Tension in gaming is an interesting experience.
Tension feels uncomfortable. Relieving tension feels satisfying. Ergo, the introduction of tension-producing elements in your game can naturally propel players through the gameplay loops necessary to remove the tension while also rewarding them for their efforts. This pathway is different than one that relies on the player seeking rewards; the designer is instead threatening the player’s status quo.
While elegant, tension comes with risk. If a player is unable to relieve the tension, e.g. fails the test, that failure state can be a permanent stopping point. Players can become discouraged. Even when successful, players can also burn out from being under stress all the time, feeling as though the satisfaction states are either too infrequent or too brief. Even players who thrive and seek out tension scenarios may burn out in the other direction, mastering the game systems enough such that even the tension that still exists isn’t enough to ring their bells.
I have been thinking about this lately as I continue to be engrossed with Oxygen Not Included (ONI). While it may not immediately look like it, or even feel like it, ONI is decidedly a survival game.
In the beginning, the tension is apparent. You start with three Dupes and they have nothing but a little bit of space and some air (starter oxygen is included after all). If bathrooms are not created within the first day, all three Dupes will pee all over the floor by the morning of the 2nd day. After that, you have a bit of a reprieve… but it’s kind of a trap too. The calories provided by the starter food will only ever dwindle, and I hope you didn’t build their beds where all the CO2 lingers.
Although I have over 90 hours in the game now, I nevertheless still fell into the mid-game trap regarding (mostly) non-renewable resources. I started a game on the Oceania map, which had an absolute abundance of Algae and Coal. Algae in particular is a finite* resource on the default Terra map and its scarcity often forces you into Electrolyzers early on, which forces you into taming Steam vents, etc etc. Conversely, having 21 tons of the stuff on my map allowed me to keep the early-game Oxygen-creating machines running longer. I was even good on Coal too, as I had a Hatch ranch going which was producing Coal at a good clip.
If those details sound ominous, they should. While my Coal reserves were fine for everyday use, I had been building a Metal Refinery to make refined metal for future projects. Simultaneously, I was setting up a Hatch ranch to breed regular Hatches into Stone Hatches into Smooth Hatches, the last of which eat metal and poop refined metal exclusively. Normal Hatches and Stone Hatch eat basically anything and poop Coal, so I didn’t think twice about crafting two Incubators to speed the process along. As it turns out, adding nearly 2000 kJ stress on my power grid will burn through Coal pretty quick, as will replacing normal Hatches with ones that don’t poop Coal.
ONI has a particular tendency to punish complacency, going from Comfortable to Colony Collapse within a matter of a few Cycles. If you are not creating enough Oxygen for your Dupes, the game will give you a notification with the exact discrepancy. If your Oxygen-creating infrastructure is entirely dependent on Algae and you’re about to run out though, you get no warning. Well, you will eventually get the “not creating enough Oxygen” notification, but by then you will have to be scrambling to Electrolyzers regardless of whether your infrastructure currently supports it.
In some respects, ONI feels like the ideal tension-based game. The tension of keeping all the survival balls in the air exists, driving you ever onward. But you can also engineer stable systems such that you solve (some) problems permanently. Or “permanently” until the rounding errors in your design round up to whole errors. It can be frustrating though, coming from other tension-based games where the tension is more immediately apparent.
Syp has a post up about how Battle for Azeroth really isn’t that bad.
[…] I had left last October after burning out a couple months into the new expansion, feeling both overwhelmed at the grind and underwhelmed by the direction and features. I think I needed that, as I had been playing more or less nonstop for two-and-a-half years before that point.
And with a somewhat negative exit alongside of many others who were very vocal with expressing their displeasure over the expansion, it kind of got cemented into my mind that BFA is terrible. Coming back, I can’t say that’s the case, and while it’s trendy to bash BFA these days, I’m also seeing that it’s not as bad as some of the hysterics have made it out to be. It’s no Cataclysm, and it’s not suffering the content drought of Draenor, that’s for sure.
As I commented over there, I find it kind of glib to suggest that an expansion that has had almost 11 months worth of time to be fixed, including two major content patches, is “not as bad as some of the hysterics have made it out to be.” Indeed, the two initial points Syp brings up – overwhelming grind, underwhelming features – have not, to my knowledge, actually been fixed. We may not still be in the situation of needing to grind out Azerite Power to unlock abilities we already had before upgrading a piece of gear, but the very fact that Ion and the rest of the clownshow at Blizz HQ thought it deserved to make it off the whiteboard is embarrassing. Or how Titanforging makes it so that you are never actually done with gearing, ever, with zero possibility of being “complete” save for the sweet release of death (or subscription lapse). Or how you never gained anything from level from 110 to 120, and only grew weaker against the same mobs you had been fighting all along.
Suppose those things had been fixed though. I stopped playing mid-October of last year, so maybe they even have. Could that mean Beta for Azeroth was actually a good expansion?
