Sunday, July 05, 2015

Garrisons, Part II: Professions

For the most part, the WoD professions design worked pretty well. Having a separate building for each profession, generating a limiting reagent through work orders, and allowing limited access to a profession you don't have, all worked reasonably well.

The major flaw with professions and the garrison were the mine and herb garden. Granting free access to these resources for everyone led to a lot of busywork. The mine and garden are the leading cause of the "chore" feeling of garrisons. This design also devalued the gathering professions.

By default, it would have been better if the mine and garden only provided extra automatic garrison resource generation, with higher values as you increased the building level. That would make it worthwhile for everyone to improve those plots, but otherwise they could be ignored.

Then add two new small profession buildings. A smelter and a nursery, or similar. Creating these buildings allows you to mine ore from the mine or get herbs from the garden, respectively. Then with the level 3 building, you could get Savage Blood or Felblight from mining and herbing. (You'd probably have to rename Savage Blood, though.)

Essentially, these buildings would make mining and herbalism the same as the other professions. If you were interested in those professions, you could choose the building. If you just wanted extra resources, it would cost you a small building space. But not everyone would be interested, and not everyone would feel pressured to collect their "free" resources.

The current design is deeply unfair to gatherers. They spent one of their two profession slots on the gathering profession, deliberately eschewing another crafting profession. It was really unfair of Blizzard to give that benefit to everyone else at no cost.

This would probably decrease the supply of herbs and ore, and material costs would have to be rebalanced across the professions.

Other than the mine and farm, Savage Blood is the only real issue with professions. Where ore and herbs are too plentiful, Savage Blood is too rare, and pushes crafters towards the Barn. Felblight is a better design, being spread to all the gathering professions.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Garrisons, Part I: Phasing

Garrisons are the signature mechanic of Warlords of Draenor. They are also a failure, and have hurt the game more than they have helped.

However, I don't think garrisons were that far from being a good mechanic. It feels like a few more iterations or tweaks could have brought garrisons to a much better place. As well, a lot of the problems with garrisons are long term problems that really only develop into serious issues after a few weeks of play.

In this series, I hope to take a look at different facets of the garrisons. To try to see where Blizzard went wrong, and what changes could have improved them.

Phasing

In my mind, the single biggest problem with garrisons is the way that they are phased. Each garrison is a personal phase for each player. this means that the player is always logging into an empty space. There are no other players around.

This very different from every previous expansion. Usually you log into a large city. In Pandaria, most people set their hearthstones to either the Shrine or Halfhill. So whenever you logged in you immediately saw other players running around. Even though Halfhill had a small phased area, it was set off from the main town.

I think this is hugely important for an MMO. Even though you may not explicitly group with other people, it's very important that the other people are present in your world. That's what makes an MMO an MMO.

In WoD, the first 10 minutes of every gaming session is spent alone, with no other players in sight. This makes WoD an intensely lonely experience. There is no "bustle", no energy, as in all the previous expansions. It's sort of the equivalent of once belonging to a large guild, but now you're the only player logging in. It's very dispiriting.

I think this is important enough to make a general rule. Players should always log in (and log out) in populated areas. A strong visual reminder that they are not alone is very important to this genre.

Solution

The best solution I can think of is to have a much more complicated phasing system. Something where common areas of the garrison, like the central courtyard are shared. Each plot would be shared with other players who have the same building on the plot as you.

So even though everyone has their own garrison, it looks like everyone is in the same garrison, and it is a bustling center with players running all over the place. Of course, this would probably be much harder to implement cleanly.

Another path would have been a system where there are multiple separate buildings in the garrison are owned by separate players. I.e. no real phasing, but an actual community. For example in a guild of 10 people, each person gets their own plot in a common guild garrison.

Of course, this system is crazy complicated, and there are lots of problems. What happens if someone leaves the guild and wants to move her plot elsewhere? What happens when people stop logging in and the plots become empty?

This system is more fit for sandbox games, I think. The complex phasing would have been a better fit for WoW.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Better Community Through Natural Selection

It is becoming common wisdom that FFXIV has a better community than WoW. I'm not really sure how true that is. But I did have an interesting experience yesterday that is causing me to wonder, and connect the dots with other common complaints about FFXIV.

Ravana Primal Experience

A guildmate was at the Ravana primal 8-man fight. I play a tank, so queues are instant for me, and I had beaten the fight earlier. I grouped up with my guildmate and we queued up. We got into an instance where everyone except me and the other tank were new. The other tank seemed relatively hardcore. He took charge, gave quick instructions, and went in first. And we wiped.

