[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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[Diablo] Seasons greetings, and the demotivating effect of world achievements

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wn.com review of GoT episode

So, a new patch dropped recently in Diablo 3 and with it new loot and the new concept of game seasons. A season is like a ladder event from Diablo 2 but with fewer scoreboards and more season-specific loot and rewards. If you create a seasonal character, it will be wiped at the end of the season but other than that, you will have an entirely new game to play with other season specific character. Tragically, there aren’t any seasonal graphics changes – I thought maybe some season-themed foliage or NPC garb might have been cool but clearly Sanctuary is clearly Not That Kind of world.

Ladders have an evil Pavlovian effect. You think ‘Oh, I could start a new character!’, and then the first levels go so quickly and you find yourself levelling up the Blacksmith again and before you know it, Diablo has neatly inserted itself (again) as your go-to game for those moments when you want to kill demons in an explody way by clicking on them, without needing too much thinking. I think the seasons will be massively successful for Blizzard. The other bonus is that a new season/ ladder is the perfect time to lure your bestie/ partner/ sister into playing the game with you again. A new start with everyone back on a level playing field is appealing for drawing back old players who drifted, and it is the same reason MMO expansions tend to clear the decks swiftly of any game changing advantages for people who played the last expansion to death.

Not only is new game plus (which this isn’t strictly, I know) a time honored way to encourage players to keep playing a game they already finished, but levelling ladders were a mechanic that was closely associated with Diablo 2 also. Thematically, it fits. Genius really.

It’s all great until you and your levelling buddy have knocked off the Skeleton King and reached the heady heights of level 25 and …. you see a world broadcast informing you that legolasxx has just gotten the world first paragon 50 seasonal character. But this season only started this morning, you protest, how is that even possible?

Same old, same old. Anyone else lured back by the new season? I think D3 is playing very well these days.

I want to believe in EQ Next

In the jaded MMOsphere, dulled with years of falling subscriptions, shorter and shorter player lifespans (remember when we used to think calling a game a “three monther” was disparaging?) and a slow but certain move away from being virtual worlds to monetised gamification platforms, the announcement of a new PvE sandbox-style game backed by one of the main players in the business is always going to be a wake-up.

Many of the blogs I follow are projecting what they expect to see, or would want to see in the upcoming set of announcements at SOE Live tomorrow (2nd August).

One thing is for sure. EQ Next has the potential to shake up the hobby. The second thing that is for sure is that they won’t do that. Am I jaded? Maybe so. I want to briefly give some ideas for what I think they should do, and then some thoughts about what I think they will do.

How to do a successful PvE sandbox

I think there is a room in the market for a more accessible version of games like Wurm Online and Tale in the Desert. Minecraft shows how much people enjoy building and creating, and the incredible success of games like Sim City and Civ shows how much appetite there is for large simulations. And if the boom in social media shows anything, it is how much people enjoy creating and being part of communities. For a lot of people this could include a roleplaying aspect.

To make this work, EQ Next would need to take lessons from games like Glitch and Ultima Online as much as WoW. Instead of focussing on making a world to adventure in, make a world that people would want to (virtually) live in.

Keep direct PvP to a minimum. People don’t want to live in a warzone. And the ones who do already have games that cater to them, those players aren’t the people you need anyway. You need the settlers of the gaming world (consider this a new category alongside explorers, achievers, etc.) to inhabit your world and bring it to life.

There needs to be gameplay to keep things moving, but it can be based on a more simulation-type model. It needs a proper economic model also. Players enjoy ‘taming’ their local environment and building up their smallholdings but there are surely more interesting gameplay models with which to do this than either Farmville or “spreadsheets in space”. The players this game needs are not necessarily the achievers although there can be quests, instances and adventures for them as well. You don’t even need to encourage ‘grouping’ so much as ‘interacting’ and ‘organising’.

A sandbox needs, more than anything else, space. That means virtual space in the sense of large worlds to explore and exploit. But also space for players to carve out their own niches, explore different playing styles, think up different in-game projects to pursue, and space to step away from the levelling track.

