Monthly Archives: May 2018

Path of Exile – Incursion League Sneak Peak

“It is a cruel joke that man was born with more intent than life.”
-Malachai

The Preview

Nearly 5 years after its initial release, Path of Exile is still constantly improving. With massive skill revamps, a slew of new uniques that scream “build around me!” and the new league mechanic; Temporal Incursions, Incursion League promises to keep things fresh for veterans, while mercilessly crushing those unfamiliar with the harsh rules of Wraeclast.

This time around we’ll explore the lore behind the long lost Vaal Empire. Temporal Incursions are a random event that spawn similar to other leagues.

poe incursion altar

Travel into the past, help explorer Alva Valai locate the lost temple of Atzoatl

Alva Valai is an explorer searching for the long lost temple of Atzoatl. Each time you encounter her in the world she will open a portal into the past at some point during the temple’s construction. Manipulate the history of the temple by killing your choice of Vaal architects and by unlocking rooms to change the temple’s properties in the present day. Manipulate the construction significantly enough one way or the other and you just might find a valuable ancient artifact!

poe incursion keys

During your Incursions, you may find keys that can be used to unlock doors in the past, allowing access to additional rooms in the future.

Skill gems are also receiving a major overhaul this league. Many old skill gems got pushed to the wayside at newer and flashier gems were released. A lot of effort has gone into revamping these old skills, significantly improving the artwork and buffing/altering their abilities to be more viable. Many classic skills have been updated to have a definitive identity and given some much needed love.

Trickers rejoice! Trappers will be happy to hear that not only have most of the older trap skills also been revamped, but 5 new trap specific skill gems have been added to the game.

poe incursion rain of arrows

Skills such as Rain of Arrows have been tweaked for viability and to fill niche builds.

Finally, what would a league centered around the Vaal Empire be without an update to Vaal skill gems? Vaal skills are receiving a major buff, increasing their viability in virtually all builds. From now on, Vaal skills allow access to both the Vaal and base versions of the skill.

“I fought for God. Who do you fight for, exile?”

What Do I Think?

There some fun ideas for this new season of Path of Exile. Grinding Gear continues to enhance each subsequent league in a manner that’s in line with their audience’s desires. On average, each league delivers more fun than the last.

The problem for long term players is that the leagues don’t provide sustainable improvements to the game’s core mechanics. It’s fun to go back through the leveling process and try out new builds, but it’s fun only so many times before repetition sets in. Perhaps GGG is open to suggestions for how to make leveling more appealing? But even if the developers improved leveling, it’s the super end game that needs the most attention. Diablo style games exist to continually improve our characters via the RNG loot run, and the game capped out on that experience for quite some time ago. There’s simply nothing new at the end of the yellow brick road to entice such a lengthy journey as my first few leagues.

As someone who has leveled through multiple seasons of play, I now find myself rather ambivalent about the upcoming league. The magic of discovery has eroded over the course of (an admittedly very enjoyable) hundreds of hours of play. Now that it’s near faded, I hope it’s not too late to rekindle. I simply don’t think GGG can rest on their laurels and apply shiny new coats of paint to keep things running. Path of Exile needs a renovation and hopefully Incursion will act as a nice stopgap to get us to that next major expansion. I can’t really look at it as anything more than that.

Path of Exile: Incursion will be released on June 1, 2018 for PC, and within a week of that date for Xbox One.


Six Ways MMOs Can Make Leveling More Appealing

There has always been a vocal contingent of the MMO community that views leveling as nothing but a chore. And to be fair, in a lot of games, it is. But what to do?

A party of characters in World of Warcraft

One possibility is to abolish leveling entirely, but given how intrinsic leveling is to the RPG experience, it may be more realistic to look for ways to make leveling more interesting, to make it a compelling attraction in its own right.

Let’s take a look at some of the things developers can do to make leveling appealing.

Put Your Best Foot Forward

MMOs are rather infamous for making players wait to get to the good stuff. “The real game begins at endgame” is a refrain we’ve all heard. All the development resources go into high level content like raids, leaving leveling players to pick up the scraps of bland kill and collect quests.

