Saturday, December 31, 2011

Solo Progression

And this makes sixteen posts, next year I'm not going to make the resolution of trying to write more posts than the last because I just might go through several months of being fed up of MMOs, end up having to post several on the last day of the year again, and also I've been playing many more solo single-player games lately, especially Skyrim.

I want to pick up from the last post and continue banging out a few more thoughts about 'solo progression'. I think anyone rolling their eyes at the phrase, is missing the point at what it entails, it is not 'raid gear for casuals', and the whole notion of working harder (i.e. a time consuming grind) for the same reward that gets commonly suggested is wide of the mark too. It comes down to why it is fine that no matter what difficulty a player chooses in a single-player game, they get the same reward, and why that is derided as 'unworkable' in MMOs.

That why Skyrim is refreshing to me, I'm approaching it as a journey involving choice and that I'm fine with not having an optimal character. I'm avoiding the wiki altogether, which is necessary because looking up some things that I thought would be fairly benign leads to spoilers, ok so what was that tough mob I just fought, oh it was a dragonpriest, and look there are more of them, all neatly listed in a table with locations, had to quickly look away, or checking out the enchanting page to see how it works and scrolling down to find a guide to fully optimising my character. I made that mistake in Oblivion because as soon as I think about optimizing my character, a lot of the fun goes out of the game, but it's the routine approach for an MMO.

There is still progression in Skyrim, but it is tied to player choice about how they build their character, but also some mobs are just tougher. I'm now swatting wolves like flies but I'm still running away from trolls unless I've back-up because at the moment my character is all melee without magic, but I wouldn't change it because I've already planned a second character to be a magic user. Playing a game in my own way is a welcome change to themepark MMOs where there is usually a single progression track, a one-size fits all mentality.

[Rift] Ember Isles and Solo Progression

Ember Isles is now my favourite zone in Rift, it's a tropical island, dense jungle, obscured ruins, and some carefully designed vistas like the view from Ember Watch to the volcano in the middle of the island. It doesn't seem any bigger than the other zones, but it's more open and more intricate at the same time, being bound in by mountains the whole thing makes zones in MMOs all the more oppressive.

Ember Isles is not just a new zone or daily quest hub, it is a 'hard difficulty' zone designed for level 50 players. Going there like I was in quest gear was a little on the painful side, to put it in perspective I had about 4.5 k health, mobs had three times that amount and I could only take on one at a time, and quests where I didn't have to kill mobs were a welcome relief. Near a defended sourcewell is fairly safe, those invasion mobs seem to have lower health than the normal static mobs and I could always drag some of the normal mobs near a gun turret for some extra firepower. Being a rogue helped too.

The increased challenge was nice, I was chuffed to take out a stage 3 of a minor rift, but it's definitely a case of bring a friend, because it did get tiresome having to burn through those huge health bars. Even if a player was in the best of gear, is a raid tier 2 kitted player worth two not so well geared players, or are they? I'm asking because I've no idea about how steep that power curve is in Rift, but Trion has acknowledged this as a problem and has plans to lessen the gap somewhat by bringing the lower tier gear closer to the upper tier, like that will work out well when it is not tackling the root of the problem.

Rift has another problem with crafting rifts and well geared players taking all the participation, when stages end in a matter of seconds before less adept players have even cast their AoEs. The solution being mooted by Trion is to have rift mobs scale to gear levels, which was met with cries of 'how am I supposed to solo major rifts now?' and most telling of all 'what's the point of getting better gear if I can't streamroll through the rest of the game?' (and make it less fun for other players?).

It's a bit of a conundrum, having to raid to be able to solo an outdoor zone. I'm not averse to raiding, I like the idea of rift raids and 10-man slivers, it's gear progression that kills the fun rather quickly for me, though I had to quash the thought that if I worked a bit to get better gear I could enjoy the content on Ember Isles more, and that's exactly the point the game becomes a chore. There is planar gear that is about tier 1 raid gear, but the amount of Incribed Sourceshards needed is a ridiculous grind, looked at it and thought it was a nice idea that the gear could be upgraded up to three times but then worked out how long it would take to acquire all those shards for even a single fully upgraded piece and had second thoughts.

It's sort of depressing that most subscription MMOs seem to only thrive on gear progression, and there are very few alternatives. However, as soon as Trion extends the 'all new improved and expanded' Instant Adventure system to Ember Isles I may be tempted to subscribe for a month again.

