Content Balance

J3w3l has a post up, albeit high-brow sarcastic, about the detractors to TESO and Wildstar.

I have a bunch of thoughts on both games.  The gist of it is the value of the items within the current market.  There are only 2 AAA games that require a subscription – WoW for themeparks and EvE for PvP (though this one has alternate payments).  They own their respective fields, with a significant  market share.  Any game that releases has to justify their price point against these two games if they want a subscription.  Then they have to justify the time spent against all the other games on the market, F2P and others.  That’s simple market reality and there isn’t much to debate about.

What there is debate about is the content types and their balance.

TESO has some features to discuss.  First is the class balance and skills.  Given the open framework, there are probably hundreds of possible skill combinations possible, many of which are not viable.  Beta has shown  few of those (blade furry).  Experience from balancing talent trees, not even skills, has shown that.  You want skills to be balanced against each other, so that it becomes hard to gimp yourself.

Next you have crafting/items to balance.  TESO doesn’t hand out items liberally and has a decently complex crafting system.  You can make top end gear, if you have the right parts.  Most themeparks cannot manage this and early indications say TESO has a good hold on this.  Top level activities are veteran dungeons, exploration, open world anchors and PvP. There are no raids.  It makes for an odd end game to be honest, where the long term activities seem to focus near solely on PvP.  GW2 launched with this model and them promptly added more PvE content (to much furor) through gated fractals.  Perhaps if TESO has an analog to the Living Story, every few week have a content patch.  I honestly compare this game as a combination of GW2 content and TSW skills.  That’s a pretty solid mix.

Wildstar  is more or less WoW on steroids.  Skills are pretty static but talent builds (AMPs) provide some variety.  There isn’t as much class variety as TESO but there are more classes.  Crafting is missing details.  I hear that there are 2 crafting systems, one to pump out items, another for customizing said items.  Top level crafting is supplemented from raiding, so while you can craft top level items, it’s a bit of chicken and egg here.  A bit like Vanilla WoW raiding I guess.

What is the same as themeparks is the focus on dungeons, battlegrounds and raids, difficult ones to boot.  You could call this more of the same and I would agree.  What adds a bit of flavor is the rest of the elder game.  Housing, ship missions, war plots and adventure provide some horizontal options.  This provides three goals.  PvP, PvE gear and customization.  Balance on the first two is always hard and I really have not found a game that could address this properly.  You always end up with a PvP stat (e.g. Resolve) that puts a massive sick in the ground that says “PvP only”.  While there is a lot “of the same” from what we’ve seen before, it does appear to be iterative.  It’s almost a kitchen sink approach and time has shown that is really hard to do.  The devs are all experienced MMO folk though…

So while it would be nice to compare both games, they really don’t have a lot in common outside of high level stuff – levels, crafting and group content (PvP and PvE).  They really do seem to be aimed at different market.  That’s great for the genre.  More options is a good thing.  Fingers crossed that both can find success.

Control Schemes

I’ve been playing video games since Pong and at each iteration, there seems to be a more and more complex control scheme to get things done.  We’ve gone from turning a single know to having 100+ keys to press, sometimes 4-5 at a time.

Back in the day, sometimes the control scheme itself was the game.  Good luck getting Arkanoid/Breakout to work with a crappy mouse.  X-Wing/TIE Fighter with a joystick?  No chance.  Ever try to play street fighter on a controller without 6 attack buttons?  Once you have the controls down, then the game had a completely different light.  Sure, they were challenging as games, but just understanding how to play them was enough of a battle.

I remember the original adventure games, mostly from Sierra.  They were all text entry based, no need for a mouse at all.  Then a few standouts, LucasArts most notably, prompted the adventure game to go into the mouse business.  The game was still an adventure but try to argue that finding the right sequence of words to get things done wasn’t half the battle in the first place.  “Set sights on gun” got me killed in Police Quest for a few weeks.

The Wii / Kinect / Move phase…what a fun 5 years that was.

