Skill vs Time – A Visual Aid

After reading Isey’s post on How to Lose an MMO Gamer in 10 Ways, and after pondering a bit more my previous post on Wildstar, I decided to draw out what I think is one of the larger hurdles for games to succeed – at least on a “massive” scale.  And that’s player skill.

Good game design is a series of meaningful choices.  I don’t think there’s any debate on that.  Where I think the kink in that comes from is in the ability for a person to have a an actual choice and appreciate the results (i.e. the ability to apply a skill and learn a new one).  I’ll go back in time a bit to vanilla Naxx and Heigan the Unclean.  This is the famous “avoid the fire spouts and you can solo me” boss – a dance really.  This was a massive twist in the traditional RPG space, where you just stood there pressing buttons.  Now you actually had to pay attention to the play space and move.  You couldn’t just absorb the damage.  I do know that many guilds at the time used it as a triage for recruits (combined with Thaddius) and it formed a massive skill wall for it’s day.   You either performed it perfectly, or you died.  That model, tried with a slight twist in BC, got the Ol’ Yeller treatment.  For good reason too, it wasn’t a meaningful choice and other than memorization and “no keyboard turners” there was little skill exploited.  WoW since then (with a blip in Cataclysm that they want to forget) has been more and more accessible at the lower end, with harder content for those who want the option.

To me, player progress is important.  Not only improvement itself but the opportunity for improvement and the evidence of improvement.  Huge spikes in difficulty is bad.  Difficult just to be difficult is bad.  No difficulty is bad.  A gradual increase in difficulty, where your progress is both evident and rewarded is the optimal solution.

On to the visual aid I promised!

skillvstime

What I did here was map the player skill required to complete tasks, assuming a time investment.  The skill portion is relative between games, where EvE is certainly the most challenging.  The remaining themeparks are ranked in difficulty, based on my play.  Over each in particular now.

EvE

Everyone has seen the EvE difficulty curve.  The game is rather simple to start, assuming you stay in high-sec and follow the themepark crumbs.  Try to move off that path, either through null-sec or mastering a trade and boom, welcome to excel online.  If you make the transition, you’re gold.  If you don’t, then you’re dead.  EvE has been able to succeed with a supremely polished game after the transition.

Wildstar

No game starts off harder than Wildstar.  Then you start dungeons and the difficulty starts to climb.  Reach max level and the attunement begins, with a massive climb in difficulty. There’s no help to transition between the stages, the difficult is very binary (you die in 1 shot or you take no damage) and the climb at the end is like no other themepark.

FF14

A game with a very gradual increase in difficulty due to skill unlocks being limited and the presence of force grouping at an early stage to progress on the solo train.  You learn to tank, heal, pull, DPS, stun, craft… everything.  And the change at max level is more along the lines of perfecting skills you’ve already acquired.  It’s a very good experience.

ESO

This one is a little odd, in that challenge as you level has no training and very little feedback but the skill level required is pretty low.  Given that there are actual “bad choices” the game design allows you to have a couple and still succeed.  If you make good decisions, then it’s like cutting Jell-O.  That said, at launch the game had a veteran system at level 50 that was significantly harder than the first portion of the game and accounted for 60% of the content.  Bad choices meant you were going to do.  Good choices gave you a 25% chance to die.  That system was drastically changed after 3 months to a more similar difficulty curve.

WoW

I could have drawn 1 line per expansion here but the power curve line is pretty close to this.  Today’s experience from 1 to 89.9 is a joke.  I leveled a Monk to 90 in a week and only died from falling damage.  Dungeons & LFR can be AFKed by 20% of the group and you’re still going to win.  Normal raids have some challenge but the real difficulty is in the heroic raids.  And not heroic raids because of the mechanics but because of the stats the players have on the content.  Remember that power curve line?  The difference in power between expansion launch and 2 months is nearly 25%.  People were clearing MoP raids in Cataclysm raid gear.

Others

I could have added other games, like LoTRO, STO, DCUO, Rift, Neverwinter and DDO where I’ve done the high level stuff.  They are all pretty similar to WoW, with the final spike happening earlier.  I can’t think of one that plateaus before max level – though TSW might be a candidate as it doesn’t really have a max level, just limited action sets.

Summary

I think the comparison between all the games is important for discussion.  Certainly each has their own variables but of you were to look at where players quit the game, I’d bet dollars to donuts it’s where you see a shift in the curve (assuming they get past a trial phase).  Difficulty is good.  Shifts in difficulty must be moderate.  The benefit of that difficulty increase must be evident.  All of the games listed have made changes since launch to their curves (yes, even EvE) except for Wildstar – but it’s also the youngest.  Here’s hoping they get the hint.

