Path of Exile: Designed to Be Played Forever

Watched Chris Wilson’s GDC2019 talk the other day:

A lot of eye-opening insights in here:

  • the standard population decline of any online game when they first launched and how they got it to spike consistently and even grow over time through their league seasons
  • a quick look at their custom tool for procedurally generating interesting map levels in really short time frames
  • the importance of marketing and having enough content to market to different subsets of players to make a big enough impact to prompt returners to return
  • the importance of consistency and predictability to cultivate a customerbase (or else they will look elsewhere and get distracted and then you’ve lost them.)

A couple of his points I don’t necessary agree with, or think might work for -every- game out there, but perhaps are more game and population specific:

  1. The idea of investing time to design aspirational content for the 5-10%, knowing full well the majority of their customers will not reach it, but creating this content for the 5-10% to feel special because no one else can get there, and those 5-10% tending to be the more hardcore influencer types who stream and thus draw in hopefuls and additional player numbers
  2. Economy resets so players can start on a fresh playing field periodically
  3. Layers and layers of randomness to create interesting variability
  4. Avoiding day-night cycles so that assets can be re-used
  5. Designing spare assets to sit around in a warehouse/library so that they can be pulled out when there is a need
  6. Avoiding pipelining releases so that people aren’t distracted working on two things at once, or tempted to avoid dealing with a tough problem in favor of something easier

Point 1 always raises my hackles. My opinion is that it works for games that start out designed that way, so they attract a playerbase that accepts that premise from the get go.

Something like Warframe apparently attempted large group raids and later removed them because apparently too few of their playerbase was interested, they seem to be doing better investing effort into content that both groups and soloists can do.

As for GW2, well, their “little” u-turn and about-face during Heart of Thorns introducing aspirational raid content lost them the better part of their initial playerbase, and attracted a newer, more competitive, and hostile sort of player in lieu. Hopefully they pay more. Else it was a really really bad strategic decision, no?

Path of Exile on the other hand is built around the idea of competition, of races, of getting to level 100 and feats of getting somewhere “first” broadcast to all and sundry. It has a hardcore permadeath league mechanic for the challenge seekers. So yes, logically aspiration works for a primarily competitive, challenge-seeking, numbers-crunching playerbase that can deal with that PoE skill tree. Somehow, I don’t think playing PoE to “relax” is a majority motivation here.

The solo self-found playstyle was more of an underground subset of players who chose to remove themselves from this competitive economy and create their own fun – it’s only recently they gave a nod towards it by delineating a separate group to declare oneself that way. The stated rationale is for bragging rights, and they are very careful to assure players that you can jump back into the economy any time you want; separately I suppose it is also a way for them to keep tabs on just how large or small this hermit-like player subset is. (SSF all the way, huzzah. Fuck yo’ aspirational content.)

In theory, I really like the idea of Point 2. I was first introduced to the broad principles of resetting in MUDs that had something called ‘remort.’ You reach max level (ie. near immortality), then you ‘remort’ (become mortal once again) to level 1 and get to level up again, but with some bonuses for choosing to reset yourself that way.

For some games, this works and comes as part of the game. Kingdom of Loathing is a browser based game that uses the remort mechanic. A Tale in the Desert has an extended long reset with new Tellings. There’s that One Hour, One Life game I never tried, but the reset concept is right there in its title. You can choose to reset almost every single piece of gear in Warframe with forma and level it up again so you can cram in more and better mods to make it even stronger.

For other games, I don’t know if their playerbase would recoil in garlicky vampiric horror at the concept of being set back to square one and starting anew. I understand that World of Warcraft tries to reset gear every expansion – from an outsider’s POV, it seems to be a 50/50 mix of acceptance and frustration among its populace. GW2 resets WvW in varied intervals and it seems most players have gotten numb to the resets over time, as winning means very little. Still other games are all about the collection and character/account progress, and I doubt those players would be happy with a reset – does Monster Hunter World or Final Fantasy 14 reset anything?

