Thursday, December 24, 2020

FFXIV First Impressions

ESO  wound down for me when I was in the high 30s.  The clunky combat eventually killed things for me, as enjoyable as I found the rest of the game to be.  I did find a class, necromancer, that was more fun to my tastes than the one I've ben using as my main so far. I am sure I will want to go back and play one up at some point.  However, for the time being  I have cancelled my sub, and I now only log once a week to hang out with a static group of my relatives.  As an aside,  meeting up in a game to form a party and murder monsters while you chat on Zoom is a heck of a lot more fun as a way to keep up with family than a phone call once a month!

My first character in FFXIV, soon after becoming a full fledged Black Mage and earning a set of class armor.  I already have more that a dozen random pets, but the cat is still my favorite.  The game is quite beautiful, but I have found it hard to get screenshots that really capture how charming it is in motion.

After ESO wound down , I moved on to the next of the "big five" MMOs* that I haven't played, Final Fantasy 14. I love most of the Final Fantasy games, and so in theory it should be right up my alley.  Like many sub based MMOs the up-front cost is pretty low. There's an endless free trial that let's you play to 30, which  I  played for a few days and found absolutely enchanting.  After that you can get the base game and both expansions (roughly seven or eight years of released content) for $60, or $45 if you discount the price for the month of sub time it comes with. Further, when I bought it there also happened to be a black Friday sale going, so I was able to get the all-in-one pack for only $30. It seems like quite bargain compared to other MMOs I've played recently.

*The big five being WoW, GW2, ESO, FFXIV and ....?  Sources seem to disagree about the last inhabitant of that list, though Black Desert gets mentioned a lot.  In any case, I fully intend to move on to Guild Wars 2 whenever FFXIV winds down for me.

The same character, soon after earning his first mount.  A chocobo of course.

So far I am only up to level 54. The core gameplay while leveling consists of an admixture of story heavy solo play and content that can only be cleared in a group.  Forced grouping is normally a huge turn off to me, but FFXIV handles it really well.  Most of main quest series is soloable, but about every five or ten steps you need to run a dungeon or kill a raid boss to continue.  In most MMOs that would bring your progress to a screeching halt. However FFXIV has a really well designed system for organizing PUGs.  You cue up for whatever specific dungeon you need, specifying your role (healer, tank or DPS) and then continue on about your business.  After the game finds three to seven players that want to play the same dungeon as you, a little window pops up asking if you are ready to go.  When you hit the accept button you get whisked off to the instance.  If you cued up for something related to a quest, at the end of the instance the game deposits you wherever you need to be to turn in the quest and continue the story line you were working on.  The entire process is amazingly painless.  

A scene from the Crystal Tower quest series.  This includes three raids that are mandatory to play through the game's main story.  There are some areas you can't even set foot in until you clear it, such as the capitol city of Ishgard.   That absolutely would have been a brick wall for me in most MMOs, but in FFXIV the raids were fairly painless. From queuing up to done, none of them took me more than 30 minutes.  I found watching strategy videos before hand really helpful. The "Updated for 2020" series by Mica (like this one for World of Darkness, by far the hardest of the three raids) were fantastic for this. 

As a DPS most cues take 5-25 minutes to pop. My understanding is that they are nearly instant for tanks and healers.  After that it takes roughly 20-30 minutes for a dungeon or five minutes for a boss fight.  In the 1-49 content everything is quite easy to anyone with MMO experience. As a DPS in low level content all I really needed to do was know how to use my abilities and "not stand in the stupid" (i.e., move out of the giant glowing orange zones that signal where a big attack is about to land). You can also count on your party members at least knowing the basics because to qualify for using the party finder you need to play through a series of solo training quests that teach you your role in a group.    However once you get into the Seventh Astral Era quest series, the difficulty starts to ramp up, and you will start dying a lot if you don't research particular instances before you run them.  Oddly I am finding that I don't mind the research, which is a bit shocking.  Normally a difficulty spike like the one I am playing through now would be a huge red flag for me.  

Crystals like these are found in many areas of the game.  You have to get fairly far in the main story before you find out where they came from.

Part of the reason I don't mind all the mandatory group content in FFXIV has to do with how painless it is to que up for what you want.  However a lot of MMOs have a similar system (e.g., the one is WoW is nearly identical, save that there are no "qualifying exams" to use the system like in FFXIV).  Another big part of it is the basic structure of the game.  You only need to muddle through something once, and then you can return to the relaxing and engaging solo game.  Overall the ratio is probably something like 5 to 30 minutes of group content to every two hours of solo content.  Even if you generally prefer to solo, there isn't enough forced grouping to completely turn you off if you are enjoying the game otherwise.  

