Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jane Yolen on Fantasy

Apropos of the previous discussion on Dragon Age, I have always loved the following quote by Jane Yolen:

And for adults, the world of fantasy books returns to us the great words of power which, in order to be tamed, we have excised from our adult vocabularies. These words are the pornography of innocence, words which adults no longer use with other adults, and so we laugh at them and consign them to the nursery, fear masking as cynicism. These are the words that were forged in the earth, air, fire, and water of human existence, and the words are:

Love. Hate. Good. Evil. Courage. Honor. Truth.

— Jane Yolen, Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood

Perhaps in the process of making a work of fantasy "adult", you end up robbing it of some of its potential power.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Dragon Age and Mature Games

EA Bioware sent me some press material for their upcoming RPG Dragon Age: Origins. I loved the Baldur's Gate games back in the day, and I am looking forward to seeing this new game as it is touted as a "spiritual successor" to Baldur's Gate.

Bioware also seems to be positioning this game as a "mature" game, heavy on the blood, violence and possibly sex. It will be interesting to how successful they are. I have no idea how this game will be released in Germany. The very logo is formed out of blood spatter.

I must confess that whenever a work--be it a game, book, or movie--announces that they are trying to be "adult" and "mature" by focusing on violence and sex, I get a sinking feeling. Very often these "mature" works eschew laughter, as if laughter is childish. They go all Sturm und Drang, and end up overly dreary and rather boring.

The single best part of Baldur's Gate was Minsc and his minature Giant Space Hamster Boo. I worry that in Bioware's attempt to be adult, Dragon Age will actively avoid elements like Minsc, and end up a weaker game. But perhaps the Alistair character will fill this void.

A final tip for EA Bioware's advertising team: Using Marilyn Manson to backdrop a fight scene does not demonstrate maturity. It demonstrates a teenager's lack of taste. Let's hope the game has more sense.

Is Fairness Relative or Absolute?

A guild uses basic /random to distribute loot. There are three tanks in the raid: Wendy the Warrior; Daisy the Death Knight; and Patricia the Paladin. All three tanks desire [Ciderhelm's Ring of Effective Health], and it drops in tonight's raid.

Scenario 1: Straight Roll

All three tanks roll on the ring:

Rolls (H to L)Winner
W, D, PWendy
W, P, DWendy
D, W, PDaisy
D, P, WDaisy
P, W, DPatricia
P, D, WPatricia

Each tank has a 33% chance of winning the item. I think we can all agree that this is as fair as it gets, absent any other information.

Senario 2: Passing

Wendy and Daisy are best friends. Wendy thinks that Daisy is a little undergeared, and she resolves to pass to Daisy if she can. (By passing, I mean Wendy chooses to nullify her roll if and only if Daisy is the second-highest roller.)

Potential outcomes:

Rolls (H to L)Winner
W, D, PDaisy(!!)
W, P, DWendy
D, W, PDaisy
D, P, WDaisy
P, W, DPatricia
P, D, WPatricia

Is this fair to Patricia?

My first thought is to say that it is not fair. But then I considered some more.

On the one hand, Daisy now has a 50% chance to get the item while Patricia only has a 33%. That doesn't really seem fair. But on the other hand, note that in both scenarios, Patricia has the exact same chance to win the item. Her chance to win the item doesn't change at all. It's not less likely that she will get the item.

So what is fair? Does fairness depend on only your own chances to win? Or is your position relative to others important as well?

I am not really sure anymore. If the probability of Patricia winning the item decreased, that would be absolutely unfair (under the given conditions). But if the probability doesn't change, fairness seems harder to determine.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Arthas as a Villain

Arthas needs a victory.

Ever since the Battle at Light's Hope Chapel, Arthas has lost battle after battle. The players enter Northrend, and from zone to zone, they defeat Arthas at every turn. The closest he comes to victory is at the Wrathgate, but the Forsaken interfere and he has to retreat. Even in the latest patch, he's all, "Fools, now you face Anub'arak", and then the players promptly kill Anub'arak. Again.

As a result, Arthas is coming off as a "paper tiger". He shows up, makes a speech, and retreats defeated. A good villain needs to be respected. In a normal story, the heroes can't go from victory to victory. They need to suffer setbacks. For example, The Empire Strikes Back is one long acknowledgement of this necessity.

