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Review: The Witcher 3

Game: The Witcher 3
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 94
Completion Time: ~68 hours
Buy If You Like: Medieval fantasy immersion, witty dialog, terrible game design

Things will get muddled all right.

Things will get muddled all right.

Having finally seen the ending credits after 68 hours of gameplay, I can now officially conclude that the Witcher 3 (TW3) is the worst best game I have played. That is not a typo. The typo is TW3 receiving a 94 Metacritic rating from the gaming press that spends more time praising TW3’s visual novel bits than the actual gaming bits – which are not only bad, but actively depress the few parts of TW3’s muted brilliance.

If I had to point to one particular quality that the Witcher series as a whole has nailed down better than any other game, it would be Immersion. This series has always excelled in conjuring a dark (but not grimdark) medieval fantasy zeitgeist, and it is as true in TW3 as the others. Isolated villages feel isolated; muck-covered peasants cough with believable phlegm; people are petty, cross, and rather accustomed to living as though they could be killed by monsters at any moment.

In a word, TW3 is authentic.

This authenticity more or less carries over to the questing elements of the game. Gone are the “kill 20 drowners” garbage quests from TW2. Indeed, there is a developer interview floating around out there that states the team was basically tasked with coming up with quest ideas first, before anything else. This ends up making them feel more like distinct, mini-novellas than the side quests one might be accustomed to in other RPGs.

This distinctiveness has a double-edge however, and the full weight of all the other poorly designed systems causes the blade to backbite deep.

Psst... he's talking about this sword.

Psst… he’s talking about this sword.

For example, the overarching plot and impetus to action in TW3 is for Geralt to find Ciri before the Wild Hunt does so. As you might imagine, Ciri and the Wild Hunt always feel one step ahead of you – it would be a rather odd game indeed if she was found in the first place you looked. But the issue is that in your search for Ciri, the people with the information you need always have problems of their own… problems that you must solve for them before they divulge that Ciri has been gone for weeks. And those problems have sub-problems, sometimes nested four-deep. And in the course of solving those nested problems, you will encounter hundreds of entirely meaty side quests that have nothing to do with Ciri at all.

In any normal game, the Take Your Time trope that this turns into would be just whatever. But TW3 is not “just whatever,” it is a game that has to leverage its immersion for full effect – an effect that evaporates into the mists once you realize that you just spent 20 hours doing random shit that doesn’t matter in finding Ciri. Why create this huge open-world map to explore when the central plot is a supposed race against time? When you stop taking the central plot seriously, even the “meaningful” side-quests start sounding hollow; the writing tries to make you feel something about the world, while cheapening it at the same time by simply existing.

Every other thing about the game just gets worse from that baseline.

I could spend hours on how poorly designed everything is about TW3’s core systems – and who knows, I still might – but I feel the root revolves around the gutted crafting system. In prior titles, you collected all the things because you needed all the things to keep stocked on potions, oils, bombs, and so on. In TW3, you only have to craft a given item once, to essentially unlock unlimited amounts of them; crafting Swallow (the ever-useful health regen potion) might only give you 3/3 uses, but an hour meditating restocks all consumables. This has tremendous cascade effect on the rest of the game systems.

Using Swallow as an example again, the recipe calls for one Dwarven Stout, one Drowner Brain, and five Celadine (a plant). Craft it once, and you’ll have unlimited Swallow potions. There are upgrades to potions and bombs and such, but… do you know how much Celadine you’re going to ever need? Thirty (30). That’s enough plant material to craft every single thing in TW3 that requires Celadine. Drowner Brain? Six (6). Do you have any idea how many Drowner brains you’re going to accumulate throughout TW3? A fucking million. And every one of them after the first six are going to be useless.

Okay, fine, it's a damn pretty game.

Okay, fine, it’s a damn pretty game.

As you might imagine, needing only a tiny fraction of items you loot to gain immense power essentially makes looting pointless. At least, if not for the fact that TW3 also has random loot. Not just random loot, but unbounded random loot, such that you can find a level 20+ sword recipe in a burlap sack at level 3. Or never find it at all anywhere. There are some sanity checks involved regarding actual gear, but ingredients are all over the place.

What gets me the most is how much this affected my own sense of immersion. There were a lot of things wrong with the first Witcher game, but the convoluted Alchemy system felt right in the setting. You were in a dirty medieval world, crushing flower petals to combine various elements together to create a potion that was pure poison to a normal, non-mutated man. You had to keep collecting herbs and monster organs because otherwise you wouldn’t be powerful enough to survive the next encounter. That kind of system has a positive feedback loop with immersion. The one in TW3? It is a negative feedback loop. One and done, everything else is trash.

