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Quick & Dirty Guide to ME3 Multiplayer

There are a couple of things going on.

First, I removed the Currently page and turned it into a sidebar item instead. Time will tell if I actually update it with any more regularity than I did with the original page, but I’ll jump off that bridge when I come to it. In the meantime, it is accurate.

Second, I have a new menu page entitled Design. The only item in there currently is my Quick & Dirty Guide to Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer. I thought about posting it in its entirety here, but the idea is that the guide itself is going to be a permanent resource that can and will be updated occasionally. Indeed, when I started writing it in the weeks after ME3’s release, the goal was to send it off to GameFAQs as there were no similar resources at the time. Unfortunately, someone beat me to the punch, so who knows whether it will be accepted there now. The goal for the guide itself is to be something I wish I had available when I first started playing the game. If that interests you, check it out.

In any event, the Design page will eventually be home to other projects I have been working on that I want to be able to upload in a semi-permanent location. Most will be game-related, but some may not be. Unlike these blog posts, I will not be vouching for their peerless quality and relevancy to your daily lives.

Finally, I am going on vacation for a week, starting tomorrow. It is unfortunate that I shall miss the launch day of Diablo 3 in the process, but I will try and trooper on from the condo’s 2nd-floor beachfront balcony. I may schedule some posts ahead of time for you to read, or you may have to waste away the hours of my absence by forlornly browsing the archives. Either way, it shall be full steam ahead starting back on the 21st.

Character Customization Through Talents

I was really going to leave the talent discussion alone, it being “old news” by now and my having already presented my case. But I keep coming across what seems historical revisionism of sorts when it came to early WoW talents and the number of actually legitimate customization options available. Take, for instance, this passage over at The Babbling Gamer:

[…] When I first played WoW back in 2005, it’s biggest selling point for me was the talent system.  It allowed far more character customization than most MMOs out at the time.  I tried all sorts of things.  I tinkered.  I had fun.  The Burning Crusade felt like a solid improvement on it.  I played with lots of  sub-optimal specs, trying to find the one that was the most fun.  I don’t min/max for effectivity, I min/max for enjoyability.  I don’t care if spec A does 10% more damage while spamming one spell over and over than my spec B complex rotation of silly abilities and half-working synergies.  I don’t care that I hardly ever use that heal I spent talent points to get and could be doing more damage without. […]

After some digging around Google, I actually found a website that has functioning TBC v2.01 talent calculators. Booting up the Retribution tree and seeing Crusader Strike as the 41-point talent really takes me back… to a time where I apparently enjoyed auto-attacking my balls with a hammer. And 61 talent points to spend! Those will sure come handy… in filling out all these 5-point talent sinks. You see, leveling up and getting a new talent point is fun. Putting said talent point into Rank 3 Conviction (+1% crit rate, 5 ranks) is at no point whatsoever fun.

So with that in mind, I decided to look at the various class trees and basically remove every talent that did NOT change your gameplay in any possible way. Here are some of the results:

TBC paladin talent tree.

How about the mage?

TBC mage talent trees.

The rubric I used to determine whether a talent changed your gameplay was pretty simple:

  • The talent added a button to your hotbar; or
  • The talent changed the way you used a button already on your hotbar.

The paladin case was fairly straight-forward: cooldowns, buffs, and abilities only. Then again, paladins have a lot of bleed-over utility that eventually resulted in the “one-man army” effect of Retribution in early Wrath.

The mage tree was a little less straight-forward. For example, I left Improved Counterspell up because it changed Counterspell from a button you only should push at a certain moment (when the target is casting), to a button that could be cast strategically (to deny spellcasting at certain moments). I left Improved Scorch open because the talent makes you actually include Scorch in your rotation to keep up a vital (raid) debuff, changing your gameplay. Likewise, I left Frostbite open even though it simply gives some of your spells a 15% chance to Freeze (root) your target, because that interrupts your normal spell rotation; instead of just chain-casting Frostbolt, when Frostbite procs you’re encouraged to do a Shatter combo of firing an Ice Lance with a Frostbolt in the air. You may or may not have noticed, but Shatter itself I left covered as a talent sink – even if Shatter did not exist, the damage/time limit of a Frostbite proc would still encourage the Frostbolt/Ice Lance combo. Shatter simply increases the potential damage, just like the overwhelming majority of all the talents in TBC trees.

