As I am playing a lot of mobile games lately, my nose is being rubbed in perhaps the most annoying design “feature” I have encountered in years: disposable progression.
The game in question is Gems of War, but it’s not specific to this title. Basically, you create a four-member team of monsters and use their abilities to fight your foes. There are hundreds of different monsters available, across a number of rarities, with all sorts of possibly interesting combinations. Each monster can be upgraded with a certain currency, special traits unlocked with a separate currency, and a third currency (extra copies) can upgrade the rarity of the card itself.
The problem is that you aren’t likely to use the first four monsters you pick up. So any currency you use to level them up and otherwise bridge the gap between completing missions and unboxing better monsters is effectively wasted. Maybe it can be considered “the cost of doing business,” but it nevertheless creates perverse incentives when I play. “Do I really need to level this guy up?” The answer is generally no, or at least never feels like a solid yes, so I don’t. And thus not only do I make the game more boring and harder for myself, I also rob myself of whatever pleasure can be derived from improving one’s characters.
I mean, it’s possible things were designed this way with the goal of actually getting players to waste currency in a bid to pad out game time. After all, if you sufficiently hoard currency, it’s technically possible to max out a new monster the minute you unbox it. That is not a particularly good outcome for anyone. And perhaps there isn’t really a way around things anyway – this may be a systemic issue the moment you design a game to have dozens and dozens of party members.
Regardless, it still feels bad. I have used the same monster team for the past two weeks, so I possibly should just bite the bullet and spend all my currency leveling them up. But the moment some cool legendary monster or whatever pops out of a box, I’m going to be quite miffed. And miffed to me is not opening the wallet to spend real currency buying fake currency, but uninstalling the game.
Aside from sidescrollers and Fallout 76, another game I have been spending my time with lately has been Guild Wars 2 (again). Each time I come back to this game, I am utterly amazed at how unrewarding it is, at almost every level.
One of the much-touted features of GW2 is its horizontal gear progression. There have been two expansions released, but no level cap increase, and the most powerful gear has not really changed. Technically, there have been new sub-classes added and the optimal gear for them drops only in the that expansion content, but for the most part, you can be done with gearing permanently rather easily.
This makes for some extremely odd reward mechanisms.
Basically, GW2 showers you in random bags of useless loot at every stage of any activity. We’re talking Diablo-levels volume of drops, every one of which is utterly useless to anyone anywhere. Seriously, I doubt there is a single level 80 person out there that has ever picked up something off the ground and equipped it. Much like with Diablo 3, it’s much easier to simply hit up the AH once you get that final ding and just buy a full suit of Exotics with some of the free daily gold.
Ascended is the next (and final) gear tier above Exotics, and most of them come from longer-term grinding. The Living World Season 3 “episodes” are the go-to place to grind these items, and usually takes 100-125 currency to purchase something. While you can sometimes get 10-20 depending on luck/group events, the casual player can expect maybe 5 currency a day. Aside from Winterberries, which is what everyone should be farming, as it’s the only currency you can farm on multiple alts and funnel to a main.
I am not opposed to the slow accretion of currency to purchase things. Slowly gaining something gives you a sense of purpose, and having a defined target helps you plan your activity. You may not get stronger today, but you are one step closer to getting stronger tomorrow – and thus the time you spent playing was meaningful. It’s possible to get discouraged if the goalposts are too far out, but it otherwise works well as a system.
In contrast, the random loot GW2 hands out feels wildly out of place. Pointless to sell on the AH – the price is generally set to vendor +1c – the main thing you do is salvage it for materials and Luck… which increases your Magic Find stat… which results in more gear flooding into your bags. Now, sure, there is always a 0.00001% chance you get some amazing drop or whatever that might be worth something. But you can’t play around that. In fact, the odds are so low that I cannot even imagine a gambling addict being satisfied.
I don’t know. Is there anyone out there (other than Bhagpuss) that plays GW2 and enjoys opening dozens and dozens of little bags of loot and immediately scrapping them all? At this point, the only reasoning that makes sense to me is that ArenaNet does this specifically to drive real-money sales of extra bag/bank slots. I have seriously never seen such dedication to vendor junk.
With each passing day, I am falling into a familiar trap of trying to juggle all the things in GW2.
My primary objective, always, is to complete the main daily quest. This rewards 2g straight up, not counting any other bonus loot from the component quests, and represents real, long-term wealth. Maybe there are better gold-farming techniques, but this is the best I have at the moment. Thankfully, the daily is not quite as onerous as it once was, between familiarity and Bhagpuss’ guide to completing it in WvW.
