Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Short, Pyschopathic Races

Wildstar released details of their latest race, the Chua. The Chua are a short, psychopathic, technologically-inclined race.

This seems to be a little bit of a trend in MMOs lately. WoW had the Goblins, Guild Wars 2 had the Asura, and now Wildstar comes up with the Chua.

I confess that I don't really understand the appeal of these races. They just come across as caricatures, with no nuance, depth, or grace.

These races seem to be an MMO-only phenomenon. I don't recall seeing anything similar in single-player games, books or movies. An odd coincidence, don't you think?

Frankly, the Chua have given me a bit of a distaste for Wildstar. I strongly hope that Wildstar doesn't overuse the Chua, thinking that they are "cool".

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Small Decisions, Part II

In the comments to the last post, Talarian references Sid Meier's quote, "A game is a series of interesting choices."

Not all choices are made equal, though. Some choices are hugely important, some are less so. Some seem important at the time, but in hindsight were not. Some choices are difficult to make, others are easy.

My question is: Are small choices better than no choices?

The thing about removing all these small choices is that they really were not replaced with anything else. Or were replaced with a large choice that comes far apart in time.

Consider talent points. You used to make one small choice every level. Then that got replaced with one large choice every 15 levels. I've argued before that this was not a good change for the leveling game. The frequency of choice is also important, not just the magnitude of the choice.

A lot of other commenters brought up the point that these small choices were what added immersion to the world. I confess that I didn't consider immersion at all. But it is true. A lot of what we spend our time with in the real world is trivial (for example, choosing a drink at Starbucks), but that trivia adds texture. It is logical that minor choices would do the same thing for a game world.

Another common comment was that these choices are "no-brainers" and because they were not difficult choices, they were not necessary. I am not sure that I agree with this point of view. Some choices should be easy. Some choices should have a high success rate.

I think this is especially important for newer or less competent players. They need choices to make and be successful with. Small successes lead to larger successes. There's a reason that every guide in the old days emphasized taking enough reagents to the raid. This was something small and easy you could do, that made you a better player than you were before. A hunter that kept her pet fed was a better hunter than one who ignored the pet.

And of course, we all remember the people who failed these choices. If the choice was truly a "no-brainer" why did people keep failing on it?

I think the idea that all choices in a game should be hugely difficult is wrong. A good game needs a variety of choices, including some simple and obvious (to experienced players) choices. These small choices instill confidence in new players, and guide them to the more difficult choices. They make the game more interesting than having no choice at all.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Small Decisions

I've been thinking about reagents and arrows lately. They're basically gone from the modern game. They were seen as trivial and obvious, an inconvenience to be smoothed away. However, I'm wondering if we lost something in doing that.

Arrows and reagents were a small test of ... skill, I guess. A good hunter kept her stock of arrows up, and refreshed it regularly. Same with reagents. I remember keeping three stacks of the reagents for Blessings on me at all times. This wasn't a very hard test, of course. Most people did this. (Though there were a few who didn't, who never had enough reagents.)

Reagents were a "small" decision. You had to make the decision to restock every so often, had to evaluate your supply against the demands on your time. It wasn't a difficult decision at all, but still a decision that all players had to make.

There were many of these small decisions in Vanilla. Soul shards, poisons, feeding your pets, talent points, etc. Even going back to a trainer when you leveled was a small decision. You had to decide whether to stop questing and get the new abilities right away, or wait for a natural break.

Most decisions in WoW now are "big" decisions. Choosing a specialization, choosing talents, using the correct abilities. There are fewer small decisions and more big decisions.

Was there value in having those small decisions?

I think that it was part of mastering your class. You get the small decisions down before having to tackle the larger ones. Almost everyone got them right, and it was the first thing to learn when playing.

To a good experienced player those small decisions are obvious and trivial. The only interesting decisions are the big ones. But big decisions are rare. Fewer decisions make for a less interesting game. You can see this in WoW leveling. All those small decisions that you used to make while leveling have been smoothed away. But a game with few decisions to make is not interesting at all.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Firefall: First Impressions

Firefall went into open beta recently. I downloaded it and gave it a whirl.

Firefall is a third-person shooter, done in an animated cell-shaded manner. The class system is bound up in these battleframes, which your character can equip. Example battleframes are the medic, recon, assault, etc. You can change your battleframe fairly easily. Each battleframe gains experience separately, and is upgraded separately. So it's like being every class, but you can only equip and level one class at a time.

The setting is a somewhat post-apocalyptic setting, in the lush jungles of South America. Firefall gives your character jumpjets, and the game plays a lot with this. There are large cliffs to scale, and fights often involve you jumping while shooting.

