Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Slippery Slopes

Before we start:  I feel like half of my posts are just responses to Ripard Teg, but the guy writes so much and on so many topics that I find my self not caring.  Just a throwaway thought before I get down to it.

Read this.  And then maybe the thread associated, and maybe some of the previous articles.  This is the internet, I can wait.

Now we can start.  Most of the debaters in the the topic of what kind of players play Eve and how CCP should treat them seem to accept that both the "Bonus Room" scam and player perpetrating are despicable examples of human behavior.  If something like this happened in your work or your family life, you would cut ties with the person and tell others to avoid them.  That is a relief.  It means that, as I have long suspected and occasionally written, most players of Eve who also participate in the out of game community are either decent people, or are decent enough to recognize truly atrocious behavior.  What I find disturbing is that many of those same people think banning players who conduct "Bonus Room" style behavior will somehow start a slippery slope where anyone can be banned for anything.

This is not a valid concern.

Bad behavior comes in many forms.  Often bad behavior is an isolated incident, where someone gets carried away.  You say something nasty while drunk or in a group, and later realize your mistake.  Sometimes bad behavior comes from healthy testing of boundaries.  Children get in fights or disobeying parents.  These sorts of infractions can be dealt with simply and quickly.  A little feedback goes a long way, and that sort of feedback is what helps people define acceptable behavior in any society.  But some bad behavior is premeditated, cruel and repetitive.  Simple and measured feedback doesn't work, because the perpetrator has no regard for the rules.

In some situations companies have, or choose to assume, a moral or legal obligation to protect their customers.  CCP has already shown they are willing to accept a moral right to protect.  In that case a player made comment about killing himself after falling for a scam in Jita.  While his conversation was in jest, CCP contacted local authorities who then checked in on the player at his home.  While the player's initial post was fairly shocked, his first response to CCP in the comments was to thank them.  He realized that if he was not joking, CCP may have saved his life.  Also reference CCP's handling of The Mittani.  I assume anyone reading this is familiar with that event, and will not repeat the story here.

In most cases companies also have a right to refuse service to customers. This is the opposite side of the coin illustrated above.  CCP is completely within rights, in extreme cases, to refuse service without referring to the EULA or complex rules-arguing.  They can decide that people perpetrating a certain level of malicious, planned, and orchestrated bad behavior simply do not get to play with the toys CCP has made.  They can do this on a case by case basis.  If they want, they can put in place stringent internal rules to limit this scenario.  But they can do it, and they should. 

It is ok for a company to admit that things may have gotten out of hand or beyond the comfort zone.  Especially if the reaction is obviously and, if necessary, publicly done to provide clear feedback to behavior that is well past any reasonable boundary.  A few strong examples may do far more good than incrementally adjusting the rules to define the perfect balance for the bad behavior boundary line.   There is no slippery slope here.  There is truly bad behavior and the opportunity to strongly denounce it.

And finally, Eve Online is a game.  It is for amusement and relaxation, an escape or an adventure.  It is not a sacrosanct nation that needs to allow or tacitly support real abuse or psychological manipulation in order to protect the liberties and rights of fictional characters.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Facebook Rift

Well.  This happened.  Surprising and disturbing.  I'll keep it quick.

The OR guys built a lot of support out of claiming the Oculus Rift was by gamers, for gamers.  They built up a fair amount of seed money through Kickstarter.  They secured additional funding from investors.  They pulled in John Carmack to buoy this image even more.  Then they turned around and sold to a platform whose most famous games include Farmville, scrabble-knockoffs, and other worst-in-breed (or maybe best-in-breed?) examples of micro-transaction fueled cash-grabing.  All of this backed by a corporate ethos dedicated to eroding privacy in the name of advertising revenue.

There is a lot to discuss here.  The impact this might have on Kickstarter as a platform for small, innovative ideas.  The responsibility of developers to crowd-sourced projects.  The enormous power of a few large tech corporations to dictate the direction of multiple interwoven industries.  The fate of whatever the consumer version of the Rift looks like.  I may come back to those topics later.  Each of those sentences is a blog post or two.

For now, I'll leave two thoughts.  First, this might be a reasonable explanation for why Valkyrie suddenly stopped being an Oculus Rift Exclusive.  Sony may not be the greatest company, but they have a much better track record than Facebook in regards to gaming platforms.  Second, this is just disappointing.  I had the chance to play with an OR dev kit a few months ago and I was very excited to pony up whatever the 1080p consumer version would have cost.  Now... I'd rather not have to deal with the likelihood of Facebook integration.

