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Archive for December, 2009

Looking at difficulty

Mankind worst enemy!

It’s been all over the forums and blogs lately, lengthy discussions about whether a game is too easy or too hard. Wether a particular boss is a pushover and how hard a game needs to be to be good. The thing that strikes me when I read the post and comments is that many people seems to fail to grasp that difficulty is a very subjective thing. Two people will never give you the same answer about what is difficult or not. Instead of talking about specific encounters let’s look at what tools the developers have to make things difficult and how they use them.

The anatomy of a fight difficulty

The way I see thing there’s 4 main elements that come into play that will define the difficulty of a fight or raid.

Organisational skills: I’ve talked about this before and I think this is where most MMOs go wrong. Organisational skills are simply your ability to be present at the right time for the right amount of time (raid schedule), to find a guild of like-minded people you can raid with (raiding guild), that has enough skilled raiders (ie: enough good people to raid 25 mans) and that is looking to raid the same content you are able to raid (progression). All of this is part of a meta game that doesn’t really test much of your player skill and can constitute huge barriers to content.

Individual skill: All raids test to a certain amount the individual skills of each player. For example if a boss throws a patch of fire on the ground it’s the individual responsibility of each player to move out of the fire. By not doing so the raid loses a member who might a made the difference between victory and defeat. A raid with a high demand of individual skill will have no room for individual error while a raid with a low demand will often result in a “gear check” raid.

Raid skill: The overall performance of your raid and it’s ability to act on the strategies or react as a group to the fight. Raid skill is tied to individual performance because after all it’s the sum of every member of the raid. However raid skills are more of an overall indicator. A raid requiring little raid skills will allow for players to die, do less dps/healing/tanking and still succeed. The opposite will result in a raid where the smallest mistake will compromise the entire fight.

Gear: This is simple. What’s the quality of gear required to enter and finish the instance? More than anything else this will define where a raid stands in term of the overall progression. Also, the bigger the difference between the entry gear and the gear required to finish will affect for how long players will need to raid this particular instance before clearing it.

Do they really have control over difficulty?

From reading the above you should already have a few ideas of how to make things difficult in your game. If you see the above criteria as sliders the more you move the slider toward difficult the more you fight becomes difficult.

But does it truly work that way?

Gear: developers have limited control over gear. At the moment of release of new content they can plan the fight around what quality of gear they think is appropriate for the encounter but with all the choices and combinations it becomes near impossible to think of everything. For example, a lot of “hard-mode” encounters in WoW could be countered with high-avoidance tanks. A tank that would focus on this single stat could trump the fight by doing things differently than the “average” tank wich was used as a benchmark. Also, there’s gear progression at work here too. Continually improving gear means that at some point the gear aspect of the fight becomes more and more easier.

Skill (both raid and individual): I’ve used the term “dance” to describe how to beat an encounter before. Basically it becomes a matter of time before your raiders figure out the “dance” to beat an encounter. Once this is figured out beating the fight becomes a matter of execution. Once truly mastered the only thing that can make you fail a fight is people losing attention or gear issues. From this point the fight becomes incredibly easy. The more you make the fight complex the more time it will take to reach that point(thus making it difficult), but it’s only a matter of time before it becomes easy.

Skill (organisational): This aspect is interesting because it’s the only one the developers really have control over. There’s nothing here the players can do to make things easier. If the raid takes 7 hours and 40 people that’s the way it is. If few people can meet those requirements it leaves an impression of difficulty. The problem here is that this difficulty is only perceived, when looking at old bosses in WoW from the 40man era, a lot of those are in fact simpler to beat than current heroic 5 man bosses. Like I said before organisational difficulty is more frustrating than anything for the players and developers are wisely moving away from this.

Is there a solution ?

Yes… and no. No matter what you do every encounter is doomed to become “easy” some day. Gear, experience, strategy guides and player knowledge will make sure that in the end everything will become easy. The control the developers have is in how long this will take. If a fight allows for absolutely no room for error it will take a lot of time before everyone think it’s easy. Mimiron hard-mode is a good example of this, the fight allows for no mistakes wich makes sure that people will consider it hard for a very long time to come.