The game that immediately jumps to mind as a comparison is Defiance. But the differences are instructive. Defiance has the vehicle game, Firefall has jump jets. Defiance features dropped loot, while in Firefall you accumulate resources and then craft loot. In fact, I think Firefall takes a lot of its gear and crafting inspiration from Eve Online, more than anything else. Except you can't trade, so it's like an Eve where you had to mine and craft everything yourself.

I tried the medic for a bit, but switched to the recon after a while. The recon seemed to be a much simpler playstyle, so I decided to use that while learning the game.

The game is very open, you can go anywhere and attempt anything. In combat, when you're at an event, the game is a lot of fun.

My current issue is that I seem to be having a hard time "finding the fun" in the game. I open my map, see an event or mission I would like to try. So I jump my way to area, running into cliffs and having to backtrack and find my path to the area. Then I get there, and the mission has been finished or is almost over. Then it's time to repeat the process.

Or they have these "melding tornados" large-scale events. I've joined two of those, but they ended abruptly, and everyone disappeared, and I didn't get any rewards. I'm still confused by the everyone disappearing bit. There must have been 20 people at the event, then the tornado disappeared and there was only me and one other guy there.

I see other bloggers raving about the game, and how they moved from event to event, getting stuff done. I think that I must be missing something.

I can't help but compare it to Defiance. In Defiance, events were very dense. You couldn't swing a cat without hitting something to do. In Firefall, events seem very sparse, and I seem to spend more time traveling than actually doing something.

All in all, Firefall is a pretty good game. Its combat is fun and handles well. I like the progression with the crafted gear and the different battleframes. I just need to figure out how to "get to the fun" faster.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Metacritic

UnSubject has an excellent post on Metacritic. I strongly recommend reading it.

The most interesting thing about Metacritic these days--and what makes it more controversial than all the other review aggregators for other media--is that some game publishers are tying bonuses to the game's Metacritic score.

This seems a little odd to me.  UnSubject's explanation is that royalties are tied to Metacritic because “it’s a quantitative measure of game quality, popularity and helps forecast sales”. I don't think this is the full explanation.

For one thing, Metacritic scores are a weak proxy for what publishers really want to learn: how much money did this game make? But publishers don't need a proxy to figure out how much money a game made, they have direct access to the sales figures. It would be more sensible to base bonuses directly off gross revenue, rather than an indirect measurement such as Metacritic.

The only theory I have is that gross revenue or sales can be thought of as a function of both game quality and marketing (and the sheer fickleness of the audience). However, marketing is traditionally the responsibility of the publisher. It seems unfair to pay or withhold bonuses if the publisher did a good or bad job on the marketing.

In theory, reviewers should not be affected by marketing. Metacritic scores should filter out marketing's contribution to gross revenue, and only represent the developer's contribution.

Of course, the fact that Metacritic tends to correlate well with popularity and sales generally means that this extra indirection is unnecessary. It would be interesting to see what games are outliers. Games where the Metacritic score did not predict sales or revenue; either a poorly-rated game selling many units, or a highly-rated game selling fewer units.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The State of Healing

I saw this post by Vixsin on The State of Healing, and I wanted to comment on the general subject. Please note that I'm not really doing organized raiding this expansion, so you should take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

I think there has been a general problem healing this expansion, and perhaps taking a step back, a general problem in the design of healing since TBC.

The problem this expansion is that there is too much "ambient" healing. Compared to previous expansions, there's lots of aoe heals, lots of hots, and lots of absorbs that kind of buffer the entire raid. There seems to be a lot less triage and healing assignments.

The problem with this is that boss damage needs to balance out healing. Lots of ambient healing leads to lots of ambient damage. This means if the ambient, background healing ever dips down, then all of a sudden the damage can seem overwhelming. Second, and you see this in LFR a fair bit, healers that do not heal in an ambient style do far less healing than they should.

Now, the problem with healing development in general is a bit more subtle. It seems that when Blizzard is looking at the healing classes, the thought process is, "X is pretty cool, let's make more use of X". So they use X a lot more and the game breaks.

The obvious example this expansion is absorbs. Power Word: Shield is a cool spell. It does something slightly different than all the other spells, and wasn't too broken on its own (at least when it was more restricted). Blizzard saw that PW:S was good, and spread it around when they needed new spells and abilities. Paladin mastery, spirit shell, etc. And then the game broke.

It's not just absorbs. Cooldowns and AoE spells have followed the same pattern. Rare at first, with only one or two specs with access to a version that usually had a significant downside. Then everyone got access and the healing game became unbalanced.

Older paladins will remember that critical strike and Illumination did something similar. The original Illumination made critical strike interesting, but crit was a rare stat for paladins. Then Blizzard saw that paladins were chasing crit, embraced it, and ended up breaking Holy paladins.

