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DOS2: An Examination

I have been writing a lot about Divinity: Original Sin 2 lately. Despite my displeasure with its balance decisions, I did want to take a moment to consider them in greater detail. First, because people are still defending the game for some reason. But more importantly, second, because it’s a good reflection on what balance is “supposed” to mean.

Armor Mechanic

One of the biggest changes from the prior title is the introduction of the Armor system. While I do consider it one of the reasons the rest of the game is so imbalanced, I also actually like the system a lot. It’s extremely elegant and intuitive. Physical damage first reduces your Physical Armor before touching your Vitality (HP); same principle with Magic damage. These Armors can be restored with spells and abilities, and are derived from the equipment you choose to wear. You can focus on one or the other or a balance of both.

The secondary mechanic with Armor is its defense against debuffs. You are generally immune to debuffs of the corresponding type as long as you have Armor of that type remaining. If you have Physical Armor, you cannot be Knocked Down or get the Bleeding debuff. If you have Magic Armor, you cannot be Charmed, or Stunned, or Poisoned, etc. Most debuffs come from attacks that deal that type of Armor damage in the first place, so if any damage breaks through, you get the debuff.

In isolation, I like the Armor mechanic, especially compared with other games. I “know” that +5 Defense is better than +3 Defense, but exactly how much better is often opaque and requires math. In this game, you can simply see the numbers go up. Indeed, DOS2’s system reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, wherein armor just straight-up added HP to your character. I’d like to see this sort of Armor mechanic in other games.

Crowd Control

This is were DOS2 falls off the rails. Hard.

Simply put, losing a turn in a turn-based game is crippling. What’s worse is how easy it has gotten to essentially stunlock a character. Before, you sort of had to combo effects if you wanted to try to CC someone. For example, you needed to hit them an ice attack to give them the Chilled debuff, and then another ice attack to promote that status to Frozen. Or get them Wet before an lightning strike. That still exists in DOS2 as well, but the combo itself is useless if they still have Magic Armor. So the strategy is to get them to zero Armor as quickly as possible so that your abilities actually do something else.

I’ll talk about specific broken abilities in moment, but I just want to emphasize how terrible it is that these effects are so binary. For example, if you are Knocked Down, it takes your entire turn to stand back up. Why? Why not have a gradient of effects? The Shocked debuff gives you -1 AP, whereas Chilled reduces movement speed by -35% (both reduce Dodge by -30%). You hardly ever see these sort of debuffs though, because it’s much easier – and more powerful – to upgrade them to “lose a turn” instead.

Overpowered Skills

Chloroform is one of the most broken skills in the game. It costs 1 AP, has a 13m range, destroys 80+ Magic Armor, and then puts the target to Sleep if they have no Magic Armor. Each turn, your characters will only get 4 AP, and the vast majority of the attacks in the game cost at least 2 AP. So why the hell does Chloroform cost only 1 AP and also deal a significant amount of Magic damage and also inflict Sleep?

Chicken Claw is probably more balanced, but also seems ridiculous. It costs 2 AP, requires melee range, and does nothing if the target has Physical Armor. If they don’t though, it turns them into a chicken for two turns, and runs around aimlessly. This works even on boss characters.

Medusa Head is another straight-broken skill. For 2 AP it gives you a buff for two turns that grants a passive petrifying aura – any enemies without Magic Armor within 3m turn to stone. This can keep them petrified for two turns if you keep them in range. The secondary effect of the skill is to grant another 2 AP skill, Petrifying Visage, which deals a lot of AOE Magic damage and then tries to petrify enemies within a larger range. You know, just in case a petrifying aura wasn’t strong enough.

Some skills are overpowered in combination with Talents. Specifically, the Torturer talent allows certain debuffs to apply despite the existence of Physical/Magic Armor. Making someone bleed or burn is usually not a big deal. Having a 100% chance to apply the Entangled debuff via Worm Tremor on the other hand, effectively CCs everyone in a huge, targeted circle for three turns. Well, mages and archers can still use ranged attacks, but none of them can move or teleport.

Attributes/Abilities

The actual stats portion of character building is a huge mess in DOS2 and contributes greatly to all of the problems I have with its game balance.

Abilities are broken down into Combat Abilities and Civil Abilities. Some of them are just completely useless wastes of code. Perseverance lets you regenerate 5% of your Physical or Magical Armor after recovering from CC. As noted earlier though, having your characters get CC’d and otherwise lose entire turns means your whole party will be dead. Retribution reflects 5% of the damage you take back to the attacker. Even if I had 1000 HP and 1000 Armor, that’s… 100 “free” damage. And a dead character.

