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Stealth Games Are Kinda Easy

In-between my many WoW sessions, I have been working on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The short version is that it is pretty much Human Revolution with new plot and Augments; if you enjoyed the first game, then you will enjoy this one as well.

But one of the things I have noticed over the course of 30 hours is that… well, it’s easy.

I am playing on the highest difficulty – Give Me Deus Ex – and just breezing my way through, even without Augments. Indeed, I spent half the game with 11+ Augment Points banked just waiting for a situation in which I needed to spontaneously develop wall-punching or remote hacking skills. However, this may be more a systemic issue with stealth games generally.

When we talk about stealth games, what we’re really talking about is extremely simplified, often binary, gameplay. If you are outside the cone of an enemy’s vision, you are hidden. The alarm is either raised or it is not. The enemy is fully active or they are incapacitated. This binary nature even extends to after the enemy is alerted, as almost every stealth game features the conceit that guards eventually completely forget that they watched their compatriots die, and go about their usual patrols.

This is not a criticism of stealth gameplay, per se. There is a good reason why “more realistic” behavior is not often implemented: it is less fun. Ever play a stealth game where the enemies patrolled randomly? It’s an exercise in frustration. Without a pattern to recognize and exploit, incapacitating/avoiding guards either requires RNG (which doesn’t feel good) or just attacking them straight out. And if the guards never reset after the alarm is raised, why wouldn’t the average player not simply reload their last save?

So if you are going to have “stealth mechanics” in your game, you have to make some concessions. This means it is incredibly difficult to introduce varying levels of difficulty with stealth mechanics without running afoul of annoying gameplay.

Still, I do have some suggestions. These mostly pertain to Mankind Divided – and especially at the higher difficulties – but I feel like they can be applied more generally as well.

1) Incapacitated Guards wake up.

Some stealth games have this already, but its lack seems especially egregious in Mankind Divided since you are in the same city for most of the game. Basically, once you knock out the guards, they are unconscious permanently. Since you already get more XP for using nonlethal methods, there really is no reason to not knock them out rather than use lethal methods. Yes, unconscious guards can be awoken if discovered by other guards. But considering how easily guards can be taken out – and no one cares about patrols reporting in – this is an irrelevant concern.

So… have the guards wake up, randomly. Not immediately, mind you, just over a period of a few minutes or so. This will still give you enough time to stroll through the area, but maybe not enough for a thorough searching of every file cabinet. If you want safety in your looting, you will need to kill the guards instead.

2) Nonlethal takedowns are more difficult.

In the last two Deus Ex games, you get the option of lethal and nonlethal takedowns any time you are within melee distance. In truth, there is just one rational option: nonlethal. Not only do you get more XP with nonlethal, but the actual nonlethal action is quiet, whereas the lethal one makes a lot of noise. Considering you can just shoot sleeping guards in the face with a silenced pistol afterwards, there is zero reason to go lethal initially.

How about we just reverse that? Lethal takedowns are quiet, but nonlethal makes some noise as the target struggles. This can extend to tranquilizer dart weapons as well, considering nobody really seems to care about a huge syringe poking out of their leg, even after it was fired out of a sniper rifle 50 yards away. Let them make some noise for the few seconds of consciousness they have remaining. Or, alternatively, make the tranquilizer take a random amount of time to fully go into affect, so that it’s possible they fall unconscious after walking to a less discreet location.

Because, honestly, the situation with the Tranq rifle in Mankind Divided is just silly broken. Headshots will instantly knock out guards, and body shots take a few seconds more. But, really? The delay is actually a boon. I can tag three guards in a row, all in the leg, and by the time the first dude hits the floor, the others start passing out before they have a chance to raise an alarm. That shit would be impossible with a regular sniper rifle, even a silenced one. Speaking of which…

3) Silencers not being silent.

This is one of those universal videogame/movie sacred cows, but silencers on guns don’t actually make them silent. As it turns out, propelling lead out the end of a metal tube by way of igniting gunpowder is still kinda loud. So let’s have those guns still be loud with silencers attached. This will shorten effective engagement range for stealth runs, thereby increasing the chance that a guard could discover you, e.g. making the gameplay a bit more difficult.

4) Guards check in with each other.

There is a level in Mankind Divided that sees you skulking about a research facility with a PA system. While I was taking out guards left and right, I got a little nervous by what I heard. “West wing reporting all clear.” “Brzezinski, please report to docking bay 12.” Did I already take out Brzezinski? Would he be missed?

Then I remembered I was playing a standard stealth game, and none of that stuff matters.

