Friday, December 15, 2006

Removing Focus from the Experience Grind

Psychochild's Weekend Design Challenge for today talks about how MMOs these days seem to focus on the monster-bashing grind style of gameplay. The question is, how can MMOs get away from this relatively rote, boring and overused concept.

First off, MMOs should be skill oriented rather than level oriented. Secondly, character progression should not be directly tied to monster-bashing. Eve Online does an excellent job of breaking the mold with their skill system.

If players are slaughtering a camp of orcs, there should be a reason for it. Not simply a desire to reach the next level and gain one point of strength. Perhaps the orcs are raiding a nearby town and the merchants hire adventurers to take care of them. Or, perhaps the orcs have accumulated a good amount of treasure from their raids and the players want to take it from them. Or, perhaps the player simply wants to be a hero and prove that they can walk in and single-handedly defeat an entire orc tribe. These are all valid reasons. 'I need two bubbles to ding' is not.

The MMO obsession with experience gain needs to evolve. Gameplay, roleplaying and purposeful actions that have a cause and effect should instead be the focus. And this will never happen while players are encouraged to count their experience points like misers with a penny jar.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Radical MMO Idea #1: No Numeric Stat Display

Simple idea. Players just don't get any numeric stats about their character. At most they would have some sort of generic statement along the lines of 'You look Very Strong.' Players can get a general estimate of how they measure up to other characters via various competitions, duels and other such in-game feats. No numberical stat values displayed in-game at all. No, 'You gain 1 Agility' or 'Your skill in Basketweaving increases by 0.1' or any such overt, spreadsheet-encouraging nonsense.

Your character is defined by their actions, not by an in-game spreadsheet. If the players find some way to reverse-engineer their stats, that's fine, but the game won't support them in such endeavours, nor will it cater to the number-crunching crowd.

[Cross-posted this on the MMO Roundtable forum here]

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Bursting of the MMO Bubble

Pretty much everyone remembers the big dot-com bust that happened a few years ago. Everyone wanted to jump on the Internet bandwagon, investors threw money around like Mardi Gras beads and all the young techinical folk lived the high-life. But few of these Internet companies actually produced anything useful, companies went bankrupt and the bottom fell out of the market.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the resurgence of the industry. What's different this time? The difference is that instead of simply tossing together a slick website and expecting people to throw money at you for nothing, service, content and community have become the focus. First you deliver something useful / informative / entertaining... then the money rolls in. Sites such as YouTube and Flickr are excellent examples. They provide a great, free service, that provides an incredible amount of content to anyone who wants to browse through it, and in turn, an online community is created and supported. In the previous dot-com days, a wesbite with half the features would have tried to charge fees for this sort of thing. This is what the Internet was meant to be, not some guy who wants to make several 'competing' websites to sell tires (I actually worked briefly for someone who was doing exactly this!)

How does this relate to MMOs? Well basically, we're in the burst bubble period of MMOs. There were a few big hits, they got some decent media attention, and suddenly, there were thousands of companies throwing together craptastic games and expecting the public to pay for them! The public answered by sending many into bankruptcy. Too many for me to name here. Half-baked derivatives, shoddy game and interface systems, lack of features and content and such brought these games to their knees... and rightfully so.

So is the MMO industry ready for Phase II? One where the community is the focus rather than the publishers? I certainly hope so. It looks like a lot of interesting games are on the horizon. We'll just have to see if they take the time to deliver a content-laden, community-oriented game, or if they instead push out yet another unfinished MMO onto the already bloated market.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Economy and Inflation in MMOs

There was a post the other day on Kill Ten Rats discussing MMO economy and the rampant inflation that seems inevitable in today's games.

The problems stems from the fact that you can't have an economy with an infinitely open source and sink for goods and gold. There needs to be some sort of a mostly-closed enviroment (though, of course, it's always wise to leave options open for outside manipulation in case things start going wrong). Those gold coins dont make themselves. For every stack of gold coins added to the world, there needs to be a chunk of gold ore or a gold goblet that was melted down to create those coins. For every sword that's made, a plowshare or something equivalent should be removed from the world. And, once the sword is made, it goes somewhere. Either into the hand of a player or an NPC.

NPC vendors shouldnt just buy everything a player owns and then toss the items into the limitless void. Items should either be available for resale to other players or NPCs, gathering dust in a storeroom (where it can later be retrieved or stolen) or be broken down and used to create other items.

The concept of a semi-closed self-sustaining economy goes hand in hand with the idea of Logical Loot. If Mobs are dropping gold coins and Gloves of God-Spanking from their butts, any attempt at an economy is immediately thrown out the window. Instead you have simply created a whack-a-mole vending machine with infinite resources, and a player economy that will end up suffering from a rampant level of inflation that makes post-war Germany seem like a stable system.

But monster drops arent the only key to creating such a system. The resource harvesting and crafting systems have to work together as well. If you're going to have unlimited harvestable resources, then there needs to be a throttle on them to keep players from constantly flooding the market. Practicing your crafting skills shouldnt result in a lot of useless bracers or other items (anyone remember walking through the woods in UO an finding piles of bookcases sitting around?)

I think that the concept of attempting to balance gold fountains against gold sinks has proven that it wont work effectively. So its time for MMO developers to start thinking in new directions if they want to avoid the uber-inflation that is rampant in pretty much every MMO. And the first step of that is creating a cause and effect, sensical, self-sustaining economic system. Not an easy task. But it is needed if we want to move beyond the amusement park ride type MMOs.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Lack of Community in WoW

So I play MMOs with a guild called Shadowclan. We've been in existence since the early days of UO and have since participated in many other MMOs together and we're a very solid, tight-knit group. But, for some reason, we can't seem to keep a large number of members active in WoW. I was mulling over this problem recently and came to the conclusion that WoW not only lacks any community tools or support, but also, simply by its design, greatly hinders any community development beyond the hardcore raiding guilds.

When you join a guild in WoW, the only things you get are another chat channel, a guild tabard (which is hardly noticable on any of the character models) and a guild tag over your head! There is no guild hall, no uniforms or clothing/armor customization. Huge gaps in the crafting patterns available make it so that guild crafters have minimal use and the separation of players by zone/level leaves little opportunity for face to face interactions.

In fact, the players are so severly segregated by levels, that really the only chance to form strong bonds comes when everyone gets to level 60 and you can start hitting the high-end instances together. Unfortunately for Shadowclan, we're not really a raiding guild.

