Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Critique of the Mass Effect 3 Ending

(Yeah, this post is like one giant spoiler. Spoilers for Mass Effect, Macbeth, Knights of the Old Republic, Lord of the Rings and A Tale of Two Cities below the cut!)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut

The ending to Mass Effect 3 is fundamentally, fatally, flawed. Barring a complete rewrite, it cannot be fixed, and will never rise to the standard of a good ending, let alone a great one.

That being said, the Extended Cut is a vast improvement over the previous ending. This ending is significantly stronger, and significantly more cohesive. The Extended Cut is still a poor ending, and is not the ending the Mass Effect series deserves. But it is better than the absolute travesty that preceded it.

(Spoilers below the cut!)

Monday, June 25, 2012

D3 RMT, ME3, and TSW

Real Money Auction House and Third-Party Real Money Trade

In the comments on the last post, Redbeard asks,

Whaddya think that the RMAH is attracting the credit card thieves?

Honestly, I would wager that all the RMAH traffic is legitimate.

The thing is that when you are engaging in something illegal, you don't want someone who opposes you to have control of the money. If the credit card thieves used the RMAH, Blizzard would have more opportunities to detect and stop it. And, most importantly, Blizzard would have an opportunity to prevent the thieves from cashing out.

It's like if you do something illegal in the real world, you pay in cash. Cash is not traceable, and a cash transaction cannot be stopped by the bank.

Similarly, I would think that most RMT operations will use their own credit card operations to cash out, rather than relying on their enemy, Blizzard.

Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut

The Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut comes out tomorrow. Hopefully the Bioware which made the first 99% of ME3 will show up.

The unfortunate part is that I have to leave town on Thursday and won't be back until next week sometime. Here's hoping I have enough time to finish all the content on Tuesday and Wednesday evening.  Given my flight leaves at 7am, I'm even considering pulling an all-nighter Wednesday, to finish the game and make sure I don't miss my flight.

I do hope that the EC is good and rectifies the mistakes of the ending instead of doubling down. I would like to stop boycotting Bioware and play The Old Republic for a bit.

The Secret World

There's an old superstition that a bad dress rehearsal foretells a good opening night. Hopefully this holds true for Funcom. The last beta weekend seemed a lot buggier than the previous one. Not to mention that they disabled the Investigative quests, which are a main selling point of the game, in my view. I really wonder why they did that.

I am rather on the fence about TSW. It is very interesting, but at the same time it is a bit unpolished, and the early adopters will struggle through it.

The other thing I am not thrilled with is that Funcom is offering a Lifetime subscription. In my experience, Lifetime subscriptions just mean that the game will go F2P. Probably sooner rather than later, once the game company realizes that its most enthusiastic players are no longer paying for the game.

I think ME3 will be the deciding factor for me. If the EC is good, I'll play The Old Republic. If the EC is bad, I'll play The Secret World instead.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Diablo and Rift Expansion Purchase News

A couple of items that caught my interest today.

Diablo Digital Purchase Restriction

Now when you purchase a digital copy of Diablo III, you are restricted to a Starter Version for 72 hours.

Blizzard must be having serious problems with stolen credit cards to take such a drastic step. I would wager that hackers/gold farmers are using stolen credit cards to purchase digital editions, make a throwaway account, use it to launder or convey gold in some fashion, and then repeat when Blizzard bans the account.

Credit card charge-backs are a serious issue for merchants, as Visa and Mastercard heavily punish merchants who have a high volume of fraudulent transactions.

My guess is that Blizzard is implementing this delay to make purchasing "temporary" digital copies an unattractive option for hackers while they work on a technical solution. I would imagine that the next patch will probably lock out trading or using the Auction House until you are level 13, or maybe until the Skeleton King is beaten.

RIFT Expansion Including Base Game For Free

I have to say that Trion's Marketing people are impressive. From Massively:

Storm Legion will apparently include the full version of RIFT along with it, allowing new players to pick up the expansion and experience both the core game and the additions without restriction. 
Of course, this sounds like less of a deal if you already own RIFT, but you're covered there as well, as existing players can expect a price discount on purchasing the expansion.