Thankfully, MMO developers are waking up to how off-putting this can be, so it’s not as common a problem as it once was, but it’s still worth saying: In 2018, players will lose patience with games that don’t put their best foot forward.

We now expect leveling content to have all the bells and whistles and production values of endgame. There are far too many good MMOs out there to waste time on games that can’t be bothered to make good first impression.

Equally Viable Options

Similarly, leveling should reflect endgame by offering as many options for how to play as max level content, and those options should all be viable paths to the cap.

A paladin character in the Dungeons and Dragons MMORPG Neverwinter

Often, MMOs tune quests as the optimal leveling path, and other options are left by the wayside. Even as an avid quester myself, this doesn’t sit right with me. If someone has joined your MMO hoping to get into competitive PvP at endgame, they should be able to compete against their fellow players as a method of leveling, too, and not have to worry about missing out on XP or gear upgrades.

This has the advantage of offering variety, too. As I said, I enjoy questing, but sometimes I need a break. Sometimes it’s nice to earn a few levels through dungeons or PvP. As long as games don’t spread themselves too thin, variety can be a good thing.

Emotional Investment

This entry was originally going to be “a good story,” but that draws to mind some kind of linear, overarching story, and while that is a model I enjoy, I’m not sure it’s something you really need.

What you need is something for the player to get invested in beyond stats and levels. Whether that be an epic story, a good cast of characters, or a fascinating world, it just needs to be something people can care about.

If people are only playing for the mechanics, it’s easy for them to be distracted by other games, but if they become emotionally invested, they’ll keep coming back for more. They’ll find themselves doing “just one more quest” to see what happens next.

More Content Than Is Needed

Leveling isn’t just for new players. These days almost everyone plays alts, whether for fun or because their guild needs a new tank/healer/whatever. That means leveling isn’t something you experience just once, and therefore there needs to be some way to keep it fresh.

An Imperial agent character in Star Wars: The Old Republic

A very easy way to achieve this is to simply offer more content than is needed to get a single character to level cap. This could take the form of quests that are unique to specific classes or races, as seen in Star Wars: The Old Republic or the upcoming Bless Online, but it could also just mean extra zones or leveling paths.

A good level-scaling system can also help, allowing players to choose their path through content rather than having it be entirely dictated by their current level.

A Steady Leveling Curve

Long-time MMO players are familiar with the concept of “hell levels,” wherein higher levels require a brutal amount of time to earn.

True hell levels are largely a thing of the past these days, but the general concept of level-ups becoming far slower as one approaches endgame remains, and I have to wonder why. While it does have a basic sort of logic to it, upon closer examination I have a hard time seeing any good justification for it. It’s just discouraging.

One thing that I greatly admire Guild Wars 2 for is its nearly flat leveling curve, where higher levels do not take significantly more effort to earn than lower ones. The rate at which your character dings remains more or less consistent throughout the game, and it feels much more balanced and rewarding.

Challenge

Often when people talk about making leveling more challenging, they mean they want to bring back the days when it took a week or more of solid grinding to get a single level. But tedium is not true difficulty, and that’s not what I mean when I say that leveling could use more challenge.

Combat in the original version of The Secret World, a famously challenging MMO

Too often, enemies in MMORPG leveling content are little more than speed bumps. They don’t have intelligent AI, meaningful mechanics to counter, or even the raw stats to be a serious threat to any basically competent player. This can make leveling content feel like a chore, rather than the exciting adventure a good RPG should be.

Of course, there is also the risk of making leveling too challenging. It is, after all, a new player’s first introduction to the game, and things should be a bit forgiving at first while they learn the ropes. If leveling becomes too unforgiving, it risks driving people away.

But there must be a happy medium. Just because leveling can’t be too brutal doesn’t mean it should be all mindless, all the time, either. As players progress further into a game, they can and should be expected to handle greater challenges.


Rethinking MMO Death Penalties

back in my day leveling

Back in my day, dying was a complete disaster in any MMORPG. Anytime my health ticked down anywhere close to zero, I started to sweat. In Ultima Online, I risked everything on my body and in my backpack. In EverQuest, I risked delevels. In Asheron’s Call, death was a not so happy middle ground between the two.

