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Asocial and Antisocial

There was an interesting blue post a few days ago explaining why Blizzard had yet to embrace the GW2-esque open-tap philosophy:

The main reason we don’t embrace a fully open-tap world is that we feel that those mechanics are asocial. To be fair, that is certainly better than antisocial – no question there, and antisocial experiences usually reflect spawning and mechanics that we need to adjust. However, while a world in which everyone runs around damaging things a few times (or however much is needed to qualify for credit) may be one in which you don’t feel bad about other players being around, at some point it also makes those players nearly indistinguishable from NPCs or bots with decent AI. You don’t need to talk, or ask if someone has room in their group or would like to join yours. You just attack a few times, and then move on.

The blue dev (Watcher in this case) went on to assert that they “commonly” saw transient groups forming for daily quests, and perhaps some of those groups became less transient over time. And to an extent, I even agree that games like GW2 might have inadvertently crossed some line wherein other players are simply irrelevant when questing (as opposed to registering as something to think about).

At the same time… are we playing the same game? Even as far back as Wrath, there was basically no interaction between me and the random strangers who were competing with me for spawns. Any time that I did buckle down for blind social interaction, the majority of the outcomes were A) waiting around for them to get back from being AFK, and/or B) them being barely pulling their weight, and/or C) them trying to wheetle me into doing more of their daily quests for them. Indeed, that whole awkward parting scenario is generally why I avoided any stranger contact that I could.

I suppose that I am not exactly the sort of player that Watcher was talking about or even want to socially engineer. After all, not only am I naturally asocial, but I was already a part of a guild that wasn’t recruiting, so there really was no upside to stranger interaction. Given the generally accepted churn rates of 5% per month, eventually there are going to be hundreds of thousands of new players cycling in every year, and getting them into guilds and such is paramount.

Hmm. I gotta say though, I feel that the WoW-style tagging system is archaic and antisocial at this point; Wildstar tried to split the baby and ended up with two halves of a baby too. Going forward into 2014 with an assumption that players are going to just accidentally stumble into good relationships is kinda ridiculous. How often is someone going to pick up an MMO blind without any friends from either real life or friends they met in other games? Perhaps the idea is that you can recruit from the pile of random people killing quest mobs in daily hubs? The whole thing just feels kinda sketchy considering it is a linchpin in the entire social game design edifice.

There is something to be said for needing a reason to need other players to ensure social interaction takes place. In other words, dependency (or perhaps more charitably: profit) is the impetus to take that first step towards interaction. There is also something to be said that if you have to force social interaction between two parties that otherwise would prefer not to be bothered, perhaps you should reexamine what it is you are doing in the first place and to what end.

Shouldn’t it be enough that an impromptu group gets quests done faster? It is not even as though you are punishing the solo player as it is undermining the very thing you set out to foster in the first place, e.g. social interaction. By default, all non-party members are detriments to one’s gameplay. That does not encourage me to group with them, that encourages me to endure them or move to a less busy corner of the world. If I wanted to make more friends, I would make more friends regardless of whether or not we had to expressly group together to get quest credit.

No Further Explanation Necessary

So, I have been playing through Eador: Masters of the Broken World recently a month or so ago. While sitting through the opening cinematic describing the fight between immortal Masters over control of floating islands, I had a particularly strong negative reaction once it started to specify that these Masters were in reality fighting the forces of Chaos by bringing Order to the blah blah blah.

Why explain the narrative any further? Immortal god-like beings fighting over possession of floating islands is more than enough. That’s pretty cool! The fighting Chaos with Order bit? Not so much.

See this? THIS is good.

See this? THIS is good.

I’m a narrative guy – I love stories, lore, and world-building. But between a half-assed story and a no-assed story, it’s much better to go with no-ass every time. Own your wacky premise!

Nobody is sitting around getting excited about stopping the forces of evil for the millionth time just because… evil. Keep your cliche, overarching theme if you must, but just don’t try explain it right away. If I’m not interested in becoming a more powerful god by capturing floating islands in goddamn space, facing the forces of Chaos isn’t going to move the needle either.

Design > Toxicity

One of the forum posts I was reading vis-a-vis community toxicity in hard group content – or any game, for that matter – asserted that toxicity is inevitable. I agree. “Any civilization is just three meals away from anarchy.” There is darkness in all of us, beneath the surface. Indeed, I would suggest that how we manage (and hopefully contain!) that darkness is precisely what makes us human beings in the first place.

However, I arch an eyebrow any time someone throws their hands in the air, claiming nothing can be done about the issue of toxicity in multiplayer games. We may not be able to ensure no one is ever toxic or disruptive to another player, but we sure as hell can mitigate, manipulate, and otherwise manage player behavior through system design.

