Friday, May 31, 2013

The Standard: The First Year

So let's talk about the early days of Sluggy Freelance, and as a result, the early days of webcomics in general.  For much of this and subsequent parts, I'll be using the comic itself, rereading sections of the archives, the power of the Sluggy's wiki network, various reviews and more than a few interviews with Pete Abrams himself.

Sluggy started in August of 1997, and was part of first wave of modern webcomics.  Others included PvP, User Friendly, and yes, Penny Arcade.  There are others, both before and after, but given just those names, you can probably guess what most of this wave of comics featured, and that includes Sluggy:  Geek jokes.  This was in a time before geek became "in" so this is REAL geek humor, old school style.  The first joke of Sluggy Freelance is about spamming Satan.  Followed by a Windows vs Mac joke.  Then there was a Bill Gates joke.

It shouldn't really be a surprise, actually.  Abrams was, at the time, a web designer, and Sluggy was a side project that was meant to ONLY be on the internet.  I always assumed that he did have the goal of being published in the newspaper, but no, he meant it only for the net even way back then.  Of course, his vision of Sluggy was also to have a revolving cast of characters coming in and out and no "main cast" so to speak.  He changed his mind.

That early comic is something I've had to relive by rereading that portion of the archive, and I get why I quickly got hooked on it.  The humor is very much in my wheelhouse, a kind of "well it's weird, your point?" type thing.  They're also quite genre savvy throughout the early strips, and that makes Riff and Torg particularly invincible in parts of the comic.  What actually surprised me is the sheer amounts of parody in these early strips.  With in the first year there was a Star Trek/Aliens spoof, the X-Files, and a bit on the crazed/angry talk show hosts of the late 90's.  And those are just the major ones, there were a lot of littler ones scattered about that don't stick around long, but give just enough of a chuckle to be worth it.  Parody is hard to do well, and Abrams has always had a talent for it, but especially the X-Files bit and the Clinton impeachment parody make these early strips feel VERY dated (Star Trek/Aliens less so, oddly).  This is the problem with "topical" humor and a good example as to why it should be avoided if possible and abandoned eventually if not.

The format is very basic, 3 - 4 panel gag strips.  Hell, the Sunday strips actually have throwaway panels (part of why I thought the comic was part of a newspaper pitch).  The sketchiness of the early strips gives way fairly early on to a more streamlined strip.  It's still very sketchy compared to the current strips, but 16 years of comic drawing will do that.  All of this is the basic format of most comics in their early days.  Only mature artists manage to avoid the "sketchy" early days, or even the 3 panel gag strips.  This isn't as common as more comic artists aim for the more comic book/manga style, but it's still common enough to be noticed.

By January of 1998, the 6 major members of the cast had been introduced at least, and some adventures already started.  It's curious how the basics of their personalties really hasn't changed in all these years, and there are some very strong hints that there is more to most of them than the jokes.  Torg in particular is show to be just devious enough in a single act (getting Bun Bun arrested) that I could see that same Torg doing all the planning in the Minion Master story line 15 years later.  There's also a moment of bravery in that first year of strips where Torg stupidly dives in to save a girl from a shark (knocking both himself and the shark out when he hits it).  These character nuggets form the basic core from which the characters are fully grown and developed over the years, as well as all the items and characters that would play a part throughout the comic.  Hell Dr. Schlock (young) is introduced before January even comes around (and reminds me of what happened to his eye).

At the same time, the comic does feel it's moving from story to story in a haphazard manner, at least until about March, when Sam and Val appear together.  This is the beginning of the long period stories into which shorter tales, like the beach trip, simply fit inside the piece.  I stopped at the 1 year mark, so I didn't actually get to the Lysinda Vampire story itself, which is less than a week later, and was the point where Sluggy fully converted from it's gag strip roots to the classic adventure comic I based the entire category on.  I'm actually surprised at how quickly this conversion took place, in my mind I thought it took much longer.  This actually makes me wonder if I've been too harsh on some comics for making their conversion from gag strip to adventure comic in similar time frames (nah, GPF still borked it).

The foundation of Sluggy Freelance was well laid, but I won't say it was well planned.  There's a distinct feeling that everything was done for the joke of the moment, not any other reason.  There is some planning for future events, but it's vague and easily changed.  New directions would have been fairly easy to take at this point in the strip, and I wonder if in an alternative universe, the version of Sluggy they have is vastly different than this one because of it.  There was a plan though, a direction, something some comics completely lack, while others are so tightly planned as to not allow much freedom at all.  Sluggy's first year seems to balance this out a bit, making the world and characters seem fresh, adaptable and just plain fun.