  Aethernet crystals form the game's primary quick travel system.  Once you are attuned to one you can teleport to it at will.  It makes travelling all over the map for quests extremely painless.  A huge improvement over the "get your horse/ wyvern  taxi started and go make a sandwich" that we so often see in other games like LoTRO and WoW.  That said, I am still a bit fuzzy on why game designers so often feel the urge to send us across an entire continent for every second quest step in a chain.

I think the lack of friction also comes down to some clever social engineering on the part of the game designers.  Even after doing research, I have to admit I often slightly suck at a given instance the first time I try it (shocking no?). So far everyone I have met in my random PUGs has been extremely chill about me making occasional mistakes. Some part of that is undoubtedly the giant loot bonus they get for having me along. When you clear an instance using the party finder, if it's the first clear for anyone in the party you get massive bonus to your rewards.  For example dungeons that would normally only be worth 15 of the currency you can use to buy gear are worth 75 or 90 if anyone in your party clears it for the first time.  That's worth almost 1/3 of a very nice magic item in my level range.  Far from being disappointed when a "sprout"** like me appears in your random PUGs, you actively hope one will join. 

**Sprouts:  FFXIV helpfully puts a little green sprout next to your name when you first start playing until you hit some threshold of experience that I have yet to clear.  It lets players know that you are new, and a lot of vets go around handing out free stuff to any sprouts they encounter. It also lets players in PUGs know that you are probably the reason they are getting a 5x loot bonus.  Another clever bit of social engineering.  My experience in FFXIV is making me wish more MMOs took that aspect of game design seriously.

 This is the smaller of the two cathedrals in the capitol city of Ishgard, an area that was added to the game with the Heavensword expansion..  It took me nearly a month of playtime to get far enough into the game to see it, and so far I am still only about half way through the main story.   

The community itself also seems to be far above average.  I have met tons of really friendly players.  In fact I have yet to encounter a single asshat.  Though I am dead certain I'll encounter one eventually, FFXIV probably holds my personal record for "number of consecutive interactions with strangers without anyone being a dick."   I even got invited to my first in-game wedding a few nights ago. They are purely social events that you have to make reservations for ahead of time, there is only one chapel per server.  It was surprisingly elaborate and a lot of fun.  It was also fun meeting some of my guildies, that have just been random names in a chat box until now.  So far the community of FFXIV has been incredibly welcoming.    

I attended my first in game wedding wedding recently. Here a bunch of us are seated in the chapel waiting for the ceremony to begin, my character is the one wearing the black wizard outfit.  I had nothing more appropriate to wear because I had only been playing for a week at the time.

My only niggling concern is that there is a high end raiding scene that has a reputation for being exceedingly hardcore and elitist.  They are so serious about measuring their DPS e-peens that they rely heavily on parsing programs that are technically against the game's Terms of Service. That is a giant red flag, and it's entirely possible that the game will fall flat on it's face for me once I finish playing through the main story lines and hit the level cap.  However for the time being I am having a ton of fun.  This feels like something I could play for a long time, at least if there's anything remotely fun for a casual player like me to do when I hit the level cap.

The wedding was fairly elaborate, and a fun diversion.

You may have noticed that this post includes very little about what the game is like to play or game systems.  That's because I haven't gotten far enough to have much of an opinion, save that I like what I see so far.  I'm less that halfway through the main story, maybe 50% of the way to the level cap in terms of playtime, and have yet to attempt any side activities like crafting, fishing or house decoration.  I have also been digging the game so much on the first class I tried that I haven't wanted to put time into anything else so far.  I actually have no idea what it's like to play a melee for example.  I am sure I'll have more to say about the game once I'm further in.

Mainly I have been powering through the game's main story.  But I did pause to take part in the game's Christmas celebration, which I found charming.  It also came with a really goofy mount.  

Finally, as this will almost certainly be my last post for the year, Happy Holidays! May the rest of your year be safe and relaxing, and for the love of all that is good may 2021 be less "interesting" than this year has been :-)

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

EG7, the Future of DDO and LoTRO

An unexpected bombshell recently dropped.  Daybreak games was bought by a European company EG7 (the Enad Global 7).  The purchase included all of Standing Stone Games, the makers of Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online; two MMOs near and dear to me.  A presentation by EG7 to investors revealed a lot of juicy details about SSG. For example, it revealed that SSG has actually been owned by Daybreak for several years now.  Daybreak is not just the "publisher" of DDO and LoTRO, as SSG has implied.  Wilhem has a great post about the presentation, you really should go and check it out.  From a DDO and LoTRO perspective there is a lot there that makes sense of recent puzzling moves by SSG.

