Goal Setting at the Buffet

When I’m on vacation, I tend to swap between the buffet and sit down meals.  I really like a sit down… you take some time, have a conversation, food comes, you enjoy it because it was made for you.  Buffets are stupid practical when you have kids and are time constrained.  As an adult though, buffets give me a sense of anxiety.  There’s just SO MUCH STUFF, I don’t know where to start or end.  I tend to walk circles around, look at other people’s plates, then somehow end up with a plate of mexican/indian/local dishes.  Jerk chicken and curry?  It’s a weird mix.

Open ended games have a similar issue – so much choice.  Skyrim has a wide set of possible activities; you can level, explore, quest, increase factions, hunt secrets, go for achievements, craft, sneak, etc… Still, they are generally contained, and you’re not exactly presented with all those options from the start.  In that sense, you can’t jump from level 10 to 40 by changing locations – there’s a sense of progress.  The framing of those various activities is the main quest, with a final boss fight to close out.

The more I get back into Warframe, the more I realize that this is not the case.  There’s a framework of missions to unlock features, but it’s entirely posssible to max out your character after a couple hours of play – at least in the traditional sense of levels of your class.  Within a few more hours, you start unlocking more and more things to do.  I am going to drop a video that describes the TON of stuff (2:38 is where it goes off the list).

Each of of those is a separate system, with its own goals.  In nearly all cases, those systems interact with another system (or systems).  In many cases you are prevented from progressing in one goal until another system’s goal is achieved.

Warframe feels like a never ending buffet, and one without labels.  You could end up filling your plate with white rice, while being completely unaware that there’s a set of delicious canard confit a few steps away.  Worse, you could simply end up running around missions without any idea of what to do.

This lack of clear progress is both a challenge and its own reward.  WoW has a single primary goal, increase your ilvl.  Nearly every other system is based on this goal – pet battles, transmog, and toys are an exception.  It is very difficult to get lost on that path, and since there’s only one goal, people will take the easiest system to achieve it. (There’s a rant topic…)

Warframe has multiple large systematic goals.  Collect more frames/weapons, unlock more missions (to get more frames/weapons), complete quests (to unlock more missions), gain faction (to unlock more quests), max out frames/weapons (to increase Mastery), increase Mastery (to unlock more missions, quests, factions, frames/weapons).  It seems like an outright mess, and compared to nearly every other game out there it is.  Yet the amount of player agency here is astounding.

You want it to be a parkour simulator?  Sure.  A boss grinder?  Yup.  A social hub? Can do.  A cosmetics hunt?  Yessir.  Open-world exploration?  That too.  It’s a game that becomes what you want it to be.  The challenge, as with a buffet, is that it’s entirely possible to gorge yourself to exhaustion.

 

Warframe – From the Fire Hose

I’ve built, managed, edited, and used wikis for a stupidly long time.  Most gaming wikis have a lot of leaves, and only a small section of branches.  Leaves are pages where you simply “end up”, with very little information to have you go backwards.  Something like this Uskang page for D3.  It’s relevant, has the necessary info, and gets the job done.

Then you have something like Warframe, and it’s (ridiculous) complexity.  Here’s the Inaros page (a class), and here’s the Soma Prime page (a weapon).  You could spend days/weeks plumbing this wiki and still not have enough.

There are two reasons for this, and primarily is the above stated fact of game complexity.  EvE is the only game that comes to mind with more of it.  Now, complexity isn’t bad, if there’s a method the game takes to train/help the players.  This is the second issue, the game has a hell of a time communicating information.  The information in the wiki should be entirely available within the game… but good luck actually finding it.  For a small developer, this is a tough choice to make – simplify the systems/content and make it easier to get into, or have a really strong community that will help people out.  I do think the devs made the right call here.  The player expectation is that people don’t know what they are doing, which dramatically changes player expectations.   It’s entirely possible to get half way through the game and have no clue what’s going on.

Compare that to something like WoW, where the expectation in almost every group encounter is “go go go” and total group silence.  The game’s simplicity (excepting M+), makes nearly all group activities brain dead.  You can successfully fail Warfronts.

I’ll say the moment to moment portions of Warframe are fun (Archwing, less so).  The movements are quick, the controls are tight, and the large 3D spaces for combat are full of alternative paths.  In that sense, playing without a goal works, and consuming the map content is pretty straightforward.

