Crafting Survival

It is not very common for me to succumb to a desire to play a particular genre over everything else, but I got hit by a “crafting survival” bug pretty hard on Memorial Day. I’m deep in Mass Effect: Andromeda, I’ve got FFXIV on my plate, and yet I wanted to collect things by punching them repeatedly something fierce.

The somewhat surprising problem is that I’ve already played most of them.

My go-to game in the the Crafting-Survival genre is 7 Days to Die. I could – and did – play that game all damn day, and it’s hard to really indicate why. I have more or less mastered the flow of the game, so technically I should be “done” with it. The extra issue is that the Alpha 16 patch should be out (Blizzard) Soon™ and it contains some pretty big feature sets, including auto-turrets and electricity and more traps and such. I’m worried that spending more time playing in Alpha 15 will result in me getting bored with the base game and thus miss out on all the new stuff.

Once 7 Days is off the table, I’m back to a weird state. Minecraft? That’s the quintessential hook for the genre, but I’ve long been done with the game. Terraria has had some updates since I last played, but no thanks. Starbound is done. I’m passing on Ark until they actually spend time optimizing their goddamn code. The Forest might be satisfying, but I’m not sure I want Survival-Crafting-Horror at the moment.

What else? The Long Dark was intriguing, but a bit too much on the “never be safe” side of survival. I have high praise for Subnautica and will definitely play again… once it gets out of Early Access. The vast majority of these games languish in Early Access for their entire duration, actually, which is only usually a problem when you get hooked on them. Don’t Starve was a fantastic game that graduated Early Access and even has two expansions. That said, I have spent considerable time playing it already and don’t have much of a drive to go back.

Okay… what’s left? I have zero interest in PvP-centric survival, which crosses off a lot of the more famous examples, like Rust or H1Z1. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds actually popped up under “Crafting” for some reason, but no thank you. Craft the World? Played. Empyrion: Galactic Survival was actually on sale a while ago, but I’m not paying $20 for it now. Same with Rimworld.

What I ended up purchasing was Dig or Die, sadly at full price (8 whole dollars). It is still in Early Access (of course), but the description basically paints it more as a Tower Defense Terraria: build a base with turrets and defenses to survive the night. Except with more fluid physics, e.g. water and lava. We’ll see how it goes.

Black Desert?

So, Black Desert is currently on sale on Steam for $6.

BlackDesert

Considering it is a B2P game, I was considering just picking it up now and then playing later at my leisure. Something was making me hesitate though, even at this low price-point.

Then it came back: Gevlon had a series of money-making posts regarding Black Desert, and I remembered what bothered me. Specifically, the fact that wealth generation in the game entirely revolved around keeping the game running on your computer overnight/while you were at work.

Offline progression doesn’t particularly bother me in the least. Nor, of course, needing to actively grind. But being AFK while your computer runs all day? Some people in the comments to those posts were talking about how doing X is better than Y if you couldn’t remote desktop to your PC while at work in order to restart production. What the literal shit kind of game is this?

The sale is on till Wednesday, so perhaps I’ll pick it up regardless just to say I gave it the ole college try. But if you have played Black Desert and can explain some of its redeeming features, I’m all ears.

Impressions: ME:A, Supplemental

A few (dozen) more hours in, and things are humming along.

OK, so the game can look REAL good.

In these early stages of the game, three abilities do not feel like nearly enough. I came across a website that suggested that Barricade – a Tech power that constructs cover on demand – was the bee’s knees. After a boss-ish encounter that saw me kiting an armored beast around for 5 minutes, I’d suggest it’s more akin to bee’s ass. Energy Drain and Pull were rather ineffectual with Barricade as the wildcard, and it’s too early in the game for my weapons to have much of an impact on anything.

Indeed, I have talked about uneven difficulty in games before, and Andromeda seems poised to follow the same patterns. In Divinity: Original Sin, the difficulty was uneven in the early game because enemy CC was powerful while you lacked options towards ending encounters quickly, e.g. by blowing up the team with OP spells. In Andromeda, you can specialize yourself into a corner by not selecting all of the abilities, or perhaps not bringing the right kind of weapons. Andromeda allows you to actually change the three abilities you have in the middle of combat, but that won’t help you if you never spared the Skill points to buy them.