First off, the most recent tempest in LoTRO was the release of War of the Three Peaks mini-expansion.  It hasn't been well received because it's  pretty much the same size as previous content updates that have been given out free to subbers and lifetime account holders.  For example, we got all of Gondor for free, and that's quite a big larger than the Three Peaks area.  Yet, SSG decided to charge everyone $20 for access to the new area, and allowed whales to spend up to $100 for collectors editions with fairly anemic offerings.  Massively has a good write up on the whole mess.  However, this completely bungled release makes perfect sense if we assume that SSG desperately needed to get their revenue-per-player up ahead of the sale of Daybreak to EG7.  

Here Begins Wild Speculation 

In all likelihood SSG had planned the War of the Three Peaks as a free update to keep players engaged ahead of the release of the next paid expansion: Gundabad.  However, Daybreak likely forced a change to these plans in order to demonstrate to EG7 that SSG is a financially valuable asset.  Even worse, there may have been a danger of SSG getting left on the cutting room floor by EG7 during the daybreak purchase if they didn't take this chance to show their quality.  This scenario would also explain why SSG didn't release full details about what was included in the various mini-expansion packages until the last possible minute.  SSG wasn't originally expecting to sell the content, and didn't know themselves what would be included in them until pretty much the day they went on sale.  The boar mount  might represent a positively herculean effort from some poor designer tasked with adding value to the most expensive package at the last minute.

Prepping for the sale may also explain some of the difficulties with DDO's latest expansion, Fables of the Feywild.  It had a pretty rocky development.  Originally it was going to come with a raise in the level cap and "legendary levels."  However over the summer SSG changed their minds and greatly scaled things back.  They stated that it was because they didn't think they could stick to a reasonable release schedule without pruning features.  However things may have been a bit more dire than that, they may have had a hard deadline on the expansion release set by Daybreak.  Regardless, changing the development goals for the expansion mid-stream appears to have thrown a lot of wrenches into the works.   

The consensus that has emerged around Feywild is that it's a weak expansion overall.  It has some good quests, some that are only ok and two quests (Needle in a Fey Stack and the Legend of the Lost  Locket) that many players are calling out  as absolutely terrible designs.  Overall the content so far is of about the same size as the Ruins of Gianthold, an adventure pack you can buy for less than 1000 DDO points (though admittedly Gianthold is one of the most generous adventure packs).  On top of that, because the highest level loot is the same level as loot from Sharn (the previous expansion), very little of it is an upgrade for most players.  In heroics things are even worse, with the level five weapons that the expansion added being much worse than weapons you can easily craft in the same level range. The race that was added, Shifter, has also not been very well received.   All in all I have never seen the community turn sour on a DDO expansion so quickly.  Just about the only bright spot is the new universal tree Feydark Illusionist, which has opened up some interesting build possibilities and seems well received.   

The Future of DDO

The report from EG7 gives a lot of insight into the bottom line of DDO and LoTRO.  DDO has about 20K paying players, LoTRO has about 40K.  The overall revenue from LoTRO is higher than DDO.  However, DDO has the highest monthly average revenue per-paying-player of any game in the Daybreak portfolio.  In other words, the income of DDO is disproportionately dependent on whales.  That actually makes perfect sense, and may explain some of the design elements of DDO that seem stacked against casual players.

DDO more than almost any MMO I have played has a huge disparity in character power between the haves and the have-nots.  I've posted about it before indirectly, but the short version is that thousands of dollars or absolutely crazed amounts of grinding separate a character with maxed out past lives from one that only has a few.  A character with 100+ past lives under their belt is practically a god walking compared to a first life character, with much higher baseline stats across the board.  Good gear can help a lot, but obviously a character with jillions of past lives also has access to the same gear. So gear can't really close the power gap so much as make past lives a smaller percentage of overall character power (e.g., you'll be 30% behind instead of 50%).  Further, these grinds can very easily be bypassed by spending large sums of money.  For past lives there is an item in the DDO store called Otto's Box that costs about $40 or $50.  That and a $20 heart gets you one free past life.  Getting all possible past lives that way, or even just the first 40 or so that you need for a character that's really strong in one role (e.g., tank or DPS),  would run into thousands of dollars.  

The gear grind is no better.  The odds of getting a high end item that is good for your build on any given quest run is astronomically low.  On the difficulties that a first life character in found gear can handle (Normal or Hard in epics),  the odds are 3% or less on any given run of a quest that has an item you need.   However, if a chest doesn't have the piece of loot you want you can also reroll the chest using shards.  You will get a few shards just by playing, but the only realistic way to get enough to roll your way to complete item sets is to buy them in the DDO store.   All of this combines to make DDO feel like "whales the MMO" if you have any intention of playing it at higher difficulties.  It's one reason why I generally only play heroic level (1-20) content (the other being my compulsive urge to roll alts). 

