The Golden Age

The first Age is always the Golden one. Where things are new. Where the impossible seems possible. Where mistakes are made and accepted as part of growth. Where hindsight after many years makes you really question the sanity of that time as the time context is gone.

 

Bhagpuss has a summary series on EQ through the ages. It starts, as they all start, with a Golden Age, a pinnacle, a decline, a resurgence and then… meh. It’s always meh for the current age.

 

You can apply the model to pretty much anything. Sci-fi. Cinema. Music. Food. And when you apply today’s paradigms, you can pull out all sorts of nonsensical items. Fahrenheit 451 has nothing to do with books – it’s a social commentary on technology making people into zombies. But since we’re all zombies beholden to technology, we don’t get that.

 

UO, EQ, WoW at launch were a gift from the higher heavens. Each of them was pure and focused and perfect. Time made them less so. Design decisions brought them to earth. The magic was lost. They are broken today. Hyperbole clearly, yet people still want to defend the idea because they find solace in it.

 

We were all 15-20 years younger. All our lives were simpler. We all had more time. It was new and different. It had other people! People like us! It was a level of social acceptance that really didn’t exist elsewhere. It was geeky before geeky was sexy. It provided shelter to people with different social skills and holy crap did that resonate.

 

Mechanically the games were ok. They were best guesses. UO was a skinner box, where PvP greifing was discovered (and exploited). EQ in particular was a glorified chat tool with the insane downtime in the game. WoW made the meta (resistances and raid checks) more challenging than the gameplay. Without each of those steps, the market would not be what it is today. And in the aggregate, there is no way that geek would be cool without them. Each built on the success of others and pervaded our larger social fabrics. Not everyone knows EQ, but everyone knows WoW – gamer or not.

 

The Silver Age is what follows the Gold. It is a time of trials and tribulations. Of experimentation to see what sticks and what doesn’t. It’s an age of refinement, not of creativity. What down the road will often be seen as catastrophic failures, but those are needed in order to stage a rebirth. And everyone loves a rebirth story. 

We’re in a time where ages are measured in shorter and shorter spans.  The Dark Ages lasted 1000 years!  Renaissance was 300.  Golden Age of sci-fi was less than 10.  Gold + Silver + everything else is just a tad over 20 for MMOs.  2 years for Gold EQ (which I’ll let others debate).

Time is a fickle thing.  Einstein had it right, our concepts change depending on the context.  A game is perfect when it fits your needs perfectly, and is horrible when it doesn’t.  That’s not the game, that’s you.  Viewing it through the Age lens, is just applying the larger social needs vs the game.  UO thought non-stop PvP was what people wanted, it wasn’t.  SWG thought people wanted a combat revamp – woo did they not.  EQ thought doubling down on challenge would keep people around – nope.  Blizz thought people wanted to play Cataclysm and hit walls of difficulty, people didn’t.  There isn’t a single dev that had instructions to follow.  They did what they thought was best… and here we are looking back with so much hindsight it’s like judging a baby that can’t do a backflip.

Games have grown.  We have grown.  It’s a veritable buffet of choice today.  I’m certainly appreciative of it.  Thankful for the people that came before to lay the foundation.  Time to enjoy today.

The Joys of Fishin’

I should build a category for this topic. I keep coming back to it.

I love to fish. I’ve found that most people who love to fish love it for the same reason, and it’s a reason that’s hard to properly explain. Getting fish into the boat is the perk. The act of fishing is the reward.

I’ve been somewhat fascinated by fishing in video games. I mean the real act of fishing, not the Bass Tourney type games. Where fishing is a side thought, a pastime that takes a 180 from the rest of the content.

Ultima Online’s fishing was like this. For the longest time it provided no benefit – just more fish. Boats were used as a method of transport – and once you had runes, then there wasn’t a whole lot of point to boats. Eventually they revamped fishing to be its own world. You’d fish up messages in a bottle, go out to sea to fight serpents and collect maps, then dig up treasure on islands. At the time, I had done most everything the game offered and this was an awesome combination of the best parts. I had 2 character builds that I built up and kept selling those accounts to fund real life things (FWIW, they went for $600USD then or ~$900USD today).

