[Links] Day of Reckoning for 38 Studios, soloing in MMOs, Diablo 3, Sony won the console wars?

Scott Jennings writes eloquently about the week when 40% of the SWTOR team was laid off, and 38 Studios (makers of Kingdoms of Amalur, and with an MMO in the works) imploded very publically.

I think the direction that our industry is going – the incredible amount of money wasted by EA on what was essentially a roll of the dice that came up 2 and 3, and the even more incredible display of massive hubris and utter incompetence on the part of Schilling and his management team, is killing the very concept of massively multiplayer gaming.

Everything I have read about 38 Studios going tits up makes me think that the management were a bucket of tits. (Yes that is the technical term.) Implausible business plan, lack of auditing on cashflow, taking on way more staff than they needed or could support, dicking around with staff. Unsubject writes in more detail on the financials. The only surprising thing to me is that so many MMO bloggers have sympathy for them – MMOs get cancelled in pre-production all the time, we should be used to it by now. I don’t care if it was run by a rich sportsman with a dream or a lameass banker, they screwed up.

Or in the words of Kevin Dent at  Kotaku:

I have a theory that Harvard Business School basically set this entire thing up so as to demonstrate how many ways someone can screw up running a business. If this is the case, heartfelt congrats to the Crimson Halls, you owned it.

I literally could not invent more ways to screw up than Curt Schilling has with 38.

I can’t entirely agree with Scott about the effect on MMOs though, because big budget AAA MMOs were already pretty much on the outs. You can tell this because Michael Pachter recently said so, and he only ever makes predictions after the event.

One of the interesting things about this story though is that both Bioware Austin and 38 Studios put out pretty decent games that got some critical acclaim. Neither Amalur nor SWTOR are bad games, and both were reasonably successful in the market. Just their funding model needed more than ‘reasonably successful’ – in 38 Studio’s case it is because their management can’t handle simple maths and in Bioware’s case it’s because for some reason EA felt that ploughing unfeasibly massive amounts into the game was going to pay off. (Nice bonus for players I guess, because it does feel lush.)

SWTOR will be profitable, incidentally.  It will just take a few months longer than EA predictions and that’s why it is being seen as a failure. Whereas in fact it sold more boxes more quickly than any other western MMO in the market and has fairly decent retention figures for an MMO, even allowing for number massaging. In any case, they’ve just announced that patch 1.3 (which will include a random dungeon finder) is going onto the test server imminently and that they have plans to consolidate servers into super-servers, which are both needed updates.

Shintar shares some hopes and fears that she has for the new patch.

Anyhow, it’s sad for the staff, obviously. But we’re in a recession and MMOs are risky business at the best of times, and these things happen (especially when your management are a bucket of tits, which isn’t really the case for Bioware). Hopefully they’ll find something else swiftly. I’ll miss Stephen Reid/Rockjaw, he was a great CSM.

Soloing in MMOs

Keen also found time to muse this week about why people solo in MMOs (remember in my last incredibly wise words of wisdom to new bloggers I noted that soloing vs grouping was one of THOSE topics?), claiming that MMOs aren’t single player games. So why do devs want to try to mimic single player gameplay?

I am referring to the open and deliberate act of making a very core part of a MMO into a single-player experience as if the players were offline.

Bernardparsnip at Diminishing Returns reflects on players who might want some of the advantages of mas…sive games without the disadvantages.

I recognize that there is a demographic of players that want the benefits of an MMO – a persistent world, frequent content updates, a player-driven economy, opportunities for PvP and cooperative play, without the disadvantages inherent with playing with others.

Azuriel takes a different tack and wonders whether MMOs really do suck as single player games.

…in a very real sense I consider the average MMORPG these days as a much better single-player game than the average RPG.

My view is that we’re seeing traditional boundaries between single player and multiplayer games come crashing down around us, and players may not yet be sure exactly what they do want. This sense of wanting all the benefits of massive multiplayer games (like a vibrant player based economy and instant groups whenever you want them) without the negatives (like having to actually talk to anyone or rely on other players in any way) is very strong in the current crop of games.

I think Journey laid this out most neatly with having other players viewed as friendly but nameless entities, and Dee wonders if maybe the public quests in GW2 will have the same effect. But it won’t ever be the same as the sort of communities that more forced socialising will bring together, we could end up with people playing side by side but always on their own.

Ultimately I’d like to see more gating in future games, allowing players to build up communities of interest in games of their choice. What if I want to play EVE but without having to play with the more sexist, racist, homophobic players who seem to populate it (going by forum posts at least)? This is going to become more and more of an issue for anyone running online games in future, I suspect, as players lose their tolerance for playing with random dickweeds. (This will come to be seen as one of the negatives of MMOs that people would like to avoid.)

Zubon has a really smart post about how different games attract a different type of player and suggests people flock to games which seem to be populated with players like themselves.

But there is a flaw in his argument, which is how exactly are you going to find this out? If I search round EVE blogs and forums, I’ll find a lot of very aggressive posturing and the aforementioned sexist, racist, etc. language. But I do happen to know people who play EVE who aren’t like that, so it isn’t universal.

Similarly, WoW is so large that it probably contains communities of just about every MMO player type under the sun if you can find them. So characterising it as the McDonalds of MMOs isn’t quite true in terms of the playerbase. It’s more of a mosaic than a least common denominator known for poor but consistent quality.

While LOTRO is justly known for its attention to the setting, I’d also say it was a haven for more mature gamers and for RPers. But that was before it went F2P and it may have changed since then. So how would a new player know?

So while I think Zubon makes a good argument, it just places more emphasis on how /the community/ constructs explanations of what type of player different games attract and then communicates it. And bloggers bear a lot of the responsibility for this. When I write that my guild in SWTOR are laid back, friendly, casual players and raiders, people will assume this is normal for the game. It probably is! But you’re just getting one player’s view.

Redbeard tackles a similar topic from the point of view of new players in WoW at the moment.

If Blizz is serious about bringing in and keeping new blood, then they have to address the social issues in WoW.  This isn’t Pollyanna country, and it ain’t EVE, either.  People like to be welcomed and respected and tolerated.  If they feel the environment is toxic, they’ll move on.  You can’t expect a new player to blindly stumble through all of the social pitfalls and land in a good guild without guidance, and likewise you can’t expect someone to blithely ignore all of the social issues that some players bring to WoW.

