This is a Patch

 

Way back when, people talked about a WoW-killer.  WoW certainly isn’t dead but I think it’s a decent debate to state that FF14 is as good or better than WoW.

This is patch #2 since Stormblood launched in June.  That’s 7 months ago.  Here’s some of the smaller things in this patch.

It’s a good place to have both of these massive games running at the same time.

Leveling for a Purpose

I guess I’m considered old school now.  I played enough pen and paper games when I was younger to see how games have shifted over the years.  The aspect of player levels is one that’s undergone the most shift – and with 7.3.5 in WoW coming out, it’s the topic du jour.

First a basic statement.  Character levels are simple way to denote increases in ability.  They don’t inherently grant some new item.  Very few games (until MMOs) ever gated content behind a line that said “you must be level 8 to try this”.  There were recommendations, sure.  But no hard stops.  And the levels themselves were few and far between.  I rarely got any D&D character above level 8.  I think the first Baldur’s Gate max level was 7.

The point is that the levels themselves were both milestones and not the goal.  The goal was the story (content) and the journey taken to live that story.

Video games tweaked that.  The old RPGs took it a step further, adding many more levels and modifying content to make it not exactly impossible, but extremely challenging to complete without a certain level attained.  I could complete Fallout if I avoided combat, at a very low level.

Online games needed to extend the tail of the game.  UO wasn’t the first, but it’s the most notable.  It used a skill-based leveling system, where you simply got better at something by doing that something.  Intuitive enough.  EQ took that model and then added the old D&D leveling, scaled all enemies, added resists, then just added more content and more levels.  It added an artificial mechanic that meant that your level gated content – either on inability to perform, or actual “you must be this tall”.  The goal of EQ was not to go through the content, it was to “ding”.  Significant shift in mentality.

EQ did re-enforce this mentality with significant boosts in power when your reached certain levels.  Losing a level meant potentially losing an amazing skill.  Losing Clarity or SoW was painful.  There’s a reason we called it Evercrack.

WoW took this mindset and removed the negative feedback loops.  Vanilla still had skill based content, still had levels, still gated content behind those levels, but the search for a ding was replaced.  Few can deny that the first journey through WoW was a pleasant one, and the story / environment / dungeons were refreshing.  Many tweaks later, including 2 expansions (TBC and WotLK) took that polish a step further.  But at a cost.

Every expansion further polished the leveling experience.  It moved away from small bits of story with a lot of fighting (grinding even) to more of an interactive story.  Adding new numbers meant additional scaling, where someone at max vertical (character level) and max horizontal (item level) had to have a challenge in the next expansion.  Stat inflation.  A few may recall that once TBC opened up before level 60, it made no sense to ding 60 in the vanilla content.  One item drop provided more stat points in TBC than you would ever see on all gear in vanilla.  It trivialized previous content.  And so it went.

Each expansion also focused on providing a set amount of content to be consumed during the “leveling process”.  This varied a lot, but an average of 20 hours seems about right.  (side note, vanilla was many hours longer, until Cataclysm changed that).  As expansions continued, the level spread between players grew.   Fewer people were in the “sweet spot” for grouping and zone content.  Previous top level material was made irrelevant as the newer content had both better rewards and actual players to play it with.

The table below shows the list of gated group content (open world content not included).  All told, approximately 87% of content of previous expansions is no longer relevant.

Vanilla TBS WotLK Cata MoP WoD Legion
Dungeon 21 16 16 14 9 8 13
Raid 4 8 9 6 5 3 5

(Contrast this to FF14, where all group content is relevant due to the re-use of dungeons in the group finder tool.)

If you were to take the original leveling path, you’d be alone for ~150 hours of playtime.  Not exactly an MMO, or a wait to retain players.  So Blizz smoothed it out.  Dramatically.  Faster experience curves, heirloom items, experience boosts.  You could go from vanilla to the start of an expansion in a few hours.  It put more and more content at the top level, making every level but the max level, irrelevant.  It pushed all the years of effort in previous years to the curb.  Then started giving/selling max level boosts (followed by many others).

Not everyone towed that line.  FF14 is a clear outlier.  It takes just as long today to clear the base game as it did upon launch.  Same gates.  It sort of works, except for the open world content, where people have moved on.  Dungeons are relevant mind you.

