Playing the Game (Part One)

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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