Awaken Online: Hope Spot

Chapter Nine

“We have determined that Alfred has now instituted a system in which each person’s ability to use magic, including different types of magic, keys off of that person’s personality.  This is embodied in a new affinity system.”

Wow, what an awful idea. Even if the Controller concludes (correctly) that I’m way into minion master builds, I still periodically wanna take a swing at blasting mooks en masse as a nuker and I at least want to be able to take a whirl as a tank or a healer or whatever just to see what it’s like.

Now, as a novel, AO could be doing something smart here by linking character class directly to your personality. Specifically, they could do the Hogwarts thing that Divergent fucked up and make something that the teenage audience (is this book aimed at teenagers? Protagonist’s in high school, to that’s my guess, but the primary demographic for people who like MMOs skews a little bit older than that) can try to categorize themselves by in an effort to figure out who they are. Teenagers who did that with Harry Potter continue to identify as a Hufflepuff or whatever into their twenties and thirties. So, like, this concept has legs, and the question of which magic superpower the Controller would’ve given you is good for a novel even if it’s bad for an actual video game.

AO doesn’t execute, though. Like most of AO’s failures, they can still turn it around by giving us a complete list of magic specializations and associated personality types somewhere before the end of this book, but they’re taking their goddamn time with it. Without a complete list, there’s nothing to sort, and the basic concept of “what kind of superpower would you have based on your personality” does not prompt discussion related to the actual book, but is instead a totally generic conversation starter. Codifying things into a list, and better yet a list that makes goddamn sense (contra Divergent, which provides a list where two of the entries have near-identical behaviors and values, but one of them is evil), is necessary to give people something to actually talk about.

Making goddamn sense is even mostly optional, because while no one’s going to talk about which Hunger Games District they would be from into their twenties, they totally did talk about it when they were fifteen and those books were still relevant at all.

AO’s not even stumbling that far, though. With no full list, indeed with only two types of magic established as existing at all (necromancy and paladinomancy) and no strong indications for what kind of personality type is associated with either of them (does Alex have paladin magic specifically because he’s a jerk, or just because he likes playing the hero, or…?), it’s impossible to have a discussion about which one you would or wouldn’t have.

You may be interesting, but you’re still an obvious novice.  Why by the six gods would you kill him in a way that made such a damned mess?”

Because we’re in a secluded area and the entrance is locked and the only people already inside are either targets he intended to kill or you, whose life he intended to save, the former of whom should have no opportunity to report anything and the latter of which has no incentive to?

Wow!  Two levels for killing that grave robber, a new skill, and a skill increase?  What level were they?

No steady level progression for Mary Sue! If a level 1 character can gib a mook so powerful that they get two levels out of the deal just by targeting weak spots, even before unlocking any abilities that improve critical damage, then everyone is going to do that. It’ll be the default means of playing the game for anyone who wants to level quickly. Consequently, people who play crit-seekers will massively out-level people who don’t and by the time the game releases it will be common knowledge amongst the beta testers that crit-seeking is the path to real, ultimate power. If stealth attacks are the only or most reliable means of crit-seeking, stealth characters will dominate the game. Of course, we know that the current game leader Alex is playing almost the opposite of a stealth character, a heavily armored juggernaut with flashy fire magic AoEs. There had better be a reason for that. No way in Hell did not one beta tester try the stealth approach, and everyone who did should be absolutely slaughtering the early game just as much as Jason is.

Usually, by this point in a game, he would have found some new gear and advanced a bit in levels.

Jason has been playing for about five hours real time, plus however long he’s been in the game this session. It seems like it takes half of forever to get anywhere in this game, so who knows how long he spent going from the inn to the graveyard. Either way, time dilation in-game is about three or four times the normal world, so 5*3.5=17.5 hours of gameplay, plus probably another half-hour at least for this session, so call it 18 hours overall. Forget “new gear and advanced a bit in levels,” after eighteen hours of gameplay I expect to be somewhere between one quarter and one third of the way to the level cap.

He reviewed his damage log and noted that he had done an extraordinary amount of damage when he attacked the first grave robber.

Doesn’t that seem a bit overpowered?

Yes.

Well, maybe not.  It makes sense that an opponent would die almost instantly if you stabbed them in the neck.  Maybe this is what Robert was explaining in that initial interview I watched at school.  He had mentioned that enemies have weak points.

I also clearly got my ass handed to me by the other grave robber once I broke Sneak, so that level of damage would clearly be limited to one strike in most fights. 