But in an RPG, can the game really impose failure on the players? To me, a game putting you into a no-win situation seems very unfair. In some ways, this is because we already have failure in the game, but it's just a temporary state. You wipe, and you try again. Victory may be hard, but it is possible. The game forcing you to lose seems like a betrayal of this principle.

But for the good of the storyline, Arthas needs a victory to reinstate him as a real threat.

I don't think that Arthas can score a victory over the players directly without it coming across as contrived.1 The best path is probably to kill at least one major NPC in combat at the start of patch 3.3.

I think there are three candidates that would immediately restore Arthas' credentials as a villain: Jaina Proudmoore, High Overlord Saurfang, or Tirion Fordring. Of these three, Tirion is probably the best choice, as the central opponent of Arthas. As an additional effect, Arthas could shatter the Ashbringer, bringing tears to the eyes of all warriors, paladins, and death knights.

Jaina and Saurfang are also good choices because they tend to be popular with their respective factions. The downside here is that a death would have less impact on the opposing faction.

1 Though it would be hilarious if Arthas killed your little Argent Crusade squire. It would be pretty hardcore to permanently lose a pet. By WoW standards, anyways.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Observation about Other MMOs

It's a little unfair to the developers, but the best reason to play WoW instead of other MMOs is that you don't have to listen to people talking about WoW.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Champions Online: Dislikes

Now we come to the fun part of reviewing new games: ripping up all the bad parts. To be honest, the greatest part I dislike about Champions Online revolves around one issue: Gear.

Gear

In CO, there 9 gear slots:

  • 1x Offensive Primary
  • 1x Defensive Primary
  • 1x Utility Primary
  • 2x Offensive Secondary
  • 2x Defensive Secondary
  • 2x Utility Secondary

All of these slots are pretty much the same: a few stats with some defensives. Most gear has zero effect on how your character looks, and is basically a stat slot. There are a few items which modify how your weapons or powers look.

I find that having gear have an effect on how your character looks is important to me. I like getting a new helm, or a new chestplate or shield. I like that visual reinforcement. Getting a random stat stick with some arbitrary, meaningless name just doesn't appeal to me.

As well, because there are so few slots, you upgrade them at a far faster rate. It's not like getting a weapon in WoW and then getting some use out of it for a few levels while the other slots get upgraded. You barely use an item before it's trashed.

Quests and enemies drop items of the same level as they are. A level 18 quest gives a reward that requires a level 18 or higher to use. Similarly, a level 18 mob only drops gear usable by level 18s or higher. This contributes to the high gear turnover. Additionally, it means that if you start punching above your weight, doing higher level quests, your inventory fills up with gear that you can't use yet.

Finally, mobs don't drop trash, they only drop items. The cumulative effect of this is that it feels like every few minutes you find a new sword that is slightly better or slightly worse than your current sword.

I just find the gear system very annoying and a big hassle. Unlike in WoW, where getting a new piece of gear is an actual reward and something to be anticipated.

Inventory

The inventory system is a pain as well. You can't open all bags at the same time, and upgrading bags is a major hassle.

Crafting

Crafting is a waste of time in this game. It just doesn't organically flow. You end up with bags full of ingredients, and can make nothing useful. I've pretty much ignored crafting after experimenting with the first couple of characters. The game is much more fun when you do that.

Other Issues

Outside of those three sub-systems--which really all have the basic gear design at the heart of the problem--there aren't a lot of other problems with Champions.

Chat could be improved and made easier to use. The general performance of the game could be improved. I play with low-quality graphics to get a decent framerate. There are occasional graphics glitches, my weapons sometimes disappear in combat.

Sometimes there are issues figuring out when you can use an ability after another, often relating to ability animations. For example, I have an ability that allows me to leap backwards out of melee range, Breakaway Shot. I find this ability never seems to work the first time I press the button.

Conclusion

But on the whole, the Gear, Inventory, and Crafting systems are the only things I seriously dislike about Champions Online. The core character creation, powers, and basic gameplay are a lot of fun. Champions Online is definitely worth checking out, especially if you've gotten a bit tired of orcs-and-elves fantasy.

Two caveats: I haven't really tried PvP or grouping, so I have no idea how the game works in those situations.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Champions Online: Likes

  • I like the feel of combat. It's very arcade-y, very fast with multiple enemies attacking and being killed rapidly. It's not very deep, you don't have a great deal of abilities, but it plays well and is quite enjoyable.

