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End-Game Primacy: Introduction

July 8, 2012 3 comments

This month’s posts are going to go a bit more abstract and theoretical than the last few I’ve written. This is intentional. While talking about popular upcoming games might draw more traffic to the site, I feel that recently I have not put enough of myself into this blog. I love talking about other games because I love playing them, but those other games were never meant to be the centerpoint (at least not until I’m making them). So today I want to share a working theory I have about how to improve the quality of MMOs today. This theory has developed over time based on reading, personal observation and experience, and many conversations with friends patient enough to listen to me.  Here is is up front:

End-game primacy is the idea that the bulk of any MMO development time needs to be spent on maximizing end-game content and that this goal is best achieved by embracing complex systems driven by player interaction, rather than static content.  Or put a different way: an MMO’s real story begins after the scripted story ends.

To keep this manageable, I broke my ideas down into three sections.  Publishing each part on different days might drive more traffic to the site, but I decided I would rather put this all out at once since it needs to stand together.  If you already agree with end-game primacy after reading the short version above, free free to skip to part 3 where I offer some ideas on how to implement it.  If you want to see how I came to the theory, go onto part 2.   Or if you want to see me talk about some basic concepts related to MMO business models, head to part 1.  I hope that this breakdown will also make it easier for people to comment on various sections.  Since this is the first time I’m posting this way, please provide feedback if you prefer this format for longer posts.  And with that out of the way, I give you my opus:

I rescued the princess!

July 7, 2012 2 comments

The Quest is usually a tag I use to talk about my personal attempt to break into the game development world.  Today’s post isn’t about that but it has been over a month since I last post here, and I wanted to explain my absence from the site.  As that reason was personal, I’m tagging this as a part of the Quest.

I’ve been grinding you see.

No, not grinding for gear in Diablo 3 or levels in some other game.  Rather, I’ve been sneaking around my girlfriend getting her a ring made; grinding cash into diamonds.  Last weekend, I proposed and she said yes.  And there was much rejoicing!  Many who read this blog regularly already heard that news, but I felt everyone else should know too.

But, wedding planning aside, I’m back now and I have a few irons in the fire that I think will be fairly interesting once I pull them out.  Early next week I plan to post a fairly long piece about storytelling and simulation.  Hopefully shortly after that, I’ll have a piece about social media’s influence on game development (which will have math!).   And to top it all off, my fiancee and I will be going to ComicCon next week.  If I find out anything cool, interesting, or otherwise awesome, that will be included in an update once I get back.

So thanks for your patience and please check back regularly.

Categories: The Quest

Til death do us part: Diablo III Hardcore

June 6, 2012 17 comments

I spent a fair amount of time playing Diablo III over the past month – along with what I can only imagine is one sixth of the world’s population.  Unfortunately, about half of those people have also taken the time to write up detailed reviews of the game.  This deluge of commentary left me struggling to find some way to frame my experience with the game that seemed mildly interesting.  And then I read a blog discussing death penalities in games that made me realize that Diablo III’s optional permanent-death mode, a.k.a hardcore, was so elegant that it has come to completely redefine what I expected from the game and how I played it.

It also confirmed that lawyers are hell-spawn.

First, some context:  Diablo was my first online game way back over a decade ago.  Nostalgia obligates me to play any title in the franchise, even if my tastes in games have moved towards those with persistent worlds.  That’s not to say that I wasn’t excited about the game’s release, but more to point out that I expected to play through once or twice to experience the game and then move onto something else.  At best, I expected a few weeks of gameplay given that it’s largely an updated and more polished version of what is at it’s core a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler.  While some of my friends were keen on pushing through every single difficulty level and were happy to farm demons for gear, I knew that style of gameplay would not hold my attention forever.

Given those expectations, I surprised myself after finishing normal mode by making a new character and selecting hardcore mode.  I never played hardcore mode in Diablo II because the idea of investing time in a character only to have them deleted after one death seemed pointless.  This time though, the knowledge that I would eventually stop playing the game looming at the front of my mind put the loss of a character into a new context.  I realized that the second I stopped playing Diablo III, any character I had invested time in might as well have been deleted anyway.  Armed with this realization, I took my new hardcore character – a Wizard – into the now much more dangerous game world.   I pushed past normal mode spending every coin, potion, and crafting material I came across knowing that there was no point to holding anything back.   If I died, I was dead.  About mid-way through Act 1 in nightmare difficulty, I was cut down by a pack of elite spiderlings who cornered me in a cave.  My death happened so fast and so unexpectedly, that I was unable to process what had happened.  But I experienced neither rage or disappointment; instead, I felt catharsis.  The permanent death of my character was somehow more satisfying than actually beating any boss in the game on my normal mode character.

