Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Reduce, Recycle, and

Legion, the newest WOW expansion, does something that the game really has never done particularly well before - reusing content.  It used to be that you killed some mobs in Westfall, finished the zone, and then basically never went back unless you really wanted some obscure achievement.  In doing so you also levelled past multiple other zones at the same level so there was always a huge amount of content that you never really got to experience unless you played multiple characters.

In essence the things that Blizzard created were usually really limited in use.  It is far simpler to create content this way because it requires little planning and design can be clunky and inelegant.  However, you spend a lot of effort making big zones that see limited use.  Sloppy, but simple.

Legion is quite different.  Blizzard is working really hard on making the content reusable to a large degree.  One way is the way that the zones all scale with your level so that max level players have a large area they can usefully be in.  Blizzard also added tons of world quests with important rewards so players spend a lot of time running into each other on the map instead of chilling in town or doing instances.  This is all really quite good, to my mind, and definitely lets them get a lot of content in without building more areas.

The other thing they have become good at is stuffing more things into a space by using three dimensions.  Legion is chock full of caves and cliffs and reasons to go up and down.  In Suramar city they level this up even more by having lots of encounters on ledges and rooftops, and there is plenty of hopping from beam to beam to trying to collect treasures and mana bits.  You run around the city a bunch, then eventually realize there is another whole level above you that you need to pay attention to.

It must have been a pain in the butt designing all of that!  Figuring out which things are part of quests and which things are also being used for end game content and fitting it all into the world is a challenge.  So many puzzles pieces going together means you really need good communication on the design team.

It feels a lot like the way I was taught to code back in the day.  You can build a new piece of code for every situation, but it is generally far better to build it in reusable pieces instead.  That way you can be a lot more efficient overall.  It requires you to plan ahead more but in the long run building reusable code saves you a huge amount of time and is so much easier to work with.

Building worlds is complicated.  I think Blizzard has taken a lot of their lessons from the old days and really put them to good use, and it shows.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Walkin' it back

When I heard about the changes coming to WOW with the new Legion expansion I was hesitant about one thing in particlar:  Zone scaling.  The newer zones change based on your level so that they keep pace with you as you level up and as such you can do them in any order you like.  Also they scale with each player's level independently so even if there is a big disparity in levels between two players they can play together easily.  It turns out I was wrong in my initial impressions - these changes are great.

I was worried that this would lead to things feeling wrong somehow - monsters immediately scaling up in power when you level seems like it should erase any sense of progress and impede immersion.  I think those effects exist to some extent, but they are dwarfed by the benefits of this change.  While it is nice to feel monsters getting easier, that makes combat feel trivial and silly.  It is good at points to really get a sense of character progression but I think there is an optimal difficulty while levelling that you lose when monsters fall behind.

Plus it is just so great to be able to play with other people who aren't at your level!

Wendy and I played together despite there being a five level difference and it was totally smooth and seamless.  Normally we can't play together at all because I always end up rushing ahead of her in progression so this change was most welcome.

That isn't all though.  This change means that the world continues to be relevant after levelling.  Legion does a fantastic job integrating the zones you level in with the endgame content and that is wonderful.  Endgame in WOW has in the past mostly been about instances for a long time and I really love the new change in philosophy.  Having tons of quests scattered throughout the world that constantly change and refresh (and those quests being very relevant) anchors the endgame in the world that you explored while levelling up.

In short, while there is something lost by having zones scale, the gains are so much greater.

You can't just make every zone scale from 1-110 though.  Much of the content and quest lore makes no sense under that system.  You basically have two choices here.  First is to make all vanilla zones scale from 1-110 so any characters can play together, but keep the higher level stuff that came with expansions gated behind the levels that they have currently.  Under this system Elwynn Forest, a starter zone, would be 1-110 but Northrend, the second expansion, would be available for 68-110 characters.

That system makes playing together easy for basically any characters, but it does mean that high level people don't have trivial zones they can ignore.  Maybe that is a good thing though.