No, shut up, book, stop trying to justify this. “I only get to deal enough damage to kill players of my level ten times over when I use my class features” is not a balancing factor, especially not since that 1,000+ damage blow was before he got the actual sneak attack skill. The ability to 100% murder anyone you get the drop on is a terrible gameplay option, because A) it is overpowered as Hell and clearly going to be a top tier move, B) there is an obvious counterplay by staying in groups that can gank would-be assassins afterwards, but C) that counterplay is logistically inconvenient and strongly favors guild players over soloers and PUGs. It’s a strategy that rewards the players who invest the most time in the game not by giving them something awesome, but by removing the threat of a cheap ganking strategy.

Also, you lost five of one hundred hit points to the robber. The only reason I trust your assessment that you would’ve lost a straight fight is because you clearly have a direct line of communication to the author, and even then I wouldn’t be surprised if you turn out to be perfectly capable of killing people in a straight fight whenever the plot calls for it. Sure, there’d be some lip service paid to how it’s not what you’re really good at, but if the author ever writes himself into a corner, you’ll be able to straight-up melee your way out of any problem you need to.

After nearly an hour of scrubbing blood out of the floor, the furniture, a number of the books, and various sundry objects, he finally finished cleaning the small cottage.

At some point I’m going to have to stop pointing out just how committed this game is to wasting its players time, because apparently it’s going to happen in just about every chapter.

Jason lifted his eyes to meet the old woman’s.  Two obsidian globes gazed at Morgan.

“I came here to find power,” he said calmly.

The cringe here is almost overwhelming. Really? You came to a video game for a power fantasy? How incredibly special of you, Mary Sue!

“Of course!  The four basic elements, as well as light and dark, make up the available affinities in the world.

Okay, we’re getting somewhere now. I mean, this is like the most generic and boring possible mana spread, but we at least have a finite number of magic types. If AO can manage to link those up to specific personality types without shooting itself in the foot and making one or more of them redundant or far outside the human experience, it will have managed to do something right. Come on, man, you’re almost there.

You could even say that each affinity has a mind of its own,” she said, laughing at her own joke.

There was a joke in there?

“People usually have a diverse range of emotions, and their personalities are nuanced.  Therefore, most individuals will often have a small connection with multiple affinities.  As a caster embraces the emotions and behavior that make up a certain affinity, their connection grows stronger.  This allows them to cast more challenging and powerful spells.  The process of increasing an affinity usually occurs gradually over time, so most casters specialize.”

As interminably dull as “the inner planes from D&D” is as the basis of a magic system, this bit is actually balanced because multiclassing is a balancing nightmare so encouraging people to specialize is always wise, and it even recognizes that it’s goddamn ludicrous to expect people to fit neatly and exactly into one and only one of your personality test categories.

The language itself is something developed by a long dead race.  Some scholars say the words represent the true meaning of objects and invoke their power.  This is likely why the words seem familiar to you.  Your subconscious mind can sense the true nature of the world around you.”

Strong implication here that the Controller is beaming knowledge into Jason’s brain (option two, the “language of magic” is a programming language the game is written in, and which Jason is familiar with – if this is the case, they had better set up that Jason knows how to code before the reveal). AO might be digging itself out of some of the holes, here. If this book was discovery written and only minimally edited, well, that’s still a problem because discovery writing means lots of editing, but it also means that it might plausibly develop some self-awareness of earlier issues and begin addressing them. I hesitate to hope that all of the earlier mistakes were actually just set up for later pay-off, because at that level of craft wouldn’t they realize that the first three chapters are almost completely unnecessary, or at the very least way too ham-fisted? But AO might at least salvage itself into something decent if this keeps up.

Am I willing to kill someone to learn dark magic?  That seems a bit extreme.

Dude, if killing an NPC in exchange for power makes you balk, you are playing the wrong genre of video game.

Chapter Ten

“In the original version of the game that was submitted to the CPSC trial, player attacks and skills were made using the system assist.  The player merely needed to say or think a command, and their body would execute the motion automatically.”

Wow, what an impressively shitty way to utilize full dive VR tech. I mean, we could just create a simple sword fighting system the way people have been doing with motion controls since Skyward Sword. Which, yeah, those controls were finnicky and tacked on, but they were also using meatspace motion recognition technology that was just advanced enough to be usable but still inaccurate enough to be frustrating as Hell. That’s not an issue in full dive VR. There’s perfect, 1:1 correspondence between your “movements” and what happens in the game.

So, basically, props to the Controller for realizing that the dev team are idiots, but I don’t think it’s to the book’s credit that the devs are so stupid to begin with.

We used the room to hold an impromptu competition to test whether the in-game training carries over into the real world.

“And you know what?  Participant 4 was actually able to keep up with Bobby!

We tried to make an online video game and we accidentally invented transhuman brain augments. But let’s go ahead and release this as a video game and not as a brain augment? This flashback conversation takes place over a year before the main story. Either Cerillion Entertainment has been sitting on tech way more valuable than even World of Warcraft and decided not to release it, or else they discovered some horrible side effect of the brain augmentation that led them not to release it to the general market but still sold it as a video game.