The secondary objectives are where things fall apart.
First, I would like to experience all of the story content. That includes the vanilla story and then, of course, the expansions. I kind of jumped ahead on the HoT story because I needed to unlock Gliding, but I do want to get back to the normal order of things at some point.
Second, I want to unlock the Elite specs for the classes I play. GW2 has a pretty asinine system by which you basically have to complete the expansion content before unlocking the Elite spec that came with the expansion, but there are ways of getting around it. Specifically, there are WvW items that drop which you can convert into a currency, which you then use to buy another item, which then randomly completes a Hero Challenge in one of three broad areas. It’s as convoluted and nonsensical as it sounds, but a side-effect is that it’s forcing me to do all the “easy” Hero Challenges, so that my random completion item is more likely to pop one that, say, normally requires a group to finish.
Third, I want to progress my character in general. And, perhaps, this is where things truly fall apart. If I am just doing my thing and notice that there is a Commander on the map with a zerg in tow, I drop what I’m doing and follow the zerg. Not doing so means I will miss out on the free loot of whatever encounter the group is about to breeze through. Plus, considering GW2’s “Mastery” system, it’s kind of required that you join these zergs because otherwise your ability to work your way through the expansion content will be that much harder and longer.
At the same time, I’ve been reading up on getting better gear once you’re at the level cap. Ascended gear is the highest-stat gear in the game, and has been for years. The best way to acquire a bunch of those pieces is to farm the Season 3 Living Story maps on a daily basis. I kinda lucked out because I was logging in regularly during LS3, so I get those “episodes” for free. But I haven’t been doing them, because I’ve been trying to do the Story in order. But by the time I get around to it naturally, I could probably have farmed all the necessary currency to get the Ascended gear, so I should probably be doing that right now. But that means doing even more story out of order, and skipping zergs…
What ends up happening is a pretty classic case of Analysis Paralysis. Unable to choose between all the things, I end up choosing nothing. Well, I choose the Daily, then nothing. Gotta get those dolla bills, y’all.
I am nearing my end with Clash Royale. And not by choice.
One thing to note about Clash Royale is that it, like many games, is very rewarding right away. You get free treasure chests every four hours, with a maximum stack of two. Every eight hours, you can request cards from your clan. You have four slots for treasure chests from winning games. Every X hours, you have a Crown Chest that you unlock by accumulating 10 crowns (from destroying towers). My play pattern basically means I’m opening 1-2 chests every time I boot up the game.
The problem is you run into a very real payslope eventually.
I have been “stuck” in the Royal Arena 7 for going on a month now (or more). My highest trophy count is 2575, which is still pretty far from hitting the last Arena level. But for the most part… I don’t care about that, since nothing new unlocks at Arena 8.
In the meantime, day after day, I open chests and get the same rares/common cards. Upgrading from level 8 commons/level 6 rares to the next higher level is something that takes weeks-worth of gold, for only very marginal gains comparatively.
But it’s not even about that either. My progression is stuck. Here is my setup:
It is essentially a Judo deck – a reactive deck that relies on countering my opponent’s push and then winning via superior plays. It lacks the sheer ridiculous power of some other deck openers, but it is decently resilient, as evidenced by my trophy levels. Could I use other cards? Maybe. My only level 3 epics though are Freeze, Crossbow, and Mirror. Meanwhile, everyone I face seems to have level 3+ relevant epics and legendary cards. I keep thinking that if I were to get Prince up to level 3 or Balloon or something, that would provide enough of an incentive for me to change my deck.
Then I realized that my little skeleton bomber is a strictly worse Princess or Ice Wizard. All cost 3 elixir, all fill similar roles, but the latter two are (of course) legendary cards that could change the course of games all by themselves. This is a poisonous sort of knowledge though, as each and every chest I open that doesn’t contain a replacement legendary is a waste of time. The expectation that such a legendary will be opened is fallacious, of course, as the odds were remote in the first place, much less that this particular chest will contain one.
And so, here I am.
Most people would say “at least you got 2+ months of entertainment from a mobile app.” That is true. But in experiencing these last MMO-esque gasps yet again… well, it makes me long for the mercy of a quick, definitive end of gameplay. You know, to finish a game before you’re done with it.
[Blaugust Day 7]
And the award for easiest Blaugust prompt goes to… WoW’s next expansion, Legion.
Rather than talk about the entire expansion concept as a whole, I wanted to talk about two things that, admittedly, we don’t have enough information about to make informed opinions on.
