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Survival Equilibrium

I may have mentioned it before, but I really enjoy Survival games. For the most part.

I am currently playing The Flame in the Flood, which is a Survival roguelike, and not at all a catchy Vance Joy song. The experience was immensely frustrating for my first run, as I felt like I never had enough of any supplies, and was about to uninstall and set the category as Finished in Steam. The second run, which I have been playing for the last five hours or so, has reached that point beyond which eventual victory is all but assured. Nevertheless, I hit up every single location I can, hoarding ever-greater numbers of probably unnecessary supplies for some kind of nightmare scenario. Which kinda makes sense in the vague, post-apocalypse setting.

Hitting that equilibrium moment in Survival games though is bittersweet. It’s like the middle of every Civilization game I have ever played – the game part is over, and now you must go through the motions towards inevitable victory. Ideally, you would want the challenge of the game to match up with the game’s end, and not midway. Some games like 7 Days to Die will try extending the challenge with escalating enemies, but there comes a moment when the escalation outstrips the whole Survival aspect and the underlying game becomes something different entirely, e.g. a shooter.

Then there is the opposite problem, in which the game’s challenge doesn’t ever really end, and part of the reason I added the “for the most part” caveat. I have not played it since its release from Early Access, but I never felt good in The Long Dark. There never seemed to be enough food, or fuel, or supplies. You were always on the precipice. And that’s the goal, right? The precipice is where all the fun is had. But while the surviving part is fun, I feel like there’s an invisible Anxiety Meter that fills up for me, and once it tops off the fun drops to zero.

Plus, sometimes Survival games are bullshit. I frequently found dead bodies in The Long Dark, searched them for candy bars, but could not, you know, take their clothing. I get it, things are simplified and balanced accordingly. Still, it gets a bit annoying when you come across dozens of boarded-up buildings in The Flame in the Flood, but “Old Lumber” is a relatively scarce resource you have to specifically loot from places. Or that Flint is a consumable resource for making a Campfire. Or that nothing could be salvaged from a sprung trap you just made.

Makes me wonder though. Would a more “realistic” Survival game be any fun? Seems like the more realistic it is, the less the game could actually be about Survival. At least, unless you set it out in the straight wilderness. Which kinda brings you back to The Long Dark.

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Challenge is Overrated

Rohan posted the other day that the modern MMO tendency towards making leveling alts easier runs afoul of Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun¹. “Leveling alts should be harder, not easier!” Allow me to offer an alternative Theory of Fun: it’s about Novelty, not Challenge.

While I have forwarded this thesis almost three years ago, I am more convinced than ever that the Novelty theory better explains fun than Challenge. For one thing, when was the last time you were truly challenged in a videogame? When were your abilities pushed to their maximum? Okay, now think about the last time you had fun playing a videogame. Did you ever have fun without being challenged? QED.

Part of this debate is semantic – Challenge is Novel by definition, else it would not be challenging. But Challenge does not model the demonstrated ability of players to derive fun and entertainment from picking herbs, mining copper nodes, exploring the map, fishing, and so on. Neither Skyrim nor MineCraft are particularly challenging, and yet people can sink MMO-esque amounts of time into them.

What challenge is taking place in the imagination of a child at play?

The other problem with Challenge as Fun is how clearly there is a hard limit on it. Even if you avoid crossing the line into too challenging to complete, sustained challenge can be exhausting. Which makes sense, as challenge is an exertion of effort above the median. Sustained challenge also presupposes a sort of boundless limit for self-improvement. Even if I believed that everyone could do anything if they simply put their mind to it (I don’t), it’s undeniable that one’s effort hits diminishing returns rather quickly. Is it worth 15 hours of additional practice to realize 1% gains? Maybe someone thinks so. I raided with a Hunter back in ICC whose DPS improvement was literally squeezing in one, single additional Kill Shot into an eight-minute fight. But even he would be unlikely to spend 30, 60, 90 more hours to squeeze in a second one.

Plus, you know, he did end up quitting WoW despite there being plenty of challenge left.