The question seems nonsensical. It was clearly a terrible expansion for me and tens of thousands of others. It was a terrible expansion for Syp who identified the precise flaws and quit too. I can understand being able to “come back” and revisit the experience with a fresh pair of eyes and expectations. But is it even the same game? Is Syp playing it in the same way? Can an MMO expansion be “good” if the limited PvE content is fun, but everything else about its design suffocates long-term play?
Less than two months ago, I wrote a post called Bygones in which I talked about how holding game grudges doesn’t always make sense. If someone asks about Diablo 3 these days, bringing up the Real Money Auction House is basically a non sequitur. No Man’s Sky’s original release state might give you some perspective about its developers, but… actually, it wouldn’t, because the current difference is night and day.
Should Beta Battle for Azeroth receive the same courtesy?
Maybe. Perhaps some grudges take deeper root when it feels personal. The last time I played WoW was a whole baby ago, so maybe everything feels improved. Nevermind the fact that it does matter what sort of experience you are looking for in the first place – an endgame being crap shouldn’t concern a tourist just looking for leveling thrills and some plot.
And yet… nah. I won’t begrudge Syp’s fun anymore, but I do take BFA’s design almost personally. I wasn’t a big subscriber to the whole A Team vs B Team thing, but there isn’t a whole lot of explanation as for why BFA released in the state it did on the tail end of Legion, which got so many things right. When you look back, it goes BFA (bad), Legion (good), WoD (terrible), MoP (good), Cata (awful), Wrath (amazing), TBC (eh), vanilla (supposedly good). This probably bodes well for whatever comes after BFA.
As I am playing a lot of mobile games lately, my nose is being rubbed in perhaps the most annoying design “feature” I have encountered in years: disposable progression.
The game in question is Gems of War, but it’s not specific to this title. Basically, you create a four-member team of monsters and use their abilities to fight your foes. There are hundreds of different monsters available, across a number of rarities, with all sorts of possibly interesting combinations. Each monster can be upgraded with a certain currency, special traits unlocked with a separate currency, and a third currency (extra copies) can upgrade the rarity of the card itself.
The problem is that you aren’t likely to use the first four monsters you pick up. So any currency you use to level them up and otherwise bridge the gap between completing missions and unboxing better monsters is effectively wasted. Maybe it can be considered “the cost of doing business,” but it nevertheless creates perverse incentives when I play. “Do I really need to level this guy up?” The answer is generally no, or at least never feels like a solid yes, so I don’t. And thus not only do I make the game more boring and harder for myself, I also rob myself of whatever pleasure can be derived from improving one’s characters.
I mean, it’s possible things were designed this way with the goal of actually getting players to waste currency in a bid to pad out game time. After all, if you sufficiently hoard currency, it’s technically possible to max out a new monster the minute you unbox it. That is not a particularly good outcome for anyone. And perhaps there isn’t really a way around things anyway – this may be a systemic issue the moment you design a game to have dozens and dozens of party members.
Regardless, it still feels bad. I have used the same monster team for the past two weeks, so I possibly should just bite the bullet and spend all my currency leveling them up. But the moment some cool legendary monster or whatever pops out of a box, I’m going to be quite miffed. And miffed to me is not opening the wallet to spend real currency buying fake currency, but uninstalling the game.
I have been writing a lot about Divinity: Original Sin 2 lately. Despite my displeasure with its balance decisions, I did want to take a moment to consider them in greater detail. First, because people are still defending the game for some reason. But more importantly, second, because it’s a good reflection on what balance is “supposed” to mean.
One of the biggest changes from the prior title is the introduction of the Armor system. While I do consider it one of the reasons the rest of the game is so imbalanced, I also actually like the system a lot. It’s extremely elegant and intuitive. Physical damage first reduces your Physical Armor before touching your Vitality (HP); same principle with Magic damage. These Armors can be restored with spells and abilities, and are derived from the equipment you choose to wear. You can focus on one or the other or a balance of both.
The secondary mechanic with Armor is its defense against debuffs. You are generally immune to debuffs of the corresponding type as long as you have Armor of that type remaining. If you have Physical Armor, you cannot be Knocked Down or get the Bleeding debuff. If you have Magic Armor, you cannot be Charmed, or Stunned, or Poisoned, etc. Most debuffs come from attacks that deal that type of Armor damage in the first place, so if any damage breaks through, you get the debuff.
In isolation, I like the Armor mechanic, especially compared with other games. I “know” that +5 Defense is better than +3 Defense, but exactly how much better is often opaque and requires math. In this game, you can simply see the numbers go up. Indeed, DOS2’s system reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, wherein armor just straight-up added HP to your character. I’d like to see this sort of Armor mechanic in other games.
This is were DOS2 falls off the rails. Hard.
