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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.

A Flight Far Enough

Well then. Turns out we’ll be returning to the skies in 6.2.x after all:

In an upcoming Public Test Realm build, we will be introducing a new meta-achievement called Draenor Pathfinder. You’ll earn this achievement in Patch 6.2 by mastering the outdoor environment of Draenor—exploring Draenor’s zones, collecting 100 treasures in Draenor, completing the Draenor Loremaster and Securing Draenor achievements, and raising the three new Tanaan Jungle reputations to Revered. Initially, this achievement will award a rylak mount: the Soaring Skyterror, one of the native beasts that roam Draenor’s skies. Players will remain ground-bound on Draenor until a small follow-up patch (6.2.x), when all players who have earned Draenor Pathfinder on at least one character will unlock the ability to fly in Draenor on all their level 90+ characters.

The general mood surrounding this announcement, at least where I have looked, has been one of almost manic joyousness. And I largely share it. This is Blizzard returning to sanity, smartly pivoting around a smoldering crisis with some clever design. Even though my first thought was “hey, attunements 2.0,” I can’t even be mad. My long-standing opposition to attunements doesn’t apply to this particular implementation of them, even if I do feel like Blizzard just kinda threw every achievement they could think of into the unlock.

But just as you would with someone who has just returned from a psychotic break, I remain leery. Some very serious men¹ made some very serious decisions and those decisions almost stuck. In fact, Lore confirmed via Twitter that the “final decision” on this flying matter was the cause of the BINGO Live Q&A delay:

In fact, the conversation continues with the following revelations:

In other words, all these changes were decided on in just the last week.

Is it comforting knowing that Blizzard can make decisions with this degree of nimbleness? Or is it vexing that it took them until now to solve this “problem?” I don’t think anyone could argue that the proposed implementation to unlock flying is especially onerous². Arbitrary, yes, but so is paying a few thousand gold when you hit the level cap. But why was this design not the one at the start of the expansion? If this is a compromise, what were we compromising out of, and why was that believed to be better than this?

To an extent, I recognize this is me seeing a silver lining and looking for the cloud. The crisis is averted, and Blizzard conjured content out of thin air without even having to change anything else. Hell, it’s even going to drag damn near everyone outside of their Garrisons for the first time since they hit level cap. It is a clever designer Hat Trick in every respect.

Still… goddamn. I would have felt a lot better about the overall design direction for WoW had they came up with this plan before it became necessary.

¹ I was going to say “people,” but as far as I can tell, all the lead designers are dudes.

² One of the 6.2 reputations is a straight-up mob grind, and a second one is basically the same thing except killing rares. This deal is getting worse all the time.

A Flight Too Far

I wasn’t going to write two posts about the lack of flying in Draenor, but the flurry of interviews and blue posts regarding it has taken me by surprise. After some thought though, I have decided to enumerate my feelings on the matter as dispassionately as possible, to hopefully serve as a more useful vehicle for feedback. I am mainly doing this for Russ Peterson:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” or similar is often attributed to Henry Ford.
And the point of that statement is that there are often solutions to a problem that are not always a direct continuation of what you expect
So when you think about flying/not flying today, try to think about what you like or miss in specifics rather than the blanket feature
Like: I miss flying because I enjoy looking at the world from a high vantage point, or I don’t miss flying because the world feels dangerous
It helps us when you can give feedback about the feelings and emotion you have or don’t have, and how that affects your behavior.
Yelling at us and telling us we’re dumb for making a decision doesn’t help.
For example, it could be argued that the command table is a stronger tether to keeping you in the garrison than lack of flight.
Try to dig past the initial feeling and reaction and tell us why you feel the way you do. That’s the feedback that makes the game better.
I’m heading out early for the holiday weekend. Keep sending feedback. I will always read it.

WHAT PROBLEM ARE YOU TRYING …ahem. Let’s begin.

1) Flying gives players agency.

When I am on a flying mount, I am in control of my character. I am interacting with the world on my own time, in my own manner, and at my own discretion. While I might not always be paying attention while flying around, the fact is something could attract my eye at any moment and change my plans. Maybe I see a rare spawn, maybe I see some resource nodes, maybe I see some players in need of assistance. Flying gives me power, and yes, convenience.

2) Flying exposes poor quest design, not create it.

In the interview with Ion Hazzikostas, he states the following:

Hazzikostas gives an example: Before flying was introduced to World of Warcraft, if you got a quest to rescue a prisoner from an enemy encampment, it would play out a certain way. Players would need to fight their way through the camp. After flying, players could just fly into the center of camp, land on top of the hut where the prisoner is, free him and fly out.

“It made the world feel in many ways much smaller,” he says.