[Rift] Brief Return

Trion was hacked recently and gave everyone three free days, even previous subscribers, which was an opportunity I gladly took because I wanted to see what Ember Isle had brought to the game. But first I'm going to describe two features that while not totally innovative, may lead to something really interesting if Trion are smart about it.

These are for all extents and purposes an upgrade to the wardstones found in the other zones, and they are found outside of quest hubs. They consist of a central objective surrounding by several gun and healing turrets, each of these objects can be repaired and upgraded four times, with NPC defenders spawn at the last upgrade. Invasions start to attack and there are repeatable quests to defeat 20 invasions. Pretty straightforward, but something I didn't know is that the more objects upgraded the more invasions that spawn, so in effect players can create scalable events on demand. 

To upgrade the objects players need to spend 4 planar charges, which are easily obtained by standing  in planar anomalies. These are abundant crystals found adjacent to the sourcewells that can be broken and begin to pulse, each pulse restoring a planar charge. A nice feature about these is that multiple players, no matter if they are grouped or different factions can take advantage of these pulses. This easy source of planar charges was something I looked for originally to make planar powers more useable, and it definitely works, even going to other zones I'm more likely to use the abilities because a full supply of charges is just a teleport away.

During zone events, four sourcewells out of thirteen are selected and must be defended, which with the upgrades is much easier than with other wardstones, it's rewarding too and people seem more willing to do it, which is great change. One of my concerns is that there is still 'tagging' but with not having experienced it enough, there does seem to be a looser measure of participation for the repeatable quests at least if not planar rewards.

Sourcewells, a precursor to some more dynamic events where all participation is rewarded, with players working together, grouped or not?

'Instant Adventures'

These are just quests, and Rift has never had the most exciting of quests to be perfectly honest, but these give the feeling of when there is a large group romping through solo content i.e. mobs explode and everyone is running around like headless chickens, so in a word, chaos. It is fun though and if I was levelling a new character 45+ (when these become available in Shimmersands and Starkmoor) these would be what I would choose over normal questing. I know that without trying them there is a lot of misconceptions going around about how they work, they are not like skirmishes in Lotro at all. A player brings up the IA menu, which consists of a choice of the two zones and a join button, the player is teleported to the zone and placed in a raid group, and a given a simple objective highlighted on the map. Once an objective is completed, the next quest pops up and either the group runs there or gets a teleport button if the new quest is a distance away.

At the moment the IA system doesn't mix well with rifts and invasions, I was in a group holding a wardstone during an event, and somehow a group doing IA got combined and it got a bit crazy with objectives popping up and a daily quest to finish 7 IA quests, that I'd picked up earlier was being completed for me even without taking part. When the zone event ended I could just teleport to where the IA was happening and finish my daily quest. I think this is where this system can go from being good to being exceptional if rifts, events, maybe some open world PvP was incorporated, or some occasional puzzles that slow down the group to communicate a bit more.

To sum it up, this feature is what WoW should be copying rather than skirmishes from Lotro. I have a soft spot for Rift because it does seem to have some good ideas like these, but they seem reluctant in taking enough departures from the status quo and differentiate themselves from the competition.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

[Lotro] Lucky Bags

With the recent release of Update 5, Turbine introduced Steel-bound lockboxes to the game, and it was changed for ever more! These are rare loot drops that require a key to open, this key is also a rare loot drop, but conveniently enough it can be bought for 100 TP in the store. Unsurprisingly, this has generated a lot of uproar on the official forums. On the face of it, it doesn't seem like that big of a deal, but typically this new features comes with a few 'bugs' (which if not intentional are highly suspect).

One 'bug' involves the inability to drag the lockbox out of your inventory to destroy it, with bag space being a premium in the game and with my completely unfounded belief that lockboxes may drop more often than keys, that has annoyed people and the 'official' work around is to try and sell it to someone more foolish, or email it to alts and allow it to be deleted. The other 'bug' is that supposedly some of the items contained within are poorer than intended, like one player shouldn't have only received one pink dye. It is incredibly frustrating for someone invested in the game to see a highly controversial feature added with these 'quirks' and not get fixed ASAP.

One of the main issues players are protesting is this notion that they are introducing 'gambling' to the game, which I don't necessarily agree with. Loot chests are always a random chance, but the inclusion of tokens or rewards that are divided equally, not to mention the positive feeling of defeating encounters overcomes the negatives of the RNG. I doubt the RNG will ever go completely from MMOs, getting tokens turns into a grind fast but having some extra random item drop in addition is enough to sweeten the deal (see the upsurge in raid skirmishes). But the problem about lockboxes is not the random chance, it's the minimum value that a player receives for spending 100 TP, and if there is one then it's being kept firmly under wraps. It's the difference between how 'lucky bags' and a scam are perceived. 

