Thursday, October 27, 2011

Adding more options

Power creep is a seemingly inevitable consequence of game development.  No matter whether it is a tabletop RPG, an MMORPG or even a RL sports team there is a constant trend upward in power.  In an MMORPG the reasoning behind this is obvious:  Much of the incentive to do anything for characters is increasing their power and the increases need to continuously ramp up to keep people's interest.  Doing 1 more damage is pretty great when I am doing 12 damage but when I am doing 12,000 damage I need to do 1,000 more for it to feel significant.

WOW illustrated this just as all its predecessors did; characters using the most current gear would utterly demolish any challenge that appeared years ago.  It isn't all gear of course as you can easily see by looking at WOW's addition of profession perks, glyphs, reforging and dualspeccing.  Even though all of these were added in to either fix imbalances or create new and interesting decisions they all drastically ratcheted up the power level of characters.  Every time something new and impactful comes along everybody gets better.  This is really obvious when looking at level grinding in WOW at the moment:  Characters have good talent trees and reasonable resource mechanics, get many more abilities at lower levels, have glyphs and have heirloom gear.  All of these things (perhaps save heirlooms) were added in to improve the experience and make characters more fun but they really powered everyone up.  It is true that hunters using mana and paladins not having any way to attack the enemies were stupid mechanics but removing them has raised the bar forever.

DnD 4th is no exception here.  My group has been exploring using the online character generator and the extent to which our characters are better than the basic Player's Handbook characters is astounding.  First off there are lots of feats that don't suck!  Instead of running out of things to take at level 6 as a caster I will have constant and interesting tradeoffs to make right up to level 30.  Everything I take will be good and there will always be a reasonable alternative.  This is great of course but it sure does make me more powerful.  There are also Backgrounds and Themes which are completely new aspects to characters that add ridiculous powers.  A Background will only either add a skill to your class skill list or give a +2 to a skill but that is still a straight up buff with no penalty whatsoever.  You can't balance numerical buffs with 'roleplaying challenges'.  One ridiculous Theme even lets you increase an ally's attack roll by 1d4+2 as an encounter power.  The silly thing is this isn't any sort of tradeoff since you just add that power to your list.  Even if you had the option to trade in this power for something else it would be a buff because of increased choice but to just get it for nothing is ridiculous.

The point of all this is to fool the audience really.  Everyone wants to see their characters / favourite athletes / toons get better but if a flat out +2 to everything is announced it would be roundly booed.  Instead companies need to increase the power level of the game by slipping in changes that seem at a glance to be innocuous but end up being really impactful.  Football players need better equipment and training, WOW characters need to be able to glyph their abilities to be better and DnD characters need 'themes' that flat out make them kill monsters better.  It is an unfortunate but it works so it is unlikely to stop any time soon.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Kung Fu Pandas

Blizzard just announced the next WOW expansion - the continent of Pandaria, containing the Pandarens, which are of course Pandas.  Honestly they could have been just a *tad* more original in their naming schemes.  Much of the internet is convinced that this is a sign of the apocalypse and Blizzard has decided to finally throw in the towel on 'real gaming' and just pander to the 12 year olds who want to play a Kung Fu Panda.  Those people can safely be dismissed as bittervets.  WOW has always pandered to 12 year olds, this is nothing new.  Us old folk can recall quest chains revolving around collecting animal poop from every expansion, often several times an expansion even.  Nothing has changed:  Dwarf quests are still all about getting drunk, elves are still designed to be masturbatory fantasies for tweens, goblins are still futuristic mad scientists and undead are icky.

Whether or not the very noticeable decline in WOW subscriptions is reversed or halted in Mists of Pandaria is not going to rest on whether the jokes are sophisticated or not as that is already decided.  I also doubt the trend will be significantly affected by endgame raiding balance.  WOW was plenty popular back when balance was a joke and the really fine adjustments they make these days aren't even particularly relevant to the vast majority of the playerbase.  There is a large pool of people out there who raid a little and a small pool who raid a lot and only the really hardcore players are affected by one class being 5% better than another.

