A Stable Bass

This is one of the occasional music posts, so depart here if those annoy you. This one gets the WoW tag: we have a five-person group with three in the flashy front roles, but I’m focusing on the two in the less visible roles. Rather than one song, our music of the moment is Pentatonix in the third season of The Sing-Off. You can see all their performances in this compilation, but I encourage you to pursue the YouTube links for videos from “mrduckbear11,” who posts clips from the show, because the judges’ commentary is actually useful rather than just “the nice one, the mean one, and the overly excited one.”

The Sing-Off is essentially American Idol a cappella, skipping the part where you humiliate the lousy singers. The winners in the third season were a small, young group that was mostly noted for their interesting and risky arrangements. Five people, three lead singers, lots of interesting sounds. Listen to at least a few, and then listen to a recurring theme in the judges’ commentary: their percussion and beat box are great and tie everything together so that their lead performers can shine. Try starting at 4:30 on OMG or 6:08 on the Forget You/Since U Been Gone mix. Shawn Stockman’s phrase is “meat and potatoes”: they are strong on the fundamentals, not just the flair. Compare that to Delilah, another group from season three that started with one of the best performances in the series but was eliminated after a performance with a brilliant lead but a failure of support. The lead on that is actually better than The Band Perry, but the commentary is on-point: it becomes discordant without a base to stand on. Compare to Ben Folds’s discussion of their first performance, when the support worked well.

Do I need to unpack the analogy at this point? We even have the perfect analogue with a 5-person, 3-DPS group. You need those big, shiny numbers to win, but they don’t matter without your tank and healer. It got me thinking about the offensive line in (American) football: it is an unglamorous role with almost no statistics to support who is better or worse, and the camera is on the guy running the ball, but you can definitely tell when the offensive line fails and the quarterback is crushed before he can try to do anything interesting. If you know to watch, you can see the tank quietly being a superstar, but good support is usually invisible. (Grabbing another game, a friend loves to watch StarCraft replays at LAN parties and should about how the player trying to do something flashy or cheesy gets crushed on fundamentals. Grabbing a third, I still play League of Legends Dominion occasionally; people chase for kills, but capping the points wins the game.)

Do you have a favorite fight where the tanks and the healer really take front stage, rather than seeing people compare kill counts and damage meters? Flip back to the mix video and try 2:53, where the background gets center stage, the a cappella equivalent of a drum solo. Part of the appeal of City of Heroes was how support could be strong, essential, flashy, and featured, while a damage source is a damage source, and then there is the difference in LotRO DPS compared to WoW.

: Zubon

This comes on the eve of the Guild Wars 2 launch, a game eliminating healers and tanks, and I’m nearing the end of my time in Guild Wars playing a ranger as a support class.

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

Differing Dailies: Reliable, Rotating, and Random

In our world of quest-based PvE MMOs, repeatable content is a necessity for extending longevity. If there is nothing to do, players go elsewhere. The most popular approach to this is daily (or occasionally weekly, twice weekly, etc.) quests, and that is our compare-and-contrast essay of the day. (Do not steal it for high school English class unless you define many of the terms we are taking for granted.)

More specifically, the topic is how you structure those daily quests. I call some “reliable” in that they are unvarying. The same daily quests are available every day. “Random” dailies will have a pool from which some unknown ones are pulled each day. “Rotating” is the halfway point: a pool that moves in a consistent manner, so what is available is reliably known but not constant.

World of Warcraft is the trope codifier for dailies. When I played (late WotLK), they limited you to 25/day, and everything was always available. That is one of the great merits of reliable dailies: everything is available. There is no artificial scarcity. If you want it, it is there. If you like X, X will be there for you every day. You can set up a routine, and as a developer, you want to promote having your players log in consistently. Consistency is a kind of virtue. WoW also included some randomness, like the daily fishing and cooking quests. Didn’t they extend that with the Cataclysm solo endgame, with so many of the daily quests available per day?

I find randomness good for mixing it up, breaking up routines that lead to doldrums, but it is frustrating when you want something to come up and it does not. If you are randomly picking one of four quests, there is a 53% chance that one of them will not appear in a given week. When instant gratification takes too long, this can be bad. It forces on the player what is probably a good plan (not doing the same thing every day), but players resist being forced into anything.

The Lord of the Rings Online™ is another “always everything” game. Skirmishes extended this by giving a daily bonus to a menu of instances you could pull up. That content was usually available at all times, but the quest bonus was 1/day. (I say, “was,” but I presume this continues in Isengard.)

