Tag Archives: Overwatch

Stepping off the Treadmill: Alternatives to Gear

Honesty time: I have had enough of gear. The concept of continually acquiring new and better equipment lies at the heart of virtually all MMORPGs, but I’m just sick of it. It’s an easy way for developers to provide a carrot for players to chase, but I don’t think it’s healthy for the genre in the long run, and I for one am simply bored with the whole concept.

A high level character shows off their gear in World of Warcraft

Gear as a vertical progression system works well in single-player games because eventually you’ll have the best gear and be done with it. In an MMO, that can never happen. Regular gear resets are a necessity, so gearing becomes a treadmill where you never really get anywhere. Today’s best in slot will be tomorrow’s vendor trash.

It’s also a terribly binary form of progression. Either the item you want drops, or it doesn’t, and your time feels wasted. This can be mitigated with currency systems, where if gear doesn’t drop a currency that can eventually be spent on gear does, but even that only lessens the problem, rather than solving it entirely.

And of course it creates terrible inequality between players. There is inevitably a large power gap between those with the best gear and those without, fostering elitism and excluding many people from content.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are other alternative progressions systems out there, and while none are perfect, many can avoid the pitfalls of the gear treadmill.

Continued Leveling

In most MMOs, leveling is little more than a time-gate. It’s something you work through before getting to the “real” game, which is usually where the gear treadmill kicks in.

But it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way. Leveling is something that can continue indefinitely, providing players constant, incremental power increases. You can see examples of this in Diablo III’s paragon levels and Elder Scrolls Online’s champion points.

A necromancer character in Diablo III, a game where leveling never ends

There are some disadvantages to such a scheme. In the long run the constant small stat boosts can add up and begin to create balance issues or other strange behaviors, and as with gear, you risk creating a large divide between the haves and the have-nots, though that can be mitigated with catch-up mechanics.

Endless leveling does have some major positives, though. Because pretty much anything can give XP, leveling is a progression system that offers incredible freedom to the player. Any playstyle can be therefore be meaningfully rewarded. Add global level-scaling as seen in Guild Wars 2 or ESO, and your options become almost limitless.

You can also say goodbye to play sessions where nothing is accomplished because what you wanted didn’t drop. You’re always going to be earning at least some XP. And while it’s still vertical progression, it’s not a treadmill, because the levels you’ve already earned are never made irrelevant. You’re always moving forward.

Non-combat Skills

Not all progression needs to be about helping you kill stuff faster. Progression can instead take the form of various non-combat abilities and buffs. Perhaps players can gain new movement skills, or learn new languages to access quests from isolated NPC races, or gain more incremental buffs to things like movement speed or gold find.

The masteries introduced in Guild Wars 2’s Heart of Thorns expansion are one example of this, and some of ESO’s champion points and Diablo’s paragon levels also offer non-combat improvements.

Horizontal progression such as this is good because it side-steps nearly all of the problems with gear. The gap between veteran and newcomer is largely irrelevant, since both groups maintain roughly the same power level where it most counts. There is no treadmill, as the bonuses you’ve earned are always relevant. Like endless leveling, it’s also a good opportunity to reward all playstyles and make every session rewarding.

A character in Guild Wars 2, a game with a vocal but not always successful commitment to horizontal progression

The downsides are that non-combat bonuses don’t always have the same “sex appeal” as doing more damage or having more health, and it can be difficult to design non-combat boosts that are useful enough to be appealing but optional enough to not break the game.

Non-combat progression likely works best as a supplement to other systems rather than the core progression model of a game. It can be something to help you achieve your other goals, since not everyone will find it a worthy goal unto itself.

Cosmetics

Progression doesn’t even necessarily need to be about gameplay. It can also just be about bringing the flair. There are already plenty of people throughout the MMO community who will pursue gear purely for its looks, rather than its stats. Some wily developer could capitalize on this and put cosmetic progression front and center.