Curse you, spiderlings. Curse you.

This experience in a game was so unique that I knew I had to try it again.  I made several more characters, trying new classes each time to experience the game in a new way.  These characters made it to various levels, though never very far due to a bit of recklessness on my part and unfamiliarity with their play styles.   I started to become a little frustrated until I noticed that despite each of my characters having to start back at the beginning of the game, my account was still still getting more powerful.  My bank and gold carrying over between character deaths started to let me arm and equip my new characters faster.  Hardcore purists from Diablo II will argue that this negates some of the challenge, but it was just enough continuity to keep me interested.  The game had changed for me.

Despite the simplicity of clicking a mouse over and over,  Diablo III’s gameplay at higher difficulties comes down to solving dynamic problems.   The game sends new waves of opponents with complex and random abilities and you address these challenges with a finite set of tools.  The most powerful of these tools is also the one you appreciate the least until it’s gone:  trial and error.  If your character cannot truly die, you can brute force your way past some of  the more challenging puzzles thrown at you.  I love problem solving, but even trying to learn the game’s intricacies, I leaned on the crutch of trial and error when I played through normal difficulty the first time.  Hardcore showed me how to get at the good stuff, the uncut version of the game.  My most recent hardcore character, a level 51 Witch Doctor, is now in Act I of Hell mode and I absolutely cannot wait to come across the puzzle that finally beats me.

Mostly because I cannot stand the way this guy yells in combat.

The Diablo III developers have said that it was never intended that hardcore characters would beat the game’s higher difficulties, so it’s unlikely that I will ever “complete” the game.   But playing hardcore has artificially extended the game’s life for me.   Where some of my friends are already getting bored,  I feel like I am just coming into best parts of the game and I do not see an immediate end in sight because I can keep pushing the bar further.   Playing hardcore has made me appreciate that sometimes even a simple design on the surface can achieve elegant results and that we gamers have probably taken our digital immortality for granted far too long.

The Elder Scroll of Speculation

May 3, 2012 2 comments

Game Informer today confirmed the not-so-secret existence of an an already-in-development Elder Scrolls Online MMO.  Porting the highly successful single-player Elder Scrolls franchise to a massively-multiplayer environment is a high risk, high reward move for ZeniMax Studios.  On one hand, already having a huge fan base to draw on means that the studio can count on a fair amount of revenue up front on release as long as they deliver a working game.  On the other hand, those same fans are going to demand the kind of game experience that they’ve come to expect from other games in the franchise: a rich open world where players decide how they want to play.   Translating that single-player experience into a multi-player environment may not be simple, so ZeniMax will have to come up with some fairly creative solutions to bring the Elder Scrolls alive in a way that mediates the demands of the MMO genre with expectations of their players.

While ZeniMax probably won’t give away too many details about specific game mechanics this far out from release, we can probably expect to hear soon about overarching design concepts and major game features.  When Game Informer releases an exclusive trailer tomorrow, my biggest fear is that we’ll see a game that resembles another attempt to piggy-back off World of Warcraft.  While this approach has arguably worked for some MMO franchises (e.g. Rift and SWTOR), it also tends to draw a lot of criticism from MMO players and probably cut hard into those franchises’s potential growth than if they’d tried a different approach.  Don’t get me wrong, WoW is a great game even seven years after release – but if I want to play it, I’ll play Blizzard’s version and I believe many other players feel the same way.   Blizzard had seven years to flesh out what is, at its core, a very structured MMO experience.  Even a great emulation of that style of game play, especially without those seven extra years of development, is probably going to pale in comparison to precedent set by the open worlds of previous Elder Scrolls game.

Tomorrow, if we’re comparing ZeniMax’s Elder Scrolls MMO to any other game on the market, I hope we’re talking about EVE Online.  While I do not want ZeniMax to copy EVE wholesale, for many of the same reasons I do not want want them to copy WoW, there are definitely lessons to be learned and some features which may be too useful to pass up when moving Tamriel to the internet.  EVE is probably the best implementation of a massive open online world where players can have direct impact on the world itself.  Instead of picking classes as in other more structured MMOs, EVE’s players choose how to develop their character using an expansive skill-tree system.  They can specialize or diversify across skills that impact various aspects of the game’s social, economic, and combat systems, gaining more depth the longer they play.  This flexibility in game play and character development are the same reasons why everyone I know enjoyed Skyrim.   As the last Elder Scrolls game to be released, players will almost definitely expect similar flexibility in the Elder Scrolls Online.

