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Dynamic quest content in 2013: GW2, FFXIV, and WoW

December 29, 2013 2 comments

Late last year I wrote a bit about my hopes for dynamic quest content in MMOs. Dynamic quest content was a promise to break away from a fixed linear content model where players are pushed along one or — if you were lucky — a few fixed questing tracks in a game. Once those were complete, players mostly had to wait until new content was released or perform some repetitive tasks, usually in the form of daily quests. This is killer for games whose entire existence is based on a persistent world.  Several games have incorporated dynamic content into their play models, so I thought it was worth taking a look back at my experiences with how they implemented this potentially ground-breaking technology.

Guild Wars 2

FrozenMawGuild Wars 2 was the first game to try and incorporate dynamic content.  Early on, running around in new zones was exciting.  Sure, every now and again you’d run into the same events, but overall it felt like every time you entered a zone, you’d end up having a slightly different gaming experience.  That was a huge plus, and I think it ultimately gave the game some good legs for both myself and my wife.  The problem was that even though the event chains were extensive, they weren’t random.  In fact, they were scripted along relatively narrow paths.  And true to form, players found a way to optimize the patterns.  I don’t think either of us is entirely sure when the change happened, but over time as players started figuring out patterns in zones and ArenaNet started adding more rewards for dynamic events, doing those events just stopped being fun.  The champion farm was born.  Masses of players would run in circles around zones knocking off supposedly challenging mobs like they were nothing to get some great rewards.  And they can get nasty about it if anyone messes up the cycle.  This was particularly bad in low level zones where new players can be exposed to that as some of their first gaming experiences.  All the complexity of the dynamic events boiled down into a circuit course with a mob of players that trivialized the encounters.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

The amazing thing is that even if the model the Guild Wars 2 implemented wasn’t perfect, it’s started to permeate into other MMO contenders. Since I had given Final Fantasy XIV a try when it was first released, I decided to take advantage of my free month. I’d not really followed the games refurbishment, but I was particularly surprised to find out about the FATE system. One of friends told me about the FFXIV’s dynamic quests before I jumped in: “You have your story quests as well that are specific to you and your personal progression through the game, you have class quests for all the different classes, you have FATEs which are basically like guild wars style events, in fact almost EXACTLY the same events in some cases.”

I’m not going to be quite so favorable as to say FFXIVs FATEs were on par with Guild War 2’s dynamic quests, but they definitely had a lot of similarities.  Indicators on the mini-map alerted players in the region to crises that demand that players flock from all around.  They can last for for up to 15 minutes and have even less impact on the game world.  But they did make running around at least slightly more variable. Unlike GW2 dynamic events, however, players are incentivized to participate in FATES thanks to their experience rewards.  There were only enough story quests to level your main class so FATE circuits became one of the primary mechanisms for players to level up alternate classes. This was annoying because as with GW2, the events seemed to not scale terribly well past a certain threshold of players.  Ultimately, I didn’t play the game for more than a month or so.  I can’t say that the FATEs were the single reason, but they definitely didn’t help.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

Which brings me to my most current gaming experience with dynamic events:  World of Warcraft’s Timeless Isle.  I’d stopped played World of Warcraft about a year ago, but the recent announcement for many changes to game in the next expansion at Blizzcon prompted a lot of my old friends to return to the game.  We’re going to see if Blizzard’s new “it’s more fun to play with friends” approach to design was as genuine as it seemed listening to them talk about it.  To my surprise, I found out that they’d been slowly adopting dynamic event content into their game as well.  Thunder Isle in patch 5.3 had a few small dynamic events and the Timeless Isle in patch 5.4 did away completely with scripted daily quests in favor of small little events on the Timeless Isle.

ZarhymEventWhen I first got to the Timeless Isle, I couldn’t help but notice was a few players seemingly running in a circuit.  It didn’t take long to figure out that there are a relatively fixed number of possible events and most people just run around looking for them.  As with FFXIV and GW2, Blizzard opted to place some small call-outs on the map to alert players to events and rare bosses spawning on the island.  Players also tend to call out when then events are up, resulting in mobs of players converging on whatever events happen to be active, just like the champion farms of Guild Wars 2.  Overall, there’s a decent range of larger events and smaller events on the island, but the number is so small that it becomes fairly repetitive quickly.  Blizzard’s announced there will be more content like this in Warlords of Draenor, so it’ll be interesting to see what they’ve learned and if they can expand on what seems like an growing experiment for the developers.