Maybe Facebook is going to try and branch out into providing a real gaming platform.  If the short history of the company is any indicator, this is another smash and grab for more users at the expense of quality user experiences.  I do hope I am wrong, and this is the beginning of something very exciting.  We'll have to wait and see.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Championship Tournament of Winners

Reading through Jester’s posts about the recent New Eden Open got me thinking about competitive tournament play in Eve and in other games. I can think of a few broad types of ranked play in gaming. The DOTA/LoL approach, with lots of characters and a set map with set objectives. The FPS approach with identical classes and rankings based on K/D rates and what have you. The RTS approach of winning matches against other players. The WoT approach where you have either informal rankings based on metrics or Clan tournaments. The ad-hoc Eve tournaments with weird buy-ins, metagamey team composition mechanics and various win conditions that have varied. The WoW arena approach. All of these have strengths and drawbacks that are far too numerous to go into at any length. The point is there are a lot of ways to skin this cat.

Coming from a rather uninvolved standpoint, I want to come up with a new way to do tourneys in Eve!

In my experience the biggest problem to most competitive gaming formats is either a lack of depth, or so much depth that the mental barrier to entry is too high for most people to get into a game. Based on comments, the latter seems to be a big “problem” in Eve. Add to that the cost of participation and you have a rather gnarly set of hurdles to overcome. So here is a half-baked idea:

Take the arena system of WoW, in broad strokes. You have XvX teams enter an arena, fight for a certain amount of time, and at the end the one with the most people left standing wins. This is a pretty simple system. Get rid of the stupid arena mechanics. Instead the arena is a grid, Eve-style, say 300km in diameter. That is plenty of room to move around. Both teams start at 200km from the center. No podding. If you go boom, your pod gets put in a station in system, and you go into spectator mode. Go.

Next we need to consider ships. The simplest way is to tier it. Tiers could be based on tech level and hull size. The Tier 1 Cruiser bracket, for example, would allow each team their choice of one Tier 1 cruiser or smaller hull for each player. Fittings would be capped at Tech 2, the impact of implants should probably be negated. Just hulls and mods and rigs. This would create 5 hull tiers, and two tiers for each hull size except cruisers. If we discount tech 3 hulls, there are 10 tiers. Maybe have an anything-goes tier for people who want faction fits, implant sets and all that silly stuff.

To make sure you can fit before fights, put an option in the fitting interface where you can set your tier and that wipes the affect of implants. Now everyone has a pretty even playing field, and most players would have options that are not too expensive. A T2-fit cruiser or frigate is a pretty cheap investment, generally speaking. Those would want to go all spendy could fly in the Tech 2 tiers.

There may need to be some special rules in the fight system. Perhaps a concord-like entity that really bites down on non-sanctioned combat, to allow safe travel in the fight system. Perhaps there need to be a few of these systems set up in order to ease strain. Maybe not.

Then you get to the bracketing. Enter seasons. Let’s go with 3 month seasons, as a number out of a hat. Each week you get X matches (5? 10?) that are ranked. Each team gets a ranking as the season progresses, and then at the end you have playoffs at each tier that leads to the finals. If you have 10 matches per week with a 12 week seasons, that is 120 matches. Not a small number for determining ranks. The post season lasts for a month or two. You get two full seasons a year.

For added fun, let’s make all this happen on the live server. During playoffs, the playoff system gates get locked down so only the competitors can come and go. Once you lose, you have to leave. Put the feed on in Captain’s Quarters. Or at least a link to the Twitch page or something. I’d say let players bet isk on the matches, but that might be difficult, legally and logistically.

Outside the sanctioned matches, put exhibition arenas around the cluster. Little pockets of space where player can queue up to fight each other using the same rules, but without rankings.

This whole thing is mostly a thought experiment. Eve’s competitive PvP, as it stands now, is for a select few, and will hold back Eve’s esports presence because there is not much a normal player can do to join in.

The whole point of this idea is to create a space for competitive small gang pvp with real leader boards and rankings. The current tournament system in Eve features a crazy buy-in process, expensive ships, and convoluted rules. I want to see people flying normal ships with normal modules where tactics, team composition and flying are the main factors that influence the fights. Not weird metagaming, practicing in wormholes, and PLEX buy-ins for auction spots.

The reason there are only a handful of Formula One teams isn’t because people don’t want to drive fast cars. There are only a handful of F1 teams because the barrier for entry is so high. But there are race tracks and racing leagues all over the world where for a small outlay you can throw a car around the trtack and compete against others. If CCP wants players to really get into eSports in Eve, they need players to be able to participate.

