Battlefield 1

All my yes.

Okay… most of my yes. Concerns:

  1. Alternate timeline WWI, or is this down and dirty WWI?
  2. Will default weapons be single-shot/bolt action guns?
  3. Melee hasn’t really been Battlefield’s strongest suite.
  4. Going to be real interesting without a minimap. At least, there shouldn’t be one.
  5. I hope the weird fixation on the biplanes doesn’t mean will still see 40-1 pilots strafing all game.
  6. There might be some cannibalization via BF4 due to the (presumed) extreme gameplay shift.

I got into the series with Battlefield 2 and that remains my favorite to this day. So without any of the Battlefield 1942 nostalgia, the time period is a bit weird. But I definitely think DICE and crew deserve massive props for going forward with what is otherwise a huge gamble. Yeah, COD is doubling-down on near-future, so a Battlefield 2143 or whatever might have been too much SciFi. But ceding it entirely? That takes some gumption.

So, yeah. This will be an interesting Fall.

Grimwatch

Since I “saved” the $50 from not buying the 50-pack deal in Hearthstone, I turned around and pre-purchased Overwatch. In fact, I just got off a four-hour semi-open Beta session with some ex-WoW buddies as I write this. All the maps are open this time around, so things are pretty interesting.

Even more interesting though, was the trailer for Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 3:

I can’t even really begin to elucidate why the 40k setting grips me so. All I know is that spent 200+ hours playing Dark Crusade, and I’ve been missing that feeling since… well, Dark Crusade. Dawn of War 2 took the series away from RTS and more into a tactical direction, which is not something that it really needed. Now? It’s going back. It’s going home.

Exciting times, my friends.

Plus, you know, there will be information about the next Battlefield game this Friday. Battlefield Hardline was such an epic failure, that only a proper BF5 (or even BF 2142 sequel) could wipe away. If we see something like that and all this grimdark 40k business? I won’t know what to do with myself. Other than actually look forward to game releases again.

P2Setup

Although I did not mention it beforehand, I spent all of last week vacationing in Florida.

While I was gone, Hearthstone released its third expansion, Whispers of the Old Gods. As with the expansions prior, Blizzard ran a “sale” in which $50 bought you 50 packs instead of the usual $1.25/pack price. I had decided to not take advantage of this deal before the vacation, as at that time there still wasn’t a full spoiler. So I passed on the deal, which ended before I returned.

As it turns out, I really didn’t need it:

Hearthstone_Whispers.jpg

That’s a lot of eyeballs.

I ended up purchasing around 55 packs with gold alone (100g apiece), and received another 13 packs via the quests everyone gets for playing during the expansion release. And this reminded me that I had also purchased the League of Explorers expansion last November solely with gold too, for around 2800g, I believe. In fact, given my (casual) playing habits, there’s a good chance I never have to spend real dollars on Hearthstone ever again.

What playing habits? Hearthstone gives you one daily quest each day, and you can bank up to three. Most reward 40g, but the average payout is actually closer to 50g. I typically play twice a week or so, usually in Tavern Brawl mode (which also gives you a free pack once a week), for 1-2 hours each time to complete quests. If you do that consistently, as I have, that means you are banking 1200g-1400g a month just for dicking around.

You can grind more gold via wins (+100g each day) or Arena (+infinite/skill), but I like my method.

Thus, even if Blizzard releases two expansions and an Adventure each year as they plan to, I can afford to purchase the Adventure and 58 packs of each expansion via in-game gold playing just twice a week and completing 6 quests. Will that give me all the uber-cards necessary to be competitive in the Standard format? Well… depends on the deck. If you aren’t above playing Aggro, it’s entirely possible to hit Legend on a budget, just as it’s always been. Wallet Warrior? Not so much.

Having said all that, I’ve both been playing Hearthstone for a while and dropped some cash for packs early on. I have all the staple Legendary cards from the base set, at least for the classes that I routinely play. There are some clever catch-up mechanisms in place (Tavern Brawl pack, end of month rewards), but I don’t want to give the impression that Hearthstone is a pleasant experience for the die-hard F2P player. In fact, I imagine it sucks, perhaps more than ever.

However. Now that I’m all set up? I’m good to go. And even if there were some chase Legendary that I really felt I needed – there doesn’t seem to be an obvious Doctor Boom this time around – I accumulate a minimum (e.g. worst-case) of ~300 dust a month from free packs/rewards, or 540 dust each month on average, meaning I can craft whatever Legendary I wanted every 3 months. That’s a long time, granted. But sometimes you pull the cards you need, and it doesn’t count dusting unused cards from your collection.

