The Chase and the Sausage Factory

August 19, 2012 Comments off

The Chase:

I have been taking the tortoise approach to the Acquisitions Race for reasons of limited daily playtime and esthetics. The Chavin preach self-enrichment as life philosophy, and I am relieved that Bioware included a public sector angle, so to speak. I would have felt awfully un-Jedi running around and hip-checking competitors over a few shiny trinkets alone. As it stands, I will be pleased to dump the whole sorry collection into a Republic dropbox on Monday, for the intel-wonks to pore over.

It is fortunate that Jedi do not care for material rewards, because the most interesting item at the Enrichment vendor, the bowcaster, comes in Rifle and Sniper Rifle proficiency varieties and is probably the antithesis of a civilised weapon. It would be nice if force users could get something memorable from the event, especially if Sand People cosplay isn’t quite one’s thing. I do like that clunker of a speeder, though.

The slow approach is better, moreover, because it is enjoyable to drive around places like Nar Shaddaa and take in the local sights again. The corollary of this game being so battered by vitiriol and irrational hatred is that logging back into it with sagging expectations makes for a sweeter reminder of how good it actually is. The smuggler’s moon has its internal logic of glittering facade hiding slums, shady cantinas and spice laboratories, and it’s fun to unwrap it yet again without threat from low-level NPCs.

On a cautionary note: while the event did get people to log in and got public channels buzzing on Nar Shaddaa, Coruscant and the fleet, it is still essentially a solitary exercise. I have no problem with that, but having consolidated servers and achieved a critical mass of interacting players again at great cost to morale, Bioware needs to work harder to keep them connecting and to push back against the single-player MMO misperception that will probably never quite go away entirely.


The Sausage Factory:

Perhaps it’s just me, but in the olden days when the grass was green, game developers maintained a certain distance from the audience. It might sound like heresy, but in the case of Diablo 3 and Blizzard in general, I would rather the devs be less responsive and less overt about it when they do respond.

The detailed discussion of D3 class changes with constant references to crowdsourcing and forum feedback reminds me of what has happened to media coverage of politics. We have gone from covering political events to covering the coverage of those events, to covering the popular response to the coverage of the coverage, and we do occasionally lurch into absurd iterations going even further. Political actors adjust to media realities, and so we ended up with lamentable dominance of media operations or spin-doctors over actual policymaking operations inside governments and parties. The equivalent in game industry is not good for the product, either.

On the surface of it, it looks great. ‘We heard your concerns and here they are reflected in the design! We see YOU using a skill nearly exclusively, and so we are responding by making others more interesting. This is interactive, we are working on this together, you and we!’ Transparency of the devs’ thinking process as they search for truth, however, is no substitute for having gotten things right in the first place. Increasingly, paid-for betas and ‘release now, patch later’ are becoming the norm, and this feigned chumminess with the end-user only serves to lessen the design team’s responsibility.

In the end, it ought to be their field of expertise. Try giving ongoing design feedback at the bar of a self-respecting sushi chef sometime.

Categories: Mentality, Uncategorized

Self-Expression, or The Illusion Of Freedom

August 14, 2012 Comments off

As I half-ponder, half-plan my return to SW:TOR, the usual fundamental gaming questions arise. What shall I do on my next logon? What goals remain, are they reachable by multiple alternative paths, and in what order should they be pursued?

Were I currently part of an active guild, strong suggestions would present themselves immediately, based on the needs of others. During the server transition phase, however, my gameplay will be self-directed and socially mercenary in nature. Not strictly congruous with the nature of my Jedi Guardian character, but quite acceptable to the man at the keyboard.

Things To Do, or immediately accessible content, are at the heart of an MMO’s quality. The lack of endgame content (not something I’ve observed to be the case) is frequently cited as one of the major causes of SW:TOR’s popularity falling short of expectations. Perhaps the greatest change to WoW in Mists of Pandaria is diversification of things to do at level cap. And, of course, the distinctive and rejuvenating feature of sandboxes and PvP-centric MMOs is the treatment of players and player activity as content.

