[Dragon Age] Getting ready for DAI: Dragon Age Keep

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*sniff* Alas poor dwarf commoner heroine, I may have temporarily forgotten you but it all comes back to me now!

Any Dragon Age fans out there? Course there are! Dragon Age Inquisition is going to be taking up a lot of my time come this November –  like many others I will find my gaming time massively torn between DAI and the warcraft expansion. Bioware have thoughtfully released little cameos of the new companions so like any right minded person I have already been thinking which of them I plan to romance. #ridetheironbull But that’s for another blog post.  Suffice it to say I can’t really imagine even having this discussion about another game line or developer. Also if the ‘pinkification’ of games means more cool romances I’m all for it.

Dragon Age: The story so far

Dragon Age Keep is now in open beta. This is an official website where players can look through the stories of the last two Dragon Age games (Origins, and Dragon Age 2) and either upload records of the choices that they made in their own favourite game or tweak the main choices to get the background that they want for DAI. I can only assume this means that many of these choices will impact on conversations or interactions in the new game.

One of the things they have done that I really love is that after uploading the options taken in your game/s, which it does fairly smoothly, the Keep gives a brief animated run through of the story so far. There is a narration. You are also offered  the ability to change some of the key choices as they come up. I’ve shown this in the image at the top of the post. It’s really rather great.

Later on, you get the chance to edit the whole ‘tapestry’ by being able to dip into specific parts of the game and editing what you would like to have happened. Hey, it beats having to run through the Deep Roads again.

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Alas poor Anders. Gone but not forgotten. No wait, apparently I didn’t actually kill him! I may be the only one Winking smileDoes that mean he might make a cameo? Will Ser Pounce-a-Lot be with him? Roll on the 18th.

What does good gaming journalism look like?

Given the focus at the moment on gaming journalism and what it shouldn’t be doing, I thought it might be fun to look for some great examples of what good gaming journalism can be.

I’m kicking off with a couple of articles that told me a lot about the games they cover and also were (I thought) wildly entertaining reads.

OK, over to you all. Any recommendations for articles that really stayed with you as good examples of what you like to read in gaming journalism?

[MMOs] Your learning needs are not my problem

Stubborn has a great post up on the Epic Slant blog where he applies some of his teaching theories about collaboration to game design. You should read it, but I’m just riffing off the basic idea. He talks about how you design a collaborative task to give everyone in the group opportunities to learn.

I was intrigued because I feel increasingly that random group content in MMOs is an anti-learning environment. If people zone in with someone who is learning the fight, they’re likely to be disappointed because it will take longer. They don’t want to take ‘the hit’ of being part of someone else’s learning experience. It’s not surprising, if group content is designed to encourage group learning (I don’t actually think MMO devs have educators on board, sadly, because that would be awesome but let’s pretend) then the whole point is that the group learns together.

Even a lot of learning players would rather be boosted and not have to bother learning the fight than be thrown in with a group of similarly experienced players and all learn it together. That isn’t a function of noobiness, a lot of experienced players would do the same thing – just they’d probably actually bother to learn the fight at some point. Although possibly not to the same holistic level – if you learn a fight in a group where everyone else already performs their role well then you will only really learn your own role. You won’t learn how the fight fully works.

People are lazy. Only raid leaders are really motivated to fully understand fights. A lot of players are happy to just be told what to do. None of this is surprising. I also think it is most fun to learn a fight in a group of similarly skilled players who are also friends who are learning together; it’s harder than ever to get this type of group together except at the beginning of new content. Because people will head into LFR to learn what they can.

Your learning will slow us down

The other week we raided again with an old guildie who has just rejoined after spending the expansion in more hardcore raids. He’s a great guy, good player, geared to the gills, knows the fights backwards, and it was lovely having him back in raid chat. We got to one of the boss fights (Blackfuse) where some of the DPS have a slightly different role – he said he was happy to try it but it would be his first time as his old raid hadn’t let him do it before so he wasn’t really sure how it worked.

This gives an indication of how specialised and risk averse some raid groups can be. If you didn’t happen to be That Guy who took on that role when the raid first learned a fight, they will be reluctant to give you a chance to learn unless they have no choice because learning takes time and that would set them back. So do you make the whole raid wipe a couple of times while new guy learns the positioning or tell him to go practice in LFR/ go back to his usual role so you can make more progress?

Has learning got more scary in MMOs?

