Sunday, July 19, 2015

Computer Troubles

It looks like my computer has died on me. There was a pop, the machine shut down, and I could smell the acrid stink of burning electronics. Amusingly, this is probably a common experience for those of us who game on PCs.

I'm trying to write this from my phone. My kingdom for a real keyboard. I don't really write a lot on my phone, so it is an interesting experience. It's actually kind of impressive how much of the load the auto-complete can handle.

In any case, I am trying to decide what I should do next. Should I get another Windows desktop, a Windows laptop, or a Mac laptop. A laptop might be nice, and would certainly take up less space and be more portable. On the other hand, the performance would be worse. As well, most Windows laptops tend to come with a lot of pre-installed junk.

A Mac laptop would be better in that case. However, I am a bit leery of gaming with it. There's Bootcamp, but I am not sure of the point of constantly switching between operating systems.

The default, of course, is another Windows desktop. Best value for money, a proper nVidia graphics card, and it's far easier to customize and get something with just Windows installed.

Suggestions from people who have been computer shopping recently are appreciated. I don't really pay attention to the hardware side of things anymore.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

FFXIV: Heavensward Review

This post contains minor spoilers for the Heavensward storyline.

I've finished the main story in Heavensward, and am in the gearing up for endgame phase. So I thought it's a good point to review the expansion so far.

The main story quest is solid. It's pretty much what you want from a fantasy story. It's ironic, but it's the Japanese MMO known for catgirls which has given us a more classic western fantasy story about knights and dragons than any of the western MMOs. There are twists and turns, and the mythos of FFXIV is expanded on. It's very much a story for the fan of FFXIV, and builds on the story previously introduced.

Overall, I don't think I am a fan of the way the Ul'dah story was wrapped up, though. It's okay, but I think it was a missed opportunity. The main Ishgard story was much better.

The new zones are all good. Flying is well implemented, with a general principle of explore the zone and complete the main quests in the zone before you unlock it. FFXIV also has plenty of areas which are only accessible with flying. As well, once you have flying, quests are happy to make you wander all across the map.

There are three new classes introduced: dark knight (tank), astrologian (healer), and machinist (ranged support dps). Overall they seem interesting. However, it feels like SE erred on the side of caution, and started them off under-powered. Seeing two of the new classes in a dungeon run always makes me wince.

The dungeons and primals so far are fun and well done. I do think there should have been some minor changes in how the dungeons are distributed at endgame. Right now there are only two "expert" dungeons, but there is a third 60 story dungeon which does not have loot. It would be nice if that third dungeon was added to the expert category. On the other hand, this may be deliberate so that people can watch the cutscenes without pressure, in an attempt to avoid some of the mistakes of the original 2.0 release.

All classes got new abilities. I like the new Paladin abilities, which include two new combos for DPS, a heal, and an off-gcd move to force an automatic block

However, the paladin class story was very weak. It started off well, but then got really weird. One of the NPCs says, "This is the stupidest thing ever," and you really have to agree with him.

Heavensward is almost entirely for the max level player. The only thing a new player would get is access to the new Aura race. I would recommend that a new player wait until they hit level 50 before getting the expansion. Once you're level 50, you can get the expansion and it will allow you to earn experience and level while doing the 2.0-2.5 story.

All in all, Heavensward is "more of the same". It doesn't really make any major changes to how one plays FFXIV, just adds more of what the players like. If you liked FFXIV before, you'll like Heavensward. If you don't like FFXIV, well, it's highly unlikely you would have even gotten to the point where you can start the expansion.

I'm enjoying the expansion, and am looking forward to the next patch and continuation of the story.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

SWTOR's Plans for Operations and Flashpoints

SWTOR released a post today, detailing the plans for Operations and Flashpoints in Fallen Empire. I am really not sure what to think.

For background, SWTOR is the only MMO that I am regularly raiding in. I've been raiding twice a week with the same group of people for about the last two years.

Flashpoints

A bunch of important story Flashpoints (Black Talon, Revan, Malgus flashpoints) are getting a Solo mode. There will be level-scaling so it's the appropriate difficulty. I'm not sure if there will be a GSI "Jesus" Droid or not, as that would pretty much remove all difficulty.

Many flashpoints are being converted to Tactical mode, where any four roles can group together, without needing a tank or healer. Everyone here will be bolstered to max level, so any levels can group together, starting from level 10. You get personal loot designed for your class and specialization.