In my mind, healing works best when it is fairly basic. A couple direct heals, a signature heal, and weak (non-spammable) AoE heal is all you really need for a good healing environment. Making healing more complicated, in some sort of arms race, just leads to less fun healing environments. Damage has to keep up with healing. The more powerful healing is, the more powerful boss damage is, and the healing environment becomes less forgiving and less fun.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Proving Grounds

The new Proving Grounds coming in 5.4 look pretty neat. I think teaching players how to tank and heal without throwing them into a live group will be a good change.

I'm rather amused that,  for the healer challenge, Blizzard included a hunter who stands in the fire and a mage who yells for heals. Good preparation for actual group content.

There's been some concern that the Proving Grounds will be the new "requirement" for guilds or pick-up groups. I think that it will actually be good for the game if Proving Grounds become the new requirement.

The current credentials required tend to be a catch-22. Usually PuGs are asking for people who have already done the instance, or have gear from the instance. So you require the help of the group to get the credential that will allow you to join the group.

In contrast, Proving Grounds are a credential that you can earn on your own. That makes it a much better credential for people looking to start raiding.

Pugs will always require some sort of proof that you are skilled enough to be successful at the group. Proving Ground completion is in some ways a superior form of proof to the two current methods. Thus, I actually hope that Proving Grounds become required by PuGs, supplanting gear and instance achievement checks.

To put it another way, if you're looking for your first job, and everyone requires 2 years of work in the same field, you're going to have trouble finding a job. But if employers are willing to substitute a degree or certification requirement, that can make it a lot easier to break into the field.

(Of course, you're going to run into problems if employers don't feel that the degree or certification matches actual ability. Then it's just a waste of time and money.)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The End of MMO Blogging?

Always fond of navel-gazing, the blogosphere has been discussing why there are so few new MMO bloggers these days. I see a lot of calls to make a better community. However, I don't really see why new bloggers need so much hand-holding. The previous generation managed just fine without artificial "communities", just by linking and writing steadily.

Here's my theory:

The current generation of bloggers grew up and moved on to more important things. The next generation which should have replaced them is functionally illiterate.

I am exaggerating for comedic effect. But I do think that there is a difference between the previous generation (late 20s, 30s) and younger people. A generational gap between people who came to the internet after elementary school, and those who have grown up with the internet. Young people seem to have real problems with long form writing.

I don't know why this is. Perhaps it was the experience of actually writing material out by hand. Or perhaps that before the internet, one had to read books, so there was an assumption that written material should be longer than 140 characters.

To look at it another way, the teenage experience of my generation's internet was Livejournal, where people composed long angsty screeds. The current teenage experience is a picture with a caption that is marginally funny.

That's my theory. MMO blogging is dying because the young players--who should be the new bloggers--simply don't write content of moderate length anymore.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Throwing in the Towel on F2P

With the news that WoW is looking at an expanded cash shop, I guess that's the last nail in the coffin for those of us who prefer pure subscription games.

I'm not too happy about this, but I'm resigned to it. I don't really see that it produces better games. If anything it just seems like a low-grade annoyance, making the game slightly worse.

Take yesterday's "event" in The Old Republic. It was the 10th anniversary of the release of Knights of the Old Republic. To celebrate, for 24 hours TOR allowed you purchase a title, "Revan's Heir", for the low, low price of 10 cartel coins.

10 cartel coins is very cheap, it's pretty much nothing. But it was so cheap that you have to ask yourself, why even bother selling it? If this had been a sub game, everybody logging in would have gotten the title.

It was to get people to use the cartel store. Like a drug dealer, the first hit is (almost) free. But now that people have used the cartel market, maybe they'll buy more stuff.

It's just so corrosive. Yesterday should have been a celebration. Instead, the entire thought process is "How can we monetize this?"

In the end, though, I blame gamers. Penny-wise, pound-foolish. It doesn't matter how bad our games get, so long as someone else pays for them. We'll just complain about it on the forums.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Weird Ideas: Travel Time

I think that travel time is a really important factor in making an MMO feel like a world instead of a game. However, travel time is highly inconvenient. So I was musing about ways to incorporate travel time into an MMO, and came up with the following design.

Goal: An MMO where travelling between two towns takes one week of real time, without boring the player to death.

1. Have the actual travel be tied to an NPC that continuously moves, rather than the PC.

Having the player get on a horse and travel in a straight line for hours is just not going to work. So we need to have something do the traveling for the player.  My basic idea is a caravan. The caravan starts at the first town, Antwerp, and travels to the second town, Brussels. The player signs up for the caravan at Antwerp, and the caravan takes seven days to travel to Brussels.

