Dauntless Pass Complete

The good thing about Battle Passes is that they make you play the game.  The bad part is that they make you play the game in such a way that your goals don’t always align with what you find fun.  I hit rank 50 in Dauntless a few days ago, it took about a week and a half I guess?  From a pass perspective, there’s nothing more to get.  From a game perspective, I’m full.

Given that this is the first attempt at card draws for the Battle Pass, I do think it had much more positive than negative.  Where I think there are gaps is in the variety of choice.  Selecting a fight is simple enough, you’re always going to need the materials that drop.  Those cards are always useful.  Stagger and Interrupt cards happen all the time.  Wound… not so much.  Only the War Pike does it naturally, you need to slot a specific item in your gear otherwise.  Not too big a deal.

Where things go a bit sideways is on quests that only allow 1 weapon (or sometimes two).  Because it takes such a large amount of material, you’re not exactly running around with one of every top tier weapon until a long ways into the game.  And due to the number mechanics, if you go into a fight with an underpowered weapon, you have a damage penalty to manage.  Might do 100 dmg to a level 8 behemoth, but only 10 against a level 15.  And not all weapon styles are for everyone.  I an not a fan of the War Pike.  The Hammer and Axe are pretty useless against fast moving enemies.

There are some cards that are all but impossible in a group.  Like break all parts before a kill.  I’ve killed the Shroud a few dozen times and only once was I able to break his tail.

Then there’s the item collection cards, used for crafting potions/grenades.  On the surface they seem simple enough, but in practice you’re going to end up not fighting behemoths and instead scouring the map for 5 of the 50 items you need.  It would be like trying to mine ore in a dungeon run, but the ore is 10 miles from where the enemies are.

Still, the fundamentals are there.  These are more wrinkles that can be set about with a few tweaks.  Some need to be removed, others changed in numbers. Frankly, I’m sure they have heat maps of all the cards and the metric around which are top 10 and bottom 10 would be neat to see.  Even more so if that selection was compared to the average item level of the hunters.  New players would certainly favour easier cards than veterans, if they even knew that they were easier.

Still impressed at all this growth from a relatively small group of developers (Path of Exile is similar in my mind).  If a small company can do so much with relatively few assets, really begs the question as to how large studios do so little with so much.

Incentivizing Play

This topic has been stirring in my head for a very long time, and at the end of the day way more complicated than this post will do justice.  Attempts will be made!

Design of any consumable service follows the same general themes.  You want the majority of people to take a specific path, allow for some variance, and put in guardrails for the lead chip lovers.  I keep thinking of Lemmings in that sense… rarely will you hit 100%, and most realistic goals are to hit 80%.

In the game design space, this applies in the general sense, then again at the activity level.  You want people to participate along a designed path and reach a designed end point.  You build mechanisms to re-enforce that message, and try to keep people in the same general line.  You launch and use various metrics to measure the success of those mechanisms.  Then re-adjust, launch more mechanisms, and analyze FOREVER.

The trick here is the mechanisms, which typically fall into the carrot/stick archetypes.  Reward good actions and punish bad ones.  The scope of those impact the % of people who follow the line.  Most of the time.  In some games the end point is so poorly planned that players reach it early/late/never and the whole thing falls to pieces.  I can’t say I’m surprised at how quickly Ragnaros dropped in WoW Classic, but I can say I’m  disappointed that people thought that was the actual goal.

Good design has a linear path, appropriate ramps to get people on/off that path, and an end goal that players understand early on.  It appears achievable, and is desirable.  E.g. a car race and you want to be in 1st.

Great design has a non-linear path, and intersects with other systems.  It has layered goals, that are not necessarily linear in structure, but have inter-dependencies.  There’s a continuous feedback loop, and a gradual feeling of progress.  e.g. pretty much any PnP RPG is built on this model.

Content vs Consumption

A big problem as games have become services.  It always takes longer to build something than to break it down.  4 hours of baking and 15 minutes of eating.  Years of research and writing, read in a half day.  Where the wins come is from volume.  If it’s 4 hours of baking, and 20 people take 15 minutes, well that’s a decent exchange.  Sell 10,000 books, ok.  Design for 6 months and 6,000 people play it… uh, maybe not?