But the hardcore raiding guilds have their own issues. Squabbles over loot, players coming on going on a regular basis, membership restrictions based on class balance, and often, huge schisms amongst the guild members that usually results in a split, merger or complete abandonment of the guild entirely! Some raiding guilds manage to hold things together better than others, but for the most part, it's an extremely dysfunctional community.

Sadly, this lack of a coomunity feeling has led to my guild gradually dying off in WoW despite several resurgences and even an attempt at an entirely different guild concept (The Cog on The Venture Co. server). I expect another resurgence for Burning Crusade (and maybe even a small one for the new honor system), but given that Blizzard shows no interest in promoting and supporting community and player tools, I don't think that Shadowclan will exist in WoW in the near future with all of the upcoming MMOs next year.

I think WoW is too far involved in itself to make any signifigant changes along these lines, but, for the purpose of discussion and thought, here is one simple way I would go about trying to foster a greater community feeling in WoW.

1. Expand crafting. And I'm not simply talking about adding in more level 60+ epic weapons. The lower levels are really where the crafting system is lacking. For example, I'm an axesmith. Yet, for some reason, I can make a level 18 two-handed axe and a level 39 two-handed axe, but nothing in-between! That's a 21 level gap where my specialty is completely useless (not that either of those axes require a specialty). If I'm an Artisan Axesmith, I should be able to make all sorts of axes for all levels and classes. Same goes for every other profession. Alchemy and Enchanting are better covered, but they could all use some help.

I don't have any other suggestions off the top of my head. The very limited amount of player interaction and world interaction within the game creates a difficult barrier to overcome. Feel free to chime in if you have any comments and/or other ideas!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Retrospectus: A Tale in the Desert's Crafting System

I had originally intended to give a rundown of my thoughts on ATiTD in one post, but then I started writing it, and the crafting section became long enough to warrant it's own post. So, here is Part I of my ATiTD Retrospectus.

Well it's definitely a good thing they got this part right, as the game consists of 90% crafting. But let's talk a little about what is right about it. For one thing, it is entirely possible (and actually required at the beginning of the game in order to become a citizen), to bootstrap yourself up from nothing. You can gather grass and wood with your bare hands, then dry the grass into straw, then combine the straw with mud and sand (readily available in unlimited quantities) to make bricks. Then use the bricks to make a wood plane, which can then be used to make boards, and so on.

Another amazing aspect of ATiTD crafting system is the introduction of player skill. For many productions, you don’t simply gather the necessary materials, hit the create button and then watch a little bar fill up. Certain creation processes are simplified along those lines, but many others require that you actually get your hands dirty, so to speak. For example, when making charcoal, you are presented with a little pop-up screen displaying the level of heat, oxygen, wood, water and danger, as well as a progress bar. The hotter the furnace, the faster the progress bar fills. However, if the oxygen level or heat drops to 0, your fire goes out. If the danger bar hits the top, your entire batch burns up and you have to start over. You can manipulate the bars by adding wood, adding water, and opening or closing the flue. It takes some experience to learn to operate a charcoal oven. I failed on my first 3 or 4 tries before I finally had a successful run. And then I went ~50/50 for a few runs after that before I got the hang of it. And even then you still get better, learning to use less wood as well as learning how to run it hotter (and thus closer to the danger line) to complete the task more quickly!

Let’s use blacksmithing as another example. You gather metal and place it on an anvil, choosing from a list of what you would like to try and make. You are then given a flat slab of metal and shown what shape it needs to be in. You shape the metal by choosing from one of four different tools, choosing how hard you wish to strike the metal with that tool (from 1 to 9) and then selecting where on the slab to hit. The metal slab is then deformed (in 3 dimensions) based upon your selections. The closer you can make the slab resemble the desired shape, the higher quality item you can make. I spent a few hours trying my hand at smithing, and learned how to make a halfway decent sawblade, but was never able to master anything else. Smiths who can consistently make high-quality hatchets and shovels always have a demand for their services and goods.

These little crafting interfaces are sometimes a mini-game in of themselves, and not every player can master every skill. There are no real hard-coded limits here. If you want to try your hand at blacksmithing, glassblowing, charcoal making, beetle-raising, winemaking, and everything else, you can. The odds of you being a master at more than one or two skills, however, are slim.

The thing that I find most fascinating, and a complete breath of fresh air, is the interactivity of the crafting system and the involvement required by the player. Crafting an item is not simply a number comparison; it's the player interacting with the game in a meaningful way to create useful objects. This is what MMO crafting should be like, not number-crunching in a spreadsheet.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Building a Bigger Obelisk

So it's finally done! We have completed our Very Large Obelisks in ATitD and cancelled our accounts. A good number of players in the game probably think that we're jerks for making them larger than we need to (your obelisk only has to be 1 size larger than the current largest to pass the test), but we didn't build them to please the rest of the player-base. We built them to leave our lasting mark upon the desert. It took a lot of work to gather the materials for these monstrosities. Not only the sweat and time of making thousands of bricks and hundreds of linen, but I also spent many hours negotiating trades throughout the desert to acquire all the rest. All told it took 2 canvas, 8 rope, 528 cut stone, 44 medium quartz, 624 crushed eggshells, 120 candles, 686 slate, 871 dried flax, 402 linen, 335 flint, 2184 clay, 3120 boards and 31,080 bricks to build both of these obelisks!

But, aside from the obelisks, we left no mark upon the land. All of our compounds were stripped and demolished, our copper mine made public, and we even left 4 huge chests full of thousands of unused goods open to anyone who passes by (if you're interested, they're right by the obelisks, just a short jog south of the Cradle of the Sun chariot stop, though they've likely been looted by now).

No you may wonder why people would be annoyed at us? It's because anyone else after us who wants to pass the test of the Obelisk in our region, now has to build it much bigger than they would if we had built ours the minimum size we needed, rather than going for overkill (both obelisks were size 120, and I think the cut stone one is probably the largest of its type in all of Egypt).

