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Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category

Isn’t it obvious to all that the primary point of game design is crafting the modes and methods which govern the unfurling of a game experience?  And having done this, in placing the objects of the world to promote that experience?  Then we have to say game design concerns itself with the pieces and their assembly, and how they are placed, just so, atop each other to produce that final edifice: a container of an experience.  Game Design is architectures, their bricks are game pieces and their mortar is rules.

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I’ve been playing Magic: the Gathering recently (currently sticking to the m11 block), which has a lot of interesting design examples.  I’m learning an awful lot about the relative strength of skill combinations and the worth of timing.  In a game, the standard goal is a health race: theirs to 0 before yours.  The same applies in magic.  The goal is to maximize resource usage in a consistent manner, while minimizing the impact of other elements on your strategy.

For example, the Rule of 9 states you choose out 9 basic cards to run your deck on, stack four of each (so 36 cards), then add 24 lands to support them.  The first goal is to decide on the win condition and the cards which get you there.  For instance, in much of the Standard block of M:tG, the Baneslayer Angel constitutes the win condition.  If you get one on the board, you’ve established your win condition.  There’s very little the opponent will be able to do in this situation.

Once you’ve figured out what your winning board state will be, you then choose cards to support that, to make it as consistent as possible, and to disrupt your opponent’s ability to reach their own win condition.  Mana Leak, Cancel are disruptive, letting you attempt to lock out an opponent who is tapped out, while Preordain, Jace, and Jace’s Ingenuity all help you insure you get to your own win condition as rapidly as possible.

The same holds for something like D&D.  A D&D 4E class generally incorporates a win condition in a fight, or a win condition for their group.  You could consider a standard group of Defender, Leader, Striker, and Controller in this manner.  The Controller’s and Defender’s point is disruption primarily, and winning secondarily.  The Leader (and Defender to a lesser degree) is support, helping to insure that your own win condition isn’t disrupted, which ultimately is the Striker.  A lined up Striker is the Baneslayer Angel of a D&D group.

Applying these principles to RPG video games explicitly arrives at some interesting places.  I’ll leave those to the reader to examine (or to a later post).

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So I went through the Master Thesis of an SMU graduate, and I think I finally see a reasonable point to a college-level education in Game Design: learning to apply critical thinking to the various problems confronting a game designer.  Now, I admit the level of critical thinking displayed wasn’t top-notch, but at least someone was attempting to demand a little bit of rigor in the thought process.

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Gevlon went ahead and did a rundown on the basics of the WoW economy.  For the most part, it’s pretty straightforward (to the point of obviousness), but I do want to make a few observations.

Gevlon points out two apparently unique features of the WoW economy compared to our real-world economy.  The first is the lack of a second-hand market and the second is NPC services.  Interestingly, Gevlon considers Blizzard to be the government of the game, which is probably a pretty standard metaphor, so the choices of Blizzard with regard to economic matters are considered in the light of a government towards its citizenry, rather than a game developer towards their game.

The size of a secondhand market is actually going to be proportional to the lifespan of potential products and the accessibility of the market to sellers.  While Gevlon feels sales of used goods are a common part of markets, they actually constitute a minority of transactions for most people.  The used-care example Gevlon gives is actually a perfect example of what I mean: how often do you buy a car?  Most of our purchases are for goods which are consumed upon use.

Eve Online actually supports full resale of items which are indistinguishable from newly created versions.  Why?  Because in Eve, everything is consumed at a frightening rate, even “durable” goods.  The lifespan of your average sub-capital really isn’t terribly long, meaning there exists an essentially continuous demand for new goods.  WoW, in contrast, has very few goods that are consumed by use.  Without soul-binding, we would see a rapid accumulation of items at all power-levels, with consequent price deflation and relative devaluation.  Effectively, the price of moderately easy to obtain item would very rapidly plummet, particularly as higher-level players dump their old items onto the market.  The result could be lower-level characters getting their hands on cheap, high-level items and trivializing the content.  This precise effect happened in Everquest, prompting the introduction of level requirements on equipment and consumables.

However, even with level restrictions, you still have the issue of item inflation.  A constant stream of new, never consumed goods depresses prices dramatically.  This has massive implications to the game economy and for the content.  From a design standpoint, we stumble into a problem where anyone with more money has a better chance at trivializing content.  You, as a designer, want to build your content tuned so that it is playable by a brand new player, one without the account infrastructure an existing player has.  If an existing player, though, has easy access to substantially better equipment, you are left with the possibility that content is simply easier/trivial for new characters created by existing players.  Depending on the way the game is built, this discrepancy can be pretty large and place a great deal of value on currency.  In turn, that increases incentives for gold selling and buying, powerlevelling, etc.