Better bring the right weapons/skills to this fight.

That said, I don’t actually like Andromeda’s swapping Skill system.

While the game goes out of its way to make the process mostly smooth – you can swap Favorite loadouts with a couple clicks – I find the entire process too… metagame-y. Ryder’s ability to switch abilities on the fly is given an in-universe explanation, but that doesn’t prevent the flow of combat from being broken whenever you pause the game to become an entirely different “class.” It’s like… why? I would agree that this is better than being able to paint yourself into an unwinnable corner by choosing the “wrong” abilities, but only barely. Why not allow us to equip more abilities at once?

Ah, right… consoles.

In any event, I will continue chugging right along. I am warming up to the characters a bit more, and going out of my way to complete most of the side-quests in typical Mass Effect style. It is hard to tell how far along in the game I am, but I’m guessing it might be closer to halfway than anything.

Steamy

I am not a frequent reader of Polygon, but their recent (hit) piece on Steam is interesting. There is a lot going on in the article, but these are the two thesis paragraphs:

This, then, is Good Guy Valve — a corporation which employs precision-engineered psychological tools to trick people into giving them money in exchange for goods they don’t legally own and may never actually use while profiting from a whole lot of unpaid labor and speculative work … but isn’t “evil.”

This is the Good Guy everyone seems too afraid to call out, the toxic friend who is so popular that upsetting him will just make things worse for you, so you convince yourself he’s really not that bad and that everyone else is over-reacting. Once the Good Guy illusion has disappeared, we’re left with the uncomfortable truth: Valve is nothing more than one of the new breed of digital rentiers, an unapologetic platform monopolist growing rich on its 30 percent cut of every purchase — and all the while abrogating every shred of corporate or moral responsibility under the Uber-esque pretense of simply being a “platform that connects gamers to creators.”

Basically, Valve conned us 13 years ago into believing they were the Good Guys, to the point that we unapologetically ascribe sins to Origin and UPlay that Valve themselves invented, and still perform where not prevented by EU law. Shkreli would give his left nut for the amount of free advertising that blasts over the internet for every Steam sale. All of this, all of this free money coming in, all this outrage over other corporations screwing over customers and employees alike… and we still eat it up for Valve.

I will admit that this article gave me pause.

It is a weird situation to find myself in, especially given that I am Pro-Consumer. Have you heard about Consumer Surplus? I invented that term. I will talk all day about how obscene it is for Blizzard to charge $25 for a character transfer, but spend zero time talking about how Valve takes a 75% cut of community-created DotA item/model sales.

That said, I’m not entirely sure there is a contradiction there, much less a cause for proletarian revolt.

Look, most of us grew up in the pre-Steam days. Do you remember what buying PC games was like? It was chaos. Sometimes you needed to keep the CD in the tray to play the game, sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes the publishers installed a rootkit on your machine, sometimes they didn’t. The first time I ever “pirated” a game was with Command & Conquer 3 because the disc I bought from the store wouldn’t play; there was either a scratch on the CD or some bug or something, but it instantly crashed on boot. Downloading a Day 1 crack on a game you just bought for $50 and couldn’t even return is pretty emblematic for that time period.

In short, Steam saved the PC gaming industry. It provided a framework in which the industry could grow, while simultaneously providing immense value to gamers. Steam sales actually were revolutionary at the time – the only times you ever got a discount elsewhere was when the game was in a bargain bin. Steam sales are disappointing these days, for sure, in a world of GreenManGaming, Amazon discounts, and all the other storefronts. Whom deliver Steam keys 99% of the time. Which is what most gamers want, considering the platform itself is immensely stable in comparison to oh, say, RockStar’s Social Club.

There are legitimate complaints regarding Steam. The Support sucks, so I have heard. It took them entirely too long to introduce Refunds, and I understand that that only came under threat of court orders. I’m also sure that the author’s claims regarding reimbursement percentages for selling character models is probably true.

