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Roll Them Boulders

My blog roll is filled with WoW Classic posts, and I am loathe to add another one to the pile. But it was interesting to me scrolling through them, as there was a lot of words surrounding the sort of meta experience, but not so much the moment-to-moment or even the “but… why?” piece.

It was not until SynCaine tried to explain the difference between Easy and “easy” that I realized what WoW Classic is all about:

With that said, one major reason why Classic is fun is because it isn’t faceroll easy. Starting right at level 1, you simply can’t run into a group of mobs solo and expect to survive. When you are doing at-level content, you are always at least aware of where mobs are, about what you are pulling, and what keys you are pressing. Now don’t get confused, once you do those things, killing a mob or two is ‘easy’. But that itself is the point; you have put in the work to get a decent pull, so your reward is being able to kill said mob without too much fuss. That ‘simple’ combat is also its own strength; you really don’t want the most basic aspect of your MMO (combat), that you hope people experience for hundreds if not thousands of hours, to be tiring or require near-constant button mashing.

WoW Classic is Something To Do. Which is not to be confused with “something to do.”

Before I get into that though, I just have to laugh. “It only seems easy, because of all the work you have to put in.” Ehh… no. WoW Classic is easy. That rules exist at all does not make it any less easy. Pulling only one or two mobs at a time is the equivalent of Paint By Numbers – the hardest part is not becoming distracted by all the other things you plan on doing later while actually doing the thing you clearly don’t need to pay close attention to do. Notice how nowhere in the description of Classic combat is any hint of “engaging gameplay.” Methodical, sure. Engaging, no.

Sort of like rolling a boulder up a hill.

But that is the thing: it is Something To Do. I miss that. The other day I logged onto Guild Wars 2, walked around a capital city a bit, then logged off. There was nothing compelling to do. My characters are all max level, Ascended gear already farmed, literally nothing else than to grind out Legendaries or achievements or gold to buy Cash Shop clothes.

Meanwhile, gaining a level in Classic is also a chore, but a real one, like washing dishes. It isn’t as though there are more challenges between the start and finish, but more… stuff. Steps. Drag anchors. It takes more generic units of Time. Because of that extra time spent not engaged in anything, the cognitive dissonance is thus stronger and you end up feeling better about your life after completing the task as a defensive mechanism. It becomes Something To Do rather than something you did. More important. Certainly more meaningful than watching an episode of Big Bang Theory or scrolling past page 18 of Reddit.

It seems as though I’m making fun of people having fun in Classic, but I do in fact miss Something To Do. Yesterday I was playing Moonlighter, which is a game where you kill monsters in a dungeon at night and then sell the items during the day, so you can buy better items to do it all over again. Sound familiar? I was racking up some nice coin in the game and then… just stopped. Nobody cares, least of all me. I still had three dungeons to go before the end of the game, but I already saw myself at the end of it, with nothing to show for it but this shoehorned paragraph in a post about a totally different game.

Of course, that’s the other Classic secret sauce right there: timeliness. Leveling in Classic is Something To Do that is also exciting, as though it were a new MMO launch. I have pointed this out before, but Dark Age of Camelot is still a thing you can play in 2019. Same with Ultima Online. My blog roll isn’t filled with posts about those games though, because Classic is fresh and shiny and a game many millions of people have played. Just look at all the MMO posts from people who had otherwise stopped playing MMOs until literally last week. Amazing how that works.

I don’t think many of them will be able to Go Home Again, but if they are as starved as I am for Something To Do, maybe they will set up a tent in the empty lot. At least for a few weeks.

Moving Targets

Syp has a post up about how Battle for Azeroth really isn’t that bad.

[…] I had left last October after burning out a couple months into the new expansion, feeling both overwhelmed at the grind and underwhelmed by the direction and features. I think I needed that, as I had been playing more or less nonstop for two-and-a-half years before that point.

And with a somewhat negative exit alongside of many others who were very vocal with expressing their displeasure over the expansion, it kind of got cemented into my mind that BFA is terrible. Coming back, I can’t say that’s the case, and while it’s trendy to bash BFA these days, I’m also seeing that it’s not as bad as some of the hysterics have made it out to be. It’s no Cataclysm, and it’s not suffering the content drought of Draenor, that’s for sure.

