Thursday, January 18, 2018

Ow

Winter colds are never fun.

And winter colds with sinus pressure....

By George Cruikshank.
Art Institute of Chicago

Yeah, it's been a helluva week.

This has gotten me to thinking about that one legacy of the original D&D rules that is found in just about every video game or RPG: the hit points/health bar.

The ol' HP system was an arbitrary value designed to illustrate the overall improvement in skill and whatnot in a player character (PC). Originally, Gary Gygax wrote that a player's "true" health points are about the last 1-6 HP in their overall value, and the rest represented the gradual wearing down of the PC by dodging and deflecting blows.* To use a pro wrestling analogy, in the Rick Flair ESPN documentary there was a mention about the training regimen for a pro wrestler and that you had to learn how to use the ropes in a boxing ring. When you start out, when you bounce off those ropes they tear at your skin and leave a bloody trail all over your back, chest, and arms. After a few weeks, however, your skin toughens up and that stops happening. Essentially, the pro wrestler gains HP by training and a "low level" injury doesn't hurt anymore.

That being said, I still think the HP system is a bit of a goofy rationale for how things work in real life. Not everybody can withstand the damage that was inflicted on John McClane in Die Hard.

From tvtropes.org.
If realism is the angle we want, something like GURPS' method of health being strictly a low number of roughly 6 is about right.** But that doesn't exactly lend itself to what we'd call "heroic" combat like that found in most standard RPGs (such as D&D) or video games (such as, well, most of them).

The easy way to show that a player's toon is getting better is to let numbers increase, and that includes health. It also eliminates the possibility of the (rather embarrassing) situation where a powerful L60 Warrior gets one shot by a "You no take candle!" Kobold in Elwynn Forest. Raising a player's health is also an easy way to show the power in higher level enemies. Go wander into the old Scarlet Monastery area in Vanilla WoW with a new Horde toon, and even if you manage to land a blow to one of those L30ish Scarlets swarming around outside the Monastery it won't be enough to make a dent in their much higher health numbers. ("No one-shots for you!")

Still, not all MMOs these days follow this dictum, as SWTOR is the best example of adjusting (lowering) your toon's level and stats to match the area you're located in. You won't be able to zip along in Coruscant as an L60 Jedi without having to worry about the Black Sun aggroing on you, but neither will you have to worry about the Dread Lords' zones in places such as Alderaan insta-killing you, either.

I guess the guiding principle here is what the design goals for the game in question are. Is it realism or heroism? While you can be "heroic" in a game heavily tilted toward realism, my experience in playing the heavily realistic games is that you tend to play the game much more cautiously, which doesn't really pass the "heroic" test in my book. The more heroic the game --and the more liberal the implementation of the HP stack or health bar-- the more likely it is that a player will go and perform reckless actions that certainly qualify as more heroic. (Cinematically speaking, anyway.) Both design goals have a place in gaming, but I personally tend to prefer the more heroic end of the spectrum. I loosen up a bit when I see a decently sized health bar, and I'm more apt to throw myself at a (non-boss) fight without worrying too much about trying to be perfect in my attack rotation.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to finish getting my personal health bar back up to full.





*He must have written that in an old issue of Dragon Magazine, because I can't find it in my AD&D 1e books. Then again, the organization of the 1e books left a lot to be desired, so I suppose it's not a great surprise that I can't find it in there on the drop of a hat.

**GURPS stands for Generic Universal Role Playing System. For those who have never heard of it, yes, it is a real RPG system put out by Steve Jackson Games. And as the name makes blindingly clear, the point of GURPS is that you can take the system and apply it to just about every setting imaginable. Unlike some other universal RPG systems --such as Pinnacle's Savage Worlds-- GURPS is very detailed. While the mechanic --3 six sided dice-- is very simple, the devil is in the details and the setup. Most of the problems people have with GURPS is getting their characters and the setting set up right; once that's done, the system is very simple. (Relatively speaking, of course.) A long time ago --when the mini-Reds were very young-- I considered making a GURPS Lite campaign using the Disney Fairies as a setting because the girls were massively into that at the time. But as you can guess, I didn't have the time to work out the details so I passed on it.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Full Plate and Packing Steel

Guess what I've been playing with this past week?

A certifiable blast from the past.
Yes, the second game Bioware ever created, Baldur's Gate.*

I played BG back in late 1999-early 2000, when a friend loaned me the 6 CD set.** There's a bit of a slow part in the mid area, when you're trying to get to a high enough level to gain access to the city of Baldur's Gate itself, but so far the game has really aged well in terms of storyline.

