If anyone looks at my YouTube channel*, you can tell I’m still playing a fair amount of ARK. I’m in a very “I want to be by myself” gaming mood right now and toodling around by myself on a giant island of dinosaurs is a good fix.
Thanks to a suggestion from Aywren I’ve customized my server settings to make the game a little more palatable. I haven’t altered it much, just a few tweaks to GameUserSettings.ini to minimize the annoyances:
I find night time fairly annoying, so I shortened it a bit. (Night time is seriously dark.) I originally started with a 2.5 player damage but over time it started to feel overpowered, so I turned it back down. The taming speed multiplier is absolutely mandatory. I’m thinking of turning it up again to something like 100.0. I despise the needlessly time-consuming taming mechanic in ARK.
And because it drives me crazy how rare metal is, even with a metal pick, I added this to Game.ini:
At the default setting, I was barely mining enough metal to keep the metal pick repaired. (I might tone it down again because I discovered there are metal deposits in the game–rocks which provide tons of metal.)
Overall I’m a little surprised that I’m still playing ARK, but I think I know why. For one thing, like I said, it fits my current mood perfectly. For another thing, the game is designed to be very addictive. It quite literally punishes you for logging off. All of your “stuff” is on a ticking timer that winds down the longer you leave it alone. Things on the ground decompose and disappear (including your corpse if you die–you can’t logoff if you die). All of the things you build decompose and require constant repair, requiring you to constantly keep gathering materials and resources. All of your food spoils, requiring you to constantly keep finding or growing or killing more. If you have dinosaur pets, you also need to keep them fed, and sometimes predators come along and kill them, requiring you to run out and tame more (cough Alpha Raptor cough). All of your gardens use up fertilizer, requiring you to constantly keep picking up dinosaur poop to put in your composting bin. And all of that stuff keeps happening when you’re offline. When you log on a day later, all of your food is gone, and your fertilizer is gone, and you have to run around doing errands before you can even start to do anything new.
Granted, as you gain levels, it becomes easier and easier to maintain that status quo because you have better technology available to you. You get a preserving bin to store food in, for example. You get a feeding trough to store berries in. But preserved food still spoils eventually–it just takes longer.
It’s a brilliantly evil, addictive design, and I think it’s a big part of why the game is popular. You have to keep logging in to keep up.
The other brilliant thing about ARK is that you can run private servers. Until ARK, I never considered how much of a great thing private servers might be. I can’t even tell you how awesome it is to play an MMORPG-like game without having to worry about running into another player. :) I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but sometimes I really don’t want to deal with wondering whether that other player I meet is going to try to talk to me, or role-play with me, or try to kill me, or steal my kills, or take my resources, or ask to join me, or invite me to join them, or something like that. (I know this is a weird social anxiety thing, but my biggest fear when I run into another player** out in the wilderness is that they are going to invite me to join a group. I feel so bad declining those invites, but on a bad day I feel trapped and cornered and claustrophobic and like I want to shut off my computer and run and hide in the corner of my room if I accept a group invite–needless to say, it’s not fun to play a game when you’re feeling like that.) ARK reminds me a lot of Mortal Online, a game that I like, but I eventually stopped playing because other players were too stressful–even the friendly ones.
I really like the gathering and crafting systems in ARK, too. There’s a perfect balance between simplicity and depth. And I absolutely love the base-building aspect of the game. Starting with a campfire and turning it into a thatch hut and then expanding it into a wooden lodge and then building it up into a multi-level fort with walls is awesome. It really gives you a sense of ownership in the spot you’ve picked out to settle.
So the good parts of ARK are really good, but then there are the bad parts. The bad parts are really, really bad.
Of course there are the graphics that everyone knows about. The graphics optimization is the worst I’ve ever seen. Unless you’re running a $10,000 gaming rig, you’re going to have to turn the settings down to low to get anything better than a slide show. My PC is not quite two years old and runs almost every other game fine at the highest settings. But not ARK.