Lucky bags available nowadays are likely more expensive than 100 TP in monetary value, but they usually contain several items, and if a child is not enthused by the toy there is always the sweets and chocolates. If Turbine had decided a minimum value, say each lockbox contained some currency (gold, medallions, seals etc.), some consumable items (store exclusive potions, buff items, scrolls) and a cosmetic item (cloaks, clothes, dyes, that exclusive mount, and the highly desired creep skins that have gotten the PvMP crowd up in arms), one item from each category in each box is where I'd put a minimum value. Asking players to spend 100 TP for a chance of getting junk is not acceptable and people have every right to express their disdain, whereas at least if they decided a minimum value and were open about it and also revealed the chances of obtaining the other rare 'advertised' items, this feature would be more accepted. There is unlikely ever going to be good data available in the community because apparently no-one is opening these lockboxes except for some curious people who got stung once and thought never again.

In the end I don't object outright to these items in the game, I'll happily ignore them while playing but it's the poor conception and implementation that is really dragging my enthusiasm for the game down.

Friday, December 16, 2011

[GW2] The Mesmer Unveiled

So no surprises at all, and Arenanet even got in a jab at the minstrel concept.

When I was speculating before on the key concept of the class, I was working under the premise of having a class based on punishment but without hexes. I'm ambivalent on the way they solved the 'no hexes' stance, they did in fact end up with 'hexes' but they work differently to what came before, though I'm consoled by the fact that these 'pseudo-hexes' seem to work in a better manner. There was one skill revealed that fitted my desired notion of the class, a barrier that if an enemy crosses they are crippled and if an ally moves through they gain swiftness, I'm still holding out that there are more skills with dual purposes like that, but what Arenanet has come up in addition to that beats the expectations I had.

But first those 'pseudo-hexes', one is a new condition called 'confusion' that deals damage whenever an enemy uses a skill. The fact it is a condition rather than a hex is better for two reasons, most classes have a heal that removes conditions or an utility skill that removes them from allies, so condition removal is going to be quite abundant and eliminates having to dedicate a slot to hex removal. The second reason is that the condition is stackable, so one application might be tolerable, but 3 or 4 can really start to hurt, it's no longer all or nothing:

"As of right now, it can actually stack. This means that it does a small amount of damage with one application, but with many applications, it will definitely make someone think twice about attacking!"

The second solution is that they have created phantasms, which appear like a physical manifestation of a hex, so there is a phantasm called 'Backfire' that appears and does damage to the target whenever they use a skill. I like the concept of these entities that look like the caster but have a one-track mind, they seem to have one skill and only target the enemy they were cast on, and linger until they are destroyed or the target dies. The advantage of this mechanic over hexes is that they can be attacked and dispelled by anyone if they choose. I'm in two minds about their appearance, they are purple/pink, translucent shades of the caster, and don't look like clones (which are an exact duplicate of the caster) so their is no possibility of mistaking one for the other, but an appearance that is more unique with a distinct silhouette like a beautiful dream that shatters to reveal an ugly nightmare. The aesthetic of the mesmer is fine, but injecting a little bit of ugly through the phantasms to offset the butterflies and rainbows evident in other skills would be a welcome balance.

"Question: "Have you ever thought about using unique models for phantasms? Seems they aren't meant to be deceptive like clones, so you could make them look pretty vicious if you wanted to."

Answer: "yeah we started out that way, but it ended up being more confusing as it a lot of noisier to combat and made us have to find very different profiles for each creature, when we changed them to being "Duelist, and Mages" we could easily give them weapons and skills that would make what they are doing more clear when it was creatures we where a lot more limited on what each thing could do.""

The other mechanics introduced are solid, the precasting mantras, the pairs of clone skills that work in an inverse fashion, the potential requirement that mesmer players learn to act like they have poor AI routines, fun and games with portals and the shatter mechanic. Of all the classes I'd say the mesmer has the most distinct design, and I can say I'm starting to like it more and more, the 'shattering glass' effect won me over instantly.

In addition to the mesmer information quoted, a reddit AMA by the Arenanet team was a great source of other information, including previously unknown skills, reworks, discarded designs and design goals. and of course the closed beta reveal.