A more accessible system could provide this entry point, giving new or space-poor players a simple entry point while allowing a venue for those who wish to field more expensive and skill-intensive ships and fits. Instead of dumping a low-SP alt in RvB, players could dump a new character into the ranked system, and realize that this season they can learn to fly frigates, but next season they will be able to fly cruisers. And then they can move into tech two hulls. If you went with one race’s ships, hitting all 10 tiers would probably take you a good two years to fully fit competitive ships. That would also help keep players in the game, and help CCP’s bottom line. When everyone gets to fight in space, everyone in the real world wins.

Monday, March 17, 2014

BB54 - Grey Suits Me Better...

Welcome to the continuing monthly EVE Blog Banters and our 54th edition! For more details about what the blog banters are visit the Blog Banter page.

Today's topic comes Diaries of a Space Noob blog and other sources:

"Quick post. I was listening to a song and a question occurred to me. Where are the EVE heroes? Against a dark background surely all we have are anti-heroes? A lot of mockery is aimed at any who attempt to be white knights. EVE is a dark place and yet pretty much all other MMO's try to place the player in the role of some form of hero, boosting the ego and taking the player out of the humdrum 1 in 7 billion that is RL. Why have I fitted into EVE? Did I never want to be that? So I guess my question is:

"Do classic heroes exist in EVE? Is such heroism even possible in EVE? How would you go about being one without opening yourself wide open to scams? Is the nature of the game so dark that heroes can't exist? How do you deal with that irony? What effect does this have on us and the psyche of new players coming in from other MMOs? Is it something special that we don't have classic heroes, or should we? Are our non classic heroes more genuine?"

And I would add to this, who have we elevated to the level of larger than life heroes ourselves in the game, and do they actually deserve it?
Get Writing!
One man’s hero is another man’s villain.
This statement defines Eve.  But let us take a step back.  Most games put the player in the shoes of a protagonist that if not heroic, is at least anti-heroic.  MMOs tend to do this by making each character an empty slate for whatever hero’s journey the writers crafted.  This journey may take the form of a singular bildungsroman, especially in single player games, or paint the player as part a team of heroes, as is often the case in MMOs where some concession is made to the fact that you want or need other heroic and powerful players to help.
Taking this further, the term “avatar”, generally used to refer to player characters, derives from the Sanskrit term for a deity descending into human form, often to accomplish some task.  So our very term for player characters derives from heroic vedas of the Hindu faith.  After all, if you are going to play a character, why not play one of the really important ones?
Eve gives you this illusion then rips it away.  We all play as capsuleers, semi-immortal pilots that have been gifted the boon of free access to clones and pods that, upon receiving the signal that our life is imminently to end, snaps a photo of our brain, jacks some poison into the system, and wakes us up in a fresh new body.  Our price for death is minimal, requiring only some accounting work to ensure that all those skills and implants are safeguarded or replaced.   There are no stakes that matter for our characters.  We do not have skin in the game, pun intended.
While we are told by marketing material that we are a powerful force, in reality it is our ships that provide the power.  Our characters have no innate abilities or powers.  Unlike most MMOs, we do not fight for or against one of the great fictional entities in the lore.  The closest we can get is joining a militia to fight other players, or run missions for the agents on behalf of the four empires.  Even those empires are complicated. There is no clear good or bad empire faction.
The Gallente and Caldari both represent shades of western values that many players will find easy to identify, but both are bogged down in the murky realities of politics where each has committed atrocities and moral slights against the other, for good and evil reasons.  
The Amarr and Minmatar seem easier to identify, with the Amarr as religious slavers bent on domination and the Minmatar as slaves throwing off the yoke of the oppressors.  But the Amarr are in large part responsible for the stargates across much of New Eden, and the Minmatar are ruthless and secretive.  Again, both have shown acts of courage and caring and acts of brutality and betrayal.
All four empires are woven together in a patchwork of intrigue and backstabbing underlined by the shifting of balance sheets and political power.  What if we look beyond empire space?  There are no Reapers or Reavers, no Borg or Cylons.  Some of the pirate factions have complicated back-stories that belie a simple black and white reading of who is the good guy.  Perhaps we can all agree the Serpentis are just… awful at everything?
There is no big bad to strive against.  There are only opportunities and liabilities.  Enter the players.  If we take a very simple view of Eve, there are four main playing fields.  First, High sec, where nothing players do really matters more than increasing balance sheets.  Second, Low sec, where players can nominally fight for one of four factions to gain nerd points, or fight anything that moves for the joy of blood (Perhaps these players are the reavers?).  Third, Null sec, where players fight each other, with no pretense in-game as to why this would matter at all. Fourth, Wormholes, home of Sleepers who we do not truly understand, and who only attack when we encrouch on their space.  Well, we understand that those nano-ribbons and hulls sell for a pretty penny, so we’ll blow up the ships that stand in our way.
Against this backdrop, there is no place for heroes.  If anything, we are often playing the villains or shock troops, committing violence in the name of Empire, Militia or Alliance.  There is no moralizing about our actions.  There is no obvious right or wrong to guide us.  There is only space for personalities that can channel the missiles, beams, and plots of others.  And this is where Eve shines, and why despite admittedly middling mechanics and systems, the game rolls forward and ships explode.
Freed of a moral imperative to do the correct thing, we can choose to do anything.  Absent is the impending doom or oppressive threat of most other games.  We are simply given a universe, step into it as jobbers, and make our way.  The connections we form, when they happen, are with other players and groups, not a fictional band of brothers intent on defeating a lich king or the power of chaos.  Our victories in these self-made conflicts, while not permanent, are at least meaningful because we set the goal, we make the rules and conditions for victory, and we succeed or fail.
This very absence of a shared nemesis and self-driven goal setting are qualities that make Eve unique.  These attributes keep players coming back for more, long after skills are trained, ships are bought, or defeat is suffered.  There is no end-game to conquer, no best in slot gear setup that can be used as a proxy for winning.  When a player accomplishes one goal, a new goal is often already in place.  I know in my time in Eve I have never had one overarching goal, be it for my skill queue, my wallet, or the area of the game I want to engage in.  I have had multiple goals, each of which strives for my attention.  Some are completed, some are abandoned, but the game offers so many venues for participation that I am never lacking a reason to log in.
Can someone be a hero in Eve?  To some players you could be a hero.  You could hunt gankers.  You could lead a coalition.  You could be a great blogger.  But all of these are relative, and you will never be a hero to everyone.  But you do not need to be a hero for everyone.  Look at The Mittani.  I am sure many consider him a hero.  But many more consider him the villain of Eve.  In a game where social status is relative speaking of heroes and villains misses the point.
What effect does this have on new players?  INew players that have a future in Eve grasp the relative nature of social standings in the game rather quickly.  Many players come to the game from other communities, so the narrative is already written for them.  Most players who stick with the game probably decide what they want to accomplish and follow other players as long as it is useful or convenient to do so.
The concept of genuine “heroes” is a wonderful idea in Eve.  If we agree that a hero is a relative thing in Eve, I propose a different question.  Are the personalities in Eve more genuine?  In that light, I think the answer is a wholehearted yes.  When relationships are relative, personalities and shared history are all we have to judge each other.  Even the most sordid betrayals weave an indelible thread into the cloth of Eve’s shared story.
When you think of what defines Eve, do you think of the lore, or do you think of the Great War?  Do you think of the great corporations of the Caldari, or of the Guiding Hand Social Club?  Do you think of Outer Ring Excavations, or of Hulkageddon?  All of those events were created by the personalities in Eve.  Those events, the people who brought them about, and the fact that we are freed of playing heroes are far more memorable than any raid you have conquered in another game.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

