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Finding the Zone

I continue to play Guild Wars 2 every day.

I also continue to make almost zero progress on the story.

That may not be technically accurate. I have completed Living Story Season 3, Part 3, e.g. the Winterberry Farm. I used the remaining gems I had left over from cashing out my gold years ago to purchase the missing LS3 parts (1, 2, 5), and then worked my way through the LS3:P1 to start generating that map’s currency. While I had read that the Winterberry farm is by far the best place to, well, farm things, I had not quite realized how bad the others could be. With Winterberries, all my alts can farm ~50 a day. All the other maps can only be farmed once per account, and I get maybe ~13 currency if I manage to find a zerg. Considering the reward is Ascended-level items (the best possible now and possibly forever), I probably should not complain that it could take me 10-20 days of constant farming to get those rewards. But comparably, it’s much worse.

Farming though, is just a symptom of my larger problem finding a class and spec I enjoy. A problem that I might have actually solved. See, I had chosen the Necromancer as my GW2 main, and actually geared her up pretty far. I still farm Winterberries for my other alts, such as the Thief and Engineer, but the more I play them, the more I realize that the Necromancer is better in every conceivable way.

There are three main areas one needs to concern themselves with in GW2’s combat. The first is survivability. Everyone has a self-heal ability, but it typically has a ~20 second cooldown and a lot of things can happen in those ~20 seconds. Plus, there is nothing worse than sitting at less than half health, desperately waiting to heal again, and having to choose between continuing your attack as normal or dancing around the edge of combat. To this end, it’s extremely nice to have some kind of ability or talent that allows you to gain health by attacking or some other means.

The second area is, well, AoE capabilities. As mentioned before, I very much enjoy the concept and execution of Pistol/Pistol Thief vis-a-vis Unload spam, but that is a decidedly single-target attack. Having to focus on just one mob at a time when there are 4-6 guarding your Winterberry node simply isn’t fun. Plus, it impacts your survivability insofar as unanswered cannon fodder can promote themselves to deadly threats if you ignore them.

The final area is ranged options. I honestly don’t understand how Warriors and Guardians and Thieves do it, but every time I have moved into melee range of a Champion/Legendary mob as part of a zerg, I have ended up eating dirt, hoping someone finds the time to rez me before the end of the event. Beyond the zerg though, and especially in the Winterberry farm area, there are Griffon enemies that take to the skies and rain down an extremely annoying (and surprisingly deadly) AoE in melee range beneath them. My Daredevil Thief deals well with grounded foes, but having to Dodge away and wait for them to land ain’t something anyone got time for.

But then there’s my Scourge. My beautiful, capable Scourge.

Scourge is the Elite-spec for the Necromancer and by far the most powerful character I have played. It has two healing abilities that also create a damage-absorbing bubble, on top of a 5-second debuff cleanse, on top of a debuff-transference skill (from off-hand Dagger), on top of passively gaining 10% of the damage I deal as HP, on top of having a Flesh Golem tank. The AoE capabilities of the Scourge as pretty much the benchmark of all other classes. And, as you might imagine, all of this is at range. Instant-hit range too, I might add.

It all honestly reminds me of leveling Warlocks in WoW. You know, running around DoT’ing half a dozen mobs at a time, and just standing there letting them beat on you as you they die one-by-one, healing you all the while. You can’t quite be that cavalier in GW2 given the level scaling and such, but it gets closer the better gear I get.

So, yeah. I’m having fun in GW2. Just not in a way that progresses the story as of yet.

Need-Based Socialization

Keen has a rather curious post asking “Should Everyone Craft Everything?” The premise of his argument is that specialization is the root of socialization, and as such, a proper MMO would not allow everyone to craft everything. In fact, anyone who suggests that they should be allowed to have some level of self-sufficiency is “an entitled xenophobe” better left to single-player games, and the catering to whom is a “dumbing down” of a MMO to the “lowest common denominator.”

Which, along with the Free Space, is a full Bitter MMO Vet Bingo.

Special thanks to Keen, SynCaine, and Tobold for the inspiration.

Special thanks to Keen, SynCaine, Tobold, and their commenters for the inspiration.

The fig leaf proffered is that perhaps everyone can make all the basic recipes, but that only specialists can make the best items. However, the whole notion is ridiculous, for a number of reasons.