An example I am still in awe over has been the Blizzard design for Hearthstone. Namely, how there is no chat feature with your opponents. Does this prevent every avenue for trolling and other “BM” (Bad Manners) behavior? Of course not. When you look at the forums though, the BM consists of stalling a full turn-timer’s worth, emoting Well Played right before the killing blow, or playing unnecessary cards before the kill. Oh, and some people get really upset when others concede before allowing them to manually deliver the final hit.

Compare that to, I don’t know, maybe any time you turn on XBox Live.

While there may not be any silver bullets for bad behavior in MMOs given the more freeform experience, I believe design can still mitigate the worst of it. For example, removing the ability to kick someone mid-combat or before loot is distributed entirely removes the ability of guild-groups to arbitrarily remove competition (at least, not after the kickee contributed). Binding BoE loot to people who do Need rolls prevents those “Need to sell on AH” players. Shared resource nodes not only prevents any animosity/misunderstandings about ninja-looted nodes, it has the pleasant byproduct of people being glad to see others, as they direct you to nodes you may have missed, helping you clear the path, etc.

Things not to do? Basically anything Wildstar is currently doing. If you have a quest to kill a certain number of mobs, you might get 8% complete per mob you kill. If some random stranger pops out of a bush and hits that same mob with an attack or two, suddenly you only receive 4% credit. Why? For the love of all that is good and holy WHY? Manually forming a group with these strangers doesn’t work to make things any faster either – the lot of you just have to kill twice as many mobs. This sort of design not only discourages cooperation and enables trolling, it fosters a (correct!) notion that other players are obstacles to your goals. The only “challenging” aspect of most of the Challenges in Wildstar is not giving yourself an aneurysm by the behavior – or very existence! – of other people.

You might be thinking I am exaggerating here. No, my friend. I did not hate perfect strangers more in Darkfall, when they could murder me at any time and full-loot my corpse. Because that was understood; that is what you signed up to do. I did not sign up to Wildstar to unknowingly steal other people’s accomplishments simply by existing in the same zone.

You might have heard that there are a lot of Group quests in Wildstar to kill powerful creatures. It’s true. What’s also true is that if you and a stranger bond in common purpose to attack one, but you tragically end up dying, you get zero credit for the kill. Why? Because fuck you, that’s why. I’m sorry, Carbine developers, for not making my very temporary fellowship with Sizzlebutt “official” by clicking some buttons on your interface. If I hadn’t died, we both would have gotten credit, but nevermind. Clearly there is some wizened, highborn logic behind this deliberate decision I am too simple to understand. Perhaps allowing dead players to receive credit for a mob eventually killed would open an exploit that unraveled your entire, expertly-crafted leveling experience. Or perhaps it never crossed your empty skulls.

Do you see what I mean about toxicity?

In an MMO, every player you meet should be an opportunity. Every aspect of your social game should be geared toward encouraging positive experiences. Every point of social friction should receive ample grease. Seriously, mind boggled at Gold Medals being tied to player deaths in LFG groups.¹ Do you know what they called that in WoW when it was implemented in Naxx? A goddamn mistake.

¹ This post was written before the news on Friday. Still, it is an idea that never should have survived the whiteboard.

MMO vs Co-Op

I was browsing the official Wildstar forums yesterday, and came across a(nother) thread on the building toxicity of the game’s LFG tool in Veteran (e.g. heroic) Dungeons. Anyone who has ever played WoW for more than a hot minute could point out the problem with the bizarre, and frankly naive, design decision Carbine has settled on: beginning Cataclysm-era coordinated difficulty combined with Gold Medal or Bust reward structures. I mean, what kind of intelligent person says “If any of this group of five cross-realm strangers dies, they get no epics even if they eventually succeed” and believes that is a good idea?

By the way, do you remember back in WoW when you could kick someone before the last boss dropped its loot? Yeah, Wildstar allows that. If you queue into a 3-man guild unit, you will only receive a chance to roll on gear on their mercy. TBC BRILLIANCE, HO!

Anyway, the typical Apologist refrain is “just don’t PUG veteran dungeons.” Hard to argue with that. Until now:

And you see thats a sad part …..why play an mmo if your only playing with certain people to get things done? your in an mmo ffs, why not try and actually get things done with random people you don’t know? thats sort of defeating the purpose OF being an mmo and not just a coop game =/

I don’t know about you, but this (poorly punctuated) post turned nearly everything I just blithely accepted as given in MMOs on its head.

People criticize solo-friendly designs – “You’re taking the Massively Multiplayer out of MMO!” – and yet not much forum-space has been given to the notion that being sequestered in your guild of friends/acquaintances isn’t very MMO-ish either. What’s so Massively Multiplayer about your even 40m (or typically much less) raiding guild? Does it even matter that there are other players running around outside of your guild tag?

Seems to me that when you zoom out a bit, there just isn’t a whole lot of difference between the srsbsn guild member and solipsistic solo player – everything outside of the circle is just background radiation.

