Category Archives: Gaming

Embracing the tide of fleeting persistency

Bhagpuss nailed it. He just went ahead and nailed it.

Ever since I started playing multiplayer games and then switched to their “massively” department, my interest in single player games took a nose dive. For a long time, the explanation was clear and apparent: it’s just more fun to play with others, to experience the community, the teamwork, the competition. The social component, you see. Case closed, right?

Well, after quitting WoW in 2011, I was really rather fed up with all things social. My desire to play with someone else or against someone else hit absolute rock bottom, and yet…

Building up Steam

Skyrim was the perfect game at the perfect time for me. I had figured out my work-life-schedule, wanted to play something in my free time and couldn’t be bothered with other people. And everyone around was (still is, it seems) gushing about how that freshly released game was the best thing since sliced bread.

So, I went out and bought it. And had to set up a Steam account to play it. Yes, I know, I know. But, look, I had not played a single player game in years (the last one being Neverwinter Nights), so what use would a Steam account have been to me? For me, Steam was basically “that anti-cheat software Counter-Strike introduced a decade ago”. Never having played Counter-Strike either (except once at a private LAN-party, when my friends convinced me to try it and an hour later I begged them to stop threatening to fall asleep otherwise), I never had any use for it. To this day, my Steam library consists of just two games: Skyrim and Civilization V. I think I forgot my account password. Again.

Anyway. Skyrim. Me. Ready to go.

On horses and brigands

I lasted 16 hours. That’s what Steam tells me how long I played. In total. For a game that cost 60 Euro, that’s not a great value return. What went wrong?

I’ll spare you the rant about the silly console-oriented UI, won’t go into what I liked and what not. We’re talking a game that’s four years old now. Everything that had to be said about the good, the bad and the ugly has been said, written down, printed out, archived and subsequently shredded for data privacy protection purposes. No need to go there again. None of it was the problem anyway. Let me tell you what was, but first, let me tell you in advance, that this is entirely subjective. I mean, the elements I’ve been observing were objectively there, but my personal interpretation of those is subjective and doesn’t aspire to the status of some absolute truth in any way.

I remember getting a horse. Acquiring a mount is a good old MMO-staple, so that felt familiar. So, how do I call the horse? Oh, I don’t, it’s just there, I simply … mount it. Cool. How do I dismiss it? Oh, I don’t either! I simply climb down and then it stands there. So this wasn’t so much “my horse” as “a horse”, which I acquired the “legal” right to use. That was great, just like in the real world! So authentic!

So authentic … when it’s so authentic, you can’t help but wonder: what does it eat? What does it drink? When I leave it standing outside and it rains or snows, will it get a cold? Why is it not getting tired when I use it to ride for hours on end? Why, for that matter, am I not getting tired? Why does that stupid thing just stand there motionless, staring at me, waiting for me to act? No real horse would ever act like that!

I remember killing brigands near a cave. Then placing them in funny poses. Come on, you did that as well. Everyone did. Because we could. I remember returning to that cave some time later and finding them there, just as I left them. Again, realistic. But then again, since it was realistic, it compelled my mind to think further. And I remember thinking that this effectively means that this world I’m traveling has a fixed, finite number of brigands. Which, in turn, meant that I could rid this entire world of brigands by killing all of them. The pretend-world, after all, was, although large, not large enough to prevent me from doing it by making it take so long that a natural restocking of ranks would occur, which was undoubtedly not simulated anyway. Nor was it designed to make them bond together, flee, hide, fortify or try to stop me in any other way. I was their God, not just a hero or a Dragonborn, but an honest-to-god … God, as they lived and died by my mercy, just like everything else in the world that would only exist when I deigned to gaze at it, when the holy SaveGame would be loaded. And it freaked me out.

Uncanny Tamriel

The Uncanny Valley describes the phenomenon that human perception of a simulation improves as the quality of the simulation increases and then takes a sharp plunge (the namesake valley) when the simulation becomes “almost but not quite” real. There is a fantastic video on youtube showing Emily, a computer-animated person. She looks totally authentic, to the point where it needs to be explicitly restated at the end that yes, you really were watching an animation until then. And then there are a few short, fleeting moments when something about her eyes or her mouth moves in a way that instantly sends shivers down your spine, triggering some dark, primal, instinctive fear.

This is a part of what happened to me in Skyrim. “Come closer,” said the game, “take a look at my authentic and realistic brilliance!” But that’s the thing: when you get closer, you notice cracks you didn’t care about before, but which now seem deeper and darker than anything experienced prior. Or to quote Bhagpuss: It’s the way non-persistent worlds get so close to seeming “real” and then stop dead that causes the disconnect, I think. It’s jarring in a way the ongoing “we know this doesn’t make sense but we’ll all pretend it does” endless MMO Valhalla isn’t.

Massively Singleplayer

I honestly think that’s really it, for me. The way this fake-persistency makes everything seem so artificial, the attempt to make the world come to life making it appear dead to me. It’s the lack of a necessity to move on, to evolve, to preserve, to regrow that makes the game world appear to be all about me. And a world that is all about me can neither be realistic nor interesting.

Not too long after my Skyrim experiment ended, Star Wars: The Old Republic was released. I hesitated at first, but ended up getting it after a colleague recommended it. I played (almost) all the way to level cap without ever grouping or interacting with anyone. And yet it felt “right”. I was part of an online world inhabited by other people with their own goals, interests, schedules and preferences. It was my preference not to interact with them. But nevertheless, they were there, and their presence made the world seem real. And the fact that we shared that world made every little action much more persistent than a brigand corpse that never goes away or a horse that doesn’t either could ever do. At least, for me.

And, let me tell you, I played SWTOR, even during just that first time, for much longer than 16 hours. Making it a much better value for money proposition as well.

Nightfall Online

I remember – and will probably always remember – my first vivid impression of LotRO. I was running around the starter zone (obviously) and coming across a busy square time and time again. I played for quite a while and the hour was turning late. During the evening hours the square I had to repeatedly cross was buzzing with people. And when the time wore on and the PM turned AM the buzz slowly died down. Just a few adventurers would still be going about their business. Night fell and the people playing the characters went to bed. So did the characters. Night fell. The NPCs stood there, of course, unchanged, unmoved, always at the ready. But the world had calmed down regardless. Night fell. The way night falls in the real world, with real people going to sleep. Real people who would see you run across a square – or not see you when they were asleep, or when you would not be there yourself. Night fell.

Once you’ve been there, you cannot go back.


The Skill Paradox

A little while ago I came across a comment on a blog which claimed that “as we know, most MMO players are bad”. I did – and do – find it curious, because this indeed does get passed around as a universal truth: most people we meet online are terrible players. Naturally and curiously except for those we’re having these discussions with, we’re all just fine. This, to hit where it hurts right from the start, is basically the same reasoning that constitutes racism: “all black people are savages, except for Joe, who’s a member in my Country Club”. We can even admit the popular argument that the blogging community in a way self-selects the better, because obviously more invested, players – and who doesn’t like to attribute themselves to a self-proclaimed elite; us bloggers, we’re awesome, aren’t we – and it still plays on the same lawn as racism, after all, the Country Club is also obviously a selective environment, but those other black people, the ones outside, they’re obviously savages. It is the hypocrisy that makes every representative of a group one knows by name and face an exception, while at the same time maintaining blanket judgements about the large anonymous group as a whole. That’s not what this post is about though. Instead, I’d like to consider how we arrive at the perception.

First of all, the claim itself that “most players are terrible” is inevitably wrong. As I casually remarked recently, we all live in the Gaussian Curve, and what it really means is that most players are average, as this is how most natural averages form, with only few cases when the data points are crowded near the extremes and the average is a mostly virtual value. An example of the latter could be the life expectation during the European Middle Ages, which was mathematically around 35, but if you look at the numbers closer, you realise that it doesn’t mean that “most people died around age 35”, but that the horrifyingly high infant mortality skewed the statistic and what it rather means is “if you survived past the age of 1, you were probably going to run for the 70”. But this is unnatural, an anomaly. Usually distributions follow the Gaussian Curve, which is why it’s called the Normal Distribution.