But overall, I think the article is mostly attacking a straw man. There will be Valve fanboys, just as there are Apple fanboys. The difference is that Apple is a walled garden of overpriced, proprietary bullshit. Steam appears to be a near-monopoly… but based on what, exactly? Origin (or GOG, etc) might indeed be the better gaming platform these days… if it weren’t for the fact that they have an absurdly low (in comparison) library of available titles. Does Steam have exclusivity agreements that nobody knows about? If not, who is really responsible for its market share? No one is stopping anyone from opening a competing service that only takes 25% of the cut or whatever.

The bottom line is that nobody is being tricked here. Uber intentionally treating their entire workforce as contractors to avoid paying for health benefits or time off is not at all the same as “tricking” people into buying videogames over the internet. The damning “culture of cliques” at Valve is laughable; welcome to everywhere. Hell, if you want to see an abused workforce, take a gander over at Amazon warehouse for a moment.

“Good Guy Valve” is a marketing fiction, sure… but built on the back of a decade of actual value.

Impressions: Mass Effect: Andromeda

Bad facial animations are bad.

Rest of the game? Pretty good.

It is difficult to know whether I would have noticed the details on my own had it not been for the hilarious (and sad) examples spread across the internet. I would like to imagine that I’d notice, but maybe not. The toothpaste is out of that tube though, and straight into the fish-lips of every member of humanity that survived the journey to Andromeda. Maybe cryogenics causes one’s skin to slog off the bone.

Were the “older” (e.g. actual, real) Mass Effects just as bad? (No.) I dunno. All I know is that five years ago I said:

About 5 hours into Mass Effect, all I can say is holy shit.

One of the most groundbreaking things occurred in the city after the first “dungeon.” In talking with a receptionist to the Consort, she winked at me.

… and then a few months later:

My favorite aspect of the original Mass Effect was the integration of non-verbal dialog into the narrative, and the general narrative itself. In ME2, that is kicked up a notch^². Characters smile, nod, gesture, facepalm, wink, and otherwise emote in subtle, natural ways. Indeed, these little actions end up becoming part of the dialog, creating nuance and meaning that words themselves could not convey.

Perhaps the novelty has worn off. Perhaps the Witcher series has ruined facial expressions for other games for me. Or perhaps the animations in ME: Andromeda are really that bad. At the moment, I am leaning towards the latter. Ryder pretty much looks drunk all the time.

Time to hit the bottle again.

I have only played about an hour or two thus far, but the rest of the game seems okay. The gunplay does not seem as tight, but it could be the learning curve of the Frostbite engine. Or perhaps my low-level guns. I like how you can swap out abilities and such, but don’t like how apparently I’m limited to three abilities at a time. I suppose in the paradigm of quick recharging Biotic skills, it would be too much to be just slinging more mass effect fields than bullets.

Still, I always question whether these sort of decisions are made based on solid design principles, or whether it was to dumb down the game for consoles.

FF14 Dungeons, Take Two

This past week I ended up running the dreaded early dungeon gauntlet in FF14 again – you know, the three early dungeon Square Enix requires everyone to do in order to move the Main Story Quest forward. Things more or less went as well as last time.

The first dungeon run went comically bad. As soon as we zoned in, the healer just ran through half the dungeon and aggroed all of the mobs. This, of course, resulted in a wipe. The healer never rezzed themselves though, which is pretty indicative that his/her behavior was intentional trolling. Unfortunately, you cannot Vote Kick someone within X minutes of zoning into the dungeon, so we all had to wait.

Then it turned out that the healer and the other DPS voted to kick the tank, which happened to be frequent In An Age commenter, MaximGtB (who offered to help me through these early dungeons). It took me a while to figure out what even happened though, because FF14 does not allow you to Whisper or receive a Whisper while in a dungeon. And I did not know if there was an easy way to teleport out of a dungeon you were in.

So, yeah, comically bad.