The first is Artifacts:
There are a whole lot of incidental questions regarding the introduction of Artifacts. Like… 36 of them, really? Also, does this not strongly imply that there is a rather sweeping, Game of Thrones-esque purge of all these weapons’ prior owners? I’m almost imagining a reverse Warlords scenario in which all the story heroes land on the beach, a portal opens up, and the hand of Sargeras comes flying out and grabs them all. Certainly there’s no other explanation possible for why every level 100 paladin will be running around the Ashbringer out of the gate.
This brings me to my primary concern: will there be other weapons this expansion? I can see Blizzard simply not releasing any weapons, as why would you ever not use your spec Artifact? Even if the event that leads us to looting Ashbringer from Tirion’s cold, dead hands renders the weapon “drained of power” or whatever, it’s hard to imagine it feeling good to carry an Artifact around in your back pocket while you equip the first green drop from the second Felboar you kill.
Plus, it makes no sense to introduce a pseudo talent tree in a weapon you won’t be using 24/7:
So here’s my wild speculation: you’ll be using your Artifact all the time, and Artifact Power is the new Valor points. There is a chance that perhaps we’ll be able to disenchant gear into Artifact Power, thus preserving normal gear progression, but I find it difficult to believe that such a system won’t be gamed hardcore. Having raid bosses drop epic weapons whose sole purpose is to be turned into Artifact points sounds really dumb.
Which, of course, means there’s a 50/50 chance that actually happens.
My second concern is the new direction they are taking WoW PvP. Because unless I’m mistaken, it sounds like they’re removing PvP gear entirely.
You can watch the section yourself starting at 3:52:14 in the Youtube video.
We really want to dial back the effect that gear has. […] It’s just not that fun to have players running around with that huge level of power disparity. So we felt like we needed a new system that addresses that, so that while gear plays a role, it plays almost no role in terms of how powerful you are. […] Essentially what [Honor v3] is, is a PvP talent system.
That sort of quote, along with the description of how Honor v2 was basically a currency-based system “that introduced PvP gear,” leads me to believe that we may see PvP gear just go away. Which… is not the worst scenario ever. I’m not sure how popular Guild Wars 2 BGs are, but they feature vendors that hand out unlimited amounts of free PvP gear to level the playing field. The whole Prestige system also sounds fine, but I don’t know how motivating it will be in practice.
The core gameplay loop in WoW is gear progression. That’s basically it. Even if you “don’t care” about gear, the only reason people grind through raids more than once or twice total is precisely because there is a reason to, e.g. to get better equipped to make the next raid less difficult. PvP is absolutely no fun when you’re sitting in starter gear with 1/3rd less HP than the guy about to ruin your day, yes. It is also absolutely true that the participation pittance you receive after being facerolled in a BG makes said BG worth getting facerolled in. Maybe there are people out there sitting on the Honor cap and raring to go into another Isle of Conquest loss. For me personally though, the moment I reach that gear plateau is the same moment I find more constructive uses of my gaming time.
It’s possible that there will still be PvP gear to be earned despite the direction things are leaning. I’m not entirely sure how that would work if Honor is no longer a currency, but the alternative is Blizzard pushing PvP players back into “raid or die” scenarios. What else would PvPers wear? Or maybe Blizzard would go full GW2 and have vendors standing around. No matter the outcome, it is quite the sea change in Legion.
By the way, this PvP slide raised my eyebrow:
For those that may not know immediately, Gladiator’s Medallion is the namesake trinket, i.e. what you press to get out of stuns, etc. So unless the description of the baseline PvP talent is something incredibly clunky like “your trinket’s cooldown is reduced by 30 seconds” or something, I must assume that everyone is getting a PvP trinket baseline. In which case, we’re either going to see the Human racial be completely redesigned again, or… maybe we’ll see the end of racials in PvP altogether. Hell, in the latter scenario, Humans could keep their trinket racial since the PvP talents are only activated in BGs and Arena.
Undoubtedly we’ll be getting more information soon.
Keen brought up an interesting perspective last week in regards to Wildstar:
I keep hearing/reading that WildStar is going to be such a hardcore game not for the casual, console, [insert something with a core not hard enough] audience. Yes, there are inaccessible 40-man raids. You’re delusional if you think that WildStar is now or will ever be hardcore. Even compared to Vanilla WoW (like WildStar often is) it’s ridiculously accessible and easy to level. People were hitting 40+ in 3-4 days or less.
All it will take is a few exit surveys for NCSoft to step in and force accessibility. “We’re losing subscribers because they can’t experience the content they want to play.” It will never, ever, be more inaccessible than WoW.