The other option is a small amount of scaling that makes questing and grouping easier in general but lets high level characters have their absurd power level.  Under this system you would make Elwynn Forest scale from 1-30, for example, and Northrend would scale from 68-80.  You still get to outlevel zones but you won't outlevel them while playing through them, and you can play with anyone close to your level.

It is hard to say exactly which would produce the best overall experience but I suspect the first would.  I didn't like the scaling in theory but I love it in practice.  I would be all for trying this new system in a big way and seeing if it made the world a better place to be.

And by world I mean the world of warcraft.  Which, right now, is better than ever.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A good fix?

Hearthstone Arena drafting is getting some changes.  They are good changes, aimed toward a goal I approve of, but without knowing exact mechanics it is hard to say just how effective they will be.

The problem in Arena that they are trying to solve is that some classes are so much better than others.  Mage and Rogue in particular are absolutely a tier above everything else and that is frustrating.  I would like to play other classes regularly, but I hate selecting a class knowing it seriously penalizes my chances of winning and my card acquisition rate as a consequence.

There are two reasons for Mage/Rogue dominance.  First off in Arena there is a real lack of AOE and other control resets.  This means that the game revolves around minions beating each other up.  Against most classes the ideal situation is you smash minions together so that the opponent's minion dies and yours is left with 1 health.  This doesn't work well against Mage and Rogue, because they have by far the best hero powers for doing 1 damage.  Against these two classes you can't effectively make awesome trades and they can, so they dominate the 'minion trading' part of the game, which is most of the game in Arena.

The second reason for Mage/Rogue dominance is just card quality.  I think Mages in particular have it so good in this department - they have tons of common removal spells that are absolutely top tier.  They have both multiple common AOE spells but also single target removal.  Rogues get worse cards generally than mages but they still have a fantastic selection, better than other classes do.

Changing the first problem is a massive undertaking at the least.  It would require a total overhaul of how Arena works, or a serious game redesign, both of which are things I think are not happening.  However, changing card quality isn't actually that hard and doesn't need to do anything that would confuse a new or returning player.

Blizzard has decided that they want to move forward with this, so they are banning several top cards for Mage and Rogue and also banning a ton of terrible cards from weak classes.  They correctly chose which classes were underperforming, and honestly the cards they are set to remove are mostly so terrible they saw little play anyway, so I think this is a good direction to go in.  They can't get rid of the overpowered hero powers that Rogue and Mage have, but they can use careful banning to try to narrow the gap.

There is a real trick to this though.  If those cards just vanish, then all the weak classes will end up with less cards to work with, and as such will be stuck more often with neutral cards.  Neutral cards are weaker and less thematic so this is not ideal.  It is still an improvement, but it isn't all it could be.  If instead of just getting rid of the bad cards Blizzard added on an extra multiplier to the remaining class cards they could really make things better.  So imagine that of 20 Priest cards 5 were removed.  If they increased the occurrence rate of the remaining 15 cards by 33% then Priests would still get class cards at the same rate, but they would all be good ones instead of 1/4 of them being rubbish.  This is a much more powerful change that would help maintain theme and increase the buffing effect of the banning.

However, given that Blizzard has said that right now they can only do on/off for cards, and can't subtly alter their rate of appearance, I suspect that they are stuck with the basic option which isn't as good.  It will still help, but hopefully their tech improves over the next while and they can help even more.

I don't ask that classes be perfectly balanced in terms of win rate.  These things shift with new releases and depend on who is playing, but right now it is so obvious that Mage/Rogue are the best that it feels sad to play other things.  I don't want everything perfect, but I do want them in the same ballpark.  It is a weird bit of balance - I don't mind individual drafts being wildly unbalanced, but I do mind class choice being that way.  I think it is because I like to make all of my choices optimally, and if I play optimally right now I see only a small fraction of the cards and decks that are possible.  If the classes were balanced I would win the same amount, but I would have much greater variety of decks and experiences while getting those wins, and that is highly appealing.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Good stuff, but not enough

Today I finally got around to finishing up the Heroic modes in the new Hearthstone adventure One Night in Karazhan.  I complained before that the Heroic modes had good aesthetics but weak difficulty, and my conclusion is that this is a pretty good summary of the adventure.

