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Unfair Impressions: TSW, Day 2

[Preface: I wrote the below before yesterday's post went up, so I hadn't yet incorporated any of the feedback given. My current mood is less bleak than the below suggests.]

I am seriously considering the fact that The Secret World may not be for me.

After some rather meticulous research, my plan for weapons is going to be Blades/Assault Rifle with Pistols thrown in – I have been assured that this covers all the relevant bases. After that was nailed down, I started towards Kingsmouth and chopping down zombies, Kill Bill-style.

My brow furrowed almost immediately. One of the first side-quests you get in this area is how to construct and deconstruct weapons. In a Minecraft-esque grid. Er… what? Why is this a thing? Is there a particular reason to go with this crafting system beyond intentional obfuscation? A little while later, I was shown how to construct glyphs in a similar fashion, which are sort of like gems you slot into weapons, except you can’t actually just slot them in. In fact, I had to watch a Youtube video of this quest because following the given instructions wasn’t helping. “Oh. You gave me TWO glyph toolboxes, and I’m not supposed to use the one called glyph toolbox, but the sort of quest item version.”

Oh, silly me. Of COURSE that makes sense!

Oh, silly me. Of COURSE that makes sense!

After a shake of the head, I accept the quest from the fortune-teller nearby and am asked to find some ravens. I find one outside, watch it fly away, and am then told to follow it. I do so… only to see it clip out of existence in mid-air. Er… okay. Oh, by the way, you have 60 seconds to figure this out. After aggroing some zombies, I restart this portion and try again. Nope, that raven definitely disappears in mid-air. I walk the entire length of the road in the direction the raven was traveling in, not even sure what the hell the quest designer was expecting me to do.

Spoiler alert: they wanted me to ignore the flying raven and look for another bird on the ground. Brilliant. I do this a few times, fight some spawned enemies, grab two side-quests I run past on the way, redo a section of the raven quest because, you know, it’s timed but they thought it was cute to leave side-quests along the path just to fuck with people, complete the quest finally and then loot my text message of an item I can’t even equip because I’ve already spent my Skill Points.

Are we having fun yet?

Spoiler alert: No.

My mood was not improved by the next quest, which involved checking out the Illuminati runes inscribed on the church that causes zombies who tread inside to be instantly killed. “Find the first set of runes.” Okay, sure, I saw them near the door. “Find the second set of runes.” Okay then. I’ll give you two guesses as to what I ended up doing for the next five minutes.

Oh FFS.

Oh FFS.

If you guessed “searching the inside of the church, then spam clicking everywhere like I was trying to find that secret wooden pixel in Planescape: Torment, before furiously Googling the answer to a goddamn ‘click item’ quest,” then you are correct.

Now, I am more than willing to take some, if not most, blame for this quest-fail. The first set of runes were outside the front doors, the zombies were being prevented from coming inside, so it doesn’t actually make all that much sense for the other sets of runes to be inside. Logically – at least #GameLogic and #AnimeLogic-wise – protective runes go on the outside of the thing they’re protecting. But more than anything, my experiences on Day 2 of playing The Secret World is confirming my post earlier this month about the tenuous balancing act of difficulty vs hand-holding. This MMO does not hold your hand, gives you the cold shoulder, and by all rights actively dislikes you.

And… that’s good, I guess. It’s definitely an under-served niche. Personally, I don’t think the flavors of hotkey, active-dodging, respawning mobs really meshes with the more glacial, adventure-game schtick, but what do I know? Well, other than the small spark of my interest is being smothered by alt-tabbing to the equivalent of Thottbot for every other quest. I could tough it out, perhaps rationing my attention span a bit more judiciously. The setting is certainly interesting, at least, and I’ve heard good things about the horror elements later on.

Or I could, hypothetically, start playing a fully NDA’d, unreleased MMO in a manner more deserving of the beta key I received.

Optional Difficulty

I am finding myself with conflicting opinions on optional difficulty.

On the one hand, options are good. The distribution of peoples’ skill levels is a gradient, and not usually well-served by binary distinctions. We can easily imagine someone not being challenged at Normal difficulty, but perhaps overwhelmed when the switch is flipped to Hard – doubling monster HP and the like is overkill when all the person needed was +50%.

On the other hand… I might have become a bit corrupted by years of extrinsic MMO rewards.

You see, I just finished playing A Valley Without Wind, which I found to be fairly easy overall. The game actually features one of the most generously granular difficulty options I have ever seen though: it features 5+ different difficulty settings in three independent categories. At any time, you can boost the platforming difficulty up a few notches while lowering the actual fighting bits, or raising the “city-building” aspect to maximum while all but removing everything else.

Despite feeling like the game was a bit easy, I did not change the difficulty at all. “Why would I? It’s not like I get any better items or anything.” Oh. Oh my.