It’s an interesting perspective to me because I was (and still am) prepared to take Carbine and the Wildstar devs on face value. There was another Reddit AMA last week that sort of doubled-down on the hardcoreness. You can read a much cleaner, more condensed version here. This rather epic deconstruction sums up a lot of miscellaneous things:
Q: When it becomes apparent in the next year that hardcore 40 man’s aren’t going to work because it’s not what people like to do anymore, what other ideas are you going to try?
CRB_Gaffer: This is a “gotcha” question, but I’ll answer it anyways since some variant of it comes up reasonably often.
Little aside here: Why is this “gotcha”? Well, let’s examine possible answers:
1) Say “yes, 40 mans won’t work in a year, we’ll roll to another system” – well obviously we don’t believe that, or we wouldn’t have done them. And if early testing were pointing that way, we would have already converted them.
2) Say “no, they’ll never change, even if no one plays them!” – well, obviously, we’d be idiots to not respond to player feedback; it’s what we do. They’re fun enough that they’ll get played, we’re confident.
3) Say “it’s entirely up to player feedback!” – that’s hardly giving a strong direction, and we know this one will be contentious – there’s not likely to be a consensus. Every interesting game design decision is a mix of having a vision and being willing to intelligently and rationally assess when to swerve from it if reality and vision collide.
4) If we say that contingently we’ll push other fallback ideas, then of course the player base will potentially rapidly become divided to say “DO THAT NOW!!!” or assume that our plan all along is to go that route, when in practice, anything we do in terms of long-term planning is to an extent contingency based. We’ll be MUCH more knowledgeable about the health of the systems in the long terms six months post-launch.
So, that’s kinda the definition of a gotcha question – there’s no simple answer that actually addresses the question.
There’s another issue; the phrasing “when it becomes apparent” that implies that you’re asking the question to people you think aren’t that smart to begin with.
One assumes that’s intentional; it creates the added issue that responding to the question potentially Pavlovian conditions folks asking us questions to be snarky, when generally we try to focus answers on intelligent, well-phrased questions (even contentious ones) to make sure we’re doing our best to improve the quality of dialogue. No offense intended if that phrasing was just unintentional and through poor communication skills! Anyways, a good policy in TL;DR form: “Don’t feed the trolls”
But what the heck! To answer concisely after the extended parenthetical:
If it turns out that gamers are no longer capable of enjoying large-scale raiding, at that time our cross-discipline group of folks will have a series of debates on what works, what doesn’t work, base it on the data we’ve pulled from the systems and talking with our fans, and either double down on the parts of the systems that work well, or innovate some new directions to move forward in.
But early feedback is that that’s a pretty hypothetical situation. Cause, hell, they’re pretty fun, and we think the added fun of the deeper gameplay we get out of those fights outweighs the social overhead of maintaining large groups. But folks will prove us wrong or not.
There are enough Ins and Outs in that response to construct a burger franchise, but there you go. Vague PR bullshit or nuanced game design? While I find myself more inclined to wait and see, I must confess that the following responses seems a bit contradictory:
Q: Are you committed to keeping a natural progression of content? […] Do you plan on adding shortcuts to previous tiers of raids when new ones come out? Removal of attunements, nerfing fights, adding equivalent gear from casual and easy to obtain sources (see WoW patch 2.4)?
CRB_TimeTravel: This is a great question for four months from now. Our post-launch balancing plans will depend heavily upon the speed with which players consume the content and the # of players doing the consuming.
However, we definitely don’t want to simply invalidate our previous content when we release new stuff.
Q: I know this is far into the future, but I’m hoping you guys keep old content relevant. I think it would be a great way to get the more casual players to raid in older/easier raid instances and have the new raids maintain the benchmark for hardcore players.
CRB_TimeTravel: We definitely don’t want to make our older content irrelevant, so will be looking for ways to have an intelligent progression forward with gear and ability as the game matures post-launch.
Q: What are your plans for longterm raid progression in terms of gear? Will you be taking the WoW model of trivializing the oldest raid instances when new ones are released? or the EverQuest model of a strict progression system, or somewhere in between?
CRB_TimeTravel: Somewhere in between.
We do not want to trivialize our content, nor force players to do all of it before seeing anything new.
What “middle way” is there between “not invalidate older content” and “not force players to do all of it”? You can either skip tiers or you can’t. The fact that the last boss of any given raid tier is always harder than the first (few) boss(es) of the next tier is one of the reasons I have always considered things like attunements and the justifications for them to be asinine. “Linear progression” is never linear progression, at least not for the first half of the next instance. If the hardcore raiders get a handful of gimmie bosses, why not everyone else? What good is preserved by putting a hard, game-ending limit to a given guild’s progression when you’ve specifically crafted new bosses that that guild could defeat if you but got out of the way?