In a world without flying, the quest Ion is using as an example is still bad. If all I have to do is click on the cage, that means there is no reason to interact with the rest of the enemy encampment. Which means I will go out of my way to not interact with it. Stealth past the mobs, run through on a ground mount and use one of the handful of combat-stopping items (Treessassin’s Guise, etc), and otherwise try not to have my time sunk fighting useless mobs that only drop vendor trash.

We can instead imagine an alternate quest in which you can only release the prisoner after killing X mobs. Perhaps one of the many guards is holding the key to the cage. Maybe the prisoner won’t be able to escape the encampment until you thin the enemy ranks. Or whatever. Adding just a single extra step completely obviates the concern about flying directly to the prisoner and flying away.

3) A world’s size is dictated by volume of content, not speed in which it’s traversed.

One of the points often raised in regards to flying is that it makes the world feel smaller. I could not possibly disagree more. There has not been a single location on Azeroth or beyond that I could fly across that felt small because I could traverse it quickly. In fact, the very argument implies that one can make a world bigger simply by reducing player speed by 50%. If it takes you twice as long to run across Goldshire, does that mean Goldshire is now twice as large? Of course not.

The size of any game world is a function of what you can do in it. Which is bigger: Dragonblight or Jade Forest? Take a moment and just feel your answer.

Now, look at this:

*Jeopardy music*

*Jeopardy music*

It could very well be that Jade Forest has more quests and square footage; I don’t know how big each is off-hand, although I’m tempted to say Dragonblight. But as I leveled my druid alt through Pandaria recently, I could not help but be struck by the feeling of enormity in Jade Forest despite having purchased the BoA flight book. After spending two hours questing and gathering, I realized that I was still in the bottom third of the map. That’s how you get a big world.

Empty space doesn’t make anything bigger. If you smash Silithus, Un’Goro Crater, and Tanaris together into one zone, you’ll have a big map, but still fall short of Jade Forest’s real size by 10 quests. Three entire zones.

4) Flight Paths, no matter how quick, break immersion.

I’m going to quote Ion again here:

“The world feels larger, feels more dangerous,” he says. “There’s more room for exploration, for secrets, for discovery and overall immersion in the world.

Two paragraphs later:

He also promises that Blizzard will continue working to improve its network of taxi flight paths in the game to prevent any major frustration from this change: “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.”

Faster, more numerous, and more direct Flight Paths seems to be the “compensation” for removing player flight, but it is a poor one. Do you know what I do the moment I click on a Flight Path? I Alt-Tab out of the game and go browse websites. Blizzard has to know how common a phenomenon this is, as they introduced a loading screen into WoW for players who Alt-Tab back into the game after their character finishes a taxi ride.

Immersion is about a consistent experience. For me, there isn’t anything that breaks me out of “the zone” more than a long, non-interactive loading screen from which I cannot escape. I mean, thank you for the Exit Taxi button, I guess, but there’s such a huge delay between seeing something interesting while on the FP and actually getting back there, that there’s no reason to bother. I will Alt-Tab out of even a 60-second flight because that is 60 seconds of me not actually getting to play the game.

I have no doubt there are players who get on their flying mounts and just auto-fly forward while AFK in the same way I do on Flight Paths. But again, immersion is about a consistent gaming experience. There is 100% immersion from me questing one moment, to flying back home the next. There is zero immersion while I browse CNN.com while the game arbitrarily dictates how quickly I get to my destination.

5) Exploration is discouraged with lack of mobility.

Ion and others mention how flying diminishes exploration, but it is the exact opposite in my experience.

“While there was certainly convenience in being able to completely explore the world in three dimensions, that also came at the expense of gameplay like targeted exploration, like trying to figure out what’s in that cave on top of a hill and how do I get up there.”

There is a threshold to how inconvenient an activity can be and still feel rewarding to pursue. An example of this is Archaeology: I have all but abandoned trying to obtain Zin’rokh (troll sword) and the Ultramarine Qiraji Battle Tank (Tol’vir mount). When I look at my Archaeology map and I see dig sites scattered across continents and focused on races I am not even pursuing, I feel like giving up on the entire profession. If it were even slightly less insane an undertaking however, I would continue happily farming away.

In the example of “what’s in that cave at the top of the hill,” I have to ask a few questions. How do I even know there is a cave at the top of the hill? Does a quest send me up there? Is there a rare spawn? Does it contain anything of any relevance to a level-capped player (as leveling characters never traditionally have flight anyway)? I ask these questions because the world is riddled with empty set pieces and half-finished content. If I navigate my way to the top of the hill and the bottom of the cave and there is nothing there, I will be hugely disappointed and far less likely to risk my time in the future.

In fact, the majority of the time you are punished for exploring. When we talk about navigating up that hill, or any hill, there is typically only one path that’s intended. I can’t count the number of times I saw what appeared to be a shortcut or “hidden path” in Shadowmoon Valley that ended up being a decorative piece of impassible terrain. So now I get to take falling damage and walk clear around the base of the hill to find where the designers wanted to “target” my “exploration.”

