Category Archives: Commentary

This Peeve of Mine: Blind Choices

It is amazing how many games you can work through when you aren’t playing an MMO. For example, I cleared through Metro: Last Light, StarCraft 2, Ori and the Blind Forest, The Swapper, Wolfenstein: the New Order, and am currently plowing through This War of Mine. All in the last two weeks. Granted, many of those all had completion times below ten hours, so perhaps that isn’t too surprising, but nevermind.

While I am not entirely done with This War of Mine yet, I did want to talk about it a bit. Specifically, about how the game has one of my least favorite “features”: blind choices. Or maybe “blind choices” is not entirely the correct term, but rather (unintentional?) obfuscation.

I first complained about blind choices nearly four year ago:

Perhaps I am simply too far down the metagame hole at this point, but how can anyone consider a choice with unknown consequences as meaningful? I mean, fine, all decisions and choices we make technically have unforeseen consequences. But these game designers are literally giving you nonsense to choose between on top of said unforeseen consequences. I don’t consider the choice between door #1 and door #2 to be meaningful at all – I may as well flip a coin or roll a die for as much thinking as it requires.

The game I was referring to at the time was the original Witcher, when the game asked me which quest reward I wanted to choose. While the game didn’t hide the the rewards themselves, the relative utility of each choice was very much in question. A book about vampires, your own hut, or the Wreath of immortelles? I chose the latter because italics, and it allowed me to easily bypass a long, involved quest.

Despite having chose the one with the most overall utility, I did not feel particularly clever because the choice itself had no real meaning. Do we praise the stopped clock for being right twice a day? Avoiding a designer trap only highlights the fact that the designers included a designer trap in their game in the first place, which automatically lowers my view of the overall design. It’s a cheap gimmick – one that is overcome only with knowledge that a player obtains after the choice is made. “Giving players the choice to fail” really just means the designers were unable to give players two or more good (or bad) options to choose between.

This concept get a bit murky when it comes to the roguelike genre though. Many roguelikes specifically include things like colored potions that have randomized effects on each playthrough. Sometimes you can minimize the mayhem such potions can cause, by being at full health and in a safe place before sampling the rainbow of colors you have collected. Such testing technically involves risk assessment and valuing the odds, which are pretty high-brow player skills. I was fine with The Bind of Isaac’s random pill effects, for example, largely because everything else about that game was so random it almost didn’t matter. When you could find out early which pills did what though? It sets you way ahead of the curve.

This War of Mine is more or less a roguelike. While the loot you can scavenge is random, it is also random which “scenario” you might encounter when going to a new location. This is generally fine. Roguelikes need randomness to maintain replayability in what otherwise would be short playthroughs. What I found less fine was when I realized that you didn’t need a lockpick to open locked doors, you simply needed a crowbar. That “makes sense” in a sort of logical way, but not always in a game logic way, especially not in a game that also features vegetables that grow to maturity in four days under a heat lamp.

Should the crowbar’s in-game description mention it opens locked doors? I would say yes. There is still a meaningful choice between crafting a lockpick over a crowbar (specifically the amount of noise it generates) when you know the full depth of information about the two. At the same time… well, Minecraft certainly doesn’t give you all the information you might need for a successful¹ run. I haven’t played it in a while, but the last time I did, I knew there was no way I would have ever guessed the correct configuration of materials necessary to craft a bow or shears.

Examining my discomfort in more detail, I suppose it comes down to wasting resources when outside knowledge is readily available. I had no problem playing Don’t Starve for hours and hours despite dying and losing all progress to the most mundane of causes. Murder Bees are serious business, after all. But chasing down the mats to build a blowgun and darts in what ended up being a nigh-useless tool? That pisses me off. I will happily fail in service to muscle memory, even if I lose progress along the way. I will not, however, be so keen to fail because I didn’t read the Wiki first.

There is a distinction between the two that I can feel, even if I cannot enunciate it clearly.

¹ With what constitutes success in Minecraft being left undefined.

Games as Services

If you have forgotten, Scrolls is that one card game from Mojang that no one ever played. And after July 2016, no one else ever will.

I actually had a Beta review up of Scrolls nearly two years ago, and that more or less marked the last time I spent any serious amount of time with it. I did pick it up again for a hot minute last year (I think), but the structural problems I already talked about were still present, so I stopped again. Probably because of Hearthstone. But, the CCG genre is not a genre one can go in half-assed anyway- it is strictly full-ass or bust.