Ugh. I think “attunements” and “linear progression” are trigger words for me.
That being said, I am not entirely sure whether I share Keen’s “optimism” regarding raiding in Wildstar becoming more accessible. As mentioned, there is enough wiggle-room in the posts by Carbine devs to allow them to nerf the content based on low participation. More problematic is how exactly they plan on nerfing it. Many of the gameplay videos I have seen paint most of the bosses as “bullet hell” dances, even in the 5m dungeons. In a world in which something as simple as the Heigan Dance threatened to break guilds apart, I’m skeptical these devs will be able to thread that needle. Maybe the attacks will 3-shot you instead of 1-shot? Maybe there will be less “bullets?” As any PUG raid leader can tell you though, moving out of the fire and dodging the fire are two entirely different things.
In any case, I suppose we’ll see how things shake out a few weeks from now.
Zubon has a post up musing on Time to Effectiveness, in regards to how long it takes between starting the game and being at the point where your bullet hits for as much damage as a veteran’s bullet. You can contribute in EVE on Day 1 whereas a level 1 WoW character would be worse than useless in a raid of a capital city (via guard aggro).
The thing that interested me the most was when Zubon mentioned this:
For MMOs, this is indicative of the larger problem that you need to grind to play with your friends. MMOs are bad for playing with your friends. Their character advancement systems make it difficult to find a span within which you can bring veterans, newbies, alts, etc. together, and it only gets worse over time as the power differential between day one and the level cap grows. I played a bit of World of Warcraft but it never really caught me because I spent almost my entire time in that vast, lonely wasteland between level 1 and the cap.
If I play these games to play with my friends, I want to play with my friends. If I play these games to compete with other people, I want to compete on a level playing field.
I would immediately agree that playing progression-based games is difficult with your friends, even if you happen to live in the same house as them. Everyone has their different schedules and obligations; sometimes you feel like watching Game of Thrones instead of running another dungeon tonight, or whatever. Even if you have specific characters you use when in a group, you are essentially committing to leveling up twice, and basically consigning that friend-alt to progression limbo.
But do you know who it’s pretty easy to play with? “Friends,” i.e. the people you befriend in-game. I have been talking with the same handful of people I “met” in WoW pretty consistently for the last five years. And why would that be surprising? We all were playing the same MMO on basically the same schedule in the same manner, which is how we met in the first place; you couldn’t design a better friend/compatible person-sorting algorithm if you tried. Meanwhile, I only ever talk with my best friend IRL every few months. I met that best friend in Middle School by complete coincidence, and even though we are supremely compatible personality-wise, he just isn’t into PC gaming. With that plus distance plus schedules, the opportunities to play together would be pretty low.
All of which makes for rather conflicting design structures in many games. Friends and guilds are the social glue that keeps people playing games long after the novelty has worn out. If you start playing a game with friends, you might end up overlooking the deal-breakers that would otherwise cause you to abandon a game before the social hooks had time to sink in. On the other hand, the opposite problem can occur: if your friends don’t like the game but you do, you might end up either spending less time playing with them or quit the game to play whatever they’re playing.
So, objectively, the best outcome is quite possibly coming into the game with no friends and making some in-game instead. That way, the friends you are playing with are tailor-made to correspond with your playstyle, level of interest, and long-term goals. Plus, there is the added bonus of this particular game being “sticky,” insofar as it might be the only context in which you will get to enjoy your new friends’ company. Although I still talk with my former WoW guildmates, we really don’t have many other game preferences in common; the desire to re-subscribe to WoW to spend some non-Vent time with them is pretty strong.
In any case, as I have argued in the comments to Zubon’s post, this is pretty much a systemic problem inherent to RPGs and other games with character progression. The moment you commit to XP and levels is pretty much the same moment you commit to stratification, which by definition drives wedges between players. Unless, of course, you go ahead and make friends with those you find in your strata.
Fake Edit: Zubon and a few others have pointed out that other MMORPGs have solved this issue with scaling levels. The examples used were GW2, EVE, and City of Heroes. While I agree that the first two allow you to play together, they do not allow you to play together on the same level. Your Day 1 friend can tackle spaceships, but he/she is still stuck in a frigate while you’re flying around a supercarrier. It’s perfectly true that two friends can play the GW2 equivalent of BGs together (instant cap, full gear), but I really consider GW2’s sPvP system to be a completely separate game tacked on; it’s entirely possibly it’s changed in the last year, but unless there’s overlap between the two systems (e.g. you get XP/etc for doing sPvP) then I don’t see that as a solution. Chances are good that you bought GW2 in the first place to play the “real” game, e.g. the ones with levels and XP and such.
