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Archive for January, 2011

Death Penalty – the Right Way

Monday, January 31st, 2011

So, it seems in the last week the Death Penalty mechanics in Star Wars: The Old Republic have been the subject of much discussion. It sounds like members of that game’s player community are calling to BioWare to make Death mean something.  Just in case you haven’t read it, I want to quote game designer Damion Schubert from BioWare from when he weighed in on the subject:

I see a lot of posts saying things like ‘death should have sting’, or ‘players should feel death’. We agree! However that being said, miscalibrating your death penalties can very insidiously destroy your game from the inside out.

We don’t want people to ignore the cost of death, but at the same time, we also don’t want players to avoid taking chances. We want them to take risks. We want them to try wacky new strategies, and exotic new builds. We want them to wonder if maybe they can solo that boss creature. In the name of creating a sense of fear and risk, overly harsh death penalties can inadvertently make people stop taking them.

To wit: too harsh death penalties can create grinding. If death sucks too much, players will stop taking on higher level creatures or even equal level creatures, and instead only take on creatures that are lower level than them – even though those creatures carry far less reward, the fact that they offer far less risk, might make them seem safer and more efficient to the player. Of course, now the player is fighting boring, ultimately non-threatening enemies, and is being bored to death.

Harsh death penalties can disincentivize grouping. I’m sure we’ve all been in some pretty bad groups in our MMO playing. How likely are you to group with a healer or tank that you don’t know if the penalty for failure is disastrous? How hard is it for new players to learn the skills they need to contribute to groups if other group members feel they can’t risk taking on a new guy?

Harsh drop penalties (i.e. you lose all your stuff when you die) can result in players leaving their best epix in the bank all the time. Sure, you’ll PROBABLY win fully decked out in ph4t purples, but what if you don’t? And just like that, your epic purple lightsaber is something you only ever equip at the bank… just in case.

Harsh death penalties can create flavor of the month builds. If death isn’t something disastrous, players will take risks and find new and exotic builds in the skill tree that continue to reinvent the game (and challenge the combat design team :-) ). But if death is too harsh, more players will feel they have to go with a cookie-cutter template they found on a website, because it’s just not worth the risk if your wacky idea is wrong.

Harsh death penalties can ultimately force designers to make the game easier. If it takes 10 minutes to respawn after a fight or the dungeon becomes inaccessible, for example, it dramatically limits the ability for players to repeat the fight and learn it. This forces designers to make the fight easier so that a reasonable percentage of the players can succeed.

Ultimately, we want players to play the freakin’ game. We want them to group. We want them to deck out in their gear. We want them to experiment with builds. We want them to explore the nether regions of all the planets. We want to make really hard stuff for them. And we most assuredly want them to seek out challenges bigger than themselves.

Does that mean we want the game to be a cakewalk? No, we want there to be tough fights. We want there to be complex fights that might take multiple tries to get right. We want to put in challenges for groups of players that require good tactics, good teamwork and flawless execution to pull off. But I would seperate the idea of ‘challenge’ and ‘punishment’. I would rather our challenges be gated by whether or not you have the skill, the gear, and the teamwork to succeed than whether or not you have the credits and/or time to wait out the forced downtime in between, you know, the fun part.

(Source Post)

Personally, I think his head and heart are in the right place.  I know that I’ve played some games, especially the ones where death has an XP penalty that have strongly discouraged risk taking or exploratory behavior.  Even the ones where death has a financial burden, like repair bills can have the same effect.

I feel that the greatest penalty any game can use to punish me for something is wasting my time.  I can’t count the number of “corpse walks” I’ve done in WoW that I just didn’t want to, only because the walk back to my body would still be less time consuming than the 10 minute resurrect sickness & how long it’d take to make back the lost gold in repair bills. Misharum and I have also talked about Guild Wars’ approach to Death Penalty.  While it lacks the long-term effects of WoW’s, the fact is you still can acquire enough DP that you have to start whatever you’re doing over again, and sometimes that means 20, 40minutes of work down the drain.  The rough no-wipe tolerance of most of the game’s campaign-missions are even worse.

