A Tale of Two Games

Anthem somehow lost internet connectivity a few hours before their first livestream in a few weeks.  May as well go buy lottery tickets with that type of luck.  Not surprisingly, the Reddit forums are a damn salt mine.  Also, a few days ago BioWare put our some job postings for game designers – specifically for loot.  I can only imagine how it must feel within the walls of that company right now – you need to do a 180 and no step you take is going to be seen as enough.  It’s like a Bad Luck Brian meme.

I could compare this to Division 2, who are more than vocal, and are delaying their raid for QA purposes – plus opening a PTR).  It should be fair to compare two large companies in the same genre.  But one clearly has much more experience in this field – and their walls are not on fire.  So let’s handicap this a bit.

Phoenix Labs runs Dauntless – rag tag group for the most part.  Dev-wise, I see a whole lot in common with Digital Extremes (Warframe), where they have a clear roadmap and consistent communication with the player base.  There aren’t a bajillion dollars running the company, they aren’t under the microscope of big-budget hype, they made their own timeframes, and they clearly have a passion and understanding for their genre.

They release a patch every 2 weeks, with some fairly significant changes in each.

Next week sees a large patch, OB 0.7.  The core mechanics of fights will stay the same, but the “game” part around it is undergoing some major changes.  High level

New mastery system.  Complete specific tasks (per weapon type or creature type) to gain some rewards.  Could be cores, HP, stamina, more drops, carry capacity.  This is going to be the long game for a lot of people, since it allows for a significant amount of horizontal progression.

Path of the Slayer.  This rejigs the leveling process in order to provide clearer information to the player base on game mechanics.  I learned about Wound damage from Reddit.  Or how Hammers can break parts but not tails.  Or why Koshai is so much harder than Gnasher.  Players will be exposed to more mechanics while leveling, and be better prepared for the later parts of the game.

Season 4.  Lasts a month, gives cosmetic perks to free players, and about 10x the perk to people who buy a pass for $10.  Tightly related to the daily/weekly quests that provide progress for the season.  Theme is arid desert.  I do like the art style here, and I think I could complete all the activities this season.

 

Clearly, I’m rather enjoying my time in Dauntless.  It does a solid job of scratching that looter combat itch, and in combat bites that are reasonable.  Even more fun when you realize that the devs a) know what they are doing, b) have a plan to do it, and c) communicate that plan.

2019 & Queue Times

One of the primary reasons I strongly enjoy single player games is the time management aspect.  I can pick up and play as I want.  I can pause if need be.  I am only dependent on myself.  Online games… not so much.

EQ’s 20th anniversary brings back some nightmares of trying to find people in order to play.  The open-world aspect made leveling rather painful if the spawn points were already taken, of if the groups in the guild were already full.  WoW’s launch addressed a lot of that, since all dungeons were instanced.  Sure, travel time was a pain in the butt, at least you could play.  WoTLK brought in the LFG system, and my enjoyment of the game really exploded.  Easy to get in/out (destroying WoW is another topic.)

Now there’s multiplayer everywhere, or at least the option for it.  Some games do it really well (MMR games are a solid mechanic), and others make it a damn hassle (Monster Hunter World – looking at you bub).  But the core issue remains – the amount of players vs. the amount of content.

In a 50v50 game, you need 100 people to get started.  The 101st person needs to wait for 99 more people to join.  In high population games this is fine.  In low pop games, this causes insane queue times.  Plenty of MOBAs and team shooters have failed on this specific topic.  In games with rigid composition, then you have something similar occur if the player representation is out of whack.  WoW’s notorious lack of tanks/healers has had 45-60m queues for DPS players.

The technology and algorithms used to support queues has always fascinated me.   It needs to match a player’s wants vs the game’s needs.  Let’s say a game has 5 activities, and player A is willing to do 3 of them.  Does the game let the player pick 3, or just 1?  Does the game assign a priority to the activity based on the current queue time, or based on the player’s ability to meet the need (e.g. put a powerful player with other powerful players)?

Playing in Dauntless this is all at a head since you can select either a random event, a less random event, or a specific event.  If I need specific components, then I will queue for a specific target.  Theoretically, queue times should be longer as I am saying I want to do 1 activity of 100.  If I need generic things, then I will likely pick the less random event (which pulls from a pool of 5 activities).  Why not the full random one?

Because in the large random set, there are events I would prefer not to do.  The queue times may be near instant, but I’m willing to trade off 20s of waiting to eliminate the list of things I don’t like.

