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DOS2: An Examination

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.

Armor Mechanic

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.

Crowd Control

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.

Overpowered Skills

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.

Attributes/Abilities

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 Can Still Ruin Your Day

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.

DOS2_Hidden

Another pebble: needing to walk around with Alt held down all the time

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.

DOS2_Pebble

It’s 2% now, sure, but it’ll be higher later… and not even the point

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…

DOS2_Dialog

Significantly more chatty than when I clicked on her with Ifan

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.

Transition Gap

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.

ONI_IronVolcano

Oh, an Iron Volcano in my Ice biome. That’s gonna be a Future-Me problem.

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.

ONI_SPOM

Pictured: mythical SPOM

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.

ONI_Base2019

Made the leap, not sure I’m enjoying the other side.

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.

Zombie Smarts

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.

Game Developers as Chefs

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.[8] […]

Game Design career
Ensemble Studios, the team behind the real-time strategy series Age of Empires, employed Street as a designer in 1998.[8] 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.[9]

Street was hired by Blizzard Entertainment in February 2008, and was the lead systems designer on the MMORPG World of Warcraft until November 2013.[8]

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?

Unrewarding

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.

GW2_Junk

Play for an hour, get 16 bags of junk loot.

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.

The Real Issue of Fallout 76

Played an unhealthy amount of the Fallout 76 Beta this weekend. I’m now convinced of a few things.

FO76_Farm

Oh country roads…

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.

FO76_Workshop

Junk might actually be the most valuable out of those.

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.

Ghost of Fun Past

Novelty is a finite resource. The best we can hope for in a game is that it ends before the novelty wears off. Too soon and the game feels like it missed its full potential (which it literal did). Too late, and well… we feel relief when the credits finally roll. Assuming we can bring ourselves to crawl across the finish line at all.

HollowKnight_2

Unless you like super hard games.

 

As mentioned previously, I have been playing Hollow Knight. It’s a decently fun game (with some reservations) with amazing music and visuals. It also has an almost tangible sense of novelty that you can feel slipping by, as sand through your fingers. Unfortunately, the last third of the game is the “gritty fingers” part of the experience.

Metroidvanias have a delicate balancing act. The hallmarks of the genre are exploration, boss fights, character progression, and backtracking. Specifically, you explore new areas, fight new bosses, unlock new powers and/or movement abilities, and then go back to previously unreachable areas to unlock new zones. Repeat until done.

The problem is when either the new zone or new power steps become exhausted and the game just continues on. This is what happens in the Hollow Knight. The base game “ended” around hour 15 but it took an additional 10 hours to finish.

Now, technically I unlocked the ability to fight the end boss and achieve an ending before the map and/or powers were totally completed. The issue is that this would have been a Bad Ending, and who the hell wants that? So I continued on, capping my movement abilities, and essentially farming harder versions of bosses I already fought for a currency to unlock the Real Ending(s). And there were technically new areas to explore too… but they weren’t the same.

A lot of games work this way, but the latter half of Hollow Knight basically transforms from what it originally was… into Super Meat Boy/Dark Souls. The White Palace area straight-up abandons any pretext of grounded world-building and populates halls with floating buzzsaws and thrusting spears. I was fine with the platforming aspects earlier in the game, because the thorns and spikes made in-universe sense. But what lumber were these subterranean bugs cutting in the stone palace, exactly?

Why are we going to such extremes to begin with? Bosses and puzzles getting harder over time is Game Design 101. But at a certain point, an ever-higher ceiling turns your living room into an auditorium into a cathedral. The entire purpose of the room changes. In an MMO, the transition is necessary as you move from the solitary leveling game into a daily/weekly set of multiplayer chores in order to keep players subscribed. Single-player games have no such need. It’s certainly disappointing when the final boss is weaker than a prior boss – be it due to greater player skill or character power – but I’m not sure erring on the side of absurdity is much better.

I did end up defeating the “true boss” in the base game a few days ago. It was an incredibly frustrating experience, because each time you fail, you have to defeat the “fake boss” all over again just to get another shot. Rather than satisfaction at finally completing a difficult task, all I felt was relief that my toil was finally over.

Those who enjoy the Super Meat Boy/Dark Souls experience will likely be happy with endgame content, and happier still with all the extended DLC that supposedly ups the ante even further. Anyone else who fell in love with Hollow Knight’s first 15 hours of gameplay, on the other hand, can presumably go fuck themselves.

Fulfillment vs Excitement

There is an Asmongold video out that has received at least 27 Reddit gold after it was posted:

(All the good stuff is within the first six minutes)

Among the criticisms he makes regarding Battle for Azeroth, one that resonated a bit with me was the distinction between Fulfillment and Excitement. Essentially, Blizzard used to give you a 8% chance to get a specific piece of gear that was your Best-in-Slot piece. It might take a long time to get it, but once you finally got it, it was an event. You were complete. Done.

When Titanforging was introduced though, suddenly BiS gear was rendered largely impossible. You might receive your “BiS” piece, but if it didn’t proc with an extra gem socket and/or numerous bonus stats, it wasn’t actually BiS. Moreover, it was entirely possible that someone just dicking around in Warfronts could luck into a piece of gear that surpassed something that dropped from Mythic Uldir.

Asmongold’s point is that while you can feel excitement over a drop that suddenly Titanforges up to insane levels… that excitement is short lived. It’s the pull of a slot machine. That’s fundamentally different than working towards an end goal, even if said end also requires some RNG along the way.

