#Wildstar – Free for All

Interestingly enough, two of my most popular posts are my Wildstar Esper guides, which still get daily hits.  And, for good or bad, they don’t require much in terms of an update.

So good news (finally), Wildstar is going Free to Play.  And the GW2 free to play model minus the box price – I guess just like Rift.  Apparently, in the 24 hours since the announcement was made, it was the highest uptick in the Reddit sub-site in nearly a year, which is great news.

I will be honest here, the $15 fee wasn’t a dealbreaker for me.  I was going to re-sub next month when I got the new laptop anyways.  I had left the game due to rather significant balance issues around the elder game (max level content).  I really enjoyed nearly everything about the leveling game, including the dungeons.  When I hit 50 though… that was bad.  Gold medal runs were the only type of dungeon run, so 90% of them failed after the first death.  World bosses took forever to kill/spawn.  Raids were 40 people and if 2 people messed up, it was a wipe.  It was like a gentle curve from 1-50, then a massive gap until you were raid running and spending a dozen hours a week doing so.

Since then, there have been about a half dozen content patches.  More zones, more dungeons, a “fill” of that content gap, 20 man raids, pets, costumes and a crafting reset.  The majority of the folk leading the game for all those years in dev have moved on, and the folks who are there now are drinking a whole different type of kool-aid.  Heck the F2P conversion is going to add even more wanted features, like a full AMP unlock for everyone (no more farming dozens of hours).

That said those who are playing now are going to be in for an interesting ride.  Where SWTOR’s swap put a rather massive gate on top end dungeons/raids, this is not the case for Wildstar.  It’s more like TERA, Aion and Rift.  I wouldn’t say it’s a drastic shift, given that the past 4 patches have been all about making the game more accessible and less HARCORDE!!1!  If that’s the reason people are playing today, get ready for a rather large resource shift from super elite raids to a more simplified version.  Dollars to donuts, they put in a 2 tier raiding system.

There are quite a few posts on the matter…with all sorts of opinions on this value of this message.  Most though agree that this is a good step, even if they don’t plan on taking advantage of it.  I know I am and my gut tells me this is going to be good news long term for the game.

Stuck on the Ground

With no horse in the race, I find the WoW news about maintaining a lack of flight quite fascinating.  As always, stories.

I had a subscription for the first month or so of WoD.  It took a “normal” amount of time to get to cap, at least compared to MoP.  Which was near double or triple of the Cataclysm trainwreck.  Once I did hit the cap, I decided to bring a couple more alts to 100.  Did I mention that I was able to get one to 99 without ever moving past the garrison quests? Mounts were superfluous.  And zone design didn’t exactly necessitate any mounts either since the quests were usually a few feet away from a quest giver.  Long gone are the days of getting a quest on one side of the map and going to the other (which ironically, Cata had in spades).  I’m struggling to think of a single occurrence of character death while leveling, outside of the elite/rare kills I attempted solo.  There was never any real threat.  To get around the world was about hoping on a flight path and alt-tabbing until I got there, which in some cases was extremely long.

Once I did hit cap, I was mostly pet/mount hunting.  All of that was in the old content, because WoD held little appeal outside of the 7 day gronn mount spawn. My Boots quest in EQ has killed any desire to spawn camp.  Anyways, I have 6 alts who were at level 85/90 who could easily farm old content.  Zul was the only daily for the 2 mounts, which I never got after months of farming.  I got the Bird mount in Terrok pretty quick, which left mostly raid farming for the rest.  The cycle usually went MC, BWL, Kara, SSC, TK and then AQ.  Every single one of them was reached through flight, aiming the mouse and alt-tabbing until I got there.  I tried flight paths, which all landed next to the raid (MC, BWL and SSC excepted) and all were slower than aiming my dragon and going afk.  Not just a little slower either, a lot.  I don’t think I would have even bothered with half of it if it wasn’t for the fast travel.  So yeah, it was more about convenience than anything else.