This is why I say there’s a solution. The idea is not that every fight should always stay hard but rather that it should be long enough for people not to walk over them.

Blizzard’s experiment

I want to finish with a tought. As I was writing this I could not help myself but draw parallels to WoW developement over the years. It became clear to me that Blizzard came to the same conclusions as I did a long time ago and have been gradually moving toward a raid environment where skill would be the main factor in determining difficulty. BC removed most organisational  skill from the equation and Woltk aims to reduce gear impact on fights.

So what we are left with is a game who made a bold choice. The chose to trust they could make challenging encounters based solely on skill. Something I have been asking for a really long time. It’s obvious with the Argent Tournament that Blizz is still fiddling with the formula but ICC so far looks alright in term of difficulty so I’m hopeful that by the time Cataclysm comes out they will have found the perfect balance.

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Fallen Earth, 9 days later

Look at mah title! I’m so clever! Seriously, I wanted to do this post at the 1 week marker but lack of sleep and an insane workload made sure I did not have enough time to do all I wanted. Still, I managed to add a few hours to my Fallen Earth experience and feel I know it enough to give more substantial impressions.

The verdict

I’m going to start with this since I want you to keep this in mind as you read. Fallen Earth is  a good game. Not the greatest of all time and not the worst by far. It’s a game that has it own soul, knows what it is and what it wants to do and if the developers can keep true to their vision it will become a title that will stand the test of time. Not unlike EVE I see it growing with a dedicated fan base that will make this game all kind of awesome. It’s a unique title and a breath of fresh air that deserves your attention.

On the other hand it’s still very much a diamond in the rough. There’s a lot of work still to be done, elements added, bugs squashed, content improved, graphics remade, etc… It’s also a very uncompromising game. You will have to spend most of your time crafting and farming only to be able to shoot and if you don’t like that style of gameplay then too bad for you. Fallen Earth is a game designed with a particular audience in mind and if your not in it you won’t find anything here.

The biggest flaw, PvP

This is where I won’t be nice to Fallen Earth. Even if there’s still a lot of bugs or areas that could use a lot of work I’m willing to forget about them since there’s a solid foundation for most of them and a little tweaking will smooth it out. PvP on the other hand is broken by design and this is a huge flaw when your game is based around it.

Broken by design you say? How could that be! Let’s stop a see what we know here. Fallen Earth combat is based on FPS controls. You manually aim at your targets and depending on where you hit your attack will do more or less damage and if your aim is not on target then you simply miss. Allow me to repeat myself, Fallen Earth combat is a FPS and nowhere is this more obvious than in PvP. So if your not good at shooters like Call of Duty or Team Fortress you can pretty much forget about being good at PvP here. Same goes if you don’t like the above games you won’t like it either in FE.

But I hear someone say, FE is a rpg, it has stats and HP and gear to give you a chance. True, but  the same applies also for your opponent. A dedicated PvPer in this game will get a huge boost in PvP. The twink I met the other truly drove this point home. By having a free skill point advancement it’s possible for a lower level character to be more efficient at something that a higher level one. In PvP this means the level 7 twink was killing people level 13 in one or two shots. If this min-maxing goes all the way to the top levels you can be pretty sure that if your not twinked for PvP you might as well forget about it.

Finaly, there’s also technical issues. With lag and buggy terrain geometry it’s very hard to line up your opponents in PvP. It reminds me of the very first FPS I was playing back in 96 when the internet was all new, hitting an opponent with a gun was pretty much a matter of luck instead of skill. FE feels just likes that. Some players are already going full melee in PvP to have better odds of actually hitting something.

Overall I have trouble justifying this poor excuse of a FPS when I have the awesome Modern Warfare 2  in my Xbox ready to be launched at any moment.

FE is still awesome!

Hey it’s not all bad in here however! Besides PvP I’m pretty impressed with the rest of the game. I won’t repeat myself but the designers truly made an immersive world and other designers need to look at this game and take notes. This is how you make a MMO that truly pulls you in. Everything in there is made to fit together to give you the feeling you are surviving in a post apocalyptic world. You need to scrounge ammo, clean food, take care of your belongings, I mean this is truly awesome. And I’m glad Icarius Studio realized that to make a virtual world work everything in your game needs to fit with your theme.