Let's see (all numbers made up for demonstrative purposes). Let's say Trion prices Storm Legion at $40, but says that if you already own RIFT, you can get a $10 discount:

Storm Legion + RIFT = $40
Storm Legion = $40 - $10 = $30

Subtracting both sides,

RIFT = $10

This is a very interesting definition of the word "free". It is mathematically identical to Trion saying that RIFT costs $10 and Storm Legion costs $30, and the combination costs $40. Only Trion's way of phrasing it will net them slightly more money because a percentage of current RIFT owners will not use the discount or coupon.

Yet the internet appears to be amazed at Trion's generosity. Well done, Trion Marketing!

That's not to say that it's a bad idea. I've always thought that expansion packs should just contain the full game. It means there's only one SKU running around. There's no chance of buying the wrong version. New players get access to the entire game right from the start. It's clean and easy, and really the only problem is dealing with the old unsold physical boxed sets.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Black Market Auction House

In Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard is opening a Black Market Auction House. This auction house is bid-only (no buyout) and will feature rare items like mounts and pets. Stuff that is traditionally hard to get, like Rivendare's mount, or Ashes of Al'ar, and requires a lot of farming.

(There's also a possibility that the current tier Heroic raid and PvP gear will show up on the Black Market. As Theck points out, this specifically is a horrific idea. It will cause a lot of issues with Loot as Investment, and I think also devalues those items as Loot as Reward.)

The purpose of the Black Market is to serve as a gold sink for whales. A way for goblins to spend hundreds of thousands of gold without greatly impacting the rest of us. I'm sure that the Black Market will fulfill this goal.

I don't think I have any items that would actually be sold on the Black Market. Maybe an Ulduar or Firelands drake. I certainly do not have enough gold to buy anything off it. So maybe my point of view is skewed.

However, I don't think the Black Market is a good idea. The type of items that would be sold are the type of items that generate stories.

Stories about how it dropped for your guild and you won the roll, or how guild all passed the item to you. Or stories about how you farmed for days, and it finally dropped for you. Or how you worked with a small group of people to get everyone their mount. Or even how you're a lucky punk and you accidentally found and killed the rare spawn while questing without even knowing it dropped a mount.

These are the type of items that bloggers would make blog posts about, and other people would jump in comment about their experiences. Everyone who gets one of these items has some sort of interesting story to tell.

In some respects, the story of how you got the item is more important than the item.

And to all these stories Blizzard is proposing to add, "Actually, I bought it from an NPC on the Black Market."

How exciting.

Ah well, it could worse. It could be a Real Money Auction House.

Edit: I've thought of a parallel situation: the warlock and paladin class mounts. Back in Vanilla, every paladin and warlock had a story about their class mount. There was lots of farming, and you had to rely on friends and guildies. Then Blizzard just gave out the class mount from the trainer, and all those stories dried up. Maybe it was necessary because of the level cap increase, maybe it wasn't. But I think that the Black Market will end up doing for all those rare mounts/pets/items what the trainer mounts did for the paladin and warlock class. And I think the game will be worse off for it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Reasons for the Backsliding in Portrayals of Women

I've noticed that several game bloggers have seemed despondent due to the notion that the game industry is backsliding on its portrayal of women. I don't think they're wrong that this backsliding is happening, but I don't think they understand why it is happening. Because they are supremely confident in the righteousness of their cause, a lot of these bloggers seem have written off the other side as unrepentant misogynists, and have not taken the time to understand why the game companies are acting as they are.

In my view, people are basically rational. They have underlying reasons that drive the way they act. Sometimes the reasons are illogical or not the best reasons, but they are reasons none the less. So what is the reasoning of many current game companies?

Let me illustrate what I think the underlying reason behind much of the backsliding through an example. Here is Trion's poster child, Crucia, for their upcoming RIFT expansion, Storm Legion:


Crucia is front and center on all the expansion materials. Her depiction is obviously going to upset or annoy most feminist gamers. Trion has to know this. So why did they go this route?