A question arises though: is choosing between damage talents not a choice? Well… yes and no. The easy answer is the one from the Extra Credits video, which is to say that a choice between +10% Frostbolt damage vs +10% Ice Lance damage is NOT a choice, but a calculation. A problem arose, however, when I considered these two talents from Fallout: New Vegas:

Cowboy + Shotgun Surgeon

Granted, Fallout: New Vegas does not have a talent tree per se; it has a perk system. Every two levels you must choose a perk from an ever-expanding list however, so I consider that roughly analogous. So… is the Cowboy perk a choice or is it a calculation? I just agreed that choosing between +10% damage to two different spells is a calculation, and the Cowboy perk essentially gives me +25% damage to a small number of weapons. And yet I am inclined to say it is a legitimate choice. Why? I consider these sort of talents to be stylistic and/or identity choices. In a game with no formal classes, picking the Cowboy perk is the closest thing you can come to differing “specs” in Fallout. A Gatling laser handles a lot differently than a sniper rifle that handles a lot differently than a revolver. Likewise, an Arcane mage plays differently than a Fire mage that plays differently than a Frost mage.

So, going back to the Babbling Gamer quote, we can zero in on this part:

I don’t care if spec A does 10% more damage while spamming one spell over and over than my spec B complex rotation of silly abilities and half-working synergies.

What Warsyde has done is essentially used the old talent system to create an entirely new spec. Maybe create an Arcane mage that takes Ignite and casts Fireball instead of Arcane Blast with a little PoM-Pyro action in the wings? Warsyde did not actually mention any specific spec, but a Google searched turned up this gem of a EJ mage theorycraft thread started 10/16/06, talking about an Arcane/Frost hybrid mage grabbing both Spell Power (+50% crit damage) and Ice Shards (+100% crit damage with Frost spells). That sort of thing definitely would have got my juices flowing at the possibilities. So, yes, choices!

And yet… and yet… maybe not.

See, there was never any question that picking a specialization was a choice. And while the number of talents points available in TBC and the various positions in the trees allowed for the creation of “new” specs like the hybrid Arc/Fire or Arc/Frost mage, what were those hybrid specs really? A fire mage with PoM and Arcane Power, and a Frost mage with absurdly large Frostbolt crits, respectively. You were still basically a Fire mage or Frost mage with different activated abilities. And guess what Fire mages?


You can have your PoM-Pyro back.¹

In conclusion, the older WoW talent systems allowed space for unsupported hybrid specs to exist, but in actuality these hybrids were almost always simply normal specs using 1-2 different abilities; an outcome basically indistinguishable from the proposed plan in MoP. The rest of the talent choices, and arguably many of the hybridization ones, simply came down to calculations – Arc/Frost was created simply to abuse +crit damage talents, for example. The only real thing we are losing is the ability to gain a number every other level, and sink that number down into a hole.

And while Warsyde can choose between spamming one spell vs a complex rotation of silly abilities with vague (calculated!) synergy, so can a 0/0/0 mage. How complicated one’s rotation should be is definitely a choice, but not one you make with talents.

¹ Yes, I am aware of Hot Streak procs and their simulated PoM-Pyro-ness. It’s just not the same.

Diablo Learns from WoW

All the cool stuff is happening on the Diablo 3 forums, as far as roundabout WoW internal design philosophy goes. For example, this is Bashiok:

You’re overestimating what stat points actually provided, customization-wise in Diablo II, and really overestimating what skill points did.

Diablo (1) did not have skill trees, it was a feature added to Diablo II, and then more or less copied by World of Warcraft. Some could say to World of Warcraft’s detriment as it’s been struggling with how to cope with a skill tree system, which has huge inherent issues with very little benefit, for years. Diablo III, like Diablo II, is an evolution of the series and game systems.

Saying that Diablo III shouldn’t learn from the successes and mistakes in World of Warcraft, let alone Diablo II or any other game, is just nonsensical.