These days, if a quest asks me to go to the top of any hill or down inside any cave, I skip that quest and move on.

6) The world has never been less dangerous, even without flying.

I honestly do not get what people are talking about when they suggest lack of flying “makes the world more dangerous.” The danger of the world is completely independent of your method of travel (unless you are a druid). What is going to kill you? Pulling too many mobs? Having a patrol run into you while fighting something else? Guess what, you are already on the ground. Unless your health was so low that the 1-2 hits you might receive after you escape on your ground mount would kill you, the danger is identical.

I suppose there is an increased risk from falling damage, but many classes have means of negating it with simply class abilities. Or the Goblin Gliders. Nevermind just hearthing out.

There has been some talk about how removing flying mounts encourages more world PvP. If it does, I haven’t seen it. Sure, you are stuck on the ground, surrounded by impassible 5-foot slopes and such. But so is the other faction. If someone wants to go around hunting for trouble, they literally have to hunt – being stuck on the ground limits your sight horizons. So in many scenarios, I feel like there is less world PvP simply because those who want to be engaging in it can’t find targets who might just be over the next ridge or behind that tree.

7) Flight is a tremendous reward for reaching endgame.

Has there ever been a bigger carrot than unlocking flying again at the endgame? I haven’t seen one.

The only thing I got at the end of Draenor was a Level 3 Garrison which, considering how useless many of my professions became, did not actually help me much in terms of increased buildings. I suppose there are raids and heroics dungeons and such, but I get instantly teleported to those so… yeah. Compared to fundamentally changing how I interact with the expansion’s world (i.e. flying), there isn’t a whole lot to look forward to for that last ding.

8) Flying mounts look terrible on the ground.

Some of the most rare, most prestigious mounts in the game look absolutely terrible on the ground. While I do not normally advocate for past achievements dictating future design, I think it’s worth acknowledging that people spent hundreds of hours farming, say, the Pandarian dragons, and are now stuck watching them writhe on the ground like a wounded snake. I have the Ashes of A’lar, and I pretty much will never get to use that mount again, as it looks dumb hovering over the ground.

9) The Water Strider Problem.

Indeed, for all intents and purposes, I only have one mount this expansion: the Azure Water Strider. The ability to traverse rivers, lakes, and oceans makes all other mounts (aside from the Crimson Water Strider) functionally useless. Why would I use the Raven Lord – a mount I finally got after five years of farming – when it would limit my mobility and ability to navigate terrain? Even flying mounts apparently sink like stones.

If we really are going to be glued to the surface from now on, you are going to have to address the Water Strider problem for the nine classes that can’t just ignore it. I unlocked that mount back in Mists on a lark, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made for this, and potentially all future expansions.

10) Suspicious of the future.

This last point is kinda out there, but just stick with me for a second.

I think it is pretty clear that Draenor wasn’t intended to be a permanent no-fly zone. I say this not only because of the various statements from Ion and other Blizzard designers – who made it clear that no flying was an experiment that “could go either way” – but out of the basic design of the world itself. For example, the vast tracks of empty, quest-less terrain throughout Shadowmoon Valley recall the design of similar future-flight zones like Dragonblight. The biggest clue however, comes from the fact that we can fly a little bit here and there with items like Aviana’s Feather and the Goblin Gliders. We would not have had that ability if Blizzard didn’t fully generate 3D terrain throughout Draenor.

So here’s my theory: Blizzard is removing flying to cut future production costs.

In a world without flying, or restricting flying to specific areas, Blizzard is free to replace large swaths of the map with 2D sprites and skyboxes. This is the exact reason why you still cannot fly in Silvermoon City: the city outside the narrow roads simply doesn’t exist. Stormwind had the same issue prior to Cataclysm, if you’ll recall, but they did spend the manpower to construct a fully 3D space. They had to, because otherwise every character with a flying mount would immediately see the seams of the gameworld.

On one hand, there’s nothing necessarily “bad” about this sort decision in of itself. If you can’t physically get to somewhere, there is no reason why you should be upset that it was a clever skybox instead of fully functional rendered terrain.

On the other hand, if true, it would make Blizzard disingenuous to the extreme. And, you know, this particular explanation (e.g. cut costs) makes more sense than the ones we have been presented thus far. Flying has been spun as this big “problem” that there needs to be a “solution” for, but where is the actual problem? When did it start occurring? Did anyone honestly think Northrend was “too small” because of flying? Was there anything more impressive than Icecrown Citadel in terms of set pieces seen from a flying mount? If Northrend was a no-fly zone, I guarantee that 95% of ICC would have been sprites.