Sure, the sprite images look ancient, but the gameplay remains surprisingly intuitive. The environment simply fits with the D&D system, and it's not hard to pick up and start playing. And boy, the core rules are pretty unforgiving when you use them here. 

I'm up to Chapter 3 --not an "already??" moment, because you spend a lot of time raising your level by doing side quests-- and I've found that I really had to stuggle to get through the end of the Nashkel Mines dungeon. I became reacquainted with the "rest" feature in the area where the soldiers are posted, because otherwise we'd not have enough spells to make it through. And that last fight...

Hoo boy.

I can't wait to keep going.




*I always figured it was the first game, but it turns out they created Shattered Steel first.

**That dates BG right there; you learned to listen for the change in the CD access sound so you knew what event was about to happen.

Friday, December 29, 2017

A Rarity in the Wild

The more I watch the mini-Reds play Breath of the Wild, the more I'm impressed by the work that went into the game's development.

The level of detail that went into placing the shrines and the Korok Seeds, for instance, took a lot of effort. And that was just a small part of the game itself. Sure, the game suffers from that bane of open world games, the giant impenetrable barrier at the edge of the game world*, as well as the grind that can wear people down, but every last detail that Nintendo's dev staff went into the latest Zelda offering is quite amazing.

Without bugs, no less.

Write that last part down and stare at it for a little while: no bugs.

In an age where bugs in software are pretty much standard fare, Nintendo released a (nearly) bug free game with a gigantic amount of detail into the wild. Compare and contrast with Mass Effect: Andromeda and Assassin's Creed: Unity**, which were so buggy on release they required major updates just to be playable.

What's the difference?

The biggest thing that jumps out at me was that Nintendo decided to delay release of Breath of the Wild until the Switch was announced and released, which had the effect of giving the devs an extra year to hammer everything out. Nintendo also channeled the Blizzard release process in that they released only when they felt the game was ready, which was no small deal given the amount of pressure Nintendo was under for the Switch's launch to be a success.***

Another item Nintendo focused on was the graphics and sound experience. Voice acting in Breath of the Wild was limited primarily to the cutscenes, so that kept some annoying problems related to integrating voice acting into the game**** from cropping up. The graphics were designed to exploit the Wii U first, and were never designed to be truly cutting edge 4K. The artistry that went into Breath of the Wild was more important than the realism and detail, which meant that graphical problems were largely avoided.

Finally, Nintendo knew what they wanted and they had a long time to develop it. Sure, the platform changed during development, but apparently the differences in those platforms were minimal enough that the Zelda team could focus on the actual development and not worry about performing cross system development such as that found with XBox and PS4 (and PC). Like Apple's own development environment, having complete control over the hardware means that you can limit bugs to an exceptional degree.

My hat's off to Nintendo for their exceptional work in Breath of the Wild. It's the sort of game that I'd love to play if the ability to lock the viewing direction into an MMO mode (such as that found in most Western MMOs, such as WoW, SWTOR, or LOTRO) were available. As it is, I'm happy to watch the mini-Reds play. (Well, until I get a headache from the viewing angle changes, that is.)





*But really, there hasn't been an open world RPG or MMO that has created an entire globe, so that's kind of a "meh" problem if you ask me.

**Or, back in the day, Darklands by Microprose.

***Mission accomplished, there. The Switch is, so far, a big success story for Nintendo given the amount of positive press it got as well as the excellent choice in games released for the platform.

****Such as the mouth and visual problems ME:A had on launch, or the problems ArcheAge has with NPCs speaking in Korean in the English version of the game.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

An MMO Quickie

LOTRO is having its annual Winter Themed Event, the Yule Festival, with an elk as one of the available mounts.

Like this. From lotro-wiki.com.

I took one look at the mount and quipped "This looks just like the elk mount an Elf gets on ArcheAge."

For some reason the mini-Reds weren't so amused about that.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

You Don't Know What You've Got 'Till It's Gone...

"Don't know what you got till it's gone
Don't know what it is I did so wrong
Now I know what I got
It's just this song
And it ain't easy to get back
Takes so long"
--Cinderella, Don't Know What You've Got ('Till It's Gone)


In the eight years since we've started PC, I've watched the MMO market change quite a bit. Sure, some things never change --WoW being the 500 lb. gorilla of the MMO genre the chief among them-- but the MMO genre as a whole has changed quite a bit.

Looking back, I can say say with a high degree of certainty that I entered at the high point of the MMO genre: WoW was at the height of its popularity, other MMOs were doing well for themselves, and there were new MMOs on the horizon in Rift, SWTOR, and GW2. DOTA 2 wasn't released for a few years, and MOBAs in general hadn't exploded in popularity.