FPS games took the leveling approach, but have had issues balancing the concept of power between starter and max level.  It’s ironic that someone with 200 hours has not only more skill in the game, but is also provided more power by which to attack weaker players.  Most FPS combat this problem by throwing it all away every 1-2 years and starting from scratch.  Destiny 2 is a recent example.

This applies to other games as well.  Diablo 3 is a really good example of where the leveling game was made useless with their focus on end game activities.  Grim Dawn focuses on the story, and Path of Exile does the same (with even more focus on milestones at specific levels).

And that’s not counting for the gamification of everything else.  You get magic internet points for everything now.  Gaining levels in a fitness app.  Reward tiers for credit cards.  Comments on a message board.  Ranks in the console wars.  The number provides little meaning aside from competitive ranks with other people.  People complete activities, not because the activity itself is rewarding, but for the points accrued.

And therein lies the problem.  The reward of the journey is replaced with the reward of the ever-moving finish line.  By continually adding more finish lines (levels), it dilutes the previous ones.  The only thing that matters now is the current finish line, and people will speed through everything to get there.

It’s why I try to keep to the older-style RPGs.  The story itself is the reward, and the levels are just additional decision points along the journey.  I’ve conceded that the race to the carrot is no longer worth the effort.  No one ever really catches it, and once you think you have, a new one shows up.

 

New Year Start

The holidays are rarely a relaxing time for me.  There’s just so much to do and whatever time “off” I have is actually planned weeks in advance.  This year was going to be different.  Work had delivered a major milestone and after 18 months without any time off, I decided to take 3 weeks and do the stuff that mattered.

I ended up spending last week in Cuba with my family.  Great decision overall.  Read 4 books (including the entire Broken Earth series), slept in every day, lounged by the pool/beach…didn’t plan a thing.   I’ve gone to a few places down south but never over the holidays.  Much different crowd.  First, no 20 year olds on party mode.  Second, since it’s Cuba, no Americans.  An interesting thing that I didn’t really catch on to until later in the trip.  It helped that it was ~30 below (where C and F meet) that week as well.

The rest of the time has been spent just having fun with the family.  The ice rink in the yard is top notch.  Lots of games and crafts around.  A whole lot of cleaning and tidying around the place.  Went to see Star Wars (better than I had expected in that it willingly throws away the traditional SW tropes).  One hockey tourney to go and then it’s back to work.  Finally refreshed.

2017

Overall it’s been a really good year.  Family is super.  I’m in some of the best health.  Finances are good.  The job has had more progress in 1 year than should be possible in 3.

Gaming has also been kind.

  • Horizon is my current game of the year.
  • WarFrame is a platinum best seller on Steam and worth 5x what Destiny brings.
  • XCOM 2 launched a DLC that is more than most expansions ever deliver
  • Mass Effect showed great potential (and EA timelines failed to deliver)
  • Dishonored 2 showed what a story driven sandbox can do.
  • Shadow of War delivered a better nemesis system, but a broken end game
  • Path of Exile launched two expansions this year.
  • Quite a few more games that I need to eventually pick up
    • Cuphead
    • Wolfenstein 2
    • Divinity 2
    • A Nintendo Switch!
    • Nier
    • HellBlade

Aside from the slow down this holiday season, it’s been my most active posting in a long while.  There are many fewer bloggers nowdays.  Most folks have left and vbloggers have taken space instead.   It’s still quite immature, as clickbait runs the money in the first few years.  It takes a long time for quality to start showing up (as it did with blogging and online news), so my guess is we’re 2 years away from that.

2018

I rarely have any resolutions for a new year, not like there’s a difference between Dec 31 and Jan 1 in terms of goals.  Change is a gradual thing, though there are always goals that can be achieved.

Work should provide a new opportunity in the next few weeks, one that’s about 10 years earlier than I had planned a long while back.  My team has recently completed year 1 of a 3 year plan, and there’s a lot of excitement for what’s coming

I’ll keep playing hockey and working out.  I’d like to get to a baseline 200lbs bench this year and push from there.  There’s surprisingly little weight gained over the holidays and vacation considering my indulgences.  Back to my regular habits now.