There are ten Combat Abilities that govern the learning of Skills. For example, you need at least 1 point in Warfare to learn Battle Stomp. Putting that 1 point in Warfare also increases all Physical damage you deal by 5%. This can make for some awkward choices though, considering there are weapon-style Combat Abilities competing for the same points. Single-Handed increases damage and accuracy by 5% when using only a 1H weapon with an empty or shield-wearing offhand.

The important thing to know is most Combat Abilities scale poorly, or not at all. Each point you put into Necromancer increases Life Steal by 10%. That’s not useless, but it also doesn’t cause your Necromancy spells to hit harder – those generally scale by Intelligence, which has its own separate pool of points. Scoundrel increases your critical multiplier and how far you get move per AP. Each point placed in Polymorph grants you 1 free Attribute point to place wherever. The more elemental-sounding Abilities do increase the elemental damage from those spells, but it’s just 5% per point.

Oh, and have I mentioned that you can learn and use skills without investing any points at all, if you have equipment with those bonuses? It may be a waste if you end up replacing a critical piece of equipment later, but there’s nothing stopping you turning anyone into a Pyromancer just because they’re wearing pants with +2 Pyrokinetic.

The bottom line is that the whole design of the game is away from specialization.

At my level, my characters have 15 Ability points to play around with. I could give my warrior character 15 points in Warfare and call it a day. That would give me… 75% more physical damage dealt. Or I could have +65% damage and put one point in both Scoundrel and Polymorph, gaining access to Chloroform and Chicken Claw respectfully. Hell, that one point in Polymorph gives me a free Attribute point I could put in Strength, increasing my damage back up 5%. In which case, I may as well go to Polymorph 2 so I can memorized Medusa Head. Polymorph also has Tentacle Lash, which is real handy for dealing a pile of damage and disarming people at range. Know what else is real handy? Trading another 10% damage to put two points in Aerothurge so I can learn Teleport.

The only real scenario where specialization is encouraged is Summoning. Each point increasing your summons’ HP and damage by 10%, which is whatever, but at Summoning 10 your Summon Incarnate spell summons a real big, beefy minion instead of the normal imp. In all other scenarios, you’re basically just trading 5% damage for entire new ways to CC people.

That seems like a no-brainer choice (i.e. broken) to me.

All Together Now

As you can kinda tell by now, the battle system in DOS2 is broken, but it’s broken in a lot of different ways. If you nerfed the power of Chloroform and similar skills, it’s not entirely clear whether that would be enough to balance anything. Changing the way debuffs work would fundamentally alter combat, but I think people would still be encouraged to go wide on their skill sets. Fixing Ability scaling would probably result in the best change, as specialization nerfs CC in natural ways, e.g. you have less different methods in your back pocket.

At the same time, you don’t necessarily want to lose what makes this game an Original Sin title. Specifically, crazy scenarios with tons of enemies and vast fields of burning poison clouds and electrified blood and slippery ice. From this perspective, I… almost give the designers a pass. DOS2 is probably the closest I have ever felt to playing a digital D&D game, minus a DM who allowed us to overpower everything with spell combos. The whole thing is so out of control it feels like its was intentionally designed to be a sandbox experience.

Unfortunately, there are so many actually broken things and designer traps that remind me that, no, it’s far more likely the designers were just bad at their jobs. That all this chaos is fun is very much unintentional and just blind luck.

Broken Games

It was my mistake for taking Divinity: Original Sin 2 (DOS2) more seriously than the designers. Here I was getting all worked up about a useless crafting system that includes products worse than either of the ingredients, or a Skill system featuring dozens of pointless “gotcha!” choices.

DOS2_BadCrafting

Seriously, no redeeming factors here.

As it turns out, the devs are just morons. Case in point: Thievery.

This is a Civil Skill you need to put points into in order to Lockpick and Pickpocket. At level 1, you can pickpocket up to 300g worth of goods. It then quickly scales out of control:

  • 1: 2kg / 300gp
  • 2: 4kg / 450gp
  • 3: 6kg / 1100gp
  • 4: 8kg / 2350gp
  • 5: 10kg / 3800gp
  • 6: 12kg / 6000gp

It actually scales up even higher than this (224k at level 14?!), but Thievery 6 is where I’m at currently with my gear bonuses. I’m in the first major town in Act 2, and most vendors have ~3500g on them, and selling multiple epics/Legendary items… which is its own thing, but nevermind. So, I purchase the expensive goods, then pickpocket 6000g back. The victim will try and find the thief for about two minutes, but that’s it. The only limitation on this mechanic is that you can only pickpocket a given NPC one time… per character. Respeccing is free though, so it’s no big deal to turn anyone into a master thief long enough to rob entire kingdoms blind.

DOS2_LuckyFind

Lucky Find can also break your game with free Legendary items in every X containers.

There is so much wrong with this, that I don’t even know where to start.