Further, given that the only real financial strength that DDO has compared to the other Daybreak games is the high monthly revenue per-paying-player, SSG probably can't really afford to back off of this somewhat whale centric design.  DDO will likely remain a game that is uniquely challenging for new players to get going in, both because of the power gap between vets and new players and a steep learning curve.

The Future of LoTRO

On the LoTRO front things are looking a lot better.  I would say the future of the game is looking  brighter than it has for a long time.  EG7 says that they are planning to invest in improvements such as graphical enhancements and console ports to capitalize on the Amazon Prime Lord of the Rings series that is filming now.  Amazon also has their own Lord of the Rings MMO in development, but all indications are that it's still years off yet.  Even if the Amazon game were coming out tomorrow,  it would likely really pale before LoTRO in some ways.  LoTRO has more content than practically any MMO out (EQ excepted of course).  Every single area described in any detail in the Lord of the Rings books, and many more that were only hinted at, are now present in the game.  As a faithful virtual manifestation of a fictional setting, it's absolutely unparalleled.  Walking around inside the game is one nerdgasm after another for any kind of a fan of the books.  Courses on Tolkien are even taught inside the game.   

However LoTRO is also badly showing its age.  There are tons of cludgy outdated systems like legendary items, mounted combat and epic battles that you run into as you level through the game.  The environments are still holding up surprisingly well for such an old game, but the character models aren't that great  . .  .  even after the recent revamp.  Perhaps worst of all is that the game barely runs on Windows 10 systems.  Just google "Lotro windows 10" to see what I mean.  You get tons of hits for players struggling with the game.   Hell just look at this trouble shooting guide some player put together.  Having to go through a checklist like that to *maybe* get the game to run is simply absurd.  My most recent run in LoTRO ended when the game wigged out and refused to open for the third time in less than two months on a Windows 10 laptop.  I couldn't bring myself to spend yet another evening googling and trouble shooting my installation.  Despite having fun there when I was able to get it to run, I finally gave up and uninstalled it.  

I think LoTRO has great potential, and I hope that EG7 will help it get there.  LoTRO has a great IP that is going to get a lot of attention soon, and to my tastes is an amazingly well realized version of Tolkien's world.  If EG7 can polish off some of the rough edges, or even get the game to run reliably on Windows 10, I think they could have a real success story on their hands.  

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Elder Scrolls Online Impressions

 About two months ago I started playing Elder Scrolls Online for the first time.   I have a bad habit of only playing games that are more than a decade old (as should be obvious from my posts) .  ESO is on a list with Guild Wars 2, Final Fantasy XIV and a few other more modern MMOs that I have long intended to try.  ESO has been out for long enough that it isn't exactly the latest hotness any more. But even old is new to me if I've never been there. 

The package I bought came with the Morrowind expansion.  I have fond memories of  "The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind" from back in 2002.  It has been fun to revisit my old stomping grounds in a different time period, and with more than a decade of progress on the graphical fidelity front.

On the balance I quite like ESO.  I have long been a fan of the offline Elder Scrolls games. I've even posted about Morrowind a few times as an example of a sandbox done right.  ESO is not a true sandbox like the offline games.  However the freeform character development system, along with optional activities like becoming a vampire or master thief, are definitely nods to the offline games.  The quests in ESO are also exceptionally well written and presented. I don't think I have enjoyed storylines I was playing through this much since I was playing the Secret World.  I like the setting and the worldbuilding, which are enhanced by the lush graphics.  Lots of work is put into little details like the flora and fauna of different zones. I am about as far from a graphics snob as you can get, but this is one case where the visuals alone really help the world come to life for me. ESO looks like it could be a real place.

The crafting system is extremely well done.  Crafting writs are also pretty much the only way I have found to easily make money at low levels.  One writ will easily net you 300+ gold, and you can do seven a day (one for each crafting profession).  Very few items that mobs drop, or even that you can steal from NPCs and fence, sell for anywhere near what you get from a single writ. 

I also really like the crafting system.  It's incredibly flexible.  You make a base piece of equipment like a sword or helmet of whatever level you like.  You can then separately create an enchantment that you place on the item.  That means you can make anything you need.  For example, if you want to craft yourself a level 14 pair of leather armor gloves that add to your magica stat, it's really easy to do so.  Further, when you make the gloves you can choose from a with a wide variety of appearance options. When you are done you can further customize them with a really solid dye system.  Not only will items you craft be functional, they also will definitely go with your outfit!  Appearance options come from knowing how to craft equipment in different styles, which are learned from crafting motifs.  For example, finding a Dark Elf crafting motif teaches you a whole slew of new appearance options for everything you can craft.  Finding a new motif is always exciting, and they can drop just about anywhere. My understanding is also that I'll be able to craft gear with set bonuses eventually.  The last time I enjoyed the crafting in a game this much was probably in Everquest II ten years ago. 

