Thursday, June 25, 2020

When you live in terror of "improvements" to your game

Dungeons and Dragons online has one of the more unique endgame progression systems.  Once you hit level 20 or higher, you can reincarnate your character and start over again at level 1.  Your name and sex carry over, but you can completely change your race, class and other build choices. You also get to keep all the gear you earned during your previous life.

The main reason to reincarnate is that your character gets slightly stronger every time you do it.  The first few reincarnations you gain more points to spend on your physical stats (e.g., dexterity, strength and constitution), and so grant you a considerable power boost.  However, additional lives beyond these continue to grant small bonuses, all of which stack.  For example, one life might grant +2 to a skill, another might grant +1 to a stat, another might grant a few extra hit points, another might give you a small damage bonus, and the list goes on and on.  If you have a lot of lives under your belt you can become quite a bit more powerful than a first life character. There are currently more than 100 possible past life bonuses.

Every time you reincarnate you need an item called a true heart of wood.  The easiest way to get one is to buy it from the item shop, but it's expensive.  At current conversion rates each one costs about $20, which puts the cost to do all current possible past lives (126 if I am not mistaken) at $2460 (!!!).  You can earn the hearts of wood you need in game, but only incrementally and only from certain quests.  For example heroic true hearts of wood, the type of heart you currently need the most of at 45, can be bought with Tokens of the Twelve.  Of the 597 quests in game, only about 30 grant these tokens.  The first time I wanted to reincarnate a character, I did some research and discovered that even after all the years I've been playing I didn't have enough tokens to get a heart.  I simply hadn't happened to do the right quests enough times.  I was forced to spend a solid week repeating the handful of quests near my level that would give me the most tokens and fragments of tokens.  It was not fun.

New players often get frustrated by this system.  When they find out that (a) they need to reincarnate at least a few times to get up to par for typical PUGs, (b) they don't have nearly enough tokens to buy a heart because they didn't know to ignore 80% of quests in a particular level range, and (c) the hearts are for sale in the item shop, but they are expensive as hell . . . they often get upset.  About every month or two a new thread pops up on the forums whining about this issue.  For example, you can see the latest such thread here.  In general, most players agree that the system needs improvement.

However, a contingent of players also always shows up and declares that everything is fine, that those complaining are just being cheap or lazy, and under no circumstances should any change be made to this system.  Until recently I thought this was all generic fanboyism.  No matter how idiotic a design or how screwed up a developer's actions, there will always be some loud voices defending them in any MMO.  I got a chuckle out this Daily Grind at Massively OP about "MMO Defense forces" because it rang so true. The developers of a MMO probably could be caught using players' credit card info to buy porn, and some players would still chime in with something like "You gave them your credit card info, what did you expect?"

However, in DDO and on this issue, I think there is more to it than just fanboys defending developers.  Years ago the developers in DDO proposed to all but remove any way of earning hearts for true reincarnation in game.  This idea was not well received by players (to put it mildly), but at first the developers ignored them.  To call attention to the issue, players staged a protest in game.  Eventually some news sites even started covering the protests, and the developers finally relented.  This is when the system that DDO has now was finalized.* Considering this system a vast improvement over the original proposal of "You can buy one in the store, grind for months for one, or go screw yourself,"  players took the deal.

I honestly believe that many of the players defending the system know how bad it is, but simply fear that if it's revisited in-game methods of obtaining the hearts will be further restricted or even removed. After all, the developers originally didn't want to let players reincarnate at all without hitting the item shop.  The problem with this is that reincarnation is one of the central game play loops of DDO.  It is the system that probably the majority of hardcore players use to advance their characters.  Hearts should be a heck of a lot easier to get in game, and buying one in the item shop should not cost more than a monthly sub fee.  If your most hardcore players are absolutely terrified for you to work on a bad system because they are convinced you will make it even worse, at the very least communication with your community has broken down.