Ravana has a add phase. The adds summon swords and need to be killed before they finish summoning. If they summon two swords, the group can survive Ravana's next special. But if they summon three or more sword, the group will wipe.

We get three swords on the first, second, and third attempt. The other tank reiterates the importance of killing the adds. On the fourth attempt, we get four swords. You could almost hear the tank's disbelief coming through the chat. I felt sure that this run would explode into acrimony and finger-pointing at the DPS for not pulling their weight.

Instead, the other tank took a deep breath, and assigned one healer to switch to DPS during the add phase, while the other healer concentrated on keeping the tank up. It worked well, and the fifth attempt would have been a kill except one healer got knocked off the edge and the other healer just couldn't keep up with the damage by himself.

The sixth attempt went smoothly, and we downed Ravana.

I realized that I've been conditioned by other MMOs to assume that automatic random groups will crumble when significant adversity is met. It still happens in FFXIV, but it seems more likely that the group will attempt to work through the issues.

Heavensward Accessibility Controversy

To flip topics for a second, there is a somewhat-common complaint about Heavensward. It's not actually coming from current players of FFXIV but from some lapsed or potential players. You see, you can't jump into Heavensward right away. You have to go through the entire 2.0-2.5 storyline, and all the associated trials and dungeons. A lot of people who were potentially interested in the expansion balk at that requirement

The current playerbase, by and large, is firmly on SE's side here. The story is important. Working through the content doesn't take that long. SE constantly sends higher-level players back to old instances, so that keeps the queues moving. Besides, if you haven't done the content yet, it's still new to you.

But there's no denying that the story requirement is a barrier to entry. For example, WoW dealt with this in the last expansion by giving out a free level 90, so you could jump straight into Warlords of Draenor.

Natural Selection of Players

To connect the two topics, consider the most common reasons people try FFXIV and then stop playing. The initial questing is slow, with lots of errand-running. Actually the entire game is filled with errand-running from one NPC to another. Combat is slower than normal, with the 2.5s GCD making it much more languid than the faster paced combat in other games.

Perhaps this slowness at the start of the game acts as a filter on would-be players. The impatient are quickly weeded out, so the the players which remain are more patient than average. A form of natural selection. And a playerbase of patient players is more likely to be considered a "better community" than one which is impatient, as my Ravana experience demonstrates.

The story requirement in Heavensward acts as a similar filter. Players who are too impatient to work through the older content don't sign up for the expansion.

There are arguably other filters in place. PvP is a minor thing, so the Killer archetype is discouraged. It's a subscription game, so players tend to be older and more dedicated. Progression mechanics seem to be aimed at the steady player, who works on new classes or relic weapon or gear "grinds" at a steady pace.

Perhaps the "better community" of FFXIV is a result of "survival of the fittest". Where the players most suited to the FFXIV environment are the type of players who create that "better community".

Meanwhile, games like WoW have chosen the other path, of catering to the impatient. Perhaps that is why their communities seem to be getting worse, because their players are more impatient than average (or at least, more impatient than the FFXIV average).

I should also mention that SE has introduced mechanics for community building. Things like commendations, or the massive XP/reward bonus you get when someone in your group has never done the instance before. It is an open question as to how much these mechanics contribute to the better community. They certainly don't hurt, though.

Of course, there is a price for this natural selection. Players drop the game because it is too slow or too inconvenient. That reduces the potential audience for the game. By not including a shortcut to Heavensward, SE is giving up on potential players. Maybe the community created by the remaining players makes up for that. But maybe if SE made the shortcut, had made the early experience more interesting, FFXIV would be a 10 million subscriber game.

Monday, June 22, 2015

On Steam

Steam is essentially reverse piracy. Instead of playing games you didn't pay for, you pay for games you'll never play.
 - Nemarus, from Reddit

Sunday, June 21, 2015

FFXIV: Heavensward Early Access

Early Access for FFXIV's new expansion, Heavensward, started on Friday. I had put FFXIV on the back burner for the last couple months, but I jumped in and had a look around with my paladin.

I had already done the Main Story Quest from the 2.1-2.5 patches. FFXIV requires them to unlock pretty much everything in Heavensward, save for the new race. However, I believe they've added gear to the Main Story Line that prepares you for the expansion, so you can skip the gear grind of the 2.0 endgame.

I've mostly been going through the Main Story Quest. I've completed the first zone so far. So far, it's pretty much just FFXIV, just more. Same style of quests and small stories. I did the first dungeon and first new primal. Both were pretty nice and reasonably easy. Thankfully, I'm a tank, so queues are instant. I've heard that queues for the other roles are pretty long. On the other hand, mobs in the expac seem to have a lot of hitpoints, so questing does take longer as a tank.

