Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Informed posting on D3, unlike previous attempts

Up until now my opinions on D3 have been based on secondhand information and a healthy disrespect for forum posters.  Thanks to tmiv I now have actual beta access and can give you informed feedback instead of guesswork and extrapolation.  I was very positive on D3 up to this point and little has changed now that I have played it - I have a few small criticisms but I expect they will be addressed.

First off the game looks great.  The D3 world is 3D and they have done a great job of making the scenery look good while keeping the focus on constant action just like the previous incarnations of the series.  Even when moving through dungeons with arches, pillars and other decorations the game smoothly adds and removes elements to keep a clean fighting view and a pretty background.  The skills are visually appealing and the character's movements have the right mix of fantastical and realistic.  Looking good is something I expected though and I don't think it was ever in any real doubt.  There are plenty of forum posters whining about how the game is too cartoony and not dark enough and I say phooey to them - the monsters sit feasting on corpses awaiting the arrival of the hero and there is plenty of horror and gore.

I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the balancing of the skills.  I assumed it would be better than D2 but the skill balance was really excellent on the Witch Doctor which I played up to level 12 - I used all the skills and found the skills with cooldowns to be superb (which is what you want!) and all the spammable skills were different yet useful.  The one skill I didn't find much use for was Plague of Toads because it was somewhat random - the toads wander around and you can't control what or if they hit anything.  It does do a lot of damage though so as long as you are okay with it being somewhat random it seems okay.  When I got a new rune for an ability I definitely wanted to use that ability on my bar but I can see that once you get multiple runes for all of your abilities it would become very challenging to find the best possible skill setup.

Which brings me to the part of the beta which is bad - the skill UI.  Right now swapping skills in and out is a pain in the ass.  Instead of having all the skills available to just drag and drop into the 6 skill slots you have to swap each out individually and if a skill is on slot1 you can't add it to slot2; you have to remove it from slot1 first and then add it to slot2.  This is an incredibly clunky and irritating setup particularly when it is so easy to imagine a really slick and simple alternative.  However, the new skill UI is the most recent thing added after the big skill change so I expect them to get it fixed before launch.  I could certainly play with it as it is but it falls far short of Blizzard's standards.

I will say that I love the new quest system so far.  Rather than scrolling through a wall of text like in WOW you get the quest info very quickly and the characters give the backstory in audio dialogue as you go.  If you want to sit and absorb all of the lore you can but if you want to get straight back into the action you still get much of the quest information while you fight.  Crafting items seems like a lot of fun too and certainly provides a great gold sink to make sure that gold always stays relevant.  I wanted to craft all kinds of gear as I levelled up and I think this will be a blast.

Overall the beta looks fantastic.  As long as Blizzard fixes the skill UI and makes sure that the later difficulties are brutally difficult the game will be bloody awesome.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

D3 Skill Changes

Recently Blizzard announced some big changes for D3's skill system.  They are twofold, one of which is cosmetic and doesn't really affect the hardcore gamer and one of which is a big deal.  The first is that all skills will be grouped into sections like Primary attack, Secondary attack, Defensive, Utility, etc. and the base UI will have a slot for one skill from each group.  This is done as a guide for casual players so they will have more balanced characters and not get frustrated, presumably, but there is a simply checkbox to get rid of this restriction so you can take any skills you want.  I think this is a great idea since it gives people a good guide for how to build their characters initially but lets the experienced player go nuts and do anything.  Easy to learn, hard to master.

The second change is a lot bigger.  Prior to this each skill could be augmented by runes, which were items you picked up as loot.  There were 5 ranks of runes and 5 types of runes so juggling them all in inventory was going to be a big undertaking and each skill needed 5 different ranks for each type of rune augmentation.  Now runes are a skill you unlock with level and they have a single rank.  When you use a skill you will be able to apply any rune you have learned to it and gain that rune benefit.  There are, predictably, a lot of people complaining.  As usual most of the complaints are pure garbage but there is one that has some real merit.  The major things that are changing here are as follows:

1.  More things to learn as you level.  Instead of getting your last skill at level 30 and getting nothing from there forward we now can look forward to at least 1 new skill or rune each level.  We won't necessarily use a new rune when we learn it but there will be a constant stream of new options as we level up to the cap of 60.  This is excellent.

