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Interlude: Skill Trainers

Out of all the things mentioned in yesterday’s Wildstar beta post, the one thing that caught the most attention was that of Skill Trainers. Wildstar has them. And Wildstar having them is, to me, emblematic of a fault-line beneath it’s foundation that will undermine the game’s long-term viability. Hyperbolic much? Maybe. But it’s not about the Skill Trainers themselves, it’s about what they represent.

First though, me and Skill Trainers go way back. Here is a post from SWTOR’s beta back in 2011, which included this picture:

For serious.

For serious.

In fact, I’m just going to quote myself:

This is not to say there were no pressing issues afoot. Light/Dark side issues aside, some of the game mechanics feel they came out of a time capsule buried when Gary Gygax was still alive. Talent trees? How quaint. But seriously, there was another matter which was important enough to submit proper beta feedback about: [above photo]

I am not sure who was the first game designer who thought it would be fun to present players with the dilemma of stopping mid-quest/dungeon to trek all the way back to their trainer to get Rank 3 of Explosive Shell for it’s increased damage, or simply Troopering (*rimshot*) on without it, but they deserve a Rank VII Punch to the face. If there was some kind of RP scene showing you how to get a little more juice out of your grenade shots or whatever, I could understand and appreciate that. But if I can level up in the field and magically grow stronger and tougher to kill from one moment to the next, I should be able to get that +10-20 damage in those same moments. Even Gygax let our Fireballs deal 8d6 damage when we went from 7th to 8th level!

Skill Trainers are an anachronism, a piece of game design debris that was introduced once long ago, and thoughtlessly picked up by subsequent games out of some kind of misguided notion of tradition. Skill Trainers in MMOs are almost always Skill venders, granting access to abilities you have already unlocked by leveling in exchange for (a symbolic) thirty pieces of silver. That is the extent of their function in most games. There is no gameplay attached to them, no lore, no advice given to the proper use of the skills you instantly learned Matrix-style, no training montage, nothing. There are no interesting decisions when it comes to learning the skills – you are simply that much weaker and incomplete until you make the proper offering to archaic game design.

I could see someone making a case for Skill Vendors if they were hidden somewhere in the world (promotes exploration). Or if you had to use the skill several times against training dummies or whatever (demonstrates its use). Or if they had any gameplay use whatsoever. As it stands, the extent of the Pro-Vendor side seems to be it being confusing when abilities just pop into your bar/spellbook. Er… okay. You could just, you know, continue not using the skills until you you feel comfortable opening the spellbook and reading what they do (which is exactly what you’d do even with Skill Vendors). Hell, just roleplay the experience by not reading anything until you double-click on a random NPC in town somewhere.

As I said at the start, my main problem with Skill Vendors is not necessarily with them per se (although they are terrible), my problem is what they represent. If a development studio thinks they are a good idea – or worse, didn’t even bother analyzing their inclusion – what other nonsense is going to be brought back? Attunements? 40-man raids? Oh wait…

Unfair Impressions: TSW, Day 2

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

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

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

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

Oh, silly me. Of COURSE that makes sense!

Oh, silly me. Of COURSE that makes sense!

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

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

Are we having fun yet?

Spoiler alert: No.

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

Oh FFS.

Oh FFS.

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

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

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

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

Unfair Impressions: The Secret World

I started playing The Secret World yesterday.

I'm nothing if not predictable.

I’m nothing if not predictable.

I was going to start that sentence off with “On a whim,” but it occurs to me that there isn’t much of anything whimsical about starting an MMO. You have the 39.2 gb client download, the registration, and usually getting your billing information straightened out. TSW doesn’t have a subscription anymore, but even though I had downloaded it previously, I still had about 2 gigs worth of patches to download before I hit the character select screen.