Simply put, losing a turn in a turn-based game is crippling. What’s worse is how easy it has gotten to essentially stunlock a character. Before, you sort of had to combo effects if you wanted to try to CC someone. For example, you needed to hit them an ice attack to give them the Chilled debuff, and then another ice attack to promote that status to Frozen. Or get them Wet before an lightning strike. That still exists in DOS2 as well, but the combo itself is useless if they still have Magic Armor. So the strategy is to get them to zero Armor as quickly as possible so that your abilities actually do something else.
I’ll talk about specific broken abilities in moment, but I just want to emphasize how terrible it is that these effects are so binary. For example, if you are Knocked Down, it takes your entire turn to stand back up. Why? Why not have a gradient of effects? The Shocked debuff gives you -1 AP, whereas Chilled reduces movement speed by -35% (both reduce Dodge by -30%). You hardly ever see these sort of debuffs though, because it’s much easier – and more powerful – to upgrade them to “lose a turn” instead.
Chloroform is one of the most broken skills in the game. It costs 1 AP, has a 13m range, destroys 80+ Magic Armor, and then puts the target to Sleep if they have no Magic Armor. Each turn, your characters will only get 4 AP, and the vast majority of the attacks in the game cost at least 2 AP. So why the hell does Chloroform cost only 1 AP and also deal a significant amount of Magic damage and also inflict Sleep?
Chicken Claw is probably more balanced, but also seems ridiculous. It costs 2 AP, requires melee range, and does nothing if the target has Physical Armor. If they don’t though, it turns them into a chicken for two turns, and runs around aimlessly. This works even on boss characters.
Medusa Head is another straight-broken skill. For 2 AP it gives you a buff for two turns that grants a passive petrifying aura – any enemies without Magic Armor within 3m turn to stone. This can keep them petrified for two turns if you keep them in range. The secondary effect of the skill is to grant another 2 AP skill, Petrifying Visage, which deals a lot of AOE Magic damage and then tries to petrify enemies within a larger range. You know, just in case a petrifying aura wasn’t strong enough.
Some skills are overpowered in combination with Talents. Specifically, the Torturer talent allows certain debuffs to apply despite the existence of Physical/Magic Armor. Making someone bleed or burn is usually not a big deal. Having a 100% chance to apply the Entangled debuff via Worm Tremor on the other hand, effectively CCs everyone in a huge, targeted circle for three turns. Well, mages and archers can still use ranged attacks, but none of them can move or teleport.
The actual stats portion of character building is a huge mess in DOS2 and contributes greatly to all of the problems I have with its game balance.
Abilities are broken down into Combat Abilities and Civil Abilities. Some of them are just completely useless wastes of code. Perseverance lets you regenerate 5% of your Physical or Magical Armor after recovering from CC. As noted earlier though, having your characters get CC’d and otherwise lose entire turns means your whole party will be dead. Retribution reflects 5% of the damage you take back to the attacker. Even if I had 1000 HP and 1000 Armor, that’s… 100 “free” damage. And a dead character.
There are ten Combat Abilities that govern the learning of Skills. For example, you need at least 1 point in Warfare to learn Battle Stomp. Putting that 1 point in Warfare also increases all Physical damage you deal by 5%. This can make for some awkward choices though, considering there are weapon-style Combat Abilities competing for the same points. Single-Handed increases damage and accuracy by 5% when using only a 1H weapon with an empty or shield-wearing offhand.
The important thing to know is most Combat Abilities scale poorly, or not at all. Each point you put into Necromancer increases Life Steal by 10%. That’s not useless, but it also doesn’t cause your Necromancy spells to hit harder – those generally scale by Intelligence, which has its own separate pool of points. Scoundrel increases your critical multiplier and how far you get move per AP. Each point placed in Polymorph grants you 1 free Attribute point to place wherever. The more elemental-sounding Abilities do increase the elemental damage from those spells, but it’s just 5% per point.
Oh, and have I mentioned that you can learn and use skills without investing any points at all, if you have equipment with those bonuses? It may be a waste if you end up replacing a critical piece of equipment later, but there’s nothing stopping you turning anyone into a Pyromancer just because they’re wearing pants with +2 Pyrokinetic.
The bottom line is that the whole design of the game is away from specialization.
At my level, my characters have 15 Ability points to play around with. I could give my warrior character 15 points in Warfare and call it a day. That would give me… 75% more physical damage dealt. Or I could have +65% damage and put one point in both Scoundrel and Polymorph, gaining access to Chloroform and Chicken Claw respectfully. Hell, that one point in Polymorph gives me a free Attribute point I could put in Strength, increasing my damage back up 5%. In which case, I may as well go to Polymorph 2 so I can memorized Medusa Head. Polymorph also has Tentacle Lash, which is real handy for dealing a pile of damage and disarming people at range. Know what else is real handy? Trading another 10% damage to put two points in Aerothurge so I can learn Teleport.