While Scrolls getting an expiration date is not even remotely similar of an impact as an MMO shutting down, it is example #1765783 of the dangers of Games as Services. This is a game that I paid $20 for (two years ago, admittedly) that I will not be allowed to play in another year. Do you know what I played last month? Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines, an RPG that came out in 2004. And while it certainly costs money to keep an MMO server running each month, Scrolls had a perfectly fine single-player experience against the AI. Hell, I’m not even sure what the cost of running Scrolls matchmaking software would even be. Surely not that much?

Alas, it is not meant to be. While we can question whether it was Microsoft swinging the ax or normal market forces, the fact remains that the ax was always there. A veritable Sword of Damocles hanging over every game-turned-service, not threatening mere removal, but extinction. Will there even be a museum where these games could be played in the future? Or will these orphaned blog posts be all that exists, a Google search result that becomes less relevant with each passing year?

Nothing is permanent. But clearly some things are more impermanent than others.

PR Disaster Watch: Destiny Edition

June has not been a good month for game company PR departments. Or maybe it has been an excellent month in demonstrating the necessity of their existence in the face of designers with a bad case of verbal diarrhea. But while I have been focused on ArenaNet and Blizzards’ debacles, the true disaster that is Destiny’s expansion, The Taken King, has slipped me by. Until now.

The story is more or less the same, as if ripped from an identical playbook: an expensive expansion, and an even more expensive version with includes content that the player already owns. The deal this time is with Destiny’s Collector Edition, which includes the base game and prior expansions along with emotes exclusive to this package. There is no way to purchase these emotes individually, and no value whatsoever added if you already own everything already released to this point. So, basically, Heart of Thorns 2.0.

What elevates this to another whole level was this interview with Luke Smith, Bungie’s creative director for the expansion. I highly, highly recommend you read the entire thing because it is comedy gold. Or you can simply read this exchange, and despair:

Eurogamer: I get that it is big but it is also the same price as the base game. That had four areas rather than one and more missions than the Taken King. Why is it the same price?

Luke Smith: All I can do is answer that with the same thing I just gave you… We’re really comfortable with the value we’re giving to players this autumn. I believe that once we begin to share more, players will be even more excited. And for existing players it also comes with the Founder’s pack with a new Sparrow, shader and emblem.

Eurogamer: Just not the emotes.

Luke Smith: It doesn’t because they come with the Collector’s Edition.

Eurogamer: Final question on prices –

Luke Smith: Is it also the final question on the emotes?

Eurogamer: I’m not going to mention them again. I can’t get them.

Luke Smith: But you can if you buy the Collector’s Edition.

Eurogamer: I’m not going to buy the game and the two DLCs all over again.

Luke Smith: Okay, but first I want to poke at you on this a little bit.

Eurogamer: Poke at me?

Luke Smith: You’re feeling anxious because you want this exclusive content but you don’t know yet how much you want it. The notion of spending this money is making you anxious, I can see it –

Eurogamer: I do want them. I would buy them –

Luke Smith: If I fired up a video right now and showed you the emotes you would throw money at the screen.

Eurogamer: What I’m saying is that fan frustration is not because they don’t understand the proposition. It comes regardless of how cool the exclusive content is. The frustration – and mine as a fan – is that the method of acquiring it requires me to re-buy content I bought a year ago.

Luke Smith: [Long pause] It’s about value. The player’s assessment of the value of the content.

I would like to imagine that the “long pause” moment included a return to sanity for Luke Smith, the awakening from a fugue state. Or just a realization for how unconscionably stupid he was just moments prior. I say this because he would finish the interview with a somewhat rational approach to the nature of time-sensitive content and the noting that one cannot go home again.

In any case, Bungie’s now-existent PR department rang up Eurogamer at 9am the next day to update everyone that there will be nameless Veteran rewards forthcoming with the expansion, that will be “even better” than the ones found in the Collector’s Edition. Which really makes you wonder about all those Veterans who already “threw money at the screen” over exclusive emotes, and if they can get refunds of said Collector’s Edition.

Or not, at least according to Bungie community manager David “Deej” Dague, who says in the updated post:

“The Collector’s Edition is mostly sold out, so the people who found that stuff valuable jumped at the chance,” Deej added in a separate post. “You’ll likely see it sold on eBay for much more than what we’re asking. But that’s not the point. Right?

Right.

