldur’s Gate 2, having seen just how well a computer game could be driven by a strong story, I came to expect all games to provide an equally engaging storyline. Thus, along with many other RPG enthusiasts, I keenly awaited the release of Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights, based on the 3rd edition D&D rules, when it was first announced back in 2001/02. Unfortunately, however, the storyline of Neverwinter Nights proved to be a great disappointment. It lacked intrigue, contained wooden dialogue, and the action elements of the game seemed ultimately repetitive. It was practically an advertisement for itself, a sample of what could be done with the engine, yet not a very engaging game. What the game did provide was an excellent platform from which to play Dungeons & Dragons, for Bioware, bless them, had the foresight to release the toolset with the game, so that writers and modders out there could create their own adventures using the same kit as used by the game designers. It was the community response that ultimately made the game what it should have been from the start. There was a veritable explosion of community-written modules which appeared on www.nwvault.com and elsewhere, some of which provided far superior narratives, more engaging characters, more interestingly designed locations and, in some cases, epic scope of up to 150 hours playing time. The amount of work that people put into these games out of love and the community spirit in assisting the writers and designers with play-testing and advice was astonishing. The NWN vault still holds thousands of modules, many hundreds of which are well worth playing, despite the age of the game engine.

So it was, having long been a snob about pen and paper role-playing systems, I now became a snob about computer games. I had very little interest in action-based games without a sophisticated story, though I could enjoy them as a brief diversion. When it came to the fantasy genre, however, I felt there was no room for compromise. Without a story, without a purpose, without the ability to change the world one inhabited, I felt there was no point playing. It was in this spirit, with this attitude quite firmly established, that I first encountered MMOs.

I had certainly heard plenty about MMOs since they first became broadly popular. Everquest, released in 1999, was the game making all the headlines long before World of Warcraft appeared on the scene. The nicknames which Everquest earned make play of its addictive qualities: NeverRest and EverCrack. Everquest was so time-consuming for many players and caused so many broken relationships that an online support group called EverQuest Widows was created, along with sites such as www.GamerWidow.com It became a commonplace for people to apply the suffix “aggro” to whatever called them away from the game or interrupted their attention: “wife-aggro”, “girlfriend-aggro”, “work-aggro” and, indeed, “life-aggro.”

It was clear that the emerging social and cultural phenomenon of the MMO was out of the bag once newspapers began commenting on it outside of their game review sections. Attention was initially largely focussed on people’s playing habits and the buying and selling of virtual property for real money. MMOs were not merely seen as games, but as “chat rooms with a graphical interface”. They were social experiences, and thus, to all intents and purposes, legitimate virtual worlds in which people lived parallel virtual lives.

Despite the attention given to MMOs and their apparent popularity and attractions, I was not initially interested in playing them. This was largely on account of my perception that they were not driven by strong narratives, but instead focussed on goals that were accumulative – repeating actions and quests over and again to level characters and gain items and money. It didn’t appeal to me, though I knew very little about the actual nature of the games and made rather a few too many assumptions.

When I moved back to Cambridge from Sydney in 2006 and caught up again with my old friend and colleague Chris, I found him in the grip of a heavy obsession with World of Warcraft. He and I had, some years ago, shared a strong interest in BG1 and 2 and we often discussed computer games from an objective point of view, being curious about their design and indeed potential. I was, in the case of MMOs, a little too subjective and decided they weren’t for me. However, after spending some time watching Chris play WoW, I found myself increasingly drawn to the possibilities of such a game. Most of all, its scope was very attractively broad, with a whole, vast world to explore – then consisting of two major continents. I liked the fact that travel had to be done manually – players were forced to run, fly, walk or take a ship across large tracts of land or ocean. There was a lot of variety in the terrain and nature of the encounters, though many of the quests and tasks were disappointingly dull and repetitive. I thought it was time to stop disparaging it and give it a go. Sure enough, as I began co-teaching a summer school with Chris in Pembroke College, I took a small attic room in central Cambridge with a fast broadband connection, installed the game and got underway.

