A few weeks ago, Gevlon had an interesting post on how crafting in MMOs is fundamentally broken:
If you fight monsters or players, you must constantly cast spells. If you gather, you must move between spawn points. Both needs you to sit at the computer and press buttons (unless botting). But to craft, you just press a button and maybe wait and you are done.
Basically, crafting is broken because all other options available to get in-game currency take keyboard effort (gathering, grinding mobs) whereas crafting does not. And, having reflected on that, it is 100% true. Just as in real life, the people making bank aren’t those doing the work, but the ones working the bank.
Gevlon concedes that there really isn’t a solution to this problem, mainly because “active crafting” would essentially be a grindy minigame. Well, he says the solution is to make it so that everyone can craft everything, thereby hopefully making the crafter-class irrelevant. I’m not so sure, considering how much gold people already make from selling vendor mats in WoW. Any knowledge gap is enough space for the Bourgeoisie to pop up like mushrooms.
Would a minigame really be that bad though?
Maybe. I remember getting pretty frustrated with Wildstar’s crafting system, which was essentially a lot of RNG and wasted mats. I did not spend a whole lot of time in FF14, but I recall a similar minigame there that required button presses for optimum results. Based on the comments on Gevlon’s blog post, it seems there might be other, older MMO examples as well.
Still, I’m thinking that that pretty much has to be the “solution.” This is assuming that you believe there is a problem to begin with. But crafting has felt divorced from the general MMO gameplay experience for ages. Even Fishing in WoW feels more interactive than the normal sort of insane grind (or extreme automation via addons) that is, say, prospecting stacks of ore and/or creating Glyphs. Running around Herbing on a toon feels fun. Smelting ore and transmuting it does not. And yet one of those is much, much more lucrative than the other.
A more active crafting overhaul would require a fundamental rebalancing of the sort of boilerplate crafting experience though. Most crafting systems are predicated on you crafting hundreds of redundant items, for example. Skill-ups – assuming they still exist – would perhaps need to come from successful strikes on the anvil, rather than just one for the finished product. Or perhaps simply an offline system ala EVE.
In any case, I do feel like active crafting is the way forward. There would still be a goblin-esque master class, as I find it unlikely A) even an active system would be slower at gold generation than grinding mobs, and B) a good 80% of the player population is too lazy to craft their own gear. Maybe the right system hasn’t been found yet. Or perhaps the right system is trapped on an older MMO?
Sometimes it takes a game to start doing something mundane before you appreciate how every other game doesn’t bother you with that crap. Case in point: Divinity: Original Sin doesn’t automatically remove anything from your inventory.
In pretty much any other RPG ever made, introducing lock to key causes the key itself to disappear. It is not as though the key will work on any other lock, so why keep it around? “Why not?” muses the D:OS designers. “Because it’s dumb,” says I. My inventory is filled with keys (which you can’t sell), books that no longer serve a quest or skill gain purpose, and other kitchen drawer debris. There isn’t any special glowing inventory effects either, so sometimes it gets difficult to realize that you actually have picked up something worth clicking on.
Can I manually go through my whole inventory? Of course. But why exactly do I need to? What is the underlying gameplay purpose? As far as I can tell… well, I can’t. I don’t actually know if this is a “old-school” throwback, as I don’t remember if Baldur’s Gate had anything similar. Probably not.
In any case, I’m glad most modern games have moved on. Because ain’t nobody got time for that.
I have been play a bit of Divinity: Original Sin and continue to enjoy it. Mostly.
One thing that I strongly dislike in games though, are fuzzy rules. By “fuzzy” I mean that the parameters of the rules are either not consistent or not entirely clear within the game itself. Divinity has tons of them that were at first amusing, but now are a bit grating.
For example, sometimes when you attack a target, they bleed on the ground. Fine, right? Well… environment effects are super important in Divinity. There is a talent that actually heals you when standing in blood, for example. Blood puddles also apparently conduct electricity, as I discovered when two of my melee team members got stunned after a third one shot a Lightning Bolt.