As I commented over there, I find it kind of glib to suggest that an expansion that has had almost 11 months worth of time to be fixed, including two major content patches, is “not as bad as some of the hysterics have made it out to be.” Indeed, the two initial points Syp brings up – overwhelming grind, underwhelming features – have not, to my knowledge, actually been fixed. We may not still be in the situation of needing to grind out Azerite Power to unlock abilities we already had before upgrading a piece of gear, but the very fact that Ion and the rest of the clownshow at Blizz HQ thought it deserved to make it off the whiteboard is embarrassing. Or how Titanforging makes it so that you are never actually done with gearing, ever, with zero possibility of being “complete” save for the sweet release of death (or subscription lapse). Or how you never gained anything from level from 110 to 120, and only grew weaker against the same mobs you had been fighting all along.

Suppose those things had been fixed though. I stopped playing mid-October of last year, so maybe they even have. Could that mean Beta for Azeroth was actually a good expansion?

The question seems nonsensical. It was clearly a terrible expansion for me and tens of thousands of others. It was a terrible expansion for Syp who identified the precise flaws and quit too. I can understand being able to “come back” and revisit the experience with a fresh pair of eyes and expectations. But is it even the same game? Is Syp playing it in the same way? Can an MMO expansion be “good” if the limited PvE content is fun, but everything else about its design suffocates long-term play?

Less than two months ago, I wrote a post called Bygones in which I talked about how holding game grudges doesn’t always make sense. If someone asks about Diablo 3 these days, bringing up the Real Money Auction House is basically a non sequitur. No Man’s Sky’s original release state might give you some perspective about its developers, but… actually, it wouldn’t, because the current difference is night and day.

Should Beta Battle for Azeroth receive the same courtesy?

Maybe. Perhaps some grudges take deeper root when it feels personal. The last time I played WoW was a whole baby ago, so maybe everything feels improved. Nevermind the fact that it does matter what sort of experience you are looking for in the first place – an endgame being crap shouldn’t concern a tourist just looking for leveling thrills and some plot.

And yet… nah. I won’t begrudge Syp’s fun anymore, but I do take BFA’s design almost personally. I wasn’t a big subscriber to the whole A Team vs B Team thing, but there isn’t a whole lot of explanation as for why BFA released in the state it did on the tail end of Legion, which got so many things right. When you look back, it goes BFA (bad), Legion (good), WoD (terrible), MoP (good), Cata (awful), Wrath (amazing), TBC (eh), vanilla (supposedly good). This probably bodes well for whatever comes after BFA.

How Not to Return

Coming back to a game can be incredibly daunting. Coming back after it has gone through several updates can be more concerning still.

Then there’s No Man’s Sky.

NMS_Restart

I didn’t want to play that character anymore anyway.

The No Man’s Sky meta-narrative is inspiring in its own way. In the beginning, the game was hyped beyond belief (and reality), the designers actively lied about features, and it was the go-to example of a failed game. Over the years though, the same designers have… stuck to it. Update after update has improved the gameplay experience, and now it is very close to completely resembling the product that was promised in the first place. While some may decry giving the company any praise for fixing what ought not have been broken in the first place, their dedication towards making things right is completely unexpected in the current gaming environment.

The problem is that so much has changed between the various patches that my 50+ hour character may as well have been erased.

The main culprit appears to have been NMS’s “Next” patch. There was a major overhaul in the crafting system, or upgrade system, or both, or something. Basically, all of my upgrades and enhancements were turned into “Obsolete Technology” that I had to scrap for upgrade currency. Which would have been slightly okay on its own, but now I have no idea how anything works anymore. Which resources are important have changed, all of the planets in the galaxy have changed, and my previously-existing base appears to be lost entirely/”archived” somewhere. While there have been a few prompts to check the Codex here and there, otherwise there is nothing resembling a tutorial on solving the “Dude, Where’s My Base” situation.

Slightly perturbed, I decided to spend my limited free-time patching up Fallout 76 instead. There have been several feature patches there too, resolving some long-term Quality of Life issues and introducing some new quest content as well. Everything was looking good… until I realized I could not aim-down-sights anymore. Right-click and nothing happened. With a melee weapon equipped my right-click would Block attacks like normal, but no scopes apparently.

Kind of a bummer when you are a Rifle build.

