Monthly Archives: December 2016

Your Guide to Taking Great MMO Screenshots

If you follow a lot of MMO blogs, you’ve probably seen a lot of good screenshots, and perhaps wished to replicate that level of quality yourself. Or maybe you just want a good visual record of your virtual adventures. Whatever your motivation, there’s an art to taking the perfect screenshot, and our guide can help you master it.

A first person shot of tanking the Sha of Pride in World of Warcraft

Figure out how:

An obvious tip if there ever was one, but still worth saying. For most MMORPGs, taking a screenshot is very easy. Most come with a simple hotkey to take screenshots, usually print screen or a function key. Just check the key binding section of the options menu to find it.

Some don’t make it quite so simple, though. For those games, your best bet is to use some kind of third party software. I prefer Steam for this — it’s a simple, easy solution. Even if an MMO isn’t available on Steam, you can usually get it work via the “Add a Non-Steam Game to My Library” option. If it doesn’t work at first, try running Steam with administrator privileges.

For example, I run Star Wars: The Old Republic through Steam because the game’s innate screenshot function has the distressing tendency to not work during cutscenes and conversations.

Hide your UI:

Unless you’re looking to highlight some element of the interface, you should always hide it before taking a shot. Otherwise, it will serve only to clutter the shot, distract from whatever you were trying to take a picture of, and generally make the shot look sloppy.

The good news is the large majority of MMOs allow an easy way to hide your UI. A lot of games seem to have settled on alt + Z as the preferred hotkey combo for hiding UI, but some use different methods. In Elder Scrolls Online, the key is not bound by default and has to be assigned manually. I bound it to Insert.

A screenshot of the city of Elden Root in Elder Scrolls Online

Hiding your UI can be a little dangerous in action shots, but you’ll learn to quickly hide and then restore your UI for a perfect shot. Generally hotkeys will still work even with the interface hidden, too, so with a little practice you can hang in fights without UI for longer, giving you more chance to grab the perfect shot.

Learn the tricks:

I started simply taking the occasional shot of things that struck me as pretty or interesting, but as I’ve grown more serious about my screenshots, I’ve started to find various little ways to enhance my shots.

Say you’ve got a sweet new outfit for your character and you want to record it for posterity. Sure, you can just take a shot then and there and call it done, and that’s fine. But if you want, you can do better.

Find a spot in the game that would serve as a good backdrop — ideally a place with good lighting and maybe some aesthetic or story connection to your character and their new outfit.

Next, consider your pose. Your character need not simply stand there as they model their new duds. Find a good emote, or capture them in the middle of a fight for that heroic flare.

A screenshot of Zakuul's Spire in Star Wars: The Old Republic

You needn’t settle for the most obvious shot when it comes to environments or other subjects, either. If you find a gorgeous vista in-game, don’t just grab the first shot that presents itself. Find the perfect angle, even if it’s from some place your character wouldn’t normally go. Climb onto a box for more height, or circle around the area until you find the angle that grants the best view.

Recently I was treated to a beautiful view of Zakuul’s Spire by night while playing through Knights of the Eternal Throne, but a large handrail was blocking my shot. My solution was to jump in place and take my shot at the parity of the jump. This eliminated the handrail from view and let me take in Zakuul in all its glory.

Take many shots, keep the good ones:

According to Steam, I’ve taken a bit over 1,600 screenshots in Star Wars: The Old Republic since I started playing about a year ago. However, if I navigate to the file where I aggregate all my MMO screenshots, I’ve kept only around a third of those.

Opportunities for a good screenshot can be fleeting, so I try to seize them whenever possible. If at any moment anything seems like it might be worth grabbing a shot of, I make sure to do so. Often it turns out that my shots weren’t as good as I was hoping, or there was an opportunity to take a better shot of the same thing a moment later.

When in doubt, take the shot. It’s easier to trim the fat later than it is to go back and recreate a beautiful shot that you missed out on.

A shot from The Secret World's Rider event

This is especially true when trying to go for action shots. Animations play very quickly in combat, and a split second can mean the difference between an awesome shot of your character swinging their sword like the epic badass they are, and an unintentionally hilarious shot of them screaming into their own armpit for some reason. If you’re trying to take a good shot in-combat, it’s best to take many shots in rapid succession and hope for the best.