365 strips in, and I am reminded why I read Sluggy to this day.  It had a great first year hook, and I read most of the strips (the Dr. Laura stuff mostly got the shaft on my read through, just didn't appeal to me).  It's also very apparent why I use early Sluggy for a lot of my examples, as I saw this same pattern several times, in Candi, College Roomies from Hell and General Protection Fault.  Same cycle of development, sketchy gag comics evolving into cleaner, more adventure based strips.  Oddly, those 3 comics I eventually dropped from the read list but not Sluggy.  Next time, we'll look at the greater stories of the comic, and why those stories keep me reading.

Next week, I'll cover the high points of Sluggy Freelance.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Standard: Introduction

I've been doing this blog for a while now, and if you've read any of it, you probably noticed that I seem to come back to the same comics as references.  Specifically, I call back to Sluggy Freelance more than any other comic I read.

Why?  What is so special about Sluggy Freelance that I reference it almost endlessly on every topic under the sun?  Well, to be blunt, nothing.  Seriously, there is little special about Sluggy in the grand scheme of things.  There are hundreds of comics out there that do the EXACT same thing as Sluggy, some do it better, some do it worse, but they're out there and easy to find.

Though I do know the reason why I reference Sluggy.  It's because it was my first.  Okay, technically, The Parking Lot is Full was my first webcomic, but it started as a print comic first.  Sluggy was internet only from day one, so it is my first webcomic.  It also left a very deep impression.  Not just what the comic WAS, but HOW I ended up reading it.  See kids, I was on a 56k modem at the time.  Complain all you want about slow internet, you know NOTHING until you've tried to browse about 5 years worth of a daily comic on a dial up modem.

Oh, and I only had about 3 hours a day to do it.  In the end, it took me about 2 weeks to read the entire archive of Sluggy Freelance (including an insane strip that loaded about 30 individual panels).  On top of that, I didn't know what the "W" in the calender meant "week's worth of strips" so I clicked through each, and every, strip.  That is bound to leave an impression, good or bad.  I had a good impression and for a long time thought it was the best comic I ever read.  I was, of course, comparing them to PLiF and the newspaper strips I grew up with, so I didn't have much to go on.

Now, some 233 comics later, I know better.  It's not the greatest thing ever, not by a long shot.  But it's also not bad.  It's an average comic.  A successful average comic, yes, but average nonetheless.  It pulls off amazing feats of storytelling, but also has failed at them.  The art can be beautiful at times, but sometimes feels rushed or stagnant.  The humor can be gut busting, or just kind of meh.  It is just average, middle of the road, common.

And that makes it my standard.  A great comic is better than Sluggy Freelance, a bad one is worse.  WHY it's better or worse is key, of course, but rating it against Sluggy gives me a baseline to run off.  Sluggy's averageness also comes from how MUCH of it there is.  It started in 1997, so it's been going for 16 YEARS at this point.  Very, VERY few webcomics approach that number, and I don't think any of the ones I read even come close.  So there's a lot there, and it's easy to make comparisons.

So for the next few weeks, I'll be digging deeper into the roots of Sluggy as the standard.  I'll look at Sluggy in detail, from the early days of the young comic industry, to it's greatest successes and most daring failures.  It also gives me an excuse to read chunks of the archive I haven't read in a decade or more.  Should be interesting.  Until next week kiddies.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Bad week, nothing

Bad does not begin to describe this past week.  AFTER I wrote the review last week, things went to hell and didn't bother with the basket.  Not looking much better this week.

As such, nothing.  I've got an idea for a multi-part series, so we'll see how it goes next week.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Eishtmo vs Neverwinter

So Neverwinter.  Cryptic is probably one of my favorite developers right now, having made 2 really good games that I’ve played.  I like Star Trek Online and Champions Online, though I haven’t played much of Champions recently (because the group I hang out with plays STO more).  Neverwinter is Cryptic’s next MMO project, and the first that’s being released as pure Free To Play (CO and STO were sub conversions).  It’s good, it’s very good.  And I think it owes a great deal to the other two games.  In essence, Neverwinter is what happens when Cryptic learns all the lessons CO and STO taught them about game mechanics, design and how to build a game.  There are some bad elements to Neverwinter, but we’ll get to those.

Many of these elements, before I begin, came out only the last year, so the question is was CO and STO used as a kind of test bed for Neverwinter?  Probably, and that’s good, to a point.  Using an active player base to “beta test” a new system is a bit iffy, but at the same time, those systems did improve those games.  With this in mind, I’ll have to divide this up to talk about each element separately or else even I will get confused.