Then you start hitting a few walls.  You need Mastery Rank to progress in some places, but what’s that?  The level of a planet is 27-35, but all your gear maxes at 30.  Why do your companions die so fast?  How are people able to bullet (torpedo) jump up 3 levels?  How do you wall run, shoot, and then keep wall running?  Why is the boss taking 0 damage?  How did I trip an alarm?  Why is the gate guardian here wiping the floor with me?  Where the heck do I find the parts to make this weapon?

The only way to get answers to that is the wiki, or video walkthroughs.  And then let’s say life gets in the way and you leave for a couple weeks.  There are very high odds that you’re going to forget an important piece of data and get frustrated because you should know this .

I am still amazed at the sheer volume of stuff found in this game.  Moreso that people have such a great grasp of it all, and that I feel like a pleb surrounded by gods.  Every gaming session, I come away with some new bits of info, and a few steps closer to my goals.  And a game without progress is no real game at all.

Warframe – Getting Back In

The wide majority of games are not persistent, so if you leave and come back, you have the opportunity to start from the beginning again.  Even those that are persistent usually let you do this (MMORPGs let you roll an alt).  This gives a chance to figure out the basics of the game, or rather, relearn them.

When you reload your main character, the gaps then are more specific.  Where are you in the story (some RPGs do a great job on this), what do the various skills do, and what are you supposed to do next.  Jumping back into an MMORPG usually involves dumping all things in the bags, adjusting the UI, and maybe relarning the rotation.  (I am assuming here that this is not something that’s easy to do in EvE.)

I jumped back into Warframe – a game notorious for it’s numerous systems and lack of handholding.  The “new player experience” is horrendous, but once you leave the first system things start to make sense.  For a planet, then it feels like the entire game opens up at once, and you need a physics degree to figure it all out.  I did that trial – figured it all out.  Then stepped away for other things and haven’t played in a year.

Holy moley, what a wake up call!  It took me 30 minutes to find a bullet jump.  I had to pause the game to remember how to change weapons.  I had to read the wiki to figure out how to use a scanner.  I forgot what each of my suits did (some are better on defense, others offense, others support) and was getting wrecked.  I forgot about mods, and what sets I wanted to use.  I forgot about enemy vulnerabilities (and what that matters!).

I got to the tail end of a specific mission (which I clicked on entirely by accident, yet started the mission) and had zero clue what to do.  I certainly voiced my frustrations out loud, and ended up failing the mission because I couldn’t figure out how to complete the next steps.

All that to realize that I need to re-learn and Reddit is kind enough to have a post for returning players.  Go-go community!

It will likely take me a week to get back into stride for Warframe.  It really isn’t drinking from the firehose, but from the actual fire truck.

Bad Guys Need to Fail

The hero journey is as much about that individual growing as it is about the adversity that they are meeting.  In most tropes, that adversity is a “Bad Guy” – comics are based on this model. A great bad guy has a generally complicated story, and a relateable goal.  Usually taken to some extreme.

Outer Worlds has quite a few bad guys, and it’s sometimes hard to see who’s really the good guy when you’re in the frontier.  I rather enjoyed that fact.  With a single exception, every bad guy has good intentions.  Especially the most fervent.  The reasoning isn’t clear at the start, but eventually it does come out.

I am going to compare to WoW for a bit now.  Vanilla didn’t have a single bad guy, though it did have quite a few.  Every expansion past that had a bad guy (or guys), each of which ended up failing by the end.  Illidan was jailed.  Arthas was killed.  Deathwing died.  Garrosh/Sha were defeated.  WoD I’ll get to.  Sargeras is captured.

In WoD Guldan survives and in BfA… Sylvanas wins?  In that sense, WoD was pretty much a giant waste of time, and generally ignored once Legion came about.  BfA is lined up pretty strong to be in the same boat.  Lore-wise, there’s not a whole lot that’s changed since the end of Legion (Horde & Alliance are BFFs) and the prospective end.   If all of BfA had been skipped, and instead of burning Teldrassil, Sylvanas has simply broken the crown at the start… would that have made a difference?  Maybe in terms of Jaina’s redemption arc?  For sure a horde-heavy arc though, not much has changed.

Feels more like the Xanatos Gambit, where regardless of hero actions, the bad guy wins.  Which is fine if you’re aiming for parody/satire, less so when you’re trying to be serious.  In defeats the concept of player agency – where they have an impact on the direction of the story.