To be fair (to myself), this attitude changes depending on the game. I played on the highest difficulty in Magic 2013, for example, and couldn’t imagine playing on anything lower. X-COM was completed on Normal Ironman, as I imagined that at least Ironman was the “intended” difficulty. And actually, that is my usual metric: what did the designers intend to be the “real” difficulty? “Whatever is appropriate to you” is not a real answer to the question, as most times the difficulty is “Base +/- 100%.” I want to know what the Base is, and judge from there.

Now, it is also possible this is a specific game issue, e.g. I just don’t care all that much about AVWW. I had no problem with turning on Hardcore mode in my second playthrough of Fallout: New Vegas, for example, and actually felt like it made the game more interesting/fun when you couldn’t carry around 1000+ rounds of every ammunition type. Conversely, I did not see how mobs having more HP in AVWW was going to improve the gaming experience at all – left-clicking a few more times while you continue kiting isn’t really more fun.

In any event, this scenario has given me a somewhat greater appreciation for the “forced” difficulty games out there… at least the ones that fall within my natural ability, of course. While I still believe it is better overall to tune a game to cover a wide range of personal abilities, I hate having to arbitrarily decide what is an appropriate challenge to me. I don’t want easy games, but I don’t necessarily want a more tedious experience either (i.e. everything takes longer to kill + you’re more likely to die). Just give me a challenging game and let me figure out how to beat it on my own, without tempting me to cheese it with metagaming.

Inches

I first heard about Blizzard’s decision to not release any new 5-man dungeons this expansion from The Grumpy Elf, and confirmed from this post on MMO-Champion. The interview itself is written in Foreigner, so I will just have to take the translation at face value.

On many levels, Blizzard’s decision makes sense. The revamped ZA and ZG heroics in Cataclysm were (true to title) a disaster, reducing entire tiers of content down to all trolls, all the time. New 5-mans were handled a bit better back in Wrath when integrated into the normal rotation, but even then you could experience wild swings in difficulty depending on whether you got Gundrak or Halls of Reflection (shudder).

Had Blizzard released new 5-mans in Mists, it could have shaken out in only two ways. One: the dungeon(s) still dropped 463 gear, at which point it would be largely irrelevant to everyone. Or, two: it released 476 or higher gear, and now nobody wants to run the obsoleted dungeons again (assuming they wanted to in the first place). And besides, in a world with LFR, there is little reason to double-down on raid catch-up mechanisms, right?

On the other hand… does this not strike anyone as profoundly lazy?

Let it sink in. There will be no new dungeons in 5.3, nor 5.4, nor a potential 5.5. There will be hundreds more garbage daily quests in which the writers don’t even bother papering over the naked time-sinking, of course. Will anyone still be doing Shieldwall dailies in 5.3? Or even in this patch, for that matter? Is all that “content” being obsoleted worse than a 5-man? There are a lot of in-game cinematics and lore going on in Krasarang Wilds, after all. It strikes me as odd that your dailies change from patch to patch, but the daily dungeons never will.

Then, I start thinking about the existence of 5-man dungeons to begin with. Why have them at all? Scenarios offer 50 Valor now (compared to 80 from LFG). And, most importantly, offer DPS players an instant queue. If LFR has replaced heroic dungeons as a raid catch-up mechanism, have Scenarios not usurped dungeons by the same token? The only thing holding Scenarios back is the asinine reward mechanism in the form of a random-stat blue item from the box (when it isn’t empty). Seriously, I got a 2H agility axe yesterday. Neither druids nor monks can use axes, so it amounts to wand with strength on it.

Maybe they're bringing back 2H Enhance Shaman?

Maybe they’re bringing back 2H Enhance Shaman?

Simply migrate all heroic dungeon gear to the random Scenario box, bump the Valor a bit, and now you never have to fashion another 5-man again.

Indeed, from the same interview I referenced before, this paraphrasing emerged:

More scenarios are coming in future patches. We may see very challenging three player scenarios with pretty good rewards.

Speaking of Strength wands, my thoughts then drifted to tank gear. Why should it exist? Blizzard came oh so very close to obsoleting all tanking gear this expansion, probably by accident. Indeed, up until the 5.2 changes, Dodge and Parry were the two worst stats for a Protection paladin. The two worst! For a tank! Since it seems “active mitigation” is here to stay, why not simply go all the way? Critical Strike rating is the only thing that marks something as being “for DPS only,” and it is a simple enough thing to add a passive to tanks where critical hits procs a Dodge buff or something. While there might be an increased competition for gear between tanks and DPS… oh wait, individual loot. Problem solved. And if necessary, Blizzard could keep the gem/enchanting situation the same, so that a tank in full DPS gear could gem for Stamina or whatever to differentiate himself/herself.