So, really, I consider Hearthstone to be a P2Setup game these days rather than straight-up P2W. If you’re considering playing for the first time today though… well, good luck. If you enjoy the overall gameplay, it does get better over time. It will just be you or your wallet that endures the hazing.

Shadows of Ridiculousness

Started Finished playing Shadows of Mordor a few weeks ago, and my experience for most of it has been compelling. The game’s design hits the sweet spot in a whole lot of categories.

ShadowOfMordor1.jpg

Brutally killing orcs = definite sweet spot.

For example, running around in stealth and brutally executing orcs makes you feel overpowered. Manually attacking and parrying even a half dozen orcs does not. And so stealth is highly encouraged. And yet it isn’t the end of the world if you get spotted, as outside of specific missions, you can always just run away. Or even just kill every witness and get back to skulking about.

One of the flops though, is the RPG-esque Nemesis system. Or rather, the RNG aspect of some of the combinations.

In a nutshell, the Nemesis system simulates the ascension and power struggles of an orc army as they vie for control and fill in new vacancies made by you stabbing the predecessors in the throat/blowing them up/getting them eaten by wildlife. This specific part is insanely cool – the jockeying around and combat promotions – and is one of those features you kinda wish were in every open-world game from now on.

The issue comes from how the Captains have a random assortment of Strengths, Weaknesses, and combat abilities. Again, this is cool. Except when it’s not.

Witness, Hûmgrat, the Kin-Slayer:

I originally wrote several paragraphs about this guy – having hitherto unsuccessfully taken him out for bullshit reasons¹ – but I’m going to let the video speak for itself. Start at 2:50 (of this 5 minute video) if you want to see the actual “fight.” And keep in mind this is pretty much the only way to take him out, sans getting lucky with fire pit placement/existence or coming back after unlocking Branding (mind-controlled Orcs bypass the usual immunities).

So… yeah. Beginning parts are very fun, and then later ones much less so. You end up either facing more Hûmgrat, or you face an Orc you can practically one-shot. While Hûmgrat left enough of a bad taste in my mouth to almost poison the entire experience, he was not fully successful. And so I would recommend this game to any LotR fans, Batman fans, and/or Assassin Creed fans. If you can dodge the bad RNG orc combinations, there is much fun to be had.

¹ Bullshit reasons usually being other Orc Captains “randomly” appearing in the middle of my 5+ minute stunlock.

GTA 5 Complete

I finished GTA 5 a few weeks ago now, and my experiences can be summed up with this:

The game overall was actually phenomenal, albeit strangely balanced. It has been ages since I played GTA 3 and Vice City, but I remember those games being centered on steady progression with gun unlocks and even vehicle selection. For example, you couldn’t find the fastest cars in GTA 3 until the first bridge gets repaired, which only occurs after finishing several story missions.

In GTA 5? Some of the best cars are practically outside your first house. Indeed, several more things appear to be cash-gated too – gun unlocks and such – but completing a successful heist towards the beginning of the game ended up giving my characters over a million dollars apiece. Body armor costs $2500? No problem. Pretty sure I went ahead and unlocked most of the guns right away too.

GTA5_2

The best of introductions.

One of the more consistent pieces of feedback I heard about GTA 5 going in was that nobody really liked Trevor as a character. Turns out Trevor is one of the more authentic characters in the game, IMO. Granted, he’s a batshit insane psychopath, but the body count of the other main characters are nearly as high, and yet they act like it is no big thing.

I did try out the GTA Online aspect for about a hot minute. One of the tutorial missions required me to go to a specific clothing shop that was currently being camped by a player with an attack helicopter though, so I Nope’d right out of that server. This aspect of GTA is apparently wildly profitable (to the tune of $500 million), but I have little desire to grind (or pay) my way to progression in this sort of game.

GTA5_1.jpg

Christ, the visuals are amazing.

The single-player portion of the game though? It was a blast to play through. The three-person narrative worked out well, the graphics were sublime and ran at a silky 60 FPS with a GTX 970 the majority of the time, and there were plenty of emergent shenanigans. I barely played GTA 4 or San Andreas, so it’s hard for me to say how much the formula has improved, but the game is quality regardless.

Vanilla Challenge: Levels 1-5

And so it begins.

To start with, let me just confirm that the process of pirating Blizzard’s IP by joining a private vanilla server is remarkably easy. I posted the instructions elsewhere, but the steps I followed were:

  1. Find website.
  2. Click the torrent link they helpfully provide.
  3. Wait for 5GB torrent to download.
  4. Create an account on a linked website in the meantime.
  5. Copy & Paste 1 line of text in the Realm.wtf file.
  6. Double-click the WoW icon.