As I said earlier, what works in a single player game may not work in an MMO, but the reverse is also true.  Trying to give players an open world like EVE’s without losing the richness of content and story is a challenge in itself.   It’s a lot easier to account for one player’s actions in a game world than it is for thousands, and if it’s a true open world, that’s thousands of opportunities for players to undo any work developers put into the game.  Game Informer’s tease about The Elder Scrolls says that ZeniMax has already decided structure the player versus player aspect the game with three set factions.  This design is not entirely surprising given that ZeniMax’s president used to work on Dark Ages of Camelot, which also featured a three-faction PvP system.  It remains to be seen, however, if the studio will cede more freedom to players in other aspects of the Elder Scrolls Online experience.

If nothing else, the next year will be interesting to see how ZeniMax chooses to balance these competing forces.

Legends have to learn to make choices like this.

May 2, 2012 3 comments

Despite a few not entirely unexpected hiccups related to the sheer volume of players, Guild Wars 2 turned out to be surprisingly “finished” for a beta, especially since only three of the five player races were available for play testing.  Trying to play the beta ended up being a lot like trying to eat responsibly at a buffet restaurant; I tried to stick to a few things I knew I’d want to play, but ended up trying almost everything once I saw how good it all looked.  I had such a blast giving this game a test-drive that I actually forgot to take screen shots of many areas I’d intended to document.  This lack of some of the best eye candy will truly be to your disadvantage because the game’s graphics and cut scenes are both high-quality and have a very unique style.

I could probably go on for pages giving play by plays of the major game features, but I think other gaming news sites have already covered that pretty well.  Instead I’d like to share my overall impression of the game’s design and what made it stand out for me when compared against games I’ve played at this stage in development.  For those who like lists:

Guild Wars 2…

  • … is heavy on interesting choices.
  • … offers an incredibly fluid gaming experience.
  • … has dynamic content that had me participating instead of grinding.

And now on with the show.

Guild Wars 2 is heavy on interesting choices.

Virtually every aspect of Guild Wars 2 is filled with choices.  These choices aren’t the run-of-the-mill decisions like “would you like +1 damage or +1 health” or “would you like fries with that?”, but rather fairly compelling and interesting choices like this one:

Legen… wait for it… dary.

Some of the first interesting choices I was hit with came right at the beginning with character creation.   In addition to the usual choice of race, class, and physical appearance, I was able to customize the look and feel of my armor right out the gate.  More importantly, I was presented with a number of short anecdotes about  my background to choose from, like what I did at a recent party, which god / nature spirit blessed me  as a child, or if I  grew up on the streets or in a noble family.  Upon finishing the character, I was launched into a short video detailing my character’s past and current situation, influenced by the story choices I made during creation.  This was a nice touch that signaled immediately that the decisions made at the character screen weren’t just cosmetic and would color the game play experience.

Choices don’t just have to do with story, however.  All characters’ main combat abilities are governed by a combination of their equipped weapons and their profession, or class as other games usually call them.   Equipping different weapons gave me five completely different primary attacks and each profession also has a secondary mechanic which changed up the skill dynamic to offer flexibility.  For instance, an Elementalist can’t change weapons while fighting, but can swap between the four elements (fire, water, earth, or air) mid-battle to radically change the style of combat currently being used despite what weapon you have equipped.   An Elementalist using a staff will have five different fire skills than one wielding a sword, and two Elementalists wielding staves may have different abilities at any given time depending on if they are using the same element or not.   This flexibility was what lead me to try out the Elementalist profession first, but it wasn’t long until I saw other characters using awesome ability combinations and I felt compelled to try a few more professions.  I ended up trying the Necromancer and Thief as well, but spent the lion’s share of my time as the Engineer, a gun-totting adventurer with a steampunk inspired arsenal literally on his back.

Medieval flamethrower sold separately.

The complexity that weapon and profession skills brought to the combat system let me make non-binding game-play choices early on that really impacted my personal combat style.  Combine that with the fact that each profession has a few dozen utility abilities, but can only use four at a time, and I ended up really thinking hard about what weapon and utility abilities I equipped to tackle different situations.   To be fair, this much flexibility does include some risk that you can temporarily invest in the “wrong” skills, but it’s a fairly marginal risk in that a mistake doesn’t last long.  For instance, I added skill points to some grenades on my engineer that I thought might be interesting, only to find they didn’t support my current play style.   I wasn’t able to find a way to respend those points, but it wasn’t too long before I had enough points to get a new skill to replace it.  Further, it looks like at max level you’ll have all the utility abilities anyway.   It probably wouldn’t hurt if they added a mechanic to let players redo those points, however, especially since there are already books that let you reset your talents (mostly passive boosts to one facet of your character).