Nowadays, death is a slap on the wrist. I wait around even less time than in a competitive game like League of Legends to respawn and rejoin the action. This largely encourages lackadaisical playstyles and lowers the common denominator across the board for ease of content. I think in a genre that largely caters to character skill over player skill, death is a key element to adding tension.

The problem is death has only been considered in rather binary terms. You either permanently lose progress (levels or items) or you don’t. Some MMOs use a temporary debuff system to penalize death, but these don’t really change player approaches. However, there’s another option for death that’s been used successfully in other genres.

Solution to Bland MMO Death Penalties

Instead of negating progress, (thus making a grind even grindier) or lowering stats across the board (thus making a grind even grindier) I propose temporary restrictions of abilities. In this system, recently deceased players will select one of three ability-specific debuffs to “pay” for their revitalization. These debuffs can include increased cooldowns to lowered effectiveness, canceling talents, or even removing an ability’s use. These penalties should be enough to force players into a new playstyle to progress optimally without completely ruining the character. As such, it’s important that developers balance for a wide range of talent/ability combinations, the debuffs last long enough to matter but not so long as to frustrate, and that debuffs cap out at a certain number.

If done right, death is all of the sudden an interesting mechanic. Sure, retooling is tough, especially with multiple debuffs running. But long term it’s entirely possible to stumble upon a new rotation or set of abilities that work even better than in the character’s “former life”. In games like XCOM, the death penalty is quite severe but exemplifies the dynamic level of adjustment that’s possible from changing key setups. Losing one’s best sniper in XCOM (where character death is permanent but squads are six characters large) doesn’t mean the game is over. It does mean you can no longer rely on the same strategies that have worked in the past ten missions.

This is the type of penalty I’d like to see introduced into MMOs (though with less permanence since XCOM ends whereas MMOs do not). It adds tension from its uncertainty as much as it does from jarring the player’s sense of complacency. It’s pretty rare for most players to change builds in MMOs once we find something that works. Death now forces a constant reassessment of setups without permanently altering our ability to play the game we want.


Character Skill vs. Player Skill

If there’s one key differentiator between MMO games and other genres it’s that character skill trumps player skill. Even in games with MMO-style meta progression systems like some MOBAs and FPS games, player skill will win out in all but the most unbalanced systems (I’m looking at you Star Wars: Battlefront and the Han Solo pistol). In MMOs, a level 20 character is straight up better than a level 10 character. There’s no way around it, and if there’s PvP involved then the lower level character better hope they don’t cross paths.

This is born out of the MMORPG subgenre from which the broader MMO genre originated. RPGs are first and foremost about progressing a character’s prowess (regardless of what roleplayers and story lovers will argue). Taking agency out of the actual player’s hands is certainly fine. It’s much easier to balance an experience around well defined numbers than it is between players with disparate brain powers and reflexes. This ensures a proper difficulty curve for everyone that plays the game. The problem is that this creates a disconnect for players in what constitutes as skillful play.

In the absence of player skill, many gamers equate leveling or leveling speed to player skill. Thus, they shun games with auto leveling like Dragon Awaken. These same players may even argue that auto leveling is boring, while ignoring the trivial nature of leveling in the vast majority of MMORPGs.

dragon awaken auto button

One of many places the auto button appears in Dragon Awaken

Eve Online is one MMORPG that completely removes the player’s ability to impact leveling speed by relegating advancement to a real time system. This frees up the player’s time to engage in other activities without concern for progression. Unfortunately, most people who end up trying Eve find that “leveling time” just gets replaced with “money time”. Eve players then turn to assessing the fastest way to generate income, which is part of what turns Eve into a “spreadsheet game”. There’s more to the game, but it doesn’t change the fact that progression is boring.

Regardless of whether leveling is accomplished via play, in-game bots, or real-time advancement, it’s always pretty mindless when removing player skill. Thus, I think some element of player skill must be present even when character skill is paramount. A good example of this system in action can be found in Dungeons & Dragons Online. Each dungeon offers multiple difficulty levels that cater to casual solo players as much as they do hardcore groups. Rewards are commensurate with the challenge undertaken so choosing to up the difficulty is actually worthwhile. This exemplifies a key balancing element between mass market appeal and satisfying the loyal, hardcore niche. It’s also why we should feel comfortable calling certain games MMOs even most gameplay is instanced. Doing otherwise limits a developer’s ability to find creative solutions to age old problems.

