Sunday, April 28, 2013

Social Fabric

Pyschochild wrote a post on social fabric and multiplayer that has been bouncing around the blogosphere. His thesis is that "MMOs need to focus back to the multiplayer foundation", in order to improve the social fabric that binds people to these games. He feels that the lack of social fabric is what keeps modern MMOs as "three-monthers", where people come in, play for a bit, and then fall away.

I am not entirely convinced of his argument. But let us say that it is correct. What can games do to improve their social fabric?

Let's start from the basics. What is social fabric, at least in games?

I would define social fabric as: Social fabric is the bonds created by repeated, positive interactions between the same set of people.

Key elements here are repeated, positive, interactions, and same set of people. After all, the various group finder activities are repeated and positive, but they don't create social fabric because you never see the people in them again.

My first thought is that the best and most useful element to build social fabric around is the guild. But guilds are very optional in the modern MMO. I think the first step in strengthening the social fabric is to make guilds more central to the player experience.

Consider the following changes:

  1. Players can only group with people in their guild.
  2. Players can only trade with people in their guild.
  3. Guilds are limited to 100 unique accounts.

What this does is create a very small subset of people that you can interact with. This means that all your group interactions occur within the guild, with the same people. It makes joining and belonging to a good guild a meaningful affair.  There is a cap on guild membership so that you are interacting with the same set of people, and to prevent the formation of mega-guilds.

Now, of course, this is very restrictive. It is not very convenient. But rather than allowing players to form very transitory bonds through dungeon finders, local chat, or an auction house, it focuses all those interactions on the same small set of people.

If a game wants to create a strong social fabric, I think it must necessarily limit the scope of player interactions. I think limiting the scope of interactions to the small guild level is the best path for creating the strong fabric that a lot of older MMO players desire.

Edit: This just came to me, how to explain my thoughts in a different fashion. Whenever this topic comes up, a lot of people say that people need to interact more. They need to group more, to trade more, have more interactions in general. I think that we don't necessarily need to have more interactions, we need to have what  interactions we do have with fewer people, in order to create more repetition, and stronger bonds when we do end up interacting.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rise of the Hutt Cartel

The Old Republic launched it's mini-expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, last weekend. It includes a new storyline revolving around the Hutts and the planet Makeb. It has 5 new levels, and an assortment of new mechanics and quests.  By and large, I think it's a solid addition to the game.

Sadly, the class stories did not continue. There's only an Empire storyline and a Republic storyline, about 9 to 10 hours long. Though oddly enough, I found that the Empire story felt like an Agent story. Not sure if some of the dialogue was deliberately shaded towards that (since I was playing my Agent), or if the story was just more "Agenty" than the other classes.

One thing I do find funny is that, in earlier chapters, my character was the grunt carrying out the dangerous missions under orders from superiors. Now, my character is a power in the Empire and is in command of the operation. Yet she's still the one carrying out the dangerous missions.

There are some interesting changes to daily missions in this expac. In particular, the new planet has this "staged" mission concept. You have to do 3 Stage 1 Missions, which you can pick from a pool of about 7. The pool does include a couple group mission. Then you do an intermediate mission, and a pool of new Stage 2 missions open up. That's as far as I have gotten. The overall stage mission is a Weekly mission. It's a nice blend of repetition and dailies that you can pursue throughout the week.

There's also a couple new types of activities. One is macro-binoculars, which seem to be a bunch of puzzle missions. So far there's been some "hunt for pixels", some jumping puzzles, and a maneuvering through a laser maze puzzle. I find it a bit odd that the spiritual successor to the old point-and-click adventure games is occurring in MMOs like TOR and The Secret World.

The other new mission type is seeker droid missions, which is essentially TOR's version of archaeology. Very similar hot-cold mechanic as in WoW.

The only other thing to note is that the Marksman Sniper rotation changed significantly. It used to be a very strict "Enabler - Followthrow - Filler - Filler" rotation.

Now it's pretty much just alternating Enablers and Followthrough. However more abilities enable Followthrough, and there are interactions between the abilities. I rather like the change. It's simpler, with a couple less buttons, but does feel right.

