Category Archives: Commentary

Pirate Communities

Another aspect of the Nostalrius news that caught my interest was the non-stop mentioning of the tight-knit community. “I made so many friends in the span of a month than i did in retail over 2 years” I have no doubt that this was a true experience for this random internet denizen, but perhaps not for the reasons he/she thinks.

If you played on Nostalrius, you automatically had a whole lot in common with everyone you happened to encounter. One, you’re all filthy pirates. Two, you’re capable and willing to download cracked versions of MMOs and play them. Three, you are extremely invested in the vanilla WoW experience. And fourth, you are a member of a self-perceived persecuted group: one that Blizzard doesn’t cater to any longer.

There was a brief, dumb period of my life where I was a smoker. I’m an unabashed introvert, but there was literally nowhere I could go and not have a pleasant smoke-break conversation with whomever was outside the back door of whatever establishment I was visiting. “Do you have a light?” “How about that weather, eh?” “Hear about that new anti-smoking bill?” There was an instant connection due to shared circumstances with someone I would likely have nothing else in common with. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

Two random people playing WoW have one thing in common: they play WoW. That’s not much more to go on than encountering a random stranger walking around your city of residence. Private servers though? You are practically co-conspirators just for logging in. There is an instant sense of camaraderie which facilitates connections.

A lot of the “community” discussion focuses on all the missteps that Blizzard took in destroying said communities. Cross-server BGs. LFD. Phasing. And so on. Well… okay, fine. But my question to you would be this: do you think an MMO with nearly 100 times more players than Nostalrius would have had the same community feeling in 2016 as it was back in pre-Facebook 2005, minus the subterfuge?

I suppose my point here is that while the “Nostalrius effect” is real, it is not as particularly a damning indictment of current WoW as it is being trotted out. WoW has significant problems for sure, but just wait a while. The more people unsubscribe, the more of a community will develop amongst the remainder. Because population is the antithesis to community.

Goose and Gander

In a surprisingly hot-topic twist, the internet was awash in reactions last week to Blizzard shutting down a vanilla private server. While the bloggers had the right idea, various random commenters had a much different reaction. The mental gymnastics are on point:

I don’t think you quite understand how this works. nothing is being stolen, absolutely nothing. Vanilla WoW cannot be purchased or played anymore.

here’s another scenario for you. lets say for instance you want to play one of the old Battlefield games like 1942 or Battlefield 2. you can’t though. you know why you can’t? the Gamespy servers got shut down. so if you wanted to play one of those games online how would you do it? well you could organize a LAN party but you’d need atleast 16 people with 16 gaming PCs all in the same place but good luck trying to make that happen.

the other way to do it would be to find a dedicated group of fans that are modders. they reverse engineer the code, they write new code that allows anybody to host servers for the game in question. put that code out on the internet as a mod. then people start hosting servers for this 14 year old game. EA loses nothing in this process because they aren’t supporting the game anyway.

this is what this group was doing with WoW. Activision wasn’t losing anything by these people playing Vanilla WoW.

I mean, let’s be real here. Blizzard/EA/whoever owns the IP, and gets final legal say with how it is utilized. That’s what copyright means. If they want to sit on an unsupported franchise and let it rot, that is their right. You can make some sort of moral “abandonware” or “historical preservation” argument, but again, the law is pretty clear here. Whether or not Blizzard is losing anything by letting others pirate their material is besides the point.

Now, if you’re fine with being a pirate, that’s all right with me.

The owners/employees of Nostalrius had an AMA on Reddit earlier, and they described the costs involved with running the server: $500-$1000/month for server/bandwidth costs. For ~150,000 active accounts (defined by at least one log-in event in the last 10 days). Which really confirms how and why there are so many zombie MMOs still shambling about, i.e. it’s apparently super cheap to run. You know, minus the employee wages, of which none were paid in this scenario, even though they apparently committed 20-30 hours a week on top of their day jobs.

