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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.

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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.

Droids Gone Wild

March 16, 2012 15 comments

This week I’m going to spend some time talking about my impressions trying out Star Wars: The Old Republic.  As the breakout MMO for BioWare, the game had a lot of hype to live up to given the company’s past performance with several blockbuster franchises such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age.  Overall, I found the leveling experience in the Old Republic to be worth the money I shelled out on the game – mostly due to BioWare’s ability to get a player involved in a great story.  But I do have some reservations about the game’s ability to draw in long term loyalty from fans.  I expect that being tied to the Star Wars franchise itself will keep the game alive for some time, but without streamlined multi-player features, I doubt that I’ll be playing the Old Republic over the long haul.  For those with attention issues, I’ve captured my key thoughts below.  Everyone else, feel free to hit the text wall at hyper speed.

SWTOR…

… plays like a single player game despite being massively multi-player.

… feels like you’re in a Star Wars movie, to include cross-planet road trips.

… offers some unique gameplay mechanics, despite replicating a lot of WoW’s game design.

… rewards players for their choices, but not necessarily the way you want.

… does a poor job of facilitating group content, a major problem for a multi-player game.

… looks to have a development team who appears to be willing to tackle the game’s weak spots.

Disclaimer: When I started writing this post, I tried not to compare the Old Republic to World of Warcraft because so many others have done it.  However, many of the similarities (like the way player skills are grouped) were so obvious that it was like BioWare wanted the familiarity.  I’m relatively forgiving of those decisions because who wouldn’t want to copy some of the success of a game with over 10 million subscribers?  Where possible, I’ve tried to highlight some of the game’s unique features, many of which do not get much press despite providing substantial portions of the gameplay.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

The Old Republic continues BioWare’s track record of emphasizing player-driven story interwoven with gameplay.  I find the Star Wars movies entertaining, but I’ve never a diehard fan of the franchise . In spite of my inexperience with the Star Wars universe, playing through the game felt like I was the star in my own prequel movie.  Even though I had initially planned to only play a single character, I ended up making and leveling a character in the Republic and the Empire just to see how the plot played out for both sides on various planets.  Most MMOs struggle in that every player is a hero, so no one actually feels that way. The Old Republic’s personal stories for each class and the overarching plot woven across all of the planets eliminates that problem by letting each player feel like a real hero.

The visuals in the game contributed heavily to the overall feeling that the story was actually one of the Star Wars movies.  Planets, space stations, and abilities alike are aesthetically rendered with details true to the experience at every turn.  However, after the initial cool-factor of slicing down enemies with a lightsaber wore off, some of the environmental detail did become a bit much.  For example, planets really did start to feel like planets in both detail and physical size around level 25.  Even with a speeder at my disposal boosting my travel speed, I often took what can only be described as road trips just to move between quest hubs.  Couple that with my compulsive need to leave no stone unturned, and I ended up wasting large amounts of time just traveling.  These are forgivable sins for a novice MMO team, but it was a numbing experience and definitely detracted from the overall experience.  In total, the graphics of the Old Republic struck a good balance balance between intentionally bright and trying-too-hard-to-be-real-life graphics.

The implementation of a personal crew also went a long way to making the game’s story come to life.  Honestly, if I had to pick one feature from the game to take into future games, it would be the crew system.  Crew members offset the impact of intentionally compartmentalizing player abilities by giving you the ability to have someone along who can complement your character abilities even when soloing.  It dramatically smoothed out some of the edges in the single player experience. Even better, BioWare allows your crew members to craft items, gather resources, and even perform their own missions.  This resulted in a similar crafting system available in other games but took the emphasis off of having a player perform repetitive player tasks in favor of simply making scheduling decisions for their crew.  I am a huge fan of any system that lets players multi-task and perform some functions away from the keyboard.  I hope that the BioWare developers eventually allow players to queue their crew up for multiple back-to-back missions similar to how players could queue skills to learn offline in Eve Online.  Coupling your crew to a personal ship even offered BioWare a way to tackle the personal housing in an MMO by giving players their own real estate that does not impact the games static world space.  The technique may only work in science fiction games, but this implementation works by giving players a place to call home while still being drawn to major hubs to interact with other players and for other in-game services not available on the ships.