So… I won’t. DOS2 is a very pretty game with an interesting combat system submerged in hot, sloppy garbage game design. I wouldn’t expect this level of disregard for balance from Early Access shovelware.

…I mean, do you understand? Crafting being weaksauce (on purpose?) is one thing; that simply means the game is balanced around loot drops. Vendors being able to sell you Epic/Legendaries is whatever, as that simply makes it necessary to collect all the things so you can save gold and buy them. Having a crazy-scaling Thievery skill though, with zero repercussions, that can succeed at any Sneak level by simply creating a smoke cloud, essentially means every single vendor in the game gives you entire dungeons’ worth of loot for nothing. And it’s not just vendors either – I saw a fisherman with 2900g just walking around, so I nabbed that too.

What was this game supposed to be balanced around? Anything?! “Just don’t pickpocket vendors.” Or maybe the professional (?) game designers could change the Pickpocket values to be a tiny bit more consistent or sane. Each step value varies wildly between 40-140%. Go up 300g each time, or increase it by 50% each time, or something. The latter would make level 6 Thievery worth 2278g per vendor, which is still probably game-breaking, but at least not to the same degree.

Know what’s really laughable? One time I stole 5000g from a random non-vendor NPC, but actually got caught. I was given a few dialog options on how to respond, including trying some Persuasion checks or attacking the NPC outright. Or… I could bribe them… with 151g. And, you know, keep the remaining 4849g I just stole from them. So I did.

I could… not do these things. That is a choice that I have. It is also a choice I shouldn’t have to make. I should not have to handicap myself to have fun playing a game. Nevermind the fact that the fun I have playing games usually comes from leveraging my whole mind against the systems in the game, and puzzling out a solution. Optimization is fun. When it’s this brain-dead easy, it’s less fun. When it’s clear that the designers can’t be bothered to care about balance at all, it’s even less fun still.

Everyone has their hang-ups. Maybe it’s cringy dialog, cliche plot, bad graphics, slow leveling, too many random battles, etc, etc etc. For me, it’s when there is evidence the developers stopped caring, didn’t bother to playtest, or never knew what the hell they wanted to do in the first place.

[GW2] Balanced Gameplay

Yep. Just another day, trying to cap a ruin in Guild Wars 2, when…

Now, I knew I was dead as soon as I saw another player. I’m there to complete my daily quest, the Roamer is there to Roam. That’s cool. What’s less cool was this:

One-Shot

Balanced!

For those playing at home, that’s a total of 29,073 damage unloaded within… what would you say, looking at that footage? One second? One point five? Less? The two actual damage abilities would have left me with less than a hundred HP, if not for the Steal (which teleports the Thief 1500m) or the Lightning Strike, which I believe is a weapon enchant proc.

If you were wondering about buffs, this is a closer look at the Thief:

GW2_Buffs

Possibly fair? I dunno.

It looked like the Thief popped something as he crossed the ridge. Is it captured in the buffs up there? I’m not super familiar with all the icons, and GW2 does not have any feature to look up other characters, so I’m kinda stuck.

Still though… in what particular universe would something like what happened be okay? I’m not in full Ascended gear or anything, but I doubt the gear difference would have gotten my HP above 29k, which is all that matters in the literal second it took to down me. Maybe the particular build the Thief has to use to achieve this level of absurdity makes them less useful in zergs?

To which I would reply: again, how is this okay?

For the record, this occurred last week, so the recent balanced changes were not involved.

[Hearthstone] Seriously, Blizzard?

The latest round of Hearthstone nerfs have been announced ahead of the set rotation, and they’re great… if it was 2016.

HS_Patches

The biggest news in there is the nerf to Patches, a card that was released in December 2016 and has been a meta-defining, chase Legendary ever since. Blizzard has acknowledged his power several times, but their explanation for the timing is… well…

As we move closer to the new Hearthstone Year, we had some concerns about allowing Patches to remain in his current state after moving out of Standard. Patches’ strength has caused almost every class to add some Pirates just to benefit from him, and his early game power forces control decks to include a good answer to him. This change should give Wild players more flexibility when building their decks.

What the literal shit, man? Can that be read any other way than “we are fine with Patches’ current state in Standard”? I mean, obviously they were fine with the card’s broken state up to this point as evidenced by a lack of any nerf for over a year. But to me, this just says that Blizzard genuinely believes that card set rotations should be the arbiter of balance in this game. And that’s fucking nuts.

Granted, Corridor Creeper is also getting deleted from the game nerfed in this upcoming patch. That does not particularly make me feel any better though, because A) how they nerfed it, and B) what they didn’t nerf. All Corridor Creeper needed was to only count your minions, rather than every minion. Hell, most of the pros that previewed the card felt like it was Epic trash because they read it that way to begin with. Instead, they turned it into literal garbage that you will be very disappointed to open in a pack after February. Meanwhile, no changes to Cubelock or Ultimate Infestation, etc etc.