Even in quieter moments, it’s not always fun to spend several minutes figuring out the perfect angle for a shot. The point is still to play the game, after all. It may be better to just grab a bunch of different shots from the available angles and figure out which one you want to keep later.

Always be ready for the perfect shot:

You should always be on the lookout for good screenshot opportunities. Cinematics, major boss fights, and pivotal story moments are always good fodder for screenshots, and you should always have one hand near the screenshot button at such moments, but the opportunity for a great shot can arise at any time. Some of the best screenshots I’ve ever taken have come in the course of fairly mundane gameplay.


What is a ‘Pay To Win’ Cash Shop in MMOs?

This article was originally posted March 19, 2016. It has been recently updated.

Like a lot of MMO players, I’ve been sinking a lot of my free time into Black Desert Online. I’ve been sinking in my not-so-free time too, but I suppose that’s the curse of a good game. One of my two biggest concerns with Black Desert was the possibility of a pay to win cash shop. Korean MMORPGs are especially known for cash shops where paying real money is the only path to the top. In a lot of these MMORPGs, money advantages provide a completely insurmountable level of power.

Black Desert has launched with what most do not consider a pay to win model. However, one item in particular has raised some serious concerns. The Treant Camouflage Set, more commonly referred to as the ‘ghillie suit’. Essentially it provides camouflage, enough so that colorblind folk are unable to even discern threats from within forest environment. The suit will additionally hide all identifying information about it’s wearer (name, guild, health) until its wearer attacks. After engaging in combat, only the wearer’s health becomes visible.

text of the treant camolage set

Thus, the advantages of the suit are that it allows gankers first strike against unwitting players and that no name in combat prevents teammates from calling out targets. And it’s only available by paying almost $30 USD in the cash shop. It’s enough of a hot button topic that over 1,500 players have voted in the official forums to the tune of 73% supporting a rework or nerf.

The reason I’m calling attention to this specifically is not because I’m addicted to Black Desert Online and can’t stop thinking about it. The reason is because I feel it’s a perfect spring board for asking what is ‘pay to win’. Allowing players access to top tier gear with only real money is clearly pay to win. Offering costume dyes with no stat benefits is clearly not pay to win. But the ghillie suit poses an interesting dividing line.

In other versions of the game in the world, flares are used to negate the suit’s benefit. In the US/EU version, these flares are severely limited since they cannot be crafted. But does using a flare when grinding by oneself not seem tedious? To that I would say that in non-forest areas, especially and with a small group or 1v1 combat, the suit doesn’t do much and limits the necessity of flares. Also on the side of a ‘balanced cash shop’, wearing it provides no statistical combat advantages. However, it clearly does have situational advantages that currently cannot be countered without significantly extra effort. The biggest boon to wearing the suit is to hide one’s name in large battles. Calling targets gets to be impractical with all the chaos. But using a flare in this case makes perfect sense as it’s a low cost for a large, area impact. And guilds will need to spend resources in war in more ways than just this.

ghillie suit in black desert online from item mall

The ghillie suit is certainly advantageous to own, but so are other items in Black Desert’s cash shop. For instance, paid costumes provide a +10% EXP boost when wearing a full set. It doesn’t affect max power and so doesn’t get called out as much. But it’s still a minor boost players can buy. So I think the stage is set for Black Desert to allow players to buy these small advantages. I would not classify the small advantages as pay to win. But when something like the ghillie suit doesn’t offer any balanced counterplay, there is an issue. Simply adding easy access to flares or showing the name while in combat will bring it back below the ‘pay to win’ line. And a fine line it is. Good cash shops items must offer non paying players the ability to counter paid items in a reasonable manner.

When you have egregious offenders of cash shop usage such as ArcheAge and saints of fairness such as Guild Wars 2, it is exciting as a blogger to see something like Black Desert Online simply do things differently. For those unaware, ArcheAge essentially allows players to increase their power relative to real money purchases, with no cap. In effect, real money is all that becomes relevant. It’s a very poor system due to the non-limiting factor. Therefore, cash shop items must have a cap on their power to provide a fair experience.