The only real scenario where specialization is encouraged is Summoning. Each point increasing your summons’ HP and damage by 10%, which is whatever, but at Summoning 10 your Summon Incarnate spell summons a real big, beefy minion instead of the normal imp. In all other scenarios, you’re basically just trading 5% damage for entire new ways to CC people.
That seems like a no-brainer choice (i.e. broken) to me.
All Together Now
As you can kinda tell by now, the battle system in DOS2 is broken, but it’s broken in a lot of different ways. If you nerfed the power of Chloroform and similar skills, it’s not entirely clear whether that would be enough to balance anything. Changing the way debuffs work would fundamentally alter combat, but I think people would still be encouraged to go wide on their skill sets. Fixing Ability scaling would probably result in the best change, as specialization nerfs CC in natural ways, e.g. you have less different methods in your back pocket.
At the same time, you don’t necessarily want to lose what makes this game an Original Sin title. Specifically, crazy scenarios with tons of enemies and vast fields of burning poison clouds and electrified blood and slippery ice. From this perspective, I… almost give the designers a pass. DOS2 is probably the closest I have ever felt to playing a digital D&D game, minus a DM who allowed us to overpower everything with spell combos. The whole thing is so out of control it feels like its was intentionally designed to be a sandbox experience.
Unfortunately, there are so many actually broken things and designer traps that remind me that, no, it’s far more likely the designers were just bad at their jobs. That all this chaos is fun is very much unintentional and just blind luck.
Pebbles are small, but if one finds its way into your shoe and you can’t get it out, it can be enough to ruin your day. Or in this case, your gaming experience.
I started playing Divinity: Original Sin 2 (DOS2) recently, and it’s been fun thus far. There are a lot of interesting new design directions this time around, and I might talk about them in a different post. In this post though, we need to talk about a pebble: inventory management.
…actually, that might not be the root of the issue. This pebble has layers.
DOS2 and the series in general makes a big deal about the autonomy and uniqueness of each character. Characters have origin stories, personal quests, unique special abilities, and their own dialog options. Talk with one distraught woman as Ifan and she shouts “stay away from me you disgusting pig!” Talk with the same woman as Sebille, and you’ll hear her story. It’s immersive… to a point. It’s also awkward, considering you are a player controlling four unique beings, one of which is supposed to be the “main” character.
The awkwardness extends out into the game proper too. Some of the “Civil Abilities” you can put points into are Persuasion and Bartering. The former will let you overcome conversation checks, while also improving your discount with a vendor; the latter improves just the latter. That’s fine, right? It’s typical for CRPGs to essentially encourage specialization, such as you have someone really good at disarming traps, someone running interference for your wizards, and so on.
The problem is when the “main” character isn’t the one with the Persuasion skills. I had been playing for about 5 hours and wanted to offload some goods at a local vendor, only to realize that the person with the biggest discount wasn’t carrying any of the merchandise. And there was zero way to move items around except one at a time. That’s the pebble. There’s a “workaround” where you stash everything inside a backpack that you can then pass around, but that still involves manually moving one item at a time into the backpack. Why isn’t there a “move all items” option?
My characters are like level 3, and the difference between the “main” character I had been controlling and scooping up all the loot with and the guy with the highest discount is 2%. No big deal, yeah? Also, there is apparently a magic mirror in Act 2 or whatever that allows you to freely respec all your characters any number of times, so I’ll be able to solve this Persuasion situation to make my “main” character also be the primary seller.
Like I said, it’s a pebble, not some bottomless chasm.
…at the same time, this little pebble is drawing my attention to the fact I’m walking on a trail full of them. With sandals. I made Ifan a Summoner, who is apparently going to need to be the most Persuasive out of the bunch if I want to be using him to click on treasure chests and dead bodies. Or I could keep the Red Prince as the sell-bot since he’s already the best at it, but that would mean I’ll need to be using him to pick up stuff and talk to people. That would mean I’ll miss out on Ifan’s dialog options though, so I’ll need Ifan to be the sell-bot. But he’s a Summoner, not a warrior, so my carrying capacity is lower. I guess I could move crafting material around to compensate…
By the way, there’s another Civil Ability called Lucky Charm that gives you a chance of finding special loot in every container you check. Originally, this proc’d only if the character who had the skill checked the container. It’s since been patched to be party-wide, which is nice. Because that is otherwise insane. Which is what is kinda feels like for the rest of these abilities.
All of the above because I noticed a 2% discount between characters. But try walking for 80+ hours with a pebble in your shoe and tell me it doesn’t become a big deal over time. And make you question why you can’t just take off your shoe for a second and get it the hell out.
Sometimes gaming progress does not happen smoothly. Instead of one thing immediately leading into another, there is a sort of gap that must be leapt across. While not insurmountable, this break in progress can become a source of resistance to continuing to play a game at all.