Dauntless will cap the queue length at a certain point and just give you a solo experience.  For 95% of the content, this is just fine.  And the 5% that’s left… well there are always people queuing for it since it can’t really be soloed.

Goals and Targets

Dauntless has an interesting balance perspective to manage.  MHW players have already spent their money, so it doesn’t really matter how long they stay engaged.  Dauntless is F2P, therefore it’s goal is to extend play times – since you need players to make the coop part work!  It does this through it’s crafting system, which requires you to collect rare and very rare components for the more difficult crafts.

These components require you to break a particular monster part (potentially multiple times, or while enraged) to have a chance at a drop.  Since the battles are capped at 30 minutes (and typically take less than 15), and there are no guarantees, you’re going to be running the same target multiple times.  Frankly, at decent power levels you may spend more time queuing/lobby than on the actual hunt.  Right now, I’m hunting the Bloodfire Embermane for his tail – and there’s only 1 queue of 100 that can give me that.  I can solo it well enough, but certainly much faster with 1 other (and ultra fast with 4 smart players).

This compounds into a scenario where you will find yourself queuing a lot.  Which is the genesis for this post.  Depending on the hour of the day, the queue times could be near instant (there’s always a 10s delay), or it could be 3-4 minutes before you duo a target.  Entirely manageable, and I’d expect that to drop a lot once the official launch hits in the summer and cross-platform is integrated (across consoles).

I think the queue system in place now works in the general sense.  Should be interesting to see how it works long term.

Dauntless – Hop, Skip, Jump

The last post was about the view of progression while going through it.  For most of the process there’s a small gap between your power and the enemy’s.  You’re always slightly behind the curve, and would need to hunt the same beasts for 2-3 upgrades per piece to stay on par.  Or… you simply attack the next beast and there’s a 90% chance they drop the material for a new item.  In this method, you’re simply changing weapons every other beast.  Still a gap, but it certainly forces you to learn the battles rather than just mash your way through.

And for the first 4 islands, this generally works.  For the primary reason that you’re fighting as a group and that the difference in power levels is objectively small (10% of 100 isn’t much, 10% of 1000 is a lot more).  You get to learn monster types, and whether speed/mobility is more worthwhile than large strikes.  Stormclaw for example, is much easier with a quick weapon, while Charrogg is all about big swings.

Then you hit island 5 (Maelstrom).  By the time you reach this place, you’re probably rocking ~250 power gear.  More than serviceable for island 4.  Island 5 needs 310 for you to have an even chance.  And then the model goes sideways a tad.

This is due primarily to the crafting system requiring rare components to craft items.  Up until this point, you were reasonably assured that a single kill would give you enough to make something, and potentially upgrade it.  Tier 5, not so much.  You can go a dozen or more kills before getting the drop you need.

And the power gap that is ever present means that nearly every behemoth will kill you in 2-3 hits, and you’re pretty much tickling them.  Choices.

  • Stick with it, hopefully getting a lucky drop and dramatically changing your output
  • Grind out Kharabak (who is a super mobile wasp that can turn invisible) and get >320 power
  • Grind out your repeaters (guns) to the 280 level and play a distance game with tier 5 monsters

I took option 3.  I also opted to grind the Ragetail Gnasher (tier 5) since he was weak to fire, and that’s extra damage I could take advantage of.  Still took a dozen fights to get the drop I needed for a weapon, but I was able to craft 2 new pieces of gear.  When I did craft the weapon (war pike), I was able to put 5 levels on it – getting it to 380.

From that point, it was more about figuring out what type of build I wanted to go about.

Planning

Similar to Monster Hunter World, the “end game” is about planning out a gear set and building it out.  Where it’s different is that all the gear at tier 5 is of the same power level – compared to the +/- 25% swings on MHW.  So you’re really only looking for the passive effects, which are related to play styles.

There are however, some general items to take into consideration.

  • Generally, you want to pick a weapon type and stick with it.  Try them all out before tier 5.
  • Blaze(fire) is death.  Pure liquid death.  There is no more important resistance than Blaze. Frost may freeze you in place (but it’s hard as heck to get hit by it), and Shock prevents item use (whoopie).
  • Stagger damage is only truly useful for Hammer builds.
  • Wound damage is great for part breaking – if you can get it to stick.  It increases slash damage on that part by 50%.
  • As a general rule, % increases are better than flat increases.
  • Increasing attack speed and damage is always useful
  • Lanterns (in particular the Drask version) are very useful.  Increasing lantern charges (through Aetheric Attunement) is a significant damage increase.
  • Cunning (crit chance) gives a % chance to deal double damage.  That can cause some seriously insane numbers.
  • You are capped at 350 armor/weapon power until you increase both to that level.  You can’t just go all offense.  Getting to 350 armor means 4 pieces of tier 5 armor upgraded to +4.