On Deck: Banished

Well, I have to thank Mabrick for probably killing the next few weeks of my life.  He ran a few articles about Banished, and I'm going to give a try.

Some background:  When I stopped playing Eve last year, it was not due to a lack of time, but a lack of time which I could safely play games without being interrupted.  This was due to living in a house with a very ill family member and the need to physically or emotionally support those I was with.  This put a damper of my foray into Faction Warfare.  So I started to look for games I could pause, leave, or otherwise abandon at any time.  I got back into Minecraft, specifically with the modded servers over at Ars Technica.  A good group of guys and gals over there, and we still have some mod servers going strong.  I also managed to get myself into Dwarf Fortress rather heavily, first in the normal mode and then into the heavily modded Masterwork version.

If you like Eve, there is a good chance you like very complex games that have a steep learning cruve and that reward your efforts, more often than not, with death.  Dwarf Fortress is maybe the best example of an obtuse, difficult and punishing game that manages to be insanely rewarding and addictive.  Oh, and it looks like this:

Adding "better" graphics can make it look a bit better.

It is not a pretty game.  However, it is frightfully deep.  It also has no real goals.  You start with seven dwarves, some food, some supplies, and then you unpause the game.  At the core, DF is a resource gathering and managing game.  You dig into the ground, build into the sky, create farms and pastures and mines, and generally try not to die.  The beauty of the game is the complexity of the fortresses you can build. 

