Sunday, September 26, 2010

Give me the damn salad

After having multiple conversations with Tom and Matt about honesty, I was forced to do some self reflection about two issues. First, I don't feel I was able to fully communicate my stance on honesty, or why I think it is important. Second, there are undeniably problems with being completely honest. To better address these two issues, I have developed a new metaphor.

Let's say in another universe, we have the restaurant industry, which does everything it can to please its customers. The main difference is that in this universe, if you order something that your waiter does not think you will enjoy, he will bring you something else while telling you that's what you ordered. If you order a salad, your waiter will bring you a burger and insist it is a salad. Most people are happy with this system, but not me.

When I order a salad, I want them to bring me the damn salad. Experience has taught me that societal perceptions here have little to do with reality. When we were in high school, we could not have imagined being honest about masturbation. As adults, we see that in a society which has no problem talking openly about masturbation, our perceptions were unfounded. All subjects are like this, we are only scared of honesty because of our perceptions of how bad that honesty would be. Every time I have tried a dish that others insist would be terrible (having never dared try it themselves), it turned out fine.

There is also the issue of lingering doubt. While they may enjoy what they are eating, people know they cannot trust a waiter's insistence that they were given the dish that they ordered. This can be an issue when you actually need to know what dish you were given, yet there is no way to know for sure.

But most importantly, as an adult I feel this is my decisions to make. Despite how strongly the waiter feels I won't enjoy the salad (despite being wrong in every other insistence), I like trying new things, and if this salad truly is terrible then that is my mistake to make. Yet, nothing I say to this waiter will get me a salad, nor will he ever relent that the burger in front of me is not actually a salad.

So in pursuit of this belief, my restaurant pledges to always give customers exactly what they order. However, this is far from the first restaurant to make such a claim. There are two types of restaurants which claim to always give customers what they order, neither of which actually do.

The first type is just lying. It's something they say to attract customers, or to give credibility to their claims that the burger they gave you is indeed a salad. But they're sure as shit not going to give you that salad. They give you what you order...when you order something that's already good. Their claims of honesty and integrity are meaningless, the reality is they are no better than any other restaurant in this regard.

The second type of restaurant simply hates their customers. "Giving customers what they ordered" is an excuse to give them the worst dish they can come up with. True, if you order a salad, they will give you a salad, and do everything they can to make it the horrible salad you've always feared. But they only wish to make your experience unenjoyable, not that they care about what you ordered. If they think of something worse to give you that they think they can pass off as your order, they'll give you that instead.

So my restaurant faces some problems with new customers. Society has come to expect that when they order a salad, what they'll get is a burger and a pat on the head. Or in the rare cases they order a salad and actually get one, it has always identified the type of restaurant which hates their customers, and they should avoid in the future. Now I will make this salad as pleasant as I can, but I'm going to give them the salad they asked for.

This brings up the issue of "want" versus "order." Typically, when someone orders a salad what they are really asking for is a burger that they're told is a salad. From a certain perspective, it can be argued that I'm not giving people what they're actually asking for.

On the other hand, what about people who actually want a salad? They want to be treated like an adult, and given whatever they ordered regardless of whether their waiter thinks they should be given that dish. They also want the assurance that comes with knowing that what they are eating is indeed what they ordered. These are the exact people I want to serve at my restaurant, I cannot deny them what I promised to provide to instead continue supporting the idiotic status quo.

So what do I do when a new customer comes in and orders a salad? I say "no, I'm not giving you a salad. You don't really want a salad, and I'm not going to lie to you. Order something else."

Monday, June 7, 2010

Majesty 2

As with many games I berate, I cannot deny being hooked on Majesty 2. Upgrading and progressing through the stages of your town, as your heroes do quests for you and level up, is a lot of fun. The heroes are quite detailed, too. They each have their own skills which you research, and equipment (gear and potions) which you research to provide but the AI gathers on their own.