After that, MaximGtB shepherded me through the three dungeons without major incident. In two of the dungeons, we had a Thaumaturge or Black Mage or whatever that insisted on using a knockback in their spell rotation, much to my Pugilist’s (and the tank’s) annoyance. It was also kind of annoying fighting 3-4 mobs at a time with zero AoE abilities. I suppose that might be a feature rather than a bug at this stage, as it would be easy for new players to spam that sort of thing and get aggro.

My overall impression about FF14’s dungeons have not really changed. There is zero reason for these early dungeons to be mandatory and/or exist. They are apropo of nothing. I don’t remember if Wailing Caverns had any lead-in, but other early WoW dungeons like Deadmines were the culmination of zone-wide storylines. That the devs required these three irrelevant dungeons for the MSQ simply boggles my mind. Mandatory is one thing, zero story is another.

In any event, further progress on my character will have to wait, as Square Enix is “moving data centers” and that apparently requires two full days of downtime. Which is almost enough time to be tempted to pop another WoW Token.

…think I’ll start Mass Effect: Andromeda instead.

Sidequestless

My early-level experience in FF14 has not been as painful as it felt previously. There are all manner of reasons why this might be the case – psychological, emotional, a more fun class, etc – but I suspect that a large part of it has to do with the increase in Main Story Quest (MSQ) XP. Which is weird, because I’m pretty sure that was already active the first time I played.

The difference is that I’m actually taking advantage of it.

I’m sure this will change down the road, but essentially I am skipping everything but the MSQ quests and still hitting the necessary milestones to continue adventuring. It feels a bit off to stroll into a new town filled with exclamation marks and roll out with just one quest on the log, but it also feels… liberating? “Oh, you want me to kill 6 whatevers on the ass end of the Earth? No thanks.” At my level (which has jumped up to 15 now), those sidequests reward around 1100 XP whereas the MSQ will dump 6500 XP on your head for walking 10 feet and talking with another NPC. Plus, the story feels a lot more coherent without all the narrative breaks.

The downside is… well, not experiencing any sidequests. Which I am both happy and sad about.

Sidequests are an interesting game design mechanic. Pretty much every RPG has them, and they are almost entirely used as pacing. Filler, in other words. Of course, if you actually find the combat/exploration/etc in the RPG engaging, then sidequests are actual, legit content. Plus, if the designers go the extra mile, sidequests might become more interesting than the actual storyline. A good example of that would be the Mass Effect or Witcher series, wherein the supporting characters and their interaction with the main character is most of the appeal.

In MMOs, sidequests are almost always chores to be completed. “Kill 10 whatevers.” “Talk to these NPCs.” “Go here and click on the shiny thing.” Some are more memorable than others, some engage in world-building, others sew the seeds of interaction with new story characters. But the vast majority are pointless busywork. And that’s the rub, right? Skipping the busywork means skipping the few gems out there.

Of the FF14 sidequests I did before focusing exclusively on the MSQ, 99% of them were filler. At the same time, I would have been sad to miss the ole “cold as a dead whore’s crotch” exchange:

The above is why I typically complete all the sidequests in MMOs: for those brief slices of amusement, in the middle of so much bland white bread.

Alas, I no longer have eight hours of uninterrupted gaming time a day, so decisions have to be made. And that decision is to largely skip sidequests. I have long heard that SW:TOR has made a similar move regarding deprecating sidequests to streamline their “fourth pillar,” and I wonder if there has been a similar loss in incidental storytelling. It is not even as though they can keep the “good ones,” because sometimes it’s the weird throwaway sidequests that end up being the best.

I’m not sure there is a real solution here. I suppose FF14 deserves some credit for at least having the possibility of people clearing these sidequests later, via leveling up other classes (which changes your level back to 1). Although with all the XP bonuses and such you get now, I’m not sure if that’s enough.

Yearly Attempt: FF14

I have resubbed to FF14.

It took a curiously long amount of time to figure out where to download the launcher for the game. In fact, had it not been the fact that I was socially committed to trying the game again, I might have just stopped right there. I understand that things might be confusing if random people were presented with a 25GB download link right off the Square Enix page and then prevented from opening it because they didn’t technically buy the game.

But seriously? I shouldn’t have to Google how to download your MMO.

