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Inflection Points

In Divinity: Original Sin, I have definitively hit an inflection point in terms of character power. And that is kind of a shame.

Basically, once you hit level 15 you can start learning “Master” level skills/spells. As one might expect, these can be extremely powerful. For example, one of them is Meteor Shower, which drops 30 little fireballs in a specific area, each of which can deal a few hundred points of damage apiece in addition to spread fire in the area. These powerful spells cost a lot of Action Points – generally meaning needing to wait around multiple turns to save up enough AP – and are limited to One-Per-Battle in terms of cooldowns.

The issue is that you can game the hell out of the system. The AP cost is entirely irrelevant if you happen to spot a group of enemies before engaging in combat, for example – AP only exists within combat, so go nuts for the alpha strike. Hell, I bring down the stars on even one dude, because why not? It’s always been powerful to initiate combat with a “free” spell, but up till now those spells didn’t necessarily gib your target.

Another of the Master level skills allows an Archer to fire 16 arrows in a 45-degree arc. Great for groups… or, you know, if you want to effectively one(16?)-shot bosses from point-blank range. Oh, and hey, there’s a low-level Ranged Power Shot skill that increases damage by 20% at the cost of accuracy. Which would normally be an issue if not for the fact that Arrow skills auto-hit as long as the target is in range.

MMO players will recognize this phenomenon as “Optimizing the fun out of the game.” As I have mentioned previously though, the optimizing process itself is what I find fun to begin with. And it has been pretty fun figuring this out. The problem is that the game is now “solved,” and I am in one of those positions at the end of a Civilization match where winning is a foregone conclusion, but for the long, tedious march to an official win condition.

I said this situation is a shame because I’m not so sure it was necessary. Up until this point, effective AoE in Divinity was actually decently limited. Yeah, there were combos and such that you could set up, e.g. dropping Oil in an area and then lighting it on fire. But none of it was enough to one-shot groups by itself. Hell, often those combos ended up being counter-productive. The Oil+Fire combo was good for setting people on fire, but the resulting smoke prevented targeted follow-up attacks until they moved out of the area.

This scenario sort of reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, when you are suddenly given an excessively OP party member (Orlandu) for basically no reason. The game was challenging up to that point, and considerably less so afterwards. Why? What was the designer reasoning?

Sometimes inflection points are inevitable. At the beginning of a game, your character’s options for skills and magic items are likely limited, so there might be less room for synergies. More options means more combos means more opportunities for OP results. Simply not giving anything new past a certain level isn’t a particularly good design, so the devs might actually be trapped in that regard.

And, hey, I’m not blind to the fact that it probably feels good, both as a player and as a designer, to reach the endgame and feel like a total badass. Every wizard dreams of the moment they go from shooting Magic Missiles into the darkness to altering the fabric of reality itself. This is why games like WoW end up giving you +5% upgrades each tier instead of a more measured 1% – anything less feels unrewarding.

The fundamental problem is that I found the Divinity combat system rewarding as-is. Even with good equipment, things felt dicey all the time. I’m sure that someone out there had a lot of fun going from dicey fights to forgone conclusion ones, but that person is not me. And I cannot help but wonder if it was necessary at all. If super-skills are necessary, do they need to be this particularly powerful? Why 30 meteors instead of, say, 10? That would still be a huge improvement over the standard Fireball spell.

In any case, I am continuing to play Divinity and hopefully wrap things up soon.

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I Still Got It

I bought the Sky Golem I was talking about a few weeks ago, but my background plan hadn’t changed, e.g. creating my own. And yesterday, I finished:

WoW_Skygolem.jpg

Success!

The current prices on Auch are in the 130k gold range, which would mean a significant recoupment on my original outlay of 85k.

There are, of course, some sunk costs in terms of materials: 300 bars of Ghost Iron on top of whatever 30 Living Steel cost to produce. However, 100% of my Living Steel came from shuffling Ghost Iron ore/bars by transmuting them into Trillium, then Trillium into Living Steel. Well, Trillium and a surprising secondary path: the no-cooldown Trillium + Spirit of Harmony transmute.