There are of course special situations, like, say, Wrath of the Lich King creating a particular expectation about content difficulty and the subsequent Cataclysm taking things in a somewhat different direction. But the aforementioned sentiments gets stated sweepingly, not in some differentiated “in early 2011, large parts of the WoW player base were not prepared for the content difficulty presented to them”, and gets accepted sweepingly. In fact, I can be reasonably sure that someone will actually comment on this very post that “no-no, really, everyone is terrible”. Well, maybe not after I wrote this, kind of falsifying the experiment. Or maybe not, because there are, like, 5 people commenting on my posts, so this isn’t exactly a relevant sample size of anything.

Still, the whole WotLK/Cata thing also highlights that, of course, skill is not an abstract concept, it is relative to difficulty of the task in question. So, yes, if we’re talking about reciting randomly selected works of Shakespeare while running a marathon in Antarctica, most people would be pretty terrible at it. Shopping for groceries on the other hand is something most would find pretty easy, catering to the casuals, almost. Here’s the thing though: in the context of a game, i.e. voluntary entertainment activity, people gravitate towards and away from activities such that in the long term, you are left with your normal distribution again – those for whom it’s too hard or too easy mostly leave. Even now, I think the Cata-difficulty issue is pretty much settling itself (Nils has some great recent posts on why having just one difficulty for everyone is bad design), because the averages are adjusting themselves, people are settling in their new relative positions and the content is self-nerfing.

Then there is always the possible explanation that there are, at any time, many new and inexperienced players. But frankly, this is not what the statement quoted at the outset states. “Most players are new” is not the same as “most players are bad”, even though it’s similarly unlikely. More importantly, catering to new players is by far not the same as catering to bad players. In fact, catering to new players is very important, as the expectation we have is that new players are going to learn, while bad players are not. Conversely, if you don’t let your players learn (cater to new players), you raise incompetent players (well hello, trivialised levelling game).

Last and least, because it’s mostly an exercise in being a smartass, the statement doesn’t even make sense on a logical-linguistic level. If “most players are terrible”, then terrible is the average, thus most players are average. If you’re the brilliant exception, then it’s you who is in the wrong place and probably should go back to the South Pole Stadium-slash-Theatre.

So far, we have a brief outline of why “most players are terrible” should be considered to be wrong. Yet there are lots of people who will tell you that and be genuinely surprised that anyone should think otherwise (remember the bit with the potential comment on this post? Wait for it, still may happen!). Why is this? After thinking about it for a bit, I realised that the solution is The Blub Paradox. It’s a fairly long and technical essay, rich on self-praise, but well worth reading if one is interested in the matter. I will proceed to adopt the part relevant to describe The Skill Paradox.

Imagine the Skill Continuum. No, it’s not the point in space-time a gamer occupies at 13:37. It’s the line on which all skill levels are laid out in increasing order, from a hopeless failure to the greatest winner. Now imagine a player A, whose skill places somewhere on the continuum, a safe distance from both extremes. As long as A is looking down the skill continuum, he recognises that he’s looking down. He can see all the things these players are doing wrong, all the mistakes they’re making, all the potentials for optimisation. If he’s looking up, however, he doesn’t realise that he’s looking up. All he can see are players who are basically just as good as him, only some of them tend to do things in weirdly esoteric ways. A may even consider some of them his inferiors, because, seriously, what sensible person would ever do those esoteric things. This is the Skill Paradox, meaning that we possess very pronounced abilities in recognising all the ways in which other players are worse than us, but are comparatively bad in perceiving the ways in which other players are better than us. The direct consequence is that we tend to think of ourselves as “very close to the top” regardless of where we actually place in the skill continuum, which in turn, especially if you’re not necessarily the self-scrutinising type, lends itself to the “most people are terrible” fallacy.

At this point I originally intended to write down personally experienced cases of when despite the apparently obvious presence of empirical evidence I wasn’t as good as I thought I were, and only got better after embracing details I previously had dismissed as irrelevant, ranging from my most newbish online gaming beginnings in the year 2000 to more recent experiences. In fact I even wrote down those examples, read through them, and they felt so full of unintended self-adulation that they made me sick. And, you know, as much as there is to say about how awesome I am (for example: how awesome I am), I ultimately decided that it would rather distract from than support the point.

The point being: as soon as you acquire even marginal competence in a field (note how we gently drifted away from being gaming-specific), you will find it easy to recognise the shortcomings of those below your level of competence – that’s why you’re better than them, you moved past making their mistakes. Your observations will objectively suggest that you’re “one of the best”, because everyone else you observe is “bad”, with the exception of those whose superiority you cannot fully comprehend as such, for the very same reason they are superior – they realised potentials you have yet to discover.

Shall you live in eternal self-doubt? No, not at all. If you feel you’re good, you probably are. No one is born a master. Just know there’s always a “better” as much as there’s a “worse”. This is also why I don’t like evaluating my own performance based on doing something others (supposedly) can’t do – it’s much more intriguing to consider what can be done than what can’t. Otherwise you’re going for that old trap where “anyone who has accomplished more than you has no life, and anyone who has accomplished less is a noob“.

There is another consequence to all of this, one that won’t sound particularly surprising: your ability to look up the Skill Continuum and realise that you are looking up is directly related to your ability to become better yourself. This is what teachers, trainers and guides do, they explain to their students how those esoteric things can make them better. The good ones do, the bad ones simply state what to do – and sadly there’s a huge demand just for that, seen in the MMORPG world where a lot more people blindly follow the cookie-cutter spec and rotation than actually understand why and under which conditions it is superior. Whenever you convince yourself that “this is as good as it gets”, you stop improving. A truism, really.

And just as I was about to finally post this (it’s the third rework or so), xkcd came out almost on cue: Our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit.

Level playing field

Yes, it’s going to be one of those posts.

When I started playing LotRO back in 2007, truth be told, a major motivation was to just “sample” what an MMORPG plays like, what it does wrong and to come up with ideas how it could be done better. I then found myself having lots of fun playing it and the rest is history. Not exactly history you can expect to be taught in history class. Unless it would, in some unthinkably wicked way lead to me ultimately making some sort of discovery that will elevate mankind onto another level. Which would be cool. Or to be directly related to me becoming a historically renowned villain. Which would be uncool. The part about me becoming a major villain, not so much about LotRO being directly linked to it. Although that would suck too, really tired of those “gamer plays games, goes on to destroy the Moon” stories. Other than those possibilities, I can’t really see how anyone would ever be taught the beginnings of my MMORPGaming in history class, so I guess it’ll be more like mysterious and forgotten history, rediscovered millennia later to make gullible people believe the world will end in 4012 AD. Don’t ask me why or how that can possibly have any connection or meaning at all, those future mountebanks are just crazy like that. How are my KiaSA-style tangents coming along? Working on it, working on it.

So, anyway, the earliest major point of criticism was, to put it in the words of a friend: “forget your stats, forget your gear; there is one number that determines how your character performs more than all others combined: your level”. Almost 4 years later, and the grave gravity of those words weighs heavily on my shoulders, like a heavy weight that makes everything appear much heavier. In fact, compared to what I’ve seen since, those heady days appear almost like a dream of level-unhindered harmony, when we’d be dancing and running over green meadows with higher and lower level mobs alike. Killing each other in the process, naturally. I mean us and the mobs, not players killing each other. LotRO is a fairly strictly PvE-focused game.

Mobs as far as 9 levels below you, if memory serves, would get on your case, as LotRO used a sharp aggro cut-off, rather than a gradual never-ending reduction in perception radius, if it was 10 levels below you, it would ignore your existence completely, but spot you perfectly fine if the difference was less. Which was more than a little silly from a simulation point of view. But naturally – and it’s a shame it’s so natural, really – no later than when you were 5 levels higher than the mob, the poor bugger may as well have had his weapons – or claws – replaced with cotton swabs, as they’d never be a danger to you. On the other end, you could pick a fight with a mob 5 levels above you, and it would be a winnable affair, the sharp cut-off, i.e. the point at which you’d just be precluded from being able to hit, coming somewhere (not far) above that. It was indeed easy to see that your level was not so much a representation of your character power, as naive pre-MMO me had thought, but the very basis and structure of said power, everything else effecting only a small variance.