I always feel a twinge of disgust whenever I see this question approached from a purely consumptive perspective, as in: the player needs to chomp through a certain quantity of content that triggers adequate dopamine release at every stage, lest he feel that his oh-so-precious money has been ill-spent. For some reason unknown to me, this attitude afflicts MMOs more than most other affiliations. Few people would consider rescinding their loyalties to the Washington Nationals, Burnley or Auxerre just because of losing streaks, relegations and small hopes of league trophies.

It is a pity, because I do think that many people experiencing the MMO malaise we see everywhere would get more out of their games if they treated them less like bowls of content and more like toolkits for self-expression. It is perfectly legitimate to reject a particular set of tools as unsuitable, but once adopted, it is foolish to blame the tools for one’s failure to do anything rewarding with them.

One might object to this and ask: what self-expression? In most themeparks, there is a fairly short list of available activities: questing to level, questing at level cap for pertinent benefits, small group instancing, raiding, gathering-crafting and exploration. Also instanced group PvP and world PvP, the latter usually unrewarded unless happening in special cordoned-off areas. That’s about it. More or less end of story. Honourable mention goes to the economic metagame, which can be too complex in some games to pigeonhole in this way, but it does not threaten the point I am making.

From the standpoint of self-expression, it would be easy to proclaim sandboxes superior. Indeed, the absolute limits are gone and the freedom is incomparable. However, the relative limits are about the same. The vast majority of players are still steered by the game systems into a very finite set of particular activities. In UO, for every Rainz, there were thousands of people going through the same motions of skilling up, crafting, house-decorating and optimising for ganking or for survival. And so it went all the way down to EVE, whose primary activities are describable roughly in themepark terms, even by writers passionately insistent on the difference. One’s hi-sec economic activities, incursion fleet, wormhole, PvP roam, batphone rush and so forth are not particularly different from those of another player and his corporation. One fits one’s Drake or Tengu in the same long-established optimal way as everyone else. The rest is an aspirational mirage on the horizon which only a tiny percentage of players ever make their reality.

Gevlon’s recent experience, incidentally, is quite illustrative of the mirage: the green misanthrope heard of the freedom and imagined that, with his detachment and skill at social engineering, he could rock New Eden to the core. He invented creative, half-informed schemes which were repeatedly cut down to size by his commenters and field reality, until he distilled his choices to a themepark-like array of well-worn, standard EVE activities. In the end, it turns out he had been able to do a greater number of unique and interesting things in WoW, the on-rails themepark than in EVE, the sky’s-the-limit sandbox.

No, self-expression as I use it here does not mean doing something no one else has ever done. It means doing something many other people have also done, in your own way, with your friends, coloured by your own personality and principles, making your own memories. Even if it is just a Deadmines run, there are many like it, but this one’s mine. Content is a means to that end, not the end in itself. Instead of whining that the MMO offers only adventures in portraiture, paint the Mona Lisa.

The Secret World or The Bee’s Knees

August 9, 2012 Comments off

You get your powers and your special snowflake status by swallowing a bee in your sleep. More or less sets the tone for the rest of the game.

No, I have not cravenly jumped ship. SW:TOR is still my MMO of choice, but after the heartbreak of F2P, The Secret World’s free weekend provided a little welcome distraction… and occasionally, a reminder of why I still like TOR.

Faction selection in TSW offers uptight eurotrash, the inscrutable Asian stereotype (based in Korea; Funcom knows how to butter the toast) and the American party animal. The more reputable dictionaries include a portrait of the present writer to augment their definitions of uptight eurotrash, so Templars it is.

Character customisation is limited to the character’s head and complexion and involves the standard MMO potato head. The complete lack of body customisation is made up for by an emphasis on clothing choices. Not my thing, really. I’ve never been a Sims man, and I’ve always been more interested in the physical features of RPG characters than what they’re wearing, but the chargen is serviceable overall.

My first thought as I entered the mock-up of London, with my hearing assaulted by the so-very-cockney flavour of cockney: this is an upmarket version of those Flash “MMOs,” like Rusty Hearts or something, with an emphasis on fluff and fashion on a lightweight frame of gameplay. This initial impression was catalysed partly by TSW’s slightly odd visual style wherein very good textures and models are combined with uninspiring, perfunctory animations. It was also quite wrong, because TSW’s combat system is pretty fun and well thought-out, as discussed below.