Everquest found itself plagued by problems such as these.

You may suggest, then, that durable goods be of limited durability; equipment should break down over time.  That would limit the item inflation problem, improve the role of crafters, and be more realistic.  Perfect!  Dark Age of Camelot did precisely that and ran into an interesting problem, which becomes obvious in hindsight: nobody was willing to use their hard-earned pve-loot, for fear it might fall apart on them.  Asking people to spend hours of effort to procure a valuable and rare object, but then making that object potentially break in normal use is essentially asking people to only use such objects decoratively, and put them away when they need to do something useful.  The only way to get around this is to make these things so enormously powerful that everyone would want to use them all the time.

Unfortunately, now you have a significant power disparity between people with oodles of time and people without.  Let’s ignore the pvp implications of such a course; instead, consider the pve implications.  Crafters are once again side-lined because of the demand for loot (for its massive power premium) and item inflation is back on the table, as people with massively powerful items have no need for anything else they find, therefore introducing those back into the economy.  You also trivialize the acquirement of powerful items once they’ve been obtained.  While the battle to get such things may have been tough in crafted pieces, once they have them, those players can just farm them up with ease (assuming the massive power improvement granted to make up for their eventual consumption from use).

Even Eve has seen this sort of inflation; just look at the relative proliferation of capital ships and even Titans…and this is despite the rapid consumption of ships due to destruction.

Word of Warcraft made the decision to tie objects permanently to users.  That has the effect of forcing a strong consumption model on goods, combating item inflation.  The goal here is to limit the ability for players to use gold to easily purchase substantially better equipment, reducing (though not eliminating) the demand for gold selling services.  It also lets them cap power increases for items gained from difficult content, while still making them strictly better and not forcing them to be consumed after use.  While this does have a negative impact on the crafting economy, it increases the value of the developed content and drives players to it.

The purpose of vendors, which Gevlon seems to miss, is to drain money from the economy and to provide worth for currency.  Any good has value dependent on the use to which it can be put.  Fiat-currency governments assign value to their currency by demanding its use to repay taxes, thus providing a use for the money and a reason for people to want it.  Banks can create value for their issued notes by demanding repayment in those notes.  In MMOs (and most any other game), demand is created via NPC provided services.  WoW has a variety of such things, including repair bills, flight paths, but most importantly the insistence that all AH transactions be denominated in gold and be taxed in gold.  Heck, the need to use gold on the AH is alone enough to drive demand for gold, the rest is just a money sink to help keep inflation under control.

Gevlon goes on to conclude that business people are of marginal utility to the WoW population, calling the various consumables effectively unnecessary (though helpful), and outright suggests that if a cartel were formed to set artificially high prices, no one would pay.  While this is most likely true, what Gevlon fails to mention is the single most significant reason monopolists can’t exist in WoW: the cost of entry is negligible.  In order to truly be a monopolist (or oligopolist), one has to be able to effectively deny competition entry to the market.  In the real world, monopolies control the market either by locking up supply (say, through vertical integration or by insuring the cost of entry into supply is prohibitively high for anyone who isn’t already a monopolist anyway) or by controlling access for potential suppliers to purchasers (imagine an investment bank which also owned the only stock market available, and had gathered the majority of investors into their market).

Neither of those is achievable in World of Warcraft.  The cost of entry into any crafting profession is purely time, and the marketplace is controlled by Blizzard and available to anyone.  If a monopoly began to form, and prices rose, eventually people would just move to start making whatever it was for themselves…and probably selling the excess, breaking the monopoly.  If you somehow attempted to buy every new entrant into your cartel, you’d drive up costs of operation to the point that you might as well not have a cartel…you’d make just as much going out on your own.

Gevlon is right in his conclusion, that sellers are limited in their ability to set prices, but not in his reason (their goods are unneeded).  As an aside, even when demand shifts with price, in a supply constrained environment sellers are price setters, so a monopoly can be formed around a good which is not needed and is strictly a luxury item, so long as the seller can artificially constrain supply.