Observations

Based on the three games, I’ve come up with a few general observations about what I’d like to see in the next generation of dynamic quest content.

  • Most dynamic quests feel “right” for about 2-10 people, beyond that even if monsters scale in health based on the number of players the social dynamic seems to crumble.  Announcing the quests to crowded zones tends to draw too many people; it may be worth having several pools of events that can happen in a given zone based on how many people are around (e.g. if a zone is crowded, mostly large scale events designed to accommodate that many occur).
  • Cause and effect is still too predictable, and thus exploitable, by the general player base. Most zones seem to have too few events that get cycled through. Logging in results in less of a question of “what will I experience today?” than “when will I experience these events?” It’d be nice if the pool of possible events was large enough and variable enough that you might only see a given event once a week or so.
  • Dynamic content can tend to feel disconnected due to the events being somewhat isolated. Responding to individual crisis after individual crisis can feel a bit futile.  WoW and Guild Wars have implemented zone wide rewards for participating in certain events in a zone, but these still fall a bit short of a compelling reason why a character is running around after a point.  It’d be nice if maybe the game could string a few events together to create individual meta-objectives for players.
  • Dynamic content still mostly only impacts the game world locally.  In the best implementations, infrastructure and player services can be disrupted, but it’s almost always completely temporary and usually only a minor nuisance.  In the worst, the events do absolutely nothing to affect the game.  Ideally, it’d be better if a dynamic event affected a wider area. For example, a conflict a few zones over could noticeably affect prices or availability of goods to incentivize players to spread out and also give the world a larger sense of connectivity.

The introduction of dynamic quest content has definitely left a mark on the MMO genre and is becoming a fixture with new, redone, and old games. I’ve not been shy about how excited I am that these games are moving beyond linear content; but I’m also coming to realize that sometimes theory can only take you far. I don’t know yet what the future of dynamic content is going to be in MMOs, but it almost certainly is not yet mature. My hope is that someone can find a way to keep it fresh enough that we can avoid the compulsion to run around in circles waiting for random stimuli.  I’d rather wander and be pleasantly surprised, than feel like I’m piling in for the morning commute.

Hearthstone: Blizzard’s Foray into Mobile

March 24, 2013 1 comment
Hearthstone User Interface

Hearthstone User Interface

Blizzard threw a curve ball at PAX East in Boston this weekend by announcing Heathstone, a mobile-friendly collectible card game based on the popular Warcraft franchise.  While there appears to be a fair bit of reaction ranging from disappointed indifference to outright rage that Blizzard would divert resources away from big-name titles, I think this criticism is unfounded given Blizzard’s tendency over the years of taking popular genres and polishing them.  And from what we’ve seen so far, and from having just spent dozens of hours traveling to and from New Zealand,  I can safely say Hearthstone would have been installed on my tablet if it were an option.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect Hearthstone to become my game of choice, but I think that’s part of the point: when can anyone say they were really blown away by a mobile game? Mobile games are as much a necessity in this day and age as traveling with a snack in your bag. It’s not that you necessarily want to eat the snack over actually getting a meal, but from time to time it’s necessary and expedient to do so. It makes sense that Blizzard would prefer people choose their version of the gaming meal-replacement bar over others. And just as I prefer Cliff bars over Power Bars for my travel snacks, I expect I’ll prefer Hearthstone over many of the other free-to-play games on the market.

The lack of information about an Android release for Hearthstone does surprise me, though.  The Android user base continues to grow at pretty impressive rates.  While it’s certainly more challenging and resource intensive to port a game like this to Android given the variability of devices and versions, I would have expected at least some projected timeline for those of us not on board the Apple train given Blizzard’s size. I’m interested in Hearthstone, but not enough to play it on PC or to go out and buy an iPad.  I doubt I’m the only one in this boat and hopefully someone at Blizzard will figure that out sooner rather than later.

For those who want to know more about the game, MMO-Champion has a great roll-up on what’s known at this time.

Guild Wars 2: When a map is more than a map

August 7, 2012 2 comments

Since the first beta weekend event, I’ve discovered plenty of reasons to love Guild Wars 2. But strangely enough, it’s not the combat or the personal story that has me the most excited after the last stress test.  It’s not even world versus world combat.  Of all things, it’s the map of Tyria that has my attention. I’m an explorer when it comes to virtual worlds; I like to find their edges. For people like me, the Guild Wars 2 map is more than just a map; it’s a scavenger hunt and a game unto itself.

