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Impression: the Witcher 3

The Witcher 3 is weird.

…what? You need more? Haven’t you played this game for 100+ hours already?

The weirdness comes from the juxtaposition of Witcher 3 (W3) getting some things outrageously, fantastically good, all while mired in mediocrity and out-right immersion-breaking shenanigans otherwise.

For example, the environment, the gritty, dirty, pustule side of medieval fantasy life is back with a vengeance and already a highlight of my Witcher experience yet again. When you walk around hearing peasants cough with genuine phlegm, it reminds you this isn’t Disneyland, this is real (fantasy) life. People lived in the muck, practically nobody has windows, of course they’d be walking around like diseased shit-bags. The entire Witcher series has always gotten this feeling down so well that every other medieval setting I have encountered since has felt like college freshmen at the Renaissance Festival in comparison.

Then you walk into an Inn and the barkeep is selling bottled water for 42g apiece:

Brought to you by Nestle.

Brought to you by Nestle.

In the panoply of absurd gameisms out there – having access to world-ending magical powers but being unable to open locked doors, etc – it might seem disingenuous to pick on W3’s Nestle-style gouging as immersion-breaking. But it is precisely the confluence of W3’s fantasy realism and its absurd gamey bits that make little details like this so prominent.

Playing on the next step above Normal-mode difficulty means that Geralt no longer gets healed by Meditating. Whereas you might have just chain-chugged Swallow potions in prior titles to beef up your passive regeneration, W3 has opted for the Skyrim-esque “scarf fifteen pieces of raw meat in the middle of combat” HP management system. Different consumables heal X amounts in Y amounts of time, so you typically need the best to survive.

And one of the best? You guessed it: plain ole H2O.

I haven’t cared more about water in any game since Fallout: New Vegas hardcore mode. Every time I rummage through a peasant hovel, stealing everything not bolted down, I do a fist pump every time I see a bottle of water. “Silver candle stick. Old bear hide. Ruby dust. Water… score! Time to fuck up some demons!”

I’m only halfway kidding.

Please live up to this.

Please live up to this.

Truly though, W3’s combat system reminds me of Blizzard’s game design philosophy between expansions: instead of simply fixing what was broken, CD Projekt RED decided to veer completely in a different direction… again.

The combat itself is fine, for the most part. What is different (again) this time around is consumable use. Potions are no longer limited by toxicity (Witcher 1) or preparation (Witcher 2), but rather by what amounts to “per encounter charges.” Craft the Swallow potion one time and you get 3 charges of it, which are automatically replenished by strong alcohol whenever you meditate for at least 1 hour. Craft every potion once, use them all in five minutes, and they all come back after meditation. I’m not really even convinced that any alcohol is actually being consumed to replenish the stock of potions.

While toxicity still exists, it is largely window-dressing considering how a single Swallow potion’s toxicity drops to zero before the potion’s effects even have time to wear off. And while the toxicity meter limits your ability to stack potion effects I guess, the Quick Use menu is limited to two items anyway (presumably to not blow the minds of unwashed console peasants). Decoctions represent longer-term buffs that fully use up your toxicity meter, but I’m not entirely convinced this move towards the trivialization of preparation was worth it. Witcher 2 went way, way too far the other direction – forcing you to use potions before you even knew combat was coming – but why the crazy swing the other direction? Pretty sad how much better the original Witcher feels in comparison.

In fact, that’s precisely where I am mentally every time I boot up the game. It looks amazing, sounds amazing, and generally feels amazing when playing in the moment. If you slow down a bit at all however, and the high-speed blur turns into a mishmash slurry of disparate game mechanics. I’m hoarding herbs and potions out of Witcher 1 habit while throwing back Honeycombs and Wolf Livers by the pound. I’m looting every building and outhouse in sight for crafting materials so I can craft low-level items outclassed by bandit drops so I can kill skull-level monsters guarding swords five levels below me. Random loot is random, but there comes a time when the designers need to put in some goddamn sanity checks, yeah? Sitting on the recipe for Enhanced Beast Oil for 10 hours while Googling where the hell regular Beast Oil is supposed to spawn is not my idea of good game design. Especially when the answer is a shrug.

So. Like I said: weird. Good, but weird.

But hey, Gwent is pretty cool. It’d be cooler if they actually let me have enough cards to make more than one faction deck after 25 hours, but it’s still fun.