Why does any of this matter given the clown fiesta that is Hearthstone’s RNG? Well, I still like playing the game occasionally. And really, the RNG does not particularly bother me – sometimes it’s in your favor, sometimes it’s not. The more fundamental problem is Blizzard’s current balance philosophy undermines any faith I have in the game’s long-term direction. Set rotations are not how you balance a goddamn game… unless the entire goal is pump & dump. Sell those packs to people chasing overpowered Legendaries/Epics and then nerf them later so the next set appears just as OP as the last. Otherwise known as the Supercell Gambit (Clash Royale says Hello).

It’s all cynical, unnecessary bullshit. These are supposed to be games, not vehicles for quarterly profits. I mean, they are that too, but I shouldn’t have to open the latest expense report to understand what the designers are smoking and where they are taking the game’s direction.

Regression Towards the Mean

I’m sure that 7 Days to Die (7DTD) is a rather niche topic of interest to most people here, much less discussion about experimental Alpha builds of an Early Access titles, but I feel like the things going on with its development are applicable more generally.

When the first Alpha 16 (A16) experimental build arrived, it was transformative. Sleeper zombies seems like a minor change, but it fundamentally changed how you interacted with buildings. Prior to A16, you knew pretty much instantly how many zombies were inside a given structure, and once you killed all of them banging on the doors trying to get out, you were free to loot the place in peace. That is no longer the case – now you must actively sweep each room, and double-tap each body on the floor to ensure it stays where it is. There are still some bugs with these Sleepers suddenly spawning right behind you, but the overall effect is that nowhere is safe until you make it so.

Then came the balance changes.

First, since the Sleeper zombie system necessarily increases the amount of zombies one faces, zombie loot was decreased across the board. This makes sense, as if prior loot rates stayed the same, you might end up getting more loot from the zombies inside a building than the building itself.

In practice though, reducing zombie loot makes fighting zombies considerably less fun, especially on Horde nights. Zombies essentially become resource drains, to be avoided if possible. Which… maybe makes sense. Games like Dying Light featured that model, with zombies that functioned as speed bumps and possible death traps, nothing else. The problem is that Dying Light also featured impenetrable home bases, whereas even a few ignored zombies in 7DTD can bring down the strongest base in time.

Another change? Resource gains were reduced significantly. Up to this point, there was a “last hit” bonus drop of resources when you finally cut down a tree or smashed a boulder. Not only were the bonus resources great, but it was also viscerally satisfying getting that last burst of stuff concurrent with destroying the object you were mining. Apparently it made the early game too easy for the devs’ tastes however, so they got rid of it. Now when you fell a tree, you get the same 2-3 pieces of wood you got from whacking it the first 30 times.

More recently, the devs have also messed around with Stamina gains and losses. Stamina has always been a bit weird in 7DTD. There are a lot of Perks that correspond with Stamina gains – from making Sprinting cost less, to making Stamina recharge faster, and everything inbetween – but none of them really felt necessary. There was even Coffee and Beer items one could craft to recharge Stamina faster, but why bother? You could get into trouble being chased by a bear after cutting down a tree, but Stamina otherwise served the purpose of preventing you from Sprinting across the map 24/7.

Now? Iron/Steel tools will pretty much instantly drain all of your Stamina. Setting aside the more realistic concern of whether a steel shovel would make digging a hole easier than a stone shovel, the change seems rather ham-fisted. Yes, by making it virtually impossible to complete any tasks without Stamina Perks, the devs have made Stamina Perks relevant. But I’m not sure any thought was spared regarding whether Stamina Perks were a good idea to begin with.

Waiting around for Stamina to recharge is boring gameplay. It is literally no gameplay. Even if the idea is for the early game to be more “dangerous” or difficult, even if the goal is to tangibly demonstrate how improved your character gets over time, this is NOT the way to do it. Having Sleeper zombies haunt every house already shoots the difficulty of the early game through the roof. Reduced Wood gain has made crafting your own base impractical for the first few in-game weeks. Making early lucky finds like an Iron Pickaxe practically pointless until well after the point at which you could create one yourself? Mind-bogglingly stupid.

Experimental builds are experimental, and all this could be reverted tomorrow. Still, it remains concerning to me that the devs are placing such a high premium on “older” ideas rather than iterating on what actually feels fun about the game currently. Half a dozen Stamina Perks do not feel fun, nor does funneling skill points into them. They seem committed to keeping them simply because they had them already, in some weird Sunk Cost Fallacy manner.

Hopefully, things will change – if not soon, then by the beta.

Artifact Concerns

As the release of Legion inches closer, my implicit worries have begun to mount.

