Category Archives: MMO

So, In A Nutshell

From what I played over the weekend, Star Wars: The Old Republic is probably worth the $60.

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:

For serious.

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!

Also, this isn’t a complaint per se, but if you roll a female anything, hope you like butts.

The Ass-Cam of Star Wars: The Old Republic

Mind the gap.

The SWTOR Ass Cam© is not over-utilized, but is something I don’t remember during my Jedi “Why so serious” Knight playthrough.

Trapeeze accident, thanks for asking.

Finally, Bieber done grew up on Korriban:

Lucas::Jar-Jar as Bioware::???

That about sums up my Star Wars shenanigans. I won’t see anyone at release, but definitely at the first price drop and/or after we see how the endgame shakes out and/or after we learn by what voodoo magicks Bioware plans to use in rolling out timely content patches. Even a phoned-in Molten Front daily hub would likely be over three hours of voiced work for 8 different classes.

I do wish SWTOR the best of luck. The better they do, the more likely Blizzard gets off their lazy “$1 billion in cash we don’t know what to do with” asses, and the more gamers win.

P.S. I hope there is an achievement for getting to level 50 with zero Social Points.

Ye Olde Republica

After spending roughly 15-20 hours with the Star Wars beta this weekend, I am telling my financial advisers to upgrade The Old Republic from “junk status” to “maybe after the first few patches.” There have no doubt been hundreds of beta impressions out there, so allow me to skip the foreplay and write the impression that I wanted to read on Friday.

Actually, let’s have some foreplay first, so we all start on the same “lights on or off” page.

Preface: Lights On

I am not that much of a Star Wars “fan.” I very much enjoy the setting and general zeitgeist, but I feel its true conflict and drama potential is irreparably crippled by the inane, one-dimensional Good vs Evil aspects of the mythology. As someone commented in SWTOR General Chat on Saturday, “Jedi strive to be as Data in all things.” Perhaps the monastic order bit makes Jedi less of the Lawful Good cliche hero, but in many ways this is worse because they do not go far enough. Going all dojo as the only means of controlling an inherently corrupting Force… now that would interesting. What is orders of magnitude less interesting are do-gooders who strive to have no relationship with any they save, and otherwise go out of their way to be as forgettable as possible. Makes for some compelling stories, let me tell you. Oh wait, you probably already know since none of the movies involved Jedi actually behaving Jedi-ish.

The above is important to know precisely because, having played KOTOR previously, I believed the talent at Bioware was criminally underutilized in making yet another Star Wars game. I was more than fine with having “good or evil” consequences for certain dialog options, but when “good” is being defined so… brainlessly, it snaps my suspension of disbelief. And on this front, I want to report two things: A) the Light side is indeed being as inanely adjudicated as ever, and B) Bioware is doing the best they can anyway.

For example (I wouldn’t consider these spoilers, but whatever):

In #5, refusing to have sex with the guy gives you Dark Side points. No, seriously.

I numbered those pictures so I could provide additional context into how monstrously dumb they are, but you know what? They speak for themselves. Well, except for #5, which still boggles my mind. In what universe does it make sense for an Imperial Agent to get Light Side points for sleeping with a guy threatening to blow her cover? And to get Dark Side points for refusing?! Now, I did [Flirt] with the guy a few times, but does that somehow justify what would amount to rape in several States (since coercion was involved)? And keep in mind that this is the same game where Jedi kissing is the inevitable path to the Dark Side.

Clearly the Light Side is in favor of prostitution and no-strings-attached casual sex.

In which case… Light Side it is.

Jedi Knight, Level 7.

This is probably everyone’s default choice, so I figured it would be as good a place as any. I did not get a chance to play every class’s starting area, but out of the ones I did, this one was the absolute worst. I almost uninstalled by the time level 5 rolled around.

It has been said by others before, but you never quite realize how unbelievably polished and solid WoW’s combat system feels until you try other games. I played in both Warhammer Online’s and Aion’s beta, and all of them (SWTOR included) feel ever so slightly off. This game is a lot closer than the others however. Indeed, by the end of my total experience I could probably accept this sort of combat as a new Normal.

There is no auto-attack, and you don’t miss it. As a melee, the time inbetween the 1.5 second GCD is filled with parries and sparks and other exciting things. Some people have pooh-poohed the fact that you will be taking point-blank blaster fire and lightsaber hits until your HP reaches zero, as if 30 years of RPGs with exactly the same goddamn thing never happened. In fact, I remember whacking on a droid in KOTOR for 5 solid minutes, because my dual-bladed lightsaber had trouble with his 20/– DR.

Combat is exciting as a Jedi Knight, and in general, for several reasons. One, you get Force Leap early, which means you are constantly flying towards mobs ala warriors in WoW. Two, and in somewhat of an innovation on the MMO formula, mobs actually hang out in logical groups, typically in 3s and 4s. Since you get cool AoE moves early as well, my Jedi was flying into groups of Flesh Raiders, stunning the weak ones with a spin attack, using a reactive off-the-GCD move when I parried something, and then working a rotation otherwise. Not as solid as WoW, but close. Then again, Force Leap (aka Charge) does actually work off/up ledges, across obstacles, and otherwise doesn’t fail because a pebble or twig was in the way.

