Auxiliary Power Preset Work-around

With greater reliance on auxiliary power level settings for science skills, the lack of a “science mode” power preset is more noticeable.  For mouse-averse captains, this bind statement provides functionality similar to the existing presets:

/bind F12 “Genbuttonclick Powerlevel_preset_3$$GenSliderSetNotch Powerlevel_Auxiliary_Slider 1”

Pressing F12 will invoke the “Balanced” power preset, then increase auxiliary power to 100%; other subsystems will each have about 33% power. The power management control must be fully expanded for this to work.

Hopefully Cryptic will add a fifth power preset now that auxiliary power levels are so important to science captains.  Until then, I hope this helps other keyboard jockeys manage their power levels better.

Why does this statement invoke the Balanced preset?

It should be possible to explicitly set power levels in a single bind statement, but GetSliderSetNotch doesn’t work as expected; it moves the slider incrementally and appears to interfere with multiple invocations in a single statement, locked sliders or not. This might be an anti-exploit added by Cryptic because, as an article on sto-advanced.com [Power Settings, other than the defaults] shows, it’s possible to do a great many things in a single statement.

This article has been cross-posted to the STO forums; please add to the discussion there.

On the Klingon Front

My latest Klingon captain is moving up in the ranks: Qohn is now a Lieutenant Commander aboard the K’Tanko class battlecruiser IKS Toranga. He got there almost exclusively with solo content, mostly fighting in the Kahless Expanse.

That’s been slow going compared to my previous Klingon characters; they leveled mostly by FvK PVP a few months ago.  Back then, a new match started every few minutes in prime time.  In two full nights of playing, Qohn only faced other captains twice, both KvK, and had a dozen attempted matches end in “not in queue” or “not enough captains accepted” messages. It’s hard to say if the queues are empty because they’re bugged or because there aren’t enough new subscribers or old ones rolling new characters. We’ll know when Cryptic fixes the queues–hopefully very soon.

The bright spot tonight was “Bringing Down the House”, the first Klingon PVE content I’ve played.  Chasing down a Romulan assassin across several worlds allowed for a good mix of ground and space combat. The story’s interesting if a little linear (most MMO content I’ve played so far is) and surpasses anything at equivalent levels on the Federation side.  More, please.

But first, Cryptic, please fix the queues.  Although I avoid PvMP like the Black Breath in LOTRO, I couldn’t get enough KvF after launch, and it’s going to be a long climb to Commander and (gasp) my beloved K’t’inga without it. And I promise to tear myself away from disintegrating Star Fleet captains long enough to enjoy any new Klingon PVE at or near level this time.

Revisiting Star Trek Online

I started playing Star Trek Online again last week after months away from the game. Has Cryptic addressed enough of STO’s shortcomings with Season 2 for a second look? Yes and no.

STO wasn’t a horrible game at launch, but it suffered from a rush to release after a bumpy development cycle. Being Star Trek, expectations were probably unreasonable from the start; the previous developer hadn’t helped matters by promising the sun, the moon, and another 100 million stars.

The game still suffers from bugs (some from launch) and a wonky interface 6 months after going live. Mini-games and a new diplomatic mission track don’t address some of the most egregious shortcomings at launch, but there is a sense that STO’s moving in the right direction. It’s hard to say if this is a course change because of STO’s new executive producer or if Cryptic is just getting its bearings after the chaos of launch. Regardless, STO is still a few parsecs away from being satisfying as a game instead of a Star Trek environment.

With LOTRO fighting for my attention (even better now that I’ve unlocked skirmishes), STO feels like a labor of love.  I’ve worked my way back up to Lt. Commander, and it’s felt like real work at that. PVP was a big part of what made STO fun: It brought people together and paid out where missions skimped.  Now, the lower-tier PVP queues are deserted–a lack of new subscribers perhaps–and the join mechanism failed the few times a match actually came up.

Although PVP gives Star Fleet some nice extras, it’s a Klingon’s bread and butter. Is there enough Klingon PVE content at the lower tiers to level without PVP? I’m eager to get a new Klingon rolled, but it may be quite some time before I plant my Klingon butt where it belongs, in the Captain’s chair of a K’t’inga class battlecruiser. Sigh.