I suppose the takeaway here, besides the entertainment value of all these high-profile face-plants, is that players are going to likely (successfully) call bullshit when they see it going forward. And a large part of that is going to be any expansion being released without some sort of added value given to the very people that made a game or franchise successful enough to warrant an expansion in the first place.

Is that player entitlement? Or is it a renegotiated business transaction with more favorable terms? I dunno, maybe haggling indicates a deep, moral failure on the part of the buyer. What I do know is that all current and future Destiny players are better off today than they were two days ago. And that’s enough for me.

Edit: Also, apparently you get an exclusive quest in the expansion if you buy a can of Redbull. You can’t make this shit up.

Hyper Hype

I can’t remember the last time that E3 felt relevant or interesting. But now? I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt as hyped up as I do right now. Like holy shit whoa. All of these news items could turn out to be soul-crushingly disappointing, but… I choose to believe. I’m officially abandoning all rational arguments against the following and reveling in the ecstasy of fanboyism in its purest form.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake

ItsHappening.gif

Just knowing that this is a real, actual thing that will exist at some indeterminable point in the future brings me unbridled joy. I have talked about FF7 many a time over the years, and it has maintained its position in my Top 3 games of all time ever since I first played it in high school. Does the original hold up to modern RPG standards? Probably not. Am I tiny bit worried that “remake” will entail removing everything recognizable about the base game? Yeah, I am – that trailer narration was quite bizarre.

But in many ways, it doesn’t matter. A Final Fantasy 7 remake is going to exist. And by existing, it validates all those feelings I had damn near twenty years ago and have remembered ever since. The game was a cultural milestone that marked the turning point in gaming when RPGs went mainstream. And I was on the ground floor for that.

God, I still remember playing it Christmas Day and my father quipping “Oh, they’re showcasing interracial marriage now?” when he saw Tifa and Barret talking with Marlene in the bar. That… was a different time.

So yeah, you are either as excited about this as I am, or… well, I’m sorry. Hopefully you can warm your cold, dark heart vicariously through my joy. Or, you know, by envisioning my reaction when/if Square Enix buckles under the collective nostalgia of ten million people and fucks it up. There will be plenty of heat to go around in either case.

Fallout 4

Everyone knew this was coming. I don’t think many people imagined this coming out November 10th. At least not me.

This is honestly another one of those games in which the designers would have to go way out of their way to screw up before I would even notice. Fallout 3 was such a home run for me on so many levels. First, as someone who played Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout Tactics, I had a measure of extreme skepticism that the franchise could make the transition into the third dimension. I mean, maybe I should have learned from Metroid Prime that such magic was possible, but that moment when you first emerge from the Vault, blinded by the sun… yes. Yes, the world is fundamentally good and just.

New Vegas is often praised for being the better of the two, but I still disagree in a rather fundamental way. Simply put, you were on rails for a not-insignificant amount of time in New Vegas, funneled down a highway arbitrarily surrounded by level 20 Radscorpians and Super Ghouls. Compare that to Fallout 3, where you can explore every non-D.C. corner of the map starting from the Vault entrance. And that’s what I did, in every playthrough: striking out into the wasteland, investigating any landmark that caught my eye.

And hoarding all the things. So, so many things.

So seeing that video showcasing the insane level of customization for every weapon, utilizing every random piece of trash you have squirreled away? I’m already there. I’m sold. Not preorder sold – that would just be silly – but “Day 1 sold even though the game will be unplayable until the first patch two weeks later” sold. The base-building is cool, of course, and I’m looking forward for the zany Fallout plot as well. But I would pretty much play any post-apocalypse game where I could scavenge and hoard trash, and Bethesda certainly has my (credit card) number in this respect.

The Last Guardian survives

Much like a FF7 remake, The Last Guardian has become somewhat of a running joke at E3 and elsewhere. As the article notes, it was originally announced back in 2009 for the PS3. As the article also notes, however, it’s coming out 2016. For real this time™. Hopefully. Please.

While not on the full caliber as FF7, I have long considered ICO to be one of those games that best exemplifies Games as Art. Not just in aesthetics, but in the purity of its design. You were a little boy who used a stick to chase away the shadows of an impossibly large castle. Everything about that game was great. And Team Ico has been working on this game ever since Shadow of the Colossus (which I am still working my way through).

