All Aboard the Failboat!

08/17/2012

There’s been a whole lot of discussion on the WoW forums over the last couple of months concerning the consistent nerfing of content that has become Blizzard’s design model. The response from Blizzard has been the usual cocktail of logical fallacies, pandering, and outright lies. I understand that not everyone at Blizzard actually believes their own propaganda, but are simply forced to espouse it by their boss. RIFT has adopted a similar model, and it’s likely many other MMOs will join the parade. Businesses follow the money, not good gameplay, and at this time the MMO market believes spoon-feeding content to people will net them the greatest profit. I wanted to take the time to remove money making from the equation and discuss what the perpetual bar-lowering does for that quality of a game; namely, that it hurts it.

I’m actually going to pull a metaphor that Fake-GC used in an attempt to debunk the ‘constant nerfs destroy the quality of content’ argument, because it was such a perfect example of the exact opposite of the point he was trying to make. He said that un-nerfed content is like climbing Everest without survival gear (which makes a poor starting point since that’s just impossible to being with, but I digress). Nerfed content is like climbing Everest with tons of training and survival gear (ie, how everyone who has ever climbed Everest and lived has done it). The point that followed was the you can’t complain that someone that climbed Everest doesn’t deserve recognition just because they were less hardcore about it. This is, of course, a complete strawman. Defeating a hard mode raid at content level, unnerfed, is like climbing Everest. It’s hard, you put a ton of time into preparing for it. You climb many lesser mountains in training. You use every tool available to you, and even then you may not succeed. It is a static goal against which you pitch all of your accumulated skill and training. 

Now imagine if Everest got nerfed. 5% height deducted every two weeks, like clockwork. At the end of a few months, Everest is 30% shorter than it used to be. 30% less climbing required, 30% less deadly-thin atmosphere at the top, 30% less frozen rock and ice. Everyone claiming “Hey, I climbed Everest!” would piss the hell out of those that had climbed Everest pre-nerf, as it should. If you climbed 30% nerf Everest and it was super hard, congratulations. Sincerely. That was undoubtedly a huge accomplishment into which you poured all of your efforts. You still didn’t fucking climb Everest. You climbed a lesser mountain. A smaller, less challenging pile of rocks. However great a personal victory it was, it still is not the victory actual scalers of Everest achieved. To equate the two, much less value and reward you the same is an insult to the more accomplished party.

The mistake being made here is that relative accomplishment infinitely trumps absolute accomplishment. Reality is somewhere in the middle. Imagine a highschool basketball team being national champions, along side a NBA team winning the national title. Both have put blood, sweat, and tears into reach the pinnacle of their game, but the latters’ accomplishment was objectively harder. You cheer and congratulate the high-schoolers for their very impressive accomplishment, because they deserve it. You don’t, however, tell them they just won the NBA finals. You let them have their victory, and then you tell them to practice more. So they can move on to college ball, and maybe eventually win the NBA for real. 

The reason this kind of thinking degrades the quality of a game is twofold: first, as I hope the above has made abundantly clear, is that it diminishes the accomplishment of those that put the considerable time and effort in to mastering the game and the encounters. (Again, consider how you would feel if you won the gold medal in the 50m dash, and I then won the same gold medal for running 35m.) This is not to say there is no value in simply knowing you accomplished the greater task, but it is certainly cheapened by being commonplace.

The second, and far worse reason, is that it removes the impetus for improvement. If a challenge is going to reduced in difficulty to the point of being trivial, then there is not reason to improve in order to overcome it; just wait a few weeks and you will be rewarded. “Ah-ha!” says ever PR rep ever “But you can turn the buff off! The challenge is still there if you want it, so stop being so butthurt over other people getting it easily. It’s not about them, it’s about you!” WRONG. Again, let me put this to you: at your job, would you rather get a promotion for working 100+ hour weeks, much of it unpaid, kissing tons of ass, studying in your free time, and taking all the worst tasks for yourself, or would you rather wait 6 months and get the same promotion for showing up to work on time? If you chose option A, you are either a liar, completely insane, or both. It is fantastically irrational to choose the harder option when the reward is exactly the same.