Diablo 3

Clearly we haven’t had enough posting about D3 yet. I’m still having fun with the game but slowing down now that I’m in Hell level on my barbarian. I don’t know that I can honestly see this as an evergreen game I’d be playing months from now (especially if Torchlight 2 and GW2 and updates to SWTOR are coming out). The Auction House is definitely impacting on the game’s lifespan in my view, and they haven’t launched the real money AH yet.

Hugh at the MMO Melting Pot (who you should follow for excellent daily aggregations of MMO blogging) collects some more views on the auction house.

The Ancient Gaming Noob has played both Diablo 3 and the Torchlight 2 beta and gives a thorough comparison between what he has seen of the games.

Milady explains why she thinks Diablo 3 is a wellmade mistake.

They had many years to consider how to best mine money from their users, and Diablo III in its entirety is what they came up with. From Blizzard’s perspective, the gear barrier is there so you are forced to buy to continue; the barrier to grouping in Inferno is built so you cannot be too effective at higher levels, and are forced to grind on your own and buy loot; the enforced multiplayer exists solely to apply peer-pressure to your gearing up, so you need to resort to the AH to play with them.

Rohan argues that Elective Mode in D3 is a mistake.

Green Armadillo lists a lot of things that D3 is not and wonders if Blizzard were right to keep the name.

And Gevlon explains why he thinks D3 just doesn’t work as a competitive game.

Straw Fellow defends Blizzard’s decision to require D3 players to be always online.

Microsoft and the Console Wars

Microsoft may face a ban on imports of the XBox 360 into the US and Germany because of patent infringement. I assume they’ll settle with Motorola out of court, but it would be an amusing way to lose the console wars.

It would be nice to think that the patent rats nest might get sorted out sometime soon, but since there is no real sign of that happening, better hope your favourite manufacturer knows how to play the game.

And finally …

Berath ponders why there are so few gaming blogs focussed on shooters, given how many people play them.

Xintia explains why Bioware are great at telling stories but bad at designing games.

And Melmoth waxes lyrical about the general chat channel in TERA.

What was fascinating about the channel was that it had become a microcosm of the blogosphere: nearly every general topic that I’ve seen repeatedly touched upon over the past five or so years of blogging was mentioned in this one place, all in the fast forward nature of a back-and-forth conversation between people whose attention was invariably elsewhere. I quickly found myself privately playing Cassandra to any topic raised, knowing full well the future of each discussion, where the disagreements would come from, and the conclusions which would be drawn.

[Diablo 3] Things that should not happen in single player games

d3imperious

YOU SHALL NOT PASS – until the weekly maintenance is over

#1 Weekly Maintenance

You can get around this by creating a character on one of the other sets of servers (ie. EU, US, whichever the other region is) since they have different maintenance windows. But dammit, you shouldn’t have to.

Blizzard could have avoided so many of these issues by having a solo offline version and just making it clear that playing offline meant no access to AH, chat with friends, random groups, and even special online events or ladders if they want to go that way. Just make it impossible to use the offline characters in online or group play to avoid the cheating and a lot of people would have been much happier.

I also think they could have been more explicit (maybe a handout in the box) in explaining exactly what the online side meant in terms of access and gameplay.

#2 Being hacked

So reports are increasing about people having been hacked, and some of those reports imply authenticators were in place. It’s probably best to avoid random groups until this has been sorted out.

I can buy that hackers will be out in force any time a MMO/expansion/online game is released, but this is not something you would ever expect to see in a single player game.

What would D3 have been like if Bioware had written it?

  1. One of your companions would have betrayed you, probably the healer.
  2. You would have turned out to be the last of the Horadrim, or Diablo. Probably both.
  3. Your character would have been able to sleep with Tyrael. Or Adria. Probably both.
  4. Ranged classes would have been hugely overpowered. (Wait, maybe they already are…)
  5. At the end of the game, you’d have either to destroy Diablo, control him or make everyone a demon-human hybrid. Either way, you die and all magic in Sanctuary is gone forever. (Anon.) [G]Kill, [B]Banish, or [R]Bond With? (azaael)
  6. When Deckard Cain begins one of his stories you can use the dialogue wheel to choose whether to listen or tell him to shut up. Doing so earns you Heaven/Hell points. (bernardparsnip)
  7. It would have given you a character visual customizer! I’d have taken this. On the flipside, after Blizzard put the votes in for what color the stock female Demon Hunter should have, the fanbase splits over ‘Red’ or ‘Blonde.’ Wars are almost started. (azaael)
  8. Even MORE cutscenes! (azaael)
  9. 6th Character, the Shapeshifter Druid! Available for 12.99 on the first day. (azaael)
  10. Feel free to suggest more …

[Diablo 3] Some links: Barbarian builds, comedy, metacritic scores, Torchlight 2 beta

D3barrel

I forgot to mention yesterday how fun it is to destroy the scenery, not to mention the various barrels, in D3. I’ve seen regular barrels, water barrels and torture barrels – not quite sure what the latter ones are.

Anyhow, since loads of people are playing Diablo 3 at the moment I thought I’d share some links today.

Barbarian Builds

My build changes regularly, like every time I want to try out a new rune or decide to respec for more mobility or more survival or more fury or more heals on crits – you get the picture. There is an interesting interplay between gear and spec that I hadn’t previously picked up on, in that you do need a certain amount of survivability in the higher difficulty levels but you have some choice as to how you want to acquire it. So a highly defensive gearset might support more offensive skills. Or something like that, certainly as you gear up through a level there seems to be more scope to experiment with less defensive builds.

Anyhow, here are a couple of builds that other people are using in Hell/ Inferno level.

Dean’s Hell level barbarian guide

Writhan’s barbarian guide to Inferno level

Sooru discusses his build and play style in Act I of Inferno mode with a barbarian.

Players in general are being quite proactive about posting builds up on the official forums and I’m sure the same is happening on D3 fansites as well.

Comedy Plot Roundup

I found this in the official forums, there are plot spoilers but he’s not that far from the actual plot.

Asmodan: “Puny human! I am the evil master strategist and I show it by frontal assault with no vanguard and a demon in the larder. Fear my cunningivity!”
Player: “Now you’re making !@#$ up. Time to take the fight to you, if only to shut you up. Nothing personal, really. Besides, I can see the family resemblance to Belial.”
Asmodan: “Are you mocking me? ARE YOU MOCKING ME?! I tankrushed hundreds of noobs in C&C, I’ll have you know!”
Player: “Actually, that explains quite a lot. Up for a game of Stratego?”
Asmodan: “RAWR!”
Player. “I’ll say.”