UPDATE: I asked more knowledgeable people, and EQ introduced level caps (both hard caps and soft caps, meaning the item wouldn’t work as well until you hit the appropriate level) on their items to address the problems I mentioned above.  DAoC had soft caps on their items (I knew there was a reason I didn’t buy the higher level stuff, aside from money, but couldn’t recall if it was a hard cap or not).  And I have to give credit to Lum the Mad for a lot of the information contained here, as it was from his site way back in the way back time that I got to learn about the goings-on in UO, EQ, SWG, etc. and who has continued to keep abreast of what goes on in the industry (also, he worked on DAoC; he has certain insights there that he passed along).

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Peter Molyneux has a reputation for delivering games that don’t live up to what he says about them – a reputation he fully deserves.  Case in point: the dog in Fable 2.  I liked my dog, but he did not set a new standard in emotional impact in video games.  That said, his company actually does deliver good games, and Molyneux has some good ideas.  He just hypes his ideas…a lot.  He’s a hyperactive man…seriously, have you seen the man chatter?

That said, the things he presents about Fable 3 in an interview with Joystiq are interesting.  It looks an awful lot like Molyneux has a core experience he’s trying to get across, and while that exists in the prior Fable games, he’s still iterating on it.  One of those things is figuring out a granular but compelling means of having the player interact with the world, while giving players the opportunity to feel like this really is their character, for whom they can make real decisions and to whom they can emotionally connect.

It’s actually pretty interesting to compare Lionhead’s take to Bioware’s.  Bioware tries to provide players with narrative control via dialog state machines, which usually consist of series of small, disconnected dialog state machines, along with some global state information that gets set at certain narrative turning points.  The result is that Bioware’s writers have an awful lot of granular control over the delivery and content of dialog.  Subtle narrative points and characterizations can be delivered, because there are relatively few paths that will be taken at any point.

The flip-side is that there’s a limit to how much personality the player gets to imbue into their own character.  Broad decisions are absolutely under their control, and some broad conversational direction is available, but at any one point a player character really only has 2-3 possible personalities.  As a player, you tend to either stick with one direction or another, or you schizophrenically bounce between the two.  Heck, in Mass Effect 2 I’ve been weirded out more than a few times when I’ve come out of dialogs and gained paragon points and renegade points in equal measure, and I have no idea what it was I did…or thought I was being a renegade.  I’m not even entirely sure what those two personality types mean in some cases.

The Fable games have opted for a sandbox, akin to the Sims.  Since dialog options are non-existent for players, they can project whatever reactions they want on their character.  The character is a toy, a tool for moving about a world where a narrative is happening and the player moves with it.  Within those confines, the player can do whatever the hell they want.  While in a Bioware game the results of player decisions tend to be reflected in the way dialog plays out, in Fable it’s shown via the way the world reacts (generally in how the people run screaming from you or come gathering around to fawn over you).  Because the visual cues of the world tend to have higher simultaneous information content than dialog trees, and because sandboxes tend to be better at representing complex world states than hand-crafted state-machines, Fable delivers a more complex set of interactions between player and the world.

Of course, it loses out dramatically on the ability to deliver a subtle, well characterized narrative.  A conversation consists in an exchange of, effectively, state information, where each new entry in the exchange is contextualized on prior entries (at the simplest level).  Attempting to do this inside a sandbox, where the same AI machine drives the characters, limits the amount of interesting conversational options.  It’s precisely for this reason that Fable doesn’t let your main character talk: if they did, they’d lose some of the focus on the world interaction options, and they can’t make talk work well in a sand-box.

Don’t get me wrong, I think these approaches could be combined…but not easily.  Sandboxes don’t sit well with top-down narratives.  To some extent you have to limit the impact of the narrative on the sandbox, and if you let the sandbox dictate the narrative…well, it’s not exactly top-down then.

To some extent, it sounds like Lionhead is shifting to focus more on the sandbox.  The broad narrative consists in a goal: overthrow the tryant and rule the land; beyond that, the world is your playground.  To stitch this together, they can create a series of set-piece side-quests and included cutscenes which help propel you to that final goal.  The way you work through those, and the way you interact with the sandbox, set the tone of the game narrative for your individual playthrough.

So that’s the experience Molyneux looks set to convey.  Fable 2 did an adequate job of delivering it – certainly I felt like the world was my playground.  However, it appears they want to expand on the ways the player has to make their character impact the world.  Fable’s world is mostly people; the land, flora, fauna, and buildings are typically static.  So the logical jump is to expand on how the player can interact with other people, without it involving dialog.  How do you give the player a chance to tell the world something?