Goldsinks

It’s all Wildstar, all the time up in this joint, but what is interesting is how many times I’ll encounter something that makes me reexamine more general MMO concepts. For example: goldsinks. Every MMO needs them, and yet Wildstar can sometimes feel like it has sinks within sinks (sinkception).

One example near and dear to my heart are AH fees. Wildstar features a 12% tax on sold goods. Having one at all is pretty standard, although wasn’t the cross-faction goblin cut 15% in WoW? Anyway, there is also a 2% or 5 silver (whichever is higher) fee on purchasing goods. And a listing fee. This can burn you pretty bad if you aren’t paying attention, as a 2s item suddenly costs 7s if you just buy the one, a 350% increase. Purchase 100 of them though, and that fee is just 2.5%.

70 copper purchase balloons into 570 copper.

70 copper purchase balloons into 570 copper.

Not impressed? Okay. I’m just getting started.

A more bizarre goldsink is that of respeccing. WoW has had respeccing fees forever, right? Sure. In Wildstar though, repeccing abilities is free and quick and absolutely painless… EXCEPT when it comes to AMPs. In other words, I can take a minute and go from DPS to healer no problem. I can mix and match anything on my action bar, including moving the “tiered” ability points around. What I can’t do is rearrange all those passive AMP points without getting dinged at an increasingly large rate. At level 50, it costs 50g. At current CREDD prices on my server, that means AMP respecs costs about $4. Every time.

Or, hey, maybe you just want to dye your clothes. Hopefully you enjoy pastel colors, because otherwise you are looking at 9.26 platinum (926g) to dye your clothes red, and a similar amount with the ever-suspiciously-rare black dye. That is quite literally $80. For one channel, out of three.

Or maybe you just want to unlock the AMP that is responsible for 20% of your class’s theoretical DPS. Sorry, it’s an ultra-rare world drop. Current price? 12p on the AH. Or $100.

Isn’t it wonderful what RMT does to one’s perspective?

I am not doubting the necessity of goldsinks¹. But I do agree with the posters on the forums that there is a profound difference between, say, an absurdly priced mount versus something that directly impacts day-to-day gameplay. Repair bills are one thing, as they act as a sort of death tax, encouraging specific behavior. But what does high AMP respecs accomplish? Discouraging people from utilizing their roles, after the deliberate design choice of making every class a hybrid? If it costs to change both AMP and Abilities around, that would at least be consistent. Instead, you have the ability to… be a crappy healer/tank at any time. Gee, thanks.

And then there’s the dye thing, which just seems pointlessly cruel. There are tons of housing sinks – including weekly upkeep on each of your plugs – but this just feels different to me, for some reason. Maybe because you already had to luck into/purchase the rare dye to begin with?

I am very much in favor of goldsinks in the form of WoW-esque 100,000g vendor mounts and other such extravagances. But the reason I am in favor of those things is because they are progressive goldsinks. In other words, these are goldsinks designed to hit players who can actually afford to pay them. Contrast that with, say, respecs. That hits everyone, in an extremely regressive way (nevermind the 70c AH item getting taxed to 5.7s). I feel like repair costs are perhaps the ultimate regressive tax, hitting the poor and inexperienced harder for essentially no good reason. I have always said that failure is its own punishment; you better have a good reason for adding an injury on top of the insult.

There have been a few people mentioning that these sinks will likely become irrelevant in the coming weeks and months as the playerbase matures. “These sinks were designed for the long haul,” they say. So, uh, is that supposed to make them better design choices? Making shit extra harsh in the free month off of release, only to fade into irrelevance as the playerbase thins out? Maybe it’s fair to assume that the negative PR of jacking goldsink rates up later is worth the initial hit now.

Still, I’d much prefer that other players act as the goldsinks (in terms of profit-taking) and not core gameplay mechanics. The latter ends up feeling a bit suspicious when you sell the means to bypass it (i.e. CREDD) in the game store.

¹ If I’m honest, I do kinda want to doubt them. The goldsinks in WoW are extremely minor at basically all levels of play, and easily circumvented with daily quest income. And yet it’s not as though the AH barons with seven-figure stockpiles are locking the average guy out from necessary AH goods.

Wildstar Housing, Balance

This Penny Arcade is pretty much spot-on.

I have not personally succumbed to the housing endgame, but I absolutely see the appeal. My present domicile is named Function Over Form, and is primarily centered around having my own Mining and Garden nodes for resource gathering. Any decor that isn’t worth vendoring is placed as amusingly as possible, scaled up to the maximum. As it turns out, the scale on most of these items figuratively and literally go to 11.

I enjoy the view from my 30-ft couch.

The view from my 20-ft couch.

If you were looking for more serious housing endeavors, examples abound. I especially enjoyed seeing the DIY jumping puzzles. The craziest, most underrated part? You can visit other peoples’ houses. You don’t even need to know them in-game; as long as they have opened their house to the public, you can stop by, and perhaps harvest their resource nodes (more on that in a sec).