  • Character Creation is a long of fun, and you can make widely diverse characters.

  • To go along with the last, people-watching is a great deal of fun.

  • The animations of powers are very nicely done. It feels very fluid, regardless of how odd your hero is.

  • I like the basic powers setup. There's freedom, but also structure.

  • I like the fact that it's a single-world. It's useful not to have to worry about servers, and be sure that each zone has players and isn't empty.

  • The naming system is pretty good. I was skeptical of using an "@username" suffix, but it works in practice, and it is great to be able your hero with the name you want.

  • I really like a lot of the grouping commands. When you start a group, you can make it open. You can right-click someone and there is an option to ask to join their group. This makes grouping very easy and quick. The only thing I would change is that if you ask to join someone's group, instead of getting an error if they aren't in a group, the group forms automatically.


I feel kind of bad that I can't list more likes. The base core of the game is a lot of fun. My dislikes list is probably going to be longer, but on the whole, I tend more to liking the game than disliking it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Swap Heroic Strike and Slam

One of the problems with the warrior class is that in a high-rage situation, warriors have to spam Heroic Strike in addition to their normal abilities. A lot of warriors complain that this makes their gameplay physically stressful, and Blizzard has been looking to alleviate this issue.

However, Heroic Strike is the level 1 ability, the first ability given to new warriors. Any change to it would greatly change the initial levelling experience of warriors.

I think Blizzard should swap Heroic Strike and Slam. A warrior would get Slam at level 1. Then Heroic Strike would be an ability gained at 30 or so, and could be changed into a better form of rage dump.

The other advantage would be that lowbie warriors would have a bit more rage, as they wouldn't lose the rage from the Heroic Strike auto-attack. That means they could press more buttons, and it would make low level fights a bit more fun. I have a lowbie warrior, and Heroic Striking is a little boring. You really live for new abilities, or for Overpower to light up so you don't have to just wait for Heroic Strike.

Plus, with the changes to defensive stance, and since you have Sunder and Revenge, I don't think you'll really miss the threat from Heroic Strike for low level tanking.

As a mid-to-late-game ability, Heroic Strike could be tailored as an ability specifically used in high-rage situations. For example, what if Heroic Strike cost 60-75 rage, but did a correspondingly large amount of damage and threat? Such an ability would be useless at level 1, as it would take forever to build that much rage, but it might be a very valuable late-game ability.

Monday, September 14, 2009

In-Game Problems vs Out-of-Game Problems

Note: This was originally posted as a response to Larisa at The Pink Pigtail Inn in an article about faction changes.

There is a difference between problems that should be handled "in-game" and problems that should be handled "out-of-game".

Faction/race/gender changes are out-of-game changes. They are changes made because the player outside the game is unhappy, and so we choose to turn a blind eye to the impact that the change has on roleplaying or character history.

It is a mistake to try and handle everything within the rules. Sometimes, you have to step outside the rules and the gameworld, and talk directly to the player.

You see this a lot in regular table-top roleplaying forums. The DM will say that Player A's character is being disruptive and constantly working at cross-purposes to the group. Some DMs try and force the character to work with the group using in-game mechanics such as threats or magical coercion. But the proper response is to talk to the player outside the game, tell the player that he is hurting the game and remove him from the group if necessary.

Similarly, faction change is an out-of-game problem. A player wants to play with friends who are on the other faction. So they can now switch, and everyone in-game pretends that they've been Horde all along. It is an out-of-game solution for an out-of-game problem.

This issue appears with a lot of rule systems. For example, loot systems often get more and more complex as officers try and prevent players from abusing the system. But rather than altering the rules of the loot system, it's often better to talk to the players in question, and get them to work with the system, rather than playing games with the loot rules.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Champions Online: Mechanics Overview

Base Mechanics

Champions Online has some interesting twists on the base mechanics. The basic resource is Energy, which is a cyclical resource much like Rage, Energy, and Runic Power are in WoW. A character starts with a basic auto-attack ability--that differs based on what type of hero you are--which builds energy. Other abilities pause the auto-attack and spend energy. So the basic game-play is to build energy through auto-attack and then spend it on more powerful abilities. This is a very fast cycle, as building the energy meter to full takes 5 or so seconds.