No system is perfect, however, and the story system did have one major wart worth mentioning.  BioWare chose to implement an alignment system tied to player choices.  Periodically through the course of the plot, player decisions are labeled light or dark.  Often these decisions are clear cut, such as letting someone go or killing them, but quite frequently the choices presented to characters are significantly more ambiguous.  In previous BioWare games, a character could do what felt right, but in the Old Republic, your light and dark decisions are tied to points which act as a form of currency for some really nice rewards, the best of which can only be purchased if you go to one extreme or the other.  This resulted in several situations when my dark-side character had to kill someone to get the dark points I need, even when I wanted to leave a character alive to provide material for future plot.  It’s unclear how much of an impact the occasional swap from light to dark would have on a character, but as a player I definitely experienced the pressure to stick with one, ultimately denying some of the choice around which the game is centered.  The good news is that BioWare has acknowledged some of the limitations in their initial design and plans to add more rewards for players walking a more neutral path.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, BioWare’s emphasis on personal story in the Old Republic completely turned me off to the game’s multi-player features.  For a game that was built and billed as a massively multi-player game, this struck me as a fairly substantial problem looking toward the game’s future.  Whenever I tried questing or some of the game scripted content for groups which BioWare has termed “flashpoints,” I became impatient and frustrated that I was not in control of the action anymore.  Waiting on my partners to choose dialogue options becomes tedious and my light-side character now carries the title “the Backstabber” because my ally in one of the game’s flashpoints decided to vent some engineers into space to deactivate a security system rather than take an alternate airlock (as I alluded earlier, my rule in these games is never kill someone unless you have to, if for no other reason than that they may offer interesting plot twists later).  I ended up leaving many group quests incomplete because the equipment and story rewards in no way justified the time scraping together a group or dealing with problems when group members got out of sync on objectives (this happened often enough for me to get very frustrated several times).  As you go up in level, the group options become more numerous as players can choose to participate in warzones, conflict flashpoints (four man adventures) and operations (larger group encounters), but the lack of an effective way to find partners for these features is also going to become an issue as the player base ages and people level characters more sporadically.

BioWare has yet to implement patch 1.2, but the preview appears address some of the features the game seems to sorely lack such as more max level content.  One of the most unique features to be added will be the first stage of the game’s legacy system which encourages players to make new characters and level all over again.  Leveling up over and over is definitely more compelling in this game than others, and legacy will make it even better, but it will still lose its appeal.  So, I still have my reservations as to whether the company will be able to produce content fast enough to keep people occupied. Interestingly however, for the past few months, BioWare had a job vacancy for a social systems designer.  The position description included designing unique dynamic content for max level players.  The fact that the position is gone now gives me hope that we’ll see more complex design at the end-game in the future.

Finding the Edge of Skyrim’s Open World

March 4, 2012 1 comment

As I reread this for the typos I’m prone to make, I feel the need to start off with a disclaimer about the tone of this post.   I may  come off as be fairly critical of Skyrim, but only because it was worth playing.  As my girlfriend put it, I had a month-long affair with the game.   Don’t worry though; we’re still together – the girlfriend and I that is.   Using the metrics of playtime and fun factor, Skyrim is definitely amazing and worth purchase if you haven’t played it; I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the game’s design across multiple characters.   The main issue issue I ran into, though, was that I couldn’t help but wish that the game’s open world was capable of more intelligence response to my decisions in game.