In theory, cosmetic progression was supposed to a key part of Guild Wars 2’s design, though it never seemed to quite work out that way. I don’t think it had enough different looks to choose from, at least at launch, and limiting the transmutation charges needed to a change an item’s appearance was a mistake. If you want to make appearance items a core progression system, it needs to be easy to create, save, and swap outfits at will. Otherwise you encourage people to find one look they like and stick with it forever after.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has a very good outfit system that allows you to save multiple looks and swap between them whenever, wherever. It’s certainly encouraged me to horde a massive amount of cosmetic gear. Also, while it’s not an MMO, Overwatch seems to be doing quite well with a purely cosmetic progression model, so I definitely think it can work.

I think the trick to a really strong cosmetic progression system is to have a wealth of options. Not just the usual gear slots we’re used to, but also visible jewelry, dyes and accessories to modify your clothes, and perhaps unlockable hairstyles or idle animations.

SWTOR is a good MMORPG for cosmetic progression

Make it so no two characters ever look alike, so each avatar is a visual record of that player’s accomplishments. Then move it beyond avatars to also include non-combat pets and mount skins. Even spells and abilities could potentially be reskinned, with more unusual effects reserved for the greatest in-game accomplishments.

With some creativity, the potential for cosmetic progression is almost limitless. The only real downside is that, like gear with stats, cosmetics don’t lend themselves to incremental progress very well. You either get the item you want, or you don’t.

Earning Abilities

Another option for horizontal progression is to continually earn new abilities. These abilities are not necessarily more powerful than what you already have, but simply add new options. This is a more niche option, but for me personally, it’s the most appealing form of progression.

The main example of this I can think of was the late, lamented ability wheel of The Secret World, wherein players constantly earned ability points that could then be spent unlocking hundreds of active and passive abilities. Only a few of these abilities could be equipped at a time, making for careful strategic decision-making and allowing for true horizontal progression. Leveling up different jobs on the same character in Final Fantasy XIV could also be considered a version of this progression model, though a very watered down one.

There are a lot of obvious advantages to this. It greatly narrows the gap between the haves and the have-nots because veteran players simply have more options rather than being directly more powerful.

It also eliminates the treadmill issue. Your old abilities are never invalidated. They will always have uses, even if they’re niche.

The Secret World was one of the best MMOs for horizontal progression before its reboot

The downsides are the potential balance issues caused by endlessly adding new abilities and the design challenge in keeping the new abilities meaningful and interesting, but I don’t think those are necessarily unsolvable. TSW may have had cookie cutter builds for certain situations, but there were no builds that dominated every aspect of the game, and almost every ability was useful in at least one or two circumstances.

These new abilities could be earned through traditional XP farming as in TSW and FFXIV, but developers could also get more creative. There could be lengthy quest chains where one learns new abilities from a master, or defeating a powerful boss could grant the player permanent use of one of the boss’s powers.

Mix and Match

Ultimately, no one single alternative to gear will work for everyone. It would be best to combine a few to achieve a broad appeal and add depth to the experience.

But really, that’s to be expected. Even games that do rely on gear for vertical progression often include at least some elements of other systems.

What is clear is that the gear treadmill is not the be all and end all of MMORPG progression. Developers like it because it’s easy to design, and players like it because we’ve been conditioned to, but the genre can and should do better. There are alternatives out there. All we need is a developer with the courage to try.


Heroes of the Storm 2.0 Isn’t that Different

If there’s one thing Blizzard seems to love, it’s revamping games. They never seem to be able to go very long without some sort of major overhaul to one of their titles. The most recent game to get this treatment is Heroes of the Storm, having recently been given a quasi-relaunch as “Heroes of the Storm 2.0.”

Opening a loot box in Heroes of the Storm

I used to be a big-time Heroes player, having been invited to the technical alpha and playing regularly up to the official launch and for some time after. However, I had started to lose interest in recent months.

2.0 seemed like a good opportunity to revisit the game, but would it reignite my love for Heroes of the Storm or drive me farther away?

What’s in the Box?

Most of the 2.0 changes focus on revamping the game’s progression and rewards systems. These changes are too complex to be declared entirely good or bad; it really depends on who you are and what you want.

2.0 is clearly taking a lot of cues from Overwatch, and while the two systems are not necessarily identical, you’ll definitely see a lot that’s familiar in Heroes if you’ve played Blizzard’s shooter.