Point 3 I also like on a personal level, it’s a very roguelike foundational concept, and I love me a whole bunch of roguelikes that can offer me procedurally generated layouts that allows me to have a different and strategically interesting time each playthrough. Playing through City of Heroes near identical and unvarying tilesets and fixed predictable spawn size for 4 years will do that to you.

But not every game can be a roguelike/sandbox type of game where the player is expected to react with the resources available and create their own story. Some games are more linear, more dev-created story-oriented, and handcrafted, hand-placed content still has that level of uniqueness that can break the pattern recognition of players reacting to procedurally generated stuff. It’s just that handcrafted stuff takes a lot longer time to create.

Some games do try to mix the best of both worlds. Don’t Starve has handcrafted set pieces mixed in with procedural generation, and a bunch of Minecraft mods also do the same thing, sprinkling in handcrafted stand-out pieces and allowing the general landscape to be procedurally generated.

Which I suppose point 3 also covers, this idea of mixing and overlaying random stuff atop of random stuff, so that it is harder for players to discern predictable patterns.

Point 4-6 sound very much studio-specific and game-specific decisions, so I won’t comment there.

Still, it is interesting to learn what he feels works well for Path of Exile.

And I really want to sit in on a three hour talk to hear what he thinks about loot and itemization.

LFG: I Want to Talk / Silence is OK

Random thought inspired by a discussion about an LFG tool in an MMO I don’t even play:

What if our LFG finders had two radio buttons with the options

  • Prefer talking
  • Prefer silence

Would both see equal use? Or at least sufficient people opting for either option that both would be functional?

Would the social be able to find similarly oriented people and have great conversations as they do the group content, or would it just be full of too many chatterers and not enough listeners?

Would the group content of the talkers slow down because they’re spending additional time conversing, or would it conversely speed up because they’re actually communicating strategies and getting everyone on the same page faster?

Would the silent group gather a disproportionate number of ‘lazy’ players who can’t be arsed talking and would they gel naturally without words into a model of speedrun efficiency or devolve into an uncoordinated uncommunicative mess?

Quote of the Day

Zubon has a post up on Overwatch matchmaking, which seems to be nearly a carbon copy of GW2 matchmaking issues, from my “limited grasp on the finer issues of PvP” perspective.

I enjoyed the link he provided to Jeff Kaplan’s forum post about Overwatch matchmaking – it’s a good read – and this particular part really tickled me:

For better or for worse, we focused the design of the game on winning or losing as a team. OW is not a game where you ignore the map objectives and then look at your K/D ratio to determine how good you are. We want you to focus on winning or losing and as a result you do focus on winning or losing. We tried to make it so that losing isn’t the end of the world, but to a lot of people they expect to win far much more than they lose. I sometimes wonder if we were able to clone you 11 times and then put you in a match with and against yourself, would you be happy with the outcome? Even if you lost?

I -immediately- knew what would happen if I could clone myself 9 times and put myself in a GW2 sPvP match with and against myself.

First, there would be a little charr and asura conga line / dance-off in the centre of the arena during which a lot of *wink* *wink* *nudge* *nudge* would be exchanged.

Then there would be a frenzy of AP whoring during which we would take turns to die for achievements where deaths were necessary, a whole lot of class-switching and strategic win-trading.

Finally, we would all get banned for match-fixing and collusion.

But we would be laughing ourselves all the way to the bank and congratulating each other on not having a competitive bone in our bodies and what a hilarious time that was.

Yep, sounds about right.

(Well, ok, there might be one or two strategic “let’s play a real match for fun, and also mostly to throw off any data-sniffing algorithms” and the odd “yo, let’s collect some hard data on how much damage one class does to another using X and Y skills” experiments sprinkled in there too.)

See Keen’s post “I’m Not Competitive” for more on different peoples’ take on competition.

Low-Energy, Easy Fun

Apparently, Halvorson’s latest book “Focus” was not as objective as her prior summary, skewing more heavily towards the advantages of being promotion-focused. So I haven’t bothered to read it yet, preferring to use the ideas in the summary as more of a springboard for my own thoughts.

(Fortunately, I’m not a career psychologist, so I don’t have to substantiate my hypotheses with research and evidence, and can just play around with thought experiments and musings for fun.)