Technically, the concerns I have currently are the same ones I brought up a year ago. Namely: artifacts and alts. Having one weapon that you channel all of your power into is conceptually neat. But WoW has long ceased to be about one character and spec; the structure of the game since around Wrath has seemed to hinge on the assumption of alts, or at least dual specs. Just think about all the Account-Bound items and other technology changes that have occurred in the past five years.

So how is Legion going to interact with everyone’s alts?

Based on the Wowhead research I have been doing… it’s hit or miss. My first concern was being stuck with a single Artifact for a single spec out of the gate. What if I’m a healer and want to level as DPS? You are indeed stuck with a single Artifact until level 102, at which point you can unlock the others. However, you are not stuck stuck – there is a sort of gear workaround for alt specs:

What if I chose the wrong Artifact Weapon, vendored my old weapons and want to level in a different spec before level 102?

Your class Order Hall Quartermaster sells item level 740 weapons/off-hands/shields for 100g each. These can serve as replacements if you need them before you unlock all of your class Artifact Weapons at level 102.

So technically you should be able to have a backup set of gear to use if you want to tank/heal/DPS with an off-spec. Obviously it won’t be as ideal as with your Artifact, but it’s something.

Okay… what about gaining Artifact Power (AP)? During questing, dungeons, etc, you end up receiving consumable items that fill an AP meter for your currently equipped Artifact when used. So, it seems like you should be able to quest as DPS and funnel all of these consumables into your healing Artifact later on. That’s pretty good. Indeed, later on you unlock the Artifact Knowledge ability that will increase the AP gained from future consumables. I thought it was a nice touch that these gains aren’t retroactive to your currently obtained consumables, so there is no reason to hoard them for later.

But then we get into the sort of nitty gritty details of World of Altcraft. The amount of AP that you need to get from level 13 to level 14 is more than the total amount you need from 1-13. This makes a nice, conceptual breakpoint at which you can decide whether to hedge your bets or double-down on one spec or not.

That said, there are two problems with this.

First, you don’t always have any control over your circumstances in the game. Your guild might need a healer now, after you have already hit AP14, setting you a painful distance behind in your ability to fulfill the need. Second, there are numerous specs who can actually unlock their 2nd Elite Traits as soon as AP16. Now, “as soon as AP16” really means 33,450 total AP gained, more than 2.5 times as much as was needed to hit even AP14, but still. I haven’t seen all the math amongst all the specs in this regard, but I don’t believe it to be a trivial increase.

Finally, and most critically: what happens when Blizzard nerfs a spec?

If you were an Assassination rogue and got hit by the nerf-bat, it was always technically possible to switch to Subtlety rogue and keep going. Maybe your Best-in-Slot items change based on whether Mastery or Haste is king. But now? At AP18, you are two times further away from even AP16 farmed from scratch. Unless the Artifacts are front-loaded as all hell, you are basically staring down an entirely new endgame, minus all the easy AP gained via leveling. I suppose Artifact Knowledge is supposed to bridge the gap there, but I’m not entirely convinced Blizzard won’t be requiring us to grind dailies for, erm, days or weeks.

[Fake Edit]: A new interview just came out addressing this:

Artifact Weapons
The team will avoid nerfing a spec from being a little too good to the worst so that you don’t feel that all of your Artifact progression was a waste

Time will tell regarding on the Blizzard dev’s team ability to actually do this.

[/Fake Edit]

And don’t get me started on, you know, an actual alternate character. Artifact Knowledge is not Account-Wide, which means you are back to grinding from zero on every other character on your account.

For someone planning on coming back for Legion, I’m a little nonplussed as to what I’m actually going to do. My namesake paladin is right out – Retribution is garbage again from everything I have heard, and I have no interest in Protection tanking. So… what? I haven’t experienced the post-7.0 classes, and now must make a decision on a new main (probably on a new server at that) with a new main spec that I have to invest in at the expense of every other possible alternative.

Analysis Paralysis is a real thing, which often leads to doing nothing at all. Which is still an option.

Splitting the Hearthstone Baby

Breaking news: Blizzard finally did it. They really did it.

Hearthstone_Format

God damn you all to… nah, it’s cool.

In traditional Hearthstone fashion, the news of Blizzard splitting the Play format baby into Standard and “Wild” seemed to randomly come out of nowhere. In the scheme of things though, such a move is all but inevitable in CCGs, as it is the only legitimate tool to combat power creep. Magic: the Gathering has had different play formats for decades now, and has survived and thrived since then.

But I must admit it still feels a bit different here.

That could very well be because Blizzard is doing it differently. You can read the rundown on Hearthpwn, but the big takeaway for me was how they are up and removing Adventures and expansions from the store when they cycle out of Standard. As pointed out in one of the million Reddit threads streaming through /r/Hearthstone at the moment, this could very well doom the Wild format before it even begins. If you’re a veteran who already has Boom & co crafted? Go compete in Wild. If you’re a new player? You have zero recourse in breaking into this legacy format other than squeezing thousands of Dust from Standard packs.