The intricacy can be seen at the end of a few of the levels where you fight one big badass level 30 boss. It functions just like a full raid. The tank runs in to hold aggro and absorb damage, the healers heal, and the DPS goes to town. The healers have a limited mana supply, so the DPS needs to take down the boss before the heals run out. Everyone has heal potions, but you can guess how long those last against a boss. The healers have mana potions, but they're too dumb to bring very many of those. Just like real players.

Majesty 2 has a lot of little problems, everything that Rock Paper Shotgun said is true and more, although they may have slightly improved the AI in terms of defending your town. One thing they don't talk about is the severe lack of balance among hero types. The rangers are the best ranged attackers and are super cheap to buy, they are your first choice on every level. The clerics are the second best ranged attackers, plus they can heal, so while more expensive they are your obvious second choice. Your third choice is more rangers, even though the price for the building goes up a good amount. Your fourth guild would be fighters,which are more like a necessary evil. You're going to need them at higher levels to stick one in every party, but at lower levels when your heroes are weak, it is somewhat problematic to run into melee range.

Rogues are super fragile, so while they are the cheapest initially, their deaths will rack up the costs and they very quickly become extremely expensive to keep around. They die so often they actually level half as fast as the other heroes. Wizards are also super weak, they are basically clerics without the heals. At higher levels, I'm sure they have some neato spells, but as they are the most expensive you will not have them until much later, at which point you don't need them. Your other heroes will be around level 10 and your Wizards will spawn level 1, already weak in comparison to other level 1's.

The key problem with Majesty 2 is the reverse difficulty curve. Missions start out at by far their most difficult in the very beginning, and get progressively easier as it goes along. And when I say "very beginning," that is no fucking joke, most missions will have several monsters attacking your town before it is possible for you to have any heroes yet. Missions tend to be a mad scramble to get your town in order as quickly as possible, after which you laugh in the face of all opposition. This relates to why the wizards are ultimately pointless, because by the time wizards are badass, there is no such opposition requiring anything more badass than what you already have.

To emphasize this problem, there was one mission which I accidentally underestimated the end boss. I was done with my town and everything else on the map, so I dumped a bunch of gold into an attack quest on him. All my predictable heroes wandered on up to face him, but the problem was that the boss had friends. Friends that my greedy, one-track-minded heroes could care less about in the face of the awesome bounty I had placed on the big cheese's head. No one "picked up the adds" and every last one of my heroes was wiped out. It was quite the amusing noob raid.

But it didn't matter. The boss wasn't designed to attack my town, and I already had towers set up to fend off anything that my town would see at that point. I slowly resurrected my heroes (price for this is based on hero type and level, so this was rather expensive), formed some parties, and sent them up to take out the adds first, all proper-like.

Part of the reverse difficulty curve is due to little "spawn points" dotted around the map. For instance, you might have a bear's den. It has a couple of bears hanging around, and every once in a while it spawns a bear to send down to your town. So, you set up a quest to destroy the bear's den, and you stop getting bear attacks. Eventually you clean out the whole map and you aren't getting attacked very much.

The other part of this is because several of the missions are designed by an absolute fucktard. Take, for example, the mission to destroy the dragon Rafnir. Rafnir is one of those level 30 bosses I mentioned above, which basically requires a full raid of well-geared, high level heroes to take down. So what makes this particular mission so hard?

About 10 seconds in, Rafnir attacks your town. I thought this was a bug at first. It isn't. He destroys one building, aoe one-shots every human in range with his breath attack, and then flies off. He will return to do this about every 30 seconds.

But we're not done yet! About 20 seconds in, around a dozen smaller level 5 dragons attack your town. These guys don't go away, and you'll get around 6 more of them every 60 seconds or so.

30 seconds in is about when you can have your first hero ready, assuming you are very lucky and none of the dragons decided to attack your guild. Heroes start at level 1, and having level 1 heroes pop out one at a time against a dozen level 5 dragons is every bit the disaster you're imagining. Just one of these dragons will kill a level 1 hero in 4 shots.

