Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Better Community Through Natural Selection

It is becoming common wisdom that FFXIV has a better community than WoW. I'm not really sure how true that is. But I did have an interesting experience yesterday that is causing me to wonder, and connect the dots with other common complaints about FFXIV.

Ravana Primal Experience

A guildmate was at the Ravana primal 8-man fight. I play a tank, so queues are instant for me, and I had beaten the fight earlier. I grouped up with my guildmate and we queued up. We got into an instance where everyone except me and the other tank were new. The other tank seemed relatively hardcore. He took charge, gave quick instructions, and went in first. And we wiped.

Ravana has a add phase. The adds summon swords and need to be killed before they finish summoning. If they summon two swords, the group can survive Ravana's next special. But if they summon three or more sword, the group will wipe.

We get three swords on the first, second, and third attempt. The other tank reiterates the importance of killing the adds. On the fourth attempt, we get four swords. You could almost hear the tank's disbelief coming through the chat. I felt sure that this run would explode into acrimony and finger-pointing at the DPS for not pulling their weight.

Instead, the other tank took a deep breath, and assigned one healer to switch to DPS during the add phase, while the other healer concentrated on keeping the tank up. It worked well, and the fifth attempt would have been a kill except one healer got knocked off the edge and the other healer just couldn't keep up with the damage by himself.

The sixth attempt went smoothly, and we downed Ravana.

I realized that I've been conditioned by other MMOs to assume that automatic random groups will crumble when significant adversity is met. It still happens in FFXIV, but it seems more likely that the group will attempt to work through the issues.

Heavensward Accessibility Controversy

To flip topics for a second, there is a somewhat-common complaint about Heavensward. It's not actually coming from current players of FFXIV but from some lapsed or potential players. You see, you can't jump into Heavensward right away. You have to go through the entire 2.0-2.5 storyline, and all the associated trials and dungeons. A lot of people who were potentially interested in the expansion balk at that requirement

The current playerbase, by and large, is firmly on SE's side here. The story is important. Working through the content doesn't take that long. SE constantly sends higher-level players back to old instances, so that keeps the queues moving. Besides, if you haven't done the content yet, it's still new to you.

But there's no denying that the story requirement is a barrier to entry. For example, WoW dealt with this in the last expansion by giving out a free level 90, so you could jump straight into Warlords of Draenor.

Natural Selection of Players

To connect the two topics, consider the most common reasons people try FFXIV and then stop playing. The initial questing is slow, with lots of errand-running. Actually the entire game is filled with errand-running from one NPC to another. Combat is slower than normal, with the 2.5s GCD making it much more languid than the faster paced combat in other games.

Perhaps this slowness at the start of the game acts as a filter on would-be players. The impatient are quickly weeded out, so the the players which remain are more patient than average. A form of natural selection. And a playerbase of patient players is more likely to be considered a "better community" than one which is impatient, as my Ravana experience demonstrates.

The story requirement in Heavensward acts as a similar filter. Players who are too impatient to work through the older content don't sign up for the expansion.

There are arguably other filters in place. PvP is a minor thing, so the Killer archetype is discouraged. It's a subscription game, so players tend to be older and more dedicated. Progression mechanics seem to be aimed at the steady player, who works on new classes or relic weapon or gear "grinds" at a steady pace.

Perhaps the "better community" of FFXIV is a result of "survival of the fittest". Where the players most suited to the FFXIV environment are the type of players who create that "better community".

Meanwhile, games like WoW have chosen the other path, of catering to the impatient. Perhaps that is why their communities seem to be getting worse, because their players are more impatient than average (or at least, more impatient than the FFXIV average).

I should also mention that SE has introduced mechanics for community building. Things like commendations, or the massive XP/reward bonus you get when someone in your group has never done the instance before. It is an open question as to how much these mechanics contribute to the better community. They certainly don't hurt, though.