Things get real dumb though when you fight zombies. See, zombies are healed by poison effects. Guess what zombies bleed? Poison. So… yeah, hit zombies enough and they will bleed poison on the ground, which then heals them. I can kinda sorta maybe see the logic, if the designers were using this self-regeneration mechanic as an explanation for zombie resilience. But it’s far more likely that this is just sloppy game mechanics. Especially when you set zombies on fire, then the fire makes the poison explode, which ends up dealing fire and poison damage simultaneously, which sometimes cancels out the fire damage entirely.
Are there benefits to fuzzy rules? Sometimes. The real world is full of strange situations, so carrying over some of that uncertainty can make virtual worlds more realistic. Plus, fuzzy rules are a de facto increase in difficulty – if you’re not certain something is going to work, you have to be more cautious. Weird situations also make for good stories.
That said, I don’t like unclear rules very much. It’s tough to determine whether vague interactions are intentionally designed, or just designer incompetence. And when you end up failing because of said interactions, it’s difficult to know what you should have done differently. Did you lose to a dice roll? Strategic blunder? Not leveling up enough?
Growth requires not just knowing what went wrong, but what can be done to avoid it in the future. If the answer is “nothing,” there really isn’t any growth at all.
There have been two games I played recently that have started with a cold open, e.g. one with no tutorial that just sort of throws you into the game. The first was The Long Dark, and the second is a space-sim called Hellion; both are in Early Access and both are survival-based games. So, in a sense, it’s difficult to determine whether either one intentionally set out to have cold opens, or if this simply reflects their current, unfinished states.
There is a lot to be said regarding the power of cold opens. In an age of 24/7 information coming from every angle, it is refreshing to be thrust into an unknown environment without any sort of hand-holding. It absolutely appeals to Explorer-types, and also those looking for more difficulty in their games. Plus, many times it makes thematic sense, say, if you just woke from cryo-sleep in an otherwise abandoned life pod.
Personally, I find cold opens to be exceptionally difficult to pull off well.
The fundamental issue I have is the dissonance between what the player expects and what the designers intend. What ends up happening is that players must essentially “metagame” how the designers actually intended the game to be played.
For example, in Hellion you awake from cryo-sleep inside a life pod without functioning Life Support. While there are a few tablets on the ground which give you a general idea of steps to take, that is basically all the guidance you are given. I searched the area and did not find enough items onboard to repair the Life Support. I found a jetpack without fuel, and supposedly a charging station for said jetpack, but could not determine a way to refuel.
So… what now? Did I miss an item in the search of the ship? Am I supposed to try and space walk without a jetpack? Is it a bug that there weren’t enough items to repair the Life Support? I have mentioned before that I am fine with tough puzzles, as long as I understand where the pieces are. What I absolutely despise is not knowing whether my failures are due to not performing correctly, or because I didn’t trip some programming flag from 10 minutes ago, or some other nonsense.
I had a similar issue in The Long Dark, of which I played about an hour before turning off. It takes 30 game minutes to break a stick into pieces by hand? Okay, fine. But having found a shelter and tools, I saw no particular way to locate food, or reconcile my exhaustion meter with my temperature meter with the time of day, e.g. how was I to sleep and keep warm in the middle of the day and still survive the night? I understand that perhaps the intention is for the player to be constantly on edge in the quest for survival, but again, I’m not even sure how food really even works in this game yet. I have not seen any flora or fauna beyond sticks and snow.
Flailing around in the darkness is not my idea of quality game time.
I’m not saying game designers should go full Ocarina of Time and have Navi pester you for hours. Minecraft has (had?) a cold open that was relatively straightforward once you got over the intellectual hump of punching trees. Don’t Starve is a much better example of how to do a cold open – there isn’t much of an explanation of anything, but I still felt a sense of agency in being able to interact with things.
And maybe that’s just it: I might not be doing the right things, but being able to do something is important.
I dunno. I think the best compromise would be to have cold opens with a fairly robust PDA/AI Assistant/Crafting Menu. Those that want to wander around blindly can, but those who want to know what they can do… well, can.
With my dead 970 graphics card just now reaching the RMA warehouse, I am having to seriously sort through my gaming library for titles that will boot up on a 560ti. WoW runs fine, for example, but 7 Days to Die maybe pushes 20 fps if there isn’t anything going on.
Enter XCOM 2, which I purchased for $12 whole dollars in a recent Humble Monthly Bundle.
