GW2: What Would You Keep Doing Without a Reward?

I was meaning to get around to this post sooner, rather than later, but the sudden news bulletin of City of Heroes closing down pushed back the schedule even further. It also means I’ve completely lost track of the posts in the blogosphere that circled around this topic, and can’t find them again, so no links for you. 😦

The basic question was:

What would you keep doing in an MMO, even if you were not being rewarded for it?

Most of the time, the conclusion implied was that one would pretty much do nothing that wasn’t rewarded, players being such min-max optimizers, after all.

What I want to point out is a fundamental assumption in the term, “reward.”

There are extrinsic rewards, such as xp, levels, a piece of gear that improves your character’s stats or appearance, gold, an Achievement, a title, a score increment, a chest you open that provides some or all of the above.

And there are intrinsic rewards, that mostly fall under the umbrella of “fun,” with the caveat that what constitutes this differs from player to player. It could be the pride in being first at something, the egoistic thrill of being able to show off something others don’t have, the pleasure of self-improvement, the satisfaction of progress on a goal or a checkmark of completion on a to-do list, the joy of receiving a gift (unexpected or otherwise), the excitement of confronting a challenge, the triumph of beating said extremely difficult challenge, the delight of learning something one didn’t know before, and perhaps even of mastery, the happiness of being in moment-to-moment flow, the wonder and awe of seeing a beautiful landscape, unsoweiter.

The truth is, one would be a very foolish, masochistic player to keep at any game if one were deriving more frustration and unhappiness out of it than enjoyment. So in that sense, nothing we do in an MMO is ultimately delinked to any form of reward.

The real questions are, in which order should the rewards be coming, at what frequency, and how does that shape player goals and behavior in turn?

The typical MMO generally makes you put up with mild to severe unhappiness as you “work” towards an end-goal that promises, or at least, affords you the hope that you will (eventually) get an extrinsic reward shiny, that will then feed intrinsic feelings of fun. If you’re lucky, you still enjoy the process so that mild to severe unhappiness isn’t present and things are still okay. But at the rate of repetition that is usually required, familiarity leads to contempt or boredom more often than not, and before you know it, there is the obligatory “grind” to get to the “good stuff.”

Thing is, chasing an extrinsic thing first for the intrinsic feeling later is dangerous. Taken to extremes, it’s like a drug. You end up chasing something for the buzz at the end, and somehow, that buzz ends up so momentary that shortly after, you’re in desperate pursuit again.

Given the propensity of humans to fool themselves into thinking situational normal, even when they’re not, one may end up chasing a reward that never comes, yet feeling more and more miserable in the meantime.

Now Guild Wars 2 isn’t completely revolutionary. It doesn’t remove the above. It’s probably unwise to, since players are used to the formula and many do need external reasons to keep playing and maintaining critical mass of playerbase is always important to a game.

But Guild Wars 2 is also quite sneaky. They’ve added on to the model by including the other order rewards can come, and mixing it up with a helping of variety and choices.

You’re moving along on your path towards a heart, a crafting node, a personal story waypoint – something explicit and linked to an extrinsic reward. Then you stumble across something unexpected. A hole in the side of a cliff that you’ve never seen before. Curiosity and novelty pop up, do you go in? Maybe you do, to feed that intrinsic urge, and before you know it, you’re on a mini-adventure complete with traps and enemies and argh-inducing jumping puzzles, and at the end, you’re pleasantly surprised to see a ‘boss’ mob with a chest containing an extrinsic reward.

You didn’t know it was there when you first started, but it is now an additional happy bonus. And it reinforces (aka rewards) that style of play, because you are now assured that there very well may be something tasty to find at the end of the rainbow that caught your eye.

Or you stumble across a dynamic event. Decision point time. Do you follow it, or continue on your initial path? Though both will ultimately yield extrinsic rewards at the end, that choice might be different from person to person. If the DE is still new and novel, or if one wants karma as a reward, or if one wants to see people, you’d take off in that direction, but if the other stuff is more pressing, then you’d continue on your way.

The jury is still out on whether the bulk of players will eventually grow bored with the same DEs they’ve seen, or avoid them due to difficulty level not being commensurate with rewards (Nageling giant, anybody?)  or whether a sufficient critical mass of players will show up just because it’s there and waypointed on the map so may as well try one’s luck to get some karma, but if you think ArenaNet isn’t aware of this, you may be kidding yourself. Their proposed solution is to change up the dynamic events, so that the new novelty factor may indeed skew more players’ decisions towards heading there.

The other question running in everyone’s minds is whether there will be enough players in the zone to even see the new DE. Well, time will tell on that front, but there are a few things that may help this. If a player chooses to remain on a single level 80 main, he still may have to level up his crafting, gather things to sell, maybe visit all the hidden chests scattered around the zones that will be eventually marked out on a wiki daily for loot or even just grow bored with the highest level zone and go wandering.

Alternatively, he’ll be in WvWvW or doing explorable dungeons, and possibly out of the equation altogether, which doesn’t bode well for the lowbie zones… except, for the presence of altholics. There are what, 8 professions and 5 races (and not enough character slots on purpose.) If you think a sizeable number of people won’t be rerolling alts to try out different playstyles, well, you’re a far more focused, faithful one-character player than I.

And guilds are account-based. Alts will be part of the same guild. What’s to stop a player from opening his mouth and going,” OMG, there’s a new something-or-other that popped up in (insert lowbie zone) here. We need help!” Now how many high levels will bother to respond, I don’t know, but between boredom, curiosity, guild relationships and helpfulness, plus the assurance that downleveling will still give valuable rewards, perhaps enough.

The one thing I’m not terribly fond of at this point is that though a player can join multiple guilds, he can only see the guild chat of one at a time. I have to say, it quite defeats the purpose of multiple guilds, which is to give one more connection points to more people and stuff going on in the world. I would have much preferred ArenaNet to limit guild joining to one-world specific (to avoid the complaints of spies in WvW) and allow for players to listen in on all guild chats at once.