The final boss is actually quite difficult as these things go, and although it only took me five tries to beat it I nearly lost several times and I doubt I could beat it consistently at all.  The trick to the final boss, Malchezzar, is that it is two fights.  The first is against a decent warrior deck with a hero power that produces a 3/3 minion with Charge.  This is extremely powerful obviously, but when you tune your deck defeating that power winning isn't difficult.

The problem is that as soon as you beat the warrior your turn ends and Malchezzar takes over.  As soon as he does he immediately casts Twisting Nether and kills all of your minions, then plays two 6/6 minions, and has a hero power to make two more 6/6 minions a turn.  This is actually a really challenging situation to beat because you start off with nothing, usually badly hurt from fighting the warrior deck, and are immediately facing down an opponent with two big minions and a ton of health.

My strategy was to set up a crazy turn using Kel'thuzad and Moat Lurker.  I got out Kel to keep my taunt minions invincible, Moat Lurkered Kel, and then activated Malchezzar and let him blow up all my minions including Moat Lurker.  This brought back Kel, who then resurrected all my other stuff.  In theory this should make me nearly invincible, but in practice I didn't have a lot of stuff left in my deck or on board when I pulled this off, and winning was tight.

I also lost four times, generally really badly, trying to make it work.  That of course is exactly how heroic modes are supposed to go!


I feel like this heroic was a proper one.  I got my ass kicked a fair number of times, barely held it together for the win when I did win, and had to do some thinking and unorthodox deck building to get a victory.  I call this appropriately difficult for an end boss.

However, when we consider the boss two before the end, it is all disappointment and sadness.  The Shade of Aran has the special power "All players have +3 Spell Damage" in normal.  Beating it is not hard - fill your deck with spells that scale well with spell damage and play well.  I would expect most decent players to 1 shot that encounter.  I figured on Heroic it would be something really exciting like "Shade of Aran has +5 Spell Damage".  That would have been interesting!  Take away the player benefit and crank it up.  I don't know off hand what deck I would take to such a duel, but it would feel like a real challenge.

Instead Shade of Aran has the power "Both players have +5 Spell Damage".  What?  So all I have to do is fill a deck with burn and healing and cruise to victory?  Yep, that's exactly what I needed to do.   I 1 shotted the encounter effortlessly.  It seems like a waste to have heroic modes that aren't any more difficult than normal modes and which a half assed deck can easily beat.

I want to have to practice.  I want a challenge.  I want the thrill of defeating something interesting.  Trivial encounters like Shade of Aran utterly fail at that.  We don't need trivial encounters that you can beat with whatever deck you want - that is what normal is for!  Heroic can fill the niche of players wanting a PVE challenge, something to test them.

In conclusion I can say that there were a couple of good heroic encounters in One Night in Karazhan, but only a couple.  Most were a joke and far too easy.  It wasn't a total waste, but it definitely didn't live up to my expectations.  Creativity was good, the cards get a thumbs up, but the heroics... not so much.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

It takes me back

World of Warcraft:  Legion is out and I am playing.

The short story is this:  Blizzard apparently knows what they are doing by this point and built a good product.

The longer story is that I was concerned that Blizzard was going to shift back towards the ugly Cataclysm style of game design where players just watch cinematics and follow singular quest trails through the story.  No choice, no optimization, just a crappy movie.

When I started out in Legion it seemed like that was the case.  The quests were well done, and the cinematics were pretty, but everything was lined up in a row and it felt awful.  I just don't have time for that crap anymore, and several hours in I had simply done the quests stuck in front of me in order with no variation and I was really getting frustrated with it.

However, it turns out that after you slog (or joyfully play through, I guess) the introductory segments and then get started on your first zone things actually seem pretty great.  I began in Stormheim which apparently is the zone with the least choices and the most railroading, and while it was annoying in the beginning it has worked out well.

