Thursday, March 29, 2012

CiV modding, D3 and WOW memories

My new CiV balance mod is up on the mod hub.  Search for orangecape and you will find it easily.  I have discovered that the best way to get myself to dream up all kinds of great new changes is to publish something; despite the fact that it makes a lot more sense to come up with great stuff *before* publishing that doesn't seem to be the way things work in my head.

I have been trying out lots of builds for the Witch Doctor on the D3 character builder and I like this one the best.   It has a ton of pets, the extremely overpowered Soul Harvest and what seems to be the best spammable attack spell, Zombie Charger (Undeath Rune).  The thing about this build is that it leverages what is likely to be a really overpowered passive ability:  Vision Quest (VQ).  VQ increases your mana regeneration by 300% while at least four abilities are on cooldown.  It is a fairly sizable constraint to get 4 abilities that have cooldowns, though obviously not *that* hard, and it is a significant disadvantage to need to keep them on cooldown all the time.  I might want to save my 2 minute cooldown for something hard, for example, rather than just casting it as soon as it comes up.  Increasing mana regen by 300% is so enormous a benefit though that I can't help but think that using this ability will be mandatory at endgame.

The WD has some abilities that cost virtually no mana but which are weaker and some that are very expensive but stronger.  This allows the WD to pick some of each and be able to regenerate mana while casting weak spells and blow mana as needed.  VQ increasing mana regen by 300% means that you probably won't need any cheap spells and can spend all of your time casting powerful spells instead.  The powerful spells look to be twice as good at least as the cheap ones so having VQ active is an enormous increase to overall damage potential.  My build leverages VQ pretty heavily, even including Pierce the Veil, a passive ability that gives 20% more damage at a cost of spending 30% more mana.

It is difficult to say exactly what mana will look like at high levels without having seen the gear and mana pool formulas but if mana cost is meant to be a significant factor in spell selection (which it certainly seems to be) then I can't see how increasing mana regen by 300% won't be the best build.  This is particularly true when you can then ditch all of your cheap spells to make room for 4 spells with cooldowns.  If I had to really warp my build to squeeze in VQ then it might be a bigger question but I am definitely going to be playing with 3 cooldown abilities anyhow so fitting in the fourth hardly seems like a stretch.

This feels like a very strange sort of situation because I don't see comparable situations with other classes.  There are certainly passive abilities that are better than others but I certainly don't see classes other than the WD broken down into two distinct groups:  VQ builds and non VQ builds.  Also in the case of other classes you could remove a particular passive effect and the build would still be playable but in the case of VQ the build is utterly dependent on it; you will run out of mana and be fairly useless if VQ is removed.  It is possible that other sources of mana regen will make it such that VQ is merely a noticeable boost to mana instead of a total game changer; in which case it is possible that it will be a good design.  Right now though it looks like you play an entirely different and much more powerful game when you have VQ and people without it will be drastically worse off.

Maybe I shouldn't be pointing out broken stuff about the class I intend to play prior to launch?  Blizzard might be listening after all and I could well get myself nerfed to the ground baby! ;)

I remember back when Wrath launched for WOW and ret paladins got a really savage and necessary nerf; Hobo messaged me to ask if my class was bad now.  Well, I replied, I am pretty sure I am still the best dps class but now the margin is about 15% instead of 40%.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hitting on hot alien girls

Wendy is playing through Mass Effect 1.  Pretty much all of the games I have been playing recently are hard core strategy games so watching her go through Mass Effect is a bit strange.  She spends much of her time running around her ship chatting with various crewmembers about things that seem pretty secondary to, you know, saving the galaxy from destruction.  In theory she is playing Shepard, a space age warrior who is trying to prevent a maniacal villain from resurrecting an alien robot race intent on universal genocide.  In practice she is playing Shepard, a ruggedly handsome adventurer hitting on hot alien girls and inquiring about the childhood medical trauma suffered by the wisecracking pilot.

I should note in passing that even though the alien girl in question has weird tentacles instead of hair she sure looks HOT in every other respect and I would happily hop into the sack with her, tentacles and all.  The fact that she is a psychic ninja in addition to being hot is just icing on the cake.  Why exactly there are aliens that have such marked similarities to humans (including courtship rituals, it would seem) is never explained to my knowledge.