Here is the method to do so, and please pass it along:

Won't you be my neighbor?

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Wildstar is by no means the first MMO with player housing. I was questing with a few friends on Vent the other night, and one friend actually complained that EQ2’s housing system was more intuitive. I’ll, uh, take your word for that.

Carbine has done something really clever here though, in elevating the Show & Tell aspect by combining it with Challenges and resources. I have my low-effort housing solely to be able to low-effort mine resources every hour or so; the Shardspire Canyon FABkit in the back similarly allows me to complete an easy challenge for a shot at additional goodies every 30 minutes.

But see, you can get a list of a few dozen people who have opened their houses to the public and check out their setups. If they too have resource nodes or Challenges on their property to complete, you have an incentive to essentially cold-call them to become Neighbors. Collect a big enough list, and you can probably farm all day just in other peoples’ houses.

Maybe that doesn’t seem all that social. I will tell you though, that it got me to add a random stranger to my Friend’s List so I could talk him into letting me farm his creepy, albeit very committed Plushie-themed house on the regular. I’m already trying to come up with a naming convention to indicate people willing to 50/50 their nodes into a… well, a “neighborhood,” to our mutual benefit.

The fact that there is a Zone Chat specifically for people in their houses is goddamn brilliant, by the way.

_____________

Having said that, I now have a 2nd character parked at level 15 with very little impetus to move forward. It is difficult to shape into words why that is the case, as I even enjoy my Medic main. As others have mentioned, by level 15 you will have unlocked your house, your mount, and will have opened up enough abilities to get somewhat of a grasp of what buttons you’ll be spamming for the next forever.

Part of the problem is commitment issues. Mobs don’t die in 2-shots anymore, so you better like who you’ll be grinding with. Is Medic really the best for me? In trying out the other classes though, let me just say that Carbine is going to seriously need to work on the ESPer and Engineer (I’d say Warrior too, but I’ll give it another shot first).

The Engineer problem is pretty straight-forward: the bots suck. Not only do the bots suck damage-wise – which is a big problem when they constitute 2 of your very early ability selections – but they have pathing issues too, which can lead to aggro issues. My Engineer is level 8 and it just doesn’t feel fun, and none of the upcoming abilities sound like they will be fun either.

The ESPer problem, on the other hand, is a complete breakdown in the class design. I can’t speak for it’s endgame performance, but there is almost nothing I like where I’m at. It is currently the ONLY class to have it’s “primary” builder require being stationary, which makes it worse than useless in PvP. Flag carrier running away? GG. Target runs out of your telegraph? Now they’re 35+ yards away and you’ll never hit them with anything. GG. Then you have it’s R ability with its… stay stationary to gain an absorb shield, interrupt armor, and PSI points? Only useable in combat? Let me just say that using that ability in PvP just leads to pretty much instant death, even in the lower brackets.

Medic was more fun, but PvP is a crazy mess.

Medic was more fun, but PvP is a crazy mess regardless of class.

I’m mentioning PvP a lot with the ESPer as that is largely how I leveled with that toon. The Aurin/Mordesh starting area is abysmal, and meanwhile PvP is pretty outstandingly rewarding and fun. It takes around 3-4 games per level, and you pretty much consistently get 300-400 PvP currency per battle. The PvP gear has some “useless” stats to make it weaker in PvE, but you can unlock usable shoulders that will likely last you a half-dozen levels or more with pure PvE stats. Otherwise, you must rely on opening the PvP loot bags rewarded at the end ala GW2, to similar effect (read: none).

My goal with the ESPer was pretty much to heal exclusively, and in that area it is kinda okay. Most of its healing abilities are actually targeted (and stationary), which reverts the game back to WoW-mode; I moved the team window down to the center of the screen and basically used it like Healbot. I ended up unlocking a standard telegraph heal in the teens though, so I was able to be a bit more mobile as a healer.

So, yeah, ESPer, Engineer, and likely Warrior are about the three weakest classes at the moment. Carbine is on the record for saying that classes will be buffed up to the top level rather than top-tier classes being nerfed, so we’ll see exactly how they plan on solving this balance issue. I don’t see any way out for the ESPer other than making the level 1 ability a mobile cast though.

Wildstar: The First 4 Days

I am likely playing Wildstar all wrong.

Basically, none of my characters are above level 8. I started off playing a Medic, which has been pretty fun. Once I hit a certain point in leveling though, I started asking questions in the /Advice channel – pretty brilliant of Carbine to include that by default, by the way – and realized that I should probably come to some sort of decision on a Main. Would it be Medic? What about all the other classes I hadn’t tried out?

Low-Grav buff stacks with Scientist Low-Grav buff. SCIENCE.

Area Low-Grav buff stacks with Scientist Low-Grav buff, by the way.

Let me state for the record that stopping your progress in newbie zones to reroll five other classes through the same sort of newbie zones is both very logical and a very dumb way to play. But since I did, I may as well go over how I felt about things.