I find myself drawn to the portion on “energy.” To recap:

When your goal is an achievement, a gain, you feel happy—joyful, cheerful, excited, or, in the vernacular of a typical teenager, totally stoked. It’s a high-energy kind of good feeling to reach a promotion goal.

It’s a very different kind of good to reach a prevention goal. When you are trying to be safe and secure, to avoid losing something, and you succeed, you feel relaxed—calm, at ease, peaceful. You breathe the sweet sigh of relief. This is a much more low-energy kind of good feeling, but not any less rewarding.

When you are going for gain, trying to accomplish something important to you, and you fail, you tend to feel sadness—dejected, depressed, despondent. As a teen might put it, totally bummed. It’s the low-energy kind of bad feeling—the kind that makes you want to lay on the couch all day with a bag of chips.

But failing to reach a prevention goal means danger, so in response you feel the high-energy kinds of bad feeling—anxiety, panic, nervousness, and fear. You freak out. Both kinds of feelings are awful, but very differently so.

I wonder if it might not help to explain why some gamers prefer more sedate types of gameplay – be it grinding for progress slowly, or a strategic challenge, or slower overall pacing.

In other words, we’re seeking the low-energy kinds of good feelings. We want to relax, be comfortable and content, be relieved, feel peace.

(Whether this has any correlation with being prevention-focused on a particular goal, or introversion-favoring, I’ll leave it to others to figure out and do the research.)

We -hate- being overstimulated by high energy feelings, especially when they tend to be the bad kind – aka being a fearful, anxious, nervous wreck, and are liable to either run away from the situation (avoiding/escape/flight) or take constructive steps to address said situation producing the bad feelings until the situation or feelings go away. (fight?)

The spot of good news, as mentioned previously, is that one has the high-energy motivation to take action and do either of those.

Other gamers, by contrast, probably loathe the low-energy bad feelings. They feel down, depressed, de-energized, bored. They’re liable to quit if they have *horror of horrors* “nothing to do.”

They’re looking for gameplay that excites them, gives them high-energy good feelings.

Hence the litany of constant demands for moar adrenaline-pumping “hardcore challenges” where they can earn deserved rewards, racking up one gain after another, addicted to the euphoria of achievement.

(I dunno. Sounds a bit like extraversion to me.)

It’s not easy as a game designer if you have to keep both camps happy, huh?

I don’t think they’re necessarily diametrically opposed, though. The perceived level of challenge is likely to prompt different energy levels of feelings.

The trick is, how do you get those looking for low-energy easy-fun to “be better” than those looking for high-energy hard-fun, so that they can look at the same mob and the former feels “okay, I can do this, easy peasy, no sweat, I’m having fun” and the latter feels “wow, this is so hard, this is so fun!”

The nature of practice being what it is, the adrenaline junkies are liable to be more practiced and experienced than the chill hipsters… so you tend to end up in an escalating situation of the former demanding more hits, while the latter stresses right out.

(Hrm, creative suggestions / solutions welcome.)

bloodstonefen1

Anyway, I find myself having a blast in the new Bloodstone Fen map.

That is, low-energy definitions of a “blast.”

bloodstonefen2

I trundle around, gliding and bouncing here and there and everywhere (bonus points for recognizing the phrase), collecting and harvesting all the things.

Every so often, an orange dynamic event comes up and I evaluate, “is this node more interesting or is that event more attractive?”

(Usually, the node wins, for the ten seconds it takes to harvest, and then I’m running over to spam 1 and dodge orange circles until the bouncy reward chests pop up.)

Rinse and repeat.

It’s a nice compact map, with high frequency of orange dynamic events, many doable solo or in small loosely assembling groups, and that seem to be less linearly linked to pushing some overall map wide meta.

bloodstonefen3

Every now and then, a big “world boss” type of event triggers, and then folks are drawn in to a centralized location, naturally congregating into a big zerg to defeat it.

Feels good. Feels like a bit more like Core Tyria (with less NPC settlements or friendly NPC interaction.)

