Monday, June 29, 2015

The Gamer Identity

The whole "gamer" thing is making the rounds around the blogosphere again, as it is wont to do. Murf talks about his perspective in that being a gamer to him is, "you both love games and want to broaden that love." Ravanel over at Ravalations echoes this, and talks about adding the label "girl" to "gamer".

Whatever you believe "gamer" means, at the end of the day you're applying a label to yourself which you can easily describe part of your identity. Wikipedia describes Identity from a sociological/psychological bent thusly:
[I]dentity is a person's conception and expression of their own (self-identity) and others' individuality or group affiliations (such as national identity and cultural identity).
Identification of others and who/what you identify as are very important in human cultures. These labels allow you to quickly communicate to others what you believe makes you, well, you. Identity can be very much core to who you are; you can have many identities, and you can eschew identifying as something if you feel it doesn't apply or don't believe plays a large role in who you are, even if someone else believes it should.


Self-Identification

If you're a male in a large family you may identify as a father, a husband, a son, and a brother simultaneously. You may also identify as a sports fan, a dancer, a gamer, and a knitter. When meeting someone, what identity you present first in that context would hint as to what you think the most important part of your identity is: at your daughter's ballgame, you'd likely introduce yourself as a father; at a hockey arena, you'd probably identify as a sports fan; on Kotaku's forums, you'd probably identify yourself as a gamer. You may not identify with all of your own labels equally, either. You may put more weight on being a programmer versus being a dancer, for example.

I grew up playing games of all sorts. We had an Atari--which I destroyed in my infinite 3 year old wisdom trying to put stuff in the cartridge slot because that's what my parents did to make it work--and shortly after a Nintendo. I grew up on Super Mario Brothers, Tetris, Duck Hunt, Dragon Warrior, Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, and so on. Our household was big into games for the most part. In my teens I was massively into D&D and even wrote my own pen and paper RPG. As an adult, I play board games, video games, role-playing games, you name it.

As one may guess, I very strongly identify as a gamer. I love games. I love how expressive they can be, their interactivity, the stories they tell, the neat mechanics the can exhibit, and so on. I've devoted my education and career to making them, and my blog to writing about and dissecting them.

I also identify as other things. I'm a computer scientist by education and a software engineer by trade. I'm a friend, I'm a Canadian, I'm an uncle. Coincidentally I'm writing this blog post as the Seattle Pride parade goes by my window (it's been going 4 hours, for the record, so I figured I'd seen enough to do something else), and I identify as gay, or even "gaymer" or gay gamer. But gamer itself is probably most core to who I am and what drives me.


Identity Going Mainstream Feels Like It's Under Attack

Identity is a tricky beast, though, because it can be so core to who you are, whether you think about it consciously or subconsciously. When someone attacks your identity, you often can feel it personally. Especially if that label is by far your primary identity.

For gaming, an easy thing to bring up here is Jack Thompson's crusade against video games, trying to get them banned. As television news like FOX derided gaming and gamers as an identity, it was clear that something we loved was very much under attack. Thankfully, Mr. Thompson got himself disbarred.

When we look at the "Gamers are Dead" fiasco last year, a number of people felt attacked. While the articles themselves generally talked about how the stereotypical neck-bearded basement-dwelling nerd (I say this as a neck-bearded basement-dwelling nerd myself) isn't something the companies need to target specifically anymore because there are so many more people interested in games now--basically, what makes a "gamer" is a broader net than it was previously--the titles were a deliberate and direct attack on the "gamer" identity.

The push back on "SJW" values can also be viewed as a lashing out at something people feel is threatening their identity. The broadening of gaming culture to the mainstream means that gaming as a refuge becomes diluted in a sense. It was something that felt "ours" in the 80s and 90s, and now in the 2010s gaming "belongs" to everyone (assuming it could "belong" to anyone to begin with), and with that broadening comes new ideas and different sensibilities. Ideas and sensibilities that may not jive with the previous gamer demographic; they claim ownership of the term "gamer" and therefore ideas from outside of what they consider to be a gamer are treated as an outsider's point of view at best, and hostile at worst.

That expansion is akin to other privileges being broadened to apply to more people--like gender becoming irrelevant to being married. The privileged may feel threatened because they're no longer a unique or special group, even if they were pariahs like gamers used to be. You also actually see this within the LGBT community as well, as more letters get added to the acronym. You see folks deriding it as "alphabet soup".

Saw this posted on a friend's Facebook page.
Gaming isn't the only thing to go mainstream. What gamers see today has occurred to grunge, rock and roll, fantasy literature, EDM, and so on.

Hybrid Identities

I talked about being a gay gamer. Ravanel talked about being a girl gamer. Folks talk about being American versus 2nd Generation Chinese-American. For those who express hybrid identities, neither really takes precedence. Being a girl and being a gamer are both important aspects of Ravanel, as expressed by her. Someone who states they are Chinese-American as opposed to just Chinese, or just American, is communicating they believe both aspects of themselves are important in that context.