Other flashpoints are Hard Mode, which require a tank and healer. They will be available at 50, with bolstering to max level, it looks like. Again, it looks like personal loot will be the normal, but the loot here is specifically called out as being the stepping stone to operations.

The flashpoint changes seem pretty reasonable. It's interesting that SWTOR has chosen to ignore the trinity until near max level, but I can't say that's entirely wrong. For someone who's just interested in the story and simple group content, sticking with the individual story, Solo Flashpoints, and Tactical Flashpoints will provide a good amount of content.

Operations

For operations, the key phrase is "however with Knights of the Fallen Empire there will not be any new Operations." Now, Bioware doesn't specify if that means no new operations at launch, or no new operations for the entirety of the expansion. If it's the former, that's pretty reasonable, especially with the other changes. If it's the latter, that's a huge change.

All operations will be re-tuned for max level (8-man and 16-man) and will have a Story Mode and a Hard Mode.  There will also be a Nightmare mode for some operations. Each day a different Story Mode operation will be available in Group Finder. It sounds like both Hard Mode and Story Mode operations will drop the same level of loot.

Each week, a different Hard Mode operation will be "highlighted". That operation will drop better loot. As well, Nightmare modes will also drop this better loot.

So loot-wise, the endgame progression as I understand it will look like:
  • T0 - Hard Mode flashpoints
  • T1 - Story Mode operations, non-highlighted Hard Mode operations
  • T2 - Highlighted Hard Mode operation, Nightmare Modes
So I guess Bioware expects extended guilds to focus their raid nights on whatever the highlighted HM operation is. The edge guilds can tackle Nightmare Modes.

However, these are all old operations, just re-tuned. I don't know how well this will be received. Part of the draw of extended group content is demonstrating mastery over content. I'm not sure how well a forced rotation will work. If Bioware does introduce new operations, I'm not sure how they would work. Would they go into the rotation? Would they be a new tier T3?

Conclusions

To be honest, this system is probably great for the new players, solo players, or even group players who came to the game late. It's just not particularly attractive to the loyal group player who's been playing since launch, and has seen and beaten all these operations before.

There are other worries. One view of SWTOR's initial collapse is that story isn't enough to hold people. People did the story once, got to endgame, saw that it was lacking, and unsubscribed. Is this new plan simply repeating the same mistake that launch did?

Or will continuous delivery of new story be enough to keep people, such that this endgame gives them something to do while waiting for the next installment? Is Bioware better off by playing to their strengths, even if they lose many people who were mostly interested in raiding?

To be honest, as a long-time SWTOR raider--albeit one who is still struggling with the current Hard modes--these changes make me want to stop raiding. I might still stick around for the story, as I do enjoy that. But if I'm interested in doing proper extended group content, it might better to cut my losses, and go find a good group in WoW or FFXIV.

In some ways this is a pity. I've always liked SWTOR's operations. They've been interesting and inventive. It's unfortunate that they won't be making any new ones any time soon. I recommend that existing raiding games try to poach some of the ops designers from SWTOR.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Garrisons, Part III: Followers

I like the basic design of garrison followers. I liked recruiting them, leveling them up, and improving their gear. However, as with everything else, I think followers had some issues.

Mission Planning

Mission planning was just too complicated and tedious. There's a reason everyone used Master Plan, and that there was such an outcry when it stopped working with the 6.2 patch. Maximizing rewards by assigning followers to missions was an easy thing to automate, so it was automated.

I think Blizzard would have done better to make this simpler. For example, one thing they could have done is limit the number of available mission slots to match the number of characters you have. Thus you can't get 100% on all missions but must choose the missions you most want to win.

Or alternatively, perhaps at the beginning of the week you organize your followers into parties, with one tank, one healer, and three DPS. Then you are presented with 4 missions and you assign a party to each mission. By reducing the number of possible options, you greatly reduce the solution space, and make it much easier to do follower missions by hand.

Timed Missions

I don't think that timed missions were a good fit for MMOs. Timed missions might be good for mobile games, because your phone is always on you. But I don't think they match the rhythm of an MMO.

I think missions should have been more like dailies. They all complete at the same time each night. Then you can assign new missions sometime during the next day. I think that daily or weekly reset is a more natural fit for an MMO.

Follower Presence

Garrisons had a neat element where your followers would hang around your garrison and interact with you and other NPCs in small ways. Unfortunately, 99% of the time followers were out on a mission, so you rarely saw this element.