World of Warcraft is the most successful MMO ever made and has maintained that title for over ten years now. Despite that fact, and the sheer volume of cash flow, Blizzard has never been able to release expansions faster. How long was the last raid tier in Pandaria active again? So Blizzard has every incentive to cut as many corners as they can to push content out the door faster. We have seen that time and time again in Draenor, and I suspect we’ll see more of it in future no-flight expansions.

If this is the real reason, I wish Blizzard would just come out and say it. Because if it is the case, we already lost the debate, and nothing we say matters; we are no longer debating design philosophy, we are debating dollars. And that is one argument players are never going to win.

Blizzard Facepalm: Dungeon Edition

While MMO-Champion has the summarized version of a recent Venture Beat interview with Ion Hazzikostas, I think it’s worth reading the whole thing for yourself. Because it’s only after reading the actual words, do you realize the utterly fascinating world the Blizzard devs must inhabit.

For example, this section was up near the beginning of the interview:

GamesBeat: Has anything about the content in the Warlords expansion disappointed you?

Hazzikostas: There are areas where we’ve seen slight declines, but we attribute that largely to a failure on our part to properly keep them incentivized and interesting.

I think [five-player] dungeons is a great example of a shortcoming there. We created a bunch of new dungeons for Warlords of Draenor, but we didn’t really give much reason to keep running them after the initial weeks or couple of months of the expansion.

In the past, you kept running Mists [of Pandaria] dungeons, which probably overstayed their welcome a little bit, but you kept running them for valor points [which you could exchange for gear] a year-plus into the expansion.

We felt that was a little silly to keep running the same content as you got stronger and stronger and stronger, still getting that reward, which is why we removed something like valor points. But I think we went too far.

Far be it for me to point out that “running the same content over and over” is, in fact, the cornerstone upon which all MMO content is built. In fact, it’s really the foundation of the majority of RPGs, or any game with experience points. Even in pure PvP sandboxes, someone is out there mining space/fantasy ore, someone is farming mobs for loot, and the gears of the game economy turn only from their Sisyphean labor.

And, of course, there’s nothing stopping Blizzard from, you know, releasing new dungeons throughout the expansion if they don’t want us running the same half-dozen. If they’re still gun-shy from the ZA/ZG fiasco, they shouldn’t be, as the solution is easy: scale all dungeon gear upwards. We know they have the technology.

I might be able to take Hazzikostas’ word here as a radical shift of Blizzard philosophy regarding repeatable content in general, especially given Warlords has cut back on daily quest hubs and reputation grinds. But then this happens:

GamesBeat: What features of patch 6.2 do you hope will improve the player experience?

Hazzikostas: We’re adding mythic [difficulty] dungeons that allow even players in a group with four of their friends to go through a harder version of some of our dungeons with a weekly lockout, almost like a mini-little five-man raid. It should be a fun experience. […]

It’s just getting that type of gameplay feeling relevant again. [Group dungeons are] one of the greatest strengths we have in the MMO genre, and it’s definitely a shame that there weren’t as many reasons as we would have liked to do them recently.

Let me emphasize this a bit stronger for you:

We felt that was a little silly to keep running the same content as you got stronger and stronger and stronger, still getting that reward, which is why we removed something like valor points.

Followed by:

[Group dungeons are] one of the greatest strengths we have in the MMO genre, and it’s definitely a shame that there weren’t as many reasons as we would have liked to do them recently.

Wut

I… I can’t even.

…guys. Out of all the developers in all of the world making all of the games, these people have the one with 7+ million subscribers. They think “hey, running dungeons for Valor points, something we introduced back in TBC and has been working ever since, is silly. How about we axe it for no mechanical reason and not replace the incentive with anything, and just see what happens?” I mean, not even with gold, which would have been an interesting dynamic. Would you run a daily random heroic for a bag with 150g inside? Maybe that would even be too much, but at least it would have been something.

But, nope, they took “one of the greatest strengths we have in the MMO genre” and removed all incentive for doing any of them, followed by a continued failure to introduce any new ones. The issue is not even a lack of incentive for 5-mans, the issue is they thought it was silly for you to do them over and over again, incentive or not. Who are these people, and why have they never played an MMO in their life before? Seriously, what did they imagine their audience would be doing every day? Not playing the game? Unsubscribing after they consume all the non-repeatable content in two weeks?

In which case, mission fucking accomplished.

Paladins Are Boring

Is there a more boring class in WoW than paladins?

This question has been fermenting in my mind for quite some time now, and it’s a rather depressing one as someone who has had a paladin “main” for damn near a decade. It isn’t a “grass is always greener” issue either, or even a “Retribution brings nothing that a Holy paladin couldn’t” issue. The issue is just straight-up soggy cardboard class design.

I am primarily speaking towards Retribution, as that is what I level and play as most of the time. And it’s mind-numbingly boring. Judgment, Crusader Strike, Exorcism… wait for procs. Sometimes a long string of connected procs appears, and I pretend like I’m having fun for 20 seconds. It never works though, because none of my attacks feels like it has any weight behind it. Part of that could be because every special attack sounds like I’m squeezing water out of a sponge.