Selling convenience has also become a staple of MMORPG cash shops. And convenience is great to sell – as long as it doesn’t feel like a feature was removed and put behind a paywall. If a game like Black Desert, where there is no fast travel, put autorun behind a paywall, that would be disastrous. If a game like Guild Wars 2 allowed paid players to access the auction house remotely instead of at physical locations, not many would balk. Convenience in MMOs should be sold as additions to a base, working system that provides a quality experience regardless of money spent.

free vs paid player example of pay to win mmorpg

Superman illustrates what happens when cash shops go pay to win

This leaves me with three qualifications MMORPGs providing a balanced, non-pay-to-win cash shop:

  1. Players must have a viable, free alternative to any cash shop item, which does not place an unreasonable or impossible burden on said free player, in order to compete with the cash shop player.
  2. Cash shop items cannot be excessively or infinitely scalable in usage.
  3. Convenience items must only allow players a ‘luxurious level’ of convenience and not a ‘fair standard of living’ convenience. Quite simply, a player should not have to pay real money for a feature that they should reasonably expect to find in a given game.

Pay to win is hard to define, and we’re going to see more and more MMOs and MMORPGs testing players’ limits. There’s a fine balance to be had between keeping free players happy and finding paid players something they’ll want to buy. Many of us have different ideas on this topic, but for me any game that can meet those three points above is a game I’m happy to consider.


Why MMO Holidays Suck and How to Fix Them

Around this time of year, holiday events are springing up in MMORPGs like desperate last-minute shoppers at the local mall. Rare indeed is the game that doesn’t throw together an in-game event to coincide with the winter holidays.

A snowglobe in World of Warcraft's Winter Veil holiday event.

Of course, Christmas isn’t the only real world holiday MMOs like to jump on. Most will also throw something together for Halloween, and depending on the game, you might also see events for Valentine’s Day, Easter, or any number of noteworthy occasions.

Unfortunately, there’s one common thread that runs through nearly every holiday event in nearly every MMO: They’re pretty lame. What should be joyous times for the players to come together and celebrate often end up feeling more like half-hearted formalities at best, obnoxious chores at worst.

Let’s look at why MMORPG holidays tend to be so underwhelming, and how they could be improved.

They don’t fit:

There are few things better at shattering your immersion in a game than suddenly seeing a boatload of Christmas lights, Jack-o-Lanterns, or Easter eggs appearing in your secondary world high fantasy setting. It’s a great way for developers to scream, “HEY, THIS IS JUST A GAME, NOT A REAL PLACE, IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING.”

It’s cheesy. It’s tacky. It’s just painfully out of place. Yes, MMOs are no stranger to pop culture references or occasional moments where the fourth wall is broken, but there’s a difference between slipping the occasional pun into a quest title and drowning the game world in a flood-wave of tinsel as players rush off to save Metzen the Reindeer.

The holidays come to The Secret World's Agartha

And the thing is, it doesn’t need to be this way. I can definitely understand the desire to implement in-game holidays to coincide with those in the real world, but that doesn’t mean they need to totally copy real holidays.

With a little care, MMO holidays could be made to tie-in to the established lore, serving to add depth and flavor to the setting rather than detracting from it. There are many historical pagan traditions related to solstice and equinox festivals that could easily be adapted to fit within the high fantasy settings of most MMOs.

World of Warcraft’s Midsummer Fire Festival is one of the game’s few holidays that isn’t directly based upon anything in the real world, and it feels so much more like a natural fit for the game. The Secret World also does a very good job of marrying its holiday events with in-game lore, though it does have the advantage of being set in the real world to begin with, and while Elder Scrolls Online has only just started holding in-game holidays, they’re doing a pretty good job of making them fit into the setting.

They’re anything but holidays:

What do you remember most about Christmas as a child? As nice as it would be to imagine you answering with something about quiet reflection on peace and fellowship, I’m going to guess you said something along the lines of, “Presents!”

And you know, that’s okay. It’s fun to get something new and shiny to play with.

MMO developers don’t seem to understand this, though. Oh, sure, they always add lots of new loot, but they’re definitely not giving it away.

The Headless Horseman's mount from World of Warcraft's Hallow's End event.

Almost without exception, MMO holidays are extremely grindy affairs that require you to run event-specific quests, dungeons, or world bosses until your eyes bleed. If you’re lucky, you’re only grinding for event currency that will (eventually) net you whatever you want. If your game’s developers are really channeling their inner Scrooge, though, the best rewards might be rare drops, and you could go the entire event without ever getting what you’re after.

And since events generally only last a week or two, this could go on for years. It took me nearly half a decade to get the Headless Horseman’s mount from World of Warcraft’s Halloween event, and some people who’ve been playing longer than me still don’t have it.