Once I downloaded the launcher, reinstalled, and resubbed, I logged into my original character from a year ago just to test the waters again. And boy ole boy, do I get what the Blizzard devs have talked about before vis-a-vis not wanting to confuse returning players. Coming back to WoW is an intimately familiar experience. Granted, it is probably moreso because I had been playing that for almost a decade now.

Coming back to FF14 after having played for a month a year ago is a whole other story. Can I teleport around town at will, or do I need to need to be near one of the Aethershards? Where the hell are the mailboxes? What was I doing again? Why can’t I see the armor I have in stock?

When I left off, my character was a level 25 Arcanist/level 13 Thaumaturge on Hyperion. Meanwhile, my friend is on Cactuar. Do I pay the transfer fee? It seems to be a bit silly given the low levels, but it is difficult to tell the value of “skipping” as much of the painfully boring FF14 early game as possible. On the other hand, I don’t know my ass from a hole in the ground either, so maybe another go-around in the level 1-40 tutorial was in order.

This time around, I learned my lesson and rolled a melee character (Pugilist). Thus far… things are okay. Level 1: Press 1. Level 2: Press 1, then 2. Level 6, Press 1, then 2, then 3. I am eagerly awaiting level 10 when I actually get a reactionary button (triggers after I dodge), and then level 15 when I get a melee DoT to weave in. It may sound boring – and it absolutely is – but it is worlds better than casting Ruin a million times.

I am not 100% convinced I’ll settle on the Pugilist/Monk path. I managed to find a guide or two regarding endgame rotations, and the Monk seemed to be heading in the Feral druid direction of All the Things. Ninja just sound bizarre. The Dragoon looks fine, as does the Bard to an extent. Considering my newly rolled toon is just level 8, I have quite a ways to go.

Overall, things are fine for now. I am not buying Heavensward, as A) I doubt that I make it to the vanilla endgame before the end of this month, and B) it is included for free in the Stormblood expansion. I do not anticipate playing FF14 for even as long as I played Guild Wars 2, but I do plan on completing the main story quest and seeing what all the plot fuss is about. Assuming there is any.

Inflection Points

In Divinity: Original Sin, I have definitively hit an inflection point in terms of character power. And that is kind of a shame.

Basically, once you hit level 15 you can start learning “Master” level skills/spells. As one might expect, these can be extremely powerful. For example, one of them is Meteor Shower, which drops 30 little fireballs in a specific area, each of which can deal a few hundred points of damage apiece in addition to spread fire in the area. These powerful spells cost a lot of Action Points – generally meaning needing to wait around multiple turns to save up enough AP – and are limited to One-Per-Battle in terms of cooldowns.

The issue is that you can game the hell out of the system. The AP cost is entirely irrelevant if you happen to spot a group of enemies before engaging in combat, for example – AP only exists within combat, so go nuts for the alpha strike. Hell, I bring down the stars on even one dude, because why not? It’s always been powerful to initiate combat with a “free” spell, but up till now those spells didn’t necessarily gib your target.

Another of the Master level skills allows an Archer to fire 16 arrows in a 45-degree arc. Great for groups… or, you know, if you want to effectively one(16?)-shot bosses from point-blank range. Oh, and hey, there’s a low-level Ranged Power Shot skill that increases damage by 20% at the cost of accuracy. Which would normally be an issue if not for the fact that Arrow skills auto-hit as long as the target is in range.

MMO players will recognize this phenomenon as “Optimizing the fun out of the game.” As I have mentioned previously though, the optimizing process itself is what I find fun to begin with. And it has been pretty fun figuring this out. The problem is that the game is now “solved,” and I am in one of those positions at the end of a Civilization match where winning is a foregone conclusion, but for the long, tedious march to an official win condition.

I said this situation is a shame because I’m not so sure it was necessary. Up until this point, effective AoE in Divinity was actually decently limited. Yeah, there were combos and such that you could set up, e.g. dropping Oil in an area and then lighting it on fire. But none of it was enough to one-shot groups by itself. Hell, often those combos ended up being counter-productive. The Oil+Fire combo was good for setting people on fire, but the resulting smoke prevented targeted follow-up attacks until they moved out of the area.