Here's a question for you. If a game company publicly says that they are looking to expand into the female market, to attract more female players, which of the following is more likely:
  1. The game will become easier.
  2. The game will become harder.
Or
  1. Pet-collecting will be added to the game.
  2. Player vs. Player combat will be added to the game.
If we are honest, we know that the Option 1 is more likely in both cases. Those ideas may or may not attract female gamers in reality, but we know which direction a game company is going to go in when they say they want more women.

Because this causal relationship is real, the reverse signal works as well. A signal that the company is slightly female-unfriendly is also a signal that the game will emphasize difficulty and more hardcore elements like PvP.

Back to Trion, who is their biggest competitor who is also launching an expansion this year? That's right, World of Warcraft, with Mist of Pandaria.  So Trion is setting up a very stark contrast: fluffy pandas vs Crucia.

It's all about signalling. In the past few years a lot of game companies have chased the casual and female markets, very often by watering down difficulty and other game elements that the dedicated gamer playerbase enjoys. The change in the portrayal of women for many game companies, including Trion and a lot of the companies at E3, is a signal that the game companies are refocusing on their base, and are implementing mechanics that the base enjoys. It is also a signal that the company is focusing on an older audience, rather than trying to attract kids.

It is a clumsy signal, in my view. It risks alienating players who would otherwise try the game. But I think it is an effective signal--not to mention that it does attract the male eye--and that is why a lot of game companies are employing it today.

Monday, June 18, 2012

More Thoughts on The Secret World Beta

Here are some more assorted thoughts from this weekend's beta of The Secret World

Voice

The Secret World is heavily voiced. However, unlike SWTOR, there are no conversations. Your character stays silent. Rather it's mostly NPCs monologuing at you. It's not bad, but it's not amazing either, and it does add some ambience to the area. You can skip a lot of the talk if you prefer.

Graphics

I don't really know about graphics. They look fine to me, but pretty much every game in the last two or three years has looked fine to me. I saw a couple of complaints in chat about the graphics, but really I thought they were good. I was also playing with a high resolution, but lowest quality graphics.

Content

The Secret World is clearly aimed at adults (at least compared to most games). There's a fair bit of swearing and some sexuality. Nothing really explicit, that I saw. I'd say it would be rated somewhere between PG-13 and R. A full R seems a touch excessive.

System Requirements

TSW does not meet my standard for MMOs, which is that it should be playable on the second computer in a household. But it comes really close. Frankly, the performance is much better than I expected from Funcom.

Crafting

Crafting is rather complicated, and I did not understand it in the least. That might be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your preferences.

As far as I can tell, you need to break down existing item into material components. Then arrange components in a specific shape which determines what type of item you get.

Polish

The game is pretty polished. The UI is clean and very usable. Of course, I love having separate defensive and offensive targets.

One thing I particularly like is that the outline of enemy AoEs and specials are drawn on the ground in a sort of chalk-like effect. Then a second outline expands from the enemy out to the edges of the first outline and when the two meet the effect goes off. Basically, you have to outrun the second line and get outside the first line to avoid damage. I thought it was a very neat way of displaying that information in the game world, without requiring you to watch for cast bars.

Responsiveness

It's pretty decent, but not the best. I didn't notice any major issues, but characters don't handle quite perfectly. In particular, it feels a little too "slippery" if that makes any sense. There's not enough "weight" to moving models.

Quest Journal

Edit: I completely forgot this system, but it's worth commenting on.

The quest journal system is rather weird. You can only have 1 main storyline quest, 1 major quest, and 3 minor quests at any given time. If you pick up another major quest, your old quest is paused and you have to go back to the original questgiver to pick it up again. Thankfully, most of your progress is saved. This is an interesting system because it really forces you to concentrate on one quest at a time. Like a lot of elements in The Secret World, I expect this to be a very polarizing design.

Final Thoughts

I think The Secret World will not be for everyone. The setting, content, and character mechanics are rather different than the norm.