Metacritic and the Problem of Crowdsourced Reviews

I’m all for freedom of expression, but when the haters rush the review sites it’s hard to get a meaningful review from crowdsourced sites like Amazon or Metacritic. Or in other words, yes I get that you hate the DRM but apart from that what is the game like?

Gamepolitics.com reports on the deluge of embittered critics on Metacritic. For sure it’s annoying when you can’t play a game you paid for, but some people like reviews to also consider the gameplay rather than representing a spike of frustration.

So at least pro (or even non pro) game reviewers still have something to offer, even if people hate their opinions too. Metacritic in particular is so vulnerable to this type of hate-bombing that it is losing any value it ever had as a review aggregator and instead is more of a – I don’t know – opinion survey? For a very specific set of opinions.

Patrick Garratt at VG247 wonders about Metacritic’s relevance. He also highlights Blizzard’s refusal to allow pre-release review copies which means that any reviews you read must have been compiled after release and explains why that could be a good trend.

I am quite curious to see what the more authoritative pro reviewers make of D3, and hopefully we’ll see more of this in the upcoming week. I enjoy it very much as a game (which is my personal bottom line), but it also has major failings that leave questions in my mind.

Torchlight 2 Beta

Runic rather smartly held a weekend beta for Torchlight 2 last weekend, with no NDA, so first impressions are scattered around the internet. My personal feel is that I plan to play it, but it will be really hard for me to go back to a talent tree based system after D3. I also love storytellling, even if it’s really cheesy, which is another point in favour of D3 for me.

(I know, my tastes in games are not cool Winking smile )

Pete at Dragonchaser is more of a fan of talent trees and feels differently. Even reading this I die a bit inside when he gets excited about spending 5  points per level on stats – I always hated that aspect of RPGs.

Arb waxes lyrical about her ferret, and that’s not a euphemism.

Here’s some discussion about the T2 beta from rpg.net

[Diablo 3] The good, the bad, and the state of the game (minor spoilers)

diablologo

So, I’m coming up for air from some serious bouts of Diablo 3 this week, albeit not as serious as the guy who already soloed Diablo on Inferno mode, or the guys from Method who killed him in a 4 man group on the same setting. That does seem quite fast given how difficult Blizzard touted inferno mode as being but I am sure it will still be plenty hard for normal players, especially since they’ll have had to play the game through three times before they get to pick that setting.

Meanwhile your narrator is on Act 2 of Nightmare Mode (that’s the next one up from normal) and has been playing a bit of co-op in Normal Mode with Arb. I’ve been enjoying it; Diablo 3 is a fun game, I am a sucker for the gothic grimdark Heaven and Hell themes, and there is a lot to like about it. In fact, there are many utterly and genuinely great things you should know about D3.

The Good

* THE CLASS DESIGN AND TALENT SYSTEM. This isn’t just good, it’s amazing. No futzing around with talent trees trying to decide if you want 1% extra block here or +10 resist vs undead trees there (that kind of fiddling is purely in the gear), instead you get to pick 6 attacks which will be bound to keys 1-4 and the left/right mouse buttons. Each ability is distinctive and has immediately recognisable effects on the screen and in play, and you get to further customise the ability as you unlock runes by levelling up. Finally someone has twigged that players want their choices to matter immediately and in every fight. That is what this system accomplishes. While Blizzard start you off with a balanced power set which involves one key for defensive spells, one for your long (ie. 2 min) cooldowns, etc., you can leapfrog this and just bind whichever powers you prefer by picking the Elective Mode (Options-> Gameplay-> Interface).

I’ve never been a fan of talent trees but I adore this system. I’m also fond of being able to respec whenever you aren’t in combat. It encourages players to experiment with some of the synergies and try things out, or respec to more appropriate skills after a boss kicks your arse. And you can tell fairly swiftly if a given skill set is working out for you or not.

Each class is fun, distinctive, and has some solid signature abilities which are thematic to the class. Moving away from mana and the associated mana potions was a great move too. It all works. This is Blizzard design at its finest and deserves to be widely copied.

* COMBAT AND LOOTING. It’s fast and furious, there’s lots of clicking, it’s Diablo.  I especially enjoy the physicality of the whole thing. When characters use their movement powers (ie. charge or leap on the Barbarian) they bound around the screen scattering mobs in their wake in a way that’s both easy to follow and strangely satisfying. When mobs or chests or barrels are destroyed, they throw out a veritable fountain of loot that lands with another satisfying crash on the ground. I also like how you collect gold or health orbs just by being in the vicinity.

I think D3 must have a design goal that the player never has to wander around for more than 20s before encountering some monsters. But that suits me.

* LOYAL TO THE ROGUELIKE ROOTS. There is going to be a lot of discussion with this game about what exactly makes a Diablo game into a Diablo game. Some of this is doubtless Blizzard being lazy, there’s no special need for a Diablo game to go Tristam->Desert->Mountains or reuse plot elements and NPCs into the ground. But there are definitely gameplay features where the game remains close to its roots in a good way. The random packs of mobs with randomly assigned abilities/ suffixes means that the game on harder modes rewards cautious and defensive play above pure damage. It also means there is a heavy dose of luck in exactly how difficult any random fight will be for any class/group.

That’s very much the way you play roguelikes. Sometimes the game throws you into a situation that’s just plain unfair – deal with it, that’s how procedurally generated games work. It drives you into developing a play style and character that is able to cope with the unexpected.

* GOOD USE OF ACHIEVEMENTS. I’m not the greatest fan of achievements but they do work really well here, there’s a good set of achievement goals for everyone from the casual player who is happy rerunning normal mode over and over again to the ultra hardcore.

I think it’s a nice touch that you get to see when any of the people on your friends list get an achievement. I liked it in WoW and I like it here too.

* SLICK MULTIPLAYER. It’s a fun game on multiplayer, and very easy to drop into one of your friends’ games and then teleport to them.

d3merge

* DIVERSITY. After the general fuss over the demon hunter (I still hate the heels) I’m really happy to say that D3 actually does make some good steps with diversity. In particular, Tyrael appears as a dark skinned guy, there’s some use of older characters (such as Cain, Adria, and the male Barbarian and Monk) and younger ones (the emperor) and it isn’t always the women who betray your character/s.