It’s fair to say I was quickly hooked. Despite the absence of any strong narrative and the relatively mindless nature of all the quests and objectives, I was sucked in by the scope and free-flowing nature of the world. Most of the games I’d played previously worked on a far more restricted plane. One entered a particular area, be it a dungeon, a town, a cave, a forest or open plains, but to progress to the next map or area required a transition. There were limits to the world, limits to the map. What made WoW so interesting was that there were no limits. It was possible to continue walking in any direction until the geography literally ran out at the coastline, after which one could take a ship across the sea. When one needed to travel longer distances over land, one could hire a griffin and fly across the continent, and one would indeed fly over the land in journeys that could take five to ten minutes. It was always an excellent opportunity to make a cup of tea if I wasn’t busy being mesmerised by the beating wings of the great beast I was riding, or the landscape passing underneath.

Having said that, on the whole I found the game graphically disappointing. The female characters all had man-hands and most races looked silly rather than interesting or attractive. The scale of things was also horribly out of proportion, with avatars often being completely dwarfed by vast cobblestones or planks of wood six times wider than their bodies. I found this to be very annoying, though I should have let it go. Another thing I did not immediately warm to was the sheer number of people active in the game at any given time. I understand now that populated servers are a bonus, but with so many people running around and jumping over my head, it felt like a silly cartoon and not an immersive fantasy game. I didn’t like it either that the world could not be changed. If I finished a quest then nothing in the world was permanently effected; I could just do it again or watch countless other people do it around me. It all seemed rather pointless and meaningless, and yet, I was continually drawn back to playing.

It was when I discovered that I could make in-game money on the auction house by finding ingredients, mixing certain reagents and putting them up for sale, that the game really began to interest me. This real, living economy was something no single-player game could replicate. The other thing that held my attention was the crafting. I chose cooking and fishing for my character and spent the vast bulk of my time doing both of these activities. In fact, in a month of playing, I only made it to level 18, but I had maxed my cooking and fishing skills to their highest possible level. Whenever I got a whiff of a good catch, I’d pop out a line and sit there reeling them in. It was quite therapeutic and I learned a number of recipes either for refining reagents from the fish, or cooking them to make potions and salves that could be sold on the auction house.

It goes without saying that the principal objective of MMOs is teaming up with other players, but I hardly ever grouped at all. It was partly because I wasn’t used to it and felt rather timid, but also because, being a noob, I was afraid of the censure of more experienced players. It should have occurred to me that there were no doubt many other noobs around as well, and the few times I did team up with other players, they were kind and helpful, but I still couldn’t seem to snap out of my single-player mentality. Indeed, the only other multiplayer gaming I’d done, apart from console-based hand-to-hand combat games, was playing linked Neverwinter Nights with my friend Mike and also with my brother. That seemed a far preferable style of gaming as, despite being localised to a module with limited areas and a closed story, there was at least a strong narrative driving the adventure, which, when well-written, brought emotional engagement. I also found Neverwinter Nights to be more immersive on an atmospheric level, if only for not having random idiots jumping over me all the time as they ran around Azeroth.

So it was that World of Warcraft had me hooked, but with deep reservations. What bugged me most of all about the game was that it was impossible to multi-class. One was either a mage, a druid, a hunter and so on, and each class was restricted in the items they could use or armour they could wear. I found this awfully simplistic compared to the variety and complexity of Dungeons & Dragons and couldn’t stand the thought that no matter what I did, I’d have pretty well exactly the same build as everyone else playing the same class. It reminded me of the arbitrary silliness of 1st Edition D&D wherein a Magic-User (read Wizard) was not allowed to use any weapon other than a dagger, dart or staff and could wear no armour whatsoever. Why exactly? Could they not take combat training as well? But before the introduction of the feat system, and the freeing up of class combinations with the 3rd edition rules, this was not possible.