So what I am wondering is whether it has gotten scarier to learn new roles or fights. PUGs don’t care if it was the first time you saw the raid, they’ll have to judge you on what they see. Progression raids worship progression and will be frustrated if you take too long to learn.

I guess with a new WoW expansion coming up, we can say it’s easier to get into learning mode at the beginning of a new content patch when everyone (briefly) is learning together. And the goal isn’t just to learn, it’s to learn as quickly as you can do you don’t get booted from your raid later. That adds a certain extra stress that I suspect good educators would have tried to avoid. I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more people just avoid group content – it only takes one really stressful experience to kill someone’s confidence.

And I wonder if the genre (such as it is) would be more long lived if more design effort was put into making the learning experience less stressy.

[GG] What if … I told you that making online death threats wasn’t normal?

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It feels like shooting fish in a barrel to mock Gamergate right now.

Once the New York Times, The Guardian, and Le Monde have come out mocking the “movement” and even The Escapist had to pull some “interviews with gamergate-sympathetic developers” because said developers turned out to be idiots with histories of harassment, they’re pretty much going to be the butt of everyone’s humour for the next few years regardless of my putting the boot in.

What can you really make of a movement which claims to be about journalist ethics but which in practice mostly is about trying to shut down sites/ people they disagree with? Apart from POINT. LAUGH. It’s not about safe spaces for guys and/ or geeks – there are other male dominated hobbies which are way less toxic than gaming (sports, some music scenes). My beloved is big into prog rock and goes out with the guys for regular prog curries or beers and off to see bands or go to music festivals, and in their groups the older guys keep an eye out for the younger ones, try to give them decent life advice and make it about their joint interests, not about hating (tbh they can’t even agree which bands they hate anyway). That’s what a supportive male-dominated hobby could look like, if you want it to.

It would all be quite funny if it wasn’t for the death threats, and in the end it was the death threats that overwhelmed whatever else people thought they were being angry about. In truth, the only thing the participants could all see to agree on was that feminists make them so angry they lose their collective minds. That’s what I picked up from talking to GGers, and it’s nice to see I’m not the only one (that link is a reddit comment from a writer from the Boston Globe who was challenged by GGers to go “look at the proof” – he did Smile ).

There is no culture war. General society is moving into the internet and finally we are at the point where acts that would not be acceptable offline (terrorist threats, trolling) are no longer going to be acceptable online either. I would argue they never were. It was never cool to send death threats to developers or forum mods. Never. People didn’t do it because it was their culture, they did it because they thought they could get away with it.

If you’ve seen any of Sarkeesian’s videos about anti-women tropes in gaming, they’re about as mild and inoffensive as you could imagine while making their point (which in an industry where ‘boob physics’ is a thing, cannot surprise anyone.) Normal people can disagree with things without sending their blood pressure into the danger zone, just by comparison.`

No one is going to stop making games that sell several million copies out of the gate, but gaming constantly reinvents itself when some genres get tired or less profitable or when new markets open up. So it always has been, so it always will be. I have a lot of sympathy though for the poor saps who were fooled into thinking that GamerGate represented them as gamers.

Gamers are more than just the shit stirring reactionary death-threat-sending smack-talking hate-mongers.  There are many many good things that come from our hobby. Friendships that last years, innovative ways to manage online communities and interact with people, opportunities for learning and working together with people from all round the globe. And now it’s time for us to prove it.

[WoW] Proving Grounds–preparing players for group content?

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The Proving Grounds are a one-person instance in WoW where you can practice tanking, healing, or dps roles with and against mobs that are a bit more interactive than training dummies. There are some NPCs that will help you, and the various mobs have different abilities and/or need to be attached from different directions.

So far, so good, it’s a neat concept. I have friends and guildies who love the Proving Ground mini game; it has harder and harder modes and you can keep going until you get to Infinite Mode which means carry on until you are bored or wipe. The idea also is that it is a good way to practice the roles before trying group content. So in the next expansion, you will have to complete the Proving Ground for your role at Silver level (Bronze is the easiest, Silver next step up) before you will be able to queue for heroic instances.

If there is an issue with the Proving Grounds though, it is this. Bronze level is easy and still does the job of making you use different tactics for different mobs. The more difficult tiers I find tuned harder (or at least different) than what you generally will be asked to do do in instances; harder in the sense of no one to help, and hard timers (i.e. count down in the corner).  So Silver Mode in WoD could actually be harder in some senses than the content it will be used to gate, and still not guarantee that people who pass it will be useful in heroic groups.