In any case, I ran into my first issue on the character naming screen. TSW asks you to enter a first name, a last name, and then a nickname, the latter of which is supposedly your in-game name. But it mentions that people inspecting you can see the others. It occurred to me that this is perhaps the worst naming mechanic I’ve ever seen. Allowing last names not only allows for increased customization, but on a more practical level, it alleviates the problem with one’s name being taken by someone else. Not so with FunCom’s design team; I was not able to move forward with character creation because someone already took “Azuriel” as a nickname. I tried a number of variations, referenced my List of Cool Nouns, then decided that Azuriel Inanage’s nickname was “GQX.”

But... isn't the whole point... wha...?

But… isn’t the whole point… wha…?

The graphics are whatever. I turned everything up to Ultra just to see if it improved things, but decided an extra 15 fps was worth more than whatever it is that Tessellation does or what FXAA means.

I very nearly died in the tutorial area – at least, I assume it’s possible to die there – before I realized that TSW is in the post-WoW active combat genre, with active dodging and whatnot. I’m fine with this style of gameplay, although it seems more ridiculous than usual when people are doing it in a more “realistic” setting. Or maybe it is an art style issue; I had no problem with the way things were handled in GW2.

I stopped the game session in the training room where you can try out the various weapons and decide which one is for you. My understanding of TSW is that you can pretty much choose any abilities you want and can theoretically learn everything, but you would be severely disadvantaged in not specializing early on. I’d be fine with such a system, if the Ability Wheel was not the worst implementation of a skill tree that I had ever seen.

Conceptually, the Ability Wheel is fine. But has anyone ever tried to actually look through it as a new player with an eye for synergies? “Okay, this attack deals extra damage when the target is Afflicted. Alright, what causes Afflicted? Let me just browse every possible weapon in the game, including clicking on these nameless little cubes on the outside in no particular order…”

When secret society immersion goes too far...

When secret society immersion goes too far…

FunCom added “decks” to the game a while ago, which are basically preconstructed talent builds that you can follow along. This certainly would speed up the process, but I am not of the mind to commit to any one thing without knowing all the moving parts, especially if there isn’t a way to respec (or maybe there is?). How am I supposed to know what I’ll find fun a dozen hours from now, let along a hundred? Complex and deep character build options are fine, but I’m beginning to see the visceral appeal of the Diablo 3/WoW system of making one decision at a time.

In any case, my next session will begin with a combing of the internet for build explanations, or perhaps more simply a diagram of the synergies between the nine weapons. It’s cool that the fifth skill in the X tree can make the Y weapon a viable option, but it’s less cool missing out on that interaction because you can’t really see it due to the UI. I want something that will show me every instance of the word “Hinder” and the like, so I can decide that yes, pistols and claw weapons (or whatever) are a combination that is acceptable to me.

Need-Based Socialization

Keen has a rather curious post asking “Should Everyone Craft Everything?” The premise of his argument is that specialization is the root of socialization, and as such, a proper MMO would not allow everyone to craft everything. In fact, anyone who suggests that they should be allowed to have some level of self-sufficiency is “an entitled xenophobe” better left to single-player games, and the catering to whom is a “dumbing down” of a MMO to the “lowest common denominator.”

Which, along with the Free Space, is a full Bitter MMO Vet Bingo.

Special thanks to Keen, SynCaine, and Tobold for the inspiration.

Special thanks to Keen, SynCaine, Tobold, and their commenters for the inspiration.

The fig leaf proffered is that perhaps everyone can make all the basic recipes, but that only specialists can make the best items. However, the whole notion is ridiculous, for a number of reasons.

First, you cannot “force” specialization in any game that allows alts. It wasn’t even much of a commitment on my part to develop a full stable of crafting alts in WoW because I wanted the ability to switch up my endgame play-style anyway. Even if you imagine that your perfect MMO limited you solely to one character per account, people could bypass the restriction via multiple accounts. That is, after all, exactly what EVE players do when they circumnavigate the restrictions of real-time skill gains (itself a way of forcing specialization). I suppose on the plus side, this makes your subscriber numbers look pretty peachy.