Then there is the combat itself, which is similarly streamlined dumbed-down. Left-click to light attack, Shift-left-click for strong attack, right-click to parry, Alt to half-dodge and Spacebar to full dodge. Use Signs and Bombs and whatever as you need them. At the 3rd-highest difficulty, combat was always a snooze-fest even if I died; a level 12 Drowner took out my level 22 Witcher in 5-6 hits because I got too lazy to time Alt correctly. Having to pay attention is usually a hallmark of an engaging, difficult combat system, but it simply isn’t in TW3’s case. It is more that actually paying attention and being careful makes TW3 combat a joke; it is only hard precisely when you’re trying to speed through it because you want to be done.

Don’t get me started on the talent trees and Rune systems. They’re bad, whoever designed them is bad, and every single person who allowed them to occur should feel bad. Seriously, after you spend 20 talent points in the Signs tree, the entire 3rd row of talents you unlock is… +5% Sign Intensity for a given Sign. The first two rows granted new abilities and effects to your normal Signs and you follow-up with +5% to an incomprehensible stat? And that’s exactly what all those precious Rune slots in weapons and armor are: +2% chance to stun, +3% Igni Intensity, and similar garbage. It’s like the designers aren’t even trying.

At the end of the day, the people out there praising this game are praising the Telltale Presents: the Witcher 3 story. From a game mechanics standpoint, this is one of the worst designed games I have played. It’s not clunky, it just works against all of the strengths that the game otherwise brings to the table. In other words, the worst best game I have ever played.

Facepalm: Witcher 3 Edition

I have been holding back on Witcher 3 discussions, in the vain hope that I will encounter the brilliance everyone else appears to see in it. But yesterday the game finally reached it’s unintentional shark-jumping moment to me:

So much for immersion.

So much for immersion.

The phenonom is not new. The Blade of the Bits was a quest reward, crafted by the legendary Hattori blah-blah, master craftsman, at the end of a high-level quest chain. The sword was said to have no equal; “a sword to outshine all others.” Peerless… aside from the goddamn common sword of the same level with better stats (!?) that Hattori himself is selling.

Many RPGs fall into this same trap. In fact, it’s rare that an RPG with a crafting system doesn’t. Remember Skyrim with that stupid amulet quest that rewards you with a 1,000+ year old neck piece that’s worse in every way than the stat bauble you crafted at level 10? If the best gear came from drops alone, crafting would largely have no point; the reverse is not true, however, as it rewards players for engaging in the crafting system while not necessarily penalizing players who skip it.

But goddamn if this particular issue is not just another glaring hole in the abyss of Witcher 3’s broken-ass game design. Immersion? Spot-on. Side quests having weighty story bits? Absolutely. But Witcher 3 fails at every other thing that makes a game a game. You know, the actual systems part? This Hattori thing is just a symptom of a much larger issue that apparently everyone is willing to ignore. Namely, the leveling, the crafting, the item collecting… basically all of it.

Bah. I’ll likely finish the game within the day, so I’ll save the full deconstruction for the review.

Open World, Closed Story

Having made it well into hour 30 of The Witcher 3, I am beginning to realize something about the plot. Namely, it is entirely incongruent with the actual gameplay.

Take your time, the Wild Hunt is not going anywhere.

Take your time, the Wild Hunt is not going anywhere.

The basic premise of Witcher 3 is that Geralt is looking for his adopted daughter, Ciri, who is also being chased by The Wild Hunt. So already there is a trajectory here to the plot, which is “quickly follow the clues to find Ciri.” But every other single element of the game clashes with any sense of urgency that the premise should be bringing.

For example, during a beginning segment of the game, Geralt finds out the baron of the area has met with Ciri. However, the baron refuses to give Geralt any details until he finds the baron’s own missing wife and daughter. Before you can do that though, you will likely need to gain some levels completing other side quests in the area. So you complete quests, level up, go find the wife, then daughter, then head back to the baron to get the full story, 15+ gameplay hours later. The end result is, spoiler alert, Ciri is no longer in the area.

Which of course she isn’t. Literally nobody is the world expects to find Ciri in the very first area indicated by the quest objective. It would actually be incredibly novel for a videogame to feature a “quickly chase down this person” plot structure and actually allow the player to find them in the first area if they are quick enough. It would also make said game really short, and almost punish the player by removing gameplay, but very novel just the same.