Guild Wars 2 offers an incredibly fluid gaming experience.

The ArenaNet team has not only accomplished building a game that offers interesting choices at its core and periphery, but also managed to keep a lot of subtler features that tend to fall by the wayside in other games.   These immersive features let me flow between aspects of the game both from a story perspective and also in terms of teaching me to handle the necessary evils of learning to perform my role via the game’s interface.  They mitigated what could have been a paralyzing game experience in such a big world into something much more enjoyable.   Nothing is more frustrating than not really knowing what to do next and retreading ground as you end up trying to figure out where to go.

One of the features that I hadn’t really seen discussed anywhere else, but which I found very ingenious, were the in-game scouts.  Friendly NPCs marked on the minimap with a spyglass were usually hanging around natural junctions between areas in the game.  These scouts would pull up my world map and give me a little briefing on the local area, highlighting with a “pen” where I could find things to do in the area.  It’s a relatively minor feature for players who are familiar with a region already, but it’s very thoughtful toward new players by giving them a little help getting around without outright handing a complete map of the game to everyone, ruining it for those who like to explore (like me).

Google traffic to be included in a later patch.

Actual underwater combat is another arguably unnecessary, but completely awesome and fluid (pun intended), feature in Guild Wars 2.   Fighting underwater is usually a niche experience in many games, to the point that some don’t even allow you to swim and those that do usually restrict it to fairly marginal areas.  When supported, underwater combat is usually identical to land based combat, but you move a lot slower, in three dimensions, and may or may not have to pay attention to a “breath” meter.    In comparison, the Guild Wars aquatic experiences are seamlessly integrated throughout the story experience.   There are hidden objectives under lakes in new player areas and about one quest in ten quest areas involves some kind of water component.   Immediately going underwater shifts you to your aquatic weapon, which as noted in the section about choices, switches you directly to a new set of five abilities.  Other above-ground utility abilities have new and improved functions when underwater.  On my engineer, I had an ability to shoot an oil slick out behind me on dry land to slow people chasing me… that oil slick became cloud of oil that blinded opponents underwater.

So that’s why they had the no swimming sign…

Really everything just moved in the game.  It just felt natural to move from area to area, from quest to quest, from event to event, from story to story, and from every facet of the game to every other facet of the game.  Lately it seems like many MMO developers forgot to take notes about what people hate about the genre, but that was clearly not the case with the ArenaNet development team.

Guild Wars 2 has dynamic content that had me participating instead of grinding.

As I went on in great length in my previous post, the Guild Wars 2 dynamic event system was the number one feature I wanted to test out this weekend.   Luckily, the ArenaNet team did not let me down on this one.  I can honestly say that the most fun I had during the weekend was when a random event would occur near where I was doing other things and then an hour later I’d realize that the events had literally pulled me along for the ride.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit worried at first.   The first dynamic events you experience at low levels are directly scripted into the encounters or seem to occur on a periodic loop where a single event affects a particular area at somewhat predictable intervals.  These events, while epic and unexpected the first time around, are by their very nature not dynamic.  Truthfully, I was worried that this would carry over as I progressed, but I think this is more of the ArenaNet team’s way of easing players into what can be a somewhat unpredictable experience later on.

I’m the dude in the corner.  Level 1.

It didn’t take long, though, to find the dynamic experience what I was waiting for.  Around level 10 or so on my Engineer, I was making my way to a town when all of a sudden a fort nearby came under attack by a band of centaurs.   The game let me know immediately I was in range to assist and as I did not see many others around, I went to assist.  One other brave defender and I failed to fight the horde of centaurs off and they took over the fort.  It was the first event I’d seen fail, and I couldn’t have been happier.  A few minutes later, a new event appeared to retake the fort.  More people gathered;  we retook the fort and were ushered out to several new objectives.  Nearby farms needed repairs from the raid and we had to retrieve citizens taken captive during the centaur attack.  Liberating those citizens turned into a counter attack at the centaur forward garrison.   I literally spent two hours just following the flow of events as the story unfolded.