The awesome part about all of this alien lady romance is that the decidedly human ladies on the ship are bitter at Shepard for his extra-species romance and make it clear they are disappointed that he is choosing someone else over them.  This whole mess, of course, is a lot like real life.  Okay, not the hitting on hot alien girls part, but rather the continuation of regular human interactions even in the face of extreme danger and crisis.  People don't stop having crises, falling in love, hating each other or doing any of the other social things we do just because something terrible is happening.  Our lizard brains don't stop demanding we search for increased status and mating opportunities just because the universe might be destroyed next week!

In most games I have played the hero is just a collection of stats, skills and gear that is piloted through various convoluted dungeons to defeat the monster.  There is plenty of that in Mass Effect too of course but it somehow feels like Wendy is mostly playing through the combat to get to the rest of the story rather than the other way around.  In Mass Effect you get cash and XP for doing non combat quests and storyline but these are gated by stats like Charm and Intimidate so I think I would end up twinking myself out for social interactions instead of combat.  After all, I can always just play better to beat the monsters so I don't really *need* more ShootThem skill but if my Charm isn't high enough I can't get the XP from chatting up the hot alien girl!  Making numbers bigger is of course the end goal of any game so it is crucial to do every single side quest to rack up as much XP as possible.

It reminds me of the fun but very buggy Temple of Elemental Evil game for the PC.  I went around town doing every single quest every villager had for me including marrying the extremely unpleasant lady and once I was done fetching grain, chatting to people and marrying shrews to get quest XP I murdered every single one of the villagers for even more XP and loot!  A paragon of virtue I was not but I sure did make my numbers big.  I don't think you can actually fight your shipmates in Mass Effect though, which is unfortunate, because they probably are worth a lot of XP.  This is a pretty good example of how in game incentives can warp how people play.  I don't think the creators of Mass Effect necessarily saw their design as incentivizing stacking Charm nor that the ToEE was supposed to be played by first doing every quest and then committing genocide but players will do anything at all to gain levels no matter how tedious or immersion breaking.

Liara picture borrowed from:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Swapping specs

Diablo 3 has a new system in place called Nephalem Valor Buff which only comes into play at maximum level (60).  This gives the player a bonus to magic find and gold find each time the player defeats a Unique monster or set of Champions.  Right now it looks like this buff will stack, becoming larger and larger with each group killed to some maximum.  Defeating a boss while under this buff will also grant extra drops.  The trick is that the buff goes away as soon as you swap out a skill for another one.  The design is to allow players to swap to new specs any time they want but to discourage them from swapping constantly based on what monsters they expect to face.  The other effect of this change is to make it optimal to play in a single game for an extended time.  Rather than just running the same boss over and over again every two minutes we will probably do much better clearing whole areas or acts in a single sitting which I think will end up being more fun than repeating a single short section over and over.

I think this is a somewhat kludgy way to address the problem of people respeccing right before fighting bosses. I can't see swapping specs to fight normal monsters being useful since you won't know ahead of time what the next pack will be nor what sort of mods they will have.  Bosses, on the other hand, are always the same so their may well be specific builds that are extremely powerful against them.  Without any other incentive I can easily see players feeling they need to swap out their specs against each boss to maximize their effectiveness; that is, of course, assuming the bosses are really hard, which I think they will be on Inferno difficulty.  In essence Blizzard is trying to save the players from themselves by providing an incentive to not swap specs during a play session.

There are some other things they could do to prevent the issues of boss respecs like making sure that bosses respond appropriately to stuns, fears, etc. so they can't be permanently locked down.  This is probably really tricky though because if stuns and fears are useless against bosses then players are really incentivized to dump them and if the boss isn't immune then the boss just keels over dead.  Making bosses immune to crowd control effects but having lots of summoned mobs that aren't immune would provide a happy medium but that isn't always going to be an option either.  Just like in WOW it is extremely difficult to design all fights so that all abilities are useful but not overpowered.