I am playing Oxygen Not Included (ONI) again. As I have described before, the game is deceptively easy at the start, but there are disasters looming in every detail. Some things are obvious, like your Dupes running out of Oxygen. Other things are much less so, like the fact that your Dupes just dug out a section of rock – which you told them to do – and then placed the 40°C (!!) rock in a storage container in the middle of your base, and now everything is heating up. Oops.
For the most part, it is generally easier to start a new game with a new map than it is to try and fix a disaster in progress. Plus, it’s fun seeing what goodies the RNG fairies might deliver to you. Cold biome nearby? Natural Gas Geyser ready to be tapped? Awesome.
Nevertheless, there is a specific transition gap that I inevitably reach and often quit playing rather than make the jump. In ONI, that gap is the Electrolyzer. This is a device that turns water into Oxygen and Hydrogen, and is pretty much the solution for breathable air for the rest of any ONI run.
It’s also a pain in the ass.
Up to this point, you make air by burning Algae, and it’s relatively straight-forward. With the Electrolyzer, you have to worry about piping the Hydrogen somewhere else, as otherwise it will clog the ceiling of whatever room you are in.
In ONI-land, there is the mythical SPOM, or Self-Powering Oxygen Module. This is a solved solution for creating an effectively infinite air source with no maintenance or upkeep aside from water; a Hydrogen Power station powers the Electrolyzer, which supplies the station with fuel.
Despite there being a ready-made solution to the problem, or perhaps in spite of this fact, I typically end my ONI runs here. The SPOM is not particularly intuitive, so I basically need to copy it part-by-part from a Youtube guide. Even if I don’t create the SPOM specifically, the Electrolyzer still necessitates your base to account for mixed gases. Ignore the problem long enough, and it’ll be even more a pain in the ass later.
Finally, even with a cut-and-paste SPOM, you still need a ton of water at the ready to feed the beast. Where will all that water come from? Typically, the only long-term solution is to find a Steam Geyser somewhere on the map, but that could take a while, and possibly be nowhere close to you. If you set up a functioning plumbing system, you can technically harvest some additional H20 via that route. Of course, that will also require extensive planning of your base, and how you’ll be handling the hot water that comes out of a Water Sieve.
Good times. Or, maybe not so much.
I have bridged the the Electrolyzer gap before. It’s not an insurmountable problem, especially considering the ubiquitous of the SPOM design in guides. It just takes a lot of mental headspace at a very specific moment in an hitherto casual colony management sim. Or rather, it is at this moment that Oxygen Not Included reveals itself to be a more complicated beast than you have imagined.
Many games have these transition gaps. The best designed among them either shorten the gap, or get you in the habit of hopping long before you reach the gap that matters. Otherwise, the devs risk players landing on their face. Or perhaps worse: practicing to make the leap, doing so, and then being bored on the other side.
I have been playing some more 7 Days to Die (7DTD) now that the Alpha 17.1 patch came around. There have been a lot of tweaks to the progression mechanics and Perk system, including some level-gating on Iron/Steel tool recipes. The biggest change, however, was to zombie AI.
In short, zombies are now impossibly smart… and impossibly dumb.
It’s been long enough that I don’t even remember how zombies behaved in prior patches. What zombies do now though, is behave in perfect tower defense intelligence: the shortest distance between them and you, with walls adding a virtual number of steps. Zombie are also perfectly prescient, knowing exactly which wall blocks have the lowest remaining health, and will attack that spot en mass to get to you. At the same time, zombies prefer not attacking walls to X extent, if they can walk there instead.
The result? Cue the Benny Hill theme:
Essentially, the current 7DTD meta is to not create bases at all, but rather mazes that funnel zombies into kill zones and/or large drops that loop them around until they die of fall damage. The devs have added a “zombie tantrum” mechanic to try and get some damage on looped mazes – zombies will attack anything nearby when they fall, possibly weakening your support pillars – but that will be metagamed away with multiple platforms or deeper holes.
To be clear, the prior zombie meta was solved by simply building an underground bunker. At that time, zombies could not dig into the ground, and disregarded the Z axis entirely – it was possible to hang out in the middle of a bridge and often have a nice grouped pile of zombies directly below you to hit with a Molotov. I played the game enough to recognize which Point of Interest had a pre-built bunker located underneath it, and often sought it out immediately after spawning so I could all but ignore the titular 7th day horde attack.
That said, how smart should zombies be?
The only way to answer that question is to ask what the game you’re making is supposed to be about. When you add tower defense mechanics, you get a tower defense game. This will preclude people from building nice little houses in the woods, and instead opt for mazes and obstacles and drops. It becomes a much more technical game, solvable with very specific configurations. Having dumber zombies frees up a lot more base designs, on top of possibly requiring a lot more attention to one’s base after an attack, as a single “dumb” zombie could be weakening a support in an unused corner.