A Tale in the Desert’s multiple guild feature worked that way. City of Heroes’ global chat channels worked that way. The basic point is to have multiple chat tabs linked to various groups of people for some specific purpose or other. If I can’t hear what those other folks are doing in-game, then I may as well just join multiple guilds’ ventrilo servers or something, except that would be way too much effort to bother for a loner like me. I do hope they take some time to iterate on this once the launch frenzy slows down a bit, because it’s a flawed feature otherwise and could stand a lot more polishing.

Back to rewards, since I’ve sidetrekked. What would you keep doing in an MMO, even if you were not being rewarded for it?

Here’s my personal answer.

Bear in mind, that of course I’m being rewarded, by intrinsic rewards, rather than motivated by a search for tangible extrinsic ones (which is usually what is meant by the term.)

Without the lure of crafting material drops, I would most likely not be genociding vast swathes of wildlife as I’m doing currently (I need 15 vials of thin blood for a rare, dammit, *kicks the trading post*)

But I would be going up and down and into stuff that catches my eye and spending hours trying to figure out how to jump from one pillar to another, simply because the mountain and the broken ruins are THERE.

View from atop some really high ruined stairs staring towards the Breached Wall

Drawn on by the lure of cliff bats that something may very well be up there, I lost a couple of hours to figuring this out, which eventually turned out to be the Crimson Plateau jumping puzzle.

I would, surprisingly enough, continue to rez players, often in the thick of combat, even if I don’t get xp for it and even if I don’t get any thanks for it. It’s a little odd when you consider that I’ve observed 80-95% of players continuing to shoot at a big mob because either they don’t see the downed player because they’re fixated on the mob, or maybe they’re scrambling to deal as much dps as possible so that they’ll get a gold contribution reward instead of bronze or silver.

But I see the downed player struggling, or the defeated player lying there, and I know they are praying for a Good Samaritan to help them out of the mess they got themselves into. What does it say about your server community if everyone walks on by or ignores someone in need of help? How is that player feeling right now? If you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you want to be helped?

It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling deep inside when I respond promptly, and it’s even thrilling to act as a combat medic and roll towards someone right underneath constant projectile fire above your head and begin reviving. And because I play a Guardian with my fat cat butt covered in heavy armor and a hp tank bulked up by Vitality, I can even take a few hits through the revival process without going down myself.

I would, as long as the dungeon strategies do not turn rote or pigeonhole classes too much in one permanent playstyle, continue to join dungeons as time and whim permitted. I’ve actually joined two AC story mode dungeons way over-leveled and having done it once for the helm already, because I wanted to see how different teams reacted to it.  Because I like the learning process and the randomness of a PUG and figuring out to best work together and facing a challenge that allows me to demonstrate what I’ve learned and continue to seek mastery at it. The moment it becomes, bring the class built this specific way, and not the player, is the day I stop.

And most of all, I would be still in WvWvW as long as they keep the scoreboards on, because it’s a nonstop, unending, always-different-situation thrill. Novelty, achievement, teamwork and server pride all rolled into one.

Where I Attain the Opportunity to Demonstrate Immoderate Verbosity (Bookworm Adventures Deluxe)

This was the game that sat on my shoulder like a devilish imp, prompting me to finally pick up the entire Popcap bundle during a seasonal sale, despite already having played Plants Vs Zombies, the main popular anchor of a pack stuffed with a lot of other cheaper, cheesier, mainstream-y casual games.

After playing the demo, I just couldn’t get over how goddamn FUN it was.

And how much I wanted to keep playing until I completed the game.

In Bookworm Adventures Deluxe, you guide the main protagonist Lex the Bookworm on his epic quest to save the day and rescue the girl.

If you can get over the cartoony graphics and initial cheesiness, you’ll find that they hide a pretty exciting hybrid between an RPG and Boggle.

Yes, all game mechanics become more fun when we put an RPG wrapper around it. (We can talk about Puzzle Quest (bejeweled+RPG) and Defenders Quest (tower defence+RPG) another time, cos I have those games too.)

It’s crazy, but it works. You make words out of the letters on the grid given to you, and the longer your word, the more damage your excessive grandiloquence does to your opponent.

Given how fond I am of playing with vocabulary, this is a match made in heaven.

And the game is anything but easy.

It starts off simple, and you can get away with making three or four letter words to swiftly beat up the initial opponents, who clock in at about 3-4 hearts. In the earlier chapters, your amusement may derive more from seeing what non-kid-like words the game’s dictionary will let you get away with.

No, the F word doesn’t work. Oh well. Sex does!

Or how long a word you can spell.

Or how ironically appropriate the word is.

Then the complexity ramps up. You win treasures that act as weapons and armor, each with their own altering mechanic. The Bow of Zyx above gives bonus damage to words using the letters X, Y and Z. A Hammer of Hephaestus obtained in a much later chapter ramps up your damage, especially if you spell metal-related words, such as iron, bronze, melt, etc.

Some equipment offers you partial or full protection from special attacks that the more advanced monsters do, such as stunning you for a turn or three while they get free attacks on you, or adding poison or debuffing your strength and so on.

(Really, we’re spelling words here, what is this talk about debuffs and status effects! That’s the RPG component at work…)

You’re limited to bringing only three treasures with you, so choose wisely for what you’ll face. Helpfully, the game will tell you beforehand what special attacks the next chapter’s enemies are fond of using, so it does involve strategy, rather than boiling down to a trial-and-error guessing game.

And yes, there are Boss Battles at the end of every chapter.

Before long, the amount of hearts the enemies have is… staggering, to say the least.

Though it doesn’t stop me from… see above.

Some monsters have the ability to destroy tiles for several turns, making them useless in terms of contributing damage. You can choose to use them up quickly and cycle in new tiles, or just leave them be and work around them. Later, enemies may even Infect certain tiles, and those can spread to adjacent tiles, encouraging the strategy of using them up as quickly as possible.

And then you get the Gem Tiles. By spelling longer words of five letters or more, you get bonus gemmed letter tiles that, when used, give -your- attacks special status effects, such as freezing the enemy for a turn, or adding poison, or debuffing the amount of damage the enemy does (very important!), in addition to buffing your total damage.

