Thursday, September 27, 2012

More on Pandaria

My initial impression of questing in Mists of Pandaria was pretty negative.  The start of the Pandaren continent was purely linear and there was a very buggy bottleneck right at the beginning.  Fortunately that is not the case throughout and the questing options opened up a fair bit after the initial story arc finished up.  It felt a lot more like old school questing where there were lots of quest hubs with chains available but you could easily skip any of the hubs and go on to something else if you wanted to.  There are still plenty of quests with phasing and vehicles and other gimmicky mechanics but they are mostly smoothly integrated and I enjoyed them.  When you know that you can always wander away and try something else it makes things much better!  It will be frustrating to some extent that every alt who comes to Pandaria will have to do that first questline but as long as my options after that are wide open I can't be too displeased.

The new strategy of putting a ton of importance on farming mobs instead of playing the Auction House is an interesting one.  Much of the high end crafting involves killing huge numbers of monsters to get Spirits of Harmony to craft things.  No matter how rich you are it just won't be feasible to maintain an army of alts to make cash for you unless you have endless hours to farm up materials on each of them.  This is bad for me as I traditionally spend much of my time in WOW getting alts up to max level and making gobs of cash by manufacturing goods but I don't know if it is good for the average player.  It boils down very much to a right / left political debate - do we celebrate or denigrate captains of industry who become absurdly wealthy?

People who sit on the AH buying gear and flipping it for profit obviously bring no value; they just skim money off the top.  However, I didn't make my money doing that but rather in manufacturing.  I transmuted things into other things, crafted gear, and cut gems.  I added value by leveraging my skills and got rich in the process.  In traditional left wing propaganda I am a thieving, unscrupulous bloodsucker taking bread from the mouths of hardworking people.  In traditional right wing propaganda I am a job creator, an entrepreneur, someone who drives the whole of society forward by making things everyone needs.  Which limited vision is more appropriate here?  Though normally I swing to the left politically I figure I am actually doing good here. People want the things I make and I focus on making whatever it is that they want to buy.

If you buy the theory that manufacturers like myself bring value then presumably this change is a bad thing.  If I see that a particular item is out of stock on the AH I won't be able to fill that need.  Granted somebody else can do so but any given individual will only be able to make a couple of things and from past experience we know that this will not be enough.  There will be big gaps in what people want to buy because there simply won't be enough sellers.  On the other hand this will keep gold in the hands of the average player instead of the businesspeople and it is quite clear that the businesspeople have plenty of gold as it is.  Either way I assume that I will continue to squeeze out cash via cutting gems and transmuting goods with alchemy whenever there is a margin available.  The profits will never be as good as they were back in the day but I really don't need them to be... I figure I have enough money for a couple more expansions at least.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Launch Day

This morning began at 3:00 am for me.  The days of getting up at any random old time and staying up for 24 hours straight are way behind me now; even though I napped this afternoon I still feel groggy and terrible.  On the other hand, I woke up to a new expansion for WOW and got to crush some dreams, which puts me in a good mood.  I was expecting Mists of Pandaria to be a smooth launch since Blizzard had a big beta test and has immense experience and resources available; sadly, it was not as smooth as I would have hoped.

The initial quest series where you fly a helicopter around to begin the quest chain in Pandaria was a gigantic pain in the ass.  I got glitched in the same place as hundreds of others when I was trying to bomb the boats and spent a number of minutes only able to view masses of twisting polygons.  My guildmates and I figured that since the quests were borked that we could just go and do some dungeons but sadly the second boss of the dungeon was bugged too and we couldn't proceed through the event.  It is certainly a bad sign when your players can neither do dungeons nor do quests because both are bugged beyond recovery.  Eventually of course we managed to get through the quest bug and get going but it certainly left a sour taste in my mouth that Blizzard couldn't even get a simple introductory quest to function on launch day.  If doing this quest wasn't *mandatory* to unlock any other quest in Pandaria it would have been fine but the current questing on rails system means that any bug like cannot be circumvented.

Thankfully I wasn't banking on questing much in the early going.  Initially I had been aiming to collect both the Alchemy and Jewelcrafting Realm First achievements solely on the basis of being extremely rich but I decided to go for First Aid too so I could buy overpriced goods of nearly all types at once!  I had no collection skills available to me so my only avenue to victory was outbidding everyone else on the server.  Thankfully the competition seemed to be pretty much nonexistent and I handily cleaned up Jewelcrafting and First Aid in the first three hours by wandering around the starter zone buying stuff from people.  Unfortunately Alchemy requires some high level materials and I couldn't buy them for any price; the Alchemy achievement got snagged before a single stack of high level materials hit the Auction House.  I bought stacks of goods ranging in price from 250g / stack to 1500g / stack and ended up dropping about 23,000g in total; I will recover some of that gold by selling gems and potions but the great majority is completely gone of course.

