Balanced For

A level of difficulty entails certain assumptions. Problems arise when those assumptions do not obtain. Most difficulty settings assume some level of experience, either in player skill or numerical balance.

Numerically, a new raid tier assumes a certain gearscore, probably that almost everyone on your team has a partial set from the last raid tier. You could shoot lower or have a DPS check that assumes full tier 12 before you have a reasonable chance at tier 13, but that will lead to easy/difficult raids. The new raid will also assume that you already know all your class abilities and how to use them to counter common situations. Hard mode for the new raid will assume that you have beaten normal mode and know all the mechanics.

Pixel click bosses assume that you already know everything the bosses can do. Well, no, they don’t assume that, but beating them is balanced around that. You are expected to research or fail the first few times until you know what that icon means. If you have the time and resources to spend on first-hand research, you can be a trailblazer. If not, the wiki and Youtube are there for you. If difficulty were tuned to give you a reasonable chance walking in blind, you would probably find the fights trivial when you did not need to spend two minutes reading abilities and thinking about how they interact. (LotRO’s “In Their Absence” update did many things very well, including hitting this balance of fair bosses.)

When I say that Guild wars expects you to have the wiki open, I mean that the difficulty of encounters is tuned around players’ already knowing what those encounters are. You can beat many/most of them going in blind, and the mastery reward almost certainly involves knowing the encounters once you are past the tutorial missions. Later missions are balanced around the assumption that you have capped your equipment and that you have taken time to farm elite skills. With the right skill setup, missions can go from a 5% chance of success to a 95% chance of mastery. Even the hardest missions are not balanced around the assumption of the perfect build, so the perfect build can make it trivial, but an all purpose build may not work for all purposes, and it certainly might not get you to the mission bonus needed for the titles.

Most of us come from a single-player game background, and the “gotcha” moments there are so common that it is actually shocking to have a one-phase final boss. Oh look, I needed to bring two entirely different weapons to the final fight, and I lost half my health for not leaping away from the boss the instant he died. Yawn. Okay, learn how phase two works, then re-load and re-do phase one. Let’s hope we didn’t waste too much time on phase one. Do I sound bored? I’m bored with it. It’s both obvious and nigh impossible to plan for, so the game is effectively taxing you X minutes by not having a save point between boss phases. You know it’s going to try to screw you over, just like you knew a big fight was coming when you found the stack of health and ammo.

That moment is far worse in multi-player games because it needs to be balanced around everyone knowing, so being the one guy who does not know means ruining it for everyone. That’s not fun design. You face lots of situations where there is a briefing before the fight and half the players are just following orders while trying to get some sense of what is going on here. That’s not a lot of fun as either the leader or the follower, and there is a narrow window for groups that already know each other to explore collectively without anyone feeling dragged along or held back … but you’ve already heard my rants about games that need you to bring all your own friends and fun to work (short version: so you might as well play anything because the game is not carrying its weight).

The numeric balancing is clearer. You can demonstrate that X DPS or Y gearscore is needed to reasonably beat a fight. The developers could even post that on the entry screen. Skill and knowledge balancing is much harder.

: Zubon

[GW] Tooth Enamel and the Aging Adventurer

This weekend, as I was taking a chocolate bunny from the remains of a land-going fish assassin, a man carrying 1250 ingots of iron in a belt pouch remarked to me that it was unrealistic that he could salvage wood from charcoal. I had trouble hearing him speak from a different continent, partly because of the way 13,507 gold coins were clinking in my pockets, but he strangely evoked another worry in me.

My character has not consumed anything but candy and alcohol for the past three months. “Not even skale fin soup?” No, allergies. To some, this just sounded like college, but he is getting on in ranger years, and I became seriously worried about the state of his teeth. Perhaps the alcohol will kill the bacteria?

