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Airspace

Has there ever been an interesting and/or fun flying mechanic in any game?

I keep asking myself that question, as my eyes glaze over while holding Shift + W in an attempt to get somewhere in Ark on a flying mount. Flying anywhere in Ark is especially egregious, as not only is there no auto-Run/Sprint, letting go of the W key will cause your mount to stop moving altogether. Flying is not particularly engaging in WoW either, but at least you can hit NumLock (or other keybind) and then Alt-Tab for a while.

Which then begs the question of why flying commonly works the way it does at all.

In WoW, it is in perhaps its most banal form: a land mount that moves on a 3rd axis. Up, down, sideways, for infinite periods of time. Back when Flightgate was occurring, I was firmly in Camp Fly, but not because flying itself was particularly fun. Back in Burning Crusade when there were actual concerns – Fel Cannons and flying enemies capable of dismounting you – but those have largely been abandoned in favor of… attunements and grinding. Not a particular improvement.

In Ark, things are a tiny bit different. The biggest difference would be the existence of a Stamina meter, requiring one to eventually land somewhere. This need for landing does slightly alter the gameplay of flying, insofar as you must make decisions to, say, attempt to cross the Swamp at low Stamina or rest up beforehand. Otherwise, flying is largely identical, with no real to worry about running into trees or being attacked by really anything (PvP aside).

Know something that I do find compelling gameplay? Gliding. A lot of people have gone on about GW2’s introduction of gliding in Heart of Thorns and how great it is, but I’ve never experience it there. In WoW though, the Goblin Glider has been my fam for most of Legion. And don’t get me started on how lethargic it feels to play any other class after experiencing the Demon Hunter for 20 minutes. Double-jump plus glide everywhere? Give that dev a raise.

Gliding has a lot going for it, mechanically. There is the gameplay necessary to get to a high enough location to glide in the first place, for example. Once you actually take the leap, your time is limited in a very real, intuitive way. Stamina bars can technically limit flight too, but only abstractly. There is something engaging about the way you might scan the ground ahead, making minor course corrections, seeking to avoid the dangers at the end of your decaying trajectory. Even if you are not actively moving left or right, your mind is still performing the prodigious, subconscious calculus of triangulation every second. Compare that to Shift + W.

The “obvious” solution is to make flying mounts handle more like gliders. But is that really a winning combination? Maybe.

I think the challenge is the threading of the needle between making flying engaging without it being onerous. Having to press Spacebar for each flap of the mount’s wings is probably not the way to go. Being able to dive bomb though? Catching updrafts? Gliding around obstacles? Having to actually pay attention when flying through forests? That is something I can get behind. One of my favorite mounts in Ark is actually the Giant Toad, as its huge jumps are infinitely entertaining in of themselves. Can you imagine a game, MMO or otherwise, that had a flying system fun enough to be its own reward, rather than merely a mechanism to get from A to B?

If it already exists, let me know where.

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A Flight Far Enough

Well then. Turns out we’ll be returning to the skies in 6.2.x after all:

In an upcoming Public Test Realm build, we will be introducing a new meta-achievement called Draenor Pathfinder. You’ll earn this achievement in Patch 6.2 by mastering the outdoor environment of Draenor—exploring Draenor’s zones, collecting 100 treasures in Draenor, completing the Draenor Loremaster and Securing Draenor achievements, and raising the three new Tanaan Jungle reputations to Revered. Initially, this achievement will award a rylak mount: the Soaring Skyterror, one of the native beasts that roam Draenor’s skies. Players will remain ground-bound on Draenor until a small follow-up patch (6.2.x), when all players who have earned Draenor Pathfinder on at least one character will unlock the ability to fly in Draenor on all their level 90+ characters.

The general mood surrounding this announcement, at least where I have looked, has been one of almost manic joyousness. And I largely share it. This is Blizzard returning to sanity, smartly pivoting around a smoldering crisis with some clever design. Even though my first thought was “hey, attunements 2.0,” I can’t even be mad. My long-standing opposition to attunements doesn’t apply to this particular implementation of them, even if I do feel like Blizzard just kinda threw every achievement they could think of into the unlock.