Molyneux apparently went to ICO for an answer, and yanked out dragging people around by their hand.  I have to admit, this is a brilliant mechanism for delivering conversation in a sandbox: let the environment provide the contextual clues, which is already an inherent part of a simulation.  Agents in simulations are generally driven by reaction to the immediate environment, built to exhibit self-contained behaviors when reacting, and then given a global method for moving around the environment and selecting between immediate options.  That lets you relatively simply piece together a personality exhibited by behavior, simply by tinkering with broad motivations and immediate reaction choices.

That means that all the important bits of your environment already contain important contextual clues, both for your simulated agents and for the player.  Once you add in the option for the player to order an npc to do something (by dragging them somewhere), you’ve begun something of a conversation, where context exists to help drive it forward.  Consider: I have my character grab another by the hand and drag them to a diner.  The context is simple: I want them to do the thing that they do at diners, whatever that is.  They can then react to that, however their motives please them.  While some added decision-making code is needed to drive their reaction (more motives get drawn into this, because not only do they react to the diner but they also react to your request), it’s not a very big deal…and it requires no dialog trees.  The npc can, in the simplest case, agree or disagree.  Depending on their response, the player can react, which in turn adds additional context (it’ll affect motive levels for the npc, changing their future responses), leading to a very primitive conversation (akin to pointing and grunting and hand waving and shouting).

The other thing Molyneux is attempting to get at is the character’s reflection of their impact on the world around them.  Hence we get things like “followers” as levels (a dubious notion from the standpoint of communicating character package to the player), weapon morphing (a relatively simple notion that flows pretty naturally from character morphing), and even more character morphing.  It looks like we’re getting more paths along which our action can have an impact, meaning the results may vary dramatically between characters.  This may be cool…or it may lead to some really fugly characters.

Regardless, Molyneux hasn’t disgusted me yet…as long as he keeps Natal out of my Fable 3, I’ll probably be happy.

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The race continues among the hardcore guilds, with Paragon having cleared every boss but the Lich King in Heroic 25 ICC.  Given the time it took to do that, and the limited attempts, I have a sneaking suspicion Paragon is running a bit low for actually beating Arthas this go round.  I’m also not sure how many of these are alts; I’d guess some attempts are run by alt crews to learn the fights, then the real raid comes in.  But then…who knows?

Meanwhile, in 10-man strict land, From Chaos downed the LK in 10-man normal mode today.  This isn’t quite as much of an accomplishment as it might have been, as the encounter took a few hits, many of them making it slightly easier in normal mode.  More importantly, though, the attempt cap was lifted this past tuesday, so From Chaos may have benefitted from the 25-man version being beaten last week.  Either way, it’s an accomplishment, as attested by their lone standing at the top of the strict charts there.

Finally, 25-man Heroic Arthas doesn’t look like he’s going to drop easily.  Blizzard buffed 10-man heroic Arthas from 22.5 million health to 29.5 million health and, 25-man Heroic Arthas has…103 million health.  To put that into perspective, far as I can tell you only have to take him to 10% to “win” (you need to dps the rest down, but it doesn’t appear there’s any real fight mechanic…just spam damage, he’s stunned).   That means you “only” need to deal 92.7 million damage before his enrage timer hits at 15 minutes, which comes to 103k raid DPS.  With 7 healers and the generous assumption that your tanks combined equal 1 dedicated damage dealer, you have 18 pure damagers, who need to do an average of 5722 dps.  Well, that’s not much; in ICC Heroic gear, which they’ll have slowly been farming in reaching him, they should have no sweat easily blowing past that.

While true, Arthas isn’t particularly nice about standing still and letting your DPS spam at him.  He spends at least 2 minutes strictly un-targetable (casting Remorseless Winter), taking the average necessary dps to 6.6k per damage dealer.  He also spawns adds that need to be burned down.  Assuming you use Necrotic Plague to take out shambling horrors, you’ll be able to focus on the LK for the entirety of phase 1.  Phase 2, however, involves the raid burning down the val’kyr he summons or risking the loss of a vital raid member (as they’ve been dropped a cliff, they can’t even be rebirthed).  This has to happen while avoiding the potentially raid-killing defiles he casts.  Assuming you make it to Phase 3, the raid will need to burn down Vile Spirits on top of focusing down Arthas before he Enrages (or a bit after he enrages).