The combat system in ARK is so very bad. Ranged combat with a bow is moderately okay, but if you end up trying to stab a dinosaur with a spear, it’s god awful. It almost doesn’t matter which direction you point your spear. What you see on the screen seems irrelevant to the calculations. As best I can tell, everything is random. It seems to figure out whether you can hit the dinosaur based solely on your proximity to it. And sometimes you don’t even have to be next to it. The spear sometimes hits even if the dinosaur is nowhere near the spear tip. And the amount of damage seems completely random, too. Sometimes it takes five hits to kill a dinosaur, but next time, the same type of dinosaur at the same level is killed in one hit. It makes no sense at all. And of course even on the lowest graphics settings your frame rate drops to a slide show every time you’re in combat, making it that much worse.
The imprecision in targeting extends to picking up stones, too. You don’t have to be pointing at stones to pick them up. In fact the stone can be behind you and it will still pick it up. There’s a similar issue with chopping trees and mining. It doesn’t figure out what you’re mining by where you’re pointing, only by what is closest to your character.
I just discovered rafts. Rafts are fantastic for quickly moving up and down the coast, but the controls for rafting are the worst I’ve ever seen in a game. As best I can tell, the raft moves toward the direction your view is pointing. Which is fine until you want to look at any of the scenery you’re passing. There is no moving backward. Rafts routinely get stuck on terrain geometry. It’s almost impossible to get onto a raft from the water–you usually end up swimming underneath. It’s horrible.
The taming mechanic is inexplicable to me. I don’t understand why it needs to take so long. The only thing I can figure is that they wanted it to use up a lot of food resources to tame something, but if that’s the case why not make the taming subject eat faster? Why have it wait to eat one item every minute? Why not one every second? Why? Why??
The bad things wouldn’t bother me if I had any sense that the developers planned to fix them or even recognized that they were problems. But when you look at their release history and their plans for new releases, they give every indication that they intend to ignore all of the major problems and concentrate on throwing more and more crap into the game. Rafts have been in the game since 207.0 (September), and they appear to be just as buggy today as they were at the start. ARK looks to me like a textbook example of an undisciplined development team–when you put in a new feature and then immediately move on to other things without spending any time fixing the bugs in that new feature, that’s a bad sign. That probably means the developers are working on the things that are fun to work on, and not the things that are work.
But hey, I only spent $20 on it, so I guess I shouldn’t complain that much.
* Blog readers typically don’t watch videos (including me), so I don’t mention it much. Also I suck at making videos so I don’t want anybody to know about it. :)
** This phenomenon typically only occurs when I encounter one or two other people in the wild. I’m usually fine with bigger groups of people because I can just blend in and not be noticed.
I’m at a loss to explain it, but I’m digging Mortal Online. When I’m staring at my desktop full of MMO icons trying to decide which one to play, MO is the one I usually click on.
I’d be hard pressed to tell you why this game is compelling. I log in. I run out to the Graveyard and kill some undead to make some money and practice my blocking and swordfighting. I gather some plants and chop up some trees. I tame donkeys and horses and ride around. I cook up some food to feed myself and my animals. I make myself some leather armor from pig skins. I practice swimming in the ocean. I read books to train skills.
Somehow those incredibly boring-sounding activities end up being fun and engaging.
And that’s despite all the obvious bugs. This game has a very alpha quality to it in that there are a bunch of polish bugs that shouldn’t have made it through basic quality control. You get the sense that the developers are just a couple of guys in someone’s basement, eating chips and banging away at whatever code interests them, with no regard for the big picture. (I don’t actually know how big or small Star Vault is. But I’d guess small.)
Combat is incredibly weird. It’s first person. Half the time you can’t tell if you’re going to hit your target or not. You can’t tell if blocking is going to work or not. There’s lag and rubber-banding all over the place (though that seems better in the last patch). I can’t even imagine what "real" combat is like (ie. PvP), when your actual life is on the line. If I go below half of my health I start running like a screaming little girl.
For that reason I tend to avoid combat. Honestly, there isn’t very much to fight in this game except for other players, and the only other players I could realistically defeat are newbs who are even more newbish than I am, and what am I going to get from them? So far the wilderness is about 90% empty of players or monsters, which is great for exploration. When you find mobs they are usually clustered in a small area that you can easily go around.
A Day In The Life
One day I was wandering out in the rocky desert east of Meduli. I found a herd of horses and I managed to tame one that was old enough to ride for the first time. (Previously I had been riding donkeys.) I was on my way back and decided to stop and chop some wood for some reason (I think I was testing to see if it was a different kind of wood). Then I spotted somebody approaching on a horse.