Storywise though, I am not a fan of the Jedi Knight. No hooks to keep me interested, no interesting choices; basically a snooze-fest.

Sith Inquisitor, level 11

Now here we go. Beginning area is basically cut & paste from the Korriban area of KOTOR, including plumbing the depths of the tombs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the layouts are the exact same. Story is a lot more interesting, good dialog choices, nice conflict options. The Inquisitor plays a lot like an old-school Shadow priest, what with the 10-yard channeled snare spell and such. It felt nice shooting Lightning, but I cannot help but wonder how fun it will be doing it ad infinitum. The last two levels before I got my tank companion were brutal though, like playing a mage without Frost Nova.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is that each class has a channeled ability to recharge health/mana (etc). Jedi Knight has Introspection or whatever, while the Inquisitor has Seethe. Seethe. You literally pace with your hands behind your back, back and forth, as darkness falls around you. Way better than pushing a stein with a bread roll stuff in the top through your face ala WoW.

Also, there was a section where I could use a knockback to knock mobs off the ledge and into the abyss. They died, and I got full XP.

Trooper, level 10

This was the class experience that immediately gripped me by the balls, and threatened to never let go. You barely have time for 2-3 dialog choices before your ship gets blown up, and you stumble out into a heavy fighting zone with blasters and explosions going off every which way. My two buttons at level 1 is a stream of blaster rifle fire (i.e. Strike in WoW) and a Concussive Grenade (i.e. lol level 1); both are instant-cast, and the latter knocks mobs every which way. I’m running around, helping people under fire, getting additional objectives in the field, and suddenly realize… I want this as a game. Not as an MMO, but as a game.

True, some of the Light/Dark side choices break the immersion (recovering stolen medicine for hurt soldiers = Dark, giving medicine to the thieves = Light), but there is a lot of drama potential here. Plot hooks are planted, primed, and fired. And as a Trooper, I feel a lot more freedom to make decisions the way I would want them to be made. Hey, the ends sometimes justify the means, know what I’m saying?

Also, I feel kinda bad for having the prior impression that the Trooper was going to be like those faceless Rebel mooks in the dumb helmets from the original trilogy. I sometimes wonder if Bioware spent a lot more developer resources making them extra badass to dispel that very notion. You’ve seen the cinematic, right? When a trooper tries to take out a Sith with a goddamn knife? That’s how badass playing a Trooper feels like.

Imperial Agent, level 5

Time was running out on the beta, so I didn’t get as far as I liked. Much like the Trooper experience though, the Imperial Agent felt like it was, is, and should be its own separate game. I basically randomized the character and name, but my lithe, biracial cyborg may almost be my favorite character. It is just too bad that I don’t think the Imperial Agent playstyle – cover mechanics are kinda lame when you get accidental aggro – is going to be my cup of tea. What little of the story I have seen, I like. A lot.

In any event, this is running long. Further musings will need to wait.

Great Timing

When I originally saw the MMO-Champion post about free SWTOR beta keys, I was excited. And, hey, I actually got a key! Oh… what? It’s a key to enter the drawing for a chance at downloading and playing a 20+ gig client for more than a day 1.5 weeks from now? Wow. I am still trying to imagine a scenario in which downloading a 20 gig game to play for 24 hours or less is not a thinly-veiled “fuck you.” I do not suffer under bandwidth caps, but there is absolutely a cap on my attention span and tolerance for bullshit.

That was a week ago. Last night at 3:23 am, I get the email talking about how I was magically selected for the upcoming weekend beta. I quickly click the link in the email, because apparently the speed at which you click determines the duration of the cock-tease. Fantastic, there is an error. Apparently SWTOR wants everyone who registered before a certain date to reset their passwords. I press the password reset button and wait for the email. And wait. And wait. It arrives at 4:29 am, having taken the equivalent of Pony Express speeds through the Internet tubes, about fifteen minutes after I went to sleep.

Today, I finally reset the password, and attempt to log on to redeem my weekend beta code.

Couldn't they spend, say, $5 million of that $300 million making a goddamn website that works?

Gee whiz, guys. With how concerned EA/Bioware is with a smooth launch, one would assume their goddamn website would be able to handle the traffic generated by the miserly metering of beta codes a week ago.

But you know what? I’m over it. If you notice down at the lower right of the screenshot, there is a Steam notification that Aquaira finished downloading. Aquaria and Crayon Physics Delux and Darwinia and other indie titles for $3.53 care of the latest Humble Bundle that went up today. Not to mention the next Indie Royale bundle will be going up on Friday, along with the inevitable Steam sales over Thanksgiving.

When I quit WoW, I was somewhat concerned about what I would do with all the time freed up by no longer doing daily quests, running heroics, playing the AH and so on. After all, when you averaged the ~7700 hours out it was in the neighborhood of 5 hours a day (albeit most of that encompassed when I was unemployed). What I discovered is that time gets filled up no matter what I do – there is never a time when I am bored for lack of games to play, blogs to read, or things to do. And so I am wondering if I will even have the time or inclination to fit in mediocre MMO gameplay propped up by social strings and glue anymore. Having friends is great; making friends is an awkward pain in the ass.