All this while healers are pumping out enough health to keep everyone alive through LK’s considerable AoE damage and the two tanks are properly picking up adds, handling his debuffs, swapping him through Soul Reaver, etc.  Also, dispellers need to be completely on the ball at all times.

Assuming that the Lich King’s damage output is unchanged and none of his adds have increased health, we can estimate what sort of gear/skill improvement would be needed to beat him on heroic.  Vodka’s US first kill videos are here and here; we can see it took them 11 minutes to down him, including remorseless winter time.  So they’d get 4 more minutes of time on him, or 27% additional time.  Since the Lich King has 61 million health in 25-man normal, they needed to wade through 54.9 million health to down him.  In order to take down Arthas in Heroic, they’ll need to do 69% more damage…more than double what the extra time can account for.

I believe I can guarantee that the adds will have more health and damage to the raid will be higher.  So assuming Vodka was playing at the absolute top of their game for their kill (a relatively safe assumption), there’s absolutely nothing for it: Arthas will require better gear.  I think it’s worth noting that it’s only just now, several days after heroic mode became available, that the prior bosses have been downed.  I guarantee they went and took out the unlimited attempt bosses first, hoping to pick up some ilvl 277 gear to make the wing bosses easier.

I suspect that gearing will be a tad slower for heroic mode: none of this gear can be purchased.  Heroic 25-gear is a return to Ulduar and non-badge gear: you’re just going to have to get the right drops off the bosses, and you can’t buy equivalent side-grades for any slots anywhere.

Further, normal LK seems to be something of a wall for many guilds.  If we look at World of Logs, we have an admittedly distorted, self-selecting window into the success rates of guilds against Arthas.  We see that 1.4% of logged attempts were successful on 10-man LK and .9% of attempts on 25-man were successful.  That’s out of about 13k and 15k recorded attempts respectively.  By way of comparison, Sindragosa has a 5.5% and 7.1% success rate, respectively.  He doesn’t seem to be going quietly into the night for many of the people meeting him.

Which brings me to the question: is Icecrown Citadel an easy raid instance?  Have raids gotten easier with the introduction of Wrath of the Lich King?  It’s certainly an issue that’s been argued over for…well, the entirety of the expansion.  I know someone who reaches back to BC to talk about the “catering to the casuals” and the slow decline of difficulty in WoW high-end pve content.  Blizzard devs have addressed this topic a few times, addressing a number of concerns.  It should be born in mind that their overriding concern has been getting this stuff in front of more people.  Accessible Naxx was one step in that direction.  Weekly raids that are pug-able is another.  And the LFG tool has been a pretty big step in getting even the most casual player into 5-man dungeons and the WoW group experience.

Another argument Blizzard has put forward is that fights actually more interesting and involved, and insofar as complexity of mechanic can admit of more difficulty, encounters are at least as difficult as Vanilla fights and more interesting to play.  Zarhym makes points along those lines in a recent thread, and it’s probably worth quoting:

The fact that at least 25 members of our player base have killed Sindragosa on Heroic difficulty doesn’t say much about whether or not the encounter is more complicated than, say, Twin Emperors. In fact, most of the raiders I’ve talked to who are at, or have killed the Lich King in 25-player mode say that Icecrown Citadel has provided some of the most fun and interesting mechanics this game has yet to offer. Most of the fights today are technically more complex than the fights of old, but the difference is in the tuning and the polish.

He then brings up another point that anyone who was watching at the time can probably remember quite well:

I can think of at least a couple of bosses that took a long time for any guild to kill where bugs were a major factor. As soon as the bugs were fixed, the bosses were defeated.

I believe C’Thun was one such boss, leading to something of an uproar at the world first kill, as the patch went live earlier in one region than the other, causing cries of foul.  Finally, he mentions another old standby of Vanilla and early BC raids: the resistance check.

There were also several bosses, take Princess Huhuran for example, which weren’t necessarily incredibly challenging from a mechanic perspective. The challenge came in the form of requiring that players farm resistance gear from that same instance for weeks and weeks until they stood a chance. Resistance fights have since more or less disappeared.