Impressive architecture helps.

Each area in Guild Wars 2 has a list of objectives for players to find on every map. Certainly, many of these objectives by themselves are nothing new. Plenty of games award players some kind of recognition for visiting points on a map. But ArenaNet seems to have figured out that overlaying several kinds of objectives with very different reward mechanisms creates a map that demands completion from just about any player.  Just as the game’s in-game scouts point out nearby objectives for wayward players, the overall map of Tyria with its tantalizing completion bars encourages players of all kind to get out into the world and explore.

  • Hearts of Renown track NPCs you help across the region. Players interested in story or simple level advancement should pursue these to get extra experience not only from the hearts, but the dynamic events they are bound to encounter on the way.
  • Waypoints grant every player quick travel capability to point on the map.  Having access to these not only improves player quality of life, but makes it easier for players to respond to and participate in rare dynamic events when they pop up.
  • Points of Interest may not seem like much, but they offer experience when finding them and any completionist is going to want to hit them all.
  • Skill Challenges offer players unique ways to earn skill points outside of normal leveling. Often tucked in out of the way areas, they are a quick way for any player to unlock some utility skills early and gain an edge.
  • Vistas are accessible through jumping puzzles. Upon reaching the points, players are rewarded with panoramic cinematics of some of Tyria’s best sites.
  • Completing an area awards players with a huge boost of experience as well as a chest with appropriate level gear. These alone make completing a zone worth the extra effort if a player is racing to max level.

Of the objectives described above, vistas are the ones I’ve come to love the most. The jumping puzzles are wonderful diversions from traditional player versus environment game play. They turn the terrain into an opponent. Reaching the vista  is sometimes easy with obvious staircases with simple jumps.  Sometimes it’s less than intuitive like climbing vines along a wall. Either way, getting the prize is always satisfying. I have never been what you can call a graphics hound when it comes to games, but the cinematic rewards have already created several different backgrounds for my computer and are more than enough reason to seek them out.

Working my way there…

Victory…

At the end of Beta Weekend 3 and the last stress test, there were over 1900 objectives for players to search for in game.  This number will only go up as ArenaNet releases new parts of the map to explore in future content updates. Unlike in other games where you can quickly out level an area, minimizing the fun of exploration by taking away the danger, Guild War 2’s dynamic level adjustment keeps every objective relevant for players until each and every one is found. Newly released MMOs are often criticized on release for lacking content, but with such a robust system already tied into the world map, ArenaNet looks well poised to avoid that critique from explorers.

And on the graphics front…

There are two reasons I play MMOs: the experience of playing with others (competitively and cooperatively) and to test the limits and depth of the virtual worlds they provide. The first MMO I played for more than a few months was Asheron’s Call.  What got me hooked on that game over other more popular options at the time were the hidden places to explore on the map. I’ve yet to find another MMO with a world quite so robust in terms of exploration potential. With the Guild Wars 2 release date fast approaching, I should soon be able to revise that statement.

Ready or not… here I come.

Fly or Die – Status of Pet Battles in Mists of Pandaria Beta

July 30, 2012 4 comments

One of the best parts about public beta tests is that they let players like me contribute to the game development process.  I recently spent a bit of time beta testing the new pet battle system in Mists of Pandaria, the next World of Warcraft expansion. I’ve found that the system is not only a great addition to the game, but also a fairly unique opportunity to study how implementing a theoretical game design can often have unintended consequences.  In the current beta build, population imbalance in wild pets creates an environment that heavily favors certain pet families over others. There’s plenty of time for this to change, but unless Blizzard adds a good chunk more wild Dragonkin, Mechanical, and Undead pets to the game, your best bet when the expansion is released is to grab a Flying pet and go to town.

The Mists of Pandaria pet battle system takes its inspiration from Pokemon in that players can assemble teams of pets designed to compete against pets of various types or families.  The official site describes this best:

Pets are grouped into common categories called families. Families include Critter, Dragonkin, Mechanical, Magical, and there are many more. Each pet ability also corresponds to a specific pet family; Deep Breath for example is a Dragonkin-type ability, and Lift-Off is a Flying-type ability. Family determines a pet’s strength and weakness against other families. Each family also has a unique passive bonus.