Star Citizen and “Realism”

I have not really been following the development of Star Citizen beyond knowing that it had a pretty successful Kickstarter campaign. I mean, I know the premise and everything, but the name Chris Roberts holds about as much cachet with me as Raph Koster – both supposedly important dudes who made games I never played. Have they done anything lately? No? Okay then.

One thing that did catch my eye the other day though, was a short Massively article talking about Star Citizen’s “realistic” health and wound system. Feel free to read the source material itself. The basic idea is that the designers wanted to further the immersion by making a “fun” limb-based damage system. Take a lot of damage to an arm, and your arm gets blown off and/or ruined. There are a total of 10 specific areas to damage, with eight of them being arms or legs. The “Damaged” state is between 50% and 1% health, and… let me just quote it:

Damaged – Damaged limbs are useless and the player cannot use them unless they get them patched up in the field or taken to a mobile trauma system (see: Healing). This is the state right after the hurt phase, where the pain is so severe to the player, that no matter what limb is damaged, they will have a hard time being mobile. If one of their legs are damaged, they fall to the ground and crawl.

Now, there is something to be said about how the CoD/Battlefield-style run-and-gun regenerating health paradigm removes a lot of the weight of battle.¹ Take some damage, hide behind a wall, and ~15 seconds later you are good to go. Or perhaps rush into that occupied room with a shotgun and hope you get lucky, knowing you’ll get back to the fight faster than any of the other guys.

On the hand… Jesus Christ, can you imagine the grief potential? Enormous. I don’t care under what circumstances we have come to blows, I’m telling you now: I’m shooting your legs. I’m shooting your legs and then, whether or not I survive, you are spending the remaining time crawling pathetically across the floor to get anywhere. I am doing that because it is the most annoying thing I can possibly imagine. Screw headshots, if you want to invade my ship, you will spend the next 15 minutes crawling your way to the command chair over my dead body.

If you want to find me, I’ll be flying the most handicap inaccessible ship I can find. One with stairs!

That post about limb damage mentioned permadeath, which was the first I heard about it in Star Citizen, so I read that article too. The short version is that permadeath exists for lore reasons, but doesn’t actually matter. Taking a cue from Rogue Legacy, any time your character permanently dies, you simply start playing as whomever you marked as your next-of-kin. Since there are no RPG elements apparently (i.e. Skill Points), the most you lose is some reputation standing and whatever emotional attachment you’ve developed for a character in a permadeath-enabled game. Considering that the limb-damage system specifically talks about how difficult it will be to instantly die – a Ruined head might be jaw or eye damage instead of missing skull – it sounds like this might not be entirely relevant anyway.

I do not want to give the impression that I am not looking forward to Star Citizen, at least as much as anyone can about a game that could radically change at any moment. Space sims are not a genre I spend a lot of time thinking about, but I absolutely loved them in the past. I played Colony Wars for the PS1 way back in the day for an inordinate amount of time. The Zone of Enders series might not technically count as a space sim, but it is the first thing I think about whenever I see videos of Star Citizen dogfighting. I would seriously consider buying EVE: Valkyrie on Day 1, even though I’m not particularly impressed with CCP’s other spinoffs.

But if/when I do pick up Star Citizen, it will be in spite of mechanics such as limb-based damage and permadeath. I do not actually see such things adding anything of value to the game that would not have otherwise already been there. Instead, I foresee a future in which there will be a lot of people crawling around on the floor, hoping that Chris Roberts included a method to commit suicide and still wake up back at their spawn point.

¹ I don’t actually believe that much, if any, weight is removed in these games (or at least in Battlefield). Dying is already a miserable experience even with instant respawns, let alone in the context of not being able to capture an objective or prevent the capturing of your own. Attempts to penalize them further just makes the game harder, but not in a particularly fun way. Otherwise death penalties would all be “invalidate your CD key and force you to repurchase the game.”

My Current Obsession: Don’t Starve

As I mentioned back in my Card Hunter post, it is pretty rare that I get 100% engrossed in a given game. The all-in immersion in a game’s delicious logical systems is precisely what I desire, but gaming today is typically focused on front-loading the fun, followed by a tapering off of stimulation. So color me surprised when I found myself playing Don’t Starve until 6am again, trying (in vain) to get myself prepared for a winter I have never survived long enough to see.