Another benefit of crafting writs is that you often get maps to the locations of crafting caches.  These are treasure maps of a sort, that lead to spots where you can gather a large amount of crafting materials like iron ore or cotton.  I find them an enjoyable excuse to explore new zones.  While I am there I can pick up new way-shrines (quick travel points) and look for shards that give my character skill points. ESO gives you tangible rewards for simply exploring zones, and I quite enjoy it

Unfortunately, there are two factors work against everything I like about ESO.  The first is the mildly annoying monetization.  The game is only "buy-to-play" in the strictest sense. You basically need to pay for a sub if you have any intention of crafting, or even looting most objects that can be looted.  There are tons of random urns, barrels and chests to dig through in the game, which is a lot of fun. Occasionally you will find something really nice like a new crafting motif or a magic item, so you do have a strong incentive to peek into everything. However, mainly you will find tons of random crafting ingredients.  Unless you have a crafting storage bag, these items will quickly clog up your inventory.  You can't buy a crafting bag from in-game merchants or the item shop, the only way to get one is to sub. It feels like an inconvenience created for the express purpose of selling us a solution.

I am really impressed by how much work went into making the wilderness environments look natural.  Even this scene with giant mushrooms and some kind of wolf creatures is believable.  A big part of it is how much time they spend modelling plants.

However, the need for a crafting bag is merely an annoyance.  The sub is overall a decent value.  It comes with a decent stipend of currency for the item shop and access to a lot of content you need to buy otherwise.  I would be tempted to sub with or without the crafting storage.  For me a more serious problem is the combat system.  It combines all the bad aspects of action combat and tab targeting.  You can't tab target foes, for your attacks to work you have to keep the mouse cursor pointed at them.  However, the combat is still based on mashing hotbar keys to use attacks that often have somewhat slow casting times. It doesn't have any of the fluidity of a true action title like DDO, TSW or most shooters.  Weapon attacks feel a bit more fluid, but those do something like half the damage of an attack with one of your abilities (and even that is only if you are using a very good weapon).  

Inside the audience chamber of a local deity. 

The net result is combat that feels like a clunkier-than-normal tab target system, save that if you get distracted and let your mouse cursor drift off of your target all of your attacks stop working.  Making this even worse is that any object or NPC can block your line-of-sight. In big fights very often a random NPC will get in the way of your target and disrupt any combos you are trying to execute. To my tastes, the combat somehow manages to be both overly simplistic and stressful.  On top of that, most abilities do very similar damage, so unlocking new attacks in your skill trees doesn't tend to feel very rewarding.  My main is up to level 26 now, and my normal attack rotation has barely changed since I was level 10.   

The main story line has been pretty interesting so far. Shown here is a random scene from my second trip to hell.

I don't intend to come across as overly negative.  On the balance I think ESO is great, and I am having a lot of fun there.  I will certainly take at least one character up to the level cap, which already puts ESO well above an average MMO for me.  I never see the level cap in the great majority I try.   If ESO had better combat (to my tastes), I think it would end up being one of my all time favorite MMOs.  The kind I play most days for a year or two straight.  Even if ESO isn't quite at the level of instant classic for me, expect to get a solid few months out of playing through more storylines and exploring the world.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Mystery of a Nameless Prisoner (DDO)

One of the things I really enjoy about MMOs, and games in general, is neat background details you can sometimes find.  Dungeons and Dragons Online has a lot of them, especially in older content.  Here is one of my favorites.

If you are working on the Tangleroot Gorge quest line,  it has a bit of a Groundhog Day feel to it.  You end up going into the same dungeon six or more times, with a slightly different objective on each run.  For example your first time in you are just scouting and killing a few hobgoblins, the second time in you are freeing prisoners.  However, much of the layout, trap and mob placement is identical on each run.

A lot of players find the quest chain annoyingly repetitive.  However, one advantage to the strange setup is that the quests can give you a sense of events progressing over time as you enter and re-enter the dungeon.  One of the designers took advantage of this to add in a neat little side story that unfolds over successive runs, but only if you take time to clear out an optional area on every run.

The second time you enter the dungeon, you are rescuing prisoners.  However there is an optional area where you can fight some scorpions:

After you kill them, if your strength (or that of one of your hirelings) is high enough you can go through the double doors at the back. There you find this bedraggled NPC:

At first he is raving about invisible bugs that are attack him, but when you start speaking to him he calms down.  He relates that he tried to escape, but got stung by the scorpions in the process.  He is now dying from the venom, and it's too late for you to help him.  As he starts to fade, he relates something ominous:

"Hiding down here in the dark, I started listening .  .  . listening to the stones.  It sounds like I'm mad from the venom.  Maybe I am.  But I've heard a voice.  Something lives down here . . . besides the hobgoblins.  Something old and angry.  It lives in a watery cave, and it hates.  Such hate in that voice . . . I am glad I will never meet its owner."