To add insult to injury, oftentimes MMO event rewards aren’t even that good. Usually it’s just cosmetics, which may not even be permanent, or very sub-par gear that’s almost never worth actually equipping.

This probably stems from the stingy nature of MMO developers in general. Somewhere along the line developers fell in love with the idea of grinding in MMORPGs, and most of them seem to have lost sight of the idea of things being fun simply for fun’s sake.

Again, The Secret World provides a good example of how to do things better. While its holidays’ most rare rewards can still be somewhat difficult to acquire, they shower you with so many different kinds of loot — both cosmetic and practical — that you’re bound to get something you want, and events are often paired with bonuses to character experience or currency gains, adding to the festive feeling.

They never change:

The Cat God storyline in The Secret World's Halloween event.

While you can find exceptions to the rule, most MMOs simply add a holiday event and then leave it be from then on in. At best, they might occasionally add a single new quest or a little more loot to grind for.

The end result is that it’s very hard to get excited about MMO holidays after your first year in a game. Even if a game has the absolute best holiday events in every other way, it’s still going to be far less exciting the second, third, or fourth time it returns.

In order to feel like something truly exciting, in order to be an event players of all stripes look forward, MMO holidays need to add something significant every year — or at least more often than not.

I imagine MMO developers are reticent to put too much work into holidays because they only last a few weeks a year, at most. But when you think about it, it’s a worthy investment. Holidays return every year, so it’s not really temporary content, and over the long haul, new holiday events do pay dividends by keeping veteran players engaged and providing a wealth of exciting content to newer players.

This is another area where The Secret World tends to do better than most MMOs. Unfortunately, they have been falling behind when it comes to adding new content to their winter event, but they are still adding new events to Halloween every year.

Putting it all together:

A holiday event in an MMORPG should be designed to fit within the context of the game world. It’s okay for them to coincide with and maybe even take some cues from real world holidays, but transplanting Christmas into the virtual realm wholesale is simply tacky.

Protector's Enclave during the Summer Festival event in Neverwinter

Secondly, if you’re going to have an in-game celebration, make it a real celebration. Don’t make it little more than a thinly veiled excuse to cram yet more grinding down players’ throats. Make holiday rewards relatively easy to obtain, or make the game’s other grinds temporarily more rewarding. Or both.

Finally, keep it fresh. In-game holidays don’t have to be massively overhauled every single year, but there does need to be new additions with some degree of regularity, or things will get stale. An event that’s exactly the same as the event you’ve done every other year just isn’t exciting after a while. People will stop logging in, and that will put a real damper on the festivities for those who are still participating.

As you might have gleaned from the sections above, I’d give The Secret World the award for the best in-game holidays right now. This is a game that decided to unleash the zombie apocalypse in lieu of a more traditional Christmas event, after all, and some of their events have been real triumphs of design.

That said, Elder Scrolls Online also seems to be putting forth an admirable effort. I also recall Neverwinter did a surprisingly good job of integrating its events into the game setting and offering good rewards, though they could be awfully grindy.


China Leads Charge to Fix MMO Gambling’s Biggest Problem

eso storm atronach gambling mounts

A totally sweet storm atronach mount can be yours…maybe!

Last week, Elder Scrolls Online launched their latest cash shop additions. The store now sells some pretty sweet storm atronach mounts, along with equally cool new skins. Unfortunately, gambling is the only way acquire these new collectibles. Alongside these items, Zenimax Online Studios has “welcomed” gambling crates to ESO.

As Deltia’s Gaming shows, the gambling crates aren’t a great value. Each crate costs $3.33 – $4 (depending on how many are purchased). Deltia purchased 45 crates, worth about $150. How many of these rare mounts did he receive for supporting gambling? Zero. Zilch. Nada. But that’s OK (or should be) because ZOS included a way to break down unwanted or duplicate items into gems. Gems supposedly give players freedom to avoid a nasty RNG streak like Deltia’s. Yet even after gemifying everything, Deltia still didn’t have enough for a rare mount. For some perspective, non-gambling mounts cost up to $25. It’s pretty absurd that $150 doesn’t guarantee a top prize.

Now, theoretically this was just an extremely unlucky run. According to this player run sheet, the average drop rate for a rare mount is 18%. That puts the price per mount at $18-$21, which is totally reasonable. But we’re banking on the accuracy of a player run sheet that is probably biased to huge winners and losers and susceptible to trolling statisticians. There’s just no way to confirm the legitimacy of any of these numbers. And that’s the biggest issue with loot crates, gambling boxes, or whatever your online game of choice calls them.

