Dealing With Digital Grieving in a Real World

I apologize if this meanders a bit, and isn't beautifully written like other blogs have been recently. I've so many things to say, but have been having a hard time putting words together to express it.

I don't like death. Ok, sure, no one likes death, but I super don't like death. I wouldn't go to my own funeral if I could help it. At my great grandmother's funeral with whom I'd never shared words, I bawled. Same with my uncle who I didn't care much for. I went to a friend's father's wake to show my respects, then ducked out before the funeral started. I suppose it's not death itself that bothers me. Obviously we all die. It's just a thing that happens, right? It's the memories that really get me. It's the fact that the person no longer exists.

I've followed the Giantbomb crew since I was 16 years old, peaking snippets of video reviews and On the Spot when my computer teacher wasn't looking. I was there for blonde, soft-spoken-as-fuck-and-super-awkward-on-camera Ryan. I was there for that crazy knife show video Jeff talked about on the Bombcast. I was there, obviously, for Kane & Lynch and the eventual forming of Arrow Pointing Down and birth of Giantbomb. I've followed what these guys have done for nearly half my life and enjoyed every god damn minute of content they've put out over the years.

Jeff was right in what he said on the podcast. Someone does need to put out a book on how to grieve in a post-social media world. I've never met Ryan in my life. Never exchanged a single word, be it in person, over a red phone, or via customer support e-mails. I've only ever experienced his magic over the interwebs by way of Quick Looks, Endurance Runs, BLLSL's, PAX Panels, Bombcasts, or exclusive reveals of Buckner & Garcia's latest hot jams. Upon hearing of his passing, I was suddenly struck with feelings that genuinely confused me, and made me think about how the internet has changed how friendships and relationships can form. I, along with many others in this community, formed an odd, one-sided bond with Ryan and the crew. One we didn't even realize had formed until Monday. It felt like I had lost a close friend. Someone I'd spent many hours joking around with, hanging out, playing video games, and flushing objects down toilets that had no business being anywhere near a bathroom.

The site was still here, but a void had been formed. Giantbomb had lost it's face man. Upon telling my wife of the news (I had to show her a picture of Ryan, as she doesn't read the site at all, but generally can figure out who I'm talking about based on a description or picture), her response was simple, but profound.

"Oh, him? But he is Giantbomb!"

I'm still not sure what it was about hearing those words from her, someone to whom Giantbomb was just a site on which I spent way too much time, but it struck me with a sudden realization: the emptiness and sorrow I'd felt all day were ok. It wasn't weird or confusing. She was right. Sure, obviously Brad, Jeff, Vinny, Patrick, Alex, Alexis, Matt, Andy, and any others I'm missing are all a part of what makes this site as awesome as it is.

But Ryan was Giantbomb. He was the host of just about every show this site has put on over the years, but more than that, he was the main attraction. The spotlight was on him, and god damn if it didn't suit him. As the guys discussed on the podcast, he was just always on, clearly having the time of his life any time those cameras were rolling and some dumb game was on screen (NO NO NO! DON'T SHAKE THE BABY!).

In some ways, we've lost Giantbomb. I mean, sure, the site will continue on, and it'll continue to be great. But without Ryan there, Giantbomb as we knew it has passed on with him. Now we painfully transition into Giantbomb: The Second Age, where things aren't worse, and definitely not the same, but will never be better than the Age of Taswell. It'll be different.

Just before starting this blog, I was finishing up the recent Bombcast. As the crew thanked Ryan for everything he's done, and all the ways he's enriched their lives like no one else on this earth could do, hearing their voices begin to crack for the first time on the site since the announcement, for the first time since my uncle's funeral five or six years ago, I let my emotions tear down the icy walls around my heart (the same walls that kept this motherfucker's eyes dry throughout The Notebook) and cried like you only ever cry when you've lost someone close to you. Because Ryan deserves those tears. Because in this digital age, you can have friends who you've never met, damn it. Social "norms" be damned. Because Ryan was a friend to all of us.

We've all lost our friend.

It's ok to cry.

Farewell, good friend.