He then drops to the floor, dead.

After that there is a treasure chest nearby, and you go on with your adventure.  However if you go to the same optional spot and beat up the scorpions again, you find a single zombie in the area where where you talked to the NPC:

The next time through, if you go to the area for a fourth time, you find a single skeleton:

And if you go by one final time, you find only an inanimate skeleton on the floor:

Apparently his body  is now too forgone even for whatever dark magic animated his corpse before to revive him.  At last he is is at peace.   

Much later in the quest chain, in yet another optional side area, you can find out what he was talking about.  After killing the boss in the second to last quest of the chain, he drops a key and  this book:

When you pick up the book, the in-game narrator intones: "Zulkash's notes speak about trying to control an elemental in a water filled cavern."

Back near the entrance to the dungeon, if you are the type of player that explores the quest areas really thoroughly,  you may have noticed a grate underwater that you couldn't open .  

With the key from the boss, you can now open the grate, which leads to a long underwater passage.  

If you have water breathing, a decent swim skill, or are a living golem and don't need to breath like my character, you can swim to the end of the passage.  It opens up into a large cavern, in the back of which is an island with three stone elementals. Zulkash has apparently been trying to take control of them using magic with little success:

When you kill the elementals you get a bit of XP and an extra treasure chest.  Not hugely rewarding, but it's an interesting side story that you have to put in some work to see.  I love little details like these that game designers sometimes put in for us to find.  You can tell that they are real labors of love.  

Saturday, September 12, 2020

What do we want from MMOs of the future? Is it really the Multiverse?

Lately I have been really entertained by the anime of Sword Art Online and the spin off show Gun Gale Online, both available to stream on Netflix (at least in the US).  One of the things I like about them is the focus on MMO gaming and gamers. They depict players hanging out in alternate reality style MMOs in the near future. Inside the games are huge cities that have social gathering spaces, shops, and even kiosks where you go to sign up for tournaments.  Players spend as much time chilling out in bars and coffee shops as actually doing anything to advance their characters. When they head out into the larger worlds of the games to have adventures, the gameplay depicted seems mostly very unstructured.  There are  raids and PUBG style battle royal matches, but for the most part players either hunt random mobs or each other.  

There certainly don't seem to be many quests or quest hubs where NPCs hand out random tasks.  You never see players roll up with ten rat corpses, turn them in to someone and then agonize over whether to get a pair of shoes or a hat as the quest reward.  I think it's meant to depict the ultimate incarnation of an "alternate world" style MMO.  A parallel reality that you inhabit during your spare time much more than a game per se.  It makes for a compelling TV show because it puts the focus on the characters and their motivations, rather than whatever in game story lines they are playing through.*  It also tackles some issues I think many MMO fans can relate to at least a little bit about like why we play these games in the first place.  

However, I am not sure I would really enjoy the "games" that the characters in the show are playing.  The game designs seem far too unfocused, with no narrative at all save what the players bring to them.  One of the elements of games that I enjoy is that they can serve as an interesting alternative to books or movies as a way to experience a narrative.   As much fun as the shows are, I'm not convinced that what is on display is my idea of the ultimate MMO.

Another fictional game that often gets held up as the ultimate virtual world for developers to attain to is the "multiverse" from Ready Player One.   For example the developer EnjinX tried to build hype for their platform by bragging that they had created the "real multiverse from Ready Player One" using blockchain.  "Blockchain" and "the multiverse," there's some buzzwords that will make investors drool!   But is the multiverse really what we want?  Based on my single viewing of the the movie, It's depicted as a bunch of semi-independent games linked by  a sort of persistent virtual metropolis.  Kind of like Second Life, only with more actual games.  Or maybe something like Free Realms, but for adults and with more emphasis on social hubs.  While moderately successful, neither one of those games exactly set the world on fire.  I can't say I'm convinced that  "Free Realms on steroids" is the path all developers should be heading down. 

Of course the "multiverse" is older than Ready Player One.  It's pretty much the exact same idea as the "metaverse" from Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.  That is also in turn heavily inspired by "cyberspace" from the novels of William Gibson and others.  So the multiverse is obviously an idea that many authors and readers find compelling.  I have to agree that it's a lot of fun to read about these sorts of virtual spaces.  But would we really want to inhabit them?  Is there really a huge market for some sort of virtual-experience focused internet that you need to create an avatar to interact with?  I'm not really sure that there is.  