Bhagpuss left a comment on Ravanel's blog (emphasis mine):
Nope, I think these labels are odd and unhelpful. I much prefer "I play games" to "I am a gamer". The term "girl gamer" however, has a completely different set of values attached, I think. I always see that as a feminist statement, part of the long tradition of reclaiming, owning and subverting negative stereotypes. I'd say calling yourself a "girl gamer" is an overtly political act the way just calling yourself a "gamer" probably wouldn't be, although the hobby of gaming itself seems to be developing its own political infrastructure so maybe even that distinction won't hold for long.
You hear that kind of sentiment all the time. Why segregate yourselves? Why say Black Lives Matter, don't all lives matter? Why do gay people need a Pride festival specifically for them? Why can't we all just be gamers?

Keeping everything else I wrote above in mind, calling oneself a girl gamer isn't any more a political statement than calling oneself a gamer is. At least, it shouldn't be. It's simply a statement that you identify as a girl and a gamer relatively equally in that context. But we don't hear folks identifying themselves as straight gamers, or boy gamers, so why identify as gay or girl along with gamer?

Because--and you'll probably know I'll say this before I say it--male and straight is the default, especially in gaming. When someone says "gamer" the stereotype of the neck-bearded basement-dwelling nerd still comes up in popular culture, despite the fact that it's not representative of the gaming populace as a whole (though there are some of us that do fit that image, and that's not a bad thing). So by using a hybrid identity, you are distancing yourself from that default, and that isn't a bad thing either. Gamers aren't some unified ideological bloc, nor should they be.

But let's get one thing clear: identifying as a gamer is a political statement, as much as identifying as a girl or gay gamer is, or as a Chinese-American, or Christian or Atheist. When you say you're a gamer, you're communicating that gaming and the culture that surrounds gaming is important to you. That when you're acting as a consumer in the market, you'll likely lean in a certain direction financially (generally, towards games). That when you're acting as a voter, you'll likely lean in the direction that enables games in society, or that gaming and gaming-related policies will be of great interest to you. You might not be out actively crusading for it, but you're making a statement nonetheless.

So for those who do call themselves gamers (which I note to ensure no confusion, Bhagpuss very much did not), to say that adding "girl", "gay", "black", "trans", whatever to gamer is a political statement is a grossly hypocritical statement. They likely don't realize they're being hypocritical, as they clearly don't realize that even identifying as a gamer is a political statement (to be fair, I doubt any identity label isn't a political statement), but nonetheless, they're applying a different set of rules to others by doing so.

And also note, gamer itself as a label isn't a default in society, either. So to those outside the gaming community, "gamer" is something that may come off as a self-segregation, exactly the thing that hybrid gamer identities get accused of by many gamers. At the end of the day, they're both just labels.

Conclusion

Some folks claim they hate labels. To pick on Bhagpuss a little more (sorry!), while he clearly doesn't identify with "gamer" (totally okay!) and he believes such a label to be "odd and unhelpful", he likely uses other labels in his life. I'd honestly be shocked to find a human that isn't using a label to identify themselves in one way or another.

Yes, you need to be careful about generalizing based on labels, and you need to be even more careful about applying your own labels on others rather than taking what identities they espouse. But like any other tool, such identification can be useful when used judiciously

So yeah, I identify as a gamer, among many other things. But gaming is core to what I love, and therefore it's good enough for me. #Gamer, #Sociology

Monday, June 22, 2015

[FFXIV] Flying Through Heavensward

Having opted into the Heavensward Early Access, the past weekend has been super fun binging on excellent MMO content. Well, when you can beat the lobby login boss, anyhow. My Paladin is 58, 20% away from 59 (max is 60), and I've been having a blast following the story, getting flight in each zone, and running dungeons and trials. 

Lots of screens ahead, so putting in a jump!


Monday, June 15, 2015

[E3] I Don't Want a Straight-Up Remake of Final Fantasy VII

So one of the biggest jaw-dropping, pant-shitting moments of E3 so far has been Sony's announcement that an FF7 remake is finally on the way. Here's the trailer from YouTube if you haven't seen it:



Chills, right? The right music, the right visuals, the right levels of suspense, and the reveal at the end make the child inside me scream in joy and weep in anticipation. FF7 was released over 18 years ago. 18! There are adults out there who are younger than this game.

The thing that made FF7 for me was the music, the characters, and the story. To be brutally honest, the gameplay is kinda dull. It's very classic Squaresoft JRPG, and don't get me wrong, I actually rather enjoyed the trappings of the Materia system. Hell, I managed to nail Ruby and Emerald Weapons to the floor with Cloud sporting 12 fully leveled Counter Attack Materia, along with a couple HP Plus and Cover, which meant anytime someone attacked, Cloud would counter for 12x9999ish damage. I broke that system inside-out.

But the system is quite simple. Combat is mostly just holding down the Confirm button and letting your party auto-attack its way to victory. Swapping out Materia sets was annoying. Having a 200 Materia limit was archaic. Aside from gysahl greens, elixirs, and maybe an ether or two, your inventory was largely ignorable.

I think the game has some solid underpinnings, but the execution of combat just wasn't that great or exciting to be perfectly frank. FFX's combat system is a bajillion times more engaging and complex than FF7.

