Archive for June, 2010

Playing the Game (part three)

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

hypercube Those of you who are old pros at gaming may find little of use in this post, for it is written for the benefit of less experienced people. For I do love gaming, and because of this I have the desire to share this variety of virtual experience with others, and in particular I am seeking, among other things, to alleviate the frustration many experience when attempting to become gamers. Gaming is a complex undertaking, and those of us who have embraced it as one of our major activities often take for granted all the details we have mastered, and we forget that, to a newcomer, all this jargon, all these dos and don’ts, all this methodology and lore can easily overwhelm and tax the patience and stamina of someone trying to come to grips with it all for the first time.

Face it; we all begin as noobs. The term derives from “newbies”. Originally it merely meant someone new to a computer network or online system of any kind. Just as the human being comes into the world unable to walk, unable to speak, to dress itself, or to find its own food, newcomers to any system find themselves both frustrated by simple details and frustrating to their more experienced associates, who find the slowness, irritability, and cluelessness of newcomers both vexing and amusing. For an easy example, what do you say to someone who demands to know why, in the name of Hollerith, do you have to click a button that says “Start” in order to shut down Windows? The simple answer, of course, is that the Start button on the Windows taskbar is the “start” of a collection of menus, one option of which is “Turn Off Computer”. To a newcomer, it seems ridiculous terminology, the idea of clicking a Start button in order to get to a menu selection that stops it. But we all get used to it and stop noticing how weird it sounds….until we have to explain it to someone new to it.

When a person logs into their very first online game, they are often unable to move. How many of you remember the first videogames, as large as refridgerators, with their fairly intuitive joysticks that you simply pushed in the direction you wanted Mario to move? In online games they refer casually to WASD control, expecting newcomers to understand by magic that pressing the A key moves them to the left, the D to the right, and so on. (This is where I, as a left-handed mouser, have the advantage, as I discussed earlier. I use the inverted-T arrow keys, which seem more intuitive to me.)

Even more frustrating than not being able to move is not being able to communicate. How do you ask for help when you cannot send messages to other players? All online games now feature a chat interface reminiscent of the ancient BBS systems, but you have to know how to get the box you type into to come up on the screen. And even after you learn how to do that, you are hampered by your own level of mastery of the QWERTY keyboard layout. In my own case I never learned to “touch-type” as we used to call it (now it is simply called keyboarding), so writing these words to you, I have to look down at the keyboard as I rapidly peck at the keys. And when you learn how to use the in-game text chat of World of Warcraft, slow as text chat is, you might think some of the players are telepathic, because they can fight and somehow communicate at the same time. This is not magic — it is because they are wearing headsets with microphones and using TeamSpeak, Ventrilo, Yahoo Instant Messenger with voice, Skype, or some similiar application that transmits human voice across the internet so that they can talk hands-free and let their fingers do the walking all over their enemies. And of course they are always suprised to meet someone who tries to game without a headset. To them (to us), it is as if you were trying to play basketball without shoes.

All right, so you are a noob, for now. We all were, at one time. But you don’t have to stay one. Yes, there are a lot of extra details that your friends or the helpful young salesman at Best Buy neglected to mention. There is random, haphazard gaming, casual gaming, and serious gaming. If you want to game well, then you will have to go through some of the same learning experiences we all did. And probably make most of the same mistakes we all made. But you have to learn from those mistakes, and learn quickly, or your friends will find teaming with you painful at best.

Oookay, you have bought your first online game and signed up for access…or maybe you are still in the free-trial period, trying to decide if you want to commit the time and money to this enterprise. You probably want to know how you can get through the learning curve as fast as possible, so that you will not be left in there soloing because no one wants to team up with you. Let’s talk about some of the things that will help you do this.

First, get a computer with a decent graphics card. All of these games require a separate GPU or (graphics processing unit) to take the heavy calculations off the back of your computer’s CPU so it won’t slow to a crawl (crawl = dead in online games). Someday all computers will comes with heavy-duty graphics cards plugged into their motherboards, but for now you might be suprised how many computers are still being sold with inferior hardware. You have to have this. Stop complaining . You wouldn’t expect to drive a car without a motor, or fly a plane without wings, so how can you play a graphic-intensive online game without a 3D graphics accelerator? Just get it.

Second, get a headset with a microphone. Yes, you could do this with one of those came-with-the-computer stick microphones (or the built-in mikes on some laptops) and the speakers that either plug into your computer or are built in. Luckily, just about all computers now come with sound, since people play music and watch DVDs on them. So yes, you could survive without a headset. But headsets are not that expensive, compared to the price of a decent computer. And with a headset you can (a) muffle outside sounds so that you concentrate on the game and (b) play without everyone around you hearing what your guildies are saying in the heat of combat.

Third, get the largest screen you can manage, within reason. These games are immersive, and you feel more in the game when it occupies a significant fraction of your visual field, instead of being compressed into a tiny screen you are peering at.

Fourth, (okay I’ll stop using numbers now) and this is the hardest part, do your best to explain to your friends, lover, spouse, whatever, that when you are gaming it is not cool to tap you on the shoulder or yell “hey, look at this!” I lost a girlfriend partly because she did not or could not understand this point. Being interrupted in the middle of a boss fight when you are the tank or healer can get your whole team killed. People who are not gamers often do not seem to understand that it is not only you that they are inconveniencing. They just don’t get the fact that those swordsmen and sorcerers on the screen are being controlled by real people who tend to get, like, really annoyed when their avatars all die horribly because someone (and we all know who it was) was not focussed, was not  paying attention. Gaming has split up marriages, it is a fact. The best way to avoid screwing up your love life if you are a gamer is to get your Significant Other into gaming too. Spread the addiction, so they won’t think you need counseling. And if, god help you, you are unequally yoked to a non-gamer, then you will have to find ways to spend quality time with him or her when you are not gaming, so they won’t feel neglected and resentful.

Okay, you have a decent computer and screen and headset and you are about to go questing. Now what? The next thing you need is in the game, and it’s a simple but very important thing: room in your inventory. In all good MMORPGS your character has an inventory (sometimes called a bag or backpack) that you carry things in. In WoW, in fact, it is several bags. Before you head out on a quest you need to empty out your inventory, so that when you kill stuff and receive new items (drops) you will have room to carry them back with you. Otherwise you will have to destroy something you are carrying when that cool sword or wand gets dropped by the boss so that you can pick it up. So sell the stuff you don’t really need to an in-game vendor, or shove it into your in-game bank (which most have now) to make room for the gear and crafting materials (often called reagents, a term borrowed from chemistry, where it refers to ingredients) you are going to acquire while you are out roaming about in the virtual wilderness or the dungeons.

