Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Ante up

I have spent a lot of time building games.  I also talk about them a lot, and thus everyone who knows me knows how much they mean to me.  This has lead to me getting an awful lot of questions about "When are you going to actually publish?"  Generally my answer is that since the self publishing game industry is pretty much a money pit for overzealous designers I don't necessarily feel obligated to publish.  I can make a thing of beauty without selling it and be happy with that, since selling it seems unlikely to generate money.

But money isn't the only thing.  I don't want to pour my dollars down a hole, but having a properly produced game that has nice art and looks beautiful would bring me great satisfaction, not to mention the smiles I would get from knowing others had it to play with.  This week I met with an artist friend who is interested in producing the art for Camp Nightmare.  He is eager to do it, but now the question of how the money gets handled comes up.  I could Kickstart the game and then publish it and send out copies to all the people who pay in... but that does involve me doing an awful lot of packaging and shipping and I know Kickstarters sometimes sink people on those costs if they aren't careful.  I could also just put it up on TheGameCrafter and get them to produce it while I take a cut.  Problem is that to do that I have to front all the money for the art first so if there isn't any interest then the outlay is all on me.

This means I suddenly have to be familiar with shipping costs, intellectual property rights for art, Kickstarter design, and a ton of other things.  It is a lot of work, and that kind of bureaucracy is a big part of why I hesitated to take the plunge before.  But this is a golden opportunity, to have someone with personal interest in the project and plenty of talent to get it done well.  If I just sit and don't do anything about it I am pretty much admitting that I won't ever do anything about it.

It is time to shove those chips in or walk away... no more checking and waiting.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Bribes

WOW has some problems with groups.  One of the big ones is that groups tend to have fixed structures in terms of roles, and the other is that groups are only generally successful when they have some people involved that are overgeared for the content.  It is possible to win with bad role balance or poor gear but it tends to take practice and patience and so it rarely happens in PUGs.

Role balance pretty much boils down to there not being enough tanks.  Everybody can do damage, and many people can only do damage, so there is always a shortage of people wanting to tank.  Tanks also have the responsibility of deciding which mobs to pull, how to physically arrange the pull, and are generally assumed to be in a leadership position, and that responsibility drives people away.  For quite some time now Blizzard has bribed tanks to join up in the LFG tool to try to balance things out.  At the moment they are offering 200 gold and an item that can be handed off to another character on the account to get tanks to queue up.  I have seen people complaining about how tanks get such juicy rewards, usually something along the lines of "But my class can't tank, it isn't fair that tanks get stuff for free!"

On one hand it does seem unfair that some classes have options to make tons of cash while they get to instantly join up with groups and others do not, but overall the experience for everyone is way better with this system in place.  Without it dps classes just get to sit around for an hour or more waiting for a tank to show up and that isn't fun for them at all.  Better a little inequality than a worse experience all around.

Recently I have been PUGging heroic raids and I notice that an awful lot of them had specific items 'on reserve'.  This means that the raid leader (or their friend, presumably) will automatically take the item if it drops.  At the outset I was really pissed off by this behaviour and resolved to not join such groups, but eventually I noticed that although it was bothersome in theory in practice it seemed pretty fair.  Those people reserving gear were usually overgeared for the content and only needed one or two drops in the entire zone.  They were usually doing top damage and had a lot of responsibility in describing mechanics, making groups, and even just showing up first to wait for everyone to join.  If all it takes to get an overgeared, experienced person to lead the raid is giving them a single item while everyone else gets to roll on the rest, isn't that well worth it to the group?

Of course there always exists the possibility that a leader is undergeared, incompetent, and/or greedy and they don't bring much to the group to justify the reserved gear.  In those cases though I think the group generally accomplishes very little and often doesn't get off the ground at all.  I know I will never join a group with gear on reserve unless the folks getting it are otherwise geared to the nuts so this problem likely fixes itself fairly quickly.  I suspect that most of the time the people doing the reserving are actually in a reasonable position to do so.