I think Blizzard should have just left your followers hanging around, even if they were technically assigned to a mission. Or possibly have the non-active followers hang around. (I don't actually know if this happens or not, I only have one inactive follower.)

Bodyguards

I like the follower bodyguard. I run with the draenei paladin tank. If I'm in a quest with Yrel, that's three paladins running around, delivering holy justice to the orcs. Good times.

However, the fact that you can click on the follower to bring up dialogue drives me nuts. It happens when I try to loot, and it happens an awful lot. Regular hunter and warlock pets don't have this issue, and I really wish Blizzard had thought more about this. The barracks should have just given a "Go Home" ability that you could put on your bars.

Conclusions

Overall, followers were a pretty good idea, and an interesting part of WoD. But the four issues above kept them from being great.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Garrisons, Part II: Professions

For the most part, the WoD professions design worked pretty well. Having a separate building for each profession, generating a limiting reagent through work orders, and allowing limited access to a profession you don't have, all worked reasonably well.

The major flaw with professions and the garrison were the mine and herb garden. Granting free access to these resources for everyone led to a lot of busywork. The mine and garden are the leading cause of the "chore" feeling of garrisons. This design also devalued the gathering professions.

By default, it would have been better if the mine and garden only provided extra automatic garrison resource generation, with higher values as you increased the building level. That would make it worthwhile for everyone to improve those plots, but otherwise they could be ignored.

Then add two new small profession buildings. A smelter and a nursery, or similar. Creating these buildings allows you to mine ore from the mine or get herbs from the garden, respectively. Then with the level 3 building, you could get Savage Blood or Felblight from mining and herbing. (You'd probably have to rename Savage Blood, though.)

Essentially, these buildings would make mining and herbalism the same as the other professions. If you were interested in those professions, you could choose the building. If you just wanted extra resources, it would cost you a small building space. But not everyone would be interested, and not everyone would feel pressured to collect their "free" resources.

The current design is deeply unfair to gatherers. They spent one of their two profession slots on the gathering profession, deliberately eschewing another crafting profession. It was really unfair of Blizzard to give that benefit to everyone else at no cost.

This would probably decrease the supply of herbs and ore, and material costs would have to be rebalanced across the professions.

Other than the mine and farm, Savage Blood is the only real issue with professions. Where ore and herbs are too plentiful, Savage Blood is too rare, and pushes crafters towards the Barn. Felblight is a better design, being spread to all the gathering professions.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Garrisons, Part I: Phasing

Garrisons are the signature mechanic of Warlords of Draenor. They are also a failure, and have hurt the game more than they have helped.

However, I don't think garrisons were that far from being a good mechanic. It feels like a few more iterations or tweaks could have brought garrisons to a much better place. As well, a lot of the problems with garrisons are long term problems that really only develop into serious issues after a few weeks of play.

In this series, I hope to take a look at different facets of the garrisons. To try to see where Blizzard went wrong, and what changes could have improved them.

Phasing

In my mind, the single biggest problem with garrisons is the way that they are phased. Each garrison is a personal phase for each player. this means that the player is always logging into an empty space. There are no other players around.

This very different from every previous expansion. Usually you log into a large city. In Pandaria, most people set their hearthstones to either the Shrine or Halfhill. So whenever you logged in you immediately saw other players running around. Even though Halfhill had a small phased area, it was set off from the main town.

I think this is hugely important for an MMO. Even though you may not explicitly group with other people, it's very important that the other people are present in your world. That's what makes an MMO an MMO.

In WoD, the first 10 minutes of every gaming session is spent alone, with no other players in sight. This makes WoD an intensely lonely experience. There is no "bustle", no energy, as in all the previous expansions. It's sort of the equivalent of once belonging to a large guild, but now you're the only player logging in. It's very dispiriting.

I think this is important enough to make a general rule. Players should always log in (and log out) in populated areas. A strong visual reminder that they are not alone is very important to this genre.

Solution

The best solution I can think of is to have a much more complicated phasing system. Something where common areas of the garrison, like the central courtyard are shared. Each plot would be shared with other players who have the same building on the plot as you.

So even though everyone has their own garrison, it looks like everyone is in the same garrison, and it is a bustling center with players running all over the place. Of course, this would probably be much harder to implement cleanly.

Another path would have been a system where there are multiple separate buildings in the garrison are owned by separate players. I.e. no real phasing, but an actual community. For example in a guild of 10 people, each person gets their own plot in a common guild garrison.