I’ve also shown images of the female barbarian (NM Act2)  and wizard (Normal Act 1) above, and I think they both look great without being stripperific.

It’s open to debate as to whether any of the PCs or NPCs are or could be gay. I actually think all the main characters are written to be sexless, and the enchantress and templar are just naive.

* GOOD USE OF BOOK SNIPPETS. I enjoyed the use of lore text via snippets of books, diaries, and journals that you find around the world, which are read out to you. I like that you can keep killing stuff while you listen. The actual game journal itself could have used being better designed so that you could search it more easily afterwards. Bioware’s codexes are good examples of how this could work.

* GOOD WRITING FOR COMPANIONS/ CRAFTERS. For me the best written parts of the game were the companion storylines, which are fed to you via snippets and short conversations as you progress through the game, Bioware-style. All those companions and the two crafters had solid story arcs and I rather enjoyed them. Yes, they’re stereotypes but that’s not really an issue for this game.

There is also some fun NPC dialogue on the various villagers and associates at your camp which changes between quests as the story progresses.

I did feel very Conan when I ventured out on my Barbarian with the sleazy scoundrel companion. It could have happened in a Robert E Howard book.

* ATMOSPHERE. I think this worked best in Act 1, but there is a definite atmosphere. I felt immersed, I wanted to know what was going to happen. I don’t think this game is as effective as Diablo 2 in setting up either the mystery or the terror of these vast unknowable good/evil powers duking it out over the earth. Back then, I was genuinely scared when I first encountered Diablo himself – my partner ended up sitting next to me and using the healing potions because I was so nervous of actually fighting the dude on my own. Maybe I’m a more hardened gamer now, and used to tanking boss mobs, or maybe they just don’t set up the terror like they used to.

The Neutral

* SERVICEABLE STORYLINE. The story in D3 does the job, but it’s patchy. Act 1 is generally solid. Act 2 is all over the place but picks up after you get the dead mage guy on board (I love his voice actor), Act 3 is slow but picks up a lot towards the end and Act 4 is fast but has some good set pieces. Like TAGN I wasn’t thrilled to find myself heading out for the same desert in Act 2 that I played in Diablo 2. It’s reusing old plot elements just a little too much there.

There are plot holes, noticeable when you find yourself thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” or “How did my character know that?” The biggest one to me is from Act 1 where someone talks about the rarity of Nephelem to Act 2 (I think) onwards where everyone starts referring to you as one. I don’t recall that particular revelation taking place. It would have been better if it’d been part of the PCs backstory, included in the initial introductory video clip.

There is also some plot driven stupidity, noticeable when you find yourself thinking, “Curse your sudden and inevitable betrayal,” or “OK, I figured out who character X was within about 2s of first meeting them, why has it taken the PC and everyone else the entire rest of the act to do so?”

* NPCs mostly exist to open doors for you. I just thought I’d note that in passing. I liked the ensemble feel of Acts 1-3, with NPCs occasionally dropping into your party for a quest or three. It did feel as though you were interacting with them.

* The Auction House really changes the difficulty of the game. If you are regularly buying appropriate yellow gear from the auction house, you will be playing this game on a vastly easier difficulty rating than if you go it single player style and only use your own drops and merchants. I think this will definitely affect how quickly people blast through it.

* You will need to play defensive in higher difficulties. Ignore the tempting 2H weapons and amazing offensive powers, if you want to survive in the harder modes, you’ll need to grab a shield and spec defensively. This means lots of vitality. So really, the game isn’t as flexible as its billed. It’s not that there is one true spec for each class, I think they have more diversity than that, but defensive trumps offensive.

The Bad

* LAG. It’s just not right to have lag in a single player game. It directly affects the play experience and it’s built in. I don’t much like the always-online requirement, but where gameplay is affected I find it unforgiveable.

* THIS IS THE NPCS STORY. Blizzard do this a lot, in SC and in WoW also, and that is focussing so much on telling the story through the NPCs that it becomes their story. You are the hired muscle. It worked for them in WC because you were actually playing the story NPCs in the scenarios. But as soon as you introduce your own character, there isn’t really much space for it in their storytelling.

The final cut scene really highlights this. There isn’t even a closing narration from your character about whatever it plans to do next.  There isn’t much closure for some of the NPCs either. I get that there’s bound to be an expansion but the ending here feels rushed, and they could have done better.

* DIFFICULTY. It is partly due to the auction house but this game falls on the easy side. Admittedly I’ve only touched on the first two difficulty levels and I can see how it will ramp up, but there’s difficulty and then there’s difficulty. I’m struggling to put this into words really, but I feel as though there’s something missing.

* RANDOM EVENTS DISAPPOINT. I loved the random events during the beta, but those ones near the beginning of Act 1 are by far the most interesting in the game. After that, it’s mostly ‘defend this objective against waves of mobs’ or ‘kill these demons which suddenly appear.’ Blizzard have the ability in D3 to slot in some far more interesting random events and we know from WoW that they have the skills to design them. They just didn’t.

* HOW MANY TIMES DO WE WANT TO REPLAY THIS? The idea of having to replay the game several times in order to set a harder difficulty was fairly core in D1 and 2, but feels very dated now. It’s like having a MMO where the maximum level is 60 but they only put in half the zones and after that you had to play them again on ‘hard mode.’

It’s not that I precisely mind replaying it, but having four difficulty levels highlights the issue.

* INCOMPLETE. This game was released without the ranked PvP or real money auction house. The latter is due to be online sometime soon (I think they said 23rd May) and I have no personal interest in PvP in Diablo but those were two sizeable factors that appealed to large sections of the community. And they aren’t there.

Sooru (you should follow his blog if you are playing D3) rounds up some more areas where he feels that game lacks polish.

[Diablo 3] Blizzard, like Atlas, try to carry the weight of the world on their servers

You have to feel for the masses of single player gamers who loaded up their shiny new copy of Diablo 3 to be met with lag, server errors, and various bugs. And this is what passes for a HALF-DECENT MMO launch.

d3install

All you need to know about this game is that it will tug mercilessly on the heartstrings of anyone who lost their heart to Diablo 2.  All the gang are back: Deckard Cain, Tyriel, a blacksmith with an annoying accent, the Skeleton King, the Butcher, and a few new additions who you’ll probably wish would shut up so that you can get on with the serious business of exploding monsters in all directions.

