Thursday, May 31, 2012

New Ability Challenge for Diablo 3

Lately I've been making lots of alts in Diablo 3. You know, D3 classes have a *lot* of abilities, especially when you count runes. I've been trying a new system for choosing abilities, and it's oddly fun and challenging.

Rules:

  1. Non-elective mode.
  2. When you level, always switch to the latest runes or abilities that you gain.
It's interesting because you are forced to use every rune as they come up. You'll use runes and abilities that you would never touch normally. You'll lose abilities and runes that you consider staples.

As well, sometimes your current abilities are terribly non-synergistic, and you just have adapt and deal with it. Each character level gives you a bit different gameplay.

Obviously this is a terrible idea for Inferno or other difficult content. But it's lots of fun while levelling.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

ELO and Planeswalker Points

One of the more interesting things to happen recently in the world of competitive gaming is that Magic: the Gathering gave up its ELO rating system for a new system called Planeswalker Points.

To recap, ELO is the system where you have a personal rating and that rating increases when you beat higher-rated players, and decreases when you lose to lower-rated players. It's effectively the same system WoW uses for Arena rating and competitive PvP.

Planeswalker Points are a purely cumulative point system. Every time you win a game, you get 3 points, with a multiplier for the type of event you are attending. More prestigious events have a higher multiplier. The big difference is that you cannot lose points, at least during a season. Points are reset to zero when a new season starts.

The reason Wizards of the Coast introduced Planeswalker Points was to encourage players, especially highly rated players, to play more. The thing about ELO is that once you achieve a certain cutoff rating, it becomes better to stop playing and sit on that rating for as long as you can.

For example, in WoW, let's say you needed a 2200 rating to get a new weapon. You've finish your 10th game and end up with 2201 rating. Are you going to play an another game? More often than not, you'll sit on that 2201 until you get the new weapon, even if it means not playing. You can't risk your rating dropping below 2200.

ELO also discourages players from taking risks, especially at more casual tournaments. A high-ranked player who beats a low-ranked players gains very few points, but if she loses, she stands to lose a lot of points. This makes life harder for lower-ranked players to climb the ladder, because they need to find and beat those higher-ranked players to gain more points. Often the top ratings become very static.

But if the Planeswalker Points never decrease, then--following Coriel's First Law of Skill--does that not mean we are measuring time, not skill?

The key here is that WotC controls the amount one can play. You can only play Friday Night Magic once per week. There are only so many Grand Prix. The difference between the amount of time spent by the average competitive player and the edge competitive player is not that large. And the multipliers reward winning at the more prestigious events. That makes attending smaller events more optional. Not to mention that there are no points for losing, only for winning.  It is not like the old PvP system where the Grand Marshals simply played for hours on end.

One could also argue that the real metric is the ratio of earned Planeswalker points to total possible Planeswalker points at time T. And that ratio can decrease. Planeswalker points are biased towards players who play regularly, rather than a player who plays rarely, but always wins. But that is by design, a desired property of the system.

There are other differences between WoW and Magic. The biggest difference is that Magic never used ELO for match-making purposes. It was used solely to determine invites to high-end tournaments and as an overall ranking system. Match-making in Magic is done using the Swiss system on a per-tournament basis. For each round of a tournament, you are matched to an opponent of similar record. The 3-0 guys play each other, the 2-1 players play each other, and so forth.

There are disadvantages to the Swiss style of matching. For example, a poor player will often end up with a losing record all the time. They might go 1-5, 0-6, 2-4 in successive tournaments, dampening their enthusiasm for continuing to play in new tournaments. Whereas if a poor player is matched with someone of similar ELO rating, they can eventually expect a 50% win rate.

But there are disadvantages to ELO as well. Ratings can be manipulated, such that your rating, especially of an alt, does not reflect your real rating. But in Swiss or Planeswalker Points, your results are your rating, so manipulation is pointless. And as mentioned above, often the best way to maintain a good ELO rating is to simply stop playing.

Still, it's interesting to note the differences, and the different imperatives that push each system. Vanilla WoW swung way too far to the "playing for hours and hours" side of things, whereas modern WoW might swing too close to the "play only the minimum games" side of things. It would be an interesting exercise to design a system like Planeswalker Points for an MMO, given the constraints that people do not play in scheduled tournaments.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

[Eve Online] Final Thoughts

The other day, I realized that I had not logged into Eve Online for a while. In fact, I was avoiding logging in. So I canceled my subscription. These are a couple of assorted thoughts on Eve.

Type of Thought

Eve's greatest strength--and greatest weakness--is that it "scratches a different itch" than the other MMOs. Eve is much more cerebral and strategic than most MMOs.  This is great if that is the type of game you are looking for, and not so great if it is not.