To an extent, having guards checking in (or being sought by other guards) is one of those realistic features that end up making the gameplay feel worse. After all, if you are going to be so actively punished for taking guards out, you may as well remove the ability to take guards out at all. But what if the mechanics were more nuanced than that? What if you could get some kind of guard manifest that lists which ones need to check in, or figure out when they already checked in such that you are free to take them out afterwards? What if their absence is noted and guards are sent to investigate, but they eventually disperse if they don’t find any foul play?

Basically, instead of having each guard be a puzzle individually, perhaps force the player to consider a more holistic approach to rendering a base unconscious.

5) Blood stains.

Just so it doesn’t seem like all these changes make nonlethal useless compared to lethal methods of infiltration, let’s have guards react to blood stains. And, you know, have blood stains result from wetwork, assuming specific methods are not employed. Moving bodies might still be useful, especially for distraction purposes, but it shouldn’t be a Get Out of Jail Free card either.

——–

I will be honest with you here: I’m not even sure any of the above will result in a better gameplay experience. All I do know is that my current experience with stealth games (and Deus Ex in particular) has made all of them not only play the same, but play easily. If I choose the highest difficulty in a stealth game, that difficulty has to be a function of changing stealth mechanics and not just making it easier for me to die once a firefight starts. Because a firefight will never start when I’ve knocked out every guard everywhere with impunity.

Social Dungeoneering

With Legion, I feel that Blizzard solved a major source of social friction and then almost immediately made it even worse than before.

As you may or may not know, by default LFD queues in Legion are Personal Loot, which neatly solves the long-standing issue of loot whore/ninjaing. But this also made it feel like nobody was getting any actual loot, so Blizzard added a big prompt notifying when other people won stuff. Of course, this highlighted those situations when someone won useless (to them) loot, and people started pining for the days when they could pass on/trade loot to each other. So Blizzard made the items tradable as long as you already had something with a higher ilevel in that slot.

This culminated in my recent Neltharion’s Lair run, wherein I won some lower ilevel gloves and missed the whispers from the healer after the penultimate boss. Hey, the chat box gets pretty full sometimes with the near non-stop narration, okay? Taking my silence as some sort of snub – or perhaps simply engaging in some vindictive blackmail – the healer simply stopped healing me. After eating dirt for a second time in front of the trash leading to the final boss, and getting emotes instead of a rez, I asked “Did I do something wrong? :(” assuming that I was not following some trash mechanic. “At last he speaks.” Ah, I see. I trade the gloves and received healing for the last fight.

This sort of convoluted situation has since occurred three more times in different contexts. Boss dropped a 825 helm and the Demon Hunter traded it to me, but seemed to almost regret his decision. “Are you really going to use that?” I suppose he was asking since I had the 2-piece set bonus from the Order Hall armor. Another time some gloves dropped and the winner asked who needed it, and two party members must have gotten in a furious whisper war, because the run stopped for a solid 2 minutes before something was hashed out.

Finally, I won some lower-ilevel wrists in my latest dungeon run, and basically spent the rest of the run trying to inspect our Bear tank to see if they were an upgrade to him. They were, I surreptitiously traded them to him instead of the Demon Hunter, and went on with my day.

Hey, remember when all of this was solved by hitting Need or Greed? I do.

Seriously though, if Blizzard is going to add all of this tradable Personal Loot nonsense, they should probably invest in an UI element that asks if you want to Pass on the loot. If you hit Yes, it should pop up a Need or Greed prompt for everyone. If you hit No, the item could still be tradable in case you want to give the item to a particular person without advertising or whatever. Done and done.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Impressions

No Legion impressions today, as I saved $10 by ordering the expansion from Amazon, who declined to ship it to me on launch day. Also, I technically had Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (DE) for the past week, but only got started playing it recently. Because Legion pre-patch free leveling.

Yeah, some weird-ass irony there.

DXMD_01

Either quest XP or loot, officer. Your choice.

So far, I have only gotten past the first 2-3 areas of DE and this is basically Human Revolution all over again. Including all the parts that lead me to make the game worse for myself.

For example, the hacking mini-game is back. Which means if you go through the trouble of actually discovering the password for a given computer, there is no reason to actually enter it. Because if you skip the mini-game, you lose out on the 100-200 XP, 100-200 credits, and occasional hacking software freebies that come from taking the scenic route in cracking security.

Why? Why don’t the designers just give you those things for free, if you actually went through the trouble of tracking down the Pocket Secretary with the password on it?