Adding to the increased sophistication is the special three-letter word immunity certain bosses sport. Yep, those simple words don’t work no more. No more “Yes” “Sit” Bat” and so on. Four or more letters to do damage, and frankly, if you stick to four letters, you’ll probably get very beat up and use lots of healing potions in the process.

Death is not excessively punishing. You lose all your accumulated potions. If you want more, then you play a few minigames that may win you some bonus potions. And you continue from where you left off.

The setting for the first book was well-chosen, the trials of Ancient Greece, so you face fairly recognizable enemies and tropes (like venturing to the Underworld, a seven-headed hydra, etc.) Being a wordy sort of game, you may also stumbled across sly puns and a easter egg or two.

*cough* *cough* If you can’t recognize the reference, we must really talk about Interactive Fiction in subsequent posts in the future. (Prolixity on purpose.)

The final boss at the end of chapter 10 is no pushover. She was the cause of my first death, and the amount of hearts she has… well, it SCROLLS down as you go through the rows and rows.

I wanted to ask if she was “jilted” but I lacked an E. Close enough. She didn’t take kindly to the inquiry.

All the previously mentioned mechanics are in full play here. You can see the status effects on both of us. The first green tile is a gem that heals me for two hearts when used. The second is an infected tile I was getting rid of as soon as possible. Using the letter Y boosts my damage, thanks to the bow I’m carrying. Look at the amount of specials she has, sheesh.

Challenge level: Not exactly a kid’s game. A smart, brainy one, maybe.

Lemme tell you, any kid who plays this game, I will have tremendous respect for. It is fiendish in how hard it pushes your vocabulary to the limit.

The ten chapters took me a Herculean three hours of rewardingly fun mental effort in a marathon sitting, and I was all ready to claim the girl as my prize after whomping Medusa.

… And then they tell me, you’re only -just- done with Book 1.

There is a Book 2. (No, no, not the sequel Bookworm Adventures Deluxe 2, though there is one. But as in, in this singular game, Bookworm Adventures Deluxe, there is not just ten chapters of Book 1, there is also a Book 2, and presumably ten more chapters?!)

And I checked the main title screen and sure enough, some other feature only unlocks after you’ve completed Book 3.

TWO MORE BOOKS in this one game? Are you telling me it gets EVEN harder from here on up? And that I have another SIX hours to go?

I decidedly to mercifully end the marathon before my back killed me, but wow, I was impressed. It’s going to last me some time yet.

Book 2: Arabian Nights, here we come.

Nation Red: The Purity, Simplicity and Elegance of Zombie-Killing

We take a break from our regularly scheduled occult zombie-killing in The Secret World to bring you this feature on… more zombie-killing.

Or rather, you’re seeing my craving for variety in action. I like to change things up every now and then – different games feed and fill different ‘fun’ needs.

Some days, all you have time for is a half hour or two of gaming, and in general (though there are exceptions,) MMOs are not terribly good at short spurts of entertainment. Load up the client, patch whatever is necessary, enter in your password and log in, one-third or more of your game time is gone. Take another one-third to reorientate on who your character is, what they’re currently up to with their quests/missions log and check their inventory or equipment, and by the time you gallop or jog to your destination, you may as well log off before killing those ten rats.

Enter the arcade shooter.

I like shooters. You might have noticed with my /played time on Realm of the Mad God.

A good one is rat-killing distilled to a pure fine essence.

And these days, they all come with Achievements like MMOs for extra challenges. (But they’re optional and just for kicks, if you want to.)

Nation Red is an oldie and a goodie.

It didn’t hit my radar until one of the ubiquitous Steam sales where it was going for ludicrously cheap, and I picked it up on an impulse buy. (If I recall, it may have been one of those Summer achievement-fest events, which are a great excuse for me to buy and sample a whole lot of indie games and hopefully find a diamond in the rough or two.)

Hell, Nation Red is a polished gem. Don’t believe me? Ask Totalbiscuit then. The opening cinematic sequence was an eyebrow-raiser in terms of the polished Half-Life 2-esque graphics I wasn’t expecting, and the game just gets better from there.

Basically, shoot zombies. Or smack them with melee weapons. But the optional variations just keep going up from there until it looks ‘deep,’ in the sense that there’s many ways to play this.

You can select your class to focus on different strengths. As you level, you get perks, similar to a Fallout style, that improve and change up your game. Weapons drop like candy, all of which have various firing patterns, and providing a constant stream of having-to-adapt-to-the-situation – especially if you accidentally pick up the wrong weapon at the wrong time. Power-ups also keep throwing in variety into the mess of zombie waves that keep coming.

There’s multiple game modes: a bunch of missions, Free-Play, Survival and Barricade, you can play in single-player mode or multiplayer, but the essence is simple, survive and keep shooting, not necessarily in that order.

And there’s an elegance in that simplicity. Easy to grasp, hard to master. Aim, shoot, kill, dodge, run, kite, round and round, testing yourself over and over, increasing your score, leveling up and learning and challenging yourself as the game adapts naturally and perfectly to your current capabilities.

Not so good at the game? Die earlier. Try again. Get better. Survive longer. Get a higher score. Die again. Repeat until enough. For now.

And the game will keep until the next time you feel like a bout of pew-pewing. No subscription nonsense necessary.

Messed around for half an hour with it today. (It came to my attention as it just got a recent update on Steam, a new Prison level for the Barricade game mode.) Scored a few more Achievements through the regular course of play. Was fun.

TSW: THAT Guy – A Soliloquy on Preferring to Solo

Self, I gotta question for you.

Go ahead, shoot.

Why is it that you’ve just spent the better part of an hour slicing and dicing these Goliaths into itty bitty pieces by your lonesome? Aren’t you sick and tired of repeating the same thing over and over?

Not really, no. Do ya see how easily I’m taking them down now that I spent half an hour reworking my build into something more efficiently survival-dps based? See how sexy it is to finish them off with my flashing chopping blade? I’m Slayer-ing them good.

I forgot to screenshot cos I was having too good a time, but I’ll let this Surf Hulk thing stand in for the Goliaths.

And the green crap that has been dropping is pretty spiffy, from a providing crafting raw materials perspective.