Of course, there is a price for this natural selection. Players drop the game because it is too slow or too inconvenient. That reduces the potential audience for the game. By not including a shortcut to Heavensward, SE is giving up on potential players. Maybe the community created by the remaining players makes up for that. But maybe if SE made the shortcut, had made the early experience more interesting, FFXIV would be a 10 million subscriber game.

Monday, June 22, 2015

On Steam

Steam is essentially reverse piracy. Instead of playing games you didn't pay for, you pay for games you'll never play.
 - Nemarus, from Reddit

Sunday, June 21, 2015

FFXIV: Heavensward Early Access

Early Access for FFXIV's new expansion, Heavensward, started on Friday. I had put FFXIV on the back burner for the last couple months, but I jumped in and had a look around with my paladin.

I had already done the Main Story Quest from the 2.1-2.5 patches. FFXIV requires them to unlock pretty much everything in Heavensward, save for the new race. However, I believe they've added gear to the Main Story Line that prepares you for the expansion, so you can skip the gear grind of the 2.0 endgame.

I've mostly been going through the Main Story Quest. I've completed the first zone so far. So far, it's pretty much just FFXIV, just more. Same style of quests and small stories. I did the first dungeon and first new primal. Both were pretty nice and reasonably easy. Thankfully, I'm a tank, so queues are instant. I've heard that queues for the other roles are pretty long. On the other hand, mobs in the expac seem to have a lot of hitpoints, so questing does take longer as a tank.

Heavensward is also extending the Job class stories, and giving out new abilities. I'm running out of hotbar space, though, so I'm not sure how useful this is, exactly.

In addition to the new zones and new stories, there are three new classes: Machinist, Dark Knight, and Astrologian. I haven't tried any of them yet.

The game also got a DirectX 11 version. I'm using it and it seems good. Though honestly, I don't really remember the old graphics, so I cannot really compare. The water looks really pretty now. The DX11 performance is fine for me, and my machine is about 3 years old (GeForce GTX 660 Ti).

Heavensward also introduced flying in the new zones. However, their solution to flying is the same as WoW's compromise. Each zone contains Aetheric Currents which you have to find and attune to. As well, certain quests also reward Aetheric Currents, so you have to complete those. Essentially, you have to finish exploring and questing in a zone before you can fly in it. However, since FFXIV isn't a seamless world, you unlock flying in each zone separately.

If you liked FFXIV before, you'll enjoy Heavensward. It's basically more of the same. If you didn't like FFXIV, I don't think Heavensward will change your mind.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Legendaries Are The New Attunements

I just realized the other day that Blizzard brought back attunements in Mists of Pandaria. Only, in classic Blizzard fashion, they flipped them and made them driven by rewards, rather than by punishments.

The purpose of attunements is to provide a guide through content. Something that tells the player if she is ready for new content. In The Burning Crusade, that role was played by attunements. You couldn't go to Kara until you had done the quest chain, same with T5, and T6 required defeating the bosses in T5.

Now, you can jump ahead if you want, but if you follow the Legendary questline, it paces you through the content. First you do some 5-man dungeons, then you do Highmaul. You repeat Highmaul for a few weeks, and gear up as a side-effect. By the time you've done the Legendary stages of Highmaul, you're ready for Blackrock Foundry, and the process repeats.

The reward, a Legendary item, is a very strong motivator. Pretty much every guide says to start the Legendary quest line as soon as you can. That encourages you to stick to the quest line, which matches you to content that you should be geared for.

The modern Legendaries occupy the same design space as attunements. But rather than restrictions on players, they are seen as rewards. The carrot, not the stick. Players also have the freedom to skip ahead if they know what they are doing, and there are no issues with raid composition that previous attunements used to have.

I'm kind of bemused that I didn't see this before. It's excellent design work from Blizzard. And what's most amusing and impressive is that it's the same trick Blizzard always pulls.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Knights of the Fallen Empire

Bioware revealed the trailer and some details on the latest expansion for The Old Republic: Knights of the Fallen Empire.