Having flight while leveling made things extremely trivial.  Not so much in that it bypassed content (it did) but that it highlighted bad design decisions.  Dropping in, picking up 2 packages and then leaving isn’t super smart.  Neither is farming a drop for 20 minutes.  I think Wildstar’s approach here was better, where various actions provided progress on a bar.  Kill a lot of small things, a few big things, collect some items, destroy others.  Zones had some rough spots to run through, where you needed to pay attention.  You still had some boring taxi travel BUT each zone had 1 large teleporter or some kind to help with fast travel between the actual zones.

All that said, I think it speaks volumes that a company that hit the 10m mark, lost ~3m subs, put in a legit gold selling program (and will sell top-end gear for said gold) doesn’t think flight is worth the hassle.  WoW is the most accessible it has ever been, the absolute least social version ever and flight for some people is a hill to die on.  Such an interesting read to see people’s reactions (Wilhelm has a good collection of them).

Status Update

I must be near a month now with a dead PC.  Well, a dead video card in a 3+ year old laptop.  At last check, I had order a new Sager from a Canadian distributor, Reflex Notebooks.  My shipping order says I’m getting it at the start of next month, which puts this purchase as the longest on-line delivery I’ve ever experienced. Heck, I ordered an HDMI cable from China and it took under 2 weeks.

Some might chalk it up to the custom laptop bit.  Well the first one I ordered was at my door in under 2 weeks.  The ones I ordered with friends after were around that time as well.  And I took this distribution because they claimed to have an all-in-one service, build, ship, duties and all.  I remember comparing the value of this versus my more traditional US delivery services and the cost savings were about $150 all told.  That begs the question as to what my time is actually worth, in particular as this is used for some rather significant stress relief.  Is 3 weeks worth $150?

Long story short, I wouldn’t recommend this service.  There are other alternatives.

And my regular gaming habits will eventually pick up once I get the new laptop in.

Tap Away

That said it’s been tablet time for the past while.  Tap Titans and Tap Tap Infinity are the two top time wasters right now.  The former is a fairly solid interpretation on the incremental progression game (sort of a rogue like) but has no off-line progression.  The latter is based off Clicker Heroes but includes a smarter incremental progression system and offline progress.  That offline portion is pretty important.

TT provides 2 methods of progress, gold which you can use to increase hero skills for a passive/active DPS gain and a relic system which provides access to artifacts that give passive stat boosts.  The former is the active game progress, you get more money, buy more skills and damage and see what stage you can get to.  When you hit a wall, you reset (prestige) and start with zero money and go again.  Knowing where to spend money for optimal gain is important as some buffs are much better than others.  Using a prestige gives you X number of relics, depending on the stage you’ve reached.  Relics are used as currency for artifacts, which provide passive boosts (+ to gold, + to damage, + to skills, etc…) Pushing farther in the stages gives more relics, which gives more power, which lets you get to farther stages.  The downside is that it’s online only, and getting to stage 100 takes some time, while getting to stage 600 takes quite a bit longer.  The top end players are reaching ~2500, so that’s a fair bit of gaming time to reach.  There’s also a bi-weekly tournament, where you compete against other players to see how far you can reach.  While neat at low levels (sub 200), once you reach mid-game, everyone seems to be slotted in the same pool which is pretty stupid. I can reach ~520 and was competing against people hitting 2500, giving me a rank of 120/200.  The reward structure of these tournaments makes them all but useless because of the bracketing.  This is the area that requires the most balancing, as the rest of the game is pretty solid.

TTI has 3 methods of progress, gold for skills and DPS, infinity tokens for passive skill gain and infinity gems for a permanent DPS/skill boost to heroes.  Gold is reset when you “go infinite”, which is the equivalent of Prestige from TT.  The gems are used in a similar vein to artifacts, and tokens are a completely new mechanic with small gains but they persist for a long time.  Progress is in line time-wise with TT, per level.  The flipside is that you can go offline and the game will calculate how far you got while offline.  So I can set up my heroes and come back an hour later and have an extra 200 levels completed.  And there’s very little actual tapping required past the first few minutes of the game.  While there’s a whole lot less strategy involved in progress here, it’s miles less painful to progress at later levels.