Game designers have learned to depend on time-gating mechanics.  Sure, the original reason was to slow down the locusts that broke other systems (gold faucet/sink economies are fragile in that respect) but as time went on, this started applying to everyone.  The fatigue mechanic in nearly all F2P games is a good example, where the drive in monetization (and in a capitalistic sense, reasonable).

The fatigue mechanic in a system that cannot be bypassed… that gets irritating.  Especially if you’re gating a high-volume/fun activity.  But how do you know if that activity is viewed as fun, rather than simply rewarding?  LFR in WoW is free epics, while the original goal was simply to expose raiding design investment to more of the population.  Take out the epics and see how many people do LFR.  I mean really, take out the epics and remove the raid lockout restrictions – see what happens.

Dauntless

It’s F2P and the monetization system is based on 2 streams: battle passes and cosmetics.  From a financial perspective, they want people to take the battle pass, so the pricing structure clearly favors that, rather than 1-off customization options.  But the design of the game is predicated almost entirely on group-based combat, so they need a lot of people to make it attractive.

So they made the battle pass work for both free players and paid players.  Paid players get extra bonuses on that track, and a miniscule amount of extra drops in a fight (you get more if you don’t get knocked out).  Progress on this bar is through 3 methods:

  1. Daily collections in town (for 100 pts)
  2. Random drops from hunts (really random…)
  3. Completing tasks (20, 40 or 100pts)

Tasks used to be assigned with 1 weekly and 3 dailies.  They could be anything – hunt with repeaters, collect flowers, stun 5 times, attack with fire.  If you got bad rolls, then you may end up with objectives you didn’t want to do.  I dislike Pikes, and I really disliked any task that deal with Pikes.  Not to mention the need to actually build a decent Pike first.

The new Bounty system provides 4 slots of tasks.  You need a token (get some per week, as battle pass reward, or random drops) and that gives a random set of 3 tasks to pick from.  In the 50 or so times I’ve done this, only once has there been 3 options I didn’t like – and it made me play the game in a fashion I disliked even more.  In 75% of the cases, it had no impact at all since it mapped to my preferred playstyle. In the rest, it was a minor tweak (e.g. swap to a fire weapon, or focus on stunning rather than breaking) that made the fight marginally more interesting.

Now, clearly there are heatmaps and metrics and data sets that will come from this.  I can’t imagine anyone purposefully selecting “collect 40 rocks” unless the other 2 options were more painful (e.g. use a grenade to stun).  There’s some tweaking that’s left.   Yet, the system itself does work.  It lets you keep playing the way you want, but opens up alternatives that you may not have considered.  It also means that multiple playstyles can all work to the same overall goal – so that a lowly Pike player can get success just as much as an Axe fanatic.

There is however a gap once people complete the battle pass.  Since there’s no real hard time gating (a bit of RNG for extra token drops), entirely possible that people get it all done in a few days of hardcore grinding.  But there’s still the long term mastery system goals, and the weekly time trials to keep folks going.  Whether those two goals are actual things people want… another discussion, for another time.

Group Complexity

There are so many adages when it comes to group play – more than the sum of its parts, there’s no I in team, and do it for the team.  Thematically, they focus on everyone working together for a greater goal.

Frankly, this is the goal of group play.  That some mass of people can complement each other enough to shore up any weakness and strengthen the group.  There’s a fundamental piece here that makes this work – communication.  In sports, that’s basic.  You’re usually right next to the person.  In hockey, I’m always talking.  Incoming pressure, open lanes, double teams, and so on.  You need to quickly adapt.

In games, this is harder.  Older games, you were at a LAN and it was “easy” to shout out some commands.  Then MMOs come around (which were effectively glorified chat boxes) and the games were so slow you could type stuff out.  I mean, who didn’t have debates during Plane of Fear?  I won’t dismiss that getting to these group events was a challenge in itself.  Getting to Scholomance in vanilla WoW was a trek and a half.  You were conscious of the effort.