Also when the game does this in single player mode, it penalises some classes/ specs more than others because the encounters are tuned by role, not by class or spec. For example, if I’m doing a tanking Proving Ground on my warrior, my dps will be less than that of the other tanks because of class choice. It doesn’t make it impossible (they do tune it reasonably from that point of view), but it will be harder for me to make the timers, even if my tanking is otherwise flawless.

It’s not necessarily bad for the players if the gatekeeping requires a higher skill level than the instances. It implies at least that the people you will be queuing with will be good enough to manage the heroic. But if the gatekeeping keeps out too many people who would have been fine in the groups but are no longer allowed to queue then a) people will leave the game and b) queue length will increase. It’s a fine line. My confidence in my WoW skills is very low at the moment, so I’m assuming I probably won’t be able to do it. Still, there’s always pet battles.

 

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The thing that annoys me most about Proving Grounds is that in the tanking one, you get an NPC healer who also nukes mobs. You have to tab around to find out which one they are nuking so that you can make sure to hold aggro on it. In a just universe, you’d be able to mark the mobs so that you can control which order the healer kills them in – IMO that would be a far more useful thing to learn before queuing for instances than whether or not you can kill illusionary mobs in under 10s.

It does make me wonder about how else you could train players to be more skilled and confident in group roles.

[MMOs] Farewell Titan: Beginning of the end, or end of the beginning?

Blizzard broke the news this week that they have cancelled development on the MMO they had in development for the past few years, codenamed Titan.

This news does not come as a surprise. For two reasons.

1.  When a project has been kicking around this long, has been through complete redesigns, and the ‘buzz’ we’re hearing about it still doesn’t sound particularly interesting, the chances of it becoming a massive hit are fairly minimal. It would have been an albatross, not the “omg successor to WoW’ that some people were touting.

2. I’m not saying MMOs are finished, but clearly producing huge expensive MMOs  is not the way to bet. There are successful games which involve massive numbers of players, which may have a lot in common with MMOs, but they aren’t based on the classic Diku model, or even the less common EVE model. If there is a true successor to WoW, in terms of being a breakout viral hit that involves millions of people then it is Minecraft, not the large WoW-alikes.

So what changed? The games have become more refined, gameplay has improved, graphics have improved (hugely), lots of new ideas have been tried. The players changed. The internet and social media became more mainstream. People learned that there are large downsides to interacting with massive numbers of people. There are also many many more games on the market where you can interact with massive numbers of players competitively, with carefully designed gameplay, in more controlled ways than just throwing everyone into a virtual world together.

This is a post I wrote on rpg.net about why MMOs are not the in-thing any more:

The genre feels increasingly stale. There are plenty of players with enthusiasm to try new games, but they tend to demand very similar features. They also tend not to want to stick with a new game for more than a few months, which isn’t a problem per se, but means it’s harder to form new communities. They also tend to be much less patient than players were in the past when we were all a bit new to the whole idea.

One reason is that people are increasingly likely to see being around massive numbers of people as a downside, not an upside. You need massive numbers for some mechanics: to simulate an economy and support a quick LFG queue and good PvP ladders. But other than that, actually being in a gameworld with that many people can be frustrating. And ultimately the elitist, more abusive elements have tended to have a big influence on the culture (I know not every elitist player is abusive, some of them are lovely) — it’s increasingly challenging to learn a new game when you have a high chance of meeting hostile oldbies in your groups.

Another is that so much of the discovery about MMOs is probably on neat little websites before the game even launches. And due to competitiveness in the player base there is an increasing pressure for players to have read it. That means the content barely lasts any time at all before it is beaten unless there is an unholy grind involved. Not a problem, but the discovery process was a big part of the appeal of the MMO back in the day.

It’s also about the tendency of open world games with PvP and a full economy (like EVE) to become really cut-throat. It’s great for the players who love it, but there’s a limit to how many of that type of game can fruitfully exist. And they tend to drive out anyone else from their games.

I think there’s a huge future in open world games — but they’ll be partitioned neatly between single player elements, co-op elements (like raiding), PvP elements, massive elements (like the economy), large group elements, and maybe even open world server shards with contained numbers. Something like Diablo3 (with better designed economy) is going to be a better picture;  you can play solo or with friends, or in LFG, or with the economy, and chat on your friends list and share pictures of your armour — and each of those parts of the game is neatly designed for that kind of group of people.