Of course, it wasn't exactly a true Golden Age.

There was the disaster of Age of Conan's release, and the bait-and-switch promise from the Tortage into zone into a standard grindy MMO. There were also the bugs --lots of bugs-- and the perception that a fairly significant number of people were there for the nudity.

Speaking of train wrecks, there was also the Warhammer Online MMO, which didn't last long and was mercifully shut down shortly thereafter. Perhaps AoC and Warhammer were a harbinger of things to come, where some of the MMO population was looking for the Next Big Thing that would displace WoW at the top, and whatever they found never measured up.

***

In light of all of the changes in the MMO genre over the past 8 years, I've put together a few "awards"

The How is this MMO Still Running Award: Age of Conan. Over 9 years old and reduced to just two servers, this MMO is still active and has a few players. (I occasionally run into one or two out in the wild.) I've speculated that if AoC shuts down that Funcom loses the Conan license, and given that Funcom has devoted all of their "Conan" resources to Conan Exiles, there may be some truth to that.

The It Keeps the Mathematicians Busy Award: Every WoW update. While theorycrafting is its own cottage industry in MMOs and MOBAs, it seems that every WoW update --no matter how small-- is overanalyzed to determine optimal rotation and class emphasis. The latest hotness in BGs and Arenas can change with one little tweak to a cooldown*, and raids can live or die based on healing changes. WoW's size has an impact on the amount of heat generated by the theorycrafter set**, which is why I chose WoW over other MMOs.

The Wednesdays at the Pub Award: LOTRO's band concerts. When the mini-Reds were a few years younger, Fridays at 5 PM were required online time for LOTRO. A band on the Gladden server would play every Friday at 5 PM EST by the western entrance to Bree,*** The devotion the mini-Reds displayed to these regular concerts is not surprising to me, as I've seen regular crowds around toons playing music throughout LOTRO. This is part of why LOTRO is still an active MMO and gets full marks for immersion.
I still wonder how those Hobbits all
got in sync.

The Wrath of the Fanboys Award: Rift. When Rift went F2P, Trion said they were going to "do it right" and not be slaves to a cash store. Of course, by the time I got back to checking Rift out, the cash store was present and heavily hyped, which pissed off the long time players to no end. That and several other moves by Trion to keep the game afloat has generated even more dislike by the fanbase than the random "This game SUX!!!!1!!" comments you still see from SWTOR ex-players who were salty about the lack of WoW-style endgame on launch.

The I Need a Shower Afterward Award: TERA Online. While a strong argument could be made for Age of Conan and it's nudity,**** TERA gets the nod for this award because of the Elin. Every time I login to TERA just play out in the field for a while --because the gameplay is very good, lack of coherent plot or writing notwithstanding-- after about 10-15 minutes an Elin toon wanders by and reminds me why I find the Elin so disturbing.

The Taking Physics a Bit too Far Award: ArcheAge. The more I watch the female toon animations in ArcheAge, the more I'm convinced that the developer staff kind of missed the point with "breast physics". The amount of effort put into breast physics in ArcheAge and other Korean MMOs shows that the dev staff likely spent a lot of time conducting "research", because breasts --especially larger sizes-- do move like how they designed it in-game. But here's the kicker: that movement is for only some types of breasts, and they have to be bare or skintight covered breasts, not breasts covered in more normal fitting clothes or armor. Giving breasts covered by armor or even hidden by normal clothing the same movement characteristics of bare breasts simply makes the breast physics in ArcheAge look, well, weird at times. And far more obvious.

The Will They Ever Learn Award: Wildstar. The entire modus operandi behind Wildstar was that they were going to take the Vanilla WoW experience and crank it up to eleven.# The thing is, the Vanilla WoW experience was fine enough as it was without trying to outdo it. Wildstar was, in effect, doubling down on the belief that the harder and more grindy the goal, the better. And that didn't exactly go over quite so well for Carbine. Wildstar is still alive and kicking --still putting out new content, at least-- but I'm not totally convinced that Carbine learned their lesson. They may look at Blizzard's decision to create Vanilla WoW servers as a challenge, rather than the correction they so desperately needed to their design philosophy. Some of their ideas were fine, but others were a bit too much.
Yeah, whatever gave me the idea that they overdo
it in Wildstar??  From geek.com.

