Tag Archives: rift

The Rem Awakens

Now look at this, all dusty and rusty…

*deletes spam comments*

*updates theme and layout*

*sweeps the place clean*

Better. So, is anyone still reading? Looks like I haven’t posted anything in … oh, just over 4 years. What I’ve been up to all this time, you ask? Well…

I’m still working at the job I started when I stopped blogging. It quickly became obvious that it’s pretty much my dream job. Likewise, my employer thinks highly of me as well and I got promoted fairly frequently. Now I’m on my way to “lead level”, which is a more complicated process than previous promotions.

Two and a half years ago I met a wonderful girl. She’s my best friend, the love of my life, the best conceivable partner for everything and my dearest darling. We married last year.

This summer, we moved from Berlin to Frankfurt to increase the probability of me getting project assignments near my home. And indeed, after four years of weekly flights and being recognized on sight at hotel receptions, I’m now actually sleeping at home most of the time and traveling to work by bus. Amazing!

I played (in many cases “tried”) a number of games over the years, which I might elaborate on in more detail in future posts. I know, you’re not holding your breath. Can’t blame you for being skeptical.

  • RIFT – unsubscribed pretty soon after writing I wouldn’t.
  • Skyrim – took all of 16 glorious hours for me to lose interest.
  • SWTOR – shortly after launch, stopped one level short of the (original) level cap.
  • EVE Online – loved its incredible depth, subscribed for 6 months, stopped playing after 3.
  • The Secret World – pretty much at launch; it was great, it was weird, it was different, it was awesome, and it sadly failed to grab me.
  • Guild Wars 2 – some good ideas, but not my cup of tea.
  • SWTOR – shortly before meeting my future wife, played a new character to level 45 over the Christmas holiday period.
  • Titan Quest – a first attempt to introduce my  (then not yet) wife to gaming. We both hated it and the introduction almost ended there.
  • Neverwinter Nights – a second attempt at playing together and first signs of fun. The game felt incredibly dated though and weirdly unwieldy.
  • LotRO – we played for a bit and she liked it! I felt incredibly annoyed by the spineless cash-grab the game had become. Didn’t get out of the starter area. However, she said she enjoyed having a nice story, so…
  • SWTOR – oh look. There we go again, this time together. We played a pair of characters all the way to level 35, then stopped because we had lots of stuff to take care of (getting married for example). Didn’t play anything for a year and a half. There was a good chance that that would have been it for good.
  • SWTOR – here we go again! Having settled in in our new home and our new life rhythm, we decided to give the hobby another go.

That’s where things stand. Let’s see where they go.

I am not, in fact, dead

Quite the opposite, the reasons for my sudden radio silence have been solely positive. I interviewed for a new job, got said new job and have since been busy being happy about finally being able to do the work I want to do, attending my new employer’s summer party, as well as preparing for the changes to come. I’m starting next week, and speaking of changes: as an IT consultant I’ll be on-site with clients for most (if not all) of the work week. That does, naturally, change a few things.

Gaming-wise, it means that at least for the next few months I’ll be a weekend gamer at most. The timing is pretty good, because right now, to put it harshly, there is no game I’d really deeply want to play anyway. I am (purposefully) without a guild and without strong ties, therefore, while RIFT is a good game and quite fun, emotionally, to play it or not to play it are just a shrug apart right now. I’ll write about my more detailed opinion of RIFT soon (I’m not cancelling my subscription, by the way).

Blogging-wise, it might actually mean that I’ll be blogging more. Until now, blogging has basically competed for time resources with gaming. In the future, I’m quite likely to find myself with time to blog but not to play, and I still have lots of thoughts to express – might even get through my draft folder 😉

The new and improved Rem is ready to take on his new and improved life. Just wanted to let you, my faithful readers, know that all is well and more is to come!

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.

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.