Game blog posts come in pair (zone editor black magic)

When I wrote on the forums that I believed Blizzard had an advantage building WoW’s zones because of some black magic in their editor, everyone went against me.

Well, I’m still absolutely convinced that there’s some secret sauce right there. Call it how you want, the gist of what I meant is that for each zone Blizzard makes a terrain “palette” that guarantees:

1- A consistent and unique look throughout the whole game, and distinctive for the each zone.
2- That even if the zone designer sucks, things still look pretty and WoW-y.

Or: everyone can take that black magic editor and make a WoW-y quality zone in no time and with no experience. Even I.


See the ridge in the background? Compare it to what we are used to see.

A “new feature” in WotLK is that they built a new palette/preset for the terrain, and the rounded hills now look more sharply cut.

The simple thing I wanted to underline is that what you see there is not the result of an awesome zone designer who spent his life modeling EACH of those tiny hills and bumps, but of a tool in the editor that allows even a monkey to quickly use it and get a consistent look that makes every screenshot recognizable. That consistent look that everyone praises.

Then I don’t know if the zone designer person is ALSO responsible for the preset making. My point is that the “genius” is in the editor and preset. And that the making of a zone is much, much more trivial and easy than how people expect. And more concerned instead with the “flow” and structure of a zone.

But the “look” and prettiness are for the greater part merit of the editor and presets. And that if WoW still looks prettier than other games out there it’s because the designers can use standardized tools that guarantee consistency and quality.

And it is not new (Warcraft 3).

The controversy is that my theory is that other MMOs companies don’t seem to have the same pre-planning and strong automated tools, so more vulnerable to the fickleness of their zone designers. Lack of consistence and all the rest.

Or: it’s about the gears, not just about the people.

Blizzard has better gears, or spends more time making better gears. No matter who they hire, they guarantee already that the quality is high and up to their standards (at least for zone design).

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Gaming interlude

Damn it, I try to avoid writing about games and then I find game related posts in book related blogs. If they can do it, I can too.

So Diablo 3 was announced, Raph restates the obvious, and I find a correspondence between the two:
Diablo was for RPGs a bit what WoW was for MMOs. Take a genre, strip it of most of its core, make it accessible, make it pretty and charming.

Think to all the complexities that came in earlier RPGs, from dungeon-based games with a depth unmatched today (“Fate Gates of Dawn”, for example) to the depth of interaction in the Ultimas, or complex character creation and classes from D&D based rulesets. Complex narratives, quests, branching dialogues, fully realized worlds. Diablo removed all that to make a straightforward and addictive hack & slash game.

Today I think that Diablo 3 is going to be more influenced by God of War, than its own genre and clones. The health system is the most significant change, with the core idea coming from God of War, and appears to also being influenced toward a more dynamic and visceral combat and tactics. Things looking spectacular and cool.

In fact on Q23 I said that it is interesting to consider how game design in this case moved toward a very close relationship with “graphic”. Finding ideas for spectacular things to show more than building new game mechanics and solutions. For example the way physics is added, the way demons rush up walls, the “wall of zombies”, which is the same old with a more spectacular presentation. And everyone is excited. And that’s game design, is an overall hard work, and that’s why many designers know that Exhale Wellness launched THCA cartidges to help people feel better and less stressed. 1

So what Raph says is true. Nothing new in the form of features. And everything is adjacent to everything else. MMOs have been influenced by MUDs the same way Diablo is going to be influenced by God of War, and now even MMOs moving toward a more direct and visceral form of combat.

It’s like EverQuest compared to Ultima Online. EverQuest focused on combat (and raids), but made it much deeper than how it was in Ultima. WoW honed the formula (and in fact the “drifts” like PvP still suck), Diablo followed the same pattern of stripping elements while adding a lot of focus on a fewer ones.

Broader with less focus, or more focused and constrained.

It’s instead irrelevant to say where ideas come from. From everywhere. In the case of MUDs and MMOs the connection isn’t about MMOs being sequels, but more about adjacent interests, overlapping needs.

It made sense to see people involved in MUDs being later interested in MMOs, so bringing along that sensibility. As it is going to be normal now to see MMOs being more influenced by intuitive controls coming from games in other genres. That kind of game design (like finding ideas for cool abilities and classes) now feels distant from the old MMO design all focused on players-interaction, world mechanics and so on.