I personally opted for a damage build

  • Visage of Thorns (Koshai)
  • Stride of Thorns (Koshai)
  • Bloodfire Gloves (Bloodfire Embermane)
  • Scorched Carapace (Scorchstone Hellion)

As a base, I get

  • Ragehunter (more damage on enraged beasts)
  • Molten (drops orbs that make you fire immune and increase attack speed by 20%)
  • Evasive Fury (increase damage after dodging)
  • Evasion (increase invulnerability time during dodges)
  • Predator (increase damage dealt after avoiding damage taken)

Then with the various cell upgrades (like gems in slots)

  • Aetheric Attunement (increase % latern charge while attacking)
  • Cunning (increase chance to deal double damage)
  • Bladestorm (increase part damage)

 

Getting over that initial hump of tier 5 gear… the game is still a challenge but it’s smack dab in the part that I really enjoy.

 

 

 

Tier Progression

With more Dauntless under my belt, I am getting a better appreciation for tier management.

Monster Hunter World has tiers of monsters (low/high/elder) and they provide different quality of items.  This impacts potential not output.  If you want to get better gear, hunter better targets.  But if you have crappy items, you can still take out better targets… it just takes a bit longer.  Specifically, if your crappy sword does 5 damage to a low level monster, it will do 5 damage to an elder dragon too.  The output is constant, regardless of target.

Dauntless goes beyond this and affect potential and output.  If you have a crappy sword, it will do 5 damage to a low level monster and even less damage to a high level one.  Not a whole lot, but it’s a -20% / +25% swing of your attack power vs. the monster’s.   The balance here is a bit off, since to get an even amount of power, you actually need to hunt the monster above to get the necessary gear.  Let me show an example.

The Pangar is a mid-tier behemoth.  It has a power ranking of 242.  It is strong against frost, weak to fire.  It drops material to make a frost weapon.  The closest fire weapon is the Hellion, who is the next behemoth (273 power).  Or go down to Embermane (210 power).  That 32 point gap is ~20% less overall damage.  Pick the Zaga items set (from the previous target at power 231) and you get a storm weapon at 232 power.  In effect, as you’re progressing not only are the targets getting more difficult, but you’re getting weaker too.

When you reach the final island – Maelstrom – everyone is at 320 power and all weapons start at 310 power.  All meaning ~20 behemoths.  I’m there now, and I have to say it’s a LOT of fun.  Much more so that the progression through the 3rd island.

This gives the game a false sense of difficulty until you reach the final island.  None of it matters… because once you have your first weapon on that final island, there is no real vertical (power) progression – simply horizontal progress (through skills).  In the current beta state, that really means that you should simply focus on unlocking the final island and ignore repeating behemoth fights.  That is a dramatic difference from MHW.

The good news here is that the devs are aware of the balance issue and are planning to rejig it over the spring.  I am somewhat hopeful that this damage neutering mechanic goes away during the leveling process.

 

Epic Game Store

I’m not on the hype wagon that Epic Game Store (EGS) is a new type of cancer on gaming.  Not surprised at the amount of gatekeeping present in gaming circles, but hey, to each their own.  People fear change, and Steam has been the mainstay of PC gaming for longer than gaming memory.  (Side note, the last “successful” launch of anything Valve related was DOTA 2 in 2013.  Aside from the twice-annual fire sale of  every PC game ever made.)

Does EGS offer everything that Steam does?  Hell no.  Neither does Origin.  Or Arc.  Or Battle.net.  Or the dozens of other storefronts/launchers.  Is EGS coming to take your babies?  Maybe.  Will it activate your webcam and stream you out to Russia?  Certainly.

And exclusives are a problem now?  Remind me how again I can purchase Diablo 3 on Steam?  Or Anthem?  Right.  (There’s an irony on this point that I get to later.)

Does it suck that I have to remember yet another password/id?  Sure.  Just like I have to remember 50 different ones for every website/service.

Gamers are notoriously fickle, and the things on reddit are often so blown out of proportion.  Mainly due to the fact that the largest complainers have the least amount of spine.

imbvmjptlpz01

Real effective boycott…

Game companies have learned to navigate through the sewers of gamer miscontent, and find out what motivates players.  And that point is almost entirely based on money.  If EGS has the same games as Steam, but offers them cheaper… then guess where people are going to buy their games?  Doesn’t matter if you have achievements or not.  Or trading cards.  Or wish lists.

