Monday, July 30, 2012

Challenge Dungeons

Bloggers always seem to be an overly cynical lot*, even at times wilfully ignorant of anything which might provide hope for the future. Like, for instance, Challenge Dungeons. Why aren't more people talking about these things? Timed dungeon runs are pretty universally popular as far as I'm aware**, and it would appear the devs have recognised this and expanded the concept into a complete tier of 5-man content. Shouldn't this make everybody happy?

The design decisions that we know about so far are all positive. They are not just adding a timer to the existing Heroics, they're setting them up as a higher tier of Heroic dungeons, with different mechanics and everything. Speaking of which, we do seem to have long since lost the term "Heroic" to meaninglessness***, so giving us a new one, "Challenge" for this higher tier makes a hell of a lot of sense.

The very strong impression I get is that the Mists "Heroics" are tuned to be the five-man equivalent to LFR difficulty, and this is supported by the Challenge Dungeon system's parity with the standard tier of raiding-- no random grouping or porting directly to the instance [and hopefully similar difficulty]. The only real differences are the gear normalisation, and lack of gear upgrades as reward. But when you think about it, this is all necessary, not just to preserve the challenge moving forward, but to reinforce the idea that these dungeons are not designed [like most 5-mans] as a stepping stone to raiding-- that they are their own endgame.

Actually, now that I think about it, these Challenge Dungeons sound like they're going to return to us everything about 5-man content that we've lost in the past few years, since the Random Tool automated everything and the devs couldn't nerf Heroics fast enough to keep the bads happy. Isn't that something bloggers can get excited about? I'm talking about Guilds getting regular groups together, LFGing in trade chat, no "queues" for DPS who are willing to start and lead a group, and most importantly, not being forced to tolerate asshats, since the group leader has executive authority over who gets invited and who gets kicked.

I'm feeling so very optimistic right now. =)

-sigh- Two months...

admittedly myself included a lot of the time
** meaning I can't remember ever hearing someone whingeing about them
***  in the same way as we lost the word "Epic" years ago

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In which Coreus plays Saints Row the Third

There's a lot that I think is wrong with modern "triple A" games, mainly the incessant focus on things which are peripheral to the goal of creating a fun game. I guess it's just a fact of video games that you can't market a game as easily as you can market spectacle or a cool-sounding gimmick or a known brand name.

The other day my significant other purchased Saints Row the Third, and since I had heard a lot about how superlatively awesome it was from multiple sources, I decided to try it. After suffering through a bunch of story-driven bullshit about characters I had yet to care about in the introduction, I discovered one of the most engaging video game experiences I've had in recent memory.

But, this is in every sense, a modern triple-A game. It's been years since I found one of those that I had any interest in whatsoever. So I feel compelled to work out what it is about this particular spectacle-filled video product that has engaged me so completely. I think I miss shooters, to be honest. Popping bad guys in the head is so immensely satisfying that I'm a bit amazed that I've gone this long without doing it. But mainly I think it's the sandbox-ey nature of the game. The open-ended combat with multiple solutions-- the way the game says to you; okay you need to do this, you might want to do it this way, but go nuts if you can think of something better.

I'm really impressed at how dynamic the world is, the way you can manipulate it into providing you with an advantage, or fight against it-- only to have it aggressively fight back, relentlessly, without end, until you either retreat or die. The fact that you literally cannot beat the world means that your best option in almost all circumstances is to just be part of it. Is this how all open-world games are done? I feel like MMOs could learn something from this stuff. A world is so much more real for the fact that it doesn't explicitly restrict the player, but makes breaking the "rules" an unattractive option.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Some ramblings for Friday 20th July

I think I'm getting sick. My head is full of cotton mush.

I take the opinion that games should never, ever force a story on the player. Either the story occurs concurrently to gameplay, or exists as something the player can elect to explore as an aside, or if it absolutely can only be told with a cut-scene [I call that the lazy option] at least be skippable or very very short. The worst offenders are games that open with a solid 10-15 minutes of unskippable story bullshit, while you are sitting there, controller in hand, waiting patiently for the game to let you play it.

I am vaguely aware that there exist probably more than a few video game stories good enough to be praised even without the "for a video game" qualifier, but my question in that case becomes; why do they assume that all the people who are interested in hearing this awesome story want to pause the story every five minutes to play a video game? There are already many, many, many media that are far superior at telling stories and don't require you to pass a dexterity challenge to watch the next scene.

Games need to be games first. It's not that video games can't be greatly enhanced with stories, it's that the stories can too easily become a distraction from the game itself, and it's often just not worth it. Many developers seem to even think a story is compulsory; that it's better to have a shitty story than no story at all. The result of this is usually just a flashy cutscene "reward" at the end of each level [as if they assume the gameplay itself is not fun enough to warrant playing on its own].

Feel free to make me care about my avatar and the characters and situations I'm interacting with. I love it when you do that. But if I'm only interested in playing a video game, just let me bloody play the game.