Another example: dropped weapons. Knock out two guards, each drop a shotgun. Pick up first shotgun, it goes into your inventory. Pick up second shotgun, it gets destroyed and you get +4 ammo. This is fine… if it were not the fact that shotguns can be sold to a vendor for like 1200 credits. A vendor that sells Praxis Kits, e.g. talent points, for 10,000 credits apiece. And so my gameplay arc now logically bends towards picking up one weapon type at a time and Fed-Exing it back to the (one) vendor until I can afford to buy all the things.

Hopefully this will stop once I exhaust the Praxis supply, but who knows.

DXMD_02

#unexpectedWH40k

Also, I feel slightly punished for exploring. I got to a new area in Prague, for example, and started exploring for an hour or two. At one point, I made my way through the sewers and into a restricted area with guards and such. After taking care of them, I noticed there were another group of hostiles hanging out in a room, all clustered together. Tightly packed enemies? Jackpot! I rolled a propane tank into the room, shot it, and mopped up the survivors.

As I was rifling through the pockets of the dead, I realized that some of these bodies had names. Names associated with a quest I happened to be on. My unceremonious slaughter did not prevent me from completing the quest, but I began to wonder whether or not I skipped an entire arc of interaction by killing them. Would there have been a conversation? Would they have given me a quest to complete in return for the item I needed? I arrived in their lair via a back route that I didn’t realize I was on; I was just screwing around looting shit in the sewers. I’m starting to think that I shouldn’t actually explore anything unless it happens to be an area for a quest I am actively on.

I am not sure whether the above examples can be considering minor annoyances or major ones. They are kinda major to me, but I’m weird like that. Beyond those though, the game is playing a lot like Human Revolution. If you liked that one, you will probably like this one. Time will tell whether or not the story holds up, or what other shenanigans might go down. What I will say is that whatever time I am not in WoW currently is being spent in Mankind Divided. So there’s that, at least.

Artifact Concerns

As the release of Legion inches closer, my implicit worries have begun to mount.

Technically, the concerns I have currently are the same ones I brought up a year ago. Namely: artifacts and alts. Having one weapon that you channel all of your power into is conceptually neat. But WoW has long ceased to be about one character and spec; the structure of the game since around Wrath has seemed to hinge on the assumption of alts, or at least dual specs. Just think about all the Account-Bound items and other technology changes that have occurred in the past five years.

So how is Legion going to interact with everyone’s alts?

Based on the Wowhead research I have been doing… it’s hit or miss. My first concern was being stuck with a single Artifact for a single spec out of the gate. What if I’m a healer and want to level as DPS? You are indeed stuck with a single Artifact until level 102, at which point you can unlock the others. However, you are not stuck stuck – there is a sort of gear workaround for alt specs:

What if I chose the wrong Artifact Weapon, vendored my old weapons and want to level in a different spec before level 102?

Your class Order Hall Quartermaster sells item level 740 weapons/off-hands/shields for 100g each. These can serve as replacements if you need them before you unlock all of your class Artifact Weapons at level 102.

So technically you should be able to have a backup set of gear to use if you want to tank/heal/DPS with an off-spec. Obviously it won’t be as ideal as with your Artifact, but it’s something.

Okay… what about gaining Artifact Power (AP)? During questing, dungeons, etc, you end up receiving consumable items that fill an AP meter for your currently equipped Artifact when used. So, it seems like you should be able to quest as DPS and funnel all of these consumables into your healing Artifact later on. That’s pretty good. Indeed, later on you unlock the Artifact Knowledge ability that will increase the AP gained from future consumables. I thought it was a nice touch that these gains aren’t retroactive to your currently obtained consumables, so there is no reason to hoard them for later.

But then we get into the sort of nitty gritty details of World of Altcraft. The amount of AP that you need to get from level 13 to level 14 is more than the total amount you need from 1-13. This makes a nice, conceptual breakpoint at which you can decide whether to hedge your bets or double-down on one spec or not.

That said, there are two problems with this.

First, you don’t always have any control over your circumstances in the game. Your guild might need a healer now, after you have already hit AP14, setting you a painful distance behind in your ability to fulfill the need. Second, there are numerous specs who can actually unlock their 2nd Elite Traits as soon as AP16. Now, “as soon as AP16” really means 33,450 total AP gained, more than 2.5 times as much as was needed to hit even AP14, but still. I haven’t seen all the math amongst all the specs in this regard, but I don’t believe it to be a trivial increase.

Finally, and most critically: what happens when Blizzard nerfs a spec?