And unless/until SWTOR starts impressing me a lot more than it currently is, I may stick to the vastly cheaper, and amusingly better quality indie gameplay.

Fixing MMOs: The Social Solutions

Last time, I talked about the problem surrounding traditional MMO social structures, or the lack thereof. Today, let’s come up with some solutions.

Increase Mobility

One of the most radical ideas (or so I thought) turned out to be top suggestion from multiple people in the comments of the prior post: reduce or eliminate the tyranny of the server. I believed this to be radical because on the surface of things, de-emphazing servers necessarily destroys server communities; something that LFD is almost universally recognized as accomplishing, right? Yes… and no. The problem is Blizzard only went halfway. If a friend plays on Maeiv and I am on Auchindoun, why can’t we play together? RealID is making baby-steps in this direction, but the hemorrhaging community does not have time for that baby to grow up into a paramedic and stop the bleeding.

Here are some methods that could work:

  • Free, unlimited character transfers, aka the nuclear option.

Not particularly practical (Blizzard would lose a lot of money besides), but it is technically an option. It may encourage mass migration, give shelter to ninja-looters and the like, and other such social upheavals. Ultimately though, it may be better than to simply allow people to fade into account cancellation when they feel trapped in a server “community” they no longer enjoy (and don’t feel like gambling $25 escaping).

  • Free, limited character transfers.

Say, 1 character move a month with the option of purchasing more if desired. This would prevent mass exoduses, while still allowing friends to follow each other around in a measured way. It would also allow someone to “test the waters” of a server in a more meaningful way than making a level 1 toon and observing Trade chat.

  • Eliminate named, permanent servers entirely.

Essentially, set up the servers like an ice-cube tray and as each server fills up, it spills over into the next server, and divide it all into game regions. One huge benefit of this would be to allow there to always be a steady population of people leveling in every zone for group questing, etc.

Example: if I went to Borean Tundra right now, there may be 1 person questing there on Auchindoun, and maybe 5 on Maeiv, and 50 on Tichondrius. Under this methodology, there would be 56, up until an arbitrary cut-off. And if the cut-off is 100, I would have it start transferring people to a second zone instance at around ~70 so the 101st guy isn’t off by himself. The key would be to make it subtle, with no load-screen or anything. With phasing technology it should not be a problem.

Of course, if you find you enjoy spending time with someone, how will you ever find them again if there are no specific servers? This brings me to my next overarching social solution:

Introduce an informal ranking system in LFD (and elsewhere).

This suggestion needs its own entire section. Ranking people in the LFD system is frequently suggested on the forums, but the point of my ranking system is different, and it isn’t even technically a “ranking.” On the forums, people believe that being helpful/geared/experienced should be rewarded with faster queues and being grouped with similarly good people. That is actually self-defeating. It is in the community’s best holistic interest for there to be 1 experienced/helpful player in every group – letting all the cream rise to the top simply makes the bottom groups congeal into a hardened lump of terribleness. I believe players need to know what they can aspire towards before they understand what social behavior the designers want to encourage.

So, essentially, my informal ranking system would be the equivalent to a Facebook Like or Google +1. This feature is something that a player will have to initiate themselves (there is no post-dungeon survey), possibly through right-clicking a player’s portrait. What the +1 does is make it more likely that they are grouped with that person in LFD, and/or otherwise present on that player’s server (under a fluid server dynamic) in the future.

That’s it. There are no rewards for having the most Likes, nor any visible indication of how many you have. Giving this +1 to someone does not notify them, nor does it add them to a Friends List (although it will let you easily do so on your own). I briefly imagined something like a title or special effect to occur if you get 100+ Likes or whatever, but it is important that there be no incentive to game the system. It’s not a democracy, it’s not a popularity contest; it is a more generalized form of self-selection.

More Show & Tell

Under the traditional MMO social model, you are frequently limited to appearance, actions, and incidental text to communicate your personality. “Err… but Az,” I hear you say, “isn’t that basically everything?” No, sir or madam! In an MMO, your appearance is limited to the gear you happen to be wearing (or a costume, if you are lucky); your actions are entirely limited to the location and time in which they are performed (typically dungeons or raids); and incidental text just happens to be whatever you have said in a particular channel, on a particular topic, at a particular time.

While you can certainly develop impressions of a stranger, especially if you encounter them in an unique or extreme circumstance, kinship generally requires time precisely because it’s difficult to give an accurate representation of one’s character in a single sitting. Traditionally, the “solution” was enforced grouping and the pre-LFD dungeon situation in which placing voluntary strangers in close proximity for long durations was supposed to spontaneously generate communities. This “worked,” just like placing soiled rags in the the 17th century lab’s corner “worked” at spontaneously generated rats.