What I was also mulling over though was what exactly this does to raid comp.  If I see a bunch of PUG groups listed and one has a piece of plate on reserve, should I join that group?  Seeing that probably means that other platewearers are likely to stay away, which is great for me, and it also means that all the other plate in the zone in unlikely to be desired by the leader.  It does seem bizarre that a group with plate pieces reserved for someone else would attract me to it, but that actually seem like how it shakes out.  I wish I could find data on how that works in general though - how do random players respond to gear of their type being reserved?  Clearly if that is the only piece they need they stay away, but what if they need a bunch of pieces including that one?  Do they stay away anyhow?

I do know that I am far more likely to get loot in a group that kills a bunch of bosses regardless of whether or not there is a piece on reserve and I suspect other players feel the same way.  Though it may not seem exactly fair to reserve loot, I think the rational response to people reserving loot is to require them to be awesome enough to warrant it and then just accept it and move on.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

So many ways to get shinies

I have been raiding as a ret paladin in WOW for the past month or so.  It has been a great time and my general liking for raiding is certainly increased by the experience of rapid gearing and power progression.  I joined a guild that was full of people with better gear than myself, by quite a lot, and I started out on the bottom of the meters looking somewhat incompetent.  Everyone knows that being undergeared means you can't do much damage and it isn't some kind of failure but somehow that isn't much consolation when you know that the raid would probably do better if they just dropped you entirely.

As is usually the case in such circumstances I geared up fast because everything that dropped that nobody else needed I could put to good use.  I was at 641 item level when I first started advertising for a new guild and now I am at 673.  This means, roughly speaking, that I am now doing 50% more raw damage and probably have similar gains in terms of toughness.  Over the course of three weeks that is a pretty astounding improvement.  It is two full tiers of content of progression, the equivalent of getting about 30 good drops in 21 days.  I have gone from bottom of the meters to the top, pushing out really good numbers on all the fights, which tracks quite closely my gear going from the worst by far to right at the top.  (My luck on getting all slots filled has been fantastic, it turns out.)

The gearing situation in Warlords Of Draenor is really different from previous expansions.  In the past I was used to most gearing paths being essentially mandatory, particularly for someone like myself trying to break into a guild with much better gear than myself.  I can do Looking for Raid and follow around a bunch of buffoons who stand in fire, are clueless about mechanics, and are generally awful.  Still get gear that way though!  I can do garrison invasions, buy apexis crystal gear, farm mats and gold for crafted gear, pvp, PUG raids, and even send my followers out to do raids for me.

I really like this huge range of possible activities.  There are lots more things in the game to do on top of all that of course but even just the list of things I was doing to get better raiding gear was huge and I couldn't possibly accomplish it all.  That, to me, is a really good sign.  No particular thing was mandatory - if I hate apexis grinding I never have to do it and that is true of everything.  I remember back in Burning Crusade 7 years or so ago how I basically had to grind pvp battlegrounds to get my raiding gear and that sucked in a big way.  Now I have many things I can do and they all have the chance to incrementally help me out but nothing is required.  There is a great feeling to being able to choose my activities and to being able to decide how I want to advance.

Now my gear is good enough that there is really not much left to do but raid.  I can still farm up money and let my followers hunt for gear and such but because of my rapid advancement I am running out of easy things to do that might help me.  It will be good, I think, to get to a point where all I really have to do is maintain my garrison daily stuff and do my actual raiding.

That follower raiding thing is kind of funny.  Right now I am at a point where my followers are raiding to get me 685 gear but my guild is only fighting bosses that drop 670.  Somehow the idea of my raiding being a sideshow to my dorks seems wrong!  There was even one raid night where my guild didn't kill anything but my dorks went to the same zone, killed a boss, and brought me back some loot.  I did not feel good about myself that day.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

About sexism in video games

I was playing WOW today, wandering about the woods gathering lumber.  I encountered a gigantic fallen log and when I clicked on it to turn it into a big stack of lumber I got a little scene instead.  Someone was trapped under the log asking for help, and a lumberjack informed me that he would get the log off of the little girl trapped under it.  When the log was moved it turns out the person trapped underneath it was not in fact a young girl but was a wealthy white man.

So embarassing, right?  To be a man, a powerful one at that, and to be thought female?  What a laugh!

I get that Blizzard is having a good time poking fun at rich people.  All fine and well.  What bothers me though is that they really do think that the best way to make fun of a man is to suggest that he can be mistaken for a woman.  That particular bit wasn't necessary to the joke at all as they could have just said that a small child was trapped under the log and had the same 'laugh at the rich dude' schtick without the random sexism.