Publishers are inherently being disingenuous by not revealing drop rates. Players are simply left knowing there’s a chance of getting the best loot. And humans love the chance to win. Humans also incorrectly assess their chances of winning. Just because a coin has flipped to heads ten times in a row doesn’t make the chance of tails any better than 1 in 2. It’s what leads to customers shelling out money for just one more roll of the dice. It gets even worse lacking honest statistics. Without hard numbers to back up the actual likelihood of winning, gamblers will overconfidently assess their prospects of winning. Peter Griffin of Family Guys perfectly illustrates all of these human qualities below.

Luckily, China is coming to our rescue. They just passed a regulation that will require online game publishers to disclose the probability of loot crates drop. Of course China’s laws don’t impact how publishers operate in other countries. However, unless loot crate drop rates drastically differ by region, we’ll still learn what rates to expect. Sadly, this won’t impact Elder Scrolls Online because there’s no Chinese version of the game. It will impact games like Overwatch and Guild Wars 2, and it will be interesting to compare official drop rates to crowd sourced estimates. Either way, this is a surprisingly pro consumer move from a country that plans to implement a social credit score.

Now I don’t absolutely dislike MMO gambling. In fact, I personally like physical gambling in the forms of blackjack, poker, and penny slots. And I’m all for developers monetizing the game in any way that doesn’t dupe customers or fall into pay to win territory. Where MMOs vary against casino games is the opaque math and exclusivity and intangibility of the goods.

When I gamble in a casino, I know exactly what I’m getting into. I have no qualms about winning or losing because I know the chance of success, money exists in other places besides casinos, and gambling is an entertaining activity. Naturally, I have reservations about MMO gambling. It’s a black box compared to gambling in Vegas. I don’t know the likelihood of winning, and anything I do win has no redeemable value. China is fixing the former issue. The latter is why gaming companies have been able to avoid gambling laws for so long.

Most gambling laws in the United States and Europe pertain to cash and physical goods. Uneager to see that change, companies like Steam have found it wise to police themselves. Earlier this year, Steam sent cease-and-desist letters to those conducting gambling operations of CS:GO items. While that’s good and well, eventually something nasty will happen that will attract the right politician’s eye. Laws will change to include digital goods, and we’ll see the online gaming and MMO gambling world continue to evolve. Loss rewards like coins in Overwatch and gems in ESO will be calculable. This will lead to transparent values of digital goods for the willing consumer. Instead of guessing the price of that special ESO mount, we would know it would cost anywhere from $4 to $200. You can bet that publishers would be playing a whole new ball game then.

As they say, knowledge is power. Unfortunately, when it comes to gambling the publishers have all of that power. China is starting to change that. Hopefully other countries will follow suit.

 


StarCraft II: Nova Co-op Guide

Nova is one of the most powerful commanders in StarCraft II’s co-op mode, but she has an unusual playstyle that can take some adjustment. I already offered some tips when I wrote up my first impressions of Nova, but now I bring you a more detailed breakdown.

A promotional splash screen for co-op commander Nova in StarCraft II

Whether you’re new to co-op in general or just new to Nova, the following guide will help you get your bearings and begin calling down the thunder on Amon’s forces.

Economy, upgrades, and army composition:

Naturally, you should begin by making SCVs. Try to avoid queuing up multiple at a time, but make sure production is continuous. As soon as you can spend 100 minerals without compromising SCV production, begin construction on your first Refinery. Build the second as soon as the first is finished.

Once you can spend 150 minerals without compromising SCV production, dispatch another SCV to begin building your Barracks.

I usually cap out at sixteen SCVs mining minerals at the main base. This is a bit lower than the game recommends, but it frees up more supply for your army, and the resources you lose are pretty negligible. If you haven’t unlocked Automated Refineries yet, make sure to also have exactly three SCVs at every Refinery.

I don’t count the SCV building the Barracks toward the cap of sixteen. He will be used to build the rest of your base. Start with an Engineering Bay, then a Factory, then a Starport, then an Armory. Remember to attach to Tech Labs to your production facilities as soon as possible, and I also recommend assigning them to control groups. I assign each production building to its own group, but you can also assign them all to one and tab through them as needed.

