Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Revisiting Lord of the Rings Online

Lord of the Rings Online launched a "Legendary" server last week, with a lower level cap, slowed down levelling, and some of the original quests added back in. It's also a subscriber-only server. I gave it a whirl last night.

First of all, LOTRO has a very long download and install process. It took something like four hours before everything was fully installed. The process of subscribing is also a little janky. You have to log into a non-Legendary server first to get access to the store.

Lately, I keep debating if I should play a healer or tank so that I can join group content in new MMOs. This time around, I just chose the most appealing class, a Human Captain. It's very similar to a paladin with a 2H weapon, buffs, and heals.

Way back in 2007, I wrote a First Impressions post of LOTRO. Pretty much everything I said in that post applies today. The graphics are a bit better, but the colour palette is much the same. Movement and combat feels very similar. It is interesting to see how many elements have been incorporated into other MMOs, especially the quest tracker details.

Somehow, though, I feel a little more charitable to the game this time around. I'm enjoying the slower pace. I haven't got very far, I'm still in the introductory town of Archet. But it's really nice to see all the classic Lord of the Rings elements like Hobbits, the Rangers, and the Nazgul.

Also, there's a lot of world chat going on, which is nice to see. And for once they're not discussing WoW. Instead all the chatter is about Moria.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Blue Mage Controversy

FFXIV's newest class, Blue Mage, is proving to be quite controversial. Here's the basic outline (taken from Reddit):
  • Will start at level 1
  • Initial level cap will be 50 which will be raised at later dates
  • Gear will be from ranged magic DPS
  • Initial amount of monster skills will be a count of 49
  • 24 monster skills will be equippable at once
  • Developed more for solo, including new content "Masked Carnival" for Blue Mages
  • Various restrictions including not being able to use Duty Roulettes to enter parties
  • You can enter pre-formed party instances, but obviously the level cap is at 50
Basically, the Blue Mage learns skills by fighting monsters with that skill. There is no obvious order in which skills are gained, or what skills a Blue Mage can choose to use. This is apparently very true to the way Blue Mage has been depicted in previous Final Fantasies.

The big controversy is that SE is locking them out of random match-making content like levelling dungeons.  The obvious reason is to keep Blue Mages who don't have the necessary skills equipped or learned from negatively affecting the party.

Blue Mages can do content in pre-made parties, but in FFXIV the vast majority of content is done through automatic matchmaking.

I think it's a very interesting experiment, seeing how far SE can push the current FFXIV class/role structure. I believe they're being conservative for now. FFXIV has had several classes introduced with unique mechanics at the start, but ended up having to be brought in line with the existing classes, and much of their uniqueness removed. Dark Knight suffered from this a lot, I believe.

If Blue Mage works out, I imagine that automatic matchmaking will be opened up to allow them in, perhaps with extra requirements on which skills must be equipped.

I'm a big fan of experimentation, so I'm excited to see how this will work out.

Friday, November 16, 2018

FFXIV Shadowbringers Expansion and Blue Mage

FFXIV is having it's Fanfest this weekend, and it announced the latest expansion, Shadowbringers:

I do like that FFXIV teases things, rather than stating them outright. I'm a little tired of everything in WoW being revealed and data-mined months in advance.

Apparently, Viera (some sort of bunny race) was strongly hinted at. Yoshi-P wore a Bugs Bunny t-shirt, which is as close to gospel as FFXIV gets.

There are multiple classes coming, including Blue Mage:

FFXIV does like flamboyant casters (see Red Mage).

Blue Mage is actually coming out in Patch 4.5, but has a level cap of 50, which will be raised later. It's a little unsure what SE has in mind here. Is it like a preview, do they think they won't meet the 4.5 deadline with a full class, are they dealing with balance concerns? The last class they released in a mid-expansion patch was Rogue/Ninja, and that did have a lot of balance issues at first.

It's also possible that this isn't a regular job, but more something meant for solo play.

All in all, Shadowbringers looks pretty interesting. It sounds like the major story arc with the Ascians that started in 2.0 will come to a close. And it continues FFXIV's focus on story and traditional dungeons.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Mythic Zek'voz

My guild killed Mythic Zek'voz last night! This puts us at 3/8 Mythic.

Been a while since I've posted a killshot
We actually killed the boss with every single person in the raid dead. Zek'voz keeled over just as the last person died. Though this is mostly because Zek'voz has a soft enrage where people are mind-controlled and need to be killed.

Mythic Zek'voz took us about three weeks or so. I think more than anything else, we just needed to put time into the fight, practice the mechanics and slowly get used to the timers.