WOW isn't the worst MMO out there for sexism, not by a long shot.  They actually do try to make the game inclusive and make sure that there are women out there in positions of power, doing big things, as well as women filling the small roles.  However, they still have these issues where random characters default to being male.  Although my garrison guards are roughly half women the mine only has men in it.  Lumberjacks are all men.  While in the real world lumberjacking is a job that is pretty heavy on the raw physical strength requirements and thus generally going to have more men in it, we are talking about a world of fireball hurling, death defying heroes.  The male models may have bigger biceps but that does not affect the efficiency of my mine, nor the ability of a lumberjack to wield a chainsaw in each hand.  Which they do, for some reason.

There is no need for people in the game world to default to male.  There is no call for random jokes that make it clear that the designers feel that being female is embarrassing.  Blizzard can, and should, do better than this.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A delicate touch

Blizzard announced recently that they are increasing the power of gear that comes from the newest raid zone.  It used to be that the gear from the old zone was 655 or 670 item level (from Normal or Heroic respectively) and the new zone was 665 / 680.  Now the numbers will be 655/670 for the old and 670/685 for the new.  The adjustment is a relatively small one but it makes it clear that they are very carefully trying to figure out exactly how to dole out rewards.  What is interesting to me is trying to figure out exactly what their goals are in doing this.

Upping 665 gear to 670 means that the old zone has been rendered much less meaningful in terms of farming up gear.  Any group that can easily clear it on Heroic probably has most of their gear 670 anyway, so they are doing the new fights and not worrying as much about farming.  Anyone who can't get Heroic mode down easily in the old zone is probably moving right over to doing the new one on Normal because it is slightly easier to get the same quality of loot.

The thing is people are hugely motivated by those numbers.  If the new zone was harder but had the same item levels the great majority of the people wouldn't try it.  They would just stay in their comfort zone.  Blizzard wants people to keep on trying new things because that is fun and fun retains players, but they don't want the old zone to empty out in an instant either.  Blizzard is trying to create just enough incentive for people to try new things by having the rewards be slightly easier to get, but that is a tricky thing because people are already used to the old fights so they are naturally going to be easier to execute than new things that need to be practised.

My sense is that originally the Normal mode new fights were a touch easier than the Heroic fights of the old dungeon and consequently awarded slightly lower level gear.  However, practice makes such a difference that people weren't terribly interested in putting in the effort to learn new things when the rewards weren't ratcheted up enough.  This is particularly true because guilds definitely get to a point where they can farm the old content on Heroic and the new content on Normal and then realize that all those 665 drops are invalidated by 670 drops and the new dungeon suddenly seems pretty worthless until you can actually beat it on Heroic.

It really comes down to how people look at the content.  If the new stuff was only slightly more difficult but awarded slightly better gear people would go there.  That is, if Normal raiders went from 655 to 660 it would have worked.  But since the new zone was closer in item level to the old Heroic it got balanced and compared to that and it suffered by that comparison.

Given that Blizzard really didn't want to nerf the gear, nor to nerf the content itself, they really had no choice but to push up the item levels for rewards.  I think this new set of numbers will do what they want - provide incentive to move on to the new zone without totally invalidating the last one, at least not right away.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A corner, backed into deliberately

Diablo 3 is getting a bunch of balance and content changes in patch 2.2.  I don't play enough to be able to comment on the overall shape of class balance but I do think Blizzard is in an interesting place when they try to make changes to the game at this point.  The situation they are in is they have two very distinct games, both of which are called Diablo 3.  The first game is one in which characters put on whatever gear they can find and that gear mostly just makes them a little tougher, do a little more damage, find a little more gold, or other similar bonuses.

Eventually those characters make it to maximum level and then everything totally changes.  This second game is one where you can find two pieces of gear that have a set bonus.  That set bonus gives you a permanent set of 8 minions who deal a truckload of damage and are extremely tough.  If you are otherwise just playing a character who casts spells at the enemies you would find that these new minions multiply your damage by 3 times, making your personal contribution pretty pathetic.  Also because you are now surrounded by dorks your survivability goes through the roof.