That’s it. There isn’t even an “installation” of vanilla WoW; the torrent has the folders already unpacked for you. So when people were stating that private servers are easier than getting into retail WoW, they were correct.

All that set up, I was in.

VanillaWoW_01

Someone apparently took my name already.

I went with a human paladin because that seems to be the experience that most people can relate to. Plus, if I recall correctly from my TBC experience, the Dwarven starting area is even worse in terms of running around aimlessly. Maybe some other time. Probably not.

The general paladin experience was pretty much as bad as I remembered. You start with two buttons: Seal of Righteousness and Holy Light. Combat consists of casting Seal and auto-attacking. For around 12-28 seconds. Per mob. I’m not joking:

For the full vanilla experience, you should watch the entire video. It’s exactly like playing!

Aside from the Time-To-Kill metrics and general pants-on-head asinine class design, I was also struck by smaller design issues that were blasts from the past. For example, the first quest you get is to kill Kobold Vermin behind the church. The steady stream of new players/alts ensured a general sort of Kobold holocaust, but it wasn’t until about the third dead Kobold that I realized I was killing the wrong ones. There were, in fact, three different layers of Kobolds: Vermin, Workers, and Laborers. Not to be racist, but they kinda all looked the same.

The other issue was boomerang quests, which is perhaps one of the more annoying quest designs in gaming to me. Specifically, a quest giver asking you to go to an area to kill mobs, then asking you to go back to the same area again and killing mobs slightly further in, and so on. The “Christmas tree” effect (getting to a new quest area and seeing dozens of “?”s) is kind of the result of bypassing the boomerang, but it is a far preferable state of affairs, IMO.

VanillaWoW_02

Also super important.

Then again, there weren’t any Christmas trees in vanilla or a portion of TBC, as quest givers did not appear on the minimap unless you were ready to turn something in. Indeed, that was my first exposure to absurd design Luddittes – post after post in the TBC forums crying about how much the game is diminished by having quests show up in the minimap. But I digress.

Upon hitting level 3, I decided to travel over to the dreaded Defias Vineyard. This was WoW’s “The Butcher” experience, introducing millions of players to a hostile, uncaring universe of pain and suffering in the form of rapidly respawning, high aggro-radius having mobs. The Vineyard was as advertised: hostile and uncaring. Well… mostly.

(Video starting from 6:06 from the prior one.)

I was invited to a group by a warlock who was also hunting for Defias bandannas and we aggroed in tandem for quite some time. Having been a solo player for so long, I almost felt uncomfortable being “confined” to a group, as if we were sitting next to each other on a bus with plenty of empty seats. Anyway, he DoT’d the enemies up, and I uselessly auto-attacked and tried to keep aggro. There were always other people running around the area, being chased by their gray-tagged mobs and occasionally stealing our own. It made me think about MMOs like GW2 where anyone can help anyone at any time, and still get credit for kills and the like even if you just dealt one blow. There is more cooperation there, but less socialization.

Not that I and the warlock talked much anyway.

Turning in the bandanna quest unlocked two more quests that required going to the exact same area and, by consequence, killing the same mobs. Classic boomerang. One of the quest mobs was named, but I don’t believe he was marked as an Elite or anything. Still, three mobs at once is a bit tough to handle when it takes you 20 seconds of auto-attacking to bring down a single dude, so I started inviting everyone who showed up near the mob respawn. There were three of us, and two more sauntered in, not accepting my invite. They ended up stealing the tag right from under us, because of course they did. Three to four minutes later, we collected four heads from one body and I dinged level 5.

Total time played: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

VanillaWoW_03

—————

For the sake of science and amusement, I went ahead and rolled another human paladin, this time via the F2P Starter account in retail WoW. The differences, as you might imagine, are quite stark:

Time-to-Kill is sometimes 0.0 seconds, with mobs dying in the press of Crusader Strike and simultaneous melee auto-attack. Crusader Strike’s cooldown is 4.5 seconds, so we can just say 0-4.5 seconds TTK. And do note that I did not have any heirlooms or anything of the sort – the Starter account is not associated with my actual (lapsed) account at all.

The Defias are gone from the Vineyard, which is now aflame and overrun by orcs. It still teaches new players about aggro mobs, but there is essentially zero danger when mobs die in 2-3 hits. There was a quest to kill a specific named orc ala X, but he too went down in a manner that makes you question the robustness of the Horde’s espionage program.

Experiencing this new paradigm for the first time in years, sans the heirlooms which I had hitherto believed caused it, I am willing to make some concessions.

