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That Old Difficulty Bugbear

Another MMO difficulty discussion has appeared!

Both Keen and Bhagpuss have posts up, with the former talking about being praised for running his healer over to the tank during aggro, and the latter missing:

Having to look around, pay attention, evaluate the situation, review options, compare current circumstances with previous experience. I miss the need to know, in detail, what tools I have in the box and which ones I need to pull out when. Crucially, I miss having the time to do all that and enjoy it.

This discussion is a bit different than the usual “good ole days” ones though. For one thing, Burning Crusade was relevant up into the end of 2008, and I distinctly remember entire heroic dungeon stratagems revolving around face-pulling with the paladin tank and then hiding in a door corner Consecrating and hoping for the best. Wrath shifted things a year later, of course, but the raids brought them back. Then there was Cataclysm for a minute. A minute too long IMO, but nevermind.

Point being, it’s been less than a decade. And potentially zero difference in coordination required, depending on the content you are doing. I’m not sure what the “Unrest Fireplace” deal is, but if it requires 6+ people with crazy pulls and such, that almost sounds raid-ish. Or Challenge Mode-ish. Sure, it might also be “open-world” content, but let’s be serious: there isn’t much difference.

The Bhagpuss angle is also interesting, as he admits that it isn’t a lack of challenge per se, but rather a changing in what the challenge consists of:

Players and developers alike have come to expect overt, clear signals in the form of ground markers, circles, cones, colors and written or spoken instructions. We’ve gone from improvisational theater to an on-book recital with cue-cards and a prompt.

What Bhagpuss misses is the “local knowledge,” which dictated which mobs were easy and which were not, which guards would protect you, where the safest farming spots were, and so on. And… that’s okay, I guess. It is indeed a challenge type that has been entirely supplanted by modern games with mods and Wikis and crowdsourced and datamined knowledge, often weeks before the content even goes Live.

On the other hand… if you had time to improv, was the content really that difficult?

And what does it say about the difficulty itself, if it were dependent on the slow accretion of experience? I do not consider trial and error particularly challenging. Nor memory games, for that matter. Which really just leaves… execution. The eponymous Raid Dance. I don’t know any people who are seriously thrilled about a difficulty that revolves around playing voidzone Guitar Hero for 12 full minutes, but a challenge that can be defeated via YouTube isn’t much of a challenge either, IMO.

There really isn’t one answer here. Everyone wants content tailored to their skill level, which means we all end up wanting different things. I will say though that many MMOs actually do have what Keen and Bhagpuss are probably looking for, in at least token amounts. If you want an entire game revolving around that though, sorry, you are going to have to stick with the niche titles. Because for however many amazing experiences you had, twenty other people died for what seemed like no reason, their group fell apart, and they lost hours of their life.

These days, you will know why you failed: you stood in the fire.

Pacing

Pacing is an incredibly important concept in game design. Pacing can be defined by the ability of a game to remain fun and novel for a player throughout the beginning, middle, and end of the gaming experience. In other words: for a game to end while you are still having fun. Otherwise perfect games can be destroyed by bad pacing, even if you had immense amount of fun while playing, simply because you often remember your final experiences with a game more than the first ones.

Pacing is also almost entirely subjective, often depends on variables outside of designers’ control, and is sometimes impossible to force.

I was thinking about pacing the other night as I was playing Fallout 4. I am basically at a point in the game where what I do doesn’t matter. I am level 46, I walk around in the highest-level Power Armor 24/7, I have 25,000+ caps, and have more than enough supplies to build whatever kind of Settlements I want, if I ever cared to do so.

There is nothing left to challenge me. This fact was rubbed in my face last night when I fell down into a basement area and a Legendary Alpha Deathclaw walked into the room, 10 ft away. I shot it with a Gauss Rifle around 3-4 times and it died, never having the opportunity to even attack. This is on Survival difficulty.

For all intents and purposes, I am done with the game. But the game isn’t done.

This is not Fallout 4’s fault, per se. RPGs are always tricky to balance, even when they are on rails, simply because grinding XP to out-level challenging content is a pretty standard, time-tested strategy. Add in an open world, and pacing pretty much goes out the window. Or, at least, there is an implicit expectation in open-world games that the player will supply their own pacing.

Unfortunately for me, I am utterly incapable of pacing myself.

At this point, what I should be doing is ignoring everything but the main story and plowing forward. And that is precisely what I keep intending to do. At the same time, I do not anticipate playing Fallout 4 again until after the first DLC get released, at a minimum. In such a scenario though, there is always the possibility that I put a game down and never pick it back up again. I would rather breeze through trivial encounters in order to experience interesting side quests than possibly never see them at all.

Of course, I would rather experience them in a challenging, tightly-paced manner even more.

I Miss Ghostcrawler

There, I said it.

Luckily for all of us, apparently the people of the LoL forums occasionally goad him into talking about WoW design. Here are some of the bits I found most interesting:

Was there a specific wow example that you think changed the balance too much? Whether you meant to shift the game that way or not, it seems like the playerbase thinks this has happened.