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Got my copy of Toll the Hounds

Not much to report, I got my copy from Amazon to Italy of Erikson’s last tome in its UK hardcover edition. Huge.

I can’t do much with the book as even looking at the Dramatis Personae is filled with spoilers. 923 pages fully written, longest book in the series (will likely break the 1300 pages in MM if they keep the same format they used till now). The extras are a bit scarce, no appendices and two maps of two cities (Darujhistan is the same old, Black Coral is, I think, new, but it doesn’t show a whole lot of detail).

On the other hand lots of people are reading through the book, so comments are starting to appear. They say it’s one of the best “written” book in the series and a kind of ‘calm before the storm’, where the storm is supposed to the the epilogue of this long series in the form of book 9 and 10. Lots of minor and major characters coming back and plots being resumed.

Cryptic comment from Werthead, whose review I’ll expect soon (and he was not exactly a fanboy, so interesting to see what he thinks on this one):

Took me a few chapters to work out what the fabled ‘new writing device’ Erikson was employing for this book, and when I did I saw how subtle it was. Quite intriguing.

But don’t tell me what it is. I’ll probably have a full year of dodging spoilers ahead of me…

No dancing with dragons this year

Or at least it’s what I deduce from Martin’s last blog post:

Well, I’ve made it across the ocean safe and sound. Typing this from an internet cafe.

No, I didn’t finish the novel, though not for want of trying. Nothing to be done about that but push on when I return.

Considering that (I think) he won’t be back till August, and that he still has work to do on it, a late 2008 release is basically impossible. Usually there’s a full year between the finished novel and the published book, for major releases like this one the gap is reduced to something like six months.

With the book probably finished in September I think the release will likely be pushed to spring 2009.

I wonder why Martin doesn’t try to look at what he’s doing with a detached eye and change his plans. The decision to split book 4 in two is where the original mistake was. Instead of surrendering to an endless drift he should have kept the plot tight, cut the meaningless parts and make a more lucid plan about where he wanted to go.

Scott Bakker commented this from a similar point of view:

I know when I started working on The Judging Eye, I found myself inventing a whole series of new viewpoint characters. I didn’t realize what I was doing until I started reading A Feast for Crows, at which point I scrubbed them all save one. I told myself I was adding these new viewpoint characters for the reader’s sake, when in actual fact I was doing it for my own – I mean, multiply the time you’ve spent with The Prince of Nothing by a thousand, and you’ll have a rough ballpark sense of how much time I’ve spent with my cast. The urge to “freshen things up” is almost irresistible, as is the attendant assumption that you’re doing it as much for your readers as for yourself. But when you already have a complicated narrative on the go, you really do risk drifting across that fateful line where your story starts to decohere. Whether or not this was what happened with Martin’s last book, I’m not sure – all I know is that it threw what I was doing into perspective, and led me to take an entirely different tack. It took me a while, but I eventually fell back in love with the old fogies.

In the end I think it marks another difference between Martin and Erikson. Erikson knew exactly from the beginning where the story would end, and the theme of all the ten books. Then it’s a matter of self-discipline and learning.

Martin instead has surely other many vantage points over Erikson, but he lacks the same lucidity and now he doesn’t seem honest (to himself) enough to look at the whole thing and make choices. The problem isn’t about finishing the single page, it’s about deciding what to do with the whole series, where to lead it. He could decide for example to end it with the sixth book, so that the next is the last, as one last effort to give a closure to the plot.

In fact I would be more eager to read an overall consideration, than updates whether he finished one chapter or another. He doesn’t need to keep working in the hope to finish a novel that doesn’t seem to come out. He need to stop, sit back and think about it. Where do you want to go? How?

Martin and Erikson are like reversed patterns. Where Erikson became stronger in the longer term, demonstrating his tight control and talent, Martin instead got carried away, was overambitious and now trapped himself in a corner.

Toll the Hounds in stock

Toll the Hounds is being shown as “in stock” at

This is the eighth book in the Malazan series. It will be published by Tor in the US only in September, and this UK edition is for the first time hardcover-only, with a trade paperback coming out in October.