Firstly, leveling has been redesigned. Account level is no longer its own thing but is simply the sum of your total hero levels across all characters. Whenever a hero levels up, you earn a loot box full of random cosmetic rewards, with certain level milestones offering boxes of a higher quality. And of course you can also buy boxes for real money if you so desire.

I may have argued in the past that the furor over lockbox mechanics has gotten a little out of hand, but I’m still not a particular fan of the idea, and it’s hard to celebrate when a game suddenly embraces them with open arms.

Tracer's Spectre skin in Heroes of the Storm

That said, for at least some people, this system can be seen as an improvement. Before, if you didn’t want to pay cash for cosmetics in Heroes of the Storm, you were simply out of luck. There were very few mounts or skins available for in-game currency, and they required a lot of grind to acquire.

Now, you can earn every cosmetic in the game without spending a dime. At least in theory. If you’re unwilling or unable to pay real world money, this update is bound to be a huge boon to you.

On the other hand, if you can pay, the news is much less positive. Whereas before you could get whatever skin or mount you wanted whenever you wanted (more or less — mounts tended to cycle in and out of the store, but they always came back eventually), now only a very small selection of cosmetics will be available for direct sale each week. If what you want isn’t available right now, your only choice is to gamble.

And while you can potentially get everything from loot boxes, the odds of actually getting what you want are not great. In a rather transparent attempt to keep people chasing the good stuff, Blizzard has clogged the game with reams of new items that I can’t imagine anyone really wants.

There are banners that only deploy under certain “blink and you’ll miss it” circumstances. There are announcers that are barely heard since they don’t cover map-specific call-outs. There are voice lines that are mostly just copies of the dialogue your characters are always saying anyway. There are tiny sprays no one really uses. And there’s a dizzying variety of emojis, for those who want to add a personal touch to the all-caps bile that is the chat in any MOBA.

Through various veteran reward systems, I received over fifty loot boxes when I first logged in after the update, and out of the all that, I got nothing that I actually wanted.

Purchasing a skin with shards in Heroes of the Storm

The new pyrotechnics for making a purchase are a tad… over-zealous.

Now, to be fair, there are some systems in place to limit the negative effects of RNG. As in Overwatch, if a duplicate of something you already own drops, it’s converted to a special currency (called shards in this case) that can then be used to unlock items directly, even if they’re not part of the current sales.

So while I didn’t get any drops I wanted, I did get enough shards to buy several several skins and a mount. It wasn’t everything I’d hoped to get, but it was something.

Progressing Progression

The loot boxes can be a positive or a negative depending on your perspective, but the other changes to progression skew more heavily toward the negative.

The leveling curve has been rebalanced to provide a much steadier curve. This means that higher levels are now earned much more quickly, which is a necessary change given we are now expected to keep leveling heroes indefinitely, but it also means that the lower levels go by much slower.

One of the best ways to earn gold in Heroes of the Storm has traditionally been to level as many characters as possible to level five, due to the 500 gold reward for doing so. The reward is still there, but it’s now much more of a time investment to achieve, so it feels much less worth it. This doesn’t seem like a good move for a game that derives so much of its appeal from constantly trying new characters.

Also, while high levels are earned more quickly, “quickly” is definitely a relative term here. Getting new loot boxes is going to become quite a grind after a while.

The new combined account/hero level in Heroes of the Storm

I’m also a little torn on what’s been done with master skins. Instead of being a mark of progression, they’ve now been thrown into loot boxes alongside all the other skins. Used to be if you saw someone with a master skin it meant something, especially if it was for a difficult or unusual hero like Abathur or Cho’Gall. Now it doesn’t mean anything.

That said, a hypocritical part of me is happy to be able to get master skins for characters I don’t play as much. I always loved Sonya’s master skin, but I don’t play her enough to justify the grind it would have required under the old system. Now I’ve just bought it with shards, which is simultaneously gratifying and demoralizing.

A Trying Challenge

Something else that deserves a mention is the recent Nexus Challenge 2.0 event. Like the previous Nexus Challenge, it sought to woo Overwatch players by offering rewards in both games for those who play a certain number of Heroes matches while grouped with a friend.