However, one thing Zarhym hasn’t mentioned is the enormous penalty involved in a wipe.  First, Vanilla raids involved 40 people.  If you wiped, you needed to get these people all sorted out and back into play.  If you were fairly deep in an instance, this might involve 10-15 minutes from wipe to next pull.  I watched a friend once, long ago, practicing Kel’thuzad in the original Naxxramas with his guild.  He had flasked for the attempts, and he would literally log out after a wipe while people sorted things out in Vent to conserve the duration.  And he wasn’t logged out for short durations.

On top of this you need to bear in mind that trash respawned on relatively short timers (usually 45 minutes, if I remember right).  That would give you 45 minutes from first associated trash pull to down the boss before you had to go through them all over again…and trash could be pretty rough in its own right.  The time between boss pulls only aggravated this issue.It’s for this reason, in fact, that winger dungeons and raids were and are so popular: you could more efficiently choose bosses to take on to better maximize gear gains.  In long, linear dungeons, like AQ20 or AQ40, you had to just march through the bosses, and if one boss presented an impassable barrier to you (probably more due to not having the necessary time than anything else), you were screwed.

Beyond even that, high-end raiding was a grind-fest.  At one point in time, all elixirs stacked with themselves (there were no Battle or Guardian elixirs).  You could also use a Flask, along with the elixirs.  That meant, obviously, that the dedicated raiders would blow their time grinding up all the mats for flasks, elixirs, scroll drops, making sure they had the right classes for the proper buffs, scrounging up difficult-to-get enchants, farming the legendaries, etc.  This took time.  The bonuses granted, particularly by elixirs, were so large that it was like adding at least another tier of gear to the raid…and Blizzard compensating by increasing the gear check bosses represented.  That meant alchemy grinding moved from being a great way for top-tier guilds to make content easier to making that grinding a damned necessity.

What this added up to was an enormous time investment if you wanted to raid seriously.  Bosses might only give you a couple attempts before you needed to clear trash to get back to them, leading to hours spent just learning a single boss fight…but most of those hours were spent on preparation and trash clearing.  The top-end guilds weren’t just good; they also were dedicated enough to play World of Warcraft in every free moment they had.

Understand that a lot of the time sinks mentioned above were removed often at the raiders’ requests.  Grinding was boring and ridiculous, and I think everyone breathed a heavy sigh of relief when the alchemy nerfs went in.  Since launch, trash has been a source of contention between raiders and developers from day 1, with developers contending that raiders might say they just want a series of bosses, but really, the trash adds a level of pressure to the entire ordeal.  Raiders argued that it was simply a waste of time and energy, particularly when trash was so ridiculously punishing that you might wipe more to a boss’s guards than the boss, and they dropped absolutely no reward themselves.

I guess I can point to Wrath as evidence in favor of the devs’ arguments.

So once you’ve distilled raids down to boss attempts, with minimal (or in the case of Trials of the Crusader, no) time between bosses, how do we define difficulty?  If fights really were more difficult pre-Wrath, in what way were they more difficult?  I’m forced to contend that the difficulty relied entirely on how unforgiving of mistakes fights were, and how ultimately punishing failure was.  Failure now is lost time running back, and even that is curtailed by winged dungeons or teleporters in Ulduar.  How long can Blizzard force people to spend learning a fight?  How do they make learning challenging without making fights wipe raids if someone messes up once?  Because the fact of the matter is that the internet facilitates the dissemination of learning; we’ve all become damned good at finding out what everyone else knows about a fight.  When a boss comes out, the entire community masters it together.  So it can’t simply be a learning issue.

So it becomes a matter of execution, and a question of failure to execute properly and the punishment for that failure.

One other, tangentially related point: the skill of casual players.  When I first purchased Starcraft, over a decade ago, it was basically my first RTS.  I’d seen Command and Conquer, and I’d played a bit of Warcraft 2, but that was the first time I’d purchased an RTS of my very own.  I consumed it, bashing my head against the game, eking my way past every mission, clawing victory from the gaping maw of defeat…until the last Terran Campaign mission.

All of the stratagems I had used to that point failed me utterly in that mission, and repeated attempts only netted me repeated failures.  I gave up in extreme frustration.  I came back again, maybe a year later, and tried again, only to be frustrated with defeat.  Finally, I turned to the internet; not for specific strategies for that particular mission, but to teach me how to play the game, because I obviously didn’t know.  What I rather rapidly learned was that I had barely scratched the surface of Starcraft.  In order to truly play that game, you have to see it in an entirely new way.  Starcraft as played by the masters is not the game you learned when you bought it first.

