Project Update! Books, Blogs, and Everything Else!

Howdy, folks! These past few months have been downright crazy, but I wanted to give you all a heads up of what’s been keeping me away from blogging here at Professor Beej as regularly as I want to. Things are finally starting to calm down a little, and I’m able to focus more on specific projects. I thought you might be interested in knowing where the awesomeness is headed.

 

Birthright

Birthright - Final Cover

Last year, you all were awesome enough to crowdfund my first solo novel, Birthright. After a few setbacks in terms of finding an editor (and being more than a little naive when setting the delivery dates), I think we’re right on track. I’ve made my penultimate edits, and I just got back the manuscript from my final 2 polish editors, so I’m pretty confident the ebook will be ready in around 6 weeks, and the print version soon after that. For you Kickstarter backers, keep an eye out–a survey is coming to you soon.

 

Nimbus

Nimbus: A Steampunk Novel - Part 3 Cover

I can’t say I’m not shocked and amazed at the reception we’ve had for Nimbus. People seem to be enjoying our little serial novel experiment, and now that Part One is $0.99 on Amazon, it’s doing even better. Tell your friends.

Part Four is coming along well, and Austin and I hope to have this novel finished and edited within the next 4-5 weeks, too.  The holidays and a few personal issues on both our parts slowed down the release and made us lose some momentum, but we think the end of the book is going to blow your minds. If you haven’t caught up yet, you can snag the first three parts of Nimbus for your Kindle right now.

 

Geek Fitness

In case you didn’t hear, I started a new blog. Because of my phenomenal success at losing weight over the past couple of years–140 pounds!–I think I have a few things to say about the subject of fitness and health. And I mean, when my wife can tell her family that my three favorite things in the world are Star Wars, superheroes, and exercise, I think I need a fitness blog. Don’tcha think?

I’m also going out of my way to learn social media that isn’t Twitter, so I even set up Tumblr and Pinterest pages for Geek Fitness. Not to mention the Facebook page I’m still trying to learn. So if any of those are your chosen network, give me a tweet, a reblog, a repin, or a like.  I’d love for the site to blow up and do well, so share it with your friends, and hit me up if you have any ideas that could make it even better. It’s a month old, and I’m all ears.

 

MMO Gaming

And while it’s not really a project, my non-writing time has been taken up with a fair amount of MMO gaming, too.

I went back to WoW this past week, much to my wife’s chagrin, but I’m also toying around with The Secret WorldGuild Wars 2, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Each game has a lot going for it, and I have to be careful not to spend too much non-productive time online, but it’s nice to have so many quality games out there–especially so many quality games that don’t require subscriptions.

That’s what’s going on in my little corner of the world. What about you? What’s new with you folks?

 

Horizontally Awesome

No, I’m not announcing my first adult film (Horizontally Awesome, get it?). I’m talking about why I enjoy Guild Wars 2 more than almost any MMO in the last few years: because it deals with horizontal progression, rather than vertical. I can play the game to play the game, not to treat it like a second–and maybe third–job.

When Guild Wars 2 dropped its first world event a while back, I logged on for the first time in months. I enjoyed what I had played of GW2 around launch as I PvPed some, leveled some, and generally figured out how the game works, but nothing ever really snagged me. None of the classes I played really felt like the one, nor did anything about the game make me feel like I just had to log on and play.

But during The Lost Shores event, I tried the Guardian class and fell in love. I have a gigantic sword, can AoE tank just about anything with it, and swap to a staff or scepter to immediately throw out support spells for my allies. When I say I was in love, I was in love.

So as I played further, I understood what ArenaNet was talking about horizontal progression and why it matters in games. You see, games like World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic are based on vertical progression. That is, once you hit the level cap, you can only experience the rest of the game’s content by making your now-level-capped character more powerful by acquiring new pieces of equipment. You’re standing in one place, and growing taller. Vertical. Right? Right.