Sadly, it doesn’t need innovative design or gameplay to make me happy when playing a Diablo-like game and they don’t really get more Diablo-like than this, so Blizzard hit the nail on the head with that side of things. Even down to the point of Act 1 taking place in grim gothic torture chambers and Act 2 in the desert. But if you like this sort of thing, it’s good clean explody fun and before you know it, several hours have passed and you find yourself pondering which weapon combination to try next or how that new rune will work out in play, where is the next waypoint and oh please will someone shut that companion up!

It’s uncanny really, I was just getting really wound up by the templar’s gormtastic moralising and cheesy combat comments (eg. “Evil has been REBUKED!”) and thinking, “You know, what my barbarian really needs is a sleazy thief sidekick who’ll spend the whole time trying to hit on me and any female associates “ and sure enough, Blizzard obliged. OK, that wasn’t quite what I was thinking, but the scoundrel is working much better for me as a companion than the templar who was a) annoying and b) NEVER HEALED. Or if he did I didn’t notice. Admittedly the scoundrel is Captain Obvious and says things like “that looks like a hard monster!” and “Yay loot!” (paraphrased, but he does talk about loot a lot.) It’s like adventuring with a sleazy version of Hawley.

It’s a slick game, I’ve been playing a Barbarian and have abilities that let me leap into a group of mobs, swing my axes around like a cuisinart and have things go flying in all directions. Simple pleasures. It’s like a fury warrior amped up to 11 and I’m not surprised that the guy who did the superfast run through normal mode picked a Barbarian. The multiplayer game is slick too, but we haven’t tried that yet since beta due to waiting on everyone’s copy arriving.

Arb expresses how sad of a panda she is that hers hadn’t arrived yesterday in her new blog that everyone should follow (it arrived in today’s post so hoping for a happy panda post tomorrow).

There have, as mentioned above, been a fair number of server issues. I think Blizzard seems to be getting onto these quickly but they did have a stress test, they did know how many pre-orders were out there, they should have really been prepared for this. Main issues I’ve faced have been “being put on US servers automatically and only realising after my first character killed the skeleton king”, “new character on EU servers didn’t get any achievements at all”,  bit of minor lag, difficulty connecting during peak hours local. A lot of these seem better now – my partner got put on the EU servers when he installed his copy last night, when I tried the game today I was earning achievements again, the gold auction house has been turned back on etc.

Note on selecting servers: It’s Options –> Account –> Servers

So if it is bugging you, have some tea and settle in, it’ll be sorted swiftly. Clearly this doesn’t take away from the idea that you should be able to play a game you have bought, especially if you intended to play it as single player. And if those servers are offline for maintenance, then just forget it.

Tobold notes that decent items for levelling are cheap on the auction house. I think he’s right and this will continue – if you don’t want best in slot but something nicer than your drops, it’ll be cheap to buy it in the gold AH. Ignore any advice not to sell magic items to vendors, it’s entirely possible they’ll give you a better price than either a) the cost of the disenchanted materials or b) than you’d get on the auction house.

diablofight

(Yeah, my Barbarian is in that screenshot somewhere.)

Blizzard have pushed forwards the storytelling aspect somewhat, experimenting in particular with giving you voiced versions of stories via journal extracts and conversation snippets with NPCs. This I think works very well if you can get past the accent issue, I enjoyed picking up bits of journal and following up on companion/ NPC conversations. I also really like getting the stories and setting in a piecewise way. The story itself is not going to win any prizes for originality or .. err.. anything else but it does the job. It’s DIABLOISH dammit. I quite like the snippets of game background and setting, however annoying the templar is as a companion (there is an unwritten rule in RPGs that templars are always annoying btw, this is also true in MMOs and applies to players in templar related guilds as well as NPCs), the templar order itself is quite intriguing.

Sadly, having gotten used to Bioware companions I keep expecting mine to be able to sell my trash loot and have involved romances. Not that I’d want to romance any of them, there are mobs to smash!

As you progress in the game the difficulty does ramp up, and the random encounters and bosses in particular can become quite interesting. Wasdstomp has some comments on one of the Act 1 bosses where I also had to pause, respec, have a look around the environment, and then go in and whip its arse. Never let it be said there’s no reward for thinking about an encounter, just a bit.

Pop Tips for the Butcher: There are two healing wells and they respawn during the fight. The fiery areas will start to glow before they actually get set on fire. And I respecced for good single target damage. 

The music is also excellent and does a grand job of setting the mood.

And lets finish on some Diablo words of wisdom:

diabdea

Ethics and the Morality Wheel. Why choices create characters.

One of the appealing factors of MMOs for a lot of players is that you can create your own character.  But what does that really mean?

The standard setup is you can design what they look like, pick a gender, maybe race and age if the character generator allows it, and give them a name. In a sandbox game you can then decide some goals for that character (and show that they are the goals by going off and actually doing it.) In a themepark game your goals are more restricted but you can still say “this will be my PvP alt”, or “this is the alt I’ll level with my bf/gf.”  If you are a RPer (or just like writing backgrounds) then you might also give your character an in game back history. Some games or addons let you share that with other players.

Hopefully the game intro  will then give you some setting framework to hang your character on. In WoW you will start in your racial starting area and pick up extra information about your character’s home culture as you go, for example.

Maybe you’ll pick out a personality or character for your new creation as you go along. (The default in games is the chaotic greedy alignment who doesn’t like taking orders but goes along with whatever gives the best rewards. Sometimes you’ll get the lawful lazy alignment,  where your character follows orders and doesn’t think about it much.)

So what difference does a mechanic like the morality wheel in Bioware games make to that?

A very different type of chargen (character generation) was in Ultima 4 where… you were asked to answer some ethical multi-choice questions in a gypsy’s caravan. The answers affected your starting class, and in the rest of the game you were vaguely encouraged to be virtuous by the game mechanics. It was interesting and different at the time, and felt as though you were really generating a personality … or at least a few traits.

agent1

It’s a feature in Bioware games in particular that you will be making a lot of semi-ethical conversation choices as you play through the game. So in a way, you can keep defining or redefining your character’s personality as bit as you go along. I was trying to decide this week why that felt effective to me. So here’s one particular example where I made a choice in a conversation in SWTOR, and although it made no difference at all to the plot, I felt strongly afterwards that my character had become more real to me. Or at least, I knew how to keep ‘playing’ him in conversations if I wanted to keep that character trait.