Time will tell if BfA is seen as the worst of all WoW expansions, but it’s certainly taking a page out of all the weak parts from previous ones.  Maybe it’s the WoW devs that are going through their own redemption arc…

Outer Worlds – Savior

That felt good.

I am going to try and avoid some spoilers here.  There’s a fair chunk of Outer Worlds that depends on the in-game world context to drive the story forward, and it’s not front and center.  By the time you reach the 3/4 mark, a lot of the seemingly separate threads start coming together, making for a very satisfying conclusion.

After completing it, I thought about world size.  When nearly every bit is meaningful and tied into the larger story, then that feels like the adventure makes sense.  It’s not linear by any means, and there’s a lot of just plan ol’ exploration to be had.  But everything is purposeful, and not just a random checkbox (Fallout 4 irked me about this, and AC: Odyssey took this to 11).  No one said “God of War is too short”.  Outer Worlds clocks in near 30 hours, and it’s a fun 30 hours throughout.

And the entire is a real homage to the Fallout 1/2 closeout.  A stream of stills, with a voice over that goes over your various choices, your companions, and the storyline general conclusion.  It’s enough to say that this story is complete, but at the same time could be rather simply added into a larger galactic one.  Throughout I kept thinking this was an Isaac Asimov storyline…all the way through the punch.  Impressive.

I want to point out the quality of writing and quest building.  While the mechanics of some quests boil down to “go here, kill the bad guys, get the thing, come back” you are presented with multiple options to complete each of those goals.  Take a backdoor.  Break the ventilation and put everyone to sleep.  Lie your way through the front door.  Some quests are interlinked, so that actions in one affect another.  You probably won’t realize it until later too.

Also, do all the companion quests.  The rewards are ok (skill points mostly) but the quests themselves are generally morally grey and reall well executed.

Some housekeeping notes from the playthrough:

  • I didn’t encounter a single bug.  Not one!
  • Max level is 30.  Doing all the quests gets you there easily.  Doing only the main quests will make it a lot harder.
  • Invest in carry weight boosts.  Good golly things are heavy here.  Adreno (health packs) in particular.
  • My playthrough was as a smooth talking sniper.  Dialogue skills were maxed, Lockpick and Hack were pretty close to max, and Long Guns.  Mal?!
  • Almost all the combat is optional, either through sneaking or dialogue options
  • Companion abilities are extremely powerful in combat.  Perks that allow for them to refresh make a big difference.  Plus its fun to see someone drop kick a giant mantis.
  • Regular difficulty is extreme easy-mode, making defensive stats meaningless.  Good idea to boost it.  There are some decent combat mechanics here on Hard.  I died often enough that it felt challenging.
  • There’s a fair amount of weapon variety that will fit any playtstyle you want.  Unique weapons cannot be modified but are generally better than their regular counterparts.
  • A ranged sniper benefits a LOT from Long Guns, Sneak, and Science (with an electric/plasma weapon).
  • Science weapons are quite useful with the right perks.
  • I did not use melee in my playthrough.
  • The max for any skill check is 100.  More than that adds some bonuses (like extra damage), so it’s a soft cap.
  • Lockpick/Hack are used outside of dialogue, meaning you can equip gear to get to the max.
  • Sneak is used for damage boosts (when not detected).  It is useless for pickpocketing (which is too bad).
  • All dialogue skills (Persuade/Intimidate/Lie) are active, you need the skill points before you start talking.
  • Science skills are usually passive, though can open some interesting dialogue choices if you’re in the 60 range.
  • I found no checks for combat (melee, range, defense) or leadership skills.  They are only used for combat.
  • You do not need to allocate skills immediately upon level up.  If your build is working, then only apply perks on level up and save the points for later.
  • Companions add a lot of skill points, more so when they complete their quests.
  • Engineering is an interesting skill.  Tinkering allows you to upgrade items a level (more damage/armor) making them useful for longer.  Mods are interesting upgrades – mostly when talking about adding skill points or changing damage types.
  • My next replay (after the holidays so that I forget some of the details) will likely be a dumb melee grunt.

Given the resources Obsidian has to build something like this, that’s an achievement on its own.  The game is not perfect, but there is so much positive here that it’s a new high bar.  This is a GotY candidate for that alone.

Blizzcon Thoughts

I still find it impressive that a gaming company can put on their own convention and have such a massive turnout.  Tennocon and EvEfest are similar comparisons, but a much smaller scope.  The whole point of these things is to collect money from the most die hard fans.  Fans who should, with minimal push, throw the loudest cheers at the simplest of things (see Apple fans).