Throughout this side endeavor, I had been trying to liquidate some of my last-expansion mats and failing to do so. “This AH is dead.” Well… maybe not as much. After crafting and listing the Sky Golem, I threw the leftover Trillium I had for something like 550g a bar. The next day, I learned that they all sold. Huh. I checked the AH and now Trillium is sitting at 750g apiece. Someone is either trying to reset the market, or there is a spike in demand. Either way, it’s time for me to get in on this.

I check Ghost Iron Ore and note there are like 800+ on the AH for 15g apiece. That means 400 bars is 30g, or Trillium bars costing 300g apiece (not counting the extra Transmute Mastery procs). Even if they sell at 550g instead of the reset price, I’m in good shape.

So, I bought all the cheap ore. And then let out a heavy sigh on my smelter alt:

WoW_Smelt.jpg

Yes, that’s 10 and a half minutes of AFK time.

After that completed, I checked the AH for Spirit of Harmony, in the off-chance I could profit off Living Steel. Incidentally, there were only four Living Steel on the AH, so I bought them all out and doubled the prices. Then I blankly stared at the screen for a moment:

WoW_Mote.jpg

For those of you who might not know, you can combine 10 Motes of Harmony into one Spirit of Harmony. And based on the number of people selling Motes, it seems many have forgot about this:

wow_mote2

Like… I almost feel bad for that top seller. Did he or she not read the tooltip on the item before listing? I mean, okay, I’ll buy your 52g Spirits of Harmony, three of which take the place of three bars of Trillium in the Living Steel transmute.

Now, I fully recognize that not everything is going to sell here. It’s even possible nothing sells – I did pretty much dump 40 bars of Trillium on the AH. That said… this has been the most excited I have been about WoW in quite some time. Which isn’t to say that I have grown bored with the endgame just yet, but the machinations around trying to “optimize” the AH is a entirely novel experience to everything else. And I like it.

Things I’ve Learned About Myself via Fallout 4

I have been playing Fallout 4 pretty much non-stop since last Tuesday, and in that time I have started recognizing a few things about myself and how I play the game. These are not perhaps grand, personal epiphanies caused by Fallout 4 – I have certainly seen the seeds germinating in other games – but there is something about this game that is causing them to be more noticeable than normal.

Voice Acting Makes Characters a Character

Generally speaking, I do not role-play RPGs. By which I mean, I do not construct a character that looks like me, and I do not make decisions based on what I would personally do in that situation. If anything, I role-play the character I am playing as themselves, or whatever idealized form seems more narratively interesting. Which, I suppose, is still technically role-playing, but nevermind.

This predilection means I don’t actually like Fallout 3 or Fallout New Vegas all that much from a narrative standpoint. In Fallout 3, you are a blank slate, literally controlling your character from birth to presumably mold him/her into something resembling you IRL. Which, personally, just always seems like an easy way to skip writing a convincing narrative. “Let the reader fill in the details.”

The protagonist of New Vegas had a backstory, but the implementation was even more discordant, as I noted in my review:

I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.

Fallout 4 reminds me of what I already implicitly knew from Mass Effect: voice acting makes all the difference. Even when you still have the difficult choices to make, a well-delivered line can leave you with an impression of a character, and that impression can serve as your guide to who they “really” are.

Is voice-acting appropriate in every game? No. Does its presence often lead to more railroaded plots (due to the costs of recording twice as many lines)? Yes. But as someone who would rather experience plot vicariously rather than directly, it makes Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style choices a lot more bearable. The characters will tell you who they are.

Even Implied Romance Options Forces Me into Guy-Mode

The first character I created in Fallout 4 was, of course, Azuriel. As in, the wife. Played through the tutorial and even got all the way into Concord before something occurred to me. Could you romance companions in this game? As it turns out, you can.

I immediately rerolled as a dude.

It is a completely ridiculous reaction, but it happens every time in every game where romance is possible. Well, with one exception that proved the rule: I played a lady dwarf in Dragon Age: Origins several years ago. And it was awkward as fuck. Not that romance in any videogame isn’t generally awkward, but there is just something… maybe not immersion-breaking per se, but something personally off-putting about it that I can’t get over. Which makes my reaction to Fallout 4’s version of romance even more ridiculous, since you can romance any gender as any gender. But there it is.