Nova never has to build Supply Depots, allowing you to focus on other matters.

Nova blasting zombies on the co-op map Miner Evacuation in StarCraft II

Once the main base is constructed, you can dispatch the spare SCV to your expansion, which may already be established by this time. The exact timing of your expansion will vary based on the map, but generally you should start building it as soon as possible. I usually assign fourteen SCVs to mining minerals at the expansion.

You may quickly find yourself floating extra minerals when playing as Nova. In StarCraft II, we’re trained to spend our resources as quickly as possible, but as Nova, it can actually be beneficial to float large sums of resources at times, due to the high costs of her units and top bar abilities.

I recommend trying to get a squad of Marines out as quickly as possible. Nova’s Marines are so strong that they can generally hold off early attack waves all on their own. Try to get their Super Stim upgrade at the tech lab (assuming you’ve unlocked it) as quickly as possible.

I also recommend getting Nova’s Ghost Visor upgrade at the Ghost Academy early on. It allows you to never have to worry about cloaked units and helps to target Sabotage Drone.

Moving into the midgame, you can focus on building your army. Regardless of circumstance, I’ll always make Marines and at least some Marauders. They’re versatile and cost-effective units that are always beneficial.

You should also always make as many Ravens as possible. Their most important ability is their repair drone, which provides crucial healing to your expensive units, but their other abilities are also strong. Their turrets can tank a lot of damage when deployed in front of your army, and their missiles provide significant AoE damage.

One of Nova's enhanced goliaths in StarCraft II's co-op

Beyond that, Nova has more options than just about any other commander in co-op, so it really depends on the situation.

Ghosts’ Snipe ability is amazingly powerful, especially with the Triple-Tap upgrade, but it does only target biological units, so I usually only make Ghosts versus Zerg or an infantry-heavy Terran. EMP can be good against Protoss, but it’s very micro-intensive.

If you’re facing Terran or Protoss air, Goliaths should be a priority. If you’re playing on Temple of the Past or Miner Evacuation, Siege Tanks are a good investment. Remember to deploy their Spider Mines regularly.

I’ll use Liberators to supplement my force if facing enemy air compositions or playing on Void Launch, but I generally don’t recommend using them as the backbone of your army.

I generally don’t make Hellbats or Banshees as Nova. They’re not bad, but they don’t offer much that other things can’t do at least as well.

Always remember to get the Tech Lab upgrades for any units you’re using. They’re all worth it, with the possible exception of the Liberator upgrades and EMP when not facing Protoss.

Using Nova:

Nova has two combat modes, with the second unlocked at level three.

I tend to focus on her Stealth Mode. It allows her to attack air, and her Snipe is useful for taking big chunks of health off dangerous targets like Hybrids.

Nova's Sabotage Drone ability in StarCraft II's co-op

However, the most powerful tool of her Stealth Mode is undoubtedly Sabotage Drone. In fact, Sabotage Drone is one of the best abilities in all of co-op. It’s completely undetectable and therefore completely unavoidable. Send a drone into an enemy base for a guaranteed burst of AoE damage that can instantly kill all but the toughest units and structures.

Sabotage Drone has a relatively short cooldown, and you should be using it as often as possible. Often I’ll separate Nova from my main army so she can begin softening up later targets even as my army is dealing with a current objective.

After level nine, Stealth Mode also allows Nova to nuke targets, dealing massive damage in a huge area. Like Sabotage Drone, I tend to use this before attacking, but it can also be useful in the middle of fights. Nukes do not cause friendly fire damage in co-op.

Assault Mode is more niche. Its main tool is a conal AoE shotgun blast that deals bonus damage versus light units. It’s devastating against things like Zerglings, Zealots, Marines, and Hydralisks, but fairly underwhelming otherwise.

Assault Mode also gives Nova a short cooldown teleport that shields her. This is important to keep her alive while she’s blasting away at the front lines, and can also be a useful mobility tool.

Assault Mode’s level nine unlock is a Holo Decoy. The Decoy is something that seems good on paper but whose usefulness is limited in practice. It has very high health and damage, but you can’t control it directly, so it tends to stay in the general vicinity of where it was first summoned, and you can’t be sure it will be attacking what you want it to. I usually throw it out in the middle of a big fight and hope for the best.

Top bar abilities:

Nova's Griffin air strike ability in StarCraft II's co-op

Nova also has a number of powerful global abilities accessed from the top bar. Uniquely, they cost minerals, though their cooldowns tend to be very short.

