Monday, May 11, 2009

A Side-Effect of Easy Tanking

It occurred to me that Ulduar has managed a feat that I have long wanted in raid fights: mechanics that make the ranged DPS run all over the place, while ignoring the healers. And it's all due to the Wrath changes that made tanking much easier.

In Wrath, it's a lot easier for tanks to generate threat. This has made tanking 5-man instances much easier. Not everyone is happy with this development, citing that 5-mans have become about AoEing everything down, but I think that in general it's made it easier and more fun for tanks and less skilled players.

Because of the easier threat generation, the tanks have a large lead in threat over the dps. In Ulduar, this has allowed many fights to use "Runes of Power". These are area effects where anyone inside gets a boost to their damage. As Runes of Power appear and disappear on the map, the ranged DPS has to run from one Rune to another. In TBC and 1.0, these mechanics might not have been as useful, as DPS were more likely to push threat and steal aggro.

These Runes generally do nothing for healers, so healers are free to ignore them. But DPS has to keep them very much in mind if they want to do maximum damage.

Of course, there's a limit to how much you can do with Runes of Power, as you can't make them too important without leaving melee behind. Still, it's a pretty clever mechanic that takes advantage of the greater threat generation in order to make a more interesting fight, while sparing the healers.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Regenerating Mana and Healing

Ghostcrawler has mentioned several times that Blizzard is trying to constrain mana regeneration for healers, in order to encourage healers to heal more efficiently and more thoughtfully. For the most part, Blizzard has failed in this task. The 3.1 changes haven't really had much effect on mana concerns.

There is one fight in Ulduar where mana conservation becomes vital: General Vezax.

Vezax has an ability called Aura of Despair which shuts down pretty much all mana regeneration for casters. No Illumination, no mp5, no spirit, no Replenishment, etc. The only way casters can regenerate mana is by standing in pools of saronite vapour every so often. However, the vapour damages you as it returns mana. Hard-mode for Vezax involves not using the vapour at all.

In our first attempt on Vezax, I tried using the vapour, but managed to kill myself while only regenerating 600 mana. I'm still not 100% sure what happened there, but I chose to ignore the vapour for the remaining attempts.

Vezax was the most fun I've had healing in a long time. It's so good to watch overhealing once again, to heal carefully, to predict damage and use cooldowns appropriately, rather than spam madly. Almost all the raid damage in the Vezax encounter is avoidable.

But the lengths the fight had to go to create that dynamic. No regeneration at all. Entire stats and talents become useless. Blizzard's tiptoeing around for the rest of game, cutting the effect of spirit by a few percent, or nerfing Illumination, none of that had the effect of simply saying, "No Regen."

I still think that mana is the best resource for healing. I've played games that use an energy-like system and--while energy is great for DPS--it just isn't as good as the gameplay involved in healing while keeping a careful eye on a dwindling mana bar.

It's too late for WoW, but I think that future MMOs based around the tank-healer-dps trinity would be well-served by taking a cue from General Vezax and simply not allowing healers to regenerate mana in combat. Give them talents that add extra effects, or do new things, but close the door on regeneration permanently. It seems to be the only way to prevent healing from falling into the mindless spam routine.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The New Immortal

I posted before about the Immortal Achievement. I did like the idea of Immortal, and have great respect for those who got it, but in practice it was too stressful and just wasn't fun.

So what of the new Immortal: Conqueror of Ulduar?

It definitely isn't as impressive a feat as the old Immortal. But I think that in practice, it's going to be a lot closer to my ideal of "a side-effect of playing perfectly, rather than a goal that is worked towards in and of itself."

Last night was a rather mediocre raid night with a lot of wipes on Mimiron. But we did pick up a flawless Ignis and a flawless Freya1, marking the first two fights for the Achievement. It wasn't something we were explicitly trying for, but it was just a great bonus for doing the fight well. As well, it's only week three or so, so that hopefully gives us a long time to work towards the entire Achievement.

We don't have to play 100% perfectly for the entire instance, but this Achievement rewards striving for perfection, even if you only reach those heights occasionally. At this point, I'm really happy with the new version of Immortal.