I do plan to play the wife on my next “only pistols, no Power Armor, Renegade” style run though.

Change (in Formula) is Good

For the longest time growing up, I never really understood why all the Final Fantasy games had to have such radically different battle systems each time. Wasn’t FF7 good enough? Innovation, refinement, and so on are all worthy goals, but when you hit a certain plateau of elegance, why not just keep doing that thing?

Well… because then you have Fallout 4’s systems.

I grokked the entirety of Fallout 4 within the first hour or so of playing. The same strategies I’ve committed to muscle memory after hundreds of hours of Fallout 3 and New Vegas were immediately successful. Loot guns, leave the armor. Peek around corner, VATS, hide until AP regenerates. Food > Stimpacks unless you’re pressed for time. If things get dicey, break out the Pip-Boy to stop time and organize your equipment. Shoot X enemies in the face, shoot Y enemies in the legs.

While the out-of-VATS gunplay is much, much improved compared to the prior titles, Fallout 4 is basically Fallout 3/New Vegas all over again. The same tricks work.

As someone who enjoys optimizing the fun out of games, this has left me in a weird spot. All the optimization is basically done. I spent a rather absurd amount of time looking over the Perk tree and trying to figure out the best way to navigate it, but it almost seems meaningless at this point; not only am I near level 30 (and thus am actually hunting for Perks to still take), most of the Perks aren’t actually that good. And even if they were, there is no level cap, so in a sense it doesn’t matter. If I’m going to optimize anything, it’ll have to be a much narrower field, like getting an OP character between levels 2-10 or something.

I feel like the Witcher series has steadily gotten worse from a mechanics standpoint with each iteration, but at least it was different each time. The changes gave me something to mull over and marinate in my mind. And it seems like being able to do that, even if the underlying mechanics end up being worse, is still better than not having to do it at all.

Legendary Items are a Bad Idea

To an extent, I am still conflicted on this point.

Legendary items are cool, generally, in any game they are in. Their rarity gives designers the chance to introduce abilities that might be too powerful to be added to random loot. Legendaries can also facilitate character builds, and thus encourage additional playthroughs. Legendaries are fun in Borderlands, Diablo 3, and Fallout 4.

Legendaries also remove entire categories of loot drops, replacing them with nothing.

In Fallout 4, I have been using the Overseer’s Guardian for the last 30 or so hours of gameplay. The only way I could replace this weapon is if I encounter an even more ridiculous weapon that trivializes the game more than the Overseer’s Guardian already does. Which is sad, because not only does this make all the weapon drops I’ve encountered vendor trash, but it actually discourages me from experimenting with anything new.

For example, I finally saw a Gauss Rifle on a vendor just yesterday. I always enjoy Gauss Rifles in Fallout – mainly due to how cool they were in the movie Eraser (holy shit, 1996?!) – but it “only” deals 125 damage baseline. Even if I could mod the rifle for more damage, it seems unlikely that it’ll beat 137 damage x2 from a semi-automatic sniper rifle. “Maybe I’ll see a Legendary Gauss Rifle drop.”

As soon as that thought formed in my mind, I began massaging my temples. After all, this is the same game that hands out weapons like this:

Guess it's better than extra radiation damage.

Guess it’s better than extra radiation damage.

Maybe I’m less conflicted than I thought. Legendaries are a bad idea, even if I enjoy the existence of Legendary mobs in Fallout 4. The latter fills holes in the gameplay, whereas the Legendaries they drop create them.

Post-Game Depression

Have you ever finished beating a game, only to find yourself lacking all motivation to do anything else for days afterwards?

Yeah, that’s me right now.

In this particular case, the diagnosis is easy. The last game I played was Metal Gear Solid 5 on Sunday, two days ago. According to Steam, I logged 75 hours /played. The game was released on the 1st. I did not actually start playing until the next day, but that means I spent an average of 6.25 hours a day on this singular piece of entertainment. To speculate that there might be some sort of withdraw symptoms associated with such behavior is extremely fair.