Who knows, maybe a blue will drop, you see that blue chaos focus (that I can’t use) that dropped and shocked me?

Maybe it’s a really rare chance, a jackpot chance that’s not likely to happen, or just bugged because of extra players in the vicinity, but I won’t know until I slice and dice a hunnerd of them or so, right?

Why don’t you just go to that Polaris dungeon I keep hearing about? You got that “Dead in the Water” quest sitting in your mission log like so much deadweight. I hear tell you can get blues in dungeons.

Well, self, I got lots of issues with grouping right now. And I’ve been thinking as I meditatively chop these hulks down to size, I’m thinking they all ultimately boil down to  “THAT guy” problems.

Huh?

First off, self, it’s not like I didn’t try. Look, I’ll show you, I got into a group, I got on board that damn plane, and I hit the instance. I lucked into one of the DPS slots, so I won’t touch on the holy trinity perception problem until later.

I think there was some kind of cutscene. About a ship, maybe. I don’t rightly know, I kinda blank out on any group-related storytelling because I’m too worried about the actual grouping mechanics and details and not dying horribly.

There was a guy there, he said he was gonna tank. There was another gal (who could be a guy) who was gonna heal. And two other DPS people. And me. So far, so good.

Then one of the DPS guys said he needed a sec, he was gonna respec and rebuild some stuff. Ok, no problems, it’s a new game, the first dungeon, a lot of us are all coming into this cold, let’s give him a minute for him to get set and ready.

The tank and I hadn’t done this before and said so. No worries, said the last DPS, I done this dozens of times, it’s nothing. Don’t worry, said the healer, I’m a dang good healer. We wait. And we wait some more. Then the healer accidentally aggros a patrol (oops, my bad, she says later. No problem, to err is human, after all) and the four of us jump it and hey, it’s really not so bad, this trash mob, quite easily killed and wowee, the xp is good.

We wander over to the first boss, and since it’s a boss, the tank says, we better wait for the last guy. We wait longer. And more.

Finally, there’s life down the group chat bar and he’s done. Where are you all, he says. Couple minutes later, he finally finds us. Woot, now we’re a team. Now we’re set to rock this joint and we charge the first boss. And straight away, the last DPS pulls aggro from the tank and he ends up the impromptu tank. Gee, the tank says, maybe you could have told me you were rebuilding to tank, and I coulda put some DPS into my build. There’s seriously no way I can pull this aggro back, I’m trying and it’s not working with the tools I got right now. The guy says nothing, just keeps pulling aggro.

Good thing the healer was right and she really was a damn good healer cos that DPS guy stayed upright, if at half health. I feel obliged to help out a smidgen with Anima Shot, which I tossed in by taking out my hate generating blade AoE because I didn’t want to be THAT DPSer guy who yanks aggro from the tank. Everybody stays alive, probably cos first dungeons are first dungeons for a reason and relatively forgiving.

We go through some bosses. There are a few mechanics to take note of. Don’t step in this or that. Burn adds down fast. That kinda thing. Self, lemme tell you something honestly.

What’s that, self?

I really hate that kinda group learning mechanics thing. Or at least, it’s been wearing down on me bad.

I did lots of group dungeons in Rift, because it was easy to get a Looking for Dungeon team with their tool, and at least I could queue as support, which is something that fits my psyche and after investing a couple hours reading guides and forums, respecing, following a template build and parsing, all of which were quite tedious, at least I was sure that I was contributing a satisfactory amount of damage and healing and I wouldn’t be shouted at for dragging the team down.

But the problem was that there were so many mechanics to learn and remember and perform to exacting standards, otherwise you wipe the whole team kind of deal, that I always had a dungeon guide/walkthrough sitting open in my other screen so that I was aware of the theory, even if complete learning had to be practiced by repeatedly doing. That kinda spoils the discovery aspect of the thing, you know? The joy of exploring and finding out that I like so much. But I don’t want to be THAT clueless guy running ahead into every damn trap the designers set up either. Because I’d look fucking stupid in front of a lot of other people.

It’s not like I’m so good at the game that I can perform well 90%, 100% of the time either. I’m probably a 50%-75% average to above average player, optimistically speaking. But you know what’s the biggest difference when I solo and when I group, self?

Hmm?

If I fail when I solo, it just affects me. I fall over and die. I respawn and gotta run back. Shit, I wasted my time, but it’s my own time to waste. I’m not screwing over other people.

Then there’s the locus of control. If I’m alone, it falls to me to examine what my problem is, to fix my spec, to experiment and try until it’s good and I’m killing the mobs and not vice versa. It feels good when I take myself from fail to success, cos I did it, my invested time to strategize a build and my skill hitting appropriate buttons at appropriate timings.

With other people, it’s not just a two dimension problem. Me fail or me succeed. The ideal is me succeed, they succeed. Then everyone’s happy and the dungeon is run at picture perfect speed with perfect execution, badabing badaboom. But then there’s me fail, they succeed. Which would make me feel really bad at being THAT guy.

Oh come on, you’re not that bad. Maybe you’re a 75/25 person, which is pretty good already.

Hell, self, even if the whole team was made up of 75% good people, we have an inherent problem. If two people succeed 75% of the time on their own, mathematically speaking, they got a 9/16 chance (or 56.25%) of both succeeding at the same time. If three people, then well, we’re looking at 3/4 x 3/4 x 3/4 or 27/64 = 42%. Five people, 23.7% chance that all will perform to perfection.

At other times, at least one guy is failing and the other people  have to compensate. Or the rare chance that everybody fails, at which point, they total party wipe. On the bright side, there’s no one to blame if everyone fails together. Otherwise, there’s always THAT guy who is screwing something up, somewhere, somewhen.

That’s just a bit aggravating to me. I don’t know why, but it is.  I know it doesn’t make logical sense, but emotionally, intuitively, that’s how I end up feeling on these things. Maybe I’m just reading a bit too much into it, but I do. I can’t help myself.