This character is my agent, he’s pretty dark side which means ruthless, unforgiving, kills at the drop of a hat, all that regular nasty stuff. I usually pick dark side options in conversations. Well, almost always. So the occasions when I don’t are quite memorable to me because I had to stop and think about it.

In this example, I’d been sent off to kill someone. They weren’t especially nice and probably had it coming. But I knew a bit about their history and I’d felt a) I could see why they’d ended up that way and felt a bit sorry for them, because it was a fairly traumatic  upbringing b) the person who was telling me to kill them was way worse, by an order of magnitude.

So during the conversation, at one point, I warned the NPC that their life was in danger and they should get out of dodge. They ignored the warning so I went ahead and fought/ killed them as per orders. I had decided though when I took that light side choice that if they decided to listen and did leave, I’d have let them go.

So here’s what I am wondering. Why is it that a gameplay option that made zero difference to the story (like I say, the NPC paid no attention and I had to kill them anyway) made ME feel different about my character? Like, suddenly I saw him as someone who was a brutal, efficient operative, but not completely heartless or unsympathetic any more. More of a hard man doing a hard job (which is still not a morally strong position) than the total emotionless psycho that he’d seemed up to that point. I’d let the gameworld affect me and my decision making rather than just going along with the ‘yeah, he’ll be pure darkside’ script I’d started with.

Later I added a moral rule that despite being ruthless and all that, he’d probably not kill someone who was injured and alone but would (grudgingly) provide some medical attention instead. That was because he was a healer. Not a nice person still, but there’s an instinct not to hit someone when they’re down if there’s a choice. Again, there was at least one instance where I spoke to someone who was injured, gave them some painkillers, but they died anyway. Didn’t affect the plot; DID affect how I thought about my character.

Ethical Rules in Action

So one of the features of the decision wheel is that you’re encouraged to make ethical decisions all the time, all the way through the levelling stories. But what does that really mean?

Ethics is all about how people decide what they’re going to do in any situation. If a situation demands “what should I do/ say next?” then that’s an ethical decision. One of the ways we make this easier for ourselves (so as to avoid having major moral dilemmas every time we leave the house) is to figure out some basic personal ethical rules that are going to form our own morality.

These might include rules such as:

  • I will not lie.
  • I will be punctual.
  • I will be nice to strangers.

Religions have a lot to say on the subject of ethical rules and will doubtless have some to suggest too (ie. love your neighbour as yourself, judge not lest ye be judged, don’t gossip  – that’s a Jewish one, believe it or not.)

You could get more complex (and most people do) and say:

  • I will not lie, except to prevent harm.
  • I will not lie, unless someone really close asks me to.
  • etc

Professions and organisations often have ethical codes too, to define how they want members to behave.

  • A doctor should act in the best interests of the patient.
  • The customer is always right.

So really, in a Bioware-type game, you’re being given the opportunity to define a code of ethics for your new character, and see how it plays out in the game. You could instead pick random options, or define a code that involves, “Always pick the top left option” or “Always pick the option that my current companion will like” which is going to end up with a character that feels unpredictable or who always is swayed by the people they are with. And that’s a choice too.

There is a lot more to ethics than this. You can decide “I want my character to act like a good person would act’” (virtue ethics), or “I want my character to do whatever gives the best outcome” (consequentialism), or “I want my character to do the right thing whatever the cost” (deontological ethics), or even “I’d do what a good person in this society would do” (pragmatic ethics.)

That’s one way to build a character in a morality type conversation game. There are also others by which you decide “my character is mostly going to do the right thing, but there are exceptions and these are them.”

Anyhow, here are some ethical rulesets I’ve either designed or worked out in play for my SWTOR characters so far. One of the things I enjoy about the morality wheel is that it does allow you to figure out your character in play.

  • My Bounty Hunter is mostly about getting the job done and having some fun. She’s even quite chilled out and humane. But she has a very short temper and itchy trigger finger so if someone pisses her off during a conversation, they may well get shot in the head. (I decided to be light side, but take every conversation option that involved ((shoot him/her))).
  • My Agent is a stone cold bastard, but he’s loyal to the empire and not as heartless as some of the people he works with. He will hesitate before killing people who are in front of him and obviously vulnerable – which is a weakness in an agent, probably.
  • My Sith Warrior is powerful and chafes against being ordered around,  more of a force of nature than a force of evil. She trended light side initially as a way of acting up against her masters, but sank into it deeper because it’s often quite effective, sets people off balance,  and is a sign of how independent she can be. (She’s not ‘good’ so much as likes to assert her own personality – but I think probably has become a better person than she’d think.)

I don’t know if I think they have more personality to me than my WoW Warrior, but I know that her persona is mostly internalised. With these characters, you actually get to act it out.

More on female costuming in games: Dragon’s Dogma, Tera, Guild Wars 2

So, which of these games is the odd one out among Dragon’s Dogma, Tera, and GW2? If you answered Dogma (because it’s PS3 only) or GW2 (because it has no release date yet), then you’re technically correct but go to the back of the queue.

The answer is Dragon’s Dogma because it gives you a very wide range of looks to pick for your character, covering all the fantasy staples from full ornamented platemail to viking chicks in string bikinis and furry boots.  Unlike the others which stick you in something godawful. I’ve been intrigued with Dragon’s Dogma for awhile since playing the demo at ComicCon last year, and downloading the demo convinced me that it is the one to look out for if you’re interested in an open world fantasy game with a more active combat style than typical MMOs.

You also get to customise your own companion/ pawn, so I made a wizard who looks a bit like my RL partner so I can order him around (don’t pretend you never do this either! Smile ). There’s a good set of choices including fat and skinny characters, stances that are hunched at the shoulder or shoulders-back/boobs-out, and choices of voice actor too. One other thing, which works surprisingly well, is that all the hair and makeup options can be used for characters of either gender. So if you want that gothy male mage with eyeliner or a female warrior with a buzzcut and tattoos, you can do it (or, ya know, vice versa).  I’m really taken with what I saw on the demo, and especially liked being able to target specific parts of the monster in ways that affect the fight. For example, shooting a flying monster in the wings to bring it down, or cutting the snake head from a chimera to stop the poison. Also there seem to be different tactics that can be used, depending on you and your companions skillset and size/bulk – for example a large (and fearless) companion can grab the griffon by the leg as it takes off and wrestle it to the ground.