Overall, Rise of the Hutt Cartel is a solid expansion and well worth the price. I wonder if Bioware could have gotten away with not raising the level cap. Personally, I wouldn't mind paying another $10 or so for the next chapter, another 10 hours of story content, in a few months. But I think raising the level cap yet again would be annoying. I wouldn't mind a story expac that just happened at 55.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Raid Finder: Determination and Queues


I really like the Determination buff in Raid Finder. Every time you wipe, you get an extra 5% buff that stacks up to 50%, until the boss dies.

I don't know if it causes less turnover in raids. People still seem to leave almost randomly.

However, I think it has greatly improved the atmosphere in Raid Finder. The buff gives hope that the next attempt will go better, or that eventually we will overpower the boss. There seems to be far less acrimony and finger-pointing on failed attempts.

Last year, I proposed PvE Handicapping. In some ways, Determination is an attempt at that, using wipes to determine the handicap.


I wonder if it is time to consolidate the Raid Finder queues. Currently you have to pick which wing you want to attempt. That means that there are 7-8 separate queues right now. If you pick the wing that no one else wants right at that moment, your wait might be much greater than normal.  You could have things like 4 healers in one queue, and 2 healers in a different queue, and that would be enough to actually kick off one raid if only they were in the same queue.

If you look at the Dungeon Finder, everyone is thrown into the same queue for a random dungeon, shortening queue times as much as possible.

And a lot of the time, you don't care which Raid Finder wing you actually get, so long as you get an instance with bosses that you haven't done that week. As well, in 5.3, we will get the ability to choose which spec we get loot for. That means you may as well sign up with your preferred raiding spec for everything, and change your "loot spec" on a boss-by-boss basis.

Of course, the logic involved in a consolidated Raid Finder would be more involved than that of the Dungeon Finder. You would have to avoid putting people in a raid which only contains bosses they have already killed.

I still think it would result in better performance. You can look at the current system as a worst case scenario of the consolidated system, if you assume that you manually sign up primarily for wings you have not done yet.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Drumuru in LFR

Drumuru in the latest wing of LFR is an interesting boss. On LFR particularly, his mechanic seems very harsh.

First off, funny story in our LFR. We wiped on Drumuru something like six to eight times. On the kill attempt, we were down to 2% with only the tank and a couple dps alive. One of the dps, who we'll call Dave, had been a bit of jackass on earlier attempts. At the 2% mark, Dave wrote "This carry has been brought to you by Dave". Then he promptly died, to the jeers of the rest of the raid. Luckily the tank and the other dps finished off the boss.

The problem with Drumuru is one of his abilities. He covers the platform in some purple fog, but there is a path in the purple. You have to get on the path and follow it. This ability seems incredibly hard for people to deal with. On every attempt we lost more than half the raid.

We've seen mass death effects like this before in LFR. Think of the ice walls in Hargara. The thing about the ice walls, however, is that everyone died to it on the first attempt, but on the second attempt they were able to understand the mechanic and work towards mastery. An early LFR Hargara would go like: first attempt, 15 people died. Second attempt, maybe 8 people died. Third attempt, 4 people died and there was a kill.

On LFR Drumuru, there is no improvement, no indication that people are mastering the mechanic. They're just dying.

I think that the major reason this is so is due to the graphics chosen. The fog is a mixture of writhing purple lines and emptiness. I found it difficult to tell where the path was, even when I was on it. Not to mention that the room is already darker than normal.

I was able to survive this mechanic about half the time, but I felt it was a bit random whether I did or not. Even though I knew where to go, and what to look for. Heck, one time I ran to where I was sure the path was, and instead fell off the edge of the platform. At least I was right that there was no fog there.

If the fog had been more solid, more filled-in, I think people would grasp the mechanic sooner. Or perhaps if it was a color with a stronger contrast.

All in all, though the rest of the fight is good, this one mechanic is too punishing for LFR. It's an insta-kill that too many people are finding too hard to understand and master. In my opinion, this is entirely due to the choice of graphics used.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Scarlet Blade Impressions

On a whim yesterday, I decided to try out Scarlet Blade, a new Free-2-Play MMO from Aeria Games. Here are my impressions.