Some people on the internet have been complaining about the dated graphics, or at least pointed out that it looks like a game designed on the PS3. Which is likely the case, honestly. But you know what? I’m not going to criticize those uncouth Philistines for being incapable appreciating the finer things in life. Given their miserable condition – the rote, listless way they carry themselves in life – the only proper response to their proclamations is pity. If this game was merely ICO 2, same graphics and all, I would still play it, and have my life enriched thereby.

…and more

I’m pretty happy that Mirror’s Edge is getting a sequel, or prequel, or reboot, or whatever. It was one of those games whose fingerprints you can still see being left on game design today. Horizon looks pretty keen too. Oh, and I guess Mass Effect 4 is a thing. Although in regards to that, I feel no particular sensation of hype because Mass Effect is Shepard, and the Commander’s story is over. Whomever is wearing that N7 uniform has some mighty large boots to fill. Unless that person is actually Shepard and Liara’s (or Tali, or hell, Garrus’) child, in which case, game on.

In any event, I’m feeling kinda spent right now. The only thing that could possibly have made things better would have been… I dunno. Cold fusion and world peace? A Xenogears remake? I don’t want to get too greedy though.

On Mods

As you may as heard, Valve’s grand experiment with paid Skyrim mods debuted and shut down in three business days. At one point the untouchable darlings reddit, both Gabe and Skyrim itself has taken a huge beating in the eyes of the horde; Skyrim went from a 98% positive feedback rating on Steam down to 86%. Gabe confirmed that the number of emails his staff received will cost them literally $1 million to comb through.¹

From my seat up in the peanut gallery, the entire issue of paid mods seemed to be a solution in search of a problem. Was there some crisis in the modding community preventing mods from being developed? Were popular mods being abandoned? What, exactly, was the issue with the status quo?

To be clear, I’m not against people getting paid for their work, in the same way I’m not against, say, religious liberty. At the same time, I don’t think the concept in of itself justifies every means of expressing it. The modding scene was already a healthy ecosystem built upon passion, collaboration, and natural curation. SynCaine points out there are some mods out there more elaborate and fun than the game they’re built upon. Just imagine how many more, better mods would be generated if said people were paid for their work?

Well… err, maybe eventually.

The Skyrim paid mod section was not active for long, but the future cesspit of theft and profiteering was clear to see. Who looked at Steam Greenlight or Early Access and thought, hey, let’s introduce that to the modding community? Under a paid mod paradigm, you literally can’t give your mod away for free, because someone else can and will turn around and try to sell it for cash.

During Gabe’s AMA on reddit, the creator of the Nexus website point-blank asked what Valve was planning on doing in terms of, you know, not single-handedly monopolizing the modding market. Gabe had no real answer. Which is a problem considering paid Steam mods would give even ambivalent modders every economic incentive to pull their mods from Nexus and any other site to exclusively use Steam Workshop. I mean, what, is Nexus and all the other sites supposed to suddenly create their own mod marketplaces?

With the paid mods plan on ice (for the moment), there has been some further crying about how “freeloaders” and “trolls” have won the day. Out of the entire fiasco, that sentiment bothers me the most. Erecting pay-walls around hitherto free content is an erosion of Consumer Surplus, full stop; it doesn’t matter whether modders “should” have been getting paid this entire time. Splintering the modding community into factions with negative incentive to cooperate is an erosion of Consumer Surplus. Maybe we get really well-done, professional mods out of the paid system eventually. But considering you are paying extra for that value, the Consumer Surplus gains may be a wash. In which case you are no better off than before, minus a thriving modding community.

Nevermind about all the bizarre arguments surrounding mods like DotA and Counter-Strike. Would those mods have achieved their meteoric status had they been priced “fairly” at the start? I don’t think anyone believes that that would be the case.

Do modders deserve to be paid for their work? Probably. Do I deserve to be paid for writing posts for the last four years? Feel free to Paypal me as much money you want. But as a consumer/reader, you are under no obligation, moral or ethical, to pay for something someone is giving away for free. And as a consumer/reader, you have every right to complain when your net Consumer Surplus is being reduced in any way. “Freeloaders” and “entitlement” are specious non-arguments, and especially absurd given how we’ll all talking about people who already bought a videogame.

If you want to pay modders, there is nothing stopping you. As in, right now. Go for it. I’m sure their contact information is listed somewhere on the mod page. Just don’t pretend this change was anything less than a fundamental redesign of the entire concept of modding. Or that this particular implementation was at all going to work, logistically or conceptually. In fact, I doubt that it ever does, even when Valve comes back to “iterate” the process later on. And by “work,” I mean generate more value in the aggregate for gamers and (free) modders alike.