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Guild Wars 2: The Good, The Bad, and The Asurable

So I had full intentions of writing a proper review post-release for GW2, but let's be real here: reviews for MMOs are dumb. As Jeff pointed out in his most recent Jar video, reviews for MMO's, even more so than standard game reviews, become obsolete nearly by the time the "Submit" button is pressed and the review goes live.

However, after reading the very well written blog by one Matthew regarding GW2, and responding to a comment in the thread, it turned out I had quite a lot to say about the game (and not all of it praise). So that brings me here, to my own blog entry, where I'll outline some of what I think makes GW2 special, what it does right, and where things could maybe be tweaked to make the experience more enjoyable for all. This won't be an exhaustive look at everything GW2 has to offer. As was the case with Matt, I have not yet hit max level and seen everything the game has to offer, so this will really only cover the corners of the game I've uncovered during my time in the beta weekend events, stress tests, and first 50 levels of content upon release. Get comfortable. This could be a long one. Also of note: if you read my comment in Rorie's post, some of this will be pulled from that, so don't be surprised if wording is very similar between the two. That comment was what inspired me to write this blog in the first place, after all.

I think Rorie worded it best, so I won't try to reword it and pretend to make it my own: GW2 is iterative, but it's what it does in terms of iteration that helps it to stand apart from the ever growing crowd of MMORPGs out on the market. His question of "why didn't anyone think of this before" was something I also found myself asking around every corner. Just simple things, such as each player having individual loot, no kill tagging, separating PvP (structured PvP in the case of GW2) and PvE balance, along with many other things. Not everything is rainbows and unicorns, however.

The world of GW2 is breathtaking in scope. Everything has a scale unmatched in my MMO history (which is pretty extensive, post-WoW). That said, nothing (with the exception of maybe Hoelbrak) feels unnecessarily large. Some have claimed the cities to be unnecessarily huge, and I feel like that is solely due to expectations set by WoW, and how TOR handled "large" cities. Let's take Divinity's Reach, for example. It is probably the largest city in the game, after all. However, it is such because it is the last remaining city for the human race (as far as I am aware). Therefore, it would make sense that the city would be so sprawling. And it's not just wasted space. There are a ton of NPC's scattered throughout the city, each with their own dialogue and activities that you can happen upon as you pass by. I even caught an NPC lady who was supposed to be new to the city and was discussing it with a guard. Upon the completion of their dialogue, the lady and her child turned to walk away, and I decided to follow to see how far they went before disappearing (something any MMO player comes to expect as a regular occurrence with MMO NPC's). I followed them a quarter of the way around the city before she finally walked up to the steps of what I presume was her house and disappeared inside. Arenanet definitely has taken the effort and gone the extra mile to ensure that the world of Tyria feels alive.

Bioware tried to do the same thing with TOR by populating its massive city streets with NPC's, but due to their NPC system, it never quite felt right. The system would populate the streets with a variable number of NPC's based on the performance of the player's computer. Because this population was done client-side, the NPC's could not be targeted and dialogue was not present, so it made those NPC's feel less like people and more like props on an otherwise empty set.

On the flip side of this breathtaking scenery and "alive" world, one cannot ignore the fact that the world, when it comes down to it, is heavily instanced. Perhaps it is not as much as the original Guild Wars, but anyone expecting the seamless world of WoW, where one could run from the most northern tip of a continent to the southern without hitting a loading screen will at least be mildly disappointed, as I was. Guild Wars 2 is rife with loading screens. Whether traveling around the city using the waypoint system, or moving from one leveling zone to another (or to the city), players are greeted with yet another loading screen. While I enjoy the waypoint system, and feel like it is a much needed feature over the "hearthstone" feature most MMO's use, it does unfortunately exacerbate the loading screen issue, as you'll even be hit with loads when moving from waypoint to waypoint within the same zone. Obviously this is something that is not likely to change, and an annoyance I will be forced to grow tolerant of, instanced worlds have always turned me away from MMO's in the past, making the game feel less like a world and more like a conjoined series of game zones.