The combat system is reticle based, as in all your attacks are tied to a targeting device in the center of the screen and aimed via the mouse movements.  It’s very reminiscent of STO’s “shooter mode,” which was an attempt to make ground combat not suck.  Didn’t help, but in Neverwinter it works quite well.  All attack commands are tied either to the mouse buttons or in the immediate area around the WASD keys (which handle movement).  It’s actually really efficient, to the point I have considered modifying STO to use the same system (the interface controls would allow for it).

What it has that STO doesn’t though is a dodge/block mechanic that actually works.  Hold down the shift key and an evade/block ability goes off based on how much stamina you have.  This comes mostly from CO, but a little from Guild Wars 2 as well, and it makes combat MUCH more dynamic than STO, and actually lets you CANCEL out of actions, some actions.  Really need that in STO.  The dynamic combat means you don’t stand around waiting for cooldowns, you’re always fighting, dodging, repositioning and triggering off the small handful of cooldown attacks.

Powers are much closer to how Champions is set up, with a selection of abilities built into each class (get to character creation in a bit).  Given the limited number of attack slots verses the high number of available powers, players will have to carefully choose the abilities they want to slot and use, but can power them up appropriately.  The other element from Champions is feats, which are basically the specialization system out of Champions, which gives passive boosts to the character.

The combat system is really good.  Maybe not groundbreaking (Guild Wars 2 did something similar, probably a bit better), but certainly worth the effort.

Character Creation

There are only 5 classes in Neverwinter, but they function more like Champions Archtypes than anything else.  They have a set batch of powers and abilities and the progression is mostly restricted to a few key roles within the overall role of the character.

From STO comes the races, each one with its own traits and story elements.  The traits aren’t nearly as complex as STO is now (or as it will be in the near future), but they’re there and might make the difference for the Min/Max crowd.  Each race, like the careers in STO, have special story elements restricted to them that other races won’t see or do.  I like that element as it makes each character a little unique.

And if you need a little extra help, there are Companions, NPC helpers that can be called upon to even the odds a bit for a single player.  Playing a DPS melee Great Weapon Fighter and need some healing?  Hire a Cleric companion.  Playing a Cleric and need a tank?  Hire a Guardian.  They can be trained up to level 15 currently, but there will EVENTUALLY be a way to convert them to a new, higher level.  Why it’s not out yet is beyond me.  Still, every little big helps and my Cleric companion has saved my bacon on more than one occasion.

What I’m disappointed with is the actual costume design.  I don’t expect it to be at Champions level of customization, but it barely matches Star Trek’s level.  And it’s all gear based.  Yeah, that’s right, if you want to look a certain way, it’s based on the gear you’re using.  You can dye it, but unlike Guild Wars, where the dyes are bound to you and usable whenever you want, you MUST have the dyes to color the various items.  Lame.  Oh, and if you want to change ANYTHING on your character, you will pay for it with real money.


The game has 3 major currencies.  The more traditional Gold/Silver/Copper system is pretty standard across most fantasy games, even Champions uses it (though with different names).  This is the in game currency that’s used for most vendor transactions.  But, it doesn’t buy as much as you would think.  It’s great for consumables (which I’ve not really needed as I find more than enough) and some of the crafting products, but that’s about it.

Then there’s Zen, the pay currency, which is for buying the more cosmetic stuff as in STO and Champions (though the selection is very narrow right now).  Zen is used for a lot of stuff, including buying more bank slots, inventory slots, character changes and other stuff.

And then, there Astral Diamonds.  In Star Trek Online, they introduced Dilithium as a major currency in the game.  It can be collected by doing various missions, has to be refined to be used, and is generally used for most of the high end equipment.   There’s even a special exchange set up to trade Dilithium for Zen, the pay currency. In Neverwinter, Astral Diamonds does all that, and more.  It’s a Super Currency, used for nearly everything.  Want to dye that piece of armor?  Costs Diamonds.  Want to remove those runestones from your armor?  Costs Diamonds.  Want to sell anything on the auction house?  Not only will it cost Diamonds to sell, but the entire exchange is done in Diamonds.

That’s a major change between the games, the auction house uses Astral Diamonds and ONLY Astral Diamonds.  In STO and CO, it’s reliant on the common currency (EC and Globals), but not here.  Also, the auction house is an actual auction house, something akin to Ebay rather than just a market where the prices are set by the players and you either pay their price or you don’t get it.  I’m not sure how that will fly as the game continues to grow, but it’s intriguing at least.