If I had to point to one controversial change, I’d say that in vanilla and BC to a lesser extent, there were many specs that weren’t really viable for PvE or PvP. We felt like they needed to be viable in order to justify being in the game, and we were reasonably successful in getting all of them much more competitive. I’ll be honest that there were times when there was still one dominant PvP spec, one dominant PvE spec and one more-or-less dead spec per class, but we did get a lot closer than ever before, especially in the most recent expansion. (And that was the team that accomplished that — I take very little credit.)

So why was this direction controversial? One, it was just flat out harder to balance since there were more variables. It led to all sorts of religious debates such as whether pure classes “deserved” to do more damage than hybrids. In order to guarantee that a particular class or spec wasn’t mandatory for raiding or Arenas, we had to share utility among more classes. (One example is shaman were no longer the only ones to bring Bloodlust.) This did homogenize classes, and some players were understandably not excited about that direction. I’m not sure of a better approach though. Maybe WoW should just have had 10 classes and not the 30 that different specs brought. Maybe some specs should have just stayed dead. I still think about this a lot.

As someone who mained a Paladin throughout TBC, I am a little biased against the whole “leave dead specs in” design. I was not a particular fan of Paladin healing, which left… precisely zero viable PvE/PvP specs for me for most of that expansion. Hell, Illidian as a raid boss was entirely designed around having a Warrior tank. And don’t get me started on how Retribution was only viable as a DPS option on Horde side (Seal of Blood was Blood Elf specific). Paladins ended up being 5-man tanking kings by the end of TBC, but I still remember the growing pains into of Ulduar in which General Vezax basically meant I had to level up a Death Knight alt just to main-tank it.

Still, I almost wonder how a “just 10 classes” design would work. Perhaps like Guild Wars 2? Or would there simply be tanking classes and healing classes?

Do you ever regret opening the game up to be more casual? Instead of taking the kind of direction you are with league?

Different approaches work for different products, and I don’t want to second guess the WoW team. Let’s just say that after working on Age of Empires and World of Warcraft for a total of 16 years, it’s really refreshing to work on a game where I don’t have to worry whether someone’s grandmother can pick it up or not.

Would like to see GC’s grandmother (or mother or father or brother etc) kill Heroic 25m Siegecrafter Blackfuse!

Blackfuse is not the standard by which most of the game is designed. It’s memorable in fact because it’s so much harder than 99% of what you do in the game. Very few players even try (though it is a great fight). You don’t wipe 100 times leveling up. Few players quit running dungeons because they’re too hard. In much of the game, death is unlikely and not much of an obstacle when it does happen. That’s just the way the game was designed and the way nearly all players experience it. I’m not even commenting on whether I agree with that philosophy or not, but it was the philosophy.

Regardless of whether anyone’s grandmother can beat Blackfuse or attain Challenger tier is really besides the point. The points (and these are facts, because I was on the staff of both dev teams) are:

1) WoW spends a lot of effort to make sure almost any player can pick up the game, learn the ropes, level to 90 and even raid if that’s their interest. LoL spends almost no effort making sure almost any player can pick up the game. It does expend some effort to make sure that players who self-identify as gamers can pick up the game.

2) As a result of these efforts and different definitions of potential audience, WoW has a much broader audience than LoL. That’s fine. Different strategies work for different games.

My point was that I spent a lot of development time on both Age of Empires and WoW trying to make the games approachable to a wide audience without compromising the game design. I don’t have to do that anymore, which is s nice change of pace.

Well that’s certainly a confirmation of a lot complaints about WoW’s difficulty curve in solo content.

I love WoW but if not for heroic raiding, I likely would have left a long time ago.

I’m a heroic (mythic) raider. That’s how I fell in love with WoW. But they can’t sustain the game alone. (Source)

There’s a widespread misunderstanding that most people even want to be “brought up.” Everyone has the tools and capability to do anything. How many do it? (Bashiok)
We thought in Cata that we could entice players to rise to the occasion to do harder content. But, you know, some players just said that’s not why they play the game. More power to them. (Source)

The notion that gaming exists (entirely or in part) as a means to improve the skills of the player is a topic all its own, but let me briefly say: that’s dumb. Games are entertainment products. Some people are indeed entertained by honing their skills and seeing increases in finesse. But in many ways that is ultimately a zero-sum endeavor – being “too good” eliminates a wide swath of potential games for you on the one end, and the limits of your own physical abilities removes games from the other end. Meanwhile, everyone can experience, say, character progression at any level.

In a game entirely based around competition, sure, go ahead and “train” your players. Some of us just want to press some buttons, experience a little escapism, and/or need an excuse to (virtually) hang out with online friends and do things together.