Of course, this system is crazy complicated, and there are lots of problems. What happens if someone leaves the guild and wants to move her plot elsewhere? What happens when people stop logging in and the plots become empty?

This system is more fit for sandbox games, I think. The complex phasing would have been a better fit for WoW.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Better Community Through Natural Selection

It is becoming common wisdom that FFXIV has a better community than WoW. I'm not really sure how true that is. But I did have an interesting experience yesterday that is causing me to wonder, and connect the dots with other common complaints about FFXIV.

Ravana Primal Experience

A guildmate was at the Ravana primal 8-man fight. I play a tank, so queues are instant for me, and I had beaten the fight earlier. I grouped up with my guildmate and we queued up. We got into an instance where everyone except me and the other tank were new. The other tank seemed relatively hardcore. He took charge, gave quick instructions, and went in first. And we wiped.

Ravana has a add phase. The adds summon swords and need to be killed before they finish summoning. If they summon two swords, the group can survive Ravana's next special. But if they summon three or more sword, the group will wipe.

We get three swords on the first, second, and third attempt. The other tank reiterates the importance of killing the adds. On the fourth attempt, we get four swords. You could almost hear the tank's disbelief coming through the chat. I felt sure that this run would explode into acrimony and finger-pointing at the DPS for not pulling their weight.

Instead, the other tank took a deep breath, and assigned one healer to switch to DPS during the add phase, while the other healer concentrated on keeping the tank up. It worked well, and the fifth attempt would have been a kill except one healer got knocked off the edge and the other healer just couldn't keep up with the damage by himself.

The sixth attempt went smoothly, and we downed Ravana.

I realized that I've been conditioned by other MMOs to assume that automatic random groups will crumble when significant adversity is met. It still happens in FFXIV, but it seems more likely that the group will attempt to work through the issues.

Heavensward Accessibility Controversy

To flip topics for a second, there is a somewhat-common complaint about Heavensward. It's not actually coming from current players of FFXIV but from some lapsed or potential players. You see, you can't jump into Heavensward right away. You have to go through the entire 2.0-2.5 storyline, and all the associated trials and dungeons. A lot of people who were potentially interested in the expansion balk at that requirement

The current playerbase, by and large, is firmly on SE's side here. The story is important. Working through the content doesn't take that long. SE constantly sends higher-level players back to old instances, so that keeps the queues moving. Besides, if you haven't done the content yet, it's still new to you.

But there's no denying that the story requirement is a barrier to entry. For example, WoW dealt with this in the last expansion by giving out a free level 90, so you could jump straight into Warlords of Draenor.

Natural Selection of Players

To connect the two topics, consider the most common reasons people try FFXIV and then stop playing. The initial questing is slow, with lots of errand-running. Actually the entire game is filled with errand-running from one NPC to another. Combat is slower than normal, with the 2.5s GCD making it much more languid than the faster paced combat in other games.

Perhaps this slowness at the start of the game acts as a filter on would-be players. The impatient are quickly weeded out, so the the players which remain are more patient than average. A form of natural selection. And a playerbase of patient players is more likely to be considered a "better community" than one which is impatient, as my Ravana experience demonstrates.

The story requirement in Heavensward acts as a similar filter. Players who are too impatient to work through the older content don't sign up for the expansion.

There are arguably other filters in place. PvP is a minor thing, so the Killer archetype is discouraged. It's a subscription game, so players tend to be older and more dedicated. Progression mechanics seem to be aimed at the steady player, who works on new classes or relic weapon or gear "grinds" at a steady pace.

Perhaps the "better community" of FFXIV is a result of "survival of the fittest". Where the players most suited to the FFXIV environment are the type of players who create that "better community".

Meanwhile, games like WoW have chosen the other path, of catering to the impatient. Perhaps that is why their communities seem to be getting worse, because their players are more impatient than average (or at least, more impatient than the FFXIV average).

I should also mention that SE has introduced mechanics for community building. Things like commendations, or the massive XP/reward bonus you get when someone in your group has never done the instance before. It is an open question as to how much these mechanics contribute to the better community. They certainly don't hurt, though.

Of course, there is a price for this natural selection. Players drop the game because it is too slow or too inconvenient. That reduces the potential audience for the game. By not including a shortcut to Heavensward, SE is giving up on potential players. Maybe the community created by the remaining players makes up for that. But maybe if SE made the shortcut, had made the early experience more interesting, FFXIV would be a 10 million subscriber game.