The Elder Scrolls series, of which Skyrim was the most recent installment, is one of the best examples of an open-world role playing game concept.   While many other games emphasize a main story line, sometimes ushering a player through critical decision points in order to maintain story integrity, Bethesda Games places minimum constraints on players’ actions while they experience the game.   You can, for instance, spend hours chasing optional objectives and side quests and hardly ever advance the main storyline.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, think Grand Theft Auto with swords and Vikings instead of guns and criminals.  On second thought, those two things aren’t all that different, but that might make the comparison even more apt, because some people experience Skyrim by running around and killing and stealing everything they possibly can.  To each his own.

Open worlds are compelling because they offer, in theory, a richer gaming experience than completely scripted games.  Rather than just experiencing an interactive movie, you’re literally shaping the events around you, as you see fit, and when you see fit.   In practice, open worlds often don’t live up to expectations due to the complexity that actually coding cascading decisions can have on a game world.  The result is that players can make hundreds of decisions, but these decisions usually have only first order shallow consequences at best.  The freedom to do anything ends up coming with the price over being able to do everything.   And if you can do everything, what exactly becomes the point of doing anything?  This was my experience with the previous Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion.  I got so caught up in the side quests that I forgot about the main storyline.   While I became the leader of some of the game world’s most powerful factions, the power I’d acquired in the process trivialized the main storyline’s difficulty and sense of importance by the time I got around to it.   Adding insult to injury, despite making dozens of decisions that resulted in my being what can only be described as the most important person in the game, none of it mattered.   Dialogue options were the same as if I’d been a vagabond in rags.  In short, the totality of my decisions still resulted in very little real change to an open, but mostly static, world.

A friend of mine from college recently posted a comment on this same topic, stating “I’ve been playing Skyrim lately, and while it’s a great game, I’m starting to pick up on how shallow it is, despite an initial impression of enormous complexity.”  I tried lots of ways to say this in my own words, but that’s basically my experience.  Skyrim was a leap forward from Oblivion in that it took me much longer to find that edge where my decisions no longer seemed to matter, but I still managed to find it even when I specifically tried to avoid it by pursuing a strategy of limiting myself to one major side-quest arc per character I made.   While it extended the life of the game for me by giving each play-through a slightly different focus, it also still exposed a lot of missed opportunities to add even more depth to the open world.

One of most obvious missed opportunities was the civil war storyline in which the game world’s eight cities, or holds, have to side with either the Imperials or the Stormcloaks.  Your choice to side with one or the other or neither has little to not impact on your ability to complete the main storyline.  As one of the few mutually exclusive side-quest choices the game offers, this was the perfect place to make some gameplay changes with no risk of altering a player’s ability to “finish” the game.   That’s actually how I expected it to play out, but after completing the story arc for both sides (which turned out to require nearly identical missions), I discovered my decisions and actions offered only a simple cosmetic swap of leadership in the conquered holds.  I didn’t get any new content to explore and none of the game’s characters really seemed to notice that the war even happened (except perhaps the dead ones).  By that point, this lack of impact shouldn’t have surprised me, because even during the war your allegiance had no impact on many people in the game.  As a Stormcloak, running across Imperial patrols was not a threat unless I inadvertantly shot an arrow at one.  I believe making those enemy patrols attack you or assist you based on your allegiance, varying the actual campaign quests for each side, and adding some bonus content only available to the side you won with would have been relatively simple additions to the game which would have vastly improved its replayability.   As it was, I’d found the edge and didn’t have much left to play.

If Bethesda adds more major decision points that offer a changing game world, I’ll definitely be excited for the next Elder Scrolls game.   Either way,  Skyrim was a quantum leap forward over previous Elder Scrolls games and I definitely look forward to the next one if for no other reason than to see the world they create (which for those who have not played a Bethesda game, includes among other things, dozens of little mini-books that you can read in game which have nothing to do with the game’s objectives and only serve to add depth to the setting).  I’ve got more to say about this game, but I’m going to save that for a later installment since it addresses very different gameplay issues and this has already gotten long-winded.  As always, I welcome your thoughts.