If you were an Assassination rogue and got hit by the nerf-bat, it was always technically possible to switch to Subtlety rogue and keep going. Maybe your Best-in-Slot items change based on whether Mastery or Haste is king. But now? At AP18, you are two times further away from even AP16 farmed from scratch. Unless the Artifacts are front-loaded as all hell, you are basically staring down an entirely new endgame, minus all the easy AP gained via leveling. I suppose Artifact Knowledge is supposed to bridge the gap there, but I’m not entirely convinced Blizzard won’t be requiring us to grind dailies for, erm, days or weeks.

[Fake Edit]: A new interview just came out addressing this:

Artifact Weapons
The team will avoid nerfing a spec from being a little too good to the worst so that you don’t feel that all of your Artifact progression was a waste

Time will tell regarding on the Blizzard dev’s team ability to actually do this.

[/Fake Edit]

And don’t get me started on, you know, an actual alternate character. Artifact Knowledge is not Account-Wide, which means you are back to grinding from zero on every other character on your account.

For someone planning on coming back for Legion, I’m a little nonplussed as to what I’m actually going to do. My namesake paladin is right out – Retribution is garbage again from everything I have heard, and I have no interest in Protection tanking. So… what? I haven’t experienced the post-7.0 classes, and now must make a decision on a new main (probably on a new server at that) with a new main spec that I have to invest in at the expense of every other possible alternative.

Analysis Paralysis is a real thing, which often leads to doing nothing at all. Which is still an option.

Starbound Again

I played through and “completed” Starbound about 5 months ago, and my conclusion was:

And now, even if the devs end up finishing Starbound, I will have already consumed the lion’s share of the game’s novelty – that ever-finite motivational resource. No more character wipes? Then I’m already at endgame. Character wipes? I already know where to go, what to look for, how to overcome the obstacles, and basically speed my way through normal progression. Assuming I can be bothered to do so a second time.

I’m here to say that I’m wrong, and pretty much all fronts. At least, so far.

For the most part, I wasn’t planning on coming back to Starbound, but I needed a game I could sink my teeth into that also did not require uninterrupted time. Clash Royale and Overwatch used to be my “don’t know my schedule” games, but I’m still adapting to cohabiting with another human being.

And that’s a problem with a rather large number of games, actually. Meanwhile, Starbound is two clicks away from Save & Quit, and they fixed the “issue” with you being teleported back to your ship if you exit the game. Which I had utilized previously as a tricksey way of not having to climb out of the planet-sized hole I dug, but nevermind.

The, ahem, core mechanics of Starbound have not changed, but the tech tree, what minerals show up where, the quest structure, essentially enough has changed to make the experience fresh again. For example, one minor change the devs made was to introduce a sort of invulnerable ghost creature to the moons that contain your FTL fuel. While it is tacitly annoying (and deadly) in the same way as I talked about those Wasted SOB Purifiers before, they achieve a similar purpose – change the way you approach the game. Before, the most deadly thing about stocking up with infinite FTL fuel were meteor showers, which could only kill you in the two seconds before you burrowed underground. Now? It’s a risk/reward decision on how much fuel you grab on the surface (i.e. not much), and meanwhile you’re actively playing the game so as to not get stuck in a hole while getting chased.

So, yeah. The game definitely feels more finished than it did before. I will say though, that the first couple of story missions have been the exact same as the ones I played through previously. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing… so far. We will see how things progress as I approach the endgame. Considering I already have 32 hours in Starbound, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Then again, the bar Terraria set is still at 50 hours.

Freedom from Hunger

I am currently playing through a rougelike called “Wasted,” and the experience has been interesting. It is an Adult Swim Game that I believe came in a Humble Monthly Bundle or something, as I don’t remember purchasing it. The premise is very non-serious – think Borderlands rougelike with permadeath – but that’s not particularly relevant. What’s relevant is the addition of the SOB Purifiers.

The general gameplay in Wasted pretty common in terms of opening doors, killing enemies, avoiding traps, grabbing loot. After about two minutes on each floor though, an extremely deadly (albeit predictable) enemy spawns at the entrance and slowly makes it way towards you. The first few times I encountered these SOBs, I very nearly quit playing the game entirely. Why do they need to exist? How much bullshit is it that their miniguns basically stunlock you? The SOBs seem to have sucked all the fun out of exploring the levels.

After a while, I realized something. Namely, that I wasn’t experiencing Fallout-esque burnout.