[FYI, Diablo III is my poster-child for everything wrong with story in games these days. I've never seen a company put so much money and polish into something so half-arsed.]

Apparently some bloggers have been talking about attunements in WoW. Because clearly all aspects of the game were better in 2006, even the shitty ones. Yeah, I know, a lot of the inconvenience that makes the world is being eroded, mostly due to demand from an increasingly impatient and entitled playerbase, with the devs trying desperately to reassure them that the colour of their gear should not define their worth as players. But... um, yeah, that's a shame I guess.

I keep having thoughts on how Blizzard could structure their development to better cater to players. Personally I think they are spending too much of their resources on creating structured incentives to push players into the "correct" content. But I also think they might benefit from having a plan for content release which is a bit better thought out than their current "omg get the content out before they all stop playing do it do it now!" plan. Like delaying the Dragon Soul patch to give us a month or two more of Firelands in exchange for two months more of everybody farming Heroic Madness with the 30% debuff [I've had this conversation before].

Recently forum whining cost me sixty thousand gold. I wanted to buy one of those new Yaks with whatever new features they stuck on them for 60k, but forum whining has meant that I now need to buy one for my whole account for 120k.  Thanks guys. Keep up the good work.

I've been pretty burned out on WoW recently. I was thinking of taking up Pokémon again. That game's pretty fun these days.

I updated Star Wars to 1.3 but can't bring myself to play it. It's odd that I like that game so much but don't want to play it. It's good. It's a good game! Maybe I just find it hard to play without a real objective in mind. Maybe it's just where my life is at at the moment that I can't enjoy video games like I used to.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Looking back on ToR

I've been thinking a bit about The Old Republic, a game that I really enjoyed playing, but feel no compulsion to go back to. I think it's just that the things I enjoyed about that game don't outweigh the annoyances.

Things I enjoyed:
Solo RP  I know choosing your response is mostly just an illusion of control over the situation, but I'm more than happy to suspend my disbelief. A lot of this comes from my developing a really strong attachment to my Bounty Hunter, Robe*, and enjoying playing out her character arc within everything else that's happening.

The combat  The design itself isn't quite at Blizzard's level of polish, but I found the mechanics to just feel really good. I think a lot of this is the result of the way even the single player game is mainly concerned with pulling groups of differently-powered mobs, giving the player the opportunity to strategise each pull; to choose which mob to CC, whether to use stuns or knockback or other control abilities, whether to AoE, kite or focus fire. The game also has many challenging but still solo-able elite mobs which require you to use all your tricks to defeat. [Contrast with the WoW single player game where every fight is identical. Debuff, dot, nuke, loot. Debuff, dot, nuke, loot.]

Space combat  First, let's get one thing straight-- this Starfox bullshit does not belong in an MMO. That said, I love the space combat to death and can't seem to care that it doesn't belong here. Maybe a lot of the fun comes from being able to extend my character in this direction, along with her awesome "Yeah I'm totally impractical but FUCK YOU" Bounty Hunter ship. They've succeeded in the dumbest way possible and made this minigame one of the highlights of the whole package.

Things I did not enjoy:
Quest system  Going to a new hub and picking up a whole mess of new quests is one of the things that Blizzard has long since abandoned as a design, but remains in this game. It's unreasonable for the game to expect me to keep more than one or two independent storylines in my head at once-- I'm only one guy. So to cope, I devolve into a mechanics-focussed "follow the map" mode, and when I arrive at my destination and the cut-scene starts, try to remember why I'm there. Towards the end of my levelling I actually skipped all quests except for my main story just to maintain some kind of narrative consistency. [All that space combat had more than made up for the XP I was missing]

Crafting  Yeah, they made it fun to do, but I was more than a bit perturbed at getting to max level and finding that the epic gun barrels I put so much time and money into personally R&D-ing are worse than the entry level PvP gear that you can buy for credits. At least I had fun. =|

Multiplayer  Story and RP are all great to keep the single-player game interesting-- it even works with two or three friends playing through for the first time, but FFS, stop shoving this bullshit in my face when I am in a group that has collectively seen the exact same story sequence around forty times now and just wants to play the game.

I suppose overall there's enough there worth pursuing. Especially considering I've run out of things to do in WoW. I'll be taking some time off work later in the month... I might resub again and see if I feel compelled to stay.

* Some stuff about my character: Robe is a diminutive female bounty hunter who grew up fighting, learned to take what she needed, never to trust anyone, and survived by doing whatever it took to be better than the other guy. She would tell you that she's not a nice person, but there is a sense of morality there somewhere, she's just become too used to ignoring it and taking the pragmatic option: usually the one that doesn't leave anyone around to get revenge. Her character arc became about learning to trust people as she gradually bonded with her new companions and had their morality rub off on her. [Don't judge me for the cliché. I'm still fairly new to the RP thing.] I especially like the end of the Bounty Hunter storyline, which had a quite explicit moral choice that was a very appropriate spearhead to Robe's story.