The family will be heading to Florida in March, then open the cottage a few weeks later.  I think we’ll be focusing on saving money from that time forward as there’s a few long term plans that need some funding.  Still 2 months of hockey to go with the eldest, and likely some dance classes for the younger.  Both squirts are doing great in school, have a insatiable curiosity, and a solid level of autonomy.   All told the focus this year, as with last, is ensuring that I simply have more time for the family.

Of all the potential games in 2018, I’m only looking forward to Pillars of Eternity 2 and Ni No Kuni 2.  Darksiders 3, God of War and Kingdom Hearts are a maybe.  Anthem I am looking forward to seeing play out.  I won’t be buying it, but if it does launch this year (I doubt) it will be the real bellweather for how MTX work in games moving on.  I think we were spoiled rotten in 2017.

As for the blog, I’d like to have more cross posts with other awesome blogs that I read.  That means more work on Feedly, at least 3 posts a week, and maybe some more videos.  I won’t lie – blogging on a regular basis is hard work.  I am somewhat envious of both Syp and Wilhelm.

 

And with that, time to sign off and enjoy the rest of my vacation.

Horizon Frozen Wilds

I am not usually one to buy DLC.  Well, perhaps if we’re talking about actual content.  Quality stuff.  Adding an extra car chase, or a different mode (like in the Batman games) just isn’t doing it for me.  Full-on extra work on an already great game… XCOM and Pillars of Eternity are good examples.

I make no secret that I really enjoyed Horizon Zero Dawn.  I think it’s the best PS4 game this year (and probably the best overall since I don’t have a Switch).  It is a near perfect game and when an expansion was announced, I was hopeful it would keep pace.

Frozen Wilds is an improvement on the macro of the game, while keeping the hyper-polished micro in line.  You still shoot a bow and run around (or on mounts), but all the enemies a whole lot harder to take down.  That super armor you get in the base game doesn’t have a whole lot of use here.

You can get some new weapons (close range and distance) that change a bit of the combat tactics.  If you can manage to draw the bow for maximum output, you deal more damage.  If you can’t, then it’s a lot worse than the best bows in the base game.  This means that you need to be a whole lot more tactical in combat rather than just unloading an entire quiver.

You get a few new skills, mostly about being mounted and a slight increase in inventory space.  Which is doubly ironic since mounted combat still has weak controls, and the inventory issues deal more with multiple stacks of the same item rather than too much stuff.  That said, due to the increase in enemy hit points, I found myself going out of stock on materials for the first time in the entire playthrough.

All the normal base enemies are here, though slightly upgraded with more power, health, and resistances.  They are accompanied by a dozen or so towers that continually restore their hitpoints, making some fights insanely hard if you’re not focusing on the right target.

Some new additions are here are too.  The Scorcher is a super fast robot cat that can shoot mines… very similar to the Stalker.  He’s so fast that the new bows are almost useless against him.  You need to take off his mine layer and take him out that way.  The Frostclaw is a giant frozen bear.  Where Thunderjaw was a huge threat from range, these guys continuously charge you, and throw all sorts of frost attacks.  When you first meet them, you’re really underpowered.  Even at max, they are a heck of a challenge.

Finally, the Fireclaw.  Here’s a video of the first time you fight one.

I died a half dozen times here, and I was really well geared.  The video above uses much worse gear than I had, and a different set of tactics.

The main story quest follows the Banuk up in Yellowstone.  I think it’s a better and more tightly written story than the main one, where the same characters are seen for the 8 hours it took for me to play through.  That consistency, and the fact that they accompany you on the quests, really helps sell the relationships between the NPCs.  The lore aspect of the story is top notch, with a more positive spin on the downfall of humanity.  It’s a vastly different take on the Banuk that what I had assumed, but it’s a wholly better one for it.

Frozen Wilds does not revolutionize the game like War of the Chosen did for XCOM2.  It takes what worked in the base game and then makes those pieces work together in a slightly different (and better) way.  It is highly recommended.

Scenery for the Sake of Story

An interesting opinion piece on CNET got me thinking.  Are video game stories stagnant while the set pieces are improving?