I started my first game on “normal” difficulty with Ironman enabled, as I did with the prior title almost four year ago. A few hours later, I abandoned that game and started anew without Ironman.
On the one hand, the decision was easy. XCOM 2 is filled with such crazy amounts of bullshit that I didn’t even feel bad for opening the door to save scumming. The third enemy type you face in the game, a Sectoid, has the ability to Mind Control your units through walls. And create zombie troops from dead bodies. Which is great when your squad consists of only 4 people and you lose one of them to Mind Control off the bat, and that one ends up killing another (who then turns into a zombie). Killing the Sectoid breaks the Mind Control and (re)kills the zombie troops, but that gets a little difficult when one of your guys is Mind Controlled.
Or how about that mission with the Faceless ones? Rescue six civilians… oh wait, one of them morphs into a putty creature with claws and you just ended your turn in melee range. Hey, six damage to your 6 HP dude, that’s convenient. Then you have the snake creatures that can move, then grab a sniper off the top of a train 30 feet away with their tongue, then instantly coil around them, permastunning them and dealing 2 damage per turn. I mean, I suppose I should be grateful there isn’t a chance I could shoot my own coiled guy when I shoot the snake, but I was absolutely expecting that to be a thing. Because fuck you.
None of these things are insurmountable. They just happen to be inane, “gotcha!” bullshit that artificially increases the difficulty of Ironman games. And not even permanently, as once you (the player) know about the existence of these abilities, you can play around them in the future. Which is the point, of course, but I see no reason to structure a game this way while also punishing you long-term for these same blind pitfalls.
On the other hand, after playing a few more hours in non-Ironman mode, I started to wonder about the philosophical ramifications of Save Anywhere.
Fundamentally, a Save Anywhere feature makes eventual success a forgone conclusion. Even in extremely skill-intensive or luck-intensive sections of gameplay, any incremental progress is permanent progress. Some tactical games have RNG protection, e.g. all dice rolls are determined in advance, to dissuade save scumming a 15% chance attack into a critical hit, but that doesn’t prevent you from simply coming in from a different angle or using a different ability.
The other problems with Save Anywhere are the player behavior ramifications. If you can save the game at any time, there is an advantage to doing so, which means there is an incentive to. Tapping F5 is not onerous, but I consider the mental tax of “needing” to remember to do so… well, taxing. It’s not that saving after every attack ruins the game (it does), it’s that I now have to devote constant attention to an out-of-game mechanic. Is there anything worse than thinking you hit Save before turning the corner, but realizing later on that you didn’t, and now you’re stuck with a poor outcome “unnecessarily?” Feels completely different than if the designers make that decision for you.
I feel like there is a middle way, especially in games like XCOM. Specifically: saving inbetween missions. This lets you avert complete disasters like the mission that eventually scuttled my Ironman attempt – a total squad wipe one square from the extraction point – while still disincentivizing save scumming inside each mission. At least then you can weigh the option of losing an elite soldier to some bullshit versus 30-40 minutes of your time.
I have been playing Clash Royale for much longer than I ever really expected to. In fact, near as I can tell, it’s been almost a year. Pretty good for an ostensibly F2P game… that I’ve probably dropped $30 into over that time period.
As Syncaine points outpoints out, Supercell has come a long way in fixing what were some unquestionably amateurish mistakes in the engagement department. The initial rollout of Tournaments, for example, were a total disaster – hundreds of thousands of people spam-clicking on the refresh button to try and sneak into one of the 50-player tournaments, which required other players to pay to host them. Like, what?
Tournaments are now a totally legit game path akin to Hearthstone (or any number of other games’) Arena matches where you pay a nominal gem fee and fight other people at your win count. Twelve wins (max rewards) or three losses and you’re out. Supercell has further expanded tournaments to help introduce new cards too, forcing people to have decks using said new card, but granting access to 100% of all cards, including Legendaries, inside the tournament. So not only do you have the ability to playtest the new cards, but more casual players can even play around with the Legendaries that might not ever see.
As always, the first hit of crack tournament is free to everyone.