Fishing in MMOs since then has been relatively simple. Rift is the gold standard in terms of it as activity. You only need a pole, but can craft lures to get better, and it’s not a 1-2 click event. Rewards are achievements mostly, with some pets included. FF14 is close, but the leveling system makes it less fun. Its a profession versus a pastime.

WoW takes a weird approach. Pat Nagle is the most famous NPC who has never thrown a punch. For 15 years he’s sent anglers to their death chasing the weirdest of quests. There have been raid bosses that needed fishing. The common part between expansions is that fishing is a core requirement for the best food buffs. So there’s some reward to being a fisher, rather than anything else. But the fishing meta usually involves some super convoluted plot to have you explore the world and get some super rare set of fish and unlock a neat gimmick.

  • Vanilla: Stranglethorn fishing tourney, time-based and you needed to get a special fish first to win.
  • TBC: Daily fishing quests for pets!
  • WotLK: Daily quests, the fountain coins, and a new fishing tournament
  • Cataclysm: Daily quests like TBC.
  • Pandaria: The anglers faction node – with the ultimate reward of a Water Strider (and the Raft).
  • WoD: More daily quests for rare fish, with cosmetic rewards. There’s a water strider here too, but it’s much harder to get than the Pandaria version. Pat Nagle lives in your garrison though, so that’s neat.
  • Legion: A fishing pole artefact that requires fishing ultra rare fish. Can breathe underwater, walk on water, teleport to nodes and avoid combat.
  • BfA: A simple start of catching all fish types in Mechagon, which goes to 11 quickly with special goggles that cause fish bubbles to spawn. Clicking the bubbles in certain zones / time of day / being dead catches different fish. Reward is a personal ocean to fish from.

I’ve never won a fishing tournament. The timing just doesn’t work for me, and the only time I did well (3rd place) I didn’t even realize it was going down. Aside from that, I’ve completed 90% of the fishing activities per expansion. The Angler faction was amazing. The Legion fishing quests were a ton of fun, and the pole artefact is still amazing. BfA feels more like finding a secret to get the ultra rare drops figured out, more tedious than actual fishing (since I need to move to collect bubbles).

It’s still impressive that I keep falling back into the fishing mode. After all these years and all these games. If it has fishing, it automatically gets a play. Now give me my Weather Beaten Hat and give me a cold one.

The Death of a Rogue

I’ve been using the Asmiroth moniker for over 20 years (that’s painful to write), and my first WoW character was a dwarf rogue on launch day.  I ran a rogue-specific website at the time, wrote guides (that paid for my PCs for a LONG time), and was more than well versed in that class.  I played Rogue as a main character up until Pandaria, where I started to really mess around with alts.  In particular the Monk, which I’ve mained since.

Rogues in just about any RPG setting have been interesting to me.  The idea of hiding in the shadows, coming out with bursts, then hiding again is a rather unique class trait.  There’s an irony here in that the typical rogue mindset is that of a loner, but in practical terms they often require other people to excel – what with the backstabbing and all.  This worked in something like Everquest where group combat was the default.  Less so in WoW where the single player experience has been taking a larger foothold.

As the MMO space has evolved, the multi-role aspect has really become the gold standard for way forward.  FF14 does a spectacular job on this, but doesn’t actually have a rogue class.  This model allows an individual to continue to participate in the game, filling in the role they see fit (heal/tank/damage).  WoW at launch focused on classes filling a single role well.  Those that could do multiple roles, usually did so at a penalty (hybrid tax).  Game moved forward and more and more hybrid classes have come to shore.

Which means in WoW there are only 4 pure damage classes left – Rogue, Hunter, Mage, and Warlock.  Only one of those is melee.  And the game design over the years has been ultra punishing for anyone in melee range.  It’s not that it’s impossible, just that if you want to play a melee DPS role, you need to always be moving, which requires a level of player dexterity and awareness above and beyond those at range.

So, the Rogue is limited to a specific role, and mechanically at a disadvantage.  What benefits do they bring?  Group stealth is one, where this has a niche application in time-based group trials.  They are great at locking down single targets, especially in PvP settings.  It should be relatively high on single target damage but due to the melee range challenges, they actually rank middle of pack, with 4 other melee classes ahead of them.