I would recommend giving it a try, with the expectation that you probably won't subscribe. (Maybe wait for a sale if you're on the fence.) If you go into it with the expectation that it is the best game ever, I think you'll be disappointed. But I think that the people who do like it will be very enthusiastic.

I also think that you might be surprised by your reaction to the game, both positive and negative. Some people who think they will like the game will hate it, and others who think they will hate it will end up loving it.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Character Progression in The Secret World

The character conceit of The Secret World is that you are a normal person who suddenly gains "powers" and is then recruited and trained by one of three secret societies: the Illuminati, the Templars, and the Dragon.

Character creation is reasonably good, you have a fair amount of options when it comes to your face and starting outfit. I created a female, Coriel, and joined the Templar faction. The Illuminati are far and away the most popular society, and I don't know anything about the Dragon other than there is a bit of oral sex in the Dragon introduction.

The Secret World does not have classes or explicit levels. However, it does have roles and implicit levels. It is a fair bit different from most MMOs, and does take a little getting used to.

What abilities you get depends on your weapon, and your training with the weapon. Weapons are central to characters. The idea is that you channel your powers through your weapon. There are 3 weapon categories: guns, magic, and melee weapons. There are 3 weapons in each category: pistols, shotguns, rifles, chaos magic, blood magic, elemental magic, swords, hammers, and claws.

The basic idea is that you must have a rifle equipped to use a rifle ability. As you earn experience points you gain Ability Points that you can spend to unlock passive and active abilities in each weapon. Costs tend to follow a pattern where the first few abilities are very cheap, and then the cost steadily rises. However, the most expensive abilities appear to be more specialized, rather than strictly better damage.

The key element here is that you are only allowed 7 active abilities and 7 passive abilities at any one time. But you can wield two weapons. So you spend Ability Points to gain abilities with the two weapons you have chosen, and mix and match abilities to create a useful set of 7.

Actual combat is very similar to other MMOs. You target creatures and use abilities. The general pattern is combo point generators and finishers. However, there are some subtleties. Guns generate combo points on the target. Magic generates combo points on the character. Melee also generates points on the character, but I think the points are automatically gained with time (when in combat), without necessarily needing to use generators.

Certain weapons adhere to certain roles. Healing can be found in rifles, blood magic, and claws. Tanking is swords, hammers, and chaos magic. Most other trees have support abilities in addition to damage. As well, different weapons prefer or create different conditions, so it's up to you to use two weapons which synergize.[1]

The thing is that Ability Points do not increase character power directly, they only give you more abilities. Character progression is governed by gear. Gear has "Quality Levels", and you are more powerful with better gear. But you can't just wear any gear.

In addition to Ability Points, there are Skill Points. Skill Points are earned 1 every 3 Ability Points. You invest Skill Points into each weapon and gear type. Each level of skill costs increasing points, but also gives you a bonus with that weapon. You can't equip weapons or gear which are more than one level higher than your skill. So this is the aspect which creates the implicit levels.

Monsters and missions essentially take your current gear into account when determining if something is easy or hard. You'll see people asking for groups by QL. For example, people like QL3 for the first dungeon (which I didn't get to).

So basically, there is a short steep vertical progression, but also a fairly broad horizontal progression. There are twelve or so default builds given in the game, so you can just follow those builds if you are at a loss. I think you even get some cosmetic outfits if you complete a default build.

Gear is essentially amulets and trinkets, in addition to your weapons. Clothing is separate and cosmetic, and I guess must be bought or given as mission rewards.

The thing about The Secret World is that missions are repeatable if you want, they have a cooldown of a day or so after you finish them. So you are never stuck without a way to earn XP. There's no such thing as "respeccing" because you just earn more AP and SP. In theory, one could eventually unlock every single weapon ability and every single skill level.

For example, I figured Coriel would play as a healer, so I chose my first weapon as a rifle. After a while I put a couple of points into pistols for my second weapon. But I didn't like pistols, so I went to elemental magic instead. I have one elemental attack, and one elemental passive that puts a small DoT on the mob when I crit, even with a rifle attack.