However, I am finding Supercell’s other attempt at engagement incentives to be less thought-through. Specifically, they introduced Clan Chests, which is basically a chest that gets stuffed with more free goodies the more Crowns that your clan racks up before the deadline. Crowns are basically tower kills, and everyone earns them by playing ladder games.
[Note: Crowns aren’t consumed. Each one gained will fill all Crown meters.]
On the one hand, it’s a good incentive for social engagement. Since a 10/10 chest grants guaranteed epics and thousands of gold, everyone wants the maximum award. Said maximum requires 1600 Crowns in about 3 days, which comes out to be around 32 Crowns per member in a 50-member clan. Since Crown chests are opened after 10 Crowns collected and reset on a daily basis, the general idea is that it will take just a few extra games more than normal, assuming that you are unlocking the Crown chest on the daily anyway.
On the other hand… it really weeds out the casuals. Anyone can see any clan member’s contribution to the Clan Chest. The clan I’m in has already stated that any member with less than 30 Crowns during the Clan Chest will be kicked. Which is fine, whatever, I’m not in a family clan or anything. But it bears mentioning that getting even 10+ a day to unlock the normal Crown Chest results in more (winning) games than you have spots for chests.
Effectively, not only does opening the Clan Chest require one to “waste” chests (or pay Supercell money to open them faster), it arguably “wastes” surplus Crown Chest Crowns too. It ends up being a flurry of obligatory activity just to stay in the same spot.
Worst of all, though, is how the system pretty much perverts the upper brackets. There are 10 brackets currently, with the top starting at 3000 trophies. Each bracket makes the chests you earn contain more stuff, so there is no particular incentive to tank your trophies to a lower bracket. That said, there is zero difference between 3000 and 4000 trophies (where I am), and all Crowns are worth the same for the Clan Chest. Ergo, the optimal play would be to fill up my chest slots (which happens really quickly), and then tank my trophies by intentionally losing until I get less advanced opponents, then start 3-Crowning them with overleveled troops.
I haven’t gone full asshole yet – usually tanking down to 3500 trophies is enough – but I have absolutely encountered people with maxed troops nowhere near where they should be on ladder, just to cheese the system. And it’s pretty clear that the overachievers in my clan who are racking up 100+ Crowns within the 3-day period are not doing so at their “proper” place on ladder.
I mean, I kinda get it, from Supercell’s side. There is an elegance for all Crowns being equal. And then there’s… err… uh… hrm. Actually, I can’t imagine why else Supercell isn’t fixing this issue by perhaps making top-bracket Crowns count for more. Or giving people above 3000 any reason to care what occurs beyond that number. So what if high-ranked clans get to complete the Clan Chest faster than anyone else? Those last troop upgrades take forever and a day already.
The only reason I can think of is perhaps Supercell needs high-ranked players to be playing more to make the matchmaker work better at the upper end, but that’s not really what’s happening here anyway. The smart players are giving free wins to dozens of people on the way down in order to 3-star newer players on the way back up. This does not make for compelling gameplay for anyone.
Supercell has proven to be pretty nimble when it comes to changes, and have also demonstrated the ability to eat crow over incredibly obvious bad ideas (e.g. the lack of an emote squelch), so I’m hoping that they change this system at some point. As it is, it just creates all the wrong incentives for all the wrong people.
Tyler over at MMOBro makes the case for “getting over” lockboxes in games. I found the post interesting for several reasons, which I will get into in a bit. However, I do want to point out in the beginning that I agree with the premise: lockboxes aren’t going anywhere.
Even though they should. Specifically, into the garbage bin of bad game design.
One of the first of Tyler’s points is that lockboxes don’t literally destroy games. To which I would reply: not directly. Was the first iteration of Diablo 3 unplayable? Nope. Plenty of people were able to play the game just fine… for given amounts of fine.
From my perspective, the game was essentially broken in half. ARPGs in general (and especially Diablo) revolve around killing crowds of bad guys and hoping for good loot to drop, and the dopamine feedback loop simply didn’t exist when you could straight-up buy way better gear from the in-game AH. I was killing monsters hoping to get gold to buy better gear, rather than having any illusion that a monster might drop gear for me.