My initial “solution” would be to mix and match, but I think that’s actually the worst of all possible worlds. Instead, I think zombies work best as environmental hazards. Bunkers might make you invulnerable to nightly attacks… but you have to leave sometime. Shouldn’t the punishment for hiding underground be the simple lack of information of what’s going on, combined with having to spend your morning hours slaying the zombie hordes milling about outside?
I guess we’ll see what the devs eventually decide. At present, there simply seems to be a maze-based arms race at the expense of any sort of satisfying nesting. If the 7DTD devs want to double-down, well… thank god for mods.
Estebon had an interesting comment on my prior Entitlement Culture post, in defense of the experts:
There is, unfortunately, a general zeitgeist of mistrust toward expertise in the world today, which has bled over to gaming. Gamers, particularly of the self-identified variety, make for an especially fertile ground for that sort of thing, for cultural reasons.
Game devs are supposed to be the experts in their field. They’re the ones who, at least in theory, beat the hiring/funding gauntlet on their merits. That their opinion on how to make a good game ought to carry greater weight than that of the person in the street used to be… more or less self-evident, as with any other profession.
It’s difficult to imagine a set of statements that I disagree with more strongly on a fundamental level.
First, suggesting game developers are “experts in their field” because… they’re game developers… is a tautology. We might assume that these bigger game companies have some kind of hiring standards, but that never really seems to be the case. Instead, it’s often more recursive like “previously sold a popular game” or “already worked for us in QA” or “nobody else applied.”
Remember Greg Street (aka Ghostcrawler) of WoW (in)fame(y)? From his Wikipedia article:
Street graduated from McDaniel College in 1991 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Biology and Philosophy, later earning a PhD in marine science. Between 1996 and 1998, Street worked as a Research Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina. […]
Game Design career
Ensemble Studios, the team behind the real-time strategy series Age of Empires, employed Street as a designer in 1998. With no education or experience in the game industry, Street suspects he was accepted due to his “writing and teaching experience, historical breadth, personal hygiene, gudd speling [sic], creativity, [and] my talent at capturing live alligators”, as well as the user-created scenario for Age of Empires he submitted with his application, which later appeared in Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome. Street helped develop every Age of Empires game from Rise of Rome on, until his departure from the company. At first he designed in-game scenarios and maps, and later graduated to being the team’s lead designer.
Street was hired by Blizzard Entertainment in February 2008, and was the lead systems designer on the MMORPG World of Warcraft until November 2013.
Now, you can hate Ghostcrawler’s philosophy during his WoW tenure – I personally thought it was fine overall – but the fact remains that this marine biologist worked for like two years, wrote an Age of Empires scenario, and then a decade later became a billion-dollar franchise game developer (or a prominent cog in the machine thereof). Twice! We have to either assume that Ghostcrawler is a hidden genius, or there are no particular standards that apply to game designers generally.
There is a third option too: the M. Night Shyamalan effect. You know, the producer of the 1999 cultural touchstone film, Sixth Sense? He followed-up with Unbreakable and Signs which were whatever. After that, it was solid decade of unremitting garbage films. Shyamalan is a supposed expert in his field, as evidenced by movie companies continuing to hire him, but clearly he lost whatever magic he had. Or perhaps more likely, the seam of magic he just happened to tap into shifted, and he wasn’t able to find another.
I bring a lot of this up because I find the hero worship of brands or developers (or anyone) to be… misguided, at best. For one thing, if these people were “experts in their field,” one would expect less game studios to be closing down or laying off staff. As I pointed out a few years ago, most of the same people have been working on WoW this whole time, so any declines in perceived quality can be attributed to the Shyamalan effect.
The only measure that matters for an expert (game developer) is continued, consistent results. Did they make your favorite game back in the early 2000s? Good for you… but why are you still waiting for them? It boggles my mind whenever someone talks about Bethesda and Morrowind, for example. That game came out in 2002. It can still be great, but you knew after Oblivion that something changed. How many new Shyamalan films are you going to sit through before you give up?
From the player side, Estebon pointed out:
J. Allen Brack got memed for his “you think you do but you don’t” line, and devs and customer relations reps have long been trained to pay lip service to the idea that the untutored mob knows best, but people routinely say and demand things that are not remotely reflected in their behaviour or proclivities as reflected in the internal metrics available to game developers. Elsewhere, insane fortunes have been built by paying attention to what people do, not say, and giving us things we never asked for or imagined we needed.
I actually agree with that. Players are generally bad with coming up with the solutions to their problems, even when the solutions aren’t inherently contradictory. What players are exceptionally good at though, is identifying that a problem exists in the first place. The problem might only be impacting them, specifically, but that’s all that really should matter to them or anyone.
All of this is to set up my title analogy.