What *will* determine the sub rate in WOW is how the casual experience changes.  Right now the questing experience has a big story to tell, has plenty to do and is utterly trivial.  Levelling in WOW was never hard but these days there is simply nothing you can do to get yourself killed aside from literally going afk and that I think is a bad thing.  I also feel like the dungeon experience both during levelling and at endgame isn't working out well with the current Cataclysm design.  Dungeons are just as trivial as soloing and there is no strategy, thought or feeling of accomplishment in beating a dungeon.  Generally nobody even knows what abilities the monsters have because it simply doesn't matter.  When a player arrives at endgame they are suddenly faced with normal dungeons that reward absolutely rubbish gear (compared to rep gear, Justice Point gear, etc.) and to kill things that drop loot you want requires a totally new skill set - heroic dungeons will kill you if you don't get out of the fire.

Cataclysm quests were much better than previous quests at providing 'raid training' to players and there were actual solo bossfights that I really liked.  However, the contrast between the 1- 80 game and the 81+ game is far too stark.  If Blizzard really wants to improve the game I think they need to take a lot of the quests off the rails and let people do them in whatever order they want and turn up the challenge on soloing and dungeons.  Whether or not that stuff is going to happen in Mists of Pandaria is entirely unclear at this point, and although the new Monk class and Pandaren race are fine additions they don't say anything about how WOW will fare going forward.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tragedy of the Piggy Commons

I have become a Glitch player.  Unlike most games where I am the trailblazer in my family I ended up getting into the game well after Wendy and even after Elli.  In the past it has always been my role to provide advice (Go over there, climb that thing, kill that guy), strategy (Here is the best build for you) and cash (Sky, can I have enough gold to buy myself an epic mount for my 3rd alt please?) in game to support Wendy and Elli but this time I am the noob.  Wendy shipped me a ton of money to let me buy big bags for my Glitch character so I could play properly - a deep part of my mind wants to gather that much money again and ship it back to balance the books (because I am insane) but the other half is just happy clicking on things and levelling up.

I like Glitch.  It doesn't take anything resembling dexterity but it does encourage the creation of enormous spreadsheets, which is a feature I like in a game.  Unlike WOW, where 99%+ of all crafting recipes are utterly useless in Glitch all the recipes are good.  There are some that are more efficient that others of course which is why you "need" a big ass spreadsheet to tell you what the best stuff to make is but if you just sit down and cook / alchemize / tinker randomly you are always improving and making better stuff.

The really neat feature of Glitch is that everyone is in a single world and you can influence that world by knocking down trees, stealing pigs, adding new creatures or otherwise altering the features of the streets that comprise the Glitch world.  One thing that slipped by the development team is that Piggies, when captured, can be sold for a huge sum of money.  The trouble with this is that this removes Piggies from the supply chain and wrecks other people's attempts to create or move them and rewards that behaviour.  In this sort of player generated world it is okay if one person moves Piggies to one location and someone else moves them back - eventually somebody gives up but either way it is okay for the rest of us.  When you attach a huge cash reward to *destroying* content though even players who feel no interest in the location of Piggies run around capturing them to get money to buy things.  The rest of the game is about collecting, managing and building and this one feature was about destroying things for profit - hardly a good match.  Yesterday the developers patched this out of the game and you can no longer sell Piggies at all, only move them from place to place.

The other amusing thing about Glitch and my psychology is the Better Learning tree.  There are lots of skills and they rank up in real time.  The early skills in each tree take 30 mins or an hour but the later ones can take a long damn time - like Better Learning 5, which takes more than 5 days.  My brain constantly screams at me to just keep taking the skills that make me learn other skills faster because that is how you get twinky in the long run but in this game it is obviously wrong to do so.  You need to pick other skills up first so you can actually do things in the game; Better Learning is something you need to do but you need to balance how much of it you do.  Well, you *should* balance it.  I ramped straight up though and the rest of the skills be damned.  Learn faster!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Monster Manual scaling

I remember playing DnD 2nd back in the good old days.  Ahh, Mages that rolled 1d4 / level for HP and which cast Fireball to hit an enormous area for 1d6 / level damage... good times.  And by that I mean what the hell were you idiots thinking?!?  The funny thing is that Fireball was hideously overpowered back then because when cast against a reasonable encounter it would often take off 70% of the HP the enemies have in total but now it isn't nearly so problematic because players and monsters have scaled so much.  Instead of Mages having 2.5 HP / level the standard these days is 8 HP / level and suddenly you can take a fireball and expect everyone in the group to be hurt but still very much in the fight.  Other things have changed too since Rogues actually do real damage, all brawler types have access to much higher hit and damage bonuses from feats and class features and magic items that boost up stats are much more widely available.  Of course along with these buffs came monsters of increased power - you can't just use a 2nd edition monster against a Pathfinder party because it will die in 1 round and accomplish nothing.