…hmm. That’s actually not all that different than how Legacy goes in MtG currently. And considering Hearthstone’s Dust system allows you to craft any card you want, you aren’t actually limited to spending $500+ for a single card; technically the Dust can be accumulated over time from wherever.

Hearthstone_PaladinNerf

How will I predict the Paladin curve now?!

Regardless, the actual earth-shattering effect of the format split are all the cards cycling out of Standard. Dr Boom has been such an iconic representation of all the idiocy in how the devs balance Hearthstone, but this almost feels… too abrupt. Paladin loses Shielded Minibot and Muster for Battle and Piloted Shredder. Belcher? Gone. Zombie Chow? Gone. Everything? Gone. This is more than metagame shifting, this is game-game shifting.

And let me just say how brilliant this move is from a business perspective too. Blizzard just wiped out half of everyone’s collection, and most of the people still playing won’t actually mind all that much. “You can just play Wild.” Yeah, until you realize that a year or two from now it will be a cesspit of broken synergies which will make you pine for the halcyon days of Secret Paladin. To compete in Standard, you’ll have to have the latest sets, which means purchasing more packs and Adventures on the regular, when your old staples like Belcher and crew sufficed as stopgap measures up till now.

To be clear, I’m excited about these changes. For one thing, it’s an re-dedication to actually balancing their game. Before, Blizzard’s “policy” was hoping that broken cards were replaced by newer, more broken cards in the next set. Or that a particular deck would just naturally fall out of favor. But now? As noted in their announcement:

The arrival of Standard format will also be an excellent time for us to take stock of Hearthstone. While normally we’re quite conservative about making balance changes to Hearthstone cards (and we’ll continue to be in the future), we’re planning to take the new Hearthstone year as a golden opportunity to re-evaluate a number of cards in the Basic and Classic card sets, including class cards, and make some long-considered adjustments.

Everyone is pretty much taking this to mean a nerf to Druid combo. Indeed, PCGamer said as much:

On the subject of balancing, Blizzard will be addressing some of the more problematic basic and classic cards to ensure they don’t have a negative impact on the Standard metagame. Again, there are no details on which cards are being looked at, but I was told that less than 20 will be nerfed and none will be buffed. Perhaps we’re about to see the end of the Druid combo after all.

Point being: Standard is going to have to be balanced. It probably won’t be, but there’s going to be no excuse for it not to be under this paradigm. Calling it now, though: there will be a series of months in which Wild will be more balanced in the aggregate than Standard. And that will be both hilarious and sad.

In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing how all this plays out.

WoW Mercenary Mode

In increasingly typical WoW fashion, Blizzard came up with an incredibly convoluted solution to a rather easily solved problem:

In an upcoming patch, we’ll be adding a feature that allows you to act as a mercenary for the opposite faction in PvP. Whenever your faction is experiencing a long wait time to get into Ashran or unrated Battlegrounds, agents of the enemy faction will appear in your base in Ashran (Stormshield for the Alliance, Warspear for the Horde). These agents will allow you to enter Ashran or Battlegrounds disguised as an enemy player, and actually fight as the opposite faction.

When you compete as a mercenary, you’ll still earn all the same rewards you would have by winning or losing as your own faction (with the exception of faction-specific achievements). You’ll also have your race automatically changed into one appropriate for the opposite faction while you’re still inside the Battleground or Ashran. Perhaps most importantly, however, you’ll experience much shorter queue times, as our matchmaking system will be able to fill up groups much quicker!

To understand exactly how convoluted Blizzard is being, just read this bit of “clarification”:

On racials: The current intention is that the system swaps your race entirely, including your racial ability. We recognize that that puts Humans in a weird spot, so we’re looking into some options there that aren’t “spend your Honor/Conquest on a Medallion.”

It is difficult to imagine a worse implementation, even if I can kinda-sorta-maybe see why Blizzard is going this route. I mean, for better or for worse (hint: the latter), race matters quite a bit in WoW – if you are fighting a Forsaken character, you know that Fear will be less useful against them, while snares will similarly be less useful against Gnomes. This state of affairs makes the easier solution of “stay the same race, but change the character model” largely impossible unsavory. At the same time, it is exactly because racials are so important that this Mercenary implimentation is unwieldy. Not just for Humans turning into anything else, but Night Elf Druids losing Shadowmeld means they’ll lose a roundabout Vanish that might have been an important component of their character strategy.

I was going to add a further example of Blood Elf Paladins losing Arcane Torrent and becoming crippled Paladins, but let’s face it, only Alliance will be getting the Merc option anytime soon.