This is coming from someone who loves a challenge, who always plays on the hardest mode, who operates best when things are right at the edge of my abilities. Many, many people enjoy needless, arbitrarily challenges. But they enjoy them because they push you to do things that others can or will not. And you expect to be distinguished from those that did not. The drive behind improvement is the reward, tangible or intangible that comes with it. It would be insane to do something for no reason at all. If I could get girls by dropping my pants and belching loudly, I sure as fuck would. No reward for being better = no drive to get better. It’s as simple as that.

TL;DR blanket nerfs are awful because they both invalidate accomplishments and remove any reason to improve.


You Are The Worst.

07/08/2012

I play a lot of video games. Some might even say too many (haters). A lot of these games are MMOs. I’ve been surprised lately with how many titles have come out lacking one or more of what I would consider mandatory features, so I’ve decided to provide a list; a cheat-sheet, if you will, for prospective MMO developers. I’m not going to tell you what I want in a game, because there are many, many different views on that topic and I’m not quite foolish enough to think my opinion is the “right” one. However, excluding obvious things like “not buggy as all hell”, “at least trying to be balanced”,  and “a map”, what follows is a list of things that you should probably have in your game before it launches:

  • A jump key. Seriously, we got that shit down decades ago. I don’t even understand why I have to include this. Maybe I should list “a map”.
  • The ability to swim. This is a bit more complex, but honestly, at this point there’s no excuse for not giving players the ability to cross bodies of water in some fashion. Even if they have to just swim on the surface.
  • AoE looting. Do you enjoy wasting your players’ time? No? Do your programmers have five minutes? Yes? Excellent, we’re all done here.
  • Multispeccing. Obviously excluding games without specs, but for those that have them, this is a must.
  • LFG and Battleground queues. The bread and butter of PvE and PvP respectively, launching a game without these at this point is just dickish.
  • Quest tracking. Because nothing says “fun” like searching for hours to find one guy.
  • A fully customizable UI with at least partial addon support. Because hitting the “average” for a UI just means  everyone is going to be slightly dissatisfied. Also data collection is a thing good players like to be able to do.
  • Endgame. For PvE, this means a large, fully functional raid. PvP means some sort of reward/ranking system for battlegrounds. This is the one that most developers fail to do, and is the most heinously irresponsible to lack at this point. Most of us don’t enjoy leveling endless alts, guys.
  • Modifier keys. Another one I didn’t think I would need to include, but ArenaNet sure showed me. If I can’t Shift+2 an ability I either need fewer abilities, or giant 20-fingered hands.
  • Shared/importable UI settings. Because making a player recreate their UI every time they roll a new character is just asinine.
  • Appearance customization. Both at character creation (hint: sliders are no longer optional, as hardware has improved since 1998), and in game. FiOS and quad core processors aren’t going anywhere, and your game should visually reflect that fact.

So there you have it. Things that I, as a hypothetical MMO publisher would be embarrassed to launch my game without. Yet someone’s done each and every one of these in a modern MMO. How about you, dear reader? What do you demand of your games?


Save or Die.

06/19/2012

Before I even begin, I’d like to clarify a few things: first, all of the vitriol in the following paragraphs is based in the world of mechanics. If your edition choice is based on finances, a long running campaign, or other ‘real-world’ factors, then I respect your decision and we can still be friends. Second, I am not at all claiming 4e is without faults. It has them. Large ones. That’s what I am so concerned that the next edition be better than the current. Third, 5e (no, I am not calling it “Nexus”) already has plenty of great ideas. I just want to remove the bad ones and ensure no more sneak their way in.

I never really got into the edition wars of D&D; not because I didn’t think there was a clear winner, but because the other side wasn’t really hurting me. If they wanted to play an older edition it didn’t affect me in any way. Now it is, though. 5e is looking backwards for inspiration, not only to 3/3.5, but to even 2 and 1e, and while there’s nothing wrong with examining your past products, a lot of people seem to think this means they should be rolling back the rules to these editions.  Here the devs discuss the reasons behind this in a more or less neutral environment;  it looks like they are attempting to distill the essence of D&D from previous editions which is just fine.

