Category Archives: Game Mechanics

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.

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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.

Interlude:
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.

Wikipedia

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).

Travel and Exploration

I have not seen Gilneas yet. I heard it’s rather impressive. It would hardly cost me any effort to visit it. And yet, I haven’t done it. Does it not put a dent of sorts in my claiming that I want to have “more to do than just raiding” and “a world to experience”? As a matter of fact, it doesn’t. Because of the two E – effort and experience.

All I have to do is hop on my flying mount, zip over and look at it. The same way one would look at screenshots on the internet, or a YouTube video. Okay, I’m exaggerating. Of course being there in person means you can run around, climb around, get interesting looks and perspectives, some of them may be pretty awesome. But still, it’s not a matter of “going to Gilneas” or “exploring Gilneas”, but really just happening to be in Gileas. Consuming Gilneas. And then getting the hell out of there, because you need to catch the teleporter to where you need to be next.

I often hear Melmoth complain about the need to travel in LotRO. Funnily, I mostly didn’t perceive travel in LotRO as an annoyance (with the exception of Forochel, where the main epic story mostly consisted of two people sitting at opposite sides of the Bay and making you ride back and forth around that damn freezing-cold thing carrying meaningful one-liner messages). I used to think of it as an experience. When I was in Bree and there was a reason to go to Rivendell, there was the possibility to take a swift ride (i.e. instant travel) from the stable master at the South Gate, but I would rarely use that. In most cases I would mount my own horse, just a plain, simple, brown horse, no pink elekk or angry mammoth, and get on my way.

I would ride eastward through Bree-land, circling around the Midgewater Marshes and remembering the little stories and events I was part of when I was just a beginning adventurer. I would enter the Lone Lands, pass the Forsaken Inn and ride on, frequently looking up towards the Weathertop, towering impressively and visible even from a distance. I would reach The Last Bridge, a monumental construction. I would usually stop there for a bit, especially if the sun was about to rise or set (LotRO doesn’t follow the real-world time of day, but instead a roughly 3 hour cycle, with 6 times of day and 6 times of night, each about 15 minutes in length), because the colours at those times were amazing; and especially when travelling with a friend, because it was a good place to halt and enjoy the scenery.

Then I would enter the Trollshaws, not quite where the lore would have them, but moved south for a greater gameplay relevance and experience, with their beautiful red-leafed trees and the winding road leading further east. At night, a couple of stone trolls (elites) would patrol the road. We used to kill them to make life easier for young adventurers who might have been travelling nearby. We’d sometimes steer off the road a little and towards a stone troll den, killing a few and looking intimidatingly at the others, so they’d remember to fear us and not dare to make too much trouble. Then we’d continue our travel.

We would cross the Bruinen and climb the steep path towards the last part of the journey, a barely touched wilderness where Turbine really managed to capture Tolkien’s description of the journey, the path gradually getting lost between plant and beast, confusing and making the traveller think he’s ultimately lost, and just then he would realise that he’s already there. And then you would descend into the wide valley to the swelling sounds of cheesy string music and the colour palette turning brighter and more vibrant, The Last Homely House in view.

This experience is what made Rivendell an actual place, rather than a postcard motif. We’d sometimes travel there on the eve before a raid night, so we could meet up with the others near Glorfindel the next day. Sometimes we’d go there for a quest, sometimes we’d go there so Alqua could do her scholary business in Elrond’s unique library. Sometimes I’d travel there because I wanted to mine ore in the Misty Mountains. Or for whatever other reason.

The only location I’m lacking to Explore Kalimdor is Orgrimmar – not even Durotar, just Orgrimmar. All I need to do is take the portal to Hyjal, jump on my gryphon, fly, reach, ding, gratz, done. I can do it any time. And since I can do it any time, I can’t be bothered to do it at any particular time. It just doesn’t feel like there’s an experience attached to it.

Thought for the day: Inconvenience

In every in-game activity, be it an immediate or an overarching one, the inconveniences between the starting point and the goal, beginning with the very fundamental inconvenience of not having arrived at the goal yet, are what constitutes gameplay. Where the process of overcoming those inconveniences places on the scale from annoying to enjoyable determines how much fun the activity is. The desire to remove all inconveniences is a fallacy. Inconveniences have side effects. So does removing them.

This is not a good transition

To be fair, it’s not really supposed to be one. I’m talking about the 4.0.1 patch and how it’s taking us over the course of two months from the world of WotLK mechanics to the new realm of Cataclysm mechanics. It’s not really meant to be a method of teaching us how exactly we’ll play in the future, as doing that would kind of obsolete the Cataclysm content itself. We’re supposed to play with the new mechanics to get a general understanding and (let’s be realistic here) to generate tons of data for Blizzard to utilise in their ultimate debugging, balancing and streamlining. So what am I complaining about? Importantly, for the most part I’m not complaining at all. I’m having fun and I’m quite liking playing around with new toys on a familiar ground. There is, however, one factor that makes me anxious about how we’ll manage the emotional transition into the post-Cataclysm game experience.

One of the aspects prominently discussed is that, compared to WotLK, Cataclysm is going to turn the difficulty up a notch, both for the questing and the dungeon game. I’m not going to call WotLK (raid) content easy, and that’s a discussion for a wholly other time (which may never come) anyway, but for the sake of an illustration let’s call WotLK “easy” and Cataclysm “hard”. Even without a conscious design direction, the inevitable point of a vertical expansion is to take the “very powerful” characters from the previous stage and turn them into “kinda rather weak” characters in the next stage, so the cycle of power gain can be repeated. A good preparation for the venture from “easy” to “hard” would be “a bit harder”, right? Well, instead of making the game “a bit harder”, instead of requiring a little bit of crowd control, a little bit of AoE conscience, a little bit of mana awareness … instead, 4.0.1 basically punched out the bottom of the easy-barrel. And the problem I fear is not just the fact that this is the case, but how.