Even outside the realm of multiplayer games, I feel that the death-induced time penalty can sometimes make/break a game.  I know I’ve had points in a couple of Final Fantasy games where the long distance between save points has caused me to take long breaks from them.  I love that Fallout 3 saves at every major doorway, but that hasn’t stopped some absolutely epic runs through some wasteland sewer get ruined by a crash and having to redo 20 minutes of work. At least in Fallout I have luxury of “Well maybe I should have saved,” but not every game gives you that choice.

So I was curious if any of you had any thoughts on the subject of Death Penalties in games, or really Failure Penalties et-all.

Rift Beta 5

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

So in a move that even I consider a bit odd, I tried out Rift for a week during it’s Beat #5 event. I had first heard about the game when Penny Arcade and Steam started advertising it, and at that time I decided to go search for materials about it.  After my initial search I had this to say about it on Twitter.

I don’t understand #Rift. It looks like another wanna-be #WoW with only a few new ideas and poorer art direction. 2011′s Warhammer Online.

Now mind you, the whole time there was one feature about the game that really interested me – it’s “Soul Tree system.”  Eventually I read enough about it that I decided “You know, if I get a chance to play this for free, I’d like to see how that damn thing works,” and then there was a Beta Event this week, and Curse.com was handing out keys for free, so I got one and I played it.  It’s now over, and I thought I’d share my thoughts.

So how was the Soul Tree system?

Long story short, when you roll your character in Rift, you choose 1 of four classes:  Warrior, Rogue, Mage and Cleric.  Mages and Clerics use Mana, Rogues use energy and combo-points like in wow, and Warriors have a system reminiscent of Warhammer Online’s “Action Points,” with their own system called “Attack Points” on top of that, which is like combo points except the only go to 3 and stack on your character not on the target, so they can be used on any target, not just the one you hit with the attack point building skills.

However, all this class choice does is place a general archetype for your character (and role… sort of… more on that ahead).  The first thing you do as a new character is choose a “Soul” to take on.  You see, by choosing the class, you’re choosing what set of around 8 different souls you want to take on, and these souls, become your “talent trees,” so to speak.  By the time you leave the starting zone (in this beta, I guess others were different?) you had 3 souls, ergo, three talent trees, and had in a way invented a custom class.

For example, let’s say you roll a warrior and decide you want to go melee DPS.  You’d start with Champion, a soul that most strongly resembles Arms tree from WoW.  Then let’s say you pick up the Riftblade soul, which allows you to add some ranged magic and mage dot variation to your attacks.  Finally you pick up Beastmaster soul, to give you a pet who fights in melee with you.  Bam, you suddenly have a powerful solo farming questing build.

But what happens if you need to tank?  Well, there are quests you can undertake from the faction’s capital to add more roles (think dual spec except it goes up to 4 and you can start adding rolls at like level 10) and any class trainer can reset any of your roles for almost no money (reseting a role not only resets your points spent, but also lets you choose what 3 souls to have in it again).  So, you setup another role where you’re a tank, taking paladin (blocks and counters), Reaver (dots and threat), and VoidKnight (anti-magic defense).  Switching between them is pretty quick outside of combat.

The result?  Despite your initial choice, through proper use of the soul tree system you can be one of two, maybe more roles in a given situation, and the low cost of respec and the eventual ease of aquiring more souls just invites experimentation and play. Of course, I’m sure once the game comes out and there are top-tier Raiders, “the elitist jerks” of the world will figure out how to min-max everything and it will ultimately suffer from the same problem WoW’s talent trees do, but for the short bit I was in the beta, it felt like a fun and magical place to explore.