Blizzard could have just as easily have made this a negative instead of a positive thing but it would almost certainly have been badly received.  Instead of having a stacking bonus they could have simply put all skills on a 1 minute cooldown after changing them around to incentivize people to stick to one build within a play session but this would get people really bitter I expect.  All in all I don't love this system but if Blizzard really feels it is important to prevent people from swapping specs and games constantly I think it will do the trick.  They seem to have a really clear vision of how they want games and grouping to go (Not at all like Diablo 2!) and they are willing to do some unorthodox things to make that happen.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

PvP critical points

I had a bunch of people over to play board games this weekend.  Even though the group as a whole really likes to play board games we had a hard time agreeing on a game to play because anything there was a lot of interest in got vetoed by somebody or other.  The problem seemed to revolve around how much PvP there was in the game and how critical moments of PvP resolved themselves.  For example, in Settlers of Catan you have lots of small PvP moments where you have to place the robber baron on somebody's land or decide which player you will trade with when you have identical offers.  These choices do matter but the stakes are low and they certainly don't make and break games on their own.  There are also critical PvP moments where one player builds several road segments at once and drops a settlement in a location that somebody else was all set up to take.  When this happens it often is such a blow that the player getting ganked is pretty nearly out of the game.

We ended up playing Vegas Showdown and got to see exactly why it has this same sort of issue.  There are plenty of times when you are faced with the choice of two relatively equal options with the only difference being 'who do I want to punish?'  The trouble is that often the game ends up revolving around somebody buying the Theatre and then struggling to place it - it is common that if they do place the Theatre they win and if they don't they lose so there is a very high stakes fight over it.  This isn't a problem in a two player game so much but it becomes pretty annoying in a five player game because people end up arguing over who has to bite the bullet to block the Theatre player.  Puerto Rico is similar because again you have lots of small options to hurt somebody and then in the endgame you can easily hand someone 10 points by calling Craftsman in just the right (wrong?) place and playing kingmaker.

Factory Manager ends up being entirely the opposite but in many ways just as problematic.  In that game a good player will make few or no significant mistakes over the course of the game and gaining ground early has a snowball effect so if you get stuffed (or do something stupid) in the first turn you are often out of the game.  There just aren't enough critical points for you to find a way to get back into the game in most cases so the person who is ahead on turn two will usually cruise to victory.  I think both of my games, FMB and Dot, fall more into this category.  There are a ton of small decisions to be made throughout the game that matter a lot but there is rarely a big 'well, now you lose' moment unless the game is incredibly tight.  Sometimes I get feedback from testers that the games don't seem to have any big changes and you just keep playing until somebody wins; this is true and it is all part of the package.  If there are critical moments then it allows for a weaker player or a player who is behind to catch up and that isn't my design goal.

I don't see a good way to design a game to get out of this trap.  If you have big critical PvP moments then people will end up fighting over what to do and some people will really dislike that.  If you don't have those moments then anyone who falls behind a little has no chance to get back into the game and some people will really dislike that!  Hell, you will find some people who dislike both, in which case it will be hard to find a game they like to play consistently.  Either way I seem to end up designing games with very few critical PvP moments that are won by an aggregation of small decisions; that probably accurately reflects the sorts of games I like to play.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

We have a date, finally

Diablo 3 is coming out on May 15th.  The official forums are awash in cries of ecstasy and exultation liberally mixed with questions from all the sensible folks who haven't spent the last six months trolling the forums and playing the beta over and over.  The game sure feels close to release quality at this point so Blizzard having two more months means that it should be absolutely rock solid when it finally does hit the shelves.  One really huge advantage of having online only play is that even if they print the DVDs a month in advance they can apply patches right up to the day of release to optimize the experience; it certainly gives them a little more freedom to push things out aggressively without worrying about quality.

The latest iteration of the beta is challenging.  Not hard enough to kill me, certainly, but hard enough to force me to play well, minimize my damage and drink potions now and then; this seems appropriate given that I have thousands of hours of experience and they want the game to be beatable by random buffoons!  In the initial push of the beta D3 was so utterly trivial that it could be easily beaten without gear of any sort aside from the starter weapon and now that would be extremely difficult.  It makes me very hopeful that Inferno will be hard enough to really challenge good players.  People with little skill are going to die sometimes in the first part of Normal and in theory the game gets harder in Nightmare and harder yet in Hell and Inferno; because only the really hardcore gamers are going to be farming Inferno Blizzard can feel free to make it soul crushingly difficult.