As for City of Heroes, I’ll have to take your word on it that there was meaningful character progression in an environment that perfectly scaled up and down. Because honestly that sounds like a complete contradiction in terms.
All of this is somewhat besides the point of this post though. It kinda doesn’t matter if you can play with the friends you brought into a game in a perfectly scaled environment, if they don’t match your own playing habits and level of interest in the new game. If you like City of Heroes and they don’t, then it really doesn’t matter how good the game is – your options are basically to quit, divide your time, or make new friends. Stratification makes the situation worse, of course, but it’s more of a symptom of a larger problem IMO.
I am beginning to question the conventional wisdom that horizontal progression in MMOs is less vertical than, well, vertical progression. Or that horizontal progression is particularly good for anything.
In terms of MMO game design, horizontal progression means two things to me. First, it means that you either quickly or immediately gain all the necessary abilities to succeed at all levels of in-game combat. If you have to have ability X to reasonably kill a raid boss, and that ability costs Y currency over the course of Z hours to purchase, then I consider the game to have vertical progression up until you unlock X. Same with PvP skills.
The second, related aspect to horizontal progression is that it allows you to experience a feeling of progression without necessarily experiencing power gain. This ostensibly takes the pressure off of skill choice by creating a lot of options/experimentation.
In my playing of The Secret World however, neither seems to actually be the case.
As you may know, TSW features an Ability Wheel with nine weapons that unlock a staggering amount of individual abilities and passives that you can mix and match to your heart’s content. The only problem is that if you screw up your selection, either by picking weak weapons with no synergy or simply realizing that a given play-style is not for you… well, you’re screwed. Ability Points come fast and loose in the beginning before tapering off at 40k XP apiece; Skill Points are gained at the rate of 1 per 3 Ability Points. While it is completely possible to unlock every Ability/Skill in the game eventually, the reality is that by the mid-game you are excessively punished for changing your mind.
See, your hit rating and such for attacks is based largely on your Skill Points in that weapon, while enemies are balanced in a zone upon given SP assumptions. SP requirements go up linearly (level 1 costs 1, level 2 costs 2, etc), so it is relatively easy to get the first few tiers in whatever. But about the time you start getting in the SP5 and SP6 range, a single rank up to match the enemies you’re facing costs as much as getting a new weapon to SP1-4.
This is my scenario: I’m tired of Shotguns. My whole thought process up to this point had been to unlock a certain Shotgun passive in the outer ring, and then enjoy all the synergies. As it turns out, an even better passive is in the outer ring of Chaos. But I kinda want to try Assault Rifle or Elemental. Except I can’t realistically do any of that because I already have SP6 in Swords and SP5 in Shotguns while my talismans have been languishing at SP4. So while I can certainly spend my Ability Points to unlock things I can’t even use on the way to Passives that I can, I can’t actually turn around and try those very skills I’ve unlocked because most of my attacks will glance/be dodged/blocked/etc.
So what have I been doing? Farming quests. Specifically, logging on and playing for 30 minutes and completing the first few quests in the starter zones (all quests are repeatable after a cooldown) that offer the quickest, easiest XP per effort. Sure, I would likely level faster just progressing normally. Then again, I would be progressing against tough mobs with a gimped setup that I begun to despise ten hours ago.
This is not solely a Secret World problem, although it is less pronounced in, say, Guild Wars 2. It can still be a tough pill to swallow though, when you dump a lot of points into an ability that looked fun on paper but ended up being useless in practice. Basically, all the negatives of vertical progression without the presumed benefit of being able to respec. And consider the best case scenario in which you picked 100% of the correct abilities the first time around: what then? The rest of your “progression” is really the equivalent of unlocking achievements.
Game: Torchlight 2
Recommended price: $5/bundle
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: 35 hours
Buy If You Like: Torchlight 1, Poorly itemized Diablo-clones
Torchlight 2 is the hack-n-slash sequel to the original Torchlight, itself an homage and erstwhile competitor to Blizzard’s Diablo series. Indeed, Torchlight 2 was released around the same time Diablo 3 was making headlines with its controversial always-on requirements and server-dependent gameplay. While it makes a great counter-point to Diablo 3 on the feature listings, Torchlight 2 is essentially more of the same from the original game. Which, in my case, is bad news.