Astral Diamonds are used so much in the game, one of my guild mates believes THIS is the major currency of the game, and everything else is essentially unnecessary.  I buy that, especially given the refining rates.  In STO and CO you can only refine 8000 and 6000 per day.  In Neverwinter, you can refine 24,000 a day.  They really, REALLY want you to earn Diamonds and spend Diamonds.  I worry that this will be the primary mover for most actions in this game.  I don’t mind playing for Diamonds or Dilithium or Questionite (CO’s version), but I want to play to have FUN too.  If it becomes all about farming these Diamonds, I doubt it’ll hold my attention especially as we reach end game.


The crafting system in this game is a wild mix between systems in Champions and STO.  Out of STO comes the professions, which is actually the Duty Officer system though simplified.  This is the main way to craft, assigning a worker to a particular task which eventually results in equipment.   This function can actually be done through the remote Gateway system for Neverwinter, so you don’t have to log into the game to do the crafting, which is nifty.  STO was SUPPOSED to have something similar for its Gateway and the Duty Officer system, but that has yet to be implemented, I suspect because the Duty Officer system is very complex.

But that’s not all!  From Champions comes the Mod/Fusion system for upgrading gear.  Most of the equipment will eventually start coming with a slot that can be filled with a runestone.  Those runestones are found in drops, boxes, from skill items throughout, and can be fused together to make more powerful versions of themselves.  This is both a nice way to adjust the powers of equipment to enhance what you’re looking for in a weapon or armor piece, and a horrible lesson in how much inventory/bank space you actually have.

Those runestones take up a LOT of room.  You need at least 4 to perform any fusion, so if you want a high level runestone, you need a LOT of little ones fused together.  Thankfully the resources for the profession system are stored in a separate bag in your inventory so you don’t have to try to store it in the bank and your common inventory will be BULDGING with these runestones if you’re not careful.  Even the wiki suggests selling the little buggers off.  There are only 9 different stones (4 for you, 5 for your companion) but considering all the grades they come in, you’ll be stuff to the gills with them.  Add on all the extra gear, consumables, and special emblems you get throughout the game, you’ll run out of space VERY fast, not just in your inventory but your 20 slot bank too.  Prepare to spend real money to expand out these in the near future.

Questing and the Foundry

The quests seem mostly to come from the Champions line of missions rather than STOs, though honestly Champions is more like a standard MMO than STO, so that’s not saying much.  Each region in and around Neverwinter has its own batch of missions, typically telling a story of each region and capping it off with either a fight with the boss of the area or a big multiperson dungeon.  The missions are pretty standard ranging from go kill X number of bad guys to doing mini-dungeon crawls and finding loot at the end.  That’s actually an odd bit, you get your gear reward WITHIN the mission, not from the quest giver.  The quest giver only gives out experience and cash.  That makes sense for the Foundry.

Before we get to that, however, the dungeons have me a bit annoyed.  Not in their structure or difficulty, those are fine.  No, the issue is the queuing system.  Like STO, there is a way to queue up for a particular dungeon or skirmish, which are the STFs and Fleet Actions of STO respectfully.  However, they are level locked.  This means that the first dungeon, the Cloak Tower, will only be available for queuing until you hit level 20, then you cannot queue for it any more.  You can still do it, by going through the front door, but considering these things need at least a couple player to even attempt, let alone complete, you’ll need a team.  You can use the zone chat to find one, but if you’re too high, you can’t be queued with the team and have to drag them all through the front door.  And again, the dungeon is locked to its level, so all of the baddies are going to be below your level even if the entire team is 10 levels higher.

Two reasons this is annoying, beyond the obvious having to go through the door instead of the queue.  First is that there aren’t level appropriate versions of the dungeons, which is something even STO could do with it’s actually missions.  This is sad because it means doing older dungeons is pointless since the drops won’t be any better thanks to the baddies not being at your level.  On top of that, there’s no way to “sidekick” down or up to the levels to make the mission appropriate for everyone.  In fact, if the leader of at team is, say, level 24 and the rest of the team is in the mid teens and you start a Foundry mission, all the baddies will be level 24, and the rest of the team will have to hide and hope the bad guys don’t see them.  That was an annoying lesson to learn.