This event was a bit more rewarding than its predecessor, with four tiers unlocked over four weeks, each of which offered significant rewards for just five matches. However, the final three tiers all required that you play in PvP modes, whereas the previous Challenge only required versus AI games.

It’s a nice idea, but it didn’t work out so well in practice. The queues swarmed with inexperienced players, but what’s worse is that many of them weren’t interesting in learning how to play Heroes of the Storm and simply sought to throw games as quickly as possible. This was a miserable experience for veterans, and I can’t imagine it was a good introduction to the game for new players who are genuinely trying, either.

I don’t begrudge Blizzard’s desire for cross-promotion, but I have to believe they could have come up with a better system than this.

Status Quo 2.0

The Thunder-Guard Zarya skin in Heroes of the Storm

In the end, though, the bottom line is that Heroes of the Storm 2.0 isn’t as radical a change as Blizzard’s marketing department would like you to believe. When you get past all the pomp and pageantry of the new progression mechanics, the actual game isn’t much changed.

That can be good, and it can be bad. If you liked Heroes before, you’ll like it now. If you didn’t, I doubt lockboxes are going to bring you back.

I’m not really sure where I stand with the game. I’ve had a lot of fun with it in the past, and there’s still much about it I appreciate, but after so much time spent with it, I am a bit burnt out, and there are some things that have been driving me away.

All of my favorite heroes have been nerfed into uselessness or revamped into something unrecognizable. I swear the game was more stable back in alpha; now that it’s launched, I ought to be able to trust that my characters will maintain some kind of singular identity.

I’m also not thrilled with the direction the meta-game has been taking. Right now it seems dominated by increasing power creep, especially around burst damage. Heroes used to be a more laid-back take on the MOBA, but increasingly it seems to be the sort of game where a split second’s mistake will spell total doom.

I may find my passion reignites at some future date, but I don’t think the 2.0 update will be the cause.


Lockboxes Are Annoying, But We Should Move On

Few issues in the MMO community stir up strong feelings the way lockboxes do. These virtual gambling devices stir up a level of hatred and vitriol unmatched by any other issue in the MMO world. And yet, they continue to propagate unchecked through our virtual worlds, despite the best efforts of the community.

A advertisement for a lockbox in Guild Wars 2

If I may play Devil’s advocate here for a moment, I think the time may have come for us to take a step back and examine whether all the furor over lockboxes is really productive. It’s clear that lockboxes are here to stay, so perhaps it’s time for us to learn how to live with them.

But First…

Before I get into the meat of my argument, I want to make a few things clear off the bat.

First, on terminology: Lockboxes have become such a contentious topic that even the word can generate no end of controversy. Many games avoid the name altogether and will vehemently argue that what they’re selling is not lockboxes.

For the purposes of this discussion, though, I am defining lockboxes as any pack of randomized items that is sold for real money.

Secondly, I want to be clear that I am not a fan of lockboxes. I’m against randomized rewards in general, and making me cough up real cash for the privilege of never seeing the item I want actually drop doesn’t endear me to the idea.

The only game where I buy lockboxes is The Secret World, and that’s mainly because I’m a lifetime subscriber and can therefore purchase them with my complimentary stipend of cash shop currency. I’m not actually spending money on them.

A toga outfit acquired from lockboxes in The Secret World

In general, I would prefer MMOs remain lockbox-free. I’m in favor of micro-transactions as a business model, but I’d rather simply pay directly for the item I want. I don’t enjoy gambling.

However, I have also come to accept that lockboxes are part of the reality of online gaming these days.

Reclaiming Perspective

I agree that lockboxes are bad, but I don’t agree with the extreme view many gamers have taken of them. I think it’s time for people to step back, take a breath, and regain some perspective.

I often hear people say that lockboxes destroy games. Does no one else see this as absurdly melodramatic? I certainly don’t think it’s true.

It can be a little irritating to see some gorgeous mount or awesome costume that you’ll never get unless you dump a small fortune into gambling boxes, but how much impact is that having on your moment to moment gameplay, really?