We did this using a normal strategy, moving from one voidweaver to the next. I had an idea where half the raid attacks the left voidweaver, and the other half takes the right voidweaver. Minimize target-switching and keep people spread out and use most of the room. Sadly, we never tried it out, so I have no idea if it would work or not.

Now to see if we can repeat the kill next week. On to Vectis!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Overhauling Mounts

In theory, WoW has a very large number of mounts which players can ride. In practice, though, everyone seems to use the same three or four mounts: water striders, sky golems, yaks, or mammoths.

This is because these mounts have unique special abilities. Water striders can walk on water, golems can gather materials without dismounting, and yaks and mammoths have vendors so you can sell and repair.

WoW should spread out these special abilities to other mounts. Ideally, every mount should have one, and only one, special ability. That way you would have a variety of mounts to use in different situations.

Potential properties:
  • Flying - can fly
  • Fast - can move faster than normal
  • Gathering - can gather without dismounting
  • Vendors - has vendors
  • Two-Seats - can carry a passenger
  • Swimming - provides water-breathing and faster swim speed
  • Steady - cannot be dazed or dismounted
Of course, this is a nerf to Sky Golems and some Two-Seats mounts as they effectively have two special abilities. Personally, I think the Sky Golem is a little too good, and could stand a nerf.

Another possibility is to come up with a few more properties, and then let each mount have two special properties. That would lead to a bunch of combinations.

I think making sure all mounts have access to special abilities would make it more likely that a wide variety of mounts are used, and reduce the importance of getting specific chase mounts. Personally, I'm a little tired of seeing everyone on water striders, and would like to use a different mount every so often.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

FFXIV Eureka

In Stormblood, FFXIV introduced a new area/system called Eureka. It's meant to be a more old-school group mob-grinding experience with a lot of players (up to 144 per instance). As such, it's pretty controversial, especially among the forum community which prizes "skill". I kind of like it though.

In Eureka, you have a separate "elemental" level and all your stats are synced to a fixed point. Creatures generally require a group to kill, and experience has a very high drop-off, so you're sort of restricted to a band within two levels of your own. The larger and more skilled your group, the higher you can go.

The mob density is somewhat high. You can sneak around and run behind high level monsters without aggroing them, but you have to be careful and deliberate. If you accidentally aggro a monster with a much higher level, it will kill you in one or two hits. You cannot use a mount until max elemental level.

There's also a mechanic where you can attune yourself to certain elements, and either take less damage from or deal more damage to creatures of that type.  Finally, when you kill a creature your level or higher, it starts an "XP chain", increasing the amount of XP you get. If you kill the next creature within a minute or so, the XP chain increases.

So the base way you play Eureka is get into a small group and chain-pull specific mobs around your level. As your level increases, you have to keep moving to find new mobs.  There are challenge logs which require you to kill 30 or 60 creatures of a specific element once a week for a lot of XP.

The second way to play Eureka is the Notorious Monster train. If you kill enough of a certain monster, a Notorious Monster will appear. Once an NM is killed it won't respawn for a couple of hours. So people form a train of multiple 8-man groups, and move from area to area triggering NMs.

Killing NMs usually gives more currency to upgrade gear, while challenge logs are faster to level.

There are some interesting design decisions here and there. For example, if you respawn when you die, you lose XP, even dropping you back to the previous level. But if someone resurrects you, then you don't lose anything. So you'll see people asking for resses in general chat, and healers and red mages sneaking around trying to get to them and resurrect. A small binding together of community.

Eureka is not high skill or anything, but I find it fun. It's nice to join a group and just grind, or run around in a large group attacking, healing, ressing, with some chatter.  It's low intensity group content, which I think has been missing from the current generation of MMOs. It's something you can dip in and out of. Join the train, kill a few NMs, then leave. Groups pick up new members and lose old members as time goes on. A feeling of continuous content rather than something with a defined start and end.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Destiny 2 Impressions

Activision is giving everyone on PC the base game for Destiny 2 during November. Just open Battle.net and claim it as a gift.

I gave it a whirl. It's a pretty straightforward looter-shooter. You shoot things and collect loot. I rather like the variety of weapons. The inventory system is great, as it is combined with the character pane. Items are sorted by slot, so it's really easy to use. You can break down unneeded items for cash right away.

It's a little weird, but for a futuristic shooter the story is very "high fantasy", with lots of magic, and magic-like elements running around. I suppose it's kind of necessary for a game where you can respawn from death. The story is fairly mundane so far. 

It has a fair amount of cutscenes and lots of voice acting. Nathan Fillion plays a very Nathan-Fillion-esque character. Your character doesn't say anything, but she has an AI companion, Ghost (possibly not an AI but a real ghost), who talks for you. The Ghost also delivers information to your character during missions.