This is not to downplay the insane power creep and power discrepancy games like WoW or RIFT create between characters of the same (max) level due to escalating gear rewards. Not only because any character below max level does not have access to that gear, but also because the means of earning that gear are usually balanced in such a way that there is no way for a sub-level-cap character to appropriately contribute to the success of the process of their acquisition, even if they are not, which is also often the case, mechanically excluded from participation at all. In other words, at best a raider can toss a BoE drop to a leveller/alt, which they won’t be able to equip until they hit level cap; there’s no way for the leveller/alt to actively earn that reward themselves.

Fast forward to RIFT. Let’s keep this short with one concise example: if I take on a mob 3 levels above me, something close to half of my attacks do not land in the target, despite me having a 5% hit bonus from talents and another 1.5% from gear stats. This breaks simulation, breaks immersion, and basically constitutes the game coming at me with a big flashing neon sign saying “do not go this way, go that way”. On the other end, of course, it also gets dull to fight mobs you outlevel pretty quickly. All in all, you end up with this really narrow corridor of “what you’re supposed to do”.

Why does this bother me particularly? Because I play together with MFCFKAMFDFKAMFLM (My Favourite Cleric Formerly Known As My Favourite Druid Formerly Known As My Favourite Lore-Mistress), and I’m really very much enjoying it. Currently, we’re levelling together. Levelling together means, because of the above, staying at the same level, ideally within a few percent points of a level from each other. As soon as you drift apart even a little, you start banging the walls of that narrow corridor and the game comes at you with its flashing neon signs. Consequently, when one of us doesn’t play, the other, effectively, can’t do anything. This is exacerbated by the quest driven game play, which offers you exactly one way to interact with the content, by “doing the quests” – which is content we want to do together. In fact, RIFT offers a resort of sorts here, in the form of the namesake rifts – one could run around a lower level zone just outside the XP range and close rifts. Doing something like that alone does start feeling like an end in itself pretty quickly though.

So what’s the result? A subconscious rush to level cap. Which is ironic, because RIFT is a game that is actually really good fun to play below level cap as well. I have been and am still enjoying the levelling process, despite having never been a fan of quests. But this is one of the fundamental reasons why people rush to level cap. Not because we’re all impatient and can’t enjoy the road for the goal. Not all of us are, at least. No, it’s because only at level cap that number which is way more powerful than it should ever have been stops changing, and only then can we meaningfully play with others. Especially with specific others rather than random others. On a level field.

To close and be clear, I’m not complaining about playing together. Playing together is awesome. I’m complaining about the restraints resulting from a level-centric quest-driven game design. One of those restraints is that playing together only works either in a perfectly static group (which excludes the “sharing independently made discoveries and experiences” element) or at level cap (which needlessly devalues the game before level cap). Yeah, I told you it was going to be one of those posts.

More on Riddles

In my previous post I made a few remarks on how riddles shouldn’t be viewed as inherently slowing and interrupting, how they should be part of the game world and the game experience as a whole. The comments made me realise that I should have emphasised that point much more.

The problem is that when we say “riddle”, what we imagine is having to stop and align a bunch of stones such that they light up or something like that. And all the time while figuring out how to align them, our gaming (levelling?) flow is kind of interrupted and we feel slowed down. Then there is an easy way to accelerate and bridge that interrupt, namely by looking up the solution. Which we promptly do. Here’s the thing: when I say “riddle”, I don’t mean the “align five rocks” sort of things, at least not exclusively.

What I mean is this. Usually, that is in an MMORPG you’re likely to play in 2011, you get a quest that tells you to do something. And how to do that something is laid out step by step: kill X, loot Y, apply to Z. A riddle, in the wider sense of the term, for me, is when you have a goal but no recipe how to achieve it – you need to figure out how to get there yourself.

This comes with a few issues attached. For one, if all goals in your game come with a recipe, except for some, which you consider your “riddles”, the reality is that the recipe-driven gameplay takes place at a particular speed, which is, by nature, higher than a riddle-based one can be. Thus when your players get to your “riddle”, they feel slowed down, their flow interrupted. For example in the early levelling game in RIFT, in Freemarch, there are a couple of (story related) quests that ask you to find something/someone, but don’t tell you where. That doesn’t add any sense of mystery, but only annoyance, because all other quests tell (or rather show) you pretty exactly where to go, so suddenly having to run around more or less blindly, suspecting that there is probably exactly one right spot to look in, but unless you end up standing on top of it, you won’t know, because there are no hits to work with, feels rather awkward. Which leads in nicely to the second point.

In the real world, figuring things out is fun (if you’re the inquisitive type, that is) and actually even just possible, because everything takes place in a highly consistent system: the laws of nature. Any knowledge you have about how a certain process works is universally applicable, everywhere and always – and you accumulate a lot of that knowledge. All those “brilliant heads” we watch in our favourite TV shows, solving crimes and difficult problems, are basically characters who are really good at connecting causes and effects. A game world doesn’t have this luxury. The laws of a game world are – inevitably and in significant parts also desirably – different from those of the real world and potentially arbitrary at that. Therefore, unless you make an active effort to relay the laws of your game world to the players and then stay rigorously consistent, the players won’t have a frame of reference to work with. This is the important difference between being able to figure something out gradually and trying things at random until something works.

To use an example from RIFT again, there is this awkward “puzzle” in Moonshade Highlands, the point of which is basically to open valves along a water pipe to fill target reservoirs with water. The reservoirs are aligned in a chain, filling up one after the other. You fill up all 10 – you win. Each valve, after being opened, stays open for about 10-12 seconds and cannot be interacted with until it closes again (so you can’t just keep them open continuously, they will inevitably close and you’ll have to reopen). So far so pretty evident from the arrangement you find – it should also be noted that there is no actual “puzzle” element at work here, unlike in the other puzzles we did so far there’s no actual secret to solve here, it’s basically a click-time game, which is bad in itself, but that’s not the point here. The point is that how the riddle, or shall I say the water behaves is not consistent with anything you could derive from real world or game world observation.

The water flows when all valves are open, through the pressure generated by the source – so far so good. We’ll also accept that the valves auto-close after a while, because that’s how they work, fair enough, such are the tools we’re given. But why is it that water already in the target canisters starts draining when there’s no fresh water being pumped in? Is there a leak somewhere? Possible, but I can’t observe it. All I can see is lights going on and off, and when one of them remains on while the previous ones turn off, I have no idea whether it’s just a bug in the game or actual information being relayed to me. I can’t tell because neither is consistent with any reference system I’d feel my actions and their consequences bound to. Also, while it’s understandable that the flow stops when any of the valves closes, because that cuts off the pressure of the source, it is entirely unclear why this causes all water that is already in the pipe but not in the target canisters yet to outright disappear. That doesn’t align with any law of physics or game world one would be aware of. Shouldn’t it remain in the pipe and be pumped forward once I reopen the previous valves again? It just disappears. This behaviour cannot be derived from any other process observed in the game, nor is it teaching me anything about “how water behaves in RIFT”. It is nothing more than an arbitrary mechanic of this particular riddle. No consistency whatsoever.

This example got a bit lengthy, but was important to explain what I mean when I call for consistent rule systems. If we want players to figure something out, we need to give them knowledge based on which they can make educated deductions. We can’t give that knowledge out all at once, at the moment when it’s required – that’s the recipe approach utilised by modern day quests. We need to introduce it gradually, letting the players (interactively) observe consistent and reoccurring processes and events, allowing them to learn about the game world and how it works. And then, when someone goes ahead and creates an online resource about the consistent laws governing our game, no harm is done at all. This is what community research should be all about, rather than providing players with scripts to success.

Besides, we need the game to take place at a slower pace, such that stopping to think doesn’t feel like an interruption. Of course solutions will still be discovered and gathered online, but here’s the thing, once again (cf. previous post): players don’t look up everything, they look up things they aren’t having fun doing on their own. When the players feel slowed down, they will look up the solution to accelerate back to their usual pace. When they’re used to a slower pace in general, the difference won’t be there to compensate for.