First, you cannot “force” specialization in any game that allows alts. It wasn’t even much of a commitment on my part to develop a full stable of crafting alts in WoW because I wanted the ability to switch up my endgame play-style anyway. Even if you imagine that your perfect MMO limited you solely to one character per account, people could bypass the restriction via multiple accounts. That is, after all, exactly what EVE players do when they circumnavigate the restrictions of real-time skill gains (itself a way of forcing specialization). I suppose on the plus side, this makes your subscriber numbers look pretty peachy.

Second, you don’t actually need mutually-exclusive specializations in order to have a robust economy, as Keen claims. Within the beginning chapters of every Economics 101 textbook is an explanation of comparative advantage. The simple version is that two villages can produce both rice and fish, but at differing ratios: Island A can produce 10 units of rice or 5 units of fish in a day, and Island B can produce 10 units of fish or 5 units of rice. The ideal proposition is for Island A to produce rice, Island B to produce fish, and then trade half for half with one another, leaving both the richer for it. In fact, an economy between the two islands works even if Island A can produce everything more efficiently than Island B.

Or, perhaps more simply put, there is an opportunity cost to every action, regardless of whether or not you can do everything yourself. Any in-game economy will continue humming at full speed as long as one person is willing to mine ore and another more willing to farm gold than ore. Even though I could make everything myself in WoW, I still bought huge sums of materials and even finished goods because it was faster than doing it myself. Indeed, the existence of an AH at all will typically create entire economies by itself (barring ghost town populations).

Finally, there is a curious sort of bluntness to the dispassionate thought that people need to be forced to interact with one another via extreme limitations. Don’t get me wrong, I am someone who is thoroughly behind the idea of Divine Trinity and other forms of implicit specialization. But I feel like these sort of roles should be arrived at organically, rather than at the character select screen. I am a tank because I enjoy being a tank, not because I happened to pick “Paladin” in 2008. If I had stuck with Warlock, my first WoW character, how much less value would I have brought to the game, to the friends I made, and to my own game experience? As WoW has proven time and again, and even in the largely role-less GW2, just because everyone can be a tank (or tank-like), doesn’t mean they are willing to step into that role. So what possible good can come from shackling a potential tank to a dreary DPS-only experience? “So specialization matters”?

Further, the days in which I am inclined to make new friends out of perfect virtual strangers is largely in the past, and no amount of cumbersome game mechanics will get me back to that place. Even if extreme specialization is for the next generation of MMO player’s sake, I’m rather skeptical that such methods would at all work out the way people imagine they would. As Tobold recently pointed out, our generation of gamers were playing MMOs before the advent of Facebook and other social media – our games were our social media, our place to meet like-minded individuals. MMOs these days are 3-monthers not because they lack in content or design, but because we’re unwilling or unable to invest the social capital necessary to maintain our interest. And why would we? Either we brought along all the friends we already have, or they didn’t make the jump with us. In both cases, we’re full-up on social interaction, thanks.

So, essentially, I say let people do what they want, and they will sort themselves out according to their predilections.

Resistance is… Probably Not a Good Idea.

My (probably futile) attempts at conquering the Gratuitous Space Battle campaign mode continues. After looking at the available ship options, I decided to change races to the Empire. Some of the different races get access to unique weapons or ship layouts, but for the most part everything is the same. Except maybe not for the Empire. Most of their ships look like space stations, and come with a ridiculous number of standard module slots to match.

That and basically everything else likely means nothing to you, but just roll with it for now.

So my fleet composition looks something like this. First, the I-Point, which is essentially a damage-soaker featuring multiple shield generators and power plants to match. Under most circumstances, a ship will likely have ~200 shield HP, but the I-Point has 800+. It has a few weapons, but it’s orders are simply to close to EMP range and otherwise take the hits. Stuck in rigid formation behind it is at least one I-Help, which is a Frigate whose sole purpose is to use the Empire-specific shield-mending beam on the I-Point and on anyone else  nearby. Tank and heals old-school style.