The guy was wearing real armor and carrying a shield, which was a sure sign that this was a veteran player. Oh crap, I thought. I’m probably going to get killed and lose my brand new horse. Thankfully I wasn’t carrying very much, for the exact reason that I knew I might get ganked by some random PK.
It turned out that he wasn’t there to kill me. He just stopped by to say hi. I cautiously told him I was new and just wandering around and he offered to take me to Bakti, which at the time I had never heard of, so I said sure. We rode southwest and the terrain changed from depressing desert terrain into really nice green grassland with occasional pine trees.
I probably slowed him down a lot because I had to keep resting my horse because my stamina ran out pretty quick. (Fortunately I was good enough at riding by then to avoid being embarrassed by getting thrown from the horse every two steps.) Soon after taking that screenshot I actually lost him among the trees (because it’s pretty easy to get lost in this game) and I figured he would just leave me and keep going, because I apparently have a poor opinion of humanity, but eventually he came back and found me. He showed me a spot where I could get a steppe horse, which I made a mental note of for later. While we were there, a rather intimidating-looking "red" walked by so I have a feeling it’s a protected resource. My guide said we only survived because the red’s guild knew my guide’s guild. We went by a town called Vadda which had a lot of reds around so he advised me not to go there. Eventually we made it to Bakti and I thanked him for the escort. (As it turned out, Bakti wasn’t all that safe either because right outside of town there was a big PvP fight going on, which I watched from afar.) I stabled my horse and logged out for the night.
Later I had to consult an external map to find out where I was, because in-game I had no idea which direction I had gone or how I could ever retrace my steps back to Meduli, where my base of operations is. (By "base" I mean the place where the bank with all my meager possessions resides.) There is no in-game map in Mortal Online, if I haven’t mentioned that. After orienting myself, I set off northwest on my horse and eventually made it back home.
That kind of sums up the PvE experience of the game. Wandering around, chopping wood, taming horses, meeting strangers and wondering if they are going to be nice or if they are going to kill you on the spot for no reason. It sounds horrifying but the non-combat systems in the game are so deep that you can find a lot to do without ever learning to swing a sword.
So you say you wish you could play an MMORPG like the ones in the old days? Something like UO maybe? Well get yourself a copy of Mortal Online and experience what MMORPG life was like in the late 1990s.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about MO: You’re going to die and lose everything.
This is a full-on free-for-all PvP game, just like UO back in the day. You are never completely safe, even standing right in the middle of town surrounded by town guards. (In practice, though, nobody is likely to attack you in the middle of town surrounded by town guards, but it can happen, possibly by accident. Some guy in fact did kill my dog right in the middle of town surrounded by town guards, and then said guards promptly killed the guy.)
Not only are you never safe, but this is a full loot drop game, meaning when you die, you lose everything you were carrying, with the exception of your newbie sword and pickaxe. So here is your first lesson on playing Mortal Online: Find the bank and put stuff in it. Don’t carry a lot of stuff around with you. For two reasons: 1) You could die any time and lose it, and 2) You can only carry so much stuff before becoming encumbered. Yes, this game actually considers encumberance, an extremely old-school MMORPG concept that is almost never implemented any more.
You’re already intrigued right? I mean, who doesn’t love getting killed by a PK and losing everything you’ve worked for?
As if it couldn’t get any better, it’s a first-person game with controls quite similar to Elder Scrolls. I personally am of the opinion that first-person RPGs that operate like shooters are among the worst things ever invented, because it feels incredibly weird to swing a sword by clicking your mouse button, but after a while you sort-of get used to it. (I also don’t like first-person MMORPGs because you can’t ever see what your character looks like.)
Most sane people have probably already heard enough to run screaming from this game. It’s a lot like my memory of the first version of Darkfall, which I, too, ran screaming from. But now I must be in a particularly unbalanced mental state because I actually kind of like Mortal Online. It has a lot of complex game mechanics that are very interesting to play with. And while it is possible to be killed at any time, in reality, you don’t die very often unless you do something dumb. (Like try to swim when you’re carrying too much weight.)