Iterative Play

The rogue-like is certainly taking the mobile market by storm.  To me there are 5 types of mobile games: Clash of Clans clones, Candy Crush clones, Simpsons Tapped Out clones, Card/Monster collecting clones and finally, the rogue-like.

There’s certainly something simplistic about a procedurally generated game built under the foundation of continual replays.  It means that the starting experience is just as, if not more important than the end experience.  Dungeon crawlers with stat boosts just focus on the end game (think Diablo 3 and Paragon levels), leaving the start of the game to be more or less just an intro.  A rogue like has you restarting from the beginning all the time, so the entire experience has to have some reward throughout rather than just the carrot at the end of the run.  If the journey is crap, it doesn’t matter how good the end game is if I have to keep going through it.

This method also allows for a significantly higher level of difficulty early in the game compared to later, giving a linear or exponential growth in challenge.  The typical dungeon crawler is more plateau based, where the game is always the same difficulty until some arbitrary point and then it becomes a grind.

Incentivized play to restart an adventure also gives the player some sense of power or control.  Like the game isn’t so much on rails.  They can decide when and where to collect their reward and then try again, or you know, die a billion times in a true rogue-like.

Going out on a limb here but MMOs are sort of getting onboard with this idea.  WoW has heirlooms (which can give +900% exp), FF14 has multiple jobs per player and Marvel Heroes has a multi-team on a single account and prestige levels per character.  Each future playthrough has a bit less challenge but has more flavor since some of the variables have changed.  When the entire game is a focus, it means that all parts have to be relevant.  Hoping the idea catches on a bit more…

Alternative Progress

I picked up Tap Titans the other day.  When I started the game, I thought it was one of those basic clickers, with basic progress forward. There are plenty of those, where you get incremental bonuses to reach an end point.

That changed after a bit and learning about Prestige.  When you reach a certain point in the game, you can restart the game from the beginning but get to keep certain features, making the next attempt a bit faster.  The difficulty curve grows near exponentially, so you end up hitting a wall and wondering what’s the point and it dawns on you that you need to restart.

Cookie Clicker is probably the most notable game like this, where you restart progress to get a bit farther next time, though the interface is rather rudimentary. It’s an offline game really, where progress is made in chunks, rather than in a consistent amount.  Kingdom of Loathing has a similar mechanic, where once you beat the sorceress, you can restart fresh keeping most of your items but losing levels.  You also get to keep 1 skill from the previous class you beat the game with.  This type of game adds a new level of strategy, where your playthrough isn’t so much for beating the game but for preparing you for the next run.  And you get competitions going where you see who can beat the game (and restart) the fastest.

While Alternative Advancement (EQ, Rift come to mind) and Paragon Levels (D3) provide a very long tail end to the end game.  Where some can hit a gear treadmill, these alternative paths let you continue to move even if you have all the other carrots in game.  I’m thinking a bit of WoW right now, in that outside of heroic/mythic raiding, I had completed nearly every possible thing to do in WoD.  All the treasures, all the bosses, all the garrison buildings.  In under 2 months.  The only thing in WoW that crosses characters are heirlooms, and they are used solely to bypass existing content.  FF14 has found a neat way around this, in that any character can be all classes.  You restart at level 1 but maintain the progress you had from the other classes.  So each character has a ton of carrots.

The more I go about it, the more I’m inclined to think that the traditional progress (just numbers) is a dead end.  A real long tail to a game is different that seeing a single boss drop down, but in individual/group progress on the horizontal plane rather than vertical.  Of course, this becomes more challenging to balance if the horizontal game is so vast and deep that it becomes more powerful than the vertical gains.

#NBI2015 – Talkback #2 – Early Access and Kickstarter

It would seem the NBI talkback#2 is about Early Access and Kickstarter.  This is a rather interesting topic to me, in particular in today’s free to play world and day 2 patches.

