Monday, December 21, 2015

Empires or Nomads

One problem with PvP MMOs is that they can fall into stagnant states. Each major entity has their own empire. The empire generates enough resources to maintain that power. The empires are unwilling to fully engage other empires in war, because there's a chance they might lose. Instead they'll skirmish on the borders to relieve boredom.

In theory, new entities could challenge the existing empires. In practice though, long-standing empires are usually structured better than the challengers. The empires have been around longer, and have seen what works and what doesn't work. If a challenger does arise, they are usually beaten into submission quite quickly.

When you get into the stagnant state, the real threat to an Empire's survival is not other players, but internal drama. It's arguable that Eve Online has fallen into this state now.

Perhaps the problem is the very concept of empire itself. Once an empire is in a steady state, it usually stands until something major changes. Things like the emperor dying or succession struggles. But these sorts of events are unlikely in PvP games.

A better structure for PvP MMOs might be "nomadic tribes" rather than empires. Under the nomadic model, resources in a given area are consumed faster than they are generated. Thus when the resources run out, the nomads must move on to new regions.

That movement brings them into contact and competition with other tribes, making conflict and war more likely and more necessary.

Imagine that all the CFC's territory in Eve Online suddenly stopped producing resources. The CFC would have to move, and that would generate a huge amount of PvP.

But there is an attraction to holding territory, to claiming "your" space. I'm not sure that a nomadic game would have the same attraction that the empire games do.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I will try to avoid major spoilers, but this is a discussion of the new movie. There may be spoilers, especially in the comments.

The Force Awakens is a competent but unimaginative movie. It's like Disney asked "What are the elements of a Star Wars movie?" and then went down the list and added in equivalents of each item.

The prequels were bad movies, significantly worse than The Force Awakens. But even they had a sense of vision that TFA lacks. Lucas was trying to tell a story, to tell something new. To add something to his universe. While watching TFA, I got the sense that this movie was so insistent on reminding you that it is a Star Wars movie, that it forgot to be its own thing.

As a result, TFA comes off as a pale copy, a second-rate Star Wars. That's true of many elements in the movie as well. The First Order is a second-rate Empire, Kylo Ren is a second-rate Darth Vader, Jakku is a second-rate Tatooine, BB-8 is a second-rate R2-D2. There are a lot more parallels, but that gets into spoiler territory.

But a second-rate Star Wars is still a pretty good movie.

There are many good things about TFA. The two new leads, Rey and Finn, are solid, engaging characters. Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford, and pretty much steals every scene he's in.

I think Finn is a bit of a missed opportunity. He's an ex-Stormtrooper, but the film went to great lengths to make sure you know he's a good guy and never did anything bad. He might have been far more interesting as a redeemed bad guy.

As for Rey, she's a decent heroine. The problem with Rey is that she is ... excessively competent.  (Though this is probably mandatory for a female lead in an action movie these days.) Compare her character to Luke Skywalker from the first movie. The problem is that she has no path to growth. I rather think the only way she'll become interesting is if she falls to the Dark Side.

I should note that complaints about Finn and Rey are minor at best. In many ways they were the best part of the movie.

But I keep returning to the part about "adding something". The really good works in an extended universe make that universe richer and more interesting. As an example, take Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy. Those books may not have been the greatest literature but they gave us Grand Admiral Thrawn and the Chiss, among many other elements. The Force Awakened really does not expand Star Wars in any direction.

As well, I think that I am not a fan of J.J. Abrams, at least his movies. So far, he tends to string together frentic action scenes instead of making an actual movie. It's like "action sequence, glue scene, action sequence, glue scene, repeat". It's not as bad as the atrocity which was Star Trek: Into Darkness. However, I think TFA would actually have been better with fewer action sequences.

To be fair, I think a lot of modern action and sci-fi movies have the same problem. I blame the extensive budgets of modern films. The the older films couldn't afford to make the entire film a special effects extravaganza, so they saved up for a few really key sequences. But now budgets are such that directors can and do go crazy, and I think the films suffer for it.