Blizzard brought back things that I loved, like treasures scattered throughout the land in tiny caves, hidey holes, and on top of remote rocks.  There are all kinds of random bosses everywhere and they have a nice variety of tactics and abilities and seem well tuned.  I have to pay attention and play correctly against them, and if I do something dumb I can easily get myself killed.  It is great to have little bits of neat stuff to stumble upon and it really makes the main questline's linearity much more tolerable.

I also wandered into multiple small quest hubs and ended up doing stuff for ravenbears, Sir Finley Mrrrrglton, and even some light fingered goblins.

As usual Blizzard polish is really there and the servers had only a couple minor hiccups, which is pretty good for a major launch like this.  The product looks slick and pretty and there are plenty of beautiful vistas to feast your eyes upon.

The new mechanics of the order halls where individual classes go to congregate strike me as well done and I like getting a legendary weapon to cart around and tinker with.  I get to wield Ashbringer itself!  Hearing Tirion whisper for the strength to break his bonds while I was completing the quest to get Ashbringer made my heart pound, no denying it.  /salute for the Lich King fight, all the way.

One thing that really struck me was just how powerful it was to go back to having Dalaran as my home city.  The music there brought back a huge rush of memories, dragging me forcibly down memory lane to the days of Wrath of the Lich King.  I played so much WOW then, and was so deeply involved, that hearing it made me react powerfully every time I entered Dalaran again.  It reminds me of how much this game was a part of my life back then.

I miss that, so much.

But you can't go home again.  Those days of running a tight ten man guild with my university crowd are gone, never to return.  The shiny rainbows of the past are unreachable, and honestly weren't as shiny as all that when I was there in the first place.

But oh, the music!  The remembering!

So it is clear that Blizzard made a good product.  They are trying some new things that strike me as solid attempts, though who knows how they will be long term.  They appear to have cobbled together the best of their old strategies and left the things that worked in place too, which is just as important.

The game can't ever be what it once was to me.  Not anymore.  But what is there is well wrought, and I will play it.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Reality PC

The new warcraft expansion is coming out and it has one particular new feature I have been thinking about - zone scaling.  This new tech allows a zone to scale with player level so you can tackle the zones in the new area in any order you like.  You won't outlevel the zones, and you can do the harder ones first if you want.  The upside is that you aren't restricted in how you play, and you can also go back to do things afterwards without them being silly and trivial.

But I wonder if this is really the best way to go about it.  One of the real problems with the game right now is that you level so quickly it is easy to end up halfway through the quests in a zone and gain so many levels that you cannot gain experience anymore.  You have the choice of abandoning the zone halfway through the story or doing the story against trivial opponents that give you nothing in the way of rewards.  Hardly a stellar set of options.

I think Blizzard should instead have taken a tack that helps with the problems they are trying to solve with the new zones but also helps with the older stuff.  The real issue I see with the solution they are bringing in is that the game no longer would feel real.  For one, gaining levels and being more powerful wouldn't actually make you better.  It just isn't as much fun to realize that these rewards you are getting in the form of experience and levels actually make things harder, and sometimes that is going to be true.  Also there is the real issue that the world no longer feels like a place you explore to find out what is there, but rather just an amusement park built for your convenience.  If you go to Zone A at level 20 and kill a monster, then leave, and come back at level 60 and the monsters there suddenly do 20 times as much damage and have 20 times as much health it seems ridiculous to me.  Just tell me how tough a gnoll in Westfall is, don't just ratchet it up as I level!

I think a far better solution would be to flatten the power progression and get rid of level influences on combat and experience.  The game has always had this weird thing in it where monsters that are significantly above your level not only do a lot of damage and have a lot of health, but they start to randomly ignore your attacks.  Get up to about 10 levels difference and you simply can't affect them at all.  Also you can't get experience from low level monsters so you absolutely have to fight things right near your level.  I think the world would feel a lot better if that wasn't the case anymore.  If you could get experience for low level monsters you could at least finish zones where you were much higher level.  It wouldn't be hard but at least it wouldn't feel pointless.  If you could kill high level monsters you would have much more freedom to explore and test yourself, and the hardcore players could have fun trying to fight things that should be way out of their league.

