Thursday, December 8, 2016

Won't that demon ever die?

There is talk about that Diablo 4 is in the works.  It might even be true!  While that likely means that launch day for such a project is about five years out, it is not too soon to start having opinions on what exactly Blizzard should do to make D4 a success.  Thankfully I have many opinions, and I am not too shy to share them.

I think the simplest approach is to take D2 and D3 and talk about which parts of each game worked.  I played a metric fuckton of D2 and a fair bit of D3 so I think I know what I am talking about here, particularly since I am not married to either game.  I thought D3 made some major missteps but had some things going for it, and obviously D2 was made a billion years ago and much of its shine is nostalgic in nature rather than objective.

The critical thing that D2 had going for it was exploration and story.  That is, the lack of a cohesive storyline and the ability of the player to wander this way and that while getting terribly lost was a huge plus.  There were things in D2 that you had to do, whether it be as simple as killing the boss of Act1 before going to Act2, or as complicated as building the flail in Act3 by clearing out a variety of huge dungeons.  The key thing though is that tons of the game was optional.  Don't like a boss?  You can probably skip em.  Quest not interesting or have terrible rewards?  Don't bother!  Want to kill Mephisto 60 times an hour?  Be my guest!

That freedom to do whatever the hell you want is *amazing*.  Random maps and quests you can ignore are the absolute basics.  D3 did the opposite of this and it SUCKED.  Every quest was mandatory, you had to do everything in order, you never made a damn choice at any point, and this led not to adventure but to tedium.

Let me also say that Blizzard needs to take the trope of a villain's face appearing on your screen to mock you when you complete objectives and burn it with fire.  It takes any sense of mystery away, ruins the feeling of sneaking up on the enemy, and makes a mockery of immersion.  It serves no mechanical purpose and feels like a punch to the gut.

The world needs to be *open*.  Fuck the script.  Just have a few gateway points that I have to get through somehow and then let me figure out how to get there.  Have a tower in the middle of nowhere that had a basement five levels deep.  At the bottom there can be a boss that drops a rune!  A useful reward, but one I can skip if I so choose.  Also add in caves that the locals need you to clear out, and have them grant you a reward when you do.

Make the game HUGE.  Have a town where the locals tell you where to go, and have a road you can follow.  Of course the road is infested with monsters, but that is the fun part!  But if you wander off the road, oh my, there should be forests with twisted trees and swamps and caves and monsters and everything.  HUGE.  Full of random stuff!  I want to run off into the wilderness murdering everything I see and discovering weird little nooks and crannies and bizarre dungeons.  Like Skyrim, but Diablo style.

This sounds like D2 is just the thing.  But I don't want difficulty to work like D2.  Running through three difficulty levels was ass.  Getting to endgame and then running just one zone over and over was also ass.  D3 had a great innovation in giving you more things to do after you have beaten the story and gotten to endgame grinding mode.  Scattering rewards throughout the world for players to hunt down is a great way to keep the world and the story relevant - sort of like world quests do for World of Warcraft right now.  Blizzard would probably want to keep people from spamming single events over and over so I think they might want to do something like they did in D3 to get people to do multiple things.  Perhaps ramping up rewards from events after each event is completed would do the trick, or giving rewards for doing many events in a single zone.

The numbers on abilities and gear need to be considered with care.  First, abilities need to be tuned so that they are all useful as you level through the game.  Second, gear needs to improve you, but not make you twice as tough and do twenty times as much damage as happens these days in D3.  People testing the game should actually be levelling through the game with every ability to figure out which ones are worthless so they can be made relevant.  Not every ability needs to be great, but there needs to be a big selection of top tier ones so that players have a range of reasonably optimal choices.

No damn trading.  Trading sucks.  The game should be about mowing down hordes of monsters, not fleecing noobs.  You want to fleece people?  Play poker.

There should be complexity in gearing.  Lots of gear types.  Lots of things like gems, runes, sockets, enchantments.  Huge numbers of ways to augment your character through gearing.  Path of Exile has some examples, but there are plenty of others.