It kind of reminds me of my work. I'm a programmer/software dev by trade, and Eve sort of reminded me of programming. Not so much in terms of actual mechanics, but in terms of the type of thought that Eve takes. Which is fine, I do enjoy programming. But one of the things I found is that after coming home after eight hours of coding, I really preferred to do something else.

To be honest, I'm sort of surprised that Tobold doesn't like or play Eve. This strategic/tactical thinking and gameplay is what he is always espousing.

Graphics

You often see Eve partisans boast that Eve has great graphics. This statement has always bothered me. It is true ... and it is false.  I've finally figured out how to articulate my thoughts on this issue.

Eve does have good graphics. Your ships look very nice, and the stellar backdrops are excellent.

But if you look at most games, you have your character, other characters in the foreground, and the background. Eve only has your character and the background. The vast majority of the time, there is nothing truly visible in the foreground. Instead you're looking at the UI to identify and interact with elements in the game.

Like if you're in combat, in a game like TERA you'd be interacting with a giant monster and watching its animations. In Eve, you're shooting at a white box on your screen because the other ship is not really visible.

So Eve has good graphics, but those good graphics are irrelevant at the same time. The UI layout is far more important than the graphics engine in Eve. I rather think that Eve would be playable if the UI was on top of a completely black screen.

There are times when objects do come into the foreground. Like when you're docking at a space station, or when you pass by a fleet of ships at a jump point. Eve is extraordinarily pretty at those times. But those times are not normal.

Conclusions

I did like Eve. It was an interesting game and experience. If you are growing disenchanted with the current crop of WoW-like MMOs, and are looking for something different, I would give Eve a try.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

[Diablo 3] Elective Mode is a Mistake

Elective Mode in Diablo 3 is a design mistake. Further, Blizzard knew it was a design mistake, but they caved in to the whining of the hardcore, and thus weakened the game as a whole.

First, a quick explanation. In D3, you have six categories of abilities. Each category has 3 to 5 abilities within it. For example, the Demon Hunter has Primary Attack, Secondary Attack, Defensive, Hunting, Devices, and Archery categories. Under the default settings, you can only pick one ability per category.

However, if you go into Options, you can turn on a setting called Elective mode. In Elective mode, you are no longer restricted to one ability per category. Instead you can take multiple abilities from the same category, like two Defensive abilities. You are still restricted to 6 abilities in total.

Elective mode is more powerful than the default setup. This is obviously true because all default builds are a subset of elective mode builds.

The reason elective mode is bad is that it destroys any semblance of exclusive choices, which is the major advantage of Blizzard's new series of explicit choices model. Instead, it replicates the worst feature of talent trees. As I wrote about talent trees:

The lack of explicit choices means that all talents within reach are compared to each other and ranked accordingly. And this has lead to some awkwardness. For DPS, damage talents always outweigh survivability talents. For tanks, survivability talents always outweigh damage talents. So for a final build, the only choice is between a few talents that you don't really care about, that aren't really important to your role. 
In a talent tree, it is extraordinarily hard to make someone choose between two good choices. Most of the time the player will take both, and drop a third, less important choice.
This same pattern occurs in Elective mode. Trying to choose between two good Defensive talents? Don't make the hard choice. Turn on Elective mode and take both.

Restrictions breed creativity. Restrictions make games interesting. If you don't have access to both good Defensive talents, you have to choose one and adjust your play-style to match. You have to get the most value out of a weaker ability in a different category.

However, the hardcore players hate being restricted. They hate having to make choices. All they see is that it lessens their power. Thus they will whine and moan until the game developers give in.

This is one of the most important responsibilities of the game developers. To tell the playerbase that they need to deal with weaknesses, to work around the weaknesses with new tactics. Instead of watering down the game by erasing the restrictions that make the game interesting.

Blizzard knew elective mode was a mistake. It's not the default system in Diablo 3. The option to turn it on is buried in the menus where, realistically, only the hardcore will find it. The default system with the different categories produces far more interesting builds, in spite of--or maybe because of--the fact that default builds are weaker.

Blizzard gave in to the hardcore players who hate restrictions and weakened the game. The default ability system produces far more interesting and varied builds than elective mode. Unfortunately, good elective mode builds are far more effective in practice.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

[Diablo 3] Auction House

I haven't really purchased anything on Auction House on my Demon Hunter, other than selling off extra rares. However, I started a hardcore Barbarian. Being nervous about hardcore difficulty, which I never tried in D2, I began to purchase rares for all slots on the Auction House.

Rare gear, especially low-level gear is extraordinarily cheap. It must be even cheaper on the normal AH. Since gear doesn't degrade, the supply is huge. As well, because you can only have 10 auctions, the system pushes you to under-price items, in order to maintain turnover. I made the mistake of overpricing my auctions, and now I have a backlog of items just taking up space in my stash while I wait for the auctions for clear.