I’d like to know what Blizzard considers to be the big barriers.
Well *I* consider the biggest barrier being it’s a 3D WASD game with a movable camera. (Bashiok)
I agree. So does a lot of data. (Source)

Man, I always supported you with WoW changes and felt really bad when you left, but that WoW comment… ouch.
We updated Elwynn Forest twice while I was there to make the game accessible. It was a lot of work. There are very hardcore aspects of WoW but there are also casual ones. Catering to both (or all) is a big challenge. That’s all I meant. I earned a reputation for “dumbing the game down” which is bizarre to me. I was countering that supposition. No offense intended.(Source)

I’m reading a lot of comments confusing accessibility with difficulty. Learning to play WoW is accessibility. Raiding is difficulty. WoW’s intent when I was there (I can’t speak for it now) was to appeal to a wide audience. Developing for a wide audience is very hard. Ulduar (my favorite raid) had two raid sizes (and optional hard modes). After that we added more difficulty tiers to broaden raiding appeal.
Is that something you didn’t want to do?
You can argue it exposed more players to the fun of raiding, but might have diminished the psychological reward of doing so. Raids also self nerf over time as players gear up, and we did across the board nerfs as well. So dedicated players would eventually get to see the content. The change was more about whether players deserved to see new content when it was new vs several patches later. (Source)
Adding multiple tiers per raid is more work. Appealing to a broad audience is more work. For once in my career, I don’t have to do that. (Source)
People struggled through bad design and confused it with mastery of difficulty.
There also was very little concept of damage meters or optimal rotations in Molten Core. The audience matured. (Source)

The raiding bit was interesting, but the fact that the very fundamental 3D interface being an issue is… illuminating. The things was take for granted, eh?

What by your experience are the constant things that come up that make learning a game hard?
1) Identifying the goal, 2) Understanding the controls, 3) Realizing where the fun is going to be. I mention that third point because too many tutorials strip away too much fun out of fear of burdening a new player.
Hand held guidance vs joy of discovery and freedom. Can`t have both.
Yes, but you can make the hand held guided part fun. Maybe you can see a dragon even if you have no business fighting one yet. (Source)

Explained another way, when you see a big drop off in players after only a few minutes then they are probably very confused. Players can’t usually tell if a game will be fun that quickly, but if they have no idea what’s going on, then they may quit. You see this a lot when casual players can’t mouse look, a skill second nature to many core gamers. (Source)

Look, you can play a very demanding game casually or invest many hours in a simple iPhone game. WoW appeals / tries to appeal to many gamers who don’t fit the traditional gamer mold. League doesn’t go after those gamers. Simple as that. (Source)
I can mouse look, play WoW, and adventure games. Dont consider myself (hard)core gamer. Core/casual split seems so limiting
It is very limiting. However, when even game developers watch a brand new player struggle with controls it’s eye opening. (Source)

Alright, I’m good.

Still… see what I mean? Could someone point out where else we could read some rather frank discussions on the nuts and bolts of game design? Developer blogs are almost entirely marketing vehicles that only tangentially resemble the final product. I am not suggesting Ghostcrawler is necessarily best designer out there, or even a good one. He might not be the one we deserve, but he’s the one we need right now.

Huge Wildstar Elder Content Nerf

Welp, time to pack it in, cupcake. Wildstar had a good run, a solid 24 days of hardcoreness before it was nerfed to the ground:

Based on the feedback we’ve been getting both from you and our own internal testing, we are planning on making revisions to the way Superb-quality loot is awarded in dungeons and adventures. Simply put, we currently place too much value on completing gold runs for veteran level content. By placing Superb-quality rewards behind a gate of near-perfect PUG performance, we have fostered a “Gold runs or bust” mentality that is negatively affecting our group play experience. We’d much rather people engage with the content and complete the runs they start.

Therefore, we will soon be implementing the following changes:

  • The existing gold medal rewards are being removed from gold medal completion.
    • These rewards will instead drop off the final bosses or encounters for dungeons and adventures.
    • The table from which this loot drops has a chance to be selected and is granted in addition to that bosses regular loot.
  • Any medals earned instead will instead give the group bonus rolls on an instance-wide loot list, at the end of the instance, on top of extra coin and experience rewards.
    • By way of example, completing a bronze medal would provide one bonus reward roll on top of the regular boss kill and completion reward, while a silver medal would provide two bonus rolls and a gold medal would provide three bonus rolls.
    • The items on these rolls are randomly selected from all equipment rewards that could drop from any boss or encounter inside that instance.
    • Each of these bonus rolls has a smaller, flat chance to select from the list of superb rewards.

We want groups to complete full runs of the dungeons and adventures, regardless of the medal earned. Instead of needing to disband immediately when a gold run fails, the Superb-quality rewards are available by working together to get through the instance.

Simply put: if your group runs Veteran Sanctuary of the Swordmaiden, all you need to do to earn a shot at Superb-quality loot is defeat Spiritmother Selene. No more medal requirements!

If you have any more feedback for us, please post it. The devs are listening!

See? TO THE GROUND.

I, of course, am kidding. A large number of people in the same forum are not:

So much for this game being harder. Give everyone easy loot and the degree of difficulty goes way down.

i considder this a HUGEE Nerf. might aswell remove medals als you deleted the purpose of them completly by doing this. i thought loot needed to be earned not handed out the easy way.

not even 1 month and you are already giving in to the lesser player? i guess you guys aren’t as hardcore as you promised.

keep this up and considder yourself 1 player less who will play this *still awesome game* for now.. lets see what you guys start nerfing next.. pitty realy.

Is this a joke? Already giving in to people whining about not getting faceroll epics? I thought this game was going to be rewarding if you did something extraordinary. You just killed the purpose of the medal system.. Why would you run for gold now? Even though people dont care to admit it, an important aspect of any mmorpg is the e-peen. If you cant show of your shiny nice epic that you working really hard for, only to see some careless nab with too much time, having the same item only with better sockets.. Come on Carbine, really? Im dissapointed.