We have already covered the basics of team composition and the duties of each kind of team member. Oh, yes, it is perfectly possible in most games to roam around by yourself, in peace and quiet, operating at your own pace. But usually you will get more done if you are on a team with others. And running an instance or dungeon by yourself is asking for trouble unless you are a real pro. So get on a team. Join a guild. Treat these total strangers as if they are important friends…because they just might come to be. Tell them what you need and find out what they need. Finding yourself a place in a good team makes a big difference in almost any game…in all worlds.

You are out there and questing, and you get a call of nature. Do NOT get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of a fight. Take care of such things before you get into a battle. Let your team mates know you will be right back. A simple “brb bio” is considered cooler than saying or typing “be right back, i gotta go sit on the toilet” (bio is short for biological i.e., “I have to go take care of something my biological body in the Real World needs”). Okay, sometimes you cannot avoid an unannounced interruption. The stove has caught on fire, the baby is crying, the pizza you ordered  has just arrived and there is no one else to answer the door, and so on. If that happens, apologize when you get back to your keyboard or headset, even if you do not feel guilty. Do it anyway. It is good manners, and shows your team mates that you have not forgotten them, that you have not deserted them. Most likely they will respond with a “np” for “no problem”. They need to know you will not leave them hanging without a good reason.

Now you have the technology, you’ve set aside the time, you’ve found a team and your place in it, and you’re on a roll. Your bags are empty except for the few things you really need to take along like healing potions. One more thing you need to leave behind: your ego. And one thing you need to take along with you is a sense of humor. If you have any empathy at all, it can be hard to see your own avatar die…but unless you are really amazing, it is likely. You will make mistakes. You didn’t see the three Defias behind that boulder. You didn’t realize there were two bosses in that group. You hit the wrong key and moved forward when you meant to move sideways and agrroed a whole boss group that the team wasn’t ready for. Now your team mates are ghosts running back to their bodies and tempers are likely to be a little heated. If it was your mistake, apologize as fast as you can. One of the worst things to encounter on a quest is a member who screws up and won’t admit it. You apology may be grudgingly accepted, but a little residual irritation is better than the team falling apart or the team leader kicking you from the team because he thinks you are  jerk. And if someone else managed to screw up and get you killed, or couldn’t heal you fast enough, or couldn’t distract the boss from hammering you, and they apologize, then let it go and move on. No one is perfect and eventually everyone will screw up.

Virtual life is no more perfect than real life. Sometimes you get the pony…and sometimes you get what the pony left you. There will be good times and not as good times. But the quest goes on. The relationships go on. There will always be another day, another fight. –MRK

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Playing the Game (Part two)

Monday, June 14th, 2010

hypercube Okay, you have made an avatar in a MMORPG and you are on a team. Now what?

You need to stick to things that (a) you can succeed at, and (b) everyone on the team will enjoy, or at least not be bored at.  If what you are doing does not satisfy these two criteria, you will get your avatars killed and/or lose team members when they quit the team to go do their own thing.

There are basically three kinds of team activities you can pursue.  The first is farming materials. You can move around gathering materials like herbs or ore that your members need for crafting, and protect them from wild animals or enemies who might attack and interrupt them. This is fairly simple and not too risky.

The second type of team activity is farming XP. You can rampage around killing enemies to acquire experience points to level up your character (plus snag whatever drops from the baddies when you scrag them).  The easiest way to do this is to attack loners, like single animals or baddies wandering about by themselves. Having the whole team attack them at once usually brings down a loner quickly and then you move on to the next one.

The third type of team activity is questing or farming bosses. Quests (or missions, in City of Heroes and Champions Online) usually involve fighting bosses also, so I lump these into one category. Bosses are monsters or humanoids with minions or henchmen supporting them. For example, you might be fighting a bunch of thieves who are minions for the head thief, their boss. A boss typically is stronger than his minions, may have extra powers or attacks to hit you with, and has more hit points or health, so it is often hard to take them down by yourself. Exceptionally strong enemies are called elites. Beware the elite bosses! They should be approached with caution.

Let’s say you have a complete team, with a tank, a healer, and one or two people to do DPS.  There is a group of minions around the corner or in the next room or part of the cave, and they have a boss with them. How do you proceed? Some people like to throw caution to the winds and just go for it. Doing this can get your entire team killed. There is an ugly word for gamers who behave that way. They are called noobs.

Okay, it’s a game, a recreational activity, and nobody likes being ordered, “do this, don’t do that” when they are trying to have fun. But try to remember that you are not alone. The team is supposed to work together for the good of all, not for the glory of one. Don’t be a Leroy Jenkins.

The first thing to do when confronting a group of minions and a boss is to note their disposition: are they spread out, or tightly bunched?

If they are spread out, often you can whittle the goup down to a manageable size by pulling. Pulling is basically trying to lure one of the minions away from the group. To do this, you select the one farthest from the others. That way you have the best chance of pulling only one, instead of bringing them all down on you. then you pull them away from the group and gang up on them to kill them quickly. Then if you can you repeat this procedure until the group is small enough to manage in the normal way. Correctly done, pulling takes a little longer but is safer than simply attacking a large group all at once. And safer means you don’t get killed and you can keep on going.

There are three types of pulling. the simplest is the aggro pull. In all online games similar to the ones I am discussing the bad guys and monsters will not notice and attack you until you get within a certain distance of them. This is commonly referred to as their aggro radius. Get inside it, and they go aggressive. The trick is to get inside one guy’s aggro radius but no one else’s, so that only he attacks you. Basically, you move toward the most-isolated enemy , just close enough to make them attack you, then you back off, pulling them after you and away from their fellow enemies. Done correctly, you get one of them — and only one — attacking so you can defeat them without worrying about the rest of the group.

The second kind of pull I called the ranged pull. If your group has people in it with ranged attacks (i.e., mages who can throw fireballs, or hunters that shoot arrows), then you pull the most-isolated enemy away by simply shooting them from a distance. Avoid any kind of attack that has AoE splash. (Area of Effect).  Some attacks will hit every enemy in a certain area. If you hit more than one, then you will pull more than one…or maybe the entire group. So be sure you use a ranged attack that hits only one target.