Second, you don’t actually need mutually-exclusive specializations in order to have a robust economy, as Keen claims. Within the beginning chapters of every Economics 101 textbook is an explanation of comparative advantage. The simple version is that two villages can produce both rice and fish, but at differing ratios: Island A can produce 10 units of rice or 5 units of fish in a day, and Island B can produce 10 units of fish or 5 units of rice. The ideal proposition is for Island A to produce rice, Island B to produce fish, and then trade half for half with one another, leaving both the richer for it. In fact, an economy between the two islands works even if Island A can produce everything more efficiently than Island B.

Or, perhaps more simply put, there is an opportunity cost to every action, regardless of whether or not you can do everything yourself. Any in-game economy will continue humming at full speed as long as one person is willing to mine ore and another more willing to farm gold than ore. Even though I could make everything myself in WoW, I still bought huge sums of materials and even finished goods because it was faster than doing it myself. Indeed, the existence of an AH at all will typically create entire economies by itself (barring ghost town populations).

Finally, there is a curious sort of bluntness to the dispassionate thought that people need to be forced to interact with one another via extreme limitations. Don’t get me wrong, I am someone who is thoroughly behind the idea of Divine Trinity and other forms of implicit specialization. But I feel like these sort of roles should be arrived at organically, rather than at the character select screen. I am a tank because I enjoy being a tank, not because I happened to pick “Paladin” in 2008. If I had stuck with Warlock, my first WoW character, how much less value would I have brought to the game, to the friends I made, and to my own game experience? As WoW has proven time and again, and even in the largely role-less GW2, just because everyone can be a tank (or tank-like), doesn’t mean they are willing to step into that role. So what possible good can come from shackling a potential tank to a dreary DPS-only experience? “So specialization matters”?

Further, the days in which I am inclined to make new friends out of perfect virtual strangers is largely in the past, and no amount of cumbersome game mechanics will get me back to that place. Even if extreme specialization is for the next generation of MMO player’s sake, I’m rather skeptical that such methods would at all work out the way people imagine they would. As Tobold recently pointed out, our generation of gamers were playing MMOs before the advent of Facebook and other social media – our games were our social media, our place to meet like-minded individuals. MMOs these days are 3-monthers not because they lack in content or design, but because we’re unwilling or unable to invest the social capital necessary to maintain our interest. And why would we? Either we brought along all the friends we already have, or they didn’t make the jump with us. In both cases, we’re full-up on social interaction, thanks.

So, essentially, I say let people do what they want, and they will sort themselves out according to their predilections.

Review: The Witcher 2

Game: The Witcher 2
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~36 hours
Buy If You Like: The Witcher, atmospheric and political fantasy gobbledegook

The atmosphere is almost - almost - enough to carry the entire game.

The atmosphere is almost – almost – enough to carry the entire game.

The Witcher 2 (TW2) is a sequel to the original, fairly ground-breaking game following the travails of Geralt of Rivia. Geralt’s profession is a Witcher, a human who has mutated his own genes in order to more effectively fight the monsters that spontaneously appeared in the world many years ago. After the events in the original game, Geralt was playing bodyguard to a king only to see his charge assassinated in his presence and then framed for the crime. TW2 takes place immediately following those events, and the wider ramifications and intrigue surrounding a recent batch of regicide.

I am going to be completely honest here at the beginning by saying that I finished playing TW2 only grudgingly, and after several months-long breaks inbetween. The game features a decently robust journaling system that will allow you to read up on what you are supposed to be doing and the general lore of the entire game world, but the litany of nonsense fantasy pronouns and references to the original game events (and the books they are predicated on) is truly unending. While I am willing to admit that the breaks I took inbetween playing certainly contributed to my general confusion, I do not absolve the game from what I feel was a profound lack of engagement. “Why was I doing this again?” “So I’m fighting this guy, but it’s important I don’t kill him, because I want this valley to become independent, so that… err?”