¹ As opposed to Support tickets, which no human ever reads.

Age of the MOBA

According to EEDAR, by the end of 2015 MOBAs will generate more revenue than (F2P) MMORPGs in the North American market:

"Meteoric" pretty much covers it.

“Meteoric” pretty much covers it.

The difference is small – $501m vs $499m – but it’s impressive nonetheless for a genre that didn’t (formally) exist five years ago.

One thing is for certain though: MOBAs are the “new” hotness and are poised to overtake F2P MMOs either this year, or Soon™ in any case. Which is a fascinating turn of events for someone who really has less than zero interest in MOBAs specifically. Indeed, nearly every mechanic that make MOBAs “deep” are the same mechanics that make many MMOs terrible. For example, the whole Last Hit mechanic. Or having over a hundred different characters, many of whom are direct counters to others, requiring one to memorize a truly voluminous amount of minutia to succeed. You thought the whole Raid Dance memorization was dumb? Just wait until you spend time researching dozens of characters who don’t even get picked. Oh, and hey, I heard you like 40+ minute LFG fights were you (ideally) lose 50% of the time.

On the other hand, in the Venn Diagram for MOBA and MMO I wonder how much overlap there really is. Did some people leave WoW for League of Legends? What did they find on the one end that they did not on the other? Perhaps nothing, and the audiences are from two entirely different sources. Which really doesn’t answer the question of where the MOBA audience came from. Is this an entirely different generation of gamer coming to age during the rise of MOBAs? Or was this a deep pool of potential players who hitherto weren’t being serviced by existing products?

Maybe the answer is less complicated than I am making it out to be: MOBA players seemingly sprang from the earth because it’s all F2P. Easy to get into, easy to get hooked, and then easy to get monetized. As revenues approach half a billion dollars in NA alone though, this clearly is not a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon. Despite the MOBA saturation, revenue still increase almost 20% last year, according to the chart. You will undoubtedly have winners and losers in the market, but MOBAs are here to stay.

Which is… well, good for them. I’m going to play something else.

Performance Enhancing F2P

As I was browsing reddit a few days ago, I found my way into a thread talking about how you can play the Star Citizen alpha for free until March 15th (or March 20th depending on the code used). This is a game that I am somewhat interested in playing, but not 22gb of files interested. Makes you wonder about what the final download size is going to end up being. The Secret World is already over 40gb and making me think deleting it would be better than keeping it around in the off-chance I feel like… Googling the answers to ridiculous in-game riddles.

In any case, I continued reading the various comments to try and glean where Star Citizen was in development. As it turns out, they’re still in the “sell $2700+ ship packages in the store like it ain’t no thing” stage.

A bargain at twice the price.

A bargain at twice the price.

The Completionist Package is actually much more expensive at $15,000, although for some reason the $2700 tier galls me a bit more than the other. I think it’s because at some point the amounts are too ridiculous to contemplate, but these smaller ones are more “reasonable.” Could you even build a gaming PC that cost $15,000 without spending money on the equivalent of Monster Cables?

Once the game officially launches, the idea is that the cash shop for ships is going to close; thereafter, the only things sold for real dollars will be customization options… and a “small” amount of in-game currency, with a daily cap. The amount is supposed to be “miniscule” and the equivalent to whatever it costs to refuel and rearm a ship. Whether that amount will just cover a normal ship maintenance cost or one of the $200+ ships you can outright purchase right now, is anyone’s guess.

What is not anyone’s guess are the fascinating arguments being made that such purchases aren’t P2W:

There is insurance on the ships, if you bought the ship early you are granted free insurance.

Insurance will be cheap though, so if you lose your ship without insurance you kinda have to blame yourself. You won’t get a huge advantage with free insurance.

And what’s the problem with buying ingame cash? If I only have 6 hours/week to play the game I should be able to spend cash so I won’t get left behind by the players sitting 6 hours/day.

This bolded sentiment simply boggles my mind. I don’t even know where to start.