I consider two Realm Firsts to be a great result.  I didn't get everything I wanted but I also didn't spend nearly as much money as I feared I would have to; I was preparing to drop 100,000g or more if the bidding got fierce.  My guild OGT actually did gangbusters on firsts; we had four people online during the night at launch and scored up five Realm First achievements with everybody getting at least one and we defended our Jewelcrafting and Blacksmithing titles from last expansion.  Unfortunately I am not particularly impressed with the questing in Mists so far.  The quests are very much like Cataclysm where everything is on rails and you have essentially zero choice in what you do.  I want to have more to exploration and levelling than being led around by the nose.  Perhaps the later zones are better but I think I will just end up slogging through the forcefed quest system until I get to max level and start having some real fun.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bringing em back

The MMO blogosphere is full of people talking about Mists of Pandaria.  Some, of course, lament the fact that the Blizzard fanboys are going back to WOW even though there are newer, better offerings out there like Rift or GW2.  Some laugh in glee at all the haters and quitters who can never get fully over their WOW addiction and who always come back for just one more hit, and some welcome everyone back to the fold.

There are all kinds of theories about why exactly this happens like 'WOW is a security blanket' to 'Blizzard makes the most polished product out there' and those probably have some merit but they aren't the answer.  The real reason people end up back in WOW is community.  It is the same reason that D3 fell flat in my group of friends - grouping was substandard in terms of progression and communication was clunky.  The game itself was good enough to keep us playing a long time but the community wasn't.  When I used my free week in WOW and logged back in I found tons of my friends doing the same thing, getting ready for Mists by doing achievements, reading up on strategies for getting realm first professions, and testing out content we had missed in our time away.  I saw people there that I remember from raiding but whom I have never seen outside of WOW too; it was a full house.

That full house was the key.  I love having an online community, especially one I can access any time.  Sometimes I want people to talk to during the day and being able to log in to a game and chat with friends is a wonderful thing.  WOW has the huge advantage that everybody has played it, so all kinds of people reconnect when expansions hit, and also that it has a massive subscriber base normally so I probably know all kinds of people who are slaying monsters and taking stuff.

The gameplay in WOW is good, don't get me wrong, but the gameplay isn't the thing.  People will do almost anything for friendship and love, including playing awful old games like EverQuest.  (If you don't buy that, just ask a EQ veteran to tell a story that doesn't revolve around either "Boy, was EQ bad" or "I had lots of friends in EQ")  Once you develop those connections with people you want them back and WOW is the biggest hub of connections there is for hardcore gamers.  In this way WOW is like Facebook; even if it isn't the best it is the biggest and in a social network being big is even more important than being good.  I am on Facebook even though I think its design stinks and it has all kinds of terrible ethical lapses simply because the connectivity it offers is too useful to ignore.  WOW is the same way; I want to see my friends and they are playing WOW so WOW I must play.  Not that WOW's design irritates me the way Facebook's does; WOW isn't perfect but it isn't terrible either.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Take less damage

Diablo 3 is going to take another step towards making the endgame easier.  In 1.05 Blizzard is going to reduce monster damage by ~25% and nerf the hell out of a bunch of the most problematic defensive skills.  Long term this has to be considered a good move because when you consider that PVP is supposed to be a big focus of D3 sometime in the near future you must consider balance from a class vs. class perspective and not just a player vs. monster perspective.  You simply can't have always-on abilities that reduce damage by 43% (like Prismatic Armour for the Wizard with decent gear) and imagine that somehow this will work out fine when other classes have no similar abilities.

I suspect that Blizzard needed to solve two problems at once.  First off, when you can select an ability that reduces damage by 43% the idea that you would choose anything else is ludicrous.  This means that the wide variety of spec options touted by Blizzard at the outset is not particularly applicable because either players are totally invincible or these sorts of abilities are mandatory - there is no middle ground.  There are plenty of other abilities that are on the chopping block too and thankfully Blizzard seems to have consistently targetted the ones that were most over the top.  Even Demon Hunters and Witch Doctors, who had by far the worst damage reducing abilities, had their best ones reduced in effectiveness somewhat.  These changes will definitely open up PVE specs a lot and make it much more reasonable to run more utility or damage dealing powers in place of the current strategy of two attack moves and four defensive powers that people seem to favour.  Adding another attack spell to my bar increases my offensive power a little by increasing my flexibility but the change is small - defensive powers need to work the same way for specs to have a lot of variety at the top end.