That said, the zones that make up Tyria are beautifully crafted with a ludicrous amount of detail, and Arenanet does a great job of encouraging players to explore every square inch of each zone by placing points of interest, vistas, waypoints, and skill point challenges all over the map (not even counting the hidden jumping puzzles scattered all over the world) and rewards the player with bonus experience, karma points, and some form of loot upon 100% completion of zone. The jumping puzzles really are the hidden gems of Guild Wars 2's level design, though. Generally tucked away in a hard to reach place (and amazingly not behind a loading screen in most cases!), players can stumble (or climb, as it were) into any number of jumping puzzles. Sometimes these lead to vistas, but often they lead the player to a hearty chest full of well-earned loot for those brave (or masochistic in some cases) enough to push through the puzzles.

When it comes down to it, though, pushing through jumping puzzles shouldn't be the chore it sometimes is. Character movement in Guild Wars 2 is a bit too on the "floaty" side. The feeling of imprecision in movement is most apparent when attempting one of the many jumping puzzles. Jumps don't feel quite right, air control feels sluggish, and jumping while pressed against an object sometimes results in not jumping at all. Combine that with the equally floaty-feeling, I-want-to-clip-through-everything camera, and jumping puzzles feel less about perfecting the angle and timing of a jump, and more like an exercise in frustration while you wrangle the camera into the correct position and hope the jump actually goes off when you press the button. However, after having recently booted up WoW (I wanted to check out the 5.0.1 update) and jumping around a bit in there, I still prefer Guild Wars 2's jumping over the mechanical, clunky feel of WoW's jumping. Maybe it's less "realistic" (hah, realism in an MMO), but I think the slight air control allotted to the player in Guild Wars 2 is enough to make the jumps just feel better. And let's face it, with WoW's style of jumping, that style of puzzles just wouldn't be very fun, since every jump would basically be the same distance away.

Aside from jumping puzzles, there are a great many things available for players to do for PvE content in Guild Wars 2. The two major methods of PvE progression (excluding personal story) are Renown Hearts and Dynamic Events. This is where Arenanet really shines in how they iterate on known MMO conventions, and make the experience feel better for the player, even though you're essentially doing the same thing as you would in any other MMO out there. Renown Hearts are the player's first introduction to PvE content in Guild Wars 2. These are basically this game's equivalent to "quests" in other MMO's. The big difference, however, is in how the quest is completed. MMO questing generally falls into one of three major categories: kill, gather, and protect (escort can be lumped into protect). In this sense, Guild Wars 2's Renown Hearts are no different. However, instead of having a quest that says "I need you to kill X wolves!" and one that says "Please gather X apples for me," Guild Wars 2's Renown hearts combine these into one activity. An early example of this might be that a farmer wants you to feed hay to his cows, stomp worm mounds scattered around his farm, and kill the worms that come from said mounds. Players then have the option of how to approach the quest. If the player only wants to kill, they can just run around killing worms, and their progress bar will fill accordingly. However, the player can also do a combination of the three (generally the best way to approach renown hearts if you're going for efficiency) and they will all progress the same bar, allowing the player to complete the quest and gather their reward.

Finding out how quest rewards are handled in Guild Wars 2 is also a very "why didn't anyone else think of this?" moment. Instead of a simple 'finish quest, talk to quest giver, pick from 3 rewards that you probably can't use anyway,' players, upon completion of a Renown Heart, are rewarded with karma points (along with the standard experience points and a bit of money). The person who had the Renown Heart over their head now becomes a karma vendor, offering players a small handful of items available for sale for a reasonable amount of karma points. However, if the vendor does not have anything that might be useful to the player, they can simply choose to hold onto their karma points and save them up for a later karma vendor who might sell a really sweet sword that is just perfect for them. It's a simple solution to a problem that's plagued MMO quests for too many years, and it's about time someone got it right. All that said, Renown Hearts are really intended as a sort of transitional 'crutch' for players who are used to the standard MMO questing system.