The system was fine. Learn not to give in to spoiled players who doesnt wanna work hard to be equally well rewarded.

Pugs and challenging content are just not compatible.  I remember a 100 page thread on WSC back when Carbine first announced the LFD tool where everyone complained that the tool would lead to easy content.  Carbine assured us that they would not nerf content to appease whiners.

Now here we are less than a month into the game and Carbine has already folded.  Watching this whole dungeon fiasco unfold I thought there were 2 possible options:

1. Give us a new grouping tool to make same-server groups and elimate all the horrible behavior that the anonyminity of LFD provides
2. Nerf content

They took the easy way out, and I have zero doubt that as l2p said, this is only the beginning of turning this game into another braindead MMO that requires zero thought or skill.

One thing I will agree with the last quote above, is that PUGs and challenging content are not compatible. Or more specifically, LFD systems and challenge are not compatible. It is not about catering to casuals per se – you can desire as hard a game as possible – it is about the immutable fact that if the LFD system does not result in a successful run more than half the time at a minimum, the LFD system itself will fail. Kinda weird to think about it now, but there were some of us there at the start of the LFD revolution, and watched this truism develop in real-time.

Has it really only been three years? Indeed it has.

I will be honest in saying that I am rather surprised by Carbine’s… generosity in this regard. Until 20 minutes ago, I believed the simplest, most likely solution would have been to disable the Medal system when using the LFD tool. Because let’s face it, the real problem here were toxic morons who believed that they were entitled to skilled strangers pulled randomly from a dozen servers. That’s right, I said it. “Casuals” are entitled to the same thing every gamer is entitled to: content tailored to their skill level. Gold medal runs are not it… but Bronze runs? Yeah, those could work. And yet here we were, the “hardcore” babies throwing a tantrum, dropping groups or kicking noobs because they couldn’t get what they wanted. I don’t blame the hardcore crowd for rationally determining that a non-Gold run isn’t worth their time. I blame them for going into the LFD queue expecting anything more than a completed run.

As I said, Carbine is being generous here. And subtle. The “bonus rolls” were a nice touch insofar as it provides a glimmer of hope to those whom were looking for a specific item a given boss failed to drop. I think most of us have experienced dungeon runs in WoW where the tank or healer drops immediately after not getting the loot they hoped for. Indeed, I would advise Blizzard to implement this selfsame thing for WoW immediately. I shouldn’t have to, given that WoW already does this in LFR, but you know how it goes.

In any case, this is excellent news whether you are on the train, or looking at the tracks from afar with anticipation. Hey, don’t look at me like that. It isn’t schadenfreude, it’s science. A testing of a hypothesis. That’s the thing about reinventing the wheel though: it almost always ends up having the same rounded corners.

How Hardcore Will Wildstar Actually Be?

Keen brought up an interesting perspective last week in regards to Wildstar:

I keep hearing/reading that WildStar is going to be such a hardcore game not for the casual, console, [insert something with a core not hard enough] audience.  Yes, there are inaccessible 40-man raids.  You’re delusional if you think that WildStar is now or will ever be hardcore.  Even compared to Vanilla WoW (like WildStar often is) it’s ridiculously accessible and easy to level.  People were hitting 40+ in 3-4 days or less.

All it will take is a few exit surveys for NCSoft to step in and force accessibility.  “We’re losing subscribers because they can’t experience the content they want to play.”  It will never, ever, be more inaccessible than WoW.

It’s an interesting perspective to me because I was (and still am) prepared to take Carbine and the Wildstar devs on face value. There was another Reddit AMA last week that sort of doubled-down on the hardcoreness. You can read a much cleaner, more condensed version here. This rather epic deconstruction sums up a lot of miscellaneous things:

Q: When it becomes apparent in the next year that hardcore 40 man’s aren’t going to work because it’s not what people like to do anymore, what other ideas are you going to try?

CRB_Gaffer: This is a “gotcha” question, but I’ll answer it anyways since some variant of it comes up reasonably often.

Little aside here: Why is this “gotcha”? Well, let’s examine possible answers:

1) Say “yes, 40 mans won’t work in a year, we’ll roll to another system” – well obviously we don’t believe that, or we wouldn’t have done them. And if early testing were pointing that way, we would have already converted them.

2) Say “no, they’ll never change, even if no one plays them!” – well, obviously, we’d be idiots to not respond to player feedback; it’s what we do. They’re fun enough that they’ll get played, we’re confident.

3) Say “it’s entirely up to player feedback!” – that’s hardly giving a strong direction, and we know this one will be contentious – there’s not likely to be a consensus. Every interesting game design decision is a mix of having a vision and being willing to intelligently and rationally assess when to swerve from it if reality and vision collide.

4) If we say that contingently we’ll push other fallback ideas, then of course the player base will potentially rapidly become divided to say “DO THAT NOW!!!” or assume that our plan all along is to go that route, when in practice, anything we do in terms of long-term planning is to an extent contingency based. We’ll be MUCH more knowledgeable about the health of the systems in the long terms six months post-launch.

So, that’s kinda the definition of a gotcha question – there’s no simple answer that actually addresses the question.

There’s another issue; the phrasing “when it becomes apparent” that implies that you’re asking the question to people you think aren’t that smart to begin with.