The daily or weekly bonus seems to be the easiest approach. You can get a bonus for doing each piece of content over each time period X. The numerically equivalent but less friendly-sounding version is to have diminishing returns for repeating content.

Guild Wars goes for pure “rotating.” The wiki has a list of when everything is coming up for the 7 dailies. This contains some of the merits of the other two approaches, in that what is available is known in advance and can be planned around but is not a constant each day. Embark Beach is a Schelling point; hundreds of options would spread the players everywhere, while a small set of daily options focuses grouping. Of course, as with random, if you do not like the daily option (any of the 7?), you are out of luck, and everyone with whom you might want to group is being channeled away from you. You do not even get the hope that your choice will randomly come up tomorrow; you can see on the calendar that it will be up in mid-March, that day you will be on a business trip. Guild Wars has the additional interesting bit that you can pick up but not complete the Zaishen missions and get to them tomorrow. I am a new player still going through the campaigns, so if the mission of the day is one I expect to get to later this week, I can store that bonus.

League of Legends has a generic “first win of the day” bonus. You get it for any map, PvE or PvP. That seems to be just a “come back every day!” incentive, as it cannot channel the players anywhere, although there are few enough options that channeling seems unnecessary.

Because I have not played every MMO, the door is wide open for reader commentary on how game X did it. The hard part on doing the comparison is that daily content is usually at the level cap, and how many MMOs have you played at the level cap for any meaningful length of time? Oh wait, you read MMO blogs.

I know which site I am writing for, but please resist the urge to say, “Guild Wars 2 events will solve this” unless you can tie it back to the daily-specific focus. You know how much it pains me to have skipped City of Heroes because their repeatable content has (had?) no time limits on repeatability, although there is a task force of the week bonus.

: Zubon

Newb Boon

You do not need a comparative advantage to be the best at something [FTFY] to enjoy the benefits of trade, nor does your trading partner. Even if you can do absolutely everything better and more efficiently than I can, it will still benefit you to trade with me because you do not have the option of doing everything at once. I may shovel well, but if I am also a pretty good obstetrician, it will probably be more productive for me to pay someone with fewer high-value options to dig.

If you were to start playing World of Warcraft right now, you could make decent money farming copper. The enemies are not gray to you, so you would not be the most efficient farmer, but people who earn lots of gold per hour are happy to give you a bit of it on the auction house. On a non-trade example, when I went back to Asheron’s Call with a fresh account, I financed several dozen levels by hopping a portal to a high-level hunting zone and scavenging a pack of trash loot that players left in their wake. If I had thought of it, I could have made a service of being the town-visiting pet from Torchlight, if anyone would trust a new character with their stuff/money.

The past weekend was Canthan New Year in Guild Wars. This is an amazing source of money for a new player. Offering to sell Lunar Tokens for 200g and Fortunes for 600g, I was deluged with buyers. There were quests that rewarded 25 Tokens, and the established players had run them in previous years; they were effectively level 5 quests that awarded 5 platinum. I financed my first set of prestige armor off those. If you could get your newb to Lion’s Arch, you could convert Tokens to Fortunes profitably (if slowly) playing Rock-Paper-Scissors.

An economy that is orders of magnitude above where you are can be daunting, but if you can get involved in it at all, the profits to be reaped are huge.

: Zubon

Forward Progress

The Guild Wars death penalty is wiped when you head back to town, so there are no permanent setbacks. At worst, you can fail to gain. You will usually come out at least marginally ahead: a little gold in your pocket and experience toward a skill point. After an evening of utter failure, you still gained a bit of rep, added 0.3% towards Cartographer, and banked some change.

Item wear is a minor death penalty and gold sink, but it can lead to your losing progress in a night of play. However many hundred times you are supposed to fail a raid, you are losing each time you do unless the raid comes with enough trash to pay for your repair bills (and that is just wrapping in the farming you could do outside the raid). You have heard of people hitting their heads against a wall so hard that all their armor broke and they could not afford to fix it. Then there are the expected consumables of potions, food, scrolls, etc. that get burned for each attempt. Those are dispiriting evenings, when you leave with less than you started with, and that experience cannot be wholly beneficial for player retention (which is funny when the game that avoids it does not have subscribers).