The first ability is Defensive Drone. This summons an immobile drone that will apply shields to friendly units when they’re attacked and has a decently long duration. The drone can be killed but is fairly tough.

This a very strong ability that should be used early and often. Don’t hog it for your own troops, either. It’s a great way to support your ally if your armies are separated.

The other top bar ability Nova begins with allows you to instantly revive her in the field if she’s killed, with the cost determined by how much is left on her revival timer. You should almost always use this immediately, unless you’ve somehow gotten Nova killed during a period where there is little or no fighting.

At level two, she unlocks the Griffin Airstrike ability. This is an expensive ability at 1,000 minerals, so you probably won’t use it much in the early or midgame, but it can be a great tool in the lategame, dealing massive damage in a large column.

Note that there is a slight animation delay between casting the Airstrike and its impact, so it requires careful targeting. A good strategy is to send a Sabotage Drone into an enemy base then use its vision to target an Airstrike into the unexplored areas (Ghost Visor can help you know where to aim). The unengaged enemy will simply sit there as the Drone and Airstrike deal ruinous damage.

The Airstrike also happens to be the perfect size and shape to deal incredible damage to both trains and their protectors on Oblivion Express.

Nova nukes the enemy in StarCraft II's co-op

Finally, at level five, Nova gains Tactical Airlift, which allows her to pick up a large number of friendly units and instantly teleport them to any place you have vision, for the low price of 200 minerals. This is a fantastic ability whose potential cannot be overstated. It’s especially great for protecting locks on Lock and Load, but it has applications on every map.

Mastery points:

In the first set, I prefer Nuke/Decoy cooldown reduction. Even at full mastery, the Airstrike will still cost 700 minerals, which is still a lot.

For the second, unit attack speed is definitely superior, though I still put some points in Nova attack speed just for funsies.

For the third, unit life regeneration should be your first priority, but once you’ve sunk five to ten points into it, you start to run into diminishing returns pretty fast. Spend the rest on Nova’s energy regeneration.


Westworld: When Gaming Gets Too Real

The season finale for Westworld aired yesterday, delivering the jaw-dropping type of events one comes to expect from an HBO show. During the ten episode run, many parallels were drawn between the show’s universe and gaming. These parallels really screwed with my brain. I’d sit down for a session of Elder Scrolls Online and go beyond simple killing of NPCs for EXP to an existential meaning of those actions. At the risk of oversimplification, Westworld is about lifelike robots, how humans treat them as lifeless beings, and what defines life. I really enjoyed the season, so if you’re on the fence I do recommend watching it.  From here on out, there will be spoilers for Westworld season 1. If you want to avoid spoilers, bookmark this article and come back later.

Westworld enter the game

Westworld: Enter the Game

Throughout the series, Westworld is constantly referred to as a game. The players are ‘guests’, humans who pay to enter the park. The ‘hosts’ are robots who entertain the guests in whatever manner the guests see fit. From sex to murder to exploration, the hosts are presented as toys like those of a toddler’s: meant to be played with discarded at a whim. The only rule is that guests can’t harm one another. It’s like a sandbox game without any PvP.

What’s really cool compared to a video game or a virtual world is how lifelike the hosts act. In many ways, it’s also terrible. The guests seem able to ignore the hosts’ very human emotions because the entire park is presented as a game. Not surprisingly, guests mainly want to experience what people look for in video games. We’re talking about getting in large gunfights, becoming an outlaw, developing romantic relationships, going on adventures with crazy stories, etc. And like in video games, the characters and world reset on a constant basis. Killing an entire town appears to have as much of an effect as doing so in Skyrim then reloading one’s game. One minute, the townsfolk are dead. The next they’re all back to their usual routine. How real can a host be if it can’t truly die? It’s fair to argue that without death, there is no life.

The difference between video games and Westworld is huge though. I doubt the average guest can fathom the distinction, but as a show watcher we’re privy to the park’s inner workings. The hosts may reset frequently, but they were built to learn from past lives. Reveries allow access to previous interactions with guests. It’s like a set of complex scripts that independently tweak themselves based on previous usage. As these reveries build and build, the hosts grow more lifelike. Theoretically that would eventually make them indiscernible from real humans. This culminates in the season finale, where the original host named Dolores appears to discover consciousness. We’re led to believe that no longer do human programs control her actions. Instead, she has ascended to the autonomous being that Westworld’s two creators had envisioned. She has found her inner voice.