The modern raiding game is a good example of a bad riddle, in fact. Why does everyone look up strategies (and then follow them with a ridiculous rigour, not understanding why something may or may not be applicable)? Because the pace set by the rest of the game doesn’t align with the notion of stopping to think, attempting to observe and find a solution. At the same time, the raid encounters themselves don’t make much of an effort to provide observable cues, to allow you to grasp what’s going on without already knowing in advance. As Telwyn commented on the previous post, the developers pretty much expect us to know. We’re very rarely provided with analogies to established knowledge, because there’s very little consistent knowledge that could be referenced to begin with. Except, you know, don’t stand in the stuff on the floor. Unless it’s good stuff. Naturally.


I was recently watching the recording of a political cabaret live performance. For my German readers, it was, of course, Volker Pispers with the 2010 version of his “Bis Neulich” programme. He was ridiculing the economical nonsense of a news announcement predicting the pension premium rates for 2050, wondering how one can pretend to derive any serious information from such detailed predictions that far in the future, including his wonderful line “economic experts are people who calculate how the future will look like if everything remains exactly as it is now”. He invited us to think back in time and to consider which events of the last 20 years would have appeared like a reasonable prediction in 1990. In an off-hand joke he posed as a hypothetical student asking “what, no Wikipedia? How did you do your homework then!?”. And then it hit me.

Just because Wikipedia exists, schools didn’t stop giving out homework. Even the most slow-to-adapt school systems can’t help but realise that at this point, virtually everyone has access to the internet, meaning that all answers can be looked up, interpretations can be found, essays can be assembled from sufficiently reworded sources and Google generally knows everything. I pulled a somewhat audacious stunt myself about 10 years ago, when I failed to read an assigned book in time and instead looked up a one-page summary and interpretation of “what it is supposed to mean” on the then-young internet, and proceeded to score an A+ for an oral discussion of a book I never read. And yet, homework is still around, going strong and I think we’d be rather surprised if it was announced to us that there is now a general consensus that “homework is pointless, since everything can be looked up”. We’d have a thing or two to say about throwing out the baby with the bath water.

This made me wonder whether we’ve been all a bit rash to completely and indisputably give up on riddles, secrets and mysteries in games – especially online games, especially MMORPGs. The widely accepted reasoning goes that with the power of crowd-sourcing, the more interest your game generates (i.e. the less likely you are to simply go bust because nobody buys your stuff), the less time it will take for every single secret to be discovered, disclosed and meticulously broken down on countless wikis, guides and community websites. Thus, in the Age of the Internet, every task or mechanic relying on the player having to find something out in one way or other may as well just not exist at all. Everyone will tab out, look it up and the development effort will be disproportionately higher than the game experience derived. Occam’s Razor did the rest. Was it wrong to assume that riddles and secrets are worthless because you can circumvent them with external knowledge? I think it depends.

Granted, educational institutions have a slightly different take on things: their goal is to teach you to seek out and apply knowledge, not necessarily to create knowledge. Finding the answer on Wikipedia isn’t really worse than finding it in your textbook; training in finding desired information through modern media is arguably quite beneficial. In the above personal example, the primary reason I got a good grade was that whenever a classmate would stumble through a failed attempt to express their thoughts concisely, I’d catch the drift of what he was going for, cross-match it with the short summary I read, wait for the teacher to cut them off, pipe up and deliver a well formulated version of that same thought. You see, I dare say I’m somewhat clever and can express myself reasonably well, and since those are the very qualities the school system is out to teach, I don’t think I cheated it all that much. Or, in other words, I did cheat it, but without invalidating its purpose.

Games don’t have this particular advantage going for them, but they have another, revealed once again by looking at the goal: games aim to be fun, to increase your joy, your level of satisfaction. Satisfaction can be derived from various aspects (achievement, immersion, socialising etc etc) in varying combinations, but it is always the overarching goal of a game; in the simplified world view where you do things either because they keep you alive or because they bring you joy (not necessarily mutually exclusive), games are firmly in the second camp. So the question that needs to be asked is not whether someone would tab out to look up the solution, but why someone would tab out to look up the solution. And the answer is simple: because searching for it themselves is not fun. It doesn’t mean that people hate riddles, it means you gave them a bad riddle! Riddles have a bad name because they tend to be this thing that slows your gaming flow down to a crawl and makes you stand around staring at some unintuitive interface or some such. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Several questions need to be asked.

Is the process through which the riddle is solved fun in itself? – Clicking on static objects cannot be the only mechanic used in solving riddles. An element of “figuring it out” can be applied to all sorts of game activities, and all sorts of game activities can be involved in the process of solving riddles. If your game is about slaying dragons while your riddles all consist of clicking on bottles, then yes, they’ll come across pretty lame.

Is the process through which the riddle is solved part of the game world? – A riddle should be a challenge posed to and solved by my character/avatar, by means available to my character/avatar. Sure, it’s me who controls him, but … no, actually that’s not even a “but”. The riddle should be solved as I control my character, not as I sit there with pen and paper, ’cause that’s less than a step away from Google.

Do you focus on the solution or on the search for it? – Easy mistake to make: here’s my riddle, here’s how the riddle is solved. But how, i.e. through what process and activity, does one arrive at the solution? If all you focus on while designing the riddle is the solution, that will be what players will focus on as well. You have to provide a path if you want people to walk it.

Are your players in a hurry? – Also known as the WoW-Syndrome. If the driving force in your game design is the accumulation of staggered rewards, then yes, the majority of your players will take every short cut imaginable to get to the reward faster. Be warned, because WoW shows that speed is addictive, and you’ll need to somehow increase it with every update, endlessly streamlining until every second not spent rushing full speed towards some destination is perceived as wasted.

Did you try to design a game element or a time sink? – Be honest. Players will know.

Will everyone like it? – Doesn’t actually matter. No one game mechanic was ever universally beloved by everyone. Tastes are different, perceptions of fun are different. Even in one person: what I want to do today, I may not like tomorrow. If anything, it should be an incentive not to design all of your game around One Thing, rather than to kick out features not everyone may love. If you leave out everything someone might not enjoy, you’ll end up with a blinking dot in the middle of a rectangle faster than you can finish reading this post.

Can it be done in a group? – Massively Multiplayer. At the very least, multiplayer. If your riddles are a process during which one person works towards a “Eureka!” while everyone else sits around unaffected, go back to the drawing board. Think about meaningful sharing of gained knowledge, think about mechanics that allow people to help each other: “help” being notably different from “do it for you”! This isn’t easy. It’s a challenge. But solving riddles together that allow you to truly cooperate in finding the solution is so much more satisfying. It is, in a way, the essence of MMORPGs.

Does it stay the same every time? – That’s the question, isn’t it. A static riddle isn’t always bad: not if it’s well designed, with a focus on the search for the solution and using entertaining mechanics while being rooted in the game world. Bringing in random elements isn’t automatically good: it is, if you can meaningfully diversify. Now, a riddle which is not actually a riddle but a problem situation as presented by a dynamic state of the world with various available solutions through differing approaches, each with built in variations: jackpot.

As a friend of mine tends to say:

We can’t stop people from ruining the game experience for themselves, nor should we try. All we can do is to design in a way that doesn’t make them want to.

PS: Despite having a heavy crush on RIFT, I am objective enough to not really consider its puzzles (one per zone) very much as riddles in the above sense. They’re all variations of clicking on static objects; are completely devoid of any relevance or connection to the game world (as a matter of fact, they are, as a rule, always in particularly hard to access spots, there is no explanation or justification for their presence whatsoever, nor does solving them have any perceived or even hinted at effect on anything); are entirely solution-focused, the only effective progress feedback being “you won!”; they incentivise through very powerful rewards; are for the most part solo-only deals (and the one that actually encourages cooperation does it in a horrible way); all in all leaving an impression of “just being there for variety”. Which is all good and fine, but they don’t make RIFT a “game with riddles” in any other than the most literal way (it mathematically contains riddles).