I played a warlock. I'm not entirely sure what the major differences between classes are. It seems to be mostly special abilities, while primary gunplay is very similar.

One thing I had a lot of trouble with was jumping, especially as there are some jumping puzzles in the game. At first I was quite surprised at how difficult these were, but then I finally realized that I was jumping wrong.

I thought that first you pressed Space, and then pressed Space while in flight to activate your suit thrusters. It turns out that there's two completely separate jumps. Just Space is a normal jump, but Space-Space in quick succession at the very start is boosted jump. Once I figured out that there was two different jumps for the warlock, the jumping puzzles became much, much easier.

The ironic part is that when I tried a different class, the Gunslinger, jumping worked more like my original conception.

All in all, Destiny 2 is a decent game. It's free to try, though it is an 80 GB download. I'm not sure it's going to hold my interest though. The community around it is very positive, especially with the latest expansion. Apparently the game at launch was considered to have a lot of issues, but the community greatly approves of the Forsaken expansion.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Blizzcon: What's Next for WoW

At Blizzcon, Blizzard laid out a road map for the next year or so of WoW. Here's what's coming up:

Patch 8.1
  • Releases Dec 11th
  • Raid comes out after the holidays
  • Raid - The Battle for Dazar’alor. 9-boss raid, Alliance attacks Horde capital. Includes Alliance bosses and Horde bosses. When you attack your same faction, it's like a point-of-view switch, and your raid appears as the other faction.
  • Warfront - Battle for Darkshore. Night Elves are angry. Malfurion actually does something useful.
  • Incursions - Basically Legion invasions, only this time the opposite faction attacks one of your zones.
  • Azerite armor changes - new traits, a new (fifth) ring of traits, mythic dungeons have a currency and a vendor
  • Some reputation changes - Paragon rewards, some reps will apply account-wide.
I like that the raid comes out in January. That seems like a good spacing to me. The two faction perspective is an interesting experiment, and I'm excited to see how it pans out.

I also like the pacing of the faction war. 8.0 was establishing bases and outposts. 8.1 heats things up with Incursions and the raid. Raising the stakes at an appropriate point in the story.

Patch 8.1.5
  • Allied Races - Kul Tirans and Zandalari
  • Warlords of Draenor Timewalking
  • More updates to holidays
  • PvE variant of Arathi Basin
  • Visual revamp for Warsong Gulch and Arathi Basin
  • Portal rooms for Storwind and Orgrimmar, consolidating expansion transport
I approve of breaking up the patch into smaller pieces. Hopefully this makes things easier and smoother for the development team.

Of these, I think the PvE version of Arathi Basin will be the most interesting. Key question: Will the AI fight on the road or not? And which answer is actually the correct behavior for a realistic AI?

Patch 8.2
  • Nazjatar - new zone, focus on naga and Queen Azshara
  • Azshara's Palace - 8 boss raid
  • Mechagon - megadungeon (like Karazhan)
  • Horde/Alliance story continues
  • Heroic warfronts
  • Flying is unlocked
As I really disliked Vash'jir, it's good to see that Nazjatar is on land. Karazhan was pretty popular, so Mechagon should be good. Otherwise, this patch is fairly far out, so there's not a lot of detail yet.

I believe there's also a small 2-boss raid raid coming between patch 8.1 and 8.2. And there are profession improvements, including a questline for every profession, but I'm not sure which patch it is in.

All in all, the next year of WoW looks good. Steady content and progress. I do hope Blizzard throws a curveball in somewhere, maybe in the story. I would like Saurfang to challenge Sylvanas, but then have Sylvanas defeat or kill him fairly in the Mak'gora. That would put an interesting gloss on the Horde story, making Sylvanas the "rightful" leader by all traditions.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Blizzcon: Classic Wow

Classic WoW was demo'd at Blizzcon this year, both for attendees and virtual ticket subscribers. As I am neither, I had to rely on reports from other people on the internet. Blizzard also announced that it would launch in Summer 2019, which is a little sooner than most people expected.

From all I've heard, Classic seems to on the right path, and hitting all the notes that people want. There are still minor inconsistencies, but they seem to be around things like tauren melee range, or the exact timing of warlock summons. Which are are relatively small issues.

The two bigger areas of controversy are sharding (multiple copies of a zone) and trading loot. There was some dismay that Blizzard was sharding the demo server, and will be sharding at launch.

In my opinion, Blizzard has to shard at launch. There's going to be a ton of tourists, followed by a steep drop in population. If a healthy server has 5000 people, it will probably need 15,000 at launch. If they open too many servers, three months from now there will be many dead servers. Just like SWTOR's launch. So sharding is the best solution.