Outfitting your character through the Auction House really changes the game, at least in the beginning. The difficulty becomes much lower. I'm just rampaging through stuff with my Barbarian, and am really not playing it as if it is hardcore. I play more cautiously and defensively on my softcore Demon Hunter.

Second, in general the items you can buy on the AH are better than the items you are picking up from defeating enemies. That means that a lot of the thrill of getting new items has disappeared from the game. You're picking up items solely to sell them. Then you buy new items from the AH. It's actually rather boring.

I've gotten the Barbarian up to level 11, but I'm sort of at a crossroads as to which which way I want to. Should I go back to the old way of only using gear I find? Should I start a new Barbarian from scratch? Should I continue buying rares? After all, stopping buying rares does increase the chance of death, which is permanent in hardcore mode. Will later difficulty modes be balanced around people purchasing AH gear?

Lots of questions, but no real answers.

Monday, May 21, 2012

[Diablo 3] Updates

I'm still slowly going through D3 with my Demon Hunter. I'm in Act III and am about level 30. Here's the build I'm currently using:

Hungering Shot (Cinder Arrow)
Multishot (Fire At Will)
Caltrops (Hooked Spines)
Vault (Action Shot)
Smoke Screen (Lingering Fog)
Companion (Bat Companion)

Passives: Steady Aim, Cull the Weak, Archery

It does a pretty good job so far, I think. Hungering Shot for single-target and building Hatred. Multishot for AoE. Caltrops, Vault and Smokescreen for kiting and defensive play. The Bat Companion to build extra Hatred. And the passives are just damage increases.

In Normal Mode, the only thing I've really died to is the boss of Act II. It took me three tries to kill it.

I've also started a Hardcore Barbarian, and took him to level 10 before I stopped playing him. I'll write more about him tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

[Diablo 3] Battletags and Invisibility

A lot of people want the ability to go "invisible" with the Battletag system. That is, to appear offline to everyone else, but be able to see who's online.

I sympathize with this desire. Sometimes you just want to play by yourself in peace. But it feels socially awkward to request that solitude when other people can see you online. As well, a lot of people don't respect the Busy status. They figure that means you are Busy to other people, and that you'd be fine if they contacted you.

However, does no one remember ICQ and the late 1990s? The arms race that was "I am invisible to most people, but these specific people can see me if I'm invisible, unless I'm really invisible." Honestly, the entire concept of invisibility just made things overly complex.

The thing is that in an ideal world we want things to be asymmetric. We want perfect opaqueness for ourselves, and perfect transparency for others. But this cannot work, because applies to everyone. There's no point to a friends list where everyone is invisible.

I think that a better option, instead of invisibility, is to allow the option to "go dark" as a status. No one can see that you are online, but you can't tell if any of your friends are online either. To others you would appear offline, and everyone in your list appears offline. This would preserve the symmetry of the Battletag relationship. It gives you incentive to appear online as the default so you can see if your friends are online. But it would also allow you to play privately by yourself in peace.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

[Diablo 3] Release

Diablo 3 was released last night. I actually got home pretty late, so I decided to stay up for a little bit longer and see if I could get started at midnight.

I got the infamous "Error 37" for about half an hour or so, but eventually I was able to log in and play. I'm starting off with a Demon Hunter, mostly because I think she has the best voice. It's really too bad there's no knight/paladin archetype in D3.

I got to level 5 before deciding to go to sleep. The cutscenes are very nice. The game does seem a little harder than it was in beta, at least starting in the cathedral. But that might be because the first group I ran into was a pack of champion bats, with a couple harvesters mixed in, so maybe it's just a skewed first impression.

I am thinking about trying Hardcore mode, maybe even from the start. But I'm not sure I'm the type of person who can restart and replay from scratch when my character dies. I rather think I'd just end up playing something else instead. So maybe Hardcore isn't the best idea for me.

How were your Diablo experiences?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

[TERA] Looking For Group

One of the interesting things about TERA is that--even though it has a cross-server instance finder--transient dungeon groups often still form via the old method of asking in local chat. It seems sort of odd, given the experience in WoW, where the Dungeon Finder has completely displaced asking in chat.

So why does local chat still work for forming groups? I have several theories:

1. First, TERA's LFG has no rewards associated it. Using the instance finder has no innate bonus other than letting the system find a group for you.

2. Dungeons are located near people questing. So far, all the dungeons are in roughly the same area as the bulk of people at the correct level. This means that local chat is likely to contain all the people who might be interested. This is in contrast to WoW, where dungeons are often in a different zone, and especially SWTOR, where the dungeons were all back at Fleet.