I-Win Button

The thing that many people are skipping over is that Epic already has a multi million (~250m at last estimate) player install base.  Across every single platform.  PC, XBONE, PS4, Switch and heaven almighty – mobile.  That simply dwarfs anything else.

And the next logical step?  Cross-play.  Let’s be clear on one single and vital point.  Console companies have been notoriously proprietary – Sony worst of all.  Fortnite broke Sony.  10+ years of people trying.  EA certainly pushed hard.  Yet a single game, in about 2 months effort, broke Sony.  You can play Fortnite on any device – with a single account.

From a developer perspective, this is a major benefit.  Online games win/die by the amount of players available (since they are often the content).  Imagine having a game suddenly have 6x more available players due to a code change.  You haven’t sold more boxes… just allowed them to see each other.

Mark the Calendar

Epic released cross-play SDK tools in December. 2019 is the year that cross-play becomes an expectation in gaming. In an ever connected world, Epic managed to break down walls with barely a whisper.  I am both amazed at the quick transformation, and terrified as to what comes next.

 

Dauntless

Or perhaps Monster Hunter Lite.  Whether that’s a bad thing or not… I haven’t really decided.

I’ve put in a whole pile of hours in to Monster Hunter World.  The experience up until Elder Dragons is really quite a lot of fun.  The “long tail” of the game is predicated on passive boost through exceedingly rare gem drops.  Well, that and collecting an elemental set of each weapon type (2-5 depending on the weapon, and there are a dozen weapon types).  Hoarder’s dream I suppose.

Still, the game is a near master class in design and execution.  Worth well more than the box price for the sheer number of hours you can get out of it.  And Capcom seems to release some sort of monthly update to the game, to let people have something cosmetic to chase.

At a high level MHW does the following in a near perfect fashion

  • Distinct and complex weapon variation
  • A complex combat structure of active strikes and dodges
  • Varied equipment options, with moderate modifications
  • Unique monsters, with attack patterns that change depending on various factors
    • A boss so big you need 5 minutes to climb from head to tail
  • World building where there are distinct “zones” within each area
  • A crafting system for food and potions that is near essential at end game
  • Beautifully rendered, without making my PC melt
  • Fishing

You’ll notice that grouping/social work is not listed.  I’ll get to that.

Dauntless

It’s been an interesting journey for Dauntless.  I’ve been following it for more than a year, and the beta builds have undergone some significant changes.  What I’ve played recently is a marked improvement on 6 months ago.  Says Open Beta… but they are in season 3…so about as open beta as PUBG/Fortnite were when they took off.

Here we have 6 weapon types, and each certainly controls in a unique fashion.  They are fairly well balanced, but some have a much high skill ceiling than others. A sword is certainly simpler than a hammer.  The combos are more developed now than previous versions.  Still simpler than MHW, but that gap seems a lot closer now.  It’s possible to cancel an action to dodge… don’t recall that working before.  It just feels more forgiving than MHW.

There are more creatures to combat, and their telegraphs are less evident (no red circles).  Thankfully hit boxes are calibrated (yay Unreal!  booo Frostbite!)  I wouldn’t argue that they are more complex, since most have 6-8 large attacks that you need to avoid, but I am still talking about the first half dozen creatures.  There are no traps, I don’t see any environmental hazards, there is only every the actual creature alone – nothing else around.  In that sense, it feels a lot more like combat in an arena than in an actual world biome.  Considering that 90% of the game is about hunting these creatures…this is the part that has to be the most fleshed out.

Crafting is better, if unfortunately linear.  You never need to sacrifice a weapon to make a new one… which does bear mention of inventory bloat.  You need to collect items in the field in order to craft in town.  That part works, and it’s pretty straightforward.  There’s the ability to swap passive gems (or the equivalent I guess) for other types, on a 24hr timer (F2P to speed this up).  Viewed in isolation, this is more than an acceptable model.  But it’s not in isolation – this is a direct comparison to MHW.

The art style is block/cartoony.  The players and creatures have enough detail to make them stand out, and the movements are fluid.  The world around you.. less so.  A rock is a rock is a rock.

I have quite honestly no idea what most of the numbers in game mean.  I don’t know how many HP I have, what power levels mean on armor, or what % increases to damage actually do.  These games are entirely around tweaking numbers to find your personal build… and that lack of transparency is tough.  There is this GDocs Sheet that has some info…

There’s more than ample customization for visuals.  Honestly, the F2P portion of this game is built 99% around customization, which is just fine.  I’d have to do the napkin math in terms of value… but this is in line with Path of Exile.