Anyhow, I was complaining about mechanics before I sidetreked into this. I did a lot of this in Rift. Realized I didn’t like it much. I did a lot of this in City of Heroes too, on Incarnate trials. Which was even worse because it was just way too many people to keep track of and overwhelmingly exhausting on one’s situational awareness. And those were just baby raids if that. I have no clue how people can stand it in games like WoW because it seems mathematically impossible that with 10, 15, 25 people, at least 3-5 people must be screwing shit up at any one point in time, the cat herding exercise is already blowing my mind in theory.

Well, maybe people put up with it because they want the shiny rewards at the end.

Self, I don’t really give two fucks about shiny rewards. Well, I do, just a little, but I got big issues with how they’re distributed, see.

Need/Greed systems always screw me over. Lemme tell you, self, I see a reward drop, I want it. Call me selfish, but that’s how I’m built. When I solo, I can get it all. Shit drops. I take it. It’s mine. It goes into my inventory. It’s clear cut and easy.

In a group, I gotta be mindful of the three or four other people with me. I gotta be polite. I gotta be courteous and build my rep, so I don’t look like an asshole that no one wants to group with ever again. I gotta share, and the way the crazy developers think is the fairest method of sharing, is for everybody to keep rolling individual dice rolls for individual items.

Self, I am crap at lotteries. The dice never go my fucking way. Every time I greed something, I never get it. Period. Probability already says I got a 80% chance of not getting it, if there’s five people all greeding it. That 20% chance? Doesn’t really happen for me. Some people are naturally a little luckier and I guess there’s the opposite to balance them off, and I’m it.

Well, that’s why they have the Need part of Need/Greed.

Right. The part that tests your speed reading skills when you have to mouseover the item real quick-like to see if maybe the stats are an improvement over what you’re wearing and make a snap decision as to whether you can legitimately Need it without folks shouting at you for being a ninja looting whore. I read fast, but I don’t like the stress and the pressure, thank you. And there’s usually someone else what Needs it too, and remember my sucktastic luck at dice rolling?

I end up more irritated than not if I run a dungeon expecting to get any loot out of it. I’ll be content enough just sightseeing. Makes me calmer and more Zen that way.

Okay, okay, I get it. So just go sightsee. What’s the problem? It’s a bloody MMO, innit? Mul-ti-play-er, they’ll keep stressing to you, cos yer being thick.

Self, I’m also lazy and I don’t like responsibility. I play a bloody MMO to have fun, for escapism and immersion purposes. And holy trinity group MMOs can go hang themselves.

I don’t heal. Don’t like it. Am shit at it. Playing whack a mole with green healthbars is not my idea of fun. Getting blamed or shamed for letting someone die cos their defences or hp sucks ass is ridiculously dumb and just makes my misanthropy levels rise further. All in all, not healthy and not my idea of a good time. So nix full healer-ing. That’s right out.

I confess, I half-like tanking. But tanking is a lot of work. You end up needing to find gear that is the equivalent of welding giant metal plates on yourself – great for withstanding hits and useless at doing anything else. And taking a lot of skills that are basically about you yelling your momma insults at the poor dumb mob. And you gotta know the dungeon cos folks expect the tank to lead them properly and not off a cliff or something equally stupid. Which is not great for first time experiences and winds up being a second job for an alt or some such.

So that leaves DPSing and hybrids thereof. Which nearly everyone and their momma is. Which means competition for spaces and slots and loot is fierce and you’re basically expendable and interchangeable. All of which also winds up reducing my enjoyment of the whole ‘grouping’ prospect.

The sad thing is, I don’t think The Secret World cleaves that tightly to holy trinity. I’m sure if City of Heroes can manage it, and if even Aion managed to get away with some flexibility, a heal/tank and 4 DPS/heal hybrids would do absolutely fine, among other blends and variations. But people are creatures of comfortable routine and habit and if holy trinity role specialization works, that’s what they’re going to stick with cos that’s what they know. And I don’t have four friends that constantly play at the same time who can tailor their builds to something so experimentally esoteric.

Anyway, self, there’s one more reason I’ve been holding back on joining another Polaris dungeon in The Secret World.

And what’s that?

You know that earlier story about the one and only group I joined? I ain’t told you the bitter end yet.

We got to the penultimate boss, which was all about burning adds at intervals and avoiding periodic aoe knockback or some such.

I shoulda stayed here assault rifling. But no, I had to go blade crazy on it cos everyone was melee’ing too.

Then I accidentally was a split second too late in avoiding the marking on the floor and I got knocked back. I got knocked back SO goddamn hard it crashed my client. It went beyond mere crashing. It literally hung my entire computer with the audio on a stalled loop.

I presume it’s really because I’m on a Win XP 32-bit system and memory issues were finally too much with the extra adds spawning that I got knocked into, but it was really sucky timing. I had to reboot the computer, and The Secret World loads like an oil tanker steers.

It took ten whole minutes to get back into the game, with my blood pressure shooting through the roof from the frustration and stress. Obviously, I loaded in face first, on the floor, out of the dungeon, and apparently back in my home dimension, out of group.

The team leader didn’t respond to my tells and I can’t blame them, really. Either they were madly fighting the last boss at the time, and/or they probably recruited another interchangeable DPS to make up the shortfall. I myself wouldn’t want to be hanging around waiting for the ten minutes it took for me to load in anyway.

See, so I ended up being THAT other guy too. (Through no fault of my own, but seriously, most THAT guys don’t do it on purpose, unless they’re griefers, right?)

Sheesh, you just can’t win, can you? You loser.

And that’s why I’m minding my own business over here by myself, harming no one but me and a bunch of electronic monsters. It’s a lot less annoying for everyone.

(Until the next time I decide I can put up with all the potential aggravation again, at any rate.)

TSW: First Impressions of Final Beta Weekend #4

Dark foggy days are coming.

Mixed bag. Mixed signals. I’m torn.

That’s the TL:DR summary, you can go away now if you don’t want my wall-of-text detailed analysis.

Before We Begin

You’ll note I took the trouble to specify these impressions are only for this weekend, since their client has this qualifier scrawled across their notes screen:

“Please keep in mind that the version of The Secret World you will be playing this Beta Weekend is not the final version of the game. Many issues and elements are constantly being improved upon before launch.”