It's all inevitably down-hill from here.

It’s all inevitably down-hill from here.

In a nutshell, Don’t Starve is an indie survival roguelike. You wake up, get taunted a bit by the above-pictured guy, and… that’s it. As the Steam store description states:

Uncompromising Survival & World Exploration:

No instructions. No help. No hand holding. Start with nothing and craft, hunt, research, farm and fight to survive.

They’re not kidding. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of a particular mechanic… BAM! You get stung to death by angry bees.

Not a good way to go.

Not a good way to go.

If you die, that’s it, game over; your save file is erased. Occasionally there will be a sacrificial altar-looking thing, which acts as a one-time respawn mechanic. You can even construct your own Meat Effigy, which will also respawn you once… but you will have a lower maximum HP for as long as it exists. And keep in mind that you don’t resurrect with your gear – all of your shit is piled on the ground next to the giant spider nest or murloc Merm camp or swamp filled with giant tentacles or whatever nightmare area you died in.

And that’s another thing: there’s a sanity meter too.

But, seriously, Don’t Starve is one of the most brilliant games I have played in years. While I sort of feel like it’s still in beta (there’s a countdown until the next patch on the title screen), how all the game systems already interlock is astonishing. As you might imagine from the title, getting food is important. But actually getting enough food to survive is pretty easy. The problem is that actually foraging all that food will consume a large portion of your day, leaving you little time to explore before nightfall. You can’t just hoard food either, because it spoils. Even worse, no crops grow during the winter and the ponds freeze over and you can’t eat monster meat without going insane and… you get the idea.

This is how far I walked looking for Flint, one time.

This is how far I walked looking for Flint, one time.

What I find so engaging is how I feel like I’m… juggling. You know in RTS games like Starcraft (etc) when you’re trying to micromanage some battles and having your base produce more units and sending scouts out to look for expansions? I actually dislike RTS games that are structured that way – I can do any one of them well, but not all simultaneously – but Don’t Starve somehow threads that needle. I would spend a few days making food supplies, then trek out into the wilderness looking for more of a certain resource I was lacking, foraging when I could, and trying not to get too far afield. Then come back, craft some new feature in my camp, and then get attacked by Hounds and die on Day 22.

And I’m not even mad.

Each world is procedurally-generated, which means next time I might be able to locate an even better starting location for my camp. Or maybe I’ll run across one of those random set-pieces and get a huge leg-up on survival with the ready-made supplies there. Or maybe I’ll actually find that goddamn Maxwell’s Door again and be able to play the game within a game. Oh, did I forget to mention that? The base game is a sandbox, but you can do Adventure Mode (a story-ish game mode) if you walk through Maxwell’s Door. If you die inside though, you get booted back outside into the “normal” world and it’s forever closed to you on this world. Collect four mysterious items though, and you can jump to a brand new world with another Maxwell’s Door located somewhere on it.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves though, because none of us are likely to make it. As it says on the Steam page:

Randomly Generated New Worlds:

Want a new map? No problem! At any time you can generate a new living and breathing world that hates you and wants you to die.

One day, I will see the winter. And die horribly, no doubt. But seeing it will be enough. For now.

And on the Seventh Day…

“…He vowed: ‘Forsooth, verily shall ye never again take up an MMO at launch. So sayeth the LORD.'”
-Commonsensthians, 1:1

Given that I fancy myself a topical blogger now, and that my prepaid prepurchase of the prelaunch of Guild Wars 2 was predicated on previewing, this is yet another Commandment that I am probably going to break in the future. However! If you have been waiting to jump into GW2 for whatever reason, let me say that I envy you. The game will either be better, or you will know exactly how dumb it is/stayed.

Stream of consciousness-style:

Characters

I have made characters. Lots of characters.

  • Asura Elementalist, level 19
  • Sylvari Engineer, level 13
  • Norn Ranger, level 12
  • Human Guardian, level 6
  • [Deleted] Charr Warrior, level 3
  • [Deleted] Human Mesmer, level 3

I typically do not play MMOs this way, insofar as splitting my time amongst many alts right away, but GW2 in particular makes me worry that I picked the “wrong” class. You see, I actually enjoyed my Engineer quite a bit, but… well, once I unlock all of the weapon skills, most of these classes just fall apart in terms of interest.