Medic seems pretty powerful. Unlike most classes, they start with their resource system at full power, which lets you front-load a lot of damage into mobs. Also unlike a lot of classes, their “finisher” has no cooldown, so if you 1-2 shot the mob you attack, you can almost instantly transition into the next mob in the same fashion (the resource bar regenerates quickly outside of combat). Also, Science.

In comparison, playing a Warrior felt terrible. The filler attack was weak, and their multi-tap finisher has an 8-second cooldown. So while most classes press 1-1-2-2 to kill mobs at this level, the Warrior enforces an 8-second cooldown between mobs. None of the abilities that come later seemed all that exciting, which is a problem considering that you’re stuck using the early abilities for most (if not all) of your gameplay to cap.

Brutal character deletion.

Brutal character deletion.

I’m pretty sure the Engineer is broke, or at least was in the area that I was leveling. In principal, having bots out is cool. Not getting any feeling that the bots are contributing damage is less cool. Pets in MMOs generally fall into either Overpowered or Useless categories depending on their AI and pathing, and my impression is that Engineer pets are the latter. Considering that the Bruiser Bot and Missile Bot count as Abilities, having two of your early abilities feel useless is not encouraging.

Esper was somewhat of a surprise to me, in that I anticipated it being unfun when the opposite is true. In a game of constant mobility, what sense does it make to have your #1 filler attack require standing still? Then look at the level 4 ability, which is instant-cast but does nothing until 4.4 seconds later. Nevertheless, it feels kinda fun to be able to set up a lot of damage on mobs that lands all at once. I’ll likely have less fun in PvP and in situations where I can’t wind-up attacks though.

This Esper didn't come out bad at all.

This Esper didn’t come out bad at all.

The Stalker is toned down from the closed beta, but in principal and effect still feels a tad overpowered. Stealth has no cooldown outside of combat, your #2 attack is basically Ambush, Energy regens quickly outside of combat, so you can start every encounter with a huge burst of damage like the Medic. Plus, Stealth is always fun for bypassing mobs/players. If you go the Stalker route though, be sure to check out each race’s Stealth animation. The female Mordesh animation, for example, is grandma power-walking; meanwhile, the female Aurin is Naruto/ninja running.

Finally, the Spellslinger shot up in fun-levels once I figured out “the trick.” Basically, your “cooldown” ability is Spell Surge, which gives your abilities extra power for as long as you have Focus (or whatever). However, Spell Surge is actually a buff that lasts until you completely empty your Focus bar, and Focus regens (somewhat slowly) outside of combat. So, under normal circumstances, fighting mobs goes: 2, wait 5 seconds to charge, fire, 1-1-1-1. With Spell Surge up though, your 2 ability charges in 1.4 seconds and one-shots mobs if it crits. Even when it doesn’t, most encounters end with 2, wait 1.4 seconds, 1-maybe 1 again. Mobs die so fast that it starts getting annoying waiting for 2 to come off cooldown (10 seconds) before one-shotting the next, but I just unlocked another cooldown button that essentially one-shots mobs too, allowing me to alternate.

...okay, Spell Slinger with Surge up may be even cooler.

…okay, Mordesh Spellslinger with Surge up may be even cooler.

Now, obviously, these impressions of the classes could not be representative of their final forms, so to speak. If someone was describing the level 8 paladin experience in WoW as indicative of endgame, I would… hmm, bad example. Level 8 Elemental shaman… err. You get what I mean. Some classes don’t “click” until a key ability is unlocked, and other classes that start out as overpowered can fall out of favor once mob Time-To-Kill increases past a certain threshold. Medic, for example, will likely get annoying if two front-loaded #2 abilities aren’t enough to burst something down. Or maybe it won’t, because Science.

I would be interested in hearing the experience other people had with the Warrior. Was there a level or ability where it became fun? Maybe I was missing something like with the Spellslinger.

______________

I want to take a minute to talk about the Paths. Thus far, I have a hard time justifying anything other than Scientist. I mean, the Settler buff stations are really good – 50% run speed outside of combat is tough to beat – but I’m not sure how you compete with the endgame utility to summon group members or summon portals to capitals. Explorer abilities are almost a joke, and Soldier will entirely depend on what exactly a “Weapon Locker” does and/or what “Bail Out!” even means.

I analyzed the blue crystals at the left to get a jump buff to reach the hidden stash.

I eventually analyzed the blue crystals at the left to get a jump buff to reach the hidden stash. Scientist FTW.

Of course, you can pick a Path depending on the type of side-quests you enjoy too. If you don’t particularly care though, I have found Scientist to be the best: not only do you get easy tasks, you unlock special areas that no other Path has access to, e.g. bypass doors, unlock jumping buffs to reach secret stashes, etc. Sure, Explorer gets exclusive jumping puzzles, but those are less obvious than the locked Scientist doors in the course of normal gameplay.

