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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.

Detective Vision

About halfway through this already worrying Kotaku article regarding The Witcher 3 is a section on Geralt’s “Witcher Vision”:

Witcher Vision is pretty cool. At any given moment, you can hold down a button to put Geralt’s field of vision into a sort of detective mode. This lets him see footprints, clues, key items, and the like. In practice, sleuthing around various environments—be they houses, dilapidated beach huts, or seemingly inconspicuous forests—isn’t very challenging, but it adds a lot to the feeling of being a Witcher.

All I could do was release a heavy sign and massage my temples.

“Detective vision” and its equivalents has never been good game design in any game I have ever played, for one specific reason: there is hardly any incentive to ever turn it off. Games with detective vision usually have hidden treasures and/or secret doors that are only visible in detective mode. This makes sense in a twisted-logic way, as why have detective vision at all if you can only use it in certain prescribed areas? That is basically “Press B to solve puzzle.” Of course, you don’t want to give players an ability that’s completely useless outside of specific zones either, for the same reason you don’t craft an elaborate cave complex with no treasure chest at the end. That’s just frustrating.

But the end result is that designers hide invisible things throughout the game because they feel they have to, and then the players end up spending the entire game with detective vision active so as to not miss these invisible things. Which means not only is nothing of use being accomplished (the actions cancel each other out), the player ends up spending the entire game in a sepia-colored wasteland devoid of all detail or immersion.

This was my screen 99% of the time.

The bad guys may as well not even have character models.

Case in point: Batman Arkham Asylum. Played and beat it a few months ago, but I couldn’t even really tell you how the game looked, because I was in X-Ray vision nearly the whole damn time. Case in point: Dishonored. The Dark Vision spell is an early upgrade that trivializes even the highest difficulty, no-kill runs. Beautiful game environments reduced to sepia-colored vomit for the whole rest of the game. Hell, I didn’t even like the scan mechanic all the way back in the first Metroid Prime game for these same reasons. I just ran around trying to scan every damn thing, just in case.

Around 90% of the time, your screen will look like this.

Around 90% of the time, your screen will look like this.

I honestly see no good solutions for this design issue. Even if you limit the player when they’re using detective vision (e.g. not letting them attack, or perhaps even move) that doesn’t stop players from feeling like they need to be utilizing it at every opportunity. Only allowing detective vision to be useable when there is something to detect is kinda asinine; why bother including it at all?

None of the solutions feel particularly good. One might think that the “search pulse” ability featured in Dragon Age: Inquisition, the original Witcher games, and many others might be better, but… I spend the whole damn game spamming those keys already. Same deal with the Battlefield series and PlanetSide 2, in spamming Q to spot enemies that I don’t actually see, but could be out there somewhere near my crosshairs. Sometimes it saves your life; there’s no reason not to.

This might well be one of those scenarios in which the “old school” solution of just making hidden things hard to find is best. At the same time, I don’t necessarily want to go back to the days of having to tab out and hit GameFAQs when I can’t find the pixels the designers wanted me to click on either. If I had to choose though, I would rather miss hidden treasure because I was too immersed in the game environment than miss it because I took a break from the otherwise permanent Instagram filters.

Dragon Age Online

After around 20 hours of Dragon Age Inquisition, I am more convinced than ever that this is all an elaborate beta testing of the inevitable MMO sequel. Seeing other Heralds running around and closing rifts would not at all have seemed out of place. Hell, there are already dungeons, bosses, grouping, abilities with cooldowns, action combat, mining and herb gathering every 5 feet, crafting, gear upgrades, something approximating reputation meters, companions, mounts, talent trees, and repeatable/grindy quests.

After 20 hours, I am also convinced I am playing this game all wrong. Witness:

Do all the things.

Do all the things.

Basically, I have 4 Inquisition perks, 67 “Power,” and hit level 10… all before recruiting another party member beyond the default ones. No, I did not stay entirely within the Hinterlands; I simply did most of everything aside from the Main Plot that naturally unlocked as I leveled up. If they didn’t want me completing the swamp zone until after the first major encounter with the Chantry, perhaps they should have made the enemies stronger.