DDO Instances

I tend to gravitate towards the idea that developers should incorporate fewer binary elements in MMO death penalties. One such element is the all or nothing aspect of experience points. Typically, EXP is only gained from completing quests or killing enemies. There’s no partial credit. This runs counter to games in other genres where win or lose, you’ll gain EXP. Bonuses exist in those games for winning or performing well, but there’s always advancement for just playing. This method frees up an alternate progression paths where failure is OK. As is, failure is not OK in MMOs. And that’s bad.

Ultimately, I believe a hybrid vertical/horizontal progression model works best for MMOs where failure can safely exist. I’ve talked ad nauseum about the greatness of horizontal progression many times so I won’t delve too far into this. Suffice it to say that a one-two dopamine punch of progressing both oneself and one’s character simultaneously is twice the hook of progressing only one. If that sounds up your alley, maybe check out Fractured or Crowfall. I really like the ideas these developers are putting forth to improve how advancement has worked in this surprisingly stale 20-year old genre.

Character skill comes in many forms – from absolute power to diverse options. Either can provide satisfying forms of advancement. Unfortunately, such advancement often comes at the expense of player agency. Many MMOs have tackled the issue in different ways, but I think very few have hit the mark. As time passes, I expect more MMOs to find a happy medium between the player and the character.

Where’s your perfect balance between the two?


Six Design Choices MMOs Should Retire

Often, tradition can be a good thing, but not always. Sometimes traditions can be onerous or destructive, surviving only through a resigned belief that this is how things have always been, so this is how things always will be.

Executing an enemy in Star Wars: The Old Republic

As it is in the real world, so it is in the world of MMORPGs. There are some ingrained or traditional elements of MMO design that have long outlived their usefulness, if indeed they ever had any to begin with. These concepts simply need to be retired, ideally sooner rather than later.

Lockboxes

This entry might surprise some people who are familiar with my work, as I have developed something of a reputation of being a lockbox apologist.

And to be clear: My position has not changed. I think the furor over lockboxes is quite overblown, that people take the issue far too seriously, and that the whole situation has become somewhat toxic.

That being said, I have also always been clear that I don’t particularly like lockboxes. I don’t think they’re immoral or the death of the genre, but I also don’t think they’re a good thing to have around, either. It’s obvious that making people gamble for what they want rather than buying or earning it directly is not a good deal for the player.

I reject the idea that lockboxes are any more than an annoyance, but they are still an annoyance. If they vanished from the world tomorrow, I wouldn’t shed a tear.

If nothing else, I wouldn’t have to listen to people endlessly complaining about them anymore.

Factions in PvE Games

I’ve never liked the idea of factions in MMORPGs. I’m not very competitive; I’m the sort of person who would rather cooperate with other players than fight against them.

However, I do grant that there are some games where they make sense. If your MMO is based

Horde and Alliance armor in World of Warcraft's upcoming Battle for Azeroth expansion

on PvP, separating players into discrete factions is a good way to foster team spirit and create the potential for large scale conflict.

Outside of those niche cases, though?

Factions need to go.

MMOs are, obviously, a social medium, so creating artificial divides between players is one of the most counter-productive things you can do. You’re giving people smaller pools of potential group members, less opportunity to make new friends, and more limited options altogether.

Not to mention the potential for toxicity it brings forth. I’m forever amazed that anyone takes seriously the conflict between imaginary video game factions, but in reality the rivalries between factions can spill over into the real world in some very ugly ways. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a World of Warcraft player make the earnest argument that Horde/Alliance players are all children/crybabies/bullies/perverts/genetically inferior, I could fund my own MMO (it would basically be a hybrid of The Secret World and SWTOR, but high fantasy).

Now that the WoW clone craze is winding down and companies are no longer trying to ape Blizzard’s giant as much as possible, the idea of factional conflict in PvE MMOs is fading, but honestly, I don’t think things have gone far enough. I’d like to see those games that still have factions begin to phase them out, at least to some degree. Most games have the conceit that players are freelance adventurers, so they should have the option to work with whomever they choose.