Even in the most obnoxiously lockbox-focused games I’ve played (looking at you, Cryptic), the fact is I could still play and enjoy the games perfectly fine without dropping any money on lockboxes.

A game that is worth playing without lockboxes will still be worth playing with them. If you’ve quit a game because it added lockboxes, I suspect you were already burnt out on the game anyway and simply needed an excuse to pull the trigger.

An advertisement for a lockbox in Star Trek: Online

A lot of people express concern for gambling’s potential for addiction. Frankly, the ethics of gambling are probably a bit beyond the scope of an article such as this, and I don’t think there are any easy answers, but for my part I’m inclined to err on the side of personal responsibility here. Gambling boxes do have some strong psychological hooks, but ultimately you’re still in control of your actions.

There’s also the concern of children being exposed to gambling practices, and I do agree that kids shouldn’t be gambling with real money in games, but that’s an issue for parents, not developers or publishers. It is a parent’s responsibility to monitor and regulate their child’s online activities.

Accepting Reality

Blunt talk time: In the battle against lockboxes, it has become abundantly clear that their detractors have lost.

Lockboxes simply wouldn’t be as widespread as they are if they didn’t make good business sense. Whatever negative publicity created by the introduction of lockboxes is clearly offset by the revenue they generate.

I often see a perception that lockboxes — and all micro-transactions, but especially lockboxes — are something that only benefits developers in the short term, that makes a lot of money upfront by taking advantage of gullible players before ultimately poisoning a game in the long term. This clearly isn’t the case, though.

Many games have continued to have long and prosperous lives after the introduction of lockboxes. Again to use Cryptic’s games as an example, Star Trek: Online and Neverwinter are continuing to chug along just fine, with regular and meaty updates, despite absolutely drowning in lockboxes.

The Underdark in Neverwinter

Similarly, Guild Wars 2 has had lockboxes since launch and has continued to enjoy a respectable level of success. Star Wars: The Old Republic is another game that could serve as the poster child for excessive use of lockboxes, and it’s doing quite well for itself after many years of the practice. The list just goes on and on.

And the sound and fury over lockboxes in the community simply isn’t making a difference. If you oppose lockboxes, I certainly sympathize with your perspective, but you have to understand that your disapproving forum posts and blog comments simply don’t matter to a developer’s bottom line. The best thing you can do is simply not buy lockboxes, because that’s the language they best understand, but even then you may have to accept that lockboxes are probably here to stay.

Redirecting Our Efforts

That’s not to say that criticism is worthless, or that we should just roll over and let developers and publishers do whatever they want without saying a word. But we need to be realistic, and reasonable.

Lockboxes probably aren’t going anywhere, but not all lockboxes are created equal. Some are relatively harmless, but others are truly obnoxious. It would be good if, instead of flatly rejecting lockboxes as a concept, we encouraged developers to find more player-friendly ways of implementing them.

Part of the reason I feel okay buying lockboxes in The Secret World is that there are many measures in place to prevent their random nature from becoming too punitive. All of the drops can be traded, so you can swap something you don’t want for something you do or simply farm pax and buy what you want at auction. TSW’s lockboxes also drop a currency called Lucky Coins that can (eventually) be spent to buy lockbox items from a vendor.

This makes it much easier to get what you want from lockboxes without spending an arm and a leg playing slots, and it allows both players and developers to benefit. It would be great to see all lockboxes take a similar strategy.

A mount acquired from a lockbox in Star Wars: The Old Republic

TSW also often offers ways to earn lockboxes through gameplay, from holiday quests or the like, which offers up another way to get the item(s) you’re after without spending yourself into bankruptcy. Overwatch does something similar with its loot crates, allowing you to earn them through normal gameplay as well as purchase them with cash. I think if this practice were more widespread the general opinion of lockboxes would improve significantly.

I also don’t think we should give up the fight to keep direct purchases part of MMO business models. Something I find frustrating about SW:TOR’s lockbox obsession is not so much the boxes themselves but the fact that almost nothing good ever gets added to the cash shop for direct sale. I never have anything to spend my subscriber Cartel Coin stipend on. Those of who us who don’t want to gamble should still have options.