I’m not as excited about becoming a Star Fleet Commander; the science ships are the ugliest in the fleet, the four-nacelle cruisers look as natural as two-headed snakes, and the otherwise-gorgeous Akira class escort is my least favorite type of ship to fly. STO’s August calendar of upcoming events brings hope with the addition of the Excelsior class as a tier 3 cruiser. Otherwise, I dread looking at the aft of any of today’s tier 3 vessels. I won’t be able to claw my way out of Commander fast enough.

That’s my problem in a nutshell: I keep seeing the STO I want to play in the next release. Season 2 is arguably better–probably more for end gamers than those starting up or starting over–but it’s only a step towards a fully-realized STO. I want to experience a consistent game throughout my character’s lifetime. This kind of incremental improvement will have me rebooting every six months and resenting it. Maybe this is just a point of friction between me the solo computer RPG gamer and the constantly-evolving-to-stay-marketable world of MMOs.  Sigh, again.

Sometimes a Hit Point Is Just a Hit Point

Adarel started a Google Wave about LOTRO’s morale metaphor for hit points last month and paraphrased her resulting academic paper in a blog post on LOTRO Reporter. I’ve been thinking about the larger problem of what hit points really are for a long time as well, and I give Turbine credit for trying to address it head-on. Although I like the morale metaphor and think it’s less immersion-breaking than health–especially around death and defeat, both metaphors fail to completely cover the often-exposed mechanics of hit points.

The Nuts-and-Bolts Problem

The real problem is level-based systems define hit points as a function of level. The underlying mechanics simply don’t mesh with real-life experience: A 60th level character can’t actually survive being stabbed with a dagger 60 more times than a 1st level character nor survive a fall from 60 times as high. No metaphor is going to be able to rationalize such things.

In tabletop games like Call of Cthulhu that aren’t level-based, hit points are a funtion of attributes. That means the character’s maximum hit points don’t change significantly through gameplay. The consequence is that every combat includes a high risk of death; a critical hit could kill a character with a single hit. This works in CoC because combat is infrequent.

Computer RPGs (MMOs particularly) depend on combat much more than table-top games. I kill more mobs in an average LOTRO session than any of my tabletop characters did in a year of gameplay. The statistical consequence of all that combat is defeat goes from a probability (< 1) on the tabletop to a frequency (> 1) in MMOs over a character’s lifetime. Since LOTR lore does not allow any kind of resurrection, the health metaphor ends up being immersion-breaking in a much more fundamental, undeniable way. Hit points cannot be health because defeat cannot be death; the result is more arcade game than role-playing game.

The Hearts-and-Minds Problem

Most computer games use the health metaphor, so most gamers are more comfortable with it by introduction and repetition. Health gets grandfathered under the collective “willing suspension of disbelief” needed to start playing these games in the first place. Morale conflicts with the internally-consistent model everybody’s already accepted. It’s natural on purely cognitive grounds for morale to break immersion for people who have been habituated to health.

Unfortunately Turbine applied the metaphor inconsistently as pointed out in the Wave and blog comments. The developers and writers are products of earlier games too; they are working at odds with their own habituated internal models. Beyond text and labels, the combat animations themselves conspire against the morale metaphor. They show attacks connecting every time, not just for the (ahem) killing blow. In the morale metaphor, all attacks except the last should be near hits, blocks, parries, etc.

Such inconsistencies exacerbate a perception problem around the semantics of morale. Adarel and others liken the effects of defeat to “being sad”, something game mechanics like hope and dread reinforce. My war-gaming history frames (breaking) morale differently; it’s the point where a unit loses cohesion, routs, and flees the battle. After all, few historical battles resulted in the complete destruction of one side. Unfortunately for Turbine, metaphors are creatures of context. They may have chosen one that their audience won’t accept outside of old-timers like me who know if from other contexts.

What Would Yoda Do?

Putting Turbine’s continuity issues aside, I find the morale metaphor much more satisfying because it better explains the vast difference between 1st and 60th level characters without violating my common sense understanding of the real world. It’s not the best one, however. Consider the hybrid route many class/level tabletop games took when moving from the fantasy setting to something more modern (and fatal) like this quote from WotC’s Star Wars RPG core rulebook:

Hit points […] represent two things in the game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a graze or near miss. As you become more experienced, you become more adept at parrying strikes, dodging attacks, and rolling with blows […] but all this effort slowly wears you down. Rather than try to keep track of the difference between attacks and how much phsyical injury you take, hit points are an abstract measure of your total ability to survive damage.