Since the obelisk test is determined by what region you're in, many regions have tried to implement 'obelisk queues', where everyone signs up and obediently stands in line, waiting their turn to build. This reminds me of a time way back when, in the Asheron's Call beta, when I went to a dungeon to attempt to acquire some armor (I forget if it was a quest or I had just heard about it). I fight my way into the depths, nearly avoiding death at several points, finally reaching the last room, eager and nervous about facing my foe, when lo and behold, there's a group of ~10 players standing around, waiting for the spawn. They tell me there's a line, and that I'm welcome to grab a place in it. I stand around for a bit, consider trying to just snag the armor and ignore their carefully organized plans, but, in the end, I simply left. And soon after, I quit the beta and never played Asheron's Call again. I see this sort of over-cooperativeness as one of the downfalls of ATitD, as it leads to stagnation and boredom.

In this game, there really is no conflict. And without conflict, you don't have an interesting story. There are occasional games and contests that you can play against other players, but they're only available at certain times, and often, only a few players actually participate. There's no external threat, and really, no internal threat either. The biggest problem is having people build near you and crowd your space. In other tellings, Teppy (the game designer), had a 'stranger' come into the land who brought with him various issues that created conflict. But, in this telling, this external force hasnt appeared yet, and the knowledgable player-base is simply tearing through all of the technology, completing tasks at a record pace.

Anyway, it seems that the obleisk queue system has been pretty much abandoned in every region by now. And I feel no loss. But I'm not an unreasonably mean guy. If another player had announced in regional chat that they were building a size 92 obelisk and waiting to pass their test, I wouldn't have screwed them over by building my size 120 obelisk before their test was done (your obelisk has to remain the largest in the region for an hour).

In my mind, these obelisks are both a mounument to our time spent in the desert, and a challenge to those who come after us: Build a bigger obelisk... if you can!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Core MMO Concepts

I just recently discovered the MMO Roundtable site, and on their forums saw a thread wherein posters listed their top 10 requirements for the ultimate MMO. Reading through the posts was interesting in of itself. Seeing what sort of things people focus on is very informative, and you can often get an idea of what MMOs they have experience with as well.

I was going to wait until I could cross-post this on their forum, but they don't seem to be in an hurry to activate my username to let me post (been waiting a week and half now), so I'm just going to state my ideas here and they lose out!

For many years I've shuffled numerous MMO system ideas through my head and on various scraps of paper. About a year ago, I decided to try and compile then all into one notebook, and then from there see how/if they could be integrated together or made to work as standalone concepts. This progress on this project varies as time goes by, but, at one point, I did sit down and make a list of what I called Core Concepts. Now I present them to you, with a bit of extrapolation on each item.

1) Dynamic world - NPCs, Mobs, towns etc. Very little is static. All mobs have desires, needs, wants that affect what they do within the world. Players killing them repeatedly? Well then maybe they'll move to a new location, farther from town and the ravages of a bloodthirsty populace. NPCs dont just buy up every little trinket that an adventurer shows to them. They only want things that they are interested in, or that they can resell if they're of that sort of mindset. NPCs can go broke, close up shop, switch professions, get killed, open up new stores, move to other cities, become player-followers, give birth and die. Resources can be used up or severely diminshed. Localized resources can be effected by local conditions. Towns grow and shrink based on player activity, economic viability and external threats. The more static a world is, the more quickly it becomes boring and overly predictable.

2) Component-based crafting systems - Every crafted item is created from component parts. Quality of component parts determines quality of whole. Magically enhanced components can be used to create better items (like the socketing system in Diablo, but on a much grander scale). Items can often be broken down to salvage some or all of the component parts. Spell-crafting also falls into a similar system. Spells are composed of component parts, which can be used to alter the characteristics of that spell (similar to Saga of Ryzom, but with even more options). Players can find unique ways to combine spell components to create their own individualized spell system. Certain components may actually have a negative effect when combined with other components. Parts create the whole.

3) Players can affect the world - This kind of goes along with #1, but is more specific. The world isn't just dynamic in of itself. I would instead use the terms flexible and malleable. Like a combination of Play-doh and Stretch Armstrong! Town and building creation and destruction. Enviroment and landscape alteration. Political ramifications for player actions. Put opportunities for change in the hands of the

4) No Junk System - Every item has some use in the game. If it cant be used directly, it can be converted or processed into something useful. This carries over to NPCs and Mobs. All NPCs and Mobs have some purpose. Even if they don't have a specific programmed purpose, by giving them driving factors that determine their behaviour (see #1), they create their own purpose through their actions and the effects those actions have on the world. Structured and purposeful design.

5) Minimal statistical info given to players - Number crunching is not encouraged or supported. Certainly, players have the uncanny ability to backwards research all of your formulas, but I dont want that to be encouraged. Rather than comparing numbers (My strength is 403.54. What's yours?), players should instead be comparing their stats by various feats they can accomplish in-game (I can pick up this boulder and carry it from here to the end of the road without getting tired.) Find ways to make character development and abilities more interesting than a simple linear progression through a spreadsheet full of numbers. Allow the players' imaginations to fill the gaps

6) Every action has a reaction.. and repercussions - Factions are actual choices, not just a farming opportunity for special rewards. If you're doing things to help out one faction, it's very likely that you're pissing off their enemies at the same time. Wholesale slaughtering of all the wildlife while leaving their bodies to rot? Nature-lovers are likely to be unhappy. Killing a farmer's dog? You can bet he'll be unhappy! Strip-mine the mountain? Maybe you cause avalanches, screw up the water in a nearby river, or release a Balrog! I want the players to put some thought into what they're doing, why they're doing it and what might happen as a result of their actions. Everything is inter-related.

7) Horizontal growth of individual player power - No levels, Skill-based, with a very complex, intertwined tree structure (Eve Online is a good example of the direction Im thinking). Players gain new powers to bolster their arsenal, rather than simply scaling up damage and hit points to the point that a developed character can lay down on the ground and take a nap while a new character can swing at them all day with no chance of killing them. Character skills and abilities definitely have an effect on your play experience, but character uberness comes mostly from player skill, not items or levels. Everyone has the ability to defeat everyone else given the proper circumstances.

So there you have it. I've tried to limit my list to fairly broad core concepts rather then detailed mechanics, and also divided in such a way so that they're not reliant on each other. Of course, in my mind, they all form part of an integrated whole, but I think that any of them could be taken and implemented as a single entity within an MMO.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Vote 'Yes' on Logical Loot

Again I'm a little late on this (one day I'll make posts in a timely manner), but, last Friday, there were several blog discussions stemming from this post on Nerfbat about 'WYSIWYG' Loot. This refers to the concept that when you kill a mob wearing chain mail andwielding a sword, you're likely to find chain mail and a sword on the corpse. I've always called this idea 'Logical Loot' and it's one of my primary foundations for an excellent MMO.