In any case, that's what I thought of The Force Awakens. It's decent enough, but unimaginative. If you were asked what a Star Wars movie "designed by committee" would look like, you'd probably come up with The Force Awakens.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rotations as a Proof of Competence

Continuing on from the previous discussion of Proof of Competence, asking for spec is not the best question. It's a decent question. It's easy to answer and verify. And it does tend to give the information you're looking for. But there are better questions.

In particular, asking for rotation is a much better question. Someone who can rattle off the correct rotation is very likely to be a decent player.  (Rotation here also means ability priority list, not just strict rotation.) The problem is that asking for the rotation is a harder question to answer and verify. You can't just inspect the player and see their rotation.

But what if you could?

In WoW, there are a number of mods which will display the next ability you should use. Some also show the next few abilities of the optimum sequence. You still have to hit the right buttons, but these mods basically show you the best theorycrafted rotation as it happens.

What if this type of UI element, this "Rotation Helper", was part of the base game?

The idea here is that the game doesn't fill out the rotation on its own. Instead, you would have a screen where you could drag abilities into a priority list. Essentially construct your own rotation. The rotation you constructed would then be displayed, and you could hit your buttons to match.

Another player could then inspect you, and just like they see your gear today, they could see the rotation loaded in your Rotation Helper. And perhaps you could send and receive rotations from other players or third parties. If Sally is another Retribution paladin in your raid and is doing better than you, perhaps you can ask her for her rotation and compare it to yours, or replace yours with hers.

The hard part, though, is to construct a Rotation Helper which is simple enough to use, but also powerful enough to construct a decent priority list. A lot of abilities require things like "use when this buff reaches 4 stacks" or "use when this debuff is about to drop off". This kind of stuff is easy to do in code, in a programming language, but is harder to create in a GUI. A Rotation Helper is a non-trivial design problem.

This Rotation Helper wouldn't really help with reactive abilities like healing, or tank cooldowns, or interrupts. But it would significantly help with DPS.

Of course, there are concerns that this type of UI element is "playing the game for you". But such helper mods already exist, and a decent amount of high end players use them already. These type of mods help those players perform better, and would probably significantly help weaker players who don't know about them.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Few Good Raiders

Son, we play the game that has tiers, and those tiers have to be guarded by men with an attitude. Who's gonna do it? You? Or intern Musco? Toxic players have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for loot, and you curse the Elitism. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what they know. That kicking the noobs, while tragic, probably saved lives. And their existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want hardcore players to explore the game, you need elite players. We use words like masterloot, knowfights, gear check. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent achieving something. You use them as a punchline. So I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of Cartel Market. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, gear and rise your skill. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to.
Colonel, did you order the vote kick?
You're goddamn right I did!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Devilian First Impressions

Devilian is the latest game published by Trion. It's developed by a division of Bluehole, who made TERA. Devilian is a ARPG MMO, sort of like Diablo, only with more MMO aspects. It's the classic isometric perspective like Diablo, rather than the 3rd-person over-the-shoulder perspective of most modern MMOs. The design "asthetic" is very much like TERA.

The first thing that will turn off a lot of people is that classes are locked to a specific body type. The Evoker is a tall female, Cannoneer is a short female, Berserker is a brawny male, and Shadowhunter is a more slim male. You can change hair color, skin color, facial features, etc, but you are locked to the base body.

The game plays very well. Bluehole always gets this aspect right. The controls are crisp and well-done, and combat is very nice. The pace is slower than Diablo 3, but not excessively slow. Gearing is more like an MMO as well.

The leveling is very quest driven and linear. In fact, every quest literally has an auto-run which will automatically take you to the right location. This sounds excessive, but it works nicely for this style of game. Every few levels you come across a dungeon which you do with two others. There's no threat, so it's a bit of a zerg, but it plays well with just three. Group matching is automatic.

The game is polished, and feels high-quality. The story isn't anything amazing, it's on par with TERA and other imports. But there are a lot of nice touches all over. I'm only level 27 or so, and the cap is 55, so I have no idea what endgame is like.