If you're imagining repeated epic failures that were clearly beyond hope within the first 60 seconds, we're on the same page here.

So how do you pass this? It starts with the placement of your market. The market is very important to your economy, and Rafnir has a hard-on for it. You place your market way down south, way south of your town as far as the game will let you place it. You see, Rafnir will try to go after your market, but he's a "timed" event of sorts. He doesn't make it to your market before he "resets" and turns back. He will do this every time he comes back, and every 30 seconds Rafnir will return to harmlessly fly directly through your town and back.

How do you deal with the smaller dragons? Ignore them. Abandon your town, build everything down south by your market. Your houses are auto-built by your citizens, you can't control where or when they are built, so those will all be built up by your palace. When a dragon destroys a house, another one will simply pop up somewhere else nearby. The dragons will kill your citizens too, but those automatically respawn too. None of that costs you anything.

You do get one singular royal guard to start every level, and he respawns automatically for free too. He's very weak, though. He has to respawn 3 times to take down one of those level 5 dragons. But the houses, citizens and royal guard will all continue repawning infinitely, no matter how many of them are destroyed by the dragons.

The palace is the only thing which doesn't respawn, and as you can imagine if it is destroyed you lose. But it has a ton of health and can take quite a beating. This is the basis of how you pass the mission, though. You try to build up your buildings and heroes down south in time for them to take your town back over before your palace is destroyed. Not easy, as the dragons come from all directions, including south, so you'll have to deal with some of them from the very beginning.

This isn't the only mission which will seem absolutely impossible at first, requiring some ridiculous meta-gaming strategy to defeat. The game is entertaining though, and definitely addictive, so it's worth the $7.50 I paid for it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The lie of wanting "hard"

Tobold instigated a recent discussion about what we would want to change to make WoW harder, a discussion which spread to several other blogs. I'm not really interested in that discussion, because the change between Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 made me realize I do not actually want my game to be hard. Why then after many many years of gaming was something so basic such a recent realization to me? And why do so many others claim they want things "harder" despite the overwhelming popularity of WoW, an inherently easy game, above many harder choices?

Obviously we have to start with what it means for a game to be "hard." Since I know of no game mechanic which would make the game harder, but at the same time actually make the player more skilled, we have to assume that anything which makes the game "harder" makes the player more likely to fail. Why would we want that? People do not want to fail, they want to succeed.

So why would we want a game to be hard, or at least think we do? A big part of this lies in psychology. When asked about positive traits such as intelligence, nearly all people believe they are above average. Obviously half are wrong, but the important thing is that humans tend to think they are better than most other humans. When players say they want a game to be "harder," they are imagining OTHER players will be the ones to fail while assuming that they are more skilled and will still succeed.

The heart of many games (especially MMORPGs) lies in delivering a sense of achievement to your players. The sense of achievement gained from a given accomplishment is based largely on the player's perception of how "difficult" the achievement is.

Take, for example, one of the greatest accomplishments that any player achieved in the history of WoW: a level 70 Druid is the first to solo Onyxia. Hours and hours of planning and re-planning, wipe after wipe, and even a little assistance from his buddy on the wandering add. After all that, to bring a 40 man raid boss down by himself. I can only imagine, based on my own much less impressive solo feats, how proud of himself he must have felt.

Now imagine the exact same scenario, only let's say Onyxia (balanced exactly the same) is considered a solo encounter that the majority of players beat easily. Our Druid friend steps in and the same consistent failures at something he believes most others can do lead to a huge amount of frustration. While he is facing exactly the same challenge himself, the perception now is that this is "easy" and he is therefore unskilled for being unable to do it right away which changes his experience drastically. Same game, same encounter, same ACTUAL level of challenge. But this time he will likely quit rather than stick it out and finally pass it.