The idea of Logical Loot is... well... logical! Anytime I play a game where I find a Halberd of Smiting on a rabbit, the inevitable joke comes up of, 'Where was the rabbit keeping that Halberd!'

One of the concerns brought up is about trying to 'balance' the loot. But, you know, loot balancing wouldnt be such an issue if everyone didnt make NPC vendors into gold-spewing vending machines. All it takes is a very minimal economic model and an ability to reduce and re-use 'junk' items for crafting. Two things that the venerable UO has had for years! If all you're doing is assigning some arbitrary, static value to an item, then yes, balancing this sort of system does become an issue. However, if you put some thought into how your game economy functions, and make the value of items dynamic, then any imblances that occur will quickly work themselves back into balance. Eve Online is a prime example.

Another complaint I see amongst those posting are cries of 'But I dont want to get a bunch of junk as loot'. I don't know what game these people are playing, but I haven't ever played a combat-oriented MMO where I didn't find junk on the corpses! If you don't want the 'junk', just don't pick it up! Not every mob can carry a pair of Pantyhose of Giant Strength! 'Junk' loot can be just an annoyance, if it's simply thrown in just as a means of extra gold generation (ala WoW). It can also add a lot of flavor to the game if done in a thoughtful manner, and especially if supported by other game systems (reprocessing and item decay to name a couple).

And finally, there is Psychochild referring to it as a 'useless feature'. Well, depending on how you look at it, pretty much any feature in a game is useless. Why should mobs carry loot at all? Everything is going to be useless to someone at some point. Why not just give experience points that allows players to buy the exact equipment they want? And, believe it or not, some players actually find it interesting and engaging to have game systems that make sense and attempt to emulate the world in minor ways. I'm not asking for a world that acts and behaves exactly like the real world, just one that is fun without following the rails of the typical level-up, gather loot model that we all know so well.

In summary, if you want a living, immersive world, Logical Loot is pretty much required in my opinion. Those who decry this concept, haven't put much thought into the matter, or are simply uninterested in a world-type game.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

EA Used to be Cool

I was thinking recently about all the great games I used to play on my Commodore 64. And then I realized that a lot of the most innovative ones had been published by EA!

I remember they came in a slick, thin, bookshelf type packaging. It opened up like a record album, with screenshots and blurbs on the inside. One flap held the 5 1/4" floppies while the other side held the game manual and any other documentation.

Not only was the packaging accesible and minimal, but the games themselves were fountains of creativity. M.U.L.E, Seven Cities of Gold, Archon and Archon II, The Bard's Tale, Mail Order Monsters, Adventure Construction Set... just to name a few.

Now what does EA give us? The same sports titles year after year, and expansion after expansion for their Sims titles. They buy up smaller companies in an attempt to harness and leech off of their creativity. But, ultimately, their overbearing corporate-ness seems to drive off the more creative types, leaving EA holding the shattered remains of once great gaming companies.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Good: Warcraft's Customizable Interface

Since my last post was about the horrible interface of Seed, I wanted to look in the other direction and talk about an MMO that really did things rights with their interface. That would be World of Warcraft.

Their default interface is slick, well-organized and very pretty. But, by far the best thing they have ever done with it was to build an API so that creative users could make their own mods and tweak the interface to their liking. This has led to an astounding number of addons which do everything from simply changing the look of the interface to adding in completely new functionality. And, in what I consider a stroke of genius, the programmers at Blizzard often take parts from the some of the more popular addons and integrate them into the default interface. That little button on the crafting menu that lets you make multiple items with one click? That was originally a user-created mod back in the beta test. The floating damage text? That was also a mod. Quick looting, visible buff timers, extra action bars just to name a few more.

The concept of facilitating easy access to the interface via various API options, hooks and slash commands, giving the users free reign and then studying what the users create to plug potentially game-breaking gaps and to further improve your own interface is just brilliant. There are still a lot of things I think that Blizzard should include in the default interface (moveable windows!? Hellooo!!!), but their controlled open-ness and willingness to change their game has led to the best MMOPW game interface I've ever seen. And I hope future companies look at this feature as one thing that Blizzard did incredibly-right, and plan on incorporating something similar in their own games.

Post-Mortem: Seed

This news is a little old, but the MMO called Seed (their website is already gone, but you can read some info at the out of date Unofficial Seed Wiki) has been shut down after just a few months in operation. Even though the basic concepts for Seed were very creative and unique, there were several factors that led to its unavoidable demise (lack of content and stability being the main two). But the part that really turned me off and resulted in two cancelled accounts (myself and my girlfriend) not even halfway through the 7-day free trial, was the absolutely horrific interface!

Unfortunately, since my playing time was so short and it was nearly 5 months ago, I don’t have a lot of details to list, I just remember it being unwieldy, confusing and awkward. I do remember one specific issue: the in-game help/tutorial. I couldn't figure out how to use it! And this comment is coming from someone who usually dives right into any program and only uses manuals as a reference guide.

When your game needs a help file for the help file, something is horrible wrong. I've done a lot of QA myself over the years, so knowing what it's like behind the scense, I'm generally a lot more forgiving than most MMO gamers, but this game made me seriously question if they had ever had someone who wasn’t a developer for the game look at it prior to release!?

I'm really amazed at how often interface takes a back seat in software development. The interface is the first thing a user sees, and it's their window into your product and their tool for interacting with it. You can have the most awesome code ever written, but if you just slap a half-assed, crappy interface on top of it, then you're showing the world a half-assed, crappy product.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Dwarf Fortress: Interface Suggestions

So I've been playing this game for a couple of weeks now and while I love it's crazy variety and think it has a lot of potential, it also has an extremely clunky interface. So, I've compiled a list of suggestions and issues.

Note: This notes were made based on an old version (~2 weeks ago).


The first issue appears when choosing extra equipment for your initial dwarf party. It's extremely awkward to scroll through a list of every single possible item. How about dividing it up by item type? If I don't want to take leather armor, I shouldn't have to look at all the the leather armor variations. I suggest having an option to view items by category. Give the users a list that they can drill down into via the +/- keys.