3. Queue times for non-tanks are very long. TERA only has one tank class, Lancers, who are eligible for the Instance Finder. Thus the queue times for the other classes can be very long, up to half an hour for healers, and one to two hours for DPS. This makes it worthwhile for a non-tank class to start a local group.

However, tank classes have instant queues. So why would a tank class go with a local group, rather than jumping in the Instance Finder?

I think that part of it is the idea, maybe caused by WoW, that local groups are superior to random groups, which lack accountability. Personally, I don't see this in practice, in either WoW or TERA, but it is a very common belief.

However, I think another part of it is that local chat can get tanks who are beginning to tire of their current leveling activity. Because queues are instant, the choice as a Lancer is very binary. You either run the dungeon or you go questing. But maybe after doing a few quests, you're sort of wavering between continuing questing or going for an instance. Seeing a request for a tank can tip you over to one side, and might even allow you to feel altruistic for helping out an existing group.

Either way, it's an interesting phenomena. I am still not really sure why local chat and the instance finder coexist.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

[WoW Videos] Scarlet Toy



This is one of my favorite videos. Greyfoo does really good work, and this is one of his best.

It's interesting, because he did this video for the Rise To Power contest, and that contest produced a *lot* of really good videos. Yet another example of the idea that restrictions breed creativity.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Structure of Large and Small Guilds

Ratshag left a comment on the previous post on MMO decline, and I've decided to highlight his comment and my response:

I notice you done completely skipped over the change from 40-man raiding ta 10/25 what came in TBC. If'n yer arguements was correct, should there not have been a drop in subscriptions then? Afters all, it hit a lotta raidin' guilds hard, and hardest hit were the 15-or-so grunts what (accordin' ta conventional wisdom) was bein' carried. Leaders, not so much. So how's come the subscription numbers went up?
I also notice what you says 10-man raidin' came "into vogue" in mid/late-Rash. What does this mean? It started showin' up on magazine covers? I mean, 10-mans was more popular in terms of numbers of buggers startin' in Kara, and this never changed. 25-mans had better rewards all through the end of Rash of the Itch King, an' still offer a greater quantity. So is yer "in vogue" claim fer that point in time based on anythin' objective, or did ya fall inta a trap of "well, that's when subscriptions done peaked, so that musta been when 10-mans became more stylin'."?

I don't think that the drop from 40 to 25 really changed the "nature" of guilds. To put it another way, a 40-man guild is closer in structure to a 25-guild than a 25-man is to 10-man. A 25-man guild will maintain sub-groups like healers and tanks and ranged dps. But a 10-man generally only has the main group, with no subgroups. A 25 is far more likely to have formal loot structures, where a 10 will be mostly ad hoc.

Qualitatively, I would say that their is a point where a guild flips from "large" to "small" and that point is somewhere between 10 and 25. An interesting question might be 15-mans. Would they feel more like 10s or 25s?

Keep in mind that the guild needs more than the bare minimum. A 25-man guild is really more like 35 people, and a 40-man is closer to 50 or 60.

As for the timing, I don't think that Karazhan changed the nature of guilds. Everyone knew that future raids in TBC would be 25 man, so they temporarily bent their structure to accomodate Kara.

But I definitely think that around Ulduar, guilds started to internalize the idea that 10s were viable. Structure started shifting to accommodating 10s. Large guilds started forming subgroups, almost subguilds, that ran the 10s together.

In my view, it all comes down to structure. The structure of 40s is very similar to the structure of 25s. But that is different than the structure of 10s. Ulduar-ish was the time that guild structure started changing permanently, at least from my observations.

I just think the 40/25 structure was more conducive to retention than the 10 structure is.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cross-Realm Zones

I love Blizzard. Their playerbase is busy arguing about pandas and their dances. Then out of left field, Blizzard goes, "Hey guys, cross-realm zones. And they're seamless."

Ahh, Blizz, raising the bar for everyone else. Never stop.

I think we are seeing the beginning of the end of sharded servers. An end to the time when specific servers corresponded to specific pieces of hardware. Rumor has it that Blizzard basically operates a cloud of servers now, like Google, and the servers are all virtual.

I was wondering how they managed to put a million people in the Pandaria Beta with only four Beta servers.

I strongly suspect that Titan, Blizzard's next generation MMO, will be a single world for all players. Or possibly a world for each language and ruleset combination. And if Blizzard makes that truly seamless, with minimal or zero load screens, it will be an impressive feat.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

MMO Decline Caused By Move To Small Guilds

First, let's start with a caveat. The following theory is most likely not true. I doubt its validity, mostly because I would like it to be true, and that is always a dangerous sign. But I present it as a hypothetical for your delectation.

The modern MMO decline in subscriptions, as evidenced by World of Warcraft and The Old Republic, is being caused by the shift in the extended endgame to smaller groups and smaller guilds.