1 Technically, Freya wasn't flawless. Several people got too eager and managed to blow themselves up after Freya was defeated. But it still counted for the Achievement.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Using Games To Teach About Social Problems

Raph Koster linked to an interesting article about Brenda Brathwaite's attempt to create games that illustrate issues such as slavery and the Holocaust.

It is an interesting read, but I find myself wondering just how successful these games really are. There are two issues I see: the rules often emphasize the wrong aspects, and thus can be subverted; and the fact that games are often isomorphic to other games.

For the first issue, about emphasizing the wrong aspect, consider the description of the initial slavery games:

Brathwaite assembled a collection of tiny wooden figures, then had her daughter group them into "families." After her daughter was finished, she picked them up by the handful and placed them on a makeshift boat. Her daughter was confused: Why would she take the parents but leave the baby? Why wouldn't brothers stay with their sisters? "No one wants to go," Brathwaite explained. That's when it started to click.

Then Brathwaite devised a primitive resource management mechanic. It took 10 turns for the boat to cross the Atlantic. The boat had 30 units of food. Each turn, the player had to roll a d6, and reduce their food stores by that number. By the trip's halfway point, it was clear to her daughter that her "cargo" wouldn't make it. It wasn't a "fun" game by any means, but it served a different purpose: It helped her daughter intuitively understand the emotional experience of the slave trade, a lesson that numbers on a chalkboard couldn't provide.

In the first example, what if the player made a conscious attempt to keep families together? Doing that defeats the moral lesson that you are trying to teach. Or in the second, suppose the player figured out the right balance between slaves and food stores such that she could keep the "cargo" alive till the end of the journey? Is that winning? Or would it teach that slavery is okay if you take proper care of the slaves?

If you change the rules of the game such that it is impossible to survive the trip, does that show that slavery is evil, or does it really show that you rigged the game to ensure the "right" outcome?

The rules of a game can simulate many things. However, I'm not sure they can get across fundamental moral points like the idea that it is wrong for one human to own another.

The second concern is that game rules can be thought of as just problems that can be solved. Such problems are often isomorphic to different problems. That means the underlying rules, constraints, and solutions are the same, but the context is what determines the morality.

For example, consider the game Train described in the article:
The object of Train is to get a collection of people from Point A to Point B by placing them in a boxcar and sending them on their merry way. Played among a group of three people, players draw cards from a pile that can impede other players or free them from existing obstacles. The first player to reach the end of the line wins.

The destination? Auschwitz.

Now, the article doesn't really expand on this, but the underlying problem is a logistics problem like the ones faced by airline, trucking and other transportation companies every day. The shock comes from the context: that the people being transported are Jews and the destination is a death camp. The context is very important, but I don't see what the *game* part actually adds.

Or let's look at the second slavery example again:
Then Brathwaite devised a primitive resource management mechanic. It took 10 turns for the boat to cross the Atlantic. The boat had 30 units of food. Each turn, the player had to roll a d6, and reduce their food stores by that number. By the trip's halfway point, it was clear to her daughter that her "cargo" wouldn't make it.

Let's change the context. Instead of slaves, let's say the boat contains refugees fleeing a city that is being destroyed. As they cross the ocean, they realize that they don't have enough food for everyone to survive. Now the lesson the game teaches is about hard choices, and maybe even about the nobility of sacrifice. It's diametrically opposite from the evil of slavery, but the underlying game mechanics are identical in both cases.

The context, or the "fluff", determines morality, not the game rules. But if you're using a game to teach the moral concept, and someone sees through the game to the underlying isomorphism, that weakens the lesson. It makes it easier to declare the two situations equal, to justify actions taken.

Games are problems where you need to find a solution while being bound by rules and constraints. These rules and constraints are the most important parts, more important than the context that surrounds them. As such, games are a poor medium for conveying lessons about morality and social problems. Rather than focusing on the moral issue, the game becomes about trying to achieve an acceptable outcome by outwitting the rules.