As they play through the game, players are faced with Dynamic Events, these sort of random events that might happen on a timer, when a certain dialogue option is chosen when speaking to an NPC, or seemingly any number of different ways. In a Dynamic Event, players in the area work together toward completing a common goal. Again, there is nothing revolutionary about what occurs during a dynamic event. It's still the standard 'kill X enemies' or 'protect NPC against waves of enemies while he does something' or 'gather X [insert quest item here],' but it's how these events encourage players to work together, and do away with the issue of kill steals or enemy tagging that makes this form of PvE truly unique feeling. At first, these Dynamic Events are infrequent, generally occurring between Renown Hearts. However, as the game goes on, and players reach higher level content, the Dynamic Events begin to replace Renown Hearts, eventually becoming the sole source of PvE content in the higher level zones. As this transition happens, Dynamic Events change to Dynamic Event Chains, where the completion of one event leads straight into another event, often times moving the player across the zone in the process. In the highest levels of content, those chains give way to Dynamic Event Webs, probably the coolest addition to MMO PvE content. Think a Dynamic Event Chain, except when the event ends, how it ends determines what the next event is, and (probably) where it goes. While some might say that this system of dynamic grouping (since creating a static group is not required to complete dynamic events) discourages grouping, I see that as the pessimistic way of looking at it. If you go the "glass half full" route, you'd say that this system encourages cooperation more than most other MMO's out there, WoW included. Because the system doesn't require grouping to do the Dynamic Events, and because all kills are shared (so long as you've taken a swing at them), the system encourages active cooperation with others around you without the need to first sit in general chat spamming "LFG Golemancy Research Event, PST."

Yet another avenue Arenanet shines in for positive iteration is with their crafting system. In my experiences with past MMO's (of which I have played more than my fair share), crafting has just never quite felt as good and approachable as it did in WoW. Generally they tend to muck it up with convoluted gathering mini-games (yes Final Fantasy XIV, I'm still bitter), or clunky "hit or miss" crafting results that rely as much on luck as they do on having the right materials. TOR got close, and was probably in some ways even better than Guild Wars 2 (being able to access crafting materials from your bank without having to manually pull them out helped a lot). However, Guild Wars definitely takes the cake on making it incredibly easy to gather and store crafting materials, bringing about yet another 'why hasn't anyone else thought of this?' moment. First off, anyone can gather crafting materials. All you have to do is buy the gathering tool for each type (ax for wood, pick for minerals, sickle for plants) and equip them in your gathering tools slots and you're good to go. Gone are the days of armorsmiths cornering their own market on minerals, while tailors had to rely just as much on others as they did on their own pick-ups. Also, any standard crafting material (ore, logs, plants, gems, etc.) can be immediately whisked away to your bank without the need to head back to town. Furthermore, each crafting item, instead of taking up a precious slot in your incredibly small bank space, has its own spot within a "Collections" tab of your bank, with each spot being able to hold up to 250 of said item. This all means that crafting is no longer the cumbersome item management hassle of yore, and allows you to focus on actually playing the game while gathering up all those precious materials.

All that said, the crafting system definitely is not without faults. Though this first bit is more of a minor annoyance only because every other aspect of resource management associated to crafting is so well thought out, it's weird that you are still required to pull the items from your collections tab of your bank (which, admittedly, is accessible from the crafting station) before they become available for use with crafting. Furthermore, for a game that seems to emphasize allowing the player to enjoy being out in the world and does what it can to lessen the trips back to town, it is a bit odd that every profession requires the player to stand in front of a crafting station in order to access their recipes and being creating stuff. I suppose you could argue that their reason for this decision was because without it, there would be no need for players to return to the cities, but with the waypoint system, the only part of the city players see when going back to craft is the point from the waypoint to the crafting station. The last issue I have with the crafting system involves the use of uncommon drops (fangs, blood, bones, etc.) in crafting recipes.

One feature that, as far as I'm aware, is pretty unique to Guild Wars 2 is the crafting discovery. The player tosses 3-4 items into the slots, and so long as the recipe has not been previously discovered, they are rewarded with a new recipe, a fair amount of player experience, and a good chunk of crafting experience as well. This seems to be the best way to level up crafting, as without it, basic recipes stop giving crafting progress very quickly. That said, the number of uncommon items required for each discovery feels incredibly high for the yield the player receives. It feels like either Arenanet has decided to make the crafting progression rely heavily on trading through the Trading Post (which, as of this writing, has not consistently been up since launch), or the crafting progression was set in stone before the leveling curve was, causing players to leave zones long before they could have gathered enough of these materials to keep their crafting up to their level. It's an issue I'm fairly confident Arenanet will fix once the larger issues like dungeon groups and the Trading Post are fixed.