My fundamental gripes with both Torchlight games are their meaningless adherence to archaic game design, and a fundamentally terrible itemization/progression system. Torchlight 2 features four different classes to choose from, each with three separate class trees. While they mainly follow traditional hack-n-slash roles, there does exist room for experimentation: there are more than enough talents to choose from to transform, say, the archer-esque Outlander into a melee-only tank (albeit not likely as powerful as a normal tank class). Where this experimentation immediately breaks down is how there is no respecing in Torchlight 2; at most, you are allowed to get a refund on your last three talent points. While this was how things worked in Diablo 2, it is also true that at one point people thought asbestos as insulation was a good idea.
The more crippling flaw though, and the singular design that undermines everything else the game set out to accomplish is the awful itemization and item progression system. While not as outlandishly terrible as the original Torchlight, it is still entirely possible (and even likely) that you will receive a random drop at level 17 that you will still be using 40 levels later at the end of the game. The core of what made the Diablo series so compelling to play was how items and gold erupted from nearly every enemy you faced, and thus you had a steady supply of dopamine over the course of what otherwise is series of perpetually unengaging clicks. Torchlight 2 has none of that – nearly two-thirds of the game was spent vendoring every ring, helmet, amulet, and pants I came across.
It gets even worse, if you can image that.
Clearing an entire map’s worth of mobs and collecting every single piece of vendorable debris results in what I would like to term one “Gear Unit” (typically 2000g-3000g). Each GU allows you to either purchase one item from a vendor, or upgrade an existing item by either adding gem sockets, enchantments, or purchasing gems themselves. This ridiculous stinginess with gold means you are perpetually strapped for cash, only allowing you to augment the gear you’ve accumulated one map clear at a time. God help you if you’ve finally accepted the fact that you’ll never replace your boots only to have an infinitely rare upgrade drop right after spending 10,000g (or 3 GUs) on your old pair.
Oh, and by the way, the Gold Chests and Boss Chests that you are “rewarded” with for going out of your way to find the keys or defeat said boss end up dropping jack shit 99% of the time. I have found more rares and unique items out of normal, everyday treasure chests than I have ever gotten from boss chests. How do you fuck something like this up?
I am spending all this time talking about loot and such because that is the heart and soul of the hack-n-slash genre. To get loot wrong in these sort of games is to create a racing game with poor-handling cars or a FPS where the guns don’t shoot at the crosshairs. Indeed, would anyone play a Diablo-esque game if there was no gear at all? The gameplay, which consists of mowing down tens of thousands of mobs within seconds of their appearing on the screen absolutely is not compelling enough on its own, that’s for goddamn sure.
All of which is certainly a shame, as Torchlight 2 is otherwise an improved sequel in pretty much every other way. The gameplay (such as it is) feels more responsive and impactful; the environments are detailed and fun to look at; the music is about a half dozen artful remixes of the Tristram theme; and I enjoy the visual style. It just feels, you know, completely unrewarding to play.
It is worth mentioning that all of these problems have been solved by better game designers, e.g. the players submitting mods to the game. There are mods that range from introducing new character classes to entirely new dungeons to, you guessed it, fixing the loot issue by guaranteeing Unique or better drops from Gold/Boss chests. I decided early on to stick with the vanilla game because I wanted to get a feel for what the devs learned from the original Torchlight. The answer is “pretty much nothing.” Playing with mods “taints” your character though and otherwise makes you ineligible for achievements. But since the base game feels like such a massive chore to play, I highly recommend anyone deciding to install Torchlight 2 to go ahead and fix what the devs had not the brains and/or balls to do.
I am probably nearing the end of my focused Hearthstone play. Why? Two words: beta wipes. All progress, cards, gold, etc, will be wiped at least once in the upcoming weeks, and possibly more than once. If you happened to purchase something for real money, you will get the equivalent amount of gold once Hearthstone goes Live.
All of this is known information, so why am I bringing it up? That’s actually an interesting question, as I examined my roiling emotions after a string of recent Arena losses. Scrubbing out at 1-3 or – god help you – 0-3 sucks. Hard. Each Arena buy-in requires $1.99 or 150g, with the latter amount requiring roughly three days of dailies plus 30 wins in Ranked/Unranked play (i.e. against other people) to collect. Or just complete four dailies. Going that route actually works out pretty good as long as you keep Hearthstone as your sort of “side game” that you play for 30-45 minutes each day before playing your main game; as long as you keep yourself from getting too into things, you can legitimately play (Arena) for free pretty easily.