The interaction of pet family strengths and weaknesses adds a strategic layer on what is otherwise a fairly straightforward combat system.  On paper, each pet family has comparable strengths and weakness such that no one pet family stands out above the others.  In practice on the beta server, however, certain pet families are superior to others because of a disproportionate representation of certain pet families in the wild. For instance, you are 13 times more likely to encounter Critters and 12 times more likely to encounter Beasts than you are to encounter four of the other ten pet families. This population imbalance neuters some bonuses and amplifies some weaknesses to the point of being frustrating while getting your pets to their maximum strength. Bonuses against Critters and Beasts are vastly superior to benefits against other less represented families like Humanoids or Mechanicals.

Birds are well known for their resistance to cute.

To be fair, this imbalance is a byproduct of the fact that the existing game had a lot of critters and beasts in various zones.  No one can expect Blizzard to radically change the world we’ve come to expect just to account for this.  Nevertheless, the current distribution of existing wild pets ends up creating a framework with the following rules of thumb:

  • Flying will have a ridiculously easy time leveling.
  • Mechanical, Magic, and Beast will have a fairly easy time leveling.
  • Dragonkin, Humanoids, Aquatic have a fairly neutral experience.
  • Critters will have a fairly difficult time leveling.
  • Elemental and Undead will have a ridiculously difficult time leveling.

If you’re interested in how I came up with this, the short version is I weighted every family bonus and weakness using the relative chance of encountering a wild pet of each family type in the current beta build.  If you want the longer version with tables and numbers, you can get it here on the Mists of Pandaria feedback forums (I’m Renart). The model does not predict the success of any individual pet — as some pets have multiple damage types — but it does provide a reasonable gauge of overall pet family strength across the whole of the game.  Further, a family’s strength will probably vary somewhat due to uneven distribution of the family across the leveling spectrum (e.g. wild Dragonkin only exist at high level).  Even with these assumptions taken into account, the above statements are probably still useful guidelines to streamline a player’s pet battle experience and avoid major headaches. Several other testers feel that these observations are consistent with their experiences.

Giant robot beats Bunny every time.

Blizzard has about a month and a half to change the system somehow to alleviate this disparity between families.  There are two things I think they could do fairly simply without reworking the whole system.  First, converting as many Critter and Beast pets as possible into other less represented families whenever it might make sense would help even out the distribution.  This is easiest for pets that already deviate from particular themes (e.g. A Fire Beetle that has fire skills could easily be called an Elemental with Critter skills instead of a Critter with Elemental skills). Second, and perhaps more importantly, adding a good 5-15 additional pets in the Undead, Mechanical, Dragonkin, and Humanoid families would balance out the weakest performing pet families.  These two approaches combined would work best. It won’t completely remove the imbalance, but this close to release it seems like a reasonable compromise to mitigate the problem.

I’ve addressed the pet battle system previously to express my belief that it’s probably one of the boldest additions to the MMO ever in that it provides an entirely new content layer across the whole game rather than just expanding the older systems. I still feel that way. But if nothing changes between now and September 25 regarding the conditions I described above, you can bet I’ll be competing with almost everyone trying to catch and train the choice rare Flying pets in game… and probably grabbing a few Magic (+50% damage to Flying) and Mechanical (-33% damage from Flying) ones as well just to handle the inevitable onslaught of moths, buzzards, and parrots we’re all bound to run into.

Defiance: ComicCon 2012

July 14, 2012 3 comments

The SyFy network and Trion Worlds are boldly fusing storytelling mediums with their hybrid television series/MMO, Defiance, scheduled for release in April 2013.  The cast, writers, and lead game developers for Defiance took questions from audience members yesterday at a panel at San Diego’s Comic Con.  While I love SyFy and think the story and show looks fantastic, I’m still very skeptical about whether the MMO component of Defiance can live up to the hype after watching the panel and playing the game demo available. If nothing else, I can take solace in the fact that actor Grant Bowler is involved in the project; he handled tough MMO-related questions better than almost anyone else on the panel and he’s not even designing the game.

I hear ruined San Francisco is lovely in April.

Interplay between Show and Game

The words “Watch the show. Play the game. Change the world,” along with images of a ruined St. Louis and San Franscisco, are plastered up ubiquitously in downtown San Diego.  This promise that players of the MMO will be able to impact events in the television show is the chief draw of Defiance’s fused storytelling approach.  Unfortunately, how this crossover will happen was left largely to player imagination. We know the plot of the game and the show will stay synchronized with characters from the show sometimes moving back and forth between St. Louis (the show) and San Francisco (the game) to create a sense of story continuity. Several members of the crowd, myself included, asked for more details regarding the mechanics of players impacting the show or the game world, but the Trion developers side-stepped many of these questions with vague assurances that amounted “trust us, we know what we’re doing.”