Anyway, the premise is that one is a member of one of the three secret societies, investigating, containing or exploiting paranormal, occult and otherwise extraordinary phenomena, in competition among themselves. After swallowing the bee (sorry, will never get tired of that), the player character somehow manages to attract the attention of a recruiter who presents the usual offer-you-can’t-refuse, and away we go. I suppose it would be unkind to wonder how the Templars, Dragons or Illuminati manage to get wind of the bee-gulper. The latter doesn’t really leave the flat, trashing it instead with bee-induced powers like they’re Leahblo on Day Two.

After an orientation in London, New York or Seoul and a brief introduction to combat via induced borrowed flashback (induced by street theatre, an injection from an old, wacky Jewish scientist or sexual encounter respectively and depending on faction) one selects one’s primary weapon and with it, one’s fighting style. Your trainers lie about the exclusivity of this choice, by the way – go back into the training hall immediately and pick up your second weapon. Actually, pick them all up.

The weapons – assault rifle, shotgun, pistols, blade, fist weapons, hammer, and three “focuses,” one type for each of three schools of magic – are the organising units of the game’s skill system. Each weapon is associated with two ability categories in the first tier. When all skills in both categories are mastered, one can access a second tier of six categories containing more specialist skills for that weapon. There are also three tiny non-weapon categories comprising generic utilities for tanks and healers and so on.

Skills are divided into active skills and passive skills. Seven of each are allowed to be equipped at a time, which forces interesting, difficult choices and encourages designing and saving different gear+loadout combinations (“decks”) for different situations. Passive skills sit there and enhance things, obviously. Either global things or by modifying how active skills work. Active skills, generally speaking, are divided into resource builders and resource consumers. Resources work like familiar combo points from other games. You hit something five times with a builder, get five resources, spend them with a consumer. It is desireable to work on mastering two weapons simultaneously, as you can hold two at once and attacks with one weapon’s builder skills build resources for both equipped weapons. So even if you’re using, say, pistols exclusively and dualling hammer school just for the crit passives, it is wise to have one hammer resource spender on your active bar because your pistol shots build hammer resources, too.

The skills are purchased with Action Points, which are what one gets for questing and killing. There is a secondary kind of point that is awarded at a similar rate and governs the quality of gear that one is allowed to put on.

And… that’s it for character advancement. The player is permitted to combine weapons as he pleases, and generally do stupid or oddball-but-working things with the category choices. The freedom to make stupid choices is the best kind of freedom and one of my most cherished rights as a gamer. Props go to any developer who is not afraid to grant me that freedom even at the risk that I will merrily bollix up my “gameplay experience” and blame them for it. Did I mention that there are no respecs in the game? There are no respecs in the game.

There are right choices to make, too, and for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time reading through all the skills and figuring out synergies Funcom offers suggestions of prearranged decks that are supposed to work well together. It is usually clever to combine abilities that are empowered by each other’s effects. For a simple example, one can equip a passive that adds a bleed effect (Afflicted is the TSW parlance for any DoT) to a blade AoE move, and combine it with an AoE move from another school that self-heals a little for every Afflicted target struck. Having a couple of skills that set a Weakened state and a couple that exploit Hindered, on the other hand, might be an objectively poor choice, unless they’re tied together by converting passives somehow.

Through this levelless free-wheeling system and the possibility of situational adjustment of skill decks, the game originally attempted to dilute the trinity. It failed. Tank, dps and healer builds are as alive as ever, though it is easier to fashion oneself into any role on the fly if one has the appropriate set of gear stashed away.

Returning to theme and questing, the mission classification system is needlessly restrictive and complicated. There are seven types of the things: main story quests, investigation, item-related, action, sabotage, PvP, group/dungeon. Only item quests can be taken in batches of three at a time. This is meant, presumably, to force the player to delectate the content slowly and attentively instead of running around optimising questing routes, and I suppose it works, but the annoyance factor is not worth it, imho. Yokai begs to differ and explains the system well here.

The missions themselves tend to be a bit over the top and wringing a little too much mileage out of whatever it is they concern. If you are anything like me then ‘yes, I get the point already’ will be a frequent visitor on your mental stage as the NPC gets on with another iteration of the haunted stare and the harrowing tale. It does not help that your character is mute throughout the interaction (trying to retain the bee in his mouth, no doubt) and no response options are given. I know I have been spoiled by SW:TOR’s excellence in this area, but there is something akin to Uncanny Valley at play here: the NPCs are close to acting realistically but they’re trying just a little too hard. The Templar agent handler avers that “this is not a Dan Brown paperback”; unfortunately, pre-empting an accusation in a hip, pop-referential way is not the same as putting oneself in the clear. A Dan Brown paperback is more or less exactly what it is.