MO is a skill-based game so there are no classes, but you can select your race and appearance. What’s interesting is that you actually select the races of your character’s grandparents, so in effect you can be a mixture of up to four races. Min-maxers will want to be choosy here because your race selection (and age selection) determines the maximum values of your base attributes. There’s probably a web site somewhere that will tell you, "If you want to be a mage, pick this race combination for the best stats, and if you want to be a warrior, pick this." (In the free-to-play version you can only make one character, which is a bit of a bummer. You’ll almost certainly want to start over with a new character so don’t get too attached to the first one.)
Once you’ve made a dude you get plopped down in the the newbie area of Tindrem with a dinky sword. There’s no elaborate movie setting up your character’s epic story or anything. You’re just there. There’s a short tutorial quest-chain which will lead you through the absolute basics of fighting pigs and skinning them for leather, crafting some armor, and taming rabbits. Read them because those things are not nearly as easy as they sound. (When you kill a pig, it turns into a corpse, which you then "extract" into leather, meat, and, charmingly, bone tissue.) You will definitely want to know how to do those things, so pay attention. After the tutorial, you’re on your own and there are no more quests to guide you.
MO has a very active and helpful general chat, which is moderated. I’ve got to give them props for this. Moderators will step in and shut down anything they don’t like in the help channel very quickly, because they obviously don’t want to alienate newcomers right off the bat. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in an MMO before.
Anyway, at the end of the tutorial, you have an opportunity to pick from a number of preset builds to get you started, which essentially just gives you a shortcut for starting out. You can also bypass it and do everything yourself. At first I chose Tamer because I thought it would be cool to have a stable of pets, but I re-rolled again and chose the Mage build, which gives you a spellbook and some reagents to start out. (More about spellcasting later.)
Oh, there’s another way to get your skills. You can train up your skills by using them, or you can buy "books" which will train up your skills automatically. When you pick a build at the end of the tutorial, you get a couple of books to get you started. The bad news is that it takes a long time to read books, like a day or two, and some of them are expensive. The good news is that you continue to read your books even when you’re not online. (Kind of like EVE, if I remember right.)
After doing the tutorial, I would suggest you stick around the little newbie area outside Tindrem for a while to get the hang of things. You’ll be "yellow" so you’ll be immune to PKs for a little while (eight hours?) so you won’t have to worry about griefers right away. There isn’t much to do at the start except kill pigs for leather, chop up trees, gather plants, and mine some ore, but you can make some decent coin doing those things, and you’ll level up your skills while you do them, so it’s probably worth it. Make sure to sprint a lot so you train up your sprinting skill.
A small word of caution: Be very cautious around water. Do not just jump into a body of water thinking you’ll be able to swim to the other side. Swimming is a skill just like any other and it goes up with practice. Once, I thought I would do some swimming practice to raise my skill level, got into the water, and promptly sank straight to the bottom, died, and lost all my stuff. That was almost a rage-quit moment, because I was carrying all the reagents I’d gotten from the tutorial, a book, and all kinds of leather and a decent chunk of money. (That was undoubtedly why I sank straight to the bottom–too heavy.) The first time I returned and tried to dive down and get my money back, I died again. I drowned quite a few times in that adventure. I managed to get back only a couple of things before giving up. (My first corpse vanished after a while so I assume either it timed out or someone came along and took it.)
Eventually you’ll go into Tindrem proper (you have to ask a guard to open the gate for you), which is a gigantic city that looks a bit like Ancient Rome. (Not that I know what Ancient Rome looks like.) Here you will find tons of vendors, a vitally important bank, and The Graveyard. From what I can tell, the city is about 500 times bigger than it needs to be. Most everyone hangs out at the bank, and the rest of the place is filled with completely empty streets and buildings. You will find people riding horses, leading pack animals, wearing actual armor and capes, casting spells, and so on. (It is awe-inspiring to see someone riding a horse in MO, let me tell you. It’s one of the few games in recent history I can remember looking at other players and their stuff and thinking, "OMG I want that so bad how do I get one!!")
In the city, you’ll run across a lot of stray dogs that you can tame. These are the first pets you can tame besides rabbits. If you selected the Tamer build, you can tame them easily, but otherwise it will take two or three tries to tame one. You can then send them to fight for you, or fight alongside you, or just have them sit around and look at you.