Repetition is required for communities – people are more asocial in LFD precisely because you aren’t going to see anyone again (unless you have a ranking system, of course). We can, however, condense the process via Show & Tell. What this means in a general sense is instead of blooming into a flower in front of others over time, you do hours and hours of blooming beforehand and invite others into your garden. Some MMO methods include:

  • Player Housing

Blizzard has strongly resisted the demand for player housing because they are afraid of players sequestering themselves away in instanced communities. Which, of course, makes sense in the 17th century spontaneous generation sort of way. How can players envy each other if they aren’t AFK outside banks and auction houses on the Flavor of the Patch mount?

But that’s just it: players generally have a preternatural desire to express themselves any way they can. Player housing would not be about having somewhere to chill out waiting for a LFD queue, or even arranging your trophies and armor sets in aesthetically pleasing ways. It would be about designing and decorating a virtual space for others to look at. You already know the meaning behind that piece of gear that’s been sitting in your bank for the last four years. Other people don’t know, and deep down I believe it is a common human desire for said object or achievement to be recognized and acknowledged as something meaningful.

Player housing is something that can easily be half-assed and end up making the game worse, yes. It will take development time and resources to make work right. If I cannot put that Light of Elune potion I’ve held onto since level ~20, four years ago, under a glass with a little plaque explanation, then I would consider player housing a failure, for example. But if you ever walked into a house with something like prominently displayed, you would see a facet of my personality that you likely never would have unless the topic somehow came up.

  • Character/Guild Bios

To an extent, Blizzard already has this in the crippled form of the Guild Finder. Which, incidentally, you cannot even use unless you happen to be guildless.

The idea behind the Bio screen is to have a sort of poor-man’s player housing without the instancing. A simple whiteboard allowing curious passerby the ability to see what you are all about. Beyond the obvious player ramifications on RP servers, I also imagine it as a way to perhaps allow you to highlight which of your in-game achievements are your favorite, or other demonstrations of skill, perseverance, or luck. Or, hell, as a way of passively advertising your WoW blog. Unsavory characters may use it to transmit keyloggers and such, but it really is not so different than what happens in text form already. And besides, Bios would require you to be actively inspecting/looking someone up, rather than getting it forced upon you Trade Chat style.

Conclusion

This is running pretty long already, and about to be buried in BlizzCon news besides. The sort of bottom line here is that most MMOs are woefully stuck in the Dark Ages, and need to catch up to the emerging trends and zeitgeist of the day – specifically in the realm of social tools. For as much as I despise Facebook and “social media” in general (for their nefarious ways), it is worlds easier being able to locate and interact with new people from multiple locations with similar interests as yourself, while flexing your Show & Tell muscles all the while.

The sort of subscriber revolt going on in Cataclysm had many causes, but I strongly believe the #1 reason had nothing particular to do with LFD or difficulty or boring grinds per se, but with the sort of cascade effect that happens when the underlying social structure has been weakened by those (and other) things. In other words, I think LFD and hard heroics and boring grinds can be fine as long as you have the social tools to keep people together in the midst of it. A return to the vanilla/TBC model without a LFD would have been equally disastrous IMO, unless social tools were added too.

If you have critiques or alternative ideas, let me know in the comments below.

Fixing MMOs: The Social Problem

If the cornerstone of MMOs are the social aspects, then I have a question:

Why do game designers make it so absurdly complicated to find like-minded individuals?

I started playing WoW like I imagine a lot of people did: alone. And much like I imagine happens with guildless new players, I was ninja-recruited in one of the starting zones. From there, some elder player took me under their wing, helping me with that difficult final Ghostlands quest, getting me into a BG for the first time, and so on. I had a really great time.

Then… the guild imploded while I was questing in the Hinterlands. The game was no longer fun, and I abandoned my Blood Elf warlock. Since I had already paid for the WoW box and TBC at the same time, I decided I would at least try to get my money’s worth and roll a draenei on a new ‘Recommended” server. Leveled alone, twinked out a bit at levels 18-19 and 28-29 (I thought the AB boots were godly, even if you had to lose 30 games to get them). And then I ran that fateful Scarlet Monastery as a paladin tank, with three people who were friends IRL. I must have made some kind of impression because they invited me to the leveling guild they were in, named Invictus.

When I quit WoW a few months ago, I had been the GM of Invictus for over two and a half years. I saved the guild from abject destruction twice before taking the reins myself, and we graduated from leveling guild to Kara-clearing to eventually the #1 progression 10m-strict guild on the server in Wrath. For a time we had an absolutely brilliant raid roster of people that got along with each other, had similar interests, and otherwise had an ineffable chemistry which peaked in Ulduar, something that absolutely could not have happened at a better time in the game. Seriously, I still get misty-eyed looking back on the Ulduar montage I filmed (and seeing the Guild chat spam in the video after those kills almost makes me want to re-sub).

Thing is, it was completely goddamn random that any of us met at all.

To be clear, I am not referring to the general sort of Destiny vs Coincidence of my original guild imploding, my “choosing” Auchindoun over another server, or even my decision to tank Scarlet Monastery that night (and remember, this was back in TBC so Alliance characters had to be pretty damn serious about making the 15+ minute trek across three Horde-heavy zones). Anyone can talk about “what if?” until they begin to question the very nature of existence itself.