The problem in Witcher 3 goes deeper than just using a false sense of urgency though. The problem is actually having any plot whatsoever in an otherwise open-world game. Every time I decide to strike out on my own and investigate every abandoned shack in the woods, inevitably I encounter the end-result of some quest I have yet to accept. For example, I spotted a shack, looted it, found out there was a cave system beneath it, explored and looted that, noticed all the red-highlighted spots (indicative of quest markers), then left the area. An hour or two later, I got a quest to investigate the same shack, “discover” a monster nest in the cave below, and then fight said monster. I ended up feeling punished for exploring on my own.

I didn't want to complete that level 4 quest anyway.

I didn’t want to complete that level 4 quest anyway.

The irony here is that Witcher 3 would have been screwed either way. It’s bad the way it is. It would almost be worse if there was some kind of plot lock on the cave system, because it would engender a feeling of false open world-ness. “Go anywhere you want! …except here. And there. And over there too.” It wouldn’t be much of an open world if you could only explore the empty bits.

The other thing that Witcher 3’s open world is demonstrating to me is how much I do, in fact, loathe fixed-level monsters in open-world settings. It is getting beyond frustrating to be exploring and exploring and all of sudden, skull-level monsters. I mean, it makes sense that there might be monsters out in the world that are super-deadly and Geralt would need to become more powerful to overcome. But quite often there is no delineation going on – you’ll be killing level 10 Drowned one moment, and then 50 ft away is a level 20+ monster. I suppose that it is more “organic” than just having all the monsters coincidentally more powerful near the edges of the map, but again, it feels bad to me as a player wished to engage with the “open” world. Especially considering all this really tells me is that the “right” way to play is to not explore anything until level 20+ so I don’t have to skip areas.

I don’t know. I suppose the conclusion I am coming to is that if a game offers an open-world setting, I almost want it to have little-to-no plot, or really level-based progression of any kind. Fallout 3 allowed me to explore every corner of the non-DC map by level 3 (and had scaling monsters), which is probably why I enjoyed that game so much. Minecraft of course lets you punch trees anywhere. I don’t remember being too put-off by Dragon Age 3 either. In the Witcher 3’s case however, I may as well go back to treating it as the hemmed-in, plot-centric game its two earlier iterations were.

Game Dialog Choice

I’m still slowly working my way through Pillars of Eternity, but this is starting to irk me greatly:

Fine then.


Pillars is not, of course, the first game to tie your in-game dialog responses to statistics or skills. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas come immediately to my mind, for example. But on reflection, I don’t really like it in those games either. I find Pillars a bit worse in this regard though, due both to how much more difficult it is to actually raise your abilities, and how this game is supposed to be a spiritual successor to, you know, stuff like this:


and this:

Answer: Charisma 16

Answer: [Wisdom 18 Required]

Ironically, Plansescape Torment also required certain attributes to be above an arbitrary threshold to unlock dialog options, so perhaps it is not the best of examples.

Or maybe it is. After all, the attribute breakpoints were invisible.

And I guess that is what annoys me the most: I do not understand the point of showing me dialog options I can never select. I don’t care that the other options would have only increased my quest payout by 100 copper, or saved me from one additional encounter, or given me an extra potion.

As a designer, what are you trying to communicate to me? The fact that I made poor decisions on the character select screen hours before actually playing your game? Are you trying to signal that certain skills will be important in the future? If so, are you giving me any tools or resources to achieve those thresholds later? I mean, clearly I can do nothing about these forbidden choices in the middle of the conversion, or even after I reload the game really. Or am I supposed to simply keep this in mind for some hypothetical second playthrough?

Truth be told, I was a bit miffed back in the day once I realized that most of the best dialog options in Planescape Torment were locked behind Wisdom 18+. But the game never rubbed my face in it, or otherwise treated dialog so… gamey.

Speaking of which: why are we all tying dialog to abstract attributes in the first place? For roleplaying purposes? To cause players to handicap themselves with useless Feats/Skills/Talents so players can’t be good at fighting and not fighting? Just give me my dialog choices and let me work things out from there. Or don’t and just not tell me about it.

This middle way is the worst of all worlds.

UI is the Window to a Game’s Soul

There is a lot to say about Metal Gear Solid 5 – or at least there would be if it were not consuming all my desire to do anything else – but today I wanted to talk about what it perhaps does best. Which is this:

No one expects noon infiltrations.

No one expects 3pm infiltrations.

Just look at that. Look at that and realize exactly how much you don’t see.

For comparison purposes, here is MGS4:

Like an eye full of sand.