Fast paced combat needs to be there.  D2 combat was, for many builds, super repetitive and boring.  D3 is often slicker and feels better.  Having a single button that you use for every situation and every monster is not great, and D2 often had that problem.

Levelling needs to be closer to D2.  The power increase from 90 to 99 wasn't much, but the time and prestige were immense.  Let's get back to that, rather than paragon level grinding.

Let me summarize:

Huge world.
Minimal plot, most quests can be ignored.
Many random events with rewards, mostly optional.
Variety of useful tasks at endgame.
Fast paced combat.
No trading.
Many ways to incrementally improve items.
Complex gearing at endgame.

There is your ticket to infinity dollars Blizzard.  Do with it what you will.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Bandaids

Blizzard is doing some really weird things to stat in WOW.  There are two problems they seem focused on.  One is that secondary stats (crit, haste, mastery, versatility) are in some cases being better than primary stats (strength, intelligence, dexterity).  The other issue is that the value of various secondary stats fluctuates wildly, and some specs basically only care about one stat because it is so good for them.

The solutions Blizzard is looking at are interesting, and to my mind, flawed.  Their plan is to reduce the effectiveness of secondary stats.  For example, crit is going to require 400 points to get 1% crit chance, whereas currently it requires 350.  This will certainly mean that people are less excited about secondary stats because they just don't do as much.  It will also overall nerf classes that have particular benefits from a specific stat.  For me as a Ret paladin this is irrelevant, as all stats are fairly similar, except mastery which is bad.

But wait!  Blizzard doesn't want to nerf people overall, so they are going to increase the amounts of primary stats on items to keep player power constant.  We will hit harder, but won't crit as much or go as fast.

This is, however, just a bandaid solution that will wear out fairly quickly.

See, it used to be that all the stats on an item scaled up at the same rate.  Gaining 15 item levels meant that all the stats on an item went up 15%.  But this had problems because people kept doing things like getting near 100% crit, and that was bad and messy.  Primary stats still scale like this, but secondary stats scale pretty close to linearly.  That means you can start at 25% crit and have your crit talents feel useful, but not end the expansion with 100% crit where nothing makes any sense.

The problem is that this won't work in the long run.

Imagine two tiers of content from now.  We will probably have gear 50 ilvls higher, which means that primary stats will be 60% higher than current.  However, secondary stats on gear will only be up enough to push us from 25% crit to 35% crit.  That means that even if primary stats are the best now, they will improve by 8%, while secondary stats improve by 60%.  This will put us back in exactly the same spot.

Even if Blizzard's changes manage to cement primary stats as 50% better than secondary stats right now, they definitely won't stay that way.

Personally I think that making secondary inferior just isn't worth the upheaval that these changes will create.  I can see that they thought primaries would be better - if you look at gems and enchants and such you can clearly see that the ones gated behind ingredients or high skill level are the primary stats.  The fact that they thought I would pay tons of money for a 200 str gem but I actually use a 150 haste gem because it is better is unintuitive, but not really a gamebreaking problem.  The difference between the two is miniscule, on the order of .1%, so it doesn't really matter much which players go for.  It feels weird that the system works this way, but when you make big sweeping changes you ought to have a pretty good reason for it and I don't think their reasoning justifies the alterations, especially because it won't even last the expansion before the problem reasserts itself.

Now the changes that they are making to even out the value of some stats do make sense to me.  Obviously based on spec and talents stats should shift in value, but they shouldn't be three times as valuable as one another, that is too much.  Making some changes to fix those extreme inequalities is a good idea, to my mind.  Individual specs should not say "Oh, I would never use an item without crit.  Doesn't matter what other stuff it has, only crit matters."  That is too much.  (Fire mages!)  If crit is 50% better than mastery, that is all well and good, and you will hunt down crit gear.  But if you find a much higher level item you will still put it on, which is pretty much what we want.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Getting the numbers right

Blizzard is doing a bunch of talent tuning in the next patch for WOW, 7.1.5.  I have been looking at the ret paladin changes and so far I am impressed with them.  There were some real problems with ret paladin choices up to this point but Blizzard seems intent on fixing them.