So here's my hope: that Square Enix takes a few liberties. Don't screw with the characters or the story, aside from redoing the translation (Final Fantasy Tactics shows a redone translation can heighten the game story from Great to Magnificent). Make the art all pretty, fully 3D zones to explore rather than the pre-painted areas (though even FFXIII had some areas that may as well have been hand-painted, so perhaps they won't change that too much).

But combat? Jazz it up. Modernize it. The sacred cow of FF7's combat in my opinion is the Materia system. Keep it, expand upon it, modify it. Don't just leave it as is.

We see remake upon remake, but what I want from FF7 isn't just a remake, but a re-imagining from a game design perspective. I think there's just so much that can be done here, and it'd be a shame to just deliver the exact same game with better art.
#FF7, #E3

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

[Final Fantasy Record Keeper] Exploit Softens Terrible Game Design

For the past 3 months I've played a lot of Final Fantasy Record Keeper. It's a mobile game where you end up having to save the Final Fantasy worlds by battling it out with their enemies/bosses brought to life. It's a bit of nonsense story-wise, but the game itself is...well, somewhat fun generally with moments of great fun, but mostly satisfying I guess?


What is FFRK?

The gist is you collect characters from FF games, gather gear to wear and upgrade, collect orbs to build and upgrade abilities, to take on more and more difficult challenges. It plays (preys?) upon nostalgia quite effectively, as everyone has been given the sprite treatment (if they hadn't been sprites already) and backgrounds, music, victory music, enemies, bosses, and gear are from the Final Fantasy games.

Where the collecting is interesting is it's easy to get characters, collecting orbs for abilities just takes time, and gear is where they use the gacha-style shop to pay for pulls. But they're pretty free with the currency to make pulls all around. I've made 4 11-pulls so far with their currency, Mythril, which if I had paid for it would've cost me $120. But characters and gear are more powerful when you're fighting in the realm they're from. Example: you want to fight an FF6 boss, so bring along Terra and she basically has +10 levels worth of stats. Equip Tidus from FFX with an FF6 piece of armor, and the armor would provide a lot more defense.

Items with Record Synergy for the realm you're in are highlight blue, and characters have a blue aura.
This Realm Synergy makes collecting highly satisfying, because it allows you to take on challenges more difficult than you would be able to otherwise. But almost more important than stats are the abilities. Each character can bring along two abilities, based on that character (ie: Celes can bring Spellblade and lower level Black Magic, whereas Locke can bring Thievery and some lower level Combat abilites), so boss fights become a puzzle. Should I bring elemental magic? Should I bring status effects? Defensive abilities?


Terrible Game Design Choices

This sounds like the basis of a somewhat interesting game, and indeed, FFRK is at its best when it's giving you those puzzle elements. However, the game as a whole is marred extremely by massive difficulty spikes and horrendous RNG. Because of how stats work, and how Realm Synergy plays into things, there's a limited window of opportunity where "difficulty" is meaningfully encountered.


It takes a little luck with equipment, but it's relatively easy to overpower lower encounters to the point where the gameplay is simply where you choose to spend your stamina. Otherwise, auto-battle it out (made even easier by a recent change to give you battle speed, which is a nice convenience function). Mind you, you can choose lower level characters to give you a challenge and them some experience points, but since equipment and abilities can be moved pretty easily, that's tempered rather quickly.

Later on, the difficulty spikes immensely. Random battles become a herculean task unto themselves, where you will be cursing your Black Mage for getting two attacks in a row that you couldn't think of countering and watching him die. Oh, and you get penalized for taking too much damage or too many deaths by getting less experience at the end. That being said, having some difficulty isn't a bad thing. There are definitely cases where I'm clearly attempting to bat above my weight class, and that's okay that I'm getting demolished. Smart usage of abilities mitigates that quite a bit.

But the RNG, holy cow. I realize that DeNA wants to push people to use money on battles, but some of the RNG is absolutely stupid. Enemy AI isn't terribly bright. The grand majority have a list of attacks, and each attack effectively has a percentage chance to activate each turn. Many of them are entirely unfair, with absolutely no way to counter it.

One such ability, until recently, was insta-kill attacks. Oh sure, you could resurrect the character, but your performance was penalized severely for an attack you literally could do nothing about. Thankfully DeNA has softened that stance recently and only penalize you for dead characters at the end of combat, allowing you to react to the damage at least.

Another such insanity were some enemies that cast an ability called "Gale". Gale is an AoE attack that reduced your entire party to 5% of their maximum health, regardless of how much health you had. Often, another enemy on screen would attack just after and kill a character. Outside of a single character's Soul Break (like Limit Breaks), there are no AoE heals in FFRK. Oh, and one of the things you were penalized for is total damage taken, which a single use of this attack would reduce your performance score to zilch on that count.


Gale is unadulterated bullshit.
A second example was a level where random enemies had a 75% chance to spam Tsunami, and often times two of them would do it, taking out half your party's health and there was nothing you could do about it because you didn't have a chance to set up defenses.