The Engineer in particular gets hit hard because dual-pistols is the only rational weapon choice for leveling; which means pressing 2, 3, 4, backpedal a bit, mob dead. Over and over and over again. For 80 levels. Given the Engineer mechanics, you cannot swap weapons in combat, although you can spice things up by dropping turrets or swapping to a Flamethrower, Landmines, Grenades, etc. But none of those alternate weapons seem to work better than dual-pistols, unless people are accidentally tanking for you. In which case… nope, dual-pistols are still probably the strongest.

Since my friends are now in the mid-20 range, I have been focusing on the Elementalist, which is honestly what I should have been doing all along. I stick in Fire mode 99% of the time, but unlike dual-pistols with the Engineer, it somehow feels different. I think the main thing is how one of the “rotation” buttons requires ground targeting, which necessarily changes from mob to mob, spicing things up (dual-pistols is all straight tab targeting with inherent AoE).

I deleted the Warrior and Mesmer so early for a few reasons. First, the whole Mesmer mechanic of summoning and sacking phantasms/clones did not seem like something especially fun. In PvP? Probably pretty fun, or annoying to the opposing team, which is another way of saying “fun.” The warrior was deleted for much simpler reasons: I died at one of the newbie Events right past the tutorial. Remember how I warned everyone that if you were melee, popular Events would kill you practically instantly? Yeah. If you want to be stuck as a Longbow-Rifle warrior, go right ahead, but I was not looking forward to 80 levels of getting owned in Events when I could be dropping meteors and volcanoes and having fun.

Before deleting either class though, I did take them to the PvP lobby to take a look at their Traits lines (aka Talents) and later Skills. The warrior was pretty straight-forward and boring to me. The Mesmer had some pretty cool ones that got the PvP juices flowing though. For example, how about a wall of crazy magic that automatically turns all your teammates invisible when they pass through it? I was imagining dropping that when storming the bases in Warsong Gulch… until I remembered that this was a whole different game, the invisibility lasts 4 seconds, and this would take a coordinated team effort that isn’t likely to happen unless I am in some PvP guild running premades. Which is too bad, because the Mesmer can also make a portal entrance/exit that can be used by anyone to zip you between the two locations instantly as well.

Auction House Trading Post

As of today, still down.

It does periodically come up from time to time, and I make oodles of coin in that brief window. However, I do recognize that actually making money from the Trading Post will not be a particularly long-term endeavor. Crafted goods were generally selling at 1 copper above their vendor price, which is actually selling at a loss considering the obscene ArenaNet 15% cut. Mats are where it is likely to be at, so to speak, but once the Trading Post opens for real, it will be a race to the bottom against botters and their crippling 72 bans.

Where I made my money this past week was selling the Unidentified Dyes for in the neighborhood of 10 silver apiece, which is pretty astounding. It might not sound like a lot of money in any typical MMO, but keep this in mind:

Pictured: You being jealous.

At the time of this writing, I have accumulated 400 gems in this fashion, all for less than 34 silver per 100. The real money exchange rate works out to $1.25 per 100 gems, so I’ve made a cool $5 selling roughly 1g 20s on one character. In case you need reminded, my highest toon is level 19. Incidentally, that is more than I have made in Diablo 3 for the entire 2-3 months I played.

So when I tell you I am very annoyed about the Trading Post being down for the vast majority of the prior week, that is not “entitlement” speaking. This is SRS BSNS. God only knows what the exchange rate for in-game currency is going to be a month from now.

Hint: not likely 30s per 100.

Dynamic (Death Trap) Events

While I will admit that some of these Events have been interesting gameplay experiences – taking out bandits before they set up poison traps for Skritts, or disabling the traps before the Skritt trigger them is probably not something a traditional MMO quest can do – the vast majority of the ones I played are simply trash farming. Which is great for making money (see above), but does not deviate much from the “zerg ALL the things” stereotype I had from the betas.

And then I started running into Events that are either poorly designed, poorly tuned, or (Badly) Working As Intended.

Pictured: my life, in a nutshell.

Let me unpack that collage of failure for you.