It is debatable how much money Blizzard is “leaving on the table” in this scenario though. 150,000 active users on a private WoW server is larger than most actual MMOs on the market currently. Crucially, however, these were all F2P users – how many would convert to $15/month customers is a matter of debate. If 10% converted, that’d still be roughly a quarter million a month. That’s enough to pay 44 people’s $60k salaries per year with some left over. Assuming that they even needed 44 full-time people to shepherd over legacy code.

The problem is opportunity cost. And marketing/messaging. Blizzard could probably make money off of legacy servers… but would it be more money than they could by spending that human capital elsewhere? As someone with less than zero interest in vanilla WoW, I know that I would prefer those 44 full-time people doing something more useful, like staunching the +150k subscriber bleeding every quarter from WoW Prime. When was the last time new content was released again?

Releasing and maintaining legacy servers would be the equivalent of Blizzard rooting around in the couch for spare change while the house burns down around them. Which it is.

Tower Defense is Weird

In defiance of Karthu’s warnings, I decided to download and play the F2P Dungeon Defenders 2. And the experience has been… weird. But not for the reasons you might expect.

Or maybe precisely the reasons you expect, based on the title.

If you never played the Dungeon Defender series, the basic premise is very similar to Orcs Must Die or Sanctum: tower defense + controlling a hero on the field. In other words, placing towers to destroy masses of enemies flooding down lanes, and getting your hands dirty in the process to support faltering lines. Dungeon Defenders also throws in Diablo-esque loot explosions and furious gear upgrading into the mix.

I am just now coming to realize the fundamental problem with Dungeon Defenders 2 though, and it has nothing to do with the game itself, but with the genre. Specifically, the better you get at tower defense, the less you get to play the game. Obvious, right? But I’m pretty sure I enjoy tower defense games, or at least did. With Dungeon Defenders 2 I just realized that once you get past a certain point, e.g. when your towers can handle the wave by themselves, you just… do nothing.

It feels counter-intuitive. It feels like a punishment, rather than a reward.

Or maybe the issue is that unlike some other tower defense games, there isn’t a way to speed up the waves being released. I can increase the difficulty – and most likely will – but the inflection point I’m trying to reach is the one where my towers kill everything but in the lane I am personally defending. Which still seems pretty weird when you think about it. You want to be just barely unable to go AFK during the match. That is the height of fun in the genre.

Right? Am I wrong?

RIP Artistic Vision

It was good while it lasted.

Tracer_Butt.jpg

Actually, that looks painful.

The controversy and counter-controversy surrounding Tracer’s Miranda-esque ass is one of those tempest-in-a-butt-shaped-teacup affairs that is both amusing and sad. For largely the same reason, i.e. that a butt is legitimately artistic vision in the first place.

“Well, I can see it, and an artist drew it, so… QED.”

Of course, the counter-controversy is never really about the butt – it is about what the butt (or lack thereof) represents. Specifically,  a developer’s god-given right, nay, duty to present (har har) some of the most cliche female iconography of all time. I mean, seriously:

Cave_Butt.jpg

Pictured: Widowmaker, Tracer, and D.Va victory poses.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be butts. I’m saying that I agree with original poster and with Kaplan insofar as Tracer’s butt shot was, in fact, out of character. It’s existence was against the artist vision – or at least the artistic cohesion – of the character, even if nobody complained about it. At best, at best, it was fanservice. At worst, or even just normally, it was basically a cynical “there are hot singles in your area” style clickbait.

And, let’s face it people: sometimes artistic vision is just dumb. Remember the original Mass Effect 3 endings? Kojima’s obsession with justifying Quiet in MGS 5? There is nothing sacrosanct about design failures. Pretty sure the same people who get up in arms about derrière removal are the same people who have strong opinions on the decline of modern gaming too. Is it not artistic vision of the designers to make X game have/not have Y feature? Where is that artistic vision line drawn?