Blizzard and guilds

As requested – and, to be honest, intended anyway – here some thoughts on the announced premium (i.e. pay-for) feature to, in some future, be able to invite people to groups who are on a different server, but on your RealID friends list.

Before I begin, let us get something out of the way. Something that needs to be considered in all musings about WoW: Blizzard is not stupid. This is very important. Blizzard didn’t get to where they are due to blind luck or by comically stumbling around. Of course they do make mistakes on the small scale – like in balancing, tuning, or with particular design decisions – of course some of their experiments do not work out as expected or intended, but on the large, strategic scale, Blizzard achieved success exactly because they played the market exactly right, pushed the right buttons and pulled the right levers. If an argument, at any point, hinges on the assumption of Blizzard being stupid, the argument is flawed. Just because they do something you don’t like or I don’t like, doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it means they deliberately and consciously don’t care about you and/or me, they simply cater to others. Keep that in mind. Now, let us begin.

What happens when you kill a raid boss? I mean, what does really, tangibly happen, what is the change that measurably takes place? I tell you what: in some database, a variable flips from 0 to 1. Or increments by 1. Or something pretty closely along those lines. This is what actually happens. Was it worth it? But, wait, no, you overcame a challenge, you mastered a difficult task – that’s what counts! Really? Well, single-player games are capable of offering a much better tuned, much more thrilling, much more involving level of challenge. Why, then, do we (if you’re reading this, you’re likely an MMO-gamer, like myself) rarely derive the same (or even any) sense of satisfaction from beating them as we derive from beating a raid boss? Because this boss kill contains so much more. It contains the unlikely stories how you crossed paths with the people around you, and sometimes the equally unlikely stories of how you all developed into the players you are now. It contains that time you had to deal with that huge drama that nearly tore it all apart, but those who remained, came out of it as a stronger unit. It contains that time when you were short a permanent tank, or running low on healers and people volunteered to respec. It contains those times when you had to adapt to having a rather exotic raid composition and managed to play to your strengths rather than succumb to your weaknesses. It contains that time when you were way past raid end time, but kept going and got the kill you were so desperately after. It is this “social context” that gives the actually measurable impact of an entry in a database changing value .. well .. context. A bold statement to make, maybe, but truth is, you can make that statement because it’s the only difference. Everything else is just electrons heading from A to B.

Now, I am a sucker for this whole deal of team success, prevailing together, figuring it out, winning as a team, Semper Fidelis. I don’t know why, but this whole coming together and walking the path really makes me feel good inside. Which is why online games and I are such a good (and dangerous) combination, I guess. Being the team-spirit-junkie that I am, I find it easy to make a concession that is, literally, unfathomable for the vast majority of people: I’d rather miss out on something now and do it with teammates later, even if it means much later. Understand, this is not about “demonising strangers” – strangers won’t ever become your friends if you don’t meet them first. It’s about doing it with strangers being ultimately meaningless. “Why don’t you pug it,” is a question I’ve heard a hundred times in the last several years. “What do you have to lose?” Err, nothing. The point is, I don’t have anything to win either. I don’t care about flipping it from 0 to 1, it’s meaningless to me. I don’t want to do a dungeon to “have it done”, I want to do a dungeon to enjoy doing it. I want the emotional context. I want the jokes (although not too many please, let’s focus when it’s needed! … I know, I’m an ass, yes). I want the memories of “back in January, I used to run lots and lots of dungeons with Alq, Dy, Daine and Ron, and we really grew together as a unit, knowing each other inside out”, rather than “and then I hit the DF to make the raid requirements”. I want to save each other’s asses in the most unexpected ways, and I want to let each other die in the most hilarious ways. I want to have a story to tell. It’s deeply important to me, it’s what I play for.

RIFT has an interesting example for the above with the .. err .. rifts. You run into one, you can just click a button at the top of your screen to join up with others who are nearby, you fight it, you close it. It’s good, emergent, quick, no-strings-attached fun. We do it for the reward and because fighting monsters is fun, and those are some pretty cool monsters to fight. Really, rifts are just FUN, there is a simple structure, there is a sense of accomplishment, cool effects and even some (not entirely fake) sense of impact. I don’t even consider it negative that there’s usually not much (mostly none at all) talking in the process. It actually makes perfect sense. You’re an Ascended, I’m an Ascended, we see planar invaders, we fight planar invaders, the “grouping up” is not some emotionally charged event, it’s only there so we can see each other’s names, roles, positions and health bars. Immersing into the simulation aspect, if it was “real”, we wouldn’t stop and converse about the necessity to rid the land of the evil that besmirches it either. We’d cut the crap and get on with killing it. We’re only random people who met based on the shared desire to slay monsters. So, yeah, it’s good fun (and I do make a point of thanking the others or congratulating on our victory in other ways). But it also feels relatively meaningless, because we are, after all, only random people who met based solely on the shared desire to slay monsters. It becomes meaningful when you are working in a specific group. Together with your friend and regular adventuring partner (I can’t even begin to describe just how much RIFT rewards pair-levelling), when you can really see your teamwork develop, reacting to each other, supporting each other. Or even with another person you just randomly met, but you are actually a bit too weak for what you’re supposed to fight, so you really try and work to your strengths and bite through it. Meaning is acquired through people. Special meaning is acquired through special people.

The following is going to be a somewhat bold statement: people like me are the backbone of guilds. People who prioritise “getting it done together” higher than “getting it done myself”. People who are willing to sacrificein a game. We’re not “the only thing that makes guilds work”, far from it, but still, we’re kind of important, regardless of whether we’re in some official role or simply there, contributing energy and investment.

Guilds, on the other hand, or clans or kinships or whatever they’re called in different communities, are the backbone of online gaming. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean “everyone needs to be in a guild”, or “everyone needs to be a raider/endgamer”. There is a lot that can be enjoyed solo, or mostly solo, and that’s good and important. What I mean is that long term commitment to a game (and thus long term revenue for the provider) tends to correlate with guild membership and participation in multiplayer activities. Not all that surprising, seeing as these are multiplayer online games, and the presence of other people is what separates them from single-player games.

Guilds are the gate keepers to a significant part of the content and experience (not XP) online games can offer. Blizzard knows this. Last year, or maybe the year before – those rants are impossible to date – I read someone on some forum go for the usual “do what I want or be doomed” angle, saying that if Blizzard doesn’t change the game the way he wants it to be (can’t even remember which way exactly that was), over time it will piss off all the guild and raid leaders, those will leave and then the game will die. Hyperbole, of course, but not without a grain of truth. Blizzard is wary of guilds, because while World of Warcraft belongs to Blizzard, the guilds, as a hypothetical whole, have an uncomfortable amount of control over it. And so, bit by bit, Blizzard started its quest to weaken the position of guilds and repossess that control.

Please pause and re-read the second paragraph of this post if necessary. No, Blizzard is not stupid, nor evil. They are strategically savvy and they don’t like the idea of another institution, or structure, having that much control over what is theirs. People quitting because their guilds fell apart and there was nowhere else to go; people quitting because their guilds got stuck and they could not get into a better one; people quitting because their friends quit and they suddenly felt alone in Azeroth – it’s not something that is or was happening “left and right”, but it was happening, and it was not to Blizzard’s liking.

The first monumental battle Blizzard fought – and won – against the influence of guilds was the introduction of the Dungeon Finder and its subsequent ascension to the widely accepted standard of group play. It fundamentally changed the way we approach group content. Think back. Does the line “find a decent guild” seem familiar as an advice to someone complaining about having difficulties assembling dungeon groups? Obsolete. Even more importantly, simply jumping into the DF queue became the more efficient mode of action even compared to asking guild mates. Not necessarily “better” or even “preferred”, but for many, more efficient. Asking means waiting for answers. Asking means potentially waiting for someone who says they’ll be available in half an hour. Asking means not being independent and self-sufficient (curious, you’d think the very point of a multiplayer game is not doing everything on your own). You’d get guild mates pugging at the same time instead of queueing together. If you read a lot of blogs, you’ll often find the episode of “and then I took care of my gear by running many randoms”, rather than “and then we as a guild helped each other gear up”. Curiously, this process of helping each other gear up is among my dearest and most pleasant memories – of early Mines of Moria, of early Cataclysm – it was team progress, and team progress was great.