2.  There will be no management of runes.  I don't know that this is good or bad particularly.  With a properly designed rune UI it could have been no problem but without one it would have been a lot like D2 where managing multiple levels of gems was a gigantic hassle.  This eliminates a small part of the economy but I hardly think that matters.  It also removes a major source of wealth grinding from the game since trading and hunting for runes will no longer be a thing.  It really means that endgame characters will be farming gear and not farming runes... which doesn't seem much different overall to me!

3.  Characters will be more fluid.  This is the part where I think the complainers have a legitimate beef.  Since we won't need consumables or resources to change our characters to new skills anyone can become any spec they want without cost.  This in theory could lead to real cookie cutter builds where everybody uses the same loadout and it certainly means that there is no sense of permanent specialization.  There will be no frost mages, cleave barians or indeed anything aside from the five classes (and two genders I guess?).  The thing is though, even in D2 where the skills had a *vast* gulf in power between them there were plenty of people playing suboptimal builds.  We won't be forced to stick to a build but people will do it anyway.

Overall I think that the new system is great in that you learn new things all the time and otherwise fairly neutral.  I still am frothing at the mouth to get to play D3 and eagerly hoping for a beta key - that must be a good sign.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


DnD groups wipe a lot less than groups in WOW and other MMOs.  In an MMO death is, of course, irritating, but rarely more than that.  In DnD it is usually game over - the lich the party was hoping to defeat finishes his doomsday spell and the world is covered in eternal darkness.  Or a plague of zombies, or the return of the Black Dragon elder, or whatever crazy thing the players are trying to avert.  On Sunday my DnD group wiped.

It was a close thing at the end.  One of our party members had died having been bleeding out on the ground for 11 rounds, the second was unconscious and about to die and I was the third.  I shot my bow at the Ghost we were fighting, the last enemy left alive, and although the die seemed desperate to roll a 20 and give me the critical I so desperately needed it did not stick.  I stuck two arrows into the ghost for 13 damage but he had 18 HP left and he effortlessly dispatched me.  Even had I won both of my friends would have perished and I would have been alone in a dangerous underground set of twisting tunnels with small prospect of ever getting back to the surface alive; nonetheless it would have been VICTORY!

Afterwards we talked about the enemies and why we had lost.  It turns out that the adventure we are running uses some classic monsters and some of its own; unfortunately the authors seem to have questionable ideas about how to build appropriate enemies.  A normal level 10 Elite monster has about 200 HP and the two we were fighting had 184 HP and the insubstantial quality - they take half damage, rounded down, so they had about twice as many HP as they were supposed to.  I honestly can't fathom the insubstantial mechanic.  When a monster takes half damage from absolutely everything it adds a lot of mechanical annoyance but isn't at all different from just doubling its HP aside from a few niche abilities that ignore insubstantial.  The real issue is that when building monsters people seem to think that monsters with the insubstantial quality ought to have huge HP numbers and/or regenerate.  Insubstantial ends up being a completely overpowered ability because they simply don't think that taking half damage matters.

It does!  Taking half damage matters!  Get it through your heads!

We aren't playing any sort of campaign though but rather just a series of dungeon hack adventures.  In this case we are doing 5 man dungeons with just 3 people because the dungeons were simply too trivial with 5 - we were going 17 fights between rests and that is quite ridiculous.  With our current 3 man party we go about 4 fights between rests and we actually use our daily powers regularly.  This makes the game feel a lot better because choosing dailies is actually quite relevant when you get to use them every couple of fights instead of less than once a level!  Given that we will just respawn our group and keep on going.  Our DM has informed us that we don't have to refight the encounter that beat us (though it would be easy as hell the second time through!) but we get no experience for it.  Tough but fair, we did die after all!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Death, if you please. Also, profit.

I just recently saw this video from Blizzard talking about the challenge level of Diablo 3.

Their promise:  You will die.  I approve of this message.  One of the unfortunate things about Diablo 2 is that there are so few areas where there is any real challenge in play for a properly built character.  On your first run through it can be a little bit rough but you quickly get enough gear that any new character blows the entire game up with ease barring the challenge zones at the end which require brutal grinds to activate.  Their stated aim with D3 is to change that baseline and make it incredibly difficult for people to survive in the highest difficulty levels.  Presumably with a lot of farming, trading and crafting we will eventually be able to defeat Inferno without much difficulty but I do hope that takes awhile.  Having to find a good spot for farming while considering danger, kill rate and item quality is interesting and slowly getting further and further along is enjoyable.