Nils has described the vanilla way as giving players the time and opportunity to keep their mind busy without actually being busy. I think I can appreciate this sentiment now, but not quite for the same reason as he. When it takes 20+ seconds to kill a mob, you are pretty much forced to “settle in” to an area. It will, after all, be where you will be questing for the next 10+ minutes. There is ample time to smell the roses, as you conspicuously not press buttons.

Conversely, when you are all but one-shotting mobs in retail, you are on the fast track. Move to blue area, kill 10 mobs, run back. Your focus is on the UI rather than the screen because that’s all you have time for. Pushing buttons is still always better than not pushing buttons, in my opinion, but you can’t exactly just stretch out the TTK numbers and insert button presses in all the empty beats. Which, now that I think about it, might be why I didn’t exactly enjoy the FF14 or Wildstar gameplay experience.

In any case, I hit level 5 with 15 minutes /played.

The funny/sad thing is that the speed is both too fast and not fast enough. If leveling is easy because the designers want more people to be in the current expansion endgame, well… put people in the current expansion endgame. The first couple of zones in every expansion are more or less tutorial zones for returning players already, so it should accommodate re-rollers just fine. Conversely, if the leveling still exists as some kind of nod to new WoW players or nostalgia junkies, it’s much too fast to satisfy anyone.

This split baby needs thrown out with the bathwater.

—————

The challenge continues. I have little to no interest actually hitting 60 in vanilla, especially given the number of hours it supposedly takes, but I will play for a while longer. My next goal is to unlock the talent system, which traditionally started at 10, I believe. Can’t wait to start unlocking +2% damage for the next dozen levels thereafter.

Overwatched

My private server escapades were interrupted this past weekend by the Overwatch beta weekend.

Overwatch

Well then, looks like I’m playing this instead.

Unlike last time, a lot of my internet friends got in as well, so we queued up over the course of about four hours. The results were… interesting.

My first impression was one of queues. I’m not sure if it was the after-effects of the DDoS attacks or if the stress test was actually delivering stress, but queuing into matches with more than one person increased the delay significantly. At one point, our group of 5 had to wait for almost ten full minutes. Was there seriously not a single loose straggler trying to get into a game? Was Blizzard trying to match premades with premades?

Regardless, if there is one thing in particular that can kill games like this, it will be queues.

My second impression is one of… I don’t know. Difficulty? It wasn’t just about facing people who were clearly in the Closed beta portion for months. It was about teams that are not scrambled after each match, meaning if you were steamrolled in the prior one, you will face the same lineup and get steamrolled again. Unless you drop game inbetween matches and then get hit with queues again.

Then there was the Route 66 map, which is one of the worse I have ever played in a shooter. Not only is the map bad, if you get wiped on defense, attackers basically win the game instantly as it takes ages to run all the way back. [Edit: Appears that the payload speed has been decreased by 10% on this map.] In a game where you can be one-shot without much recourse, this sort of thing is bonkers.

Nepal is equally bad, now that I think about it. The game mode here is pseudo King of the Hill, where you have to capture a point by standing in it. But once captured, you continue to get points until the enemy captures it, without having to stand in the area. Which basically means you cap the point, then set up firing lines and spam the capture area with explosions, etc. It’s not impossible to recapture points and win, but the game mode never really feels all that fun. Especially one of the three maps Nepal is divided into, that has the capture point in an open area with zero cover with bottomless pits surrounding it.

So, basically, I had significantly less fun this time around with Overwatch than the previous time. It’s still fun overall, just less so. Considering my options for FPS goodness is squeezing blood from Battlefield 4 or wading into a decade of congealed veterans (CS, TF2, etc), I might end up getting Overwatch anyway. Hopefully at a discount.

Wrath Gained More than Vanilla

One of the perennial WoW criticisms from certain sectors was that Wrath started strangling the goose that laid the golden eggs. “WoW grew in vanilla and TBC, stalled out in Wrath, then declined thereafter. Clearly New Blizzard with its LFD, welfare badges, etc, was at fault.” We already know the New Blizzard dichotomy is fiction, at least in terms of Wrath itself, but a recent debate with SynCaine resulted in an unexpected discovery:

Wrath gained more subs on average than during vanilla, and was on par with TBC.

Technically, this is all supposition. But just follow me for a bit. First, here is one of my older WoW graphs that I augmented from MMOData (RIP):

WoW-Subs

From that, we can clearly see the plateau into Wrath. The missing puzzle piece though, is something I brought up before in a different context: churn.  Churn is the natural loss of players for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps they no longer have time. Perhaps they lost their job. Perhaps they died. It doesn’t particularly matter why they left, they just do. Consistently. To the tune of roughly 5% per month for MMOs. Here are two quotes:

“Even a good game churns 5 percent of its users out every month,” says Gaffney. “That means every 20 months you’ve churned out your whole user base.” If you have one friend who still plays an MMO, that means you might have 10 friends who used to play that MMO.