Once you get food, clothing and basic defenses sorted, you are free to build whatever you want.  A giant castle, the mines of Moria, a trap infested death machine.  Some notable examples are a player who colonized Hell, replicas of the Great Pyramids, or giant statues that contain hundreds of dwarves and all they need to live.  On top of that the forum for the game is rife with community games.  These consist of games where players create backstories, random objectives, and then take turns leading the fortress for a year each, writing up the story and passing the turn on to the next player.  Some of these are even PVP like in nature, with players encouraged to leave traps for the next player to have to deal with.  One game I recently finished culminated in us luring the King of all dwarfdom to our fortress, then burying him under a mountain of cheese, stone, and valuables.

Most fortresses end due to the violent death of dwarves due to starvation, invasion, madness, breaching hell and unleashing the demos within, assualt from flaming disease spreading monsters, or more often than not, simple bad management.  The unofficial motto of the game is "Losing is Fun".

I love this game, and have spent a lot of time playing it and trying to have as much fun as possible.

There are a lot of games that have tried to take the DF formula and make it pretty.  Towns is the best example I can think of.  Much like Minecraft most of these new games have tried to address what many see as the main drawback of DF, the utterly horrible graphics and user interface.  Most fall rather flat, being either buggy, poorly made, or lacking the odd charms of DF.   Things like the random name and artifact generators, the suicidal way dwarves chase after socks lying on a battlefield, and the intricacies of years of development that simulates emotions, moods, and combat, down to each dwarf having meticulously detailed layers of skin, muscle, fat, bones and organs.

Banished looks like it might have found a middle ground, and I look forward to seeing if someone has finally cracked the graphics code and made an interesting alternative to Dwarf Fortress.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Diablo Loot 2.0 Review

You might have guessed that I have been playing a bit of D3 lately.  You would be right.  I even went so far as to pre-order Reaper of Souls, because D3 is scratching a mindless kill-fest itch I have been having lately.  Since I’ve put a good chunk of time in over the last week, I decided I might as well give a snapshot review of D3 with Loot 2.0, as a bit of a baseline for when I play the expansion.  
For the record, I started playing Loot 2.0 with a 60 Barbarian with no Paragon levels, leveled a Wizard from about 20 to 31, and started a Witch Doctor up to about 10.

The Good


The biggest part of the patch/update/whatever was, by and large, a success.  On non-60 characters, the drops are wonderfully improved.  Items get replaced left and right.  Crafting yields lots of appropriate gear.  I never had the moment of thinking “I really need to check the Auction House”, which was a relief, considering that was half of every play session last time around.  On my 60, drops were ok.  And by I ok, I do mean a damn sight better than before.  But good drops are harder to come by.  I think I replaced almost everything except my weapons.  There is probably some sort of RNG curve going on here.  But I was also limited to Hard mode.  More on that in a bit.

Difficulty Levels

You can change the difficulty on the fly, instead of starting a whole new campaign.  This is great, but there was one problem, which I will talk about later.


The speed with which I am gaining levels and paragon levels is, if anything, a little fast.  I gained some 16 paragon levels on my Barbarian, and that is primarily solo, burning through hard mode from mid Act 1 to the beginning of Act III.  For the other classes, I cannot really say much, as the Barbarian is the only character above level 31 I have at this point.
So far the new Paragon system seems interesting, although I am not a huge fan of the gating of points.  You get a rotation of Core, Offense, Defense and Utility points, in that order, as you gain levels.  This is rather frustrating.  I would have rather seen the ability to assign freely amongst all the areas, as it seems like this just slows down tweaking to take advantage of certain builds.  Nonetheless, the new system provides a welcome ability to customize the characters you build in some small way.

The Bad


I can select any difficulty level in game, as long as it is easy, medium or hard.  I cannot choose the higher levels without backing out and restarting from the most recent checkpoint.  This is annoying because “Hard” mode isn’t hard.  At all.  I actually tweaked my Whirlwind Barb into a Seismic Slam build to slow down the fights and force myself to think about positioning.  On my Wizard, leveling is a joke.  The real limiting factor is often clumping enemies together become unleashing AOE, and then the time it takes to get to the next pack.  I just fought Belial on Hard with the 60 Barbarian.  I never moved once, and I think my health meter blipped off full maybe twice.  I really hope the increased difficulty levels change that.
Also, aside from a semantic change in the naming of difficulty levels, I am not sure I see what the big difference is.  Each character has to go through the game at least once to unlock all the   


Gems are pretty boring.  The stat boosts they give are very small unless they are percentage based, which does not happen very often.  Any given class really only needs to use 3 of the 5 gem types: Diamonds for resist-all, red for % life, and then whatever your stat is.  I hope Reaper of Souls brings in some sort of Rune system, or even the socketing system from WoW, where combinations give additional bonuses or something to make it more interesting.  Hell, steal the Torchlight gems.  Those were fun and had a lot of variety.
I also assume Reaper will add more tiers of gems, because gems give 30-50 stat points while items generally drop, for me, with 200-300 stat points per property.  There are almost no situations where a stat is worth trading for a stat property.