The other problem was pvp of course and in particular the Witch Doctor and Demon Hunter were an issue. Pets work fine for tanking monsters but if you build a pet class and assume that you can give them weak personal mitigation abilities because their pets can tank you are setting them up for failure in PVP.  Players ignore pets and will always focus fire the summoner so Blizzard absolutely needed to bring overall mitigation levels down so that Witch Doctors weren't hilariously flimsy when faced with an intelligent opponent.  Demon Hunter designs face an entirely different problem because Demon Hunters are either invincible or made of paper and have little middle ground (Barring 4p set + perma Gloom which is clearly absurd and needs to get bugfixed).  DH do not have enough passive defenses and any attack that would threaten a tough class with death would outright kill a DH.  While PVP is supposed to be fast paced I don't think that Blizzard really intended to make a class that was a one hit wonder by design.

The changes they have outlined seem very good from both a PVP and PVE perspective.  The endgame will certainly be easier overall as even the classes facing the most serious nerfs will be slightly better off and the other classes will be improved but not so much so that it is a problem.  Because Blizzard is also adding a few new ways to dial up the difficulty I think PVE will remain challenging and fun.  Whether or not Blizzard can actually get PVP balanced well remains to be seen but I am certain they can manage to make something fun and addictive out of it.  PVP was never particularly balanced in D2 and it was still a blast as long as you weren't fighting against people with duped gear so I am sure D3 can be just as good and likely much better.

One last note though:  Due to pet Force Armour mechanics these changes will actually make pets die more easily rather than the other way around.  In order to maintain relative pet toughness the 10,000 baseline for pet Force Armour needs to be reduced by the same % that enemy damage is reduced.  Reducing enemy damage by 25% means nothing if you are reducing an 80,000 hit to 60,000 and then only allowing 10,000 through regardless.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Being casual and bad

I sat down today to try out WOW's Looking for Raid feature.  I haven't played in a long time, I am barely familiar with my abilities, and I don't know how the fights in the Dragon Soul raid work, but nonetheless I was prepared to inflict myself on a host of unsuspecting randoms.  There was some wiping and dying and quite a lot of people slinging blame for the wiping and dying around at random but eventually we cleared the raid out.  I had a pretty good time and became a lot better at healing over a very short timespan!  The raid was very reminiscent of PUG raids I ran back in previous expansions and seemed to be tuned appropriately.  The really great thing about LFR is that I got to experience the final battle of the expansion without having to be in a serious raiding guild.  People used to complain that casuals only get to see the first part of WOW stories and never get to see the end but LFR really opens that up to anyone who wants to put in any modest amount of effort.

The low quality of the leadership in LFR groups certainly brings me back though.  Instead of saying "All dps need to switch to tentacles and slimes when they spawn" people invariably say "All you dpsers are noobs, wtf is wrong with you?"  I rarely found that spouting vitriol was effective but I certainly noticed that simple, clear instructions went a long way towards improving people's play and also keeping the group from exploding.  People also seemed extremely eager to quit the raid and/or boot other people from the raid with minimal to no explanation; for some reason every single boot vote went forward even when I couldn't figure out why it was happening.

I don't get that old feeling of progression though as I upgrade my gear.  LFR does let me check things out but I really don't get the rush of getting new gear and moving forward, most likely because all of the gear I am acquiring will be obsolete in two weeks and there isn't anything more difficult to accomplish other than what I am already doing.  Whether or not I will end up feeling that rush again when Mists of Pandaria launches I don't know - this is particularly true if I end up doing timed dungeons with my friends where gear is normalized and finding new rewards doesn't matter anyway!  Maybe I will just do some pet battles and timed dungeons and forget about the treadmill entirely... who knows?

I am going to get back into theorycrafting in a serious way though.  You don't need to raid to be interested in finding optimal solutions to problems.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How far down the rabbit hole shall I go?

I have been looking for a game to play.  I am pretty much done with Mass Effect 3 as this last playthrough will complete Insanity difficulty and do everything I ever missed before - importing a perfect save to do everything took a lot of doing!  The tricky thing about picking my new game is that whenever I do pick a game I tend to fall pretty far down the rabbit hole and I need to be concerned about just how deep it goes.