I am not trying to craft a reductio ad absurdum here. I am just asking what the actual point of 5-man content is supposed to be under this new “build some once and done” paradigm. Are they necessary for anything anymore? “Practice for raiding?” I don’t know if anyone would agree that they have such an effect, if they ever did. Group content is handled by Scenarios or daily island hellholes stuffed with overlapping elite mobs. Dungeons are almost quaint these days, vestigial relics propped up only by their rewards. If Scenarios offed 80 Valor, would anyone run dungeons? What if the box at the end dropped spec-appropriate gear from the dungeons?

This is how close we are: mere inches. The slightest of nudges, and we could be upon unknown soil. And, perhaps, not even notice a difference.

Wrong Choices

Ghostcrawler tweeted the sort of thing I’m sure sends “real” MMO players into howling fits:

“No,actually,there is not a wrong choice.Wether we(players) buy new items OR upgrade old ones should be our decision,not DEV’s.”
Giving players the ability to make choices with wrong answers doesn’t make players happy overall. (Source)

Choices having bad consequences is the best (only?) way to make a decision matter, as the argument goes. However, this quote got me thinking: do such players actually enjoy being able to make the wrong choice, or is it simply that the bad choice existing (which they did not pick) validates their good decision? Or put another way, who really likes making bad decisions?

I understand that the demonstration of skill necessitates there being wrong choices. Demonstrating skill, or improvement thereof, is fun. At the same time, the Mass Effect series (for example) was fun to play even though there weren’t any “wrong choices” (provided you weren’t specifically looking for X result).

There is only ever one correct answer to the questions of “which does the most DPS” or “what is the most efficient use of resources.” Ergo, is there actually any real decision to be made when one is correct and the other(s) not? I suppose the fun is supposed to be the result of figuring out which one is which, but that sort of clashes with the mockery and disdain frequently attributed to those who don’t look up the correct decision from the Wiki/EJ. Compare that to the question of “which transmog set is the best?”

I do not believe that there has to be a wrong choice in order for choices to be meaningful generally. We make identity choices every day – what type of person do I want to be, what do I believe in? – and I do not think that anyone would suggest that those choices are either irrelevant or have wrong answers (well… no one with any sort of self-reflection). And while I am willing to concede gameplay being under the (broad) umbrella of choice, e.g. one makes a wrong choice by pressing 11342 instead of 11324, I consider there to be a distinction between executing a rotation under pressure versus avoiding falling into a designer trap. One has its place as a legitimate test of skill, and the other is simply you winning via a few mouse clicks several months ago.

The Secret World’s Other Shoe, and Jay Wilson’s Apology for D3

A little over a week ago, I pointed out that Funcom’s The Secret World was not selling all that well; Funcom’s own public press release highlighted a (presumably optimistic) scenario in which they sell half a million boxes and have ~120k subscribers after a year.

As reported by Kotaku, that other shoe has dropped: 50% of Funcom’s staff has been laid off.

Some of these initiatives are part of normal procedure following the launch of a major project, such as adjustments to the customer service staffing based on the number of customers in the game as well as adjustments to the production team as the project goes into a post-launch phase following years of intense development. Many of those affected on the customer service team are on temporary contracts which is common for a live service such as ‘The Secret World’ where customer service demand shifts based on the game’s population levels.

Even the “good news” part of that – the developers/designers were less affected than “temp” customer service reps – comes across as bad news to my ears. After all, if the MMO was doing better, then one would presumably want to retain a robust CustServ department.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I wonder whether or not we should start using layoffs as a metric of MMO success. Obviously subscription numbers have been used as the de facto measurement for years, and I imagine it correlates with layoffs pretty strongly already, but I think most of us recognize the dissonance between claiming “Game X failed” while it still remains profitable. I mean, for god’s sake, Warhammer Online is still kicking it with a subscription¹. EA is not keeping that thing alive out of the goodness of its heart. In fact, arguably, keeping Warhammer alive is unnecessarily cruel.

Or… perhaps we would all be better off not bothering with arbitrary success or failure designations entirely.

…nah, this is the internet. There can only be one!

Speaking of immortals losing their heads…

You will be forgiven if you have not been following the “Example #38417 of How Social Media Will Ruin Your Day” Diablo 3 news story, staring Jay “And Double It” Wilson.

The short version is that one of the developers of the original Diablo (David Brevik) made some comments about Diablo 3 in an interview, and essentially said he would have made different decisions. More or less. The current developers of Diablo 3 did not like that too much, and Jay Wilson thought it was a good idea to respond on Facebook by saying, and I quote, “Fuck that loser.” You can read the Kotaku write-up if you like, as it includes snippets of the interview in question and a screencap of the Facebook post itself.

Looking at the other comments, I’d say Eric Bachour’s “You’d think that guy wasn’t responsible for Hellgate: London. Lol.” was the more epic burn.