Besides halfway up Tracer’s back, I mean.

I dunno. I frequently choose female avatars in the games I play, and I’ll admit to having a few sets of Firemane Leggings in the ole WoW bank. But this shouldn’t really be the mounds hills your willing to die on, artistic vision-wise. Assuming, as Liore points out, it is even worth dying for the artistic vision of a publicly-traded corporate entity in the first place. The only backsides they’re truly interested in are of the green variety.

Accretion

There is a gaming phenomenon I have been experiencing a lot lately that sorely needs a term to describe it. The effect itself is this: the older a game gets, the less space exists for the “skill middle class,” and the less the developers seem to care about catering to said group.

Tobold has experienced this recently too:

I discovered a nice game called Cabals, which combines trading card elements with a tactical board game. But unfortunately the game was released 5 years ago in 2011. So not a lot of people are still playing, and those who do have collected cards for years. So every time I start a PvP game, first I’m waiting for a long time for an opponent, and then that opponent is far, far more powerful than I am.

And here is how I described it in a roundabout way back in 2014:

I have played a grand total of about an hour of TF2, which was long enough for me to realize I have little interest in diving into seven years of accumulated competitive minutia; learning the maps, the weapons, the classes, and strategies of each while playing against hardened veterans isn’t exactly my idea of fun.

There are a few different ways this phenomenon manifests itself. The first type is how I described Team Fortress 2 above – there being simply so many additions and considerations added to a game since launch, that it becomes difficult to imagine ever reaching a competent level of play. This isn’t to suggest it’s impossible, just that it would require a level of dedication far in excess of what was needed when the game first came out.

Another version is what I experienced with reinstalling Puzzles & Dragons on my phone: abandonment of any semblance of a newbie experience. P&D is a game about collecting and leveling up monsters, and you have a maximum “Cost Size” when constructing your team; the more powerful the monster, the higher it’s Cost. Your Cost capacity starts off low and gradually increases as you Rank up. When starting a new account, you get one free pull on the super rare monster slot machine.

Do you see where this is going? I’ve “rerolled” P&D a half dozen times, and each time I seem to get a god-level monster… that has a Cost level so far beyond my starting capacity that I’d need to grind for 20+ hours just to use it. These were new monsters added to the game to entice veterans to continue playing (and paying), but it makes a for a truly awful new-player experience as you’re left with the garbage-tier monsters for way too long.

Having a carrot on the end of a stick is good motivation… provided the stick isn’t three miles long.

There is a variation of the P&D situation when it comes to games with DLC. I reinstalled Battlefield 4 recently, for example, and I realized that I’m missing 4-5 pieces of DLC. I’m not going to go back and purchase them now – this game is really just an Overwatch substitute – but this means I’m stuck playing vanilla maps against hardened veterans who have spent the intervening years since release playing these maps thousands of times. And… you know, I already know these maps too. Had I just bought BF4 recently, I would have gotten the edition that included all the DLC, similarly to how GW2 and Destiny provide the base game “for free” these days.

The best time to play a game is always at or near launch. No time else has the greatest range of player skill. You can be better than average and have that mean something. Developers are focused on the new-player experience and encouraging newbies to transition into veterans. Everything is great… minus any bugs, of course.

After time goes by though? Churn rate stays the same but new players start drying up. Veterans accumulate. Designers add things to keep the veterans happy and paying, which makes sense, as they become the plurality (if not majority) of the remaining playerbase. But there is no longer a bridge between the new player and the veteran. The gaming middle class just evaporates.

This is part of the reason why I’m excited about Overwatch. Not necessarily because it’s better than any given FPS, but because it’s a fresh start. Virgin territory. You can be that one-eyed king ruling the blind before all the two-eyed vets show up and ruin your day with their depth perception.

In any case, I’m open to suggestions for the term in general, assuming one doesn’t already exist. I was thinking about “Veteran Accretion,” but that might be a bit too fancy. Endgame Design? Skill Gap? Too Damn Old?