No, I talking about how Blizzard and most other MMO developers seem to rely on emergent social groups in their social MMOs.

e·mer·gent
adjective
Arising casually or unexpectedly.

When I met Sproll, Ariyal, and Duerim (now Boryenka) that night in Scarlet Monastery, none of us really knew how much we had in common. I wish I remembered what it was that led them to invite me to Invictus, although it was probably something dumb like my being guildless at the time. All three of those guys ended up being core officers of my benevolent Invictus dictatorship over the years, and I still talk with Bor to this day outside the game – we played the new Portal 2 co-op DLC a few days ago, for example.

If LFD existed back in those days, would I have met them in Scarlet Monastery? No. Would I have met them somewhere else on Auchindoun (it’s a low-pop server after all)? Maybe. But I still cannot get over the ridiculousness of the design insofar that this sort of emergent social behavior is encouraged in the most asinine way possible: randomly throwing people together and seeing what sticks. That is why you will never see me agree with the notion that LFD destroys communities. A lot of us bloggers lucked out in the Wild West fashion, but how many untold millions failed to get that pug moving and quit from boredom before the endgame? Is that really a “community” worth saving?

What I will agree with is that the current system is also dumb. The genre seems so stuck in the goddamn Dark Ages when it comes to social networking that I am genuinely surprised anyone makes something more than superficial “friends of convenience” at all. Players need to be given the tools to find like-minded individuals. There is a danger to creating insular cliques, of course, but if everyone agrees that MMOs are better with friends, this antiquated grouping design of blind coincidence needs revision.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion featuring concrete suggestions, coming (to) In An Age near you.

A Glitch Review in 1,500 Words or Less

About sums it up.

To be fair, I never had any intention of being fair to Glitch; kind of like hosting a Colorblind Coloring Contest, I just wanted to see what would happen.

I played for about 30-40 minutes, making butterfly cheese and running away from other players trying to interact with me. Then I decided I would give Glitch the benefit of a doubt and take the gameplay more seriously. It was at that moment that I futilely tried to remember where the tutorial told me I could go to purchase a bigger bag, failed to find any quest history related to it, didn’t see any bag-related posts on the help forum, and then gave up.

As I deleted the three email notifications that I had leveled up a skill in-game (in case I forgot, I suppose), I realized that it was probably better for the both of us.

Butchered

If you want to read a 4,079 word essay on the decline of WoW from the standpoint of two members of the sub-10% of raiders, you cannot go wrong with Failure, Challenge, and the Decline of WoW. If, instead, you were looking for a well-written, relevant essay on WoW’s “decline” exploring actual issues, don’t bother reading it at all. Stede in particular eviscerates the entire argument in a single comment.

What interested me about the essay is how so completely it falls into that utterly bizarre MMO difficulty trap – the sort of notion that MMOs should be social engineering experiments to create a generation of better gamers. The part that struck me the most was when they were talking about The Butcher from the original Diablo:

The best piece of low-level content ever created by Blizzard is found not in current WoW, nor even in old WoW, but 15 years ago in Diablo. The Butcher.

Every NPC in town warns you about The Butcher before your first trip into the dungeon. In case you didn’t bother talking to them, just outside the dungeon entrance you find the previous adventurer who tried to delve in, bloody and dying. Before killing your first mob, a villain is set up. The first half hour of dungeon crawling goes by uneventfully. But somewhere on the second level down, starting to get a little comfortable with your level 4 character, you come upon a small square room completely covered with blood. Maybe you remember the warning, maybe you didn’t, but in either case, it’s your first time playing and you want to know what’s in there, so you open the door. And you get Butchered.

This experience is hard to convey in text to people who’ve never played Diablo. Ask anyone who has if they remember their first time being killed by him. It’s sudden, surprising, and scary. It’s probably your first character death. He does a huge amount of damage, stuns you, and holds you in melee range. He has a loud yell the moment you open the door, an elaborate bloody apron, and a ridiculously-sized cleaver. You’re mostly likely dead before you take in everything that’s happening. And for some reason, it’s the one moment that makes everyone’s eyes briefly glass over in nostalgia.

Having played the original Diablo, I had the same experience of being mercilessly slaughtered by The Butcher. The essay goes on from this point to talk about Hogger, trying to tie both the experiences together while lamenting that Cataclysm and WoW in general has lost this dangerous feeling. The ironic part of these examples is that each were precisely designed to not be difficult. The Butcher was not supposed to be a difficult encounter, it was supposed to kill you. As the author(s) note, you probably had not died yet at this point in Diablo, so it behooves the game designers to set up unwinnable scenario to demonstrate what will happen when you overextend in the game proper. Same exact deal with Hogger: his purpose was demonstrate the difference between non-elite and Elite mobs. You were supposed to die. Neither were difficult in any meaningful sense of the term, and both simply encouraged you to grind mobs until you outleveled them as content.

The original Hogger.

Even Nils has recently demonstrated that the early game is designed to still kill you, Hogger or no Hogger. What gets confused by these challenge-seekers is that leveling was never designed to be challenging. The “kill you” moments or outdoor Elites that could be defeated through skillful actions were not designed to challenge your skill, they were to organically demonstrate how death and resurrection worked without resorting to instant-kill mechanics. And yet people lament the removal of the outdoor Elites near dungeons as if they were designed to spice up gameplay instead of marking territory out-of-bounds for solo players.