The game still has lots of moments where you have to stop, wait for someone to say something, and then wait for an animation, and then wait for something else.  By the time you get through to the door or get to fight the boss, that nifty buff you got melted away.  While by no means crucial, it would be nice to not constantly get buffs that get eaten by plot points.  Which brings up…

The Plot

Replaying a turbo-tour of Acts I-II has reminded me of how silly and disjointed the plot in this game is.  It really makes no sense.  The reveal of Tyreal and Belial both play very poorly after the first time.  I am looking forward to Act III, which is such a strong set piece, but I think Act IV is going to be a drag.  Once adventure mode is live I wonder if anyone will be playing Act IV at all.  Hopefully RoS divests the talky-talky and lets our blades, spells, and jars of spiders do all the exposition.


Diablo took place in an ever descending cathedral of madness.  It was dark, dank, claustrophobic and oppressive.  The light radius mechanic had a huge impact on this.  Diablo II was a bit more open, relying on the more massive nature (literally or figuratively) of many foes to impart a sense of dread.  Diablo III feels rather barren.  The art is well done, but there is n o sense of lurking doom.  I think a huge part of this comes from the removal of the light radius mechanic.  You can always kind of see around the corner, or to the edge of the screen.  In future iterations I would love to see the light radius come back, along with the oppressive black pool surrounding the character.  Having to rely on the harsh lines of the minimap, or even better, your memory,  made the journey feel more isolated and more likely to result in a horrible end.  I recall moments of actual fear in Diablo.  It would be nice to feel some of that again.

The Ugly


Two big issues still bug me about D3:  The way skills are selected and the normal and elective settings.  To keep things simple, I’ll refer you to this post regarding the skills system overall.  No need to rehash that topic.  The second issue is in the very gamey way you can choose active skills.  By default you have six skill slots on the hotbar, and can only choose one skill from each of six categories to fill those.  If you dig into the options menus you can enable “elective” mode, which lets you choose any skill in any slot.  The implication seems to be that the proper way to play is with one skill from each of the six categories.  You can go elsewhere and find many of the most recommended builds ignore this completely.  If Diablo 3 was played with a gamepad, this system might have made sense.   
But Diablo 3 is not played with a gamepad, and many skills require you to aim with your mouse.  Leap, ranged spells, and things like that obviously were built for mouse and keyboard.  In this context, the limited skills seem like a cop-out to make balancing the game easier as opposed to providing some deeper gameplay mechanic.  The first two Diablo titles did not have this issue, nor does the Torchlight series.  The grouping of the skills doesn’t always seem to make much sense.  All in all it is an ugly implementation that I can’t say I like much.
The rune system is still present, although a tremendous number of runes have been changed or reworked.  However, the pacing of when runes unlock leads to a lot of static builds through leveling.  On the Wizard in particular it seems like Ice is the only build you can really piece together due to the massive number of skills, passive abilities and runes you unlock that improve Ice compared to Fire or Arcane builds.
I mentioned this in my previous article, but the current system implies that the systems in previous Diablo games were too complicated.  The changes to talents in World of Warcraft seem to support this.  If sales numbers can be used as proof people understanding the skill/talent system, I don’t think anyone was having much of problem getting the hang of either game series. 

Ghost Features

I know this is a pre-expansion release.  But it really bugs me that many of the new features are present but un-selectable in the menus.  It would have been nice to have the tooltip at least recognize if you preordered the expansion.  There are also a fair number of Crusader items dropping, which seems like somebody copied the wrong loot algorithm and table to the server a few weeks early.


Why do the merchant’s belongings’ boxes always mess up my path in Acts I and III?  Why do I always get stuck on little parts of terrain?  Why can I lead to this platform, but not that one, or for that matter execute a random half leap for no apparent reason?  None of these are game breaking, but they are annoying.