: Zubon

[GW] HoM Check: 25/50

The Hall of Monuments provides a convenient way of summarizing how much “stuff” you’ve done in Guild Wars, at least to completion. I am at 25 points. I have done almost everything there is to do in-game at least once. I still have two Eye of the North dungeons I have not visited, a few Factions challenge missions I have never run, and I have only tried the solo-queue PvP options. I also have not run every quest, but the only one left that seems strongly recommended is the titan-clearing chain at the end of Prophecies. I have repeated some but not all on hard mode.

Touring Hall of Monuments categories: Continue reading [GW] HoM Check: 25/50

[GW] Artifical Intelligence and Natural Stupidity

Computer-controlled characters do some things better than humans can. They have complete battlefield awareness, so they can see someone start a spell with a 0.5s casting time, switch targets, and interrupt with a 0.25s casting time spell. (Of course, a human can occasionally interrupt a 0.25s spell with a 0.25s spell by just firing at random, “I’ve got a hunch he’s about to cast…”) NPC healers never whine about needing to be the healer, and they never get tired of staring at hit point bars.

The hard part can be making it so you want anything other than NPC companions. There is a narrow space between “completely useless” and “good AI,” and then between “good AI” and “better than the player.” In a FPS, the only limits on how aware and accurate an NPC is are computer-defined. One balancing factor is that NPCs exhibit perfect tactics but absolutely no strategy. Another is that you can just stop trying to improve the AI at some point; if it is already competitive with the humans, you don’t need to improve it, and you may have gone too far. GW also PVE-only skills, which are overpowered and not available to heroes and henchmen.

Another is letting the computer do completely stupid things that humans do. This also adds a sense of verisimilitude when playing with them. I used to joke that my heroes needed advanced “don’t stand in the fire” lessons. Then I watched a hero run past me into a sandstorm to start casting his spells, and it stopped being funny.

: Zubon

[GW] Diminishing Marginal Utility

Man, that’s a great spawn you’ve put together. I bet our players will want to fight it 15-20 times in one sitting.
— GW1 design meeting minutes

I am open to the argument that Prophecies PvE content was good when it came out. Maybe if you start in Prophecies and play through, this seems fine. If I grant you that, I need you to grant me that whoever put together Prophecies hard mode did what could very charitably be described as “the best s/he could, given the circumstances.”

I would love to help you VQ Eastern Frontier, but I promised my mom I’d quit cutting myself for Lent.
— guildmate

It is not just that the content is poor and not much fun. It comes in huge doses that the game encourages you to choke down. Guild Wars encourages its players to go kill all 300 enemies on that map. There are only 4 or 5 different spawns on that map, and you get a small team size, so go have fun killing those 4 or 5 groups for an hour or two. It is a bad sign when the wiki recommends starting 6+ zones away as a time-saver because it you can run a large team from a distant zone faster than you can vanquish a zone with a 4-person group.

Vanquisher runs of this area without active quests requires defeating around 350 foes. Including quest influences, it has been reported to range from 271 to 393.
Guild Wars wiki

I’ll discuss sometime soon why balancing Prophecies hard mode is nigh impossible.
: Zubon

[GW2] Demand More

What feels like another world ago, I was finding ways to become a blogournalist, especially with ArenaNet. I dutifully followed Regina Buenaobra’s personal Twitter account¬†because at that time I saw digging for any and every crumb of Guild Wars 2 I could find… when few else were. She used to link a lot of personal stuff, mostly feminist blogs, and since I wasn’t finding any Guild Wars 2¬†info, I usually read what she linked.

A real life friend once maladroitly called me an Inverse Darth Vader. She meant I acted with a heart of gold, but my thoughts were always on the Dark Side. In keeping with this aspect, I read the feminist blogs, and I didn’t understand any of it. I have a wife, mom, and a sister who I respect and treat in kind, and each seemed to want different things from my respect. This all just confused me about woman more. One thing Regina linked did stick, severely.