The balance of the current version is pretty decent but there are still some problems.  Some of them are due to only having four skill slots in the beta instead of the six that will eventually be available.  You can't have really niche abilities make it onto any of your four slots when you have multiple types of targetting (AOE, single target) and multiple resource usages (generate resources, use resources).  This means that Blizzard needs to push the niche abilities like Preparation (a Demon Hunter cooldown that restores all of your Discipline) later in the acquisition queue so they line up with getting the fifth or sixth skill slot.  There are also some abilities that are flat out useless because their numbers simply aren't high enough like Explosive Blast.  This latter group is going to be very easy to fix though, simply raise the damage value some and viola.

There are a few things about the game that are really different from D2 that are going to be very difficult to properly test however.  The biggest one to my mind is the way quests work with multiplayer games - your game has to start on a particular quest and people join up for that quest.  If you are trying to do a quest that nobody has a game for you can't join up and do it as it will either be locked out or already complete in their game.  This means that everybody in a game has to be on the same quest and has to work together unlike in D2 where players would regularly join games with the intention of completely ignoring the quests and zones the game creator was interested in.  I think this is probably a good thing and will lead to people cooperating and finding groups effectively but it is hard to know how it will feel without really testing it live.  We can't test it effectively on the beta because it is so short and mostly people all just want to do the final quest over and over to get loot.

The other thing that is very hard to test is the way trading will shake out.  There was absolutely nobody that predicted that the Stone Of Jordan (I have leet barb tabar for 1 SOJ!) would be the currency of D2 but it certainly ended up that way.  Until we see the entire economic system in action we just won't know whether or not the costs of the Blacksmith and Jeweler training will work and how the endgame item economy will look.  Given how much fun D2 was even with its utter disaster of an economy everything will probably be fine but we just don't know!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Diablo 3 projections

Sthenno came over today for one of our "shout numbers at each other" visits.  We talked a lot about Diablo 3 and how scaling will work in the game.  He is strongly of the opinion that having an achievable level cap is really poor design and I am inclined to agree with him.  Even given that we will get all of our skills and runes by level 60 I think there are some really good arguments for letting players level beyond that.  The only things players gain from levels in D3 are the ability to wear better gear, skills, runes, and stat points.  The stat point gains are pretty important at low levels but at high levels when we can expect to have stats in the 5,000 range (see next paragraph) so getting an additional 7 stat points from a level is pretty much irrelevant.  Certainly a brutal ramp up in XP cost to level would be appropriate; simply increasing the XP required to level up by 50% for every new level would allow really hardcore players to get into the late 60s and the most extreme lunatics could keep going into the low 70s but their advantages would still only be in the 1-2% range.  It would let people have fun gaining XP forever and have leaderboards for level but avoid any significant power inflation.

The other thing we talked about was how high stats are going to get.  Right now each class has a stat that gives them bonus damage.  The Witch Doctor, for example, gets % bonus damage equal to Int.  That is, if the WD has 100 Int they do 100% more damage.  There is a WD skill called Soul Harvest that grants 750 Int and heals for 20,760 on a 15 second cooldown when you are level 60 - unless they intend that this skill makes the WD by far the most powerful class we will need to have an Int score of ~5,000 at max level.  If we expect to receive 20,760 in healing every 15 seconds we must also assume we have a health pool of at least 50,000 which requires 5,000 Vitality.  Clearly my estimates are based on my gut feelings of what is 'appropriate' but either way I think we can be pretty sure our stats will sit somewhere between 3,000-10,000.  This has some fun consequences.

The biggest consequence I see is that other stats will also end up being this big as they scale in the same fashion.  Magic Find is the big one here - it seems clear that every character will be able to rock 1,000% MF without even trying and presumably people who really go for it will be able to have 5,000% MF or more.  If MF scales linearly then people would be getting 50 times as many magic items as 'normal'... which boggles the mind.  Given that MF scaled logarithmically (ish) in D2 and that getting 50 times as many items is ridiculous I am pretty sure we will see the same mechanic in D3.  Perhaps the first 100% works at full capacity, the second 100% works at half capacity, then 20%, 10%, etc.  Regardless of how the curve off works mathematically it is clear that after hitting 1,000% MF there will be virtually nothing to be gained by stacking more.