As the developer has gone through great lengths to point out in the Steam forums (even getting a bit saucy in the process), the Purifiers exist as a gameplay element to shepherd the player around and drive them forward. You aren’t supposed to be exploring, you should be making some strategic gambles on your way to the exit. If I had all the time in the world, I would be fully healed before opening any door, spending 99% of the gameplay crouch-sneaking, and micromanaging an incredibly-limited inventory with the attention of Warren Buffet. In other words, I’d be playing it just like I play every other post-apocalypse game. Or most games, period, if I’m honest.

Other roguelikes have addressed the “problem” of over-exploring characters with Hunger mechanics and the like, but the Purifier feels really interesting to me now. Mechanics like Hunger don’t actually impact my behavior in those games; if anything, it just makes me more committed to looting all the things in the vain hope that there is some half-rotten morsel in that broken filing cabinet. Hunger also evokes that most-hated of all gameplay mechanics: the Breath meter in underwater levels. It feels oppressive, cheap.

After I got over the first few bullshit deaths to Purifiers that nullified hours of progression, I started to realize how… well, elegant is not the term, but perhaps “fair” they are. The Purifiers always spawn in the same location (the entrance to the floor you started on), after roughly the same amount of time, and always move towards your location decently slowly. If you happen to be in a circular sort of area, you can lure them to your location and then double-back behind them. Yeah, getting caught in a long hallway or dead-end sucks, but the Purifier’s arrival is announced both when they spawn and as they get closer to your location (the music changes).

In a real sense, Purifiers give you a sense of agency that Hunger does not. If I hit a fork early in a level, I might skip the locked door (which the exit is never behind) so as to give myself more time to explore a later fork. Or maybe I’ll lay some traps near the entrance to the level so that the Purifier spawns in a mine field that will hopefully cripple a leg and give me additional time. And, hey, even if I just barely escape through the exit at the last possible second, I know that I still get a full X minutes to explore the next floor without having to worry about them. That is a far cry different than Hunger or whatever, which often represents a cumulative loss of time.

For the record, I am taking this mechanic way more seriously than the game does. Indeed, the premise of the game is drinking Booze and getting radioactive hangovers that will help/hurt your next Booze run. But the problem that Wasted solves with Purifiers is a problem that exists in every roguelike (and arguably any survival game), and it’s the best solution I’ve seen in quite some time. I’m not sure it would be especially applicable in future games ala Fallout 5, but I hope the eventual solution is more akin to this than something else.

I don’t think I can stand the freedom to collect 10,000 tin cans anymore.

Subtraction Through Addition

One of the new features in Clash Royale are “Tournaments.” Indeed, Supercell believes Tournaments are so important as to rearrange the entire app UI around to feature them prominently. Which is wierd, consider Tournaments are about the most poorly designed thing I’ve seen in any game.

Just imagine this x100.

Even the premise is dumb. At the lowest level, someone offers to pay 500 gems to “host” a 50-man “local” tournament, 49 people join for free, and in this pool everyone plays as many games as possible within the allotted time. The winner of the tournament – which would ideally be the person who started it – will always get less cards than they would have otherwise by spending the gems in the shop. Perhaps the joy of creating all this free content for people should suffice, but I don’t anticipate this lasting long. Especially given the fact Supercell introduced a one-time achievement refunding the cost of the lowest-level tournament. Once that dries up… then what?

Part of the design of the tournaments was to reduce the ping issues by concentrating players in closer geographic regions. Which is okay, I guess. But how is that really a solution at all? The tournaments can last for X amount of time (hours or days), but you are of course limited to just the pool of players in the tournament. I haven’t had an issue finding games once in a tournament, but I don’t see how it is effective for, you know, everyone else.

And don’t even get me started on actually getting into these tournaments. There is a “search” interface that essentially brings up around 10 tournaments, and invariably they all show 50/50. Sprinkled throughout are 49/50 that get your hopes up for a second, before a series of rapid Join presses revealed that they are full. Hell, I saw a 1/200 tournament appear and apparently fill in the time it took my thumb to move half an inch. What moron designer thought this was a good design? Were these not play tested at all? Was there a particular reason why they did not include a “join next available tournament with X criteria” function?

Like I mentioned, I did indeed manage to get into one of the tournaments by some stroke of luck. And it was… okay. I do appreciate the idea that it uses a different ranking system than the outside game, so you are free to experiment more. Plus, since tournament rules are in effect, all the cards are more balanced – no more cheese like someone dropping a level 11 Royal Giant on your lane and calling it a day.

