Friday, 31 January 2014

Levels part 3

MMOs and levels....

Anyone remember Vanilla WoW? By no means will I go into 'it twas teh best eva!' mode. But I have to say, I do miss some things from back then. I could say the level cap was 'only 60', but that's a useless statement without context. I will say that levels mattered less. If a level 60 tried to gank two level 40's who are playing together, there was a fair chance the level 40's could scare the 60 off. Compare that to today where a geared 90 vs a fresh 90 is a black and white event. The geared 90 wins, hands down.

That's still not quite fair as a statement though, as times have changed. In vanilla WoW, gear was a bit more special. Few had it, epics were epics. To get epics, you would have to have been in a 40man raid guild. I was never in such a guild, I got my first epic item during WoW's 2nd expansion, Wrath of the Lich King.

So levels mattered less AND gear was harder to come by. That's still not the whole picture.

Linear vs Exponential growth.

Back in the day, power gain was linear. That means going from level 10-11 and from 59-60 was roughly the same gain in power. Item progression followed this as well, level 60s wore armour with an ilevel of 60, and that increased slowly through raid content. Today, we have exponential growth. Going from level 59-60 is no where near as big a gain as 84-85 or 89-90. Gear too, is now exponential. A level 60 wore ilevel 60 gear, a fresh level 90 starts in roughly ilevel 450 items. The first teir of raid content gives ilevel 496 gear. 2nd teir gives roughly ilevel 522. An early boss in tier 3 gives ilevel 553 on normal difficulty. Within 3 tiers of Mists of Pandaria end game, we have had more progression then all of Vanilla WoW from a fresh character, to the final raid boss of the whole game before it's first expansion. Kel'thuzard, who incredibly few saw, let alone managed to beat, dropped ilevel 92 gear at it's peak.

So in Vanilla, levels mattered less, gear mattered less, and gear was harder to get. People of wide level spreads could play together! Their amount of power was similar in a way that helping a friend through a lower level dungeon was still a challenge! Today, levels matter more, gear matters more and gear so much easier to obtain. A level 90 in normal raid gear can solo level 90 heroic dungeons.

The point to all this is the division of players. In vanilla, a raid geared player was better then you, but you were not useless in comparison. Today, the spread of power is so large that even at max level, fresh level 90 is useless compared to a casually geared 90. He can catch up for sure, gearing doesn't take long. But a friend new to the game is months away from that. You can roll a new character to level with him, but that's the issue of maintaining multiple characters. If he plays on his own and out levels the character you made to be with him, well.... what do you do? Keep playing this alt that only exists to be with him solely to catch up? Do you drop it and tell the fried 'well, see you at max level!'? Do you make him maintain a second character, one he plays solo and one to play with your alt, dividing his play time and elongating the time it takes him to get to max level at all?

Just let us scale our power already! Let me take my level 90 rogue and power him down to level 40 to play with my friends! Rift does it, Champions Online does it, and while I still mourn it's loss, City of Heroes did it.

That will a post for another day, but City of Heroes my favourite MMO. The sandbox of the theme park. Selectable difficulties, level and power scaling in both directions, that was the game where no matter what character anyone was on. Everyone could play together!

If MMOs are about playing together, LET US!

Am I crazy? Wrong? Right? Leave a comment!

Thursday, 30 January 2014

On Leveling, Part 2

Missed Wednesday huh? Dang. I was too busy teaching kindergarteners about polymers.

Alright, so Monday I went into leveling, where it worked and where I thought it began to not.

Borderlands 2 was my example where it's so easy to not really be able to play your friends meaningfully due to levels. Now don't get me wrong, I understand the entire point to that kind of game is the acquisition of power. But how do you balance that with playing with friends who have more or less time then you do?

If we want to keep the point of the game the same, the acquisition of power, then scaling could be one possible solution. If player A is level 34, and player B is level 17, scale Player A and his guns down to player B. Now A is still more powerful, he still has all of his skill points, his guns are equal to his level where as B might have guns a few levels old.

With this one change, I would probably play that game again.

I could say the same for Diablo III and Torchlight II. I don't mind trying different classes, but maintaining 5 or more characters based on who is online is bothersome.

That actually turned out as much shorter an explanation then I thought it would have been.

Payday 2: A game that got it right. Payday and Borderlands home some similarities. 4 player co-operative game play, combat focused mainly around guns, with levelling up and skill points. Where they differ is the point of the game. Borderlands focuses on the acquisition of power, Payday is the acquisition of utility. Borderlands has a linear story, Payday is a series of repeatable heists, bank or otherwise. In Borderlands you level and gain stats and skill points. Become able to equip better guns and shields with more stats. In Payday, you gain levels and earn skill points. These skill points provide options, but not necessarily always power. At certain levels you unlock more guns. These guns are not more powerful then what is already available, but provides more options. The only part of leveling I would say is straight power, is the different levels of armour. Even though each unlock of armour has better protection, it's less concealable. If you want to take the stealth approach, wearing the thickest armour isn't going to work. Each unlock of armour is also slower. A dedicated bagman may want to wear lighter armour just to not be slowed down. The final armour unlock happens rather early on, at level 31. The best armour can be obtained at level 38 through the proper spending of skill points. The majority of armour is unlocked by level 12.