Like probably everyone else who went into ICC post patch we found ourselves rampaging through it like a divine force of destruction. On Monday we cleared through to Sindragosa, only two healers throughout. We’ve long been doing Sindy with only one tank (me in my frost resist gear and looking for opportunities to Charge behind an ice block while she’s casting Blistering Cold), this was the first time we also tried it with only two healers. And we actually failed – because one healer was unluckily killed rather early, then we got as far as 12%, at which point we wiped, mostly because some silly raid leader (that’s me) forgot to actually explicitly assign people to ice tomb duty, so our sole remaining healer was iced, we realised too late that no one’s freeing her and .. uhm .. we died. Then it was late and we called it. Tuesday we came back with 3 healers for Arthas, but again attempted Sindy with two. That’s seven damage dealers, for those counting at home. Or, in other words, a single air phase and the pathetic dragon dead with only 12 stacks of Mystic Buffet on me and everyone in the raid alive and prosper.

So, we went to see Arthas. At which point the story is supposed to take a cautionary bend of “spoiled by previous success, we made mistakes”. And we did. Thrown off rhythm (expected) and slightly imprecise in the communication, we transitioned into the first transition (haha) with the second Shambling Horror freshly spawned. No big deal. During phase 2 our elemental shaman got carried off the edge, again, miscommunication, miscoordination. During phase 3 I fumbled my cooldowns (again, with slight miscommunication on top) and got myself killed. Then I got battle ressed … and sucked into Frostmourne, which was not negative at all, and I’m only mentioning it because I always wanted that to happen some time. And then Arthas was down so unusually swiftly that some of us exclaimed on Vent in frustration over having suddenly died .. before realising that this one was the “good death”. Someone remarked that it took us much longer to actually get everyone inside the dungeon while fighting through dead-freezing game clients and being thrown into different instances of ICC for no reason whatsoever, clearing Sindragosa’s Gauntlet twice in the process (in addition to the time we cleared it on Monday already), than it took us to actually fight and kill Sindy and Arthas. And while I am certain that those of us who got their first Kingslayer on Tuesday would have been absolutely able to do it before the patch as well, I’m still glad we, as a guild, did get the Lich King down before the patch (twice even), because this one felt inevitably cheap.

The problem, again, is not just that things are easier now, it’s the means by which they are easier. Which is: a significant DPS boost across the board. We’re blowing things up like nobody’s business. And I don’t mean “we, the awesome members of our guild”, but rather “we, the players of the game”. We’re doing the exact thing we’re supposed to learn to stop doing. To once again be fair to both us and the state of the game, there’s little choice. Mechanics and content feel so awkwardly mismatched, that there are really only two likely alternatives: either everything is (way) too hard, or everything is (way) too easy. And to be entirely honest, if that’s the choice, I’m not exactly unhappy that we didn’t end up in the first alternative. While pushover-ICC does feel a bit awkward, you can still just run it to have fun, not worrying too much about composition etc. On the other hand, a hypothetical super-hard-ICC would just make everyone wonder why, at this point in time, we should even bother. So it’s not bad. But still…

In WotLK damage income is nearly binary – dead or alive, with little time in between; conversely healers are supposed to heal all the time regardless. In Cataclysm we’re supposed to be taking damage stretched over time, and receive healing stretched over time. Healers are supposed to be given time to triage and prioritise, as they’ll be given tools to deal with large and slowly depleting health pools. Of course, right now we’re still living in the old damage model – with the exception of Chill of the Throne in ICC and the overall reduction of armour (for tanks), which means less total but even spikier damage. And while healers are now mechanically designed to be dealing with larger health pools, those larger health pools are not in yet (yes, we do have more health already, especially non-tanks, but that’s nothing compared to the health levels we’ll consider typical in even low level Cataclysm dungeon gear). To compensate, mana is even more infinite than ever. Getting used to the new healing model? No way.

In Cataclysm we are supposed to rely more on (crowd) control and less on AoE tanking and damage. The latter two have been appropriately weakened to achieve the goal, and, just to be clear, I’m a huge fan. So, you walk into ICC and ask everyone to remember the changed paradigm and to be careful with AoE attacks. Then you stroll up to the Crimson Hall trash, assign crowd control … and the Darkfallen Commander dispels the Shackle off himself and comes running for the priestess. Right. Taking out Tactician and Lieutenant then. Then, Frostwing trash, you stand there, mark everything up for a pull where 3 out of 5 targets will be crowd controlled, count down and ….. immune, immune, immune. This content, you see, was not designed for an age in which we’d be supposed to care. And this might be a problem if our healers could not keep us up regardless while our damage dealers blow things up at an impressive rate. Getting used to new tactical patterns? No way.

So, that’s the thing. All those little awkward mismatches between mechanics and content are currently being smoothed over by overwhelmingly high throughput. Especially damage output. Which kind of means that the flaws of WotLK raiding the Cataclysm changes are going to counteract are in the meantime being one last time exaggerated beyond their highest heights. To exaggerate myself, before going from kings to mere knights (hey, it’s still a game, which means player characters, by and large, are still going to be walking pieces of awesome) we’re being turned into gods for a couple of months. I am slightly worried about how we’re going to take that transition mentally, emotionally.