Once the game starts, the first thought that I (and many others I've spoken to) had was, 'My God this is an extremely cluttered mess'! The complex grass option should default to off. It just makes everything more confusing. And the player certainly doesnt need extra confusion when they're first starting.

Easy location option for items. When 'v'iewing an item, there should be a 'z'oom to option for easy location of that item (this would mainly be useful for artifacts). Same for the Room listings.

The option to turn off engravings should be an all or nothing setting. The 2nd level engravings are confusing, considering that they use the same symbols that are used for everything else. The 1st level engravings look great. 2nd level engravings simply add to the cluttered feel.

Text hangs off the edge of the screen in many places (inventory, when viewing items using 'k', etc, etc). Add in some word-wrap functionality or otherwise alter the layout so that this doesnt happen.

Dwarves gather refuse even when gather outside is set to off. Seems to be related to the chasm (at least I've noticed it more when I have chasm items turned on)

A simple option to page through all dwarves when examing a dwarf. (IE, when I have a dwarf selected, I can simply hit a key that will take me to the next dwarf)

Ability to easily see quality of furniture when looking at it after its been placed. If you hover over a placed furniture item with the 'k' or 'q' option, there is no way to tell what the quality is for that item.

The biggest problem I had with the interface was lack of consistency. Some menus use the arrow keys, some use +/-, some use both! Storage areas and harvest areas are designated by marking the opposite corners while bridges, farm plots and roads are created via a clunky square system. Pick one menu navigation method and stick with it.

Way to set butcher commands via the 'v' menu. There were times were I had a severly wounded animal that was worse than useless, but finding it through the 'u'nit menu is a slow, painful process.

I would really appreciate an option in the room ('q') menu that allowed me to set that room as one to be detailed. I would limit this to the user defined rooms (bedrooms, barracks, dining, etc) and it should detail all the floors and the walls that are considered part of the room.

On the pets submenu for dwarves, show how many pets they already have. It would be nice to know if I'm assigning dogs to someone that already has 5 of them!

The 'U'nit screen displays every mobile in the game, even if they've passed away and been chunked into the chasm! While it's nice that all of this information is saved, some options to filter the info on the unit screen would be great.

Injured status should be seen on the 'u'nit screen.

Animals gathered during hunting are rarely butchered immediately. Corpses get thrown into a refuse pile or worse, the chasm! Animals placed into butcher shop should be flagged for butchering and so that the corpse doesnt get picked up as refuse. If the corpse becomes rotten, then the butcher flag should be removed.

Along similar lines, materials that are taken to a workshop for a job, then left there because the worker dwarf decided to take a break, often get placed back into the stockpiles.

The ability to designate an ore stockpile as smeltable. IE, any ore in that stockpile will be auto-queued at the nearest smelter. This option would only be available if you have a Manager.

Ability to change ini settings from within the game.

An option to temporarily turn off all objects and mobiles so I can work on the layout without the distraction of hundreds of symbols, many of them flashing.

And last, but certainly not least, we need Orc Fortress!!

Monday, October 23, 2006

WoW, PvP and 'Twinks'

I have to talk a bit about PvP in World of Warcraft. There are many good things about it, and many bad, but there is one aspect I want to focus on for this post. Specifically, "twinks" (I really hate this term, but since its universally recognized in gaming circles, I don't really have any alternatives).

For those who are unfamiliar with gaming parlance, a "twink" is defined as a character who is more powerful than they should be because they have been given equipment, enchantments, buffs, etc by higher-level characters that they normally wouldn’t have access to. Normally, this is not really a big deal because the character will eventually level up and outgrow their equipment anyway. But, with the WoW Battlegrounds, this mentality has been taken to an extreme. It's virtually impossible to enter a lower-level battleground without having several of these uber-equipped characters on both sides. I would guesstimate that 90% of the time they are rogues. They can generally single-handedly engage and defeat several opponents at a time and are recognizable by their glowing weapons, or the simple fact that they'll charge straight into a large group of opponents without even bothering to stealth!

Not only does this make the battlegrounds less fun for the regular characters, but I have to wonder at the mentality that causes players to pursue this option. Are they seeking to compensate for their lack of skill, or are they simply reveling in the fact that they can 'win' when the odds are heavily balanced in their favor?

Of course, the whole twink-centric attitude is self-perpetuating, as being soundly thrashed by someone just because their equipment is so much better makes one want to similarly equip a character just to level the playing field!

Whatever the case may be, I have to give some negative points to any game that is designed in such a way that 'twinking' is even viable on such a scale. It just kind of proves to me that PvP was really an afterthought to the main game.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


For those who haven't heard already, there is a new MMO print publication out called Massive Magazine.

I picked up Issue #1 a couple of weeks ago and read pretty much the whole thing. It has a seemingly complete list of upcoming MMOs as well as several interesting articles and editorials.

It also includes a DvD with several demos and a beta spot for Gods and Heroes (which I still need to install).

There have been several attempts in the past to create a print magazine devoted to MMOs, but none of them ever really got off the ground. We'll see if this one can buck the trend.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Retrospectus: Shadowbane's Original World system

The concept of mirrored online worlds has always bothered me. It segregates the population into neat, little packages that are all basically exactly alike. All MMOPWs (Massive Multiplayer Online Persistent Worlds) do this, with a few exceptions. I well understand the technical limitations that has forced this state upon us, but that doesn't mean that a solution can't be found with a little creativity.

And so we come to Shadowbane. Wolfpack had an incredibly clever idea regarding this problem, but, unfortunately, they never followed through with it. The backstory for the game was that the world had been broken into pieces, and that these pieces floated through the void but might be connected via special gates. Each 'shard' was to have a different map and possibly a different ruleset (one might give bonuses to fire magic, for example). This is a brilliant solution in my opinion! You still have segregated server clusters to distribute the bandwidth and processor load. But each server is markedly different, and there is a possibility to travel between them. Each map can have it's own history and flavour (and Shadowbane had enough interesting backstory to really make this work).

Due to the time required to create multiple worlds, it does seem that this concept would lend itself better to the games that are relatively sparse and built to facilitate player-generated content rather than the amusement-park worlds such as World of Warcraft.