While it does seem like this event will probably repeat itself eventually if the centaurs are not contained, the overall chain was both well thought out and, most importantly, fun to experience so early in a game.  As I played through the world with other characters, I found that being the same areas at different times can often result in an entirely different chain and that ignoring events for too long does have an impact on the game world.  On my Skarr Thief, I came across a few way points (quick travel and resurrection areas) that were contested as a result of events.  Players had to work to take those areas back, but the minor inconvenience of getting it back was completely worth the fun of actually doing it.    To add icing to the already awesome cake, just playing the centaur events I described above gave my Engineer a full level of experience both from the event itself and because events usually tie in directly with activities you’re doing while you’re in an area.   I don’t know exactly what metric is uses to grade your performance, but at the end of each I got a bronze, silver, or gold medal with appropriately scaled experience rewards and other rewards.   The grading metric seems smart enough to not just look at how much damage you do, as sometimes I’d get a gold medal just for helping a few downed players.

The Beetletun farmers had better be paying me extra for this…

Keeping in mind that I only saw 2 days worth of low level content, the one criticism I have of dynamic events so far is that while events do impact the world, they almost impact the world too quickly.  Failing or succeeding an event could occur in about 10 minutes, resulting in quick changes to a local area.  For instance, the campaign against the centaur horde progressed from just outside the gate to its complete suppression in only about 30 minutes.  This may be a byproduct of the massive number of low level players around, so it may not matter much as the game gets more mature, but I figure it’s worth mentioning.

One small side-note on dynamic events:  PvP is dynamic by its very nature, but the ArenaNet team has also worked in some extra dynamism into their world versus world combat.  I ended up only doing about two hours of PvP combat, but the short bit I did play was in the world versus world area.  Each server battled for control of a fairly expansive region… but these weren’t just static keeps to trade hands.  Keeping a fortress ended up requiring supplies and those supplies were sent via dynamic caravans that would move between forts and keeps a particular side would control.  A friend of mine and I had a blast hunting those caravans down and taking them out.

Other caravans in game clearly needed to be protected… at all costs.

Overall…

I’m incredibly pleased with the experience I had during the Open Beta Weekend.  Like a good movie trailer, I felt like I saw enough to get excited without worrying that I had seen too much too ruin the whole thing.  The thoughtful designs put into this game are sure to make it a hit among the MMO community and I wouldn’t be surprised if other developers start emulating some of the great mechanics woven into Guild Wars 2.  This was a pretty long post as is, but if anyone has additional questions about specific parts of the game, I would be more than happy to share what I can on those topics in the comments.

Guild Wars Episode 2: A Gamer’s Hope

April 25, 2012 4 comments

On Friday, ArenaNet will be hosting an open beta weekend for Guild Wars 2.  As someone who has already prepurchased the game, I’ve prepped to participate by downloading the client prior to the event starting.  I got my first taste of Guild Wars 2 at ComicCon 2011, though it was honestly a bit tough to appreciate the game playing the first few levels while in the din of hundreds of other people clamoring to get their turn.  While I try to keep abreast of most major games coming down the pipe, Guild Wars 2 had largely slipped under my radar until that point. I regretted this immediately once until I saw how the fine people over at ArenaNet were throwing down the gauntlet.   They were taking their already successful game and converting it into a truly persistent world – the hallmark of a true MMO – while not compromising on all the things that made the original Guild Wars entertaining and fun.

Pictured: Fun.

ArenaNet’s design philosophy emphasizes a dynamic player experience and crusades against any aspect of grinding in their game, but the ArenaNet team can describe that far better than I can.  Their manifesto (if you only ever decide to follow one of my helpful little links… follow this one) outlines what can only be fairly described as one of the most ambitious attempts to redefine the MMO genre that has come about in some time by a major publisher. While I’ve enjoyed a few of the other newcomers to hit the market lately, the small innovations these titles brought to the genre have not really changed the player experience in appreciable ways that make me want to jump ship on my current titles and invest countless hours of my play time.  Suffice it to say, ArenaNet’s goals are lofty for a genre defined by building content treadmills to keep players engaged over the long haul and also lately defined by copying content treadmills that work in other games.

The cynic in me can’t help but be skeptical that a company will truly take a gamble by breaking the established money-making formula, but that doesn’t stop me from secretly rooting for them.   One such game I used to root for was with the ultimately unsuccessful Shadowbane.   I’d become so active in the pre-release community that the community management team selected me as one of three fans to be volunteer moderators for their official forums when the game was released.  Despite being riddled with technical problems from release until the game shut down, what drew me to the game was the fundamental design principle that dynamic content was the key ingredient in a meaningful player experience.  Sound familiar?

