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.