EVE Online is a game where you can lose everything you own but keep making progress because skill training is time-based. You are supposed to lose ships over time. Don’t get attached. Even if you are down some ISK, your skill points keep increasing.

There is something to be said for a lack of consequences. It’s a game.

: Zubon

2012 Predictions

I will now get the highest score of any MMO pundit making predictions. Ready? “It will not go live in 2012.” Whatever we’re talking about, I’m predicting that it will slip into 2013, or later, or just never ship. The game, the expansion, whatever: not in 2012. I’m going to lose a few points, since something will ship in 2012, but I don’t see how anyone can beat my accuracy rate here.

: Zubon

Quotes of the Week

Heartless. on Star Wars: The Old Republic:

All you need to know is that the game is under tight NDA wraps with less than two months until launch.

Melmoth on Mists of Pandaria:

Werewolves in top hats, gnomes performing the dance moves from Bloodhound Gang’s Bad Touch, … ridiculous sexual dimorphism in PC races, non-combat pets, Haris Pilton, giant cow-men riding on chocobos, … shoulder pads you could hide a small village under, remote-controlled fighting robots, … escorting mechanical chickens, ludicrous retcons, kobold candles, Forsaken Death Knights, teleporters, steam car vs rocket car racetrack, … dressing up in a murloc suit, orbital death satellites, pink elekks…

And you’re worried about pandas?

Anjin on arguing about Mists of Pandaria:

When people argue that World of Warcraft is a silly game, they are talking about the world. When people argue that it is a serious game, they are talking about the systems.

On second thought, let’s not go to Azeroth. It is a silly place.

: Zubon

WoW Fortress 2

I was reading The Lazy Geek’s thoughts this morning about the new World of Warcraft (“WoW”) pet store companion. “Real” journalists picked the story up a little later. Anyway it now appears that people can spend real money in WoW in order to buy an in-game salable, tradable item… which, you know, is a luxury item to show off some bling. I make no comment on its effect on the shaky WoW economy (both in-game and out) as I do not currently play the MMO, but I would caution that as we enter the next era of MMOs, this will become more prevalent.

Anyway, while The Lazy Geek’s thoughts were more negative, I couldn’t help but silently applaud Blizzard. They have this sinking ship. It’s sinking slowly and still dredging up tons of gold and oil, yet I have a feeling the captain already sees the end coming. Except, it’s not going to be the end in a sense. Sure, it will be the end of the massive floating ocean liner that engulfs oceans, but the ocean liner could be retro-fitted into something else. Maybe with hats. Continue reading WoW Fortress 2

Gearing Up

Hugh Hancock has some words about the gear grind. My words? “Screw that.” You know there is going to be a new tier within a few months and a complete gear reset in the next year. Keep running on that treadmill, but don’t pretend you’re ever getting anywhere.

At least a real treadmill gives you the real progress of a lowered % chance to die of heart disease.

: Zubon

Hat tip. I credit LotRO for having an extremely minimal gear grind, in that there are perhaps two or three tiers of endgame gear between expansions, and the tiers are not that far apart. You only need the raid gear if you are doing the one or two raids anyway.

Grinding to the Real Game

In theory, I like League of Legends. In practice, you need ~200 hours of play to get to ranked games, then enough ranked wins to get out of Elo Hell, before you stop seeing so many people griefing, feeding, quitting, etc. As the wiki link suggests, any good player will get through random grief and rise about Elo Hell … over the course of another ~200 hours of play

I have seen less in LoL: Dominion, but I may have just had a good few days. I have also gone days almost every game a 4-on-5 for at least half of it. In Dominion, idiots and quitters are more prominently felt, because capping and defending 4-on-5 just does not work even if the 5 are pretty lousy. One game today featured a player tripling up on the bottom (you usually send 1 or 2), then running past the minions, suiciding into a tower and quitting; the game is decided 30 seconds into it, and now we just wait for the timer to officially forfeit.

It’s a general problem in F2P games: players with no investment have no loss if they’re just there to watch the world burn. Real grognards from games where you paid by the hour (with small communities and active admins) can likely regale us with how you behaved or else. I’m debating how impressed I am that folks will play a game for ~200 hours and then continue to grief/quit/whatever in low-Elo ranked games. I suppose you’ll get xp while being an idiot for those 200 hours, because you keep leveling up win or lose.

I have no idea how the community moderation tools are helping this. I dutifully click the report button after games where folks leave, smack talk, and such, but it’s not like we get a report back.

: Zubon