Guild Wars 2, however, throws that idea of progression out the window. Mostly. While there is a slight bit of vertical progression in the game, most of it is horizontal. You can hit the level cap, but all that level cap really does, is give you access to more areas of the game. When you go into lower-level areas, you are deleveled to where the content is still a challenge. A level 80 in a level 13 zone would be around level 13 in terms of actual power.

That means that, as a player, you are playing this game to play this game. Once you get to the level cap, the game itself doesn’t change like in traditional MMOs. There is no “endgame” because the endgame is just the game itself. The level cap basically just grants you full-access to it. You work for 80 levels for the right to do whatever you want to do.

It’s not a sandbox, but it’s pretty close to it. Guild Wars 2 is a game based on exploration and new ideas and making sure that the players get to partake in those ideas. Content is not arbitrarily gated from players.

Sure, I have to earn the right to see the new areas, but once I’ve earned that–by playing the game and having fun where I can–I get to do what I want. I don’t have to have a combat rating or gearscore. My gigantic sword doesn’t have to have a purple name to prove I’m shiny enough to enter into the Big Bad Castle of Baron Toocool Fornoobs. If I want to go there, I can. If I don’t, I’ll do something else.

In a horizontally awesome game, I can do that. There is a lot of hate out there because there is nothing keeping players around, no gear treadmill or carrot-on-a-stick forcing players to log on, and folks say GW2 will die because of it.

I don’t know what the game will look like in 2 years, nor do I care. I know that right now, it’s about having fun and letting MMO gamers–for the first time in my decade and a half in the genre–decide when and how that happens. On their terms. Not the developers’.

And if that wasn’t enough, check out the upcoming Christmas event, Wintersday, and tell me you don’t want to take part. I dare you.

Why You Should Try DOTA 2 (and Other ARTS Games)


The rise of the ARTS (Action Real-Time Strategy) genre has been meteoric indeed. Earlier this month, data provided by XFire showed that League of Legends had become the most played PC game in the world, with over 1.3 billion hours played and surpassing even the mighty World of Warcraft.

For many of us though, the ARTS genre remains a mystery. There is no doubt that it is popular, but many of us just haven’t had the chance to engage with it. Where did this phenomenon begin? What’s the hype all about? And, perhaps most importantly, why start playing now?

The Mod that Started a Genre

The first commonly-accepted example of a ARTS was Aeon of Strife, a custom map for StarCraft. In the map, each player controls a hero that levels up during the course of the battle.

This concept was further refined in the form of Defense of the Ancients (DotA), a custom mod for Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. The objective was to destroy the other team’s ancient, located in their base. Still using an RTS-style interface, each player took on the powers of a particular hero. These were based on units from Warcraft III, but the player controlled no other units–just the hero. Automated NPCs called “creeps” travelled on predestined paths toward the enemy base, and there was no base management since these “creeps” spawned automatically at set intervals. Defeating enemy computer-controlled units as well as enemy players granted XP and gold, allowing heroes to level up and purchase powerful items. The unique composition of each team and the tactical decisions made during the course of the match would determine the outcome.

The mod was intensely popular and spawned several spin-offs. One of the hallmarks of the mod from the very beginning was the emphasis placed on game balance and on keeping the game competitive. This aspect of the mod’s design would carry over to its successors and is part of what made the genre so popular.

The Genre Emerges

Demigod was the first commercially-produced standalone title in the ARTS genre when it was released in 2009, but a troubled release including bugs and server problems meant that it received mixed reception from both critics and users. In addition, while it was definitely a member of the genre, it was evident that it was trying to appear aesthetically and thematically different from DotA. It also lacked some of the highlights of DotA, like a large and varied character selection.

The first standalone game that was both a title in the genre and a spiritual successor to DotA is undoubtedly League of Legends. While Riot Games, the developer and publisher of the game, tried to redefine the genre’s name (opting to call it a MOBA, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) to move it away from its DotA heritage, the experience was undoubtedly based in the original mod.