First of all, if you are at all concerned about the depiction of women in video games, Scarlet Blade will probably cause an apoplexy. This game is absolutely shameless. It makes TERA look like something made by Puritans. There are no pictures in this post because pictures would probably make it Not Safe For Work.

You can only play female characters. More accurately, each class corresponds to one female model/body type, though you can change the facial features and hair styles and colors. There are six classes: Defender (tank with a sword), Medic (healer with some sort of gun), Shadow (melee dps with claws), Whipper (melee AoE with a whip), Punisher (ranged dps with rifle), and Sentinel (ranged dps with dual pistols).

The game is a set in a futuristic, somewhat post-apocalyptic setting with an anime vibe. The female models are pretty much built for looks. To be fair, though, the game's lore does make this somewhat understandable. I'll go into more detail a bit further down. Of course, the fact that their clothing (if you can even call it that) is as skimpy as possible is just shameless pandering. There's also a lot of innuendo tossed around.

Edit: Just to illustrate what this game is like, the F2P cash shop actually sells an item that allows your character to run around naked. It's somewhat amusing how they went about this. By default, your character wears stat-less underwear/lingerie which cannot be removed. However, later in the game (after level 17 or so) different underwear/lingerie drops which actually has stats. So you have to purchase this Seal Remover in order to switch. But once you've used the Seal Remover, you can also just remove the underwear entirely. Voila, a nude patch for sale with a (literal?) fig leaf to justify it.

Combat is the standard hot-key combat, combined with basic theme-park questing. The interesting part of the mechanics is that abilities follow the Diablo 2 model. There are no default abilities other than the basic attack. You have to invest points gained as you level into different abilities. Points can be spent to upgrade old abilities or unlock new ones. So basically, you choose exactly which abilities your character has. If you want heals or buffs, you have to forgo improving dps abilities. If you want DoTs, snares or AoEs, that takes points away from your other abilities. There are also passive abilities that you can invest in.

It actually works quite well, at least while levelling. Endgame with fixed builds might end up in the standard straight-jacket.

One thing to note is that even though there are two factions, questing is the exact same on both sides. Only the name of the faction changes. There may be faction-specific content later on, but I didn't encounter any.

By now, you're probably coming to the conclusion that Scarlet Blade is another themepark MMO pandering to the lowest common denominator of adolescent males. And you'd mostly be right. But there is one element which is possibly worth taking a second look at: how the game treats the relationship between player and avatar.

In most MMOs, indeed most games, the character on screen is assumed to be an independent entity as far the rest of the game world is concerned. The player does not exist, the player is the character.

In Scarlet Blade, however, the female character on screen is an Arkana: a genetically engineered or modified being designed for combat. The player is the Commander of the Arkana, the one who controls it. It's sort of the equivalent of a drone being flown by a pilot back at base.

Except the drone is sentient.

Scarlet Blade runs with this setup. A lot of the quests come in the form of your Arkana talking with you about the situation she is in. NPCs talk to both your Arkana and you. A lot of NPCs don't consider the Arkana to be human at all. One of the questlines for the Punisher involves an NPC Arkana who was forced to come over to your side when her Commander defected.

I find it very interesting that the game is set up this way. It does justify why each class maps to a specific body type, and why there are multiples of that body type running around. I wonder if a lot of men find it more palatable to play as a man controlling a female character, than to play as a female character. I know it more closely maps to how I think of my characters in other MMOs. I am not them, they are my chosen weapons.

As well, it raises a lot of interesting issues. Slavery, mind-control, autonomy, the morality of sentient weapons, remote-control of weapons from a safe location, even gender issues related to control and objectification. I've always been interested in the intersection between player and avatar--as in Slashdance's masterpiece Frame of Mind--and this is one of the few games I've seen tackle that area.

In the hands of a less purient company, this would be an extraordinarily fertile design space. One that is an ideal match for video games. In a lot of respects it is a shame that Scarlet Blade co-opts this idea merely to have an excuse for having scantily-clad female avatars running around.

On the other hand, a more respectable company would have never come up with this scheme in the first place.