Gear is role dependent. Tank gear has more health and less attack power. Healing gear has +heal instead of +attack, which does not boost your damage abilities. This may cause some people to shy away from healing and tanking roles. But it's not a permanent choice.

However, The Secret World also has my favorite UI element: a defensive and offensive target, as in Warhammer Online. Thus a lot of the healing abilities, especially with rifles, are really "leeches" which convert damage to healing.

I think that's a reasonable overview of character progression. The key points are weapons being the focus through which everything flows and determining playstyle, Ability Points to unlock usable abilities, a restricted set of passive and active abilities that can be used at any given time, and Skill Points to govern the quality of gear that your character can use.

1. I was looking on the forums, and some of the theorycrafters were talking about a concept called "bridge passives" which are passive abilities from a third weapon tree that could be used to get two non-synergistic weapons to play nicely with each other.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

First Impressions of The Secret World

So, how do you feel about Mankrik's wife?

Amusingly, right after I wrote the last post, I got a Beta weekend key for Funcom's upcoming MMO, The Secret World. Here is a quick write up of my first impressions. I'm going to cover character mechanics in a separate post.

The setting of The Secret World is the modern world, but one where the supernatural is seeping in, and organizations like the Templars and the Illuminati are dealing with the darkness. This is a very interesting choice, because a lot of history and backstory is real history. There is a great sense of mystery and a bit of horror.

The Secret World is like an old school adventure game (King's Quest, The Longest Journey, etc.) crossed with a quest-driven MMO. I hesitate to say "themepark" because the defining measure of themepark MMOs is hand-holding on the quests, and The Secret World does not hold hands. There's sometimes a little bit of help from the map, especially for kill quests, but often you just have to figure out what to do from the quest and clues.

For example, one early quest has a step which requires you to log into a doctor's computer. But the computer requires a password. In the room, there's a picture of fireworks with the caption "The day I met Helen, listening to my favorite composer". The computer also gives two password hints: "music of the seasons" and "1723". Thus we realize that the password is "Vivaldi", who composed The Four Seasons in 1723.

If you didn't know that, or weren't able to guess that, the game has a built in browser you can bring up and google things. Googling those two clues will bring up articles on Vivaldi. This makes total sense, because in a world with smartphones, Google is at most a call away.

There are other quests like that. Some of them are simple jumping puzzles, where you have to figure out how to get to the right spot. Others involve things like hiding in the shadows and avoiding spotlights which move in a pattern. There's also the standard kill and fetch quests.

Of course, the big issue with puzzle quests is that they can be solved and the answers put online. Not to mention that general chat is pretty much, "What's the solution to X?" It's like everyone asking where Mankrik's wife is, back in the Barrens.

It's a pretty interesting experience, to have to turn your brain back on during questing. I'm not really sure how this will work in groups. The thing about groups is that there is always one guy who will immediately google the solution, before even thinking about it.

I guess we'll see how all the voices who cry out for MMO innovation deal with actual innovation. The setting of The Secret World is unique, as is much of the gameplay.

However, I rather think that The Secret World will end up as a niche game, but one with an extraordinarily loyal following. I would also wager that the resulting community will be one of the best MMO communities to be a part of.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World

I haven't really posted anything about a couple of anticipated MMOs: Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World. This is because I'm not really enthused about either of them, but for different reasons. Also, I may just have New MMO Fatigue.

Guild Wars 2

I find the hype and advocacy for this game a little off-putting. It might be really good. But the atmosphere and situation really reminds me of Warhammer Online, and we all know how that turned out.

I'm also not a fan of F2P and cash shops. Game devs need to eat, and invariably game design ends up pushing you towards the cash shop. In a subscription game, the necessary monetary transaction is taken care of up front, rather than needing to push the players into it. As well, I don't like how F2P games end up relying on a narrow slice of the player base. Sub games end up resting on the shoulders of the entire player base. I think that is more fair, and more likely to lead to good results for everyone.