Last year’s Blizzcon… not so much.

This year, quite a few things.  Overwatch 2, Diablo 4, WoW v9 (Shadowlands), a new Hearthstone expansion (or rather, a date for it)  and an auto-battler.  The only bit thing with a release window is WoW (2020), while everything else is TBD.  Fully in line with previous Blizzcons, but will certainly conflict with Activision’s mandate to have more games out the door.

The elephant in the room is the Blitzchung ban for the pro Hong Kong statements.  J Allen Brack started the whole ceremony off with an apology of acting too quickly and taking too long to respond to criticism.  Not that they took the wrong path, or that their rules are too vague.  Not that they support free speech (in all forms), or that they put players ahead of corporate values. Just that they acted at the wrong speed.

I will say that the fact that they didn’t take any action on protesters, and simply let people speak out, is certainly the right path.  Now, I would like to hear anyone argue that there was any other option but this approach.  Gamers are notoriously fickle, so by letting everyone say their piece, this will likely blow over.

As for the games themselves, more of a meh.  Overwatch 2 seems more like an expansion.  D4 seems a rebuild of D2 (which is what Path of Exile does well).  Auto-battlers seem more of a fad, but perhaps a quick income stream for Hearthstone.  And WoW is a pack of promises waiting to be cut (‘cept the noted level squish).  Every expansion they say they will reduce the grind and RNG, every expansion they find a way to make it worse.  So again, meh.

I do think this was as good as Blizcon could go, given the circumstances.  No large fires, plenty of fan-friendly announcements, and a general sense of capitulation to the madness of a conference.  They should be treating this as a win, all things considered.

Now the actual hard part.  Delivering.

OW – Couple Planets In

One is a space station, and the other is the same planet I started on.  So…

The larger change is that I am now level 18 and have 4 companions, which means generally more options to resolve the various tasks at hand.  Where the tutorial planet gives you a taste at quest variety (like choosing between Persuade, Lie, or Medical responses), as you progress the requirements to execute those options are higher.  Tutorial wouldn’t need much, say 20 points.  Now, I’m seeing requirements in the 50-60 range, which means that players need to focus on a specific skill set.

My character is a focused primarily on long guns and stealth skills, so I’m using companions, equipment, and meds to boost other skills as needed.  And as a general rule, any optional way to resolve a quest is more rewarding (story wise and actual rewards) than the vanilla version.  One let me solve two quests at once, and avoid having to botch/fail another.  The inter connectivity of the quests isn’t all that obvious to start off, since the quest text is rather high level, but as you get closer to the goals you can see that there are choices to be made that push you in one direction rather than another.  Time will tell what the long-term impacts of those decisions will mean.

One small gripe I have so far is with how pickpocketing works.  In both Fallout 1 &2, pickpocketing was a great way to fill in inventory, and complete some quests.  Simple mechanic, either it worked and you were good, or it didn’t and you ended at the end of a barrel.  Fallout 3/4 had a bit of this, but it included the stealth portion from Elder Scrolls – only worked if you weren’t seen.

Outer Worlds has NPC placement in such a way that you’re almost always in line of sight from someone else, a few times through what are physical walls.  People who lockpick in down, or just try to steal some items thinking they are isolated have seen this.  When you pickpocket, it takes both time (about 5s at medium skill levels), everyone sees you, and you don’t pick from an inventory – the stuff just gets dumped into your bag.  One quest requires you to pay 10,000 credits to get a pass.  There are minor quests to get the money for it, and they can also help apply a discount.  In the meta space, you would think there would be a way to steal this pass (though certainly a convoluted way).  Even when I did get the skill to work, the rewards were less credits than if I had looted a random box in another room.  I am pretty sure the skill is broken… and I’ll see by the end of the game if there’s any use for it.

A note for those who are acquiring flaws in the game (a permanent negative effect that gives a permanent perk point) – since this is a skill stat-based game, unless you are actively trying to build an oaf, don’t take any flaws that reduce your stats.  Taking more damage is much easier to manage than -1 intelligence.

A good point here is that I am having a really hard time putting the game down. The only downtime is when you leave/ land on a new planet and are trying to find out what to do.  Otherwise, there’s always that cabin on the hill to explore.

Also, today is the start of Blizzcon.  Making a big batch of popcorn!