While it seems a little bit bizarre to have a system where absolutely everybody has enough MF that stacking more is completely useless it neatly solves a few problems.  First off it means that people won't really have to make significant sacrifices for MF on gear.  As long as you pick a bit of the low hanging fruit and get a little MF in the easiest ways possible you will have plenty.  Also this means that the furor over MF being shared amongst group members is completely irrelevant.  Everyone will have 1,000 MF anyway so if you are crazy and stack 5,000 MF for some reason you still lose practically nothing by giving it away!  Essentially this means that MF is a pretty meaningless stat as long as everyone gets the little bit that they need.  This reduces gearing to a performance based weighting and means that those with optimal MF gear won't really be able to get significantly more drops than everybody else - the best way to get gear is to play well and kill efficiently.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

No skill required

Tobold made an interesting post on Tuesday.  He talked about a recurring source of conflict in MMOs - the skill threshold required to access all of the content in the game.  Obviously there are endless fights where people either accuse their opponents of being elitist, social challenged no lifers or clueless, skillless noobs.  Tobold is of the opinion that establishing any skill threshold at all is a design error.  He compares it to having a movie player that checks to see if you understand the plot sufficiently and rewinds to the beginning if you do not.  I don't know about you but if I was watching a movie but didn't understand the plot in a place where I really needed to understand the plot I would *want* the movie to rewind so I could follow along properly!

I would like to suggest that by that standard of measure Super Mario Bros is a bad game.  So is Portal.  So is Diablo 2.... and indeed virtually any game ever designed.  If you can't click fast enough and well enough you don't get to see the next level of SMB and you will never rescue the princess from Bowser.  Despite only rescuing the princess once over hundreds of hours of play I still have fond memories of SMB and although sometimes Portal made me slam my head into a wall trying to figure out a particular puzzle I loved it enough to write a song about it.  I don't think we need to talk about how much time I sunk into Diablo 2, including playing hardcore and dying knowing that my character was gone forever.

My experiences are not unique.  Playing games where no skill threshold is required is an exercise in movie watching, not game playing.  If I don't want to be challenged I will go find a great TV show or movie to watch, games are there to force me to think and react.  The levelling experience in WOW becoming so easy that failure was impossible was a major factor in me quitting the game too... even a game I enjoyed so much and had invested so much in could not hold my attention when it became trivial.  The 'movie' version of WOW was a much crappier experience than other mediums so it wasn't worth playing.

This not to say that every game should be nightmarishly hard.  I think the ideal goal is a constant increase in challenge throughout the game.  SMB certainly had that as the later levels were consistently harder than earlier ones and the final dungeon was quite nasty indeed.  WOW's difficulty curve has been all over the place throughout it's life.  The levelling game went from moderately challenging to utterly trivial and dungeons and raids went from substantially challenging to utterly trivial to hard again.  Unfortunately WOW does suffer from being the hybridized monster of a levelling game and a raiding game smashed together which causes a lot of issues in difficulty scaling; without that restriction it would be much easier to scale difficulty up as the player progresses.

The feeling of flow, of optimal experience, only comes from pushing yourself to your limits.  Great games push us harder and make us go further than ever before and this experience is what brings us our greatest joys.  That doesn't mean every bit of the game needs to be impossible, but rather that to work for a broad audience there needs to be a broad range of challenge levels right up to 'obviously impossible'.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Magic Find and selfishness

Blizzard has changed the Diablo 3 magic find mechanics.  It used to be that when in a group everyone's magic find applied just to their own loot.  This meant that if you wore nothing but Magic Find you would be able to follow a normally geared group around around leeching off of their kills and getting tons of stuff.  People complained a lot about this as they assumed that in any random group game there would be a somebody running in pure MF gear hoping to get carried.  I think these complaints were spot on.  Some people will certainly be geared for beatdown; the leechers would just have to search around trying to find those people.  We can also assume that players with balanced gearsets would have spent a lot of time trying to detect and avoid MF leechers.  The new mechanic is that MF is spread equally among the group.  For example, if you have 200% MF then in a 4 person group each player will have 50% MF.  This applies to everybody of course so everyone ends up having MF equal to the average MF of the party.