With both the aggro pull and the ranged pull, there is another consideration: the type of attack the enemy is known to use. If you try to pull an enemy who uses ranged attacks, like a guy with a bow or a sorcerer who throws bolts at you, then the pull might not work. They might see you, get angry, go aggressive….and then just stand there shooting at you. Naturally, this kind of defeats the purpose of the pull, which is to get them away from the group. So with both aggro pulling and ranged pulling, try to anger enemies who have to come after you, not enemies who can just shoot at you.

The third kind of pull I have only experienced in City of Heroes, and it is the most fun: Teleport Foe. In CoH you can learn the power to target an enemy and teleport them closer to you. This can be the best pull of all in that game, because it gives them literally no choice about coming toward you or not. And it works equally well on ranged as well as non-ranged attackers. Of course, it has the drawback that it can miss. And sometimes when it misses they notice you tried and get angry about it. Sometimes, however, even missing with it can have the effect of a successful aggro or ranged pull: they get angry and charge toward you…away from their group. Teleport Foe can also be used to do funny things, like teleporting the bad guy off the edge of a cliff, and watching him fall and get hurt. Always hilarous.

(By the way, these same pulling techniques can be used against your team. If a monster or baddie singles you out while you are teaming and attacks you from the side, do not chase them! They are trying to pull you away. Engage them where you are, or lead them into the team to get help finishing them off.)

Ok, let’s assume that either you have whittled the group down to a manageable size, or they are too tightly bunched to be able to pull some of them. Now what? First, of course, if you have a buffer ( a team member who can temporarily enhance other member abilities like strength, agility, and so on by casting helping spells or buffs ) then the buffer prepares as many of the team as possible by buffing them. Then:

1. The tank goes in and gets them all angry at him. That’s his job, to make them all attack him instead of you. Resist the urge to charge into the fray with the tank. He is doing his job; try to stick with your own if you are not the tank.

2. The healer concentrates on healing the tank, or others who get hurt. This helps the tank keep taking all the aggro without dying.

3. The DPS members (like mages and rogues and ranged attackers like hunters) do as much damage per second as they can to the baddies who are attacking the tank. This can be tricky…because if you hurt them enough you might distract them into forgetting about the tank and going after your DPS people instead.

If all goes well, the tank will hold the aggro, the healer will keep him and anyone else who gets attacked alive, and the DPS folks will help wipe out the group in short order. Some don’ts: (1) If you are the tank, try not to move out of the healing range of your healer, who will then have to follow you, possibly into danger. (2) If you are the healer, resist the urge to attack the baddies; it might pull them into attacking you and not the tank. Try also to resist the urge to chase after team members who retreat when they get hurt. If you follow them off to heal them, you are neglecting the tank, who is getting hit by multiple opponents. (3) If you are the DPS, resist the urge to chase off after baddies who try to run away. Concentrate on the ones hitting the tank.

When everyone does their job well the team is happy. the enemies are dead. People feel safe and powerful. This is a good time to let them know they are all appreciated. Let the healer know you are glad they kept you alive. Let the tank know he is brave and strong. Let the DPS people know they really hurt the bad guys. When a team is doing well, it is a good feeling. People don’t want to leave it. I have been on teams that played together for many long hours and formed lasting bonds. I have also been on teams where someone was selfish, or careless, or acted as if they were all alone and didn’t need to look out for the others. Some of those teams broke up after only one fight or mission.

If you find yourself on a bad team, there are only a couple of things you can do. (1) try to get the jerks to leave and replace them with better members by recruiting in a hurry before everyone gets discouraged, or (2) quit and find a better team. Personally I hate to quit a team, especially in the middle of a mission or quest. But sometimes it is necessary. Not only because you will find yourself suffering on a team where someone is acting like a noob. There is a second reason. If a person acts selfishly, or rashly, or neglects their duties, they are hurting or endagering their fellow team members. If they refuse to change their ways, then sometimes the best you can do is quit and let them go it alone, to send them a message. Everyone needs feedback. — MRK

Next: Part 3 —  hints and tips to make your questing more efficient.

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Playing the Game (Part One)

Friday, June 11th, 2010

The BeamerAt50Okay, some of you have asked for more of my so-called “expertise”, and a couple of you even recommended even longer posts. All right; you asked for it. I’ll share a little of what I have found useful in online gaming. Those of you who are old-timers at online gaming will get bored, I guess. But apparently there are simple things that a lot of people less experienced could profit from hearing explained.

Whether you call them MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) or MOGs (Multiplayer Online Games), the online gaming experience is a whole new genre that has taken the early role-playing “board” games like Dungeons and Dragons, which was played out in people’s imaginations by rolling dice and looking up scores, into virtual reality games like World of Warcraft, in which the computer does all the calculating and you can concentrate on moving around in an apparently “real” invironment and attacking semi-realistic enemies such as humanoids dragons, and so on.

At the moment, I have active accounts in four online games  (World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Aion, and Champions Online) , so I guess I am sort of qualified to discuss the differences and similarities in these games, and perhaps give you a few tips that might turn out to be useful. And in case you are wondering, no, I don’t work for any of these gaming companies, and I get no money from them for mentioning or recommending any of them.

You will notice, however, that I have not mentioned such games as Far Cry, Call of Duty, and others like them. The reason for this is not because there is anything wrong with such games per se. It’s just that I have my own personal tastes as far as escapism goes, and I tend to prefer escaping either into sword-and-sorcery or superhero venues, rather than play the part of a soldier in a historic or future war, a SWAT teeam member fighting terrorists, and so on. WoW and Aion fall into the first category, and CoH and Champions are in the second.

One thing that should strike you when you look at these games is the degree to which they are becoming semi-standardized. I believe that game developers realize that players do not want to spend a lot of time learning an entirely new interface every time they try a new game. So the games, in some sense, imitate each other, so that if you have played one, it is not all that hard to figure out how to play another one.

Two things you see almost all the time are Health and Mana (prounounced mah nah, by the way, not “manna” as a lot of people do). What are these things? They are quantities that affect your ability to survive and attack or defend. The health indicator, often a red or green line, gets shorter when you are getting hurt or wounded, and is a visual interface object like the gas guage on your car’s dashboard. When the gas needle is pointing to Low, you better refill the gas tank. When your health indicator is low, you better take a healing potion, get healed by a fellow player, heal yourself, or your avatar is going to die.