It’s certainly evident that games today are much prettier than they have ever been.  There are quite a few where I sit back after a set of events and am simply amazed at the experience.  I felt that way back in God of War and the initial Hydra fight, as much as  I did in Horizon sniping robot dinosaurs who shot fire.  The experience itself is just amazing to watch, let alone play through.

The stories though, those are rough. Some are really impressive, others are really bad, and most are ho-hum.

I’m of the opinion that written stories are the most impressive.  From word to the reader’s imagination, you need to convey something.  There are a bajillion books, most are horrible.  But you find that diamond from time to time.  We’re still reading books from 100+ years ago.  How many games that are 10+ years are people playing today?

Movies and TV are next, as they require some solid writing and they are fixed without player agency.  As a viewer, there’s nothing you can do to impact the story while you’re watching it.  Letter campaigns may change the larger story arc, sure, but that’s the exception.  Again, there are classics and junk.  For every Blade Runner we get 20 Battlefield Earth or The Ranch.

Games with Heart

There have been quite a few good ones over the years, most of them in the RPG space.  Earthbound, Fallout, Planescape…games where you can still remember minute details 10+ years later.

Others, like Shadow of the Colossus took a different route, where the player is meant to experience the story under their terms, rather than an A/B/C decision tree.  I think most would agree that this is the game that triggered the whole “game is art” conversation. (side note, it will be remastered for PS4)

But these are exceptions.  We may get 1 or 2 a year.  There are hundreds of other games, dozens in the AAA category, that just use story as a tool to let people play solo.  Halo 2 had a good story, but it’s nothing but downhill since.  Aside from perhaps Wolfenstein this year, FPS games have horrible story (hi SW:B2).  Racing games, fighting games, action… all of them have pretty tripe stories.

Other Parts Have Improved

A story today has pretty much the same structure as it did 100 years ago.  But controls, visuals, audio… all of these have dramatically improved in the past 5.  It may seem that story is getting worse but perhaps it has more to do with all the other parts having large improvements in a short period of time, that the gap is tiny.

Ultima is a really good example of this.  Super story (til 6).  Horrible game to replay today from the start, as it has not aged well.  You could easily place the story in a new game though.

It Doesn’t Matter

You don’t go and see a movie for the soundtrack.  You don’t read a book because the pages and print are comfortable.  You do play a game if the mechanics are solid.  A crappy story is less of a hurdle as compared to crappy controls, balance, or video.  Story adds a tremendous value, but it is not the primary one (even in RPGs, this is debatable).

We can certainly appreciate a solid story – and talk about it for years to come (we do).  But it isn’t fair to say that all games require it, or even that the quality has gone down over time.  It’s just that everything else has improved so much that our expectations on story seem out of balance.

Let’s just celebrate the great story tellers when we find them.

 

You Can’t Go Back

Memory is a funny thing.  It is entirely selective, and often based on an emotional trigger.  A smell may be enough to have you dream about some baking with your grandparents, or a tree about some trip taken with an old fling.  Few people dream of that time they went to the washroom, or read the newspaper.  We filter out the mundane.

Experiences are meant to be had and then recalled, not chased again.  Nothing will ever truly compare to that first kiss, or that game that you won through an amazing comeback.  Chasing for that feeling again, rather than a new feeling, tends to lead to disappointment.

I played Ultima Online when it launched and for a few expansions.  I made a decent amount of money selling characters on ebay (when that was a thing).  Looking back, it was an overall positive experience.  It was a truly social game, many complicated inter-woven mechanics, and the concept of people impacting the world.  I went back a couple years ago, both the to current game, and then to a shard emulator from the original game.

The first was jarring as it was essentially a new game.  The fundamentals were there, but most of the systems had changed and after a couple days I had enough.  The emulated shard was a worse experience.  For all the fun memories, there were some bad ones that I had simply pushed out.  Lack of housing, massive PvP, griefers all over the place, a large difficulty curve, lack of regeants…I had spent years immunizing myself while playing – building large stocks to off-set the large character losses.  I wasn’t prepared to spent the time/effort again to get back to that point.

I’m looking at Vanilla WoW and realizing it’s just not for me.  While I spent a ridiculous amount of time there, and memories are generally positive, there are some items that just make me shudder.  Classes and specs that have no value.  An economy based on being present in only 2 locations.  Resist gear.  The insane grind from 30+. (side note, I made some decent cash selling guides to address this grind).  Poor travel options.  No grouping tools.  The amount of farming needed.