What I learned from this is that we are precisely as good as the situation demands of us.  I probably could have, through simply throwing myself at the mission ad nauseam, beaten the Terran Campaign and moved on.  Or I could have looked up a strategy for the mission, followed it, and moved on.  I would from then on remained absolutely and blissfully unaware of the actual game of Starcraft.  I would never have known I sucked at that game, because, frankly, I didn’t: I was good enough to solve the puzzles I cared about.

If you are never confronted with a puzzle whose solution is desirous and which makes certain demands of your skills, you have no incentive to learn.  Simply getting better just to be better isn’t enough; that’s too nebulous a goal to be realistic.  In what way are you better?  Measured against what?  You’ve already solved the puzzles presented…how much better do you need?  Unless there’s something beyond that, I know I’d prefer to work on things where there actually is a puzzle to be solved.  Then not only can I get better, but I actually accomplish other goals as well.

This is what confronts the casual player.  Why ever should a Death Knight exceed 900 DPS if they don’t have to in order to accomplish their goals?  If 900 DPS is sufficient to clear through daily quests and allow them to have fun doing it, the puzzle is solved for them.  Finding a way to do this faster simply doesn’t need to occur naturally to these people.  This is true, I suggest, because fun is the ultimate goal in WoW and if fun is had at 900 DPS, they have no incentive to increase that number.  It’s completely irrelevant to them.

Once you drag someone into a dungeon or a raid though, suddenly expectations change.  Now there is, in fact, a reason to improve.  An occasional jaunt simply isn’t sufficient encouragement to improve those numbers; why bother if it’s something you’ll only do every once in a while?  But consistent dungeon running will push people to improve enough to get to the end of the dungeon.  They want to see it – it’s a puzzle that provides a goal and a reason to improve.  They can also grab some awesome loot in the process, further sweetening the deal.

There seems to be a natural tendency among people who’ve ventured into group content to want to do larger group content.  I’m fairly certain the LFG tool is helping to fuel that further now.  Once you move into 10-man territory, or 25-man territory, there will be further incentive to improve.  It has been a rare person indeed who hasn’t learned and improved after sufficient time spent in raids.  I’ve seen people who would otherwise be completely casual subjected to a couple nights a week of 10-man running for a month or so come out with substantially better skills, both in touching their abilities and in situational awareness.  They can’t help but become better at it through sheer exposure.

I think, then, that, when assessing the skill of the population of players, one should take into account the incentive they have to be skilled, rather than assume they are already as good as they can get.

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I mentioned briefly that Halls of Reflection is a PUG Grinder.  It’s actually a simple instance, with absolutely no complicated mechanics.  Essentially every fight in the instance is a gauntlet run, depending on high DPS and healing output and solid tanking.  There are next to no positional requirements, few environmental effects to watch; it’s basically a mash your buttons really fast instance.

At least on the face of it, it is.  You see, the first portion of HoR involves a series of waves of trash mobs, drawn from 5 possible choices:

  • a spectral footman, who can dish out fair melee damage and bash spell casts, which interrupts and locks out that spell school for some time
  • a rogue type which also dishes out fair damage, dropping deadly poison on the tank and occassionally shadow-stepping to other party members to whack them or poison them with a thrown dagger
  • a mage who switches between frostbolt, fireball, and flamestrike (which sticks around and pours out damage) and summons a hallucination which explodes when killed
  • a priest who tosses out a massive heal, fears, drops dots, casts a damage spell, and does an aoe damage + knockback
  • a hunter who will drop frost traps (significantly impacting the groups movement speed), lock random people in ice for a while, curse its main aggro target, and otherwise pour out ranged damage

What quickly becomes obvious when you see the descriptions of the various possible combatants is that aoe damage is going to be pretty harsh.  This is a fight where you want your group spread out, to make it easy to get out of flamestrike and to avoid the knockbacks from the priest or the explosion from the hallucination.  You also want the footman locked down, to avoid him interrupting healers.

In group content in WoW, groups have two major goals: maximizing damage dealt and minimizing damage taken.  That’s why “not standing in the shit” is such a big deal: it’s how groups avoid unnecessary damage.  In Wrath, we all (and I include myself in this) seem to have forgotten that we have major sources of crowd control, and that these are damage mitigators as well.  For the most part, we’ve been able to get by gathering things on the tank and just doing massive aoe, knowing our tanks have solid enough mitigation and high enough health pools to withstand this while damage output can overwhelm incoming damage, so we’ve gotten lazy.