The way I am describing Novelty is not necessarily as “a completely unique experience.” All it has to do is simply feel new to you. The subjectivity is an important facet, just as with Challenge, and it explains how someone can still have fun picking herbs when the action itself is fairly rote and well-defined. For myself, I consider Progression to be Novel; increasing in power and effectiveness is fresh and exciting to me. I start making plans for my ever-increasing hoard of Peacebloom (etc), or imagine what I could purchase after selling it. Others could see the act-in-time to be Novel – they have never picked Felweed at this particular time and place before, and who knows if a member of the opposite faction could be lurking around the corner. Of course, there is also the people-element that can make the most mundane of tasks into cherished memories.

In the end, I might almost say that the most universal quality in fun games is Engagement. Challenge can be engaging, Novelty can be engaging. However, it is not particularly useful to suggest a game be more Engaging any more than it is useful suggesting a game be more Fun. One can certainly suggest a game be more Challenging or Novel though. I would just suggest going with the latter.

¹ I have not actually read Koster’s book, so it’s entirely possible he isn’t arguing Challenge > everything. In fact, I seem to recall it being more about learning things, which puts it more in line with my Novelty argument. Nevertheless, I don’t feel like a game has to be Challenging to be fun, and I have no idea why challenge is so fetishized in game design.

Act 2: First Blood

As one might rightly assume, I encountered the infamous Infernal Act 2 brick wall.

The best sort of welcoming committee for melee.

To say I was “pwned” by the very first elite pack (Frozen, Molten, Plagued, Desecrator) is to suggest that the Allies merely dropped by Dresden in 1945 for a night on the town. The melee attacks alone were brutal enough to take me out in 3 hits, nevermind all the shit on the ground. As the respawn timer crept ever higher, I thought that those “discretion better form of valor” guys might be on to something. Unfortunately, the FMPD welcoming committee had other plans. No matter how far away I dragged them from the Checkpoint I kept respawning at, at least one was hanging around for his turn to teabag my corpse.

The cherry on top of this injury cake was when the Enrage timer went off. Fun fact: the Enrage timer is actually a debuff that simply kills you in seconds no matter where the fuck the elites are at. As I sat there stunned IRL as to how I can be killed by elites not even on the goddamn screen, I had to further endure the 10-second logoff Wait of Shame before I could scurry back to the AH. After spending something in the neighborhood of 500k (on top of the 300k I talked about last time), my stats ended up looking like this:

A 3 oz bottle of Vaseline doesn’t go as far as one might hope.

I came to the sad conclusion that perhaps I was going to have to alter my Noob Wind spec. So I did… grudgingly. I swapped Mantra of Evasion for Mantra of Healing with the 20% resist runes; I dropped Seven-Sided Strike for Serenity; I switched the rune for Breath of Heaven for the 1.5 second Fear. And… that’s basically it. Bought a 1h weapon + shield combo for when things still get really hairy, but the loss of 7000 paper DPS is almost worse than dying in-game.

I still have issues with many some elites, but at least I have enough time to react to said fact before being ground into a thick paste.

The fact that I am still having occasional issues is somewhat perplexing though, considering the Inferno Act 2 Monk 200k video floating around. If you haven’t see it, the basic premise is a dude went naked to the AH with 200,000g and walked out with enough gear to progress through the entirety of Act 2 Inferno as a Monk… skipping only 3 elite packs along the way. And made a profit with vendor gold alone. I went ahead and did an unbuffed comparison shot of his stats from the video and my own:

Yikes.

I quite literally have 400 more resist than this guy, and I still have issues? The biggest difference – aside from his rather ridiculous amount of Increased Attack Speed – is his spec: Deadly Reach. Ah, yes, the ranged monk. For what it is worth, I did actually try Deadly Reach for a while but couldn’t make it work; without all the extra IAS, you cannot actually kite all that effectively, nor trigger the 3rd punch for the +50% armor bonus.

Then, I noticed something else about his video… the elites he actually faced.