Almost all of the elements depicted in these works of fiction have already been tried out in one way or another.  Gaming spaces connected to persistent social hubs have been around for a long time.  The first one I played, unless you want to count Everquest, was Phantasy Star Online back in the 2000 on the Dreamcast.  It had virtual lobbies where players would hang out and chat in between going on adventures.  They were quite lively at times, but I never felt like they were the future of gaming.  Home on the Playstation 3 also was a similar idea in some ways.  It was basically a mall that your virtual home connected to, where you would wander around, socialize and interact with whatever games or advertisements  various publishers and retailers decided to put up.  I thought it was pretty neat, and I'll even contradict my main point by admitting that in some ways I think Home may have been ahead of it's time.

More modern games like Fortnite have taken this model much further, with social spaces outside of the main game areas where things like live concerts or other events sometimes take place.  There are also three different game modes associated Fortnite now.  If some works of fiction are to be believed, that's a big part of the way towards a multiverse.  If you buy the premise of Ready Player One, pretty much all that needs to be done is to connect more game styles (e.g., racing, sports, and RPGs) and some more impressive social spaces to Fortnite and we well on the path to an alternate universe that sets the world on fire.  Everyone that could afford to would want to go there.  In some ways the inequities and suffering of the real world would be lessened, as we would all have a virtual paradise we could escape to at will.

However, I find myself skeptical that this kind of utopic virtual dawn is really all that simple, or so close.   Certainly we could take the Free Realms model, where you create one avatar and then use it to play lots of different styles of game, to the next level.  But I personally am not all too sure I want that.  I really don't mind making different avatars for different games, nor the process of logging in and out of them.  When I am playing one game, I don't need or want to be indirectly connected to any others.  For example, when I am running around in DDO I don't often find myself wishing I could take whatever character I am playing there and jump into a racing game or a tennis simulator.  Nor do I often wish I could take my character from Shot Online into Everquest.  For purely social interactions, my phone (or Zoom for groups) is a heck of a lot easier to use than a virtual meeting space embedded in a game.  

Despite this, in the end I also have to admit that no-one has ever really tried very hard to make the multiverse/ metaverse/ cyberspace. The technology to do so will certainly be here soon.  It's already possible to create convincing virtual worlds. We've been iterating on them at least since MUDs.  I would argue the largest barrier remaining for a "metaverse" that we interact with using a mouse and keyboard is a clear market for one.  From there all that's missing is better neural interfaces.  Those are a very active area of research that is advancing rapidly.  I suspect that this enormous piece of the multiverse puzzle is closer to being created than most of us realize. Yet even with that in place, a future where individual games are a lot more immersive seems far more likely than one where every game under the sun is tied together into some sort of virtual social hub.  

In the end I suspect that the barrier that may prove most difficult to overcome is the creation of a publisher neutral VR platform that anyone can plug their product into either for free or close to it.  At least in the near term, full VR versions of standalone products like WoW or Everquest seem much more probable to me than the Multiverse. 

*Addendum:  Right after I wrote this I made it further into the second season of Sword Art Online.  The plot of the second half of the second season actually focuses squarely on an in game quest in one of the MMOs the characters play.  So maybe I'd like the fictional game of the TV show based on the light novel more than I thought :-)

In addition to Gun Gale Online cartoons, this rambling post was inspired by Tipa's "What makes an MMO an MMO?"

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Pursuit of Balance Part II: What We Gained and What We Lost

[Continued from The Pursuit of Balance Part I]

To be sure there are some good things about extreme balance. It makes PuGs a lot easier to assemble if everyone can both put out high DPS and take a few hits.  I have even seen developers brag about game designs where "everyone is a DPS, no-one has to play a tank."  Homogenization also helps eliminate new player traps on the character creation screen.  It really sucks to put 100 hours into a character and then find out you will never be particularly good at the class role you have chosen. You don't have to worry about that in modern MMOs because if two classes can fill the same role at all, they will tend to have a very similar cap on how effective they can be at it.   That's far from a terrible thing.

However I also can't help but feel like we have lost something that originally attracted to me to MMOs. Different classes used to (and in older MMOs generally still do) have wildly different capabilities. This forced you to approach the game from a completely different perspective when you played different classes. I may never have to worry about spending a month of my spare time raising a cripple,  but I also won't need to approach modern games from as many angles. A game with deep, highly varied systems helps create the illusion that you are immersed in a different reality.  Class diversity can be a big part of that.

Take Dark Age of Camelot.  The developers have cut the PvE experience back so much in the last few years that it only takes a few weeks or months to see almost all of it.  Yet when I first restarted this blog a few years ago, I had been wildly entertained for a solid year doing nothing but trying out different classes. The way that classes play is incredibly diverse there.  Learning how to play a mushroom summoner (Animist) teaches you almost nothing about how to play a melee DPS (e.g., Blademaster).  Just getting the basic attack combos down with a class you've never tried before might take hours.  Things that are easy to do on some classes are completely impossible when playing others.  It's not always fair, especially in PvP matchups that tend to go a lot like rock-paper-scissors, but it also leads to gameplay that is incredibly varied.