Then you get to paladin abilities. Avenging Wrath was the peak of Retribution design, or any paladin design, really – everything else has been downhill. Every button on my bar is defensive. And not like “cool defensive cooldown,” just straight boring damage reduction most of the time.

  • Hammer of Justice. “Trinket this and win” button.
  • Word of Glory. An “I LOSE” button.
  • Lay on Hands. Full heal. Neat.
  • Divine Shield. Aka Bubble-Hearth.
  • Cleanse. Okay?
  • Divine Protection. Damage reduction, wheee.
  • Hand of Protection. Ghetto Divine Shield.
  • Hand of Freedom. “Dispel me” disco ball.
  • Emancipate. For when Hand of Freedom is dispelled.
  • Avenging Wrath. The one legit ability.
  • Hand of Sacrifice. Soooo useful, Blizzard, thanks.

The talent tree is also incredibly sad:

  • Tier 1: Remember when paladins were actually mobile? Now they aren’t!
  • Tier 2: Remember when Retribution had PvP utility? Now they don’t!
  • Tier 3: Remember when there was a cool interaction between Sacred Shield & Flash of Light?
  • Tier 4: Straight-up useless.
  • Tier 5: Want a cooldown for your cooldowns, or proc for your procs?
  • Tier 6: Have another button that you press once and forget to press again.
  • Tier 7: YOUR ULTIMATE ABILITY IS… hey, let’s make Divine Storm not suck.

Glyphs? Just look at them. They’re total garbage. Damage reduction or more healing. Wait, wait… one of them increases the damage on ONE ability, but only for the second mob you hit. Which is just fucking fantastic, exactly what I was looking for. Where’s the glyph that completely changes your leveling rotation, like the priest’s Glyph of Mind Harvest?

Find me a more boring class for leveling, for farming, for PvP. When I get on my Death Knight alt, it’s like 10 years of the hopes and dreams of paladins everywhere, condensed in playable form. “Here’s damage reduction… and a stun break/stun immunity!” “Here’s spell damage reduction… and CC immunity!” Look at Tier 7 talents for DKs. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

…they are all goddamn abilities from the Lich King! That feels amazing and gets you pumpped to hit max level. Where is that cool Uther or Tirion feeling in paladin talents? Nowhere. Total garbage.

When I play my warrior, I feel excited because I’ll basically be able to Charge every mob. When I play my DK, I feel excited because I can Death Grip every mob. When I play my rogue, I feel excited because I can fucking teleport behind every mob (seriously, Cloak & Dagger is amazing for leveling). When I play my druid, I feel excited because I’m playing a nuanced class that some designer actually gave two shits about because whoa, look at all the things I can do.

The more I think about it, the more it feels like the paladin class was transplanted from another game entirely. It doesn’t fit WoW anymore, assuming it ever did. The niche it fulfills is “all these buttons are for other people” when the game has been about all the cool individual things you can do for the last three expansions. In fact, every other class has so many individual things they can do that they don’t need paladin assistance anymore.

I haven’t felt excited about paladins since Wrath, really. Not because there were moments when Retribution was overtuned – although it was glorious for a while there – but because it felt like there was actually nuance to the gameplay. Hand of Freedom broke stuns. If you cast Flash of Light on yourself when the 6-second shield from Sacred Shield was up, it was almost always a crit. There was some interplay between abilities back then.

Paladins need an(other) overhaul. Or, at least Retribution does. There’s nothing retributive about them. Too many of the Ret abilities serve no function to the paladin him/herself nor hinder enemies in any way. Again, if that’s supposed to be the paladin schtick, it’s a dumb one for the way the game is currently designed.

Want some suggestions? Invert the Hand spells for Retribution for starters. Hand of Freedom becomes Hand of Confinement for enemies. Hand of Protection becomes Hand of Sequestoring, e.g. same exact effect except castable on enemies. Hand of Sacrifice becomes Hand of Punishment, where 30% of the damage you take is dealt to that enemy. Hell, how about inverting Divine Shield to Divine Retribution, so that instead of being immune to everything you simply reflect incoming attacks/spells?

The devs wouldn’t need to give Retribution all these abilities either. Make us choose, if you like. Have it be talent, or gylph, or (sigh) cooldown. Make it so that if you take Hand of Confinement, you can’t cast Hand of Freedom anymore. Something, anything.

I originally chose to play a paladin in WoW because I always found them conceptually interesting as a class in D&D, but disliked the Lawful Good limitations. Being a frontline fighter killing things with a sword of light was cool. And that concept can still be cool. Remember Seal of Blood? Conceptually cool.