The big surprise, at least as far as effectiveness goes, came from the I-Battery. This ship design is fairly unique in what I have seen thus far, with it capable of housing 8 weapons in a Frigate hull. As tempted as I was to put missile launchers in every slot, I decided that I would instead go with the almost-as-good ranged Plasma Cannons. Cost-wise, the I-Battery were surprisingly cheap, which gives me leave to build 1-2 of them each turn.

Finally, rather than replace any of my Plasma Cannons with anti-fighter laser weapons, I decided to simply field a bunch of fighters myself, flying Escort mode around my I-Point. They are not as powerful as the fighters of other races, but they are the fastest in the game.

I was undefeated for a while, conquering planets at a pretty good clip under my balanced doctrine… until disaster.

Hey, this looks familiar.

Hey, this looks familiar.

With a full fleet that was poised to take over a few isolated systems, I was instead attacked by a six cruiser complement of one of the DLC race ships. Their loadout? Missiles. ALL the missiles. I took special care in putting at least one Guidance Scrambler on each one of my ships, and their combined effort up to this point was usually enough to clear the sky. Not these missiles though, and not in this volume. I was annihilated by a specialized force – a missile force – and thus came full circle.

I did not give up yet though. Oh, no. I made an I-Screen ship, with Point Defense Mk 2 in every weapon slot to shoot down enemy missiles and nothing else. Remembering my failure with the fighters last time, I nevertheless fielded four squadrons of 16. And this time, I also made special orders for all ships to follow Vulture orders, e.g. always target the most damaged ship in range.

Remember me now?

Remember me now?

The result was almost comical. I don’t know whether it was the Vulture orders or the extra squadron or something else, but my fighters blew two of the ships up and crippled two more before my cruisers even got within range. The I-Screen largely turned out to be useless, as the range of its anti-missile guns was too short to prevent them damaging the shields of the I-Point, and yet it was too fragile to place in front (defeating the purpose of the tank). In any case, the revenge was sweet.

But it would not last.

Misty remains of Judgment.

Misty day, remains of Judgment.

Riding high on my prior victories, I was complacent until a nest of vipers landed in my lap in the form of five Parasite cruisers. It almost didn’t seem fair… for them. I had a slightly bigger fleet than before, after all. As it turns out, the Parasite race has access to an AoE flak cannon that simply shredded my fighters like so much tissue paper. Even with the combined might of my fleet, I was not able to collapse even one shield amongst their ships. Instead of the normal Guidance Scramblers that deflect missiles, they have a version that turns the missile around and causes it to hit you, all with a greater range.

My fleet destroyed once again, I attempted to mount a counter-offensive with a new fleet after 10 turns. The result was even worse than before. Then, they captured my only planet with a shipyard, effectively ending the game.

There is no reloading saved games in GSB. One’s failure is absolute.

_____________________

I should note, in passing, that the most frustrating aspect of GSB campaign mode is also one of its most novel. You see, 100% of those fleet compositions I talked about are player-generated. In the vanilla game, you could submit your own fleet as a sort of “puzzle” (aka Challenges) that other players could battle and then rate. I played a few of these maps, but it all felt a bit pointless after a while, especially when it didn’t reward Honor (the in-game currency for unlocks). Wrapping this all up in a cloak of purpose via campaign mode though, did indeed breathe life into the concept as evidenced by my repeated head-banging.

Of course, this also means campaign mode operates with no rhyme or reason, as you charge headlong into truly random and insipid battles that you cannot hope to prepare against. Specialization beats Generalization every time, but the player is never afforded the luxury of anything else. It reminds me of the great debate of Critical Hits in paper D&D. On the one hand, rolling a 20 and getting double-damage feels awesome. On the other hand, the players will always face hundreds more dice rolls against them than they ever will roll against individual mobs. Ergo, players are more penalized by critical hits than they benefit, increasing the chances of a Total Party Kill… unless the DM fudges the rolls behind the screen.

Specialization is Key

I was reading Syl’s Monday post on GW2 when a particular section leaped off the page:

Some people still doubt that GW2 will manage without any holy trinity, but I actually do – and if there’s ever going to be more “dedicated” healing or tanking going on in a specific encounter, it will probably be a situation in which everyone must take turns or decides on a random player.

If you have attempted group content in WoW at any point in the last two years, you probably recoiled in horror as I did at the thought of looking forward to shared group responsibility. We have a term for that now – The Dance – and every indication that it was the principle cause of the nearly 2 million subscriber exodus.