Why I’m Not Playing Black Desert Online… Yet

Well, for one thing, I never buy anything for MSRP.

The coverage for Black Desert has been extremely interesting. As noted over on Dragonchasers, a lot of the blog posts read really similarly: being overwhelmed by the map, the quest structures, the crafting, etc. Bhagpuss struck out on his own, of course, with a series of very compelling exploration posts. But perhaps the most intriguing point to be made came from Syl’s observation that:

If we are thinking more longterm however, there is one thing on the forefront of my mind since the beta: BDO is very playing alone together. There is not just very little opportunity to cooperate with other players, the game actively discourages player-to-player interaction on several levels

Nearly 100% of the coverage I have been reading has been solo-exclusive. Which… makes sense, considering this is a sandbox slash sandpark. But even though I feel a strong twinge to jump into Black Desert to fiddle with the AH – Bhagpuss mentioned a particular weakness in the player-made furniture market that got my AH senses tingling – the seeming lack of “endgame” focus somehow dampens my enthusiasm. What do you do on the regular at the end? Amass more wealth? Gank high-level players? Or, god forbid, “whatever you want?”

I have not actively participated in an MMO endgame in probably five years… but the possibility that I am able to is important to me. For some reason. Damned if I could tell you why.

Still, the game is on my radar and will be procured eventually. At something less than full price.

Small Changes, Big Effects

I was thinking the other day about small changes in a game’s design that end up radically changing the entire approach I take with the game, either mechanically or just emotionally.

For example, many moons ago I was playing Candy Crush Saga on my phone, and reaching the limits of my patience with the game. I still had a few of the free special abilities left (e.g. your first free hit of crack), and was realizing that losing the level by one move was dumb when it often took extraordinary luck to even to get to that point – it doesn’t matter how skillful you are when success relies on clearing a row or column and having some helpful color replacements drop in. So, I used the free stuff, and then basically stopped playing the game.

A few weeks or so after that, the next time I booted the app up, King had introduced some sort of daily roulette wheel where your first spin is free. One of the prizes? A random special ability. Not all of them were as powerful as the Lollipop Hammer, but they were something. And knowing that I could accumulate these advantages by logging in every day provided an incentive to do so, and continue my progress through the game knowing I could use the special abilities should I need them. The move might have been a cynical cash grab considering you could buy additional roulette spins, but getting one free chance at nabbing a special ability enormously extended my interest in the game.

There have been similar changes going on in Clash of Clans in the past month or two, although cumulatively they might not be able to be described as small anymore. Originally, I was feeling like I had reached the natural end of my progression curve, as I was losing more resources to raids than I was gaining from raiding others. My alternatives seemed to be either spending money, or committing to playing more than 3-4 times a day. Then things started to change:

  • Town Halls started containing many resources themselves, invalidating the old strategy of keeping them outside your base and hoping someone destroyed just that building to give you a 12-hour shield.
  • Only lose your shield if you actually commit to an attack, rather than simply browsing bases to attack.
  • Attacking only reduces your current shield by 3-4 hours, instead of removing it entirely.
  • Added a daily quest to earn 5 stars via attacking, gaining bonus resources based on rank.
  • Reloading traps is cheaper.
  • There is a broken “loot cart” after you get attacked, which refunds a percentage of what was stolen.

The approach I am taking with the game is completely different now. The bonus rewards you get for winning a raid (getting at least one star) was often not worth it if you could fail but still nab most of your target’s resources. Now that I’m in Crystal 1 Master League 3 though? 70k 110k bonus is nearly a 100% increase in what I can usually acquire, so now I’m pushing for full-clears. I also attack more often now, since there is less of a penalty for doing so (losing shield), and even more of an incentive (the daily). The end result is that not only am I more actively engaged with the game, I am still actually progressing at the same time. That these changes might actually end up squeezing more money out of F2Pers in the process – by encouraging buying boosters to speed up attack frequency – is good for Supercell, but ultimately irrelevant to me. Technically, it’s win-win.