Now of course there is more than just terror of incompetence going on when forumites defend this clunky system.  More than almost any other MMO I have played there is a serious disconnect between how the game is perceived by long time vets and new players.  This is likely at least in part due to the reincarnation system and the power disparity it produces.  When you are strong enough to solo enough quests for a heart in an hour of play, complaining about the system seems absurd and childish.  There is probably also general fanboyism, which you find in almost any game, at work.  However, I do think a lot of it is a deep rooted belief that any change will lead to something even worse than the current system.  I have to admit that after seeing several instances of developer "corrupt a wish" in DDO**, I can understand this trepidation.

*I am not sure if the current system was implemented, or simply not removed after the protests.  I wasn't playing at the time and reports vary.

**For example, recent changes to martial ranged builds.  There was one enhancement tree, Inquisitive, that pretty much everyone agreed was a bit OP and needed to be reigned in.  So how did the developers do it?  They did it by nerfing the multi-target damage of every single ranged build in the game by 20%.  Not just Inquisitives, all ranged builds.  Ranged builds that were considered weak before became even worse, and Inquisitive remains much stronger than most other martial ranged options.  When that is how a set of developers "fixes" things, it's not surprising when some players want nothing fixed.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Why I don't play tanks any more

Back in the olden days of EQOA one of my favorite classes to play was a Shadowknight.  It was a tank class that held aggro with a mixture of taunts and sustained damage.  Generally in a PUG, the main goal was to pull mobs one at a time and kill them as quickly and safely as possible.  A good tank was one that was able to consistently pull mobs without getting adds, and was able to lock down aggro quickly.  I found tanks fun to play back then in EQOA and other MMOs because it was expected that the rest of the party would try to work with you towards the goal of aggro management, rather than against you.  There's something really satisfying about taking all the hits and trying to keep everyone else safe.

The two main parts of playing a DPS skillfully were managing your mana well so that the party didn't have to rest often (or at least not more often than the healer needed), and knowing when it was safe start doing damage.  A good DPS actually waited for the tank to get aggro before opening up.  A DPS that pulled aggro off of the tank constantly, or ... shudder ... actually pulled stuff themselves was considered a bad player.  Repeat offenses would get you booted from a PUG.  That was bad, because in those days you sure as heck didn't want to try and play a squishy DPS class solo. 

Things have changed.  That's not how "skill" as a DPS is generally measured these days.  First off it's nearly impossible to run out of mana or the equivalent in most modern MMOs.   Second, DPS players are often all about trying win the damage meter contest.  This trains them to try and start hitting mobs before anyone else in a pull.  It also trains them to engineer massive group pulls, where they can use their AOE abilities to best effect.  Hitting a bunch of mobs at once has a multiplicative effect on the damage you are putting out, and is one of the main ways to consistently top a damage meter.

The effect of all this is that in most modern games players tend to pull everything in sight and spam massive AoE abilities constantly.  They run through an instance as if there is a bad man standing behind them irl, holding a pistol to their head and whispering emphatically "Don't wait for anything!" It's a chaotic style of play that is either exciting or quickly exhausts me depending on my mood.   It's also an environment where I absolutely refuse to play a tank.

In modern PUGs if you are playing a tank you are basically a crappy DPS for most of an instance. Apart from boss fights, where at least some strategy is still the norm, the DPS are usually going to be tagging every mob in sight with their hardest hitting abilities like it's last five seconds of the apocalypse.   The only thing you are good for as a tank through 90% of an instance is getting mobs off the healer in a pinch, and even then only when your snap aggro abilities happen to be off cool down.  I used to really enjoy playing tanks, and now it's far and away my least favorite class role in most MMOs.