It’s an interesting phenomenon to explore while mired deep in it. I knew it was coming with MGS 5, but I’ve experienced it even in games I haven’t mainlined to quite this degree. I’m even relatively certain why it happens: it comes from the sudden loss of a body of useful experience. Games are a system of rules and, over time, you come to absorb these rules into yourself in the form of knowledge and reflexes. You generally get better at the games you play. You understand them more. You begin to anticipate future actions. All useful things in the context of playing a particular game.

Then it ends.

All that gaming minutia forged in the fire of experience… becomes irrelevant. Sure, it will still be there for you should you ever turn the game on again. My memorization of all the pulls of every TBC heroic might come in handy should I reinstall WoW during a Timewalking weekend. But just like after a breakup, sometimes (most times) you just got to let things go. The memories will stay with you in all your new experiences, but the specific way their hand fit into yours will not. That special, secret knowledge no longer has an application, and your mind mourns as it reclaims the space.

I enjoy playing games and will continue to do so in the future. It is precisely the mechanic of learning new systems that I enjoy games so – finding the contours, the edge pieces, the optimization. I enjoy this in spite of knowing the inevitable end of this process, the returning to Square One with a new game and novel idiosyncrasies.

Titles comes and go, but the process, the root that generates joy, is eternal.

Still… the ennui inbetween, I could do without.

Cardboard Throne

Much as with the base game before it, I believe I’m done with Beyond Earth for now.

This is not to suggest that I believe Beyond Earth to be a bad Civ game. There are quite a few issues – some imbalances, some questionable design philosophies, etc – as pointed out in various Reddit threads dedicated to the game. However, it absolutely captures that whole addictive “I pressed End Turn for six hours in a row” part of the Civ experience. Even now, I’m getting the urge to boot it back up.

What is stopping me is the realization that what I like about the game and what the game actually does are two separate things.

It's all downhill from here.

It’s all downhill from here.

My favorite part of a Civ match is the beginning, when your strategy is largely formless, reactive, as you cast your eyes about an unknown and hostile world. “Okay, let’s scout out that island.” “Ooo, a city here would capture three strategic resources!” This feeling lasts maybe the first 100 turns, beyond which everything becomes a formality, a known, an inevitability. Yes, perhaps disaster strikes, perhaps you lose a city, perhaps an enemy Civ suddenly wins with a surprise victory condition. Nevertheless, you still know what you have to or should be doing at that point – it all just becomes the mechanical action of carrying it out.

All for what? The personal satisfaction of grinding the patience of a machine to dust? If Firaxis changed the Retire button to a No Longer Delay the Inevitable button, I would win the same amount of times with at least some in-game acknowledgment of the hours poured into the equivalent of a roguelike. Do I really need to conquer those last two capitals before the game is officially over? The game was arguably decided hours ago when I stopped exploring and building cities.

This sort of reminds me of when I used to be really into RTS games like Command & Conquer and Starcraft, up until I understood the concept of Actions Per Minute. Suddenly, the game I was hitherto playing was no longer. I could not unlearn how horribly inefficient my “build six Protoss Carriers” strategies were, nor how much better I could have been playing. The three aspects of gameplay were (still) entertaining – building bases, ordering units around, micromanaging one unit’s abilities specifically – but I both understood that I was incapable of engaging in more than one of them at a time, and not particularly motivated to try to get better. If you had time to turtle up to spam endgame units, you probably had time to win much earlier. Which means I was doing… what, exactly?

There is nothing necessarily wrong with enjoying a game outside of its intended purpose, but if the box brings more joy to the cat than the toy it contained, maybe you should just have bought a box instead. Or go find a better toy.

Like I said though, if Civ and Beyond Earth is your type of game, more power to you. I used to think it was mine. But now that I see myself sitting upon a virtual throne of cardboard boxes, I am not quite sure what to think. Other than maybe I should go play something else.

Worst of All Worlds

A few days ago Tobold made what seemed to be a reasonable argument that F2P games are just like cell phone plans – some plans work better than others depending on how much you use the phone. That seems fine, until you realize that phone carriers typically give you a choice between subscriptions and buying minutes, even for the same phone model. But more than that, what I want to talk about is how/why I feel that F2P is always bad for me as a player.