Now the complaints are different.  Much of the internet is convinced that this is a travesty and will spell the end of group games.  All the good players will stack MF and play only solo, they say.  Why would anyone want to share their hard earned MF with their teammates?  Why indeed.  Maybe because they are sharing their MF with YOU?!?

Hah, I don't want to share MF with my group, I will just stack Strength and do more damage! 

Of course the Strength / Crit / Intellect / etc. on your gear is already shared in exactly this same way.  If you do more damage or have more survivability you kill monsters faster which generates more XP and drops for your teammates.  The only things you get from killing monsters are XP and drops and increasing anything about your character increases XP and drops for everybody!  Everyone has an incentive to try to equip the best gear with a balance of survivability, damage and MF and when everybody does this they all win.  Of course there will be people who stack MF or people who stack damage and those people will help their party in relatively one dimensional ways but help their party they will.

Now our priorities when soloing and playing in groups are going to be pretty much the same.  Perhaps having access to more buffs or a tank will allow a player to sacrifice some survivability for damage or MF, hard to say, but generally your gearing goals will be the same.  There will be no significant way to leech off of group members aside from simply being undergeared or bad and that isn't something that is readily fixable by Blizzard!  This is certainly a change in the right direction.  I wasn't looking forward to dropping from games when 3 people in pure MF gear decided to hide behind me and watch me kill the enemies and Blizzard has made it decidedly suboptimal for them to do that.  You can't prevent people from being bad or being jerks but you can make sure that the best possible path to progression involves being effective and helpful.  As long as someone who is desperate to be as powerful as possible as quickly as possible has an incentive to play well and cooperate things will be just fine.

Friday, March 2, 2012

D3 UI, argh

There is a furor in the D3 forums over their new skill UI.  I talked about this earlier this week but it bears a little more attention because their committment to the new UI seems to have extended to the website here.  Instead of having all the abilities divided up into ~3 sensible categories on one page you now have 6 categories that make little sense which are on 6 different pages.  The in game UI matches the website UI quite well now but unfortunately the biggest way in which they match is that they suck big time.

Normally there are endless cries of 'you are wrecking the game by dumbing it down for noobs' on the forums over virtually any change.  Normally I laugh at these cries because they apply this complaint to absolutely anything even if it is actually increasing the depth of play or merely increasing convenience.  In this case they are spot on though.  This new UI and new skill system is obviously intended for casual players to force them to have only a few choices when building characters.  They have 6 buttons and the 6 categories of skills are each pigeonholed into one particular button.  The categories don't work though because with only 20 skills and the requirement of having a decent range of choice for each button the categories end up containing 3-4 skills that have nothing to do with one another.  The skills in a given category lack and shared mechanics or themes and are obviously just shoehorned in together.  Blizzard is clearly sacrificing lore, ease of play and overall game quality to try to save casual players a few moments of deliberation and it is a really bad decision.

When I saw the new UI I was sure it was just a temporary thing designed to be a framework while they built a proper UI but porting it to the website makes me much less sure of it.  Even as a new player I imagine I would be frustrated by the current system where I can't easily see what abilities I have available or what they do while making a choice - making it harder to find information is *not* the way to simplify the game for casual players.  As long as the skills are balanced and people can beat Normal difficulty with any combination of skills that isn't pants on head stupid then this is not an issue.  People who get to Nightmare and have put a ton of time into the game will take a couple minutes to mouse over their skills, try a few things out as they level and get a good sense of how they want to play.  The current beta is easy enough that my 5 year old can easily play and survive despite having absolutely no idea what she is doing at all - there is no worry that casual players will be unable to progress because they chose the wrong skills.

Blizzard, fix this mess.  I am all for accessibility but we both know that you can go too far to make things accessible like the new levelling in WOW or the new skill UI in D3.  Don't make the game bad in a desperate rush to make it simple.  You can do simple and good at the same time.