Perhaps I could start with an analogy: performance enhancing drugs in sports. If you only had six hours/week to train for a competition whereas your opponent trained six hours/day, I think everyone would still say that that is fair; if you wanted to legitimately compete with this person, you would put in the necessary hours to do so. I don’t think there is anyone here that would say you should just pop some steroids so you “don’t get left behind” by the person who is clearly more committed to playing the game than you. But suppose you do believe it’s fair, and everyone should have freedom to take whatever drugs give them an edge. In such a scenario, what happens to your advantage when the 6 hours/day person just, you know, takes performance enhancing drugs themselves? You end up where you started, except now everyone with even a modicum of desire to win is taking drugs.

Meanwhile, the people selling steroids are making bank.

The other problem I have with the bolded sentiment is what it says about time spent playing the game. If you are paying dollars to skip content, that implies the content being skipped is the unfun, grindy parts of the game. Which means all the players you are bribing your way past are stuck doing content they probably don’t find fun either. Which means that the game designers have a dilemma: they can either make the unfun, grindy parts more fun for everyone (and lose money), or they can do nothing and make more money. Or, you know, make that payslope even steeper.

This is not even my final form.

This is not even my final form.

Is that a little too tinfoil hat thinking? Maybe. Maybe there are good, legitimate reasons why my Air Defense tower in Clash of Clans takes six real-world days to upgrade. Whatever those reasons are, they can’t be too important though, as I can buy my way past the timer. As I’ve mentioned before, these sort of cash shop designs immediately throws every designer action under suspicion.

The final problem I have with the bolded sentiment is difficult to put into words. It’s like, when did we start expecting to have better outcomes than other people who play a game more than us? I would agree that a design in which no one can catch up to Day One veterans is bad, but I feel like there is a crazy expectation that skill should triumph over time-spent and yet the game still have character progression somehow. How would that work, exactly? And when did it become unfair for someone else to spend six/hours a day playing a game? And then fair for you to bring resources completely outside of game (i.e. cash) to make things even?

Sometimes I feel like we’re all just lost in the woods here.

Is Crowfall an MMO at all?

It seems like a simple enough question, but few people seem intent on asking it. Hell, even I had trouble describing my feelings on the matter until Bhagpuss came right out in the comments last time and proclaimed the emperor nude:

[Crowfall] might turn out to be a good game. In no way will it be anything I would recognize as an MMORPG.

In the Kickstarter video, the devs state that Crowfall is a marriage between a strategy game with a defined end-state and an MMO. However, most of the MMO community seems fine in describing it as a straight-up MMO. An MMO with… non-persistent worlds. Divided into servers. That end via victory conditions. Which sends you back to the Lobby, cough, Eternal Kingdoms.

Let’s call a spade a spade: Crowfall is Alterac Valley. With Landmark bolted on.

PvP focused gameplay? Check. Victory conditions? Check. Gather resources? Check. Instanced worlds? Check. Persistent characters that progress in levels? Check. Defined beginning, middle, and end? Check, check, and check.

    Competition for the Dregs space was fierce.

Competition for the Dregs space was fierce.

The analogy isn’t perfect, of course. You don’t bring out your Gnome bones or whatever outside the individual AV match… unless you count Honor and/or Reputation as resources (which they are). But my point is that Crowfall isn’t an MMO unless you happen to extend that definition to encompass a lot of lobby-based games. Such as, I dunno, League of Legends. Or Clash of Clans, even. Or, you know, every other lobby-based online game out there.

I’m not suggesting that Crowfall will be bad because it’s not an MMO. In fact, it might precisely be because it’s not an MMO that Crowfall avoids all the traditional pitfalls of the genre. As SynCaine points out though, there are all sorts of other problems that can occur once you start dealing with defined, close-to-zero sum competitions. What motivation is there to continue fighting a losing battle when another server is a click away? Hell, if the devs aren’t careful, the whole “multiple passively trained alts” thing could resemble P2W considering you could swap your losing alts for one on the winning team. Then again, everyone already has experience with these sort of issues in, you know, battlegrounds in other MMOs. So perhaps it won’t be that big a deal.

If you enjoyed old-school Alterac Valley though, Crowfall seems like the MMO game for you.

Crestfall

So everyone seems to be talking about Crestfall Crowfall, the latest unreleased Jesus game from veteran Jesus game developers. Included amongst them is the perennial nostalgia favorite, Raph Koster, bringing up the consultant rear. Or as I like to call him, the M. Night Shamamamalan of video game design. I mean, I’m looking at his Wikipedia and I’m seeing a huge blank starting from around 2006 onwards. I’m not a game designer, of course, but if I were, I would like to think that the people who deserve recognition are, you know, actually making games people are buying. Maybe even in the last five years!