The thing that puzzles me about all this is that there is a really easy solution: make it easier for tanks to hold aggro.  If a tank goes all in spamming taunts and other abilities that serve no purpose save to generate threat, to me it makes sense that they should be able to lock down big groups of mobs regardless of who pulls them.  Yet in most MMOs that absolutely isn't true.  It's pretty much always up to the whim of the DPS players whether a tank can hold aggro.  If you don't get those first few hits in, you are not generally going to get aggro back from a DPS that's going all out.  Most tank classes do have snap aggro abilities that can bypass this limitation, but the abilities are also usually on such long cooldowns that you can't use them in every fight.

In WoW, SWTOR and many other modern games players expect you to know an instance like the back of your hand if you que up as a tank.  On top of this, for whatever strange reason, the mechanics of most MMOs also make it much harder to hold down aggro than to heal or do DPS.  All-in-all it's a a stressful and often thankless role to take on.

I certainly don't mean to come across as too whiny about the whole thing.  In modern MMOs playing a DPS is arguably much more fun than it used to be.  I sure as hell would not want to go back to the dark days of launch era EQ where half the classes were all but useless solo.  I like being able to make progress in these games on my schedule.  The pace of modern MMOs may have ruined tanking for me, but on the balance I'd say it was a good trade for everything else we gained.

[This post brought to you by the Tank's Lament  at Going Commando]

Saturday, April 18, 2020

On being "Evil" in video games

This post by Bhagpuss got me thinking about my most recent playthrough of SWTOR, the darkside/ lightside choices that the game offers and artificial moral choices we make in video games more generally.

With this character I decided that one of her major goals was to spread chaos and disrupt society. More out of a sense of childish glee at tearing things down and utter ambivalence about the consequences than out of any moral inclinations.  SWTOR is uncommon among MMOs in that you are encouraged to give some real thought to your character's personality as you play.  
When I start a character in SWTOR, one of the first things I do is decide on a personality and motivation for the character.  I often like to play a character with a different moral compass from mine, just to see how various choices I personally would never make play out in the game.  I conceived of my current character as a walking monkey's paw.  She takes any quest offered to her, but often completes it in a way no sane person would be happy with.  More generally, her goal is to sow chaos and destruction everywhere she goes.  This is someone that wants to see society burn.  Having grown up a slave and becoming a member of the ruling council of the Sith Empire despite it, she knows she can thrive in situations where almost  anyone else would just give up.  A universe where no-one knows what to expect is one where she, and few others, can thrive.  She will also happily burn down a city if it furthers her goals, or even just to see what happens.  She's as close to an Evil character as I have played in a long time.

Contemplating how best to sow chaos and destruction. In Dungeons and Dragons terms I have basically been playing  her as a chaotic neutral character.
Yet even with her, I actually end up making a lot of choices the game consider's light side/ Good.  Her ultimate goal is to disrupt society, and often times the best way for her to do that is to encourage any random weirdos she meets to keep doing their thing.  Killing everyone that doesn't follow society's rules, generally the dark side option, only helps reinforce the rules.  Further, being rude to absolutely everyone also goes against her secondary goal of amassing power.  If she really wants to have enough power to throw society akimbo, she needs allies.  You don't earn trust by being needlessly rude to everyone all the time. Once someone trusts her completely, then they can help with her real work of being a crazy supervillain.

Here she is hanging out with one of the more morally ambiguous NPCs you recruit during the KoTFE storyline. You can tell my character has been making a lot of "evil" choices because of all the sith corruption (e.g., the glowing red eyes). However she did also pick a lot of options that the game considered light-side / "good "as she went along. Primarily helping NPCs get away with things she thought would be more disruptive in the long term than killing them. Not here though. At the end of this story vignette she decided to blow up everything and everyone, much to the delight of this NPC.
This leads to a problem I tend to have with dark side / Evil choices in games that have dialogue trees.  They tend to make very little sense.  It's hard to imagine a realistic character that would kill every single person they can, be rude absolutely all the time, or NPCs that would want to have anything to do with them.  Because of it, picking those kinds of choices over and over again tends to break my immersion.  Further, it's a somewhat shallow / naive depiction of morality.  In the real world even brutal dictators are often capable of being charming when it suites them. To me evil is defined by the effects of your actions and the intention behind them.  It's not really defined by whether you can go 20 minutes without being a jerk to anyone.  That's more a measure of whether you have social intelligence, empathy and self control exceeding that of a toddler.