Riiight. Call me cynical, but I translate that as “We will promise we will be continually working to improve this game, but we have run out of time and have to launch this.” In other words, you will be playing and paying for a work in progress for quite a while yet.

On the bright side, I do believe they are fixing stuff as fast as they can. In between yesterday and today, I’ve had to download quite a few patches to be able to log in, and active dodging in combat was reactivated (to name a really obvious change) so there’s fixes coming in.

It’s not like they’ve given up and wiped their hands of the MMO and are just going to launch it to grab what money they can like some other companies I could think of. I think it fits Funcom’s pattern to keep working away at their games and keeping the doors unshuttered for the long term, though they may never have enough resources to polish their MMOs to full potential.

On the pragmatic side, this sure is a hell of a lot of -known- bugs and issues for an MMO that is due to launch like…now.

They probably suspect that this is the best window. Before Guild Wars 2 launches. Within 2012, because their story alludes to it being the year 2012.

Personally, I put up with Age of Conan’s bugginess and unfinished nature for about 3 months while marking time for Warhammer’s launch (which also lasted about 3 months, but that’s another story) and I’m having trouble convincing myself that paying for lack of polish is okay, especially when there are more polished and/or free (just less new) options available on the market.

On First Logging In

The program jittered and stuttered on the movies that played the logos but they played, and I got all the way to the log-in screen. Then I tried to pick a server, and found out I couldn’t create a character on a single one. Kept throwing me back and saying the slots were all full. WTF? I don’t have a single character made, there’s three slots sitting right there, how can they be full?

Quit, did some forums searching, turns out that behavior occurs if there’s been a patch/update in between that you missed. (Well, I was downloading a huge 20+ gb client for over 24 hours, so it’s no wonder that I must have missed a patch.)

Want a good laugh? This was the client downloader midway through. I looked at that progress bar poking out onto my desktop and said, “Lol, this calls for a screenshot.”

On the bright side, it did stop before it hit 25 gb, and it later expanded itself into a 30gb folder on my hard disk. (I shoved Aion onto a spare external hard disk to make room. Copy it back later when I feel like trying out the game again, assuming the NCsoft launcher doesn’t have issues with me doing that. But that’s another story.)

Started the game for the second time after downloading the necessary missing patch, and promptly crashed because I was trying to click away or bang on Esc to skip the corporate logo movies. Hrm. (For the record, subsequent times have allowed me to skip them just fine by pressing Esc once. I have no idea why it was being so temperamental just then. But I’m pointing out the my exact first impressions flow of events, good and bad alike.)

Third time lucky. Started the program again, logged in, selected a server and made it to the character creation screen. Yay, I can actually make a character now!

On the Character Screen and TSW’s Graphics

It’s about this point that I first started running into an issue that sits like a big plague-monkey on my back. At certain points, like in the character screen and certain cutscenes, my graphics lag and typically take 15-60 seconds to load in, coming in layers, low resolution textures at first and then smoothing to higher resolution stuff. Not all the time, but enough to be annoying.

It’s most obvious on the character load screen. This is what it looks like for me right on starting up (after having made my first Illuminati character, that is.)

That’s just not normal. Most other MMOs will show you your character, right?

Turns out, so does The Secret World. If I wait for a good minute or so, then this eventually fills in around the brown-grey spaces.

Now I’ll quantify right off that I’m not playing The Secret World at the ideal recommended uber-graphics card 64-bit Windows 7 DirectX11 settings. I am completely well aware of the fact that I’ll never get as awesomely gorgeous lighting and shadows and beautiful textures as the media screenshots on their website.

Considering the negative rumor mill and me running a 32-bit Windows XP DirectX9 machine with an ATI 4870 card (ATI cards being somewhat notorious for having issues where Nvidia doesn’t, now and then), I was already pleasantly surprised to find that the game loaded at all. The starting resolution and graphics quality was extremely low on the default setting, and I was able to crank it up to somewhere between medium-high on a 1680 x 1050 full screen – the client automatically restricts the draw distance and other advanced settings due to memory limitations on 32-bit Windows.

Decently pretty.

However, I’m always aware of and made to feel slightly like a second class citizen because of this graphics lag issue. Even the graphics setting never misses a beat to tell me this.

The impression I get is that you don’t care about me as a potential audience. That you can’t really be bothered to optimize for lower performing systems. That accessibility of your game is not a factor. Whereas games like World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic go for stylized graphics precisely because they want the game to work well on lower-end systems, while Guild Wars 2 tests the look of their game on antiquated graphics cards that can’t even be bought off the shelves anymore because they want the game to still look good for the average gamer.

It’s weird because I do think you -are- working on optimizing for lower end systems too, as and when you can. My load times have been speeding up over this last beta weekend. And the game -is- playable, on the whole, for me.

Monitoring FPS, I get anywhere from a playable 25-40 FPS most times, going up to 45 FPS in solo instances and dropping to 5-20 FPS for a couple seconds in the rare crowded locales before going up again. It’s better performance than I got with Age of Conan, where I could hit 1-5 FPS in the cities. (Ironically, it was AoC which made me feel like I needed to upgrade my graphics card about 4-5 years ago. I did, and it improved somewhat, but not by much.)

So then the final impression I get is that of bugginess and lack of polish and optimization. Bits work here, and parts don’t work there. For 90% of the cutscenes, they play perfectly fine and look pretty okay, if not spectacular because my system isn’t high-end…

…and then I get this view of a van that dashes in for 1-2 seconds, which is too fast for my computer to apply a good high-res texture to.

And it kinda shatters the immersion that is being built up.

(Unless, hmm, maybe I can pretend that I’m playing in a big Matrix-computer-style set up, so there are occasions where the quality of the graphics becomes digitized as the world fails to render properly!)

On Character Creation

It’s not terrible. I’ll say that much. There’s a decent range of options and colors and head, hair, clothing types. Enough to create fairly unique and distinct characters that don’t all look like clones on first entering the game.

That is, if you could actually see your character.

It’s that graphics bugaboo I mentioned earlier. I don’t get it. For practically any other MMO I play, it doesn’t take 3-5 seconds to pause and first load the background in bits and pieces, then slowly load and display the character. In The Secret World’s character creation screen, it does.