But then there’s articles like this, and I start to really worry. There are players that think this way, and if the devs hear too much of this, they might design a game to appease the view.  Let me put this bluntly: if you disliked 4e because you thought it was too much like a video game (hint: what you actually mean is “has actual rules”), if you thought the rules got in the way you are doing it wrong. The only purpose of a rules set is provide an (hopefully) balanced set of mechanics to determine the outcome of challenges. It is not to get involved in your story, roleplay, or imagination in any way, either positive or negative. Time and again I see people complain about square fireballs, minis, and Stealth. If you don’t want rules to dictate what you can do, then go play a freeform RPG. You picked D&D, which means you must want rules. Yes, D&D rules have become lengthier and more cumbersome with each edition, in the same way that cars have become more intricate and heavier: because we’re better at making them, and have to include airbags and ABS.

To extend the car metaphor, I am going to pick on 3.5 and 4e as those are the biggest warriors, and also the freshest in most peoples’ mind. 3.5e is a car. It is a pretty good car, much better than the older models because the manufacturer has learned a lot about both what makes a good car and how to deliver said car since the previous model. However, there are still some issues. The tires will usually lose grip if you go over 45 and crash you into a tree. Also the seatbelts will strangle anyone under 5’8″. 4e is the latest model of the car, and the manufacturer has fixed those issues. The tiers can still lose traction, but only if it’s wet and you’re going 80. Seatbelts no longer strangle people during the course of normal use. Then someone comes along and says “Hey, but I liked being able to crash in to trees, how dare you take this away from me?”. Well, A) why? and B) you can still crash in to trees if you want. The steering wheel is right there. The only thing that’s happened is that people that don’t want to crash in to trees and strangle themselves don’t have to.

4e in no way, shape, or form curtails your ability to RP your character or immerse yourself in the world. The rules are not there to tell you what you can do, they are there to tell you what you can’t. If you are now thinking “Ah, you’ve played right into my hand!” allow me to clarify: rules restrict the upper limit of what you can accomplish. They represent your maximum performance. What you choose to do with this, the freeform RP within a rules skeleton, the very essence of Dungeons & Dragons, remains unchanged. If you want to play a soft footed but fat man, don’t complain about Hide in Shadows and Move Silently being rolled into Stealth, use your imagination. RP it out. If you want your character to be bad at concealing himself, just play him that way. Use the “theatre of the mind” that anti-4e warriors constantly reference.

4e is better. Thousands of forums, millions of players all attest that 4e is much more balanced, much more difficult to break, which is the metric by which mechanics should be judged. I’m not providing links for this because I don’t have a week. Go look it up. I will say this: I never, not once, not for a second felt 4e rules got in the way of my play, and to the best of my knowledge, no one I’ve played with did either. If you can’t separate rules from your story, if you can’t unshackle yourself from what the mechanics say you can do and simply do whatever they don’t say you can’t, if your wizard uses square fireballs because that’s what some miniature uses, then it’s not the rules that need work: it’s your imagination.


It Stands for Big Ass Monster.

05/24/2012

I don’t really have a clever intro for this. Play TERA. If you are wondering if you should buy TERA, do it. If you are wondering what TERA is, go buy it. If you like to play MMOs, then this is the MMO for you. It has its share of faults just like any game, but unless you have some very specific MMO needs I can almost guarantee it’s better than whatever you’re currently playing. Seriously, I will list my complaints about TERA after three weeks of play:

1) It’s not free

2) There are no raid instances

3) UI customization is not shared across characters

4) Elin

This game just constantly impresses me with how fun it is to play. You remember fun, right? It was that thing you had in WoW before Valor points. A Korean-made game, levelling in TERA is a giant grindfest, and they’ve adopted none of the modern open/group based quests. On paper this sounds awful, as in my opinion leveling is approximately the worst thing ever. But it’s not. All the quests, even the “Go kill X of Y at Z” quests are enjoyable. Why? Because the combat is engaging. Every quest mob requires your focus, your active attention to beat. There’s no rightclick 1, 1, Shift+2, loot. The feel that your input matters, that even on a quest mob it’s you and not your gear winning the fight is a breath of fresh air. If you’re concerned about an active combat system, fear not. While it will demand more focus from you, the actual challenge curve is still in line with most modern MMO experiences. Plus you can always bring friends. My friends and I spend a great deal of our time dicking around with /commands, pulling BAMs, or RPing. The leveling just sort of happens along the way.