Sadly, there is no fishing.

Multiplayer

Up until this point you’d be thinking Dauntless was a weaker MHW, certainly less complex.  Right enough.  But it does do one thing much better than MHW, and that’s the social part.

Every quest can be done solo or in a group.  There’s a matchmaking process, and group coordination makes combat so much more fun.  One of my major annoyances with MHW was the grouping mechanic… which was almost entirely built on pre-made groups or the SOS flare.   Generally, it takes 30s or so to find a match.  There are times where the matchmaking tool seems to not work, as cancelling and restarting finds a group quickly.

Thoughts

I am honestly impressed.  There’s a lot of content, very few bugs, general balance, and a non-intrusive F2P model.  It’s pretty clear that the forward design path is about adding systems, instead of fixing systems.  Their Roadmap is impressive in clarity.  Mastery as a new system sounds really quite fun.

Well worth the try.

Return of Obra Dinn

This has been on my wish list for a while now as it’s been on a few GOTY lists, and well, Lucas Pope also made Papers, Please.  I knew going in that this was a game where you needed to pay attention, and frankly I need to be in the right mindset for games like that.

Return to Obra Dinn is a combination of Murder on the Orient Express + Myst.  That is oversimplifying it a tad, but if either of those items have ever brought you any level of joy, you’ll be engrossed here. You will be using deductive logic to see the end.  A lot of it.

The Obra Dinn is a ship that was presumed lost at sea, but then shows up empty a few years later.  Your job is to enter the ship, figure out what happened to the 60 crew members, and provide a report to the insurance company.  You are given two tools – a book that keeps copious notes of everything (and where you put in your report), as well as magic watch that allows you to rewind time to the point where a crew member died.

obradinn

The stippled effect is amazing.

The Book

Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have your own notepad, but it certainly helps a ton.  It keeps track of all the events, all the crew, the voice over work, and allows you to select their name and eventual fate.

There’s a page that shows the entire crew in 2 events.  How people are shown in this picture is really important.  People dress a particular way, and tend to hang out with crew of the same rank.

You start off with 60 names and only a few bits to go on. Every 3 correct matches you get (name + fate), the game locks that in and reduces the potential choices going forward. That is HUGE benefit for later in the game, since IDs in the last quarter are all by process of elimination.  It’s a spectacular addition to the genre.

The Watch

Now this is neat.  Find a corpse, use the watch, and teleport into a 3d picture of what happened.  The kicker here is that EACH of these events has multiple witnesses – sometimes 20+.  Finding out what happened to someone often requires you to examine another person’s death and look at everyone around you.

And I mean everyone.  May be someone being knocked overboard. May be the bunk #.  May be the color of socks.  May be that they have a ring.  One event in particular has 5 deaths that are not all that obvious on first glance.

Each event is timed, and then fills in a page in the book.  You can always revisit the event by using the watch again, and take as long as you want.  Some corpses can only be accessed through other corpses (since their bodies are not on the ship).

Logical Hat

This was the most fun part.  The early part of the game gives a fair set of clues. As you progress, you need to infer more and more information. The entire journey of the ship is fantastical in nature, and being able to explore the mental breakdown of the crew is fascinating.  There are some red herrings, but each eventual correct answer comes with a “ahhh, that makes sense” feeling.

I was able to determine everyone’s fate with a bit of reasoning (aside from one that was really hard to make out), but identifying everyone was a major undertaking.  I hit one major wall where I needed to find an external clue.  That key piece caused a domino effect on other events.

Getting all the answers correct (58/60) opens up a final chapter that ties it all together.  A very satisfying end, to an amazing game.  Highly recommended!

General Tips

  • Explore every nook of the ship.  You haven’t seen all the events until it starts raining.
  • Some parts of the ship will not unlock until you’ve seen a particular set of events.
  • The book only allows a passive view of an event. You need to use the watch to enter the actual event.
  • Within an event, a large portion of the ship is available.  Many times, there are actions on another deck that have a significant importance.
  • The game doesn’t automatically make links between names and fates.  If one person is involved in many events, you need to make note of it on each event.
  • Each person comes with a difficulty note (1 to 3).  Level 1 folks are usually named outright, level 2 are identified through some sort of clear marker, level 3 are inferred through elimination/deduction.
  • The list of potential fates is full of wrong answers.
  • It’s a good idea to take breaks to let the brain think things through.  I played over 3 sessions and the hardest puzzles were solved through guesses while I was away.