Combat and Art Styles

Pegging off Tobold’s post on appropriate art style, I think it bears mention more than just a couple games.  And I won’t really go into what looks better because that’s a very subjective argument.  This is really about the practicalities.

We have WoW art style, with distinct character outlines since the start. However it’s moved away from tab target to smart target, and red/blue markers on the ground. WoD will finally have target outlines as well. It’s evolved.

Neverwinter, a LAS/action game, uses outlines and AE effects given the mouselook aiming features. It’s a more realistic art style, making it damn near impossible to find someone in the thick of things. BUT, since it’s soft lock and AE for nearly everything (including healing), it works.

SWTOR uses cartoon style graphics for a seemingly endless supply of humanoids. I found it a mess in regular PvE but the group instances aren’t too bad as the character types are often different. Plus tab targeting helps drastically.

FF14 uses tab targets and a full skill bar, though in reality few skills. The art style is VERY unique and it’s fairly easy to spot individual players, let alone NPCs in combat. In fact, you rarely have more than 2-3 enemies at once. Of course, with a requirement for focused combat and targeted attacks, this is vital for success

FF14 - Ifrit

ESO is LAS + mouselook. Many attacks are AE or smart target. Every frigging enemy is the same though. PvP turned into meat walls of AE spam because you can’t focus target effectively. It also means many skills lose all value if they aren’t multi-target. Plus everyone blends in together and the background. So it’s less about aiming and responsiveness as it is about mashing AE attacks and hoping the numbers are in your favor.

Big Boy

Big Boy

Wildstar is LAS but tab/free target combat. Everything has an AE target as well, making aiming very important. Plus the character diversity helps you quickly ID the players in the field. The more quickly you can make an assessment, the better your odds.

That's a big gun

That’s a big gun

I guess it boils down to offense vs defense. A more realistic game favors defensive style of play and 2 types of skills. Either you spam and get lucky or you cross that skill gap to “elite” and run amok. FPS shooters I think show that well.

A more cartoon, or rather distinct character set, provides more offensive options as you can’t really hide. Everyone knows who you are and you have more information to make the right decision. It removes the skill gap and includes progression.

I wouldn’t be able to say which has the higher skill ceiling as that is more game-specific. It’s certainly an interesting topic.

Neverwinter – Icewind Dale

I make no secret that I am a rather huge D&D fan.  I don’t get the chance to play the tabletop version anymore but the world and rules have always fascinated me.  Neverwinter has that near perfect combination of lore/structure and action-oriented combat to keep me coming back.

Expansion #3 is out today, Curse of Icewind Dale, and it seems to be adding a fair bit of content to boot.  Raids, dungeons, a new campaign with daily quests, new paragon path for the Ranger, a new profession (Black Ice) and dynamic group content (aka Public Events).  While there is some vertical progression, as the game uses a gear score, there’s actually a fair amount of horizontal progression as well.  Experience is no longer “wasted” and you continue to gain “levels” of a sort.  These give you points to allocate to your active skills.  You can’t slot more skills, you just have more skills to choose from.

The previous post spoke about the 3 phases of ESO.  Neverwinter has 2.  First is the leveling aspect, from 1-60.  You have access to companions, customization, foundry (awesome), dungeons, skirmishes (5 minute dungeons) and a whole slew of other features.  Phase 2 starts at 60 and adds 2 things.  First, elite dungeons and raids, where the gearscore/skill requirement is a fair bit higher than before.  This is the typical end-game for themeparks and the time commitment is manageable.  Second are campaigns, which are themed daily quests with gates.  Pretty much what 1-60 gave you, you’re just limited to about 1 hour’s worth per day.

This new expansion seems to add a few more 1-60 things to do without the need for typical end-game progress, which is pretty darn good.  I know that breadth doesn’t equate to depth but we’re not talking about a game that is aiming a whole lot at the latter – it’s an action RPG after all.  I do know from my experience in the dungeons/raids that you need to be attentive to what’s going around.  Proper stat allocation is also pretty important but that part is rather hard to gimp yourself with, due to core mechanics.  SWTOR’s customization (and WoW’s now-dead reforging) provided way more options than Neverwinter.

It’s free, there’s a ton of content.  Give it a shot.

I Gave Cryptic Money

No surprise here, I think Neverwinter is a great game.  Many people don’t and that’s great too.  I comment a fair bit that it’s amazing that we’re in a time where there are more games for more flavors than just a few years ago and the WoW-clone-a-thon.

Neverwinter’s F2P model is slightly different in the MMO space as it was designed with two things in mind.  First, it’s a western MMO, where combat is an integral part of the game with a relatively small social toolset.  Second, it was designed as F2P from the start, based on a lot of experience from Champions Online and Star Trek Online.  The only knock I have against their model is the constant spam about people “winning” items from lockboxes.  Peer pressure and all that I guess.