If not, you probably didn’t watch the manifesto.
(hint: it’s topical)

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Guild Wars 2 is all that similar to Shadowbane.   First,  the two games are probably night and day if for no other reason than that ArenaNet has experience producing quality titles.   Second, Shadowbane’s dynamic content was created through a system that encouraged conflict and competition between players, an inherently dangerous prospect for a genre where friendly competition can quickly degenerate into vitriol that can tear apart virtual communities.  In contrast, the Guild Wars 2 dynamic content seems to be built around the idea of players banding together to deal with what are essentially environmental problems.  Different approaches to dealing with those issues may encourage some indirect competition between groups, but the ArenaNet team appears to have anticipated some of the potential traps by implementing design features discourage griefing and event manipulation.

Despite these differences in design and implementation, the two games both embody a rebellious spirit challenging the MMO zeitgeist by trying to deliver dynamic content to players.  This potential in Guild Wars 2 has me chomping at the bit to log in for the beta event.  I don’t expect to see the full extent of ArenaNet’s tricks in a single weekend, but what I do hope to see is some evidence that the dynamic events promised in the manifesto promote a rich and organic game play experience.   The last thing I want is another game  that tries to pass off randomly occurring static events as dynamic content.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I find myself again balancing the need work on other projects with rising hope quotients for a game that already exceed doctor recommended levels.  Since I already know which one of these competing impulses is going to win out, I ask that you prepare yourselves for feedback next week when I finally process what should be an exciting weekend of thousands of people all trying to get the same quests done at the same time!

Quest Creep

April 22, 2012 2 comments

I’ve been trying to do more running lately. While it’s not directly related the Quest, it ends up being important because my mind decides to go into rapid fire idea generation mode while out on these runs. The skeleton game ideas I’ve been tossing around for awhile really need fleshing out and these runs end up kick-starting that process. I get back to the house physically exhausted and mentally charged, sit down in front of the keyboard while I try to cool off, and start digging for ways to bring my ideas to life. These deep dives into the independent gaming communities of the web end up being as frustrating and humbling as they are enlightening, mostly because they reveal how much I still have to learn and how far away I am from reaching the goal of a playable demo for these ideas.

I never expected game design and development to be easy; on the contrary, I knew it was going to be demanding. Where I seem to have miscalculated was where I though I might be able to cut corners. In many ways, I’ve often found myself searching for a few hours for a faster / easier / simpler way to do something only to realize that I would have probably gotten more done by devoting those few hours to just learning something more elementary. For instance, I spent the better part of today searching for open source gaming engines, trying to find one that would let me jump right in. Naively, I thought that someone would have spent the time building such a tool, but in a lot of ways, that’s like expecting someone to build a program to automatically make money and then give it away for free.  Still, I found several tools that attempted to give me what I wanted, but the tools I found were either incomplete or too inflexible to do what I wanted them to do. That’s not meant as a point of criticism of independent developers, but rather a realization that I was going to have to learn to make more of those tools and adjustments myself.

At the end of the day, I think it’s important for me to keep in mind that I’m just one person. Anything worth designing and developing is either going to take a long time if I insist on doing it myself or I’m going to need a team at some point. More importantly, until I do get a team, I need to have a more rational expectation of what I can accomplish in a given week and stop chasing ideas that are outside of that scope. It’s humbling to admit that, but short of cutting out the other things in my life I enjoy (like actually playing games) I just don’t see how I’ll get anything done otherwise.

The Demons We Slay For Love

April 15, 2012 1 comment

While most of the posts here are about my personal thoughts on gaming, it is impossible to give online and cooperative gaming a fair treatment without including the other players who make the games worth playing.  The collective experiences these games provide can create real world friendships and can also can also strengthen existing relationships.  I was lucky enough to find a girlfriend who not only puts up with my gaming habits, but also encourages and shares in them.   Aside from being a better writer than me,  Abby has been supporting this effort behind the scenes as my editor and moral support (though I’m sure she wants me to emphasize that she does not edit my comments).   She’s also a gamer in her own right and so I’ve asked her today to share her perspective on the games we play.


This isn’t a review, it’s a love affair

Drew asked me to blog about my experiences playing the Diablo 3 beta, since I’ve been rather absorbed in it of late. I even bought a high-end dedicated gaming machine in anticipation of the full D3 release (May 15th!). This purchase was truly selfless, in my opinion – it ensures I won’t have to bait Drew away from his computer with promises of treats and sexytimes only to claim his keyboard at the last second, leaving him standing in the kitchen with nothing but a cookie and a tear running down his cheek so I can shoot poisonous frogs through a blowdart gun at the devil’s spawn.