This scenario sort of reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, when you are suddenly given an excessively OP party member (Orlandu) for basically no reason. The game was challenging up to that point, and considerably less so afterwards. Why? What was the designer reasoning?

Sometimes inflection points are inevitable. At the beginning of a game, your character’s options for skills and magic items are likely limited, so there might be less room for synergies. More options means more combos means more opportunities for OP results. Simply not giving anything new past a certain level isn’t a particularly good design, so the devs might actually be trapped in that regard.

And, hey, I’m not blind to the fact that it probably feels good, both as a player and as a designer, to reach the endgame and feel like a total badass. Every wizard dreams of the moment they go from shooting Magic Missiles into the darkness to altering the fabric of reality itself. This is why games like WoW end up giving you +5% upgrades each tier instead of a more measured 1% – anything less feels unrewarding.

The fundamental problem is that I found the Divinity combat system rewarding as-is. Even with good equipment, things felt dicey all the time. I’m sure that someone out there had a lot of fun going from dicey fights to forgone conclusion ones, but that person is not me. And I cannot help but wonder if it was necessary at all. If super-skills are necessary, do they need to be this particularly powerful? Why 30 meteors instead of, say, 10? That would still be a huge improvement over the standard Fireball spell.

In any case, I am continuing to play Divinity and hopefully wrap things up soon.

What I’m Playing

WoW: I have been pretty consistent in logging into WoW each day, although I believe my subscription has already lapsed. I’m about halfway into Honored with the Legionfall Reputation, the last pieces of gating between me and flying. Despite this, it’s debatable that I renew my sub.

The problem is precisely the same problem with Legion all along: alts are punished.

Yes, alts are not as punished as they were before. The Broken Shore offers easy loot, your main can mail an Artifact Knowledge book to bump that alt up to level 20 (or 25 now for me), unlocking flying on one character unlocks it account-wide, and so on. The issue is getting there.

It’s time to face the facts: the new Druid main was a mistake. Boomkin is awful in solo PvP, and awful-feeling in solo World questing when other people are around. Sure, Sunfire will tag all the mobs, yay. Now watch as every cast is interrupted by the mob in question dying to other people who get to press buttons.

PvP is basically impossible. Mages burst me down in literal seconds, and there isn’t anything you can do against melee classes. If someone is distracted or can’t reach you, sure, Boomkins can blow you up with some long-casted spells. But so could a Hunter with auto-shot.

So here I am, stuck with a class I no longer want to play, but cannot really drop either. I mean, I can, but that just means that I will have to redo a whole lot of effort, e.g. grinding reputation all over again. Being stuck inbetween impossible choices doesn’t make for a particularly enjoyable experience.

Divinity: Original Sin: This is an RPG that has lasted a whole lot longer than I ever expected it to. I think my current time counter is at 70 hours. Combat remains extremely entertaining, if not maddening at times. Crowd Control is absurd, with half a dozen different ways to lose your entire turn, multiple times in a row. This goes both ways of course, but there are always more enemies than PCs and you only have to be hit once or twice by CC to change the entire tide of the battle.

As fun as it is… I’m trying to wrap things up as soon as possible. Because…

Mass Effect: Andromeda: …I haven’t even booted it up once. Not because I’m particularly apprehensive (at least there has been a patch to smooth out facial animations), but because I anticipate dropping all other games until I finish playing it.

Final Fantasy 14: Redownloaded the client both because of the free login promotion, and because my friend finally made the necessary PC upgrades to play the game. I figure that FF14 is about due for another attempt, and the lull between now and the 2nd expansion is perhaps as good as any. Might clash with ME:A though.

Clash Royale: I continue to play and be frustrated by this game on a daily basis. I did managed to hit Challenger 2 (e.g. 4300+) again this month, but the 4000ish range is simply annoying beyond belief in terms of just farming chests. Meta decks abound in this range, and it’s almost expected to face over-leveled cards in every match. I’m talking about level 13 Royal Giants, Level 3 Lava Hounds, Level 6 Balloons, and so on.