It is fine to desire content tailored to your skill level, as those authors so obviously want. But it always strikes me as bizarrely pompous to place said desire on a pedestal as if gamers becoming better at games is some kind of righteous calling, a form of high art compared to the Jersey Shore-ness of current WoW leveling. First, they were wrong about the purpose of early difficulty. But secondly, and more importantly, a high-difficulty paradigm actively destroys the social aspect of MMOs. If I want to experience hard raiding content but the friends that I made leveling up do not, I must abandon them. Read the comments from that article. For every “exclusive content through difficulty” proponent, there are at least two more people grateful that they can finally raid with their friends (until Firelands anyway).

In any event, the other half of the article talks about loot structures in MMOs, which is another post entirely. Suffice it to say, I disagree with them on that point as well.

Class Warfare

Things are getting ugly out there in the MMO blogging realm. Very ugly. I am referring to Syncaine’s “Twit” series of posts. And while the implicit embrace of Gevlon’s M&S generalizations is one thing, this new pernicious brand of thinking is being focused on the one group of people that has nothing at all to do with the “twitification” of the hobby. In so demonizing them, one simultaneously give a free pass to the people actually responsible and reinforce all the stereotypes gamers have all endured for decades.

Syncaine actually started out being reasonable. He identified the problem with the (baited) Twit generation in my MMO post:

But what about those of us with more than a 5 minute attention span? What about those who found the older level of challenge just right? We spend money too, and tend to spend it for longer periods of time when given the chance. Are there countless millions of us like there are Farmville players? No. But we are out there, in the hundreds of thousands at least.

Specifically, there are less of you, ergo you are a vanishingly tiny niche not worth catering to, at least with AAA titles. That is capitalism working as intended. Syncaine does have a point insofar as the MMO mold can only be morphed so far while still retaining the things that make it an MMO, at least by any given definition of MMO. Where things go completely off the rails is when he stages a Tea Party-esque rally of entitled bourgeois to attack the players, instead of the game.

And sadly the twit-generation is not just young kids, but ADD (clinical or not) riddled ‘adults’ that have become so entitles, so expectant, that anything beyond instant gratification is not good enough. (source)

McDonalds makes its money not from starving people without options, but from twits who are too lazy or plan life too poorly to have time for a real meal. (source)

You want to know the difference between you and the entitled, unwashed masses you decry as killing your genre? Not a single goddamn thing. Whine, whine, whine. “I want challenge! I want games built just for meeeeeeee.” You and everyone else.

I have said for ages that there is nothing at all selfish about wanting content designed for your skill level. At the end of the day, that is what everyone wants. And it’s not just about skill level because that implies everyone looks for challenge. They don’t. There are people in WoW who log on, fish for an hour, and log out. That sort of thing is relaxing to them. Judging them based on that is indistinguishable from judging them based on what kind of music they listen to, how much money they make, or you know, the fact that they play videogames to begin with.

I get it. I understand you had this game/genre that seemed to be based entirely around your needs and desires, and now it seems to be slipping away. That’s life. More importantly, that’s business. Blizzard et tal are the ones who decided that they would rather chase casual dollars instead of your small wad of sweaty money. Stop blaming the players who have nothing to do with game design decisions, and blame those that do. Or, you know, don’t blame anyone because game companies exist to make money. And chances are good that the economics team of the billion-dollar game companies like Blizzard have already graphed out exactly how much your high regard is worth, and found it wanting.

Harder games are not some higher, purer form of magic. They are simply different tastes. And if none are being made, or the ones that exist are being “dumbed down,” you may want to start up your utopian commune because the Invisible Hand is flipping you off. That, or you could demonstrate some of that delayed gratification skills you accuse others of lacking and simply wait for some game company to come along and cater to your more refined palette.

Choosing to Miss the Point

The unofficial blogging theme of the week is Choice, and while I was not going to comment on it, the sheer force of a thousand bloggers missing the point simultaneously slowed the rotation of the Earth enough to make it necessary. So allow me to clear up a few things.

1) You cannot have “meaningful” narrative choice in MMOs. Nor would you want them.

In case you need a reminder, we are talking about Massively Multiplayer Online games here. Assuming “meaningful” choices existed, who is going to be making them? You? Or the ten thousand other players on your server? You cannot all be making meaningful choices pretty much by definition. Remember the Siege of Undercity? No you don’t. The Siege was completed by Arthasdklol hours before you logged on. If you solve the Arthasdklol situation by instancing everything out, at what point does A) the choices cease to remain meaningful, and B) the game ceases to be an MMO?

The lack of “meaningful” (narrative) choices in MMOs is not a bug, it’s an essential feature.