A random DDO screenshot that seems thematically appropriateDDO also sometimes has dialogue trees, but they are purely for flavor.  They almost never affect the outcome of a quest.
When it comes to doing things in a game that would usually be considered Evil (or at least childish), I tend to enjoy it more in games that aren't specifically set up for it.  Particularly in free form sandboxes like Grand Theft Auto, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls games.  For example, when I was playing Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, I once killed an old woman so that I could take over her house.  I was trying to collect all the books in the game, and she happened to have a lot of book shelves.  I also once killed everyone in a tower and a nearby village because one of the local guards was rude to me. I can cackle gleefully looking back on that senseless carnage, yet I often find it hard to be rude to one of my underlings in SWTOR.  What that says about me I'm not entirely sure.  However I suspect I'm not alone in this.  At least one popular youtuber that has made a whole channel out of torturing video game NPCs in really creative ways, and I find many of his videos really amusing.  Videos of him mashing dark side dialogue options in SWTOR over and over again would probably not be nearly as entertaining.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The MMO genre is dying, all hail the dawn of the MMO age

A recent post at Bio Break crystallized something that's been on my mind for a while.  In the last decade or so of PC gaming history one of the developments I find most surprising is that massively multiplayer online games, which I am defining very broadly as any game that allows a few dozen or more players to interact in the same virtual space, have become immensely popular.  Arguably, even mainstream. For example Grand Theft Auto Online is has tens of millions of players, and it provides persistent virtual play spaces for up to 30 simultaneous players per instance.  Pokemon Go and Pokemon Sword and Shield also have a lot of MMO elements to them, and are market leaders with far more players than almost any traditional MMOs.  Perhaps most surprising to me was to see already popular and profitable online shooters like Call of Duty start adding minor role playing elements (e.g., needing to grind up ranks to qualify for weapons).  In all of these games you get to create a personal avatar and develop it over time, which is one of the elements of MMOs that I really enjoy.  Depending on how you look at it, the market for “MMOs” has shrunk severely (perhaps consumed by other types of online games), or expanded exponentially.  I lean towards the latter view, because the line between what qualifies as multiplayer online game and a proper MMO has gotten so fuzzy.

For example take Pokemon Go. In a lot of ways, you could argue that it's a MMO set in the real world.  The game takes place in a virtual reality overlaying ours.  The corner gas station, your favorite restaurant or even Edgar Allen Poe's crypt are also hubs of activity in GO (stops or gyms), visible to any number of players nearby that happen to be logged in.  There are also virtual creatures all around us, waiting for you to interact with them. My wife first found out about the game when a friend informed us that there was a rare pokemon in our living room, and was instantly intrigued.  A complete non-gamer up until that point, she started playing a few days later and has been hooked ever since. In the game you create a character, level it up, build a collection of pokemon, and decide which of them to ditch, trade with other players, or invest resources into and grow.  PoGO is certainly much simpler than most MMOs, there are very few systems and all are easily grasped.  However, it does feel like the first tentative steps into a new genre to me.  Perhaps a new kind of simple MMO for the masses.   
At the same time, those claiming that the MMO genre of the past two decades appears to be in decline aren't completely wrong. To me a "proper MMO" or MMORPG is a game that includes a lot more RPG mechanics than most of the examples I listed above.  It's also a game that tries to create the illusion of a world rather than being satisfied with a shared virtual playground.  If you want to limit your definition of MMO to games that seem like direct descendants of UO, EQ, or WoW then I would have to agree that we aren't seeing nearly as many of those types of games being released.  The new MMORPGs with big budgets behind them are indeed starting to become few and far between.  However, I would also argue that online survival games like Ark and Conan Exiles are closely related to "true MMORPGs."  The primary difference between those and a "real" MMO like WoW or LoTRO is that a server can't usually accommodate more than a roughly 50 to 100 players at once and they don't usually have auction houses.  Based on the number being released, it's a genre that appears to be thriving.