First, I was originally questing in the area to fill up a level 15 Renown Heart. Suddenly – or should I say “dynamically”? – the entire complex was filled with level 16 mobs. I died pretty much instantly. After respawning, I came back inside to see if I could chip away at the Renown Heart still, and perhaps see if there were more players around to take down the Event proper. But then I got confused. The Event says it is level 14. All the mobs are level 16, pat around in groups, and even the ones by themselves were generally chained to another mob 20 feet away. I did eventually find a group of 5-6 players, but I was never able to tell whether they were on the premises the whole time (which might explain the higher-level mobs) or if they came in once the Event popped on the radar.

The very next area North of here was the 15-25 zone, and immediately featured two more Dynamic Death Traps. Remember people telling you to complete Events and then follow the NPC when they run back home? Sometimes it results in some exposition dialog, or even another Event. And sometimes it results in instant death.

Surprise! Boss-level Event after you collected 10 lightning bug asses.

There was zero warning that the very next step was going to be [Group] level boss Event. None. Again, it is possible that there were “enough” people in the general area (that I could not see) that would make a level 16 Champion spawning from a collection quest make sense. I saw one dude, who died with me, twice.

By the way, at the current exchange rate, each death costs me $0.0125.

After respawning and heading in the other direction, I encounter this lovely Renown Quest:

It will be fun, they said.

What exactly a level 21 mob is doing in the level 17 Renown Quest area, I have no idea. But, you know, I am a total pro and (slowly) take these fools out. Heart completed, I notice a Dynamic Event spawn nearby. Given my prior experience getting nickle and dimed to death, I said to myself “fuck that noise” and started heading back to the Renown guy to check for upgrades. I make it about ten feet before this happened:

Not pictured: wireless keyboard sailing through the room.

What a swarm of eight level 20 mobs are doing heading towards a level 17 Event is a secondary concern to why they have to…

…you know, what? Whose mind do I imagine I’m changing here? You are either already drinking the Kool-Aid or you are not, and I am fine waiting for the first bodies to hit the floor.

And it is not as though there isn’t other things I could be doing, like…

WvWvW

Just kidding, perma-queues.

I will say that I am impressed by ArenaNet having free server transfers open during this time when ~70% of all available American servers are Full, even at 4am. I have talked a bit with my friends as to whether we want to bail from Northern Shiverpeaks and go down to a Low pop server, but the downside to that would be lack of people in the world for Dynamic Death Trap Events, grouping in general, and so on. Given the PvP guilds located on this server though, it is quite possible that no one else will ever be able to zone in. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Crafting

By the way, I hate the crafting system thus far.

Hmm… maybe “hate” is too strong a word. It’s boring. You only make items in 5-level increments, e.g. level 5, level 10, level 15, etc. Every recipe is Piece A + Piece B + X, where X is either a mob drop, or a token you create from a mob drop. It creates an illusion of “hundreds of different recipes to discover!” when the reality is that a pair of boots with +Condition Damage on it is not really different from another pair of boots with +Power. Yes, if you were stacking Condition damage or something, it matters.

But do you understand what I’m saying? Within 30 seconds of crafting two different boots, I implicitly knew the recipes for (possibly?) every pair of boots in the game. Six different mob drops –>  six different tokens + six different super-tokens = 12 variations of each item * six levels of the base material (Jute, Wool, Cotton, etc). Looking at the Wiki for Tailoring, it looks like there are 14 token variations instead of 12 at higher levels, but come on.

Anyone remember Spidersilk Boots? I do. Seeing that recipe for a blue item was the precise moment in WoW that I became keenly interested in crafting and doing things with the AH. Contrast that with what I described above; simply rearranging stats around is a Diablo 3-esque crafting system, not an inspiring one. Maybe all the cool crafting stuff happens at higher levels, or at the Mystic Forge. Maybe there are super-secret recipes no one knows about.

Regardless, right now GW2’s crafting system feels like it has been designed by an accountant.

Immersion

One final (positive!) thing I want to talk about today is actually an area where Guild Wars 2 nails down a quality I did not fully understand: immersion.

A lot of people pretend that immersion is some kind of objective term, that the things that pull them into or eject them out of a game are universal Truths. Those people are wrong. Sense of immersion is a personal thing, which should be immediately obvious to anyone who is into fantasy or sci-fi novels but thinks Twilight (etc) is dumb. Different people look for different forms of escapism. Suspension of disbelief is a voluntary action, or at least is informed by your own tastes.