Near as I can tell, this problem might be related to mods. Deleting the mod file and removing the Custom.ini did not fix anything, nor did reboots or verifying file integrity. So, I’m typing this up while waiting for another 55 GB install to complete. [Edit: this didn’t fix the issue either]

Both experiences are giving me time (literally) to reflect on the situation though. Blizzard spends an inordinate amount of time trying to make the transition from lapsed to paying subscriber as easy as possible, to the extent of not changing systems that desperately need fixing. It’s hard to see value in that approach when you are actively playing the game, as all that occurs is basically stagnation for the sake of people who aren’t even customers. But if I weren’t so starved for survival-esque experiences, my first five minutes back into No Man’s Sky would have ended with an uninstall.

I’m not even sure there’s a middle path anymore. Games require you to learn their arbitrary, sometimes non-intuitive systems in order to succeed. It is hard enough trying to remember which buttons do what after a year or two, and then you add the possibility of previously accumulated experience no longer being useful (or actively bad)? You might be worse off than a brand new player at that point. In fact, I am worse off, because my patience for relearning tasks is immensely low – if I am to spend time learning something, it may as well be a new thing.

Impressions: Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

It’s kinda funny, looking back and seeing my original review of The Binding of Isaac being posted in November 2011. 11/11/11, in fact. Nearly six years ago is a pretty long-ass time. And yet here I am buying the re-release of a game and its expansion for another go-around. Maybe.

The truth is: I don’t know.

Ostensibly, I bought Rebirth (and Afterbirth DLC) because it was on sale and I had read all the people praising it on Reddit as being far better than the original. One person mentioned that it was simply relaxing to play. Certainly, I felt slightly similar back when I first played the game insofar as I compared it to Solitaire. Just something to play for a little bit without a sense gravity.

At the same time, I constantly found myself pausing the game and going to the Wiki. What does this Tarot card do? What the hell is this buff? Why is this room empty aside from a spike pit in the middle? These mysterious things are traditional trappings of roguelikes in general, but I feel like Isaac spends an inordinate amount of time in being obtuse. Random effects or items? Fine. Obfuscated abilities? Not fine.

It took me three runs to make it down to and defeat Mom, which resulted in about 15 achievements. Among other things, this unlocks the other half of the game (post-Mom), new items that get added to the random pool, new characters to play as, and Challenges. The latter is new to me, but is basically normal Isaac runs with some kind of penalty added on. In fact, pretty much everything I’ve seen so far is just piling on difficulty.

I’m not sure this is me anymore though. It was certainly relaxing to play in the moment… until I started pausing every other room to double-check the Wiki. I’m not going to stop doing that either, as I find blind choices fairly abhorrent. I don’t need to win every time I play a roguelike, but I’m also not going to let myself ruin an otherwise good run with some bullshit “Gotcha!” moment either.

So, yeah. Perhaps this will be my 2nd Steam refund.

Learning to Let Go

For the longest time, I was a believer in playing games to completion no matter what. A large part of this sentiment was codified back in my semi-official reviewing days in which we were required to beat a given game before we could review it. That always seemed like a reasonable request, and it meshed rather nicely with my general sense of optimism (…stop laughing) regarding the possibility of a game making up for its earlier shortcomings in the 11th hour. Kind of like… err… huh. I can’t think of any examples at the moment, but I’m sure there are some. And maybe this next game will be the one!

In the past few weeks, I have made a concerted effort to abandon such sentiments.

You might have noticed that I am reviewing less games these days. While I still enjoy writing reviews, I’m less convinced that many of the games I play either need or deserve them. I finished Batman: Arkham Asylum a few days ago, for example, but who out there would really benefit from my take on a game which has two sequels and a derivative (Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor) already? It’s an open question if anyone benefits from any review I do, but at least more topical games are easier to justify to myself. Once the “review potential” of a game is reduced to zero, I no longer feel any need to finish it.

Or, in some cases, even start them. My original plan was to start playing the old Tomb Raiders before starting the Square Enix reboot, but I just “Nope’d” out of there after seeing some screenshots. Company of Heroes was played just long enough to start realizing that I liked Dawn of War better. I started playing Thief Gold two days ago and stopped this afternoon. Minutes before writing this post, I was going through the tutorial of Fable: the Lost Chapters; camera was a little too wonky for my tastes though, and now here we are.