You can play Neverwinter from start to finish without dropping a dime.  Your experience is not diminished in the least.  You can play the end-game content without money too.  The auction house works with Astral Diamonds, which are fairly simple to acquire.  Zen (the unified Cryptic currency for real cash) allows you to purchase player customizations, such as respec tokens, other companions and mounts.  Oh, you can also trade Astral Diamonds for Zen.

Respec tokens are useful but not something required to play.  Pick a spec and have fun.  You shouldn’t really be swapping between choices all that much, given the large “point padding” provided.  You can get most skills you would need pretty easily.  Plus, if there’s a patch with significant balance changes, free respec!

Companions are a bit different.  For leveling are the start of end game, they are relatively bland choices and have not much impact. If you want to do top-tier gaming, then a zen-cost companion does have some benefit.  Not much mind you, maybe a 5% difference, so only the min-maxers really care.

If you want to fool around with costumes, then Zen comes into play and that’s super.  Player customization is entirely optional.  Mounts too, since each zone is relatively compact and the difference between a basic 60% and a 90% mount is pretty negligible on the whole.

So what did I spend?  I put in $30 for 3,000 Zen.  It gave me a new character slot and some customization.  If this had been a sub game, I would have spent a lot more than $30.  This way, I can come and go and feel that I am the one deciding where to put my money and when I can play.  Would I have subscribed if that option was available?  If that would have unlocked everything and there was no store, most definitely.  However, even games with a hybrid model offer a store, which drastically reduces my enjoyment.  SWTORs non-sub hurdles are notoriously bad, as an example.

So yes, I support Cryptic’s F2P model for Neverwinter.  I think it’s one of the most “fair” implementations I have found in any online game.  Marvel Heroes follows a similar model, in terms of lack of real restrictions.  I’m kind of hoping that this style takes a hold across more games.

Neverwinter – Kitchen Sink

Holy cow Batman, what a patch! Cryptic is officially launching Neverwinter on the 20th of June. That means it’s “super mega patch” time!

I really like the game but there are some significant issues that need addressing. Threat is seriously broken for both healing and tanks.  The grouping system doesn’t pick the right balance of characters and if someone drops, it’s impossible to add a new person.  The auction house UI needs some serious work to actually find anything. Enemy difficulty is all over the map, but mostly it’s boss encounters that need tweaking. I can’t say the systems themselves are broken, just in need of some serious balancing.  You know, exactly what a beta is for.

Well, it looks like Cryptic got the memo because the patch notes are out in a new blog post and they are massive. I’m talking MMO expansion pack massive. Obviously there’s a lot of future testing needed but the overall message is clearly “we heard you”.  It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a dev even bother to address half the things Cryptic is aiming for. /hats off

I’ll be waiting for it to hit the live servers before taking another dive but if this patch addresses the concerns listed above, it might just be my go-to MMO for a long while.

Neverwinter – That Could Have Gone Better

I bit the bullet and bought some more epics for my Cleric last night.  That got me to the 8300 gearscore (8328 I think I had) to give the Tier 2 dungeons a shot.  Queuing for a T2 dungeon was instant, even without a dungeon delve active.  Load it up, unequip all my gear to address the threat bug (go naked, re-equip) and look at the party.  2 wizards, 1 rogue and a great weapon fighter.  No tank.  Well, this should be fun.

We died on the first pull.  Not like a little died but more along the lines of stepping in dog poo wipe.  I let the party attack then put my Astral Shield down.  5 seconds later, everything but 1 target are on me.  I used a lot of potions that fight but still died. Without a healer, the only character than can survive for any amount of time is a well-played Rogue.  That wasn’t enough here.

Tried it again and this time we made some progress.  The wizards remembered that they were called Control Wizards for a reason.  They kept things together, the GWF and Rogue took care of the damage and I healed.  We couldn’t just run up to enemies either, we needed to pull them to us to avoid the natural chain pulls that occur in the game.  Aggro ranges are odd.

We get to the first boss, some guy with a mouth for a head.  That’s got to suck.  Anyways, he has 3 spawning pools around him that continuously spawn adds, 4 at a time.  So not only do you have a giant mouth attacking you, there is like a dozen enemies at the same time.  Threat being non-existent without a tank, I died a few times.  We somehow had the boss teleport to our spawning area and that let us kill him and move on.  Weird bug.

Moving on, we get to see more and more of these giants who deal 75% of my health in a single hit.  Fun!  There were some absolutely insane pulls on this trek and my hat is off to the group for surviving it.  Very impressive.