Lore is an important part of building an immersive world, but SOE need to ditch the EQ lore. Or at least reboot it into something more coherent. No one is interested in the existing lore except the grognards, EQ2 was always a chaotic mess lorewise, and when the only thing people know about your main character is that she’s a blonde with big boobs, it’s time to start over.

What I think they will actually do

Given that the reveal is at SOE Live, they will hype up the Everquest/ EQ2 connection, which is probably not of huge interest to anyone who either didn’t play those games or didn’t like them.

I think the game will ultimately fail as a virtual world, under the pressure to monetise and to stick to tried and tested F2P mechanics (yes, they said they plan to stick with a P2P subscription model but I can’t see that happening). Expect to see lots of talk of high impact PvP, frequent world events, “a living world” (hint: the best way to have a living world is fill it with players) and some pretty screenshots.

But for all that, they have been saying a lot of interesting things in interviews about ditching the story. Maybe they will surprise me yet.

In which we complain about solo quests in an MMO world

I realised last week that the most frustrating moments for me in MMOs are not losing in PvP, nor being yelled at in a PUG, or having a wipe night in a raid, or being beaten to a mob (in old school games in which that still is a thing). Nope. It is being forced to do a solo quest that I can’t do.

In all of those other situations you can take a break and come back and things will have changed – maybe you’ll get a better random group, or raid makeup, or find a quieter time. Maybe you could grab some friends/ willing strangers to help. But the solo quest is potentially going to block your progress forever. Plus just as it’s frustrating to be asked to find a group if you had been happily soloing, it is annoying to be forced to solo if you’d been duoing or playing with friends.

Mirkwood in LOTRO has issues with this design. It’s still one of my favourite zones, but the epic quest there does love its solo elements. Which can be fun and all when you can do them, and crazy frustrating when you are struggling. Especially if you had been duoing (or playing in a group) and now feel that everyone is waiting for you but no one can help. Arb and I have been enjoying playing our alts through Mirkwood lately, but some of those solo quests are pretty non obvious (yes I’m talking about the one where you have to help a dwarf escape from a prison via using barrels of poison to send some of the other inmates to sleep) – not hard once you know the trick, but non obvious in a frustrating way.  I’m not sure either of us were prepared for how failing a solo quest just makes you want to log off and never play the game again. (At least for awhile).

This is partly the specific quest design – a well designed piece of game will at least give you some clues as to why you failed one attempt and how you can improve next time. But it’s also because an MMO is not the same as an offline game. Most MMOs don’t optimise solo quests for specific classes (SWTOR is the exception) so the difficulty is probably not only fixed but also likely to feel unfair if it doesn’t favour your class strengths. Which is especially frustrating if you had been duoing with someone for whom that isn’t the case. It can make a huge difference if your character has strong AE, or heals, or a pet.

The legendary WoW quest

Speaking of frustrating, I’ve tried to complete the solo stage of the legendary WoW questline (Celestial Blessings) several times on my shadow priest, for both the healing and ranged dps versions. I can’t do it at all. I’ve read tactics. I’m not really interested in trying any more.

So what does this mean really? Aside from killing my enthusiasm (admittedly waning anyway) for this expansion, I guess I’m just not good enough.

I can live with this. I don’t like PvP and I’m not big on trying impressive soloing adventures. I’m a decent healer and dps on my priest but I’m not a great or talented soloer so maybe I don’t deserve cool epic things. What I find more frustrating is  feeling trailed along by this stupid questline all expansion to the point where I will have to give up. When they put in a PvP section to the legendary, people complained but it was actually very non-PvPer tolerant  (just had to win a couple of battlegrounds, which you can pretty much do by queueing repeatedly until random chance gives you a good set of team mates). So how come the solo section can’t be non-soloer tolerant too? Why is this the point where the game decides to get elitist?

I don’t know the answer to that because there is no reason. It makes me feel stupid (for assuming that the quest was aimed at the same level of player it had been from the start), as well as wanting to quit.

How do you feel about solo (I mean forced solo) quests in MMOs? Does anyone else get as frustrated as I do?