“What about MMOs like EVE?” I hear you cry. Obviously Sandbox content is a bit different than designer-created narrative content. But it is important to not get too pedantic with pitting player-generated stories against a coherent narrative, the latter of which is what everyone is talking about when they speak about choices anyway. If the headlined EVE scams and interstellar drama is put on a pedestal, why is WoW intra-guild drama not similarly enshrined? Heard that Dragonwrath legendary story yet? If EVE has “meaningful” choices due to nullsec shenanigans, then so does every social game. Which begs the question of whether these “meaningful” choices only exist in the context of social interaction. In other words, the game proper has nothing to do with it. Maybe Game A creates better incentives than Game B for social interaction, but just because you build it, does not mean the horses will drink. Or something.

2) You cannot have “true” failure in MMOs. Nor would you want them.

Raise your hand if you have ever failed an escort quest in an MMO. Now keep your hand raised if you think escort quests get any more interesting or fun if the person you are escorting permanently dies and you can never retake the quest again. If you still have your hand raised, lower it if the reason is because you hate escort quests with a passion and wish you could kill the dumbass you are escorting yourself, for running headlong into unnecessary mobs or how they move with the speed of a narcoleptic 3-toed Sloth that missed it’s insulin injection.

The people with their hands still raised should use it to slap themselves in the face for being a liar. Didn’t your mother raise you better?

The type of “failure” frequently enshrined by these bloggers is the sort of failure that results in a Game Over screen in single-player games. And the difference between reloading your last save after a Game Over and abandoning a failed quest and retaking it is… what? That’s right, there is not a damn single difference. Too Damn Epic asserts:

What happens, though, when your games are rigged so that you can’t lose?  That’s the underlying problem in most MMOs.  You can’t lose.  They’re jury-rigged for success, and as Gandhi said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”  Tweak that a bit for our purposes, and you get:

“Choices are not worth having if they do not include the option to make mistakes.”

[…] After all, in WOW, you can’t really make mistakes.  You can undo talent trees.  You can wipe on braindead PvE content to your heart’s content until you “win”.  You don’t lose anything in PvP.  In an effort to make games more accessible and retain subscribers, we’ve lost the capacity to fail – and in the process – lost the capacity to produce meaningful choices.

“You can wipe on braindead PvE content to your heart’s content until you ‘win.'” Err… so you are saying that you can fail until you succeed? Just like in any game ever made? Maybe there is a serious psychological difference between re-taking a quest and hitting F9 that I am not picking up on. Or perhaps the failure scale these individuals use have only two pegs: Faceroll and Battletoads. And as someone who actually played Battletoads on the NES back in the day, the game did not get more fun when you spent four hours memorizing all the walls in the racing level and the pitfalls in the tube level only to die in the snake level and have to redo everything all over again. That sort of designer bullshit has exactly one function: to turn a five-hour game into a 40 hour nightmare.

The bottom line here is that MMOs having a permanent failure state is actually a worse penalty than any single-player game, with the exception of Russian Roulette. Once you accept that a permanent failure is off the table, we are really quibbling over the length of player time to hold hostage. And honestly, I want to meet the Carebears who look at PvP and say nothing is lost when you get thoroughly owned by a Frost mage that is now teabagging your corpse. Somehow -1 Dignity and +1 Blood Pressure never evened out, in my experience.

3) What is “meaningful” choice anyway?

I have put “meaningful” in scare quotes every since I read SynCaine’s post on choices, and based on the example he used, I think everyone should as well:

A game like Dragon Age is full of ‘fake choice’, where every quest seems to have multiple solutions, but the end result is just different loot or some placeholder NPC switching up one line with another. Not that it really mattered in DA, the game was still fun and its story was good-enough to see it to the end. I’d just never put it anywhere near The Witcher in terms of moral choices and tough decisions.

Err… did we play the same Dragon Age? Assuming you beat DA and/or don’t mind 100% spoilers, just casually glance at the Epilogue Wiki page. Perhaps his point was that epilogue slides are just “switching up one line with another?”  I have not played The Witcher myself although I own both 1 & 2 on Steam (SynCaine must have just missed the deal a few months ago), so I cannot compare the two. What I will do is make a wild assumption that what choices The Witcher does offer the player does not come in the form of mutually exclusive content, which appears to be the gold standard of “choice.” If the Witcher does have mutually exclusive content, it will be in the radical minority of games.

I am making a point of this not just because what is “meaningful” is subjective, but also because I think this usage of choice is dumb. Flavor choices are inexplicably dismissed as shallow or meaningless by bloggers, when they are absolutely critical in developing an identity, or affinity to your character or the narrative as a whole. Planescape: Torment is brought up a lot as the pinnacle of storytelling, for example, but how much “real choice” does Planescape actually have in comparison to, say, Dragon Age? Very little. The brilliance of Planescape came from the depth of the “meaningless flavor choices” (all 800,000 words of them) which otherwise pulls you into the narrative in the wholly unique way that only video games can.

Besides, if you believe flavor choices are meaningless or have no consequences and therefore are not choices, how do you explain the apparent success of the F2P cash shop model? Or the likely fact you have things hanging up on your wall right now that you paid for and yet have nothing to do with the structural integrity of your domicile?

Individual expression is, indeed, the most interesting choice you can make despite – or perhaps in spite of – the likely fact that no one else cares.