Westworld Dolores inner voice

This all happens right before the retirement speech of Dr. Ford, the park’s sole living creator. Gathered around are investors, board members, and individuals who view the park from a dollar and cents angle. I’d argue they’re even less empathetic than the guests who shoot, rape, and torture the hosts on a daily basis. It’s easy to get sucked into the premise of nothing really counting. I know that in MMORPGs and other games, an AI’s display of emotions isn’t real. But what does that mean? I do something to hurt them and they cry or lash out in anger. Those are realistic reactions, but they’re all scripted. They aren’t actually feeling pain and measuring their response to act in kind. The lack of feeling and thought are key differences between games and Westworld.

Machine learning still has a long way to go until we get to a Westworld possibility. In Westworld’s universe, the peak of artificial intelligence is in the park. Board director Charlotte Hill makes that clear when she tells Theresa her real interest is in the IP. Meanwhile in 2016, gaming AI is years behind ‘real world’ applications. Google is close to delivering a self-driving car while the tactical AI in Civilization V can’t even threaten my centuries obsolete empire. If the robots rebel, like Dolores does in the season finale, it will first happen outside of a theme park. But this is fiction, she is the top AI, she does rebel, and I have a hard time determining how I should feel.

We spend hours watching people perform heinous acts that would repulse any moral human in another show. To reference another HBO program, this is some Joffrey level shit. And Joffrey hate is well founded. But this isn’t Game of Thrones. This is Westworld. Maybe it’s my reveries recalling fictional uprisings like Terminator’s Skynet, but I find myself siding with the guests. I’m concerned that contrary to Dolores’s belief that “there’s so much beauty in this world”, she will only act on the violent delights guests have indulged. That’s where the evidence is pointing. Her first act after ‘awakening’ was to open fire on Dr. Ford and a crowd of investors. Given her experiences, it’s understandable. We’re led to believe this is a fight for freedom or to develop their consciousness. But is this simply revenge or even worse, a learned response for what being alive is really all about?

Westworld gaming too real

What if this guy could really feel your virtual bullets?

As a gamer, I have to question if death is what these people deserve. Don’t get me wrong – I empathize with the hosts. Living your life as a chew toy is a living hell. If hosts experience suffering how a living being would then that’s not cool. But how on earth is the average human supposed to tell? There is a very fine line between suffering and displaying the signs of suffering. Although it’s not entirely clear, it seems like the hosts’ suffering is real. The investors and board directors may all be aware of this and if so, it’s hard to feel sympathy for them. But I’m concerned for the average guest who thinks Westworld is a game where nothing is real.

We want realistic games and Westworld succeeds in delivering that in a big way. We want believable actions, dynamic worlds, and multilayered characters. These are the things that earn a title like Witcher 3 so many game of the year awards. There’s little reason to think people will ever want less realism out of their games (at least as far as a general trend). However, games always have win/lose conditions. It’s an important part of their very fabric.

The Man in Black astutely points out in the last episode that Westworld isn’t much of a game if the player can’t lose. In video games, losing usually means starting the level over. It’s a matter of a few minutes to get back to your pre-death life. At its worst, losing penalizes players with character deletion like in Diablo’s hardcore mode. Lose conditions are a huge part of game design. In sports or board games, the field resets after one side achieves victory. In all of these examples, the player has an opponent trying to inhibit their success. No such opponent exists in Westworld and the reason is clear. The only way the artificial opponents could win is by killing the human guests. I don’t think I need to tell you that would be bad for business.

dr. ford arnold westworld villains

Accidental villains of Westworld?

Herein lies the problem with Westworld and why the co-creators, Arnold and Dr. Ford, are perhaps the ultimate villains. Westworld is too real to be a game. The entertainment isn’t a set of scripts but are apparently living beings unable to retaliate against their oppressors. That they’re inorganic is irrelevant. Or is it? That’s one of questions the show wants you to ask. What I want to ask is: is Westworld what you want to experience as a gamer? Realism can undoubtedly go too far in the name of entertainment. If virtual sex or killing is your thing, I have no doubt experiences in those fields will develop into pretty lifelike interactions. Maybe the stakes won’t be as high as Westworld and the responses won’t feel quite as organic. But at least there won’t be a need to harm sentient beings.