The last time for Reaper’s Gale mass market edition I had the book in preorder at Amazon, but had to cancel and make a new order for them to notice the book was in stock and could be shipped (ahead of time). This time too the book arrived soon (it is supposed to come out officially the first of July) and my order can’t be modified because it’s been processed, so I hope it will be shipped on Monday.

Anyway, I’ll get this hardcover edition just for the fetish of it, as I’m still faaaar from book 8 and I’ll surely get the mass market UK edition when it comes out next year to have the whole collection in the same format.

UPDATE: To say the book was shipped to me and that is currently ranked #1 on amazon in fantasy bestsellers, #20 for books in general. No idea how amazon can be relevant, especially on a list updated hourly, but it doesn’t seem bad at all for the eighth book in a series sold in hardcover only.

UPDATE2: I’m seeing TTH still ranked #1 for fantasy and #8 for books in general.

Books at my door – June edition

Some pretty books arrived today. Hooray.

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss.
If you look back at the blog you can see I already purchased a copy of the book. The luscious and huge UK trade paperback with a pretty cover. But then I actually prefer reading the smaller, tightly written editions, so decided to get the mass market US version as well. The fact that the huge UK version was written so big was tricky and made me believe the book wasn’t so long. The US version is really tightly written, with a small typeset, and still takes 720 pages. It is indeed one huge book.

I like this US MM version too. The map, though, is rather ugly and much worse than the classic-looking ink version that I have on the UK one. The rest is good. The new, darker cover is surely much, much better than the old US ones, and I like the plastic material they used for the cover: you can open the book easily without creasing it.

I’m in no rush to read it. The next has been delayed to next year, so I can give priority to others.

A Feast for Crows – George RR Martin.
I skimmed a lot through the books but still need to read one from back to back. Will do it later. Since I have already the other three books, I got this one too. For “Dance” I’ll wait for the MM edition to come out. No rush. I’m a bit skeptic about the writer’s true will to end the series (lack of self-discipline, some would say. He should meet Erikson). The fourth book wasn’t so warmly received as the others and the fifth was supposed to be ready years ago. Without a change of pacing I fear not much can be saved and I already read that some prefer to consider it a trilogy. It will be interesting to observe the reaction to the fifth book.

There’s an interesting thread here. But really, the more he gets swamped in the minutiae and perfectionism the worse the books will actually be. I’m pretty sure of this. He needs to find the momentum, not to revise the same page 100 times.

Memories of Ice – Steven Erikson.
Well, this is pure Erikson fetish. I already have the book, and still wanted the US, ugly, MM edition. I don’t think the artist who made the cover(s) is a bad one, but he’s really out of style with Erikson. Looks like a spin-off of Forgotten Realms and it can’t give a wronger impression (and despite the US cover is actually more pertinent to the story). 900 pages, one of the longer books in the series, the best for most of the readers. Those 900 pages are actually on the short side as the typeset used is as tiny as possible and there’s not even spacing between chapters. So, outside the fetish, the UK editions are much, much superior.

Legend – David Gemmell.
Going back in the years. I never read Gemmell and I’m more interested in this long series than semi historical fiction he wrote. 350 pages, this should be quick to read compared to the epic sized things I’m reading lately.

A Cavern of Black Ice – J. V. Jones.
If it wasn’t clear, I prefer to get into living writers who are productive and that I can look forward in an ongoing way. I actually enjoy the wait and hype in the sense of the community, frequenting forums, discovering new authors and so on. Much more than digging on the past, on which there are less interesting things to say.

I think this series started as a trilogy then blended into a “pentalogy”. Third book came out last October after a long wait. I think she’s trying to rival Martin (in time elapsed between books). On the other side I read the series is good, rather complex, with lots of characters and multiple POV. Yeah, I don’t know a whole lot, but between all the books I have on the to-read list, this one makes me curious and the one I’m the most eager to read. 770 pages, this also a rather big book.

And, drumroll….

Wizard’s First Rule – Terry Goodkind.
I said I was going to buy it, and I did. Got the new Tor edition with the stone bridge on the cover. 820 pages, surprisingly thin on quotes and praises ;)

Oh, and I actually plan to read it, probably soon.