But I really think that this is one of the best ideas that has never made it into a game. Hopefully, someone somewhere down the line will pick up the torch and run with it!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

DF Tales: The Rise and Fall of Idenber

The Rise and Fall of Idenber

It was the Age of the Dwarves. The bustling Dwarven Kingdoms were prosperous, wealthy and powerful. Brave homesteaders were sent out on a regular basis to tame and conquer new and dangerous lands. This is the tale of one-such venture.

The expedition was led by a young, inexperienced dwarf. His beard had yet to grow to any length of note, and there was much grumbling among the party, but, a dwarf is nothing if not loyal, and they followed their orders, and this young upstart, to what was to be their new home. They arrive in good health and towing a cart laden with foodstuffs and seed stocks. Stopping at a promising rock-face, they sketch out plans for initial excavation and name the place Idenber or "Paddlearthen" in the human tongue.

The first year goes well. Rooms are carved, storerooms defined and workshops created. A general feeling of excitement fills the air and the dwarves scurry about with purposeful movements. Into the first winter, the population stands at eighteen dwarves. The larders are full and the discovery of a large copper vein has led to much activity as the smelters are fired up. A small raiding party of frogman climb from the cold, swift underground river and are quickly defeated.

The lone fisherdwarf of the group unwisely decided to nap by the underground river right as the spring floods came along. He woke up as the water lapped around him, but it was too late and the river washed him away, not even leaving a corpse for the others to mourn over.

With the thawing of the land, a fresh batch of eager immigrants, including two replacement fisherdwarves arrives, bringing the total population of Idenber up to thirty. Construction of the halls and workshops continue, but a series of strange, fey moods begins to afflict several of the more skilled crafters. The first two so afflicted simply holed up and muttered undecipherable things to themselves, eventually falling into such a deep melancholy that they did little besides sit on the floor of the dining hall, refusing to even partake of food or ale. The third's eyes light up with a fevered glint as he gathers various materials and then locks himself inside the masonry shop, emerging many days later with a legendary table, which he carries with him everywhere. But his mood seems to have passed, and his skill with stone has increased in an unnatural way, making some of the dwarves apprehensive. But none can argue with the quality of his work, as he churns out a steady stream of amazingly crafted furniture, from weapon racks to statues to doors.

Perhaps it is the fame of this mason that brings notoriety to the fortress, for the next group of immigrants includes no less than three dwarven nobles! These nobles are not content with the typical small, plain room that most dwarves consider home, so special instructions are given to carve out a spacious area for the Nobles' quarters. Plans are also drawn up for a large mead hall, new barracks and carefully arranged quarters for the commoners. Coupled with the progression of the crafting corridor near the chasm, life in Idenber looks to be taking a turn for the better.

But things were not all well. An undercurrent of tension and violence lurked just out of sight, but soon it would be at the forefront of life within the mountain.

It started simply enough. Another ratman ambush, led by one known as "Kenilon", attacked a peasant in the depths of the caves as he was gathering rocks. Miraculously, the dwarf managed to flee, his stubby legs pumping furiously as he barreled through the corridors, six bloodthirsty ratmen right behind. His flight lead them right into the lone hammerdwarf who was on guard duty at the time. The guard and his war dog fought valiantly, briefly holding back the invasion. But, alas, after slaying one ratman and grievously injuring another, his faithful dog lay a bloody heap at his feet and a heavy blow to the head left him unconscious on the ground, where he bled to death soon afterwards. The ratmen then moved towards the bridge over the river, sending all the dwarves nearby into a confused panic. Smelling blood and death, several war dogs eagerly pushed past the teeming masses and quickly tore the vile ratmen apart.

As the dwarves dutifully began hauling the ratman carcasses outside, leaving a trail of blood behind them, it became apparent that the dining room was covered in blood as well! Had there been a second attack there? No. Instead, it seemed that the dwarves' tempers had been quite short lately, resulting in numerous fistfights around the wells. The food and ale supplies were alarmingly low. Things take a turn for the worse as the food supplies run out (rendered fat, despite its appetizing sound, is apparently no good for eating by itself), more and more dwarves sink to hunting for vermin throughout the fort.

As the hunger increased, one dwarf became deranged, seizing the only butcher shop and strangling a nearby metalsmith. Cackling insanely, the murdering dwarf dragged the corpse back to the shop and proceeded to work frantically on his gruesome construction, eventually emerging with a newly crafted Dwarf-bone spear (called, appropriately enough, 'Murderturmoil') and the title of Legendary Bone-crafter! Though the other dwarves were rightfully nervous, he gave no further signs of violence and instead eagerly set to the task of crafting and adorning with dog and ratman bone, ignoring the misery and death permeating the fortress.

But, despite the availability of incredibly crafted bone items, the dwarves were still hungry. Once the Nobles began hunting for vermin, the dissolution of civilization was not far behind. The onset of mass starvation was quick, brutal and fatal. With many dwarves dropping dead around the fort, a hasty graveyard was assembled outside and the bodies unceremoniously dumped.

In the midst of this mass starvation and rioting, a human caravan arrives. They would have food! The kingdom might be saved! Unfortunately, the caravan is beset by kobold thieves along the way, and by the time they reach the trade depot, their wagons are completely empty! The hopes of Idenber are smashed upon the unforgiving mountainside.

As a last gasp attempt, the young dwarf leader calls for the wholesale slaughter of any dogs and cats that aren't considered a pet or trained as war dogs. The butcher shop and kitchen had been destroyed during the riots, but they are quickly rebuilt and a second set assembled further into the mountain. The animals were rounded up, and seemed to eagerly follow the butcher-dwarves, not realizing that they would be the next meal!

Several long and scary seasons pass. The population drops to thirty-four. All the Nobles have perished due to starvation. The dog meat is eaten as quickly as it can be cut. Only the barest of furniture has been placed in the newly mined areas while the old section of the fort, honeycombed with ill-conceived passages, lies drenched in blood and the wreckage of various shops. Dwarves crowd around the wells, willing to fight with their clanmates at the slightest provocation. The wounded huddle in their rooms, unable to find nourishment for themselves and afraid to venture out. The butchers, covered in dog blood, go grimly about their task, pushing past dwarves of all ages and professions who scurry about, looking for roaches, rats and whatever other vermin they can find, desperate for any sort of nourishment...

