Thursday, May 22, 2014

Wildstar Weekend: a review



This is one of those posts that I write so that I can remember what I thought and felt about a particular experience months later.  This is neither a legitimate game review nor an unbiased perspective on the game.

This past weekend, I participated in the open beta for Wildstar.  Like all games at this stage of development, the beta is actually an invitation to preview the game in hopes of attracting more subscribers, an approach that I feel is entirely legitimate.  I welcomed the opportunity to see what Wildstar looked like, because the reality is that I probably wouldn’t have looked beyond the promotional trailer otherwise.



Wildstar aspires to be a serious, long-term, triple-A, massively multiplayer roleplaying game.  You can see it in the light and dark factions, the built-in PvP, the raiding endgame, cosmetic and stat-based gear, players housing…  The list goes on and on, every box checked.  You can especially see it in the buy-in price and ongoing subscription model that they fervently hope succeeds.   

Why is that important?  Because the one thing that Wildstar absolutely does not want to be is a whimsical cartoony pastime that people turn to as a self-conscious indulgence while waiting for something new to be released on their primary game.  And this is exactly the game that they have put together.

Space Oddity

For me, the game was at odds with itself.  There were three images it wants to project:  the edgy, bouncy, flamboyant exterior that was featured in the early advertising, the serious storytelling that it aspires to more recently, and the “hardcore” endgame that it promises in order to attract what it considers the heart of the mmo player.

Almost in direct contrast to their big aspirations was a series of odd choices that were meant to distance themselves from the pack but ended up simply making my whole experience into an oddity.   
An odd choice in art style.  The designers have consciously selected a very obvious stylized appearance for the artwork of the game, noticed most pronouncedly in the rendering of the characters.  We’re playing in a colorful, whimsical cartoon.  Not just animated but distorted.

The visuals in Wildstar were a little too intense for me.  There was so much placed in the environment that I found my visual field overloaded.  At the same time, each object was distorted in odd ways, so that I couldn’t instinctively resolve its shape.  I had to stare at it for a few seconds to identify it as a chair, or a communicator.  It was as if everything was in extremely sharp focus at all visual distances at the same time, and yet I couldn’t quite recognize it.  It reminded me of Bloodmyst Isle, one of the Draenai starting areas, where there was so much red that you had to look away from the screen occasionally or your eyes would begin to bleed.  I got exactly that feeling here as well.



Wildstar also has an odd combination of races: humanoid, furry, brutal and cyborg in two varieties.  There doesn’t seem to be any internal consistency across the race choices, just that they are very different, and also strikingly unusual.  There’s no particular reason why they all should be occupying the same universe.  From a story perspective, there isn’t a narrative to the game that makes these race options meaningful.  Just an eclectic mix for the players to choose from.

In a way, the race choice seems to parallel the choices in ncsoft sibling Guild Wars 2.  Humaniods are parallels of course, but also the Charr vs the Drakken (savage beasts), the Aurin and the Sylvari (peaceful, nature-oriented, environmentalists), the Chua and the Asuran (diminutive, hyperintelligent inventors), maybe even the Granok and the Norn (large and brutal).

I guess the whole point of that comparison is to suggest that the narratively barren landscape of GW 2 hasn’t improved with having it transposed to Wildstar.  The major flaw of GW2 was that there was no compelling, overarching story to provide a backdrop to the day to day activities of the characters.  While that isn’t exactly the case in Wildstar, some of the lessons of relating the characters to the world haven’t been learned. 

In the first 10 levels, I was not presented with the outer fringes of a deep and compelling story that pulled me on and invited me to look closer.  I’m not saying that every game needs to do this.  Only that in my specific case, this would have been something that would have motivated me to stay.  The Secret World is an example where that worked beautifully.  The same thing is true of Star Wars: The Old Republic.  In both cases, in the first 4 hours I was engaged by the narrative of my character or the area I was exploring.

I played a mordesh and I loved the idea of this undead creation, possibly augmented with technology to keep it alive.  What I didn’t love was the impossibly thin neck and legs, and the flopping, flouncing gait of their run animation.  Again, everything seemed exaggerated to the point of oddity.