There are some interesting aspects as well. For example, you have the standard gear (gloves, boots, hat, etc.) but you also have "talismans". Talismans are collectible cards featuring a person. Each card has attributes. You can equip up to five talismans. Some talismans belong to sets, and get bonuses if each card from the set is equipped. You can also merge duplicate cards together, making that talisman more powerful. You get talismans from boxes as rewards or that you can craft using materials from disenchanted magic items. It's actually a really neat alternate gearing system, with just the right amount of randomness, but even having "bad draws" be useful.

They're also trying some interesting things in the social realm. Every day you can send 10 gift boxes to people on your friends list. The game actually gives you a quest to invite 10 people as friends, and shows you a list of people at your level. So there's a lot of spamming strangers for invites around then. But I once defined social bonds as "repeated interactions among a set of people", so maybe sending gifts to each other will build bonds. Or maybe not. In any case, it's a neat idea.

The only thing I should note is that Devilian is a F2P game. There is a cash shop. Honestly, I'm not sure if it's cosmetic-only, or if you pay for power. I imagine that it will be like TERA's cash shop.

Personally, I think that, if you can get past the locked character classes, Devilian is worth trying. It plays well, and does a few new neat things. The talisman system in particular is worth stealing by other MMOs.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Proof of Competence

Once again we are discussing the issue of cookie-cutter specs created by theorycrafters and the high-end, and those specs being enforced by the playerbase at large.. An article on BlizzardWatch started the current issue, and Talarian offers his viewpoint.

I think that most of the comments are approaching this from the wrong angle. Everyone seems to assume that the players who insist on cookie-cutter specs are being irrational and "mean", denying other players the option to be creative. But what if the players insisting on cookie-cutter specs are entirely rational, and entirely correct in their reasoning?

So let's start there. Why do players insist on cookie-cutter specs?

Well, let's say you're a raid leader and you have two applicants: Chris and Sam. Chris' spec is drastically different from the accepted theorycraft, as are his secondary stats. Sam, on the other hand, is texbook cookie-cutter. Which of the two is more likely to be the better player?

You may not like to hear this, but 99% of the time Sam will be the better player. And it won't even be close. Sam will probably do twice the damage that Chris does. Adherence to the cookie-cutter spec is usually a sign the player has done outside research, who at least has read a guide and knows the best rotation.

Essentially what the raid leader is looking for is a "Proof of Competence". A cookie-cutter spec is one such proof. Yes, this is unfair to good players who want to experiment, but from the raid leader's point of view, she cannot infer that. The information she has is limited, and it's best to follow the Proof of Competence, even if she occasionally turns down a good player.

So how can we encourage a wider variety of specs? The answer to that revolves entirely around the Proof of Competence.

First, you could substitute something else as the Proof of Competence. Examples here are logs showing good performance, or achievements. These are often harder to obtain, though. Requiring a cookie-cutter spec is better than requiring people to have already beaten the fight you are working on.

Second, you can not allow the opportunity to view the Proof of Competence. For example, you could not allow inspection of specs. But that doesn't stop people from just asking questions. Another example is LFR, where the group is automatically put together. It's much easier to take a variant spec into LFR.

Third, you could make the spec matter a lot less. Throughput talents almost always have a "right" answer. If all talents were utility talents, most people would not care so much. For example, SWTOR talents are almost entirely utility talents, and no one cares what talents you take. However, the downside is that they require something different as a Proof of Concept. In SWTOR, pick-up groups usually require that you have already beaten the instance previously (by linking the achievement), which makes life hard for newer players.

Fourth, you could make content easier. Arguably LFR and Normal Mode in WoW are like this. People are less likely to insist on a Proof of Competence when success is likely.

Fifth, you can encourage extended groups such as guilds, and diminish the viability of transient pick-up groups. The thing about a Proof of Competence is that you only have to demonstrate it once, at the start of the relationship. Once the other players are confident in you, you have a lot more freedom. If the great mage in your group wants to experiment with a different spec tonight, the rest of the group is often happy to let her try. People in established raid groups have far more leeway to experiment with spec choices than people who run with pick-up groups.

In conclusion, players are being entirely rational when they insist on cookie-cutter specs. If you want to allow your players the freedom to choose their talents, you have to address the need to prove competence. From my point of view, cookie-cutter specs are actually among the least restrictive Proofs of Competence. Pretty much every other option is worse.