________

I was asked by another ex-WoW friend if Wildstar was worth purchasing. Not at full MSRP… but $48 at GMG? Probably. I am having enough fun at these low levels that I’m certain I’ll play and hit the cap even if my other friends abandon the game tomorrow. Will I enjoy the hardcore dungeons and hardcore raids? Unlikely. The concept of Challenges in busy zones is a huge design oversight that doesn’t exactly engender faith in social aspect of the game; you need to make friends to do endgame stuff, but the rest of the game causes you to hate other people. I do not anticipate 40m raiding to survive the year.

Which is worse: empty TP roll vendoring for 75s, or me being too afraid to vendor it?

Which is worse: empty TP roll vendoring for 75s, or thinking it’s worth WAY more than that as decor?

Overall though? Not bad. I’ll be interested in seeing if I can pay for my next month via CREDD.

Challenge is Overrated

Rohan posted the other day that the modern MMO tendency towards making leveling alts easier runs afoul of Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun¹. “Leveling alts should be harder, not easier!” Allow me to offer an alternative Theory of Fun: it’s about Novelty, not Challenge.

While I have forwarded this thesis almost three years ago, I am more convinced than ever that the Novelty theory better explains fun than Challenge. For one thing, when was the last time you were truly challenged in a videogame? When were your abilities pushed to their maximum? Okay, now think about the last time you had fun playing a videogame. Did you ever have fun without being challenged? QED.

Part of this debate is semantic – Challenge is Novel by definition, else it would not be challenging. But Challenge does not model the demonstrated ability of players to derive fun and entertainment from picking herbs, mining copper nodes, exploring the map, fishing, and so on. Neither Skyrim nor MineCraft are particularly challenging, and yet people can sink MMO-esque amounts of time into them.

What challenge is taking place in the imagination of a child at play?

The other problem with Challenge as Fun is how clearly there is a hard limit on it. Even if you avoid crossing the line into too challenging to complete, sustained challenge can be exhausting. Which makes sense, as challenge is an exertion of effort above the median. Sustained challenge also presupposes a sort of boundless limit for self-improvement. Even if I believed that everyone could do anything if they simply put their mind to it (I don’t), it’s undeniable that one’s effort hits diminishing returns rather quickly. Is it worth 15 hours of additional practice to realize 1% gains? Maybe someone thinks so. I raided with a Hunter back in ICC whose DPS improvement was literally squeezing in one, single additional Kill Shot into an eight-minute fight. But even he would be unlikely to spend 30, 60, 90 more hours to squeeze in a second one.

Plus, you know, he did end up quitting WoW despite there being plenty of challenge left.

The way I am describing Novelty is not necessarily as “a completely unique experience.” All it has to do is simply feel new to you. The subjectivity is an important facet, just as with Challenge, and it explains how someone can still have fun picking herbs when the action itself is fairly rote and well-defined. For myself, I consider Progression to be Novel; increasing in power and effectiveness is fresh and exciting to me. I start making plans for my ever-increasing hoard of Peacebloom (etc), or imagine what I could purchase after selling it. Others could see the act-in-time to be Novel – they have never picked Felweed at this particular time and place before, and who knows if a member of the opposite faction could be lurking around the corner. Of course, there is also the people-element that can make the most mundane of tasks into cherished memories.

In the end, I might almost say that the most universal quality in fun games is Engagement. Challenge can be engaging, Novelty can be engaging. However, it is not particularly useful to suggest a game be more Engaging any more than it is useful suggesting a game be more Fun. One can certainly suggest a game be more Challenging or Novel though. I would just suggest going with the latter.

¹ I have not actually read Koster’s book, so it’s entirely possible he isn’t arguing Challenge > everything. In fact, I seem to recall it being more about learning things, which puts it more in line with my Novelty argument. Nevertheless, I don’t feel like a game has to be Challenging to be fun, and I have no idea why challenge is so fetishized in game design.

How Hardcore Will Wildstar Actually Be?

Keen brought up an interesting perspective last week in regards to Wildstar:

I keep hearing/reading that WildStar is going to be such a hardcore game not for the casual, console, [insert something with a core not hard enough] audience.  Yes, there are inaccessible 40-man raids.  You’re delusional if you think that WildStar is now or will ever be hardcore.  Even compared to Vanilla WoW (like WildStar often is) it’s ridiculously accessible and easy to level.  People were hitting 40+ in 3-4 days or less.

All it will take is a few exit surveys for NCSoft to step in and force accessibility.  “We’re losing subscribers because they can’t experience the content they want to play.”  It will never, ever, be more inaccessible than WoW.

It’s an interesting perspective to me because I was (and still am) prepared to take Carbine and the Wildstar devs on face value. There was another Reddit AMA last week that sort of doubled-down on the hardcoreness. You can read a much cleaner, more condensed version here. This rather epic deconstruction sums up a lot of miscellaneous things:

Q: When it becomes apparent in the next year that hardcore 40 man’s aren’t going to work because it’s not what people like to do anymore, what other ideas are you going to try?