The above issues reflect tremendously in day to day gameplay.  Single player efforts are at a disadvantage compared to pretty much every other class due to poor defensive options.  In group settings, aside from high tier timed dungeon runs, they provide minimal benefit.  Combined, it makes rogues less fun to play.  Maybe if the game reverted from the AE-trash / Focus-boss structure it would help, and the full skill set could be leveraged.

I will point out that the rogue lore in WoW is second only to Paladins, and crosses both factions.  I absolutely loved the Legion class hall.

For now, if you’re looking for a leather-based, mobile, melee option… you’re better off with a Demon Hunter.  They do nearly everything a Rogue does, but better in nearly every aspect.  Monks are even more versatile, but their DPS spec needs some tuning.  Their tank role is the best in the business, which is a nice offset.  Plus they heal.

End result is that my Rogue sits in the inn, unlocking boxes sent to him in the mail, at expansion max level, waiting for the day he can come out of retirement.

BfA Pathfinder

Naithan had me thinking with a recent post about flying in BfA.  A long time ago I had completed Part 1, which was mostly a rep grind at the start.  At the time, the rep grind had some significant tangible benefits related to gearing and vertical progress.  Really doesn’t mean much today though.

Part 2 is another rep grind, specifically with the 8.2 factions (Nazjatar and Mechagon), and given the large rep boost it turned out to be about 3 days of effort with the reputation boost active.  A Mechagon contract plus all the quests and dailies for each zone gave me the boost.  So maybe a week now that the rep boost isn’t active.

Now we get to cover the actual benefits of flying.  I decided to level my rogue to test it out.  I did a few levels on the ground, a few in the air.  Air was faster, but only when put against negative zone flow design.  Blizz world design has 2 modes – open exploration, and then funnelled experience.  The funnelled experience doesn’t benefit from flying.  You go from A to B, and the path is part of the experience.  The open world design has spread out targets, and then “trash” blocking the ground path.  The western part of Stormsong (Naga area) is a super good example.  Flying allows you to pick your targets, and since the majority of EXP is from quests, this is a major speed boost.  The difference in BfA is large, but not as large as it was in Legion.

World quests also benefit, since they are spread out and the drop in/out aspect is a HUGE timesaver.  Fairly useless for people who have access to flying since they’ve likely got all they need from WQ already (except alts).  Material farming also isn’t that great.  Both 8.2 zones have plenty of trash drops that are worth 100g, which blows any farming route out of the water.  I made 5,000g running those 2 zones in 30 minutes and vendoring everything I found.

8.3

In 7.3 (Argus) you couldn’t fly.  Daily quest hub, plenty of ways to die, lots of interesting bits.  It was relatively good design but felt punishing since you had just unlocked flying.

8.3 is re-makes of existing zones with N’zoth invasions, and they require flying (Uldum in particular).  The zone design itself is limited by Cataclysm/Pandaria structure, where you have pockets of activity and large spaces with nothing.  It’s a heck of a throw back when you look at from afar.  Flying is not punished, only floating and going AFK.  It makes the dailies go by extremely fast, 15 minutes or so per zone.  This is really odd design choice considering the deliberate efforts in the past years to slow down the pace of content consumption.

Overall

Flying has a larger benefit to alts in terms of catch-up options.  Whether there’s a value there or not depends on what you’re trying to achieve.  There are quite a few time gates in terms of vertical progression (WQ/Dailies), but you could try your hand at dungeons I guess to reach max level pretty quick.  I don’t see why that would matter today.  You’re pretty much just setting up alts for the next expansion, right?

Anthem 2.0

I think a lot of people have seen the Anthem dev blog post late last week, what with Christian looking like quite a few WFH folks.  The last time I heard a peep about Anthem dev work was in the fall, when they were re-tooling.  Which was cool to see that EA wasn’t giving up on what they had poured sweat into.  I do think that Anthem has a lot going for it, but lack of cohesive development (and suspected lack of experience) threw bad game out the door.