One of the major strengths of the first Witcher was its creation of what felt like a distinctly authentic atmosphere. Most fantasy games have a sort of whitewashed, Disney quality to them at odds with the historical reality of peasantry who bathed infrequently, had access to few paved roads, and a general unconcern with hygiene. The Witcher felt dirty, gritty, and real. I am happy to report TW2 continues in that praise-worthy tradition. Hovels look like hovels, trolls like like trolls, and you can practically smell the NPCs through the screen. The casual race discrimination (in terms of humans vs nonhumans) and ease in which people’s lives are upended or destroyed feels correct in a way practically unique to the genre.

Layered on top of this “fantasy realism” are the most banal, discordant, gamey quests and mechanics that I’ve ever seen.

Good ole meta-humor.

Good ole meta-humor.

We are talking about completely shameless fetch quests, kill 20 monster quests, and boomerang quests that shatter any sense of immersion in the fictional world. In fact, by the end, I hated the game world for its perfectly realistic twisted pathways and obstacles, as I was forced to circumvent them dozens of times as I did quests A, B, and C in sequence. And can I talk about the map for a second here? Literally the worst, most useless map in any videogame I have ever played. Shit made no sense, and zooming out gives you a view of the overworld that had zero to do with anything given how you were actually trapped in small zones around the one main location of the Chapter.

The combat in the first Witcher was not particularly deep or complicated. Combat in TW2 has actually devolved to the point where I was feeling nostalgic for the timed button pressed of the original as a measure of skill. All you do here is left-click for a quick attack and right-click for a strong attack. You can block, cast a Sign, roll-Dodge, or use an item too, but combat never felt integrated into the game world at all. Maybe the devs were intentionally trying to ensure you didn’t feel like a badass playing as a Witcher. Well… mission accomplished.

By far the worst aspect of the game though (map aside), is the direction that they took potions. See, potions are an important part of the game’s fiction; Witchers mutate themselves almost solely so they can brew potions that let them regenerate health, have extra power, and so on. In the first game, you could drink potions at any time, but could only meditate (e.g. sleep off the toxic potion side-effects) at certain locations. Which was dumb. However, TW2 decided to let you meditate almost anywhere, but you must be meditating before you can drink a potion. When can you not meditate? In combat, near combat, or somewhere where combat is implied to be occurring. The issue is that your abilities are balanced around potion use but potions only last for 10 real-time minutes. So you spend the entire goddamn game quicksaving every 30-seconds because getting into combat without having potions up is suicide, but you can’t exactly be running around with potions up the whole time, especially when you are exploring.

Only in The Witcher series...

Only in The Witcher series…

I am belaboring the utter travesty of the combat system because I’m at a point in my life where this shit just doesn’t fly any more. I used to suffer through all kinds of JRPG combat systems for the fruit that was their (quirky) plots. You can’t really even say that TW2 would have been a better Adventure game though, because the physicality of fighting is important to understanding the world Geralt and friends inhabit. You can’t cut-scene every battle, after all.

Ultimately, I think what killed The Witcher 2 for me was the simple fact that the rest of the gaming world continued moving. Yeah, this is a game that came out in 2011, so a certain amount of slack should be given. But… I can’t. If you have played Skyrim, for example, coming into this game will be physically painful – you will chafe at not being able to hop off the wall where you want, not being able to attack when you want, not being able to go where you want, not being able to drink goddamn potions when you want. All of which is a real shame, because The Witcher 2 features a wide array of morally grey choices that actually change large portions of the game, rather than being “mere” emotional placebos.

But, you know what? I kinda want to have fun when I’m playing video games and The Witcher 2 offered me the opposite of that. I’m keeping an eye on The Witcher 3 because I enjoy the game world they have created and the choices you can make inside of it, but I am oh so wary. And oh so tired of poorly implemented game features/design.

Far Cry 3 #GameLogic

I recently started to play Far Cry 3, and have come to realize that it features a whole new level of bizarre #GameLogic. I mean, there is some nominal amount of disbelief suspension going on in every game, sure. How does sleeping in a tent regain health? Why can I get shot and regenerate by ducking behind cover, for that matter? Why do I have to pay hundreds of thousands of currency units to purchase weapons from a store that will cease to exist if I fail to kill the world-destroying evil guy?