The obvious example of this is the first talent tier.  Currently the choices are

1.  Final Verdict:  20% bonus to my best single target attack, and 10% bonus to my best AOE attack.

2.  Execution Sentence:  A new single target attack that has a cooldown but does a lot of damage.

3.  Consecration:  A new AOE attack that has a cooldown but does a small amount of damage.

The problem with these talents was not the theme or base design, since they are completely fine that way.  The problem was the numbers.  It was almost as though the designers forgot that adding in new spells comes at a huge cost.  If I want to cast a new spell I have to make room for it in my rotation, and that means losing out on damage on my other spells.

Both Execution Sentence and Consecration were fine spells to have, but if you actually looked carefully at what you would have to skip casting to get them in they suddenly looked really terrible.  ES does 350k on a 20 second cooldown, but you have to skip a 275k attack to cast it.  Consecration does 100k on a 10 second cooldown, but you have to skip a 70k attack to cast it.  Final Verdict though, it just does 55k every five seconds no matter what.  All the talents have similar damage benefits, but the two that grant new spells have a punishing cost that doesn't seem to be accounted for at all.

It wasn't like there was a choice.  Both of the new spells simply weren't good enough to ever make the cut.  If you managed to sneak them in without any cost at all they would have been fantastic, but since my rotation is already really full that is just a pipe dream.

The telling point is this:  There was *no* situation in which Execution Sentence or Consecration was right.  None.  It is completely fine to have niche talents, but when you can't come up with a situation in which you would take a talent it needs to be changed.

Blizzard noticed that nobody was ever taking Execution Sentence and Consecration and changed them.  Execution Sentence is getting a 55% buff and Consecration is getting a 100% buff in the upcoming patch, and now we have a real choice!  Raiders tend to focus almost exclusively on single target damage and for those people Execution Sentence will be the superior choice.  Only by a small amount, but it will be the best.  Consecration will be the best for heavy AOE.  Both will be usable outside their niche, but won't be great.  Final Verdict will straddle the two, being second place in pretty much all situations but having the benefit of not needing to think about an additional spell.

That last point is real.  Simpler rotations and less thinking about cooldowns, areas, etc. makes you play better.  It gives you more brain cycles to work with for the rest of the game.  Anyone struggling with information overload will be well advised to take the passive talent, and that is fine.  It is no problem to have passive talents that players can take if they don't want to think as much.  The goal is to have real choices that change based on circumstance, and Blizzard has achieved this with the current build.

That isn't to say the patch is perfect now.  There are still issues, mostly with my level 100 talent row that has one automatic choice, one inferior choice, and one joke.  However, Blizzard is clearly moving in the right direction and making good choices so I have real hope that they will get things sorted out by the time the patch launches.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A flood of ideas

My Heroes By Trade campaign came to a crashing halt last night.  To no one's great surprise it happened because there was finally a showdown between my character, Po, a paladin type with a penchant for smashing objects (or smashing people) when things went sideways, and Gnarr, a gnome who never ran into a bad idea he didn't test out.

Gnarr had 'accidentally' smashed much of a city.  He 'accidentally' invited a powerful and dangerous creature from below the earth to come and visit the surface, and the city was significantly damaged and had to be evacuated.  This was a disaster because we desperately needed the city's housing and infrastructure to cope with a large number of orks that needed a place to live, and they were going to take it by force if negotiations failed.

Then Gnarr decided to try to coax even more of the powerful and dangerous creatures from below to the surface and they listened, causing a volcanic eruption and annihilating the remains of the city.  The first time it was reckless and foolish, but Gnarr didn't know that his actions would be nearly as destructive as they were.  The second time was, in Po's humble opinion, pure evil.  He destroyed a city just to watch it burn.