Let's look at at World of Warcraft. The decline in subscriptions starts in mid-to-late Wrath, when 10-man raiding starts coming into vogue. In Cataclysm, when 10-man raiding moved up to first-class citizen standing, the decline accelerated.

In The Old Republic, the primary endgame group size is 8-man. It is clear that the SWTOR has real trouble holding on to people at max level. Small guilds, built for a small group endgame, are just not sticky enough for significant player retention.

The one MMO which has shown continuous growth, even over the same time period, is Eve Online. And Eve bucks this trend in group size. Endgame in Eve trends toward larger and larger groups, with hundred-person fleets flying around.

If this idea is true, why would large raids, and the corresponding large guilds, be stickier than small raids?

First, and most importantly, there's a lot more room for "grunts" in a large guild. Grunts are average players who like playing the game, but don't really want to take on extra responsibility like the officers. If you take a 30-man raid size, and break it into 10-mans, I think you end up losing the bottom 10 players, just because there really isn't room for them in the subsequent guilds that form. I think a lot of people just want to play the game, and are perfectly willing to follow orders from someone more dedicated.

Second, larger guilds and sub-communities are more likely to have people playing during off-hours. They can feel less lonely, which contributes to people sticking around.

Third, turnover is more easily managed by larger groups. People leaving and joining is not as much of a big change to the group. A larger guild is also more likely to be able to absorb a smaller group of players. This is also true when a guild breaks up. It is easier for three or four 30-man guilds to each absorb a faction of players from the dead guild. In contrast, asking a 10-man guild to absorb 5 players strains the resources of that guild.

Fourth, the intra-guild bonds don't have to be as strong in larger guild, as they are in a smaller more tightly-knit group. They don't require the large effort to create, to maintain, and don't cause as much damage when they break. I think this is actually an advantage for a lot of players. They just want a casual, light relationship with their guild, not an intense one. I think this also makes it easier to apply to a new guild, and form bonds which are "strong enough".

Fifth, large group endgame requires a greater focus on technical performance by the developers. Does anyone believe that the SWTOR engine could handle 40-man raids? Whereas WoW could handle that 8 years ago. If 40-man raids had been a development requirement, SWTOR would have had to optimize earlier and harder. And that would have a lot of trickle-down performance improvements, especially for low-end machines and the performance of the levelling experience.

For these reasons, I think larger groups are just stickier and better for the extended game than smaller groups. Smaller groups are easier on the officers and the devoted, definitely. However, I think they cause a lot of the grunts to be unable to find a home at endgame, and thus they unsubscribe and fade away.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

[SWTOR] Subscriber Drop

The big news today is that Bioware revealed that The Old Republic has 1.3 million subscribers, a drop of 400,000 from their previously announced count of 1.7 million. I feel a bit sad for Bioware. I rather liked SWTOR, and if I wasn't boycotting Bioware, I think I still would be playing it.

As an aside, it's really been an annus horribilis for Bioware. Dragon Age 2 was not received that well, there was unprecedented audience outrage over the Mass Effect 3 ending, and The Old Republic is hemorrhaging subscribers. Here's hoping the good doctors manage to regroup.

In any case, the internet is awash in acrimony. Since no one has hard data, we all agree that the subscriber drop was because of the aspects that we personally did not like. If only Bioware had listened to us, and fixed whatever element was most important to us, the drop could have been averted.

Here are a couple thoughts, in no particular order.

Alt-Based Design

It really looks like alt-based design is not a good strategy. The Old Republic greatly rewards playing alts, with eight different (excellent, in my opinion) class storylines and the entire Legacy system. And yet, judging by the timeline, I would wager that the largest group of people who quit only had one max level character, and the second largest only had two.

To me, this strongly looks like encouraging alts is a losing strategy. The better strategy for MMO design might be to assume that most people play a single character all of the time. I mean, don't go out of your way to stop people from playing alts, but just design the game assuming that everyone focuses on one character.

To further compound things, the Legacy system may have actively hurt SWTOR. Only characters on the same server share and contribute to the same Legacy. This might have discouraged people from rolling alts on more populated servers, leaving people feeling like they were stuck on low pop backwaters.

Launch

Managing launch seems to be the most important element for a new game, especially one with a lot of hype. In hindsight, it might have been better to stick with fewer servers and longer queues, rather than open too many servers and then see drastic population drops.

Thinking about it, I wonder if one of the major reasons of WoW's success happened to be what happened at launch. I only started playing WoW about six months after launch. This was because the game was completely sold out. Blizzard had literally not printed enough physical copies to meet demand. This was before downloading large games became common.