When it does finally load in, it isn’t half bad at all.

At least, if the sliders worked properly. For some reason, they’re acting clunky in character creation. I can’t click on the knob and drag. The pixel location is off, or something.

At first, I was wondering if it was a lag issue from having to load in the different styles and textures, but my computer doesn’t grind or in any way act like it’s trying to load anything.

What I have to do is somehow click away at each slider, up and around and down until it suddenly registers as active, and my mouse wheel can suddenly work to scroll up and down through the selections with nary a pause at all. If I get really lucky and pick the perfect pixel location, then I can drag the knobs left and right as you’d expect.

And then I go through the same thing per bar I select. And if I need to backtrack on an option, same problem with the knobs. It’s really weird because the color selection has no issues. Click and everything changes with nary a pause. The drop down box has no issues. The knobs make me want to tear out my hair.

My only possible conclusion? Buggy.

On Names

Here’s one thing about the Secret World that I do like. Quite a bit.

You have to fill in three names. First name, nickname, and a last name. So everyone goes around being identified as John/Jane “Moniker” Doe and it adds a bit to the immersive aspect of the setting. The naming policy encourages most people to use pretty immersive names too, pretty much the worst I’ve seen are those that run around in all lowercase. Even those that just have a few numbers tacked on the end of their nickname kind of resemble Internet monikers.

What’s less nice, that I found out on my second character made, is that the nickname has to be unique. And no spaces are allowed.

It’s a bit of a shame, considering that if you used all three names in combination, we might get more flexibility and freedom in naming, similar to City of Heroes or Guild Wars 1. Now instead what we’re going to end up with is people warring for the best sexy superhero or hacker-style nickname and lots of good options being taken up very very soon. It’s already a pain on City of Heroes to get good names, and we get the option of spaces there. Here, all we get are hyphens and a shorter character limit, which does not bode well for the future.

I also foresee that people are going to be hard pressed to tell the difference between Nightshadow and Night-shadow (both names are naturally taken by this time.) Hopefully they don’t end up playing or talking together at the same time.

On Group and Combat Mechanics

Speaking of playing together, I’m a little disappointed. Just a bit.

Bear in mind the last beta I was just playing was Guild Wars 2, so when I first started the game and got to Kingsmouth, I saw people fighting zombies in a setting that looks like it was cut out from Left 4 Dead… what’s the first thing I’m going to do? Run in and help blow zombies up, of course!

Then I noticed that:

a) I generally wasn’t getting any xp from helping kill mobs other players were already fighting (or just a smidgen, normally from untagged mobs)

and

b) when some other well-meaning player helped me on my zombies, the amount of experience I got was dramatically decreased

Oh.

I guess we’re back to traditional MMO mechanics where you have to officially form a group first. I better stop “helping” before someone shouts at me for killstealing them. Sad panda.

From then on, I stopped caring about other players and treated them as essentially a big faceless crowd of moving distractions that are all following the same story path.

It’s especially sad because the tutorial mission has you helping out three NPCs with a shotgun, fighting multiple mobs, fer goodness sake’s. In action combat. Where running and dodging and firing as you ran was important. It felt so modern and enlightened. Yet we still have a reminder of old MMO roots simply because the reward scheme still feels oldfashioned.

Combat on the whole reminds me of a good mix between Guild Wars 2, Guild Wars 1 and City of Heroes. That’s a good thing. A really really good thing.

It has active moving combat pretty similar to GW2, especially when active dodge is operational. I am especially pleased by the clarity of the enemy’s attacks and AoE effects (I’ve complained before about some other games) but TSW is as good as Rift in that respect.

You see the clarity of that circle? That’s cool. It’s clear and it is fair and it gives you time to move the hell away.

You’re a split second too late to see the spinning backflip I did to get out of the way of his AoE attack. But trust me, it was cool.

Double tapping W, A, S, D works well to dodge about. An active dodge bar appears as a countdown timer to indicate that you can’t do another dodge until it expires.

Here’s another nice one. This cone gradually shrinks in size, acting as a timer to indicate that he’s going to do a cone attack in the vicinity. Get outta the way now. Very nice.

It’s similar to Guild Wars 1 in the sense that you have to pick skills from a potentially large pool, and the choices of that selection indicate your combat options and role in battle. TSW gives you 7 active skills and 7 passive skills at any time, and the trick is to find stuff that synergizes well together and add on other utility skills as desired.

And it’s similar to GW and City of Heroes in that you’re generally a profession/profession. TSW has three melee weapons, fists, blade and hammer. Three ranged weapons, assault rifle, pistols and shotgun. And three magic weapons, chaos, blood and elemental. When you’re just starting out with limited AP and SP to buy skills and abilities, it’s generally a good idea to focus on a two weapon combat synergy style at first, before branching out later.

These two weapon synergy styles have suggested ‘decks,’ sort of a characteristic class of certain factions, which provide some nice structured guidance for people coming in cold and new to the entire system. No doubt some people will find that certain combinations are more uber than others as time goes on, but a nice balancing point is that everyone should be able to eventually pick up everything they want in a leveless, classless system. I just don’t know how much grind that would involve, though.

The holy trinity also still seems to be in operation in this game. Perhaps a little looser as there is quite a lot of option for hybrids and there’s flexibility to switch roles, but time will tell.

I actually think grouping might be quite fun in this game, if there is leeway for synergies to naturally develop, but I fear that if the dungeon difficulties are too high and too challenging, then we’ll see people being forced into very cookie cutter ‘expected’ heal/tank/dps roles for simplicity’s sake. I suspect the latter will happen, though I much prefer the former.

On Loadscreens

They’re there. On my computer, they take anywhere from 1-3 minutes to load, sooner for small cutscenes. People who dislike loading screens for immersion disruption reasons will not be happy.

Me, I don’t mind them. And I put up with worse loadscreens in Age of Conan, that literally took 5 minutes or more to struggle to load a very small zone. In TSW, the zone of Kingsmouth looks fairly big and open by comparison, so if I have to put up with short loadscreens to get the zone to a playable unlaggy state, that’s fine by me. It’s nice art and a helpful tip on those screens anyway.