In any case, Jay “Fuck that loser and Double It” Wilson has an official pseudo-apology up on the Diablo 3 boards. I do not expect you to actually click on that link, because most of it is PR bullshit (redundantly redundant much?). Well… alright, if you skip the first four paragraphs, things get more interesting. Or you can simply read this handy list of bullet-point quotes:

  • “We believe it’s a great game. But Diablo III has flaws. It is not perfect. Sales mean nothing if the game doesn’t live on in all of our hearts, and standing by our games is what Blizzard does.”
  • “If you don’t have that great feeling of a good drop being right around the corner — and the burst of excitement when it finally arrives — then we haven’t done our jobs right.”
  • “Out of our concern to make sure that Diablo III would have longevity, we were overly cautious about how we handled item drops and affixes. If 1.0.4 hasn’t fixed that, you can be sure we’ll continue to address it.”
  • “Part of the problem, however, is not just item drops, but the variety of things to do within the game. “
  • “As it stands, Diablo III simply does not provide the tools to allow players to scale the game challenge to something appropriate for them.”
  • “Later in the development of Diablo II, the ‘players 8′ command — which let people set monster difficulty — was added to address this issue, and we’re considering something similar for the next major Diablo III patch to allow players to make up their own minds about how hard or how easy is right for them.”
  • “The Auction House can short circuit the natural pace of item drops, making the game feel less rewarding for some players. This is a problem we recognize. At this point we’re not sure of the exact way to fix it, but we’re discussing it constantly, and we believe it’s a problem we can overcome.”

I have a spoiler alert for you Jay: that last bullet point ain’t going to happen. Not only is that cat out of the bag, it has been skinned in more than one way across all nine of its lives.

I played a few hours of D3 since the patch, and I have noticed three things:

  1. “Normal monster health increased by 10%” = +5 terribly boring seconds per mob.
  2. I can tank Act 3 Inferno elites in the same gear/skills I was 2-shot in pre-patch.
  3. Gold prices have gone from $2.50/million down to $1.06/million.

That last one is a real shame, as I was hoping to cash out my ~5 million gold and (combined with the few bucks from earlier sales) maybe purchase a month of WoW ahead of MoP. Then again, that would be kind of silly to do given the Scroll of Resurrection’s free server transfer bonus, and GW2′s imminent release notwithstanding. Oh well.

Kind of wonder if that dude who paid $200 for my friend’s 2H sword is still playing the game. I do not know which possibility would be more sad for him/her.

¹ Warhammer says it is F2P on the website, but as far as I can tell it operates more as an unlimited duration free trial than true F2P. For example, you cannot go to the capital cities, cannot engage in any economic transaction with another player, and are limited to “Tier 1 scenarios,” whatever the hell that means (it’s been years since the one month I played).

Act 2: First Blood

As one might rightly assume, I encountered the infamous Infernal Act 2 brick wall.

The best sort of welcoming committee for melee.

To say I was “pwned” by the very first elite pack (Frozen, Molten, Plagued, Desecrator) is to suggest that the Allies merely dropped by Dresden in 1945 for a night on the town. The melee attacks alone were brutal enough to take me out in 3 hits, nevermind all the shit on the ground. As the respawn timer crept ever higher, I thought that those “discretion better form of valor” guys might be on to something. Unfortunately, the FMPD welcoming committee had other plans. No matter how far away I dragged them from the Checkpoint I kept respawning at, at least one was hanging around for his turn to teabag my corpse.

The cherry on top of this injury cake was when the Enrage timer went off. Fun fact: the Enrage timer is actually a debuff that simply kills you in seconds no matter where the fuck the elites are at. As I sat there stunned IRL as to how I can be killed by elites not even on the goddamn screen, I had to further endure the 10-second logoff Wait of Shame before I could scurry back to the AH. After spending something in the neighborhood of 500k (on top of the 300k I talked about last time), my stats ended up looking like this:

A 3 oz bottle of Vaseline doesn’t go as far as one might hope.

I came to the sad conclusion that perhaps I was going to have to alter my Noob Wind spec. So I did… grudgingly. I swapped Mantra of Evasion for Mantra of Healing with the 20% resist runes; I dropped Seven-Sided Strike for Serenity; I switched the rune for Breath of Heaven for the 1.5 second Fear. And… that’s basically it. Bought a 1h weapon + shield combo for when things still get really hairy, but the loss of 7000 paper DPS is almost worse than dying in-game.

I still have issues with many some elites, but at least I have enough time to react to said fact before being ground into a thick paste.

The fact that I am still having occasional issues is somewhat perplexing though, considering the Inferno Act 2 Monk 200k video floating around. If you haven’t see it, the basic premise is a dude went naked to the AH with 200,000g and walked out with enough gear to progress through the entirety of Act 2 Inferno as a Monk… skipping only 3 elite packs along the way. And made a profit with vendor gold alone. I went ahead and did an unbuffed comparison shot of his stats from the video and my own:

Yikes.

I quite literally have 400 more resist than this guy, and I still have issues? The biggest difference – aside from his rather ridiculous amount of Increased Attack Speed – is his spec: Deadly Reach. Ah, yes, the ranged monk. For what it is worth, I did actually try Deadly Reach for a while but couldn’t make it work; without all the extra IAS, you cannot actually kite all that effectively, nor trigger the 3rd punch for the +50% armor bonus.