So I think it boils down to this: we want a game that we perceive to be hard, not one that actually makes us consistently fail.

I now believe this to be the most important key to the popularity of WoW. WoW is a game which any idiot can succeed at, but at the same time that idiot will FEEL as if they are succeeding not because the game is easy, but because they personally are skilled. For instance, gathering up quests and going on quest runs to complete all the tasks along a given path or in a general area makes players feel like good planners, like you are more efficient at completing them than others (even though in reality the other players are all doing the same thing). Or doing instances as you level, which Gevlon is now in the midst of demonstrating can be done by only one or two players significantly lower level than the level of the instance.

The point is, WoW makes you feel like a skilled gamer. I'm sure there are many gamers who are loyal to WoW while being unable to understand why they are good at WoW but bad at so many other games.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Aion vs Darkfall (A Casual Player's Guide): Part 1


Hello everyone, I'm Terathis, one of the other Nerds howling at this blog's Moon. I've never written on a blog before, so bear with me as I learn the ropes. I'd like to start with a brief review of two recent MMORPG's. If you don't know what that means, you're probably on the wrong blog.

Over the holidays, I purchased copies of both Aion and Darkfall. I've played a few other MMO's in the past, most notably City of Heroes, World of Warcraft, and Warhammer Online. I certainly won't claim to be an expert in the genre, but I've been playing these games and thinking about them for the last five years. However, I'm most definitely on the casual end of the time-in-game spectrum due to having a family with three young children. It's that perspective on these games that I would like to share with you.

What is Casual?

First and foremost, let me explain what I mean by "casual." It's a word that gets thrown around a lot, but rarely defined. The most common usage is in reference to play time. My guess is that most MMO players think that anyone who plays less than they do is "casual" and anyone who plays more than they do is "hardcore." My own play time usually occurs in chunks of about 1-2 hours late at night after the kids have gone to bed. I play 3 or 4 nights a week, so my total weekly play time usually ends up being less than 10 hours. Considering that there are players who exceed that in a single day, I'd say that puts me securely in Casual Land.

I reject the notion that casual has to mean "low skill." While I don't have the reaction time and situational awareness of a pro, that doesn't mean I'm a clueless noob. On the contrary, I really enjoy the tactical challenges of MMO combat (such as it is), and relish the opportunity to improve my game. Whether I'm soloing or playing in a group, I'm always trying to think of ways to up my damage or healing by a few points.

Why Darkfall and Aion?

Having never played a sandbox style of MMO, Darkfall intrigued me with its promise of a huge open world and skill-based, rather than level-based advancement system. I've generally preferred PVE to PVP in the past, but I was interested to see how the PVP in Darkfall differed from that in WOW or WAR. Player cities was another feature that I had never experienced before that I thought held a lot of potential.

Aion came onto my radar thanks to my brother in law who is an avid MMO gamer as well. While staying with him over the Christmas holiday, I had an opportunity to watch him play and recognized a lot of tropes from WOW. Aion was far more familiar to me than Darkfall, and I had to admit that it was graphically superior to any MMO I'd seen before it. After discussing the classes and gameplay with my brother in law, I decided to give Aion a go as well.

Installation and Character Creation

Both games were fairly easy to install. Darkfall required a fairly substantial torrent download whereas Aion came on DVD. Since I had a previous account with NCSoft for City of Villains, I was able to just add Aion to my list of games and go from there. Account setup went fine with Aventurine as well. Since the price of both games is the same, that part of the comparison is a wash. I have to say that the price of both games is probably too high. I know that 50 dollars has become the default price point for new PC games, but PVP-focused MMO's in particular are so reliant upon keeping server populations high that it seems to me that they would be better served by a lower initial price point. Syncaine of Hardcore Casual would probably refer to the box price as a "tourist tax." But I think that ignores one of the best (or worse) characteristics of MMO games. They are ADDICTIVE. Crack dealers don't charge 50 dollars for the first hit and neither should MMO developers. Just get people in the crack house in the first place.