Heroic HoR would stomp on the face of that and laugh.

As I said, the first fight involves waves of the described mobs – specifically 4 waves – followed by a boss.  The breaks between waves are insufficient to resurrect any dead party members, so you get to face the boss with whatever you’ve got left when it comes time.  The bosses themselves are relatively easy, but for the fact that you have to face them after using up all your resources on their adds.  This makes reducing unnecessary damage even more important, as you’re reliant on your healer’s mana pools to get you through this.  They’re not going to have the time to drink fully between waves, and if lots of damage is pouring in they’re liable to be dangerously low on mana when the boss-fight proper starts.

The reason the standard tactic of simply aoeing through this and allowing the tank to soak the damage fails is because all the mobs spawn in a large ring, meaning whoever is tanking will need to gather them up somehow…a dicey proposition when faced with 3 ranged mobs.  The natural response, then, is to find a way to gather all the mobs up so that aoe becomes effective and the tank can maintain their standard aoe threat rotation.  The standard way to get a ranged mob to come to you is to break their line of sight, which causes them to run towards you, usually rounding a corner at melee range.  As it happens, the area in which this fight takes place is bracketed by two alcoves, behind whose arches you can hide to break line of sight with most of the mobs in the area, forcing them to run to the tank.

Ah ha, problem solved!  Except not really.  Two problems stand out with this method.  The first is this never really gathers all the mobs.  As I said, it breaks line of sight to MOST of the spawns…not all of them.  Inevitably some mobs will be able to target into hiding party members from outside the alcove.  That, in turn, means they end up targetting the healer once the healer heals whoever took their initial shot.  That puts us in the awkward position of the tank having to choose to go out and grab that mob, trying to keep ranged threat on it, or just ignoring it.  Either way, it’s outside of the aoe damage the group is pouring out, dampening a great deal of the efficacy of this strategy.

However, many of the spawns have been gathered on top of the tank, with everyone else back in the alcove.  We can now aoe with impunity, yes?  At least it catches most of them, after all.  Well, not quite.  The second problem with this tactic now rears it’s extremely ugly head: everyone has gathered up in one place with very little maneuverability.  Effectively we’ve guaranteed that the entire group gets to eat flamestrikes, the priest knockback, and the hallucination explosion.  We’ve completely negated the group’s ability to avoid the unnecessary damage.  The result is that the inevitable confluence of a heavy hit from the footman, poison from the merc, and a flamestrike will eat through the tank’s health, forcing the healer to focus on the tank and putting other group members at risk.  That leads to the healer eating through mana as they desperately attempt to keep the group alive in the face of this damage.

Is there a better way?  As it happens, there is.  As I noted, none of these mobs are particularly rough by themselves.  What’s important is keeping the group spread out, avoiding unnecessary damage, and killing what you can quickly.  The optimal strategy, then, is to take a couple of the mobs completely out of the fight, negating their burst damage contribution while the other mobs get killed rapidly.  If you have  a paladin or priest in the group, fear, repentance, or shackle the mage and hunter.  Since those effects keep the mob totally out of the fight, you can safely turn on the melee and priest, killing the priest first, then killing the melee.  That leaves the ranged to be taken down in short order and with minimal risk.  Hunter’s can frost trap (arrow) for a similar effect.  Druids can root melee instead, locking down the mercenary or a footsoldier (the merc is going to be tougher as I have a nasty suspicion vanish breaks root).  You have these tools…use them!  And fight out in the circular hall around Frostmourne’s pedestal, giving everyone the opportunity to spread out.  I suggest starting back in the entry hall, which gathers in the spawns closer, but leaves you plenty of room to move out into the room.

Or, just do the Line of Sight thing.  Because Blizzard went ahead and nerfed the fight.  You won’t see as many ranged attackers, as they removed the possibility of two mages or mercs spawning.  They nerfed flamestrike, probably making the damage much more readily healed even when it hits the whole group.

This irks me.  As much as this instance has infuriated me (and it has…it really can make a healer want to shriek), I enjoyed the existence of something this hard.  Sadly, it is not to be.  Go back to aoe on trash, no CC buttons to be seen here.

About the only justification I can really see for this is that CC options are more limited here do to the fact that these adds are undead.  I don’t buy it, but whatever.  Feel free to continue sucking (particularly that one paladin tank who never used holy shield.  You were special).

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