Then, I noticed something else about his video… the elites he actually faced.

  1. Fast, Illusion, Electric, Plague
  2. Nightmare, Electric, Waller, Health Link
  3. Waller, Fast, Electric, Plague
  4. Frozen, Reflect Damage, Health Link, Waller
  5. Teleport, Jailer, Nightmare, Fire Chain
  6. Fire Chain, Arcane Enchanted, Mortar, Reflect Damage
  7. Molten, Electric, Plague, Fast
  8. Mortar, Waller, Shield, Plague
  9. Plague, Fast, Fire Chain, Vampiric
  10. Mortar, Illusion, Knockback, Waller
  11. [not shown]
  12. Extra Health, Nightmare, Jailer, Fire Chain
  13. Extra Health, Teleport, Vortex, Plague
  14. Electric, Plague, Avenger, Wall
  15. Health Link, Desecrator, Fire Chain, Fast
  16. Desecrator, Teleport, Shield, Molten
  17. Fast, Frozen, Extra Health, Electric
  18. Vampiric, Mortar, Nightmare, Minion
  19. Avenger, Molten, Teleport, Nightmare
  20. Teleport, Avenge, Molten, Electric
  21. Frozen, Vampiric, Jailer, Arcane Enchanted
  22. Molten, Shielding, Arcane Enchanted, Electric, Minion [skip]
  23. Extra Health, Arcane Enchanted, Reflect Damage, Waller [skip]
  24. Molten, Knockback, Illusion, Reflect Damage
  25. Nightmare, Teleport, Illusion, Fire Chain
  26. Knockback, Molten, Reflect Damage, Minion
  27. Fast, Waller, Reflect Damage, Teleport
  28. Arcane Enchanted, Fire Chain, Reflect Damage, Vortex
  29. Frozen, Knockback, Extra Health, Reflect Damage [skip]
  30. Knockback, Mortar, Frozen, Shield

You are goddamn right I wrote them all down. Aside from the four I marked in red above, the elites he faced in the video (barring the occasional enemy type) were a total joke. Could he have faced down my FMPD welcoming committee with his spec? Maybe, maybe not. I have grave doubts.

Sour grapes aside, his video has educated me in various ways. For example, his +631 Life on Hit is obviously doing more for him than my +1027 considering he is getting nearly a full extra attack per second – nevermind all the extra Spirit he generates. The single-minded focus on Dexterity was similarly interesting given how much effect it is having: 229% more damage from his 612 DPS weapons, making them nearly on par with my 1000+ 2H. I am not entirely willing to go Deadly Reach just yet, but I can definitely spend another ~5 hours “playing” Diablo 3′s AH to repair my errors.

And if it sounds like I am enjoying Diablo 3 better overall, you wouldn’t be wrong. The cheeky among you might suggest that it is because of the increased difficulty, and I am inclined to agree – Act 2 has been the only stretch of road I have not been zipping down at 80 mph in a 65 mph zone. Indeed I thought Act 1 Inferno was about as hard as Act 2 Normal in the scheme of things, given the latter’s lack of gold for upgrades and all the locked abilities.

After 38 hours /played, it is about goddamn time some fun was had.

The end is probably nigh however, for all the reasons I have seen in the comments to my own posts (and elsewhere). “Farming” Act 1 Inferno holds about as much appeal as sticking my balls in a toaster, and… well, actually, that is basically the way forward here. Or giving in to the Deadly Reacharound build. While the thought of maybe getting a $200 item drop soothes the chaffing a bit, I already spend more time in the AH than in-game. I don’t know how much longer…

…hold on, I have an email.

Pics or it didn’t… damn.

BRB, grabbing my toaster.

P.S. Congrats to Anderasill, the owner of the above screenshot + $173.40 ($200 minus fees) and a winner of the Diablo Annual Pass Challenge (Hardcore). She actually got Diablo 3 via the Annual Pass, so there’s that too. And she probably could have saved herself the 15% transaction fee since I know damn well she’ll just spend all that money and more buying the new WoW pets.

File Under: Eyebrow Raised

The following two bits of random news caught my eye yesterday.

Breaking News: Cataclysm heroic dungeons were too hard, long

There is a new Cataclysm “post mortem” interview with Scott “Daelo” Mercer that just went up. It is a PR puff-piece so whitewashed they had to run over to San Bernardino to pick up more lime, but it did contain at least one visible kernel of truth in the pile of bullshit:

Q. What didn’t work out as planned or expected?

Initially, we started off the Heroic dungeons at too high of a difficulty. The difficulty level rather abruptly changed when compared to the Heroics players experienced at the end of Wrath of the Lich King. This major change caught many players off guard, and frustrated some of them. The difficulty also increased the effective amount of time required to complete a dungeon to a longer experience than we wanted. With the release of patch 4.3 we’re now in a much better place.  We’ve always talked about being able to complete a dungeon over lunch, and the Hour of Twilight dungeons get us back to that goal. End Time, Well of Eternity, and Hour of Twilight  all provide epic play experiences to our players, but at the real sweet spot of difficulty, complexity, and time commitment.