In terms of MMOs though, I am mostly drawing a blank. Perhaps the introduction of dual-spec in WoW? Or that one glorious period of time where dailies were weeklies and you ended up burning yourself out running 21 dungeons across three alts on reset day?

…okay. Maybe not all little improvements are good.

Unfinished

I was browsing my game library yesterday, desperately looking for something that could grab my interest, and it occurred to me just how much of it is filled with unfinished games. Not “unfinished” in the sense of my not completing them – there are plenty of those too – but rather them being literally unfinished by the developers:

  • Ark
  • The Long Dark
  • Deadwood
  • Dirty Bomb
  • Starbound
  • The Forest
  • Delver

Those are just the ones that came to mind. Some of those are in a more finished state than others, of course. What especially irks me about this scenario though is how badly I want to be playing most/all of these titles… but know I shouldn’t.

For example, I did break down the other day and start playing Starbound. I had an itch for collecting and counting proverbial beans, and it seemed especially suited to that task. The game even looks mostly finished. But it’s not. Or at least the game is paced bizarrely enough that I hope that it is unfinished, because I was about done in 20 hours whereas Terraria held my attention for 50. Even when I decided to settle in with the more freeform nesting gameplay, I realized that most of the blocks/tilesets I wanted to use were random drops rather than craftable items.

Is that intended? I don’t know. I don’t know if even the designers know.

And now, even if the devs end up finishing Starbound, I will have already consumed the lion’s share of the game’s novelty – that ever-finite motivational resource. No more character wipes? Then I’m already at endgame. Character wipes? I already know where to go, what to look for, how to overcome the obstacles, and basically speed my way through normal progression. Assuming I can be bothered to do so a second time.

“Play something else.” I tried, man, I tried. When you get the urge to play something in particular, trying to play anything else just feels worse. It’s like taking a big swig of what you thought was water, but it ended up being Sprite. They both might quench your thirst in the abstract, but in that particular moment you will be choking and sputtering.

Spell It Out

I was playing GTA 5 this weekend, and one of the missions really reminded me of why I prefer game devs to just spell out what they expect you to do as a player.

The mission was technically a “side-quest” of a heist the main characters were setting up. This particular branch was to acquire a getaway vehicle, take it to a discreet location, then call Michael and let him know where it is. Not just any vehicle will do, but there are a million carjack opportunities in the game, so it didn’t take long to find one the game was satisfied with.

What did take an annoyingly long amount of time was figuring out A) where a “discreet” area was, and B) phoning the location in. Back alley? Not discreet. Docks? Not discreet. Area marked in green? Whoops, that’s an entirely different mission area. I tried calling Michael half a dozen times, but never got the option to “Mark the Location.” And I never knew whether that was because I wasn’t in a discreet location, or if I was but I had to be outside the vehicle to make the call, or if the quest was just fucking bugged.

There are a lot of challenges I enjoy in gaming. The one challenge type conspicuously absent from the list is being a goddamn mind reader. Or, more specifically, trying to figure out what the designers wanted players to do. Sometimes the issue is that I missed what would otherwise have been an obvious clue. Hey, it happens. Doesn’t change the fact that I’m not going to wander around cluelessly for 15 minutes not playing the game. Give me a puzzle, and I’ll try to solve it. But I’m not going to fucking hunt for the puzzle, because I have zero faith in my ability to divine whether all the proper programming flags were set.

So, I looked the quest up. Turns out they wanted the car in a neighborhood area. Drove there, parked, and the option to Mark the Location came right up. Fantastic. If they could have just dropped some markers down on the map like they do with everything else in the game, I would have been done with this vanilla quest more than 20 minutes ago instead of it completely breaking the flow of my gaming session.