The downside, of course, was that the randomly assembled groups would frequently underperform, not because they were filled with bad players – we all live in the Gaussian curve – but because all these people didn’t really care, because the runs, see above, were meaningless to them, except for the end reward. At least we all got an entertaining amount of rage-blogging out of it.

Why is there no Raid Finder then, if it’s so important to Blizzard, you ask? At this point in time, I am convinced that the only reason is that they truly can’t figure out how to implement one – how to handle composition, lockouts and the compared to 5-mans higher time requirement. Once again, Blizzard is not stupid and they don’t want to come out with a tool that won’t work satisfactorily.

So, indignantly ask efficiency fans, would I rather go back to cumbersome and time consuming group assembly? What, I would like to ask back, is more important: running a dungeon, or enjoying a dungeon? Again, I don’t see an inherent value in simply running a dungeon – I want to do it for the pleasure of doing it, not to get it done. So, yes, I’d rather invest extra time in improving the quality of my experience, rather than into complaining about it not meeting my desires. Of course, we got an external value in place – badge reward. Clever, eh?

The second great and genius move by Blizzard was the introduction of guild-bonuses and guild-levelling. Wait a second. Were those not supposed to strengthen guilds? And now I’m claiming they were intended for the exact opposite? Guild-levelling and guild-bonuses changed the very notion of what a guild is. The exceptional position of guilds used to be that they were social constructs. They were so strong exactly because they existed outside the system, outside the game mechanics. Inside the Matrix, they were everyone, and no one. Ahem. Becoming part of a guild was a decision based on what the people in that guild would provide you with (access to content and friendship both being viable criteria). Admitting someone to your guild was a decision based on what that person would provide you with. Guilds were about people. Now guilds are about points and percentages. Perks and privileges. By moving guilds into the realm of game mechanics, Blizzard dispelled the mysticism surrounding them. Your guild became a game element, like your buffs, like your mount, your talents. I don’t even want to get at pushing non-team-oriented players into guilds or encouraging guilds to accept everything with a pulse. Just think of the word “guild” now. Was the feeling it evoked the same as the feeling the same word was connected to a year ago? It’s a different thing now.

RealID .. well, RealID doesn’t need much commentary. However, it offers an opportunity to link to maybe one of the best posts ever written about WoW. Reading highly recommended. RealID is the bold first step from “heroes venturing to vanquish evil” to “people hanging around in a lounge and playing games”. Like, you know, Facebook gaming. Yes, yes, I know. I won’t go there. Not now, at least. Just keep this in mind: the market for Facebook games is much larger than for the “real games” we enjoy (again, I’m counting on you being a certain type of person, based on the observation that you’re reading this). Blizzard wants that bigger market. If you believe anything else, you’re being naive.

The recently introduced Looking for Guild tool is another interesting actor here. Like Adam, I can’t help but wonder how little someone needs to care about what guild they’ll end up in to use it for their search. And, also like him, I also can’t help but wonder whether the principle of the path of the least resistance will, over time, make this into the default method for most people regardless, similar to how the Dungeon Finder – in a shorter period, due to much more immediate benefits – became the default method of group forming and obsoleted all other methods for most people.

Roughly 2.5k words in, we’re now getting to the promised topic. What about the announced premium feature? First, the indisputably good: it does offer a fix for the much-lamented (at least by me) problem of meeting someone nice on a random-dungeon run and having to leave with the near-certain assumption of never seeing them again. Of course, the peculiarities of the RealID system render this application worthless quite quickly – there is a certain cleft between “nice person, during the last 30 minutes they appeared polite and competent, would be happy to group with them again” and “here’s my real name and email address”. It’s not, you know, quite the same.

The other positive: you can now finally group with your dear friend who is stuck on a different server! Err, wait a second. No one’s stuck anywhere these days. If you are such good friends, why are you not on the same server to begin with? Maybe because your gaming habits do not match up quite as well as your personality traits? And, you know, maybe running a dungeon is not necessarily the best way for friends to “catch up”. Especially if you are doing it with 3 other people, whose intentions are statistically most likely “get through here as quickly as possible”. Meaningless dungeon run is still meaningless.

What it does though is to further dislodge you from the “grasp” of your guild, your server or any other virtual-physical place of origin. It is a logical and sensible addition to RealID to help its goal: change your mindset from that of a player of an adventure game to that of a user of a social network with 3D graphics and instanced gaming. The good news is that this feature puts us only one step short of having at least one way to form cross-server raids. The downside: Bastion of Twilight or a bit of Starcraft 2 – at which point will you stop caring? At which point does the world turn into a lounge?

So, did I just bore you with a long winded conspiracy theory? Not really. The difference between what I wrote and what you usually find tinfoil-hat-inducing is that my reasoning is not based on the assumption that Blizzard is simply out to troll you. What I described matches observation and makes assumptions based on Blizzard being a strategically wise player (cf. paragraph two again, if necessary). Silly conspiracy theories claim that for some reason Blizzard collectively wants paladins to be bad. My theory claims that Blizzard wants to maximise their profit and is taking appropriate steps. The game environment they envision does not appeal to me – doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it means I’m no longer their target audience.

Oh, and about it being a feature that needs to be paid for? Hey, why not. Lots of people have claimed they’d be willing to pay extra for the privilege of being surrounded by a better community or a better Dungeon Finder pool. Will they put their money where their mouth used to be? Or will they think of it as ineffective, e.g. due to the aforementioned caveats? In either case, another interesting field-study for Blizzard regarding how much people are willing to pay extra.

I’m sorry the climax I built up towards got a bit short, but I hope you found the intended meaning in the context of the run up to it. Have a nice weekend!

The Day Azeroth Stood Still

As you may or may not have guessed, I am not playing WoW any longer. For a while, I was pondering how to write this post, it felt like it needs to be an impossibly long post, not bashing, but pointing out bit by bit why the game lost its appeal for me, as well as incorporating references and commentary on statements of other bloggers. Indeed, I could probably write a very convincing leaving-WoW post simply by quoting countless posts by Klepsacovic, who analysed everything that he felt was going wrong with WoW for months before (and after) calling it quits; I could quote Melmoth, Syl, Tessy, Larisa and probably many others. It has all been said, really, but I’d equally like to explain my personal view, my personal disconnect with the current state and direction of the game, my personal preferences and objections. And I may well do that still, but in more bite-sized discussions of several aspects, because, as Klepsacovic wrote, it is not one particular change that “ruined the game”, it’s the sum of many small things that accumulated and made us stop caring. But not today.

Today, I am going to tell you about the moment when I realised that my days in Azeroth are counted. It was a Thursday in early March. I logged on and found myself standing in the middle of Stormwind, next to a vendor. Which meant that on the day before, I logged off in the middle of Stormwind, next to a vendor. On that Wednesday, I came home very late and very tired, and just wanted to immerse myself into Azeroth a little, before going to bed. I did my Tol Barad dailies, hit “Exalted”, bought the trinket and started to torture my tired brain with how to reforge. All my items were reforged, the optimal combination (hitting the expertise cap on the point) determined by myself, not by some Mr.Robot script, which likes to suggest you get rid of half your expertise, because who needs expertise after all, and getting an upgrade meant doing all the calculations again. I sighed, tabbed out and started writing a program to calculate it for me. Given the hour and the degree of tiredness, I failed. On the next day, with a fresh mind, I analysed the problem again, figured out an algorithm that would work, implemented it, tested it, let it calculate the perfect reforging (again precisely hitting the cap) and was rather proud of myself.