One assumes that’s intentional; it creates the added issue that responding to the question potentially Pavlovian conditions folks asking us questions to be snarky, when generally we try to focus answers on intelligent, well-phrased questions (even contentious ones) to make sure we’re doing our best to improve the quality of dialogue. No offense intended if that phrasing was just unintentional and through poor communication skills! Anyways, a good policy in TL;DR form: “Don’t feed the trolls”

But what the heck! To answer concisely after the extended parenthetical:

If it turns out that gamers are no longer capable of enjoying large-scale raiding, at that time our cross-discipline group of folks will have a series of debates on what works, what doesn’t work, base it on the data we’ve pulled from the systems and talking with our fans, and either double down on the parts of the systems that work well, or innovate some new directions to move forward in.

But early feedback is that that’s a pretty hypothetical situation. ;) Cause, hell, they’re pretty fun, and we think the added fun of the deeper gameplay we get out of those fights outweighs the social overhead of maintaining large groups. But folks will prove us wrong or not.

There are enough Ins and Outs in that response to construct a burger franchise, but there you go. Vague PR bullshit or nuanced game design? While I find myself more inclined to wait and see, I must confess that the following responses seems a bit contradictory:

Q: Are you committed to keeping a natural progression of content? […] Do you plan on adding shortcuts to previous tiers of raids when new ones come out? Removal of attunements, nerfing fights, adding equivalent gear from casual and easy to obtain sources (see WoW patch 2.4)?

CRB_TimeTravel: This is a great question for four months from now. Our post-launch balancing plans will depend heavily upon the speed with which players consume the content and the # of players doing the consuming.

However, we definitely don’t want to simply invalidate our previous content when we release new stuff.

Q: I know this is far into the future, but I’m hoping you guys keep old content relevant. I think it would be a great way to get the more casual players to raid in older/easier raid instances and have the new raids maintain the benchmark for hardcore players.

CRB_TimeTravel: We definitely don’t want to make our older content irrelevant, so will be looking for ways to have an intelligent progression forward with gear and ability as the game matures post-launch.

Q: What are your plans for longterm raid progression in terms of gear? Will you be taking the WoW model of trivializing the oldest raid instances when new ones are released? or the EverQuest model of a strict progression system, or somewhere in between?

CRB_TimeTravel: Somewhere in between.

We do not want to trivialize our content, nor force players to do all of it before seeing anything new.

What “middle way” is there between “not invalidate older content” and “not force players to do all of it”? You can either skip tiers or you can’t. The fact that the last boss of any given raid tier is always harder than the first (few) boss(es) of the next tier is one of the reasons I have always considered things like attunements and the justifications for them to be asinine. “Linear progression” is never linear progression, at least not for the first half of the next instance. If the hardcore raiders get a handful of gimmie bosses, why not everyone else? What good is preserved by putting a hard, game-ending limit to a given guild’s progression when you’ve specifically crafted new bosses that that guild could defeat if you but got out of the way?

Ugh. I think “attunements” and “linear progression” are trigger words for me.

That being said, I am not entirely sure whether I share Keen’s “optimism” regarding raiding in Wildstar becoming more accessible. As mentioned, there is enough wiggle-room in the posts by Carbine devs to allow them to nerf the content based on low participation. More problematic is how exactly they plan on nerfing it. Many of the gameplay videos I have seen paint most of the bosses as “bullet hell” dances, even in the 5m dungeons. In a world in which something as simple as the Heigan Dance threatened to break guilds apart, I’m skeptical these devs will be able to thread that needle. Maybe the attacks will 3-shot you instead of 1-shot? Maybe there will be less “bullets?” As any PUG raid leader can tell you though, moving out of the fire and dodging the fire are two entirely different things.

In any case, I suppose we’ll see how things shake out a few weeks from now.

Unfair Impressions: TSW, Day 2

[Preface: I wrote the below before yesterday’s post went up, so I hadn’t yet incorporated any of the feedback given. My current mood is less bleak than the below suggests.]

I am seriously considering the fact that The Secret World may not be for me.

After some rather meticulous research, my plan for weapons is going to be Blades/Assault Rifle with Pistols thrown in – I have been assured that this covers all the relevant bases. After that was nailed down, I started towards Kingsmouth and chopping down zombies, Kill Bill-style.

My brow furrowed almost immediately. One of the first side-quests you get in this area is how to construct and deconstruct weapons. In a Minecraft-esque grid. Er… what? Why is this a thing? Is there a particular reason to go with this crafting system beyond intentional obfuscation? A little while later, I was shown how to construct glyphs in a similar fashion, which are sort of like gems you slot into weapons, except you can’t actually just slot them in. In fact, I had to watch a Youtube video of this quest because following the given instructions wasn’t helping. “Oh. You gave me TWO glyph toolboxes, and I’m not supposed to use the one called glyph toolbox, but the sort of quest item version.”

Oh, silly me. Of COURSE that makes sense!

Oh, silly me. Of COURSE that makes sense!