And let’s stop demonizing developers for adding lockboxes to games. They’re not monsters conspiring in a dark room to bleed players dry (well, most of them aren’t, anyway). They’re just trying to turn a profit and earn a living, like everyone else in our capitalist society. I certainly don’t think insulting and denigrating them is going to make them more likely to listen to your arguments against lockboxes.

Beyond all that, there are frankly much bigger issues facing the MMO world than lockboxes. I can only imagine what kind of positive changes could be made if half the passion directed against lockboxes was instead put toward combating the toxicity within the community…

R-E-L-A-X

In a perfect world, MMORPGs wouldn’t need to have lockboxes, but that isn’t the world we live in. There are a lot of valid criticisms to be made of the concept, but I think the conversation has metastasized into something that is no longer helpful or productive. It would be in everyone’s best interest to take a step back, calm down, and recognize that while lockboxes can be annoying, they’re not the death of the genre.


Favorite Games of 2016

2016 has come and gone and now it’s time to reminisce about what turned out to be a great year in gaming. Tyler Bro and I have compiled our three favorite games we played in the past year. Most of them didn’t actually release last year, but that only shows one of the great things about gaming. Multiplayer games especially tend to evolve over time and many are in better shape than we’ve ever seen.

The Bro’s Picks:

Elder Scrolls Online
elder scrolls online 2016

I’ve fallen in love with Elder Scrolls Online. There’s so much interesting content here and two months later, I’m just scratching the surface. I tend to get a little ADD when it comes to MMORPGs so the wealth of options is fantastic. There’s a ton of dungeons (with a myriad of difficulties), expansive PvP, crafting, and crazy amount of customization options.

Unlike many other MMORPGs, I don’t feel compelled to play in a particular way. I log on and get rewards for doing whatever it is I find enjoyable. This is not the MMORPG it was when it first launched. ESO took a while to get to the point it’s at now, but One Tamriel really sealed the deal for me. This is my MMORPG of choice for the foreseeable future.

Overwatch

overwatch 2016

Elder Scrolls Online lacks one important multiplayer feature: competitive PvP. This is where Overwatch comes into play. I don’t always want an intense skill based multiplayer game. When I do, Overwatch is just a few clicks away. For a long time, League of Legends was my competitive multiplayer game of choice. With less time to devote to mastery, Overwatch has served as more than a capable replacement.

The characters feel truly unique and most of them offer a different experience from a typical shooter. Using abilities at the right time can mean the difference between a victory and a loss. The pacing of the matches feels just right too. Overwatch is one of the few multiplayer games that really changes things up for a gamer who sometimes feels like they’ve seen it all.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

witcher 3 2016

Of course, sometimes it’s important to just sit back and enjoy a fully immersive single player experience. In that regard, Witcher is hard to beat. I actually played this for the first time in 2015, but I enjoyed it so much I played through it again (with DLC) in 2016. There are some flaws, sure. The pacing is a little off in the main game, and combat isn’t super deep. I don’t think I’ve ever played a perfect game though so I’d qualify these as pretty minor complaints.

I love the characters, story, choices, and world. I can’t say at any point that I lost my sense of immersion in The Witcher 3. Actions and reactions flow in a natural manner, and there is a ton of choice & consequence. Making tough moral decisions is such a great part of the game. I hope to see something similar in that regard in 2017.

Tyler Bro’s picks:

Landmark

A player character in Landmark

Landmark was a pleasant surprise. We were all pretty disappointed by the cancellation of EverQuest Next, but if that was a case of life giving us lemons, Landmark is some pretty fine lemonade.

It’s a pretty simple game — really more of a toolkit than a game — but for what it is it does its job well. There’s almost no limit to what you can create in Landmark, and some of the creativity on display within it is truly awe-inspiring.

It might not be “main game” material, but it’s a nice place to pop into for some relaxation every now and again.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

An Imperial agent character and Lana Beniko in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion

If we’re to measure only by hours spent in-game, SW:TOR was my top game in 2016. Bar a few short breaks here and there, I played it heavily over the entire year. The major changes made by Knights of the Fallen Empire intrigued me, and I wound up getting sucked in for the long haul.