The trailer is really good, and certainly presents an interesting story.

Some takeaways from the day's revelations:

  • Bioware is doing a modified A Realm Reborn / Mass Effect 2. Essentially, they're making a sequel on top of the existing game. New players will have an option to create a level 60 and jump into the sequel right away. In the sequel, there will be a timeskip, which will reset a lot of the character state. For example, you will probably lose your existing companions, and have to recruit new ones, as in ME2.

  • New emphasis on subscriptions. Note that Bioware is not offering any one-time price for the content. You have to subscribe. On the other hand, once you subscribe once, that content is unlocked permanently, even if you unsubscribe later. So I guess new content now effectively costs $15. In some ways you can consider the original game to be F2P, but the "sequel" is a subscription game.

  • Single story. Much like FFXIV, or any of Bioware's single player games, it looks like there will be one single main story that all classes play through. This probably extends to common companions as well. This does cut the companion cast down from 40 to a more manageable number, possibly allowing the player to reject some companions.

  • Faction Merge. It looks like both the Sith Empire and Republic factions will be merged post-60. The new faction in the game will be purely an NPC/enemy faction. This should improve things like PvP and PvE queues. But at the same time, it will be really weird not to be Empire vs Republic.

  • Small level cap increase. The new level cap increases to 65. Five levels seems like a pretty small increase for the amount of content they are proposing. Possibilities:
    • Each chapter is very short.
    • Leveling will take a long time with 1-2 chapters per level.
    • Most of the story content will come at max level.

  • Big Question: How do we get from the current story to the expansion? This is the question all TOR players are asking themselves. In the current storyline, the current bad guy, the former Sith Emperor Vitiate, is in a position of strength. Will he be defeated by the new bad guys? Is he somehow involved with the new bad guys? It does seem weird that there would be two Immortal Emperors running around.
It's a really interesting expansion and experiment. In some ways, it's surprising that Bioware just didn't go ahead and make an entirely new game. I guess they didn't want to shutter the existing game entirely, and want to leverage the existing content. Additionally, it is easier to claim the game is F2P, while still trying to make it subscription-based.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Is The Old Republic pulling A Realm Reborn?

There was a leak on the Star Wars Fallen Empire site. It was promptly taken down, but not before an screenshot made it to Reddit.

It looks like a whole new game. Though I think they aren't getting rid of the old one, just starting from the top.

Depending on how they're counting content, they say they have nine chapters ready, and plans for at least seven more. The current game only has five chapters. Now, maybe each new chapter will be shorter, like one planet in length. Still that's a lot of content.

Also, they imply that the class stories are coming back. Though maybe that's just a reference to the 1-50 class stories.

Honestly, I don't know what to think of this. If this leak is true, EA/Bioware essentially decided to double down on SWTOR, and do what Square Enix did to FFXIV. I was not expecting that at all.

To be honest, the scope of the changes in this leak is rather unbelievable. It might just be Bioware excessively hyping a more normal set of changes or new content.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Flight Compromise

Blizzard has compromised on flying in Warlords of Draenor. They will tie flight to a meta-achievement for outdoor world content:
You’ll earn this achievement in Patch 6.2 by mastering the outdoor environment of Draenor—exploring Draenor’s zones, collecting 100 treasures in Draenor, completing the Draenor Loremaster and Securing Draenor achievements, and raising the three new Tanaan Jungle reputations to Revered.
Basically, do all the outdoor content. The reward is a rylak mount and flying in Draenor for all your characters.

It's a pretty solid compromise. All content is initially experienced as the devs intend, but people will get flight eventually. It's all solo outdoor content, so it fits thematically. It only needs to be done once, so people with lots of alts get a break.

All in all, a pretty good resolution to the issue and a good model going forward.