This being an MMO, and me being me, I have to talk about endgame of course. I was pretty worried about the lack of raiding going in, but I find that the more I play the less I care. PvE has 5mans and heroic 5mans, which should be interesting enough. They also have lots of world bosses for bigger, harder challenges with lots of people. Daily quests with their own rewards. Professions are leveled at will, with no training, and no cap on how many you can have. Party members share but do not split nodes, meaning two people get twice as much stuff as one. Crafting yields the best gear currently in the game. The materials for which are only obtainable by beating the hardest encounters in the game. I’d like to see real raids some time, but for now this is more than enough.

For PvPers, there’s world PvP, and no factions to restrict who you can knife. Battlegrounds are coming in the next patch (and we’re not talking 6 months here — EnMasse has already dropped a major patch since launch). Plus fully active attacks and dodges, meaning more player skill and less gear in victory. Guilds can declare war on each other.  Short of Planetside 2, this is going to be the most skill-based MMO you’re going to get your hands on. I guess… there’s no arena? Darn.

And then there’s the social aspect of the game. Yes, we’re still in the engame section; you didn’t miss anything. Every month, each server elects leaders, or Vanarchs, by popular vote. Vanarchs get a sweet title, and rule over a section of the world. Their guildmates get special mounts and vanity items. Oh, and they can levy taxes. It is the single greatest player-controlled feedback system I have seen in a game. I play on both a PvP and an PvE-RP server, and elections are going on right now. On the PvP server, the largest, most badass guilds are  contenders… provided they didn’t spend the first few weeks ganking other people like total assclowns. That tends to hurt their support. On the RP server, major cities are filled with players giving IC speeches to win the support of their fellow gamers (or at least their characters). It’s a very real reward (or punishment) system for your actions that has nothing to do with your ability to murder.

There’s also of plenty of the usual small innovations or artistic touches that come with a new game. Banks are shared across all of your characters on a server… and have almost 300 slots. Auctions go up for a week at a time, and the AH will tell you the average and minimum price for an item as you list it. Server transfers are free and instant (though you cannot go PvE -> PvP or vice versa). You can drop combat while still having a mob engaged. Some characters ride mounts sidesaddle. There is both an appearance tab on your character panel, and dyes. Oh, and despite modern graphics and a character creation system that has, you know, sliders, the game will run on very modest systems.

Really, my only hesitation is recommending this game would be that I want it to fail just enough to go F2P. So go, now. You’ve still got a week to pick up all the starter benefits, and the game itself is worth every penny.


The Whenever WTF.

02/21/2011

Okay, seriously Blizzard, hire someone that passed second grade math. I don’t even. The latest patch brought, among other things, this little gem:

“#In addition to its current effects, the Body and Soul talent now grants 12.5%/25% reduction to the base mana cost of Power Word: Shield.”

For anyone unaware, B&S is a deep holy talent; it’s the one that gives you a sprint whenever the priest casts PW:S on you. What this change did was make PW:S more efficient for Holy than Disc, and simultaneously make it a better heal than GHeal. Seriously. They gave holy priests an efficient, instant absorb mechanic with a built-in speed boost. Surprise, it was the greatest thing ever.

This isn’t “we didn’t consider that scenario”. This isn’t even “whoops we programmed the lander in meters instead of yards”. This is you adding grainy white stuff to your cake batter without bothering to check if it’s salt, sugar, or Edward dandruff. Five minutes with a calculator and a napkin would have told anyone that this was a terribly overpowered and unnecessary idea and that it shouldn’t be included, but apparently no one could be bothered.

I can only imagine the meeting that lead to this change:

“Hey Mike, you know, I feel that Holy priests need more incentive to cast Power Word: Shield. You know, besides that amazing and mandatory talent already in their talent tree.”

“You know Greg, you’re right! I think we should make it cost less mana for them. That way, they can boost peoples’ speed with even less regard for the cost to their mana pool.”