Riot Games also managed to make the game a resounding financial success by appealing to their players’ competitive nature. Some heroes were free to play, but others required that you purchase them from the store in order to play them. Some heroes would have limited free periods, so you could see the hero in action before you purchased it. Though you could technically play League of Legends and spend nothing to do so, not many people did. Riot showed the world that the model worked and that the genre held great profit-making potential.

On the other hand, Riot’s monetization of hero selection was criticized by some players. The dedication to balance and a competitive environment that began with DotA was harder to maintain, since a player would need to spend money to get additional hero choices. In addition, some players claimed that new heroes tended to initially be (or to seem) slightly more powerful than older ones. Some theorized this was an attempt to encourage players to purchase the new hero to gain a power advantage.

Still, you can’t argue with results. The impact of League of Legends’ emergence had been felt, and other companies would answer.

The Next Wave

The next major title to be released in the genre was Heroes of Newerth, from S2 Games. The game featured a steeper learning curve and was less forgiving than League of Legends, and in some ways this was more in line with the original DotA mod. Active abilities were used less on creeps and more for harassment. Mana conservation was more important. Like the original DotA, there was no way to recall to your base outside of specific items.

The game did gain significant converts and showed that multiple games in the genre could co-exist if they were mechanically different enough. Though both games were undoubtedly based on DotA, they each had a niche: HoN was trying to cater to the more competitive, original DotA audience while LoL had expanded the genre and pushed it to the forefront.

Heroes of Newerth did eventually convert to a free to play model, as well–however, unlike League of Legends, the purchasable items are now mostly cosmetic and S2 has announced that in the future no restrictions will be placed on hero selection (besides early access to the hero).

Dota 2 Arrives

Dota 2, produced by Valve Corporation in association with IceFrog (one of DotA’s creators), shows promise as the next entry in the ARTS genre. As with so many of their games (see: Counter-Strike, Team Fortress 2, Portal), Valve hired the talent and worked with them to make sure they got the game that they wanted. They also went with Dota 2 as opposed to “DotA 2”, as they believe that Dota has become its own concept.

It is currently in beta, so while you can’t guarantee a free invite, you can guarantee yourself a paid one. Basically, if you buy an invite to the game via Steam, you’re paying for a bunch of cosmetic items for heroes in the game. The game is currently slated to be free to play, and hopefully will release this year, so if you wait until it is released generally you won’t have to pay anything to begin playing. You can sign up for a chance at beta access here.

And what a game it is!

Valve’s well-known talent for polish takes the ARTS experience to a whole new level. The spectating system is easy to use and allows you to learn the game by watching others play. There is a full in-game encyclopedia of all heroes and items available. It is clear to me that Valve has designed this game to be playable and user-friendly from the moment the floodgates are opened and it becomes publicly available. High-profile tournaments are held and advertised within the client itself, on the main page. The main page itself is beautiful and easy to navigate and the UI generally is just a thing of beauty. And, as a kicker, all the heroes are free.

That’s right, all of them. The purchasable items in the Store are cosmetic or fun items. Think of it much like the inventory system in TF2, except that the items have no additional effects. Valve has continued their crate metagame, wherein you can pay for a key in the Store to unbox a crate containing a random item that you may sometimes receive after a game. There are also extremely entertaining Announcer Packs, which change the default announcer’s voice to a different one. Again though, these are entirely optional.

I’ll get this out of the way right now: Dota 2, as a game, is less forgiving than League of Legends. The difficulty and technicality of the gameplay is much more in line with the original DotA than with LoL. There are critical moments in the game like during early-game gank attempts, or during mid- to late-game team fights that you’ll have trouble identifying at first. If this is your first ARTS, you will probably suck badly in your first few games.

I know I did, and I still do.

There is some learning to do if you’re new to the genre. Initially, you’ll probably struggle with some of the following: risk management, which items to purchase, how much punishment you can take, and what the other heroes around you are capable of.

That may sound like a lot, and it is, but these things come with experience, so you shouldn’t be discouraged if you aren’t an instant professional. What I recommend is finding a group of friendly people to help you along. Unfortunately, these types of games aren’t known for friendly, welcoming teammates when queuing for random games.