I know I’m giving this a single paragraph when I spent 4 blasting PvP but the game immersion is so well done it outshines all by itself all the rest.

Will I subscribe ?

The big question, the one that matters. I’m not sure yet of what my final decision will be.  Right now it looks like I won’t be subscribing for the moment but might pick it back up later. There’s two reasons here and both are unrelated to the game. First of all a lot of my real-life friends are getting back into WoW and no matter the game I know I’m always following them to whatever game they are playing. Playing with friends is always the best fun I’ve had in MMOs. The second reason would be my time for playing MMOs is rather limited at the moment and I’m having trouble playing 2 MMOs at the same time.

I still have 2 weeks worth of playing time with FE and I intend to make the best out of them to experience more of the game so things can change. I’ll see how it goes.

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Monkey needs sleep

I wanted to post something deep and meaningful today but since I haven’t slept for the past 36 hours and my attempts at writing coherently looks like a Salvador Dali painting I will keep this short.

I’ve played lots of WoW during the weekend. The new looking for group feature keeps me and my real life friends incredibly entertained and we even seen a few faces we tought we would never see again.Seriously, this new LFG system is so awesome I have trouble seeing how I lived without it before. You have to hand it to Blizzard for managing to impress me with WoW when I thought I had seen every trick the old dog had.

On the Fallen Earth front I’ve met my first twink in the PvP zone near Zanesville. The guy was wtfpwning people left and right, sometimes players even 5 or 6 levels higher than him. I managed to talk to him and ask him a few questions and it turned out his pistoleer is his second character. The way he said it to me is that by having a dedicated crafter support his pistoleer he can spend all his AP on combat skills and attributes and waste nothing on skills non related to combat. He also mentioned that since the current endgame in FE is PvP it was the only way to go.

I don’t know how that philosophy will hold up at higher levels but I can see the merit in having a character being a fighter with min-maxed skills toward combat. If truly endgame is all about PvP crafters might find themselves at a serious disadvantage. Or maybe it’s all planned. Either way time will tell.

So tomorrow I’ll write something more cognizant I promess!

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Let’s talk design

I work as a software developer. I don’t design games but I code and help design complex software custom-made for clients. Sometimes it’s from the ground up, other I come in an  existing project to improve it or save it from a bad start, lack of budget or any other reason something can go bad. I do all of this as a consultant, meaning I cost a lot to the clients I work with and my having a job is directly related to my ability to keep them happy by doing a great job in the shortest time possible. I don’t design games but when I hear game developers talk about meeting player expectations, design limitations, budgets and how all of these work together I know perfectly well what they are talking about.

If there’s anything my clients have taught me well is that no matter how wonderful your code is they don’t care. All they see and want to know is if their system is secure, fast and easy to use. I can spend a week working on a particular piece of very complex code to process online orders but the comment I will get is: “Can you edit the user phone number so out-of-state numbers  show up as a different color?”. And the worst part is that changing the color might be as complex if not more than the code for ordering and processing the product. It might even have me rewrite parts of the code because the phone numbers used some outside database or god knows what else. In the end what’s important is that the website process online orders but you can be sure that what will make the difference between my company getting the next contract or some other company will be my ability to fix the phone number color. Everyone who starts working as a developer faces this early on in their career and your told gently by the old vets that you better deal with it if you still want a job. After you leave they run to tell everyone you just learned the truth about the world, it’s some kind of rite of passage with the new guys.

So what have we learned? That any software has a “front-end” and a “back-end”. The front-end being was the users/players see and use and the back-end what goes on behind the scenes. Use that at your Christmas dinner so  you look smart! It’s a generally agreed upon rule that a software with a good back-end but poor front-end will have more trouble being popular even if it does the job better than a software with good front-end but poor back-end.

In a MMO the back-end would be the servers, code and gameplay system (classes, combat, abilities,crafting, etc…) and the front end would be the UI(user interface), the graphics, being able to play and speed of play(lag). Knowing that it’s easier to sell a product with a good front-end and having a limited budget and developement time where do you think the cuts are made? Back-end of course. This gives us games that are unoriginal but with good graphics. These are the ones you see and say “more of the same”, play it for a while and just give up eventually. And if by any chance the poorly developed back-end show through your players will desert your game at the speed of light. A good example would be AoC. It looked  and played nice but as time went on bugs, balance flaws and poor content drove the players away.