All of which is terribly ironic given the state of affairs just a year ago. Remember back in May 2014 when Blizzard was offering free Faction Transfers from Horde to Alliance to assauge queue times in the other direction? It makes me wonder if it wasn’t necessarily the Human racial that imbalanced the factions per se, but rather the instant level 90 that came with Warlords that allowed those on-the-fence Horde to seek greener racial pastures without committing dollars to a faction transfer.

How the tables have turned.

Hmm… I wonder what was released in November 2014?

In any case, in that same post I offered what I consider the best solution to the faction imbalance dilemma: same faction BGs. They already exist for Rated BGs and Arenas, no convoluted mechanical changes necessary. And as I also suggested in that post, if the whole lore and feel of the game is paramount – despite Warlords throwing it away with time travel and alternate universes – there is still an easy solution: sub-factions. It’s not Alliance vs Alliance, it’s Alliance vs Scarlet Crusade. Or Horde vs Twilight Cultists. Would it be weird for Scarlet Crusaders to be defending Frostwolf structures in AV? Sure, maybe. Although it shouldn’t be much more weird than random Alliance characters being faction-changed and defending the same thing under the Merc system.

Incidentally, that sort of highlights why the Merc system isn’t likely to work all that well. More specifically, it’s an “other guy problem.” Queue times suck, no question. But as an Alliance player for more than half the game’s history, let me tell you that instant queues that lead to inevitable losses aren’t all that great either. As an individual, you are better off letting other people utilize the Merc system to give you faster auto-wins. Same faction BGs literally even the playing field, taking away all advantage you might have had based on faction strength.

I dunno. Overall, I am a bit sympathetic to Blizzard’s plight in this regard. The rational design approach would be to get rid of the two factions altogether, as the concept of mutually exclusive factions like Horde and Alliance are quite a bit outdated and inevitably imbalanced. At the same time, there is so much pondorous prescedent, that the potential blow-back from angry veterans would be extreme. Most people are joking when they talk about hatred for Gnomes or whatever, but others are serious insofar as faction identity goes. Blizzard has amped up the faction differences for years and years – remember the motorcycle competition not too long ago? – so complete integration would be a more obvious shark-jumping event.

These halfway solutions though? It’s bad design. Imagine a year from now if the faction balance has shifted back to Horde, and Horde Mercs are entering BGs as Humans. Do they keep their PvP trinkets? Do said trinkets automatically transform into something else?

There are really only three elegant solutions to this problem overall:

  1. Change the Human racial.
  2. Disable all racials in PvP.
  3. Same-faction BGs.

The first is something that’s going to need to happen eventually, wailing and gnashing of teeth aside. It could be changed to either be slightly worse than otherwise default PvP trinket (+15 second cooldown), or Blizzard could be more radical and give the ability to everyone and then come up with something new for Humans. Remember, the Human racial used to be a button that increased the ability to see through stealth; which was still better than the garbage Draenei have been stuck with since inception, but nevermind. The second option of disabling racials is more of the nuclear option. But only the third solution is likely to solve the queue-time issue on a permanent basis.

Mercenaries are a cool concept, but “becoming the opposite faction” is clunky to the extreme, and unlikely to solve the underlying issues to any great degree. I mean, if racials are the underlying issue, getting Alliance to temporarily turn into Horde isn’t going to do anything – Alliance will still win on the aggregate power of their racials. This might be a stopgap queue solution, but it’s development time better spent on something more long-term. Like same-faction BGs.

Wildstar Housing, Balance

This Penny Arcade is pretty much spot-on.

I have not personally succumbed to the housing endgame, but I absolutely see the appeal. My present domicile is named Function Over Form, and is primarily centered around having my own Mining and Garden nodes for resource gathering. Any decor that isn’t worth vendoring is placed as amusingly as possible, scaled up to the maximum. As it turns out, the scale on most of these items figuratively and literally go to 11.

I enjoy the view from my 30-ft couch.

The view from my 20-ft couch.

If you were looking for more serious housing endeavors, examples abound. I especially enjoyed seeing the DIY jumping puzzles. The craziest, most underrated part? You can visit other peoples’ houses. You don’t even need to know them in-game; as long as they have opened their house to the public, you can stop by, and perhaps harvest their resource nodes (more on that in a sec).

Here is the method to do so, and please pass it along:

Won't you be my neighbor?

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Wildstar is by no means the first MMO with player housing. I was questing with a few friends on Vent the other night, and one friend actually complained that EQ2’s housing system was more intuitive. I’ll, uh, take your word for that.

Carbine has done something really clever here though, in elevating the Show & Tell aspect by combining it with Challenges and resources. I have my low-effort housing solely to be able to low-effort mine resources every hour or so; the Shardspire Canyon FABkit in the back similarly allows me to complete an easy challenge for a shot at additional goodies every 30 minutes.