One thing I suspect we will see a lot if things are actually as hard as Blizzard suggests they will be is grouping and characters taking specific roles.  I know that I could build some extraordinarily tough Barbarians and Monks who weren't much good at killing and I figure those characters will be at a premium for quite some time.  If you can bring along a legitimate tank who lets everybody else in the party just pour on their damage without running around it will be critical to success.  This will also mean that it will be very advantageous to have a group of good players you can rely on for groups so that you don't have to try hard content either alone or with buffoons; either of those might be extremely frustrating or dangerous.

There is a new model going on for the Real Money Auction House too, which is that there will be a 1.50 Beta Buck minimum listing fee and 1.25 of that goes straight to Blizzard.  This means that it will only be worth listing items of some reasonable value - the RMAH will not be flooded with junk to sift through.  Also each person will be limited to 10 auctions which seems directly targetted at botters and such.  Although a 10 auction limit will negatively impact the real players who want to play the RMAH for fun it will completely cripple those scammers and gold farmers who want to fill the RMAH with thousands of crap auctions like they do in WOW.

Blizzard seems to be really interested in providing an optimal experience for the player who wants to play D3 a lot and doesn't want to be inconvenienced by the traders, botters and other predators.  In particular they want it to be as easy as possible for that Joe Average gamer to buy things so that Blizzard can get their juicy cut.  It won't be ideal for me as I like playing the AH and being a trade baron but I am suspect that Blizzard knows that I will be playing anyway - and doing this might get me to buy multiple accounts to play the AH on, which is good by them.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cave Troll, or rescuing a bad game

This weekend I played Cave Troll.  It is a zone control / resource management / dude placement game that is themed around a dungeon full of adventurers and monsters.  On your turn you can take 4 actions, each of which can be either moving a dude one space, drawing a new tile from your stack and putting it on the board or  moving a monster one space.  Tiles in your stack can be monsters which only attack your enemies, regular dudes that are bad but get you points and powerful unique tiles that give you massive board control or tons of points.  We played the game once and I blew everybody out; while I think I played really well I don't so much credit my success to my play but rather blind luck.

The trouble with the game is that there is no incentive at all to use your monsters.  Just like in many other FFA type games people have the choice between advancing their own position and beating up on an enemy.  Since this is a 4 player game if you regularly choose to beat on an enemy you are virtually guaranteed to lose if either other player focuses on their own game.  The optimal strategy is to completely ignore your monsters and just focus on spamming guys onto areas that can score points.  The other big problem is that the special tiles are enormously powerful and so drawing them early is incredible.  Anyone who has a lot of their best tiles near the bottom of their tile stack is doomed.  In the game that I played I focused on burning through my stack of tiles and got through it when the other players had ~6 tiles remaining each, which is huge, but I also got my best tiles relatively early in my stack.

That said, I like the idea of a 4 player game where you are running around a dungeon trying to escape the monsters and beat up the other team, so is there a way to salvage a decent game from this mess?  A mechanic Ziggyny told me about in another game where monsters fight militaries is that you have a certain amount of actions that must be used each turn on your monster and some others that must be used on your military to attack the other monsters.  This way you still have the problem of people ganging up on each other but at least good players can gang up on the leader without destroying their own position to do so.  In Cave Troll this would translate to giving people 1 action per turn that must be used to move or power up a monster.  You would probably have to give each player 2 monsters to start with (Wraith and Orc) so that they would always have something to do with their monster actions.

The other difficulty is the randomization of the powerful, unique tiles.  The game obviously isn't meant to be a super tight strategy game so some randomization is fine but there is just too much at the moment - a pro player would be easily beaten by a newbie who drew much better.  The best idea I had so far was this:  Have two stacks of tiles, one of which is regular dudes and one of which is powerful tiles.  You can draw from the regular dude stack any time you want but you can only draw from the powerful tile stack if you have at least 2 regular dudes on the board for each of the powerful tiles you have already drawn.  This would mean that each player would need to draw some regular dorks and keep them alive in order to draw from their power tile stack; it would keep the number of power tiles you have in play fairly regular and would allow for a bunch of interesting strategy in killing other people's dorks to keep them from drawing more power tiles.