I enjoyed the storytelling.  But the interface that delivers the story takes some getting used to.  The screen was commonly full of quest boxes, chat bubbles, text in the chat box, and someone speaking to me verbally, often at the same time.  These things often overlapped each other on the screen, making them hard to read.  And often these boxes would just close on their own, without waiting for me to get to them.  Sometimes the voice-overs were copied in the chat box, though not always, and sometimes the text didn’t match the spoken dialogue exactly.

I see what they are trying to do; they want to constantly engage the player and continue moving the dialogue.   They definitely don’t want the questing experience to be boring.  But sometimes it was hard to follow each of the narrative elements being presented.  I couldn’t settle back and enjoy the story.  The game wanted to keep me on my toes.



I chose the scientist path and enjoyed the additional scanning tasks, and reading the enhanced narrative that the bonus quests provided.  If I were to play the game more, I think these paths would be a huge draw to me. 

But coupled with the subscription price and once again the inordinate emphasis on competitive 40-player raiding at endgame makes me turn away from this opportunity.  I’m actually hopeful that the interface will be massaged a little and over the course of the next year I’ll find that the rough edges have been knocked off.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Blame the Game, not the Players



This post was in response to one of the seeded topics from the Newbie Blogger Initiative Talkback 2014:   Do PvP and PvE Mix?

Discussing the advantages of  PvE and PvP is an activity as old as PvP itself.    PvE is boring; PvP is distracting, this controversy rages unchecked. We're not here to compare their relative merits, but to find out if these two activities can mix and still maintain their individual appeal.

Just so we're clear about these acronyms, PvP refers to combat between players (Player vs Player) and can refer to open world combat, or fights contained within arenas and battlegrounds.  PvE refers to the player attacking opponents generated by the game (Player vs Environment) and includes quests, dungeons, and raids. 

My basic answer is that PvP, like fire, changes everything it touches.  Whether it improves your experience or degrades it depends largely on whether or not you like PvP.



Let’s start with a tale about Star Wars: The Old Republic.  A little over a year ago, SWTOR needed a quick boost of content to get their new free players playing again.  Their idea was to revitalize their PvP planet of Ilum and create a daily hub there for both factions.  The kicker was that part of the daily questing area would mandatorily flag all players free for all.  Not only could the opposing faction attack you, but your fellow faction members could as well.  By placing the hubs in this zone, the game tried to provide both PvP and PvE objectives in the same time-limited event.

Almost immediately, unexpected player behavior began to emerge.  First, groups from opposing factions began to queue for the quest objectives in the PvP zone.  Empire characters would patiently wait in line for the Republic to complete the quest, before taking their own turn.  This was the equivalent of win swapping in Tol Barad.  The basic result was that most players completely ignored the PvP component.

The quest was later changed so that trading quest completions was no longer possible, and the response was to largely ignore that quest and get along with the remaining ones. At the same time, a few players were there for the legitimate PvP opportunities that BioWare had advertised.   

Because the zone flagged free-for-all, it was clear that the Devs intended for same-faction groups to fight each other for the objectives.  But when PvP-ers began attacking members of their own faction, pursuing a perfectly reasonable goal, they came in for a huge amount of grief in the world channel and even ostracism from raid groups, for doing what they considered normal play.



The Return of the Gree was a fairly successful event but it highlighted a few characteristics of the interaction between PvP and PvE.


1.  PvE players generally don’t like to mix any PvP with their objectives. 
The majority of players were there for the lore and activities of the event, and had absolutely no interest in participating in PvP. They ignored PvP when they could, and retreated when they could not.  Win-swapping or avoiding the flagged area emerged organically, and almost instantly from the onset of the event.  

2.  Players interested in PvP generally had little interest in completing a bunch of daily quests.
They manifestly were not there for the event, but only for the PvP opportunities it provided.  For example, they didn’t engage in PvP in order to gain access to the turn-in, but instead displayed a great deal of enjoyment in denying other players the chance to complete their quest. (Note that I’m not saying this was wrong of them.  Just that they didn’t use PvP to further their progress in the event.  PvP was an end unto itself.)

3.  When PvP and PvE interact, PvP always wins. 
When PvP antagonists appear, they have the ability to absorb all of the PvE player’s attention for as long as they are present, even if only by continually needing to be killed.  Where PvP is an option, the player must be willing to put aside all other plans in favor of PvP, particularly if they enjoy playing solo, because one determined PvP antagonist can successfully re-direct an entire play session.