There’s another really neat thing I like about the Soul Tree system in that it brakes up the effects into “Branches” and “roots.”  essentially, the “Branches” are what we think of as a typical talent tree, but as you put points into a given soul, abilities unlock from the “Roots” regardless of where you spend the points. What’s great about this is it means that no matter how you build your Paladin soul, there are certain mission-critical skills you know you’ll get, and these skills are often chosen knowing that you may be relying heavily on this one soul to get the job done, so it has a nice variety of attacks you can use to keep yourself from being ineffective.

Overall Beta Impressions

Story

The game’s plot was… good.  Not mind shattering, and certainly not going to live up to the quality of WoW as of Lich King, let alone whatever Cataclysm is up to these days.  Still it is an interesting twist on the fantasy norm.  Due to the SHORT time the beta was active, I focused on playing the Defiant faction, so I have no idea how the Guardians play.  From what I hear, there are a lot fewer kids playing Guardian right now than Defiant.

The world of Telara is basically under attack by planar forces.  The gods have historically helped defend the world from planar invasions, one of their tools of which being resurrected heroes called “Ascended.”  However, for some reason the gods have failed to defend the world from the latest efforts of Regulous (the arch-villain)  and while some have remained faithful, others have sought to invent their own ways to defeat the evil without the gods help.  To that end, the Defiant have turned to Herecy and Technology to figure out how to defeat the rifts with their own power,  while the Guardians continue to channel the faith and laws of the Gods to try and stop the threat.  The two factions hate each other, ergo, your Alliance and Horde for this game.  There are six races to choose from, Guardians getting Elves, Dwarves, and European looking humans, while the Defiant get Kinda-Earthy-Looking-Big-Humans, Middle-eastern looking humans, and Corrupted-Elves-with-weird-skin-colors-and-face-markings.  I made one of the corrupted elves because I could easily make her resemble my NE Warrior Tanadel from WoW, though honestly, the races are so blaaahhhh you should just play one of the two humans IMO.

As a Defiant PC, you emerge from a tube from which the Defiant have successfully engineered their own Ascended using their technology.  The problem?  It took them until near the end of the world to figure out how to do it.  You have to get your ass to a time machine they call “The Failsafe” that will take you back to when it was built and try and save Telara from before Regulous succeeds.  The n00b zone is actually a fairly cool instanced off entire zone in which you were fighting your way through the invaders who would end the world to get to this failsafe.  It’s cool by vanilla WoW standards however, and lacks any of the nice touches of the DK start zones in WotLK or anything I’ve heard about from Cataclysm.   Still it was fun to play through.

Once through the time machine (about level 6) you begin defending the zone of Freemarch through a series of your typical suite of “Go there, kill X things, gather X things, or use this item on this object, and then come back to me” things.  I didn’t in my 15 levels of play see anything from the questing to suggest it’d be revolutionary, but it DID do a number of smart things that would make it far better than the questing in Aion or vanilla WoW. One example of this is if you show up while someone is killing a named mob, and you help kill it even if you’re not in their party, you might still get credit for it.  I say might because I ran into 1 quest where this wasn’t the case and it was annoying.  If the quest also involves activating an item and someone not in your party but very close to you activates it, you’ll also share credit.

Rifts

The part about the game’s PvE play that was fascinating however had nothing to do with Quests. The rifts, of the game’s namesake, add a level of chaos to the zones that can be interesting and quite lucrative. While you and our fellow players are out killing their X wolves/undead/whatever, a tear in the fabric of space and time may open over your heads and an invasion force from another plane might break through.  This immediately causes a structure much like Public Quests from WAR or Champions where the pug of people nearby need to complete various objectives to seal the rift again.  Sometimes they are minor rifts and this is easy to do and access to basically free loot.