Some invisible line felt crossed in Far Cry 3 though, about the time I realized I was hunting and skinning goats to increase my wallet size. I can buy a flamethrower from the corner drug store, but can’t buy a wallet with my (then maximum) $1000?

Step 1: Drive over there. Step 2: Skin some goats.

Step 1: Drive over there. Step 2: Skin some goats.

That goofiness aside, Far Cry 3 has been… interesting, thus far. The minute I realized that unlocking additional weapon slots and ammo storage was bound by killing/skinning animals and not level, was the minute I ignored the story altogether and went on a Buffalo Bill safari. You might think that the easy, beginning recipes would belong to animals populated around the beginning areas, but you would be wrong – I had to travel quite a distance across the map to find some goats to offer to Mammon, the dark deity of larger wallets.

Speaking of questionable design philosophies, Far Cry 3 is reminding me a bit about why Skill Trees are usually a dumb idea. Right now, most of the three trees are locked until I complete more story missions, but the “root” of one of the trees was, I kid you not, the ability to “cook” grenades. As in, I needed experience points and adding a tattoo to my arm to unlock the ability to pull the pin of the grenade and not immediately throw it. And you have to unlock this ability in order to choose anything else in that tree. This reminded me of TBC WoW, where Affliction warlocks had to put five (!) talent points in the 1st tier to lower Corruption’s casting speed down to instant-cast; I think the first talent point was a 0.2 second reduction, or something.

Character customization is great, don’t get me wrong. But, seriously, if you have that much filler in your talent trees, you are probably better off not having any at all.

Old Skool

In my continuing efforts to reclaim hard drive space and knock out some more of my Steam backlog, I booted up MINERVA: Metastasis. For some reason I thought this was the user mod for Bioshock I remember hearing about back in the day, so I was quite surprised to find it was a Half-Life 2 mod. Still, at 5+ gigs, I figured it was about time to see what’s what.

And that what seems to be old fucking school.

More than anything, the sound FX is what took me back.

More than anything, the sound FX is what took me back.

As I turned the first corner into some Combine while armed with the machine gun, the first thing I did was hold the right mouse button and prepare to aim for the head. Instead, I shot an under-barrel grenade which damn near instantly killed me. “Oh. Oh my.” The machine gun clearly has a holographic targeting reticule, but in this circumstantial trip down nostalgia lane, aiming-down-sights hasn’t been invented yet. “Am I supposed to be hip-firing like some kind of animal?!” Yes. The answer is yes.

Also, your bullet spread pattern will always random, no matter whether you squeeze one round off or empty the clip. That is some Bronze-Age shit right there.

Game design evolution is a funny thing – very rarely is there ever any going back. For example, remember when you just had 100 HP, maybe 100 shields, and neither regenerated at all no matter how long you cowered in the corner with 17 HP remaining? It seems like just yesterday to me, because it literally was. I pooh-poohed Bioshock Infinite for having CoD- (and now Battlefield-) style regeneration, but now I’m not entirely sure what to think. I mean, is regeneration worse than spamming QuickSave every 30 seconds? Going to a CheckPoint system sounds even worse, as designers rarely hit the sweet-spot between The Last of Us’s one-enemy-filled room or Far Cry 1′s “hope you brought a sandwich, because the CheckPoint is on another island.”

I think that the first two Bioshocks got it right, insofar as there was no regeneration but you could stockpile medkits and the like up to a certain point. I felt no reason to explore in MINERVA when I was at full health, as there was literally no reason to; without hidden upgrades or things to stockpile, frequently there existed many rooms completely void of any reason to exist (beyond verisimilitude, I suppose).

In any case, the mod was worthwhile for the nostalgia and game design lesson alone. I just talked about having arrows over quest objectives the other day, but there were probably half a dozen spots in MINERVA where I had no idea where to go, or what the game expected me to be doing. And as is usually the case, the answer was staring me in the face. Then again, I did have to look up how to get past the room with the shield generators because, for some ungodly reason, we were just supposed to know that two grenades were necessary to destroy them. I tossed a grenade into each of the four generators, alarms went off, and once they recovered I went “Aha! They must need to be disabled in a specific pattern!” Nope. Just a dev’s modder’s Gotcha! moment.