I’ll start with the second one, Kickstarter.  I think we’re over the honeymoon phase and people are realizing that backing something is just like any other investment; you might not get a return.  When it started, everyone was on a high since they were backing a for sure promise of delivery.  Sorry!  There’s a pretty good reason big Kickstarters failed – horrible project and client management.  Either they got the money and had no idea how to spend it, or the concept was so poorly managed everyone thought it was bonkers (Hi Brad!).  There are good things that have come from it though, mostly board games and card games.  A few video games have succeeded, Pillars of Eternity being one of the obvious ones.  There are good ideas out there and Kickstarter is a neat way to see them come to life (maybe).

Early Access is plain ol’ dumb, from both a client and development perspective.  The benefits are pretty small.  Sure, you get valuable feedback for a few weeks, maybe a couple months from dedicated folks.  You need to spend less time triaging beta test applications.  There’s some good word of mouth that occurs, if the product is polished enough.  There’s some extra money to get through dev cycles.  That’s the good stuff.

The bad stuff is about expectations.  Once someone pays for a product, no matter the state, they expect some level of service.  A buggy game that stays buggy for weeks/months, loses all steam.  A game with no community involvement dies a slow death.  The biggest champions for the game are selling the concept to their friends who may buy a broken game.  By the time launch comes around, nearly everyone has moved on.

If the period is short, then there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.  But a short period means that the game is in polish mode, not dev mode.  Neverwinter and Marvel Heroes are two recent games that went this route, even Heroes of the Storm in their own way.  As soon as the cash store opens, or that I’ve bought in, I consider the game live.  It takes something to get people to come back once the marketing team actually decides to “go live”.  I remember the HotS beta invite, costing $50 to get it.  It was a simple “are you kidding me” decision.

Landmark is a prime example of how not to do Early Access.  When that opened up over a year ago (!) there were blog posts everywhere.  People dropped $100+ dollars to be in a beta that lasted a year.  The game has moved at a snail’s pace (if the snail was dead) and still doesn’t have a launch date.  Heck, the devs had to remind people the game was still around.  All the positive buzz for that game is gone and everyone who was interested has moved on to something else.  It just seems a wasted opportunity.

Dying Is Worth It, Sometimes

There is no life without death.  It’s defined by a start point and an end point.  I think the best stories told have more to do with death than they actually do with life.  Oddly enough, I find vampires enjoyable not for their immortality but for the threat they pose to others.  Harry Potter wouldn’t even be a story if his parents hadn’t died.  Childhood’s End does a decent job explaining the sense of hopelessness when mortality and procreation is removed from the equation.

The best games deal with death as a driver as well.  Last of Us, Ni No Kuni, FF7, Chrono Trigger…you could look at the top ones and each seems to be driven around death or the imminent threat.  It isn’t the violence or act of the PC doing the killing but the stuff around them.  Plagues, meteors, evil wizards and whatnot.  It’s a common fear and common driver.

To that end, I feel much more invested in a game where death is meaningful, touching on the topic of challenge/difficulty.  Dying and just popping back up like no sweat is an odd occurrence to me, like death has no meaningful impact on the world.  I feel somewhat removed from it all.  The actual mechanics can be varied but there should be something to come from it.

Like in GTA, you lose all your guns.  Or Path of Exile you lose experience (which could be a fairly large impact).  In RPGs with save points, you lose the progress since the last one, which is why I prefer save points compared to save anywhere.  When death has meaning, then it drives you strongly to avoid it.  You don’t build a team of glass canons because you know you’re going to die.  Zerging doesn’t work either.

The flipside to this is that death can’t be handed out like candy.  If it’s just a meatwall of death, then what’s the point?  Death can’t be meaningful if it happens all the time.  It certainly starts to become punitive.

I think it’s pretty clear that these items are inversely proportionate, with personal preference for the ranges.  For example, I have no fun in permadeath games.  Roguelikes with meta progress are ok, where there’s some form of progress even though you lose a lot – like a small stat boost or knowledge to get passed it next time.  Death in those games has to be earned though, so one-shots are just plain out of the picture and random for the sake of random is out too.