The Diminishing Returns of Fun

I was listening to an episode of The Instance (#242) today and was struck in a rather fundamental way by what they said in the Mailbag segment. So much so, that I went ahead and captured the 8 minute audio exchange and uploaded it to Youtube so it could be more easily accessed. The reader email question itself was rather asinine, but it elicited a (brief) discussion on how the playerbase of WoW has evolved over time. The evolution of the playerbase, or devolution as some say, has been a frequent whipping boy of forums posters and bloggers for ages – Blizzard dumbing down the game, catering to casuals, and so on.

The thing is, I firmly believe that the argument has always been backwards. Blizzard is not catering to casuals, they are desperately trying to retain that ever-sliding core of veterans. Blizzard is not shaping players, the players are shaping Blizzard. The rest is worth listening to, but I went ahead and transcribed the most important portion of that audio clip, spoken by Scott Johnson:

[Repeating content] is a distinct downside to MMOs in general, and it is why I really enjoy a cultivated experience like Diablo 3 – like the Elder Scrolls games, like I am expecting with Skyrim, like a lot of single-player RPGs – where the wonderment and the excitement and the newness is always present. Because, unless you are freak who plays games six times through for no reason, everything is new as you consume it. Whereas in World of Warcraft, and other MMOs like it, as much as Blizzard tries, and they do the best out there to make things SEEM as fresh as possible. After a while, like that Blood Beast fight… [snip]

But again, I’m kinda with him. This is why I don’t pug much. Because I find that so grindy and so not fun. What I want … if I’m going to do that stuff, I’ll do it with my friends because then THAT is the newness of the experience. Because we’re laughing, Manny said something funny, Pootinky made a fart noise, whatever. We’re having a ball in there. So THAT is fun for me. The actual pugging of the thing for the 5000th time is not fun for me at all in the least. It is just earning money, currency to go get something. And that’s fine, that’s working as a system. But I’m kinda with him that you lose that cultivated experience, you lose that wonderment of walking into a room for the first time, like walking into Ulduar and going “Holy crap! Look at where we have to go and how we have to get there.” And then after a while you are “Oh my gosh, Ulduar can suck it. I hate this fight.”

That is reason the “vanilla forever!” mindset never made sense to me, nor the appeal to nostalgia that was Cataclysm; as they say, you can never cross the same river twice. People like to imagine that if everything had stayed hard, they would not have gradually lost interest in the game. But think about your favorite games of all time. Are those games still fun for you today? Would they still be fun to you if you replayed them half a dozen times back-to-back? You can never recreate that original experience – the wonderment and newness is consumed in the act of experiencing it. And as much as I agree with Scott that Blizzard does a lot in trying to keep content fresh by constant iteration and new boss abilities (etc), at some point you understand on a fundamental level that the Ship of Theseus has sailed, so to speak.

The “catering” is not to casuals, but to the veterans who have reached the end of their original experience and who, through boredom or social ties, are looking for more things to do in-game to fill the time while they wait for schedules to align. But why would veterans actually want extremely fast leveling, faceroll dungeons, and so on? Some of that is actually trying to capture the 80-90% of players who never finish games, sure. But the things like Justice Points and LFD are firmly for the vets. Nils suggests that Blizzard uses “ease” as a weapon in the form of competitive advantage against other MMOs (or perhaps in response to others doing it). Or perhaps in reaction to player “entitlement.”¹ I would argue instead that fun in games has diminishing returns. Running across the entirety of Searing Gorge each time you wipe in BRD might have given you a healthy respect for safe pulling in your formative years, but I guarantee that you would be sick of it four or five years later if it was included everywhere. You learned that lesson, and reinforcing it constantly adds nothing of further value to your experience anymore than would repeating grade school as an adult.

Ultimately, I feel theme-park MMOs are their own worst enemy. Nils told me once that it was in my best interests for an MMO journey to last as long as possible. If I was purely fixated on the eradication of my free time, then sure. I played WoW for over 7000 hours as compared to Xenogears’ 80 hours. But I never once, for a single moment, felt that the magnitude of fun with the former came remotely close to matching the latter. In fact, as is the case with any novel or movie or TV series, the extreme danger is that efforts to elongate the experience instead poisons it². More becomes less. Instead of cultivating a complete experience with a beginning, middle, and end, the theme-park MMO model demands an open-endedness at odds with its progressive narrative.

Perhaps this is merely a sign that (theme-park) MMOs are not a genre meant for me. I do not think that is entirely true though. The genius of MMOs is that they appeal to and accommodate a huge variety of players with different interests – as vapid as questing seems to be to vets, it was actually an endearing experience the first (few) times. Instead, I think designers should embrace the end of their games, incorporating a more conclusive experience while leaving the door open for an encore. Or the after-party.

¹ Entitlement is a word so abused by bloggers and commenters that it has lost most of its meaning. Entitlement should not be synonymous with the expectation of a fair exchange of value. Nor should it denigrate legitimate instances of design criticism. It’s honestly getting to the point where you cannot say something is superfluous or inelegant without being accused of feeling “entitled” to, you know, better design.

² See: Lost, Rescue Me, every Terminator movie after T2, every Alien move after Alien 2, etc etc etc.