After the Great Food Riots of 1053, daily life in Idenber slowly returned to a semblance of normality. The cooks busied themselves making dog meat stew (consisting of dog meat and cat meat) and other delicacies (which all seemed to contain at least some dog meat). Slowly but surely the rotten corpses and meat are dragged to the chasm and thrown in (though I can never seem to get rid of the rotting stuff fast enough). Tantrums still occur, but with much less frequency. Several injured dwarves lay immobile with serious head injuries, including one unfortunate fellow who was unable to make it to a bed and instead spent his days nestled amongst the bejeweled trade items in the finished goods storeroom, moaning and crying to himself. Not even the small creatures were spared during the horror of those dark times, for the fortress is also now home to numerous crippled animals, including a poor cat who lost both of its front legs!

The insane craftsdwarf who made the legendary dwarf-bone spear churned out many fabulous dog and cat bone items which were traded to a Dwarven caravan for all the food they had. There was much rejoicing.

Many seasons passed with nary a sign of any immigrants, and the leaders began to wonder if news of the terrible riots had spread far and wide, dissuading both visitors and migrants. Then, one spring, no less than 20 new arrivals appear! This batch included a new sheriff, who immediately set out dispensing dwarven justice on anyone who committed any sort of crime during the riots. Many beatings ensued, sending at least two dwarves to their beds and resulting in the death of another who bled his life out upon the stone floors (I guess the sheriff got a little overzealous)!

A steady stream of ratman attacks from the chasm wears upon the inhabitants. Every dwarf has felt the sting of losing a family member or close companion, though the limited number of soldiers perform admirably in defense of the tunnels (one novice recruit knocked out no less than 5 ratmen, including a named leader, by himself, before his reinforcements arrived).

The cavernous halls are extended deeper into the mountain until a river of magma is reached. Taking advantage of the raw heat and power, a magma smelter and forge are set up. The noise of the foundry stirred up creature of flame from the depths. Though it appeared to be wounded, three unlucky dwarves were incinerated before the creature could be brought down.

A trade agreement had been reached previously with one of the nearby human settlements. It was spears they required, so it was spears that were created upon the anvil while the vast amounts of gold ore that lay throughout the compound began to be smelted into gold bars. An attempt is made to create farmland, though it produces limited success. The amount that needs doing far outstrips the available dwarf-power. Too many dwarves lie abed, stricken with grievous wounds and unable to feed themselves, much less contribute to society. One was so distraught that he dragged himself to the river and drowned his worries underneath the icy water! Some begin to suspect that this rock is cursed, as two more dwarves are seized by insanity and have to be put down.

Let it not be said that the Gods have no humor. For with the arrival of spring comes the hoped-for immigrants. The initial sighting is greeted with cheers as a half-dozen dwarves make their way out of the wilderness onto the road. They are followed by another group, and another, and yet another, and the cheers quickly fade to stunned silence. No less than forty-two migrants arrive, doubling the population to eighty-five! The welcoming of new and old friends is layered with an odd tenseness. It was only in the last year that Idenber began to recover from the Great Food Riots and many fear a repeat of those dark days. Shaking off their doubts, the dwarves take stock of the food stores and eagerly set to work, determined to make the best of the situation.

But, despite the best efforts of the farmers, fisherdwarves and trappers there just isn't enough food. The caravan wagons, usually a saving grace in the autumn months, complain about potholes in the road and refuse to bring their wagons in for trading (those pansy humans!) With so many new mouths to feed, the remaining stores are rapidly consumed. The dog and cat population has been much depleted and the food riots are again imminent. Already a significant portion of the population begins to scrounge for vermin...

As the first hunger pains begin, the Noble with the job title of 'Manager' decides to throw a party. Sadly, no one came. Then the Sheriff throws his own party and only the Manager shows up. Finally, as things really begin to disintegrate, the Manager threw another one-dwarf party. Apparently it was his way of dealing with the trauma. Though booze is plentiful, all of the peasants, soldiers and craftsdwarves alike are too busy chasing rats and other vermin through the cluttered hallways. Ratman corpses piled up near the chasm began to rot in a decidedly unhealthy manner and the skulls of their brethren from previous attacks lay scattered down the hallways...

It is done. The Dwarven Fortress of Idenber has been abandoned. The vast stores of gold lie largely unsmelted, though the great vault that was built in the final days is about half full of gold coins. The farms, which had just started producing a good quantity of food, were too little and too late. Starvation and disease were running rampant, and the dwarves chose to leave their new home rather than endure another winter of food riots, chaos and death.

Now the magma forges and smelters lay dormant. Gold and other precious ore clogs the hallways nearby. The underground river churns along, occasionally overflowing and covering the remnants of small fields, trickling into smooth stone hallways and lapping up against the bases of elaborately carved statues. The warren of caverns that was the original settlement lays strewn with the debris of dwarven living. And, as the cold wind of the depths whistles up from the bottomless chasm, the faint ghostly echoes of dwarves crying out in pain, hunger and misery seem to waft through the eerily empty corridors.

Dwarf Fortress Introduction

Dwarf Fortress is a little ASCII game that has already gained a cult following despite the fact that it is only in an early alpha stage. The intricate detail of the game combined with an interesting AI where all of your dwarves have wants, desires and dislikes, makes every game different and interesting.

There are actually two parts to this game, Fortress mode, where you attempt to lead a small group of dwarves in founding a new settlement, and Adventure mode which is more of a Nethack type game. I've only played Fortress mode, but this game has definitely caught my interest.

The cluttered feel of the ASCII graphics and the awkward interface make this a difficult game to get into. But once you do, it's fun to use your imagination to envision what's happening within the fortress and then to write a summary of the events (with embellishments of course). My initial story posts on the Shadowclan boards received some praise, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to brush up on my writing skills (I used to write quite a bit when I was a young lad), so I'll be polishing up those tales and posting the stories here about my various attempts to create a Dwarven Utopia!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A Parting Desert Legacy

My girlfriend and I started playing the latest release of A Tale in the Desert a few months ago. We've built our compounds, had our fun, but our interest has waned (more on that in another post). So, we've decided to liquidate everything we own in-game and build the biggest obelisks we can. These structures never decay, and cant be torn down, so it will be our parting legacy for the world. It is unlikely our obelisks will be the biggest in the entire game world, but they will hopefully be the biggest for our region (our camp is in a sparsely populated area).

So, if anyone is currently playing ATitD and is willing to trade, we're looking to acquire the following items:

Crushed Eggshells
Cut Stone or Cuttable Stone
Medium Quartz

My character name is Mrmarbles. Check my in-game info for a list of goods I have available for trading.