Health is clear. But what is “mana”? it is actually a Polynesian word that refers to spiritual energy. In his sci-fi fantasy novel The Magic Goes Away, author Larry Niven portrayed a world in which magic is dying out because to do magic you need mana, and the world is running out of mana (which, once used, does not regenerate). Ever since, we have seen fantasy games referring to mana as the power source you need to cast spells. So they include another indicator on the game screen, usually a blue line, called mana, which shows how much you have left. When your mage or warlock or shaman or priest runs out of mana, they cannot throw fireballs, cast healing spells, or whatever. Running out of mana won’t kill you like running out of health does…but it will leave you vulnerable and unable to attack or to defend yourself.

Another indicator common to these games is XP (”experience points”). In WoW this is a segmented line across the bottom of the screen; when you fill it all up from left to right by doing quests and killing monsters and enemies, you level up to the next character level. In CoH the XP indicator is cleverly coiled up into a segmented circle to save space. When you fill up the whole circle by performing missions and defeating enemies, you level up to the next character level.

City of Heroes and World of Warcraft both came out in 2004. The genius of CoH is that it recasts the familiar sword-and-sorcery genre into the world of superheroes and supervillains. They use most of the same concepts as the sword-and-sorcery games, but rewritten as it would be portrayed in a graphic novel or a superhero movie. So while in WoW your avatar might be a Warrior fighting with a sword or axe, or a Mage throwing fireballs or frostbolts, in CoH you might be a Scrapper fighting with a sword or axe, or a Blaster throwing fireballs or ice blasts at your enemies. In WoW you travel around on foot or mounted on a horse or whatever; in CoH you can fly like Superman or Super Jump like the Hulk. In WoW you can craft or otherwise acquire armor (which you can see on your character when you wear it); in CoH you can acquire the right to wear a cape.

Both of these games (and Aion, and Champions also, like many others these days) portray a three-dimensional word rendered with accurate perspective on your screen. By “perspective” I mean that when you turn your character the scene shifts as if you had just turned your head. You can walk around a tree or building and see whatever side of it you are facing. Each has its built-in limitations, of course. In Warcraft you can go underwater to mine some ore that is inconveniently at the bottom of a lake or river. In CoH you can fly up and hover over — or land on — the top of a building. (Avatars in WoW cannot flylike superheroes; they can only travel in the air by riding a flying mount such as a griffin or drake or by turning into a bird; heroes in CoH cannot usually go underwater — if you fall off a bridge you will find yourself treading water with your head sticking out.)

In all these games you control the movement of your avatar with a combination of mouse and keyboard inputs. This is where I think I have an advantage. You see, I am left handed, and I hold the mouse in my left hand. This means I can use keybinds that map my power triggers onto the numeric keypad on the right of my keyboard. So I can target monsters with my left hand using the mouse, and hit, say, the numeric keypad 2 key to fire off a firebolt. This is important, because I never learned to touch-type. If I mapped my inputs so that F was for fireball, I would have to look down at the keyboard and find the F key every time I wanted to throw a fireball.  But instead, I use the numeric keypad, which on standard keyboards conveniently has the “inverted-T” left-right-up-down arrow keys next to it. So my right hand can hit the up-arrow key to move forward and then easily shift over to hit the 2 key to throw a fireball. Bottom line: if you are left-handed, I strongly recommend that you mouse with your left hand (not all lefties do, surprisingly) and key with your right hand. If you are a right-handed mouser, then all I can suggest is that you look for a keyboard that has the numeric keypad on the left, so that you can do a mirror-image of what I do.  Otherwise, unless you are smart enough and lucky enough to be able to use a keyboard without looking down at it, you will end up looking up and down all the time and risking getting whacked while you are hunting for the right key to press. Of course, all of these games also display “power trays”, rows of button icons at the bottom or side of the screen, so you can do it all with just a mouse. But in my opinion, it’s just too much work locating the right icon, rolling uyour mouse over it and clicking, when I can just press a key. The neat thing about using the numeric keypad for your keybinds is that your hand doesn’t have to move very far because the keys are all clustered together like the buttons on a telephone. In no time at all you learn the right motion to stab the 3,5, or 8 keys and so on. Very convenient. You can also buy separate numeric keypads if you want.

Ok, so now you have chosen a game and you are ready to play. Choose wisely, because the part of the game you buy in a store (or online via a paid download) can cost you from $20-$50. And you will usually be paying monthly access fees, too. Most of these games feature free trial periods.  I strongly recommend that you try them first before you set up a paying account. The online access for most games will cost you around $15 per month. Depending on how you look at it, that’s either only 50 cents a day (cheap entertainment!)….or $180 a year (much more than the cost of buying the game client!). So go for the free trial. If you find you love it, you can upgrade to a regular account anytime before the end of the free trial (up to 10 or 14 days in most cases). If you just cannot get happy with the game, you simply stop and have not wasted your money.

Okay, you have decided you like game X. Now it is time to get more serious. You need to create an avatar you will love playing so that you will stick with it. Otherwise, you will play half-heartedly and waste your time, then move on. Lots of people have no idea what they want at first, so they experiment with several different types of avatar until they find a good fit for their own personality. Others know what they want and go for it from the start and save time on leveling by sticking with the one character. Let’s look at the types of gaming avatars. It doesn’t matter matter that much which game you chose — the same types are found in most games, and good teams usually need them all. I will introduce them by the role they play on a team — several players working together.

1. The TANK. (Warrior or Paladin in WoW; Tank or Brute in CoH) The Tank is the hard-to-kill character that tries to get the enemy to attack him instead of more vulnerable players. In WoW this is usually a Warrior or paladin because they wear the strongest armor so it take a lot of whacking to bring them down. In City of Heroes the tank is a melee fighter who often fights with his fists, and he or she has the most “hit points” (health) so that it takes a while to wear him down and defeat him. I know a lady who loved being a tank in CoH because she got off on punching the bad guys out. The tank is the centerpiece of a team’s attack; by drawing all of the “aggro” of the enemies, he keeps them from killing off  the “squishy” avatars like the team’s healer — who is usually pretty easy to kill. You don’t want a dead healer! That’s bad news. So the tank goes in there and gets the enemies to attack him instead. He can take the pounding and hang in there while his other team members do their jobs.