After a shake of the head, I accept the quest from the fortune-teller nearby and am asked to find some ravens. I find one outside, watch it fly away, and am then told to follow it. I do so… only to see it clip out of existence in mid-air. Er… okay. Oh, by the way, you have 60 seconds to figure this out. After aggroing some zombies, I restart this portion and try again. Nope, that raven definitely disappears in mid-air. I walk the entire length of the road in the direction the raven was traveling in, not even sure what the hell the quest designer was expecting me to do.

Spoiler alert: they wanted me to ignore the flying raven and look for another bird on the ground. Brilliant. I do this a few times, fight some spawned enemies, grab two side-quests I run past on the way, redo a section of the raven quest because, you know, it’s timed but they thought it was cute to leave side-quests along the path just to fuck with people, complete the quest finally and then loot my text message of an item I can’t even equip because I’ve already spent my Skill Points.

Are we having fun yet?

Spoiler alert: No.

My mood was not improved by the next quest, which involved checking out the Illuminati runes inscribed on the church that causes zombies who tread inside to be instantly killed. “Find the first set of runes.” Okay, sure, I saw them near the door. “Find the second set of runes.” Okay then. I’ll give you two guesses as to what I ended up doing for the next five minutes.

Oh FFS.

Oh FFS.

If you guessed “searching the inside of the church, then spam clicking everywhere like I was trying to find that secret wooden pixel in Planescape: Torment, before furiously Googling the answer to a goddamn ‘click item’ quest,” then you are correct.

Now, I am more than willing to take some, if not most, blame for this quest-fail. The first set of runes were outside the front doors, the zombies were being prevented from coming inside, so it doesn’t actually make all that much sense for the other sets of runes to be inside. Logically – at least #GameLogic and #AnimeLogic-wise – protective runes go on the outside of the thing they’re protecting. But more than anything, my experiences on Day 2 of playing The Secret World is confirming my post earlier this month about the tenuous balancing act of difficulty vs hand-holding. This MMO does not hold your hand, gives you the cold shoulder, and by all rights actively dislikes you.

And… that’s good, I guess. It’s definitely an under-served niche. Personally, I don’t think the flavors of hotkey, active-dodging, respawning mobs really meshes with the more glacial, adventure-game schtick, but what do I know? Well, other than the small spark of my interest is being smothered by alt-tabbing to the equivalent of Thottbot for every other quest. I could tough it out, perhaps rationing my attention span a bit more judiciously. The setting is certainly interesting, at least, and I’ve heard good things about the horror elements later on.

Or I could, hypothetically, start playing a fully NDA’d, unreleased MMO in a manner more deserving of the beta key I received.

Optional Difficulty

I am finding myself with conflicting opinions on optional difficulty.

On the one hand, options are good. The distribution of peoples’ skill levels is a gradient, and not usually well-served by binary distinctions. We can easily imagine someone not being challenged at Normal difficulty, but perhaps overwhelmed when the switch is flipped to Hard – doubling monster HP and the like is overkill when all the person needed was +50%.

On the other hand… I might have become a bit corrupted by years of extrinsic MMO rewards.

You see, I just finished playing A Valley Without Wind, which I found to be fairly easy overall. The game actually features one of the most generously granular difficulty options I have ever seen though: it features 5+ different difficulty settings in three independent categories. At any time, you can boost the platforming difficulty up a few notches while lowering the actual fighting bits, or raising the “city-building” aspect to maximum while all but removing everything else.

Despite feeling like the game was a bit easy, I did not change the difficulty at all. “Why would I? It’s not like I get any better items or anything.” Oh. Oh my.

To be fair (to myself), this attitude changes depending on the game. I played on the highest difficulty in Magic 2013, for example, and couldn’t imagine playing on anything lower. X-COM was completed on Normal Ironman, as I imagined that at least Ironman was the “intended” difficulty. And actually, that is my usual metric: what did the designers intend to be the “real” difficulty? “Whatever is appropriate to you” is not a real answer to the question, as most times the difficulty is “Base +/- 100%.” I want to know what the Base is, and judge from there.

Now, it is also possible this is a specific game issue, e.g. I just don’t care all that much about AVWW. I had no problem with turning on Hardcore mode in my second playthrough of Fallout: New Vegas, for example, and actually felt like it made the game more interesting/fun when you couldn’t carry around 1000+ rounds of every ammunition type. Conversely, I did not see how mobs having more HP in AVWW was going to improve the gaming experience at all – left-clicking a few more times while you continue kiting isn’t really more fun.

In any event, this scenario has given me a somewhat greater appreciation for the “forced” difficulty games out there… at least the ones that fall within my natural ability, of course. While I still believe it is better overall to tune a game to cover a wide range of personal abilities, I hate having to arbitrarily decide what is an appropriate challenge to me. I don’t want easy games, but I don’t necessarily want a more tedious experience either (i.e. everything takes longer to kill + you’re more likely to die). Just give me a challenging game and let me figure out how to beat it on my own, without tempting me to cheese it with metagaming.

Inches

I first heard about Blizzard’s decision to not release any new 5-man dungeons this expansion from The Grumpy Elf, and confirmed from this post on MMO-Champion. The interview itself is written in Foreigner, so I will just have to take the translation at face value.

On many levels, Blizzard’s decision makes sense. The revamped ZA and ZG heroics in Cataclysm were (true to title) a disaster, reducing entire tiers of content down to all trolls, all the time. New 5-mans were handled a bit better back in Wrath when integrated into the normal rotation, but even then you could experience wild swings in difficulty depending on whether you got Gundrak or Halls of Reflection (shudder).