So thumbs up for Dragon’s Dogma from me, not sure if I’ll buy it at release but definitely aim to pick it up at some point. If you have a PS3 and like that type of game, try the demo.

Apart from the flexibility, what I really liked about the character generator was being able to create just about any fantasy character stereotype that I could imagine. See, I’m not against characters fighting in string bikinis or casting spells in belly dancer outfits, but I want it to be thematic and I want to have choices. Despite some of the clothing being quite skimpy, none of the characters actually looked like strippers. They looked like characters from fantasy art.  I think that’s a powerful point to take away.

More on clothing

Rohan has some screenshots of the crazy stuff his TERA character is wearing, this isn’t one of the prepubescent looking race, just daft armour. I rarely wish ill on any new MMO, but I won’t cry if TERA crashes and burns purely because those design decisions don’t deserve to be rewarded.

Kadomi has a brilliant three part roundup of her experiences in the GW2 beta (which are mostly positive). Go check them out:

Quest Mechanics

A look at the design manifesto (does GW2 fit with what arenanet have claimed?)

Barely covered (clothing for female characters in GW2)

The last link includes pictures of the cloth casters. Having looked at the TERA pictures first, my initial reaction is that GW2 isn’t that bad (see, it could be worse!). The Mesmer looks terribad in both male and female versions, however. Purely from a point of taste. I never really got that ‘dresses like a showgirl’ vibe from GW, the Mesmer there was more of a semi-kinky aristocrat which I think is a look I could go for more easily on a mage of dubious ethical purview. If I can’t have my frockcoat, breeches and riding boots back, I’m not going with the Mesmer for sure.

There’s also something very teen about the Necromancer look. I think it’s the somewhat gothic vibes along with fluffy pompoms on the boots.  I assume ‘perky goth’ is the design goal, but it makes her look about 14.

It is one thing to have a strong design direction, but I’m not fond of the look. I’m just glad I’ll have Dragon’s Dogma to fall back on for my fantasy staples. Even Diablo 3 is starting to seem more appealing, gearwise.

Torchlight 2 Pre-Purchase

Throwing their hats into the pre-purchase ring, Runic Games have Torchlight 2 up  for pre-purchase on Steam for $20/£14.99; release date is “Summer 2012” and the perk you get for pre-purchasing is a free copy of Torchlight (which you could gift to a friend if you already have a copy).

This is so much of a better deal than any of the other pre-purchase ‘offers’ I’ve seen recently, such as Guild Wars 2 (woo ‘free’ access to beta weekends) or Diablo 3 (no actual bonus for pre-purchase), and gives you a complete game to play while you’re waiting for the release that I’d give props to Runic for thinking things through.

If publishers want me to shell out money up front, these are the sorts of lines they should be thinking along.

High Heels

416px-Tacones_lejanos_poster

(These shoes are more badass that Diablo 3 and everything in it.)

I really felt that I said everything I wanted to say about the demon hunter and her boots last weekend, but it was a post that seems to have struck a nerve. Also it’s way past time I highlighted some of the great blogs who have linked to me recently, whether I agree with the writers or not Winking smile

Liore describes her experiences with the D3 and TERA betas, and also notes that she disliked the heels.

GamingSF discusses the Diablo 3 and the MoP betas, and isn’t overly impressed.

Zubon@Kill Ten Rats talks about the idea of false equivalence, and why a lot of gamers feel that overly sexualised female characters in games are normal, but overly sexualised male characters are ‘gay’. Worth reading for the great note by Meagen in comments:

It’s completely trivial and a waste of our time to discuss and we should be doing something more productive with our time, and at the same time it’s extremely important that no changes be made and extreme effort needs to be made to ensure everyone knows how much of a big deal this totally isn’t.

Tobold exemplifies this last point in an appeal to allow designers to be politically incorrect in the name of artistic integrity. (He doesn’t make that point until the end of the comments.)

Note: Fanservice has minimal artistic integrity, by definition.

Random Waypoint discusses how men are portrayed in video games, given that he doesn’t like power-hungry hunks. I don’t agree that anyone needs to get over it, though. It makes a difference to my choice of games and I see no reason not to talk about it.

Doone posts a very thoughtful criticism of Tobold’s post, and discusses why this issue is so important to so many people. If you just read one of these links, read this one.

Klepsacovic considers sexy characters in games and gives examples of female characters he considers sexy. OK, I admit it, I thought Anders was hot! Tortured blonde academic types with a soft spot for animals/ helping people clearly do it for me 😛 (Actually I do find kindness to be a very sexy quality in guys, especially if they’re otherwise quite tough.)

What other players think

And finally, I wondered what the beta community thought of the demon hunter look in general so I checked out the official forums. This is a thread where players are discussing whether they intend to play the male or female demon hunter. I’ve tried to pick out some of the comments where people specifically mentioned the heels, sexiness, or badassness. I hadn’t realised the male demon hunter was a controversial model but clearly he brought out the ‘blood elves are gay’ faction.

female cause she’s looking so sexy

Female obviously. The male char looks ridiculous.

what would i rather see? a hot chick in tight leather, or a dude in tight leather? obvious answer, no trolls plz

My obvious answer is probably not the same as his obvious answer.

Male with bow just pure badass, im just hoping most of the head slot armor will be hood-alike.

Female is my choice. I think the female DH is the most badass DH 😀

really depends on what toon im playing,but most of the times i prefer males. They just looks tougher and the gear pieces more shiny and biggie 😀

Van Helsing? Male of course.

Probably male. I really don’t like the high-heels on the female =/

I’m not going to play a character with metal stilettos *ugly*

Male, ’cause of the resemblance to Van Helsing.

Not really getting the Van Helsing references, did Hugh Jackman really look like that in the film?

The female Demon Hunter is by far the worst from all classes, looks so cheap like it comes straight out from chinese mmos.

The female avatar looks awesome in her heels.

Female, because she looks a lot better than the male, i find that the male looks quite feminine

I dont know but high heels are downgrading to me

I`m all about being a sexy Demon Hutress wering high heels , dual wielding Xbows and having a charming scarf

Yup, co-ordinated (yet charming) accessories are what demon hunting is all about!