So in the face of such enemy "tactics" alone I'd have given up in frustration long ago. You start battles with your ATB bars filled at random, so sometimes enemies could kill you off before you had a chance to react and set up defenses. Sometimes enemies had unfair attacks period. Combined, there were fights that made me want to throw my iPad through a wall in frustration.


Exploiting a Feature to "Fix" the Game Design

But there is a workaround! To keep people from losing stamina when internet cut out or the app crashed, or someone had to walk away, the game stores the state at the beginning of each individual combat on the server. However, if you cut out in the middle of a given combat, and the app reloaded, you'd be back at the beginning of that combat. The FFRK Reddit community calls this the Save/Load Exploit (or S/L for short). Basically, this allows you to restart any given individual combat without eating your limited stamina, working around bullshit starts (or mistakes).

Enemies killed your Black Mage before you could act? S/L. Gale? S/L. Missed Blinding the boss 4 times in a row because the stupid ability only has a 10% activation rate? S/L. You still need to complete the puzzle aspect, because you can't just waltz into a difficult boss with any combination of gear, characters, or abilities, but if the game didn't have this exploit? I'd have probably stopped playing long ago.

I've spent some money, $30, for a single 11-pull, because I felt I had enough enjoyment to do so. The nostalgia factor with the music, the bosses, and the characters has been very satisfying. I enjoy the puzzle aspect of many of the bosses. I'm okay with some aspect of P2W with pulling gear, especially since they're quite generous with handing out currency as you complete content. And the fact that abilities are just a factor of time and digging up the right orbs is great, meaning even free-to-play accounts can do quite a bit--the Reddit community has a number of strict F2P players who've managed to complete the hardest content in the game, so kudos to them.

But the sheer RNG and some enemy ability bullshit factors are frustrating in the extreme, and the widespread usage of the S/L exploit to combat it tells me that it's not good game design, but likely a way to milk players. Thankfully, DeNA probably won't be able to "fix" this exploit without screwing over legitimate disconnects and the like, so I don't see it changing anytime soon. I would prefer, however, that DeNA fix some of the egregious terrible combat issues instead. A little judicious use of better AI would certainly help, as would just not designing bullshit "AI wins!" abilities. Until then, I'll keep using S/L so I can enjoy the rest of the game. #FFRK, #GameDesign, #Exploits

Thursday, May 28, 2015

FFXIV vs. WoW: Content Delivery Comparison

I'm nearly finished the story content in FFXIV, and wow, it's been a long--but extremely entertaining--haul through it. FFXIV has a lot of content. I recently finished the Hildebrand quest line, finished the Shiva line (to the commenter previously who said I'd enjoy the music, good call that!). I still only have a single job at 50, Paladin, so I've been tanking it up through the group content.

Compared to WoW, where I'm literally only logging in once per week for 3 hours for our Blackrock Foundry raid (10/10 N, 4/10 H now, yay!). But I do admit I still really enjoy WoW's raiding content.

One of the things I've heard mentioned numerous times is that Square Enix is putting out content at a much faster clip than Blizzard is. Blizzard has also made mention numerous times they'd like to speed up the delivery of content. There's also a question of quality of content, but in a themepark MMO quantity is still pretty important. So I decided to sit down and make a comparison between the two games.


Types of Content

Both games are very similar from a content type perspective. As mentioned before, they both are heavily curated themepark MMOs, and therefore have a lot of the same features:
  • FFXIV's "Light Party" (4-player) dungeons, vs. WoW's (5-player) dungeons
  • FFXIV's LFR-style 24-player raids, vs. WoW's LFR 25-player raids
  • FFXIV's 8-Player difficult raids, vs. WoW's Mythic 20-player raids
  • Both have group-based PvP
  • Both have mini-games (WoW's pet battles vs. FFXIV's Triple Triad)
  • Both have story quests (Albeit FFXIV's are much more cut-scene and dialogue heavy versus WoW's sit back approach of just tossing a wall of text)
  • Both have rare monsters to find and kill out in the wild, including raid-level bosses
  • Both have treasure hunting of a sort
Some of the features of the games are unique, however, when compared to the other. Note that yes, other MMOs have a lot of these features; however, that's not what I'm interested in currently setting the stage for this discussion.
  • WoW's Normal/Heroic versions of the same raids are unique to WoW excepting one set of FFXIV's Coil of Bahamut, which has a "Savage" version; Also, FFXIV's version of LFR are entirely different raids compared to other raid content
  • FFXIV's Guildhests (4-player trinity training scenarios) and Trials (8-player bosses similar to WoW's Malygos where it's literally just the boss) are mostly unique to FFXIV
  • FFXIV's FATE system with dynamically appearing content in the world is unique to FFXIV, excepting a brief time during WoW's 5.3 Escalation patch
  • WoW's Garrisons are very mobile game-based, vs. FFXIV's player/guild housing which is primarily for looks, but has some functionality like chocobo training/ingredient farming
Clearly that's not all the features, but that encompasses a lot of the (current) primary game content, ignoring gathering/crafting because that is another discussion entirely. These are the things we're going to focus on in terms of determining what content each team is delivering.