Tirion. Uther. The Ashbringer. Did you feel anything from those names, and if so, were those feelings at all comparible to the feeling evoked from WoW paladins? From where I’m sitting, whatever class Tirion and Uther actually belong to, it sure as hell ain’t paladin.

System Shock 2: That 90s Feeling

System Shock 2 (hereafter SS2) is a game I’ve heard about a lot, but up to this point didn’t have much of an interest to play. I mean, I immensely enjoyed Bioshock and all, but I have found by experience that “spiritual successors” tend to make their source material difficult to play. Which makes total sense, considering a game is a spiritual successor if it emulates and expands upon all the good things about the prior title while discarding the rest.

Plus, you know, 1999 was a long time ago. There is a whole swath of games that are more or less forever unplayable by me simply because I can’t get over the terrible (by today’s standards) graphics. Watching the intro to SS2 did not inspire much confidence:

I'm trying to remember a time when this looked amazing.

I’m trying to remember a time when this looked amazing.

Luckily for everyone, there is a wide selection of mods out there that more or less brings the game to at least 2004.

I was actually somewhat impressed.

I was actually somewhat impressed.

At this point, I am roughly 10 or so hours into the game and I must admit that SS2 still has value to give. For example: it’s pretty damn scary, but not in the way you might be used to. FEAR has some great moments, Silent Hill definitely gets the horror angle correct, and Resident Evil does “crash through the window” better than most. None of those really capture the unique (as far as I know) dread that is hearing the “whisk” sound of a spaceship door opening behind you. In fact, I find myself developing somewhat of a complex with these doors, as evidenced by nearly jumping out of my chair from the sound of one door – that I had just activated – closing behind me.

Aside from the evil doors, I want to spend a moment and praise the overall sound design of the game in general. For the most part, you can hear nearly every enemy before you actually see them. Which, now that I think about it, is not as common a gaming trope as it should be. What this allows SS2 to do is make the various types of enemies resistant or vulnerable to specific weapons without the player feeling cheated. If you hear a robot walking around nearby and aren’t switching to your energy weapons in anticipation, it’s your own damn fault.

Another thing I can appreciate about SS2’s design is the overall upgrade mechanic. Your character has like four tabs worth of various stats and abilities you can upgrade/purchase with Cybernetic Modules. While you do receive some periodically as “quest” rewards, the vast majority of Cybernetic Modules are stuck in desks, on dead bodies, and sometimes hidden in plain sight on the floor. Combined with a traditional (the de facto back then) non-regenerating health system and the necessity to collect currency for ammo/hacking/etc purposes, Cybernetic Modules provide an immense incentive to explore every inch of the ship. Contrast this with, say, Bioshock Infinite which has painstakingly-designed nooks and crannies without any reason at all to search them.

As an aside, I can understand why some games might not go that route. If you hide a bunch of upgrade currency throughout your game, you are then faced with a dilemma: either that upgrade currency is necessary to realistically defeat the final boss, or it isn’t. If it is necessary, you are forcing everybody to comb your game for supplies, including the people who find that sort of thing tedious. If all the upgrades aren’t necessary, the people who enjoy looting all the things are “rewarded” with trivial encounters for the rest of the game. It is much easier to control your game’s pacing by directly tying upgrades to specific plot points, so no one is ahead or behind. That does make your game more boring and empty however. Hence, dilemma.

In any case, I am likely closing in on the System Shock 2 endgame and should be done in the next day or two. While I do not consider it to be as groundbreaking as something like the original Deus Ex, it is at least in the same parking lot as the ballpark. If you picked it up as part of one of any number of bundles in the last two years, go ahead and spend the 20 minutes or so it takes to set up all the mods and give it a whirl. Part Deus Ex, part Half-Life, and extremely atmospheric.

Winning for Losing

Way back before I got distracted with Crowfall news, Rohan had an interesting few posts exploring the challenges of structured PvP vs transient PvP. Namely, how do you solve the “3rd/4th faction” problem of people migrating to the winning side in structured PvP? The clear answer involves incentives to stay on the losing/outnumbered side, but the implementation is tricky.

Or is it?

I consider one of the gold standards of loss incentives to be Titanfall’s Extraction phase. At the end of each match – be it CTF, Death Match, etc – there is a no-respawn phase in which the losing team tries to make it to a waiting drop ship. If all losing members make it, the entire team receives a significant bonus (less than a win, but not by much). The winning team will of course try and kill the stragglers, but they can also destroy the drop ship and get bonus points. While it is still possible to queue into a complete blowout match in which the other team practically insta-kills the drop ship, most battles end with the drop ship taking off. Not only do the extra points for an Extraction soften the blow of losing perhaps a close match, the psychological reward for “escaping” is immense.

You lost, but you didn’t lose. And, yes, there is a difference.