Like an eye full of sand.

The narrative just writes itself, doesn’t it?

The elegance of the entire setup continues to blow my mind every time I play MGS5. Much as with MGS3 before it, removing the mini-map forces the player to redirect their attention to their surroundings. But in another design coup, MGS5 will give you the same functionality as an omniscient radar… provided you tag enemies with your binoculars. Just having that exist as a mechanic pushes players into wanting to scout bases ahead of time, without necessarily requiring them to do so. Which, of course, further immerses players into the game space as they try to determine where guards are likely to be, which approach has less coverage, where the escape routes are, and so on.

But more than that, the UI really speaks to what a given game is about. Is there tactical stealth in both examples above? Sure. But latter screenshot speaks of a game in which you need to manage health, psyche, stress levels, utility items with battery power, a back pocket filled with 8 different weapons (not pictured), and finally a mini-map in which you need to rectify advanced information about enemies with what you can actually see around you. Actually being stealthy is important, but it is only one of many concerns.

Now contrast that with the former. What is important there, based on the UI?


The definition of good UI is that which both accentuates player gameplay and does not detract from it. In many ways, I feel that the UI in Metal Gear Solid 5 takes it a step further in that it generates gameplay in a way that so many other similar games have tried and failed. And while MGS5 is not the first to use such a brilliant mechanic, this is the first game I have played in which everything just feels so right.

Seat of Pants Design

[Blaugust Day 12]

During the past few days of combing the internet for Hearthstone tidbits, I came across and interview from back in May which illuminates the… bold way Blizzard is approaching Hearthstone design. Basically, flying by the seat of their pants:

[…] We always try to add a little bit of craziness to the game and let people discover it. When we put Grim Patron in we didn’t know exactly how good it was going to be. We had a good idea, because we played it a lot. We knew there was going to be some variance once people figured out what the best version was, and what the meta was going to be. I think we’re going to keep making some crazy cards in every set that are dangerous and hopefully going to work out.

This was not the only time they said something like this. Here is an interview from last Saturday:

Several high-level players were recruited to join the team. What effect has this had on your game design?

The balance team makes sure cards are clear, well-designed, and well-balanced. We recently hired people from the tournament circuit to make sure things are more balanced, but we also try to make risky cards that push the limits and scare us. Lock and Load is a good example of a card that is risky and could be unbalanced.

There is something to be said about not being too conservative in these sort of endeavors. All the really cool cards in most CCGs – the ones that set your mind on fire about the possibilities – are typically the least balanced ones. “If I just had this one card, I would turn the game around.” You just never get that sense with cards that, you know, aren’t capable of turning around games by themselves.

Should I play Dr Boom? Is it turn 7? Then yes.

“Should I play Dr Boom?” Is it turn 7? Then yes.

On the other hand, I feel like Blizzard is having their cake and eating it too. Dr. Balanced, aka Dr. Boom, is a joke precisely because of how long it has survived unscathed from a tuning pass. Is Dr Boom warping the metagame? Not necessary. Is Dr Boom far and away one of the most absurdly powerful cards in the game to the point he’s in ~37% of all decks? Yes.

Many point out that that’s only because the other 7-drop creatures are so bad. Well, okay. Now imagine how much stronger the card that replaces (or even just matches) him is going to have to be.

Of course, the cynical part of me realizes that deliberately creating “chase rares” in a CCG is nothing new. Like most everything in this genre, Magic: the Gathering invented it. Chase rares sell packs, which in turn creates every incentive for designers to create more. “This new card is probably completely broken and going to push a million packs.” Yeah, totally scary. Especially when you can ignore the problem and watch players fall all over themselves stuffing their decks with Epic/Legendary cards to counter the shit you just left steaming on the table.

…I might be a little bit bitter.

That aside, it kinda makes me wonder whether Hearthstone is the only place this design philosophy rules. Certainly when I look at some of the WoW design changes in Warlords, I see a team of devs running riot past everything that was remotely successful about all their previous expansions. Look at the raids, and see how it’s all a perfectly linear evolution of what came before. Then look at flying, reputations, crafting, Garrisons, resource gathering, gear rewards, PvP balance, class design. I’m not even sure if those devs were flying with pants on.

Nevertheless, I kinda get it. Being bold is how Blizzard (or anyone for that matter) got anywhere in the first place. Even if that boldness is straight-up stealing all the good shit from everyone around you. Like I said earlier, the craziness is what gets the juices flowing.

So… I’m conflicted.