The post doesn’t go into too many details, but there are some larger items that poke out.  The team is only 30 large, and they are in the prototyping phase.  I am somewhat surprised by that, as it often means that this is an idea-generation phase of a project.  They throw ideas against the wall and see what sticks.  If you were looking at a 4 year dev cycle, this would be the first 6 months.  But that’s if they were building from scratch.

Anthem has a ton of stuff already pre-built.  The art, music and lore assets are already there.  The combat mechanics (aim/move/shoot) stuff works pretty good too.  The moment-to-moment portions have always worked well.  Sure, there’s some number tweaking required to get the TTK stuff in line, but overall, that part works.

What’s missing is the systems, the parts you can’t see but impact everything else you do.  The vertical aspects of the game are simply broken.  The game locks skills behind weapons, and then puts stats on those weapons.   It also adds skill boosting effects on rare weapon types.  It then balances the game against you having great stats, and access to those unique skills.

I’m going to time travel now, back to when Diablo 3 launched, with a game-built auction house.  Reaper of Souls (RoS) took all the garbage out and delivered a friggin’ amazing game, so it may be hard to recall what D3 looked like.  To it’s advantage, skills were not weapon based.  Player damage was (and to a significant degree, still is).  Game difficulty was based on having god-tier stats, which had insanely low drop rates.  RNG was not loaded, meaning you could find a Barbarian weapon with caster stats as much any anything else.  These stat pools made it so that the AH was the efficient way of powering up (other than grinding dozens of hours).  Sets/uniques didn’t matter because they simply couldn’t roll high enough stats, so there was no real variety in gameplay.  You’d be playing with the same skills at max, grinding the same spots, forever.  If ever there was a poster child for bad game direction, it would be D3 with Jay Wilson (this is a generic topic for later).

D3 launched in November 2012 . Jay Wilson “resigned” in Jan 2013.  RoS launched in March 2014.   1.0.4 gave paragon levels and 1.0.5 gave monster power (which evolved into Torment).  RoS was announced ~6 months before launch.  Dev timelime estimates plug this at RoS starting work before D3 actually launched, and taking a different stride when Jay left.  ~9 months of system design, and 6 months of polish.  RoS didn’t launch with many new systems, it just fixed the broken ones.

Anthem 2.0

Setting expectations here is important.  I don’t think it’s possible for Anthem to launch in a state ready to compete with anything on the market.  The Division and Destiny are stable and successful.  Their systems generally work, but there’s always some number tweaking required.  They add new systems to streamline and add variety to the vertical progression path.

System-wise, Anthem needs a rebuild.  The grouping/instance stuff is ok, though there are some bugs.  The art style works, though adding extra indicators to spot enemies from the background would be neat.  Things that really need to be looked at:

  • Open World.  Frostbite 3 is used to host large PvP battles.  There’s no technical reason this can’t support better options for Anthem except for development experience/time.  The actual mechanics are found in almost every online game out there.
  • Player skills.  A separate “rune-based” system to access skill loadouts, with achievements/quests/unique slots to unlock the rare variants.  There should be no stats assigned to player skill slots.
  • RNGsus.  There are already massive improvements in this space, where there are weight based drops.  Quality drops are better now than at launch. The gap that remains is the range of random.  A unique drop must always be viable, just not optimal.
  • Slot weight attributes.  There are basic stats (hp/power) and then there are slot stats.  Gloves should have stats that only show up on gloves.
  • Stat balancing.  There are god stats, power stats, and flavor stats.  God stats are things you will sacrifice anything to obtain. Magic Find / Rarity increase is a good example.  They should never be in a game.  Power stats are linked to the damage you deal and take.  More combos, more damage, more health.  These stats are found on all piece, with ranges that reflect their rarity.  In no case should a rare glove be better than a unique glove.  Flavor stats are things that add options to a playstyle.  More flight time, more ammo, clip size and so on.  These are optional stats, that are limited to the slot.
  • Difficulty balance.  A choice for when the player power curve starts to tick inwards determines how difficulty is balanced.   Today the game is balanced around “fresh” players, “maxed” players and then a no-man’s land in the middle.  The gap here is that the power range is so large, that it’s massive jumps between.
  • Crafting.  Adding an RNG element to crafting like Kunai’s Cube would be good.  Balancing the odds on this vs. crafting materials is important.
  • Player structure.  Open world is designed for single player, missions are designed for 4 players.  The group model combat structure works in terms of group synergies, but not in terms of power curves.  This ties into difficulty balancing more than much else.