Following this Po decided to tell Gnarr that he was out of the group and demanded he hand over his powerful magic items so he could do no more damage with them.  Gnarr refused, and tried to flee.  Our merry band was on Po's side, so the merry band prevented Gnarr running away.  Gnarr, backed into a tough spot, decided to use one of our powerful magical items to immediately kill the merry band.  This also destroyed Gnarr's spirit, but since he already had a demon riding around inside his head this didn't stop his body.  (The demon rider was a previous extremely bad idea of Gnarr's.)  Po and Gnarr's body (piloted now by a demon) fought to the death and Po was victorious, finally going through on her endless litany of threats against Gnarr for his recklessness.  Po wouldn't have killed Gnarr otherwise, but because he murdered the merry band she murdered Gnarr in turn.

Po, filled with grief, gathered all the items of power and embarked on a magical quest that was certain to kill her.

And so it ended.

Sort of.

I mean, I am curious as to what will happen with the world now that the heroes who were trying to save it murdered each other.  Probably it is catastrophic.

But Gnarr is dead, and although he is likely less destructive than the demons the party was aiming to kill, that isn't certain.  The world might be better off with the demons than the gnome.

Now I have to get the next version of the game ready.  I have been sitting on it for a year now, occasionally tinkering, but mostly just waiting for an opportunity.  I don't know if every writer is this way, but as soon as I have a deadline like this I am suddenly flush with ideas. I need to fix everything, change everything, make everything better!  I could have been doing this stuff a week ago, or a month ago, but now I actually have to put the next version in people's hands, and that gets my creativity juiced up like nothing else.

I really work to deadlines and my hobbies are no different than my actual work in this way.  I just have to convince people to give me another 24 hours to push all of my stuff into the document in a big pile now that things are coming fast and furious.

Time to begin testing out all the mechanics I have been carefully massaging for so long and see if they are as beautiful out in the wild as they were in my head.  Also to test some half baked notions I just now came up with in a flurry of last minute pressure.

So excited!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

No one wants to see that

There was an interesting letter to Blizzard and WOW players in general written recently by a top raiding guild called Exorsus.  They have been banned because they used an exploit to beat Mythic Helya and they wanted to explain the exploit and make some complaints about the game otherwise.  This is one of those exploits that you can totally understand a top guild using, because they had a strat that was reasonable and not an exploit in phase 1, but when they tried to do it in phase 3 of the fight it broke the fight.  Programming error, for sure, but they used it to get a kill and Blizzard punished them for it.

I am not here to argue about that exploit today though.  What I wanted to address was some of the other stuff in the letter, particularly the bits where the author asked for more support for the PVE dragonslaying part of WOW, namely big cash prizes for beating bosses first.  Along with that they want Blizzard to actually show off those races and make it more of a prestige thing.

This is an example of a person who has no clue about how entertainment works.

Imagine a tennis program on TV.  Roger Federer hits the ball, and gets an ace.  Then he hits it again, and gets an ace.  Then he hits it a third time, and does not get an ace.  But there is no opponent, just a computer and a camera checking to see if it is an ace.  When Federer misses he starts again, and he keeps restarting until he hits 20 aces in a row.  So hour after hour Federer hits the ball, checks to see if it is an ace, and his count gets higher and higher, but doesn't quite hit 20 for the victory.

Eventually Federer goes off to sleep, and then eight hours later he is back at it.  At some point within a three day span he will hit his 20 aces, celebrate like mad, and walk off the court.  Compelling TV, right?

That is what some PVE WOW players think people should want to watch.  It is fun to practice and get better at raid encounters but it is absolute shit as entertainment for the masses.  We want to watch Federer play against Nadal because we know someone will win within a few hours and the activity is varied and unpredictable, in as far as tennis can be such a thing.  Federer hitting aces and the computer verifying them is awful.  In just the same way watching a guild die to an encounter making incremental progress for 14 hours a day until they win is not entertainment.  PVP WOW actually has some followers, though not a great number by any means, because it is a far better viewer experience.

Which is why nobody is going to put up big prize money for it.  Nobody wants to see it.  What possible reason could Blizzard have for throwing enormous wads of cash at hardcore players?

They have a great reason not to though, and I don't mean "We want to keep all the money".