This and other d20-based games are the literal descendants of the game where hit points first evolved: Dungeons and Dragons. Tabletop games have struggled with the metaphorical mismatch of health and hit points for years, preferring to hybridize it with combat abstraction. If LOTRO represents a similar evolution in the MMO space, I suspect future ludologists will only study it through the fossil record. Leaving hit points as an abstraction and concentrating more on playing or creating content for games seems a better survival strategy than working to make it really stick.

Links:

LotrO & Tolkien: Morale and the Absence of Death – Good or Bad? — Google Wave

Morale in LOTRO — Anti-immersive? by Adarel on LOTRO Reporter

Syndication with my.lotro broken by WordPress 2.9

Trap Door Spider Queen of LOTRO
A mighty big bug, and colourful too!

The otherwise excellent WordPress 2.9 release has caused some problems in the FeedWordPress plugin I use to syndicate content from my My LOTRO blog. The plugin developer’s been quiet since July, and the latest beta build of WP 2.9.1 hasn’t fixed the problem–yet.

Game-related blogs exacerbate problems with managing your content across many sites and trying to provide a one-stop-shop for those who are interested. In the case of my.lotro, their blogging software is often a version behind and the mods they make quirky; I noticed in the latest release that tags and categories in quick edit pick lists are white-on-white for instance.  However, they have some nice game-related features like achievement logs and character details. My knee-jerk response is that they should provide better RSS widgets and become more an aggregator than a host for non-game content, but there are the usual issues of allowing uncontrolled content on their site and the visual train-wreck of content created for wildly-different CSS schemes that make it a dice roll.

What’s a gamer-blogger to do? Wait. I’m tempted to put my programmer hat on and see if I can fix this, and maybe submit it to FeedWordPress’s developer. Then again, my holiday LOTRO marathon really shouldn’t be interrupted, especially with STO so, so close.

Rank has its privileges in Star Trek Online

Star Trek Online
Star Trek Online

Fleets are the guilds of Star Trek Online. The guys over on mmojunkies.tv mentioned in STO Radio podcast 1.4 that fleets would have seven customizable ranks. They’ve even put up their choices and logo for Nova Fleet already.

Googling around, it looks like fleets are popping up all over the place. I don’t know if this is normal for other MMOs that haven’t launched yet, but it doesn’t surprise me. Star Wars: The Old Republic might have a larger, more passionate (i.e., fanboy) base than Star Trek, but there is an inherent structure and deep lore to the Trek universe–beyond just its military ranking–that makes such organizing easier and more contextually relevant.

If I were designing a fleet, I’d go in a different direction than STO Radio and base it on modern naval organization. The game isn’t released, and I’m not in the closed beta (yet … cough, cough) so none of this factors in how privileges relate to ranks, but here goes:

Fleet Commander The highest authority in the fleet has ultimate control over the fleet, its resources, and its composition. (i.e., guild leader)
Task Force Commander Task force commanders control shared fleet resources and rank. (i.e., guild officer, promotions, and banking)
Task Group Commander Task group commander is the lowest strategic rank in the fleet and has the authority to recruit new captains into the fleet. (i.e., guild officer, recruiter)
Squadron Commander A squadron is a small group of complementary vessels. The squadron commander has experience with all vessel classes and can coordinate a diverse group of vessels to achieve complex objectives. (i.e., guild veteran, raid leader)
Flotilla Commander A flotilla is a small group of similar vessels (i.e., cruisers, escorts, or science vessels). The flotilla commander is an expert with one vessel and may be responsible for training captains in the optimal use of their individual vessels. (i.e., guild veteran)
Captain The fleet captain is a full, permanent member of the fleet. (i.e., guild member)
Acting Captain While the acting captain is the true commander of his own vessel, his position in the fleet is probationary or temporary. (i.e., guild recruit)

Like the modern navy, I don’t envision static arrangements of ships into flotillas, squadrons, etc. Fleet rank may imply authority when grouping with individual rank breaking ties. Of course I would expect consensus to overrule simple rank based on player skills and the challenges at hand.

I just get more excited every moment I think about this game coming out. My usual goal of moderating expectation is completely out the airlock! Please, Cryptic, do not disappoint!