I am greatly reminded of my relationship with City of Heroes’ Incarnate Trials and Dark Astoria zone.

That is, I was deeply uncomfortable with Incarnate Trials (to the point where I canceled my subscription, not being as motivated in CoH as in GW2 to play the raids – my ego is a lot more vested in accomplishments in GW2, whereas I was already getting bored with CoH and not at all tempted by gear-improvement rewards) and only re-subbed and tried out the Trials when Dark Astoria came into the picture.

Dark Astoria was the alternative, the philosophical recognition that people who enjoyed solo content should also have a means to earn Incarnate shards and achieve Incarnate levels of power, albeit at a slower rate than those who played the trials in a group setting.

Now, of course, if you -wanted- to speed up your rate of shard earning and could put up with a raid group, then yeah, go ahead and raid. It becomes an option, not a necessity.

We’re not quite 100% there yet with Bloodstone Fen.

The big thing GW2 is still missing is an alternative means for Legendary Armor.

Given that a normal set of armor apparently takes them 8 months to make (ie. Legendary Armor takes even longer) and that this batch of experimental Envoy armor seems to be inextricably linked to PvE raid progress (and a bit of PvP and WvW) and is still far far away in its arrival, it’s little wonder that they’re keeping very very quiet about any possibility of a second set of Legendary Armor, gained by some other means.

Maybe if we’re lucky, ArenaNet will come up with an elegant solution involving build templates and resolving the rune/sigil problem, and nip the issue of extra functionality with a set of purple-named armor and then the whole lack of an alternative will be moot.

(Raiders having prestige cosmetics is okay, bonus functionality is not okay. To me, anyway. Philosophically. Ideally. Speaking from a better part of me.

In practice, if we wanna be pragmatic about things, up yours. I’m on the side with the shinies. Don’t we love Chinese pragmatism? Embrace the Dark Side, baby.)

But I digress.

Bloodstone Fen is a step in the right direction, a step that was missing and ought to have been there as the raids came into the GW2 picture.

(Too bad the raid team works so damn fast, as compared to the rest. Or so damn slow, if both Bloodstone Fen and the raid wings were -meant- to arrive during HoT launch. If only Anet had slightly better scheduling/project management…

On the other hand, Bloodstone Fen looks like it was cobbled together using a ton of re-used assets and specifically addresses a number of reaction feedback from HoT, so it does also look like a mad iterative stopgap scramble to band-aid fix some issues. All those elder wood nodes and leather/cloth salvage reward drops are no accident, for example.)

It generally functions as the soloer’s alternative, just as Dark Astoria did.

There is stuff to do. Stuff to earn. Aerial combat skills being one of them, and apparently there are now means to get HoT stats that were previously only found in raids (big philosophical no-no, there) in Bloodstone Fen.

It helps the soloer understand the White Mantle storyline, that was previously only being told in raids.

It puts easy-ish world bosses that utilize raid-like mechanics -just less punishing ones- into the open world, so that players have the safety of a zerg (aka people around to rez them) and uses it to introduce/scaffold raid-necessary concepts – like the use of the new special action key, break bars, dodging orange circles, running to specific defined locations aka non-orange circles to achieve some objective, etc.

(It’s a start. Then certain buffed up fractals take over the teaching, by ramping up the necessity for increased group coordination and communication and personal movement/dodging ability. More on fractals in another post later.)

Bloodstone Fen gives me my “easy fun” back.

And I’m happy about that.

In a totally chill, relaxed kind of way.

GW2: The Pigeon-holing is Real

This is fast becoming a pet peeve.

I’m going to quote Reddit user isaightman:

“The stat difference isn’t so great that the raids are actually balanced around ascended, however the perception of other players and ascended-elitism will be the real barrier to entry.

As has been seen in basically every game ever, “LFM link achieve/gear” will become the norm.”

And also echo the commenter under him who mentioned that ArenaNet didn’t do the playerbase any favors by suggesting that players will need full Ascended to kill the final boss. (Naturally, this becomes, in playerspeak, “Entry requirement to the raid: full ascended pls.”)