What GW2 has taught me thus far is that I (hitherto subconsciously) place a heavy emphasis on a sense of existing in a 3D space for immersion. It might be easier to show you what I mean:

This impressed me to an almost embarrassing degree.

This fence is Real to me, as it exists in a 3D space and I can interact with it. Namely, by standing on it. You probably do not know this about me, but one of the first things I do in an MMO is find a fence and try and stand on it. Why? Because it tells you a lot about the “depth” game. If the fence is simply a 2D texture papered over an invisible wall, you know there is not likely to be many “real” objects in the game. God forbid if you cannot jump at all.

And I apparently have a thing for fences. Don’t judge me.

While it is also impressive how our feet can actually appear to stand at the correct levels of the fence, I understand that that is more of a “trick” compared to the 3D object itself. A good trick, for sure, but a trick nonetheless.

If I get vertigo in your game, you win.

The above is another one of my favorite screenshots. It looks better in motion, but it feels even better inside my head. GW2 evokes the sense that these floating islands actually exist, that the character I control is not just an elaborate 2D model but an actual set piece moving in 3D space. Immersion success. Indeed, I usually find myself frustrated when I come across a hill in-game that I cannot find some way of climbing straight up, as opposed to going around the “right way.” The hill exists, therefore I keep trying to find that slightly less sloped polygon so I can shimmy my way up to the top. It does not cross my mind that there might be an invisible wall around the hill edge, because invisible walls are for fake-3D games.

And the weird thing is that I’m not even that into platformers.

_____

With all of that off my chest, in the next GW2 post I might spend some time handing out gameplay tips in the same vein as the Quickstart guide. Because while the things I complain about do legitimately annoy me, GW2 has subsumed the entirety of my gaming time since the head start. Which, if I’m honest, is not something that happens very often.

Raph Koster Says Immersion is Dead

More or less (emphasis not added):

Things that we once considered essential to games drift in and out of fashion. And I think immersion is one of those.

Immersion does not make a lot of sense in a mobile, interruptible world. It comes from spending hours at something. An the fact is that as games go mainstream, they are played in small bites far more often than they are played in long solo sessions. The market adapts — this reaches more people, so the budgets divert, the publishers’ attention diverts, the developers’ creative attention diverts.

As I watch my son and daughter play games or participate in role play sessions, I find myself reluctantly admitting to myself that it is a personality type that ends up immersed in this way, and were it not in games it would be in something else. Immersion isn’t a mass market activity in that sense, because most people are comfortable being who they are and where they are. It’s us crazy dreamers who are unmoored, and who always seek out secondary worlds.

It’s just that games aren’t just for crazy dreamers anymore.

The part that struck me in particular was later on when he said:

But stuff changes. Immersion is not a core game virtue. It was a style, one that has had an amazing run, and may continue to pop up from time to time the way that we still hear swing music in the occasional pop hit. It’ll be available for us, the dreamers, as a niche product, perhaps higher priced, or in specialty shops. We’ll understand how those crotchety old war gamers felt, finally.

There are immediate, topical parallels to be drawn, of course. Difficult MMOs, for instance. And then, if immersion can go out of style, what does that say about sandboxes in general?

…actually, considering the widespread success of Skyrim, Minecraft, and the stubborn persistence of EVE, I am not entirely sure what he is talking about. Did he honestly believe the opposite, that immersion was something more than a niche genre? That there is a true Form of gaming that always included it? I enjoyed my years of table-top D&D, especially the world-building aspects of a six-year stint of being a Dungeon Master, but I was perfectly fine coming back home and doing some Battlefield 2, building M:tG decks, or playing some Super Smash Bros.

I am not too concerned about it though, because the name Raph Koster means nothing to me, regardless of how often he is quoted as being an “authority” on game design. Similar to Will Wright, the moment you stop making successful videogames or your ideas stop creating them, is the moment you cease to be an authority on the subject. Simcity 2000 ranks up as one of the best games I ever played (and it’s highly, highly underrated Streets of Simcity “expansion”) but come on, Willy. Get back on the horse, we need you.

And it might be juvenile schadenfreude, but I couldn’t help but giggle when Raph Koster talked about how his own children apparently disproved his life’s work. This Demotivational poster came to mind: