Category Archives: PC

Warlords of Draenor First Impressions

WoW is a big thing for me, so in preparation for the new expansion, I flew my mother out to watch my toddler, stocked the house with snacks and Coke Zero, and took Thursday and Friday off work.

Here we are, 5 days later and I have a level 100 warlock, a level 92 monk, and a level 90 priest in her garrison. What do I think of WoD?

Amazing

Garrisons. I have my laptop set up at work so I can pop over and check mine before work, during lunch, and during break. At 8am, a time no one in my guild ever plays, there were 7 people on, checking before going to work. I have been moving characters into Draenor just to get to the garrison and start stockpiling resources.

Story. Holy cow. I really can’t say much without giving away spoilers but PALADIN TAUREN.

Good

Bonus objectives. The bonus objective areas are interesting and a clever way of having areas that are just “kill the things” without having those quests. I am a bit disappointed I can only do them once.

Rares and treasures. Once more we have brought back the MoP treasures idea and I really like it. It gives me a good reason to go poke my nose around in all the nooks and crannies of the expac.

Bad

Garrison dailies – the “strategic” ones. Could these be any LESS explanatory? They don’t give you any information about what you need to do. It turned into a cascade of people asking in guild what to do for the quest as the day went on.

Inn Quests – These are awesome, but it makes the inn feel very mandatory. As does the Stable. As does the Trading Post… In fact, it just feels like every building is fairly vital. Are they planning on expanding garrison? I deeply would like to have more of the buildings and I hate feeling like I have to choose between one content and another.

Outpost stuff – I was unaware how important some of those choices were. And now I find out it’s 10k gold to change them? OOF.

Ugly

No flight at 100. I decided to go do the daily in Spires of Arak yesterday and it took me 20 minutes to find my way there. Once I got there (after dying from fall damage) I was greeted by a few HUNDRED people all trying to do the same daily. 20 minutes later, I gave up and went back to my garrison, with 10% of the daily complete. This is NOT how I want to spend an hour of my game time.

Follower Mission Levels. These scale based on the player level, not the follower level. Which means my blitz to 100 has led to me having a ton of low level followers with no ability to level them. (Edit – they fixed this.)

I can’t believe that just happened

Your most memorable experience in World of Warcraft… GO.

When I first read the title, an event popped into my mind. I often tell that story as the coolest thing that ever happened to me in WoW. The more I thought about it, the more events that popped into my mind. How could I chose just one?

I have been playing WoW since the fall of 2005. That’s alot of time to cover. That’s alot of playing. Every expansion, raiding, pvp, soloing, nearly every class… I have built a large number of WoW experiences, many of them quite memorable.

I’ve talked about the Corrupted Blood Plague before. I also talked about the Zombie Invasion. Both of those were amazing events. I will never forget going to Ironforge to see this “plague” that was killing everyone, then dying to it myself. (I was level 30-ish.) The sea of bones, the spam of messages in trade. What a day. I will never forget forming the raid of zombies and going into Stormwind and turning it into a scene from 28 Days Later.

I’ve been to the Crypts of Kara three times, and I am seriously considering yet another venture.

I invaded the Outlands. I tanked Illidan. I defeated Vashji, Kael’thas, Arthas, Kel’thuzad, and even Deathwing. I have seen the natural beauty of Kalimdor, the burning wastes of Silithus, and the lush tropics of Stranglethorn. I have flown with Val’kyir, I raised dragons, I saved orphans.

The first story that always pops to mind though… it’s nothing a designer sat down and planned though. In game design there is always the argument of systems versus scripting. Do you script and plan every event, or do you create systems that then interact? Player Stories vs. Designer Stories and all that.

I was playing on a PVP server, with friends, during Vanilla WoW. I was a priest, level 32. Of course, I was specced holy, since I was generally running dungeons to level. World PVP is the worst, and so I generally avoided it.

One afternoon, I was killing trolls in Stranglethorn for their ears. There are three camps of trolls, but I was at the largest one. You have to collect 25 ears, and not every troll has them apparently, so it usually takes 50-60 troll kills to get them. I was merrily smiting trolls to death, when a warrior ran up and attacked me. He was Horde, I was Alliance, this is how these things go. I successfully defended myself and defeated him. I hugged his still warm corpse, and continued killing trolls. A few minutes later, he showed back up, then sat and drank while watching me sit and drink. Of course, as soon as I pulled another troll, he attacked once more. It’s a good tactic. Now I have to fight him and the troll. But sadly for him, I am an amazing priest. I defeated them both.

Despite the fact I was on a pvp server, I had no desire for battle. I am not terribly aggressive when out leveling. But after a few months on a pvp server, I knew exactly what would happen. This warrior was determined to beat me. As he couldn’t on his warrior, he would be back. With friends. Or maybe with another one of his own characters. The troll camp didn’t mean that much to me, there were two others after all. I decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and headed west, towards the coast, for one of the other camps. As I was passing by tigers, another player rode up from the south.

This player was level 60. Raid geared. And epic. You can tell, as the raid gear matches, and looks quite impressive. His skeletal horse had armor, mean he had epic riding. The gear immediately tipped me off that he was a mage. I was dead. Oh, he hadn’t killed me… yet… but I knew I was a dead priest walking. The chances of me even fighting him off were nil. I only had one chance. The chance that he would decide I wasn’t worth the effort to kill.

No luck. He dismounted right next to me, and used his Frost Nova ability. (It freezes enemies in place.) I pressed my Psychic Scream ability. (It causes enemies to be feared – they run in random directions for 4-10 seconds.) In WoW, players have the ability to resist spells cast at them. Miraculously, I resisted his Frost Nova. Even more miraculously, he did NOT resist my scream. This had to have been a one in a million shot. At his level, his resist should have been so high, my spells should never land. At my level, there should have been nothing more than a sliver of hope that I wouldn’t be frozen in place.

But he did fail to resist, and I succeeded, so while he was running about like a chicken with it’s head cut off, I ran the opposite direction. I rounded one of the huge trees and hit Shadowmeld. Shadowmeld is a racial ability that let’s a Night Elf “fade” into the shadows. It’s a stealth. The mage appeared mere moments later, spamming is aoe attack. He knew I had likely shadowmelded. The only way to find me was to break the meld by doing damage. The thing was, he was too far forward. I was too close to the tree.

After several minutes, he finally gave up, and moved on. Leaving me hiding. I immediately crowed about my accomplishment in general chat. Ninja priest for the win!

This encounter could not have been scripted. But because of the systems in place, well designed, I was able to do something extraordinary, that I tell people about all the time.

When /G goes silent

Last night, I did my usual evening routine. I put my kid to bed, I grabbed a beer, and I logged into WoW. I spawned in and typed my normal greeting: /guild Hey guys! How goes?

<You are not in a guild.>

Wait. What?

Sure enough, I was unguilded. No more Villainous tag under my name. What happened? I opened my friends list and pinged my RealId friend who had also been in our guild.

“What happened?”

“Oh hey, yeah, Spart logged on and just booted everyone today. We are trying to figure out what to do.”

I felt like the rug had been yanked out from under me. The floor disappeared as the floor on Lich King could vanish. I didn’t even have my friends on my friends list. Why would I? They were in my guild. Finding yourself un-guilded, unexpectedly, was bad enough. But the night it happened… that was worse.

In December, 2012, I got a whisper from a RealId friend asking if I was still working on the legendary staff from Firelands. I told him I was, and I was halfway through Stage 2. He asked if I wanted to go? “Does the pope wear a funny hat?” Of COURSE I do. So I jumped in. Turns out, this close knit group of friends ran old content most every night. Just for fun, achievements, and titles. After 3 weeks, I decided I should transfer servers. After all, these 9 people were helping me get a legendary staff, I should share the rewards, specifically, the mini-pet that the guild gets from the guild achievement for having someone with the staff.

$25 later, I was on a new server, leaving my 21 alts behind. (I have 9 level 85s, and 19 toons over level 70.) We rolled through all the old content. Everything from Ulduar drakes, to Sinestra, to ICC LK Heroic. It was great fun. Most of the guild were people who were friends in real life. Over the course of the two months, I progressed into Stage 3 of the quest and got a few dozen other achievements from other raids. Then, I realized, I was ONE clear from the Staff.

I pointed it out and everyone got excited. We actually PLANNED the night we would run Firelands, instead of just winging it like normal. That way, everyone who wanted the pet, and wanted to see the event could be present.

The night we planned to run Firelands – that was the night our GM logged on and booted everyone.

Heartbreak. I am sure everyone felt much the same way I did. We logged on, ready to have fun, ready to celebrate our guild doing something Legendary, and instead, we were met with abandonment and betrayal.

It’s just a game, but it felt shockingly similar to being laid off at work. The worst part was asking in TRADE CHAT if we had missed anyone in our guild.

I pinged my friend, and discussion was had about what we were going to do, but to be honest, most of us were just hurt. So we formed up a raid, and we only had 5 of our normal guildies. The others had disbursed. I almost cried. So close to the staff, and now so far. My triumphant night had been disbanded just like the guild. Our raid leader, contacted another guild, and asked if anyone would be willing to run Heroic Firelands. Five players stepped up. I cannot express the heroism of these 5 players. They all had Firelord. They had zero reason to help. They did anyway. They gave up 2 hours to help someone they had never met, never raided with. HEROES OF AZEROTH.

Silver linings and heroes aside, the night was still marred by the loss we had all suffered. A few people drifted to an alt guild. A few others ended up in alt bank guilds. Worst of all, the mini-pet I had transferred to allow people to get was no unavailable, to all of us. So now I am left trying to figure out how to guild hop between guilds to get all my new friends a pet.

Here I am, 24 hours later, and the one thing I can’t let go of… This should not happen. There IS a design solution to prevent someone booting everyone else in the guild and making off with a level 25 guild, with bank filled with mats, gold, and gear. Even if the guild had been okay with a dictatorship, most of us now aren’t. We don’t want someone else to be in charge. We want to be able to TRUST the person in charge. Our guild leader, he wasn’t just some guy. For most of the people in the guild, he was a REAL LIFE friend. He was a real life friend who got rejected by one of his other friends and decided he didn’t want to deal with it. He destroyed the guild because another guildie had flirted and then broke his heart. In return, he broke our hearts.

Why can’t we decided to have a guild that has a co-gm or council? Why can’t we chose our own leadership?

There has to be another way. Before the days of guild levels, it would be a simple matter of pestering a GM to restore our stuff and gold. But now, we have to start over or join another group. It’s like, hitting level 90, having your friend leave the game and suddenly you are level 1 again.

Once bitten, twice shy.

The Grumpy Cat says NO.

As a kid, we had a family computer. All games got installed on this computer and played in a public setting. We didn’t have that many games, but the ones we did have were awesome.

One of those games was SimCity. I don’t remember which version, but it was pre-2000, and on Windows 97, so it was in that era.

I loved SimCity. I loved building my town. I loved growing it out to a huge metropolis. I loved being told I needed to buy a bulletproof limo. (I have no idea why it always did that. I had a ton of roads.)

When the Sims hit, I was on board. 100%. I love that game. I bought the Sims. I bought the Sims 2, and all it’s stuff packs. I bought Sims 3. Loved it. I didn’t get any of the Sims 3 expansions after the first one because it required Origin, EAs answer to Steam.

So when I heard a new SimCity was being worked on, I was stoked. I couldn’t wait. City building at it’s finest.

Then I found out it would be always connected. I got a tad worried. It’s not the always connected that bothers me. I don’t pirate games, as making them has made me acutely aware that if you want someone to keep making awesome stuff you have to support them. Generally I play games connected to the internet. I have no problem with WoW requiring a connection all the time. BUT I also played Diablo 3. I played it as a single player game. I saw error 37 just like everyone else. I had connection issues. And that was Blizzard, who of all video game companies likely has the most experience with servers and connectivity. And they had *issues*. For DAYS. Well I thought, I won’t be getting this game day 1. (Look how RIGHT I was. The game is still unplayable 2 days later due to server issues.)

While discussing it on Twitter, something else occurred to me. I would have to install Origin to play the game. CURSE YOU EA. I HATE hate HATE games that require me to install a program, just to install a game. WHY? Why do I need this useless program on the outside? You are just adding bloat to my pc. DO NOT WANT. Hey PUBLISHERS. PAY ATTENTION. I accepted Steam. I don’t like it. I am not happy with it. But I deal with it because it allows me to get tons of games super cheap. I deal with it because it allows me to re-download games I already bought. I deal with it because over the past 10 years they have managed to make it a fairly decent program. It works fairly well in offline mode. But I still consider it a VIRUS on my computer. I deal with it because I have no other option.

But Origin… Origin is alot like Google+ trying to come along after Facebook (although the analogy doesn’t hold up when you consider that G+ is arguably better than Facebook). I already HAVE a third party program that I have to use for digital distribution. I already have a ton of games on it. I do NOT want another one. I would rather just use the one I already have. I would rather not have to use another program at all. What a novel idea!

I accepted Steam because I had to. I needed to use it for class and so I was forced to use it. I couldn’t NOT play Skyrim, so I kept accepting it. No offense EA, but ONE game is not enough to convince me to install your spyware virus program. At least Steam has games from all kinds of publishers. Your virus only lets me play EA games. I am NOT going to have one of these stupid programs for every publisher.

So I voted with my wallet. I didn’t buy Sim City 2013. I wanted to. I STILL want to. But I am not going to. I am NOT INSTALLING ORIGIN. If you want me to buy your games, you HAVE TO MAKE THEM ACCESSIBLE. Origin is NOT ACCESSIBLE. Think about all those Sims 3 expansions I could have purchased. And I would have. Think about that $60 sale you lost on Sim City 2013. I am not giving you one penny for a game on Origin. I am not going to do it. I want to. I want to give you my money and let you keep making Sims games. But I have to draw the line somewhere so here it is.

It occurs to me though, EA will never know. There is no good way to calculate how many sales they lost because of Always Connected and Origin. On my Twitter feed, it’s at least 5, with about 15 having bought the game. So that’s about 25% of people who WANT the game. Who have the money, and are willing to pay $60 for the game. But didn’t because of these stupid choices. But EA will never know.

Which hurts them more? Piracy or lost sales? Is it better to have 20k people pirate your game or 100k never buy it in the first place? Does Origin add enough value to the people who deal with it to make up for the lost sales from people like me? Is it really that hard to code a version that doesn’t require Origin and can be played offline?

How do I tell EA they lost multiple sales from me? How do I tell them I am not going to budge on this? How do I tell them I want to play their game but I won’t until they change their practices?

Is this going to improve the game? – A Design Question

“If someone says, ‘It would be cool if…’ tie them up and throw them in a closet until the game is done.”

That might be a bit of a harsh reaction, but if there is one thing I have learned in video game design it is this: ALWAYS CRITIQUE YOUR WORK.

Is this thing you are doing, this choice you are making, is it *vitally* important to the game. Will it make the game better as well as not break or make the game worse?

Let’s look at a few examples:

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, I worked on the Darklight Crypt expansion. One of the things I chose to do early was have a “boss” fight at the end. Most of the other levels, if they had bosses, they were against Kaos, and all done by another designer. But Darklight Crypt was an adventure pack level, meaning the user would have to spend extra money to get the toy for it to unlock the level. The theme was dark and very haunted crypt castle kind of place. So the boss I created ended up being a huge eyeball.

Queue the jokes. “I see you!” The boss would shout and kids would burst into fits of giggles. Was the boss fight the best? Nope. It was a super simple push the button to make the boss vulnerable and then hit him with the big guns, repeat three times, and win. The fight wasn’t the reason to include it. The ability to cleanly mark the end of the level with a climatic moment was. The addition of a bad guy the player could see and interact with was pretty important too. The humor that tagged along turned out to be vital to the level as well, but at the time we didn’t know that would happen.

The inclusion of the boss was risky. I was new to the project and studio. The fight was a complex bit of scripting. There were a dozen things that could have gone wrong. There was bad choices made within the fight (locking out players from using two cannons at once). BUT in the end, we can see that it added so much of the heart and character to the level, it wouldn’t be the same without it. When I suggested putting it in, I made these arguments for it: It makes the level feel different from the main game, with a boss fight at the end. It gives the player a firm target and goal, that is clear from the beginning of the level. It wouldn’t detract from the level, because it would give it a climatic moment and would be very simple for the player to understand.

I think, for the most part, it was successful. One thing that we did fail on, and learned our lesson, was using the main mechanic of the level, switching worlds, in the boss fight. Occulus, while awesome on so many levels (did you notice after him, there comes Eyebrawl?) didn’t fit within the switching mechanic of the level well. I shoehorned some switching in, but it felt out of place. In Giants, we did this MUCH better with the boss at the end of Wilikins Isle, the new switching level. I worked with the designer who did the boss fight to make sure that it incorporated switching in an organic way. Of course, it helped that before I ever suggested it, I knew he was an Ikaruga fan. It made it very easy to convince him.

So why is this so important?

Because not every game can patch out their problems. You have to put every design decision under the microscope. Think about the player and how they are going to have to deal with each decision you make.

Another example:

World of Warcraft recently added pet battles. All the minipets crazy people (like myself) had been collecting as pure vanity items suddenly became the source of gameplay. They essentially turned pets into Pokemon, complete with elemental affinities and weaknesses. Pet battles is an amazing feature, that needs a great deal of polish. Deciding what parts need polishing becomes very clear the minute each decision has to be defended.

One of the major things to do as a pet battler is go out and fight Trainers. Much like Pokemon, these are NPCs that have a team of their own, that you, as a player can challenge and beat for rewards. One design decision, that looks good on paper, is that the early trainers have set orders to their team. The order that their pets fight in is always the same. This allows the player to start off on a good foot, by stacking their first pet against the trainer’s pet. As the trainers level though, their pets begin to appear in a semi random order. Meaning that they will choose to use one of two of their pets seemingly randomly at the beginning of battle. I know, I hate random. But in this case, it is clearly worthless.

Let’s say I go up against a trainer that can bring out either a critter or a dragon first. Well clearly, I want to stack my first pet to be against one of these two. So I pull out my humanoid, who is strong versus dragons. I initiate the battle. The trainer brings out their critter. I could, and it is clearly designed that I should, switch pets, forfeiting one turn to the trainer, to have my strong pet out. BUT they allowed us to forfeit the fight entirely, with no punishment for doing so. So instead, I just forfeit, then re-initiate the fight. Repeat until the trainer brings out her dragon first, then battle away. Sound tedious? OH IT IS.

At this point, the designer should defend their decisions. They have made two. 1. That pet trainers should pull out pets randomly. 2. That forfeiting costs the player nothing. First, look at the source design, Pokemon. In Pokemon, the trainers always use their Pokemon in a set order (also generally having a team with nearly all the same elements). Also, if the player wants to quit a fight… they have to lose all their Pokemon. So there is a conflict with the source design on both points.

Which feature makes the game better? If you could only have ONE, which one would you chose: Random pet order or forfeiting? I choose forfeiting. It’s never very fun to realize that your entire team is all wrong and then just have to suffer through being bludgeoned to death so you can try again.

So what about the random pet order? Well, defend it. 1. Does it improve the game? The argument could be made that it makes the fights more challenging. 2. Does it break or make the game worse? The ability to forfeit negates the challenge introduced in point 1, and the constant cycling to try and get the “correct” pet up first makes it tedious, so yes, it makes the game worse.

At this point, CUT IT. Rip it out. Not only are the battles less tedious, but also they make the fights easier on the players. If there is a need for challenge, do that in the numbers with a systems designer, or have the trainers use more “dual affinity” pets (like dragonkin who use all magic abilities, super tricky!). It takes some of the randomness out, and improves the flow of the mini-game. Designed is always better than random.

Unfortunately, according to patch notes, Blizzard has already decided to create a punishment for forfeiting. Now each of the pets on your team will take some small amount of damage when forfeiting. So rather than streamlining the game, they left the tedious part in, but increased the time it takes to get past it. NOW players will forfeit, then wait for the 8 minute timer on the ability to heal their pets to come up, heal the pets and try again. Or they will just stop fighting the trainers completely. (In explanation, they will not just switch out pets, because the high level trainers are so tightly tuned that even one miss or dodged attack can lead to the player losing even WITH the first pet being stacked to win.)

No design decision should be made without first asking, “Does this make the game better, without making anything worse?” Would the game be better without this feature?

Once the game is shipped, the players will see it, and rip it apart. They won’t ever know about the features that were cut or didn’t make it in their original state, but they will see the broken or bad features that are present.

 

The Secret World – It’s all true…

“It’s an MMO, set in the Modern world. Conspiracies like the Illuminati and stuff, it’s all true. And the Secret World is spilling out into the real world. That’s where the player exists.”

That was the first description I heard of the Secret World. It was at least 3 years before the game came out. I was interested.

“It’s like Lovecraft, Poe, and Stephen King had a love child, and they made a game about it.”

OMG, this game is going to be awesome. I started to follow the game voraciously. Every tidbit. Every video. Every screenshot.

When the game finally launched in June, I had already made my pre-order of a lifetime sub. I not only wanted to play this game as much as I could, but also wanted to support it as fully as possible.

The intro tutorial quest was very… odd? Discouraging? Combat felt odd to me, and I really didn’t like the aggro mechanics. But I persisted.

And boy was I rewarded. If you do nothing else, get Secret World and play through Kingsmouth. It’s the first “zone” of the game.

Kingsmouth is a small coastal town that feels very New England. There are mines, junkyards, the shipyard, the old forest, and even a small municipal airport. The first thing that really struck me about the town, just on the surface, was how well a “real world” location actually felt to run through. As someone who started playing WoW when ground mounts weren’t available until level 40, I am well aware of what it feels like to run through MMO games. The town made sense, and the more I moved through it, the better I understood it. Normally I am one of the first ones to call games out for being “jogging simulators” where you are forced to backtrack over and over again. It took me about 4 hours to realize I had run back and forth across this small town at least a dozen times, and it STILL didn’t feel old. It just felt good moving through the world, jumping over trashcans, fences, and barricades.

Then I found it. The best quest ever put in an MMO. Funcom wanted to make Secret World different. They wanted it to be unique. And they succeeded 100%. The quests in Secret World are broken down into Main Story Missions, Action Missions, Investigation Missions, and Side Missions. Main Story are obviously varied missions that move you through the game’s main plot. This actually works quite well for keeping a coherent lore thread. Action Missions usually involve alot of killing. That’s fine, although I will get back to combat in a bit. Side Missions are pretty much fedex or fetch quests, nothing really standout. Investigation missions are what makes this game so.much.better. than all the rest.

The Secret World comes with a Google browser built into the game. Why does it need it? Well obviously, they didn’t want people alt tabbing while doing investigation missions. The Kingsmouth Code was the first quest where I really began to understand what Funcom had done. Most games, when presenting the player with a puzzle, include the answer in the game. In most modern games, the answer is 2 feet from the player at all times, outlined in yellow, and so simple even a 10 year old can get it. The dumbing down of games is a holy war I don’t want to get into, but regardless, Myst wouldn’t make it today, purely based on the insanity of the puzzles. Secret World went the complete opposite direction. Not only was the answer not in the game, but they actively expect you to use Google. (Best part, one of the NPCs responds to you and says “I don’t know! Google it!”) You have to pay attention to the most minute of details in the world. They will give you hints that really only get you about halfway there. Don’t know Latin? Better just keep a Google Translate tab open.

At one point in the quest you are given this clue: “Time is the province of Kings and Gods. The hands of time point to truths written by kings in the words of God. The path is open to the enlightened.” That’s it. I immediately looked around for the clock. Sure enough, there’s a clock with the time set at 10:10. I am a bit sad to say that it took me another 20+ minutes to figure out the next part. Did you already? Words of God. The Bible. Kings 10:10. Of course, this verse talks about a woman giving talents to King Solomon… How does that apply? It just gets more convoluted from there. In the end, the entire quest chain took me about 2 and 1/2 hours. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Seriously though, Kingsmouth Code (and by virtue it’s extension, Digging Deeper) are amazing quests. Almost worth it alone, if you can get the game for $20 or so. The other investigation quests are just as fiddly, deeper, and mind bogglingly obscure. (Do you know who composed the Four Seasons? Cause if so, you are going to do better than most.) The best part is, unlike games like Myst, where the puzzles are just obscure, the investigation missions in Secret World are all based on fiddly niche knowledge. Do you know where old churches list the hymns you will sing that Sunday? Do you know how to translate Morse code? Do you know how to dig into a company’s website to find info on their employees? When you know the answer, you quite possibly feel like the smartest person in the world. When it takes you three hours to figure something minor out, you feel like the stupidest person in the world. And it’s ALL AMAZING.

The game holds up through the second zone, the Savage Coast, but after that it starts to go downhill. The Faction Missions you get every so occasionally are superb and well worth the time, but once I hit Blue Mountain, it was like smashing into a wall. Which brings me to my big complaint.

Combat and the over abundance of choice. In Secret World you don’t pick a class. You pick a weapon. You earn AP points, which you can then spend to get skills in any weapon you want. There are 9 possible paths right from the beginning. I picked Blood, as it appealed most to my Warlockian nature. Turns out, you can’t solo as Blood. In fact, you really can’t do anything as *just* Blood. So I had to go back and pick up another weapon. So I snagged Shotguns (seems like a solid choice yeah? Zombies + Shotguns == always fun!). Only shotguns, being short range, really didn’t fit in well with my ranged magic. So then I switched to Blades. How? Well, in Secret World, you can’t respec, you just need to earn more AP. So they let you redo quests you have already done, and you get the same reward. I just had to go back and re-grind Kingsmouth’s quests until I could level my Blades skill up to match the monsters in the area I was fighting. The thing is… as much as I loved doing the Investigation Quests, they weren’t the quests you could re-do. It’s the Action ones… which require you to kill things… which I was having trouble doing… which is why I picked up a new weapon… which I couldn’t use effectively because I didn’t have the AP… that I needed from the Action Missions. Oh dear. For you WoW players out there, imagine getting to level 50, as a priest, realizing you really want to be a Shadow Priest instead of leveling Holy, and instead of just respecing and changing some gear, you have to go back to Westfall and relevel from 10 to 50 to gain access to your Shadow Spec. Seemed like a great idea on the surface. Fails in reality.

Once I got my blades up to skill level, I noticed something very disheartening. I was mowing through enemies like one of those oversized lawn tractors. Blades was *significantly* more powerful than Blood or Shotguns. Enemies I barely beat by the skin of my teeth before were dying from a single slice of my katana.

I never really appreciated the balance that goes into WoW class design. Yeah, I can argue that my warlock does twice the work of mages for half the dps, but in the end, I rarely feel as if I am just completely playing a wasted class. I felt that way with Blood vs Blades. The options seemed so numerous at character creation, but in reality they were few, you were just very likely to pick the wrong choice.

I am currently at the Egypt zones (having a child really cuts into the gaming time), and starting into them, but I can already tell the slow degrade of polish through the second two Solomon Islands zones is going to continue through the game. It’s very clear they worked very hard to nail the first zone, Kingsmouth, and as a result the other areas did not receive as much love. The Faction missions, which are scattered based on how much overall experience you have earned are clearly in the Kingsmouth polish category and do some really amazing things. (The first one sends all three factions to the same location, but each tells a different side of the story. And each are scary on Silent Hill levels.)

The Secret World doesn’t hold your hand. The community tools like Wowhead and Wowinsider don’t exist. Figuring out powerful solo specs requires a great deal of work and number crunching, as opposed to just stopping by Elitist Jerks. It’s a game that makes you work for it. In some ways that’s good. In others, it makes you realize how much WoW has spoiled us as gamers (I am looking at you Random Dungeon Finder). It makes me realize that any MMO that wants to compete with WoW can’t compete with WoW at launch, they have to compete with WoW as of today (or rather the day the competing game wants to launch). And that is an exceptionally tall order.

On the up side, it costs me nothing to take long breaks between playing. There have been small content patches, with bug fixes and new quests, every month. The game will keep getting better, and I will keep coming back. The Secret World is just as engrossing and enthralling as I had hoped. It just doesn’t feel like an MMO. It feels like a single player game. The social aspects weren’t vital to the game. (In fact some of the missions required solo instances and thus actively prohibited group play.) I can’t wait to see where they take it. I can’t wait to see plot threads picked back up and extended. And I can’t wait for more Investigation Missions.

Secret World is one of my games of the year and very much worth the initial investment, provided you can give it the time to play through Kingsmouth during your free month. Watch for sales on Amazon or Steam, and pick it up for under $30. The first zone is worth that much.

Dishonored – Look Up.

Full disclosure, I haven’t finished Dishonored yet. I just finished Lady Boyle’s Party. There will likely be spoilers up to that point in the game. You have been warned. (Edit: Now I am up to the part AFTER Dunwall Tower.)

I missed Thief, System Shock, and System Shock 2. I watched my husband play Bioshock, but when I tried to play it myself, I was terrible at it. I am bad at shooters, and trying to play shooters on the xbox just makes it worse. I was excited for Dishonored and decided to play it on my pc, so I wouldn’t have the added difficulty of trying to target on the 360.

The first thing that struck me and echoed within my little heart was the plague. The city of Dunwall, where the game takes place, is being ravaged by a plague. And someone mentions rats. I am obsessed with all things bubonic, and so having the black plague alive and well in your steam punk game is like the icing on the cake. LOVE IT.

True to it’s heritage, Dishonored is a game designed to fulfill the fantasy of being invisible. Maybe not actually invisible, but essentially so as you move through the world unseen and unheard, with only unconscious bodies and missing valuables in your wake.

I dislike negative feedback loops. If a designer makes the game harder because you failed, then all they are doing is supporting the player failing again. This is especially bad if the player isn’t certain of WHY they failed. In Dishonored the core game revolves around the player sneaking about without being detected. There is a negative feedback loop though, that if you are detected, more guards are called, alarms sound, and generally you get detected by even more things.

In Dishonored you don’t have to play non-lethally, but the game is designed to push you in that direction. It even states in the loading tips that the ending is better the lower your chaos score. (More killing == higher chaos.) So the ending is different (better) if you play non-lethally.

I object to the way they did this. If you are creating an immersive sim, and put the player in the role of an assassin, then you cannot punish them for being an assassin. Giving the player the option to play the way they want to play, then punishing them for playing the way they want to play is just absurd. I really wanted to be the death from the darkness Corvo. I wanted to shoot bolts and drop assassinate every one of those stinking corrupt guards.

Someone asked, Is it really a punishment to have two different endings? When the game specifically calls out one ending as “better”, then yes, it is. (I have also had the ending spoiled, so I know for a fact they strongly apply a moral stance to each.)

Okay, MAYBE it’s okay, in a game where the moral choices and stances are very clear cut. KotoR could do this because there was a clear line between Sith and Jedi. As a Jedi, you weren’t punished for killing Sith characters. They are the bad guys after all. Sure the argument could be made you are just as bad as they are for killing them, but in killing them you save how many thousands of lives? Of course, the secondary problem is that you can’t tell you are saving thousands of lives. In fact, it’s very difficult to say who you are fighting for in Dunwall. I mean, Emily, sure, but after her? The whole city seems to be a loss. So few people even remain, and none of them are without blame or corruption.

The problem with the negative feedback loop and the moral push is that it leads to the player feeling like they have “screwed up” and need to start over. I had already completed four missions before I understood “Chaos” and how it affected the game. I soldiered on, despite the fact that I now strongly felt like I was playing the game “wrong”. I decided to try a few low Chaos missions. I may have succeeded, I don’t know. After two missions where I barely killed anyone, I was still High Chaos, and it was taking a great deal longer to play each mission. Add to this the fact that all the cool toys in the game are lethal… *sigh*

Not only are they using a negative feedback loop… but also all the best powers and weapons are un-usable. I mean, you can’t even summon rats, because they might eat the guards you knocked out. Resigned to the fact that I would have to play the game again, trying to do it as low chaos,  I simply went on a blood bath during the next mission. But even that feels wrong. I just charged in the front door, gun a blazing, and killed everyone. I wanted to be stealthy, but to be rewarded for my stealth. I wanted to be able to kill indiscriminately, but not be punished for it. In the end, this ONE thing ended up pushing me to either extreme of playing and neither is fun for me.

Regardless, I have enjoyed Dishonored immensely. It’s great fun blinking around the level. The world is deeply interesting and every nook and cranny is filled with interesting things and people. It’s worth every penny, and a fine addition to any gamer’s collection.

I almost forgot! The Heart. The Heart is the crowning achievement for Dishonored as far as I am concerned. I have always hated items that a designer adds to make the game more “interesting” by adding a “useful” item they have to switch to occasionally, usually switching it out for a weapon. However this always happens in combat games. So you are swapping a VERY useful weapon for a very unuseful NON weapon. (I am looking at you Ocarina of Time… I haven’t forgotten the Lens of Truth…) When I was presented with the Heart in Dishonored, I immediately groaned, and then switched off it, and thought of it no more.

My husband reminded me the next day that if you have the Heart equipped though, you can point it at people, use it, and it will tell you secrets. What kind of secrets? OH ALL THE BEST KINDS. I equipped the Heart in the safe house, and started pointing and clicking. Next thing I know, I am constantly switching my weapon and magic out for the Heart. It was like a lore stream I could turn on and off at all the best times. It was such a cool item, I was annoyed later when playing another game (Skyrim) that it *didn’t* have a similar item. I want to know everyone’s secrets. But the Heart is a perfect example of how to tell extraneous narrative. It works seamlessly with the world and allows the player as much or as little narrative as they choose. Absolutely genius.

Some other amazing high points of the game: Each assassination target has a “non-lethal” way of being dealt with, most of which feel strongly of poetic justice. So many paths through each level, it’s almost impossible to find them all. Powers and abilities that are just fun to play with on their own, in an open space. The levels also have minor changes and adjustments based on the chaos level, which is cool, except that it creates that negative feedback loop.

Diablo 3 – Random Returns for Vengence

I have always been perfectly upfront about how I feel about using Random as a game design tool.

To catch anyone new up: I hate it. I think it is a terrible idea. It’s a terrible crutch.

The entire point of a designer is to sculpt the experience for the player. To create the world for them to interact with. To make something amazing for the player to play in. Using random takes the control away from the designer and puts it in the hands of a program.

So by this extension, I wouldn’t even try Diablo. It’s a randomly generated world, with randomly generated enemies, with randomly generated loot. Good lord, it’s a trifecta of bad random. But I love Blizzard and I had fun playing the beta, so I knew I would play the game.

How does Diablo 3’s randomness make me feel? Like I was right all along.

1. The Problem with Randomly generated gameplay spaces.

First off, Diablo 3 doesn’t use randomly generated levels everywhere. And to be fair, their code is much better at creating spaces than it was in Diablo 2.

BUT. Diablo 3’s random maps all suffer from the same problem: Jogging simulation. If you don’t head the right direction, and there are a bunch of branches in the path, you can and will find yourself backtracking over huge portions of terrain. For a game that is all about fast paced action and demon slaughtering, this leads to some very boring lengths of time in the middle of your fun.

Even worse is when you have these huge sprawling dungeons, where the named enemy you are supposed to be killing spawns three rooms over from the chest of loot. Way to protect your treasure man.

 

2. Random Enemies – oh god or yawn.

The idea behind the enemies sounds good. Each enemy has a modifier. Vortex, Frozen, etc etc. The idea is that when an enemy gets created, it has 2-4 of these modifiers which gives it abilities and makes it more interesting.

A good idea, in theory. But in practice shows the painful problem with random modifiers like that. Some modifiers aren’t that scary or dangerous to the player. Many are extremely dangerous to the player just by themselves. If you get a monster with two of the weak powers, they are a one finger pushover, almost on par with standard enemies. If you get one with 2 of the powerful modifiers, you are toast.

Add this to the random placement of enemies, in randomly generated terrain, and you get serious gameplay problems. I zoned into a basement area, that had an enemy with the modifier that lets him freeze me in place, and the modifier that lets him create arcane orbs that generate a beam of death that moves in a circle. Both of these abilities are combated by moving away from them and kiting the bad guy. But I was in a basement. Not only that, the boss’ trash mobs with him managed to corner me and block me from moving at all. I got thrashed repeatedly, because I couldn’t even get far enough into the room to not be completely surrounded and have collision preventing me from moving away from the stuff I knew was bad and I shouldn’t be standing in.

 

3. Random Loot – Good thing we have the auction house.

I have a level 42 Wizard in Act 3 of Nightmare. I search every corner, every dungeon, kill every enemy. I pick everything up. I just bought the third tab of my stash. I like to loot.

Over the course of the game, I have probably gotten 40-50 rares. Of all these rares, I have been able to equip about 5 of them. Only one actually had stats that made me want to equip it. I haven’t equipped a drop since I was level 15.

I get all my gear from the Auction House. Period. I sell things I get that are decent, but I can’t use, and I buy things I can use.

If not for the auction house, I would be sitting around farming some boss or other hoping for rares. Only 1 in 50 of which I will be able to use.

Boy, that sounds like fun. (Or not so much.)

Would it really change the game that much to have the rares at the very least be ones I can equip on that character? Even then you have the second random of it getting stats you want/need, but must we double roll to get anything? Actually, triple roll, because not all bosses drop rares all the time!

To recap: The boss has to drop a rare, which might not happen, you have to be able to equip the rare, which might not happen, and then the rare has to have useful stats on it, which my wands with strength on them prove doesn’t happen. Yay. This is fun. *said in Simon voice*

 

I get that all of this is kind of the “point” of Diablo. That’s the base of the design. But really, it just means that here I am, in Nightmare, already sick of the game. Already ready to go back to WoW, where at least I am fairly certain a boss will drop something useful, even if I can’t use it.

I feel that there is a possibility for a Diablo like game (in the base game play idea) that doesn’t rely on random or at the very least mitigates the negatives of using random. Loot may be randomized, but at least have logical limits placed on them. (Like all wands have to have Int and Vit, but the secondary stats, and the amount of the primary stat can be random. Also guarantee that at least 1 rare item off each boss is equip-able by the character playing, though in multiplayer this could be any one of the characters playing.) Monsters may be randomized, but their powers weighted, so you never have an enemy with more than a 10 difficulty rating and then you give all the worst powers a 6 so they never appear together. Levels shouldn’t be randomized. I mean honestly. Use modular pieces, and throw something together. Anything designed by a person will be better than a computer.

It’s worth a shot huh?

Hey, I was playing with that.

Minecraft 1.8. I couldn’t wait. Villages, abandoned mines, Endermen… oh, my!

Until Notch broke my world. Okay, to be fair, he didn’t break the world. But when I would go an investigate a new area, new chunks would spawn and there were “issues” due to the fact they Mojang changed the way the world was created. Like my ocean dropping down one block in the middle of no where.

I tried to keep playing. I really did. I persisted for about a week. Then gave up and started a new world, which I played for about a week.

I realized that Minecraft would be releasing in November and this mean that I only had 2 months with this new world before they likely broke it again. So I just stopped playing Minecraft until then. It seems wrong to stop playing a game I enjoy simply because I know the world is going to be broken.

 

This really brings up a larger issue with games, persistent and otherwise, and the way some designers approach them. My main complaint is this:

I spent time and money playing your game. Respect my investment, or I won’t be returning.

I love Minecraft, but I won’t be giving Mojang another dime. I won’t be buying their new games. They don’t respect the player’s time invested into their creations.

Is it an easy fix to make the world add new things in already discovered and explored areas of the game? No, it’s not. But it is respectful of the player. I spent at least 2 months building my obsidian palace and digging my huge quarry. Respect the work I did and do not screw up my save file because you want the ocean to be one block lower.

In World of Warcraft, for the most part, when I do or earn something, it’s done. I get to keep it. And for the most part, Blizzard does a great job of respecting the player’s time. You spend enough time and you can get anything. They have messed this up on occasion (Keymaster, the Darkmoon Faire turn in achievement, removal of old quests and rewards) but for the most part, this seems to be a design goal they meet.