Or maybe things are a lot simpler than I’m making it out to be. Flying by the seat of your pants is exciting and better than the alternative… provided you stick the landing at the end.

Hearthstone Balance

[Blaugust Day 10]

One of the most dominating decks out there in Hearthstone in the current metagame is Patron Warrior. This is a wombo-combo deck that can pull off such insane, come-from-behind wins that even Magic: the Gathering veterans of Extended would feel at home. In a game that is derided for being decided by coin flips, the deck itself doesn’t really feature any RNG beyond the standard that comes with drawing cards. Almost everything about the deck is mechanically perfect and efficient.

And it needs to die.

The question of the hour is how to do it. Or whether to nerf it at all. This Reddit thread got 1300+ comments in 8 hours and the opinions run the gamut. But before I get to that, let me briefly explain the cards and mechanics involved. Here is the lineup:

The usual suspects.

The usual suspects.

The strength of Patron Warrior are the sort of dual win conditions. The name of the deck comes from Grim Patron, there in the upper-right, and the sort of shenanigans that occur when you summon one with a Warsong Commander on the board. If you play both, you basically get a 3/X minion for every minion your opponent controls that has less than 3 attack – your first Grim Patron Charges into, say, a 2/2, summons a new 3/3 Grim Patron who gets Charge from the Warsong Commander and then attacks into another creature, etc etc etc.

You do not technically need your opponent to have creatures for things to get out of control, of course, as your deck is also filled with effects like Whirlwind that end up dealing 1 damage to all creatures. One Grim Patron becomes two, two becomes four, and so on (there is a 7-creature limit thankfully).

The win condition everyone hates though is that of Frothing Berserker. Warsong Commander will give Frothing Berserker Charge when it comes into play, and even if your opponent has zero creatures, a Frothing can balloon up to an 8/1 with three Whirlwind effects (since itself and the Commander are creatures taking damage). If your opponent has a single creature out with at least three health though? Now it’s an 11/1. Add in Grim Patron shenanigans and suddenly you start seeing OTK (one turn kill) screenshots like this one:

From empty board to overkill 2x.

From empty board to overkill 2x.

If you want a more in-depth guide from a Top-10 player, here you go.

It isn’t difficult to nerf Patron Warrior. In fact, it’s incredibly easy to do so in all sorts of ways. The design trick here is to do so in such a way that either A) reduces the effectiveness of the deck without killing it entirely, or if that’s not possible or wanted, then B) killing the deck with as little collateral damage as possible.

For example, Warsong Commander could be changed to read “Your other minions with 3 or less attack have Charge.” The idea being that while you can still have crazy powerful Frothing Berserkers, they would lose Charge the moment their attack got above 3. It’s not even all that intuitive that the summoned creatures retain the Charge ability granted from the Commander after their attack goes up in the first place, but that’s what happens. And in case you didn’t know, Warsong Commander has a history of enabling OTK combos, especially back in the day when it simply gave all your minions charge no matter their attack power. Hell, it was even changed again fairly recently to allow the Charge to apply to summoned minions, e.g. Grim Patrons, instead of just affecting creatures played from the hand.

Is nerfing Warsong Commander the right choice though?

Consider some alternatives. For example, a lot of the OTK shenanigans are only enabled from the use of Emperor Thaurissan permanently reducing card costs. Getting one trigger from Thaurissan can grant you the ability to play Warsong Commander, Grim Patron, and Frothing Berserker all on the same turn, possibly even turn 8. And if you had a Whirlwind in hand during the Thaurissan trigger? Suddenly you’re dealing with 11 Charge damage to the face. Or 21 Charge damage if you have a 2nd Whirlwind-like effect. Or even more depending on what your opponent’s board looks like. So another nerf avenue would be to tweak Thaurissan’s effect to, say, be unable to reduce card costs below 1. Or only reduce spells, or something.

Or perhaps we should zero-in on the OTK culprit himself: Frothing Berserker. One way is to change the trigger to key off only friendly minions taking damage. Or only enemy minions. Or even the nuclear option of “+1 attack for each damaged minion,” with the attack bonus going up and down as minions are killed or healed to full.

Some people in the Reddit thread think it’d be better to nerf the sort of card draw engine that Patron Warrior has access to. This isn’t a particularly viable avenue in my opinion, as the only real Warrior-specific draw card they could nerf is Battle Rage, which was already nerfed twice from before (it used to trigger off of all damaged minions, then all damaged characters with a cost of 3). How would you nerf it anyway? Make it a 50% chance to draw a card? It is absolutely true that Patron Warrior includes a lot of card draw to assemble its combo pieces, but a similar amount of drawing is available to most other decks.