Heavensward is also extending the Job class stories, and giving out new abilities. I'm running out of hotbar space, though, so I'm not sure how useful this is, exactly.

In addition to the new zones and new stories, there are three new classes: Machinist, Dark Knight, and Astrologian. I haven't tried any of them yet.

The game also got a DirectX 11 version. I'm using it and it seems good. Though honestly, I don't really remember the old graphics, so I cannot really compare. The water looks really pretty now. The DX11 performance is fine for me, and my machine is about 3 years old (GeForce GTX 660 Ti).

Heavensward also introduced flying in the new zones. However, their solution to flying is the same as WoW's compromise. Each zone contains Aetheric Currents which you have to find and attune to. As well, certain quests also reward Aetheric Currents, so you have to complete those. Essentially, you have to finish exploring and questing in a zone before you can fly in it. However, since FFXIV isn't a seamless world, you unlock flying in each zone separately.

If you liked FFXIV before, you'll enjoy Heavensward. It's basically more of the same. If you didn't like FFXIV, I don't think Heavensward will change your mind.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Legendaries Are The New Attunements

I just realized the other day that Blizzard brought back attunements in Mists of Pandaria. Only, in classic Blizzard fashion, they flipped them and made them driven by rewards, rather than by punishments.

The purpose of attunements is to provide a guide through content. Something that tells the player if she is ready for new content. In The Burning Crusade, that role was played by attunements. You couldn't go to Kara until you had done the quest chain, same with T5, and T6 required defeating the bosses in T5.

Now, you can jump ahead if you want, but if you follow the Legendary questline, it paces you through the content. First you do some 5-man dungeons, then you do Highmaul. You repeat Highmaul for a few weeks, and gear up as a side-effect. By the time you've done the Legendary stages of Highmaul, you're ready for Blackrock Foundry, and the process repeats.

The reward, a Legendary item, is a very strong motivator. Pretty much every guide says to start the Legendary quest line as soon as you can. That encourages you to stick to the quest line, which matches you to content that you should be geared for.

The modern Legendaries occupy the same design space as attunements. But rather than restrictions on players, they are seen as rewards. The carrot, not the stick. Players also have the freedom to skip ahead if they know what they are doing, and there are no issues with raid composition that previous attunements used to have.

I'm kind of bemused that I didn't see this before. It's excellent design work from Blizzard. And what's most amusing and impressive is that it's the same trick Blizzard always pulls.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Knights of the Fallen Empire

Bioware revealed the trailer and some details on the latest expansion for The Old Republic: Knights of the Fallen Empire.


The trailer is really good, and certainly presents an interesting story.

Some takeaways from the day's revelations:

  • Bioware is doing a modified A Realm Reborn / Mass Effect 2. Essentially, they're making a sequel on top of the existing game. New players will have an option to create a level 60 and jump into the sequel right away. In the sequel, there will be a timeskip, which will reset a lot of the character state. For example, you will probably lose your existing companions, and have to recruit new ones, as in ME2.

  • New emphasis on subscriptions. Note that Bioware is not offering any one-time price for the content. You have to subscribe. On the other hand, once you subscribe once, that content is unlocked permanently, even if you unsubscribe later. So I guess new content now effectively costs $15. In some ways you can consider the original game to be F2P, but the "sequel" is a subscription game.

  • Single story. Much like FFXIV, or any of Bioware's single player games, it looks like there will be one single main story that all classes play through. This probably extends to common companions as well. This does cut the companion cast down from 40 to a more manageable number, possibly allowing the player to reject some companions.

  • Faction Merge. It looks like both the Sith Empire and Republic factions will be merged post-60. The new faction in the game will be purely an NPC/enemy faction. This should improve things like PvP and PvE queues. But at the same time, it will be really weird not to be Empire vs Republic.

  • Small level cap increase. The new level cap increases to 65. Five levels seems like a pretty small increase for the amount of content they are proposing. Possibilities:
    • Each chapter is very short.
    • Leveling will take a long time with 1-2 chapters per level.
    • Most of the story content will come at max level.

  • Big Question: How do we get from the current story to the expansion? This is the question all TOR players are asking themselves. In the current storyline, the current bad guy, the former Sith Emperor Vitiate, is in a position of strength. Will he be defeated by the new bad guys? Is he somehow involved with the new bad guys? It does seem weird that there would be two Immortal Emperors running around.
It's a really interesting expansion and experiment. In some ways, it's surprising that Bioware just didn't go ahead and make an entirely new game. I guess they didn't want to shutter the existing game entirely, and want to leverage the existing content. Additionally, it is easier to claim the game is F2P, while still trying to make it subscription-based.