Or maybe we were just all smarter in the olden days.

Language of Action

This amusing comparison was posted on Reddit the other day under “Morrowind vs Skyrim vs Dark Souls”:

/slowclap

/slowclap

The implication here is (presumably) that games these days are being dumbed down, or at least are not being made as challenging as their predecessors (Dark Souls aside). This sort of “hand holding” is pretty much the de facto standard in MMOs as well, in the form of highlighting of the questing areas and the like. ¹

To which I say: “Good.”

If there is one particular scenario I despise more than anything else in videogames, it is when I sit down to play one and then can’t. I do not mean that I try and fail and am unable to progress – that part is good! It’s gameplay, it’s doing things, it’s actively engaging my faculties. Rather, I mean when the game is not even allowing me to try anything because I am missing something and don’t even know it. Or maybe I am not missing anything and the game is at fault. Indeed, whenever I get stuck in a game, these are the usual possibilities:

  1. I cannot solve the puzzle.
  2. I missed an invisible quest trigger.
  3. I cannot locate the quest objective.
  4. I do not know where to go next.

In all those scenarios aside from #1, we can entertain the possibility that it is the game designer’s fault. And that’s the problem! Sure, occasionally it is my own damn fault for not reading the quest text correctly or I didn’t pan the camera 110° to the right or whatever. But after 20+ years of playing videogames, I can assure you that my default assumption is not that these designers do everything on purpose. Games are art, but if you set out to evoke a particular emotion with a piece and it generates the exact opposite, we can say that that piece of art failed in its goal. Sometimes mistakes can make a game better (like… Gandhi in Civilization), but an equal or greater amount of time they are simply mistakes.

Things can go too far the other way, of course. In the opening scenes of The Witcher 2, as you approach the ominously empty bridge, you get a prompt telling you which buttons to press to avoid dragon fire. “What dragon? Oh.” Quests in Skyrim which ask you to find the artifact that has been hidden for centuries… and there’s a very visible quest marker that appears directly over it. I can concede that something like this other Reddit picture is too much:

I hated Navi anyway.

I hated Navi anyway.

At the end of the day, though? I am playing videogames to do things. I do not consider walking around a room pressing the Interact button every few steps as doing something. There is a place for games in which the “doing” is figuring out where to go or what to do next. And that place is “Pile of Games I’m (Literally) Not Playing.”

¹ I still remember the river of tears that resulted from WoW adding quest givers to the minimap back in Patch 2.3. Yes, seriously, tears.

Maybe Too Much Verisimilitude

So, I guess the devs from FFXIV just released the prices for in-game housing and no one is happy. The pushback from the devs was phrased this way from Massively:

Yoshida said that the high cost in intended to prevent wealthy players from snapping up all of the plots and that all players will be earning more money with patch 2.1. “I understand that, in taking these measures to ensure even distribution of land, we are asking for considerable patience from those players who are eager to enjoy housing right away,” he said. “While I sympathize with players concerns, we believe that this is in the best long-term interests of the game.”

In other words, the concern was that the wealthy players would go around and snatch up all the land before the average player/guild could do so, Monopoly-style. Considering that the housing area is already going to be instanced away from the game world, which is itself already segregated into identical servers, this seems like an Extraordinarily Dumb Problem to Have.

In fairness, I have never thought that “in the world” player housing was ever a good idea, in any game. I’m sure that it “worked” (for very narrow definitions of the word) in various games, but the whole thing strikes me as a kind of bizarre pyramid scheme. What’s the content? Where’s the gameplay? If you are first in line, congratulations, you have an exclusive advantage on into perpetuity and everyone behind you is screwed all in the name of… what? Some vague sense of permanent ownership in a virtual world? Don’t get me wrong, I fully support player housing in general. I just don’t see the point in finite plots of land in a game ostensibly being played by hundreds of thousands of players. This sort of nonsense is why I never got into playing multiplayer Minecraft – where is the fun in traveling to the shit ends of the world because all the prime real estate is taken?