This might seem weird to say, but I actually enjoy hopeless defenses in many games. Whenever I play used to play PlanetSide 2, for example, I looked for the bases under attack by near-overwhelming odds. From my perspective, such bases present A) easy opportunity for kills in the chaos, B) no expectation for success, C) small chance for epic comeback. Being spawn-camped by tank spam is miserable, but anything less can be great low-pressure fun.

The same sentiment existed even in WoW PvP for me. Being farmed at the Graveyard in WSG is enough to make one ragequit. Dial it back a few notches though, and I found it immensely entertaining simply being annoying, e.g. by tanking DPS as a healer, taking potshots and then forcing someone to chase me for two minutes, and so on. My team might lose, but I still won. Some of my favorite PvP memories was on my Rogue, when I ran around Sapping everyone into diminishing returns and watching their futile attempts at unstealthing me.

All of the above examples (except for PS2) are from transient PvP rather than structured PvP. Still, I think you can achieve a similar incentive structure using the same principals. For example, if a certain team is way behind or outnumbered, start giving them an alternative currency (call it Honor or whatever), or even a bonus to the normal PvP currency. In this way, winning becomes much less of a zero-sum game, and offers an “out” for those players who would, strictly speaking, be better off defecting to the winning side. Plus it would attract goofballs such as myself to hopeless defenses, thereby making the match more entertaining for everyone involved.

[Crowfall] Sweet Summer Child

In the comments yesterday, Scree disagreed with my prediction that Crowfall will have a major “3rd/4th/Nth Faction” problem, saying:

Further, players aren’t going to “give up” as the world draws to a close. In fact, your likely to see just the opposite based on Crowfalls Kickstarter Update #6 which indicates the materials you’ve gathered during the campaign… only a percentage of these transfer over to your Eternal Kingdom. That percentage is based on how you did during the campaign. You want to give up because 3 days are left? No problem, I’ll be happy to move up in the rankings and get more loot.

Oh my sweet summer child.

According to the Kickstarter, the most generous map type allows you to keep 30% of your scavenged goods upon a loss. In the next best world-type, there are 6-12 factions with (presumably) only one winner; the rest are stuck with 25% goods, maximum. It gets worse for the losers from there.

In fact, given how you need to physically haul your loot to the “Embargo area” to bank them – and the Devs even point out how nice of an ambush spot this is, implying either full or partial looting of your corpse – it might be that the winning side simply camps that area too and you are left with whatever you can squirrel away at 3am on a Tuesday. The kicker is that right now the Devs are saying that what loot gets saved at the end is actually random:

Do I have any control over which item(s) are kept and which item(s) are lost from my Embargo? 

Maybe. Right now our design is simple: we will randomly select which item(s) and materials will be released and which item(s) and materials will be lost. We could certainly change this design later, to give preferential treatment to certain items based on rarity, size, value or player preference.

Spoiler alert: that’s a terrible idea and will be changed.

The “fix” Scree mentioned in the Kickstarter update is that these percentages are scaled based on your personal performance in the overall battle, including either time spent or when you entered the map (it’s not clear which). This does indeed prevent or at least discourage people from being able to hop into a winning map that is almost over and reap the higher rewards.

However, it does nothing at all in encouraging people to continue playing a losing match.

Basically all games.

Basically all games.

The problem is simple: opportunity cost. Scree indicates he/she would be fine with me dropping out, as that would make his/her rank go up in the process. But who is really going to be fighting tooth-and-nail for the maximum value of the 25% pie? That would be crazy, especially if I could earn 35% by half-assing a winning map.

There are really no good solutions to this problem, and plenty of ways to make the problem worse. And Crowfall seems poised to do exactly that. For example:

1) Make it easy to hop in/out of maps.

The easier it is to exit a losing map, the more people will do so. As near as I can tell, Crowfall does lock you into a Campaign when you zone into one. I have been unable to quite tell what exactly that means though. Are you locked into that particular map type, but can go elsewhere? As in, can you go into a God’s Reach map and also a The Shadow map? Or are you locked totally down, such that your character ain’t going nowhere for the next three months? The latter might seem the most logical, but take a moment to really absorb what that potentially means to your day-to-day gameplay. You could be stuck in a shitty strategic situation and/or gametype for nearly a quarter of a year, grinding away for that 30% payout months from now. How excited are you for that?

Don’t worry too much though, because the concept of alts lets you easily bypass the restrictions and bail out of the failboat. Is your main doing poorly? Hop on to whichever of your two alts are doing better. Indeed, there is no rational reason to even have a main, considering:

2) Make loot Account-Bound.

This is actually the current Crowfall design. With the resources you gather in these maps being Account-Bound, it actively encourages you to cheese the system via alts as much as possible. It would be dumb to fight hard in a losing battle on your main if you could sail to an easy win on an alt – all loot goes into the same pile at the end, which means your main will benefit just the same.