I won’t say that LFG tools broke this.  I’d argue the opposite actually, in that LFG removed so much spam from the game that I could start to enjoy it again.  What broke the model was a pile of things, though notably three strong ones:

  • Auto-summons to group location.  This is a mindset issue.  DPS queues have always been notoriously long.  Auto-summon lets you stay in the world and play that mode while the other is chugging away.  When you do group, no time lost, you just plop, show up where you need to be.  Odds are in the wrong gear, and wrong skills. There’s a general lack of focus.  (There’s a strong analogy to warm-ups before a sporting event – those are mental warm-ups much more than physical.)
  • Speed mechanics & strobe lights.  I am not advocating a return to tank & spank.  What I am saying is that dungeon builds used to be focused on the trash as much as the bosses, meaning that the path through was a thoughtful one.  Enemy placement & group triggers were with purpose.  Learning which spawns were mandatory was key (Stratholme anyone?).  The game’s focus away from thoughtful play, to reactive play has dropped the skill floor to faceroll levels.  Coincidentally, it’s created a larger gap between dungeons and raids.  The go-go-go mentality (and design) means less overall thinking.
  • Lack of social reward/accountability.  The LFG tool and LFG chat are fundamentally the same, the difference is in the pool of available players.  Many LFG tools nowdays pull from the entire game, not the server, meaning you could go years without seeing the same person again.  Trolls and ninjas used to be blacklisted, and they knew about it.  Healers made friends lists and didn’t even need an LFG tool – they fought through /invite spam.  FF14 has an interesting reward system, where the group votes for best performer.  Not perfect, but it does allow for positive messaging.

Dauntless

Dauntless is at its core an action-RPG.  There are things you have to do in combat to succeed, and you get things that increase numbers, making the next attempt slightly easier.  As a general rule, you should be able to solo a behemoth before taking it on in a group – that way you know you can carry your weight.  The game doesn’t force it, in fact, it allows hunters to progress without a hard measure.  If you can manage to leech (enter a fight and do nothing) your way through the main questline, you’ll be a fly in a hurricane later on.

Behemoths scale in health the more hunters are present.  Every leech is an increase in difficulty for the others.  Every under-powered hunter is an increase in difficulty.  Every under-trained hunter is an increase in difficulty.  Anecdotally, every 5 or so fights, I’ll get a hunter who really should not be there – they die in 1-2 hits, and need a revive within the first 30 seconds.  Every 5 or so fights, I get the complete opposite, and everyone knows what to do and the behemoth is down in 90 seconds or less.

From the points I mentioned earlier – auto-summon, fast mechanics, and accountability – Dauntless has only 2 of them.  Since all you do is hunt, the summon part actually works well enough.  The game even gives you a pre-hunt lobby to swap out gear for the specific behemoth, and suggests what you should use.

It does however require both reflexes to avoid attacks, and memory to remember patterns per behemoth.  There is a world of difference between a Shrike and a Shroud – even if they had similar damage and HP, the Shroud would still be a dozen mechanics more than the Shrike.  I don’t particularly see this part of the game changing much – though some mechanics are much more frustrating than others (Valomyr especially).  This requirement on speed makes it that communication is all but impossible without voice chat.  And if you do manage to type something out, there’s so much going on the screen that no one can actually pause to read it.

The only social construct present is guilds and friend lists, which mechanically are pretty much the same thing.  The toolset doesn’t allow you to easily blacklist someone else – not that it would matter much given the large pool of players.  It also doesn’t allow you to recognise good behaviour.  It’s just a bunch of random faces, that are never going to see each other again.

I will stress that Monster Hunter has these same issues.  The slight difference is that battles are slower and longer.  That gives hunters more time to think, rather than react.  It’s also incredibly hard to leech in that game.

I’m happy to say that this is not a frustrating part of the game.  The occurrence is infrequent, and even when things go really poorly you still get some bits out of it.  Reading a few of the dev posts, they are looking at better tools for social interactions… how that comes about is going to be interesting to see.