In the end, I would argue that the massively multiplayer shared virtual gaming landscape is larger and more varied than it has ever been. Certainly far larger than I ever would have anticipated a decade ago.  As we mourn the decline of traditional MMORPGs, let us also greet the dawn of the era of MMOs!

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Endless Conquest (DAoC)

Endless conquest for Dark Age of Camelot, a new system that lets you play the game for free (with some restrictions), went live a little over a month ago.  A lot of other big changes came down the pipe with it.  My impression so far is that it's a bit of a mixed bag, both in terms of execution and in terms of the impact on player populations.

A random quest from the Hibernian new player series.  As simple as they are, some of these quests still have interesting choices.  For example, here depending on whether I choose to honor the past or be greedy, I will end up either with a unique looking horse or a hunk of cash and an annoying curse.

So what's it like?

In each realm a small but varied selection of classes are available to play completely free.  However, if you had a lapsed account, you can now also log into any character that has at least 24 hours played.  For example, I can log into almost all of my old level 50 characters regardless of whether they are from restricted classes or not.

Returning players will find the game much changed from what they remember.  With the launch of EC all alternative currencies such as aurulite and dragon scales were replaced with bounty points.  For example, the quest chains in Atlantis that used to yield glass now yield bounty points, and artifacts are now purchased with bounty points instead of glass.  You can get bounty points doing just about anything you like, from RvR seige battles to solo PvE, and almost any equipment in the game can now be bought with bounty points.  In my opinion this is a vast improvement, the number of different systems and gear currencies that DAoC had built up over the years was bewildering. Related to this, the free "starter epics" you get from the King at level 50 have been greatly improved.  It terms of raw stats they are now very solid, and will put you within striking distance of the effective caps on all the stats your class cares about.  In combination, these changes mean that gearing up a new character is a lot easier now.

Flying between quest hubs.  If I am not mistaken, DAoC was the first MMO to use "taxi cab" style travel routes, similar to what many more modern MMOs use.  WoW, of course, was the game that really popularized them.

On the not so great side an entire expansion that many players remember fondly, Catacombs, has effectively been removed from the game (apart from the races and classes that came with it).  Plans to revamp the Catacombs for the modern game once the Dragon's Curse campaign came to an end never materialized, and I'm skeptical they are even still in the works.  It's been two years since the changes to Catacombs went in, and returning vets still get confused by it (Surfer18's reaction to it here is pretty typical).  On Gaheris (the PvE server) this has contributed to a content gap in the level 36 to level 40 range, when the new player quest series runs out.  Until EC you had two options to get through this, Task Dungeons and repeating a series of quests in Atlantis.  With the launch of EC Task Dungeons have been disabled.  It made good sense the close them on Ywain, it helps funnel players towards the PvP battlegrounds. However, on Gaheris most of the battlegrounds (including Molvik) are also closed.  The low level quests in Atlantis also appear to be bugged, currently they are repeatable on Ywain but not on Gaheris.  Taken together, on Gaheris for roughly four solid levels there is now almost nothing to do but grind random mobs to advance.  Very old school . . . 