My personal opinion is to change Frothing Berserker. Some have suggested a different approach to the nerf, such as changing its health to 3 so there are less opportunities for it to balloon out of control with Whirlwind effects. I’m not so sure that that is A) enough, or B) worth breaking the symmetry. Not all classes have a class-specific 2/4 for 3 with an ability yet, but that is clearly a theme:

Paladin card is from the new set.

Paladin card is from the new set.

I’m not saying they’re all equally powerful or useful – Flamewaker in particular can make for some huge tempo plays – but Frothing Berserker in particular seems to scale wildly higher than the others and is more open-ended. I know that I hate, hate, hate seeing that card on turn 2 in Arena because it basically means I must kill it immediately or simply be crushed under the weight of value.

So there it is. I am not entirely sure that the dev team actually are going to nerf any part of Patron Warrior, especially this close to the next expansion release (by the end of August). On the other hand, expansions are pretty much perfect times to nerf things, and we’ve seen them nerf cards at these times before. That being said… I’m not sure I want to see the metagame come The Grand Tournament if it spawns a deck that can destroy Patron Warrior without nerfs. It’s like swimming with something that consistently eats Great White Sharks.

Good RNG, Bad RNG

I feel kinda bad for having sung the praises for Hearthstone’s Tavern Brawl mode right as they released perhaps the worst iteration of it possible. This past week’s Brawl is “Encounter at the Crossroads,” and follows the (intentional?) pattern of every other week’s Brawl giving you a deck to play with. Instead of being filled with Webspinners, your deck is filled with completely random garbage cards, and up to three Legendaries. It ends up being 15 Neutral cards and 15 Class cards, for the record, and they are completely random – Mad Scientists in decks without Secrets, cards that trigger off of dragons without a single dragon in the deck, and so on.

My utter disgust with this week’s Brawl got me thinking: what’s the big deal? There is RNG everywhere, so why hate this kind? What’s so worse about this RNG as compared to the Webspinner Brawl or the spell one the week before?

I think my biggest problem is that this was Blind, Lingering RNG. Last week, you didn’t know what kind of creature you would summon… other than that it’d be an X mana cost one, it would come before the spell resolved, and you knew what was in the rest of your deck. You knew how much removal you were packing, you knew what synergies existed, you kinda knew what to expect from your opponent.

With a Crossroads deck, you know nothing Jon Snow. You didn’t even know whether to mulligan your shitty opening hand; if you threw anything back, chances are you’d get something even worse.

Spoiler alert: I lost this game.

Spoiler alert: I lost this game.

One of the benefits to RNG is the very thing that people often complain about: RNG can determine games. Yes, there will be games that you lose to coin flips. Yes, it feels awful when you’re winning to suddenly fall behind through no fault of your own.

At the same time… randomness can make things interesting. Randomness can challenge you, present you with scenarios you’ve never encountered before, and allow you to overcome defeat through judicious use of probability. Do you play around that 10% chance that the Piloted Shredder pops out something that destroys your strategy, or do you play it safe? That sort of thing is (or can be) an interesting decision, and different people have different thresholds of comfort when it comes to percentages.

I mean, imagine the opposite case with no RNG. Losing from your opening hand. Or at least your only hope being that your opponent has as bad a hand as you do. It feels bad, man.

This is what this Brawl has felt like all weekend long – inevitable lingering losses. I played in the neighborhood of twenty games to complete my dailies, and I was never blessed with those same insane, on-curve openings that I would routinely experience the sharp end of. In most of the games, I would have been better off conceding in the first two turns. Could you imagine someone feeling the same in the Spell-Minion or Webspinner Brawl? Don’t get me wrong, you could get way screwed out of nowhere in those Brawls. But that’s the thing: it’s immediate. It’s more fun, even on the receiving end. At least in comparison to being behind, with nothing good to play this turn, and knowing you have a 99% chance of drawing into even more garbage the next turn.

There’s RNG and then there’s RNG. This is the latter, it sucks, and I hope Blizzard never does it again.

WoW Mercenary Mode

In increasingly typical WoW fashion, Blizzard came up with an incredibly convoluted solution to a rather easily solved problem:

In an upcoming patch, we’ll be adding a feature that allows you to act as a mercenary for the opposite faction in PvP. Whenever your faction is experiencing a long wait time to get into Ashran or unrated Battlegrounds, agents of the enemy faction will appear in your base in Ashran (Stormshield for the Alliance, Warspear for the Horde). These agents will allow you to enter Ashran or Battlegrounds disguised as an enemy player, and actually fight as the opposite faction.