Had Blizzard released new 5-mans in Mists, it could have shaken out in only two ways. One: the dungeon(s) still dropped 463 gear, at which point it would be largely irrelevant to everyone. Or, two: it released 476 or higher gear, and now nobody wants to run the obsoleted dungeons again (assuming they wanted to in the first place). And besides, in a world with LFR, there is little reason to double-down on raid catch-up mechanisms, right?

On the other hand… does this not strike anyone as profoundly lazy?

Let it sink in. There will be no new dungeons in 5.3, nor 5.4, nor a potential 5.5. There will be hundreds more garbage daily quests in which the writers don’t even bother papering over the naked time-sinking, of course. Will anyone still be doing Shieldwall dailies in 5.3? Or even in this patch, for that matter? Is all that “content” being obsoleted worse than a 5-man? There are a lot of in-game cinematics and lore going on in Krasarang Wilds, after all. It strikes me as odd that your dailies change from patch to patch, but the daily dungeons never will.

Then, I start thinking about the existence of 5-man dungeons to begin with. Why have them at all? Scenarios offer 50 Valor now (compared to 80 from LFG). And, most importantly, offer DPS players an instant queue. If LFR has replaced heroic dungeons as a raid catch-up mechanism, have Scenarios not usurped dungeons by the same token? The only thing holding Scenarios back is the asinine reward mechanism in the form of a random-stat blue item from the box (when it isn’t empty). Seriously, I got a 2H agility axe yesterday. Neither druids nor monks can use axes, so it amounts to wand with strength on it.

Maybe they're bringing back 2H Enhance Shaman?

Maybe they’re bringing back 2H Enhance Shaman?

Simply migrate all heroic dungeon gear to the random Scenario box, bump the Valor a bit, and now you never have to fashion another 5-man again.

Indeed, from the same interview I referenced before, this paraphrasing emerged:

More scenarios are coming in future patches. We may see very challenging three player scenarios with pretty good rewards.

Speaking of Strength wands, my thoughts then drifted to tank gear. Why should it exist? Blizzard came oh so very close to obsoleting all tanking gear this expansion, probably by accident. Indeed, up until the 5.2 changes, Dodge and Parry were the two worst stats for a Protection paladin. The two worst! For a tank! Since it seems “active mitigation” is here to stay, why not simply go all the way? Critical Strike rating is the only thing that marks something as being “for DPS only,” and it is a simple enough thing to add a passive to tanks where critical hits procs a Dodge buff or something. While there might be an increased competition for gear between tanks and DPS… oh wait, individual loot. Problem solved. And if necessary, Blizzard could keep the gem/enchanting situation the same, so that a tank in full DPS gear could gem for Stamina or whatever to differentiate himself/herself.

I am not trying to craft a reductio ad absurdum here. I am just asking what the actual point of 5-man content is supposed to be under this new “build some once and done” paradigm. Are they necessary for anything anymore? “Practice for raiding?” I don’t know if anyone would agree that they have such an effect, if they ever did. Group content is handled by Scenarios or daily island hellholes stuffed with overlapping elite mobs. Dungeons are almost quaint these days, vestigial relics propped up only by their rewards. If Scenarios offed 80 Valor, would anyone run dungeons? What if the box at the end dropped spec-appropriate gear from the dungeons?

This is how close we are: mere inches. The slightest of nudges, and we could be upon unknown soil. And, perhaps, not even notice a difference.

Wrong Choices

Ghostcrawler tweeted the sort of thing I’m sure sends “real” MMO players into howling fits:

“No,actually,there is not a wrong choice.Wether we(players) buy new items OR upgrade old ones should be our decision,not DEV’s.”
Giving players the ability to make choices with wrong answers doesn’t make players happy overall. (Source)

Choices having bad consequences is the best (only?) way to make a decision matter, as the argument goes. However, this quote got me thinking: do such players actually enjoy being able to make the wrong choice, or is it simply that the bad choice existing (which they did not pick) validates their good decision? Or put another way, who really likes making bad decisions?

I understand that the demonstration of skill necessitates there being wrong choices. Demonstrating skill, or improvement thereof, is fun. At the same time, the Mass Effect series (for example) was fun to play even though there weren’t any “wrong choices” (provided you weren’t specifically looking for X result).

There is only ever one correct answer to the questions of “which does the most DPS” or “what is the most efficient use of resources.” Ergo, is there actually any real decision to be made when one is correct and the other(s) not? I suppose the fun is supposed to be the result of figuring out which one is which, but that sort of clashes with the mockery and disdain frequently attributed to those who don’t look up the correct decision from the Wiki/EJ. Compare that to the question of “which transmog set is the best?”

I do not believe that there has to be a wrong choice in order for choices to be meaningful generally. We make identity choices every day – what type of person do I want to be, what do I believe in? – and I do not think that anyone would suggest that those choices are either irrelevant or have wrong answers (well… no one with any sort of self-reflection). And while I am willing to concede gameplay being under the (broad) umbrella of choice, e.g. one makes a wrong choice by pressing 11342 instead of 11324, I consider there to be a distinction between executing a rotation under pressure versus avoiding falling into a designer trap. One has its place as a legitimate test of skill, and the other is simply you winning via a few mouse clicks several months ago.