The Pride Goeth Before a Fall Award: World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. Cataclysm was a complete reboot of the original two continents of Azeroth, the Old World. Sure, there were five new zones, but the revamp of the Old World brought back a ton of old subs and pushed WoW's subscriber base to new heights. Looking back, nobody saw that those few months of returning subs were the high point of WoW's subscriber base. Blizzard's decision to revamp Azeroth was deemed to be worth it despite the major story holes that the revamp created. But my belief is that the same major story holes basically shut the door on new players picking up the game and starting from scratch.## And now? Blizzard no longer releases subscription numbers in their quarterly statements, ostensibly because they have better means of tracking the profitability of WoW, but likely because subs have fallen to the point where WoW has fallen back to the pack in terms of subscriber base.

The No Clue it was Coming Award: Employees of Gazillion Entertainment, the publisher of the now extinct Marvel Heroes. Much has been made of Gazillion's financial problems --and the hiding of the same-- but the extent that management went through to hide these problems from the development staff to the blindsiding of the staff by the company's inability to pay for paid time off when the company fired them all still makes my blood boil. I've been in that situation when the company looks like it might not meet payroll, and it sucks. A lot. And my ire goes to management not leveling with the staff. We're all adults here, treat us like one.

The You Must Learn Patience, Grasshopper Award: The stereotypical "Go" Guy. We all know this person that was so easily skewered by Crendor, because we've all encountered the Go Guy. This is the Warrior that wants to speed pull all of the trash in the first area of Halls of Lightning and yells at the healer for not keeping him upright. Or the Jedi Guardian who just has to jump off of the platform in Cademimu because it was taking too long for the elevator to arrive. Or the Agent yelling "SPACEBAR!!!" in chat because the group wasn't moving fast enough. Ironically enough, WoW created instance speed runs just for the Go Guy to test their mettle, but that hasn't exactly rid normal instances of the purveyor of timeliness.
Ah, narration by Worgen Freeman.

And lastly, The Golden Trinket Award: To all of the people who would stop and help a new player, or a player needing an assist, or a player struggling along. All of the people who reach out and assist others, play well, and encourage players to find a home in their chosen MMO world. All of the people who treat each other well, both in chat and in the world###, and make the MMO genre a better place.





*I've seen it happen where people picked up Hunters and then dropped them from BGs based on an update in a WoW downtime.

**I know that the SWTOR raiders/PVPers will argue that theorycrafting is alive and well in their part of the MMO world.

***The last I checked, they're still there, playing away.

****Even the succubi and incubi are nude, which actually gives them an unnerving appearance. Unlike, say, WoW succubi, you can look at an AoC version and not get it out of your head that this succubus is something totally unnatural.

#Please please PLEASE tell me that someone gets the Spinal Tap reference.

##Add to that the rise of the MOBA, which peeled away players from the WoW subscriber base, and you've got problems.

###Well, PVP notwithstanding. Being mean to the other faction is kind of the point, there.


EtA: Fixed a grammatical issue and a sentence structure in the Gazillion area.

EtA: Fixed another grammatical error, which leads me to believe I shouldn't be writing at Midnight.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Same as it Ever Was

I've not had a big enough chunk of free time to pull off an instance run (SWTOR or LOTRO) in ages, but this past week I actually had a few hours to myself without having to go anywhere or do anything*, so the siren song of running a SWTOR instance proved too irresistible.

Rather than learning a new (for me) instance, I figured that I ought to ease back into instance running with some of the original SWTOR instances: Hammer Station, Athiss, and Mandalorian Raiders. Why those three? Well, they are my favorites of the original instances (with the possible exception of False Emperor), and they are also the three I'm most familiar with. Even with the leveling adjustment put in place, I figured that these three instances ought to be the Azjol-Nerub of SWTOR**: once you learn them, it's a fairly quick and painless run.

Unless, of course, you're dealing with an all DPS group.

(Guess what groups I got?)

Now, to be fair, the Hammer Station run was pretty straightforward with a standard Tank/Healer/DPS/DPS group configuration, and we pretty much blitzed through the entire instance. Not exactly at the same level as a classic Azjol-Nerub run, but we finished in about 15-20 minutes, and that included me getting stuck on the other side of the meteorite cannon while everybody else took out some more trash before the final boss.

***

But Mandalorian Raiders came next, and the run consisted of all DPS.

My prior experiences in the "Fun With Mandos" instance with an all DPS group meant that the toughest boss to take out was the Houndmaster, the first boss, and this group proved that in spades. The Houndmaster hits too hard for a standard DPS to handle without utilizing Tanking abilities or having a Healer in tow, and to compound the problem we had people attempting to down the Houndmaster instead of the hounds first. After the third wipe, somebody asked in chat "Why can't we down this guy?"

"We don't have a healer," the Jedi Sentinel tanking the Houndmaster replied.

The Jedi Sage we had in our group wrote something incoherent in group chat, and then said "I'll do it, but remember to move in the right direction. Got it?"

"Of course."