But what that meant for Blizzard is that six months after launch, when they finally got a second wave of copies out to stores, there was a new rush of pent up demand, injecting a lot of new blood into the system. Servers that were heavily populated stayed heavily populated. Medium populated servers became heavily populated.

Suppose Bioware had capped the initial launch population at 500,000. And then only sold an additional 200,000 copies each month. That strategy may have worked out better for them, with continuous waves of new players topping up existing servers. Obviously, though, they wouldn't have made as much money up front as they did. And, of course, everyone on the internet would be outraged at being excluded.

But no one would be saying anything about a dying game. This sort of artificial exclusion model might be a better model for a genre which relies on a minimum necessary population, and yet also experiences a lot of churn.

Further Thoughts

I have one more crazy, off-the-wall hypothesis (yes, even by my standards). But I'll leave it for tomorrow.

All in all, there's no way to spin this subscriber drop as good news for SWTOR, though EA is trying hard. But I do hope that the population stabilizes, and the game moves forward. It is a good game, with decent ideas, and I would like to see what Bioware does with it.

Monday, May 07, 2012

[TERA] Tanking

Lancer tanking in TERA is the best implementation of tanking in any MMO that I have played.

Now you should take that with a grain of salt, as my Lancer is only level 28, and that is far from endgame tanking. But I thought I'd take a look at the mechanics of tanking in TERA, and what makes it different from WoW-style MMOs.

The Lancer is a shield tank. Her signature skill is Stand Fast. When you press the Stand Fast button, the Lancer brings up her shield to block enemy attacks from the front. She braces in place and continues blocking for as long as the button is held down. Blocking the enemy's attack is guaranteed, and absorbs a fixed amount of damage--not a percentage--from every attack. As well, players behind the tank are also shielded from damage.

One thing I should add here is that blocking an attack looks and sounds awesome. The character gets rocked back a bit, and there is a very distinctive clang as the attack connects with the shield. If the monster does an charge attack, the tank gets pushed back while continuously blocking, and that just looks spectacular. Bluehole did a spectacular job of making tanking appealing on a purely aesthetic level.

The key element here is that the amount of damage blocked is extremely large. Almost all attacks, including boss specials, are fully absorbed. Essentially, while the Lancer Stands Fast, she takes zero damage.

However, while she is blocking, the Lancer cannot deal damage or gain threat or mana. She must drop the block, making her vulnerable, in order to attack the enemy. And threat matters. The Lancer needs to fight for threat to keep the boss from going after the DPS or the healer.

Those two mechanics produce a marvellous tension. The Lancer must block, or she will take too much damage and die. The Lancer must attack, or she will lose the boss's attention. As well, the boss telegraphs his attacks through his animations. So the Lancer can observe the boss and identify times when it is safe to drop the block and attack, and the times where she absolutely must block.

I think the key here is the absoluteness of defence. In WoW, the choice between threat and survivability always went to survivability, because every inch made the tank less likely to die, and lessened the burden on the healer. In TERA, you know that if you block correctly, your defence is absolute, and so you are free to spend resources on threat. It moves the threat/balance trade-off from gearing to gameplay.

For example, right now I'm spending all my specialization points on threat. This means that fewer attacks build the same amount of threat, and thus I can spend more time blocking, and have more room for error.

The last part is positioning. WoW tanks spend a lot of time and effort positioning and moving bosses correctly. In TERA positioning doesn't seem to matter as much, as the bosses seem to run around like monkeys anyways, and the other characters are agile enough to dodge out of the way.

Now, there are downsides to the TERA model. In particular, it can be very unforgiving. The first time I tanked an instance, I dropped my shield at exactly the wrong moment, and got nailed by a boss special, which killed me because I was already a bit damaged. Tanks are somewhat rare in TERA, so maybe this is a cause. (Though it might be just because there are so many DPS classes compared to the tank classes.)

Perhaps the secret to the success of TERA tanking design is that the tank has control over both threat and survivability during gameplay, and has to balance both. In vanilla WoW, the tank didn't really control her damage intake outside of long-term cooldowns. Instead that was a function of her gear. She spent all her resources on threat and positioning. In modern WoW, threat no longer matters. Instead, the tank will spend her resources on mitigation and positioning. Neither style has the enjoyable tension that TERA tanking does.

Or perhaps the secret is just making the tank more responsible for her health, and the healer less responsible. You still need a healer in TERA, as it makes life a lot easier. But losing a healer isn't always an immediate loss, not the way it often is in WoW, because the tank can play very defensively and dramatically reduce the damage she takes, buying time for the DPS to finish the fight.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Advice to New Bloggers

So there's a New Blogger Initiative making the rounds. I was thinking about writing some advice, but I remembered that I've pretty much written all the advice I can think of before:

My advice is pretty basic. Keep things simple. Write steadily. Write for yourself.