After a month, my reservations had mounted and I was concerned about the time I was spending online, so I walked away. What really got me to walk, however, was the release of Dungeons & Dragons Online. The game had hit the shelves a few months before and CodeMasters, who were running the servers in Europe, were offering free ten-day trials of the game. I signed up, downloaded the game and got Chris to join me in our initial trial.

I was, I have to say, initially quite impressed. The action had a nice flow to it, the combat was exciting and the strict adherence to the D&D 3.5 edition rules, with a few necessary tweaks to make the game workable, made me a lot happier with the structural aspects of the game. What I didn’t like at all was that I couldn’t seem to make any progress, largely on account of being unwilling to team up with other players. Chris dropped out quite early in the trial and I played on until the tenday expired, soloing with very limited success. Again I felt too shy to accept the random party invitations I received from other players and just skulked about the city of Stormreach in a hopelessly ineffectual manner, wondering what was wrong with me. When the ten days expired, I uninstalled the game from my laptop, went back to playing Neverwinter Nights and drooling over screenshots of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and thought that would be the end of it.

Fast forward to 2008. I had returned from the UK to Australia and was busy finishing my Masters in Creative Writing, which I had deferred for two years. I was doing my best to avoid playing any games at all, in order to focus on my writing. There were the occasionally lockdowns with Neverwinter Nights 2 and Civilization IV, but on the whole I managed to remain disciplined until I got hooked modifying Oblivion. This process seemed to open the floodgates again, and once I had finished my degree, having no immediately pressing deadlines, the craving to spend my time immersed in virtual worlds returned.

I have a hard time resisting desire once it is firmly rooted in my mind, and the desire to play computer games seems so innocuous on so many levels, that it’s easy enough to satisfy it without feeling like a heroin addict or smoker. The first true addiction I ever had to a computer game was the first iteration of Sid Meier’s Civilization, back in the early 90s. I didn’t have a computer myself and so had to head around to my friend Mike’s place to play it, but once I got hold of his computer I was very difficult to dislodge. I could sit there all night, until dawn, swilling cask wine, smoking cones and building a civilization to stand the test of time. I was, between 1993 and 1995, living with my then girlfriend Kirstin, and she became very annoyed with me for spending whole nights out without calling, because I simply could not drag myself away from the screen to use the telephone.

I repeated the same behaviour regularly at my friend Rob Curtis’ place; sitting in his front room until the sun rose and then some, unable even to bring myself to go to the toilet. And it wasn’t only the dreaded Civilization that could hold me in its thrall. When Kirstin got her first PC computer, a second-hand 486, I installed Centurion: Defender of Rome on it and, in my first game, played from 2130 one evening until 1300 the following afternoon, only leaving the chair once to go to the toilet and get a glass of water. So the pattern was established early, indeed, it had long been established in the pen and paper days when my friend Gus coined the phrase “five o’clock maniacs” aged 12, after we repeatedly stayed up all night playing Dungeons & Dragons with my brother. When Civilization III came out I was living in Rome doing a post-doc at the British School at Rome. I had submitted my PhD on the 3rd of January 2003 and flown straight there, completely exhausted after four months spent working like a dog until dawn every night and sleeping four hours a day. I had no interest in doing any more work ever again at the time, and when, a week later, I bought the Italian version of the game, all hope of a future academic career died. I had some of the greatest sessions of my life in that place, fuelled by daily visits to ruins, museums and galleries. Armed with a bottle of primitivo, I’d fire it up for positively hours on end. It seemed that when it came to gaming, I was built for immersion – for commitment to the long haul. “Close the curtains and get the heater, bro, this is a lockdown.”

And so it was, around September 2008, that, bored with games I was playing and looking for a new experience and challenge, I began to consider giving Dungeons & Dragons Online another go. After all, most MMOs take a couple of years to get up and running, so far as the in-game economy is concerned, and ironing out problems with the gameplay and interface. I figured that this one had had sufficient time to mature and that it might well be worth another look. I signed up for another ten-day trial, downloaded the game and, after an absence of just over two years, found myself back on the streets of Stormreach.

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