Which brings me to my favorite feature in the beta (and presumably the full release): I can shoot poisonous frogs through a blowdart gun.

Phantom of Anguish? Pshhh... more like Phantom of EATING FROGS

What I mean is that the abilities are unique and unexpected. In a gaming world where most classes’ abilities can be copied from game to game with slight modifications or skinning differences, D3 brings some seriously cool spells and curses that you may not have seen before. I played three characters to max level (13) twice: wizard, witch doctor, and barbarian. The witch doctor is by far my favorite – her mix of melee and ranged abilities that incorporate ghosts, zombie dogs, and magic dolls means that she can be useful in any co-op play no matter the makeup of your cohorts. Even better (for me), her abilities can be mixed and matched better than any other class to create unique combinations which set her apart from any other witch doctor I may encounter in game.

Because I want you to read this, I’m not going into all my likes and dislikes of each class. You’re going to play them all, anyway. Just be aware that there is one exception to my “awesome, unique abilities” judgment: the wizard is pretty much like most wizards and mages you’ve played before, and I think she’s still a little overpowered compared to the other classes in the beta. I’m sure they’ll fine-tune that for the full release. She also comes with a set of abilities that can be mixed and matched for distinctiveness, but there’s really one configuration that is more effective than the others, so that’s how she’ll be played. She’s awfully pretty to look at, though.

Wait, I have another favorite feature: I don’t have to listen to dialogue.

The dialogue exists. The voice acting is well done. The story is rather rich. But I never have to suffer through cut scenes where I lose control of my character, I don’t have to spend vital minutes making decisions that might or might not actually impact my character and storyline (I’m looking at you, everything Bioware has ever done). Those minutes are better spent killing imps and undead, and let’s face it, THERE’S EVIL OUT THERE and it’s my job to destroy it. Stop talking to me. You can listen while you run around doing other things, like blacksmithing or talking to a vendor, or you can skip it completely. I have, unfortunately for Drew, memorized all the dialogue in the first 13 levels and can be heard mumbling “How are criminals treated in your land? Betrayal can never be forgiven!” in my sleep. This makes for some awkward mornings. The few cut scenes that precede boss fights are worth watching once, but after that you can space bar through them. Even in co-op mode! I’m just saying, that boss ain’t gunna kill himself.

Evil babies abound

Okay, last one: Repetition is awesome.

If you’ve played the Diablo franchise before (I haven’t), you know that part of the game is doing everything 17,000 times in order to get different loot, get achievements, and to level professions. That hasn’t changed, but since I’m an achievement whore, it makes me giddy inside. I’m not sure if in previous Diablo iterations the dungeons were well randomized, but they absolutely are in D3. There were story elements that didn’t spawn until the 15th time I’d run through the Old Cathedral. (In particular, the Templar’s tomes. When your templar first follows you, he mentions that he is on his own quest to find the tomes of his order. I had assumed up to that point that this was an element to be addressed in future levels. Lo and behold, an old ghosty templar spawned on my 15th time through and we stole his tomes.) Similarly, certain events (Matriarch’s Bones, Jar of Souls) don’t spawn every run-through, and there are achievements that go along with them. This makes your thousandth run-through totally vindicating.

By the time this beta hit wide release in the fall of 2011, most of the bugs were already worked out and Blizzard was starting to stress test the servers. What we have now is a beautifully packaged 13 levels of gameplay that makes me jump out of my jeans to play the rest of the game exactly one month from today. I’ll be pantsless until I can find some Leather Pants of Focus to replace them.

You may now call me Miss Smarty Pants.

My New Hats

April 3, 2012 1 comment

It’s probably about time that I update the Quest.  The bad news is I’m finding it harder to keep up posting here regularly.  I busted my self-imposed goal of one post a week.  Again.  The good news is why I’m taking longer to post; I’ve  been busy learning for my new job with a fairly young software development company.   It turns out that my previous background coupled with the programming and networking courses I started taking a few months ago have made me into an attractive hybrid (except without the tax benefits and lower emissions).  The company that hired me doesn’t build games, but the role I’ve been brought on to fill gives me plenty of opportunity to learn about development and work on some of my technical skills.  If all you care about is reading about my personal life, you can probably stop here.  Anyone else who likes or is curious about games, feel free to keep going.