I will be comparing FFXIV 2.0 through 2.55, and comparing it to Mists of Pandaria as well as Warlords of Draenor side-by-side. One thing which muddies this is that FFXIV prefers smaller, more frequent content patches, whereas WoW seems to prefer mega-patches. So let's take a look.


Patch Frequency

Below are two timelines, readjusted to the year 1900 because I couldn't find a generic timeline thingy (Flash objects, sorry!), which demonstrate FFXIV's major patch schedule versus WoW's MoP.



Two things are immediately obvious: FFXIV is like freaking clockwork at about 3 - 3.5 months per major patch, preferring smaller patches. WoW attempted this in MoP, and honestly I think it worked rather well. Except that as discussed previously they probably should have spaced out their patches a bit more. They were generally within about 2 months of each other: probably a bit too short, which led to the second observation: WoW's massive gap between content and next expansion. FFXIV clearly didn't suffer this issue.

So from a cadence perspective, ignoring the actual quantity and quality of content, FFXIV's team is amazing at keeping a tight schedule.


Patch Content

So what did each patch bring to the table? One thing to keep in mind is that WoW's expansion releases tend to have a fair bit more to them than FFXIV's 2.0 in terms of end-game, so FFXIV spent a lot of time catching up. But it's still not quite apples to apples, because FFXIV's 2.0 was basically a new MMO launch. I'm not quite sure how much work they had lined up before kicking off 2.0, but as an end-user, I don't really care. All an end-user cares about is, "Themepark MMO, where's my content?"

So it might be a bit strange to ignore the initial releases of both Mists and A Realm Reborn, but I see no other easy way to measure content delivery over time. Heavensward and the 3.0 patch schedule is going to be very interesting to see if the FFXIV team can keep things up.

NOTE: CONTAINS SPOILERS
You can find the details of patches here: http://talarian.blogspot.com/p/wow-vs-ffxiv-patch-note-comparisons.html

If we extremely arbitrarily assign a value of 1 to each boss, and perhaps a value of 0.25 for each difficulty added for a given boss, we can get a pretty good estimate on at least sheer quantity of bosses. But again, not an apples to apples comparison. As I mentioned previously, Blizzard's dungeons tend to be prettier and tell a story via environment extremely well. FFXIV's spaces tend to be utilitarian.

But I much prefer FFXIV's Hard Mode dungeons to WoW's Heroic dungeons. WoW's are just the same thing, but tuned a little higher. FFXIV's are entirely new bosses and mechanics; your starting point is altered and they'll often send you to different areas, so it's not really the same.

Also, whereas WoW uses zone-wide tunes, FFXIV has unique music for each trial, which as discussed before takes cues from the battle itself.

Basically, it's fascinating to see where each company puts its resources in terms of content creation.

Anyways, here's the high-level rollup of MoP versus A Realm Reborn patch cycle:

Mists of Pandaria
  • 7 World Bosses
    • (7 "Boss Points")
  • 12 Bosses w/ 3 Difficulties + 14 Bosses w/ 4 Difficulties + 1 Boss
    • (27 + 0.25 * 2 Extra Difficulties * 12 + 0.25 * 3 Extra Difficulties * 14 = 43.5 "Boss Points")
  • 9 Scenarios + 6 Heroic Scenarios (Repeats w/ Bonus Objectives)
  • 2 Raid Zones
  • 2 World Zones, 1 World Sub-Zone, 1 Altered World Zone
  • 3 Reputation Grinds, 3 Currency Grinds
  • 1 World PvP, 1 Arena, 1 Battleground
  • New Feature: Flexible Raids
  • New Feature: Proving Grounds
  • New Feature: Brawler's Guild (Something like 40 solo fights with unique mechanics)
  • New Feature: Pet Battle Stones

A Realm Reborn
  • 20 Raid Bosses + 4 Savage (* 0.25) + 12 Trials + 8 Diff. Difficulties
    • 36 "Boss Points"
  • 15 Dungeons
    • 5 Entirely New
    • 10 Altered Hard Mode versions
  • 5 Raid Zones (Might also be said 2, split up in piecemeal across patches)
    • 12 "Boss Rooms" in Trials, each significantly different
  • 1 World Zone, 0 World Sub-Zones, 1 Altered World Zone
  • 5 Reputation Grinds, 1 Currency Grind
  • 1 Arena, 2 Battlegrounds
  • New Class/Job: Rogue/Ninja
  • Significant Side Quests: Hildebrand, Delivery Moogle
  • New Feature: Treasure Hunting
  • New Feature: Guild Housing
  • New Feature: Aesthetician
  • New Feature: Gardening
  • New Feature: Challenge Log (Weekly Quests)
  • New Feature: Glamours (Transmogrification)
  • New Feature: Retainer Ventures (Similar to Follower Garrison Missions)
  • New Feature: Sightseeing Log (Similar to GW2's Vistas)
  • New Feature: Chocobo Training/Recolouring
  • New Feature: Private Rooms in Guild Housing
  • New Feature: Hunts (Rare Spawns)
  • New Feature: Ceremony of Eternal Bonding (Marriage Ceremony)
  • New Feature: Chocobo Racing/Breeding
  • New Feature: Triple Triad
  • New Feature: Assorted Mini-Games in Gold Saucer

Overall, if you like raid combat, WoW is your winner. WoW has more unique bosses (by 2) and way more difficulties, but FFXIV isn't that far behind. WoW's raid bosses tend to support much larger raids than FFXIV's. The grand majority of FFXIV's are 8-players, excepting the 12 LFR-style Crystal Tower raids which are 24-player. Note I say LFR-style, but the difficulty of those raids are probably closer to WoW's Normal difficulty than LFR.