Game developers are chefs. You don’t need to go to culinary school to be a good chef, and having a degree doesn’t mean you always cook tasty food. Being the best chef in the world will not stop a dish tasting like shit if there is too much salt/it’s burnt/etc. We might expect a master chef to avoid rookie mistakes, but there is another integral component to the dish: the tastes of the person eating it.
In a restaurant, we can assume the customer is choosing a dish they think they will like. If it comes out too salty to their taste, no one bats an eye at said customer complaining about it. “Entitled diners not wanting their food caked in salt!” The relationship is inherently transactional, and there is an expectation of quality. There are limits, of course; no one should expect Chik-Fil-A or KFC to sell burgers, for example. It is also unreasonable for ten chefs to cater to the individual palettes of ten million individuals.
Is that going to stop you from complaining when you get served a salty steak, or if the French Fries are limp at a chain restaurant? Should that stop you? No. I couldn’t cook a restaurant-quality meal, but I sure as shit can criticize one if it comes out poorly. Gaming today is no different.
Granted, it used to be different. The last bit of Estebon’s comment was:
I struggle to think of any other form of entertainment where the audience claims the right to meddle in the details of the creation process quite to the same extent, as opposed to just letting the product succeed or fail as a whole, in a binary way.
Back in the day, games were done. Cartridges were manufactured, CDs were pressed, and physical media was sent to stores. If there were still game-breaking bugs or exploits that got past QA, well, hopefully they weren’t bad enough to sink an entire $10+ million investment. Games in that era were more akin to traditional entertainment like movies or books in the sense that fans could only possibly influence future decisions. Once it was out, it was out.
As we are abundantly aware today though, games are now a service. Something like a Day 1 patch clocking in at 40 GB is not uncommon. No one expects to unwrap a PS4 on Christmas and immediately start playing anything. Moreover, game developers want us to know that development is an ongoing process. A game in maintenance mode is “dead,” and one which is no longer receiving updates is “abandoned.” We barely even have the language to describe a finished product anymore.
Gamer entitlement didn’t get us here. Game makers leveraging social media for free PR and turning “lip service” into a competitive advantage got us here.
Which is just as well, because I’m not especially convinced anyone knows what they are doing. Did Notch know he created a $2 billion game when he released Minecraft? The original dev team for WoW certainly didn’t know they would have 8 million subscriptions by the end of 2008, nor have they been able to do much to stem the bleeding over the last decade. We can’t attribute all of this to corporate malice, because that doesn’t explain why these rockstar developers can’t recapture lightning in a bottle when they move elsewhere.
If you can’t reproduce results, what does that say about your expert game development science?
I think the important thing is to not put game developers on a pedestal. They aren’t scientists (anymore) doing peer-reviewed studies changing the way we understand the world. They’re just people who have eaten food before and think they could come up with something better. Occasionally they do, and even more occasionally they do it on purpose. But can they do it again?
Aside from sidescrollers and Fallout 76, another game I have been spending my time with lately has been Guild Wars 2 (again). Each time I come back to this game, I am utterly amazed at how unrewarding it is, at almost every level.
One of the much-touted features of GW2 is its horizontal gear progression. There have been two expansions released, but no level cap increase, and the most powerful gear has not really changed. Technically, there have been new sub-classes added and the optimal gear for them drops only in the that expansion content, but for the most part, you can be done with gearing permanently rather easily.
This makes for some extremely odd reward mechanisms.
Basically, GW2 showers you in random bags of useless loot at every stage of any activity. We’re talking Diablo-levels volume of drops, every one of which is utterly useless to anyone anywhere. Seriously, I doubt there is a single level 80 person out there that has ever picked up something off the ground and equipped it. Much like with Diablo 3, it’s much easier to simply hit up the AH once you get that final ding and just buy a full suit of Exotics with some of the free daily gold.
Ascended is the next (and final) gear tier above Exotics, and most of them come from longer-term grinding. The Living World Season 3 “episodes” are the go-to place to grind these items, and usually takes 100-125 currency to purchase something. While you can sometimes get 10-20 depending on luck/group events, the casual player can expect maybe 5 currency a day. Aside from Winterberries, which is what everyone should be farming, as it’s the only currency you can farm on multiple alts and funnel to a main.
I am not opposed to the slow accretion of currency to purchase things. Slowly gaining something gives you a sense of purpose, and having a defined target helps you plan your activity. You may not get stronger today, but you are one step closer to getting stronger tomorrow – and thus the time you spent playing was meaningful. It’s possible to get discouraged if the goalposts are too far out, but it otherwise works well as a system.
In contrast, the random loot GW2 hands out feels wildly out of place. Pointless to sell on the AH – the price is generally set to vendor +1c – the main thing you do is salvage it for materials and Luck… which increases your Magic Find stat… which results in more gear flooding into your bags. Now, sure, there is always a 0.00001% chance you get some amazing drop or whatever that might be worth something. But you can’t play around that. In fact, the odds are so low that I cannot even imagine a gambling addict being satisfied.