And then, in the evening, I logged in to find myself standing in the middle of Stormwind, next to a vendor. No, I wasn’t AFK’d while tabbed out and programming. I did, when I realised I’m too tired to achieve anything, tab back in, say goodnight .. and then I logged out where I was standing. That’s the thing. You see, I never before just logged out where I was standing. Never. Not unless I was in some sudden and unexpected hurry. In any game, I was always very “aware” of this being my character, my avatar in the virtual world, of the whole “what would be a reasonable thing to do” aspect. Doesn’t mean I’d log out in a carefully prepared bed after putting on my pyjama, not at all. But regardless of whether it’d be in a player-house, an inn, a city, a village, at a camp or a lake, there was always this bit of awareness present, “this is the spot where I log out, where my character will wait for my return, and logging out here makes some sort of sense“.

Until that Thursday in early March when I logged on to find that I had logged out in a random spot. I didn’t tell anyone, because it rather scared me, because I didn’t want it to be true. But this was the exact point when I realised that it doesn’t matter anymore whether the next patch is going to buff Raging Blow or nerf Mastery, whether T12 raid will be released before we manage to clear T11 or not, even whether people will finally start to reliably show up for raids or not. It didn’t matter anymore, because deep down, I stopped caring about the game, about the world, stopped being able to see it as anything but a set of numbers that grow, shrink and cancel each other out. Games, a wise person once said, are just databases with pretty interfaces. It is, I shall add, all about how well that interface is presented and how skilfully it hides what’s beyond it.

It was The Day Azeroth Stood Still, and if you follow that analogy further, it makes sense that it’s not the day when something specifically went wrong, but the moment when all things accumulated from the past caught up and disassembled the World of Warcraft around me.

What does it mean for this blog? Nothing, really. This blog has always been about my gaming adventures, and those are not likely to come to a stop. I’ll continue writing – about RIFT, about WoW (because it is a fascinating specimen of a game that warrants analysis – that’s analysis, not angry bashing) and about whatever else may be on my mind. Keep coming back, you’re always welcome, but remember: Do Not Try This At Home 😀

Words of Truth

I’ll get back to answering comments and writing my own long winded points of view shortly. Today, however, I would like to just full-quote a post from the RIFT forums, a response to a discussion about the DPS advantage of a Warrior build sub-specing into Beastmaster. Highlights by me.

I’ve never understood the whole “this is the only good spec because it wins the meters by 50 dps” mentality, or moreover the people who are convinced it is a game developer’s goal to create some uber cookie cutter build and just force everyone to play that and only that. Do people really believe Trion hates its player base and is deliberately sabotaging a game their developers and investors have put significant amounts of time, money, and effort into in an effort to rickroll millions of players at personal expense? Of course, if some other spec happened to parse 50 dps higher than beastmaster builds, there would be half a dozen threads about how terrible Trion is for shoving warriors into that spec, and that some people want to enjoy having a pet out and still be competitive.

There will pretty much always be one spec that, for a given set of equipment and utility buffs, deals more damage to a stationary single target than any other in a specific time interval. Capacity for single target damage in perfectly ideal stationary conditions is rarely the only mechanic you’ll have to worry about in an encounter (and in the cases where it is – then yes, you use the “best single-target stationary damage” spec). The question becomes, what is an acceptable margin of disparity, and what other benefits does a spec yield in exchange for that damage? And yes- not having to babysit your pet is a real advantage that can and should be considered when selecting a spec for an encounter.

I personally feel that anything which comes within a 10% margin of the ideal-case spec is perfectly acceptable, assuming there is some element of mechanical difference to be leveraged. I run three different damage builds for various encounters. They each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and these are quite often more than enough to overcome a minor loss in damage from a spec with better perfect-conditions throughput. Way of the Mountain is a real benefit – not having to leave melee range for knockback mechanics can increase your damage significantly. Not having to resummon a pet can increase your damage significantly. Being able to dive into an encounter early, switch to adds immediately, and completely ignore threat limitations can increase your damage significantly. Providing a key buff or debuff effect that your raid currently does not have can increase not just your damage, but the whole raid’s damage, significantly. Having fewer class-based elements to watch and react to during a complex encounter can keep you alive, which will increase your damage significantly. These are all elements that a training dummy will never show you. Some of them can be mitigated by “playing better,” but any strategy or rotation which relies entirely upon sustained perfection is bound to inevitably under-perform. **** happens, and you can’t ‘outskill’ an ISP hiccup. The goal is to meet requirements as consistently as possible, not to set the highest mark in one attempt out of many [Rem: yes, this warrants double-highlighting].

Here are what I view as core problems for the warrior class:
* Dual wielding damage, in any spec I have found, is at least 20-30% behind the top dog two-handed specs. This is enough of a margin to be difficult to overcome via class utility. Furthermore, just about all utility available to these specs can be reached by two-handed builds.
* Certain specs are unique to the raid due to debuffs which are unique to the target. (This is a bug, being fixed in 1.2)
* Beastmaster buff effects do not refresh after zoning; the pet must be resummoned. This is a bug.
* Attack power scaling on warrior skills is relatively low, making AP (and strength) less significant than alternatives such as crit rating (or dexterity). This creates awkward gear contention with rogues, among other problems.
* Strike Like Iron’s tooltip (and % damage scaling in general) is misleading. Perhaps something like “Increases skill damage by 48% of the unmodified value” or “increases damage modifier by +48%” would be more accurate.

Here is what I don’t see as problems:
* BM/champ/paragon is slightly higher than other two-handed builds. Someone’s got to be the top dog, and the margin’s not insurmountable.
* Strike Like Iron is a keystone ability for most specs. It is not as overpowered as the tooltip would lead you to believe. It is still good, adds depth to skill rotations, and forces a choice about immediate returns versus throughput damage.
* Burst abilities do not scale with weapon damage. They’re off the global cooldown, and they DO scale with attack power. The GCD you save by having an off-gcd finisher means another ability which does scale with weapon damage gets used. At absolute most, you’re losing 40% of weapon damage (140% for a 3 AP finisher versus 100% weapon damage at worst for AP-buildup attacks), and even then Rising Waterfall and Enhanced Burst mean it’s rarely the full 40% lost.
* Long-term scaling concerns. I don’t care if the class in its current state will be completely non-functional in 2014. Odds are that bug fixes, the addition of new stats or procs, or general class revamps will occur somewhere in the next three years. Whether the class is propped up three tiers down the road by gear or by developer-based changes, it will still be competitive and still merit a raid spot.

That’s my wall-of-text opinion on the matter, for better or worse. I’m sure some people will agree with me, and some will not, but I feel the statements are justified and well-supported. Thanks for reading, and I hope I’ve at least put a few worries to rest.

I am playing a Champion again

In LotRO, I played a Champion: a heavy armour (cf. plate) wearing melee damage dealer. The class concept of the Champion boiled down to a simple principle: kill it before it kills you. You had the Fervour stance, which you were basically using at all times – it increased your damage by 15%, massively boosted your power regeneration and completely disabled your avoidance. So your only line of defence was your armour and the ability to kill things quickly. A side effect of this configuration was that you were really, really motivated to maximise your damage output – not just at some abstract point in the distant future when you face a boss encounter and someone tells you that your DPS is low, but pretty early on, because your progress through the levelling game was directly impacted by how well you utilise your damage dealing abilities.

In RIFT, I am playing a Champion again. Well, actually I am playing a Warrior. Champion is only my “main soul”. And naturally Warriors have tanking souls as well, where the emphasis shifts to survivability, but I’m currently focused on damage dealing souls and that old Champion-feeling is back with a vengeance: how well I progress is directly related to how efficiently and effectively I deal damage. I can’t self-heal and the mobs – even very standard normal ones – don’t just take the punishment, but actually fight back. They cause enough damage to put me – in the long term – in very realistic danger of death if I am not being careful and efficient. And the quicker I can kill it, the less damage I take, the longer I can keep going before having to stop and drink. It all gets emphasized when dealing with rift invaders instead of normal mobs. The better I play, the better my gaming experience becomes. Revolutionary constellation, isn’t it?