Then we get to the last boss.  He’s a super mega giant with 2 friendly giants around him.  Plus some other trash. And there are what seems to be 4 portals in the room that summon Berserkers.  If you don’t know what these guys are, they start off weak and once they hit 25% hit points, they hit like a convoy of Mac trucks.  I can heal 2 of them at once but 4, plus 2 giants, plus a boss?  What?

First attempt was ok, we killed one giant them got swamped.  Second attempt we tried to nuke the boss. I put Astral Seal on the boss, which causes players to heal when attacking.  That turned the ENTIRE ROOM on my butt and I died within 15 seconds.  Third attempt was tying to clean out a side of the room, no luck there.  Did I mention everything respawns in the boss room when you die?  No?  Anyways, we wiped a solid 6 times and everyone was out of repair kits at the end.   Healing isn’t the problem, threat is.  And it’s a massive one.

See, I’ve been spoiled by WoW and every other LFD tool in existence.  Games have 3 roles, tank, healer and DPS.  A LFD tool should fill in those slots appropriately.  That a Cleric is the only class that can heal and that a Guardian Fighter is the only class that can tank, you would think this would be simple to implement.  Healer/Tank + 3 anything else.  I mean anything.  Worse is that if someone leaves your group, you can’t replace them.  Aghhh!

Guild runs are cool but I have yet to find a guild that runs more than 2 teams at any given time.  And because dungeons are long, you could wait an hour or more for a team to be ready.  LFD with a premade group and people to fill the slots makes sense.  Just for the love of pete, please make sure there’s a tank and a healer or just don’t make a group.

Neverwinter – Tanks but no Tanks

Le /sigh, horrible pun.

Given that there wasn’t a dungeon delves active last night during my session and I had sat in the queue for 15 minutes as a Healer, I swapped to my second character, Asmira the Guardian Fighter (/tank).  I used the Gateway service while leveling and once you hit level 10, you can craft.  Getting to level 10 takes about 2 hours from creation so I did that a while back.  Crafting has one particular field, Leadership, which gives in-game experience, cash and rough astral diamonds.  People who hit 60 on day 1 used Leadership (plus real money to speed up the training) to get there.  Leadership can also give you access to crafting materials that sell decently.

On top of it, after level 11, you can pray to the gods every hour.  This gives you some experience and every day, 2 different types of tokens.  If you miss ~48 hours of praying, you lose all of 1 type of currency (which has a max of 7).

Right, so I play my cleric almost daily.  During that time, I also log in the tank to pray to get the tokens and for the experience.  Realize that I did not kill a thing or do a single quest after level 10 and using this daily prayer and Gateway/Leadership, my tank was sitting at level 22 last night and had ~100K in Astral Diamonds.  Sadly, he had no cash so no mount.

The advantages to leveling offline are pretty clear, you skip a fair amount of content and the early levels, especially before 30, are somewhat unbalanced due to a lack of skills. I can live with that.  The downside is that you are undergeared by a fair amount.  As a ranged player, this ins’t a big deal.  As a tank – not only are you taking way more damage than you should but you’re hitting with a toothpick at the same time.  Not a great combo.  Thankfully the AH is there and people post at stupid low prices.  Quick gear up.

Now for actual play.  Oh wait, I need to assign 12 skill points and redo my layout.  I like that part. Do I ever miss the old talent trees of WoW, where each level you actually got something, even if it was a small increment in power that nobody noticed.  I got to press a button!  I digress.  The tank needed to get a companion, so a healer was in line.  Off I go into the wild!

And then I died.  Forgetting about combat advantage (don’t show your back), how to block properly, how to NOT knock people into another side group and a bunch of other details that I never really needed to worry about as a ranged healer.  I dusted myself off and went back to work.  This time I pulled everyone to me, circle strafe and all that jazz to get them lined up, then AE attacks for the win.  Worked out pretty good if I do say so.

Small instance was next and these always end with a boss.  Bosses as a healer are fun, you just sit back, heal from time to time and whack a mole.  Adds come around, tank picks them up, you AE or knock them into some hole.  Bosses as a tank are a test of patience.  You’re dealing little damage, the companion ain’t much better and once the adds spawn (they always do), you need to take them down before they take down your companion.  I think this is a good thing, in the end, as it forces tanks to understand HOW TO TANK multiple creatures at end level.  I remember leveling my cleric and I found that the higher I got, the better the tanks got.  As if the leveling process weeded out all the bad ones.  It’s just not possible to reach max level as a tank without a solid understanding of the mechanics.

It’s certainly a different paradigm.  My Cleric, as per the videos I’ve posted, does everything to avoid the big hits and red circles.  My tank however, is so damn slow, she needs to block to get through them.  Going from “get these damn things off me” to “why won’t you attack me you bum!” is a fun change of pace.

Now if only the game could find a way to teach DPS to play smart. -er.