I don’t know. Is there anyone out there (other than Bhagpuss) that plays GW2 and enjoys opening dozens and dozens of little bags of loot and immediately scrapping them all? At this point, the only reasoning that makes sense to me is that ArenaNet does this specifically to drive real-money sales of extra bag/bank slots. I have seriously never seen such dedication to vendor junk.
Played an unhealthy amount of the Fallout 76 Beta this weekend. I’m now convinced of a few things.
First, PvP and griefing will largely be irrelevant. Some people may have claimed the same thing before the beta even went live, but having now experienced the game for myself? Yeah, it’ll be no biggie. My one “PvP” experience was inside the Morgantown Airport “public instance,” one of the locations the game funnels you into for story purposes. While trying to access the computer, some guy with a shotgun was shooting me at point-blank range (for like 1 damage). As I looked at him, I saw what presumably was his buddy nearby, naked and holding an axe. At first, I misinterpreted the red “50” over his head as being his level (it was actually the Caps reward for killing him), so I decided to walk calmly to the exit and left the area. They did not follow me outside the instance. I came back later and completed the quest.
Now, yes, their shenanigans caused my behavior to change. It’s also possible to find yourself in the middle of a fight with actual enemies, which would prevent you from Fast Traveling away to wherever. It’s also technically possible for dedicated griefers to Fast Travel to wherever you Fast Traveled to… unless it’s your own CAMP, in which case your Turrets would do your dirty work.
But the real reason none of that matters? Because you get a random server every time you log in. You will not see the same people ever again.
Incidentally, random servers is also the real issue with Fallout 76.
At first, the idea seems liberating. There will not be any “alpha tribes” in Fallout 76 who systematically take over everything. There will not be any sort of administrative busywork in finding servers with the lowest ping or whatever. There is no concern about picking the wrong server, or being left on a dead one, or being on one that is overstuffed. People will pop in, people will pop out, and life will go on.
The impermanence cuts both ways though.
One of the big features in Fallout 76 are public Workshops. These are locations that you can capture and claim for your own, and have to periodically defend from waves of enemies. In exchange, you can use Workshop materials to craft basically a 2nd (or 3rd, etc) CAMP to your liking, including being able to Fast Travel back to it for free. Build walls, traps, turrets, crafting stations, and so on. Most importantly, you can craft Resource extractors on specific nodes in the Workshop area, and these extractors will produce 25 whatevers per hour. This is really good if you’re looking for a specific resource, of course – concrete, gold scrap, acid, titanium, to name a few that I’ve seen.
But guess what: the moment you log off, for any reason, for any length of time… poof. You’re on a different server the moment you log back in. I have heard it claimed that your Workshop setup will remain for the next person to have to clear, but you personally will never see that specific Workshop again. Now, you could certainly head back to that same Workshop on a new server and set everything back up. But… why? Even if you blueprint your setup such that you don’t have to fiddle with placing all the turrets over again, the impermanence makes such a task a bizarre sort of daily chore.
Speaking of dailies, there are Daily Quests in Fallout 76 as well. Unless it’s weird beta behavior, these are reset every time you log into a different server too.
Speaking of logging into different servers, a lot of items exist out in the world for you to pick up. For example, there are many known locations for Power Armor that are just laying around. You can’t really equip the Power Armor until level 40, but you can certainly scrap it or sell it to a vendor. And guess what… another copy of that Power Armor is going to exist on a different server in the same place, unless someone just happened to have picked it up before you got there.
As you can see, the real issue with Fallout 76 is its random server situation. It’s not just the potential exploits of farming the same location across multiple servers. It’s the fact that random servers also removes Workshops as being worthwhile to own over time in any capacity. And later down the road? What happens if you spend day/weeks finding all the nuclear codes, launch a missile to create a high-level nuclear zone, and then… disconnect. Oops. Is this why Bethesda was stating the nuke thing is a team effort? So that if you disconnect, you can (presumably) get back to a specific server by joining a friend who is still there?
Ultimately, these are solvable problems. Somewhat. Todd Howard states that eventually there will be private servers such that you can control who or who is not allowed to play with you. This permanence will make taking over Workshops mean something, even if it’s a bit OP in the equivalent of single-player… although waves of enemies do attack the location periodically. This will not stop the ability of people to server hop to farm resources, and I’m not sure how Bethesda will solve that issue. Maybe they won’t. Maybe a baseline level of exploitation is acceptable – people have been crouch-sneaking into a corner for hours in their games for a long time now.
Other than that teeny, tiny systemic issue that impacts every corner of the game’s design? Fallout 76 is great. I want to be playing the game some more right now. And I guess in a week I’ll be able to.