This is a drum that I have been beating for a week shy of a full year. It is not especially relevant these days – does anyone really care or disagree at this point? – especially given the Mists announcement back in October that heroics were going back to WotLK-style. But it is always nice to have some measure of extra closure on things.

Dust 514 is F2P, for real this time

Last month, I pooh-poohed David Reid’s speculation that EVE could become the biggest game in the world by the end of 2012 via the “tens of millions” of Dust players. While Reid is (one of) the most filthy, vile marketeer(s) in the history of videogames, the latest news via Eurogamer is that Dust is in fact F2P:

Eurogamer can megaphone that Dust 514, the exclusive PS3 MMOFPS that will exist within Eve Online, will now be free to download and free to play.

There was going to be a $10 to $20 cover charge for the game on PSN, but that has now been scrapped.

“It was a relatively confusing proposition,” executive producer Brandon Laurino explained to Eurogamer, “and we wanted to make it unambiguous that this is a free-to-play game.”

Laurino goes on to stress Dust won’t be Pay 2 Win – “There is no micro-transaction that you can do that gives you an unfair advantage over someone who hasn’t paid anything” – but a few paragraphs later this happens:

Items available include vanity goods to customise appearances with; boosters that save time, such as double skill point (SP) boosters; variants of weapons that aren’t necessarily more powerful – “side-grades” that look or play differently; services like character respecs; and lucky dip treasure boxes. “It’s what has emerged as best practice,” Laurino said.

Oh, I see.

I suppose there is room to say things like double-XP potions and the like don’t actually count as P2W. And maybe they will actually get the weapon side-grades balanced right. But… “lucky dip treasure boxes?” TF2 has those crates you unlock with keys or whatever, but I would never accuse TF2 of taking itself particularly seriously. I am always skeptical when someone feels the need to hardcode lottery tickets into their game… do they have no faith in the product itself to engender poor financial decision-making?

All that aside, it is pretty big news for Dust to be launching F2P out of the gate. I do not have a PS3 and I believe launching Dust as a PS3-exclusive (i.e. no PC version) was the worst idea in the history of ever, but this is something I am definitely keeping my eye on. As I said in an earlier article on the subject, Dust would have been the perfect vehicle to transition someone interested in the EVE concept from the fence to being podded in-game. We will have to see how the game actually plays, but being F2P gets a lot of feet in peoples’ doors.

Specialization is Key

I was reading Syl’s Monday post on GW2 when a particular section leaped off the page:

Some people still doubt that GW2 will manage without any holy trinity, but I actually do – and if there’s ever going to be more “dedicated” healing or tanking going on in a specific encounter, it will probably be a situation in which everyone must take turns or decides on a random player.

If you have attempted group content in WoW at any point in the last two years, you probably recoiled in horror as I did at the thought of looking forward to shared group responsibility. We have a term for that now – The Dance – and every indication that it was the principle cause of the nearly 2 million subscriber exodus.

After all, by making every player vital to the group’s success (e.g. everyone must Dance correctly), the strength of the group is reduced to that of its weakest member. And if we follow the “down with the holy trinity!” argument to its inevitable conclusion, we end up in Dance Dance Central.

When I asked whether Syl really wanted shared responsibility, the response was:

You mean, would I rather have groups share the responsibility of control or be flexible about it, rather than putting the entire responsibility and blame on just one person? of course I would. I think this is one big reason why WoW pugs were so horrible.

The sentiment is interesting to me, because I approach it from the 100% opposite direction.

There are some responsibilities that I do not trust other people to accomplish. I was the guy in school/college that would do all of the heavy lifting in the group project – picking the topic, doing the research, writing the paper – while you sailed to an easy A by reading two (of 10) paragraphs in front of the class.

Actually, “trust” is not even the operating word I am looking for, as that implies an uncertainty of contribution. It wasn’t a question of whether you would perform, or even how. It was a matter of your capacity for performance, and whether the final outcome would be better or worse with said contribution.

Is that arrogant? No.¹ Ability brooks no morality. Being better at the “game of school” did not/does not make me a better person, or someone else worse for their lack. The unilateral determination of the value of the contribution might be construed as arrogant, but the final grade was always a true arbiter. Just as the death of the boss is an arbiter of a raid strategy.

Which segues me back to raiding and the following claim: specialization is better for group-based activities.

People are NOT experts at everything, nor should they have to be. If the content requires precise movement at specified times, who do you want in that position? Probably a person meeting the following criteria: A) best internet connection, B) the most experience, and C) someone who wants the responsibility. Maybe you’re thinking long-term and want to get another guy trained and battle-tested. Maybe someone wants to branch out and test the tanking waters. That’s fine! Do what works for your team.