The other major reason?  It looks like there will be very few dungeons available as you level up.  Maybe I’m wrong on this, after all I’m only level 26 at this point and the cap is at 60, but if the pattern holds, most of these dungeons will completely drop off the map and never be seen again.  I WANT to do the Cloak Tower and have it be a challenge, but with the current system, it won’t be.  Wonderful content is going to be lost to high level players, and it could cause the problem that continues to plague STO and Champions:  Lack of end game content.  But then, they might be relying on the Foundry to make up for it.

Ah, the mighty Foundry.  If you’ve heard anything about Neverwinter, you’ve probably heard about the Foundry, a system that allows players to create their own quests and stories within the game.  This comes from STO, which has had the Foundry pretty much since the beginning.  I haven’t played many Foundry missions in either game, but the few I have are pretty good.  They tell interesting stories and rarely have game breaking bugs or whatnot.  That said, it is also easily abused for gold/item farming and separating quality from crap has always been an issue.  I suspect this is why the auction house in Neverwinter has been switched to Astral Diamonds, to try to keep these quests from being used to farm beyond a certain point, but the potential is still there.  It’s really hard to tell what the Foundry will be like in Neverwinter at this point, but it’s already easier to explore and search than in STO, where it’s kind of miserable at the moment (an interface revamp is planned for the next major release, so we’ll see how that goes).  There’s a daily that rewards players for doing a Foundry quest, so that will keep people playing, but if it’s anything like STO, people will find ways to create simple “push the button” quests that will complete the daily easily.

I haven’t attempted to build my own Foundry mission yet, so I can’t give you any information on how easy or hard it is.  However, given the history of the Neverwinter franchise, I expect a lot of great quests to come out of it in the near future.  I’ll try to keep an open mind for it.


I like it so far.  I like it quite a bit.  Will it eat into STO like STO ate into Champions?  Possibly.  STO is kind of stagnant at the moment, though they do have a major released planned for later this month.  I am worried about the level progression in Neverwinter, as it feels quite fast, just like STO.  Maybe they want you to get to the endgame content quickly, like STO does, or maybe I’ve just played too damn much.  Hard to say on that end.  The game looks nice, sounds nice, has a great deal of decent voice acting, has challenge, is creative in the universe and seems to have learned the lessons CO and STO learned the hard way.  I’d like a bit more customizability for looks (not skills, I’m fine with that) that doesn’t break my bank (either in game or my actual wallet) and a little better accessibility to below level content.  Officially, Neverwinter is still in Beta, so maybe they will fix all that, but I’m not so sure they plan to.

It’s worth playing though, so go out there and play it already.  Hey, it’s free, can’t go wrong there.  Unless the servers crash, again. . .

Friday, May 3, 2013

Touching Base #13

Touching base already?  Well, there's a couple major things that I need to cover.

First, Leth Hate has ended.  Back in Feburary.  Why didn't I mention it before?  Well Leth Hate is part of the Lowroad line of comics, so I don't think it's gone for good.  Not like Road Waffles, but more like he'll start a NEW comic at some point in the future.  When?  No idea.  Best way to keep track is to follow Leth Hate for a bit longer.

Twilight Lady has switched artists.  While it's still miles better than the 3d work of the early strips, it's not quite as good as the last artist, at least not yet.  Characters seem on model, which is important, but it feels simpler for some reason.  In time, I think it'll get better, and I like the writing well enough not to complain too much.

Vampire Cheerleaders has gone somewhere I didn't expect.  Initially, I thought the crossover with one of the other comic properties was just that, a crossover.  It's not.  It's a major plot point, and probably a major turning point for the comic.  Not sure where they're going to go after this, but I'm definitely going to keep watching.

Back from hiatus is City of Reality, and I couldn't be happier.  I think dividing his time between it and the Wotch was a bit much, which is why the Wotch is doing smaller, non-cannon strips now.  Speculation on a cross over between the two was actually brought up on Ian's blog, but not likely to happen any time soon.

Station V3 is turning 10 years old next week.  He's got something planned for it, so keep an eye out (it'll probably be silly)

The big news is actually about Out There.  Starting in June, the comic is undergoing a rather sizable change, literally as it'll be comic book sized pages, and full color.  And also will only be posted at best twice a week.  Such a drastic change in format is something I rarely see (I have seen it before, just can't recall which comic it was now), so it'll be interesting to see happen.  Why the change?  Well one of the main characters is gettng married.  Kind of a big deal, but does make me wonder where the comic goes from here.

Oh, but that's not all.  There's to be a new COMIC from the same artist.  It'll also be twice a week, in full color.  What's it about?  No idea.  Will I be reading it?  Hell yeah.

And that's about it.  Later kiddies.