But see, you can get a list of a few dozen people who have opened their houses to the public and check out their setups. If they too have resource nodes or Challenges on their property to complete, you have an incentive to essentially cold-call them to become Neighbors. Collect a big enough list, and you can probably farm all day just in other peoples’ houses.

Maybe that doesn’t seem all that social. I will tell you though, that it got me to add a random stranger to my Friend’s List so I could talk him into letting me farm his creepy, albeit very committed Plushie-themed house on the regular. I’m already trying to come up with a naming convention to indicate people willing to 50/50 their nodes into a… well, a “neighborhood,” to our mutual benefit.

The fact that there is a Zone Chat specifically for people in their houses is goddamn brilliant, by the way.

_____________

Having said that, I now have a 2nd character parked at level 15 with very little impetus to move forward. It is difficult to shape into words why that is the case, as I even enjoy my Medic main. As others have mentioned, by level 15 you will have unlocked your house, your mount, and will have opened up enough abilities to get somewhat of a grasp of what buttons you’ll be spamming for the next forever.

Part of the problem is commitment issues. Mobs don’t die in 2-shots anymore, so you better like who you’ll be grinding with. Is Medic really the best for me? In trying out the other classes though, let me just say that Carbine is going to seriously need to work on the ESPer and Engineer (I’d say Warrior too, but I’ll give it another shot first).

The Engineer problem is pretty straight-forward: the bots suck. Not only do the bots suck damage-wise – which is a big problem when they constitute 2 of your very early ability selections – but they have pathing issues too, which can lead to aggro issues. My Engineer is level 8 and it just doesn’t feel fun, and none of the upcoming abilities sound like they will be fun either.

The ESPer problem, on the other hand, is a complete breakdown in the class design. I can’t speak for it’s endgame performance, but there is almost nothing I like where I’m at. It is currently the ONLY class to have it’s “primary” builder require being stationary, which makes it worse than useless in PvP. Flag carrier running away? GG. Target runs out of your telegraph? Now they’re 35+ yards away and you’ll never hit them with anything. GG. Then you have it’s R ability with its… stay stationary to gain an absorb shield, interrupt armor, and PSI points? Only useable in combat? Let me just say that using that ability in PvP just leads to pretty much instant death, even in the lower brackets.

Medic was more fun, but PvP is a crazy mess.

Medic was more fun, but PvP is a crazy mess regardless of class.

I’m mentioning PvP a lot with the ESPer as that is largely how I leveled with that toon. The Aurin/Mordesh starting area is abysmal, and meanwhile PvP is pretty outstandingly rewarding and fun. It takes around 3-4 games per level, and you pretty much consistently get 300-400 PvP currency per battle. The PvP gear has some “useless” stats to make it weaker in PvE, but you can unlock usable shoulders that will likely last you a half-dozen levels or more with pure PvE stats. Otherwise, you must rely on opening the PvP loot bags rewarded at the end ala GW2, to similar effect (read: none).

My goal with the ESPer was pretty much to heal exclusively, and in that area it is kinda okay. Most of its healing abilities are actually targeted (and stationary), which reverts the game back to WoW-mode; I moved the team window down to the center of the screen and basically used it like Healbot. I ended up unlocking a standard telegraph heal in the teens though, so I was able to be a bit more mobile as a healer.

So, yeah, ESPer, Engineer, and likely Warrior are about the three weakest classes at the moment. Carbine is on the record for saying that classes will be buffed up to the top level rather than top-tier classes being nerfed, so we’ll see exactly how they plan on solving this balance issue. I don’t see any way out for the ESPer other than making the level 1 ability a mobile cast though.

#TitanFail

I don’t think I have ever had something like matchmaking so completely and totally ruin a game for me. I mean, queuing up as Alliance for BGs in WoW was pretty bad towards the end, but Titanfall? Holy Jesus, it’s bad. So bad that I started an Imgur album to detail it. Examples:

dH1uOGK

Balance.

More balance.

More balance.

This matchmaking is so terrible it cannot possibly be random chance. I mean, I can understand a little bit of snowballing – god knows that if I see a veteran on my team, I play it out until I get sick of the game – but this sort of shit is just stupid. All Titanfall has is it’s moment-to-moment gameplay, so for you to face an entire 10 minute match with your nose in the carpet the entire goddamn time is worse than the most banal daily quest in any MMO. I’d rather be grinding Golden Lotus rep – at least at the end of the day, I’d have something to show for my blood, sweat, and ample tears.

I tried to play some PlanetSide 2 to wash the taste out of my mouth, but the game crashed to desktop after about 20 minutes.

Remember when I said I never buy games near their release days and/or at full MSRP? This is why. If I could resell Titanfall or get a refund, I would; then maybe come back when the developers got their shit together.