Final Verdict

You may think from this article that I don’t like Diablo III.  The answer is a bit complicated.  I’ve been playing it a fair amount.  I think the game has nice art direction, has the ability to create really fun moments once abilities start to unlock, and allow for nifty combinations of attacks and managing enemies.  Loot 2.0 fixes some of the most egregious faults in the game.  That point is important.  I stopped playing the first time because the whole game had become a gold grind for the Auction House.  Removal of the Auction House, one of the most touted features of the game, shows a huge change in direction for Blizzard, and shows that they still have some ability to push back against the avarice of the Koticks of the world, and their corporate structure.
However the core design choices with the skill and stats system and the rather odd writing outside Act III really hold the game back.  This somehow becomes more apparent with the Auction House removed.  The skill system, while allowing for a lot of combinations (Elective mode likely provides thousands or millions of permutations of skills, runes, and passives), still feels very empty, at least compared to previous entries and competition on the market.  The writing is less memorable than anything else Blizzard has turned out.  The atmosphere has none of the visceral oppression and dread from previous games.
Diablo 3 is polished.  The systems that are in place (as opposed to my ideal Diablo III) are well implemented aside from the aforementioned Leaping issues.  The sound and music are well done.  The graphics live up to Blizzard’s fit-the-bell-curve approach to such things.  If this offering was the first Diablo game, I think it would have set a nice bar.  But as a sequel, I think too much of the past was cast off in the name of marketing and the false idea that the game needed to be more accessible.  Perhaps unreasonable expectations prevent me from really letting the Prime Evils sink their hooks again.  Diablo III, especially with Loot 2.0, is good.  But I still think it could have been great.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Trees vs Choices

After spending some time with Diablo III, I was reminded of maybe the most fundamental change between D2 and D3, and in "old" Bizzard and "new" Blizzard.  Most of you are probably aware of the skill trees in Diablo 2.  Some of you may have played World of Warcraft.  Both had skill trees that looked like a flow chart:
A Diablo II skill tree.
An "old" WoW talent tree.
Both operated on the idea that at various experience levels you gained points to spend in the trees.  These points either improved abilities or unlocked new ones.  Diablo 3 and the new WoW talent trees both dumped that approach in favor of unlocking core abilities at certain levels, and then providing a small number of choices.  In D3 this takes the form of glyphs that alter a given ability.  In WoW, the system is a little more convoluted, but at each talent tree level you generally get to choose between three additional abilities or modifications.
Picking glyphs for a skill in Diablo 3.

The "new" talent tree in WoW.
 Another major change in the system was that in the old point-based system respeccing your skills was either impossible or incurred a fair amount of expense.  D3 did away with this, allowing you to swap skills and glyphs any time you are not in combat.  WoW has slowly made it easier and easier to change you spec, in both the old and new systems.

I think this system works well in Diablo, but feels a bit hollow.  This system was one of the key factors that led me to stop playing WoW altogether.  The reason is that in both games, a lot of the urge to play is based on investment in your character.  Most RPGs and MMOs work this way.  Conversely, shooters have little need for this.  In a game where you respawn frequently and death is a common feature, investment comes from how enjoyable the mechanics of the game are.

This change in how players customize their characters leads to a hollow experience, at least for me.  Instead of thinking and tweaking and theorycrafting my characters, I get a few choices which can be quickly swapped out until I find the most effective method for dealing the most damage.  Instead of taking pride in being a Marksmanship or Beast Mastery Hunter, I was left with a few clicks to make and alter.  My investment in balancing my skills and developing a strategies based around my strengths and weaknesses went away.

An example of this change:  In Burning Crusade era WoW, I gained a small amount of notoriety on my server as a hunter who could solo just about anything, an occasionally people would come watch me try out some new strategy to deal with boss level creatures outside Illidan's Temple or tag along to watch me take out Gruul by myself.  It was fun, it fostered community, and it really gave me a reason to inhabit the shoes of Grimmash, Orc Hunter.  You could even figure out a lot about a character based on the armor set they chose.  Seeing a player wearing a particular set of armor told you a lot about how they fought, what talents they likely had, and maybe even about their personality, as certain play styles often drew particular types of people.

Now, with such customization gone, I have lost most of the investment in Grimmash, Orc Hunter.  All that maters is speccing the right way for the fight at hand, and hot-swapping out skills based on the dungeon.  This is even more pronounced in Diablo 3, where I have never even considered what the personality of Kul Turas the barbarian.  In Diablo 2, you had no choice to change skills once assigned, so your build was often very idiosyncratic and personal.  Each character was a significant investment.

From a gaming philosophy standpoint, this poses a question.  To set that question up, it is often assumed that developers must make a choice between complex skill systems that satisfy hardcore players, or simple skill systems that foster a broader casual appeal.  The question becomes:  Is this supposed balance real, or a figment of developers' imagination?  Is the sales and marketing department forcing a false dichotomy on developers?

I hope the answer is that this is a false dichotomy, but as many marquee games seem to only be willing to try the simple approach, we may be passing into an era of gaming where it will be harder to find rewarding skill systems in the name of casual sales.  