2. The HEALER. Even a tank will not last forever if he has enough bad guys attacking him. The healer’s job is to heal any one who gets hurt, so that no one gets killed. Healers like Priests (WoW) and Defenders (CoH) have low hit points so they are not too hard to kill. So protect your team’s healer — once the healer dies the rest of the team often ends up getting too damaged and they die too, leading to a team wipe — the entire team wiped out. Being a Healer is not an easy job. Sometimes you have to choose who to heal when more than one are hurt and you only have enough time to save one of them. Do you save your girlfriend? or the tank? If you let the tank die, then the rest of you are in a heap of trouble. If you play online with a girlfriend, I hope she understands when you save the tank instead. I have been a healer, and I can tell you from experience that sometimes it was hard to take the guilt when I felt I had let my team down and we all got killed. In Warcraft this is a big inconvenience, because you become a ghost and have to run all the way back to your body. In CoH it is bad too, because you are teleported to a hospital and have to run back to the fight…and you get XP Debt, a nasty surprise.  When you have 1,000 points of XP debt then you level half as fast for a awhile, because half of the XP you get for each enemy killed goes to pay off the debt untill it is gone.  So if you are the healer and your people just had a team whipe, everybody is now levelling half as fast. In Warcraft there is no XP debt…but your armor and weapons get damaged and it can cost you a lot of gold to repair them at high levels.

3. The DPS.   DPS stands for Damage Per Second. The DPS job is to inflict damage on the enemy while they are hitting the tank. In WoW the DPS role is usually filled by a Mage, Warlock, or Rogue. The mage and warlock try to inflict damage from a safe distance by zapping the bad guys with fireballs, shadowbolts, or whatever. Mages and warlocks, like Priests, wear only cloth armor, the weakest, so they have to try to avoid getting into the actual close-up combat. Rogues are vicious melee fighters who often use a sword or dagger in each hand. Rogues do a lot of damage in a short amount of time. But they wear leather armor, which is nowhere near as good as the mail or plate armor a Warrior wears…so rogues are usually working the DPS role instead of trying to be a tank. In City of Heroes the DPS is usually a Blaster or Scrapper. There is a CoH avatar type called the Dual Swords scrapper which is a lot like a WoW Rogue. The CoH Blaster is like the WoW Mage or Warlock. Blasters do what their name implies….they stand back out of the fighting and bring the pain by blasting the enemies from a distance.

4. Crowd Control. This is not always a separate job; often casters like Priests and Mages can help to manage large groups of enemies by turning some of them into sheep for a few seconds, or by hitting them with a spell that scares them away for awhile. This reduces the number of targets hitting the tank, and gives the DPS fewer targets so they can concentrate their damage. In City of Heroes there is a special avatar type called, logically enough, the Controller. Controllers can hold enemies by freezing them in ice, encircling them with fire, or putting them to sleep. It’s all good. Anything that disables some of the enemies you are battling makes the jobs of the tank and dps easier.

Okay, you have decided what role you’d like to play on a team. This pretty much determines what type of avatar you are going to build. No what? How do you get on, or form a team? When I started playing City of Heroes I really had no clue at all. I ran around in my Blaster soloing, not having read the game manual, and only later did I discover what I had been missing.

Teaming is THE WAY to level faster in City of Heroes, because of a not-always-understood difference between CoH and WoW. In World of Warcraft, when your team kills a monster, you divide the XP among the members of the team (actually, the game does this automatically). So if you kill a dragon that gives 1000 XP points, you only get some of them – your share — unless you are not on a team and did it all by yourself. City of Heroes is completely different. If eight people (the max) are on a CoH team and they kill a monster that gives 1000 XP, everyone on the team gets 1000 XP points. Instead of dividing the XP among the team, CoH gives everyone a copy of it. So if you are on a team of eight players and everyone kills a different guy and each guy is worth 100 hit points, guess what? Everyone gets not 100, but 800 XP. Teams can make for very fast levelling in CoH. In Warcraft, if you are on a team it is because you need their help to survive and complete a quest or go into a dungeon for greater rewards. Otherwise you would probably be soloing, since soloing in WoW means not having to divvy up the XP with other people.

So how do you form a team (or group, in WoW). there are several ways.

1. Invite someone to join you, or accept an invitation from someone. Sometimes you get lucky and see someone soloing who is willing to team with you. In most games you can right-click on their avatar and press a button to send them an invite. or they can invite you. Whoever does the inviting is the team leader, although you can decide to let someone else lead and promote them to leader.

2. Advertise on Chat.  All games have a text chat interface so that you can type messages to other players for verious reasons. You could type someting like “level 13 blaster LFT” or “frost mage 15 lfg”. LFT = looking for team. LFG = looking for group. These are informal abbreviations. The important thing is to type them in “open chat” i.e., on a channel everyone will see so that hopefully someone will invite you to join their team.

3. Use a Search Interface. Most games now have a built-in way to search for particular types or levels of avatar to fill in the empty slots in your team. Warcraft even has a new feature called the “Dungeon Finder” which will put you into a team and send you straight into an “instance” of a random dungeon. Warning, though! This is a semi-random process. You are not guaranteed a good team. All this insures is that someone has agreed to serve in each team role. So you do not go into the dungeon until you have a tank, a dps, and a healer. But remember these are strangers so you have no idea if they are good players, or just someone’s kid playing her dad’s avatar.

Ok, I think that’s enough for newcomers to digest at one sitting. Tomorrow I’ll discuss some strategy, and some neat tricks that can save you time so you can spend more time on playing. And speaking of playing, I’ve just spent a couple of hours typiing all this (I told you, I never learned to touch type; sad but true for a career programmer). I need to get back to my gaming see you online! –MRK

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The Guilden Age

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

In my post “Me, Myself, and I” it is likely I may have given some of you the impression that I am always a loner, that I have something against organizations. But while in the real world it has often been my observation that ALL large organizations of humans seem to become corrupt and impersonal, in virtual reality I see their value. Most of my avatars end up belonging to one, because it can be hazardous and frustrating trying to run an instance all by yourself with elite bosses. Okay, I have pontificated about virtual relationships, virtual combat, virtual money yadda yadda yadda; I guess it is time to discuss virtual organizations.