When we start looking at the MMORPG genre, the original games where pretty limiting.  Mouse was for movement and text was for doing things.  UO was a ton of fun typing in (or more specifically macroing) spells.  Everquest’s skill based system changed the paradigm a bit.  Now you had skill buttons to click with the mouse but the actual timing was pretty simple.  Well, maybe not bards.  WoW was next, at least as a big dog in the playground.

Now comes the age of the keyboard turner.  WASD was the default movement on games for nearly 15 years by this point.  WoW supported it, and built nearly all their mechanics around it.  By then providing challenging content that required ever increasing reflexes, keyboard movement became the next hurdle.  If you didn’t understand circle strafing (which most no one outside of FPS did), then you needed to learn a new skill.  Naxx and the Heigan Safety Dance is a perfect example of an encounter designed around control scheme and nothing else.

WoW’s skill bloat certainly didn’t help anything.  A poor default UI (the UI today is built nearly entirely on community mods) led to complex classes needing automated systems.  HealBot is a super example of a single UI element that combines multiple entries.  With a simple click you can do 4-5 things at once.  Great!  Shitty design that you actually need this mod to play the game though!

SWTOR followed in the skill bloat problem and then tried to make money off the problem with hotbars.  That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back as nearly every other game that’s come out since then has a limited skill bar.  Sure, you still have 20-30 abilities to choose from but you can only ever use a small subset (~10) in any given fight.  This makes it a lot easier on the player to figure out what to do and easier to balance as well.  It makes for a smaller, more intuitive UI.

The next big change was active combat.  This stemmed from a WoW addon that put markers on your screen to avoid certain spots to not take damage.  As the game grew, more and more of these “red circles” showed up to the point where today’s games run near exclusive on that model.  NeverWinter’s combat is all about this.  There’s more active dodging than anything else.  Small amount of skills, plenty of movement, makes for a highly skilled game.

Now we start looking at the next two games coming down the road.  TESO uses a telegraph model, similar to WoW.  It also has a very limited active skill set.  Combat is relatively slow, which allows for some strategy.  Admittedly, this is extrapolated from PR footage but combat so far seems to be more around the “sort of do this” style that thoughtful, targeted motions.  Soft targeting is a large part of this.  Think of shooting a fireball in Skyrim.  The farther away you are, the less likely you are to hit a moving target.  A fireball in WoW hits 100% of the time if you have a target.  Players will have a challenge adapting to this more analog system of “sort of hit” compared to the digital one where “it hit or it didn’t”.

Wildstar uses a hardlock system, telegraph combat and a limited (though seemingly less limited than TESO) combat model.  If you’ve seen any videos it looks like WoW on crack.  There is constant movement, constant attacks and differing types of attacks within the same skill.  Press and hold for more damage, AE attacks (with 5 corresponding colors), multizone attacks (hit 1,2 or 3 times).  Think about that a second.  You need to be constantly moving, which means Mouse + WASD.  You need to be pressing buttons, aiming AE attacks and holding buttons down.  This is mouse + holding keys.

I want you to take a minute the next time you’re at a computer and hold your mouse in one hand, W+S pressed down in the other, then press and hold the 6 key while making circles with the mouse pointer.  We’re really at this point?  What kind of physical skill level is now required to play games?

I’m running out of hands.

Social Core

There’s an old saying that goes something like this.  If I have an apple and you have an apple and I give you my apple, you have two and I have none.  If I have an idea and you have an idea and I give you my idea, we both have two.  For a long time this basically was a separation between the tangible and not but in today’s world, I have a bank full of intangible swords and there is an infinite supply (or near enough) of digital books.  In that train of thought, what you really are exchanging are concepts or frameworks.

This translates well into games so that two people who play the exact same game, the exact same way come out with different results.  You might come out of Tomb Raider antsy from the fighting or wondering about the next step.  What you are given is not necessarily what you actually receive, or interpret to receive.