Perhaps even more problematic in Diablo 3’s case were the endgame difficulties. Since players could shop around and directly buy the best possible gear from a million other players’ drops, the endgame was balanced around Resistances and other stats that would be all but impossible to get within your own game sans AH. In other words, since you could buy good gear, the game designers had to create challenges that required that gear for it to be worthwhile, thereby creating cash-required progression.
Now, you might say that Diablo 3’s system wasn’t technically lockboxes at all. Semantics, I say. The point is that if you can buy power for cash, the player incentives in the game change, as do developers’ ultimate design goals.
But what about non-power purchases? Tyler starts out in the post by saying:
It can be a little irritating to see some gorgeous mount or awesome costume that you’ll never get unless you dump a small fortune into gambling boxes, but how much impact is that having on your moment to moment gameplay, really?
Later on, however, he gets to this part:
I also don’t think we should give up the fight to keep direct purchases part of MMO business models. Something I find frustrating about SW:TOR’s lock[box] obsession is not so much the boxes themselves, but the fact that almost nothing good ever gets added to the cash shop for direct sale.
That is precisely why this business model is so pernicious. As Tyler notes, there are plenty of MMOs out there which have survived just fine almost entirely on the backs of their lockbox revenue. Tyler was making that point in context of refuting lockboxes as short-term cash grabs, but the fact that they are in fact long-term revenue streams is more damning, IMO.
Lockboxes are long-term revenue streams because designers devote significant time to adding more stuff in them at direct expense to the rest of the game. Which makes perfect, rational sense. Under a traditional Buy-2-Play model, you get more money by making a better game. Under anything else, you get more of that game-adjacent thing, which NEVER improves the gameplay experience itself. Because it is never a part of the actual game.
Later, game designers get this defense:
And let’s stop demonizing developers for adding lockboxes to games. […] They’re just trying to turn a profit and earn a living, like everyone else in our capitalist society.
I mean… that kind of justifies anything, right? Mylan was just trying to turn a profit with the EpiPen hike in this capitalist society, Martin Shkreli was just trying to turn a profit with that AIDS drug gouge, and so on. Nothing nefarious about that; it’s all just business. “Business” being defined here as consequence-free personal enrichment and erosion of all consumer surplus, of course.
As I mentioned at the beginning, lockboxes aren’t going anywhere in spite of their abhorrent, exploitative, design-destroying influences, precisely because they work. And to be clear, lockboxes work the same way that cigarettes “work,” with similar (metaphorical) long-term effects. Lockboxes never, in any way, ADD anything of value to the game design itself; all of those cool mounts and skins could have been added for achievements, as rewards for skill, at the end of a long quest chain, or anywhere at all that reinforces the core gameplay loop.
At best, lockboxes funds game development in a roundabout way. Which sort of begs the question as to why these designers don’t just go full Konami and get into the Pachinko business to which they clearly aspire. Or, you know, perhaps make a product worth purchasing on its own merits.
Almost exactly one year ago, I tried out Elder Scrolls Online (ESO). My conclusions this time around did not change: it’s not the game for me.
In several ways, the game actually felt worse this time around. While I have not kept abreast of all the changes to the general structure, I was aware of the “One Tamriel” had opened up a lot of the game. Apparently you were no longer limited faction-wise, and now all mobs scaled with your level. Which is nice on an explorer level – you can just strike out in a random direction and not have to worry about getting one-shot by mobs – but really hearkens back to my distaste of Oblivion more than anything else, e.g. being punished for actually gaining levels.
WoW’s Legion expansion features scaling mobs, of course. I can’t say I particularly like them in there either, but at least with WoW you still have several avenues of character progression. Hell, WoW really hasn’t been about leveling this expansion anyway, given how most of your power comes from gaining Artifact Power and similar parallels.
Playing ESO again, I just could not help but realize that it’s a bad single-player game. My inventory quickly filled with vegetable debris and other crafting components, but I could not really utilize any of them. Where were the recipes to craft things? In a more traditional MMO, I would pop on down to the AH to see if any were available, but there is no AH in ESO. Which, let me tell you, really kills any motivation to collect much of anything in terms of resources out in the world. Why mine Iron ore unless you specifically need ore for a specific purpose?