Character creation is one of my favorite parts of an RPG and I'll admit to spending hours upon hours tweaking and adjusting a character's hair style or tattoo pattern in previous games. As you might expect, Aion gets the nod here due to its graphical prowess. Darkfall does offer a greater variety of races to choose from (six versus two), but I'm a sucker for the Asian look that Aion has in spades. You can create a genuinely beautiful character in Aion. Darkfall is not a complete slouch in this category. I didn't expect it to have nearly as many options as it has. While the races of Darkfall are all fantasy stalwarts with the exception of the Mahirim (Wolf People), there are a sufficient number of options to ensure that you don't look like every other member of your race.

To be continued in Part 2...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What does it mean to be stupid?

Gevlon has an interesting post about being a mercenary in WoW. Even more interesting to me is that in it, he claims a very specific breakdown of capable players to morons. Not surprisingly, he declares most people to be morons.

This is nothing new, lots of people accuse the majority of the rest of the population of being idiots. People even arbitrarily declare made up statistics (like I'm assuming Gevlon did), such as "90% of people are stupid." While a part of me agrees with this sentiment, the scientific, rational part of me wants to know "what does it mean to be stupid?"

There is a joke about a dog playing checkers. An onlooker says, "I can't believe how smart that dog is!" To which the owner replies, "he's not smart, I've beaten him 8 times in a row." The joke is based on the relativism of what it means to be "smart." For dogs, the standards are different. Most dogs cannot play checkers, so being able to play the game at all would constitute a dog being "smart." No one would think a dog who could not play checkers was "stupid."

This gives us a way to view what is "smart" and what is "stupid," simply by using the majority as "typical." If 90% of humans in incapable of understanding a certain thought process, that does not make them stupid. That makes it something which humans typically cannot do, and the 10% who can are smart for humans.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Is Achievement more important than fun?

Since Matt already beat me out for the ceremonial "FIRST!!!!!" post (he posted "test," but we all know what he was thinking on the inside), I suppose I'll have to discuss something of substance.

Achievement in games is often treated as only some signifier of the fun you had. Unlocking achievements in a racing game just means you raced a lot. Unlocking achievements in a FPS just means you "pwned" a lot of "noobz." The achievement itself means nothing, when you sit down and play it carries no weight, your performance and enjoyment of the next play session is no different with or without the achievement.

The exception to this is the RPG. Your achievements are not just part of the game, they define the game through experience points, levels and quests. The "kill 10 rats" quest is not some side feature of a game about killing rats, killing rats is almost a side activity in a game about completing quests and gaining levels.

While a lot of discussion is put into making the process of killing rats fun, very little discussion is put into creating the creating the best sense of achievement. This is in spite of the general acknowledgment that in RPGs (and more specifically MMORPGs) players will do whatever lets them reach their goals fastest, even if it is significantly less fun than something else they could do.

In short, when given the choice between achievement and fun, players usually choose achievement.

The interesting thing is that the response from developers is still to focus on the fun. It isn't an attempt to make the best achievements, it is an attempt to use achievements to force you to have their fun. Developers try to make it so that the most fun thing to do IS the fastest way to reach the goal. When players find an unintended faster way to reach a goal, that new way is labeled an "exploit" and treated as a huge problem because it circumvents the intended "fun" way.

To me, this is the most overlooked aspect to an RPG, especially an MMORPG. I feel that delivering a good sense of accomplishment to a player through proper challenges and appropriate rewards is more important to the "addictiveness" of an RPG than the fun itself. It would seem that the online gaming community agrees, at least when voting with their dollars. The original Everquest had a reputation amongst its own player base as being "not fun," yet they continued to play, and that game was king among online games for several years. On the other hand, City of Heroes was by far the most fun online game I have played, yet it did not ever enjoy the success of even several other games aside from WoW.

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