This creates some weird scaling issues though.  It used to be that you had a choice between casting fireball (which very nearly wins the fight on its own) or summon monster 3 (which summons a really crappy monster with 3 hit dice).  After all these new editions and changes though fireball is still the same as it ever was but summoned monsters got massive stat and hit dice boosts and incredible specials like the Bison which got Trample.  As far as I can tell from the rules the way Trample works is the creature walks over as many enemies as it wants in the turn doing 19 damage to each of them and knocking them down - they can take half damage with a really difficult save.  This is more powerful than Fireball but the Bison is going to stick around for 7 turns and do this disgusting AOE attack every round.  Trample needs a big nerf.

This is the same sort of issue 3rd edition ran into with Polymorph.  3rd edition monsters were so much more powerful than previous editions that the ability to turn into whichever one you want became completely insane and let casters turn into Stone Giants / Dire Bears or whatever happened to have the appropriate mix of necessary stats and destroy people.  This also gave a huge power boost to anyone who happened to have more Monster Manuals around since they could find more interesting things to turn into.  It also meant that any time a new monster was published there were really nasty design constraints because players were so happy to turn into anything that had high physical stats or AC or other extraordinary powers.  Of course this might be a minor concern because once you had the option to turn into a Stone Giant a new entry would have to be truly stupendous to be even more broken.  Pathfinder fixed this problem by making all the polymorph spells give fixed stat and AC bonuses and their system works pretty well I think but they really missed the progression problems with animal summons.

I will say though it is really nice to have summons be a decent option.  Having casters always default to massive AOE damage to attack isn't very interesting compared to choosing an appropriate animal to summon for the moment.  If I want to lock one target down I summon a Crocodile and it can grapple and Death Roll! the target.  If I want pure beatdown I summon a Cheetah and my lower level options include Giant Toads and Eagles depending on what sort of problem I am having.  This means that characters and the enemies are involved in melee combat dealing with grappling, tripping and positioning instead of just waiting for the massive AOE to land.  I like that style of combat a lot more, though I will admit it was outrageous fun to Fireball the enemies to oblivion in the old days.  It wasn't as great when we got Fireballed in return though, which is why the new system is a lot better.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Attack - Miss - Done.

I remember playing DnD 2nd edition for many years back when I was younger.  One of the features of that game was that spellcasters got to make interesting, complicated choices on their turns and fighting classes were boring as all hell.  Most fighter turns would go "Attack, Miss, Done." or "Attack, Hit, 12 damage, Done."  Hardly the stuff of legends.  In 3rd edition things got a lot better with the introduction of feats since there were a lot more options for customizing a character.  Brawlers actually had choices like Spring Attack, Whirlwind, Cleave and others.  Unfortunately there weren't nearly enough feats for high level play and if your stats weren't arranged to make certain prerequisite feats available you could easily run out of things to do at level 6.

The big exception was two weapon fighting.  For some reason the designers wanted anyone fighting with two weapons to have to sink tons and tons of feats in to do so reasonably.  Unfortunately none of those feats did anything interesting at all, they were all simply "Attack MOAR."  Not only that but they were all utterly useless unless you got to full attack standing next to the enemy.  If you weren't next to the enemy at the start of your turn you were back to "Attack, Miss, Done."  This is exactly the sort of thing feats shouldn't do - they should give you options or customize one particular type of play rather than be 'always on' bonuses.

Pathfinder (Dnd 3.75) did a lot of good things in this regard.  First, they added on way more feats and made sure to have lots of high level ones that you could look forward to.  The high level feats were also quite powerful and that meant that at any given level there were interesting choices to make and yet still things to lust over.  (Boy, when I get to level 11 I am going to MURDER people!)  Another great improvement is the addition of lots of 'single attack' feats.  These feats let you cleave multiple enemies, make single big attacks, debuff the enemies or take additional movement along with an attack.  This means that for one brawlers have lots of choices to make about what they want to do in a turn and also that they aren't so brutally dependent on starting their turn next to the enemy.  Full attack is still generally the best option but there are lots of things that are close to as good that can be done with single strikes after a move.  I always hated that any time the monster was highly mobile the brawlers were absolute junk; they don't need to be good at everything but there should be options for them to improve in that regard.