The result is that PvP and PvE don’t mix well.  Players generally don't want them to mix. This is usually handled very simply at the server level.  Roll on one of your preferred play style and enjoy.

The moments where this becomes a real problem, though, is when the developers try to force PvP on unwilling players.  This is often a result of trying to shoehorn a PvP component into what would otherwise be a PvE holiday or achievement (Long strange trip, for example), or quest series ( Rocket Robot in Icecrown), or (as in this case) a time-limited special event. 

Developers see PvP as a way to generate free content.  They set up the basketball court and let the players bring their own ball.  Because players are always content starved, this holds attractive possibilities for the Devs, and they are continually looking for ways to promote it in the hopes that more players will come to like PvP.  The result is that devs regularly inject PvP requirements into what are essentially lore and story activities because hope springs eternal.  Maybe this time they will see the light, and we won’t have to do so much work in developing content.

As long as PvP remains consensual, voluntary, and doesn't gate the achievements and story that PvE players seek, there is no reason that the two cannot exist in harmony.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Panegyric

I reach for it, and it is there
I hurl it with all my will, and all my soul against my foe

It fills my being, and it obeys
It is a harsh master that demands all my concentration,
anything less than pure, full devotion and its skips beyond my grasp
like a playful lover, and I fall.  There are no half measures here.
Nothing to fall back on. Cloth does not turn blades.
Light fades, the hammer falls.
But to feel that power fill me one more time

In that moment it little matters if I persevere
or fail, if light continues or the mist covers my eyes
I must reach for it again, caress it's silky tendrils
There is no comfort, no solace
only a continual ever-kindling fire
a hunger to have more, to drink more deeply

I fight not for glory, nor for cause, nor for hate
but to have a reason to taste that sweet, all consuming
vitality one more time.
To live such a life, necessarily short,
is to burn brighter than a thousands stars
if only for a moment

I could live in that moment for ever, for a thousand years
of possibility.  Time ceases and every option wakens
It is not words spoken, not gestures and tokens
It is a song I sing.
Effortlessly, without thought

I pity you who will never know true power.


Written for the NBI 2014 Poetry Slam

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Questing is Dead, Long Live the Quest



It wasn’t too long after the release of Guild Wars 2 that developers proudly announced the death of quests.  The traditional quest giver in a quest hub was a relic of the past.   The future was questless adventures that emerged organically from the environment, and Timeless Isle was going to show us a vision of that future.  However, recent comments from Blizzard suggest that the quest might not be dead after all.

As part of an effort to address decisions about flying, Bashiok made some comments that I found fairly illuminating about Blizzard’s design philosophy for Warlords of Draenor.  My own thoughts were sparked by a discussion on ALT:ernative Chat where Godmother was calming people away from the no-flight cliff, and pointing to this blue post.


Specifically, the philosophy says that rather than stepping away from quests, the designers want to “keep that questing experience available at max level.”  Far from being a stale and tired mechanic that needs a replacement, the questing experience was something worth preserving long past its traditional role in the leveling game.  

What's interesting about quests are the unexpected ways that they interact with other parts of the game.




Unintended Consequences

Quests in MMOs developed as a way to regulate simple grinding as a method for gaining XP.  Kill 10 plainstriders, then 10 prowlers, then zhevra for their hoofs, and in between we returned to Crossroads for brief lessons on life in the Barrens.  The character earned xp from killing the mobs, and then bonus xp when they turned in the quest, making this method extremely efficient for leveling.

At the same time, Blizzard used the quest experience as a mechanism for delivering the story.   Here was a chance for the game to interact with the character in something other than a passive way, an opportunity to communicate the story through short narrative passages, alternating with brief periods of action that re-enforced and illustrated the narrative.  Once players internalized the basic system – quest giver, task, reward – developers found that it mapped neatly to the tools they wanted to use: narrative storytelling, environmental storytelling, player participation.  This was so well received that quest text became the primary vehicle for communicating most of the story of the game. 

But something else happened at the same time.   Because quests were so effective in delivering xp, and packaging it in rewarding and bite-sized pieces, quests became closely tied to experience gain and leveling characters. 

Here is where the unintended consequences emerge.  Questing became one of the primary activities for leveling, so obviously when leveling is over, so are the need for quests:


Questing is a thing that you do when you’re leveling.  Now that you don’t need to level, questing doesn’t have nearly the same reward that it did when you were watching purple bars fill up at the bottom of your screen.  Those were visible re-inforcers of your progress in the game.  Now that the reward is gone, so also is the incentive to complete quests.