CRB_Gaffer: This is a “gotcha” question, but I’ll answer it anyways since some variant of it comes up reasonably often.

Little aside here: Why is this “gotcha”? Well, let’s examine possible answers:

1) Say “yes, 40 mans won’t work in a year, we’ll roll to another system” – well obviously we don’t believe that, or we wouldn’t have done them. And if early testing were pointing that way, we would have already converted them.

2) Say “no, they’ll never change, even if no one plays them!” – well, obviously, we’d be idiots to not respond to player feedback; it’s what we do. They’re fun enough that they’ll get played, we’re confident.

3) Say “it’s entirely up to player feedback!” – that’s hardly giving a strong direction, and we know this one will be contentious – there’s not likely to be a consensus. Every interesting game design decision is a mix of having a vision and being willing to intelligently and rationally assess when to swerve from it if reality and vision collide.

4) If we say that contingently we’ll push other fallback ideas, then of course the player base will potentially rapidly become divided to say “DO THAT NOW!!!” or assume that our plan all along is to go that route, when in practice, anything we do in terms of long-term planning is to an extent contingency based. We’ll be MUCH more knowledgeable about the health of the systems in the long terms six months post-launch.

So, that’s kinda the definition of a gotcha question – there’s no simple answer that actually addresses the question.

There’s another issue; the phrasing “when it becomes apparent” that implies that you’re asking the question to people you think aren’t that smart to begin with.

One assumes that’s intentional; it creates the added issue that responding to the question potentially Pavlovian conditions folks asking us questions to be snarky, when generally we try to focus answers on intelligent, well-phrased questions (even contentious ones) to make sure we’re doing our best to improve the quality of dialogue. No offense intended if that phrasing was just unintentional and through poor communication skills! Anyways, a good policy in TL;DR form: “Don’t feed the trolls”

But what the heck! To answer concisely after the extended parenthetical:

If it turns out that gamers are no longer capable of enjoying large-scale raiding, at that time our cross-discipline group of folks will have a series of debates on what works, what doesn’t work, base it on the data we’ve pulled from the systems and talking with our fans, and either double down on the parts of the systems that work well, or innovate some new directions to move forward in.

But early feedback is that that’s a pretty hypothetical situation. ;) Cause, hell, they’re pretty fun, and we think the added fun of the deeper gameplay we get out of those fights outweighs the social overhead of maintaining large groups. But folks will prove us wrong or not.

There are enough Ins and Outs in that response to construct a burger franchise, but there you go. Vague PR bullshit or nuanced game design? While I find myself more inclined to wait and see, I must confess that the following responses seems a bit contradictory:

Q: Are you committed to keeping a natural progression of content? [...] Do you plan on adding shortcuts to previous tiers of raids when new ones come out? Removal of attunements, nerfing fights, adding equivalent gear from casual and easy to obtain sources (see WoW patch 2.4)?

CRB_TimeTravel: This is a great question for four months from now. Our post-launch balancing plans will depend heavily upon the speed with which players consume the content and the # of players doing the consuming.

However, we definitely don’t want to simply invalidate our previous content when we release new stuff.

Q: I know this is far into the future, but I’m hoping you guys keep old content relevant. I think it would be a great way to get the more casual players to raid in older/easier raid instances and have the new raids maintain the benchmark for hardcore players.

CRB_TimeTravel: We definitely don’t want to make our older content irrelevant, so will be looking for ways to have an intelligent progression forward with gear and ability as the game matures post-launch.

Q: What are your plans for longterm raid progression in terms of gear? Will you be taking the WoW model of trivializing the oldest raid instances when new ones are released? or the EverQuest model of a strict progression system, or somewhere in between?

CRB_TimeTravel: Somewhere in between.

We do not want to trivialize our content, nor force players to do all of it before seeing anything new.

What “middle way” is there between “not invalidate older content” and “not force players to do all of it”? You can either skip tiers or you can’t. The fact that the last boss of any given raid tier is always harder than the first (few) boss(es) of the next tier is one of the reasons I have always considered things like attunements and the justifications for them to be asinine. “Linear progression” is never linear progression, at least not for the first half of the next instance. If the hardcore raiders get a handful of gimmie bosses, why not everyone else? What good is preserved by putting a hard, game-ending limit to a given guild’s progression when you’ve specifically crafted new bosses that that guild could defeat if you but got out of the way?

Ugh. I think “attunements” and “linear progression” are trigger words for me.