So not only do newer players have a catch-22 gearing problem (Ascended gear can be earned in raids, but they have to be accepted in raids in the first place), it also is bankrupting veterans who are considering switching roles / builds to help raids along.

The perception of the players is the problem.

I was busy gritting my teeth when a raid leader took a look at the two guardians in the raid group and went, “Gee, I hope one of you can tank.”

There were revenants in the raid group, but nope, the leader didn’t look twice at them (I guess their new pigeonhole is passive might stacker), and even a reaper who actually volunteered to tank, and there was sooo much hesitance on the leader’s part to say, well, ok.

(For the record, the reaper did great. That’s what I’m planning to run when I eventually figure out, practice and can afford a tanky build. There is even video proof of another successful Vale Guardian kill with a reaper tank. The amount of damage he can output, coupled with his survivability makes me drool.

I’ve played zerker guardian and zerker necro, I can tell you which one is naturally tankier while still doing decent damage and it ain’t the guard. You can make an unkillable guardian for the tradeoff of him hitting like a wet sock.)

Condi somehow equates to engineer. Well… maybe necro or ranger or mesmer if someone is feeling kind. But really, they’re all second-best, that 47-skill rotation engineer is king, never mind if it’s actually humanly possible to perform the rotation consistently or no.

“We need a healer!” All eyes suddenly look at the rangers in the raid hopefully. (It’s as if the concept of blasting water fields died with WvW now in decline. And I am honor-bound to point out that just off the top of my mind, eles, guards, revs, necros can all put out healing, that engineers have a healing turret, rangers have a water field self heal and warriors have banners that can be traited to pulse regen… just sayin’.)

*sigh*

It’s just too easy to take shortcuts and label classes into roles, when really, we should be asking the players themselves what role they are comfortable playing and what build they’ve chosen. (And if there’s too much of one, then yeah, see if someone can swap.)

Our ragtag group of castoffs actually managed to get as far as bringing the Vale Guardian past 33% health, which wasn’t too shabby for what was essentially a training raid and getting people familiar with the mechanics.

(Just the third attempt for me personally, and each attempt has seen more progress, admittedly with different people. This time the strategy was sound and we had a consistent tank – which I must point out again was a REAPER *coughs*, so stop pigeonholing, sheesh.)

What tended to end up causing group wipes was that the circle running dps group hadn’t quite figured out a strategy to either consistently push the red seekers away and/or heal up the damage from the distributed magic lightning strike.

If that can get solved, then the last facet of the puzzle is improving dps to the required amounts before the enrage timer hits.

Which frankly, is a rather questionable design decision by Anet, because the need to improve dps means things like a) a call for dps meters (Syl has some great rants about them), and b) more pigeonholing of classes that can produce all the required boons and still do great dps before c) getting individual players to work on their builds and rotations, not to mention d) might be somewhat susceptible to ping.

Try as one might for class balance, players are going to find the ones that fit their perception of what is “best” and run with those. No one has ever kicked my warrior from a fractal or dungeon. I’m sure the same cannot be said for necros or rangers once upon a time.

This casual prejudice really annoys me.

That is not to say that I don’t know how to circumvent or make use of it. When in Rome do as the Romans do and all that. If some people want cookie-cutter, then it’s easy to blend in by just shrugging and going cookie-cutter.

But it’s just the dumb ignorance that makes pigeon-holing such a pet peeve.

(eg. Toughness-based aggro has been in existence since the beginning of the game. I picked up on it ever since trying out an anchor guardian build – and getting chased in circles by Lupicus during my first time in Arah, much to my guild’s amusement. I have personally manipulated it in dungeons like the Aetherblade facility. Somehow it is being heralded as a completely new thing since the expansion. It makes me boggle. It’s about time it became common knowledge, is all I have to say about that.)

I hope more people take up the challenge of proving the ignorant wrong – develop viable roles and builds for all the classes, successfully clear raids with them, maybe even clear Vale Guardian in exotics perhaps.

Prove that it’s player skill, teamwork, coordination/communication and practice that makes the difference, not one set recipe of cookie-cutter classes.