I think there is still a possibility for a more social open world type of game to become a breakout hit at some point, but it will do so by reaching out to people who are not currently core gamers (like Minecraft did). I think there are definitely still possibilities for huge procedural simulationist/ survival type open world games to become breakout hits. But for the rest of the MMO-type genre I think success will be much smaller scale – the pattern of the big influx of players and then drop off after a month or so is too frequently seen to blame on individual games and the days of the huge investment AAA MMO as we know it are done. There will still be successes and opportunities, but devs will have to design around the steady state numbers.

And maybe, sometime in the future, the MU* model of player run shards – which has been so successful in Minecraft – will re-enter the MMO-type area and the cycle will begin again.

Still, we’ll always have Warcraft.

Here’s a couple more blog posts from other people on similar themes, go read them they are good! (Will add more tonight, feel free to suggest links in the comments).

[Wildstar] Game difficulty, player confidence.

“… each struggling MMO is struggling in its own way.”

– Tolstoy (sort of)

I have read a few blog posts this week about Wildstar, and the inevitable subscription drop-off and server merge. I’d be hard pressed at this point to name a recent subscription MMO that hadn’t experienced a drop-off after the first couple of months. Players have wondered whether the game’s difficulty compared with other similar MMOs may be part of the explanation for why the new MMO on the block has failed to break the 3-monther pattern.

I played the game in Beta and wasn’t hooked, but at the same time, when so many other MMOs have trodden the same path it’s hard to pick out anything exceptional about this one. Except that the magical lightning-in-a-bottle MMO factor that will get a game to go viral and grow the playerbase rather than shrinking doesn’t seem to be there. It isn’t doom for Wildstar though – other games such as SWTOR and Final Fantasy 14 have recovered from the slump and stabilised the playerbase at a lower level. At this point no MMO is going to go viral unless its new and different, or appeals to a wildly different audience from the usual crowd. WoW did it. Minecraft did it. Lots of other games were decently successful but without setting the world alight, and that’s fine.

At the same time, if their target core audience was hardcore raiders, that was only ever going to be a small proportion of the player base. And it was always likely that unless those people were very burned out with WoW, they’d be tempted back for the next expansion. It’s certainly possible to raid hardcore in two different games at the same time, but not when one of them has a new expansion out.

I did like Keen’s analysis of ‘the quit wall’ in games. “People reach the wall and they quit.”  It could be a frustrating grind, or a really hard solo quest, or dungeon that it is impossible to find a group for – whatever it is, it becomes so frustrating that players no longer enjoy the game because they cannot see a path to the next goal that looks achievable.

I think of difficulty as being in two types:

  1. Something you could do with time and effort and/or help from other players, but it might take more time and effort (and motivation) than you want to spend.
  2. Something you just can’t do, and you aren’t confident that time and effort would change that.

When you describe it in these terms, 1) sounds like a rational choice. If it takes me 2 hours to run a dungeon and I’d need to run it 20 times to get the tokens that I need, I could rationally step back and think “Whoa, 40 hours for one doodad that will probably be obsolete in the next patch. No thanks.” Sometimes the sheer sticker shock when you realise how much hassle will be involved is enough to put people off even trying.  2) is a judgement call – how long do you try an event/ grind/ etc. before you decide that it isn’t possible?

So our judging difficulty is all about confidence. How good am I at succeeding in difficult things? (Women, incidentally, tend to underestimate this, men are more likely to overestimate – they call this ‘the confidence gap’). If people are already stressed out by other aspects of the game (eg. being yelled at for being a newbie in instances) then they are already likely to be feeling less confident.

So if you put a difficulty wall in a game, the least confident people are most likely to leave first. If your game attracts a crowd who are bullying and elitist, more of the other players will lose confidence and leave. It may be because they are bad players who couldn’t keep up. Or it may be because they lost the will to try or felt they would not be able to learn quickly enough. In either case, the player base reduces.

But still, admitting to yourself that a game is too difficult feels like failure for a gamer. It’s hard to do and even harder to discuss – I think every time I have written a blog post about where I thought part of a game was overtuned, I’ve been challenged on that by people who felt quite strongly about wanting their games to stay difficult.

So this is a tough topic. But does anyone want to share a time when difficulty made them decide to drop a game and how that felt? I never did complete the solo part of the legendary WoW quest this expansion – it was too hard for me and my shadow priest, and I don’t play MMOs because I want to do hard solo content (I’d get Dark Souls if I wanted that). And though I will play the game again, I will always now feel that the designers are telling me it’s too hard for me, and I’m probably not going to raid other than very casually. Because I got the message.