This is actually a bit surprising, even to me, because I’ve never really been a Star Wars fan, and there are some pretty big things about the game that I don’t like, from its business model to its combat.

However, I am a sucker for a good story, and that’s one thing Bioware tends to deliver pretty consistently. Between the class and expansion stories, I had no shortage of plot to keep me engaged, even as I largely ignored the multiplayer and endgame content.

StarCraft II

Nova's ship, the Griffin, in StarCraft II's Nova Covert Ops DLC

Although its last expansion technically launched in 2015, 2016 was still a fantastic year for StarCraft II. Its co-op mode has far exceeded everyone’s expectations, and I can’t even count how many matches I’ve played over the past year. With new maps and commanders coming regularly, it just keeps getting better.

Meanwhile, the Covert Ops DLC also provided a small but very quality dose of story content. I had my doubts about whether Covert Ops could measure up after the excellence of Legacy of the Void’s single-player experience, but it won me over with its intense story, innovative gameplay, and epic challenges. If Covert Ops is truly to be the last story update to StarCraft II, at least they left on a high note.

For all the stumbles made by Blizzard’s other properties in recent times, StarCraft seems to have the Midas touch these days.


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.

 


Is Blizzard Moving Away from Narrative?

This year’s BlizzCon had a lot of good news, but there was also a lot about it that disappointed me. In particular I was saddened by the continued lack of an expansion for Diablo III. Yes, some updates are planned, but they’re mostly pretty small, and they do nothing to expand the story.

A cutscene from Diablo III's story mode

That combined with other recent developments has planted a disquieting thought in my mind: Could Blizzard be giving up on narrative in its games altogether?

The shift away from story:

Up until quite recently, story was a pillar of every Blizzard game for the past two decades. All of the older Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo games featured extensive story-driven campaigns, without exception.

Now, in the space of a few short years, we’ve reached a point where fully half of Blizzard’s current catalogue has no in-game story to speak of.

In some cases this isn’t a bad thing. I don’t think anyone really expects a single-player campaign for Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm. They’re silly games meant to deliver fun and exciting gameplay, and nothing else.

And that’s fine. Not every game needs to be some narrative-driven work of art. There is a place for games that are purely mechanical.

But then you get to Overwatch, and that’s more worrisome. Like Heroes and Hearthstone, it lacks any kind of story content, but unlike those games, it has lots of potential for a good story. That potential is simply being ignored.

Hearthstone is just a spin-off of Warcraft, so it’s backstory has already been fully fleshed out, and Heroes is just a ridiculous “what if” scenario throwing together random elements of Blizzard’s other games. Overwatch, though, has a pretty rich world, a detailed backstory, and some interesting characters, but none of this is leveraged by the game itself.

The tutorial for Overwatch

Overwatch has all the right ingredients to provide a fantastic narrative experience, but for whatever reason Blizzard doesn’t seem to want to try.

And now it seems like even Blizzard’s older franchises are beginning to leave story by the wayside.

Everyone has spent the last few years expecting a second expansion to Diablo III, but now it’s looking like that might never happen. There are some updates planned, but they won’t do much to advance the story.

This is despite the fact that the ending to the previous expansion, Reaper of Souls, left the story very clearly unfinished. Both the main storyline of the world and many of the characters’ personal stories have been left obviously unfinished. As with Overwatch, there’s plenty of potential for story here; that potential is simply being left to wither on the vine.

And then there’s the news that StarCraft II will not be producing any more mission packs following the conclusion of the Covert Ops storyline later this month — or at least not for the foreseeable future.

At least in this case there isn’t a pressing need for more story content in StarCraft. There’s definitely potential for more stories within the universe — I’d been hoping for some mission packs around Selendis and Alexei Stukov, myself — but after three massive campaigns and a fairly substantive DLC in the form of Covert Ops, you definitely can’t argue StarCraft’s story fans haven’t gotten their due.

The lack of new mission packs for SC2 is mildly disappointing, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d get too worked up about under other circumstances. It’s only when viewed in the context of a potential shift away from story for the company as a whole that it becomes worrying.