Leveraging the Protestant Work Ethic or Elitism

One of the most interesting things about this solution is the way it harnesses a basic instinct of many gamers. I'm not sure if there's a specific term for this, but it's somewhere in-between the Protestant work ethic and elitism. Basically, for gamers, there is a link between reward and effort. Rewards should be earned. The greater the reward, the necessary effort to earn that reward must be great as well. There is a synchronicity when effort and reward match up perfectly.

The community has just spent the last few months insisting that flying is such a great reward that it cannot be removed. This creates space for Blizzard to set the bar high to earn that reward. And then the playerbase will defend that bar as correct and right. In fact, you can see a lot of this in comments to this compromise on the various forums. The people who think these requirements are too high are generally getting mocked.

Personally, I think Blizzard has nailed the effort-to-reward match-up with this compromise. It's a fair amount of work, but it's all doable solo, and nothing is too difficult. And the reward is really good. It really is the perfect amount of work for the reward. As such, they have sated that elitism/work ethic instinct of much of the playerbase. They have won themselves a lot more defenders than if the required achievement had been much harder or much easier.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Prison Games

From Azuriel, here are two hypothetical scenarios.

Scenario 1
The first one was this: you’re going to jail for ten years, but it’s a minimum security prison that will allow you to take one offline game (any DLC included) with you. But that will be the only game you get for those ten years. Which game do you pick?
I'd take something that had really good modding tools. Maybe the old Neverwinter Nights. That way I'd be able to continuously reshape the game.

Though I might just take a decent version of MS Visual Studio instead. A full-out programming language might be more interesting. Not sure if that counts as a game, though.

Scenario 2
The second scenario is similar, but this time it’s life in prison. For some insane reason, the Warden will allow you to take any three games and allow an internet connection. The parameters did not specify whether future DLC or microtransactions will be free for you, but let’s assume you can make enough money stamping licence plates to cover, say, $30/month. Which games do you pick?
This one is a lot more complicated. Life is a very long time. What games from 20 years ago are we still playing? What game do we expect to still be running 20 years from now? Also, if the company comes out with a sequel, does it count as the same game? For example, SE has FFXIV now, and is essentially sun-setting FFXI.

Heck, what game companies do I still expect to be around 20 years from now?

I almost want to choose the same games as the first scenario, just because I can guarantee those games or programs will still run.

I guess I'd pick WoW or Eve Online. They're among the oldest, and the most likely to still be in existence. I'd think about Everquest, but I'm not sure how stable the company Daybreak is. FFXIV might be a choice, but I think SE will eventually go the sequel route and bring out FFXX or something.

A FPS might be a decent choice, as I don't really care about MOBAs. But I'm not sure that any one FPS will live long enough.

Another good option would be an online casual game hangout. One which plays traditional games like poker or chess. Those games have stood the test of time, and you're really just hanging out to chat while you play.

So my choices would be WoW, a casual card or board game hangout, and an offline moddable game from Scenario 1 (or Visual Studio). That way I'd at least have a backup if the online games ceased to exist.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Cosmetic Versus Content Pricing

Hearthstone introduced a new Hero: Magni Bronzebeard. This is basically a replacement for the current Warrior, Garrosh. As far as I can tell, Magni is entirely cosmetic. The warrior ability is identical, as are all the existing cards. Magni just replaces the hero artwork and sound effects. Magni is being sold for $10.

I thought that this price was entirely reasonable. Magni is cosmetic, and is totally unnecessary. So why not charge a premium?

I was quite surprised when I saw the community reaction to Magni's pricing. Though honestly, when it comes to F2P games, I should just expect that the community will always complain, regardless of what the pricing actually is.

But seriously, isn't it better for the content that is sold to be cheap, and the cosmetics be expensive? Shouldn't a player on a limited budget be directed to content, like packs of cards or Arena, rather than pushing her towards unnecessary cosmetic items?

The problem, however, is that consumers look at the individual transactions, rather than the game as a whole. Content is considered to have more value than cosmetics, so inexpensive content is seen as a good bargain. Meanwhile expensive cosmetics is seen as poor value, and the consumer gets angry at the company for "gouging".