Right now the game forces the player to do content in a very tight band based on their level.  Rather than simply make every zone suddenly be the same level as the player, I think the better solution is to just widen that band.  If you are level 45 right now, you can basically fight monsters from level 43 to 47.  I would suggest that the experience penalty for fighting low level things be removed so you can fight really low level stuff if you like - sure, that level 30 monster isn't much of a challenge but you can still do it and get something.  And that level 60 monster is quite the menace, but it isn't impossible, so if you can do it the rewards are quite something!

Doing it this way makes the world feel more real to me.  The challenges stay there, ready for you to attempt, and you have a lot of freedom to do what you want within that world.  Sure, top players in heirloom gear will happily slay monsters 20 levels above them and level up really fast - but so what?  It will at least give them the chance to push their skills, rather than grind utterly trivial enemies instead.  It will also mean that noobs or bots can just grind away on pathetic challenges if they choose to - but that isn't likely to be efficient, and who cares if they do?  It is far more important to make levelling fun than it is to try to corral those edge cases that don't hurt anybody else anyway.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A certain lack of celebration

The new adventure for Hearthstone called One Night in Karazhan has solo content just like all other adventures before it and so far I am not terribly impressed.  The design of the encounters is interesting and there are lots of new mechanics that work but the fights are just so easy it hardly feels like my choices matter.

In the old adventures Naxxramas and BRM I had to do everything several times.  It took a long while to build custom decks that could beat most of the heroic encounters and some encounters took dozens of tries to defeat.  I had to spend a lot of time learning all the cards I had to face and evolving my deck until it was just so.

In Karazhan I just slap together something vaguely appropriate and then win right away.  More than half the time I won on my first try, and many of those decks were deeply flawed because I didn't really know how the encounter worked or what I was facing.  But those flaws didn't even matter and I just powered on through.

The hardest fight so far took me four tries to beat, and even when I beat it my deck wasn't good - I just got a passable draw and beat the computer up.

These fights leave me feeling pretty uninspired.  I don't want to have to play for hours to get the perfect draw against a ridiculous fight, but I was hoping that I would at least have to put some modicum of effort into it.  Winning with a deck that completely failed to address the encounter's core challenge takes any satisfaction out of it.

It wouldn't take much to fix things.  The mechanics are quite good, and I especially like the chess encounter which was really interesting and new.  All of the fights could be good ones if the computer just had better cards or some other advantage.

As an example, Nightbane has a Hero Power that makes both the player and Nightbane start with 10 mana crystals.  This means that the best deck is basically just a bunch of extremely expensive legendary minions.  Nightbane's deck isn't really equipped to handle that at all though, and it rapidly runs out of steam and dies.  I didn't have to try at all, really, and any random pile of expensive trash would likely be enough.  What I don't understand is why this encounter is such a joke.  It should be that only Nightbane starts with 10 mana, but the player starts with 0 as normal.  Or if not, maybe that the player starts with 10, but Nightbane does something bonkers like deal 10 damage to the player every time a minion of theirs dies.  If the boss had a basically normal deck, and a Hero Power that equally helps both players, how is this a heroic encounter?  Hell, I could probably win with just a regular deck, and that is pretty sad.

I guess Blizzard wants everyone to be able to win even if they suck and have no cards, but I don't understand why that is.  Everyone should be able to beat the normal encounters and get their rewards, sure, but nobody *needs* to beat the heroic encounters.  They don't need to all be as absurd as Chromaggus was in BRM, but they should at least require people to build a decent deck and play enough to figure out what the enemy does.  I am quite sure that there are tons of cards and maybe even mechanics that I never saw in a lot of these heroic fights because I beat them so quickly and effortlessly.  There should be real challenges for those people that like such things, as I do, and when there is nothing on the line except challenge, then the challenge should be there.

I don't feel good about beating up these bosses.  It feels like beating up a six year old for lunch money.  I want to feel like I did something hard, and that only comes when Blizzard puts in enough effort balancing that there is some actual opposition there.  I hope the last wing of the adventure has some serious bosses in it because so far the cards are good but the solo content is a big disappointment.  Good lore, good creative ideas, but really weak implementation.