My recollection of that time is more positive than not, but I was a different person back then.  My expectations were different and the gaming market was substantially different.  I have no need to chase that feeling or pretend that it was better than today.  Just like people reminisce of a day without cell phones, but after 3 days go stir crazy without one.

There are certainly people who will enjoy it, and for a long period of time.  I would still hazard to guess that quite a few more people looking back and applying selective memories, and will be in quite a shock once things get rolling.  I’d rather just recollect.

 

Anthem – Prediction

Due Fall 2018

The only video from the game so far dates from June 10th.  5 months ago.

Given that EA is in the news, why not have some rampant speculation!  None of it positive!

1 – It’s Destiny but with flying

The same BioWare team that did Inquisition would be working on Anthem.  Inq was mmo-ified, just lacking multiplayer.  Sure does look like Destiny – just with a different background and more focus on the 3D space.

2 – MTX everywhere

Where EA applies the EA logic to gameplay, and the lootbox fun that no one wants.  Want that neat gun that does double damage?  Gamble away for it.  Don’t actually buy the gun, that would cheapen the gun.  Gamble away for a secondary credit that you get in random amounts.  The gun could cost $10 or $100, cross your fingers!

3 – Timers everywhere

Gate things through timers and charge people to reduce the timers.  Crafting, missions, grouping.  Timers.

4 – Looks good, hard to see

I’ve never been a fan of the Uncharted series combat, since line of sight (LOS) is so hard to come by.  Most quality FPS games have a mix of open spaces, then closed spaces.  All told, you can still SEE things, targets in particular.  Horizon (robot dinosaurs) are a challenge, in particular in dense foliage because you can’t see them.

Anthem, in that video in particular, has a line of sight issue.  From that 3:00 to 5:00 mark, it is really hard to make out what is going on.

5 – Bugs.  Everywhere.

I was a huge Bioware fan for many, many years.  When the doctors left, it was a passing of the torch.  SWTOR launched, buggy and missing key pieces.  The story was amazing, but the other parts lacked polish.  That was the way every Bioware game had ever launched – we just ignored the rusty bits.  Fine enough for single player – just reload.  Time is crunched, things don’t work, day 1 patch, day 30 kitchen sink patch and then cross your fingers.

6 – Frostbite is a limiter

The engine all EA games work on (Frostbite) is both a bane and a boon to the dev cycle.  It’s “easy” enough to swap people from one project to the next, and to re-use previous content.  The engine is purpose-built and after a few years now, people are getting a better handle.  Unfortunately, it is built for closed-space FPS games.  Large scale, dynamic systems are a challenge.   Battlefront will help, but that will also mean that Anthem is more akin to lobby-based/sectional games than an open-world game.

7 – Poor inventory management

This is just a general problem with RPGs today.  Inventory is a mess.  There’s just too much stuff and no way to organize it.

8 – No group management

Following the Destiny trend, there will be no group management.  Guilds/clans, sure.  But active grouping and easy to use tools… nope.

9 – Poor length

Again, like Destiny and the Division, a lack of forethought to extending the life of the game so as to merit the name “games as a service”.  I would love to avoid another “dark zone”, or “single run forever” mentality.  Breadth of options = longevity.

10 – 1 year delay

To be fair, any game that wants to launch to a very large user base aught not be silent for months at a time (nearly half a year).  If it’s to launch in 12-18 months, then dev cycles tell me the core gameplay is done, and the side systems are being worked on.  No news means no progress, means at least a year’s delay.  Launch will be in the Sep-Nov timeframe… in order to get as many eyes as possible.

11 – Bioware’s last game

In two ways.  BW was recognized for making deep RPGs with interesting stories.  Mass Effect: Andromeda shook that trend, enough to shutter one of the studios.  Anthem appears to be taking the MMO part of SWTOR (people and stats) and ditching the RPG portion.  Those interested in a story will have to stick with SWTOR (which isn’t a terrible thing).

Second, EA has a tendency to close their studios who do not exceed expectations.  Unless Anthem is a smash (see above), this could be the final hurrah for the company name.  Which would be a shame.