Since the first humans formed themselves into villages, tribes, cities and then nations, we have been grouping together for mutual defense, for more efficient hunting, to exchange knowledge, and and to discuss mutual interests. It is no surprise, therefore, that as virtual humans (or elves, or orcs, or whatever) we are doing the same thing. In City of Heroes and City of Villains, these voluntary associations are called Super Groups and Villain Groups. In World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, and most other medieval-theme online gaming worlds, they are called Guilds. (Am I the only gamer with a humongous secret crush on Felicia Day after watching The Guild at http://www.watchtheguild.com/? Yeah, right. Totally out of my league. Dream on, Matt.)

What is a Guild? Before the advent of online gaming, I would have known only one definition. Rather than looking back to it, let’s set the way-back machine for the early Middle Ages and look forwards. Professional organizations of craftsmen with specialized skillsets began to be called guilds because of the gold they held in treasuries for group-related activities. The word guild thus derives from gold. (This tradition continues today in games like WoW, where your guild usually has a guild bank with game gold put into it by members for the use of all needy persons in the guild.)

In the Middle Ages, of course, guilds were not about gaming, but about standardization and competence. If you wanted to become a successful blacksmith, weaver, goldsmith, stonecutter, or whatever, you became an Apprentice to someone who already was recognized as a master. Fetching water, preparing materials, pumping the bellows of the forge, you made yourself useful, gradually being taught how things were done, until you became a Craftsman or a Journeyman, whereupon you were allowed to actually go out and practice your skills for pay. Eventually upon passing tests and being adjudged sufficiently competent at the skillset, you became a Master and could take on Apprentices of your own, passing on what you had been taught. If you continued to improve you could become a Grand Master. All this worked well for centuries. The guilds had a monopoly, usually granted in letters patent from the local king, and so they could control the quality of work that craftsmen performed, maintaining dependable standards. They also, of course, controlled prices, and restricted the flow of information to people outside the guild, both of which eventually led to their downfall after the eighteenth century.

Interestingly, in World of Warcraft, we see a similar classification of crafting skill levels. if you want your avatar to be a blacksmith so that he or she can make armor and weapons from metal, you start as an Apprentice. As you craft items for use or sale in the game (for example, if you “create” a sword that you or another avatar can use in combat), you rise in skill level. After crafting skill level 75 you can no longer skill up unless you become a Journeyman. The process continues until you give up or until you become a Grand Master, a rank which was added with the most recent expansion. However, it is important to note that you can have these skill ranks in WoW without actually belonging to any guild.

In online gaming, guilds are not organized to maintain secrecy and standards. They are more like sports franchises and exist to help their own members and to compete against other guilds for prestige. Belonging to a guild is more than us-versus-them, however. When you are in a guild you have a ready-made pool of guildies to help you to finish quests, to assist you in obtaining armor and weapons and crafting items (also called gear) and to chat with when you are bored or lonely. I have heard the Internet criticized as being a wasteland of loneliness. Someone said “it brings you closer to people you are far from…and takes you farther away from people you are close to” or something like that. (And I know what that person meant; I have already lost a girlfriend because I was into gaming and she was not. We drifted apart, and she is gone.) But what I have seen is the same phenomenon we saw in the early chat rooms and BBS groups — that people who otherwise might never have met find that they have things in common and things to talk about.

It is clear we are seeing previous human institutions incarnating on the Web. I already mentioned online churches in a previous post. We also have online universities, clubs, sales organizations, fan groups, and who knows what. I know I am being Mr. MOTO (Master Of The Obvious) when I say anything we already know how to do —  that can be done on the Internet — is being done or will be done. In myriad ways.

How are these virtual organizations affecting us?

1. Raising expectations of convenience. For one thing, they are easier to interact with. You don’t have to drive to your local Masonic Temple or Guildhall to meet your fellow members. You drive your browser to a website, or log into an online world or game and you are in contact with others who are online at the time. There was a time, a little over a century ago, when the only meetings that could happen were face-to-face. Telephones changed that. If you work in the vast wasteland of cubicle-land, as I have, you see that every cubicle has a phone. Meetings are often, if not usually, teleconferences instead of sitting around a table. Then videoconferencing made it possible for one table of people in Detroit to interface visually with another table of executives in Paris or Tokyo. The question used to be “is he or she at their telephone?” but now it is “are they online?”

2. Erasing prejudice boundaries. When I type to my guild mates. I often have no idea how old they are, what “race” they are or their gender. Many men create female avatars because, let’s face it, we usually prefer looking at women. And many women create male avatars because they want to avoid being hit on by horny guys like me. So unless they tell you (and even then, because, believe it or not, some people lie, duh), you have no clew as to details that are probably irrelevant to the topic of conversation. What counts is what you know and what you say, not how much you weigh or your sexual preference. Virtual worlds can be worlds of new ideas, not worlds of thoughtless discrimination.

3. Encouraging the flow of information and ideas. This follows from 1 and 2 above. If it is easier to get in touch with people, and if what they look like, what kind of chromosomes they have, or who or what they worship does not get in the way, you end up talking more and concealing less. Not surprisingly, studies have found that people tell things to complete strangers that they wouldn’t dream of mentioning to their spouses or neighbors. The anonymity of the mask of the avatar, the untraceability of the chat handle, makes ordinarily reticent people open up and discuss their dreams, their gripes, and their fantasies to an extent that no one ever dreamed of before the online world was born. Am I the only one who thinks this is probably a positive thing?

Okay, I confess I like to dream of Utopia instead of Dystopia. I could be completely wrong. Maybe this is all a dream a-borning that will die in the glowing ashes of an eventual nuclear war or a festering bioweapon plague. That could still happen. Maybe, as some fear, computers will suck the humanity out of us, turning us all into regimented drones that will serve a useful purpose until artificial intelligence takes over and pushes us aside to grumble with the ghosts of dinosaur and dodo. That might happen, as well. But I cannot make myself believe it. I see people reaching out the electric handshake to strangers. I see minds freed of the tyranny of traditions, forging new alliances and empathies in brave new worlds of endless extendability, of transfinite possibilities.  The currency of the future is data, and its ones and zeroes of on-and-off microscopic transistors are a metaphor of our choice as a species: will we come together to form a synergistic union of wholeness, or let it all die away to the emptiness of nothing? I know which I’d prefer. –MRK

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Seeing is believing

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

My thoughts about living in virtual space and playing immersive online games are often influenced by thoughts of mirror neurons.