When you compete as a mercenary, you’ll still earn all the same rewards you would have by winning or losing as your own faction (with the exception of faction-specific achievements). You’ll also have your race automatically changed into one appropriate for the opposite faction while you’re still inside the Battleground or Ashran. Perhaps most importantly, however, you’ll experience much shorter queue times, as our matchmaking system will be able to fill up groups much quicker!

To understand exactly how convoluted Blizzard is being, just read this bit of “clarification”:

On racials: The current intention is that the system swaps your race entirely, including your racial ability. We recognize that that puts Humans in a weird spot, so we’re looking into some options there that aren’t “spend your Honor/Conquest on a Medallion.”

It is difficult to imagine a worse implementation, even if I can kinda-sorta-maybe see why Blizzard is going this route. I mean, for better or for worse (hint: the latter), race matters quite a bit in WoW – if you are fighting a Forsaken character, you know that Fear will be less useful against them, while snares will similarly be less useful against Gnomes. This state of affairs makes the easier solution of “stay the same race, but change the character model” largely impossible unsavory. At the same time, it is exactly because racials are so important that this Mercenary implimentation is unwieldy. Not just for Humans turning into anything else, but Night Elf Druids losing Shadowmeld means they’ll lose a roundabout Vanish that might have been an important component of their character strategy.

I was going to add a further example of Blood Elf Paladins losing Arcane Torrent and becoming crippled Paladins, but let’s face it, only Alliance will be getting the Merc option anytime soon.

All of which is terribly ironic given the state of affairs just a year ago. Remember back in May 2014 when Blizzard was offering free Faction Transfers from Horde to Alliance to assauge queue times in the other direction? It makes me wonder if it wasn’t necessarily the Human racial that imbalanced the factions per se, but rather the instant level 90 that came with Warlords that allowed those on-the-fence Horde to seek greener racial pastures without committing dollars to a faction transfer.

How the tables have turned.

Hmm… I wonder what was released in November 2014?

In any case, in that same post I offered what I consider the best solution to the faction imbalance dilemma: same faction BGs. They already exist for Rated BGs and Arenas, no convoluted mechanical changes necessary. And as I also suggested in that post, if the whole lore and feel of the game is paramount – despite Warlords throwing it away with time travel and alternate universes – there is still an easy solution: sub-factions. It’s not Alliance vs Alliance, it’s Alliance vs Scarlet Crusade. Or Horde vs Twilight Cultists. Would it be weird for Scarlet Crusaders to be defending Frostwolf structures in AV? Sure, maybe. Although it shouldn’t be much more weird than random Alliance characters being faction-changed and defending the same thing under the Merc system.

Incidentally, that sort of highlights why the Merc system isn’t likely to work all that well. More specifically, it’s an “other guy problem.” Queue times suck, no question. But as an Alliance player for more than half the game’s history, let me tell you that instant queues that lead to inevitable losses aren’t all that great either. As an individual, you are better off letting other people utilize the Merc system to give you faster auto-wins. Same faction BGs literally even the playing field, taking away all advantage you might have had based on faction strength.

I dunno. Overall, I am a bit sympathetic to Blizzard’s plight in this regard. The rational design approach would be to get rid of the two factions altogether, as the concept of mutually exclusive factions like Horde and Alliance are quite a bit outdated and inevitably imbalanced. At the same time, there is so much pondorous prescedent, that the potential blow-back from angry veterans would be extreme. Most people are joking when they talk about hatred for Gnomes or whatever, but others are serious insofar as faction identity goes. Blizzard has amped up the faction differences for years and years – remember the motorcycle competition not too long ago? – so complete integration would be a more obvious shark-jumping event.

These halfway solutions though? It’s bad design. Imagine a year from now if the faction balance has shifted back to Horde, and Horde Mercs are entering BGs as Humans. Do they keep their PvP trinkets? Do said trinkets automatically transform into something else?

There are really only three elegant solutions to this problem overall:

  1. Change the Human racial.
  2. Disable all racials in PvP.
  3. Same-faction BGs.

The first is something that’s going to need to happen eventually, wailing and gnashing of teeth aside. It could be changed to either be slightly worse than otherwise default PvP trinket (+15 second cooldown), or Blizzard could be more radical and give the ability to everyone and then come up with something new for Humans. Remember, the Human racial used to be a button that increased the ability to see through stealth; which was still better than the garbage Draenei have been stuck with since inception, but nevermind. The second option of disabling racials is more of the nuclear option. But only the third solution is likely to solve the queue-time issue on a permanent basis.