Whenever the player logs in, she logs in with the caravan, and can adventure in the area around the caravan's current location.  The player moves much faster than the caravan, but the distance between towns would still require hours of travel time if you went directly.

2. Have the travel be tied to the guild level, not the individual.

One of the problems with long travel times is that it is easy for a group to get separated, and then be unable to play together. So the easiest thing to do is to move as a guild. Here, instead of the individual players signing up for the caravan, a guild officer signs the guild up, and the entire guild moves together.  That way, even players who haven't logged in for a while still log in near their guild.

I think these two ideas would go a long way towards making travel time more palatable. You still log in and can easily group with your friends. You aren't spending all your play time riding a mount in one direction. But you still move steadily. Movement time for everybody is the same, regardless of playtime.

But moving, and travel time is a big deal. It's something you prepare for, and don't undertake lightly. A caravan bringing a guild with goods from another town might be very important economy-wise, if resources are not distributed equally. I think it would go a great deal towards making location important again.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Battlefield Barrens

I finally finished the Battlefield Barrens weekly quest and got my Hordebreaker title. I am not sure if I liked the process or not.

When I started the quest, I saw that you needed 150 of each commodity, and mobs were dropping only 1 commodity per mob, so I gave up rather quickly. Not to mention that early on it was pretty buggy because of phasing or cross-realm zones.

But today I decided to just finish the weekly, and actually got a bit caught up in it. It was fun killing orcs until a champion spawned, and then flying from champion to champion. Or escorting a random caravan every so often.

It felt very old-school, this farming. No quests, no rigid guide-rail to hold your hand. I think it would have been very nice in a small group. Trying to heal while I was solo was a bit annoying.

I don't think I'd want to do this all the time, but doing it once was an interesting change of pace.

I did like the way the rewards were structured. You do it once, and you get a pet. If you like farming, you can farm more and get gear or other items.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Choosing Statistics to Evade the Argument

Gryphonheart at The Lion Guard posted about a tweet by Ghostcrawler regarding LFR.


I've seen this tweet before, and it annoys me. Even though it seems like GC is rebutting Ixidane, both statements can be true at the same time.

To see this, imagine a population of 100 players. Before LFR, 20 of them participate in regular raids. We'll call these 20 players Raiders, and the other 80 players Casuals.

Then LFR comes out. 10 Raiders switch to LFR, along with 30 Casuals.  So the following statements are both true:
  1. LFR has significantly damaged normal raiding. Normal raiding lost 50% (10 of 20) of its players.
  2. The majority of people in LFR didn't raid before. 75% of raiders in LFR (30 of 40) didn't raid before.
I'm not saying that Ixidane's contention, or statement 1 above, is true. It might very well be false. I don't have the numbers to verify, though the various progress sites are showing a significant reduction in normal raiding guilds and raiders.

 But GC's rebuttal is deliberately misleading, spinning numbers in a way that appears to refute the argument, but really does not.

I think this bothers me because I see it more and more on the internet. Getting people to give straightforward numbers in favor of their arguments is like pulling teeth. Numbers are always phrased to be slightly misleading, shown as a percentage when the denominator is not exactly what you would expect, or is correct to use. Or the number is normalized in some misleading fashion, and the normalization is waved away.

Lately, I get highly suspicious anytime I see "average, "percent", "most" or "majority" in support of arguments. These statistics never seem to be the expected or obvious statistic. It's always a statistic deliberately chosen to prop up one side of the argument. Raw numbers showing the totals and breakdown into each category are always to be preferred, but are rarely shown.

Monday, July 01, 2013

A Twist on Story Mode Instances

The upcoming patch for The Old Republic has an interesting twist on the standard dungeon or instance. The patch contains two new flashpoints (4-man instances). The Hard Mode version is the standard flashpoint, with a tank, a healer, and 2 dps.

However, the Story Mode version of the flashpoint will be designed for any group of four people, with no Trinity required.

I think this is a really clever idea. A easier version often has issues because no one runs it, preferring to run the harder version for better rewards. But the Trinity-less version offers extremely fast queue times, as all you need are four bodies.

This might set up an equilibrium, as some DPS move from the HM to the SM queue, decreasing times across the board.

As well, difficulty seems more appropriate. In my view, the Trinity is a stronger skeleton for combat, allowing you to make fights more intricate and involved. Hard Mode requiring a tank and healer, while Story Mode not requiring these, feels intuitive and right.

Finally, this makes very good use of the art assets, netting a 2-for-1. As I've said before, I think art asset creation is the blocker in modern video games. Any time you can reuse the same art for multiple types of content is a win.