But just as you would with someone who has just returned from a psychotic break, I remain leery. Some very serious men¹ made some very serious decisions and those decisions almost stuck. In fact, Lore confirmed via Twitter that the “final decision” on this flying matter was the cause of the BINGO Live Q&A delay:

In fact, the conversation continues with the following revelations:

In other words, all these changes were decided on in just the last week.

Is it comforting knowing that Blizzard can make decisions with this degree of nimbleness? Or is it vexing that it took them until now to solve this “problem?” I don’t think anyone could argue that the proposed implementation to unlock flying is especially onerous². Arbitrary, yes, but so is paying a few thousand gold when you hit the level cap. But why was this design not the one at the start of the expansion? If this is a compromise, what were we compromising out of, and why was that believed to be better than this?

To an extent, I recognize this is me seeing a silver lining and looking for the cloud. The crisis is averted, and Blizzard conjured content out of thin air without even having to change anything else. Hell, it’s even going to drag damn near everyone outside of their Garrisons for the first time since they hit level cap. It is a clever designer Hat Trick in every respect.

Still… goddamn. I would have felt a lot better about the overall design direction for WoW had they came up with this plan before it became necessary.

¹ I was going to say “people,” but as far as I can tell, all the lead designers are dudes.

² One of the 6.2 reputations is a straight-up mob grind, and a second one is basically the same thing except killing rares. This deal is getting worse all the time.

Prisoner’s (Gaming) Dilemma

BINGO was postponed for a week, but I’m not even mad. Seeing the shit Blizzard is getting on the forums every time they introduce another flying mount is payment enough. For now.

Let us set that aside for a moment.

So I was presented with two hypothetical scenarios over the weekend which I found interesting for reasons. The first one was this: you’re going to jail for ten years, but it’s a minimum security prison that will allow you to take one offline game (any DLC included) with you. But that will be the only game you get for those ten years. Which game do you pick?

The second scenario is similar, but this time it’s life in prison. For some insane reason, the Warden will allow you to take any three games and allow an internet connection. The parameters did not specify whether future DLC or microtransactions will be free for you, but let’s assume you can make enough money stamping licence plates to cover, say, $30/month. Which games do you pick?

The answer to the first scenario was pretty much unanimous amongst my fellow hypothetical jail mates: Minecraft. There was a Skyrim holdout in there, but ten years is a long time and I don’t think mods could extend the attention of even the staunchest Skyrim fan that long.

The second scenario answer was more diverse, with my friend solidly in the Destiny camp (which is his current console mini-MMO game of choice). Mine was more blunt: World of Warcraft. Yes, even with bile I feel towards Flightgate, I have to admit that WoW is a game A) most likely to still be around and supported for decades to come, and B) one offering the most diverse playing experiences. In other words, you could spend a lot of time getting real good at raiding, master it, and then set off to roll the boulder up the PvP hill and feel a difference.

I found my own responses interesting primarily because I don’t particularly like playing either of them. The last time I seriously played Minecraft was before they introduced the Hunger meter; it may not have even been out of beta yet. I am still “playing” WoW currently, but it’s in the same way I play Clash of Clans: short bursts of activity to kill time, because apparently I’m going to live forever and have no standards. Or perhaps it’s because if I devoted the whole of my free time to one game, I’d probably clear three games a week, and the corresponding post-game depression phase three times. No thanks.

Still, what does that really say about me, and presumably us, that we aren’t simply playing these games full-time? That we could conceivably be playing them for 10+ years, but would rather not to? Obviously the intensity of a novel experience is higher with new games, so it makes sense that we enjoy playing the newer ones more (at least for a while). But here are these other games which clearly are mechanically superior in a replayability sense and we, or I, don’t seem to care. Until we’re in jail, anyway.

In any case, I’d be interested to hear other peoples’ choices in these two scenarios. For me, it’s Minecraft for the first, then Minecraft, WoW, and Counter-Strike for the second. I thought about swapping Magic Online with Minecraft in the second set, but the $30/month limit, while arbitrary, still wouldn’t cover hardly any reasonable amount of gametime.