If you think players cheating, exploiting, and doing outrageous things to try to get world first kills is bad now, imagine how it would be if they were playing for a million dollars.  The pressure to break the rules becomes absurd when someone's rent depends on killing the boss, and the problem is that with a lot of these exploits you actually have no idea if pursuing them will get you banned or get you victory and accolades.  Sometimes people know they are cheating, but it would end up being a constant issue where players would get a kill and then Blizzard employees would have to decide if a thing was legal or not and who to give the million dollars to.

That can't end well.

In most sports they get the rules down pat pretty well because they do the same thing over and over again.  In WOW things constantly change.  Raids are new, classes shift, and the preparation part of the game is ever changing.  Coming up with a really robust set of rules under those circumstances isn't practical.

Thing is, WOW makes money off of casual players.  Blizzard wants some hardcore players out there so the casuals have something to check out on websites and addons to put into the game but trying to keep every hardcore player working their asses off has no payoff at all.  You play WOW PVE hardcore for the love of the game or you don't play.  I am not saying that is how it *ought* to be, just saying that this is how it is, like it or not.

Nobody wants to watch you slay dragons.

So slay the dragons, or not.  Cheat, or not.  But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that us doing this is entertainment for the masses, or that we are going to make big money doing it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

To infinity

I saw an interesting discussion today about the way Mythic+ dungeons have worked out in WOW's latest expansion.  Basically the way it works is each week you get a key, which can be used to do a specific dungeon at a specific difficulty.  If you complete it in time, you get a key for a harder dungeon, and you can do that until you fail the timer.

In theory this means that players doing 5 person content can do it for a little while until they hit their difficulty cap and then they stop.  Just like raiding, there is a finite amount of stuff you can do in a week.  In theory.

In practice once people get done with their own keys they just split off into 4 person groups and advertise for noobs with keys that still work.  The noob gets hauled through the dungeon and everybody gets loot.  The supply of noobs with keys who are willing to be hauled through dungeons by geared players is huge, so people can effectively run Mythic+ dungeons all day every day if they feel like it.

If you happen to be a tank or healer with good gear you don't even need a group to do this, as your services will always be in demand and you can just run whatever dungeon you like forever using other people's keys.

Some people really don't like this, and I can see why.  If you are in the position where you can always be doing something to advance your character and you are a competitive person you will often feel obligated to do those things.  People feel guilty about not being as good as they could be, and mad at people who play 24/7 and are further advanced.

I am the type who isn't bothered by other people playing all day and being better.  I am old and my arms hurt if I play too much.  I have responsibilities that are more important to me than tiny marginal increases to my WOW character.  If someone else doesn't have those things, then they are welcome to be better than me.  I won't be that far behind, in any case, and I am not doing anything where being a tiny bit better is necessary.

It does sometimes get difficult to know when enough is enough though.  How do I decide when I have done all I should do for the day?  In older times in WOW I could just be done raiding and it was over.  Nothing productive to do.  I remember back in Burning Crusade when my best gear came from PVP so I 'had' to PVP all day, and raid all night, rarely getting gear from raids because it wasn't good for me.  That sucked.  Now it is similar because I can run Mythic+ all day if I want to and there isn't a good, clear boundary for when I am done.

I don't like entrepreneurship at least in part because I like having clear boundaries.  I like being able to walk away from my job at the end of the day and be done with it.  WOW is similar in that I like to be able to log off from the raid and know that I have enough gold to buy my potions and I have done the other maintenance required and the rest is just about fun.  With the current design that never happens.  I can always be hunting for better gear and more artifact power without any end in sight.

I like Legion a lot.  There are so many things to do!  But there are challenges with establishing boundaries on play for the good of the players, and you can't please everyone no matter how you do it.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The next big thing

Blizzard is making a bunch of balance changes to WOW in the next patch and I am excited to guess what they will do.  The main thing I am thinking about is how they will change retribution paladins.  They have said that they want to fix the screwy scaling people have with their various secondary stats and so I expect to see changes to ret paladins mastery in particular.  Right now ret paladins have a situation where all of our stats are pretty boring.  Haste just makes everything in the rotation happen faster in a predictable way.  Crit just increases our damage.  Versatility is never interesting, though it is perfectly effective.  The last stat is mastery, and our mastery is just bad.