Bashiok went on to post some Youtube links of Jay Wilson being interviewed about a host of Diablo 3 design questions. One off-shoot of that was about Diablo 3 PvP, in which he very strongly expressed disgust about how “PvP wags the tail” when it comes to WoW design, and that it would be “over his dead body” for the same to happen in Diablo 3. In fact, this is what he literally said vis-a-vis WoW:

Even the amount that PvP can alter the PvE game in WoW is unacceptable to us. Whenever we run into a case of “this would be really cool for us in PvE,” the PvP guy goes [raises hand] “That kind of screws PvP,” the answer is always “Shut up, PvP guy. It’s awesome in PvE and so that’s what we’re doing.”

This is not particularly groundbreaking news (the tension between PvE and PvP has been officially recognized for years), but it is fascinating to me hearing a more candid take on these subjects from designers. And, of course, what it could mean in design moving forward. Given that PvP is essentially free, infinitely recurring content while patches take 6-7 months to phone in lovingly craft, such hostility is… instructive.

The F-Word

I was reading Stabs’ post about treasure hunting in Diablo 3, how the typical gold farmer strategies won’t work and so on, when I see Nils in the comments say:

While reading this something inside me cries out: “Why don’t you just try to have fun??”

You seem determined to optimize the fun out of it.

The first question that popped into my mind was “What if you find optimizing fun?” And Stabs replies:

@Nils Ah we’re getting back to the question, what is fun? All I can say is, for myself, I’m hyped that I’ll be able to play D3 for money, it was a game I’d have played heavily anyway, I’ve always loved theorycraft and numbercrunching, I have an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane D2 mechanics and I believe I’ll have an utter blast doing this.

I can’t really defend optimisation to someone who considers it not fun. I do suspect that you’re swimming against the tide.

If you listen to the PC Gamer podcast I linked you’ll hear them argue very persuasively that D3 is a game where everyone is a gold farmer but then go on to talk about how much fun it is to play. They’re not mutually exclusive.

I think the only fun I’ll intentionally sacrifice for optimisation is alting. I usually mess around with lots of different classes and builds when I get a new game. With this game I’ll be rushing to the end.

I have heard the phrase “optimize the fun out of it” from Nils and Tobold and others, and it was not until Stabs’ unapologetic response that I realized how asinine the phrase is to begin with. Optimization is fun. I am not going to hedge that with “can” or “to some people” because you have to fight stupid declarative statements with Objective (Self-) Truth. If you find optimization fun, then it is. Period. If you don’t like it tomorrow, then it is not fun, until such time that you change your mind again. If someone finds something different fun, they are wrong. Unless you agree with them. Is that not the implied premise in these fun discussions? Are we not justifying our favorite colors (red), flavors (peanut butter), or meals (taco salad)? I hate steak. Do I ask why people ruin their dinners with slabs of tough, bloody cow muscle? Of course not. And not just because I prefer taking a perfectly healthy salad and smothering it in greasy ground meat, nacho chips and sour cream.

I do not judge because I do not live in a solipsistic bizzaro-world where Fun is some objective Form straight out of the works of Plato. Have you read Gevlon at Greedy Goblin lately? He “refuses to nihilistically believe” that two people playing WoW can have different goals, motivations, desires. In a Battleground, he rages at the people fighting on the bridge instead of guarding a flag like he is; they are M&S (moron & slacker) for not winning in the most efficient manner. I was not aware winning was more important than having fun, but he covers that too by saying winning is the only way to have fun in the first place. I am not quite sure how he handles games like The Sims or Second Life – possibly you are M&S for not playing winnable games to begin with – but Nils, Gevlon, and Stabs all played WoW at some point in time so obviously someone was doing it wrong. Right?