That said, the tournament absolutely encourages you to spam games. Your ranking is determined by trophies, and since you can take them from anybody, that means someone trying to sit on 1st place will soon find themselves slipping down if they don’t keep up. Which, I suppose is better than the alternative, unless you happen to be the highly ranked. For me, I got inside the top 10 after about four games and just sat on my rank with the knowledge that I either had to claw my way to 3rd+, or be fine with 8-10 free cards depending on how many people occilated. Iroically, as I stared at the screen deciding my next move, I actually gained a rank from someone else above me losing a game.

In any case, I find the tournament feature to be an overall net negative for a game in which my interest is already waning. My range in the regular ladder seems to fluctuate between 2800-3000, which means every win is an absolute struggle. Or would be, if I didn’t face people with the previously mentioned level 11 Royal Giants. Which, I guess, is the ladder system working as intended. But it is work, and sometimes ends up taking 30 minutes to get enough chests to last the entire day, even on vacation.

“So stop playing.”

Yeah, it might end up coming to that. Especially since Supercell seems inclined to make no changes to that godddamn Ice Wizard or the Royal Giant.

On Trolling

Two years ago, I talked about countering toxicity via intentional game design. The example was Hearthstone, which continues to be relatively accessible and innocuous. Blizzard accomplished this by limiting non-friend player interaction to a handful of emotes. Granted, a whole new implicit language of BM (bad manners) has developed in the meantime, but there is both a timer attached to the emotes and, crucially, the ability to disable them from your opponent.

I bring this up for two reasons.

The first is that Supercell finally came out and addressed the rampant trolling emote spam that takes place in Clash Royale. And by rampant, I mean I get surprised when I do not see gloating emotes during a game. Supercell’s response? Trolling helps their bottom line:

The same principle – evoking strong emotions – is at the heart of why we’re not planning to implement a mute option. Emotes are loved by some and hated by others – even within the Clash Royale team! We believe these strong emotions are integral to the core of the game.

Clash Royale is not a single player game and shouldn’t feel like one. Emotes are an important reminder that you’re facing another human being – maybe they’re a nice guy, maybe they’re not – but there’s a person at the other end of the Arena and not a robot. You can communicate with them and they can respond, regardless of language or cultural barriers.

Given advancements in AI, it’s possible we’re already playing against robots.

Now, Supercell didn’t come out and say that this helps their bottom line, but… it does. Get spammed with emotes, get tilted, lose, then you buy a bunch of gems to unlock more shit. Or win against impossible odds, feel good, buy some gems. It’s all the same. Which is fine, whatever. But I still fail to see how adding the option, buried in the menus somewhere, to mute emotes automatically isn’t possible or would affect one goddamn thing other than the trolls.

The second reason I brought up Hearthstone is because, as I’ve mentioned before, Overwatch makes me salty. And what makes it worse is the direct communication feature between teams. Again, what possible good exists in letting Team A talk to Team B? Because what I mostly see is stuff like this:

Overwatch_Trolling

Absolutely useful features.

Honestly, this is downright mild in comparison to the “die in a fire” and worse from the earlier days of gaming. Or probably current days of gaming if you’re a woman and have a microphone.

But the more time passes, the less value I see in having much in the way of communication at all in these sort of games. In MMOs? Yes, of course, there is a need to build social bonds and such. Nobody is building anything with emotes in Clash Royale other than ulcers and kidney stones. Nor with chatting in Overwatch, really. So… why have them in these games? Habit alone?

Unless, of course, your business model is based on exploitative psychology.

Vanilla Challenge: Levels 1-5

And so it begins.

To start with, let me just confirm that the process of pirating Blizzard’s IP by joining a private vanilla server is remarkably easy. I posted the instructions elsewhere, but the steps I followed were:

  1. Find website.
  2. Click the torrent link they helpfully provide.
  3. Wait for 5GB torrent to download.
  4. Create an account on a linked website in the meantime.
  5. Copy & Paste 1 line of text in the Realm.wtf file.
  6. Double-click the WoW icon.

That’s it. There isn’t even an “installation” of vanilla WoW; the torrent has the folders already unpacked for you. So when people were stating that private servers are easier than getting into retail WoW, they were correct.

All that set up, I was in.

VanillaWoW_01

Someone apparently took my name already.

I went with a human paladin because that seems to be the experience that most people can relate to. Plus, if I recall correctly from my TBC experience, the Dwarven starting area is even worse in terms of running around aimlessly. Maybe some other time. Probably not.

The general paladin experience was pretty much as bad as I remembered. You start with two buttons: Seal of Righteousness and Holy Light. Combat consists of casting Seal and auto-attacking. For around 12-28 seconds. Per mob. I’m not joking:

For the full vanilla experience, you should watch the entire video. It’s exactly like playing!