You can read about mirror neurons here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron if you are not yet familiar with the concept. Basically, researchers have recently discovered that in monkey brains (and very likely, in other organisms such as human beings) there are nerve cells that fire when an action is seen. In other words, when a monkey sees another monkey pick up a fruit, some of the same nerve cells become active in the monkey’s brain that would be active if it, itself, was picking up a fruit. Researchers call these nerve cells “mirror neurons” because they seem to “mirror” what the creature is seeing another creature do.

Some of the implications of this discovery are obvious. Many of us have heard the old cliche “monkey see, monkey do” and we speak of people “aping” other people’s behaviour. Mirror neurons might be part of the explanation why humans and other creatures can so easily learn to do something by watching someone else do it. We see someone else open a door, perform a dance, use an escalator, and it’s as if we are already practicing the same thing as we watch — our brains are imagining ourselves doing the same thing, trying out sequences of orders to muscles they have never actually done before. It’s a fact that watching someone who is good at something gives you a leg up on doing it well yourself, which explains the appeal of instructional videos. Seeing is not just believing — it is practicing!

Back to virtual worlds. I suggest that seeing even a rendering of someone doing something activates the mirror neurons. In City of Heroes, the first MMORPG I spent a lot of time in, one of my problems was that as a healer I would feel strong guilt when I saw someone’s avatar “die”. (Actually, NCSoft avoids speaking of dying or killing, and instead calls it defeating or being defeated.) As the healer, I am supposed to keep the other team members alive so they can scrag the bad guys. But seeing their avatars fall to the ground,apparently dead, hit me hard and caused guilt. And now I know why: to my brain, those cartoon-like avatar bodies were close enough to the real thing to elicit real reactions. One some level, it was as if I was seeing real people dying.

This can be even more wrenching in games like World of Warcraft, where the avatar screams or cries out in pain as it drops to the ground. Intellectually, you know it is just a game, and just imaginary. But parts of your brain might not know that. To deeper parts of your brain, everything is just data, and data that looks like people is treated as if it is real people.

CoH, WoW, and other online games take this even further by adding “emotes”, which are things you can make your avatar do my pressing buttons or typing in commands. You can make it wave to someone, blow them a kiss, laugh, scowl, make rude gestures, and so on. Emotes add to the social aspect of the virtual world experience, enabling you to do more than walk around and kill stuff. In Second Life, there are even animations created by various developers and crafters that let your avatar hug another one — or even go though the motions of having a sexual encounter. Coh and WoW do not have these, because kids play those games. But many online worlds made for adult play now include sexual emotes and animations.

There are those who question the reality of mirror neurons and the assertion that they are one of the root causes of human empathy. But regardless of the actual mechanism, it is a fact that what we see influences us. Watching sports or movies we cheer for our favorites or the hero and hiss at the villains. So, given the case that even vicarious participation engages our imaginations and our brains, what effects is all of this having on us, particularly as it pertains to living in virtual space?

Some see even cartoon violence as bad for us. Whenever I remember the things Bugs Bunny used to do the Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam, I laugh. But some people are not laughing. There is now a rating system even for video games, based upon content such as violent or suggestive content. You may recall the parental fuss over Grand Theft Auto and other video games that some say encourage antisocial behaviour. A couple of years ago I would have laughed about that. Now, knowing about mirror neurons, I have to pause and wonder. When NCSoft introduced City of Villains as an obvious spinoff of CoH, I resisted making villain avatars at first, because I like to think of myself as a basically good guy. Then I finally convinced myself that it was just a game, that words are just labels, and I explored that side of the paradigm. But I still wonder some times about the effect this is having on “impressionable young minds” — being ordered to rob banks and kidnap people, and “defeating” avatars dressed as cops in order to do it.

What we see and hear affects us. At first this was only real situations we were seeing and reacting to. Then it became acted scenarios in plays. Then cartoons and movies.  And now, realistically rendered computer animations that we control — and are controlled by. Have you ever gotten angry at a videogame enemy that just “killed” your avatar? Have you ever felt sorry for an avatar that you saw wounded or killed by a monster or enemy? Then you know what I am talking about. Virtual experiences, at some level, are experiences — even if they are imaginary and shown on a movie screen or a computer monitor.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining, or, not only complaining. There are positive sides to this as well. I cannot tell you how many times a stranger has healed my avatar when it was about to get killed, saving my butt when I least expected it. In World of Warcraft, you might be surprised at how often strangers run past you in their imaginary bodies and throw an enhancement or “buff” onto your character, making you stronger, better protected, and so on….just to be nice. No one makes them do it, but it has become part of the online culture. Other characters have also, out of the blue, handed my avatars in-game money without my even asking, just because they could and because it’s nice to be nice. Starting-out avatars in these games are broke, and the game currency such as WoW gold or CoH influence make the play a little more enjoyable because you can then “buy” enhancements for your avatar like armor or weapons…or even just imaginary food to recover your imaginary health.

Virtual worlds and online gaming give us the chance not only to do each other in, but also to do nice things for each other. It’s a whole new arena of interaction, where this amazing networked quasi-reality lets us be nice to people we have never met…people we may never meet in real life.

At the risk of sounding like a “care bear”, I recommend that you use some of your online time to be nice to other players. I believe in random acts of kindness. If someone has helped you, pay it forward. Help someone else. Surprise a stranger with a rescue, a gift, a kind word. Animals kill and be killed. We can be more than that. We can be more than mere predators. It could lead to a new friendship or a new relationship. Or not. But whether the other human appreciates it or not, you will know that you made the effort. It will be a good feeling. And you never know how much of a difference it might make. –MRK

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Me, Myself, and I

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

One of the strangest things about online virtual words in general, and online gaming in particular, is the fact that we can do favors for ourselves. In my earlier post, Identity Crisis, I outlined some of the things that can happen when serial and parallel multiplicities are allowed. In other words, when you can have more than one avatar in the virtual world….sometimes more than one at the same time. Having several avatars and logging in as any one of them at any given time is called serial multiplicity. If you can manage to log in as more than one avatar at the same time I call it parallel multiplicity.

I’d like to discuss some advantages to this distributed presence or meta-presence in a virtual world. As usual, I will try to stick to what I know, so for these examples I will draw from my own experiences in the World of Warcraft (WoW) online game, in which you can use serial multiplicity.