Or… maybe they did, and I didn’t notice because I’m goddamn level 10. Oops.

Although I have clearly screwed the game up for myself this way, I am not entirely convinced it is my fault. The genre in general – and Dragon Age in particular – is fond of having plot progression tied to permanently closing areas and eliminating quests. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in of itself, but if I am always paranoid that this particular foray into Zone X might be the last chance I have to acquire Something Something Y, you can bet I am going to do all the things.

At least I'll never have to run away from bears again.

At least I’ll never have to run away from bears again.

It is one of those unfortunate Design Catch-22s wherein you give the player a variety of activities to complete (in case they don’t like a particular kind) and then the player ends up doing everything. What’s the real alternative though? Only having a very limited selection of quests? Relying on a player’s self-control to move on from an area simply because one has become a god amongst men?

Hah! We’re MMO players: we pay by the month for the privilege of performing pointless activities.

In any case, an hour or two after I took that screenshot I advanced the plot by one degree and suddenly recruited four new party members. I am guessing that there is still one more out there somewhere, if only because my total party is otherwise mirror images of each other: male/female shield warrior, male/female mage, male/female ranged rogue, and then just male 2H warrior. Perhaps it will be a melee rogue, just to shake up the symmetry.

I’ll find out eventually, I suspect. Just as soon as I feel like advancing the plot one more degree. In the meantime, I got some more shards to find.

Cooperation Requires Incentives

Both Tobold and Rohan were musing about a similar issue last week: why isn’t there more cooperation in survival MMOs? Or more PvE-only survival MMOs in the first place?

Let me turn the question around: why would you cooperate? Tobold is thankful that our real-life ancestors were not as blood-thirsty as the average DayZ player, but I am not even sure whether or not that is true. Recorded history is filled with the conquest of the weaker, and who knows what happened in the darkness of the forest millennia before that?

The problem in gaming, as is often the case, comes down to incentives. Specifically, if there are no extrinsic bonuses for assisting someone in any game, I generally only do so if I happen to be in the mood and it’s easy. For example, I have no problem playing Medic classes in PlanetSide 2 or Battlefield 4 because reviving teammates A) gives me as much XP as a normal kill, and B) the revived character is likely to get me closer to the goal of winning the match/flag/etc (i.e. more XP). Guild Wars 2 also did a pretty good job in incentivising reviving other players along similar lines. Obviously 5-man dungeons and such offer similar carrots.

In the absence of the extrinsic carrot though, a game designer cedes control to the player’s own nebulous intrinsic motivations to govern behavior. Unless you are a particularly extroverted individual looking to make more internet friends, there is really no reason you would ever cooperate without the carrot. If it’s a free-for-all scenario, not killing another player on sight is a huge risk. And even if you are willing to take that gamble and it succeeds, the “reward” is generally limited to what you can accomplish within that play session… unless you go out of your way to befriend them.

What if you don’t want more friends?

For a PvE survival MMO to work, I think constructing the proper incentives for cooperation would be Priority #1, and they would need to be extrinsic incentives. I am not a huge fan of the permadeath ideas Rohan was tossing around, but imagine if permadeath were a possibility, and killing other players (without cause) increased that chance? Let’s say the odds of permadeath were 10% baseline and increased by 25% for each player you killed. Meanwhile, if you healed, revived, traded/interacted with, or perhaps simply were in X radius around another player on your friends list, the baseline permadeath chance dropped to 0%. The “stain” of unjust PvP would not diminish – unless as a result of some penance or whatever – and yet it would give both groups the relevant incentive to do stuff with others.

I do not necessarily think it is wrong for game designers to rely on players to want to make friends to enjoy their game properly, but that ship has long sailed for me. I got my ex-WoW buddies, some IRL friends, and this blog if I want to talk shop with someone; I’m not entirely in the mood for the arduous vetting process and necessary synchronized timing necessary to make new friends. Needing to join a guild or Outfit or whatever to get the “full experience” simply means I won’t ever be getting the full experience in your game.

And if your game offers nothing else, then I won’t be playing it.