I don't think the numbers are off, but I do think that something ought to be done to make things overall more interesting.  Other classes have special effects that happen when they crit or mastery that actually works or even haste that does good things for them, but ret has little of that.  In terms of stat scaling I would really like at least one stat that is more interesting / powerful than versatility, which just offers pure, flat damage benefits.

The other issue with ret is that it has one totally dominant talent.  Crusade replaces Avenging Wrath as a powerful 20 second cooldown.  However, Avenging Wrath is a flat bonus and Crusade stacks up to outrageous levels, eventually offering a 2.3x damage multiplier.  Artifact traits let you extend the duration of Crusade, which is absurd because you extend not the mean benefit, but only the massively stacked portion of the effect.  This is a problem because the traits that extend Avenging Wrath are reasonable, but when they are extending Crusade they become absolutely dominant to the exclusion of all else.  I suspect Crusade is so broken because Blizzard just didn't realize how powerful the traits that extend it would be because they are decently deep into the tree.

Baseline Avenging Wrath is worth about 10% more damage.  The other decent talent choice aside from Crusade is worth something like 9% damage.  Crusade is worth 30% more damage, so even when you lose the base 10% damage of Avenging Wrath and forgo the 9% it is still totally dominant.  I don't think that this talent being so completely mandatory is a good thing.  It also grants so much haste that it makes it really hard to hit buttons reasonably during it and I dislike the gameplay a lot.  I want an alternative, but the other two options are so crap that I am stuck taking it.

In one build during the last patch cycle Blizzard removed Crusade, so it is clear they aren't happy with it.  That build didn't go to live though, but I expect some changes will be incoming.

What I would do is scrap Crusade completely.  Build something new and exciting, and make sure it is worth about 9% damage so it is worth taking but other options feel worthwhile.  Of course this would be a 10% nerf to ret paladins, so something else would have to happen.

I think that thing should be a doubling of the damage done by Judgement.  Judgement does about 10% of our damage now, so this would make up for the Crusade nerf in terms of damage, but it would add a lot of value to our mastery.  Mastery would, at that point, come close to other stats in value, and could be pushed a lot higher by taking talents that boost Judgement like Greater Judgement and the new version of Crusade that we saw weeks ago.  When Blizzard had Crusade changed on that previous version of the PTR they had it boosting Judgement a ton, and I think this would be a fine sort of replacement assuming the numbers were right.

This set of changes would accomplish a few things.  With the boost in Judgement damage Mastery would be a solid but slightly subpar stat.  However, should you take the two Judgement boosting talents then Mastery would end up becoming quite powerful indeed, probably jumping up to best stat status.  The way Greater Judgement works it would also devalue crit to some extent.  This would leave ret paladins some interesting choices.  They could stack mastery and take the appropriate talents, stack crit and take other talents, or stack haste and hedge their bets.  It leaves multiple gearing and spec paths open, and means that every talent row would have some interesting choices to be made.

That is the crux of it really.  Make sure there are multiple ways to play, multiple spec options on each row, and lots of thinking and planning to do.  There would still be a bazillion ways to play badly, of course, but it would open up a lot more in terms of possible optimal loadouts.

If I am permitted to ask for absolutely anything I would also get rid of Holy Wrath.  I just don't see how it is ever going to ride the edge between total garbage and overpowered.  It should be replaced with something that preserves the current ret paladin style that focuses around a extremely powerful and long Avenging Wrath setup.  Maybe just something that increases crit damage by 100% during Avenging Wrath.  It would turn Avenging Wrath into a really powerful cooldown to sync with other abilities, not push up against haste limits of the UI, and also change the value of crit a lot for a build that wants to do that.  Plus if you love the huge cooldown type build you can stack Avenging Wrath duration and crit and have a blast with it.

Now to see if any of my suggestions have any legs!