Here I am talking to my class trainer in the Hibernian capitol city to start an optional Epic quest.  These quests yield low level items tailored to your class, and also take you through a story that you only share with one or two other classes. However, you level so quickly in the modern game they aren't really worth doing for the gear alone (you will out level most of the rewards in a matter of hours).
So far most of the restrictions on free accounts seem minor to me. For example you can't open a bank tab just anywhere on a free account, you actually have to find a banker. When playing up two new free characters, a Runemaster on Ywain and a Blademaster on Gaheris, I can't say I really noticed the FtP restrictions.  However, a few penalties are more than slight inconveniences. For one, free accounts gain realm experience from PvP at roughly half the rate of subbed players.  That means it will take you a lot longer to get to "par" for RvR fights on a free account, though it's debatable how many ranks you really need to be competitive.  Realm rank five unlocks key class abilities, and my guess is that would take roughly a month of play on a free account for most players.  Free characters also can't use all the temporary buffs that are available to subbed players.  Together these factors potentially produce a significant power disparity.

A blademaster holding a free weapon from his trainer, a sword wreathed in green fire.  A benefit of visiting the class trainers in your realm's capitol city at low levels is that you get offered new weapons with decent stats and an interesting appearance every five levels.  The last of these is available to you at level 25.  However, you will probably find something better in terms of stats within an hour of obtaining any of these weapons, so very few players bother with them in the modern game. 
In addition, there is one restriction on free accounts that I find absolutely bizarre. A player can't log into the game at all without a sub for a few months after a subscription lapses.  That means that if you decide to sub for a month or two, you have to keep subbing or you will get completely locked out of your account during this period.  Meanwhile, players that never give Broadsword any money at all can still log in whenever they like. Largely because of this restriction I personally haven't even considered subbing since EC went live, despite having a good time on my new characters.  I would say that's a problem.

Treibh Caillte, a Hibernian Dungeon.  Currently on Gaheris the quickest way from level 36 to 40 is to grind mobs in dungeons (there are currently almost no quests in this level range worth doing).  It's not completely terrible, dungeon mobs drop a lot of loot for you to pick through. And of course I have been playing these games long enough to remember when finding a good grind spot was what you did to level in most MMOs.   

How successful is Endless Conquest?

Perhaps the most important question is how successful EC has been at boosting the population of DAoC. To get a sense for this I used data reported at this excellent website, which is organizes stats published on the Camelot Herald. Pretty much however you parse things (e.g., player numbers per week below), there was a significant jump in player activity around the launch of EC.  However, within a very short time nearly half of these players appear to have left.  As of the week of December 15, the number of active players seems to have settled at about 50% more than the game saw in the six months before EC.  Certainly a success, but probably not what Broadsword was hoping for.  The game is also still at a net deficit of players (or at least player activity) compared to December a year ago.

A year of player activity in DAoC, player counts are for level 50 characters.  I focused on player count rather than realm points earned because with the launch of EC the amount of RXP that most players earn per unit time was greatly reduced, and FtP accounts earn even less than subbed accounts. The spike in players near the end of the graph seemingly corresponds to the the launch of EC (the peak is Nov. 24).  I am not sure what caused the massive drop in player activity in the first few months of 2019, that looks like more than just normal seasonal player fluctuations to me.  This overall U-shaped pattern of player activity is remarkably consistent across classes, level ranges and measures of activity (e.g., player kills, player deaths), as is the conclusion that the gains from EC have been fleeting.

Update Dec. 23:  After fiddling with this post all weekend (e.g., expanding on why I keep ranting about Catacombs), I think I'm finally happy with it now.  I also did some digging to try and figure out what caused the "DAoC crash of 2019."  Between roughly January 20 and February 24 the game appears to have lost up to half half its player base.  There is nothing in the patch notes from around that time that hints at a cataclysmic change to the game itself.  However I did find that the free-shard of DAoC* that is currently the most successful went live on January 12, 2019. Very soon after that the live game started bleeding players (or at least the number of players logging decreased drastically), and a patch note from around this time seems bit panicked if you read it knowing everything that was going on.  I tend to think that player run shards of games are generally fairly harmless, but this may be an instance where one did serious harm to a live game that was already struggling.