So the solution you say is to develop both a good back-end and front-end? Your right of course! The little problem here is that developing a good back-end is time and money consuming, much more than doing a good front-end. Paying graphic artists to do a pleasing interface is way faster and less costly than having 5 or 6 game designers try to balance classes and abilities in a complex game world, wich has the potential of leading to redo entire parts of the game.

So we are stuck… we want to release a game, we got an awesome front-end to drag the suckers… I mean players in but our back-end is a little shaky. We don’t have the money to redesign part of the games or redo the graphic engine to reduce lag and we know perfectly well that after a few months the back-end is going to show through and players will start leaving. We might try to douse the fires as we go along but it will still cost us players and we never know what unplanned problems might show up. So what do we do??

We introduce “The Feature” (said with loud booming voice). The Feature (booming voice) is something our game does that no one else does. It’s what gives us our uniqueness and makes sure that even if you hate the game with all your guts you might stay only because you love that feature to death. It might be something you do better than everyone else (being the only super hero game for example), something completely new (flight in Aion) or anything else that someone can only get by playing YOUR game. And if you manage to stuff more than one Feature(booming voice again) in your game your pretty much assured success.

Still, it’s only a cover for your back-end. In the long run your feature might not be so unique anymore and you have to fall-back on your back-end to keep your game in business. This is what a lot of people(including industry people) are missing. Despite the rule said earlier that front-end will sell your game, in the long run it’s back-end that will make its success.

The real rule is front-end sells your game and back-end makes is successful.

So why talk about this? Because after all the new MMOs of 2009 and all the ones I hear about in 2010 I can’t help but think that most of them will be all beautiful and shiny but few will have staying power. Right now every company wants a piece of the MMO cash cow but few of them seems to understand that successful MMOs are built by having both elements. Fallen Earth is a great example of an awesome back-end but the front-end is preventing it from becoming a really big title. Opposite is AoC wich looked awesome but failed when it came to back-end (gameplay elements and bugs). Please, instead of releasing half-finished games take your time! You want to know why Blizzard is so big? Because they take the time to release complete and polished products. You won’t beat them by doing less.

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Patch 3.3 impressions

I did the unthinkable, I reinstalled and reactivated WoW. Let me reassure everyone first I do not plan on abandoning Fallen Earth wich I still enjoy. But WoW has one thing Fallen Earth does not, my  real life friends are playing it. This will always be the one thing that trumps the rest for me. I love playing with these guys and if they all switch to Hello Kitty chances are I will too. So after installing, patching, reinstalling and patching windows for close to 6 hours wednesday I finally got the chance to play and messed around with the new 5 man instances and the new looking for group system.

First of all the new 5 mans. I’d say I’m pretty much neutral about them. They did improve a lot from patch 3.2(aka the argent tournament disaster patch) by actually designing instances this time around. Gorgeous graphics (the pit really stood out), fun events, interesting bosses and the challenge was actually ok on normal, haven’t tried heroic but I hear it can get pretty intense even with top gear so I’m looking forward to seeing it for myself. So they did listen a bit. On the other hand  they are way too short (took 1 hour for all three) and you are still mostly chain pulling your way through.

My verdict is that taken together we got a really good and interesting instance. Fun event, great looks and interesting bosses plus it ties really well with the lore so grats Blizzard. Taken separately they are way too short and simple. It’s an improvement overall after the Argent Tournament patch and hopefully it will get better in the future patches.

Now we come to the new LFG system and it is pure awesome. A lot of people myself included were pretty sceptic about the whole thing but I can tell you now it’s one the best things I have seen in a MMO  especially for those of us with more limited playtime. Quite simply I just need to queue up for whatever I want and under 2 minutes I get swept off to the chosen instance, and that is playing as a dps class. Yes there’s still imbeciles, noobs, people logging off when things are not going the way they want to but not more or less than my usual pugs. What this system does is that it makes pugging go a lot faster and gives you the choice of where you want to go if you need something specific. It’s a feature I hope others MMO will catch on quickly.

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