Pathfinder also did some really dumb things.  They decided to keep the utterly bloated Two Weapon Fighting chain of feats and even added in a bunch more Two Weapon Fighting with Shield Bashes so that someone using this style can easily sink 19 feats into this style and the basic damage buffs.  That is bad design because with all those feats it is savagely overpowered when they do get to full attack someone and when they cannot they are terrible.  They really need to just make Two Weapon Fighting one feat and find some mechanics that make it work - my feeling is that they should have made it so that any time you attack with a weapon you can attack with both weapons instead with some appropriate penalty.

There is still a lack of variety in feats for casters compared to brawlers.  Casters have tons of selection in their spells and they can spend their feats taking a few of their limited options and then dump the rest into item creation, utility or defensive choices.  Although some casters might want more things to do I feel like overall their flexibility and choice is plenty high enough so having limited feat choices is fine.

The more of Pathfinder I read the more I am impressed with the balance and testing they have put into it.  It isn't perfect by any stretch but it feels a lot more like DnD 4th edition in many ways because although there are dumb ways to build your character you can just take any class, take stats that the book tells you are important for your class, pick abilities that look good and be just fine (a 'normal' character).  The optimized character is going to have an edge, to be sure, but two normal characters should beat a twink handily unlike in 3.0 where it wasn't hard to build a character that could smash three or more normal characters easily.  Having ways to be powerful is good but the difference between a super optimized twink and a normal character should be 50% not 300%.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Spell Progression

I took a look at cleric spells today to figure out what they are going to do as I level up in my Pathfinder (DnD 3.75) game.  Here is the list of how much healing single target spells do at the level you get them.

1.  5.5
2.  12
3.  18.5
4.  25
5.  31.5 + extras
6.  *110* + extras

Now here is the list for AOE heals.

5.  13.5
6.  20
7.  26.5
8.  33
9.  *170* + extras

What the *hell* are those 110 and 170 numbers doing in there?  Note that +extras is normally *really* powerful stuff, enough that a very trivial amount of healing tacked on would make the spell really excellent.  In all the cases where +extras is used if the spell healed for 1/5th of the amount it does it would still be a very powerful, attractive spell.  The funny thing is that the 110 and 170 numbers are actually huge nerfs from the old 3.0 edition where they were both infinity instead.  Pathfinder decided that infinity was a big problem so they nerfed them, but instead of doing so to put them in line with other healing they just made the fixed number completely absurd.

The problem with all this is that clerics scale in ridiculous ways.  At early levels my spells are actually really bad compared to my Channel Energy power (1d6 per two levels AOE heal) and I should avoid using spells for healing except when it is really necessary.  I have better armour, weapons, base attack and saves than a wizard and I have incredible healing so presumably my spells should be pretty crap - and they are.  Unfortunately once I get to high levels I still have all those benefits (though base attack and weapon cease to be significant) but my spells go from 'meh' to 'SUPERMAN'.  I have fantastic 'save or die' attacks, great buffs, overpowered heals and even good AOE spells - the only thing I lack is some utility like teleport.

This doesn't make sense no matter which way you look at it.  If cleric spells are supposed to be bad because they have such great healing then they should be bad all the way up, not bad and then amazing.  If they are supposed to have great spells and great healing then their early spells need a massive boost and clearly clerics would be the best class by far.  The solution as I see it is to keep the interesting extras tacked onto these spells but bust their healing amounts down a lot.  Instead of 10 healing / level it should be more like 5 / level.  In both the single target and AOE cases that puts the numbers a lot more in line with the rest of the progression list and means that you might actually consider using a lower level heal instead of them being utterly irrelevant.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I agree with Gevlon, a rare thing

Gevlon and Tobold both just posted about their problems with WOW.  Normally I dismiss most of what Gevlon says as sociopathic nonsense designed to prop up his self esteem but this time I actually liked what he had to say.  In both cases these articles talked about their dislike of the raiding game and their dislike of the levelling game and how these two games make no sense together.  Whether or not an individual likes either the raiding or levelling game I don't think it can be argued that in their current incarnations they are a very silly and annoying hybridization.  If someone likes the raiding game they are looking for a game that requires practice, good reflexes, teamwork and organization to say nothing of substantial time commitment.  In order to start this up they have to level up for hours and hours doing things that require no skill, practice, reflexes, teamwork, organization or time commitment.  Of course the other side is true too and anyone who loves levelling can hardly be expected to enjoy raiding when they get there.