Aside from the Time-To-Kill metrics and general pants-on-head asinine class design, I was also struck by smaller design issues that were blasts from the past. For example, the first quest you get is to kill Kobold Vermin behind the church. The steady stream of new players/alts ensured a general sort of Kobold holocaust, but it wasn’t until about the third dead Kobold that I realized I was killing the wrong ones. There were, in fact, three different layers of Kobolds: Vermin, Workers, and Laborers. Not to be racist, but they kinda all looked the same.

The other issue was boomerang quests, which is perhaps one of the more annoying quest designs in gaming to me. Specifically, a quest giver asking you to go to an area to kill mobs, then asking you to go back to the same area again and killing mobs slightly further in, and so on. The “Christmas tree” effect (getting to a new quest area and seeing dozens of “?”s) is kind of the result of bypassing the boomerang, but it is a far preferable state of affairs, IMO.

VanillaWoW_02

Also super important.

Then again, there weren’t any Christmas trees in vanilla or a portion of TBC, as quest givers did not appear on the minimap unless you were ready to turn something in. Indeed, that was my first exposure to absurd design Luddittes – post after post in the TBC forums crying about how much the game is diminished by having quests show up in the minimap. But I digress.

Upon hitting level 3, I decided to travel over to the dreaded Defias Vineyard. This was WoW’s “The Butcher” experience, introducing millions of players to a hostile, uncaring universe of pain and suffering in the form of rapidly respawning, high aggro-radius having mobs. The Vineyard was as advertised: hostile and uncaring. Well… mostly.

(Video starting from 6:06 from the prior one.)

I was invited to a group by a warlock who was also hunting for Defias bandannas and we aggroed in tandem for quite some time. Having been a solo player for so long, I almost felt uncomfortable being “confined” to a group, as if we were sitting next to each other on a bus with plenty of empty seats. Anyway, he DoT’d the enemies up, and I uselessly auto-attacked and tried to keep aggro. There were always other people running around the area, being chased by their gray-tagged mobs and occasionally stealing our own. It made me think about MMOs like GW2 where anyone can help anyone at any time, and still get credit for kills and the like even if you just dealt one blow. There is more cooperation there, but less socialization.

Not that I and the warlock talked much anyway.

Turning in the bandanna quest unlocked two more quests that required going to the exact same area and, by consequence, killing the same mobs. Classic boomerang. One of the quest mobs was named, but I don’t believe he was marked as an Elite or anything. Still, three mobs at once is a bit tough to handle when it takes you 20 seconds of auto-attacking to bring down a single dude, so I started inviting everyone who showed up near the mob respawn. There were three of us, and two more sauntered in, not accepting my invite. They ended up stealing the tag right from under us, because of course they did. Three to four minutes later, we collected four heads from one body and I dinged level 5.

Total time played: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

VanillaWoW_03

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For the sake of science and amusement, I went ahead and rolled another human paladin, this time via the F2P Starter account in retail WoW. The differences, as you might imagine, are quite stark:

Time-to-Kill is sometimes 0.0 seconds, with mobs dying in the press of Crusader Strike and simultaneous melee auto-attack. Crusader Strike’s cooldown is 4.5 seconds, so we can just say 0-4.5 seconds TTK. And do note that I did not have any heirlooms or anything of the sort – the Starter account is not associated with my actual (lapsed) account at all.

The Defias are gone from the Vineyard, which is now aflame and overrun by orcs. It still teaches new players about aggro mobs, but there is essentially zero danger when mobs die in 2-3 hits. There was a quest to kill a specific named orc ala X, but he too went down in a manner that makes you question the robustness of the Horde’s espionage program.

Experiencing this new paradigm for the first time in years, sans the heirlooms which I had hitherto believed caused it, I am willing to make some concessions.

Nils has described the vanilla way as giving players the time and opportunity to keep their mind busy without actually being busy. I think I can appreciate this sentiment now, but not quite for the same reason as he. When it takes 20+ seconds to kill a mob, you are pretty much forced to “settle in” to an area. It will, after all, be where you will be questing for the next 10+ minutes. There is ample time to smell the roses, as you conspicuously not press buttons.

Conversely, when you are all but one-shotting mobs in retail, you are on the fast track. Move to blue area, kill 10 mobs, run back. Your focus is on the UI rather than the screen because that’s all you have time for. Pushing buttons is still always better than not pushing buttons, in my opinion, but you can’t exactly just stretch out the TTK numbers and insert button presses in all the empty beats. Which, now that I think about it, might be why I didn’t exactly enjoy the FF14 or Wildstar gameplay experience.