“But Mike, don’t you think that greatly increasing the efficiency, while we simultaneously boost the power of the shield, might lead to a situation wherein this becomes somewhat overpowered? Maybe I should have one of those many, many QA people we have on staff spend the three seconds it would take to divide one number by another number to check that we’re not making any really obvious mistakes.”

“Don’t worry about it Greg. We’re game designers, and we have game intuition. I’ve got a good feeling about this one.”

“Oh, you’re right Mike, my bad buddy. Let’s be sure to push this through last minute. Meeting adjourned, let’s go get some sodas and take another money bath!”

Seriously, this is the only was I can see the entire fucking Blizzard staff missing this. Hire someone to check this shit. It’s not hard, you just have to stop doing lines of coke long enough to actually do some work. I’ll do it. Hire me. I can forgive strange and unexpected interactions leading to results that need fixing, but this was not that. This was a very simple math problem that got through because checking yourself before putting something in a service you provide to millions of paying customers is apparently beneath you.

Thankfully, the change has been reverted, so Disc is no longer an invalid spec, Holy itemization is not totally screwed, fights are not totally trivialized, and I don’t have to buy a gun. This is not the first time something like this has happened though, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Take some pride in your work Blizzard, and check your shit.


P&PPPoE

02/06/2011

I’ve taken to dabbling in MMOs a fair amount, and recently I convinced myself to try Dungeons & Dragons Online again. (Anyone that played DDO at launch as I did is likely at this moment crying “Don’t to it; it’s a traaaaaaap!!”) My memories of the game were a bit fuzzy, but I did recall quitting a game about D&D after a week, so it must have been pretty awful. However, DDO has moved to a free-to-play business model, and so I figured I’d give it another whirl.

What I found, to my extreme astonishment, was that the game was really good. The game is fun, innovative, and has some breathtaking visuals. The stories are classic D&D adventures, complete with a voice-acted GM that manages to walk the fine line between cheesy and nerd-epic. Even done in silly “ceiling voice” style snippets, the added atmosphere of having smell, feel, and even taste described add a great deal to the immersion.

The greatest thing about DDO is how different it is from the standard MMO model of questing. There’s no “Go here, kill X” quests. Monsters don’t even award XP. The game actually encourages you to find clever ways of avoiding combat. Stealth is a fantastic skill, not only letting you bypass monsters, but also set up ambushes, sneak up on sleeping guards (so you can crit for MASSIVE DAMAGE), or even kill sentries before they can sound an alarm.

The quest model is very different as well. Most of them are in their own dungeon, and while you may have to kill monsters to get to the end, that is rarely a goal. Disarming traps (hopefully before you walk into them), finding secret rooms, and solving puzzles will all be of much greater benefit than hacking your way through monsters. In fact, there are quests where killing monsters will actually cause you to fail. For one quest in particular, you need to sneak into a Kobold lair without being detected, steal an artifact from them, and sneak back out. In the course of this adventure, I discovered another fairly unique aspect to this MMO: things occasionally make sense. I kept getting detected, and then a Kobold would sound the alarm and I would fail. This was because I was operating under the assumption that monsters see you and aggro on you in a radial manner, and thus attempting to open doors and whatnot when they were far away. This proved incorrect: in DDO, monsters see you when they are looking at you.

In fact, operating under “standard” MMO practices is just about the worst thing you can do in DDO. In another dungeon, we encountered a lake of acid with some pipes sticking out of it. I played the jumping game for a bit, but then decided to just make a run for it, thinking “I’ll only be in there for a second, maybe two. How much damage can I really take.” The answer, as my very dead character would soon illustrate, was all of the damages. You jumped into a lake of acid you idiot. You don’t take 10 damage/second, you just die.

And then there’s the scope of it all. WoW’s storyline is really starting to wear thin for me. There’s a big bad guy, he’s going to unmake existence, and every aspect of your quest is in some way tied to him. DDO explores the idea that there might be multiple antagonists. And they may have different and sometimes conflicting goals, not all of which are to destroy the world. And they may range in evil from “kind of a dick” to “prefers his babies roasted”.