But pricing according to perceived value would have a negative effect on the F2P model. Content would be expensive, and cosmetics would be cheap. It would actually be very expensive to play the core game, becoming closer to the Pay-2-Win complaints. The base level of money needed to play would skyrocket, while the optional value extracted would be quite small. F2P games operate on the opposite principle, that the base level of money needed is low, while the optional value that can be extracted is high and variable. This is the very element that allows players to pay what they want and they can afford.

If a player has a budget of only $10, it's better that she buys 5 rounds of Arena, rather than 5 cosmetic items. In the long run, spending money on content will be more useful. Pricing cosmetics more expensively pushes the limited budget player towards content, as the better value matters more to her.

High profit cosmetic items allow content to be sold relatively cheaply. If you're a fan of F2P games, you should be applauding Magni's pricing. In the end, it's much better for all players that content is cheap and cosmetics are expensive, rather than the reverse.

Monday, June 01, 2015

STWOR: Class Story Comparison

This post contains significant spoilers for all the class stories in Star Wars: The Old Republic.


Having finished all eight class stories, I thought I would take a look at all the stories together. First, here are my overall scores, and links to each individual post. There were roughly four tiers of quality. Within each tier the order is pretty arbitrary, and mostly personal preference.

90% 1. Imperial Agent
80% 2. Jedi Consular
3. Sith Warrior
4. Jedi Knight
5. Republic Smuggler
70%6. Sith Inquisitor
7. Republic Trooper
60%8. Bounty Hunter

All the stories did succeed at a basic level. They all felt like their class was supposed to. The Smuggler story involved evading the law, making questionable deals and witty banter. The Bounty Hunter story was about hunting bounties. The Agent story was a spy story. So from that perspective all the class stories were a success.

Good Common Elements

These are two major patterns I noticed that made some class stories better.

1. Constant Supporting Cast

The better stories tended to have a constant supporting cast throughout the chapters. For example, Agents had Keeper and Watcher Two. Troopers had General Garza. The Jedi had Satele Shan and the Jedi Council. Having the supporting cast stay somewhat constant from chapter to chapter helped keep a feeling of continuity, as well as allowing the player to really become attached to some characters.

I think the Bounty Hunter was hurt the most by this, as the supporting cast completely changed from chapter to chapter.

2. Good Villains

By and large, the stories with better villains were at the top of the list. Darth Jadus, Hunter, Darth Baras, and the Sith Emperor were all excellent villains, and greatly enhanced their respective stories. On the other hand, Darth Thanaton, General Rakton, and Jun Seros were weak villains, and dragged their stories down.

Imperial Agent Excellence

In my view, the Imperial Agent story is the strongest. It does all the basics competently and had an excellent supporting cast and villains. It was also the only story to attempt to be "more" than just a Star Wars story.

If someone said "Give me a story about a Jedi Consular", you'd get the Consular story. Ditto the Sith Warrior and the Jedi Knight. These stories had themes, but the themes did not drive the story. Instead the "archetype experience" drove the story. The Knight story is the Knight story because that's what you'd expect the Knight's story to be about.

The Agent story, on the other hand, sought to answer a question. The United States Declaration of Independence states that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." The Agent story asks what happens if that is not true, what if some men are inherently more powerful (by orders of magnitude) than others. How do the powerless act?

The Agent story had some interesting answers, especially in Chapter 3. But every chapter, including the prologue, touched upon this theme in some fashion.

This theme is also not specific to the Agent. The Sith classes could have looked at the same theme from the other side. But starting with a stronger theme, and then wrapping the Agent "experience" around that theme, led to a stronger story in general.


That's a quick overview of what I thought of the class stories in SWTOR. They're all decent. But the Imperial Agent story is a cut above, being driven by a unique theme, as opposed to just the archetype experience.