There are a couple of other twists. Energy does not start at full or empty. Rather, there is an "equilibrium point" somewhere in the middle, which marked on a character's energy meter. Energy levels return to the equilibrium point if you are not doing anything. So if you end a fight with more energy than your equilibrium, you will slowly lose energy. If you have less, you gain energy. One of the stats, Recovery, directly affects where the equilibrium is. High Recovery means you start fights with full energy, like Rogue Energy in WoW, while low Recovery acts more like Rage or Runic Power.

Stats

Champions has 8 stats: Strength, Dexterity, Ego, Endurance, Presence, Constitution, Recovery, Intelligence.

The stats are fairly straightforward in what they affect. Strength boosts melee damage, Dexterity increases your chance to crit, Constitution increases your health, etc. There are also some more unusual uses of stats. Ego increases the damage multiplier on criticals, Presence modifies your threat (direction depends on what "role" or stance you are in) and powers your heals, and Recovery modifies your equilibrium as stated above.

Now, the element that makes the game work is something called "characteristic focuses". At levels 5 and 13, you pick a stat (so two characteristic focuses in total) and most of your abilities will scale with those stats. This part is really not explained well at all in the game. I learned about it from an Elitist Jerks thread.

What the characteristic focuses allow you to do is take any power and have it work reasonably well. Now, it's best if your stats match up with your abilities. For example, a melee character should have Strength as a focus, because she would get extra damage from Strength and from the focus. However, that melee character could also take a healing power, and it would still scale with her Strength. It wouldn't be as good as a character dedicated to healing who took a focus in Presence would be, but it would be reasonable for soloing or emergencies. It's not like trying to heal in WoW melee DPS gear would be.

Powers

Any character can take any power. Powers are arranged into thematic frameworks, like Fire, Ice, Telepathy, Claws, etc. However, you can dip into any framework and mix and match as you please. Each framework is arranged into Tiers. Higher-tier powers can be taken if you have X powers from that framework, or X+Y powers from any framework. For example, you can take a higher-level Fire power if you have 5 Fire powers already, or maybe 8 powers from any framework.

Between characteristic stats and power frameworks, the game encourages you stick with one style for your hero. However, you can easily dip into other frameworks. Indeed, there are a couple points where you must dip, and sometimes it is not obvious at all to a new player that you should. I'll explain more thoroughly further down.

There are also three special types of powers: travel powers, block powers, and passive powers. At level 5, you get a travel power such as flight or super-speed. You can have the power on all the time, for a very minor increase in ability costs. The only thing I note is that Champions is a very different experience if you cannot fly.

Enemies can do a charged attack, denoted by an Adam West Batman-style "Pow" icon above their heads. When this happens, you hold shift to block the attack, or you take massive damage. You can also upgrade the basic block to more powerful blocks later on.

The game has four "stances" or roles. Guardian for soloing, Avenger for DPS, Sentinel for tanking, and Protector for support. Each stance has a slot for a passive power. Avenger wants an offensive passive, Sentinel wants a defensive passive, etc. Your character can have multiple builds prepared with different gear and power loadouts so you can switch between playstyles easily.

Finally, you also get points which you can use to improve powers. You can make powers do more damage/healing, or add additional abilities to the power. For example, add a knockback, or hit a second target etc.

Conclusions

Champions Online is set up for a very fast type of game with interesting twists on typical MMO mechanics. The resource cycle is very quick, and enemies tend to have lower health and come in multiples. The game is set up to encourage characters to focus on specific frameworks, but does allow them to mix and match as much as they want.

As well, having characters focus on two specific stats means the gameplay changes depending on the stats selected. For example, my angel focuses on Constitution and Recovery. This means he has a lot of health and starts fights with a lot of energy. My gunslinger on the other hand focuses on Dexterity and Ego. She doesn't have as much health and often needs to wait for a second or two after the fight starts to build up enough energy to use her good powers, but she has a high critical strike rate and her crits hit hard.

However, the game does not really convey some important information to the player. The whole notion of characteristic focuses is very vague. As well, not every framework contains passive powers. For example, there are only five or so defensive passives, so you might not have one in your initial framework.

This is actually a big problem, because in my view it is vital to take a defensive passive at level 5 or 8. The game is very harsh if you don't, because you will die all the time. You may not even know that you made a mistake, because the defensive passive wasn't even in your framework, and you might not know to look to another framework to get one.