Like in many online games, WoW avatars start off with few capabilities and develop, if you put the time in, into much more powerful entities. The shorthand term for this process is “levelling“, which refers to moving up from lower levels to higher levels by obtaining experience points (XP). For example, you can enter the game and create a Mage or a Warrior with only a couple of attack powers, and as you strive against the monsters in the game you accumulate XP and eventually reach higher levels and learn more abilities. At the same time, you can learn crafting professions like Alchemy (making potions) and Blacksmithing (creating weapons and armor). To distinguish these crafting abilities from offensive, defensive, and healing powers, the process of becoming more proficient at crafting (and gathering) professions is called skilling up, as opposed to levelling.

For many players, the object of the game is to level up to the highest level available. To this end, the most efficient strategy is thus to make only one avatar and spend all your time playing that character to level up as quickly as possible. This is because at the high levels the game becomes more of an interpersonal sport like tennis or boxing…your high level character dukes it out with others in player-versus-player (PvP) combat. In this sense, the game becomes a sport, where the idea is to become as good as you possibly can and have fun sparring with (and hopefully beating) other players in arenas etc.

I have to admit that I do not approach the game this way. Sure, I want to have high level characters with oodles of abilities and powers. But I enjoy simply being in this virtual world so much that I tend to take more time to smell the roses, so to speak. Yes, I have high level characters now, and yes, it took me longer than it does those pros who are happy to sell you their speed-levelling guides, but I’d like to think I have learned a lot while levelling up. This is because I made many avatars — at least one of each kind (mage, warrior, shaman, hunter, warlock, etc), so that I could learn how each type works, how they prevail, theirs strengths and weaknesses.

If you make more than one avatar in WoW, and play them all, it will take you much longer to get them to high levels. No question about it. But there are some advantages to this kind of meta-presence in the game. And I’d like to talk about the advantages of serial multiplicity in WoW, rather than discuss levelling strategies or specific tactics or campaigns.

My main avatar in WoW, the one that got to high levels first, is a Warlock. Warlocks (also referred to as locks) are spellcasters. They are not like Warriors, who wear strong armor and wield mighty weapons like swords and axes. Warlocks wear the weakest kind of armor, cloth armor. This means they have to try to avoid clinches and stay back away from the melee, lobbing in ranged attacks — or sending their familiar demons in to fight instead of them. Warlocks cannot use axes or maces; they use staffs or wands.

Ok, so I’m a warlock. Now I need good cloth armor and a wand. Where do I get them? Well, you can get lucky and have good-for-you items appear when you kill a monster (these are called drops, as in “oh cool, look at the wand that guy dropped!”).  Or you can buy them at the in-game Auction House — if you happen to have a lot of gold. Or you can get them from others in your guild if you belong to one. Or you can make them.

Now I am a rugged self-reliant individualist (translate: since I am a recluse hermit programmer I tend to be shy about joining organizations and fraternities), so I figured: the best way to make sure it gets done is to do it yourself. So my Warlock is a Tailor/Enchanter. Meaning, he can make his own cloth armor and enhance it, and can make his own wands. At first, I wanted to see how far I could get this way, as an experiment. Likewise, my main Warrior is a Miner/Blacksmith, so he can make his own armor and swords.

At first, I thought of my avatars as islands, each solitary and self-reliant. But then I ran into an awkward fact: as you skill up in tailoring, blacksmithing, alchemy, and so on, you suddently discover that you need materials (”mats“) that your avatar cannot gather. For example, you find that you cannot make the Gloves of Meditation unless you have some Elixir of Wisdom, a potion made by an Alchemist. And then it’s back to the olde Auction House to buy some damned Elixir of Wisdom so that your tailor can make the gloves. This is a wonderful parallel to our real-world specializations, where even a doctor needs a dentist to fix his teeth and an auto mechanic to work on his car and a teacher to teach his kids, and so on. In real life I cannot sew worth a damn — I have to go to a clothing store to buy clothes, just as I have to buy food because I am not a farmer or a herder.

Now people intent on levelling up one avatar handle this interdependence problem by joining a guild. If the guild has an Alchemist to make potions, a Blacksmith to make metal armor, a Tailor to make cloth armor, and so on, then you can specialize in your crafting just as you have specialized in your type of avatar, and everyone can get what they need in order to do what they want to do.

But like I said, I tend to be more of a loner. So what to do? Then it hit me — I could, in effect, be a guild — all by myself. If each of my avatars on a given server had different specializations, then they could send each other stuff, thanks to WoW’s in-game mailbox system where you can “mail” gold and items like raw materials and finished items from one avatar to another. My Alchemist can make Elixir of Wisdom and mail it to my Tailor so he can make the gloves. I know, I know, to those of you who are WoW experts this is like, duh…but it was a revelation to me at the time. I had stumbled across the power of synergy that guilds and auction houses make possible….but that can also be made possible by having several avatars of your own in the game with different specializations. In WoW, as in other virtual worlds that allow serial multiplicity, you can be your own best friend.

Enchanters in WoW need a progression of runed metal rods in order to do their enchantments. I bought a copper rod from the enchanting supplies vendor, but soon I needed a silver rod — and the vendor does not sell silver rods. Arrgh! Where do you get silver, golden, etc. rods? Blacksmiths make them. Hunters need good guns — and Engineers make guns. In short order I was loving life again, because my avatars, as they skilled up, could supply each other with crucial ingredients they needed to make their metal and cloth armor, their weapons, their potions, rings, and so on. Yes, having so many avatars meant I did not zoom up to high levels in record time…but I found that I was learning about WoW more comprehensively because I had one of everything and could see how they helped each other.

Okay, class, what we learned? (And by “we”, I mean “me, myself, and I”.)  We learned that you don’t have to know everything, learn everything, do everything, in order to be the best you can be. In the real world, you rely on others to specialize in the things you don’t like doing or do not seem to have a talent for doing. In virtual worlds, such as WoW, you have a second option: you can be several people, each with different skills, who help each other. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on WoW, because all the time I’ve been playing it (and other games) I’ve also had a job and nearly a life, so I do not live, eat and breathe WoW. But I know a little about it. And I’d like to think I know more about that virtual world than I would have known if I had stuck with my one Warlock and relied on guilds and drops and the Auction House to supply my needs. Yes, others level faster than me, and verily I say unto you: they have their reward. They get there faster. And if that is what they want, then I say more power to them. But there is more than one way to play the game. Make your own path, find what works for you, and enjoy. — MRK

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