I wish I could find it now, but one blog entry was a retort to all the negativity against feminist action. Every answer was basically “I demand more.” For example, if the question was “What do you expect with the way television portrays woman?” The answer would be “I demand more.” It really wasn’t an answer so much as a philosophy. The writer didn’t have all the answers, but she had a will and a belief that things could become better. Continue reading [GW2] Demand More

[GW] Contagiousness

This Van Hemlock post inspired my ranger’s use of conditions. Fleshy foes are fun targets for Apply Poison-Hunter’s Shot-Epidemic. Oh look, that entire clump of enemies is poisoned and bleeding. (As I have mentioned, I really hated non-fleshy foes when I was using that build.) Broadhead Arrow-Epidemic-Volley is a fun way to oppress groups of casters. I have grown fond of spreading conditions, so I love having heroes that spread them further. “You move like a dwarf!”

I’ve read Saramago. Blindness is totally contagious. I don’t see why cut hamstrings should be any less so.

: Zubon

[GW] Poor Balance in Exploration, Achievement, and Grind

Each Guild Wars campaign has a title for various 100%s. Completing the campaign nets you a Hall of Monuments trophy but no title. Completing all campaign missions with all bonuses is the Protector title, then Guardian if you do so in hard mode. Kill every monster in every zone in hard mode to get Vanquisher, and uncover the entire map to get Cartographer. Capturing every elite skill is another.

Then there are meta-titles. There are titles for getting all the Vanquisher titles, all the Cartography, all the elite skills, and for combined Protector and Guardian. The real meta-title is “Kind of a Big Deal” through “God Walking Amongst Mere Mortals,” based on your number of maxed titles. Maxed titles plug into the Honor monument, points for your Guild Wars 2 rewards. All of these are good and fine, to the extent that they are sane.

Add Eye of the North to that. Do you need to conquer this new campaign in all ways to complete the meta-titles? What happens if you already have one? And how do dungeons factor in? The developers handled all that with a combined Master of the North title. Missions, dungeons, vanquishing, and cartography add points.

This is poor because of the effort to reward ratio for Eye of the North versus other campaigns. I can take Factions to 100% complete and get six Honor statues in the Hall of Monuments (plus progress on meta-titles), or I can do the same in Eye of the North (with dungeons instead of skill-capping) and get one. Eye of the North has multiple reputation titles, but those are less readily available for the Hall of Monuments than the Factions or Nightfall titles. On the other hand, Eye of the North is rather shorter than, say, Prophecies’ 25 missions and 54 zones.

It is good content, which is intrinsically rewarding, but the extrinsic rewards for 100% completion are lacking relative to the base campaigns. Most of the extrinsic rewards come from the new PvE skills, which make it easier to gain those base campaign rewards.

: Zubon

[GW] Balancing Exploration, Achievement, and Grind

Rewards for the “Wanted by the Shining Blade” daily quests are a model of elegant design. If you complete the full cycle of quests in hard mode, you receive 255 war supplies. You need 250 for an oppressor weapon, which leaves you room to skip a day, not run them all in hard mode, save/sell them, or add them to the confessor’s orders you collect to get a royal gift.

The simple excellence of this design leaves little except to point at it and say, “do this.” On the Explorer side, we have a daily activity on a three-week cycle, taking you into eleven zones and revamping old content. There is a lot to see there, and this creates an Explorer bread crumb trail through the War in Kryta content. An the Achiever side, this is exactly one unit of Hall of Monuments progress. You want at least one oppressor weapon, and you can earn that through the Wanted cycle or even from repeating partial completions. I expect that someone has worked out the optimal war supplies/minute quest selection. In terms of grind, this is the level I want to see: try everything once, and you get the reward; if you like it, you can repeat it for more rewards; if not, you have other options for both this check-box and the rest of the category. This one is entirely optional anyway, because you can get an oppressor weapon or two from the story arc (or buy from other players).

Potential improvements: don’t make the number of cycling quests a multiple of 7, because each quest will always be on the same day of the week, which is a problem for some players; I have no idea if the rewards are balanced between quests, as they range from 4 to 22 war supplies.