That being said, my personal preference for bosses is still WoW. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy FFXIV's immensely, but WoW's been in the business for much longer, and they've really got that good raid fight down to an art. WoW just seems to have a much larger repertoire of encounter mechanics to pull from right now. Whether that's a technical issue or a design issue, I'm not sure, but I'd be willing to bet FFXIV will catch up pretty quickly given their pace so far. But FFXIV's music is way better. Also, new music for every trial is pretty sweet.

WoW's world zones, Isle of Thunder and Timeless Isle, were amazing bits of content with an immense number of things to do. Where FFXIV uses FATEs to shore up the whole faffing about from a combat perspective, WoW's zones are fantastic. The interesting thing here is that this is probably informed by their different play models: WoW has alts, whereas FFXIV you just switch classes and start leveling that up, necessitating re-doing earlier content such as low-level dungeons and FATEs. This means that FFXIV gets way more mileage from lower-level content than WoW does, and therefore likely doesn't need to invest as much in max-level world zone content. But I really enjoyed WoW's new zones.

That being said, if you like smaller group content like dungeons, FFXIV is the way to go. Their dungeons are a lot of fun, and there's a lot of them. Mind you, as I've said multiple times, WoW's are prettier, but FFXIV's get the job done decently. Especially later dungeons. Their early dungeons are ugly and dull. Ones built later seem to exhibit a lot more craftsmanship from the designers, which is nice. FFXIV may eventually close that gap.

If you like story, FFXIV is where you want to be. They do major story updates with each patch, which ends up being a couple hours of questing with actual storyline. And not just big bad takes over the world, but with politics, economics, mystery, humour, and so on. FFXIV also has significant side-quests (Hildebrand, Moogle Delivery) which are hilarious, and literally hours more of awesome content. Whereas WoW focuses on grindable and repeatable content, FFXIV seems largely content to hand out very JRPG run-once content. WoW's story in Mists was quite well done--Landfall and Isle of Thunder in particular were quite engaging. It's tapered off since, however, and Warlords' post-100 story is nearly non-existent.

That being said, FFXIV has introduced an astounding number of content features throughout patching. Now, to be fair, it's way easier to add new features to a newer code base. Also, FFXIV has the "benefit" of playing catch up. A lot of their new features exist in other games, and they're just getting them implemented. But holy cow, the amount of content from entirely new features that we'd normally only see with an expansion in WoW is just nuts. Also, the Gold Saucer in general was amazing amounts of extraneous content. And they added an entirely new class during, to boot.


Conclusion

Overall, I think FFXIV has the edge when compared to Mists, and has a massive lead compared to Warlords. 6.2 promises an immense amount of content, though so it should be interesting to see how it holds up. WoW's generally been gameplay first, and after playing FFXIV, I wonder if that single-minded focus is doing it more harm than good at the end of the day.

WoW seems to like dropping mega-patches. 5.4 and 6.2 are ginormous, whereas FFXIV much prefers to space things out. If Blizzard were to do The Binding Coil of Bahamut, we'd have probably seen all 12 bosses at month 6 after release, whereas FFXIV was dropping 1/3rd of the raid every 6 months (every other patch), interspersed with a different raid in the 3 month intervals in-between. Honestly, I'm not sure which I'd prefer in the end with respect to raiding.

With WoW's precipitous subscriber drop, I think we're in an era where folks will be subscribed until they're satisfied, and drop the subscription until the next content that interests them appears. FFXIV may have the advantage here, because folks can't binge on everything and complete it in 2 weeks. It's being fed at 3 - 3.5 month intervals like clockwork. On the other hand, if they complete that in 1 week and then leave for 2 months? I guess they'll still get more subscriber money overall.

Oh, and FFXIV is managing to actually put out an entire new expansion 3 months after their final patch of the current version (and said expansion looks just as meaty as any WoW expansion in terms of content, if not meatier). WoW takes a year or so each time. From that alone, I give huge props to the FFXIV team. If this pace proves to be sustainable, they may just dethrone WoW as the Themepark MMO to beat. #FFXIV, #WoW, #Patches

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

[FFXIV] The Aggravation of Aggro

I (finally) have some time for gaming--there'll be a post about that later, but for those curious as to why I haven't had time, check out this article. My boss Ed Douglas has a pretty meaty quote at the end--and so I jumped back into FFXIV. After running a few lowbie dungeons to get back into the swing of things, I took my big swing at World of Darkenss. And roflstomped it.


Aggro

FFXIV has a pretty old-school outlook on the concept of aggro. Actions generate aggro. Tanks get a bit of a multiplier on their actions, but otherwise it's mostly related to damage/healing output. Monsters will attack whoever has the most aggro (FFXIV calls this "enmity" or "hate").