On the bright side, there is an amusing novelty to many of the mission givers: they describe a questable paranormal situation and leave it there. “There is this haunted house/amusement park/sewer. Just saying.” Given what you are, it is obvious what you are going to do. Also, honourable mention must be given to the crown jewel of TSW questing: the puzzles. The best of these do actually give one the sense of being an occult investigator. A few actually require googling, which feels weird and like cheating until you come across things like a burst Morse code audio transmission that would be impossible to decipher by ear for a non-professional. However, it does feel very good when one’s general learning or out-of-the-box thinking actually cracks a tough one without aid.

I have not had enough experience with the game’s dungeons to say much of worth, though I did tank the first dungeon without much of a hitch. Quick, very little trash, mostly bosses presenting variants on the dance – move out of this, drag boss into that, pick up adds. Not particularly innovative, but decent enough. Hostile area effects are marked very accurately by white lines on the ground, so the only explanation for staying in the bad is personal derp, of which I fortunately possess a generous supply.

Similarly, I have stayed away from PvP. Everything I read about it suggested a gib-fest, and I think I might be getting too old and comfortable to relive the WoW Season 8 Wizardcleave Experience.

The game is still subcription-based, and the box is a little expensive for what it offers, but it has a functional points-based cash shop, mostly with pets and clothes. The infrastructure is in place for a seamless transition to an F2P model, which is probably what will happen, not least because Funcom has acquired plenty of experience with it through their stewardship of Age of Conan. I’m slowly letting go of subscription elitism and coming around to the view that this model can work all right.

Categories: Other MMOs

Free To Play, or Train Yourself To Let Go…

August 2, 2012 Comments off

So, I was hoping to write an upbeat post for once.

I ended up biting the bullet and transferring Sullas to a destination silo on the 30th when it became clear that Bioware would do it for me by the end of summer. I was (and provisionally am) looking forward to reintegrating into the new community, returning to PvP, and making the best of the new situation.

Alas, after Harold Macmillan: events, dear boy, events.

I will readily admit that this is a disappointing development, probably for most of us who wish the game well and have developed a certain loyalty to it. It feels as though Bioware laid down its arms a bit too soon and fearfully, just as the game finally came into its own with tools like LFD, interface polish, numerous quality of life improvements that modern themepark players expect. Rated battlegrounds and the (stillborn?) story patch 1.4 never really got much of a chance to work their appeal. Surely, 900,000 subscribers amounted to some remaining fuel in the tank?

SW:TOR is the same game it was before this announcement, and it is still my opinion that it’s a very good game – with good mechanics, excellent levels of challenge available if you take a moment to find them, and the most immersive, epic storytelling in any MMO to date. However, it would be dishonest to argue on the grounds of superior taste. SW:TOR was designed for mass appeal. Its design did incorporate quite a few compromises to succeed in the Toyota way rather than the Bentley way. Succeed thus it evidently did not, although corporate mismanagement (referenced time and time again here at Soresu and elsewhere) rather than the core concept is to blame.

Cartel Coins are… so awfully tacky, though there is a certain dark humour to the conceptual link between EA and the Hutts. I do not really mind if people are allowed to buy Jawa pets, experience boosters, unique moddable outfits, coloured weapon crystals or whatever pleases them in the cash shop, i.e. if it works more or less like Lotro’s. I will begin looking askance at the system and indeed the game if it gets any more aggressive than that and encroaches upon in-game achievement. One test case will be the interaction of the cash shop with the Legacy and Valor systems, which at the moment present the player with several meaningful and worthy goals in the game.

Not a great week in TOR, but one tries to find inspiration to go forward from here. At least more people will get to experience the game, right?