Now, I don’t want to claim that RIFT is somehow OMG-hard. It isn’t. Nor do I want to jump on the “WoW is easy” bandwagon. WoW isn’t “easy”. Not in its whole. The problem is that WoW picks the spots in which it decides to be hard very selectively. Any glimpse of challenge is rigorously confined to level-cap dungeons and raids. Which, sure, are hard, but getting to that hard bit requires quite a number of preconditions (many of them social and organisational) to be met. The levelling game, on the other hand, is a joke, especially post-Cataclysm. At some point, someone at Blizzard got incredibly terrified that some hypothetical player will cancel their subscription upon encountering a quest they could not complete, and that hypothetically lost revenue could not be accepted. Thus the levelling game apparently was tweaked, tuned, adjusted and balanced for the damage output of a healer combined with the survivability of a clothie damage dealer. Consequently, levelling takes no effort whatsoever.

And then we wonder why there are so many “bad” players, especially damage dealers. If you are never challenged, how would you learn? Or why? If mobs die so fast that it is almost an accepted fact of life that you won’t be able to practice your “real rotation” until level cap .. well .. how would you practice your rotation then? If good play is not rewarded simply because its results are indistinguishable from the results of bad play, how would someone learn what constitutes good play and why it’s important? It is a weird vicious circle, in which the endgame is positioned as the one true thing, but you have so many levels to get through before you can get to it, so the levelling is streamlined and accelerated, which only further devalues the levelling and accentuates endgame, so levelling is trivialised and sped up further, which makes it even more inconsequential, and so on and so forth. The more it is trivialised and marginalised, the more it feels like a drag and a meaningless timesink.

Again, RIFT is not fabulously hard or anything. But it puts you up against mobs who can pose a danger to your health. Who survive your attacks long enough to make a difference in whether you hit the right keys or not. And while it’s far from screwing you over when you screw it up, the better you play, the better it goes.

Another advantage is that when the difficulty level is just that bit higher, it makes playing together with someone an actually advantageous endeavour again. In WoW, levelling as a team is mostly an impairment; there is always inevitably a coordination-and-thoughtfulness overhead, and since the “outer world” is trivial even for a single player, a team never gets a chance to make back in effectiveness what they lose in efficiency, and you only ruin each other’s rotations by cutting mob life expectations even shorter. When, on the other hand, there is a more decent base difficulty present, along with roadblocks you may face and optional challenges you might be able to jump at, The Team not only becomes viable again, but thrives and flourishes and is very much fun. Putting back the middle M in “MMO”. Cooperation only works when you have weaknesses your partner can compensate. I don’t want to be a self-sufficient superhero, I’d much rather be part of a team.

Myth Busters: Heroics are Hard

Widely accepted thesis: Cataclysm heroics are hard, much harder than Wrath heroics. Conclusions range from being excited about it to quitting because of it. Unsurprisingly, I’m here to challenge the thesis itself.

Wrath heroics were easy, right? Like, really, really easy? Are you sure? Let’s have a history session. The Dungeon Finder, and with it the practice of running heroics in high volume, was introduced in patch 3.3, i.e. at the tail end of patch 3.2, also known as the TotC era, which, in itself, primarily served the purpose of gearing up absolutely everyone to where it could be guaranteed that they’d be able to take on ICC and Arthas, because this was going to be the conclusion of a 15 years old storyline, the storyline that made Blizzard into what they are today, and they didn’t want anyone to have to miss it. Prior to the dungeon, during patch 3.2 itself, we already had daily dungeon quests that would, via emblems, effectively reward us with raid gear. Saying that everyone entered the Dungeon Finder ridiculously overgeared would be an understatement. Everyone? Let’s go further back in time .. maybe a month or two.

During that time, in the middle of the TotC era, I reached level 80 and was just starting to run dungeons, together with a fixed group of friends, who, like me, were just beginning to learn the finer details of WoW group play. And you know what? Those dungeons were pretty hard! The first heroic we attempted was Violet Hold – yes, the same Violet Hold where later the timers between waves were hotfixed to be shorter and shorter, because everyone was just standing around bored, the same Violet Hold which I came to hate because the mobs were dealing so little damage I would be constantly rage starved. That Violet Hold. It was freaky hard. Granted, we pulled a tough one with Xevozz, and wiped, and wiped, until we finally managed to get past him and with much cheering and rejoicing completed the dungeon. We were cheering about beating Violet Hold, picture that!

We were really fighting our way through those heroics. We were using CC, following a kill order, taking breaks between pulls. I remember being proud of avoiding Loken’s Lightning Nova by breaking line of sight, which was more efficient than running all over the place – later you would just stand there and take it, a minor scratch on the health pool, giving you at least some rage and releasing the healer from total boredom. I remember us executing the complicated positioning tactic to get Consumption Junction – something a few months later was dinging on every run (assuming there would be someone who didn’t have it yet) simply by blowing him up in under 20 seconds. I remember racing hard to get the Bronze Drake in CoS. I remember the terror that was the Black Knight when you fought him in appropriate gear. I remember how half a year later, all that was gone, nothing could put much of a dent in our huge health pools a Rejuv-tick wouldn’t fix, and every group member would be putting out damage comparable to what an entire group once used to do combined.

Wrath heroics were not easy per se. I don’t know how they compare with BC hard hitters like Magister’s Terrace or Shattered Halls, but would like to suggest that during BC it was much more common to “design to niche”, essentially leaving you in the dirt if you didn’t have the specific set of abilities to handle a particular encounter/dungeon. Also – and importantly – even toward the end of BC, high quality gear was much less easily available than even at the start of WotLK. To anticipate: no, I do not mean to say that gear is all that matters – what I do mean to say that it helps a lot. Back to Wrath heroics – for those who had not, pre- or post-3.0, acquired a set of high quality BC raid gear, they did pose a rather reasonable level of challenge. However, lots of people brought their legacy equipment over, the quality jump having been much smaller this time around, crafted epics were more accessible than ever before (not BoP to begin with), and Naxx was deliberately accessible and over-rewarding. Thus for most active – and vocal – players, the phase of challenging heroics passed pretty quickly.

Most importantly, by the time the Dungeon Finder rolled around and transformed heroics into the sort of gaming popcorn we perceive them as today, that phase was long, long, long in the past. By the time dungeon groups went from manually organised to automatically matched, an estimated 80% of the participants were overgeared to the point of being able to just power through. Even new characters were not exempt from this, as rewards were – deliberately – coming in so quickly, that after a week or two of running along with overgeared others you’d already be overgeared yourself. This is the “Wrath dungeon experience” that we remember. This is, curiously, what we compare Cataclysm heroics with.

Cataclysm reset us to zero. The gear jump was so big again, that whatever you acquired in Wrath raiding, wouldn’t matter. It didn’t give us a shortcut to superior gear, but kept us honest. Cataclysm heroics were brutally hard … back in December and early January, when I was carrying spell plate shoulders, an agility cloak and a self-crafted PvP piece in my bags to make the 329 item-level requirement – and everyone else in the group was doing the same. When we didn’t know the fights and were still getting to grips with how our abilities changed. We used excessive crowd control, we treated every trash pull like a significant battle, we really worked together. For a month or two. Come March and 346+ gear with some raid loot sprinkled in, a tank would typically say “I would ask for CC, but it’s better I pull the entire pack, that way I get more Vengeance, makes it easier to hold aggro”, a healer would say “hmm, it’s getting boring” and we’d go off, rampaging and destroying.

I’m not exaggerating, nor am I showing off. Except when having fresh 85s in the group, our guild heroic runs have long began to increasingly resemble the “Wrath dungeon experience”. Not quite there yet, but certainly on our way. It turned out that Cataclysm heroics are not “clever hard” – they’re “numbers hard”. Klep wrote about this in January already. To sum up his post very briefly, there are two very different kinds of reasons to use crowd control: to counteract an encounter mechanic, or to reduce incoming damage. The latter becomes obsolete as soon as you gear up a bit. Quite evidently, what we got in Cataclysm, after much advertising and discussion, was pretty exclusively of that second sort. So, here’s the thing: Cataclysm heroics do not require crowd control any more. With every passing week and the increasing average gear level of the population, they require less and less coordination. By design.

Heroics are not hard – not all that hard, at least. It’s just that it’s the first time the Dungeon Finder exists in a time when there is no vast difference between player gear and dungeon level. And it’s been a culture shock to many having to relearn that a dungeon run can be something other than a trip to a vending machine.