I’m one of those people that derive pleasure from “optimizing the fun out of games.” Of course, I don’t actually see it as fun reduction at all; if anything, I get the most entertainment possible when I can lever the whole of my mind in opposition to the game designer. It is not that I want to discover the ultimate ability/gear combo to make the game trivial (most games have cheat codes, Save file hacks, etc), it is that I want the game to be difficult or deep enough to drive me to discover it using the tools the designer gave me. The optimization part is simply the nominal destination of a thoroughly engaging and fun journey getting there.

This brings me (back) to the topic of F2P. One of the common defenses of F2P is that it evens the playing field between the time-rich and the people with limited time. Frankly, I feel that is bullshit right off the bat. One of the hallmarks of a fair game is everyone playing by consistent rules – if I have to kill 1000 boars, everyone has to kill 1000 boars. If killing that many boars takes 15 hours, then yes, someone who can spent 15 hours a day playing the game will have an “advantage” over someone who can only play two hours.¹ Then again, a particularly skillful player might be able to figure out how to kill the required number of boars in only 10 hours, perhaps by optimizing his/her equipment, farming strategy, and/or ability rotation. The “time-rich” player might still have the “advantage,” but their brute-force approach is inefficient.

The typical F2P experience is thus the worst of all possible worlds for players like myself. I am both time and money “rich” (i.e. I have disposable income), which already presents uncomfortable gaming decisions on a daily basis. If you have no money or no time, the solution to any F2P problem is pretty obvious: grind it out or pay to skip the grind. Conversely, those of us who can do both are stuck rationalizing every possible decision all the time. “Do I grind for another 2 hours, or do I just spend the $5?” Maybe the default should be pay-to-skip in that scenario, but what about all the other games you could be purchasing with that same $5? Is “saving” two hours in one game worth purchasing a different game that could last you 20 hours by itself?

The real kicker though is the fact that F2P more or less invalidates any real sense of optimization. All of us already know that the most efficient move in a F2P game is to load up on XP potions, convert cash into in-game currency to clean out the AH, and open lockboxes all day until we have everything of any value. There is no possible way to beat that. “Just figure out the most efficient path without spending money.” Playing with an artificial handicap is simply not as engaging to me. You can technically increase the difficulty of a FPS by decreasing your mouse sensitivity, but that will never feel as satisfying as having more intelligent opponents.

Where I agree with Tobold is that F2P is here to stay. Outside of the CoDs and Battlefields and Counter-Strikes of the world, I’m not sure many multiplayer games could exist on their own in sustainable numbers. Astute readers will also know that I have been playing PlanetSide 2 for 230+ hours now and that’s a F2P game. Then again, I also spent over $100 in Ps2 thus far, including being “subscribed” for the last six consecutive months (efficiency, yo). Not to mention how I bought helmets and camo for my characters almost entirely because of the extremely slight advantage that they bring (arguably P2W).

I am not against F2P games on principal, it’s just that they quite literally cannot be as fun to me as they could be. I play these games to submerge myself in their fiction. Being constantly reminded that for the low, low price of $4.99 I could have X, Y, and Z not only breaks the immersion and puts a price tag on my hitherto priceless time, it also serves as a reminder that the solution to every problem is just a credit card away.

¹ Advantage is in scare-quotes because I don’t recognize an advantage as being “playing the same game more.”

Designer Responsibility

How responsible are game designers in the balancing of their (single-player) game?

Syncaine swerves to the right:

One theme I’m seeing is the debate about what is OP [in Skyrim], and how easy it is to min/max the game. I find this… odd. As Nil’s himself pointed out, you can turn godmode on if you want, and be as ‘maxed out’ as you can possibly get. Hearing that people are ‘exploiting’ the game by running into a wall for hours while hidden to max out stealth makes no sense to me. Why waste all that time, just go into the character file and put stealth to 100. […]

“Am I to blame?”

Yes.