In any case, I’m not exactly sure why we’re supposed to care about Crowfall right now. I suppose there’s a deep, philosophical difference between straight, corporate PR advertisements (e.g. Guild Wars 2 manifestos) and… Kickstarter campaigns, right? It used to be that these companies paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising into the face of a skeptical audience, but now the script has been fully flipped:

As of 10pm EST, 2/25/15.

As of 10pm EST, 2/25/15.

That is an average of almost $92 per backer, by the way.

What I will give Crowfall some much deserved credit for is its very evocative premise:

We are Immortal. The Gods choose the best of us to be Champions. They send us to the Dying Worlds to fight, to collect the souls of Damned. The Mortals fear us. They see us as Executioners and Scavengers. They call us Crows…

That has a lot of juice. It neatly solves the conceptual problems of “why do worlds reset” and “why does my character respawn” and even “why am I doing this?” You can almost immediately hear the fanfiction being written – perhaps you’re not a champion, but a slave forced to collect food for a parasite god. Or you’re condemned to your own Sisyphean torment. And were these worlds “dying” before a bunch of hungry godlings showed up? This description greases the wheels even further: “The Shadow Worlds lie closer to the Hunger, where even the Gods dare not tread.” What do the gods fear from the Hunger that you yourself don’t? Mmmm.

But that is where this whole Crowfall hype thing both begins and ends with me. I mean, how many “genre-saving MMOs” are we up to now? Who is still playing ArchAge or Wildstar or whatever? There is jaded cynicism on the one hand, sure, but irrational exuberance (at best) is the other. Maybe everyone is just happy it’s not another endgame raiding MMO, I dunno. I do think we would all be better off pumping the brakes a bit so we can actually see what Jesus features make it off the cross of development.

Talk is cheap. Actually delivering a product that anyone still cares about when released is more difficult.

Dynamic vs Random

Keen has another post up lamenting the stagnant nature of modern MMO game design, while suggesting devs should instead be using ideas from games that came out 15+ years ago and nobody plays today. Uh… huh. This time the topic is mob AI and how things would be so much better if mobs behaved randomly dynamically!

Another idea for improving mob AI was more along the lines of unpredictable elements influencing monster behavior. “A long list of random hidden stats would affect how mobs interact. Using the orc example again, one lone orc that spots three players may attack if his strength and bravery stats are high while intelligence is low. A different orc may gather friends.” I love the idea of having visible cues for these traits such as bigger orcs probably having more bravery, and scrawny orcs having more magical abilities or intelligence — intelligence would likely mean getting friends before charging in alone.

The big problem with dynamic behavior in games is that it’s often indistinguishable from random behavior from the player’s perspective. One of the examples from Keen’s post is about having orcs with “hidden stats” like Bravery vs Intelligence that govern whether they fight against multiple players or call for backup. Why bother? Unless players have a Scan spell or something, there is no difference between carefully-structured AI behavior and rolling a d20 to determine whether an orc runs away. Nevermind how the triggers being visible (via Scan or visual cues) undermine all sense of dynamism. Big orc? Probably not running away. If the orc does run away, that’s just bad RNG.

There is no way past this paradox. If you know how they are going to react based on programming logic, the behavior is not unpredictable. If the behavior is unpredictable, even if it’s governed by hidden logic, it is indistinguishable from pure randomness. Besides, the two absolute worst mob behaviors in any game are A) when mobs run away at low health to chain into other mobs, and B) when there is no sense to their actions. Both of which are exactly what is being advocated for here.

I consider the topic of AI in games generally to be one of those subtle designer/player traps. It is trivially easy to create an opponent that a human player could never win against. Creating an opponent that taxes a player to their limit (and not beyond) is much more difficult, and the extent to which a player can be taxed varies by the player. From a defeated player’s perspective, there is no difference between an enemy they aren’t skilled enough to beat and an unbeatable enemy.

You have to ask yourself what you, as a hypothetical designer, are actually trying to accomplish. That answer should be “to have my intended audience have fun.” Unpredictable and tough mobs can be fun for someone somewhere, sure, but as Wildstar is demonstrating, perhaps that doesn’t actually include all that many people. Having to memorize 10+ minute raid dances is bad enough without tacking convoluted mob behavior outside of raids on top. Sometimes you just want to kill shit via a fun combat system.

Themepark MMO players enjoy simple, repetitive tasks – news at 11.