Once you go down that rabbit hole of not caring about in-game objects with intrinsic value, the entire gameplay loop edifice starts to collapse. If you aren’t looting everything, you begin to realize how much time you are wasting searching every container out in the world. If you stop searching containers, you stop being excited about seeing containers and other interactable objects in the environment. If you stop being excited about environmental objects, you start to care less about the environment generally. Without the environment, you are left with just the mobs, who are both trivial and drop little loot of consequence (because, hey, most items are meaningless).
Now, you can “subscribe” to ESO and suddenly open up a Crafting Bank tab ala GW2 where all this random crap magically gets ported to. But, to me, that’s just another indication of how ESO is a bad single-player game. I expect that sort of paid-for addon stuff in an MMO. And if we’re judging ESO as an MMO, well, it plays out even worse.
I dunno. Presumably there are a bunch of people out there that like ESO just the way it is. After trying the game a second time in as many years, I am reaffirming that I am not one of them.
There is basically one word that sums up Battlefield 1: oppressive.
Which, considering the war DICE is simulating, is pretty impressive.
“Impressive” might actually be selling BF1 short. There is a rather sublime confluence of game design and tone and setting going on. I mean, this is a Battlefield game and one that largely plays like BF4, BF3, and BF2 before it. I’ve played this series for over a decade, right? But let me tell you, when you’re playing the Operations game mode and hear that whistle and the yelling from a bayonet charge… well, you find yourself jumping out of the trenches and joining your brethren rushing the front line just the same.
Part of what makes this possible are the extremely limited and almost universally bad weapons. Which is a rather weird thing to say, I realize. The Assault and Support classes have automatic guns, but they are largely inaccurate without going prone or bracing against cover. The Medic class has a semi-auto rifle that hits like a truck, but is terrible at hip fire. The Scout class has all the sniper rifles, which are more infuriating than normal due to needing to spend most of your time in cover.
What this ends up doing is encouraging the exact tactics I described before: charging the front lines. There is no “slow and steady” here – there is melee range shooting or being sniped from 200 yards.
The map design absolutely influences things as well. Only the Scout has the ability to create temporary “radar” to find enemies, which means there could be enemies hiding out in every corner of every ruined structure. There are ruins everywhere though, and craters, and trenches, and bunkers. This leads to a rather manic, room-to-room searching every time you try to cap an area, or perhaps huddling down and hoping no one pops around the corner and stabs you in the throat.
Oh, and have I mentioned the grenades? The normal complement of grenades are back, plus the Incendiary and Gas variety. The former is pretty self-explanatory area denial, but the latter? Very interesting, conceptually. The Gas grenades release Mustard gas in the area, which causes blurred vision, your character to choke and cough, and rapid HP loss. Pressing T will have your character put on a Gas Mask, nullifying the damage completely. At the same time, the Gas Mask obscures your vision (also preventing aiming down sights) and hearing, and doesn’t do anything about the actual gas blocking your vision. Thus, tossing Gas grenades still affects the given area rather dramatically even if it deals no direct damage.
All of the game elements above mix into a dirty miasma of oppression while playing. You are surrounded by comrades, but you are also terribly, terribly alone in the smoke and death. You are constantly forced to make the decision to blindly rush towards the enemy or suffer constant sniper fire from every corner of the map. Biplanes and tanks are virtually indestructible killing machines. Even if you happen to pick the Assault class, your two options are rushing tanks with dynamite or plinking them with dumbfire AT rockets while prone, which makes you easy picking for snipers.
For a game to evoke such emotion so well regarding the subject matter via inherent gameplay is a triumph of game design. This is pure Show, and little Tell.
At the same time… well, I’m not sure how much WWI I can really stomach. A squad of soldiers could grab a helicopter in Battlefield 4 and go point-to-point capping areas and dodging missile fire and feel good about things. Or they could die in the gas-saturated muck in BF1, accomplishing nothing. I’d say 80% of my deaths show the killer dying himself seconds after I hit the ground. It’s hard to feel good about that, or watching a flag getting turned after you spent several lives just getting to the capture point in the first place.
I dunno. It is hard to put into words what is going on and how I end up feeling after a match is over. If Titanfall 2 is like cotton candy, then Battlefield 1 is a greasy Big Mac – there is more sustenance there, but that doesn’t particularly make you feel any better.