Elder Scrolls Online has a good model to follow. Factions still exist, but are irrelevant outside of the Alliance War PvP system. Anyone can group with anyone, and no content is gated by faction.

And when it comes to new releases, let’s just not bother with factions at all, shall we?

A shot from the MMO shooter The Division

Mandatory Subscriptions

I’ve already ranted about MMO subscription fees in the past. They incentivize bad game design, they discourage variety, and they don’t really offer any of the benefits they claim to. I firmly believe that of all current monetization options for online games, a mandatory subscription fee is the worst deal from the player’s perspective (except maybe crowdfunding and early access, but that’s kind of a whole other issue).

The good news is that these days subscriptions are a dying breed. There’s really only two major games still clinging to them — World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV — and I’m fairly confident they’ll come around eventually. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day.

I just hope it’s some day soon.

Loot Competition

The fight for treasure lies at the heart of most MMORPGs. But ideally that fight should be against bosses and monsters, or at most enemy players, not your own teammates.

Yet for many long years, this was the standard mode of operation for most MMOs. At the end of a fight, there was a finite pool of loot drops to share, and players had to decide how to distribute it between them. In a perfect world, a civil discourse would follow, and items would be given out in a fair and orderly fashion.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. Thus, loot drama became a thing. Guilds came up with all sorts of convoluted systems to try to determine who most deserved what item, but in the end there was always plenty of potential for conflict and resentment. And that’s in organized groups. In PUGs, things could get truly ugly.

It needs to be said again: MMOs are a social medium. Any design that fosters anti-social behavior should be eliminated with extreme prejudice.

A shot from the MMO shooter Defiance

Thankfully, personalized loot drops, with no competition and no drama, are becoming ever more common, and the days of living in fear of loot ninjas seem to be fading. Even so, there are still plenty of games clinging to the old ways, despite the obvious disadvantages.

Death Penalties

Coming from a background in single-player games, death penalties in MMOs are something that’s always baffled me. I don’t understand why they ever existed in the first place, let alone why they’re still around.

In the rest of gaming, if you die, you go back to your last save or checkpoint and start over. The fact you have to repeat whatever killed you (and anything else after your last save) is the punishment for failure, and really that’s all there needs to be.

MMOs have the same thing. By the time you get back to where you died, the boss you were fighting will have reset, or the mobs respawned. You have to start over. And again, that’s really all you need to make death feel meaningful.

But for some reason MMOs feel the need to tack additional punishment on top of that. In the old days we had all kinds of draconian things like corpse runs and XP loss. Nowadays most games have lighter penalties, like gear repairs, but the idea of punishment for death is still there.

And I still don’t know why. It’s being punitive for the sake of being punitive. It doesn’t add to gameplay in any way. It’s only frustrating. At best it can serve as a gold sink, but there has to be more inventive ways to achieve that goal.

Mobs… Mobs Everywhere

Wild monsters in Black Desert Online

One of my biggest pet peeves of MMO design is when developers feel the need to fill every corner of the game world with legions of hostile mobs, making it impossible to go anywhere or enjoy the sights without constantly being jumped by some randomly hostile wildlife.

Now, I do somewhat understand the reasoning for this. You want a game world to present a certain sense of danger, and nothing’s worse than running out of mobs while on a kill quest. But just jamming every corner of every zone full of baddies isn’t a great solution to either problem.

Mob competition is better solved by adjustable respawn times that replenish enemies more quickly when players are killing them in large numbers. Meanwhile, I think excessive numbers of mobs ultimately do more to harm the sense of peril in a game world than they do to help it.

See, if your game is designed such that you’re coming under attack at every turn, each individual enemy can’t really be that dangerous. Otherwise it would become an unplayable slog. This turns mobs into mere speedbumps, rather than something to genuinely be wary of.

What I would like to see is more intelligent mob placement. If there’s a large NPC camp that is involved in important quests, sure, fill it with legions of bad guys. But in the open wilderness, don’t add enemies unless there’s a good cause, and it’s probably better for them to be fewer and more powerful. This creates a certain sense of peril and adventure without making every journey an endless slog of trivial battles.

And developers really need to learn that it’s okay for some areas to be free of danger. Let a pretty glade just be a pretty glade.