Categories: Uncategorized

Outside Looking In, or This May Smell Bad, Kid…

July 8, 2012 Comments off

The ennui and melancholy of forced cheer on my origin server cry out for the pen of Remarque, or perhaps Papa Hemingway. I cannot render it adequately. There’s something irrefutably early-1920s in the atmosphere – perhaps it’s the bankrupcy of old dreams, combined with a sense of resentment at those who effaced them with their blunders. Perhaps it’s the vague feeling of generational responsibility. There’s certainly the requisite terrible absence of new blood – while there are signs that 1.3 aroused some new interest in the game, it benefitted only the destination servers.

Hard to blame the new subscribers and alt-rollers, really, for making rational choices. The writing is on the wall.  Bioware, as everyone knows, is now bribing us with Black Hole commendations and a pet to get the hell out of Dodge. The system announcement megaphone seems to be blaring more frequently, too. And yet, for all that, my guild leader is unable to get a straight answer about whether or not, or perhaps less naively: in what manner,  the old servers will close.

Still (are those distant strains of jazz I hear?) one carries on. I was exceedingly grateful for the threat buffs in 1.3 as I shook some of my PvE tanking rust off in Kaon, in the company of other server survivors. As far as PvP goes, the resolved compromise is simply to roll new alts on one of the destination servers. If the situation lasts until 1.4, we might make some sort of all-Cathar premade, for laughs. The community of… 19 concurrent users on a weekend evening is probably better than any community in any MMO out there. ‘Gaming’ the group finder by coordinating who queues is particularly amusing. I have no doubt that we will hold out until they shut us down, but there is a part of me that wouldn’t mind experiencing and writing about the game as it flourishes outside the asylum.

D3 sidenote: I’ve done a little bit of Inferno Warrior’s Rest farming (get to Warrior’s Rest checkpoint, kill the easy pack within, leave, resume) and I equipped a single rare drop out of about a hundred rares (as well as two poorly-rolled legendaries) as a small improvement over a piece of gear bought for under 100k. If that does not demonstrate the AH-centricity of the game, I don’t know what will.

Categories: Mentality, Uncategorized

Sticking Around, or Sibylline End of Days

June 25, 2012 1 comment

It would be difficult to overstate the magnitude of Bioware’s recent missteps in public relations. The game was freshly off a subscriber-numbers report that, viewed soberly, suggests the best retention rate of a recent MMO release, but was nonetheless quite shy of (to adopt James Ohlen’s language) top-tier-of-success expectations. The personnel consolidation that followed, viewed soberly, would have been more bizarre had it not occurred – but early on in its message management cycle Bioware managed to create the expectation that it wouldn’t and accordingly copped the dreadful “layoffs!” headlines. On the heels of this comes the hilarious treatment of lead designer Emmanuel Lusinchi’s interview with GamesTM, which was misquoted in the first place (‘we are looking into everything’ as opposed to ‘we are moving into F2P!’) then re-released with a correction, then kept alive with a rambling, philosophical interview answer by Ohlen. The kind of strategic blue-skies discussion that goes on all the time in all MMO teams quickly mutated into an image of commanders waving the white flag atop the trenches.

And now, we have what in my opinion are overly-aggressive server mergers, with very little public relations context provided. This may well be a good thing, given how helpful public relation context has been, but it does tend to leave people with a sense of anxiety, and insufficient information on which to make the decision whether to move or stay.

My own choice, for the moment, has been to stay. Its wisdom is questionable, but it feels right, and it is, at least, an interesting experience. The origin server is desolate, and it is a curious yet wholesome joy to run across another human being across the stretches of empty virtual real estate. I joined a guild of charmingly-dedicated survivors who hope that 1.3 might attract newcomers who could eventually form a new critical mass of community. We are trying to carry on with flashpoints and a couple of my comrades have resolved to seed the GTN with accessible lowbie goods in anticipation of the inflection point. It is all quite fragile, and might not last, but I think it befits free-thinking MMO players to try to make something from nothing instead of being herded around.

I will miss the PvP, though. And, dear Bioware, I could rather do without the red-lettered system reminder, every few minutes, about how free transfers are available.

Categories: Mentality, Uncategorized

Diablo 3 Monk Buffs or Stand And Fight, Grasshopper

May 30, 2012 Comments off

Today’s patch brought a couple of monk buffs, which essentially lagged behind community thinking. And community thinking lagged behind design intent. And design intent itself is shifting to match community desires. There is no beginning, there is no end, the flows are ceaseless, etc.