I think my new version of Cave Troll would be a much more interesting game.  There would definitely be a fair bit of thought going into how to use your monsters and beating up on the leader without throwing away the game yourself would become very feasible.  The thing I don't know for sure is whether or not it is worth trying to salvage the game from its current state.  I like the genre but maybe games that are just bad should be heaved rather than fixed.  I obviously have a strong tendency to take games apart and try to remake them in a better way; it is hard for me to know when I am doing too much and should just let go.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Rules systems that try to do too much

Today I was reading a bit about CiV AI on the civfanatics forums.  There are plenty of complaints about the AI, which I have talked about at great length before, but something came up this time that really got me understanding what a brutal problem the designers face.  It is somewhat similar to the problem faced by Wizards in trying to design the next generation of DnD - that is, both are trying to design systems of rules that can literally cope with anything a person's imagination can throw into them.

As a counterexample, the AI in Starcraft 2 has a very limited set of options to take and can assume many things.  It can simply follow a script to build 4 Zealots, 3 Stalkers, 1 Immortal and then rush.  Nothing wrong with that build and as long as there is some land route to the enemy base everything works out fine.  The SC2 AI has several different sets of approaches it uses to play a game but it does follow some simple scripts each time; this works because it always has the same buildings and units to choose from.  If you changed Zealots to come out of Forges instead of Gateways the AI would fail completely and wouldn't be able to play the game at all.

This is exactly the problem CiV faces since it is a game built from the outset to be moddable.  The AI cannot be assigned build orders or any specific strategies surrounding what to do because any unit, building, improvement, terrain feature or even mechanic might not be there in a particular mod and the AI still needs to be able to play.  How can you possibly design a strong AI for a game where you don't even know what the rules are?  You could tell the AI to build specialized cities where one city for example tries to make lots of gold by building buildings and improvements that maximize gold output.  This utterly falls apart though when there aren't any buildings in the game that give a % increase to gold output or when all cities can get them.  You can't even hardcode in endgame strategies like building spaceships for victory because that victory condition might be turned off or changed to something else entirely!

DnD is in a similar boat.  Some people want it to be a rules system for optimizing drop in games that are mostly dungeon crawls with ad hoc rules for noncombat situations.  At this task DnD 4th is great.  Some people want erotically charged sexventures.  At this task DnD 4th is .... lacking.  No matter what the system tries to do it will fail much of the time because nobody can actually tell you what it is *supposed* to do without being contradicted by a thousand others.  This really hit me when I read the design statement for DnD Next which pretty much said that they wanted to make DnD better for what people wanted.  They left out what exactly it was that people wanted, and wisely so, because there just isn't any sort of useful answer and I think they know it.  There is no consistent vision for what DnD is supposed to do and this leaves it in a very difficult place.

I don't have a good answer for these situations.  It is great that CiV is moddable and that the AI really does play the mods quite reasonably (if you count its normal play as reasonable!).  It is fantastic that so many people with different desires can play DnD and have fun.  It is, however, guaranteed that because both the CiV AI and  the DnD rules try to please everyone and let people's imaginations roam free that they will forever be mired in mediocrity for pretty much everyone.

Penny Arcade has a fantastic comic about this from which I stole the phrase "erotically charged sexventure".   From:  http://penny-arcade.com/comic/2012/01/11

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Gaming couples

I read an interesting post over on World of Matticus the other day about couples in gaming groups. Matticus is especially negative on the idea of recruiting couples and think that mostly you should ditch them. He was specifically talking about couples in WOW raiding guilds but I think a lot of the information there applies just as well to other sorts of activities.  Having a couple involved in a competitive game or sport really is an invitation to drama and conflict as inevitably you end up with people who have issues with commitment.  Unlike normal commitment issues this type of issue is that people have multiple competing commitments and the conflict generated when trying to honour all of them is problematic.

When one person in a couple is failing to meet the performance benchmark for the group you end up with problems.  First off sometimes the other person swoops in to defend their love; they often do this even if they think the accusations are completely fair because they think they are supposed to.  You can also have the issue that the couple wants to play together and suddenly you have the requirement of fitting both or neither of them into your raid.  This generates problems with the other players because you are effectively giving the couple preferential treatment.  There is also the issue of granularity; if you kick one of them out or they quit the other usually goes too and this means that your roster is a little more vulnerable than it would be otherwise.

All that is entirely aside from the hilarious consequences of recruiting couples like having the couple split up while still in the guild, having one or both of the couple cheat on the other with other people in the guild or just plain old fights.  In some ways it is the same sort of thing you get just by introducing a female into the mostly male space of WOW raiding; pretty much no matter what the female does there are going to be some drama issues as people hit on her.  There is a reason that some guilds have a no women policy!  Obviously lacking women doesn't particularly mean there won't be relationships but I suspect that a gay male invited to a WOW raiding guild isn't going to get hit on quite as much as a female would...

