Where have I been? Or more specifically, where have I not been? The second question is easier to answer… I’ve not been playing AC.
I haven’t logged in to actually play in about 2 months. Fortunately I don’t have to, since all the plot elements of recent months are emailed to me on a frighteningly regular and spamlike basis. The server crash bug, the infinite diamond scarabs, the level VII war spells, the triple-striking 7-13 flaming rapier with handle of instant cheesy BSD experience gain, the new server so people can get a fresh start with their leader/loyal specialized mulearchies with a guy at the bottom of the chain macroing, the continual exploits of the 93% idiot playerbase, yes yes yes. It’s just not really all that interesting.
Instead I’ve been, oddly enough, doing something which is distantly related to the UO engine and playing/admining on a Sphereshard. For those of you who keep up with the wacky world of emulators, Sphere is the outgrowth of Grayworld, an old UO server emulator which Shad and I tried to run once but just wound up scratching our heads at and chasing each other around having GM duels. Sphere was obviously, to my mind, coded by some fairly intelligent people who didn’t know how to play UO all that well, as evidenced by the values in the default files which allow archers to fire once per second at high dex, ebolt doing no damage to anything with an AR higher than 10, healing yourself for insane amounts every 2 seconds with bandages, parry being about 4000 times better than it was in OSI, the pickaxe being the most devastating weapon in the game, and monsters who are unable to dispel a blade spirit. It’s taken weeks of tweaking and stupid workarounds to get it to the point where it’s almost balanced from a PvE standpoint… it may never be balanced for PvP. However I digress…
The most interesting thing you learn through administration of a small Sphere shard is the level of player immersion and plot flexibility you have with a small private server. With a small playerbase, everyone has the opportunity to go on the event that week, which doesn’t take a month to set up only so it can be broken on patch day by the same 4 people who break all your quests every month simply because they’ve powerleveled the most. Events can also be unique… if the players managed to free an area from invaders, they can stay gone if you want. A quest item can be a unique reward for a player instead of something you plan on getting once you’ve twinked up your character far enough. Players have the opportunity to actually affect the environment, instead of killing shit until it respawns. It’s not my ideal game yet, but it shows where it can go and what it would mean.
So what does all of this have to do with AC? The small server model experience has shown me some things that are missing desperately from AC, and that can never be fixed within AC’s lifetime.
Player power limits. AC has no player power limit, and the differences between a new character, a "midlevel" character, and a powergaming character are astronomical. The fact that there is no power limit leads to axioms like "Endurance is meaningless" and "You don’t need melee D since you’ll eventually get all your VI buffs". Sure there is a "soft cap" on a player character’s effective power level, around say 70 or so, but this is rendered meaningless as solutions to balance problems continue to take the form of things like instant kill multistrike weapons and level VII spells. This only perpetuates the problems I outlined in the last rant. AC as a game works perfectly… until level 35ish. At level 35 the drawbacks of extreme templating and min-maxing skill choices are still palpable, the differences between specialization and training are reasonable for both sides, and skill mixes work more or less like they should. Level 35 isn’t even considered to be very good any more, and hasn’t for months. The UO engine imposes a power limit on players which can be modified with a small server, and anything based on the small server model allows an administrator to impose his own limits if he sees fit, level or otherwise. The burden to keep things interesting at the high point of player power then rests on interesting content, which doesn’t include large dungeons full of high xp value low risk monsters.
Dynamic player-affected environments. Truth be told this isn’t just a fault of AC… UO is incapable of doing this in the MMORPG OSI model, and EQ is just as static as all hell. In order to allow the players to have an effect on the play environment, you need a very cost-ineffective ratio of GM’s to players, ideally GM’s who are connected with the playerbase and can be aware of what they’re doing on a semiregular basis instead of answering completely stupid help calls from morons every 5 minutes. Your GM’s also have to be imaginative and preferably passably good writers… basically the requirements of a decent pen and paper GM plus the technical ability to deal with your server environment. Hard mix to find.
No fees. This means more than the usual "WOOHOO IT’S FREE" thing. By corollary, if playing on the server is free, then the players forego those odd notions of "player rights" that they think come with an EULA in the software box. If you have a problem player who insists on being a dick, boot his ass. If a spell/weapon/whatever is horribly overpowered, just change it and damn the whining. If a player wipe is absolutely necessary, do a player wipe. If you don’t feel like running the shard anymore, bring it down and give the files to your GM’s so they can maintain it if they want to. It’s hard enough to ride the fine line between players having fun and giving everything away to them without the additional axe of subscription income hanging over one’s head.
There are some problems with the small server model as well, which I’ve outlined before: lack of gratification for the attention-starved power player, the quality of the game being only as good as the potential of the GM as a storyteller, and the fact that one day the server will go away. Still all in all I find it more satisfying as a GM, and hopefully for the players as well.
Right now the only options available to admins who want to run a small server ORPG are Sphere and other UO emulators, MUD’s, and the often delayed release of Neverwinter Nights. Although Neverwinter Nights looks to be a horrible platform for a persistent world environment (more suitable for GMing a scheduled group of players on single adventures), the anticipation of its release and its publicity machine mean that the small server model will quickly become one of the norms for multiplayer gaming. As I’ve said before, it won’t break the backs of the MMORPG big three, but it could seriously hamper the market for sequels or new MMORPG releases. Which in some ways is a shame, as the big three have had some time to digest and learn from the flaws in their systems, even if they sometimes ignore them completely (level-based UWO anyone?). Someday I may actually outline the structure of the "ideal MMORPG for Mu that nobody else will like," when I can stop fearing other people stealing it and selling it off to Eidos.
In the meantime, I still have my AC account, sitting in limbo for the time being, occasionally being used to make arrows on Solclaim. Maybe someday I’ll even sell it off once I know deep down that AC is completely over for me, with no hope of redemption. Or when I can just admit it to myself. I’m sure I could get 50 bucks for Sashi from someone who just wants his robe.