I think the important thing here is that there’s no re-inventing the wheel required.  The main benefit of coming into the game late means you can refine existing systems.  There are at least 3 AAA games to pull from.  Hundreds of others if you cast a wide net.  There is a “buffet” problem of too much choice, and some systems that just won’t work with each other.  Game direction therefore becomes ultra important.

Time to Wait

This is already a long post, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of dev work left to relaunch Anthem.  30 people in a prototype stage is at least a year from any reasonable launch.  The desire is clearly there.  Now what’s a question is the actual investment.

 

Horizontal vs Vertical

I keep coming back to this topic again and again.  The recent gamer profile stuff kicked this to the front of the brain.

Games can be categorized as vertical or horizontal progressing, to varying degrees.  RPGs are mostly about the vertical (levels + skills), with some horizontal (strategy + tactics).  Fighting games appear vertical (ranks) but are actually horizontal (player skill).  In fact, PvP games need to be horizontal in order to give the perception of fairness (it’s why PvP generally fails in MMOs.  EvE being the sort of exception, but I can’t recall any battle that wasn’t predetermined before the first shot was fired.)

I’ve been playing various puzzle games, and that’s horizontal and quite enjoyable.  Obra Dinn, Edith Finch, Outer Worlds.  You never get new tool sets, just new data to parse through.  It’s your brain that gets better.  I find these games tremendously enjoyable.   Board games as a family are blast in this space as well, and the worst ones deal with vertical aspects (Monopoly!!!).  Building a story and seeing it through is great.  It’s why we watch movies and read books.  Having those be interactive is the next logical step.  The challenge here is that the difficulty curve has to account for the player getting better.  The Witness gradually builds on puzzle complexity.  If you somehow managed to skip to the last puzzles, you’d have no idea what to do.

I still enjoy the vertical aspects.  Getting better tools to address a challenge is fulfilling.  The challenge here from a game developer perspective is not making the content trivial.  Monster Hunter is a decent example, where the scaling of monsters is within a given range and even with the best gear, it doesn’t reach a point where you can totally ignore mechanics.  At least in the context of content that still provides vertical progress.  Other games struggle with this, where the reward loop makes the content increasingly trivial, yet still rewarding (WoW raining purples).  Or in the opposite direction, the challenge is extremely high with no reward (Anthem drop rates).

If the game is entirely based on vertical progression, you’re going to have a bad time.  Thankfully, many folks have realized this and all successful games are based on horizontal progression being a valuable option.  Think of a successful game that focuses on vertical and I’m sure you can find a horizontal progression system that keeps more people active (cosmetics, titles, pets).

Sometimes its good to enjoy games for just being games.  Other times, I have a heck of an itch to scratch and it’s good to find the right game to scratch the right itch.  Sometimes it’s a puzzle, sometimes a world builder, sometimes a world destroyer.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2

Call me nostalgic here but the THPS series was a defining moment of gaming.  The soundtrack alone is a super smash.  Remaster coming this fall, announced on Tony’s bday no less!

I remember sitting in a basement playing the first few games in this series with friends.  Everyone took a turn trying to figure out the most insane combo possible, or the way to get up to an area to get a collectible.  Being able to carry a manual for more than 30sec was a point of pride.

I took THPS1 for a ride on an emulator a few years  back.  The gameplay still holds up decent, as does the music.  But the graphics absolutely do not.  It’s impressive what our imagination did to fill in the blanks back in the day.

This looks like a remaster rather than a remake.  They’ll add bits that were added over time (including the Skate franchise), as well as multiplayer.  If they can keep the same tight controls, wacky moveset, skater building, soundtrack blasting, just-one-more-run cycle of the originals, I’m in like gin!

This being Activision, I am sceptical that this will be a “clean” game.  Micro-transactions will certainly be in here, which will as a highly cosmetic game, is expected.  Money making outside of that… maybe DLC for other skate parks.  If it ends up injecting more passion into the THPS/Skate franchise, maybe we can see a new take on it in a few years.

Stoked.