And this might be acceptable to a point except the unintended consequences carried even further.   Remember that quests are the major vehicle for storytelling in MMOs.  Sure, you have other activities (raiding, pvp) but those choices aren’t exactly story-rich.


So when questing stopped, the opportunity for storytelling was also greatly diminished.  You don’t have any motivation for talking to npcs; you don’t have a simple mechanism for reading a text box that tells you brief sections of the story; you no longer have proxy markers for phasing or other story progression.  When people are no longer motivated to complete quests, it is very difficult to reach them with story developments.

In the player’s minds are two fundamental assumptions about how MMORPGS work: First, If I’m not leveling, then I don’t need to be questing.  Second, if I’m not leveling, then I need to leave this leveling zone and go to where the “real game” begins at level cap.





The Inflection Point

This creates an inflection point in the game, an identifiable break in the continuity of the experience.  The result is a huge change in the experience of the player when they reach level cap.  Up until that point, the game has been about interacting with the player through text and dialogue.  After that point, the players are shunted to repetitive tasks: dailies, dungeons, raids.  Each of those can convey story elements, but primarily the first time through.  After that, other rewards predominate.

Concept art for the Spires of Arak.
This huge change in player interaction creates obvious problems for Blizzard as well as for the players.  Non-raiding players quickly lose interest in the game and are likely to wander away.  And even if there is more story content available, without the leveling incentive to motivate them, players are apt to ignore it entirely, meaning that Blizzard spends development on content that level-capping players never see.  And if they don't take the time, those players who do persevere to the end of the final zone are left with stories that often fade away into an inconclusive daily grind.  Further, leveling players who have developed a style and rhythm of playing the game suddenly cap, and then must stop the activity that has carried them for months and try to go integrate themselves into something far different.


Recently, Blizzard has been trying to challenge and even change this paradigm, and according to Bashiok they intend to make an even greater effort in Warlords.  And that brings us back to Blizzard’s design philosophy for Warlords.  Blizzard doesn’t want quests to end.  They are contemplating ways to keep that quest-type interaction alive well into endgame.  To “keep that questing experience available at max level” as Bashiok puts it.


Obviously, the developers have been experimenting with daily quests, and with ways to make them more interesting and entertaining.  But dailies are fundamentally iterative, not progressive.  They are designed to provide activities, not advance story.



Paradigm Shift

So let’s take a wild flight of fancy, for a minute.  Bashiok says,
Even at level 100 there will be no small portions of the game world intended to provide relevant content even to max-level players. These zones may even unlock over the course of the expansion, or the content in them will progress in story and scope throughout content patches.”
So imagine an entire zone of quest-delivered storyline that is intended for level capped players.  Not just a few dailies at a single quest hub like Klaxxi’Vess (“something more robust than daily quests”) but a full, Kun-Lai Summit scale zone with multiple locations and plot threads that carry throughout the zone.

What would we need for such a paradigm shift to be successful?
  • Less incentive to immediately stop questing to go do something else.  This means fewer max-level unlocks - "Now that you're 90, you can start grinding Tiller reputation"; "Now that you're 90, Chromie wants to talk to you."  Instead, we should be working with these groups throughout the leveling experience, and max level merely expands on that story, rather than closing it out.  
  • Rewards keep pace with the expansion.  That means that rewards for continuing the storyline are just as good as the rewards for leaving the zone.  We've already had rep-gated gear, mounts and pets.  Merely make them keep pace with Timeless Isle-type loot baskets.
  • Story elements continue to be engaging, unlike the Klaxxi, where a fascinating premise was left unresolved, to be dealt with in another venue.
  • A story that progresses throughout the expansion.  Bashiok has already given possibilities here, with unlocking zones and stories continuing with each patch.  Not just a race to exalted with the Order of the Cloud Serpent in order to get the mount, then no further contact with them for the rest of the expansion.


Basiok: "In summary: It’s important to us that we integrate max-level questing into the expansion more thoroughly than designated daily locations on mountain tops, or only have the option of releasing new max level content in magically appearing islands where flight has different rules because reasons."

I love the implications of this design philosophy.  It was revealed in defense of flight rules, but I think this statement this has re-kindled my excitement for where Warlords is going.