If we move back a few years in the MMO space, when the time and social requirements were much more stringent the game didn’t provide you content as much as the people consuming the content provided it.  In my UO days, you could spend hours just sitting in the guild castle, talking with friends, working on some skills, maybe bring in a dragon to fight.  In contrast, today’s game is a wham-bam thank you ma’am affair of instant everything.

We’ve been down this road before but gaming is a reflection of the times and as the average “core gamer” age (~30) increases, it is extremely evident that they have less and less time to play.  Today’s younger gamers have thousands of venues to compete for their attention – Twitter, Facebook, all the Internet, Netflix, smartphones, tablets.  When I was younger, I had to leave the house to see friends. As a quick aside, Keen mentioned recently that he’s finishing up grad school this week (congrats!).  That would make him 22-24ish.  His experience in UO would have made him around 6-8 years of age.  It’s safe to say that UO had a different impact at that age than when I was playing (16-18) – especially from a social perspective.

For example, my largest gripe with SWTOR wasn’t that the game had bad ideas, just that they were poorly implemented from a social/time perspective   You were rarely able to find the social aspect while leveling (due to having a companion, very heavy instancing, low difficulty and no tools) and it stuck out like a sore thumb at max level when you 100% needed a social framework.  The time aspect was inversely proportionate to the fun factor.  You spent more time waiting around (again, with no social) for the fun to start – or even to get to the fun.  Sadly, the necessary game updates came 6+ months after launch and 90% of the playerbase had left by that point (they went from 211 servers to 23 in 6 months, now 20).  I firmly believe that the single most important reason Rift is not yet F2P is because of the social/time aspect being a core concept of game design.

Now TESO and Wildstar are both coming in with some new concepts to a genre that was originally founded on the social aspect.  I’ve heard aspects from Wildstar as to how the social portion is going to be important, in a non-combat way, but next to nothing from TESO.  I have my fingers crossed that both can maintain that core concept, with a little tweaking, in order to make either successful in the long term.  I mean, I don’t log in to kill the big bad guy for the 30th time, I log in to talk to my friends for the 300th time.

TESO Video

The Elder Scrolls Online – Gameplay Video.

TESO has a new video out explaining the high level goals of the game.

Of note, they are going for an instanced mega server.  This is smart move and why any game today doesn’t go this route is lunacy.  +1

Combat has traditionally been garbage for the Elder Scrolls and Bethesda games in general.  I’m not sure if this is an active system (only hit when in cross-hairs) or passive (soft target).  It sounds the former, which only Tera has ever done well.  Smart if it works though.  +1

Zones will be phased based on past accomplishments, from the werewolf bit I saw. I can’t see how this will work without phasing when you have multiple players.  Also not sure how you would interact with real people and NPCs if all towns are phased.

Character customization seems limited.  Everyone looks grey.  Sure, you get dark grey and light grey, but everyone is grey. In a game series where player colors are muted in order to make the world stand out, I’m not sure how this will work with hundreds of people around you, especially PvP.

Character progression though sounds neat.  4 basic classes (solider, rogue, mage, healer it seems).  Skill sets seem dependent on outfits though, sort of like The Secret World.  If you’re a dagger player you’ll have a different skill set than if you were using a bow.  Neat.  I’m not sure if the game is skill based or not, which I would think it has to be in some fashion.  How stats interact with equipment should be interesting to see.  TESO games are traditionally stat-less but skill heavy.  You don’t find a sword of +10, you find a sword that absorbs hit points.  Think of UO I guess.

The end game seems the traditionally fare of dungeons and raids.  Ho-hum.  PvP looks like its trying to follow the old DAoC model of realm vs realm vs realm.  I have seen many companies try to get this to work, I’ve only ever seen 1 do it right.  Balancing PvP and PvE is impossible, it’s just a fact.  Where TESO puts their eggs will matter here.  I vouch for PvE since Bethesda has ZERO PvP experience.


There are a lot of good ideas here but then again, we’ve heard them all before.  The difference here is that the game is due in less than a year and mechanics are being discussed instead of content (TOR).  Is TESO going to bring enough new to the table to keep people around?  It depends solely on their ability to make players feel like they have an investment.