This is perhaps one of my greatest gripes with Jolt’s games like Legends of Zork (now gone) is that they were wildly disrespectful of the player. Your time and money meant nothing and they were completely willing to wipe it off the game’s database.

As a game designer, when dealing with games that will be updated, or patched, always stop and consider each change from the point of view of the player. Does it make their achievement worthless? Does it make time they invested worthless? Does it “roll back” things they have earned? If you ever answer yes, stop. Think. Is there a better way? There probably is. That is what game design is all about, finding the best way to do something.

 

I am playing Minecraft again, but I will admit, I found a bug that lets me dupe items. And by god, I have been using it like mad. I no longer care about doing things “legit”. What’s the point? Mojang is just going to screw them up anyway.

What are we supposed to use? Harsh language?!?

I was a bit distracted by Transmogrification but something else radical happened in WoW last week. Threat was essentially singled out at a bad mechanic and buffed to the point of being inconsequential. Of course, as with all things WoW, some people loved it, some people didn’t care, and some people cancelled their subscriptions immediately. *queue nerd rage*

I reposted the threat changes on my guild forums and it was met with happiness and ambivalence. No one was opposed to the change. In fact a few people responded with, well this will make randoms so much easier.

Of course, I try not to comment on things I haven’t done. The only comment I made on this was “Cata raiding, meet Wrath Tanking” because that is what it sounded like to me.

So this weekend, I decided to try out a bit of this change.

On my DK, I tanked quite a bit in Wrath. I ran a random every day on her, and used her to help guildies farm up ToC and FoS/PoS/HoR gear. I could easily go into a HHoR and tank the instance with my ICC geared buddies, who would nuke away to their heart’s content. Only occasionally did I have to use my taunt, and only occasionally did I have to use things like blood boil as a reaction. All in all, it was pretty easy. I didn’t mind doing it. There was still some skill, tabbing around, keeping my dots up, cooldowns, and the occasional army, but tanking wasn’t so difficult I was unwilling to do it.

When Cata hit and I decided to level my dk, I, of course, thought, “Oh! I’ll just queue for randoms! Insta queues, plus I am helping others get dungeon runs, it’s a win win!” I had this feeling for all of about 60 seconds and then the ugly truth raised it’s head. I was level 80, in level 80 gear. Not terrible for BRC and ToT, but not sufficient to deal with level 81 and level 82 dps who had replaced large chunks of their Wrath gear. I spent 90% of my time chasing mobs (does anyone understand what threat reduction skills are for? Does anyone understand run TO the tank NOT AWAY?) and fighting to keep threat. If I targeted a different mob, even just to taunt another mob, the first one would be ripped away. Of course, dps would die, healers would get upset and leave, and I would feel like crap. Maybe it’s my level and gear I thought. So I leveled up to 83, replaced all my Wrath gear and got down to business. Oh god, Stonecore… after about 5 or 6 runs, I was done. I sent all my dk’s gold to my main, emptied her bags, and cleared her mailbox. She was effectively going on the shelf of unused characters.

When they introduced the CTA bags, I thought, OH! I should go level her now! Surely things are better. Haha, the naivete of youth. Not only were things not better, they were arguably worse. It was a dark time for my dk. I knew how to tank, I just couldn’t actually do it. No amount of death and decay, no amount of outbreak+pestilence, no amount of runestriking and death striking. Those dps were going to pull aggro without trying and there was *nothing* in my arsenal I could do about it.

So I didn’t play her. Until this weekend. Nervous and a bit stressed, I decided not to change anything, to just go in the way I was and see if this 300 to 500 actually made a difference.

Oh did it make a difference.

The only time the dps (including one rather shockingly well geared for regular VP level 85 mage) pulled aggro was on a multi-pull and even then, as the mobs ran through my D&D they would snap over to me. I made it through VP with very few mistakes (most of which were me not remembering how to position mobs). The experience was… dare I say it… enjoyable. Imagine that, enjoying playing a game. Enjoying it enough, I queued again. I went and bought some upgrades and… queued again. At this rate, I was going to max out my jp for the week.

Of course, as with all changes, I looked at the screaming of the ragers to see what the possible “side effects” of such a change were.

“It’s going to be soooo boring to tank.”

Because pressing 1-1-1-1-2 is so exciting, amiright mages? Because staring at five green bars, waiting for them to turn yellow and then clicking on them is the height of adrenaline rush. Because doing the same dungeon for the third time that day is brand shiny new!

Okay, nothing is that bad. But then, neither is tanking without having to worry about threat. There are still cooldowns, there are still adds to pick up, there are still huge pools of bad to stay out of. Only now, the most annoying part of your job is gone. The part that not only annoys you, but also annoys the whole group. No more dps having to stand around wishing they could do their job. No more healers having to heal the sudden clothie tank. Just a meat shield doing his job, while everyone else gets to enjoy doing theirs.

“Way to dumb it down to Wrath levels Blizz…”

Why do dps have 45 minute queues? Why, even at the HEIGHT of CTA, did I still have 25 minute queues? There are 4 tanking classes: Pallys, Dks, Warriors, and Bears. That’s almost HALF of the total classes. Ever seen one of these classes wait in the dps queue? (I have.) Tanking is hard. Tanking is thankless. And tanking is generally not fun.

So there is a tank shortage. Blizzard tried the bribe. It didn’t work. So now, they had to try something else. Honestly, the difficulty needed to be nerfed. The player base simply did not have enough of the kind of people who wanted to do that job at that stress level. I don’t think it was dumbed down, but I do think that by removing one of the more annoying aspects of the equation, it made it easier to understand at do at a level good enough for randoms.

Tanking is still going to be difficult in raids. It is still going to be a challenge in heroic modes. It is not going to be a faceroll (especially since people still have their rotations). But it is easier, especially for people who don’t have the gear or experience.

This is going to solve the tank shortage problem much better than a bag with extra items. It has already brought me back into the fold of tanking on my DK.