And looking at my experience with MMOs? Same sort of thing applies. I played WoW when it didn’t have quest givers on the minimap, when quest items didn’t sparkle, before addons highlighted quest areas, and when Thottbot was breaking new ground over Allakhazam (I think). You know what? I’ll say it: it sucked. Killing mobs and not knowing whether you were just unlucky with quest drops or if you were killing the wrong specie of bear sucks. Get lost in a cave sucks. The item you need to click on being the basement as you scour the other three floors fruitlessly sucks.

I’m not saying there can’t or shouldn’t be mysteries in a game. But it should never be a mystery that you are in a mystery. The difference between hunting for clues and being clueless is immense. It is the difference between playing a game and not.

Again, I have empathy for the players for whom their primary enjoyment is figuring shit out on their own. I hope there are addons or options for you to turn off all the quest tracking overlays. But if the designers want me to collect ten bear asses to complete a quest, that is my quest, not exploring the taxonomy of virtual Ursidae and/or their habitat. If you want me to stash a car somewhere “discreet,” you either tell me where that is, or allow me to stash it somewhere I think is discreet enough. Which was apparently 100 feet away from where GTA 5 said I couldn’t make the call.

That Old Difficulty Bugbear

Another MMO difficulty discussion has appeared!

Both Keen and Bhagpuss have posts up, with the former talking about being praised for running his healer over to the tank during aggro, and the latter missing:

Having to look around, pay attention, evaluate the situation, review options, compare current circumstances with previous experience. I miss the need to know, in detail, what tools I have in the box and which ones I need to pull out when. Crucially, I miss having the time to do all that and enjoy it.

This discussion is a bit different than the usual “good ole days” ones though. For one thing, Burning Crusade was relevant up into the end of 2008, and I distinctly remember entire heroic dungeon stratagems revolving around face-pulling with the paladin tank and then hiding in a door corner Consecrating and hoping for the best. Wrath shifted things a year later, of course, but the raids brought them back. Then there was Cataclysm for a minute. A minute too long IMO, but nevermind.

Point being, it’s been less than a decade. And potentially zero difference in coordination required, depending on the content you are doing. I’m not sure what the “Unrest Fireplace” deal is, but if it requires 6+ people with crazy pulls and such, that almost sounds raid-ish. Or Challenge Mode-ish. Sure, it might also be “open-world” content, but let’s be serious: there isn’t much difference.

The Bhagpuss angle is also interesting, as he admits that it isn’t a lack of challenge per se, but rather a changing in what the challenge consists of:

Players and developers alike have come to expect overt, clear signals in the form of ground markers, circles, cones, colors and written or spoken instructions. We’ve gone from improvisational theater to an on-book recital with cue-cards and a prompt.

What Bhagpuss misses is the “local knowledge,” which dictated which mobs were easy and which were not, which guards would protect you, where the safest farming spots were, and so on. And… that’s okay, I guess. It is indeed a challenge type that has been entirely supplanted by modern games with mods and Wikis and crowdsourced and datamined knowledge, often weeks before the content even goes Live.

On the other hand… if you had time to improv, was the content really that difficult?

And what does it say about the difficulty itself, if it were dependent on the slow accretion of experience? I do not consider trial and error particularly challenging. Nor memory games, for that matter. Which really just leaves… execution. The eponymous Raid Dance. I don’t know any people who are seriously thrilled about a difficulty that revolves around playing voidzone Guitar Hero for 12 full minutes, but a challenge that can be defeated via YouTube isn’t much of a challenge either, IMO.

There really isn’t one answer here. Everyone wants content tailored to their skill level, which means we all end up wanting different things. I will say though that many MMOs actually do have what Keen and Bhagpuss are probably looking for, in at least token amounts. If you want an entire game revolving around that though, sorry, you are going to have to stick with the niche titles. Because for however many amazing experiences you had, twenty other people died for what seemed like no reason, their group fell apart, and they lost hours of their life.

These days, you will know why you failed: you stood in the fire.

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