Alternatively, if you win at least 7 Arena matches in the buy-in, you get enough gold to play again.
As you can see, I received 310g for having gone 9-2 with the Rogue (nine wins is the maximum). An earlier 8-3 record resulted in 215g. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, especially given the Arena portion of the game is significantly more interesting to me – playing against Constructed decks feels pretty rote in comparison. Plus, where else would I get to screw around with Legendaries in what feels like a guaranteed draw for each Arena match? You aren’t likely to see those and other high-powered cards from packs you open, but seeing epics and such is pretty common across 30 random draws.
But then the RNG floor fell out. I felt I was getting a good handle on which Heroes were best in Arena – things are much different than in Constructed where you can build around combos – but I suddenly realized how exceptional my winning decks truly were. My 8-3 Druid deck had eight removal cards, including AoE removal. The 9-2 Rogue deck had two Saps, a bunch of Silence creatures with multiple ways of returning them to my hand, a fistful of removal, and two Defias Ringleaders that make going second a complete joke when you drop a 2/3 and 2/1 on your first turn.
Here was the deck:
You don’t need to know anything about the Hearthstone other than that this deck was unfair. Three Fan of Knives, two Blade Flurry, two Sap, two Patient Assassins, Betrayal… Jesus, it was sublime. Hearthstone Arena is entirely about tempo, and let’s just say most games involved me playing dubstep to their John Cage 4’33”.
Needless to say, I have spent the past three days falling back down the Bell Curve face-first. A string of awful Hero choices plus awful card choices plus opponents who all but win by round four (having demolished my early game). It is entirely possible this all has been by design, via hidden MMR rankings. One of the biggest Hearthstone innovations amongst the pile of others has been the fact that Arena games are unmoored from any particular tournament. If you play a Booster Draft in Magic Online, you’re playing either for 15 minutes or two hours depending on your record, against whomever happened to stroll into your tournament with you. In Hearthstone, you can play one Arena game and then come back a week later if you want. This is fantastic… provided you don’t rely on being a big fish in a small pond for your wins.
All this losing made me realize that I don’t like it. Losing, that is. A fair ranking system is based around ensuring you lose 50% of the time, but it seems to me that losing feels much worse than the positive winning emotions, especially when losing results in opportunity costs and/or costs you real money. Presumably the delta between winning and losing is compensated by the fun you have actually playing the game. But I am coming to the realization that it isn’t enough. I need a tangible sense of progression too. Knowing that the pity packs are full of cards going away in X number of months means losses are simply time consigned to the abyss.
The obvious counter-points are A) new gear tiers in MMOs result in obsolescence of progression, B) time spent gaming is technically “wasted” by default, and C) how in god’s name did you play Counter-Strike for four years then?
The answer to the first is pretty simple: properly-formatted achieved goals can’t be taken away. My goal in WoW was never “have BiS gear in every slot” – that is just a recipe for disappointment. Instead, my goals were more general, like “be better off than I was yesterday.” Grinding Valor, getting raid drops, capping Conquest… all of these things resulted in a feeling of sustained progression that persisted even when new tiers came out. In fact, my “investment” in gearing up paid off in getting the new gear quicker or more easily.
Obviously I quit playing WoW, but I still don’t see that time as wasted; leisure activities being a waste of time presupposes an (nonexistent) objective purpose in life, which answers point B.
As for C), well… that’s the pickle. I feel games like Counter-Strike allow you to experience meaningful fun even as you ultimately lose a round/match, probably because winning/losing doesn’t matter in the first place. As long as I pulled off some kind of crazy kill before dying, I could walk away satisfied even if our team was otherwise destroyed. Which is leading me to believe that the existence of progression in a game sets up its own failure, given that losing progression (either directly or via opportunity cost) makes me feel worse than gaining progression. At the same time, I tend to gravitate towards games with “investment” opportunities over games where I am “just” killing time. All games kill time, but killing time + progression makes it feel more meaningful on top of whatever arbitrary goal-achievement neurochemistry is going on.
All of which is an extremely roundabout way of saying that I lost a bunch of Hearthstone Arena matches this weekend and am sad as a result. Going from being more than self-sustaining to practically in-the-hole playing is bad, and there not being any sense of long-term progression (in the beta) makes it worse. Also, trying to unlock Shaman cards in Constructed play feels terrible; seriously, Blizz, why did you put all the juicy Shaman cards in the packs? Chain Lightning is practically required to get anywhere.
Wait a minute, why am I in-game again? Might as well knock out this daily…