So that's my recommendation for new characters. Take a defensive passive power and an AoE attack as early as you can (by level 8 at the most). Soloing becomes much easier if you do that, and may be excessively hard if you don't. As a personal example, I made two Psions. The first took an offensive buff and a healing power, and I promptly got rocked every time I tried to fight something. The second took a defensive power from the Force framework and an AoE attack, and is rampaging through content that the first could not survive.

I'll post more about other aspects about the game. I do like the mechanical underpinnings of Champions. It seems to allow a wide variety of playstyles to be valid without forcing you into only one style of play. However, I think the game doesn't quite communicate the rules, and thus optimal behavior, properly to new players.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Newbie Paladin Experience

These newbie paladin whelps are spoiled rotten these days. Back in my day, we had to walk uphill to Stormwind, both ways, in the snow. These kids don't know how good they've got it. They're born with a silver spoon in their mouths. I blame it on the influence of those shilly-shallying blood elves. Seriously, those pansy elves spend so much time preening in front of a mirror, they wouldn't have the muscle to lift my old [Verigan's Fist].

Take that young whipper-snapper Zubon over at Kill Ten Rats. He rolls up a paladin and goes prancing merrily along:

I was amazed to see that she out-nukes the Mage: the damaging taunt does not activate global cooldown...

Taunt? What's this damaging Taunt nonsense? Back in my day, paladins didn't need a taunt. We held aggro because we were real men who used Seal of Fury, and the DPS understood they would die if they pulled aggro.
...so I can Exorcise immediately after starting the pull.

Pull? Bet these fancypants new paladins pull from range too. We had to learn to body-pull, and guess where we learned that? That's right, the school of hard knocks.

And Exorcism could only be used on Undead. Not fake undead, like the Forsaken, but real undead, who would scare the pants off these mincing dandies. Why, I didn't even see an Undead until Darkshire.
Drop a magic hammer as it arrives in melee, get that big first swing in, and the enemy is usually around 25% health.

Drop a magic hammer right at the start? In my day, we did things properly. First, we debuffed the mob with Judgement of the Crusader. Then we activated Seal of Righteousness (or Seal of Command if we were feeling lucky). Fifteen seconds later we were privileged to Judge again (and re-cast our Seal). These punks are lucky enough to have 10-second Judgements (8 with talents) and they still complain about being a 1 button class.

These youngsters are spoiled. Seals and Judgements scale with Attack Power? Hah, in the old days we stuck with the base damage. If it was good enough for us, it's good enough for them.
That takes less than a quarter of my mana, and the blue magic hammer gives me mana for hitting the enemy.

Getting mana back? We had to Judge Crusader just to improve our damage to moderate levels. If we wanted to Regenerate we used Seal of Wisdom, and just did white damage to the mob for a few minutes. And we liked it.

Sigh, do these cubs have any redeeming qualities?
It really is satisfying to crush your enemies with a giant hammer... My only disappointment is that her current best weapon is a big axe rather than a comically huge hammer. I like its numbers, and she gets huge crits all the time due to Retribution talents, but hammertime was both cathartic and classically Warcraft.

Well, Daisy, maybe the kids are going to be all right after all.




On a somewhat serious note, this is a major reason I don't agree with complaints about the "B Team". The modern paladin is light-years more fun than the paladin of 1.0 used to be.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Champions Online: Characters

I picked up Champions Online a couple days ago and have been trying it out since. I haven't gotten very far, but here are some first impressions. I've never played the other major Superhero game (City of Heroes/Villains) so I have no idea how this game compares to that.

The character creator is very powerful. The first character I made is Cassiel:


The inspiration for Cassiel should be fairly obvious. I took the Supernatural template and Flight travel power. It actually works very nicely. Cassiel uses his fists and chains as weapons. Oddly Cassiel looks better in-game and flying, even at the lower resolution I play at:


The second character I made is Rake. I made a Regency noble, but made her female:



Rake is a Single Blade swordswoman, with the Acrobatics travel power. She's a lot faster and seems to do more damage than Cassiel, but is a lot more fragile.

You can make a lot of different looks with the character creator. It's very powerful. There are lots of interesting characters being made. For example, I teamed up with a machine-gun-toting rat who travelled underground for one quest. Probably half the fun in the game is making new heroes.

The comic book covers are actually generated when you save a costume in the character creator. That's a very nice touch.