So, for example, if you pull three monsters, but as the tank only attack one of them, if the healer performs any healing at all, the other two will peel off and attack them. Or if your DPS go HAM on the core...er, mob that you as the tank aren't, they'll get its attention pretty quickly. Thankfully FFXIV isn't like WoW in that such a mob will eat their face off immediately. A DPS or Healer can generally take 5 or 6 melee hits before they'll be in danger; more if they have defensive cross-class skills or self-heals.

FFXIV's enmity system actually works pretty well when all parties are within a certain gear level of each other. Yeah, depending on what level you are and if you're WAR or PLD, you may or may not have the tools to really tank effectively (30 - 40 in particular is a well-known sore spot for PLD), but besides that, if you're good at tab-targeting and using all the tools at your disposal, aggro isn't that big a deal. Occasionally someone will peel a mob off you, but you can get it back pretty quickly--unless of course you have seven people attacking seven different mobs, at which point *throws hands in the air*.


The Problem

My issue with FFXIV's aggro, however, is tied directly to how FFXIV handles group content. WoW's "Timewalker" dungeons are imitations of how FFXIV has done group content since at least 2.0. When you get into a lowbie dungeon, your gear gets scaled down. Except in FFXIV, your level actually gets scaled down, too, so you might be missing some abilities. But you're always generally running the dungeons with the intended skill set, which is actually super cool.

FFXIV's Scaling in action. A set of mostly level 15 gear vs. Synced down to 15 gear. Primary attributes are relatively close, but some of the secondaries are actually a fair bit higher with the synced-down gear.
So why is this a problem? It unto itself is not. The scaling works pretty well. It's not perfect, mind you, but it's decently close. But a super newbie tank with no cross-class skills and dealing with folks who have materia melded and tonnes of fantastic gear is still going to have a bit of a harder time. The real issue, however, is most post-50 content doesn't sync your item level at all, so you end up with tanks who have 60 ilvl gear dealing with 130 ilvl DPS.

When the DPS can outstrip your maximum aggro generation simply by performing their basic rotation on a target that you're going all out on as a tank? That's not fun, that's frustrating. There's literally nothing I as a tank can do to improve my play to avoid that.

Once you have higher gear levels as a tank? You can ignore aggro almost entirely. My Paladin is at 110 ilvl now. Short of me being asleep at the wheel entirely, or a 130 ilvl DPS blowing every cooldown they have right off the bat, nothing rips aggro off me. It's not even a question. For multi-target pulls, I do still have to tab-target to prevent BLM or healers from ripping things off me, but I only need to hit them a couple times each and they're pretty sticky from there.

There's a very small range of ilvl differentials where aggro is actually fun as a mechanic; where it matters and everyone can't pretty well ignore it.


The Solutions?

The above is funny, because WoW decided eventually that they may as well make aggro binary as a whole. Tank never touched the mob and eats the healer? Tank's fault. Otherwise, good luck peeling anything off a tank in WoW.

I don't think aggro as a concept is necessarily bad. It's how tanks and DPS largely interact in the trinity model, and is what tanks use to control the battlefield in the absence of actually being able to physically stand in the way. Aggro is an easy to understand system as an AI. Enemy behaviour is understandable by players, and therefore they can feel in control of the game.

But FFXIV's ability to sync up and down is imperfect, and in cases where they don't sync at all the system breaks down significantly. At high levels of gear, the system is largely ignorable because aggro modifiers scale so well. The immediate "obvious" solution would be to fix scaling in cases where it's broken, and introduce scaling where it's not. But perhaps there's a different method we can use?

What if instead of being tied to damage/healing throughput, enmity was statically generated by actions taken? Cure 1 generates 0.5 point of enmity. Cure 2 generates 1. Stone I generates 1. Fast Blade generates 1, comboing into Savage Blade generates 2 more. Flash generates 1.5 for all enemies in range. So on and so forth.

By decoupling enmity generation from numbers and tying it to actions taken, the aggro game then is not tied to your gear at all. Rather, the game as it exists when all parties are close in gear level is maintained regardless of gear disparity.

Does this lead to odd situations like a lowbie tank ripping threat off a much more geared tank? Sure, but you can do that with Provoke anyhow. Well, until you get flattened because you have so much less health. But it also would make tank swapping a lot more predictable, as in both FFXIV and WoW you have issues where immediately after a tank swap, a much better geared tank would just rip aggro again immediately due to more damage output.

So I don't think we needs throw out the baby with the bathwater, but I think an aggro system that didn't scale might be a bit more fun overall imho. At least, it'd flatten out that wacky curve from struggling to ignoring. #FFXIV, #Aggro, #GameDesign

Monday, May 18, 2015

[WoW] One Day I'll Fly Away; Leave Draenor to Yesterday

Flying in Draenor is a pretty hot topic all around. Folks who want it back are vocally vociferous, and folks who're happy where things stand fire back with almost equal fervor.