A cutscene in the campaign for StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

And then there’s the recent retirement of Chris Metzen to consider. Metzen was the main creative force behind the worlds and stories of every Blizzard game since the early days of the Warcraft strategy games. Blizzard has other writers, and of course the company can continue to produce good stories without him, but I worry his departure might signal a culture shift in the company.

Metzen, so far as I can tell, was the main voice within Blizzard that argued in favor of the importance of lore and narrative. In fact I seem to recall hearing he’d wanted to do a story mode for Overwatch but had been voted down.

Now, I don’t think Metzen quit because he disagreed with the direction of the company, or he was forced out, or anything like that. I’m not that paranoid. But with Metzen gone, I have to wonder how much desire for story there is within Blizzard. Who is left to argue for its importance?

Individually, these things might not be a great cause for concern, but together they seem to form a pattern, and that pattern worries me.

What remains:

Blizzard is still telling stories… but increasingly it seems to be happening outside of their games.

StarCraft just launched a new tie-in novel, Timothy Zahn’s Evolution, and Overwatch has been putting out a steady stream of tie-in content, from digital comics to animated shorts to the upcoming First Strike graphic novel.

I enjoy tie-ins like this — I fully intend to pick up Evolution. But it’s not the same as actual in-game stories. It’s not quite so satisfying. This is especially true for Overwatch. Normally tie-ins like this are meant to supplement the main story, which happens in-game, but when the entire story takes place outside the game, it feels thin and scattered.

A shot from the animated short for Overwatch's new Sombra character

With the way things are going, one could even envision a future where all of Blizzard’s story-telling takes place outside its games, and I think we can all agree that would be a pretty weird situation for a video game company.

Of course, the elephant in the room — as is often the case — is World of Warcraft. There’s no evidence at all that WoW is moving away from telling stories in-game. Quite the opposite, in fact. Legion is probably the most story-driven expansion to date.

But it’s possible that the shift away from narrative simply hasn’t begun to affect Warcraft yet, or that WoW is a legacy of an older version of Blizzard and will continue on as it has out of a sense of tradition, even as the rest of the company’s games abandon in-game stories.

It’s also possible that I am seeing patterns where none exist, and that this entire post is nothing but paranoid nonsense. I remain open to that possibility.

Why it all matters:

“If the gameplay is good, the story doesn’t matter” is an attitude you’ll see a lot of in the gaming community. A lot of people view plot in gaming as an optional frill, nice to have at but hardly essential. That can be true for some people and some games, but I think the importance of a good story is often greatly overlooked within gaming.

You would be surprised how many people I’ve talked to who stopped playing World of Warcraft after Wrath of the Lich King purely because Arthas was dead, and his was the story they cared about. With him gone, they lost their investiture in the game world and simply moved on.

The conclusion of the Dragonwrath quest chain in World of Warcraft, modified by a local void totem

Overwatch has been a big success despite its lack of narrative, but one has to wonder how much bigger it could have been if it had also appealed to story fans. I know it lost my patronage by focusing purely on PvP.

You can cite plenty of other examples of games that succeeded with little or no story, but then again I can also think of more than a few games that succeeded entirely based on the strength of their narrative. You’d hard-pressed to find much praise for the gameplay of the original Mass Effect, yet it’s still considered a classic. We’re even starting to see an increased demand for games that focus entirely on story with little or no gameplay to speak of, such as the much-praised Life Is Strange.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge of fan of the core gameplay of World of Warcraft. It is at best adequate. More than anything else, it’s my love for the world of Azeroth that always keeps me coming back. And this is far from the only time I’ve invested in a game despite lukewarm feelings toward its game mechanics.

Over the past twenty years, Blizzard has built some incredibly deep and vibrant worlds, full of beloved characters and memorable stories. That is a powerful resource, and it would be tremendously wasteful not to capitalize on it.

Blizzard is too much of a juggernaut for the loss of story to be a serious threat to its financial success, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to lose if they leave narrative behind. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will find other games to play if they give up on plot entirely, and putting aside more practical considerations, games lose something special without story. I know I’m going to remember Arthas’ fall a lot longer than that time I got off a good gank in Heroes of the Storm.