That being said, I am not entirely sure whether I share Keen’s “optimism” regarding raiding in Wildstar becoming more accessible. As mentioned, there is enough wiggle-room in the posts by Carbine devs to allow them to nerf the content based on low participation. More problematic is how exactly they plan on nerfing it. Many of the gameplay videos I have seen paint most of the bosses as “bullet hell” dances, even in the 5m dungeons. In a world in which something as simple as the Heigan Dance threatened to break guilds apart, I’m skeptical these devs will be able to thread that needle. Maybe the attacks will 3-shot you instead of 1-shot? Maybe there will be less “bullets?” As any PUG raid leader can tell you though, moving out of the fire and dodging the fire are two entirely different things.

In any case, I suppose we’ll see how things shake out a few weeks from now.

(Virtual) Friends

Zubon has a post up musing on Time to Effectiveness, in regards to how long it takes between starting the game and being at the point where your bullet hits for as much damage as a veteran’s bullet. You can contribute in EVE on Day 1 whereas a level 1 WoW character would be worse than useless in a raid of a capital city (via guard aggro).

The thing that interested me the most was when Zubon mentioned this:

For MMOs, this is indicative of the larger problem that you need to grind to play with your friends. MMOs are bad for playing with your friends. Their character advancement systems make it difficult to find a span within which you can bring veterans, newbies, alts, etc. together, and it only gets worse over time as the power differential between day one and the level cap grows. I played a bit of World of Warcraft but it never really caught me because I spent almost my entire time in that vast, lonely wasteland between level 1 and the cap.

If I play these games to play with my friends, I want to play with my friends. If I play these games to compete with other people, I want to compete on a level playing field.

I would immediately agree that playing progression-based games is difficult with your friends, even if you happen to live in the same house as them. Everyone has their different schedules and obligations; sometimes you feel like watching Game of Thrones instead of running another dungeon tonight, or whatever. Even if you have specific characters you use when in a group, you are essentially committing to leveling up twice, and basically consigning that friend-alt to progression limbo.

But do you know who it’s pretty easy to play with? “Friends,” i.e. the people you befriend in-game. I have been talking with the same handful of people I “met” in WoW pretty consistently for the last five years. And why would that be surprising? We all were playing the same MMO on basically the same schedule in the same manner, which is how we met in the first place; you couldn’t design a better friend/compatible person-sorting algorithm if you tried. Meanwhile, I only ever talk with my best friend IRL every few months. I met that best friend in Middle School by complete coincidence, and even though we are supremely compatible personality-wise, he just isn’t into PC gaming. With that plus distance plus schedules, the opportunities to play together would be pretty low.

All of which makes for rather conflicting design structures in many games. Friends and guilds are the social glue that keeps people playing games long after the novelty has worn out. If you start playing a game with friends, you might end up overlooking the deal-breakers that would otherwise cause you to abandon a game before the social hooks had time to sink in. On the other hand, the opposite problem can occur: if your friends don’t like the game but you do, you might end up either spending less time playing with them or quit the game to play whatever they’re playing.

So, objectively, the best outcome is quite possibly coming into the game with no friends and making some in-game instead. That way, the friends you are playing with are tailor-made to correspond with your playstyle, level of interest, and long-term goals. Plus, there is the added bonus of this particular game being “sticky,” insofar as it might be the only context in which you will get to enjoy your new friends’ company. Although I still talk with my former WoW guildmates, we really don’t have many other game preferences in common; the desire to re-subscribe to WoW to spend some non-Vent time with them is pretty strong.

In any case, as I have argued in the comments to Zubon’s post, this is pretty much a systemic problem inherent to RPGs and other games with character progression. The moment you commit to XP and levels is pretty much the same moment you commit to stratification, which by definition drives wedges between players. Unless, of course, you go ahead and make friends with those you find in your strata.

Fake Edit: Zubon and a few others have pointed out that other MMORPGs have solved this issue with scaling levels. The examples used were GW2, EVE, and City of Heroes. While I agree that the first two allow you to play together, they do not allow you to play together on the same level. Your Day 1 friend can tackle spaceships, but he/she is still stuck in a frigate while you’re flying around a supercarrier. It’s perfectly true that two friends can play the GW2 equivalent of BGs together (instant cap, full gear), but I really consider GW2’s sPvP system to be a completely separate game tacked on; it’s entirely possibly it’s changed in the last year, but unless there’s overlap between the two systems (e.g. you get XP/etc for doing sPvP) then I don’t see that as a solution. Chances are good that you bought GW2 in the first place to play the “real” game, e.g. the ones with levels and XP and such.

As for City of Heroes, I’ll have to take your word on it that there was meaningful character progression in an environment that perfectly scaled up and down. Because honestly that sounds like a complete contradiction in terms.

All of this is somewhat besides the point of this post though. It kinda doesn’t matter if you can play with the friends you brought into a game in a perfectly scaled environment, if they don’t match your own playing habits and level of interest in the new game. If you like City of Heroes and they don’t, then it really doesn’t matter how good the game is – your options are basically to quit, divide your time, or make new friends. Stratification makes the situation worse, of course, but it’s more of a symptom of a larger problem IMO.