On Missions and Quest Flow

On the whole, I approve. Investigation missions were turned off in this beta, which make me very curious about them because I think I will like them.

Regardless, the missions I played had a smooth flow, some involved a bit of thinking and looking around (much to some people’s exasperation as that provides a constant flow of repeated dumb questions and spoilers flying about on General chat – me, I stopped reading it in order not to spoil myself), and had a good mix of combat and story.

I like the designed difference in mission flow. TSW Search explains it here in a comprehensive guide, I’ll just paste the relevant explanation in a picture here for completeness:

Turns out it is actually designed in such a way that as one of your quests ends, you should be able to find another mission to pick up within 50m or so. Some interesting item should be obvious.

I like it. It’s a nice blend of exploration and achievement. While on the mission, you have clarity of direction and intent. But you can follow the thread to its end, then pick up another and another and be wandering all over the place without feeling obliged to report back in to quest hub central.

They’ve also taken the idea of cell phones from City of Heroes and taken it one step further. Mission reports can be sent in from your location once you finish the quest, and you get the rewards beamed to you instantly and painlessly. (Being part of an ancient occult technomagical faction has its perks, I guess.)

On Cutscenes

The voice acting is very good. The quality of writing in the stories is top notch. Granted, you have to like the setting and the rambling high-falutin’ prose that comes with that sort of urban fantastic occulto-technomagic ‘everything is a secret conspiracy’ genre. There are a lot of interesting characters and stories that I want to know more about.

The animation quality is only so-so. A bit disappointing and uncanny valley at times, but generally acceptable.

What’s extremely fucking weird is that your character doesn’t ever speak at all, and has the strangest robot face in most of the cutscenes.

Okay, I know the pro-argument for this. It’s extremely immersion-breaking if your character acts in ways that contradict your character concept. It’s sometimes better if the character just shuts up and lets your imagination write in the gaps.

But let me assure you it is also JUST as immersion-breaking if your character stands there silently for the entire cutscene, watching the NPC monologue, nicely voice acted out though it is. Especially if the NPC reacts like you said something, and you evidently didn’t.

Guild Wars 1 and 2 has dialogue. Your character says some generic hero stuff, but they say something. City of Heroes sometimes puts words in your character’s mouth when replying back to the mission text, and yes, they get it horribly wrong at times, but they do say something and imply some sort of motive or personality. I believe SWTOR also has your characters say something and react to the NPCs, though it may be generic Jedi or Bounty Hunter or Insert Class Here sort of reaction.

TSW is very very weird because in some cutscenes, they do assume some sort of reaction from your character (example, the NPC monloguing changes topic or subject because you presumably said or asked something) and then in this Dragon intro, you’re practically having a sexual encounter from the get go (I wasn’t expecting lesbian sex when I chose the female character option and that faction, but hey, bonus):

There’s -some- reaction animated on your character’s face – probably because it’s impossible not to. But your character remains MUTE throughout it all. It’s really a bit freaky.

It’s as if the best immersive option is to assume that your character is a mute telepath that can project their questions directly into the NPC’s minds. Perhaps the bug you ate that gave you magical superpowers also took away your powers of speech, along with bestowing fantastic combat ability and the link to a faction.

Viewed in that conspiracy theorist light, it all makes perfect sense.

On My See-Saw Conclusion

Despite the bugs and weird freakiness and general instability (on the plus side, I didn’t crash up to the training dojang even while print-screening and alt-tabbing out to paste screenshots – because the ingame screenshot key acts a little weird now and then – on the minus side, I was constantly crashing right after that when alt-tabbed), I am quite intrigued by the game.

I’m extremely fond of the setting TSW is set in. I’ve always wanted to experience the kind of Mage: The Ascension (or the newer, Awakening) or Unknown Armies occult underground conspiracy theory sort of world.

I approve of the combat system, the idea of a leveless and classless skill-based system, and the missions look quite playable and tell a good story. If you look at the gameplay features on The Secret World’s website, they deliver all of that. (Along with bugs.)

I would essentially be playing TSW as a singleplayer game in an MMO world to let the writers tell me their stories, and… this is where the doubt comes in, I’m not sure if I want to pay a box price, plus a sub fee, plus whatever else they decide to throw in their cash shop, for that.

The graphics are a key deciding factor for me. To be frank, if I was on a Windows 7 high powered graphics card kind of system that displays The Secret World well and in all its glory, I would be happy to put down for it right now and just play 3 months or so until I exhausted the content.

At the moment, my real world budget and priorities prohibit that. (My present computer is so put together AND old that I’ve decided instead of upgrading piecemeal, I will get a complete new system – new OS, new card, new hard disk, new power supply, new monitors, new everything, and bonus, I’ll have two machines to dual box with eventually. But budgetary and economic concerns indicate that’s not likely to come until Christmas or next year.)

So I’m stuck with pretty, but not awesomely spectacular graphics if I decide to play The Secret World within these six months. (And the bugs, and the second class citizenship thing.)

On one hand, if I wait until next year, it should look and feel really great. Funcom will no doubt have fixed more bugs by then, maybe even have an expansion in the works. The price will no doubt be cheaper.

Or there may not even be a Secret World next year, especially in the wake of Guild Wars 2, which I plan on playing fanatically. And all the spoilers would be out on all the storylines. And it would be quite impossible to find PUGs for dungeons then – whereas if I play with the starting crowd of any MMO, there’s always more group-ish excitement.

Then again, do I want group-ish excitement in this MMO, because it still has some ugly oldschool roots? I pay a lot more attention to players and supporting them in Guild Wars 2 because the mechanics support me doing so. In TSW, that’s not going to happen until they install some kind of public grouping button because I refuse to make and lead old style groups anymore, they’re just not my thing and other MMOs have demonstrated much easier ways for players to casually interact.

I dunno. It ultimately comes down to how much I feel the positive aspects are worth the box price (which is expensive at 50 euros with the exchange rate the way it is), while also taking the negative aspects into account.

And I’m still on a see-saw about that.

For what it’s worth, I’m a lot more interested in considering The Secret World -after- my beta weekend #4 experience than before.

So hey, that’s something.