I remember levelling up various characters and doing so was interesting in the old days.  I recall levelling up my rogue and hunter in particular and having to use traps, stealth, and cooldown management to beat pulls with more than one enemy in them.  If I pulled too many enemies or missed too many attacks I had to run away so it was always important for me to watch what I was doing.  Playing better and being clever *mattered*.  Of course there were also levelling abominations like my paladin where I had no abilities that did anything so I just sat there waiting for enemies to die, healed myself and walked to the next one.  There were plenty of incredibly stupid things about levelling too, like the lack of quests, quests that sent you all over the world for trivial rewards and elite areas that you couldn't find a group for.  Some of the solutions to these issues were done really well in recent years like adding more quests, giving all classes interesting mechanics and flattening the monster levels in each zone but some were disastrous like making all monsters trivial in difficulty or making an entire zone a linear questing experience.

I like the idea of having lots of things to do.  I also like the idea of quests and monsters being *hard* and requiring thought and planning to some extent.  Even the old quests that sent me all around the world didn't necessarily need to be removed forever, as long as the rewards were increased such that it actually made sense to complete them.  If you want me to fly across two continents then I should get a big XP bonus at the end to make it feel like it was worth it.  Even the endless complaints about outdoor zones with elite monsters didn't necessarily need to be dealt with by removing all of them but rather just by making them optional.  If there were quests to kill elite monsters that required a group but there were also sufficient solo quests that you could avoid the elite ones as necessary then people would have the option to dial up their difficulty for big rewards if they were interested.

In the new levelling scheme there is no feeling of accomplishment at getting to max level.  Any monkey that can hit one button and accept quests could be nearly as efficient as I was at getting there.  In order to really have fun you need a challenge and there needs to be a difference between how fast a pro and a fool can get things done.  Since you can always go back and do easy, underlevel zones there is no risk of people getting stuck but with no challenge at all there is no accomplishment.

I got to thinking about what it would take for me to be interested in resubbing to WOW to level some characters again, and here are my initial thoughts:

1.  Nerf heirloom gear by ~30%.  Make it good enough that it is better than greens but worse than blues.  I say this even though I have pretty much a complete set of heirlooms for all toons.

2.  Buff monster health by 60% and damage by 90%.  Combined with the heirloom changes this should mean that monsters take roughly twice as long to die and do double their current damage for heirloomed characters.

3.  Add in a bunch of dangerous stuff.  Wandering patrols of 3 monsters, elites that have 4x the health and 2x the damage of regular monsters and enemies that pull in groups of 2-3 would be a start.  Ideally I would like monsters with more dangerous abilities and spells as well as some Elite areas but that would require a lot more work.

These sorts of changes get me kind of excited - I think I might actually resub and play some WOW to tool around on random characters and see all the new Cataclysm levelling content.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


It is an experience anyone who plays a lot of board games knows all too well - some player slips, drops a piece, or bumps the table and the whole board suffers an Earthquake!.  Pieces shift, tiles move, everyone curses and then people try to reassemble the board from the ashes.  Some games are worse for this than others of course, and the games where the board itself is constructed of many pieces are the worst.  Settlers is by far the best known of this group and recently I found a Kickstarter project where a guy designed and built laser cut wooden boards for Settlers to prevent exactly the Earthquake! events I am talking about.  His design certainly works to keep the Settlers board intact (and his video with his friends acting out Earthquake! events in Settlers is worth a laugh or two) but that sort of design wouldn't work for my situation unfortunately because an FMB board takes up a huge amount of space and wouldn't be especially practical to carry around as a single piece.  FMB is particularly bad for this because there are so many pieces to move that are in contact with the board and people have a really serious habit of counting unit movement by touching the board and causing constant Earthquake!s.  This week I found a solution to me having to constantly fix the board during games - making the board pieces all interlocking.

Here is a picture of the old board after a normal Earthquake!.

Here is the new design of the side pieces alongside the old design:

The new board as a whole:

And here are some pictures of the new board vertically up against a wall and still holding together:

Now that I have an Earthquake! proof board I just need to figure out why it took me a year and a half to come up with this design... though I suppose it does give me a real appreciation for why it takes Blizzard so damn long to put out really polished, complete games.