If you don’t have friends to play with, look for a regular group or just watch some games for a while. If you want to get used to a particular hero, you can play a practice game against bots. The bot AI in this game is actually pretty decent, too.

Having said that, if you can push past the initial frustration, there is incredibly deep gameplay waiting for you on the other side. Communication, coordination, and proper use of abilities are crucial to success. Again, I confess to be terrible at the game still, but I am starting to see the little strategies and tactics that can make a difference. The detail-oriented gamer in me squeals with glee when I see these in action.

I really think Valve’s model and their beautiful, user-friendly client are the future of this genre. World Cyber Games thinks so too, replacing League of Legends with Dota 2 in this year’s tournament. The game is amazing, and for all the reasons listed above, you should check it out. If the initial $30 for an invite and the aforementioned cosmetic items is too prohibitive, you can always wait until the floodgates open later this year.

How do you feel about ARTS games, or League of Legends or Dota 2 specifically? Let me know in the comments!

 

Religion in Guild Wars 2: The Sylvari

If you are an MMO player like me, you are probably excitedly awaiting the release of Guild Wars 2 at the end of August. If you are an armchair philosopher like me, then you are probably very intrigued by the concepts behind a couple of the races and their relationships with religion. The obvious being the Charr, a race that gave up religion completely so they could host an industrial revolution. They knowingly rid their soceity of religion because they recognized it was being used to oppress their people.

Now, I’m not saying this is a metaphor for all religion, in fact, the humans of Guild Wars 2 seem to be doing just fine with their belief structure. Regardless, the Charr are actually neither here nor there–I actually want to focus on a different race, altogether. The Sylvari.

The Sylvari are particularly interesting to me, because according to Guild Wars 2, the race is only 25 years old. An entire race of people, and they have only been around for 25 years. How fascinating is that? Naturally, one has to wonder what effect that might have on their views of the world, especially regarding religion.

To Dream a Little Dream

According to Guild Wars 2 lore, the Sylvari exist in the Dream before they are “born.” Though, they are not actually born; they are sort of hatched from a seed pod. But within the Dream, they have a consciousness that does not seem to know it is not alive. At least, not alive as we would traditionally see it. It is as though they are able to experience life through a kind of simulated existence inside the Pale Tree, the massive tree that sprouts the Sylvari.

This concept should be immediately familiar to any student of religion, as it seems to almost be based on a facet of Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) belief. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints believe the soul of a human exists with God before it is selected to be born. It makes me wonder if this particular tenet was not an inspiration for the Sylvari.

But I digress. I’m here to discuss the implications of religion on the Sylvari in-game, not the effect of real-world religion on the game.

Pod People

So imagine this: you just sprouted from a seed pod–fully grown, mind you–and you are seeing the world for the first time. You are realizing that the existance you thought you knew in the Dream is not the actual world around you. Not to say the Dream is not real–it is–it’s just not everything you thought it was.

What would you instantly think, being “born” fully aware? Would you believe in a god? Would you think the Pale Tree that sprouted you is a god? Or is the world just what it appears to be?

The Guild Wars 2 Wiki states that the Sylvari are agnostic toward to concept of the human religion in the game, which is a polytheistic (more than one deity) belief structure. It states the Sylvari would prefer to see the actions of these gods before they put any faith in them.

Could this desire be because of how they are brought into the world? They spend so much time in the Dream, now they awaken and realize everything wasn’t as it seems, so now they view things with a skeptical eye. But that would imply the Sylvari held some sort of cynical view of the Pale Tree, that it was “lying” to them all that time. No, instead it seems they view the Pale Tree as a respected parent, and less a god.

So what about you? Try to put yourself in the position, if you can, of a newborn Sylvari.

How do you think you would view the world if you were born/hatched/harvested to find out everything you thought you knew was only the tip of the metaphysical iceberg? How would you handle being thrust into a world where your entire civilization has only existed, when compared to others you interact with, for the blink of an eye?