Mercenaries are a cool concept, but “becoming the opposite faction” is clunky to the extreme, and unlikely to solve the underlying issues to any great degree. I mean, if racials are the underlying issue, getting Alliance to temporarily turn into Horde isn’t going to do anything – Alliance will still win on the aggregate power of their racials. This might be a stopgap queue solution, but it’s development time better spent on something more long-term. Like same-faction BGs.

All the World a Dungeon

In his collated recap of the recent flying controversy, Wilhelm casually asks a question that completely redefines the debate for me and explains Blizzard’s behavior up to now:

For me, the great unanswered question in all of this remains how much control over their game should a developer be allowed, whether or not the dev’s view of how their game should be played should trump the player’s view, whether MMO studios be dictating a “right way” to play and should players accept that or not?

Mind. Blown. If you aren’t already having the same epiphany as me, buckle up.

See, I realize now that this entire flying debate hasn’t been able flying per se, it has been about the tension between the content creators and the content consumers. The Blizzard team doesn’t just want a curated experience anymore, they want a directed experience. Your questing on Draenor isn’t just grounded, it’s on rails. When was the last time you actually found a shortcut up to that cave in the mountains? For me this expansion, it was never – I was stymied by invisible walls and frictionless slopes at every turn. Clearly, the desire is a linear path between A & B, no deviation or skipping game mechanics allowed.

In fact, Ion Hazzicostas said exactly this when talking about introducing more Flight Paths as a flight consolation prize:

The goal is to maximize convenience in getting from point a to point [b] but retaining as much of the gameplay and depth as possible once you do get to that point.

Something kept bothering me about this reasoning though. Flying apparently breaks immersion, but Ion doesn’t seem to give two shits about adding more and more Flight Paths to the world to maximize convenience, despite them being the most immersion-breaking thing imaginable. Seriously, who doesn’t Alt-Tab out of the game on a Flight Path? Getting on one might as well be a 1-2 minute loading screen for a dungeon.

Wait a second. Dungeon. Dungeon. Ion Hazzikostas. It all makes sense!

Cue the flashback montage.

Cue the flashback montage.

Ion Hazzikostas is designing the world (of Warcraft) as a series of instanced dungeons. Not literally, of course. But as a lead designer who specifically worked on all the dungeons and raids introduced since Wrath, his reasoning up to this point makes total and complete sense in this context.

Dungeons are extremely directed experiences. You have to kill these mobs in this way in this order to face the boss. Dungeon mobs are dangerous and patrols can wipe the group, unlike any outdoor mob since, say, the Fel Reaver. You cannot mount in most dungeons, and even in the ones you can, there isn’t any flying (Oculus notwithstanding). Hell, even ground mounts can’t save you because dungeon mobs don’t leash.

Dungeons are everything that Ion wants outdoor questing in Draenor to be, because that is all that Ion knows how to design.

So there it is. We don’t have Scenarios in Draenor because quests are our Scenarios. Apexis dailies are our dungeons. And the actual dungeons? Unrewarding afterthoughts thrown in out of habit. Or perhaps more simply, the result of a drained lead designer who had just finished crafting a dungeon the size of the world.

It is hard to even be mad at Ion. Creating instanced, on-rails experiences is his whole job, and one that he is good at. When you hammer stuff all day, it makes perfect sense that every problem starts looking nail-like. The struggle comes from the unanswered questions Wilhelm presented earlier. Should outdoor questing content be treated like instanced, directed content?

I believe the answer is clearly “No.” Instanced content has its place, as do the limitations that make it more challenging. Outdoor content, by it’s very nature, resists and rejects those limitations. Enemy encampments aren’t “more dangerous” when grounded, by any stretch of the imagination. I could run through any one of them a dozen times while mounted and be fine. Preventing an aerial assault just makes the task of killing trivial mobs take a minute or two longer.

It is for these reasons that I believe Ion and whomever else is taking his side on the development team are going about this the wrong way. I enjoy story quests as much as the next guy, but the direction should come from the tasks, not the manner in which I complete them. If you want players sticking around an enemy encampment instead of clicking on a cage and flying away, how about making the quest more involved than clicking on a cage? Or, hell, maybe they could implement a system in which it would matter how I completed it. There is already bonus quest objective tech in place, so add something in there like “completed without flying.” More carrot and less stick.

Especially given how I can already mount and ride past the stick at any time.


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