Hit the Read More link for a complete list of items we have for trade.

Barrel Tap, Bauxite, Beeswax, Cactus Sap, Canvas, Charcoal, Clay Lamp, Clay Mortars, Iron Cookpot, Copper Cookpot, Copper Pipe, Copper Sheeting, Copper Straps, Copper Wire, Crucibles, Dirt, Dried Papyrus, Firebricks, Flystone, Leather, Medium Stones, Nails, Oil, Papyrus, Papyrus Paper, Papyrus Seeds(hf), Wooden Pestle, Powdered Emerald, Pulley, quicksilver, Rope, Sail, Small Barrels
Sulfur, Tar, Saltpeter, Thorns, Wooden Peg

Large Diamond, Large Emerald, Large Quartz, Large Ruby, Medium Diamond, Medium Emerald, Medium Ruby, Medium Sapphire, Medium Topaz, Small Diamond, Small Emerald, Small Quartz, Small Ruby, Small Sapphire, Small Topaz

resin:Ash Palm, resin:Bottle Tree, resin:Cerulean Blue, resin:Chakkanut Tree, resin:Coconut Palm, resin:Cricklewood, resin:Delta Palm, resin:Fern Palm, resin:Folded Birch, resin:Giant Cricklewood, resin:Hawthorn, resin:Hokkaido, resin:Kaeshra, resin:Miniature Fern Palm, resin:Mini Palmetto, resin:Ranyahn, resin:Spindle Tree, resin:Stout Palm, resin:Towering Palm,

Scythe:Quality 2000, Shovel:Quality 8143, Hatchet:Quality 3766, Hatchet:Quality 6160, Hatchet:Quality 6362, Archaeologist's Shovel:Quality 5301, Heavy Mallet, Wide Tungsten Chisel, Knife:Iron, Knife:Knife, Knife:Flint, Lead Chisel

Aluminum, Antimony, Clinker, Copper, Iron, Lead, Platinum, Tin, Tungsten

Ash, Lime, Limestone, Potash, Red Sand, Soda, White Sand, Fine Glass Rods, Glass Blade, Glass Jars, Glass Rods, Test Tube:Quality 4442, Test Tube:Quality 4626, Test Tube:Quality 5729, Test Tube:Quality 6555, Thistle Tube:Quality 3152
Thistle Tube:Quality 6286, Beaker:Quality 1, Beaker:Quality 983, Florence Flask:Quality 3028, Sheet Glass

Barley (Raw), Cabbage, Cabbage Juice, Cabbage Seeds, Camel Meat, Camel Milk, Carrots, Carrot Seeds, Coconuts, Dates, Garlic Seeds, Grilled Cabbage, Grilled Carrots, Grilled Fish, Grilled Onions, Honey, Leeks, Leek Seeds, Malt (Raw), Acorn's Cap Mushrooms, Bleeding Hand Mushrooms, Camels Mane Mushrooms, Cobra Hood Mushrooms, Dead Tongue Mushrooms, Dung Rot Mushrooms, Fish Hook Mushrooms, Pool Of Tranquility Mushrooms, Toad Skin Mushrooms, Mutton, Ashoka, Black Pepper Plant, Blood Root, Bluebottle Clover, Cardamom, Chaffa, Chatinabrae, Chives, Cinnamon, Common Basil, Common Rosemary, Common Sage, Covage, Crimson Clover, Dalchini, Dank Mullien, Dark Ochoa, Dewplant, Dusty Blue Sage, Dwarf Wild Lettuce, Earth Apple, Finlow, Fire Allspice, Fleabane, Garcinia, Glechoma, Houseleek, Indigo Damia, Jaiyanti,, Katako Root, King's Coin, Lemondrop, Mindanao, Miniature Bamboo, Mountain Mint, Pale Dhamasa, Pale Ochoa, Pale Russet, Primula, Purple Tintiri, Red Pepper Plant, Rhubarb, Rubia, Sagar Ghota, Shrubby Basil, Shrub Sage, Sugar Cane, Sweetflower, Sweetgrass, Tamarask, Thyme, Tiny Clover, Upright Ochoa, Weeping Patala, Wild Lettuce, Wild Onion, Wild Yam, Xanosi, Yava, Yellow Tristeria, Onions, Onion Seeds, Oil

Brief History of Tholal

Before I get into shelling out opinions, rants and more, perhaps it is best to give a little history about myself.

I'm a game player. My Dad taught me how to play chess as a youngster and I quickly moved on to Risk, Monopoly, Civilization (the board game), Dark Tower, and anything else I could get my hands on. I played soccer as a teenager, enjoy ping-pong, bowling, basketball, tennis, laser tag, frisbee golf (but not regular golf) and other such activities.

My introduction to the world of computer games came when I received a Commodore 64 for my birthday one year. Even though I only had a tape drive at first, and had to laboriously hand-type in code from magazines. Eventually I moved onto PCs and the riches that awaited there: Doom, Civ, Duke Nukem, Master of Orion, Warcraft, and many, many more. Then, one fateful day in 1997, I stumbled across a website that mentioned an upcoming game called Ultima Online. I was astounded. I had loved all of the Ultima games so I quickly found their website, signed up for the beta test (which cost $5 for the CD) and eagerly soaked up all available information about it that I could find. I participated in the beta test, bought the game when it came out, adventured about Brittania and eventually joined up with a little roleplaying guild called Shadowclan.

From that point on became an MMO junky, spending countless hours inside the worlds of UO, Asheron's Call (beta test), Shadowbane (beta and after release), World of Warcraft and several smaller MMOs. I still play plenty of desktop games (Civ IV, Galactic Civilizations II, Dwarf Fortress, to name a few), but the online worlds are where my main interests lie.

In addition to participating in numerous beta tests, I've also worked for the gaming industry as a paid employee. I spent a year and a half at Origin Systems, doing QA for Ultima Online (which rocked), and a few months last summer/fall working at Sony as a mindless button monkey (which sucked).

So there you have it. On to the gaming talk!

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Success! I now have my own blog to share my very valuable opinions and immortalize them for posterity!

My initial plans for this space are to comment on games I'm playing, upcoming games, articles about games and other related stuff. I'm sure at some point it will devolve into other areas, but at least I have something to focus on.