So we have one game where all the spells do something and people have a ton of ways to play, and one game where the only thing that matters is which set of ridiculous gear you are wearing.  Any spell not supported by an overpowered set is worthless in that second game.  If the devs increase the damage of Acid Cloud by 100% that would make it amazing for levelling up, but it would still be completely irrelevant in the endgame because it doesn't have a gearset dedicated to propping it up.  This makes it tricky for altering gearsets or spells because there are two totally separate worlds that they have to live in.  Much like it is always a challenge to build abilities in WOW that are useful but not overpowered in both PVE and PVP this makes new designs finicky.

This system is also very sensitive to small changes in the system.  If a particular set completely defines a class in the endgame because they have no other comparable options any tinkering with that set is tantamount to tinkering with the whole class.

I should note here that Blizzard certainly could just throw up their hands and decide that balance isn't a big concern.  Certainly the levelling game is ridiculous at this point as I think most people just get a max level character to powerlevel them from 1-70 in an hour so balance in that area is pretty irrelevant anyway.  However, because Blizzard really wants Diablo 3 to be a competitive game and they want to maintain leaderboards and such they seem to have thrown their lot in with making things balanced between classes.  Clearly they aren't trying to make spells or gear balanced at all, but they do want every given character to have a chance to be good.  They know that players care, which I can attest to as when I was playing and Demon Hunters were the best class I generally found that 50% or more of the characters I ran in to were Demon Hunters.

WOW has become a lot more predictable and staid in terms of the way gear works and is handed out.  No more outrageous items that last for five tiers of content, not any more.  Diablo 3, on the other hand, has gone the opposite way and has swung from boring gear with pure numbers on it to complete insanity.  I suspect it is better now for both games as the genres they occupy are quite different indeed.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Reduced loyalty

In recent times WOW has made some changes to the way raid lockouts work.  It used to be that each instance of a raid had a unique ID and once you joined that instance you ended up saved to it.  This was a powerful force in raiding because it prevented people from playing through a raid multiple times for loot, practice, or just entertainment.  It was a big reason that guilds were so powerful and guild loyalty was such a force.  If your guild raids SSC then you cannot go to SSC with another group because you will end up locked out of the guild raid, which means if your guild needs you later in the week they are out of luck.  Raiding a zone with outside people was treated as something of a betrayal, practically the same thing as quitting raiding with your guild.

These days the mechanic is both different and better.  Each player can only loot a given boss once per week but they can fight wherever and whenever they like.  I can go through a raid with some friends on a lark and then when my guild raid happens I can go through again, though I won't be eligible to loot the same boss the second time around.  The effects of this change have become obvious as time goes by.  I often see people running mostly cleared raids in PUGs in the hope that they can get another boss down.  Back in the day it was a big deal to sell guild raid IDs and guilds would end up purchasing them from one another occasionally to do something specific.  Selling your guild's ID to another group was a betrayal of the highest order!  Now that those IDs are a thing of the past you can join up with a PUG to try to kill a particular boss and the worst case is that you kill it again with your guild and only get loot once.  Not so bad!

It seems to have changed the way guild loyalty works.  People constantly raid outside their guild with alternate groups because there is no penalty to doing so aside from the time investment.  It is almost like there is a palpable decline in tribalism, as though the attachment guilds and members feel to each other is lessened.  I can see how some people might view that as a penalty but I think it is a good thing.  The sense of betrayal and bitterness that showed up when someone left a guild was terrible to behold and now there is less need for that.  You can more easily raid with your friends and are less constrained by the artificial construct of a single guild membership.

Flexible raid sizes surely contribute to this too.  When you must bring seven healers to a zone and one of them quits WOW or raids with someone else you are all in a bad way.  Unless you are raiding mythic difficulty though you can just run with less people and be fine.  If you find a new recruit who seems promising you don't have to bench them until you have space... just bring them along.

Guilds these days feel more like a way of creating social spaces rather than organisms savagely competing for scarce resources, jealously guarding their hoards.  My sense is that it is a lot more comfortable to run things this way, to have players feel more free to go where they will and fight what they want instead of being locked into groups that feel extremely possessive of them.  The sense of loyalty to a guild feels like it is lessened, but so is the sense of obligation.  It is a tradeoff that is very much worth making, I think.