As well, there just hasn't been any element that has jumped out and grabbed me. There are several elements that look somewhat interesting, but nothing seems worth getting up for.

Finally, it's a non-Trinity game. I don't see what the replacement basic game skeleton is, and so I assume it's going to end up as a zerg. I'm not a fan of zergs.

The Secret World

Here's four requirements for a successful MMO:

  1. Responsiveness [1]
  2. Lack of Bugs
  3. Polish
  4. Low System Requirements
I do like Funcom's willingness to try new things. I thought Age of Conan broke a lot of new ground in mechanics, as did Anarchy Online back in the day. I am sure that The Secret World will continue that tradition.

But I was there for the launch of Anarchy Online and Age of Conan. Those four requirements above are the antithesis of Funcom's modus operandi. I would be absolutely shocked if The Secret World met any single one of those requirements, let alone all four.

I guess I just don't have the patience to work through buggy messes any more, even if they are highly innovative buggy messes.

Also, I'm still unhappy about Dreamfall.

1. Responsiveness is the lack of delay between pushing a button and the action occurring. WoW is still the gold standard here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

TERA Updates

I've pretty much been "Diablo'd out", so I've gone back to TERA. I'm still chugging along the lower levels, up to 38 now. Here are some thoughts, in no particular order.

  • Sometimes the quest text can be very funny. There's a magic academy, a la Harry Potter, at some point, and bad magic has taken over. You have to go in and clean things up. Here's the turn in text for one of the early quests:

  • Since the Lancer is a tank class, questing can be slow. However, I found a quick guide on the forums that has helped enormously. The basic steps, if any other Lancers are having difficulty:
    1. Don't block unless you have to, which is pretty much only red flash attacks.
    2. Use health regen and mana regen crystals.
    3. Alternate between the Shield Barrage - Shield Barrage - Spring Attack combo and a basic Combo Attack.
    4. Use Second Wind on cooldown to keep your health up.
  • One of the things I really like about TERA is that there is a lot of zone chatter. For some reason, a lot of newer MMOs have felt extraordinarily quiet. I attribute it to the design of the chatbox, or something, but TERA seems to have that magic where people actually talk. Or maybe it's just because I'm on the RP server.
  • There's even an LFG channel which has sort of morphed into a general chat channel simultaneously. But I don't seem to mind the chatter on the channel. It somehow has hit the right note between talkative and spammy. I think one of the reasons it works is that you can only send a message to the channel once every 60s. I think this prevents one or two individuals from dominating the channel, allows many people to chime in, and also reduces the total messages sent to that channel. I think this cooldown might even be a general quality-of-life improvement for any public chat channel.
  • If you'd like to try out TERA, there seems to be two options:

    1. Instant Demo - I have no idea how this works, but it's some sort of streaming demo which does not require a download. Some people say they have had good results, but you might need a higher quality internet connection.

    2. Seven Day Trial - The standard download and play for seven days. I think you can get up to level 23, which is enough to do the first dungeon and the BAMs (Big Ass Monsters - monsters which require a group and have lots of special moves).

    Both of these options are for the North American version of the game. The European version is run by a different company. (Frogster, I believe.) I've heard that the latency for Europe to NA is not that bad, at least for a trial. Of course, if you make characters on the NA servers during the trial, they won't exist if you sign up for the Euro version.
  • Finally, the section you've all been waiting for: the latest Inappropriate Lancer Armour:


  • The one on the left is really terrible, but the one on the right is surprisingly not bad. Though maybe my standards have just been battered down.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Competition and Collaboration

I came across an interesting theory on team dynamics by a commenter on Reddit:

With competition, you must advertise your strengths and downplay your weaknesses. The reason is so that you can maintain an edge over your teammates. The team functions like a poker competition. The competition resolves which member has the strongest set of skills so that the most difficult work can be assigned to the one with the greatest skill. This minimizes the risk of failure. 
With collaboration, you must advertise your weaknesses and downplay your strengths. The reason is so that the difficult high-risk work can be assigned or divided efficiently among the group. It ensures the difficult work is assigned away from those with the least skill, which is another way to minimize the risk of failure. It's also a demonstration of honesty for the purpose of establishing trust. Trust is critical for fostering an environment for collaboration.