This time we managed to down the boss properly, with the Sage's healing supplemented by the healing stations around the boss fight.

After that, the Mandalorian Raiders instance proceeded much quicker, with the only hiccup being the Sentinel who thought it a good idea to jump onto the downward descending platform in the section leading to the final boss. As you can guess, he finally caught up to the platform in time to die due to falling damage.

"Rez me!' he cried.

"I'm trying, but I can't select you," I replied. "How the hell did you manage that one?"

"I'm talented. Hee hee hee."

I grumbled something as the Sage rezzed him.

***

Athiss was a different beast entirely.

I knew I was in for an interesting time when we kept having people reject the instance before we finally got a full group.*** Then while a few of us jumped down into the ruins and healed up, a Jedi Sentinel sliced the elevator...

And jumped down anyway.

"Hoo boy," I thought. "I hope that was just an accident."

But by the time we got to the first boss, I could see clearly that it wasn't an accident. That same Sentinel pulled one too many mobs for a pure DPS to tank, and we wiped on the trash. Then we nearly wiped on that first boss, even though that's actually kind of hard to do with four DPS burning down that boss quickly.

But things seemed to settle down a bit when we plowed through the next several rounds of trash, until we got to the Beast of Vodal Kresh. There, we wiped repeatedly on that boss because a) people weren't using the healing stations (twice), b) people (including myself once) got knocked off into the level below and the trash below aggroed****, and c) nobody could hold aggro well enough against Ye Olde Beast.

Sometime after the fourth wipe the other Jedi Sentinel who'd been acting as the tank --all the while spewing invective in group chat-- ragequit. I took that as my cue to leave as well, since it had become obvious that this particular group simply wasn't going to get past the Beast of Vodal Kresh.

I then decided to hang around my starship for a while and relax, letting some 30 minutes pass by reading the codex and checking on college basketball scores.# I figured that 1/2 hour was time enough for me to not run into any of those three players again, and queued up for Athiss once more.

And I got an all DPS group. Again.

This time, however, the run went without incident. I'd not call it smooth, as Prophet of Vodal Kresh took a lot longer to kill off than I prefer,## but nobody died and nobody complained in group chat. It had been a long time since an instance ending in silence

***

After those instances, I decided that I'm not going to venture into any of the post-Vanilla instances for a while. First, I need to get up to speed on a rotation for my Shadow, as I constantly felt a bit slow compared to everybody else##, and second, I think I'd need to study the instances before simply being dropped into them. The instance running crowd is as I remembered it: with few exceptions, people are of the GO-GO-GO variety. One scolded me for not skipping the dialogue sections, but I wanted to tell that person that SWTOR is great because of the dialog, not in spite of it. If people do that to me on a new (to me) instance, there's likely to be some pissed off group members. In my WoW days, delays were frequently given as a reason for a votekick --which I'd often reject unless it was someone who went AFK for no good reason-- and I don't feel like reliving those days again.





*This included house chores such as laundry or dishes or cooking. I'm still not sure how I managed to get this free time this week, but hey, I'll take it.

**That ought to take old WoW players back to the good old days of Wrath of the Lich King. By the time Wrath came to an end, a random pug could pull off an A-Z run in about 10-12 minutes flat. Sure, being overgeared for the instance helped, but once you knew the fights it was a rare occasion to see a wipe in A-Z. Even Utgarde Keep couldn't match that one.

***Of all DPS, naturally.

****In my defense I knew about the knockback quite well, but I was speeding to a healing station that was still open when I got knocked down.

#My alma mater won, so I was happy.

##One player decided to start hitting the balls of fire rather than the Prophet, which meant one less DPS on the Prophet.

###I'm sure lag has something to do with it, as I was playing on a European server.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

EVE Online Adds to F2P

I've said before that I'm not that likely to play EVE Online, but I do keep an ear to the ground whenever major updates happen. And this week's particular update has expanded the capability of F2P players within EVE.

Battlecruisers and battleships, the mainstays of the large fleets, are now available to F2P players. While that by itself is impressive, in order to not cripple a F2P player by giving them a ship without the skills to operate it effectively CCP has expanded the skillset of F2P players as well.

It all adds up to a big expansion of F2P players' capabilities within EVE Online.

It's a great win for F2P players, but I have to wonder as to the reasoning behind the move. Maybe they CCP has data that shows that they get a high rate of F2P to subscription movement, and by adding capabilities to F2P CCP hopes to entice more people to subscribe. Or maybe they're looking at simply shoring up the number of people logging into EVE on a given day. But if nothing else, these changes do make the F2P option for EVE more appealing.

I guess we'll see how this shakes out in the months to come.