The realities of TV production naturally limit the amount that the video game will be able to impact the television show, so I doubt anyone expected immediate daily impact between show and MMO, but these dismisals were less than comforting.  Thankfully, SyFy’s Kevin Murphy gave the crowd a bone with possibly the most detailed explanation of the night.  He assured the audience that there is already at least some interplay planned for each week between episodes where players will need to help synthesize a cure for a plague caused by razor rain, an atmospheric event caused by shrapnel from a destroyed alien ark stuck in the atmosphere periodically raining down from the sky.  SyFy and Trion also have plans to hold at least one contest where a lucky player will have their character cast and placed into the live show at some point.  We can probably expect this to be the exception, however. I would not expect it more than once a season.

Gameplay Impressions

The Defiance MMO is not yet in beta, but right now the game plays largely like Mass Effect 3 multi-player without dodging or cover and without class specific abilities to augment your weapons. The locked character I played was level 19 and I gained experience from killing hellbugs and completing events and challenges, but there was not a lot of information available about what leveling up does for your character.  The only customization I could find at this point was equipment.  You could choose your weapons (you can pick two), grenades, shield, and armor. For short movement, my character had a sprint and for longer travel I could summon a personal vehicle.

From what I can tell, you cannot actually crash these things. Trust me, I tried.

In terms of missions, I was able to participate in two events.  The first was a small hellbug invasion where a massive queen-like creature kept spawning smaller hellbugs in a local region conveniently marked on my map.  Two other players and I fought off waves of hellbugs while simultaneously trying to take out vulnerable glands on the big bug to get it to expose a kill point.  Aiming was important to achieve this task. I opted to use a sniper rifle to take out the soft spots because the big bug had a tendency to stomp, knocking players back and doing a fair amount of damage (one hit almost knocked out my shield).  The second event I participated in was a solo challenge where hellbugs were sent at me in various waves for 2 minutes and I had to kill as many as possible.  At the end, my score was rated and I was awarded a bronze, silver, or gold cup and some experience. I got silver on my first attempt, but the game also showed me record holders for the event and it was repeatable if I wanted to try to best my previous score.

If there was a way to go first person, I couldn’t find it.

Overall, the game played like most other shooters, as advertised. Looking at the game map suggests that there may be several other kinds of events at release, but it is still far from clear how connected these events will be and whether they have any lasting consequences on San Francisco if players fail to complete them or not. I’m concerned that the experience may end up being fairly hollow over the life-span of the show if the game play fails to offer compelling reasons to play in San Francisco between opportunities to impact the show.

Random Facts:

There was a lot more information about the show and game discussed during the panel.  A few of the better questions and answers are below.

How many races are there?

There should be eight races, at least initially. Seven alien races came to Earth in space-arks looking for a new home after theirs was destroyed.  They crash and terraform Earth and now have to coexist with humans, which make eight races. We were given hints that another ark-bound race exists, but that they are more likely to appear as major villians during the story rather than as playable characters.  All of the eight races are roughly human shaped so that they are all the same size for shooter balance purposes and so that a character can be easily cast and played by an actor if it needs to go to the show in St. Louis.

What happens if the show is cancelled?

Trion Worlds has contingency plans in place to keep the MMO going should the show component be cancelled for some reason.  This is also why the players mostly stay in San Fransisco while the show takes place in St. Louis.  I say mostly because the panel did announce that there will likely be a contest for a lucky player to have their character be cast and placed into the live show at some point, but this will be the exception and not the norm.

Will Defiance be cross-platform?

Defiance will be released on PC, XBox, and Playstation, but it will not be true cross-platform due business problems related to getting Sony and Microsoft to play well together.  Also the developers believe that mixing the platforms would offer too different of playing experiences to be fair for players to compete against one another.

Conclusion:

I will definitely be watching the Defiance pilot in April, but I’m not yet convinced that I will be playing the Defiance MMO. @DefianceWorld confirmed that the game will not be free-to-play model so hopefully there won’t be too much of a barrier to fan cross-over as the story develops.  If nothing else, it will be interesting to watch this grand experiment unfold.

If you have any other questions not answered here  about either the show or the game, please feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll try to give you the best answer I can from what I saw and heard.

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!

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.