I'm not sure I fully agree with this breakdown, but it is a neat way to look at the issue.

The key problem is that you want tasks to be assigned to people to match skills. But skill is an unknown and must be "discovered". Collaboration sounds better, but what if competition is actually more accurate at skill discovery?

The big problem comes when their is a signalling mismatch. If someone's ability to signal strength outdoes their actual strength in competition, or someone's ability to signal weakness overstates their weakness.

The actual comment comes up in a discussion of gender approaches to teamwork (guess which gender is assumed to use which model!), but I think the gender angle is unnecessary. I think the two models are worth looking at on their own.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Thoughts on the Trinity

It has become fashionable among the MMO literati to denigrate Trinity-based gameplay for PvE, which are games with a group composition of tank, healer, and damage dealers. I disagree with this view. I consider the Trinity-based system to be strongest group system for MMOs presented thus far, especially for the fantasy genre.  Here are some thoughts on the Trinity system.

A Digression on Magic

A few years ago, according to Mark Rosewater, the Magic: the Gathering design team conducted an experiment. They stripped Magic down to its fundamentals, playing "vanilla" games with basic land, basic creatures without abilities, and basic spells. The simplest game of Magic you can think of.

They found that--far from being boring--these vanilla games were surprising fun and intricate. They didn't need the crazy complex spells to make the game interesting. The basic skeleton of Magic was more than fun enough to sustain gameplay.

They also discovered that a lot of the fun came from the interaction between attacking and blocking creatures. This did not happen as often in the Magic of that time period because cheap removal spells had made it a lot easier for players to clear a path, or evasion abilities to avoid being blocked.

Because of this experiment, Magic R&D cut back significantly on complexity in future expansions, especially on non-rare cards, made removal scarcer and creature combat more important. They moved Magic back towards its vanilla nature.

This approach has made Magic enormously successful, with current sets setting new sales records, and outselling previous sets. An outstanding achievement for a game that is approaching 20 years of age.

The lesson here is that, for a game system, the very basic game system around which everything else is built should be fun in and of itself. You should not rely on complexity to add fun.

Relevance to MMOs

The above anecdote crystallized some of my thoughts on the Trinity. In my view, the very basic Trinity gameplay is a tank tanking a monster, the damage dealers killing the monster, and the healer keeping the tank up. This very basic, very vanilla, gameplay is fun. You don't need to have all the crazy, wacky abilities. Those extra abilities add spice and interest. But I think the Trinity skeleton is strong enough to sustain itself.

You don't need things like coordinating cooldowns or excessive dancing to make Trinity games fun.

This is in sharp contrast to all the non-Trinity gameplay I've played. The vanilla skeleton of those games is usually just a zerg, with the monster switching attacks at random. I don't think the zerg is fun. It contains none of the teamwork of the Trinity, none of the sense of the group being stronger than the individual components.

The Third Role

That's not to say that the current Trinity is perfect. But the real issue with the Trinity is that one role, damage dealing, is far more popular than the other two roles. The problem is not with Trinity gameplay, the problem is constructing the Trinity in the first place.

Here's an idea: what if the third role was not damage dealing? What if it was something else, like debuffs, or interrupts, or crowd control?

This would immediately allow the game company to equalize damage across all three classes. That would mean that healers or tanks could do as much damage as the other role. This would make soloing much easier, and would make tank and healer classes more attractive. It would also mean that you could do something like requiring a group of five to need one tank, one healer, one debuffer, and two others. That would give more flexibility for group composition.

Threat

A lot of Trinity games, especially WoW, have made threat a non-issue when tanking. And yet, when we look at the vanilla Trinity gameplay, I think threat is actually important. It's a large part of the interaction between damage dealing and tanking.  I think basic threat is a large part of what makes the Trinity gameplay tick.