It doesn't seem to me that there has ever been much of a conversation about whether extreme class balance/ homogenization is a good thing or a bad thing, save for players whining when developers get it wrong. Because of this, developers keep sanding down the rough balance edges, or revising old designs that seemed flawed, and we just sort of ended up where we are now. For better or worse,  in most modern games you can pick any class you want on the character creation screen and have a pretty similar experience playing through most of the content. No matter what class you decide to try,  you'll probably never find that you need to radically re-evaluate your approach to moment-to-moment gameplay, at least once you've gotten the basics of a game down.

I'll return the the example I started with because almost anyone reading this blog is probably familiar with it. Consider how much more varied playing different classes is in WoW Classic compared to Retail.  Totems on a Shaman, hunting down rare animals to tame to learn new skills on a Hunter, convoluted quests to earn new summons on a Warlock.  Heck, even running out of mana constantly on a Balance Druid.  That's the kind of diversity we've lost from much of the genre.  I have mixed feelings about whether the balance we've gained is ultimately worth it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Pursuit of Balance Part I: Where we Ended Up

This post by Bhagpuss got me thinking about class balance, where it started , where we ended up and whether that is a place I'm happy, unhappy or ambivalent about.  In modern MMOs class choice often feels more like a cosmetic decision to me than anything else.  For example, take retail WoW.  Assuming that you are in a DPS spec, the damage that different classes can put out is very similar.  Even a a DPS speced tank class like a Paladin can put out roughly the same damage as a Mage or a Rogue. Your class determines whether you apply most of your damage in melee or at range, and how difficult the rotations are to get the hang of.  It also determines what additional roles you can perform (tank, healing, or only different flavors of DPS), but doesn't really affect your potential damage output by much.  Classes don't have identical DPS of course.  But certainly it's close enough that when out questing solo your time-to-kill feels very similar on nearly any class, and any class can act as a DPS in an instance.

Other games take it even further.  I recently started playing Elder Scroll Online.  At first I was really frustrated by the way classes work.  It didn't seem to make any difference at all which class I picked, they all played pretty much the same.  At low levels you intersperse some kind of weapon attack with whatever your first "spammable" attack skill is. These skills all do pretty much do the same thing, they just look different.  For example, Dragon Knights spam fire whips, and Tempests spam light spears, but they do about the same damage and cost roughly the same mana per use.  In ESO diversity is further diluted by how skills work. Out of dozens of abilities, any given character picks and chooses either five or ten abilities to actually put on their hot bars (and thus be able to use).  These abilities come from various skill lines, and among those skill lines way fewer than half are actually related to your class.  Most of them come from weapons, armor, guilds, and other assorted lines that every class shares.  If you wanted to you could build nearly identical characters starting with different base classes.

Eventually I did come to appreciate the system in ESO.  It makes sense if you consider the offline Elder Scrolls games where any character can develop any skill.  However, ESO falls firmly into the camp of lot of more modern games such as Destiny 2 and Warframe where the effects of the class you pick are pretty subtle.  Maybe one class can turn invisible while another one can occasionally shoot lightening.  But overall the weapon you are using has much more of an impact on gameplay than your class abilities, particularly at low levels.  Functionally the differences among classes in modern games tend to be closer to flavor than the sorts of stark contrasts that separated them in older MMOs. 

For example, in older MMOs the difference in potential damage output among classes used to vary wildly, likely by an order of magnitude. Solo in a game like EQ, DAoC, or FFXI some classes kill things so slowly you could practically eat a sandwich while waiting for a mob to drop.  Yet there are others that can nearly one shot most mobs.  You just don't see those kinds of wild differences very often in modern games.  In modern games, the tendency is for classes to be easier to figure out how to play and to be somewhat homogenized compared to older MMOs.

The reason we ended up here is because modern designers are more interested in balance than diversity.  Given how much players obsess over the tiniest difference in the capabilities of classes, that may also be how most gamers want things.  I have seen arguments break out on message boards about how one class is completely overpowered or another is completely crippled based on comparisons of classes that differ by less than 5% in potential DPS.   Some players seemingly won't be satisfied until the capabilities of every class are literally identical.  This obsession with balance has slowly led to widespread class homogenization.

Tomorrow I'll actually get to the point of all this :-) 

[Part II here.  I decided to break this post up because it really got away from me.  Looking over it on my lunch break, "Wall of text hits, wall of text crits you for 200 damage!"  started going through my head.  If you managed to catch the whole thing while the second half was up, and actually read it all, bravo!] 

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 $2520 (!!!).  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.