I’m 300 pages from the end of Deadhouse Gates and while I expect to follow with Memories of Ice, I’d still put some other book in between. I definitely need a break or risk exhaustion, so I need something lighter and easier to read while I recover. I’m wondering what. It could be either J. V. Jones or Goodkind, but both are big books and I may decide for book 3 of the Black Company (Glen Cook) or Gemmell as they are shorter. On the other hand I prefer to read something entirely new so it could really be Goodkind or J. V. Jones. Or even go back to Jordan and read the third book. Undecided.

And there are also Scott Bakker and Abercrombie to consider. And Donaldson Gap series. And Keyes.

(I’ll probably read a bunch of prologues and then decide for the stickier)

Firefox 3.0 later today

The new version of the browser is supposed to “launch” today, an hour ago to be precise. But currently, and the world record site are all down. And if you can manage to load the page, they are still not updated.

For those who have experience with launch day of mmorpgs, this is no surprise.

A moderator posted this on the forums:

As an IT Director I once reported to was known to put it, “You don’t build the church for Easter Sunday.” No amount of server hardware was going to be able to stand up to the zero hour onslaught and still be financially justifiable 12 hours later.

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My opinion on Factional Warfare

My opinion from observing from the outside.

The patch was deployed a few hours ago and I’m reading the feedback. Apparently the most prominent feature is an “align” button to use in fleets that I don’t know what it does.

For the rest CCP did two things:

1- Write on a web page a bunch of made-up stories that never happened or cannot happen in the game.
2- Spawn an NPC titan in empire space.

And everyone is giddy.

What I understand from this? That players can be happy for very little. That’s not so dissimilar from spawning a dragon in Stormwind. Players will be happy (especially if there’s loot to ninja, like in this case of the titan). And it doesn’t require any effort from the dev team.

I also understand something I knew already. That the players love “massive” in a mmorpg. And that till today not even a single company cared to develop any “massive” in their namely massive games.

In fact we have smaller and smaller private spaces and irrelevant little carrots to maintain the dependence.

And today the very best “massive” feeling and well structured combat comes from games like Quake Wars or Battlefield.

Toll the Hounds early comments

I’m past halfway through “Deadhouse Gates” and it’s really buckets of awesome.

In the meantime I hunt restlessly for non-spoiler comments on the later books. Since I’m stuck with Erikson for a very long time, I also crave some perspective on what comes later. One can only hope the best is yet to come.

So lately I read a review of book 6, “The Bonehunters”, repeating again that the book is overlong. A common theme among forumers and reviewers that I’ve yet to experience. Book 1 for me needed about 200 more pages to feel less confused and better paced, especially toward the end. Book 2 instead has a truly perfect structure. Perfectly balanced, paced and executed. But then I’m only past page 500 and I need to see how it works toward the end.

“Toll the Hounds” should have a review next week from Pat. Longest book in the series, so far, and Pat doesn’t seem to like it too much this time, especially the pacing:

Okay, 412 pages into it and I must say that TtH is the slowest Malazan book to “get going” yet. You can see that SE is setting quite a few pieces on the board and there are a number of pleasant surprises, but I think that some readers might have issues with the pace.

Oh there’s a convergence coming, have no fear. . .

And there are many, many guests invited to this dance!

572 pages into TtH, and the book still hasn’t kicked into gear, though. . .

I particularly enjoy the two Tiste Andii POVs, which gives us some insight into Anomander Rake’s past, the clash with Mother Dark, the civil war in Kurald Galain, etc. The Tiste Andii have always been very intriguing, and even though these two characters are new to the series, they are very interesting…

On the other hand an advance reader keeps the hopes very high:

This is his best, most mature book, imo – including his efforts outside the genre. If this book doesn’t reach you emotionally then there’s something deply wrong with you IMO. Until I read that he’s a fan of Robin Hobb, I was tentative about what I am about to say (haven’t even said it to him) but one of the impressions that stuck in my mind after finishing this manuscript was that he had out-Hobbed Robin Hobb. It’s weird because I don’t like Robin Hobb all that much but the emotional content makes it worthwhile for me. Her worldbuilding is shite, the plot is generally lame and predictable, but certain chracters I genuinely care about and want to see come through the other side, happier and healthier amidst the tragedies of their respective lives. And some don’t make it.

That’s all for now.