In any case, I hit level 5 with 15 minutes /played.

The funny/sad thing is that the speed is both too fast and not fast enough. If leveling is easy because the designers want more people to be in the current expansion endgame, well… put people in the current expansion endgame. The first couple of zones in every expansion are more or less tutorial zones for returning players already, so it should accommodate re-rollers just fine. Conversely, if the leveling still exists as some kind of nod to new WoW players or nostalgia junkies, it’s much too fast to satisfy anyone.

This split baby needs thrown out with the bathwater.

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The challenge continues. I have little to no interest actually hitting 60 in vanilla, especially given the number of hours it supposedly takes, but I will play for a while longer. My next goal is to unlock the talent system, which traditionally started at 10, I believe. Can’t wait to start unlocking +2% damage for the next dozen levels thereafter.

Accretion

There is a gaming phenomenon I have been experiencing a lot lately that sorely needs a term to describe it. The effect itself is this: the older a game gets, the less space exists for the “skill middle class,” and the less the developers seem to care about catering to said group.

Tobold has experienced this recently too:

I discovered a nice game called Cabals, which combines trading card elements with a tactical board game. But unfortunately the game was released 5 years ago in 2011. So not a lot of people are still playing, and those who do have collected cards for years. So every time I start a PvP game, first I’m waiting for a long time for an opponent, and then that opponent is far, far more powerful than I am.

And here is how I described it in a roundabout way back in 2014:

I have played a grand total of about an hour of TF2, which was long enough for me to realize I have little interest in diving into seven years of accumulated competitive minutia; learning the maps, the weapons, the classes, and strategies of each while playing against hardened veterans isn’t exactly my idea of fun.

There are a few different ways this phenomenon manifests itself. The first type is how I described Team Fortress 2 above – there being simply so many additions and considerations added to a game since launch, that it becomes difficult to imagine ever reaching a competent level of play. This isn’t to suggest it’s impossible, just that it would require a level of dedication far in excess of what was needed when the game first came out.

Another version is what I experienced with reinstalling Puzzles & Dragons on my phone: abandonment of any semblance of a newbie experience. P&D is a game about collecting and leveling up monsters, and you have a maximum “Cost Size” when constructing your team; the more powerful the monster, the higher it’s Cost. Your Cost capacity starts off low and gradually increases as you Rank up. When starting a new account, you get one free pull on the super rare monster slot machine.

Do you see where this is going? I’ve “rerolled” P&D a half dozen times, and each time I seem to get a god-level monster… that has a Cost level so far beyond my starting capacity that I’d need to grind for 20+ hours just to use it. These were new monsters added to the game to entice veterans to continue playing (and paying), but it makes a for a truly awful new-player experience as you’re left with the garbage-tier monsters for way too long.

Having a carrot on the end of a stick is good motivation… provided the stick isn’t three miles long.

There is a variation of the P&D situation when it comes to games with DLC. I reinstalled Battlefield 4 recently, for example, and I realized that I’m missing 4-5 pieces of DLC. I’m not going to go back and purchase them now – this game is really just an Overwatch substitute – but this means I’m stuck playing vanilla maps against hardened veterans who have spent the intervening years since release playing these maps thousands of times. And… you know, I already know these maps too. Had I just bought BF4 recently, I would have gotten the edition that included all the DLC, similarly to how GW2 and Destiny provide the base game “for free” these days.

The best time to play a game is always at or near launch. No time else has the greatest range of player skill. You can be better than average and have that mean something. Developers are focused on the new-player experience and encouraging newbies to transition into veterans. Everything is great… minus any bugs, of course.

After time goes by though? Churn rate stays the same but new players start drying up. Veterans accumulate. Designers add things to keep the veterans happy and paying, which makes sense, as they become the plurality (if not majority) of the remaining playerbase. But there is no longer a bridge between the new player and the veteran. The gaming middle class just evaporates.

This is part of the reason why I’m excited about Overwatch. Not necessarily because it’s better than any given FPS, but because it’s a fresh start. Virgin territory. You can be that one-eyed king ruling the blind before all the two-eyed vets show up and ruin your day with their depth perception.

In any case, I’m open to suggestions for the term in general, assuming one doesn’t already exist. I was thinking about “Veteran Accretion,” but that might be a bit too fancy. Endgame Design? Skill Gap? Too Damn Old?