What no one wants is for the person chosen to randomly be the easily excitable, newbie friend raiding on WiFi. It’s not fun for him, it’s not fun for you, it’s not fun for anyone. It creates friction in group scenarios, even when you are raiding with good friends.

This brings me to Guild Wars 2, and two conditional claims/predictions.

1) Trinity specialization will be required to succeed at endgame content; or
2) Endgame content will be mostly trivial.

The “everyone can pitch in” group content philosophy is simply zerging. The “trinity should die” desire is the desire for Dance 2.0.

Syl goes on to mention:

combat that revolves around tanking and aggro, is different from combat that revolves about shared control and therefore needs less dedicated healing, too. tactically speaking it’s an interesting approach you can already find in many FPS online games where every player is carrying some type of rifle and team strategy, self-sufficiency, quick reactions and improvisation are where it’s at. okay, you can distrust the average MMO players currently out there to be any use at this type of cooperative game – a fair point, but not exactly a good argument against improving combat design. to ME the current combat is boring.

Putting aside the question of the actual value of teammates in CoD/BF/TF2 games (and the fact that a lot of FPSs are in fact class/role-based), I want to talk about improvisation. The ability to change strategies, to adapt to changing conditions, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat… that was actually my favorite part of raiding in WoW. The Mimiron kill video was one of the most epic experiences in the game for me. Same with our first Yogg-Saron kill.

The rub is that improvisation requires room to screw up and not fail. In other words, improvisation requires a lower difficulty. It requires mistakes to not matter as much. I am not at all a fan of pass/fail mechanics, so I actually DO hope there is room for improvisation in GW2. But if a group of 5 Necromancers can clear all the content, chain rezzing each other, swapping weapons to “be the tank” when they are randomly the target of the boss, requiring no specialization at all (or worse, requiring everyone to “specialize” in everything)… well, have fun with that.

A certain continuum exists between the two extremes, but it is not as wide as many believe. The only way to reliably hit that mark, IMO, is to require specialization in tasks – specifically being able to choose the 1-2 people around which an encounter pivots – and extend the margins of victory for everyone else. Think the ooze-kiter in the Rotface encounter, or the two portal healers in Dreamwalker.

Allowing those 1-2 people to be anyone (tanks/healer/DPS) would be an amazing innovation, but I’m not entirely convinced that is what will be going on in GW2.

¹ Although it’s probably arrogant saying it.

Established Fact

In one of Syncaine’s latest posts, a commenter made the claim:

WoW is bleeding accounts because people are finally realizing that being handed everything with minimal effort and no risk is, in actuality, not that much fucking fun over the long run.

After I presented the counter-argument that it was established fact that increased difficulty was principally the cause of WoW subscriber drop-off, Rammstein “countered” with this:

Anything that Chilton says to the New York Times is “established fact”? LOL. You never considered any of the following?

1. He could be lying.

2. He could be wrong, which looks more likely when you consider he is part of the design team responsible for the drop.

3. He could be both lying and wrong, the most probable scenario.

4. He could be right. In this horribly unlikely case, what he said is STILL NOT ESTABLISHED FACT, as that would require something establishing it as a fact besides someone just saying it to someone else.

Syncaine agreed with Rammstein and made another post highlighting it. So… let us give these arguments the gravity their authors did not.

1. He could be lying.

Sure, Tom Chilton could be lying to the New York Times. But… to what end? His specific line is:

“What we’re trying to do now is figure out what our current audience wants,” Tom Chilton, World of Warcraft’s game director, told me by phone last week. “It became clear that it wasn’t realistic to try to get the audience back to being more hard core, as it had been in the past.”

Is that supposed to be less embarrassing? An admission from the game’s director that they don’t know what their present audience wants, in an article about the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic? What could they be hiding that is worse? Assuming Syncaine and company are correct vis-a-vis lack of difficulty being the cause, it would be far, far easier to admit that WoW had deviated too far from what “made WoW great” and that Cataclysm was the first step in the right direction.

Except… Cataclysm clearly wasn’t a step in the right direction because it was released with a higher difficulty and 2 million people left anyway. So how convoluted does your difficulty argument have to be to still remain valid? That people hated the ease of Wrath, burned themselves out, got served a difficult expansion, and then quit 2-3 months later after getting exactly what they wanted/needed? The nerfs did not occur until after the loss in subscriptions, after the 50+ minute LFD queues. Or is the argument that the hardcore center hollowed out in Wrath? In which case… who were the 2 million who unsubbed in Cataclysm?