With all that in mind, the Sylvari aren’t alone in having a unique take on religion. As we look deeper into Guild Wars 2, we’ll be able to discuss not only interesting parallels between in-game belief systems and the real-world, but unique interactions between the religions in the game. How does the Nords’ polytheism differ from the humans’? Do the Charr and the Asurans share any common beliefs? And more importantly, what does any of that mean to you? Will any of this affect the way you play the game?

I guess we’ll see!

[Guest Post] 5 Greatest MMOs of 2012

Today’s guest post was written by Evan Fischer, a contributing writer for Sonic Games 365–where you can find the best arcade, puzzle, and RPG games on the web.

If you’ve grown bored with some of the overstuffed MMOs that seem to offer only minute variations on popular themes (Evil wizard holds kingdom hostage! Aliens invade the earth! An apocalypse turns us all into battle-ready soldiers!) then you’re no doubt looking forward to some of the incredible new MMOs being released 2012. While not a comprehensive list, here are just a few that should give you something a little more than the average fare.

Firefall

Expansive open-world environment – check. Futuristic battle zone setting – check. First- and third-person shooter features – check. And it’s free?

Holy crap.

So, this asteroid basically hits the earth, setting off the “Nine Year Winter” (brrrr). Some governments fall to pieces while other nations make alliances, and a new element called crystite is discovered (providing unlimited power, which is a real bonus during asteroid-induced winter). Also, wormholes are created, but they have this unfortunate side effect of creating energy storms that ravage the earth, leaving it largely inhospitable, darn the luck. So the story is a little like a spit-balling exercise that never got pared down. But with lots of groups and classes to choose from (fighter, engineer, medic, etc.), plenty of loot to be captured, and extensive PvP environments, Firefall is one MMO to try this year (and keep in mind, the demo will air at RTX July 7).

TERA

This action/adventure MMO out of Korea is an epic fantasy game of the sword-and-sorcery variety (dragons, magic – all the snacky-treats of the fantasy genre). But thanks to the Unreal Engine, the graphics are breathtaking, and the manual targeting feature gives the game some unexpected oomph that will likely appeal to the hardcore gaming crowd (since it’s relatively rare in the PC world).

Guild Wars 2

Although this game won’t debut until August, it’s already getting a lot of buzz; it’s basically the choose-your-own-adventure version of the MMO world. The success of the first Guild Wars apparently gave developer ArenaNet a desire to take it to the next level, and their plan is certainly audacious. Every choice users make, from character attributes to the weapons they draw, will affect the outcome of individual events and the progression of the game as a whole. If their plan works, this game could just take MMOs to the next level.

The Secret World

Fantasy runs rife in the wide world of MMOs, but this gorgeous game embraces the weird in a different way. Set in modern day (rather than a magical past or apocalyptic future),The Secret World nonetheless offers a touch of the fantastic through the unveiling of the fact that myths, legends, and folklore are all true. Secret societies are out there (you’ll be joining one, too!), there really are hidden cities at the center of the earth, and brain-hungry zombies could be invading the Hamptons as we speak. With an emphasis on character creation and storytelling (and a lack of levels), this isn’t your average MMO.

But that’s what makes it fun.

Diablo III

As MMO video games go, this one may be one of the most anticipated in recent memory; hard-core fans of the franchise have been holding their breath (and slowly turning blue) for the last twelve years, when Diablo II came out. In fact, so many people were eager to get their hands on this game that it reportedly broke pre-sale records and sold more copies within the first 24 hours of hitting store shelves than any other PC game to date.

You might not think that your typical hack-and-slash game would be worth all the hubbub, but this franchise is anything but typical, with stellar storylines, tactical action gameplay, fully-formed, destructible, 3D environments, and of course, the multi-player functionality that first made the Diablo franchise so popular. Sadly, this game is not free (though there is no subscription fee); however, most players will agree that it’s worth every penny.

Did we miss your favorite MMO of 2012? Let us know about it in the comments!