*For the time being I will not be linking directly to any unauthorized servers for DAoC or any other live MMOs here, though I consider cases where you literally can't play a game any other way fair game (e.g.,  I might blog about the current state of SWG or WAR some time).  

Thursday, December 12, 2019

WoW Classic and Retail: Two for the price of one

With the launch of Classic, a subscription to World of Warcraft has become a pretty good value in my opinion.  Until August it had been years since I set foot in WoW.  In fact I skipped the last three expansions because I didn't want to support Blizzard financially. The studio had chosen to gradually close down a game that I really liked, one piece at a time, and replace it with some other game I didn't enjoy as much.  Warlords of Draenor was where WoW finally crossed a line that completely killed my interest.  The fact that Retail WoW shared the same world, classes and races as older versions made my loss sting even more.  It was as if an impostor was parading around in a suit of skin stripped from the corpse of my game, the eyes of  developers laughing at me through two dark misshapen holes in a crudely tanned hide.

All that changed when Blizzard launched Classic.  I really wanted the old game back (despite what some developers thought), and I have had an absolute blast in Classic these last few months.  Revisiting launch era quests and class designs gives me a keen sense of nostalgia.  However it's more than just nostalgia.  Like a lot of other commentators, I find Classic much more immersive than the modern game.  The stately pace makes it seem more like a living breathing world than Retail. You don't blaze through a zone in an hour, you spend days or even weeks of play sessions in an area, getting to know zones intimately.  "Cruft" like needing to learn skills for various weapons, or needing to visit your class trainer every two levels, fill the game with small events that seem important.  I also love other features that have been stripped out of Retail, like class quests to unlock basic abilities (e.g., defensive stance for fighters, the succubus for warlocks, Shaman totems) and the absurdly deep pet system for hunters.   It makes the experience of playing different classes feel really distinct, and again it adds a series of events to your journey that seem impactfull.

However, an unexpected side-effect of the launch of Classic is that I can now judge Retail on its own merits, since it isn't inhabiting the corpse of something I miss. If you think of Retail as a sequel to Classic, it's actually pretty good in its own way.  Much the same way that EQ and EQ II are both fun games set in Norrath, or FF VII, VIII and IX are all good JRPGs with a few shared elements, Retail WoW is an interesting take on the same setting as Classic. Admittedly some classes that I enjoy in Classic like the Warlock and Hunter have been completely gutted in Retail.  But other classes/ specs that are almost unplayable to me in Classic have also been greatly improved. For example, in Classic I can't stand playing Paladins.  They have terrible rotations and are just generally tortuously slow at solo questing.  In Retail I find Paladins pretty fun. In Retail my Balance Druid is an absolute joy to play (55 so far), yet I was barely able to get one up to level 20 in Classic.

Retail and Classic are different games with different core design philosophies.  Classic hearkens back to much older MMOs like DAoC and EQ, which were obviously inspirations for WoW at launch.  It includes a lot of details that serve no purpose save to flesh out the world being portrayed.  The modern game has stripped many of those out.  In some way it plays like a lobby game that happens to be embedded in a MMO, rather than a MMO per se.  Things like crafting and a world to explore are there if you want them, but really feel like an afterthought in the current design.  The quickest way to advance a character is to spend your time queuing up for dungeons and battlegrounds, and there is little need to even read the text of most quests.  However, that's not inherently bad.  If you are in the mood for a quick dungeon crawl or light questing where you don't really need to pay attention to anything, Retail is actually pretty good.  Somewhat ironically, it also has a slightly stronger emphasis on narrative than Classic.