I think this is particular to raiding because so many of our competitive pastimes are gender segregated.  Most sports have mixed teams up until the highest levels of competition whereupon everyone ends up on a team based on their gender.  In raiding though there simply isn't that segregation and so you end up with situations where a couple with different performance levels wants to play together and it causes issues.  Clearly this is a fair hetero centric viewpoint but I think it describes the reality of the situation pretty well just because there aren't so many gays as straights; they have most of the same issues but it doesn't come up as much.

I have had to deal with this sort of conflict personally and it was always tricky to navigate.  I have been able to raid with Wendy regularly for years and I was always the more hardcore player who played more and played better.  Often I was in a position of authority over her in the guild structure too which meant that I had conflicting responsibilities.  In theory I was supposed to protect and defend her from all ills as well as kick her ass if her performance was below par; a tricky balancing act.  Generally I was lucky in that she was able to perform in the top 10% without assistance though there were times when I had to nudge her in the right direction in terms of spec, play or interface to get her closer to top 1% territory.

The thing is that couples can actually bring tremendous benefits to a raid group.  They can act as an extra channel of communication, team up for particular responsibilities that rely on their ability to talk to each other, borrow each other's characters and other such things.  Generally my raiding experiences with couples have been really good.  I certainly was careful in recruiting couples to be extremely clear about expectations at the outset to try to avoid the inherent issues but I was definitely willing to take the risk; better people are worth it.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

More on DnD Next

Generally speaking when I think about the next generation of DnD I think that 4th edition could use some refinements and most of 3rd edition can be safely tossed.  There are some really unique things that 3rd had though that I often wish could make it into the new game.  The biggest one is the inherent flexibility of the magic system.  In 4th nearly every ability is a strictly combat ability.  Even abilities that are called utility powers are framed around usage in combat and often have no applicability outside it.  There are some exceptions of course, as some utility encounter powers teleport the caster or let them fly for a short distance and these could obviously be utilized outside of a fight.  3rd was very different because casters had to choose to allocate limited resources to combat or noncombat applications.  I could memorize Levitate or Melf's Acid Arrow, Fly or Fireball, Dimension Door or Ice Storm.  In each case there is the possibility of using each spell in the opposite arena but you honestly don't need to Fireball the forest or Levitate in combat very often.  Even if I am a Sorcerer and don't memorize spells I still have a very limited number of spells known and I really have a tough choice between utility and combat spells.

I think people really miss this in 4th because everything is so cleanly divided.  All of your class functions are combat abilities that *might* have an application outside combat but usually not.  When myself and some friends were designing a RPG system years ago we encountered this problem - we could never balance classes by giving some more effective noncombat abilities and some more effective combat abilities and have it work out right.  We ended up deciding that characters need to all be effective in combat and all have some interesting things to do outside of combat though those things could run the gamut from thieving skills to utility spells to social powers.  4th really does leave the player who wants to have lots of utility and creative abilities out in the cold as rituals just don't cut it for that purpose.  They have their place, and work fine for what they do, but they just don't do everything people want.

I don't know if there is actually any good solution to this problem.  If you give people real flexibility in character design like in Mage or Vampire for example you end up with some people who utterly dominate combat, some who dominate social interactions and some who dominate in other ways.  If you want a balanced system where you can have a drop in gaming group and not be worried about hideous balance problems from a new player you have to make things extremely regimented (like 4th does) and disallow tradeoffs between combat and noncombat prowess.  3rd, on the other hand, does allow this sort of tradeoff and thus the players have a ton of flexibility.  However, if you have a new player come into your campaign you may well have someone who is utterly ineffective against the monsters your group comes up against or someone who can handily defeat all the encounters by themselves.  In my current gaming group I had to ditch a character who was simply too overpowered for the group and do something else because I was making things unfun for the group - this is *really* tough to do in 4th and utterly trivial in 3rd; just play a wizard, druid or cleric!

Old school DnD players are used to flexibility and having noncombat and combat abilities be defined by their player's imaginations and creativity.  4th edition does away with that in the name of balance and I find myself longing for the fun choices of the past.  I don't find myself longing for the days of rogues watching on the sidelines as the wizard defeated the campaign by himself or fighters having nothing to do but "I attack." though.  Whether or not both objectives can be achieved simultaneously is an open question but my suspicion is that they cannot.