The Dark Heart of the Matter

The underlying problem with “what is fun?” posts is not just because fun is a subjective thing. The underlying problem is that none of us can really be sure what fun even is to ourselves. That is, strictly speaking, an absurd statement. But the psychological fact of the matter is that human beings are damn near incapable of accurately predicting how they will feel in the future. Feel free to read along at home the article entitled The Futile Pursuit of Happiness. A choice excerpt:

Much of the work of Kahneman, Loewenstein, Gilbert and Wilson takes its cue from the concept of adaptation, a term psychologists have used since at least the 1950’s to refer to how we acclimate to changing circumstances. George Loewenstein sums up this human capacity as follows: ”Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we’re designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.” In this respect, the tendency toward adaptation suggests why the impact bias is so pervasive. As Tim Wilson says: ”We don’t realize how quickly we will adapt to a pleasurable event and make it the backdrop of our lives. When any event occurs to us, we make it ordinary. And through becoming ordinary, we lose our pleasure.”

It is easy to overlook something new and crucial in what Wilson is saying. Not that we invariably lose interest in bright and shiny things over time — this is a long-known trait — but that we’re generally unable to recognize that we adapt to new circumstances and therefore fail to incorporate this fact into our decisions. So, yes, we will adapt to the BMW and the plasma TV, since we adapt to virtually everything. But Wilson and Gilbert and others have shown that we seem unable to predict that we will adapt. Thus, when we find the pleasure derived from a thing diminishing, we move on to the next thing or event and almost certainly make another error of prediction, and then another, ad infinitum.

You can probably draw a line from that concept and connect it with Cognitive Dissonance, and especially the sub-set of that: Effort Justification. This is extremely relevant in MMO discussions about what is “fun” and what is not for what shall be readily apparent reasons:

Dissonance is aroused whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve some desired goal. Dissonance can be reduced by exaggerating the desirability of the goal.

Oestrus from The Story of O and Nils from Nils’ MMO Blog both wrote about this dissonance in their (hopefully cynical) “What is fun?” articles. Both Nils and Oestreus argue (in effect) that fun is the resolving of the dissonance that is doing a long, arduous grind for an ultimately meaningless reward. After completion, you convince yourself  that the journey was meaningful, and magically you retroactively have fun. Your brain does this because it refuses to believe that you could be so dumb to have spent all that time voluntarily being miserable, ergo the reward must have been worth it. And the sad thing is, this works. Nils even has a series of posts talking about how “great games enslave you,” not through riveting substance or fun activities (which is really salt that ruins the larger shit soup), but by pulling a Lucy and moving the football before you get to it, every goddamn time. I may be paraphrasing here.

In their defense, I do believe they are talking about great MMOs specifically, where “great” is defined as ones that keep you pressing levers for food pellets as long as humanly possible. It is the same definition of greatness, incidentally, that makes America’s Funniest Home Videos one of the greatest television shows of all time. Better than, you know, The Wire, The Sopranos, Dexter, etc etc.

On the Other Hand…

The good news is that your inevitable, happiness-based existential crisis may be unnecessary, and here is why: Think about your favorite games of all time. Now… were any of them MMOs? I am guessing no. For me, my favorite games are Xenogears, Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy Tactics, Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid, and so on. I quit playing WoW a few weeks ago after four years, and I have 7000+ hours logged; not only is that more time than I spent playing those listed games combined, it is probably more time than I played in the entire SNES era. And yet WoW will never occupy a place on my favorite game list. No doubt I had some memorial experiences, but the vast majority of those experiences were social ones that could have existed just as easily elsewhere, like in EQ, Rift, LotRO, Warhammer, etc etc. There was nothing specifically exclusive to WoW to merit associating the social triumphs with the quality of the game itself. Moreover, the very principals Nils attributes to “great” MMOs sours my memory of the WoW-specific moments of genius – Sunstrider Isle was an absolutely amazing starting experience, but it and other experiences are diluted by ~6920 hours of merely Okay gameplay. Just like a movie or book or blog post (like this one) can overstay its welcome via lack of editing and meandering structure, a game too can ruin itself by unnecessary extension.

It is for this reason that I believe the future of the MMO market is heading towards a more single-player Show & Tell experience. This was not possible when the payment model was pretty exclusively subscription-based, but now the stage is set through the legitimization of alternative payment models (F2P, but also Diablo 3 RMAH, etc) to allow developers to go back to crafting experiences with defined beginnings, middles, and ends. The end of the story is not always the end of gameplay, of course, which is where the Show & Tell comes into play. MMOs will be less about Lucy taking away the football at the last moment, and more about showing her how far it can fly.