I’m honestly shocked that Crowfall is heading down this route, especially given how prevalent the alt issue is in other games. I don’t normally believe conspiracy theories, but it’s hard to argue against the notion the Devs are doing this precisely to sell more subscriptions (for the multiple character passive skill gains) by making alt-hopping the best way to play. Put all three character slots into three different maps and play enough on each to get some middling reward, or extra hard on whichever map is a winner. If you have a subscription, you lose zero progress on any character by playing this way.

So what are some potential fixes? Well… there’s not many due to the nature of Crowfall’s design. Alt-hopping isn’t much of an issue in games like EVE and Darkfall precisely because the world is persistent and corps/guilds will likely vet your character to prevent spies. Then again, most EVE players have multiple accounts in the first place, so… maybe not the best example. People drop out of short-lived BGs in other MMOs all the time (and are punished by timers), but since the rewards are tied to the character, there’s not much of a point to switch to alts; switching factions for a win isn’t possible because you’ll never get back into that specific BG anyway.

Crowfall’s uniqueness is this regard presents a uniquely difficult problem.

What is realistically going to need to happen is for the losing (or even just disadvantaged) side to be rewarded with something else. Someone in EVE might fight for pride or survival, but Crowfall’s worlds are temporary. Someone in WoW might realize it’s faster to stick out a lopsided WSG match than the Deserter timer, but Crowfall’s fail states could last weeks. The people making a protracted, futile last stand in Crowfall need to be earning either bonus XP or skill points or perhaps another currency akin to Honor to make their time losing worthwhile.

Otherwise we might just see an emergent, Tol Barad win-trading situation all over again.

Dynamic vs Random

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dailies and Long-Term Engagement

In terms of creating an incentive to play, I believe that things like Daily Quests and other log-in rewards are extremely effective. That being said, I also believe it is an open question as to whether such incentives come at the expense of long-term engagement with the game. At least, those are my thoughts after reading the long thorough post by Torvald that is making the rounds.

Players are logging on, feel compelled to go through their Garrison chores, getting those rewards that are placed right in front of them… Even though that very content is not fun and drains their stamina for engaging in other content. It reduces their stamina for engaging in other activities that absolutely require large blocks of time to give a reasonable hope of success. And for activites that don’t absolutely require large blocks of time, so many of those lack structure that the player defaults to assigning them large blocks of time for what it would require to be “worth it” (i.e. very few players want to make a trip for an unstructured rep grind just to grind for 15 minutes).

In this situation, Torvald is talking about WoW players who say “there’s nothing to do” despite there arguably being more things to do than ever before. A player feels like they have to complete the Garrison stuff immediately, lest they forever lose the reward and fall behind. And that is a sentiment that I 100% can relate to in expansions past. Remember the Tournament dailies in Wrath of the Lich King? Or Jewelcrafting dailies? The end goal required X amount of days to reach with few (or no) catch-up mechanisms, so each day you skipped doing them added that much more time to completion.

There is absolutely no question that I logged onto WoW some days solely to do daily quests. Similarly, there is no question that on the days where I logged on just to do dailies that I sometimes ended up hanging out with friends. So, in essence, the daily quests worked in making social situations possible. After all, the death knell of any MMO starts ringing when you no longer feel compelled to log on.

But I can totally feel the other side of this too. When you think about MMO burnout, what is the image in your mind? Did it come from the activities you found fun in the moment? Or did it come from the sense of crushing obligation? If you are having fun every time you play, is burnout even possible?

I hesitate to say that dailies are not fun generally, as I personally find satisfaction in the completion of even mundane tasks. I also enjoy the sense of character progression and the working towards a long-term goal. That said, dailies do in fact take up a non-inconsequential amount of limited play time. If you spend “just” 30 minutes on chores, how much time do you have left for other activities? And how do you avoid the sense of loss (i.e. opportunity cost) that derives from not completing dailies and letting those easy rewards go?

I do not know if there is a solution. The one offered by Torvald is to essentially reduce the number of Garrison chores directly, and then make the remaining ones take longer than a day (e.g. Weekly quests). I did enjoy when WoW experimented with allowing you to complete a full week’s worth of dungeon dailies in a single session, as that allowed you the freedom to either work on other projects guilt-free or only to log on the weekends and still remain somewhat competitive. Then again, I’m not entirely sure how healthy plowing through that many dungeon dailies on Reset Day really was.

It might be cute to suggest “no dailies” but I’m not sure we can really go back. At a minimum, other games will have daily quests and I know people who log onto them to get those easy rewards before logging off and playing the game without dailies. That scenario “drains your stamina” just the same as if the daily-less game had them.

I’m not sure there is a solution here other than the one I’m currently employing: not playing MMOs. Of course, Dragon Age: Inquisition has War Table timer-based quests now too. You just can’t escape.