Even if we assume that Chilton was lying to the NYT for whatever reason, for that argument to hold you must further assume that it was not just Chilton, but the entire damn company. Here was Mike Morhaime in the November Earning call:

That said, we know there are improvements that we can make in gaming content. The level-up content in Cataclysm is some of our best works. But it was consumed quickly compared to our past expansions set, Wrath of the Lich King. Once players reached max level, the end-game content in Cataclysm is more difficult. Balancing this content for our diverse player base can be very challenging.

Our development team is constantly analyzing the game, and we’re continuing to explore ways that we can adjust the game to better satisfy both hard-core and casual players. To that end, our next free major content update for World of Warcraft is already in testing and will be available for players in the coming weeks.

I could post more. In fact, I did post more… back in March of 2011 as I put the backpedaling on a timeline starting from January 7th’s “We don’t think it was a mistake to start with the difficulty we did” to February 3rd’s “On the other hand, maybe things have come too far in the other direction.” The whole gang is there: Zarhym, Daxxarri, Bashiok, Ghostcrawler. Were they just repeating Chilton’s lie for the past 12 months?

Not only were they lying with words, they also had to be lying with deeds. Consider the LFD Luck of the Draw buff that rolled out not even two weeks after Ghostcrawler told everyone to L2P. Consider the absolute bevvy of heroic nerfs, the T11 nerfs, the ZA/ZG nerfs, the 4.2 nerfs before the end of the patch (!), and finally the implementation of LFR. And let us not forget part of the Mists of Pandaria announcement:

In Cataclysm, Heroic dungeons were intentionally designed as gear and difficulty checks on the progression to raiding. In Mists of Pandaria, the Raid Finder will be the appropriate transition from running dungeons to Normal raids. Heroic dungeons will largely be tuned to be about as difficult as they were in Wrath of the Lich King, allowing players to fairly quickly down bosses in PUGs and hit their Valor Point caps. Valor Points will follow a new philosophy with 4.3, as a parallel way to gear up alongside the Raid Finder, but not as a fill-in for boss drops.

Which leads us to:

2. He could be wrong.

I am actually much more sympathetic to this argument, simply because we do know not just by experience, but by admission that designers (or at least the people that manage them) frequently have no goddamn idea what they are doing. Even in Blizzard’s specific case, Chilton is admitting they are still trying to figure out the current audience wants, which becomes more and more bizarre the longer you think about it.

That said, while I am sympathetic to this argument, it is also extremely weak. Blizzard is privy to 100% of the statistics that we have to crudely extrapolate from either Armory information, or from websites that have not been updated since October. And even the statistics we have access to can be incredibly misleading. I have always said that arguments based on total subs is asinine, because who knows what the churn rate is, what the concurrent users numbers are doing, and so on. Only Blizzard does, and we only know what they have said:

Are you basing this conclusion [heroics too hard] off of forum posts or in game data?  I hope it’s the latter so you get a truly accurate picture.

That’s an analysis pulled from hard data. We always try to base improvements an accurate overall picture. (source)

The Luck of the Draw buff, however, is being made in response to the feedback we’re seeing on the forums, as well as the statistics we’ve been reviewing which reflect all types of dungeon party trends. We feel it’s a good way of closing the disparity between the success of pick up groups and the success of preformed groups, without trivializing the content for some players to appease others. (source)

By looking at actual stats, actual progression, time spent playing, where, and to what extent, we can see that most people are looking for more accessible raid content, so yes, we absolutely are able to tell without a doubt that the plan we’re enacting is actually what players playing the game want and need, and are not just listening to people on the forums. (source)

So the “He could be wrong” counter-argument essentially comes down to “Blizzard is wrong about why they experienced a loss in subscribers because I said so without any objective evidence other than total sub numbers.”

Could Blizzard actually be wrong? Sure. Maybe they actually lost 2 million subs because of the alignment of Praxis-12 Prime with the center of the Andromeda galaxy. But given the incredibly consistent (since February 2011), highly publicized direction shift when it comes to difficulty, it is beyond all reasonable doubt that Blizzard as a whole believes the Cataclysm drop in subscribers was due to Cataclysm being too hard. With the release of LFR and all information revealed about Mists of Pandaria thus far, it is similarly clear that Blizzard is literally betting the $1 billion farm on an easier, more accessible WoW experience.

Consider this fact established.

Truer Words

In the middle of an epicly-long Kotaku article expressing the virtue of Dark Souls’ difficulty, the following lines jumped out and strangled me (emphasis added):

Because you repeat each section of the game so many times, and commit it so firmly to memory, you build up certain tricks and patterns. You achieve mastery, which is satisfying, and yet you always feel like something could go wrong, which is exciting.

When it comes to discussing difficulty in MMOs, I firmly fall on the “make it easy” side of the fence. I enjoy difficulty, I enjoy taxing my abilities to their maximum, but I also believe difficulty has its place; specifically, not in waiting for someone else to finally stop failing so I (we) can succeed. Games like Dark Souls work precisely because they are single-player.

That being said… the bold sentence in the quote above is perhaps the most succinct, inspired description of the mechanics of fun I have ever read.