After all, by making every player vital to the group’s success (e.g. everyone must Dance correctly), the strength of the group is reduced to that of its weakest member. And if we follow the “down with the holy trinity!” argument to its inevitable conclusion, we end up in Dance Dance Central.

When I asked whether Syl really wanted shared responsibility, the response was:

You mean, would I rather have groups share the responsibility of control or be flexible about it, rather than putting the entire responsibility and blame on just one person? of course I would. I think this is one big reason why WoW pugs were so horrible.

The sentiment is interesting to me, because I approach it from the 100% opposite direction.

There are some responsibilities that I do not trust other people to accomplish. I was the guy in school/college that would do all of the heavy lifting in the group project – picking the topic, doing the research, writing the paper – while you sailed to an easy A by reading two (of 10) paragraphs in front of the class.

Actually, “trust” is not even the operating word I am looking for, as that implies an uncertainty of contribution. It wasn’t a question of whether you would perform, or even how. It was a matter of your capacity for performance, and whether the final outcome would be better or worse with said contribution.

Is that arrogant? No.¹ Ability brooks no morality. Being better at the “game of school” did not/does not make me a better person, or someone else worse for their lack. The unilateral determination of the value of the contribution might be construed as arrogant, but the final grade was always a true arbiter. Just as the death of the boss is an arbiter of a raid strategy.

Which segues me back to raiding and the following claim: specialization is better for group-based activities.

People are NOT experts at everything, nor should they have to be. If the content requires precise movement at specified times, who do you want in that position? Probably a person meeting the following criteria: A) best internet connection, B) the most experience, and C) someone who wants the responsibility. Maybe you’re thinking long-term and want to get another guy trained and battle-tested. Maybe someone wants to branch out and test the tanking waters. That’s fine! Do what works for your team.

What no one wants is for the person chosen to randomly be the easily excitable, newbie friend raiding on WiFi. It’s not fun for him, it’s not fun for you, it’s not fun for anyone. It creates friction in group scenarios, even when you are raiding with good friends.

This brings me to Guild Wars 2, and two conditional claims/predictions.

1) Trinity specialization will be required to succeed at endgame content; or
2) Endgame content will be mostly trivial.

The “everyone can pitch in” group content philosophy is simply zerging. The “trinity should die” desire is the desire for Dance 2.0.

Syl goes on to mention:

combat that revolves around tanking and aggro, is different from combat that revolves about shared control and therefore needs less dedicated healing, too. tactically speaking it’s an interesting approach you can already find in many FPS online games where every player is carrying some type of rifle and team strategy, self-sufficiency, quick reactions and improvisation are where it’s at. okay, you can distrust the average MMO players currently out there to be any use at this type of cooperative game – a fair point, but not exactly a good argument against improving combat design. to ME the current combat is boring.

Putting aside the question of the actual value of teammates in CoD/BF/TF2 games (and the fact that a lot of FPSs are in fact class/role-based), I want to talk about improvisation. The ability to change strategies, to adapt to changing conditions, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat… that was actually my favorite part of raiding in WoW. The Mimiron kill video was one of the most epic experiences in the game for me. Same with our first Yogg-Saron kill.

The rub is that improvisation requires room to screw up and not fail. In other words, improvisation requires a lower difficulty. It requires mistakes to not matter as much. I am not at all a fan of pass/fail mechanics, so I actually DO hope there is room for improvisation in GW2. But if a group of 5 Necromancers can clear all the content, chain rezzing each other, swapping weapons to “be the tank” when they are randomly the target of the boss, requiring no specialization at all (or worse, requiring everyone to “specialize” in everything)… well, have fun with that.

A certain continuum exists between the two extremes, but it is not as wide as many believe. The only way to reliably hit that mark, IMO, is to require specialization in tasks – specifically being able to choose the 1-2 people around which an encounter pivots – and extend the margins of victory for everyone else. Think the ooze-kiter in the Rotface encounter, or the two portal healers in Dreamwalker.

Allowing those 1-2 people to be anyone (tanks/healer/DPS) would be an amazing innovation, but I’m not entirely convinced that is what will be going on in GW2.

¹ Although it’s probably arrogant saying it.