You have to feed your pets periodically, so make sure you get some pig meat. (You also have to feed yourself periodically, so you’ll want pig meat even if you don’t have a dog.) I’ve noticed that your pets don’t always follow you, so sometimes you’ll turn around and find your dog is nowhere to be found. I have to go track them down and give them another follow command. I don’t know if that’s a bug or what. Also, don’t get too attached to your first pets, because they don’t last very long. Either some PK will kill them, or they’ll get killed by skeletons in the Graveyard, or they will simply disappear on their own after you log out. (Your pets lose loyalty while you’re logged off.)
Once you’ve tamed a dog and visited the bank to deposit all of your meager valuables (you did do that, right?), then you’ll be ready to visit the Graveyard for your first taste of real combat in MO. One of the first NPCs you encounter on the way into Tindrem says that he’ll buy the heads from zombie corpses in the Graveyard, and there are big signs pointing you in the direction of the Graveyard, so it seems pretty obvious that you’re supposed to go there.
Inside the foggy Graveyard, you’ll find a bunch of skeletons, zombies, and other unmentionable things. These things are much harder to kill than pigs, but still manageable with your newbie sword, so there isn’t much danger unless you happen to get swarmed. (I lost several dogs in there, though, because the zombies tend to attack your pet a lot. Dogs do well against pigs, but not so much against the zombies.)
You actually make some decent change from the skeletons (for a newbie), and you can sell the collected zombie heads to that NPC for even more decent change. But: The Graveyard is where you will probably learn from first-hand experience about a griefer technique called "blue blocking" and exactly why nobody makes mainstream games like this anymore.
It is vitally important for you to remember in MO that you can attack anyone and anything and there is no mechanism to prevent you from accidentally attacking people. Griefers can take advantage of this. Say you’re in the Graveyard killing skeletons, minding your own business. A griefer sees you attacking a skeleton and jumps right in front of you while you’re swinging your sword. You accidentally hit the griefer, and then you are instantly flagged as a criminal, and then he–and anyone else in the vicinity–can kill you without any penalties. Repeatedly. Until your criminal state wears off. Because you can always fight back if someone attacks you, but if you attack first you get flagged, and if you attack a lot you get flagged in red as a murderer. As if that wasn’t bad enough, sometimes the people in the Graveyard don’t even bother griefing. Sometimes PKs ("the reds") will come right into the Graveyard and start murdering noobs left and right.
As a quick tutorial, there are basically three PvP states people can be in: Blue, which means the person hasn’t done anything wrong; Gray, which means you can attack the person without penalty; and Red, which means the person is a mass murderer and you should probably run away. It’s actually more complicated than that, but that’s the basics.
So what I’m saying is: The Graveyard is a hive of scum and villiany. Even though it’s the logical place to go as a newbie, and it’s an easy place to make some early money, you might want to avoid it if you’re easily enraged.
By the way, if you die, you turn into a ghost and you have to run and find the nearest priest (assuming you know where that is). Then you have to run back to your corpse and grab all the loot that you dropped when you died. There’s a good chance it won’t be there any more. Or, in my case, it might be at the bottom of a canal and unreachable.
I mentioned magic earlier. I haven’t done much with it yet, but it’s definitely not point-and-click pew-pew magic. First of all, you need reagents to cast spells, and you need money to buy reagents. It’s a pretty big limiting factor when you’re starting out, getting killed all the time, and losing your stuff. So I’m not sure that magic-user is the best way to go at first. There’s only one spell I can cast with a readily-available reagent (water), and that is "water spurt." It does like half a point of damage, if you’re lucky. You can’t really cast it in rapid succession, either. It takes two key-presses to cast a spell: First you "prime" the spell, and then the second key-press actually casts it. Sometimes the spell "fizzles." The only other spell I can somewhat consistently cast is a minor heal spell, but that requires a second reagent that I have to buy. It’s handy for pets, though.
If you’ve made it to the Graveyard and survived (or if you played UO back in the day), you’ve probably learned most of what you need to survive in this game as a newbie: 1) Take anything you have of value (coins, resources, reagents, books) and put it in the bank as soon as possible. 2) If you want to explore, don’t carry anything except your newbie sword and your pickaxe. (If you don’t want to be nekkid on everyone’s screens, you could make yourself some leather armor, too.) If you haven’t learned those things, you have undoubtedly rage quit and uninstalled the game already.