When I played Portal or Plants vs. Zombies there just wasn't that far to fall.  Both games were fantastic and I spent quite a few hours getting myself set up to do 65 flags on Infinite in PVZ but in the end there is only so much you can do.  There just isn't enough momentum to spawn endless forum posts and build a community like you find around big MMOs or games like Mass Effect.  Those communities are what really catch me and keep me in a game for long periods, like the years I spent building spreadsheets and running raids in WOW (elitistjerks) or my Civ V modding (civfanatics).  I have been moderately captured by D3 but it has some real issues with community in that the forums are a cesspool full of mindless whining and bumping and almost entirely bereft of interesting debate.  I am having a lot of fun with the game but I really want to talk about games with people and chatting about D3 on the internets is more awful than amusing.

All that has me thinking that I will probably relapse into WOW once again.  Getting back into the game is hard because I have to go through the newbie phase all over again.  I hate being the guy who doesn't know anything and I am not impressed by stumbling around and sucking.  I want to be perfect, I want to be beautiful, I want to play right!  I want to be the one who has all the answers, not the guy who doesn't even know what questions to ask.  That slow climb back up the hill of knowledge is painful and I know very well just how long it will take to get back to the top of the heap.

I started reading the elitistjerks forums again and it really got to me; the people there were using acronyms I don't know and talking about strategy that I can't quite follow.  They were speaking about specific fights as if I should really know and understand them and instead I am quite in the dark.  Looking into a community that I used to be an integral part of and not even being able to understand their language is a harsh reality check.  I really want to be back in that mode, being an expert player who knows all the ins and outs, but without hurling my spare time bodily at the game there isn't any way to be there again.  I should really spend my time instead writing my book or exercising or doing something else productive but all I really want to do is find a game to be awesome at again.

It seems that I will end up falling very hard, very far down the hole of WOW.  I know how far down that rabbit hole goes but there doesn't seem to be another game on the horizon that offers a gentler landing.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Damage scaling

I have been doing a Insanity difficulty playthrough in Mass Effect 3.  In Insanity monsters hit harder, move faster, and have a lot more health.  It is certainly challenging but I think I managed to hit the overpowered strategy by playing a Adept specialized in Biotic Explosions.  I really like the Biotic Explosions mechanic where you combine different kinds of Biotic powers to create big detonations because it creates all kinds of interesting choices in terms of what powers you use, what order you use them in, and how you spec your character.  It feels like a very different and very interesting version of the game when compared to the more straightforward Soldier who just shoots people in the head with a sniper rifle over and over.

The problem is that Biotic Explosions have a really bizarre damage mechanic.  Unlike everything else in the game like guns and regular biotic or tech attacks Biotic Explosions base their damage on enemy health totals.  A gunshot or a Incinerate might do 200 damage so it would take 3 attacks to kill a monster on Normal difficulty or 6 attacks to kill the same monster on Insanity.  Biotic Explosions scale with health though, so if you can kill an enemy with two Biotic Explosions in Normal the same holds through on all difficulty levels.

Scaling damage to enemy health levels just isn't a good idea.  In Diablo 2 it was just as problematic when Necromancers used Corpse Explosion to do 60% of a monster's health to all nearby enemies.  It really doesn't make sense to scale things this way when a big part of difficulty scaling is monster health - you will have a real balance problem somewhere, though where it is hard to say.  In Mass Effect 3 it seems to me that things balance out pretty nicely on Normal difficulty but thugs using guns seem really weak on higher difficulty levels and Biotic Explosions seem super powerful.

Diablo 3 managed to avoid this issue just by virtue of making the sole health-based attack be utterly junk.  Monks can blow up enemies for 30% of their health in a small radius but the cost of doing so is high and the difficulty of applying it is substantial so that ability is wretched on low difficulty levels and mediocre in Inferno difficulty.  If Blizzard had made the ability usable on Normal it would have been heinously overpowered in Inferno so they managed to do things right in this case - though it seems almost certainly by luck.  Blizzard did a really good job avoiding scaling messes in D3 by having absolutely everything scale off of weapon damage and this is the sole problematic exception so I am certainly willing to forgive it!

It shouldn't be said that these scaling issues necessarily wreck games.  They are generally fun and make you think about how you want to build your character, which is great, but they do cause havoc when you want to create a really balanced strategy game.  In D2 the Necromancer was so overpowered that crazy scaling wrecked the game and needed to be reigned in, even in a game where terrible balance was the norm.  I guess it depends what your goal is.  If you want really razor edge balance then scaling damage to enemy health is a total mess.  If you just want interesting stuff to do and crazy combos for people to figure out it works out fine.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Easy mode

In some games having an easy mode is a really good feature.  In Mass Effect 2 I screwed up the ending a couple times over my various playthroughs and it was really handy to be able to just load an earlier save, set the difficulty to Casual and wade through the enemies like a baws so I could fix my save to import to Mass Effect 3. While I beat ME2 on Insanity and had some really serious head-into-desk moments I appreciate having the option to cruise through the game when I want to.  Especially I want to be able to do the game on Veteran difficulty first so I can feel like the story makes sense and save up my dying over and over again until I have seen the whole thing first.