The reasons the devs dropped flight in Draenor was largely due to design considerations. Bashiok illuminated this a year and a half ago:
Flying trivializes combat. A lot of people like to say we're trying to force world PvP, or that we just really want people to look at the pretty trees we made, but those really aren't the reasons that drive this same decision we've made every expansion. Flying allows you to escape or enter combat at-will. There's a reason why flying isn't allowed in dungeons and raids, or battlegrounds and arenas, and that's because it would trivialize the core mechanic of the game in those areas - combat. For much the same reason it trivializes how content is approached in the outdoor world based on the simple fact that you can lift off and set down wherever you like.

So that's the main reason. But sure there are a lot of other problems it can cause for content design such as zones having to get a lot bigger because flying mounts can travel so quickly (and thus making ground travel in them take much longer), it reduces the impact of elevation within zones, it completely removes the ability for us to pace or present content in any structured way, and in general removes our ability to determine how and when players approach a situation, see a vista or location, or charge into/out-of a combat situation. It just greatly reduces any gameplay we want to create by allowing infinite choice in how content is approached to best suit a player's intention to (usually) avoid that content.
I completely buy into that reasoning for leveling, and heck even max-level solo content (note to the reader: there's a big "but" coming later). When you're playing D&D, your players often go off-roading, and circumvent all your planning. In a tabletop RPG, this is something that should be run with and celebrated. In a video game, however, you don't have that flexibility as a designer, so you try to ensure that players approach your content in a relatively narrow, controlled set of circumstances.

As a player, yeah, that kind of sucks. "The man is limiting my gameplay! I don't like the man's gameplay!" I kid--mostly--but there's a grain of truth in that if you give players a method to circumvent content and go straight for the goodies, they'll take it.

But here's the rub: what unique max-level content is there in Draenor right now that isn't instanced?
  • Apexis dailies
  • Garrison quests
  • Elite hunting/trapping in Nagrand
  • Treasure hunting
Which is to say, not a whole lot of variety.

Most of those, aside from treasure hunting, could be mitigated by introducing no-fly zones, perhaps on the days the dailies are active. "Flying riles the beasties, so no flight except on designated paths!" "Go kill a bunch of Socrethar's army, but watch out, they have anti-air batteries!"

Treasure hunting itself can be fun. I enjoyed it a lot while leveling. But at the same time, those folks who're using addons/maps aren't really doing the content as intended anyhow, and good luck seeing treasures hidden away on the ground while you're up in the air if you're not using those maps. It's also 7 months into the expansion, how many folks are still treasure hunting at this point? Probably more than 0, but I imagine the grand majority of the player base is done with it.

And finally, garrison quests. Blizzard originally claimed that garrisons weren't required content, but by that measure, neither are raids or 5-man dungeons. You're missing out on most of what Draenor has to offer as solo content if you skip your garrison. So why not just gate flight in Draenor at the end of the garrison quests? They can keep the design principles intact for those quests, and give players another carrot to finish that storyline. I mean, we're talking basically 3 months worth of weekly quests to get flight, so it isn't like folks could get it straight out the gate when they hit 100.

But interestingly enough, when I asked Twitter what they wanted to do with flight, it had little to do with Draenor-specific content.


Archaeology was the primary response, which technically has Draenor specific artifacts to uncover, but other things are just soaring through the air, gathering, fishing, pet battling, so on and so forth. Fishing and gathering are mitigated to an extent by the sheer number of resources the garrisons provide. But Archaeology...

This tells me that Archaeology is broken content as is. I agree with Yoco that it was clearly designed with flight in mind. Perhaps it should be redesigned to be less random, and allow you to spend more time at a site to reduce travel. Right now it's basically an excuse for Blizzard to send you cross-continent on a whim. Rather, perhaps it should be a more engaging mini-game unto its own so that it doesn't need to lean on "combat" as the gameplay, as it sounds like a number of people don't care for the two to be mixed.

With 6.2 coming out, and Tanaan being the new content, they could easily put a no-fly zone around it and allow for flight everywhere else, allowing the designers to keep current content as designed, and letting players explore Draenor to (mostly) their heart's content.

While I agree with the designers about flight basically wrecking content, that Pandora's box was opened, and closing it is exceedingly difficult. I mean, how often do you hear people complaining about the lack of flight in Guild Wars 2? Wildstar? Final Fantasy XIV up until the devs announced that they were adding it?
AlternativeChat is giving some sass here, but at the same time, there's a kernel of truth in that statement. If WoW had never had flight, the conversation might not even exist. Turning back the clock on that decision might be a massive mistake.

It'd be interesting to see how many folks have actually left the game due to a lack of flight. The plural of anecdote is not data, and the sample size/methodology is flawed, but I have only 1 person on my Twitter feed that responded who isn't currently playing, and no flying was but one of many pieces of information he used as impetus to quit. So I guess the question for many players is, where's the straw?

WoW is back to the same level of subscribers as it was before the expansion launched, and only Blizzard has the list of reasons people reported for leaving. But unless Flying was a major issue, I don't see them bringing flight back as long as it's performing the way they expected with respect to players and content. But as mentioned above, I don't see a good reason why flight restrictions couldn't be carefully lifted, which still allows for Blizzard to maintain their design considerations. #WoW, #Flight, #GameDesign