Luckily the solution is easy; remove one or more of the enchanted pieces, or up the difficulty, or RP a reason why you no longer require mana to cast spells.

I’d rather you do that then Bethesda spend time hardcoding a solution over adding yet-another-quest, or whatever other content they could do in that time. Or have the hardcoded solution prevent me from play “how I want”.

If this was an MMO, 100% valid point. If it was a multiplayer game like Dungeon Defenders, still 100% valid. An sRPG that is far more about the journey than the end-goal? Naw, non-issue IMO.

Nils has a more center-oriented approach:

I agree that it is partly in the player’s responsibility to not optimize the fun out of his game. An example would be sneaking against a wall until you have maxed out stealth in Skyrim.

On the other hand, I just uploaded a video to youtube that shows how I enchanted four items and now can cast destruction and restoration spells witout any mana cost. This is a game changer, as the mana constraint was important in the game – until then. Many of my perks in the talent trees are suddenly useless. The game becomes worse. Playing it is less fun if I can just spam a single spell without looking at mana.
I optimized the fun out of Skyrim. Am I to blame?

The problem is that I ended up enchanting my equipment this way not by sneaking against a wall. I simply skilled enchanting and then used reasonable enchantments on my equipment.

My point is this: A game cannot use the cartot, that character power progression (CPP) is, to increase the player’s engagement with the game, and at the same time allow him to optimize the fun out by hunting the carrot in a reasonable way.

My own left-leaning approach is the same as I outlined in the Culpability of Questionable Design, the very first post I made under the In An Age banner. Essentially, it is (almost) always the designer’s fault.

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

As I commented on Syncaine’s post, I find it bizarrely apologetic to state that it is a player’s responsibility to not ruin the game for themselves. The specific situation in Skyrim Nils had brought up was the ability to eliminate all mana/stamina costs of spells and abilities via Enchanting. Nils had gotten his Enchanting skill up “legitimately,” as opposed to, say, getting 100 Sneak by auto-sneaking into a corner for a several hours. For the record, I see zero difference between those two activities – both are simply examples of incredibly poor design ridiculous failures of imagination.

In Oblivion there existed a Magic College where you could invent your own spells and magic items, within certain constraints. Making a Fireball spell that dealt 100 damage was expensive, whereas a 50 damage Fireball cost less. Similarly, a buff/debuff that lasted an hour was more expensive than one that lasted for only 1 second. After about an hour of playing with the various sliders, I left the College with a ranged spell that decreased the HP of the creature it touched by 100 for 1 second. The practical effect was that it instantly killed everything in the game, at least until I gained many more levels – even then, if I fired it quickly, the second hit would kill anything with less than 200 HP since it stacked with itself. I called this spell Finger of Death, and later added it to a sword along with the Soul-draining property so that as the sword instantly killed who it touched, it refueled itself.

I did not set out to break Oblivion, nor did Nils set out to break Skyrim; the both of us were simply using the tools the designers gave us and taking them to their logical conclusions. It is the responsibility of the designers to ensure that incredibly obvious things (at least in retrospect) like “-25% mana usage” does not stack with itself, that temporary decreases in HP scale the same as damage abilities when their effects are indistinguishable, and so on, are balanced. Arguing to the contrary is to admit that WoW leveling is not too quick since the player can manually shut off XP, that facerolling mobs and instances is a player failure as said player could play with just one hand, play with a gamepad, play with Resurrection Sickness, or any number of entirely arbitrary self-imposed restrictions. It is to abdicate, wholly and completely, any responsibility of the designers to present a balanced, well-paced experience.

Syncaine is right about these games being about the journey, not necessarily getting to the end as quickly as possible. And yet I derive deep satisfaction in the execution of strategies, figuring out how rules/objects work, and finding more efficient ways of doing tasks; those things constitute the journey to me. Turning on god-mode in the console may have the same end result, but it skips all the fun, thinking bits inbetween, just like skipping to the last chapter of a book. In other words: optimization is fun.

And so I believe it is – and has to be – the designer’s responsibility to ensure that if a game can be optimized, that it still continues to be fun and challenging when it inevitably is. Anything less is laziness, incompetence, or both.