MMOs don't work that way.  The problem with MMOs having a variable difficulty is that character progression is the goal everyone is working towards and people are going to set their difficulty level to whatever levels them up faster regardless of what they find fun.  Just look at D3 at launch - people did terrible Resplendent Chest runs in Alcarnus for three days straight until the spawn got nerfed even though it was a miserably boring thing to do.  The advantage that the Mass Effect titles have in this regard is that progression comes to a stop.  You can get to the end slightly faster by going on a easier difficulty but you never feel like you totally wasted your time either way.

What I wonder is if there is any way to build an MMO where variable difficulty levels make sense.  Obviously many titles give difficulty choices in endgame dungeons and such but when levelling up there generally isn't any such thing.  If the endgame didn't contain progression though I could easily imagine people feeling like they want a challenge and levelling up on hardmode just to have a title or some other such reward to denote their accomplishment.  It might seem like it would feel really bizarre to have a world where one person walks up to an orc and cleaves it in two effortlessly and another fights it for a long time, barely to survive, but we already have this with level based systems anyway.  Would difficulty setting based challenge really feel any more weird than 'well, that guy has a huge integer above his picture, he can annihilate anything in this part of the world just by looking at it'?

This all relies on an end to the model of progression without limit though.  Any time you gate people's content by their progression and make the entire system about getting further along as fast as possible you make difficulty levels make little sense.  Nearly everybody will go as fast as possible along the easiest track, complaining all the way that everything is too easy for them.  I suspect that endless progression has been a huge part of what has kept WOW so big for so long though so I figure we aren't going to see it end any time soon.  I only hope that they get around to making the levelling game a lot more challenging than it was when Cataclysm launched.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A bad launch - GW2

Hobo was trying to get me to check out Guild Wars 2 when he visited earlier this summer.  I managed to be away from home during launch and I figured I would peruse the internets and find out if people think the game is good or not.  I like fantasy genre roleplaying games and I have never tried an MMO other than WOW so I am a good candidate to give it a go.  Unfortunately it looks like GW2 is going the way of Diablo 3 upon launch - lots of fun gameplay and total failure in terms of player to player communication.  It is not a good sign when players feel the need to justify your MMO's total community failure by saying that it is a good single player game.  After reading a few more reviews I decided that GW2 is not going to get my money, Free to play or not.

Awhile ago Ziggyny posted about his extreme frustration with recent game launches, MMOs in particular, when players are effectively beta testing a product that doesn't work.  Civ V needed major mechanic overhauls to be playable, FFXIV was a unmitigated disaster, and D3 and GW2 launched without functioning player communication... in games that are pitched as primarily multiplayer!  There is no arguing that game companies regularly ship games that they know aren't ready to get the revenue booked and plan on patching in necessary changes later but I don't think that shoddy games getting launched is a new phenomenon.  Old games had all kinds of terrible decisions and game issues but they just never got fixed!  The big change in the past few years is that player expectations are far, far higher than ever before.  The cost and time committment to a company to meet or exceed modern player expectations is extremely high and that means that the temptation to launch and let the players figure out what needs most to be fixed is ever rising.

What this all means is that players are incentivized to ignore a game at launch when it is likely to be buggy and wait half a year until the biggest issues are fixed.  This strategy also gives players time to avoid games that never manage to stop sucking like FFXIV and focus only on the games that get quickly upgraded like CiV or D3.  This has big drawbacks however for player community.  Many players are simply going to play at game launch regardless and waiting for six months in will often leave a player without a community.  This isn't an issue with CiV and its ilk but it is a major issue with games like D3 or GW2.  Barring me somehow convincing my entire gaming community to ignore a game for half a year I am not going to be able to arrange a 'wait for the sucking to stop' strategy.

Thankfully Blizzard has a stable platform on which to launch expansions and a solid history of smooth WOW launches so I won't have to worry about that for Mists of Pandaria.  I did kind of figure I was done with WOW when I quit eighteen months ago but it looks like there is some sort of interest left.  I want to see what it is like and I particularly want to play again if they fix their 'questing on rails' fiasco from Cataclysm.