Context: Our protagonist is talking to himself in the mirror.

“Tomorrow you need to pull yourself together and figure out how to register at an online public school.

Pretty sure you need your parents to sign off on that, kid.

He knew it wasn’t a healthy thought, but a part of him wanted to retreat into the game and never come back.

Oh, God. If this “improve player retention as much as possible” thing turns out not to be a too obvious “trapped in cyberspace” plot with a sloppily designed AI as the antagonist but is instead some shitty commentary on MMORPG addiction, I’m going to be even more disappointed.

It looked like the average level among new players after twenty-four hours was over level 10.  However, he saw that a sizable group of new users had already passed level 20 somehow.

For most MMORPGs, I would expect level 20 to be achieved within four or five hours of starting – and that’s playing in a sub-optimal “kill tons of underleveled mooks for funsies” way. Granted, that’s partly because the first five levels are usually handed out in the tutorial in maybe thirty minutes at what is, compared to regular gameplay, an absurd pace, but that’s also without technomagical time compression. With the benefit of time compression, and after just two or three hours – a perfectly reasonable length for an excited first session at the game’s release – most players have logged over ten hours in the game. So, again: The game’s pace is apparently just slow as Hell.

And hey, Jason, here’s a thought: Imagine how quickly you could level if you went around neck shanking enemies five times your level constantly instead of spending all your time trudging across the ludicrously large game map performing “talk to a trainer” quests. For someone who’s allegedly got an unusually strong desire for power, you sure do suck at power leveling.

I really need to fix my user interface!

The Controller has at this point been established as having extensive mind reading and brain augmentation powers. Why does Jason need to fix his user interface? After this much time logged in game, the Controller should know enough to fix it for him.

Jason didn’t have much time to ponder this mystery because the next three hours were some of the most painful of his life.  He knew that if the training had taken place in the real world, he would either be dead or in need of immediate hospitalization.

Turns out Jason doesn’t get to Mary Sue his way through all of this game’s fucking godawful, time-wasting training system. Three hours. Three hours. And he gets like three skill levels out of it, which all told come out to barely as much stat improvement as a single level would’ve gotten him. Who would still be playing this game after three hours of training for one fucking level?! Leveling up happens on an hourly basis even near the endgame of most MMOs (except freemium games trying to get you to shell out for x3 XP increases), and you spend that level having fun, not training. If you’re going to spend three hours training for something, do it in the real world training for an actual real skill! Even with the Animus bleeding effect in this brain augment disguised as a video game, knowing how to murder people with knives just isn’t a useful skill in the real world. So if you’re going to spend three painful hours training, do it in meatspace where you can learn COBOL and get paid a gazillion dollars to maintain the decaying computer infrastructure of companies that are dependent upon their databases from the 80s.

Each person gains 5 points to health, mana, and stamina each level.  Each point of Vitality adds 10 health, so my guess is that most individuals at level 100 would have around 1,000 health.

So, yeah, level 100 characters can be taken from max health to nothing by one strike from ambush to the neck by a level 1 character without Sneak Attack. That’s not a level 100 being brought low by someone with perfect play, someone who would be splattered in one hit and needs 100+ solid blows to kill their enemy, but who has such perfect play that they pull it off anyway. Nah, one good strike and it’s game over. Again: There’s counterplay to that, but it’s just to have a guild (or get the super secret leadership quests and cart an army of NPCs with you everywhere you go).

His excitement waned slightly when he considered that he wasn’t going to be able to walk up and stab everyone in the neck.  Most people would be able to see him coming or would be well-armored.  He recalled Alex’s full plate armor and realized he didn’t really have any obvious weak points.

Or there could be limitations based on the author’s limited understanding of medieval warfare, I guess. At the Battle of Agincourt, a bunch of English yeomen killed way more French knights than they had any right to through a combination of terrain advantage and using daggers to stab them through the slits in their visors. Shanking someone through the chinks in their armor isn’t just plausible, it’s actually how the English were able to wreck the French so badly that God had to send them an actual, real paladin with army-buffing skills to turn the tide back in their favor.

We are now one quarter of the way through the book and we have yet to leave the starter town. MMORPGs pretty consistently have between one and two dozen distinct regions. Even if we’re looking at a Kaineng City situation where Lux here is actually a super-region containing multiple sub-regions (south-side and the cemetery both seem to contain various threats), we’ve still yet to see anything resembling a dungeon, we have only the vaguest semblance of a main plot, and our hero has met exactly zero real people in the game. It’s not clear if it’s because the protagonist is being served up special Mary Sue content or if the entire game lacks features common to most MMOs with nothing substantial to replace them (its never-ending war on getting anything done in a reasonable amount of time provides strong evidence for the latter, though), but the book has seriously underutilized its premise so far.

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