That means that the modern move away from threat is working against the natural skeleton of the Trinity. That it might be better to re-emphasis threat, to cut away the elements that make threat excessively pointless.

To re-emphasize threat means a couple changes would have to be made. The tank losing threat cannot always be an auto-loss. The tank needs to regain threat quickly, but the group should be able to survive the mob switching targets temporarily.

In my opinion, one really sees how this works when tanking in TERA. There, the trade-off between threat and reducing damage is explicit. I think it emphasizes something that WoW tanking has lost.

Conclusions

Those are my thoughts on Trinity gameplay. The basic skeleton is fun and engaging. In my opinion, vanilla Trinity is far more fun than any other proposed vanilla system, especially the zerg.

However, I am not sure that the third role in the Trinity should be damage dealing. It might be better to equalize damage across all three roles, and have the third role take care of a different function.

Finally, I think the move away from threat is a mistake. Threat is an important part of vanilla Trinity gameplay. However, I think that the complexity of modern fights has masked that factor. Trinity MMOs might be better served by reducing complexity, but re-emphasizing threat.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Upcoming Changes to SWTOR

Amid all the angst over The Old Republic's performance (or lack thereof), there were a couple of interesting tidbits about future developments.

Level Cap Increase

This is interesting because Bioware did not announce an formal expansion, which is the traditional place where the level cap gets increased. So it's very speculative as to what exactly Bioware means by increasing the level cap and what are the ramifications for existing endgame content.

One thought I had is what if it is a very small increase, only one or two levels. So the new level cap could be 52 instead of 50. That would mean that end game content is still valid for capped characters. But increasing character level is a valid way of gaining power, not just getting new gear.

But maybe Bioware is going for a mini-expansion, like DLC. This would be an interesting turn of events, especially if it came with some amount of paid time.

A Dungeon Without Combat

In an interview with Massively, Daniel Erickson tosses out that in the pipeline there is "a new dungeon that basically is an adventure game with no combat".

That sounds particularly intriguing. I wonder what it will be like, what it will include to encourage replayability. Puzzles? Conversations? Will there be randomness?

I think its good to see Bioware continuing to change things up, to try out new ideas. Hopefully, subscriptions will stabilize for them, and The Old Republic will continue improving.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Spirit as the Primary Healer Stat

Currently in WoW, healer and caster gear overlap. Both roles use Intellect as the primary stat. Intellect + Hit gear is considered caster-only, Intellect + Spirit gear is considered healer-only, and other Intellect gear can be used by both roles.

What if healers got their spell power from Spirit, rather than Intellect?

That would make Spirit a primary stat, not a secondary stat. It would make the division between healers and casters more obvious, and would have them chase their own unique gear.

From an aesthetic standpoint it would be nice, as each "attribute" is now a primary stat. Instead of having four of them be primary, and one secondary, which seems weird. It would be a lot easier for Blizzard to control healer mana regen, as both spell power and mana regen would key off the same stat.

It would prevent mistakes like when a healer takes a hit piece of gear, or a caster takes Spirit gear. It also wouldn't be that hard to adjust current gear, as a lot of healer gear has Spirit already.

Spirit gear would also balance melee gear. Right now, melee gear has a hard split between Strength and Agility gear, while caster/healer gear has a soft split. A hard split would make the number of people vying for each piece more equitable. Compare the number of people in a raid who want an Agility ring to those who want an Intellect ring. Usually there's twice or more people gunning for that Intellect ring. That means that the Intellect ring has to drop more often to keep things even.

There are several downsides to this idea, however. The biggest is that it does create several new categories of "single-spec" gear: Intellect leather (balance druid); Spirit mail (resto shaman); and Intellect mail (elemental shaman). As well, paladins would no longer be able to use caster swords. Druids and Shaman would need to collect separate DPS and healing sets.

It's probably too big of a change for Pandaria. But it might be a worthwhile change for the next expansion, especially if we get a new spell casting class that wears mail.