I don’t think I mentioned this but MO is a total sandbox. There are no goals unless you set them for yourself. So after I had "built up" my newbie mage a little bit, I set myself a goal to get away from Tindrem, because that’s where most of the griefers hang out to mess with the newbies. On my first character, the Tamer, I walked outside of town and looked around a bit, then promptly got killed by some PKs. So on my second character, I decided to be a bit craftier. First, I put everything I owned in the bank, obviously. Then I went to the gate and made sure nobody was around, then I sprinted (as much as a newbie can) across the road to the forest so I wouldn’t be so easy to find. You might be tempted to run down the big obvious roads to the next town, but if you had ever played UO, you would know that you should never, ever use the roads because that’s where the PK predators patrol. Especially around a newbie town.
Did I mention there is no map in this game? That’s right, no matter how many times you press the ‘M’ key, nothing happens. There’s no telling what’s out there. (Obviously there are web sites with maps you can look up if you want (mortalonlinemap.info is popular), but what fun is that?)
I ran, and ran, and ran through the forest, heading more-or-less directly south. Somewhere to my right there was a road, and there was mountainous terrain on my left. I gathered some wood from trees, and picked up some plants. I passed some buildings, but I wasn’t sure if they were player-made or part of the world. There was a stable master NPC at one of them, but I don’t know if that means anything. I left before anyone could PK me for trespassing.
Then I came out of the forest and entered some plains, and stumbled onto my greatest discovery so far: A herd of donkies! They were all gray, so they were unclaimed! This was an exciting development, because I thought maybe I could figure out how to get my very own donkey like all the cool kids in Tindrem!
Sadly, my taming skill could barely handle taming a dog, so I didn’t think I had much chance. I suspected it would say, "You don’t have enough points to tame this animal" like it does when I try to tame a pig. But to my shock, it actually allowed me try to tame one! (I think I had about 28 "points.") The first try failed, though. So I tried again. And again. And again. Roughly twenty tries later, I gave up on taming a donkey on my first wilderness excursion. It’s probably just as well, because the first PK I saw could have killed me and taken it. At least now I know where to find one.
One thing I found very cool was that each donkey seemed to have different skin patterns. Some were white, some were brown. Some had stripes and some had splotches. Some were big and some were small. It was neat that you could pick out the one that you liked and try to train it, knowing that it would be fairly unique to you.
So I continued south from the donkies into a sort of desert wasteland and eventually spotted a seaside village, which turned out to be a place called Meduli. There were a lot fewer people there than in Tindrem, and I didn’t see any overt signs of griefing, so I think I’ve found a new home. It has its own bank–and when I say "it’s own" I mean that literally: It’s separate from the bank in Tindrem. So all that stuff I put in the Tindrem bank before I left is still up there and I would have to transport it all to Meduli on foot if I wanted to move it. (If I recall correctly, that was also a feature of UO.)
So what’s the bottom line? I didn’t think I would like MO for more than a day. It’s awkward to play and painfully unforgiving of mistakes. But it still beckons to me. It reminds me a lot of a 3D version of UO. There are tons of crafting and gathering possibilities. You can actually make gear that is better than loot drops (because so far, there are no loot drops except for money – none that I’ve seen, at least). You can just run in any direction and explore off the beaten path. Because pretty much anywhere outside of town is off the beaten path.
On the negative side, the graphics are not that great, especially for a title released in 2010. It’s definitely not a AAA-quality game. It’s got some bugs. The pet interface window routinely goes nuts. It’s not as bad of an interface as AC or EQ1, but it’s still heavily dependent on drag-and-drop to do things. The server seems to reboot every morning.
The big question is whether this game is worth subscribing to. On the one hand, I’d like to send the developers some money to reward them for doing something innovative (compared to modern MMOs, at least). On the other hand, I don’t particularly want to pay to get killed over and over again. I get the feeling it would be a long time before I could actually start fighting back or even running away. Everyone else has had a two-year head start, after all.
But I think it’s well worth checking out the free version.
P.S. Dear Mortal Online Developers: You cannot imagine how annoying it is to process screenshots in *BMP* format.