I still do feel a little bad when I banish a Steam game into my Finished category, as obviously I spent some amount of money acquiring it at some indeterminate point in ages past. But on the other hand? I can acknowledge that I have likely past the threshold beyond which there are more legitimately fun games that I am actually excited to play than I have time on this mortal coil to do so. Perhaps it is crass to say, but… if I had cancer, would I spent my remaining time playing the original Hitman? Or, really, any of the Hitman games (I’ve heard Blood Money is the best though)? Probably not.

It pains me to know other people will not likely experience the joy that was Xenogears or Tenchu or whatever, but I understand the dilemma now more than ever. No matter how good Game X was for Y reason, sometimes the Z era was what made it so. Can I really appreciate the original Thief in the proper context of its time? Well, I did make it to the third level before shutting it down. I have heard conflicting reports as to whether the Thief reboot lived up to its lineage, but I am now more inclined to spend the $6 (deal is over, alas) to purchase the new one than I am to play through the original(s).

In any case, that is where I am at the moment. I’m not opposed to older games, but they will have to work extraordinarily hard (and quickly) to keep my attention, starting now. Ain’t nobody got time to play games out of some misguided sense of obligation.

Going Home Again

Tobold is by no means the first person to point out that Warlords of Draenor’s free level 90 character is a “doubling-down” on vertical progression. I mean, I don’t see why anyone would claim that even vanilla WoW was anything other than vertical progression given how you couldn’t grind your way to max level via the Westfall boars, South Park-style, but whatever. The thing that profoundly bothers me in these sort of debates though, is this sort of nonsense:

So we are being told that when the expansion comes out, World of Warcraft will be all about levels 90 to 100. You will play nearly exclusively on the new continent, maybe sometimes visit the capital cities for some features, but will have no reason whatsoever to enter over 90% of the zones of World of Warcraft. If by some server glitch the old zones ceased to exist, most players wouldn’t even notice. I find that rather sad, so much wasted space and potential.

I literally cannot understand this line of reasoning. I understand what is attempting to be said here, but it seems so far removed from reality as to be unintelligible.

First of all, the post-Cataclysm world still exists. Even if we are going to assume that there will be a lot of brand new WoW players coming into the expansion – which we have no reason to believe there will be, at least in comparison to returning players – the fact remains that the world and all of its quests will still be there for that new player’s alts, at a minimum. Assuming, of course, that this hypothetical new person even enjoys questing in the first place. And if they do, there is nothing stopping them from questing from level 1 to 100 while saving the instant 90 for some other purpose. Meanwhile, the returning veterans who quit in the middle of an expansion they presumably didn’t like are being asked to… what? Spend a few dozen hours slogging through 2+ year old content to get to the stuff they were actually excited enough to resubscribe to see?

Secondly, how can the old content ever be considered “wasted?” All of those zones and quests have been utilized, extensively, by millions of players for years. How much more utilized does it need to be? And how? And why? Even in horizontal progression MMOs, where do you find people? Where the new things are. The odds of you finding someone running around the mid-level zones in Guild Wars 2 is approximately zero, unless there happens to be some kind of 2-week patch dragon dropping off a treasure chest every three hours. You’re not going to find an EVE veteran mining Veldspar even if Veldspar remains a critical component of crafting spaceships.

Content obsoletes itself. That is not a problem, that’s linear time working as intended. Novelty only ever decreases, at least in terms of crafted content. Hell, how long can you experience interest in even procedurally-generated content like in Minecraft? At a certain point, even the weirdest terrain formation is reduced to its constituent parts at a glance – it sure as hell isn’t as impressive as the first time you laid eyes on your future mountain fortress location.

Time marches on. Just because you don’t hang out at the playground or swing from monkey bars anymore does not mean they are now wasted content, even if no one else ever uses them again. They existed in a time and a place and served their purpose well. Is that not enough? Were you not entertained?

It always seems the greatest irony in MMOs are those players who wish for living, breathing virtual worlds that never change.

Entrenchment

I have been collecting some of the Ghostcrawler tweets in regards to MoP alt-unfriendliness and the overall Blizzard pivot away from alts and back to mains, e.g. entrenchment of old subs vs new ones.