And this one:

In a new analyst note, Mike Hickey from Janco Partners has been examining Blizzard’s World Of Warcraft success in light of the Activision/Blizzard merger, suggesting average monthly WoW revenue in “the low teens” per user, and a churn rate as low as 4-5% per month.

That second quote is in reference to WoW circa 2007, for the record.

So now let’s go back and look at that graph with an understanding that 5% of the population leaves every month. For ease, let’s just look at WoW West, which includes the US and European subs. It remains steady at around 5.125 million from 2009-2010. Assuming a 5% churn rate, that means 256,250 new subs had to be gained every month (on average) just to keep steady.

Now, let’s look at… well, any other year. 2005-2006, when the WoW phenomenon took off? WoW went from 500k to 2.5 million subs in the West, meaning that it had to maintain the 500k it already had and gain a total of 2 million more. 500k * 0.05 + 2m / 12 = 191,667 subs per month. In other words, vanilla gained new subs at a 25% slower rate that year than Wrath.

The next year (2006-2007) was 2.5m * 0.05 + 1m / 12 = 208,334. Again, almost 20% less.

It is not until the 2007-2008 release of TBC that we see Wrath being overtaken: 3.5m * 0.05 + 1m / 12 =  258,334. The difference there is… 2,084, or 0.8%. Basically a rounding error.  The last year of TBC is a bit sketchy depending on how you want to interpret that final tick on the graph. If it’s 4.9 million, then TBC gained the same 2,084 number more. If it’s any less, Wrath wins.

If you want to follow the global population line instead, the figures come out as follows:

  • 2005-2006 = +537,500
  • 2006-2007 = +477,084
  • 2007-2008 = +562,500
  • 2008-2009 = +625,000
  • 2009-2010 = +575,000 (<—Wrath)

If you want to look at an MMO-Champion graph instead, here you go:

WoW_Subs_11022015

Pump the brakes, kid.

The graph is less helpful numbers-wise, but it shows the sub consistency throughout Wrath.

Now it’s entirely possible there is a better way to mathematically model this information. Hell, I may even have made a calculation error somewhere. If so, feel free to correct me. But it’s a simple fact that if WoW had a 5% churn rate through Wrath, then a “plateau” really means 575k-600k new subs a month  worldwide were gained to replace them. It’s not a small amount. And it gets even bigger if we start thinking about 6% churn or more. You know, because the expansion was so bad.

So whatever you want to say about Wrath, go ahead. Fact remains it got more new players per month than vanilla.

Vanilla Challenge

With all the talk about private vanilla servers and the ease in which they are logged onto, I had an idea for some gonzo journalism. “I’ll join one and document my experiences!” Then I remembered something: a whole lot of the vanilla (and TBC) experience was utter garbage. Take paladins, for example. Just… the entire class.

SynCaine doesn’t see this as a possible problem:

I know you didn’t play WoW in vanilla, but do you honestly think some minor class issues (you are talking to someone who did the plaguelands rep grind using a raid spec tank) would have that big an impact on what is overall far superior content and design?

Uh… yes? The paladin experience was unremitting garbage on into TBC when I started, and by all accounts vanilla was worse. But, hey, that is clearly not going to impact the amazing 2004 design. Despite, you know, having to interact with everything through the prism of said garbage class design and moment-to-moment gameplay.

Amusingly, what we know from Nostalrius is that almost 25% of all characters on their two servers were Warriors. The Warrior/Rogue/Mage trifecta was nearly half. Three guesses as to which classes were on top back in the day.

Classes.JPG

Hmm.

But why speculate on these vanilla issues when we can pontificate? Put your money time where your mouth is, and roll a paladin on a private server now! Or a druid. Or a shaman. And don’t heal in dungeons or at the endgame. Nobody cares what sort of nonsense you put up with in 2004, what matters is the nonsense you are willing to put up with (and potentially pay $15/month for) today.

I’m thinking about doing so myself, despite my New Year’s resolution, and despite the fact that we all know what is going to happen. It will be awful because it is objectively awful if you are not zen meditating inbetween mob pulls. Vanilla was probably popular back in the day because it was the least painful entry into a nascent, virtual world filled with co-dependency mechanics to ensure you made internet friends. Which was great if you needed some, but I’m full up these days, thanks.

You know what, though? Fuck it. Let’s wreck this train.

VanillaWoW.JPG

Don’t say I never did anything for you.

 

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.

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