The other change is that Blizzard will allow loot trading to other people in the raid. This is primarily so that people can fix mistakes with loot distribution, like master loot misclicks, rather than filing tickets with Customer Service. I think this is reasonable, and probably a good idea.

All in all, Classic WoW looks like it is on track. Then we'll see if people really want all those inconveniences, or if it is just nostalgia.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Overwatch's Latest Character: Ashe

At Blizzcon, Overwatch introduced their latest character, Ashe:

It's good to see a more basic hero, one who focuses on her straightforward weapons rather than special abilities. Ashe feels very much like a hero that could have been released at launch.

I was a fan of UT99 back in the day, and it's great to see a Shock Rifle variant make it into Overwatch. The Shock Rifle secondary fire was a slow-moving energy ball which could be detonated with the laser primary fire. Much like Ashe's dynamite. The skinning for that ability is just perfect, by the way. It's very intuitive, and fits her character like a glove.

The Ultimate ability, calling in help from B.O.B., is also unique. B.O.B, is really popular on the forums for some reason.

One of the most interesting things about this reveal is that Ashe actually loses in the animated short which introduces her character. Almost always, the hero reveal pumps up the hero, making her seem more competent. Ashe's loss is extremely unusual. And yet, I think it worked here, because Ashe is a small-time villain. It actually ginned up a lot of audience sympathy for her.

I do wonder if this would have worked with a male hero, though. Would an lower-competence male hero generate sympathy, or disdain?

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Blizzcon: Diablo Mobile Game

The biggest story from Blizzcon was the reveal of a Diablo mobile game, and the subsequent backlash from the crowd.

Personally, I think the backlash is a little excessive. Like many, I was disappointed that Diablo IV wasn't revealed. But if Blizzard wants to make a mobile game, to explore that space, then a streamlined Diablo III is probably the best fit. I don't play games on my phone, but--assuming the payment scheme is sensible, which is a big assumption--I might try this one out.

Though I suppose the backlash is just par for the course in the current age. Everything is pushed to the extremes. Something is either a 10/10 or a 1/10; the best or the worst; love or hate. There's no room for indifference, mild curiosity, or a wait-and-see approach.

I think that Blizzard made three mistakes here. First, they should not have announced the announcement. They should have just not said anything about Diablo like they normally do. Instead they explicitly said that there would be reveals at Blizzcon, and that got the hype train out of control.

Second, Blizzard should have been explicit about the payment model. I believe the main reason mobile games are disliked is that the micro-transactions are widely seen as annoying at best and predatory at worst. I would love to see Blizzard use their clout and establish a sensible price for a mobile game. The fact that they are not saying anything about payment models gives rise to suspicions that they're going to go down the predatory micro-transaction route.

Finally, Blizzard sends mixed messages about fan response. For example, in the WoW presentation, they talked about how the "Remove shoulders for Saurfang" had a big impact on the team and led to trying to make choices that matter (SWTOR players winced here). But saying things like this just encourages fans to overreact and start "movements" for every little thing. Blizzard would do far better to name drop people who make polite, reasoned arguments on the forums.

Basically, if the squeaky wheel gets the grease, don't be surprised when all the wheels suddenly start screaming. You get more of the behavior you reward or subsidize.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

When Robots Get Bored and Invent Team Sports: A More Suitable Test than the Turing Test?

Here's an interesting paper proposing a new way of determining if an AI has human-level intelligence:
Increasingly, the Turing test—which is used to show that artificial intelligence has achieved human-level intelligence—is being regarded as an insufficient indicator of human-level intelligence. This essay extends arguments that embodied intelligence is required for human-level intelligence, and proposes a more suitable test for determining human-level intelligence: the invention of team sports by humanoid robots. The test is preferred because team sport activity is easily identified, uniquely human, and is suggested to emerge in basic, controllable conditions. To expect humanoid robots to self-organize, or invent, team sport as a function of human-level artificial intelligence, the following necessary conditions are proposed: humanoid robots must have the capacity to participate in cooperative-competitive interactions, instilled by algorithms for resource acquisition; they must possess or acquire sufficient stores of energetic resources that permit leisure time, thus reducing competition for scarce resources and increasing cooperative tendencies; and they must possess a heterogeneous range of energetic capacities. When present, these factors allow robot collectives to spontaneously invent team sport activities and thereby demonstrate one fundamental indicator of human-level intelligence.
I think that the word "sport" should be replaced with "game". But the basic idea is interesting. We will know AI is intelligent when they start creating new games with recognizable rules.

It's an appealing idea because it also harkens back to childhood, where we play games, invent new rules, and even new games entirely. A common human experience and an expression of intelligence and creativity.

And of course, we'll know the AI has truly reached our level when they start trash-talking or rules-lawyering the opposition.