Male all the way, cant stand the females high heels

Male DH here. Seems way more badass than the female one 😉

Female for sure – you seen them high heels on them boots !?

Male! I dislike the animation of females, plus the male voice is nice 🙂

Male, because I think he looks cool, has nice animations and a good voice. 🙂

That’s a fair point, the male demon hunter voice was great. No one commented on the female voice.

Male looks kind of gay and also picking female just feels right

But isn’t it nerdy to be a female.. i mean she is half naked xD

Male because females are not appropriate for hunting, especially demons.

Male, everything about the Demon Hunter class screams a Male character to me…this isn’t helped by the fact the female DH looks stupid and terrible with ugly armour and silly artwork. <…> Leave the women to classes like Mage and Monk, Demon Hunting is a mans game.

“Demon hunting is a man’s game” – best comment ever?

diablo is not really an rpg and male looks are … unsetting … so yea female DH

Male. At first I was going for female due to male’s buttfugly hair, but after I saw those damned high-heels and her beyond stupid crossbow and bow animations I decided to roll male. <….> females animations just scream: “I’m dumb wench who just got her first bow and I have no idea what I am doing!”

i’d choose male since DH will be my first choice, but he is thin and skinny.. So my vote goes to sexy high heels

male-DH just feels wrong to me even tho there is absolutely nothing wrong about him. Okay, he might remind some of us of Male Elves from WoW or look a little emo/gay, what have you, but that’s just subjective perception.

Seriously, they got it right with an alluringly scrumptious female demon hunter.

OK, what I take from this is that the character designs on this class are quite controversial, with several people saying that they changed their mind after seeing them. (Which is interesting because in the actual game, your character is very tiny.) The heels in particular do get singled out; some people think they’re sexy and awesome, others that they are ugly, degrading or silly. There’s no doubt in my mind that the artists could have drawn the character in a less polarising way.

The comments about her look being silly or stupid are interesting too. Those aren’t qualities that most players want in their characters (although there’s definitely a place for silly in games.) And ‘degrading’ is even stronger language than that. But for some players, a female character who looks highly sexualised is automatically also less competent.

I’m particularly intrigued by the person who said they thought it was nerdy to play half naked female characters. Actually all the female characters in D3 are half naked at the start, but I figure he’s talking about half naked in an overly sexualised, “Hello Boys!” kind of way.

[D3] In which I warm to Diablo 3, but not to the demon hunter stilettos

I have a theory that while female models in games pretty much started out based on underwear models and haven’t moved on significantly from there (depending on whether you think Sonic is female or not), graphic artists are now tending towards two male forms for all portrayals of men in games.

1. Bald space marine

2. The guy from Assassin’s Creed

I think we should applaud this diversity, since some of us like our guys lithe and … err… assassiny. In fact, if Blizzard had only made their original male blood elf model look more like Ezio (which admittedly would have required a time machine since TBC was released first IIRC), I bet none of the beta testers would have whined about them looking gay.

This is a roundabout way to introduce the topic of Diablo 3, which I have been playing some more this weekend as and when the servers allow it. So without more ado, this is the demon hunter.

demonhuntercombo

 

The top two characters are the level 1/ starting male and female demons hunters. The guy at the bottom hunter is the demon hunter from the end of beta, and the other chick is the Vanquisher from Torchlight. I just had two points to make here:

1. You can see that the dude is getting gradually more assassin’s creed-like over time

2. those thigh high stilettos are TERRIBLE. I really wasn’t over-reacting when I said I hated them. That character in the top right looks as though she’s going to strip, or go to a BDSM party, or pose for a pin up. I wanted a female version of the male dude. The comparison with the Vanquisher is fun because the two characters have a similar look and are wearing similar gear. But because the Vanquisher has sensible boots and a stronger pose, she strikes a better balance between sexy and badass. (NB. I think the female demon hunter is a beautiful piece of art if you wanted a pin up model, but it’s oddly over-sexualised compared to every other character in the game. I blame the boots.)

I am looking forwards to playing D3 at release, and have been making more of an effort to note any cool tweaks and updates to the genre that have impressed me particularly.

  • I like the events that you encounter in the dungeons, they make a neat change to standard boss fights and I can see there’s lots of scope for Blizzard to add more of them as time goes on.
  • The achievements work really well in Diablo also. I’m not an achievement minded person, but I was thinking about how to do some of them (like kill 20 mobs in one go) and which build would be best suited for it. There is plenty of scope for fun play there.
  • It feels quite quaint that the characters are so non-customisable, and that the loot will tend to end up looking samish also. I assume unique items and sets will have different looks to them.
  • I love how the game keeps track of your ‘high score’ for things like killing streaks on both mobs and destroyable items, and number of mobs killed in one blow even if you don’t hit the achievement. It gives a good sense for when you’re getting better.
  • I like the voiced lore items and journal entries. I did encounter at least one lore item (skeleton I think) which was not voiced, which struck me as an unusual polish fail.
  • The character voicing is not very good. Some of them are pretty terrible. Particularly the accents. I realise they may be the same actors as previous versions but they’re still not very good. But I feel less waspish about it now, because the male demon hunter sounds very cool.
  • I am not one of the people who complains about lack of talent trees, I prefer not having to think too much about which abilities to take. And the beta only covers the first few levels so it’s a bit soon to judge how well anything is balanced. But this is also Diablo and mobs come at you in packs, so the classes with the better AEs are easier to play.
  • I’ve played the beta through on the barbarian and demon hunter now, as well as the wizard. On the demon hunter I mostly did this in open groups so that I could try out the co op. The barbarian was simple but effective, it wades in and swings around with a large axe (or dagger in my case since the dagger had better dps) and bodies fly around. The demon hunter seemed to be a single target dude in an AE world, but I love that they have a channeled ability to fire the crossbow off like a machine gun. That’s very bonkers, but amusing,
  • Co-op groups mostly consist of people doing speed runs. Even if they don’t say so, that’s what they will do. Many of them will also have speed boosts on their gear so it’s easy to end up running after everyone else through corridors of dead mobs and then seeing the end of quest achievement pop up before you get there. D3 does make everyone zone into boss fights together, so you will at least get to see those. And it’s quick xp. In fact, if you want to level fast when the game goes live, just do co op runs.
  • No one, but no one, is going to enjoy having to deal with lag and server disconnects in the single player game.