I wrote last week(ish) about some of my thoughts about the next WoW expansion and its implications on the future of mobile gaming.  If you actually made it to the end of the post, you probably noticed I said I was not in the beta.  Now I am.  This past weekend, I was a part of the 300,000+ annual pass holders who were tossed an invite to the beta.  My lovely and talented girlfriend / editor was kind enough to grant me several hours of play time despite my having been away all week on business for my new job.  It would be criminal to waste that gift and not share some of my experience in the beta with you all.  Spoiler Alert:  There are Pandas.  Everywhere.

Many of the new features I’m excited to see in the expansion, like pet battles, are not yet implemented on the beta servers.   Much of the new class and race content is available, however, and I decided to make the most of it by trying out the games newest class and race:  the Pandaren monk.

Along with everyone else.

After making my new character, less-than-cleverly and more-than-hastily named Rollshambo, I logged into the server and was confronted by a sea of black and white fur.  It turns out that the other 299,999 invitees also decided to make pandas.  While it made the initial experience a little frustrating, I took it in stride and eventually got past some of the early bottleneck and out into the world.  I was able to play most of this content at Blizzcon 2011 anyway, so I don’t feel like I missed much by rushing through the area.  That is not meant to diminish the content, however.  The new quests and objectives are quite amusing, especially when you get to enjoy minor bugs that result in sweet headgear like this.

Yay ridiculous hats!

Online games usually demand teamwork between players to complete objectives, so support roles often end up being simultaneously the most in demand and the least played in the game.  Consequently, I usually end up playing one of them.  This was my experience playing a healer almost exclusively in World of Warcraft over the past few years.  However, doing anything for several years will make anything seem monotonous eventually, so Blizzard’s promise to give the monk a new healing style emphasizing an interactive melee experience piques my interest.  I chose the healing specialization, the Mistweaver, at level 10 and worked my way to level 25 over the weekend.  While I only have two healing spells by that point, both function differently than almost any other heals I’ve used on other characters, resulting in a unique experience even at this low level of play.  Only time and testing will tell if Blizzard can deliver on the hype of the class, but so far I like what I see.  In the meantime, I will be enjoying the fact that I have two new hats to wear:  novice software developer at work and novice bug “unintended feature” reporter in the Mists of Pandaria beta.

My new job has 100% less balloon rides than this screenshot.

World of myCraft

March 25, 2012 4 comments

Last week, Blizzard issued a massive release of new information about Mists of Pandaria, the next expansion pack for World of Warcraft.  The information confirmed that the expansion will include a Pokemon-style mini-pet battle system announced at last year’s Blizzcon.  It also announced a new in-game faction that will allow players to take care of their own farm, reminiscent of the hit Facebook game Farmville.  While these additions are only a fragment of the new content being offered, the two games within the larger game seem to signal that Blizzard may be setting World of Warcraft up to evolve to a more immersive content delivery platform where players can tailor the kind of game experience they want while still experiencing the Warcraft universe.

Pet Battle System
source: mmo-champion.com

Massively-multiplayer persistent worlds inherently appeal to many gamers for their ability to preserve a player’s time invested playing a game.  Playing WoW’s in-game version of Pokemon or Farmville will offer players experiencing burnout entirely different game experiences within the persistent world without having to switch to a new game or platform.  Perhaps more importantly, players who never were into crawling dungeons or fighting other players in arenas now have a reason to try and perhaps stick with the franchise.   Blizzard has always had a strong track record of taking established game paradigms and expanding them in new ways, so their incorporation of highly successful game that appeal to a variety of audiences only makes sense as they attempt to make World of Warcraft more applicable to an increasingly diverse gaming audience.

Tiller’s Farm
source: mmo-champion.com

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the fact that these alternative games within the larger game seem ripe for adaptation into mobile platforms.  Blizzard recently expressed interest in eventually offering a way to experience the game via the iPhone and other mobile platforms.   It will probably be some time before players can experience the entire game on a mobile platform, but Blizzard already offers ways to access parts of the game experience via mobile apps to chat with players in game and conduct business on the in-game auction house.  It would not surprise me if we saw mobile apps fairly soon after the expansion allowing players to engage in the pet battle system or managing their farm while on the go as well.   These new alternate games not only diversify what World of Warcraft players experience, but also potentially how they experience it, likely setting the setting the bar for future MMOs.

World of Warcraft may be getting up there in age, but these developments make me confident that Blizzard has a few more tricks to show us and that gets me even more excited to learn what the company has in store for Titan.  In the meantime, I’ll just have to wait like the rest of the annual pass holders out their for their turn at the Mists of Pandaria beta.