Now that you get access to both games for one fee, I think it's actually a good thing that Retail is so different from Classic.  It would be similar to getting FFVIII for free when you buy FFVII.  One game is a classic that brought a previously obscure genre into the limelight, and the other is a controversial game with some (to my tastes) suspect design choices.  However, both of them together is a heck of a lot of entertainment for fifteen dollars a month.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Hardcore server in DDO: It's a lot of fun but also slightly pay-to-win

I have been playing the hardcore server in DDO all weekend.  It's been great fun, and it's neat seeing tons of players running around the starter areas.  I have been having a blast feeling like a newb again.  No guild buffs, no years of gear banked or crafting bot to fill it out.  The first time I found a decent heavy crossbow I was ecstatic, I had been using a plain unenchanted crossbow from a vendor in the harbor to that point.  Resist energy wands have also become a precious possession, I won't even try to play up a character that can't either cast the spell or use the wands.  So far I have made it nearly to seven on my main, and I have several alts.

Oddly no deaths yet.  However, I came really close on my main last night. I've been playing DDO for so long I tend to think I can do anything on Normal difficulty with next to zero risk.   I was running Irestone Inlet completely solo last night, not even a pet or hireling.  The way the quest is set up you will get unexpectedly jumped by roving packs of mobs.  I got a pack of adds while I was already in the middle of fighting a camp of six or ten hobgoblins and kobolds, and it was getting a bit hairy.  However, I wasn't worried.  I had plenty of instant cast self heals up, and I was mowing everyone down quickly with a slightly OP ranged build.

Then suddenly I couldn't attack or even heal myself, and six or seven guys were still beating on me.   My health bar started plummeting and I ran for my life while trying to figure out what the hell was wrong.  An icon said I was burdened, so I started frantically dropping suits of armor onto the sand to try and lighten my load. Then it hit me: the Hobgoblin Shamans I was fighting sometimes use Ray of Enfeeblement.  My character only has eight strength. Not normally a problem, but when any of your stats get reduced to zero in DDO you become "helpless" and you can't so much as drink a potion.

I lurched through some bushes while getting pelted with arrows and spears, frantically mashing the useless hotbar keys  for my various healing abilities.  I was way too far from any safe spot, I was certain I was going to die and lose everything. Finally, when I was down to ten health a combination of poor mob pathing and sheer dumb luck saved me. The enfeeblement spell wore off just in time and I was just barely able to pull things out.   It was such a close call that I immediately dropped the quest and went directly to an auction house to find something with a strength enchantment on it.  My build had a critical weakness I had never even considered.  It was a harrowing but thrilling experience.

 But is it pay-to-win?

All in all I am having a blast on the hardcore server, but there is one thing about it that bothers me a bit. Part of the idea behind the server is a fresh start and an even playing field.  However, the field is not really all that even.  If you own 32 point builds, all the classes and all the enhancement trees like I do it's a pretty big advantage.  Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the Inquisitive Enhancement Tree.

The Inquisitive tree is arguably the single strongest ranged enhancement tree in the game right now.  To the point that some  players are arguing that it's completely overpowered in the current meta.  It also starts strong out of the gate.  For example with the right build you can be dual wielding crossbows and getting an extra 3d8 law damage to every attack that lands by the ripe old age of level 2.  This damage stacks with damage from every other source, so your old OP crossbow build is now "OP plus 3d8" if you go this route.

Currently the only way to realistically get access to this tree at low levels is to spring for the $80 Sharn package, the cheapest one that comes with it.  You can in theory grind out access to it for one character with Sharn City Council favor if you have the $40 package, but it would be nearly impossible to do the quests that grant favor with this faction until the high teens.  Even if you did that, the moment you die the character that has unlocked the tree gets banished from the server.

I don't think Inquisitive is really the "I win" button that some players are making it out to be.  However it's undeniably strong, and I am seeing an absolute ton of players dual wielding crossbows at low levels on the hardcore server.  Obviously it's an advantage that a lot of players are willing to shell out for. I can't help but wonder how many of the players on the server are buying even bigger advantages like +8 stat tomes.  Even if they are, it doesn't spoil my fun.  However, having so many advantages available with the swipe of a card does seem to go against the spirit of competition that the developers at Standing Stone Games are trying to sell us on.