For the write steadily part, I'm trying a new lifestyle technique for getting things done. It's called Don't Break The Chain, as advocated by Jerry Seinfeld. 

The idea is that you pick two or three activities that you want to improve on. For example, maybe cleaning/housework and blogging. Then say that you will spend 15 minutes every day on those activities, basically doing one small piece of the job. Then get a calendar, and every day you do the activity, you mark it off with a big red X.

The idea is to get into the daily habit, with the visual feedback of the calendar to spur you. Plus, it's only 15 minutes, which seems like a small amount of time. But you can get a lot done if you do those 15 minutes every day.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

WoW Videos: Dragonwrath: A Legendary Musical

Here's a really nice video and song about the Dragonwrath questline. The storybook conceit is very nicely done.



Hats off to Nananea and Sharm.

You know, an awful lot of stuff happened on that questline. I wonder if the Rogue quest was similarly eventful.

Friday, May 04, 2012

[Eve Online] Plex and Cheating, Part III

This will be the last post on the PLEX issue.

I still think PLEX is unfair. All the arguments for PLEX have sidestepped the basic unfairness issue, and pointed to the good effects that PLEX has. But at it's heart, Eve permits one faction of players to skip content for real money, but does not do the same for other players. It weakens the fidelity of the economic simulation that is Eve Online.

However, as Voltaire said, perfect is the enemy of good.

PLEX has lots of positive effects. It induces liquidity in the markets, causing ISK to be spent instead of hoarded. It decreases the effect of unsafe third party RMT in Eve. It allows the producers to avoid spending money on subscriptions. It allows people who don't like the "work" of producing to concentrate on the fun, and keeps them in the game, and paying subscriptions. It provides excitement for piracy and shipping. Killing an enemy carrying PLEX seems to be one of the great delights of Eve PvP.

On net, PLEX is probably a necessary evil for Eve Online. But it still has a cost, and that cost is the basic unfairness.

To annoy Wilhelm, I will make yet another analogy. PLEX is like the designated hitter rule in baseball, or shootouts in hockey. It's legal, it's in the rule book. It's popular, the crowds enjoy it. It might even be necessary for the continued health of the game. But baseball without the designated hitter is a purer form of baseball, as is hockey sans shootouts.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

[TERA] Impressions So Far

I am really enjoying TERA so far. It's a great deal of fun.

I adore combat as a Lancer. Bringing your shield up to block at just the right time, taking no damage from a big hit, is awesome, especially with the visual feedback provided. Blocking a huge monster as it does some sort of bullrush attack, pushing you backwards as you take the hits on your shield, taking no damage, makes you really feel like a tank. Chaining combos together is also neat, and the animations make combat very visceral.

The thing I like about PvE combat in TERA is that it is very interactive. In WoW and most other MMOs, what your opponent is doing doesn't really matter, aside from maybe interrupting or stunning. You go through your rotation, and the mob dies. TERA really encourages you to pay attention to the mob, to watch for the tells and block or dodge.

The game also performs very well, and is very responsive. The game is colorful, and feels fun and full of whimsy.

I also find some of the design and art decisions hilarious.  Here's my Lancer with shield and lance at the ready. Looks pretty awesome, with a great shield design:



Now here she is showing her armor:



The armor is just hilariously bad. It's like it's giving the monster a target to aim for. But somehow, instead of being annoyed at the armor, it just amuses me greatly.

Now, TERA has it's downsides. The questing is very old school, and is just an excuse to kill a new set of mobs, rather than tell some sort of important or memorable story. The writing is not particularly good either. It's decent, and occasionally very funny (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, and sometimes it's hard to figure out if it's intentional or not).

Some of the subsystems are unnecessarily complex. For example, enchanting a piece of armor requires another piece of the same slot of roughly equal item level as a raw material. But for some reason, you can't put many items in your bank. So I'm carrying around a dozen chestpieces just in case I need to enchant a new chestpiece.

There are also some interesting design decisions as well. For example, gathering materials gives you a small random buff, rewarding you for making gathering part of your questing and combat routine. For some reason, I absolutely love this feature. It really does not make a big difference in questing, but it just works for me.

As well, I really like how they are handling the launch rush. There are queues on some servers. But TERA has server transfers implemented, and the transfers will be free for the first little while. So even if your preferred server has a queue, you can start a character on a different server and eventually transfer over once everything gets sorted out. This strikes me as a really good balance, allowing the population to flow from server to server in response to the changing conditions of launch, without heavy-handed dev intervention.

There's also an instance finder, but groups are also forming in area chat. So right now, you have the best of both worlds. I've done the first dungeon twice, once through instance finder, and once through a local group.

As well, for some reason area chat seems to be hopping. Maybe it's because it's the RP server, maybe because the chat box can display more than three lines, or there's less system spam. But whatever the reason, it's a very nice change from the quietness of most recent MMOs.