But hey, Square Enix, good job with that heavy, capitalistic dose of realism in your escapist fantasy MMO. Maybe you could add some adjustable-rate mortgages in the next patch, or just allow the rich players to become landlords and rent out property.

Gaming Verisimilitude

On Thursday, I popped The Last of Us (TLoU) into the PS3 just to see if I needed to do some sort of lengthy install, but ended up playing for 5 hours straight. The game, simply put, is quite amazing thus far. However, I am experiencing some game design tropes that are grating on me to a higher degree than normal, perhaps precisely because everything else is so good.

Early on, you are basically told that while you can treat the game like a cover-based shooter to some extent, sneaking around is likely the best method given the chronic lack of supplies. That’s fine, sure. What is less fine is when you silently take down an entire warehouse full of guys very clearly armed with guns, and only happen to scrounge up 3 bullets of ammo from nearly a dozen corpses. Were the guns just for show? The last two guys were fine with shooting the conveniently-placed, waist-high obstruction I was hiding behind for almost a full minute, but in a moment of extreme bad luck, must have been killed right after they fired their last bullet.

I understand that this is One of Those Things in gaming in which we are supposed to suspend disbelief. I remember running a D&D campaign a few years ago in which I decided early on that I was going to rebel against gaming tropes and having the party’s human opponents drop everything they were carrying. In retrospect, it ended up being a perfectly foretold disaster: the party became understandably obsessed with looting each body clean and making frequent trips to Ye Olde Item Shoppe to peddle their warez. If I were able to loot full clips of ammo from each enemy I downed in TLoU, it would likely ruin the resource-tight mood by the end of the first hour of gameplay.

I am finding myself less sympathetic towards two other semi-related aspects that are not exactly TLoU’s fault but nevertheless somewhat jarring. First, the game is not and has never appeared to be an open-world sandbox or anything of the sort, which is fine. However, I feel subtly punished for exploring when the designers take the time to add in secret caches of goods in off-the-path locations. See, the issue is that I do not ever know if this “secret” door I’m opening isn’t actually the trigger for a cutscene or the path to the next area. I want to explore every nook and cranny of the game world! And yet I feel like I can’t, because I’m paranoid about inadvertently moving the story forward and being unable to backtrack. I’m seriously starting to miss the “Chrono Footsteps” feature from Singularity which highlighted the exact path you should take, so you know for certain which areas you could explore safely.

Compounding this issue is when I’m in the opposite scenario in which the game is clearly telling me where those story triggers are. “Oh, you want me to hurry up and walk over to that door? Good, now I know I can explore this whole half of the city instead.” The game is not Fallout, has never pretended to be Fallout, but I simply can’t help myself from treating every open building as an opportunity to scavenge for supplies. It’s the post-apocalypse! Let me spend hours combing the area for scrap metal and duct tape! I do this shit for fun.

Finally, Naughty Dog, really? I have a hunting rifle, shotgun, bow, two pistols, three Med Kits, a metal pipe with scissors taped to the end, three Molotov cocktails, a few proximity mine-like explosives, and a goddamn brick in my backpack… but I can’t carry more than 7 rifle rounds? Or more than four pairs of scissors? Inventory management is one thing, but limiting ammo to this degree is so overtly gamey that it sucks me right out of the narrative and back into optimization mode. “Hmm, if I use the shotgun to clear this next room instead of sneaking through, I can double-back and pick up those shells I left behind.”

Although I am complaining quite a bit, I need you to understand that it is only because these (ultimately minor) issues stand out in brilliant contrast to an otherwise amazing game. This isn’t so much a fly in the ointment as it is a hangnail the day after a big promotion. You know, minor, almost trivial annoyances that you nevertheless can’t quite stop thinking about.