Q: Is the plan in Mists to have raiders go through each raid and let the new ones pile up or use LFR to leapfrog tiers?
A: Want to err on the side of the former. If you want to do 5.2 raid, you can gear up in 5.0 LFR. (source)

Q: Upgradeable gear is okay for honor gear, but it shouldn’t be for Conquest, as it’ll take months to catch up. Thoughts?
A: Problem with catch up (PvE or PvP) is it encourages everyone to play less. We like playing more to feel like it’s worth it. (source)

Q. is there any point in forcing people to be revered with golden lotus to do shado pan dailies?
A. Didn’t want fresh 90s to have to do GL and K and AC and SP and go crazy, then finish in a month and have nothing to do. (source)

Q. Do you want people to be entertained or do you want people to grind? For many the two are mutually exclusive.
A. Big challenge to MMO dev: players say they want quality but may also unsubscribe if they don’t have enough quantity. (source)

Q: How do you feel about the players getting to 90 just now and not being able to play arena competitively due to being behind
A: We want to reward players who keep playing. Too often in the past catch up was so easy that it trivialized accomplishments. (source)

Q. But you brought this trivialization of content yourselves starting with patch 3.2 >.> … what have you learned since then?
A. We learned not to let players catch up so trivially that it negates everyone else’s accomplishments. (source)

Q. Greg, you need to stop blaming the wrong things for cataclysm failures. Catch up mechanics dont hurt the game
A. We just disagree on that. I understand you have very strong feelings about how things should work. (source)

Q. efficiency is more fun than non-efficiency. non-efficiency = time wasting = frustration.
A. I don’t buy it. Some of the most fun things in life are stupidly inefficient. I think being inefficient in an MMO is a social thing. (source)
A. We call it the Mechanar syndrome. Players didn’t farm Mechanar because it was our crowning achievement in dungeon design. (source)

Q: linear progression was the worst idea you ever could return to.. you leave behind lots of alt-players and returners.
A. We understand that. But the alternative is that other players feel their accomplishments have no meaning if rapid catch up exists. (source)

I am having a difficult time trying to comprehend at which station Ghostcrawler’s logic train got derailed. “Catch-up” mechanics do not invalidate accomplishments; new raiding tiers do. Nobody cares about your Tier N achievements when Tier N+1 comes out, because why would they? Progression and envy are ever-moving targets, so “catch-up” is irrelevant to those desiring one or the other (or both). So we are left with… who? The people disappointed that their hard, planned obsolescent work was rendered meaningless by the next patch but “oh wait, at least I can try the next tier right away so it was worth something“?

No, it just doesn’t fit. What fits is that in the very nervous design meeting that took place two years ago when Cata was hemorrhaging players, it was decided that every goddamn trick in the book to extend playing time was tossed up on the Mists whiteboard. Burning Crusade slideshows were dusted off and replayed. “Things for Player to Do at Cap” was underlined, twice. Removing catch-up mechanisms does, in fact, “generate” several additional raid playthroughs that would not have existed otherwise. But in that TBC playbook, Blizzard glossed over the postmortem section that warned “You can never go home again.”

Raids (etc) have shelf-lives independent of their necessity for linear progression; old raids become mentally reduced to roadblocks, just something you have to endure on your way to where you actually want to be, i.e. with everyone else. It’s tough being proud of accomplishments nearly everyone else achieved months ago, nevermind how the first boss of the next tier has drops that blows your endgame gear out of the water. And this is besides the fact that the longer the raid has aged, the smaller the pool of people willing/available to run it. Queues go up. Mistakes are less tolerated. It becomes a vicious, decaying spiral… which is precisely why the “Current Tier” model of Wrath and Cata was the better design.

I get that people are sad that raids like Ulduar become irrelevant in mere months. But that happens even in linear progression models! Ulduar ceases to be Ulduar when the people zoning in are just there to get a high enough ilevel to unlock ToC. The magic of these places is not wholly contained in the encounters themselves, but in the Time as well. Being there when the whole server was struggling to defeat the same bosses, congratulating each other on loot, and knowing that each gear drop was the best in the game (at that time). That was when Ulduar was Ulduar.

You can’t go home again.

So, yeah. I don’t buy it, Ghostcrawler. Even if the devs truly believe they are going back to linear progression out of deference to the high school quarterbacks of the moot accomplishment world, they are going about it in the wrong way. iLevel gating was a huge improvement over attunements precisely because it was more flexible. Removing or reducing the catch-up mechanisms is simply bringing back the Keys, complete with all its (alt-unfriendly) baggage. If Mists does not lose players over this – relegating the new player or recently returned to the back of the bus under mountains of required, outdated content – it will be because other areas of the game improved enough to compensate.