  1. Fast, Illusion, Electric, Plague
  2. Nightmare, Electric, Waller, Health Link
  3. Waller, Fast, Electric, Plague
  4. Frozen, Reflect Damage, Health Link, Waller
  5. Teleport, Jailer, Nightmare, Fire Chain
  6. Fire Chain, Arcane Enchanted, Mortar, Reflect Damage
  7. Molten, Electric, Plague, Fast
  8. Mortar, Waller, Shield, Plague
  9. Plague, Fast, Fire Chain, Vampiric
  10. Mortar, Illusion, Knockback, Waller
  11. [not shown]
  12. Extra Health, Nightmare, Jailer, Fire Chain
  13. Extra Health, Teleport, Vortex, Plague
  14. Electric, Plague, Avenger, Wall
  15. Health Link, Desecrator, Fire Chain, Fast
  16. Desecrator, Teleport, Shield, Molten
  17. Fast, Frozen, Extra Health, Electric
  18. Vampiric, Mortar, Nightmare, Minion
  19. Avenger, Molten, Teleport, Nightmare
  20. Teleport, Avenge, Molten, Electric
  21. Frozen, Vampiric, Jailer, Arcane Enchanted
  22. Molten, Shielding, Arcane Enchanted, Electric, Minion [skip]
  23. Extra Health, Arcane Enchanted, Reflect Damage, Waller [skip]
  24. Molten, Knockback, Illusion, Reflect Damage
  25. Nightmare, Teleport, Illusion, Fire Chain
  26. Knockback, Molten, Reflect Damage, Minion
  27. Fast, Waller, Reflect Damage, Teleport
  28. Arcane Enchanted, Fire Chain, Reflect Damage, Vortex
  29. Frozen, Knockback, Extra Health, Reflect Damage [skip]
  30. Knockback, Mortar, Frozen, Shield

You are goddamn right I wrote them all down. Aside from the four I marked in red above, the elites he faced in the video (barring the occasional enemy type) were a total joke. Could he have faced down my FMPD welcoming committee with his spec? Maybe, maybe not. I have grave doubts.

Sour grapes aside, his video has educated me in various ways. For example, his +631 Life on Hit is obviously doing more for him than my +1027 considering he is getting nearly a full extra attack per second – nevermind all the extra Spirit he generates. The single-minded focus on Dexterity was similarly interesting given how much effect it is having: 229% more damage from his 612 DPS weapons, making them nearly on par with my 1000+ 2H. I am not entirely willing to go Deadly Reach just yet, but I can definitely spend another ~5 hours “playing” Diablo 3’s AH to repair my errors.

And if it sounds like I am enjoying Diablo 3 better overall, you wouldn’t be wrong. The cheeky among you might suggest that it is because of the increased difficulty, and I am inclined to agree – Act 2 has been the only stretch of road I have not been zipping down at 80 mph in a 65 mph zone. Indeed I thought Act 1 Inferno was about as hard as Act 2 Normal in the scheme of things, given the latter’s lack of gold for upgrades and all the locked abilities.

After 38 hours /played, it is about goddamn time some fun was had.

The end is probably nigh however, for all the reasons I have seen in the comments to my own posts (and elsewhere). “Farming” Act 1 Inferno holds about as much appeal as sticking my balls in a toaster, and… well, actually, that is basically the way forward here. Or giving in to the Deadly Reacharound build. While the thought of maybe getting a $200 item drop soothes the chaffing a bit, I already spend more time in the AH than in-game. I don’t know how much longer…

…hold on, I have an email.

Pics or it didn’t… damn.

BRB, grabbing my toaster.

P.S. Congrats to Anderasill, the owner of the above screenshot + $173.40 ($200 minus fees) and a winner of the Diablo Annual Pass Challenge (Hardcore). She actually got Diablo 3 via the Annual Pass, so there’s that too. And she probably could have saved herself the 15% transaction fee since I know damn well she’ll just spend all that money and more buying the new WoW pets.