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Diablo III Loot 2.0 Impressions

Blizzard completely revamped Diablo III a week or so ago, and I decided to take a look.  They made a lot of changes to the game, and most of them would have been amazing... at launch.  That is a very negative statement, and I think the changes are all very nice.  It is just sad to see it happen this way.  I'll explain the changes briefly, what I think of them, and then why I'm being such a jerk about it.

The Past

I bought and played D3 shortly after it came out.  Long enough afterwards to not have to deal with the crazy login issues, but I did learn real quick about the joys of the D3 auction house.  The AH, which will soon be gone as we know it, was where everyone went to dump all the useful items they found that they had no use for.  It was full of stuff, and because there are not too many gold sinks in the game, inflation was nasty.  On the face of things, this might not have been so bad.  If there is no other real use for large sums of the gold you get, why not spend it on items other players found?

The problem was that the RNG loot tables were set in such a way that a player was very unlikely to get anything useful.  The only real way to advance, even while leveling, was to go look for items that matched your class and build on the AH an buy it.  Almost everything you found had to evaluated in very annoying way:
  1. Is this a good item?
  2. Can I use it? (Probably not).
  3. Can someone else use it? (Maybe)
  4. What is the market price for this sort of item?
Steps 1-3 were rather tedious and unrewarding, as you rarely answered "yes" until step three.  Then step four took quite a while because you had to go practice your filter-fu to find similar items, post them, and then hope you were not beaten out.  Kind of like the 0.01 iskers in Eve, selling was rather tedious.  Compounding this was the fact that the item you wanted to buy of the AH was inevitably very expensive, especially once you got to level cap, and even more so for legendaries or nice set pieces.

I haven't even touched on the real-money AH, and I'm not going to.  Let's just file it away under the "Kotick's Follies" heading and ignore it.

This all ended up making the game a skinner-box without the reward feedback.  I stopped playing after getting a barbarian to 60, because it wasn't much fun to play for 30 minutes, then spend another 30 minutes dealing with the AH.  Hack-n-slash games generally do not follow the Eve model for good reason.

The Present

Loot 2.0 killed a lot of this tedium.  Very briefly, the new system adjusted the loot tables to roll preferentially based on the class you are playing with, and tweaked all the stats and drops to give items that are quite often useful for you in the moment.  The joy of looting is back.  There skinner box is functioning again.  Since playing yesterday, I can say I have replaced almost all of my gear on a 60 barbarian and a wizard I am leveling completely through in game drops, and the game feels good again.  Legendary items are now pretty much bind on account, which removes them from the AH and creates incentive to go grind.  All is good!

The Problem

Simply put, this is a bit late.  I have no hard numbers, but I do not think many people are playing right now, at least not compared to last summer.  Anecdotal evidence:  Last summer, opening a game up to public multiplayer usually got a few people into the game, increased the number of monsters, and made it a bit more interesting.  Since yesterday, on a Friday and Saturday night, none of my public games had anyone join.  The train left the station, and it may never come back.

I really hope that the new expansion, Reaper of Souls, helps fix this.  It might.  But then again, how many people are going to plop down another $40 for a game that burned a heck of a lot of people the first time?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Where did I leave my keys...

Well.  I re-subscribed to Eve, on two accounts!  Being out of the loop for two expansions really does leave me with a lot to learn.  But life is better, if fundamentally different from nine months ago when I started winding down my time in Eve.  Luckily I have landed back pretty much where I was.  Both my old corps still have me on the roster, so I can take some time to figure out next steps. 

This will be a slow process for a variety of reasons. 

First is life.  If you look back a few posts, you'll see that last summer and fall were pretty rough due to a death in the family and the end of the carefree life of being a student.  I am fully employed, no longer a student.  The family is recovering as best families can.  I am now an expecting father, as exciting as that is!  So much to do to prepare for the Grimmlet.  I am branching back out into tactile hobbies since I have space and money. 

Second is Eve.  A lot has changed.  Not in big ways, but in so many little ways that it is taking time to both get my affairs back in order and piece together what I want to next.  My industrial character in fairly secure.  My combat pilot is still in FW land.  That is a trickier needle to thread.  I don't have the time I used to for roams and the peekaboo nature of fleets, so I need to think about both what to do with the character, and what to do with all the stuff I have all over Black Rise.

Third is other games.  While I stepped away from Eve, I picked up a variety of other games.  Modded Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, World of Tanks, Shadowrun Returns, XCOM, and a host of others.  I think there may be a series of posts coming from that time spent with other pixels.  Sorry, Eve, it's not you, it's me.

Fourth is income streams!  I was learning a lot right before I left, and I need to pick up those pieces.  It is looking to be an interesting summer, and I hope to share it with you all again!

Fly safe, or at least fly fun!