In the beginning, people, including myself, played Diablo III a lot like they would an MMO. We are trained, in an MMO, to specialise. Since our primary goal in Diablo is to destroy, we thought like DPSers, stacked our primary stat and went to town. It got us through Normal, at least.

In the higher difficulty levels, it slowly became apparent that we missed the point completely – we are our own version of the MMO trinity. We have to worry about defences (which means tanky stats like mitigation, mobility and avoidance) health recovery (including shielding and healing ourselves in various ways) and, in the end, damage.

The reality of this misapprehension hit the melee classes first, and most heavily. A ranged class (my glass-cannon gold-farmer demon hunter alt says hello) can kite forever and still call that compelling gameplay, since they’re able to do damage on the fly. In the case of the wizard, they were shielded from the pain of adjustment even more, owing to the broken low-hp-pool Energy Shield build. But the first time a melee player hit Hell and tried to dps in a desecration pool that destroyed him nearly instantly, tears and rage ensued. I keep mine in a vial nearby, as a reminder of darker days.

The problem was felt most acutely by monks. Our survivability does not scale as well with vitality as that of barbarians, and stacking vitality is, at first blush, the most obvious way to fix survivability problems.

For a while, the belief reigned that one must kite like a ranged class, only ducking into melee range to build up some spirit during Serenity immunity. This was, rightly, decried as untenable and stupid. But, eventually, the monks adapted and overcame. They reluctantly tore their eyes away from raw dps and started doing some effective health calculations that were very familiar to anyone who has been tanking in MMOs. Many began unashamedly equipping shields in lieu of the second claw.

The tools to stand and tank (within reason) were there all along. We just did not see them, because of our MMO damage-class mindset. As monks, we are given a 30% damage reduction compared to the ranged classes. Almost all our damage moves, spirit generators and spenders, have some kind of damage reduction (direct or in the form of stuns) tacked on if we choose to rune for it. That stuff adds up. We have plenty of self-healing that synergises with lower hp and high mitigation. We have the option of flicking on a dodge mantra before purely physical challenges. We have the powerful, transformative passive One With Everything, which allows us to extend our highest resistance value to all damage types, for a cheap alternative to resist-all gear.

Sure, we sacrifice some raw damage for all this, but a dead monk lands no blows. And it is better to be able to stand and pummel a monster for 2.5k damage semi-constantly than 3.5k for less than a quarter of the time while in the bubble. It just took us a long time to realise this, because of the MMO poison in our heads. Credit for collating and publicising a lot of this info goes to Kj991 of the monk forums, who was nowhere near the first to come up with the idea of stacking resists and life-on-hit and tanking properly, but perhaps the first to advocate it in a coherent way to the community.

Speaking of life-on-hit, getting a lot of this, preferably with some attack speed bonuses, is indeed a great, perhaps best, way to boost a monk’s survivability in a stand-up fight with higher-difficulty monsters. And in today’s patch, Blizzard give us a hint-by-four in that direction with the new Boon of Inspiration rune for Mantra of Healing, which is nothing else than a poor man’s extra life-on-hit, scaling by level to around 180ish at 60.

There is a lesson in this, somewhere. Monk survival comes about in a more arcane and roundabout way than that of other classes. Should Blizzard have been more explicit, earlier, in underscoring the stats we really need, like life-on-hit and resists? Then again, around 2% of all players have unlocked Inferno at all. At that kind of rarified percentile, should they not be expected to think outside the box and do their own theorycrafting? And, as an aside, could these 2% really be responsible for all the QQ on the forums? Talk about overrepresentation.

At any rate, I am enjoying my monk, mid-Hell, having spent barely 100k on auction house gear to retool for more defensive stats. I do not spend most of my time kiting, and in fact, I’ve got Cyclone Strike on my bar right now to yank stray mobs toward me and away from my witch doctor partner. I can survive standing still in a lot of bad or an arcane lance up the behind, though of course I try not to acquire bad habits. And, if Blizzard are to be believed, the future may be brighter… or they simply know their audience too well:

“That said, we’d like to shift some of the focus away from survival and more toward using a variety of offensive tactics to succeed. Survival will still be important, but finding ways to maximize your damage while staying alive is more exciting.”




Categories: Uncategorized