Graveyard camping is a great way to get me to quit a game.  The death rate is too damn high, even though there are rarely any death penalties (except perhaps old school UO).   Sniper roosts are one thing, but most of these camps are run by hackers/exploiters/greifers, with no benefit to themselves outside of misery to their victims.

Maybe this stems from my childhood at the arcades.  If I lost, I was down a quarter.  That was a tangible loss for me!  I remember a good rivalry between myself and 3 other guys.  There was certainly a much different motivation in the “winner stays, loser pays” games.  Chasing win streaks or high scores was a ton of fun.

I know where my personal comfort lies in terms of death penalties, and rates of death.  The more I think about it, the more it has an impact on my overall enjoyment of a game.

Challenge vs Difficulty

It would seem in most remarkable RPGs there’s an optional boss of some sort that is miles more difficult than anything else in the game.  The omega weapons in Final Fantasy are good examples.  Heroic-only raid bosses in WoW.  Culex in Super Mario: 7 Stars.  Pillars of Eternity is no different, as you get to fight the Adra Dragon after the 15 floor Nua dungeon.  Well, except for a few points.

First, the concept of difficult for difficulty’s sake annoys the crap out of me.  I dislike rigged games, just like playing Mario Kart has cheating AI.  I realize that there’s a fine line between challenging and difficult.  Demon Souls (and other like) are challenging.  You run through enough times and think it through, you can get by.  Difficult games are where you’re randomly put into a challenge with moving parts and have to make decisions that are vastly different than the rest of the game.

The Adra Dragon is the latter.  See, the 14 floors before that have their own challenges, some pretty tough ones actually.  You need to think your way through, even at max level.  Then you reach floor 15 and the dragon kills 5 of the 6 members in a single attack, an AE attack with no range and extremely large LoS, on a random timer.  Oh, it drops its threat target randomly, and has a hitbox a fraction of the size of its targeting box.  Also, this dragon has the best defense score in the game, miles beyond anyone else and its melee attacks knockdown and deal tremendous damage.  I get it, dragons are supposed to be tough but this particular one is of such a level of difficulty that there is very little sane approach.

It took me over 3 days to pass this checkpoint.  There are really only 2 options present to defeat this.  First, is to have a tank, either a custom one or Eder, and have specced defensively the entire time you progressed.  You then stack every defensive item you can on the tank, buffs, potions, food, you name it.  they lead out, start the conversation and through luck, turn the dragon to face away from the rest of the team.  Bad luck, and no matter what you do, the rest of the team can get hit by an AE attack and wipe you out.  Let’s say luck is in your favor.  You now need to have a priest/healer of some sort nearby to keep the tank topped up.  Everyone else needs to be at range, because there’s a melee distance attack that will 1 shot anyone nearby.  You need to debuff the dragon on all their defenses and buff all the attackers to hit.  If everything goes off well, you have a dead dragon.  If RNG is against you (and remember, the odds are very much not in your favor) then you’re going to reload.

The 2nd option is the cheap way, which is to use a paralyze trap on the dragon, have a chanter who has the quick reload song and equip everyone with ranged high damage (slow) weapons, like arbalests.  If the trap hits (which for some reason has a near 100% hit rate), then it takes 2 rounds of ranged attacks, including many critical strikes, to take down the dragon.  Extremely cheap, still has some element of luck, but it’s a more reliable way to do it.

Did I mention that at higher difficulty levels there are enemies that spawn with the dragon that can mind control your team?

This post isn’t so much to complain about the outright difficulty of the event but that there is such a large disparity between the rest of the game and this particular battle.  There is no level of grinding to get through it.  There is only 1 effective strategy that isn’t “cheesing” and that one requires near perfect execution with favorable RNG.  I don’t mind losing, if I can see that it was something that I did wrong.  I don’t mind hitting a brick wall either, if it means I need to upgrade/improve something in the interim.  I do take issue with a near perfect execution and being the victim of a series of bad rolls and random events outside of my control. I want to learn, not cross my fingers.

Thankfully, this is an isolated event in an otherwise extremely polished game.