Othertimes however, the forces of the other plane take their invasion VERY SERIOUSLY.  A ZONE WIDE public quest will start as around 20 rifts will open across the zone, spewing out elite mobs with the goal of finding, destroying, and occupying towns and quest hubs throughout it.  If the players don’t band together and stop them, their towns WILL fall and you WILL NOT be able to hand in your quests because your quest NPC WILL BE DEAD.  I got wrapped up in a massive Death Rift invasion and was defending one town for like an hour, as wave after wave of elite mobs tried to (and succeeded twice) to take it out. While we were doing that, other parties across the zone were finding rifts and sealing them, so that reinforcements couldn’t go through.  Finally, the lord of the assault appeared and the players had to destroy him to end the event, returning the zone to normal.  Though I died A LOT during this event, I gained nearly 2 levels and far better loot than I would have from questing and, quite frankly, it was a lot of fun fighting off the rift invasion.

I’m a little worried though that this rift mechanic may suffer from the same problem WAR did when it’s population dropped.  They better plan on scaling these Rifts to how many players are in the zone, otherwise this system could be VERY ANNOYING instead of anything resembling fun.

The Combat

The combat could be summed up really easily as “WoW with more options.”  Seriously, it’s very very obvious where the game’s designers got their inspiration for the souls and their abilities.  In my time playing I saw a “mortal strike,” and “execute,” and “overpower,” an “eviscerate,” a “slice and dice,” a “evasion”, you get the idea. A lot of mechanics are the exact same:  bodies aren’t solid, you must be facing your target to hit it, mobs come in normal, elite, and boss form, potions operate on a cooldown, there are various consumables you can use to augment a fight, etc etc etc. From a core gameplay standpoint I think Rift thinks that the more it’s like WoW the better, so that those who come from it will spend less time confused and more time just getting shit done.  Again the big different isn’t the skills themselves, but the synergies that you get to create by mixing them with skills from other souls.  I mean honestly, in Rift, you could make a Mage who is part Fire Mage spec, part Affliction Warlock spec, part Restro Druid spec.  I’m not kidding.

So if you like the Combat in WoW, you’ll like the combat in Rift.  The only wrinkle is I wasn’t able to find a “true Hybrid” class, though I didn’t play the Cleric Archetype at all during the beta.  It sounds like if I had I might have been able to find “a tough melee fighter with healing buttons,” build but I wanted to try and get to as high of a level as I could before the end so I could see PvP and dungeons and as it stands I didn’t make it.

The stuff I didn’t see

The game also has dungeons and pvp.  It has battlegrounds, its first dungeon is level 20, and it has mixed faction zones to encourage world PvP.  I didn’t get to see any of it, though what I heard from guild mates was that it was at least decent, if not very fun.  I heard one guy describe the first Rift dungeon as “Very linear, but also overall well designed.”

Oh yeah, and I found a guild to run around with during the beta.  This is why I’ve been on our vent less this week as they basically don’t use /gchat at all in favor of vent.  Decent group of guys, play all kinds of different games, haven’t decided if I want to roll with them or not.  If they played Guild Wars sure but they don’t really.

Final Verdict

Is Rift a fun game?  Yeah honestly I’d say it was.  Of all the WoW spin-offs I’ve played (Aion, WAR, Runes of Magic) this one definitely was the least frustrating and most polished and just felt nice to play.  It lacked Aion’s senseless grind and bad quest count and it lacked WAR’s unpolished graphics.  And while I stand by my previous statement that it has worse Art Direction than WoW, at least on the character model standpoint, the world design and special effect design is actually really good, and quickly starts making up for it.

Does it have enough going for it to make you play it instead of WoW?  Based off what I’m hearing from Cataclsym, I’d guess no. It’s not like the game isn’t going to have an upfront box cost plus a monthly fee, so if you’re in WoW keep playing it.  As for me, I’m not sure.  If Rift came out today, I wouldn’t buy it, because I still have more fun vanquishing Tyria or beating Guild Wars campaigns than I do playing Rift.  That being said who knows, after a while I might miss the game’s unpredictable nature with the Soul Trees and the Rift invasions.  I might also miss the guild I was rolling with because they were descent dudes overall.  I’ll probably try and do the next Beta event when it happens.

Rift is out in early March, for those who care.