Furthermore, the scope is very preferable. I like my dragons giant and terrifying the defeat of which is a heroic undertaking no matter how many boars you’ve killed, not an entire page in my “Mounts” tab. Characters in DDO still feel heroic, a cut above the other people, but they’re still people. And the monsters hold their danger for a much longer time. The first few levels are not so much concerned with throwing a vast array of increasingly overwhelming monsters at you, but instead giving you more Kobolds to deal with. Maybe with a shaman in the back who will throw magic at you face but you can’t get to the asshole because there’s a mob of Kobolds in the way and monsters are actually solid objects. The point being, quantity and synergy are just as important as quality. Also dragons are motherfuckin’ terrifying.

Now, of course, I have to talk about the faults. The biggest one is balance. There is none. None at all. I would never recommend playing this if you want to raid, get leet epics, pwn n00bs, or anything like that. Races, classes, abilities, and even alignments are horribly unbalanced. Fire elements that are totally immune to fire, trolls that can only be killed with fire or acid, all the classic hard-counters are there. Heck, you miss out on a ton of loot and XP if you don’t have a rogue in the party.

Bugs are a close second. I’ve never had a session where nothing went wrong. Usually it’s a tooltip error or your character getting stuck in place, but sometimes it’s a Kobold shaman wall climbing out of reach and raining down acid on your head while you desperately search your inventory for a ranged weapon.

And of course it’s free-to-play, which means there’s tons of stuff to buy. I’ve been playing with a group of friends (which really is the only way to play in my opinion), and we’ve hardly noticed the purchasable content because there’s so much enjoyable stuff to do that you don’t have to pay for. It is there though, and if you’re the type of person that feels compelled to complete every quest in a zone, have the biggest bank space, or have the optimal character, this may be a problem for you.

Despite the above flaws, I still highly recommend the game. Anyone who appreciates role-playing, storyline, and adventure as much as phat lewtz and XP should fine this a very welcoming game. Even on the character optimization boards, there are dozens of posts by someone wanting to build a character a certain sub-optimal way because of RP. And you know what? They are never ridiculed. The same people that hotly debate between each other which feat gives a slightly larger fraction of a DPS increase will offer suggestions for the best way to make the character idea viable, even suggesting slight tweaks to the RP idea that would make the character much easier to play.

So yeah. If you’re looking for a new game, or just want to hang out with your internet buddies in a different setting, check out DDO.


The Wednesday WTF.

01/05/2011

Adds. Those guys that spawn during fights, that do stuff and things. Dealing with them (usually by stabbing them in the face) is not a polite suggestion, as many players seem to think it is. Even during Wrath, I think most players got that adds = kill, but the time frame in which they needed to be dealt with was much more lax. It was okay if you finished your rotation before swapping, finished eating that last bite of pizza before taunting, or ran in circles crying about healgro for a few seconds. It’s not okay anymore. When they exist in a Cataclysm fight, dealing with the adds is almost always crucial to success. Taking care of them, be it via stabbing, sheeping, or some other mechanic is neither optional, nor something you can do at your own pace.

Just going through heroic bosses: Commander Springvale, ignoring adds will wipe you. Drahga Shadowburner, ignoring adds will wipe you. Erudax, ignoring adds will wipe you. Lord Obsidius, Corla, Lockmaw… you get the idea. Even the easiest adds, which don’t have a wiping mechanic directly tied to them like Rom’ogg Bonecrusher or Baron Silverlaine need to be delt with. If left unchecked, they significantly increase damage intake, which in turn drains more mana from the healer which will, you guessed it: wipe you.

Most fights exist somewhere between these extremes, in that a couple of slip ups will probably be recoverable, but they have nasty effects that will push the fight outside the realm of doable if left to run rampant. Again, this is not to say that most players will ignore adds (though plenty do), but rather that they don’t have enough respect for them. Don’t finish that cast, don’t get that last strike in, don’t wait for them to spawn/come to you, don’t unnecessarily pull aggro on them, and most importantly don’t assume someone else will handle it. Whatever it is you’re doing, dealing with the adds is very likely more important. So… deal with them. You’ll win more and get yelled at less.