All in all, I'm really enjoying TERA. It seems to strike this nice balance of being "different enough" from most WoW-like MMOs, while not being too different.  I definitely recommend the game so far, and think it's well worth the initial box price.

Edit: Another small thing I like is that the quest tracker has a button to track or untrack by area. So you can easily swap up your quest tracking when you change areas.

Also, to continue the inappropriate armor screenshots, I got a blue armor piece from the end boss of the first dungeon. I really don't know how TERA will top this:


One thing I do like is that the character's hairstyle changed, to adjust to the new armor. That was a nice touch.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

[Eve Online] PLEX and Cheating, Part II

I've been following Gevlon's comment thread, and I've realized that he and I are actually talking about two different aspects of PLEX.

PLEX versus Economic Simulation

From the outside, one of the main attractions of Eve Online is that it is this huge economic simulation with hundreds of thousands of actors. People harvest resources, refine resources, produce goods, trade, purchase and use those goods. Then you add on the player conflict overlaid on top of all that. It is a magnificent economic simulation and experiment.

It is amazing to realize that the ammo I purchase to shoot pirates was produced by another player, as is the ship I fly in and modules which the ship is outfitted in.

The thing about this economic simulation is that you can trace the flow of wealth, see how all the interlocking transactions combine into one harmonious whole. And each transaction makes sense within the universe.

But then, inside this beautiful simulation, you have some extremely large transactions that simply do not make sense within the context of the universe. Half a billion ISK transferred from one player to another, for no discernible rhyme or reason. That transaction weakens the economic simulation, warps it slightly, has trickle-down effects, and makes the whole thing less real than it could be.

PLEX as a Means of Skipping Content

Some people are producers. They enjoys earning ISK, either by harvesting resources or trading or producing goods. They do not enjoy being attacked by other players. But they deal with that inconvenience, and adjust their gameplay to defend or mitigate against that possibility.

PLEX buyers are consumers. They enjoy expending ISK, often on attacking other players. They do not enjoy earning ISK.

However, unlike the producers, the consumers don't have to deal with their inconveniences. They don't have to adjust their gameplay to compensate. They can spend real money to skip the part of the game they don't enjoy.

That is the part which is not fair. The situation is not symmetrical. One faction can skip the part of the game they do not enjoy, while the other faction cannot.

Consider the following hypothetical. Suppose CCP sold, for real money, an IMMORTAL module which rendered your ship immune to player attack (but disabled your weapons while installed). The module would have a lifespan of one month of real-time, after which it would self-destruct.

Would the Eve playerbase be okay with such a module? Or would using it be considered cheating?

After all, all it does is equalize the situation between producers and consumers. The consumer can buy PLEX to skip the parts of the game he doesn't enjoy. The producer can buy IMMORTAL modules to skip the parts of the game which she doesn't enjoy.

Yet I suspect that the Eve loyalists would howl if IMMORTAL modules were ever sold by CCP. But in many ways IMMORTAL modules are no different than PLEX in their effect on how an individual enjoys the game.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

[Eve Online] Is PLEX Cheating?

Gevlon wrote a post saying essentially that PLEX was cheating. PLEX is essentially a a game card for 1 month of game-time, that is purchased from CCP for real money, but can be sold in game for virtual currency. Gevlon was promptly jumped on by Eve loyalists in the comments. However, I think he is sort of right.

Though, "cheating" is not precisely the right word.

Rather, I would say that PLEX is against the spirit of Eve Online. Eve is a sandbox game, a virtual universe inside which one builds a virtual existence more or less from scratch. Allowing outside transactions to affect transactions inside the virtual universe seems to cut against the whole sandbox idea.

It kind of comes back to the notion of inconvenience. It is certainly convenient for, as an example, PvP pilots to buy PLEX to fund their games. But there is a price for that. Those pilots don't have to work, to participate in the game economy, for those funds. If PLEX did not exist, they would have to do something, produce something of value, before they could get to what they think is the fun part.

Maybe they would take up mining, maybe they would become pirates. Who knows? But not having to do that does distort the economy in some small fashion. It weakens the notion of Eve as a self-contained sandbox universe.

But maybe PLEX is a necessary evil. Maybe its existence spices up gameplay, and makes the economy more liquid, with more and larger transactions moving around. Maybe the alternative is those players quitting Eve instead of continuing to play. Maybe it means that CCP would make less money, and not be able to fund development as Eve deserves. Maybe third-party ISK sellers would fill the void, leading to the same result, but with a lot more unfortunate side-effects.

Ultimately, inconvenience is what makes a world a world, and not just a game. PLEX is convenient, but makes Eve less of a world, and more of a game.