When Titanforging was first introduced, I was impressed. It seemed like a clever solution to the problem of completing content that was no longer rewarding in any way. I distinctly remember my tanking days back in Wrath, and how I was asked to clear dungeons with guildies despite the fact that I could get nothing from it (once I capped out with Justice Points). With this new wrinkle, there was always a chance I could get an upgrade from any content I completed.

What I did not realize at the time was how destructive that notion really is. You are never “done.” And not just in a “there will always be another content patch with better loot” kind of way, but in a more literal “never experience satisfaction in current content” way.

As Asmongold points out though, Titanforging by itself is not what is killing the BfA experience. Indeed, the concept of Titanforging has been around for several expansions now, and nobody seemed to have been complaining about it until now (or at least to this degree). The real problem is that BfA is so mechanically weak on so many fronts, that the fundamental issue with Titanforging is poisoning the experience more than usual.

I’m sure Blizzard has the stats on the number of people who just stop playing the game after they achieve BiS, and found the numbers problematic. Certainly in my case, once I finally got the two piece of transmog gear I had been farming, I found myself at a loss of what else to do. This could explain why they are trying to get everyone back to collecting a bunch of full suits of extra gear. With the deprecation of the concept of BiS though, I don’t think these extra suits are going to satisfy players for as long as it may have before.

What is the solution? We already had it for years: vendors. Bring back Justice/Valor Points. Everyone rightly complained in Legion about the Legendary system and how RNG could lead you to a situation in which your spec was basically broken the whole expansion… up until they introduced the Legendary vendor in 7.3.5. The initial rollout was still a bit lame RNG until they allowed you to straight-up pick the ones you want, but it was there eventually. Collect “Wakening Essence” from a variety of sources (WQ, missions, ect) at your own pace, and know the end result.

Titanforging is dumb. If it’s some kind of design imperative to have raiders running WQs or dungeons all the time, fine, make it Justice Points. Except this time, put in consumables, gear you can buy for alts, and other nonsense to give everyone potential reasons to collect it all day.

Give us back some goddamn agency for once.

Azerite Armor as Regression

As evidenced by the latest Q&A – and the Reddit response threads – Azerite Armor is still a big issue within the WoW community. I would say “contentious issue,” but I’m pretty sure it’s only Ion and Rohan who like it.

That said, it finally struck me why I hate the system, and why Blizzard doesn’t care: Blizzard is trying to regress gearing back to the TBC days. In a recent LiveStream interview, Ion says:

(paraphrase) If you look at how most items work, if you want to play another spec, you want another item for that slot.

Ion goes on to say that Azerite gear is more flexible than that, in that you can technically respec (for a price!) the traits if you change roles. Which is fine… if not for the fact that Legion just had tier gear that automatically changed to match your spec. And the expansion before that (WoD) introduced dynamic primary stats, such that a Retribution paladin switching to Holy will see most his Strength gear turn into Intelligence. It felt like we were progressing to a point at which we simply had one major set of gear and were done.

I feel like players’ confusion and anger as to this sudden design reversal is justified.

Now, all this is probably a bit unfair to Blizzard. Weapons and trinkets were largely spec-specific even in Legion days, to say nothing about how Legendaries forced you to commit to specs to a ridiculous degree. On top of that, everyone knew that even if primary stats swapped around, different specs valued secondary stats differently, even after the super-specific ones like Dodge (etc) were removed. If you were a paladin tank and switched to Retribution, you knew that your tank gear would deal less DPS than something focused on the stats that Retribution favored (without even getting into Artifact Power differences).

And yet… Azerite still feels bad. Because its a regression back to a time that was inherently more frustrating for people with multiple specs. A split baby option of reforging doesn’t make anything better, nor the opportunity to split another baby by choosing generic Azerite traits (actual suggestion from Ion) rather than spec-specific ones in an effort to save gold. And Blizzard’s big “solution” to fix things in 8.1? They’re adding another ring with only spec-specific traits. Which means the power delta between each piece of Azerite gear is actively getting worse for your other spec(s).

This sort of thing is not an accident. Ion wants the game to return to the point at which players need a full set of different gear for each spec. That used to be okay. Hell, it used to be you needed a PvP set of gear on top of everything else you needed for PvE. But it is a regression from what we had before.

That’s the problem with Azerite.

The concerns people have about not being able to get 370+ Azerite pieces from content? Not actually an issue from the old design rubric – you only had 1-2 shots at a piece of tier gear from a raid boss each week anyway (the glory days of Justice/Valor Point vendors notwithstanding). Traits needing to be simmed, or some being wildly more powerful than others? There were many times in expansions past where two different two-set tier bonuses were better than the four-set tier bonus. Traits being boring? Again, welcome to many tier sets in WoW’s past.

On a final note though, I do believe that Azerite Armor will likely go down as one of the worst experiments in WoW history. Leveraging it as a means to regress gearing philosophy is one thing. But I also blame it for the fact that we got no new skills or abilities or talents to look forward to in this expansion. Why add a new talent row or button to push when you can just slap a random assortment of buffs on a piece of gear that will naturally cycle itself out come next expansion? In a single design, they seemed to have “solved” ability creep, added a substitute to Legendary items, and gave everyone a grind outlet via AP.

All they had to give up was… fun.