There's so much more to talk about, but I feel like maybe that'll be better suited in another blog post. In the next post, I'll try to discuss dungeons, structured PvP, WvWvW, armor dyes, and horizontal progression vs vertical progression.

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SWTOR Going F2P This Fall; Why F2P/B2P Is The Way To Go

**Ok, I know this is a bit late, but it's actually a cross-post from my personal blog I recently started up, and I just now decided "why not put it up on GB as well?" So here it is! My first (real) GB blog entry!

So EA/Bioware announced today in a press release that SWTOR will be undergoing the transition to a F2P (free to play) model coming this fall. This, not too long after they rolled out a sort of trial that allowed players to experience levels 1-15 absolutely free of charge in early July. It’s public knowledge that SWTOR has continued to bleed subscriptions over the course of this year (though EA has not released current numbers for a few months now), but it is odd to see them making this move so quickly after the trial was released.

That said, I don’t believe it’s all doom and gloom for SWTOR. I believe it going F2P is easily the best thing not only for EA/Bioware, but also for the players. By allowing the game to adopt this model, Bioware is able to pull in more players into the game world, thus allowing them a higher chance at profit from microtransaction purchases, or even increased subscriptions (they are still keeping the standard $14.99 subscription model as an option to have everything in the game unlocked to you, if you so choose), and it also allows players a bit more peace of mind about perhaps features or additional content that have yet to be introduced to the game, but are coming soon, without feeling the need to drop their support of it and stop playing until the features or content are released.

This idea of players being able to freely move in and out of multiple MMO ecosystems that is allotted by F2P MMO’s is why the F2P model has become so popular among developers across the market. Think of it this way: GW2′s release date was announced to be 8-28, with the headstart beginning 8-25, right? Not long after, Blizzard announced that their latest WoW expansion, Mists of Pandaria will be releasing 9-25, exactly a month to the day after GW2′s headstart begins. This is Blizzard reacting as they always do when a popular MMO release is on the horizon: Let the game sit on the shelves for 1-3 months, then hit the players with a new expansion, driving them all back to WoW.

And it’s worked– until now. When MoP releases, Blizzard is expecting to pull “subscribers” from GW2 back to WoW, thus increasing their numbers and decreasing those of their competitor. However, while that plan works to disrupt subscription-based MMO’s like Warhammer Online, Rift, and SWTOR, no one will really leave GW2 for MoP. Instead, they will simply buy MoP, and play it alongside GW2, since there is no additional cost associated to continuing to play GW2. This means that serious WoW raiders can still spend that time in WoW, still see all the content, still down bosses, but then return to GW2 once in a while to hit up wuvwuv or sPvP, or maybe to work on crafting that legendary greatsword we all want.

Now, all that said, this also isn’t just guaranteed profit for EA/Bioware either. It all depends on how they handle converting the game into a F2P model. The early news we have shows that all leveling content from 1-50 will be completely free for all, and it appears as though all classes will also be available. No purchasing content packs or professions a la LotRO’s F2P system. However, they have chosen some odd restrictions for those playing gratis. Free players may only do a set number of Warzones (structured pvp), Flashpoints (dungeons), and Space Combat missions (who even enjoys those?) per week, though the exact number has not been announced yet. More strangely, only subscribers may complete Operations (raids).

It’s the wording of some of these restrictions posted here that has me worried about the direction they’re taking SWTOR in their transition to F2P. It seems like one possibility could be that they will not simply have a F2P option that allows you to purchase -with real money- some of the quality of life omissions that paid players receive, but will instead require players to pony up the monthly fee if they want to see things like operations, unlimited pvp, or some playable species. Assuming this wording can be taken at face value, you can really feel the hesitation from EA/Bioware in making SWTOR a F2P game. It’s like they’re saying “Here, you can enjoy the leveling content of our game completely free! However, if you want to enjoy more than just a finely measured dose of these other features, you’d better just go ahead and give us our $15/month.”

At this point, only time will tell how successful SWTOR’s transition to the light side of the MMO market will go, but I’d love to get back in there and continue the Great Hunt on EA/Bioware’s buck! Just after I do everything in GW2 first…

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