The Secret World’s Other Shoe, and Jay Wilson’s Apology for D3

A little over a week ago, I pointed out that Funcom’s The Secret World was not selling all that well; Funcom’s own public press release highlighted a (presumably optimistic) scenario in which they sell half a million boxes and have ~120k subscribers after a year.

As reported by Kotaku, that other shoe has dropped: 50% of Funcom’s staff has been laid off.

Some of these initiatives are part of normal procedure following the launch of a major project, such as adjustments to the customer service staffing based on the number of customers in the game as well as adjustments to the production team as the project goes into a post-launch phase following years of intense development. Many of those affected on the customer service team are on temporary contracts which is common for a live service such as ‘The Secret World’ where customer service demand shifts based on the game’s population levels.

Even the “good news” part of that – the developers/designers were less affected than “temp” customer service reps – comes across as bad news to my ears. After all, if the MMO was doing better, then one would presumably want to retain a robust CustServ department.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I wonder whether or not we should start using layoffs as a metric of MMO success. Obviously subscription numbers have been used as the de facto measurement for years, and I imagine it correlates with layoffs pretty strongly already, but I think most of us recognize the dissonance between claiming “Game X failed” while it still remains profitable. I mean, for god’s sake, Warhammer Online is still kicking it with a subscription¹. EA is not keeping that thing alive out of the goodness of its heart. In fact, arguably, keeping Warhammer alive is unnecessarily cruel.

Or… perhaps we would all be better off not bothering with arbitrary success or failure designations entirely.

…nah, this is the internet. There can only be one!

Speaking of immortals losing their heads…

You will be forgiven if you have not been following the “Example #38417 of How Social Media Will Ruin Your Day” Diablo 3 news story, staring Jay “And Double It” Wilson.

The short version is that one of the developers of the original Diablo (David Brevik) made some comments about Diablo 3 in an interview, and essentially said he would have made different decisions. More or less. The current developers of Diablo 3 did not like that too much, and Jay Wilson thought it was a good idea to respond on Facebook by saying, and I quote, “Fuck that loser.” You can read the Kotaku write-up if you like, as it includes snippets of the interview in question and a screencap of the Facebook post itself.

Looking at the other comments, I’d say Eric Bachour’s “You’d think that guy wasn’t responsible for Hellgate: London. Lol.” was the more epic burn.

In any case, Jay “Fuck that loser and Double It” Wilson has an official pseudo-apology up on the Diablo 3 boards. I do not expect you to actually click on that link, because most of it is PR bullshit (redundantly redundant much?). Well… alright, if you skip the first four paragraphs, things get more interesting. Or you can simply read this handy list of bullet-point quotes:

  • “We believe it’s a great game. But Diablo III has flaws. It is not perfect. Sales mean nothing if the game doesn’t live on in all of our hearts, and standing by our games is what Blizzard does.”
  • “If you don’t have that great feeling of a good drop being right around the corner — and the burst of excitement when it finally arrives — then we haven’t done our jobs right.”
  • “Out of our concern to make sure that Diablo III would have longevity, we were overly cautious about how we handled item drops and affixes. If 1.0.4 hasn’t fixed that, you can be sure we’ll continue to address it.”
  • “Part of the problem, however, is not just item drops, but the variety of things to do within the game. “
  • “As it stands, Diablo III simply does not provide the tools to allow players to scale the game challenge to something appropriate for them.”
  • “Later in the development of Diablo II, the ‘players 8’ command — which let people set monster difficulty — was added to address this issue, and we’re considering something similar for the next major Diablo III patch to allow players to make up their own minds about how hard or how easy is right for them.”
  • “The Auction House can short circuit the natural pace of item drops, making the game feel less rewarding for some players. This is a problem we recognize. At this point we’re not sure of the exact way to fix it, but we’re discussing it constantly, and we believe it’s a problem we can overcome.”

I have a spoiler alert for you Jay: that last bullet point ain’t going to happen. Not only is that cat out of the bag, it has been skinned in more than one way across all nine of its lives.

I played a few hours of D3 since the patch, and I have noticed three things:

  1. “Normal monster health increased by 10%” = +5 terribly boring seconds per mob.
  2. I can tank Act 3 Inferno elites in the same gear/skills I was 2-shot in pre-patch.
  3. Gold prices have gone from $2.50/million down to $1.06/million.

That last one is a real shame, as I was hoping to cash out my ~5 million gold and (combined with the few bucks from earlier sales) maybe purchase a month of WoW ahead of MoP. Then again, that would be kind of silly to do given the Scroll of Resurrection’s free server transfer bonus, and GW2’s imminent release notwithstanding. Oh well.

Kind of wonder if that dude who paid $200 for my friend’s 2H sword is still playing the game. I do not know which possibility would be more sad for him/her.

¹ Warhammer says it is F2P on the website, but as far as I can tell it operates more as an unlimited duration free trial than true F2P. For example, you cannot go to the capital cities, cannot engage in any economic transaction with another player, and are limited to “Tier 1 scenarios,” whatever the hell that means (it’s been years since the one month I played).

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