A level 100 playing with a level 1 in Payday 2 happens easily. The level 1's equipment isn't statistically better or worse then the level 100's. But the level 100 has OPTIONS and UTILITY.

Despite a level spread in our group, we all manage to play together. No one is over or underpowered compared to the content, and everyone feels useful.

I'm going to need to cut this post short. Next time, MMOs.

Monday, 27 January 2014

On Levels, Part 1.

Alright, today I'm digging into levels! Not as in set pieces or sections of story, but as the relative term of power.

Levels, the best and worst mechanic of the MMO at the same time. Levels can be applied to anything, characters, enemies, skills, gear and even environments. The ultimate guidance of character growth and travel.

Some games focus on the story. A linear path through set environments where your character may grow in power to provide options. In this context, after enough experience is gained, you earn a level and with it, a skill point. Choices on how to spend this skill point are separated into trees or paths that follow a particular theme. More often then not, these can be 'Melee', 'Stealth' and 'Magic' options, but that changes per game. I usually like this kind of progression. Leveling is second to playing through the main story and serves as a reward where you further refine your personal play style. Stealth characters start sneaking up on enemies, avoid traps easier, perhaps even avoid enemies all together. Melee characters gain more health, stand toe to toe with more enemies at once, block more damage with shields and wade through enemies like mud. Magic characters sometimes get to choose their flavor of magic, and use it to burn down everything in their path. That bandit is burnt to his boots before he even saw you, and his friends turned to char before even getting into melee range.

I love it, it adds replay value. It adds personalization. It makes fun discussion with friends on how everyone approached things differently. Games in this category include Might & Magic Dark Messiah, Farcry 3 and the Mass Effect series. (Wasn't Mass Effect 1 great?)

Let's open the world some more. No longer focused on a completely linear story, we'll open up to a more sandbox environment. The Elder Scrolls, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas fall into this and again I tend to love it. A story if you want, side missions if you want. The focus of the game shifts from the story to your character and what you do. Some will ignore the side stuff and just shoot through the main story. This style of play resembles the previous grouping of games but still fits the bill. Some will ignore the main story and wander from town to town helping NPCs. Some will ignore towns and just wander the map investigating any ruin or cave they find. Some will stay in towns but just try to steal anything and everything allowed. Some will try to be the terror and slay each and every person on the map, including townsfolk. All the while gaining experience and skill points that they will spend as they see fit.

We are not yet at the problem in the system. Levels are serving their purpose.

Now we're going to make the game MULTIPLAYER. Now we're going to start encountering problems.

Borderlands 2. I hate it.

It started well enough, we all made a character and started the journey together. After playing a few hours and gaining some levels we finished for the night and went to bed. Flash forward to our next chance to all play together, some have had more free time then others. Our characters, once of equal power and level are now within a 20 level spread. So we try having the 2 higher ups come into the lower areas. They demolish everything in a few hits, the lower level characters can barely do anything except move forward to keep up as even a boss battle is done in seconds. Not very fun for either side. So we try switching to playing in the higher areas. The higher ups have fun because things are finally a bit of a match for them. But the lower levels can barely take a step before they die near instantly. Headshotting an enemy with a sniper rifle barely moves the health bar. It still wasn't much fun.

Easy enough to fix, just have a character we only play when all 4 of us are around. Different days have different combinations of us available to play. We're each playing at least 5 different characters and some take that better then others. Perhaps I'm a minority in this sentiment, but I find it infuriatingly needless.

This is just one example of such a game. Quite a few have this problem. Wednesday, I'll dive into how I would personally solve the problem in Borderlands 2. Not everyone sees it as such, but I find it odd a game about playing with friends so blatantly gates you from meaningfully doing so.

After that, the murky water of the MMO...

Friday, 24 January 2014

So it begins.

Welcome to Thematic Dissonance, my new blog. I am the writer McJigg, I believe in the spirit of games and having theme match your mechanics. If your mechanics do not support your theme, you have what I call Thematic Dissonance. I see it everywhere.

Our current implementation of levels, gating players from each other is dissonant of a living world.
But we needs levels! You may say. I mostly agree. I don't agree with getting a friend into my game, but not playing with him for months until they too are max level.

The giving of better gear to highly skilled individuals in PVP is dissonant of fair play in both ranked and unranked systems.
But highly skilled people should be awarded! You may say. I agree. However I don't think people earning great gear in ranked systems coming down to slay ungeared people in unranked systems conducive to a healthy player pool.

Even just some basic class design tends to run against what a class is. With World of Warcraft as an example...
The shaman move Ascendance, where you turn into a giant half-elemental monster engineered by the villains of the previous expansion with human proportions is dissonant with with the theme of a shaman. The one who's in balance with the elements, a spiritual leader. Playable by orcs, trolls, tauren, goblins, pandarean, dreanei and dwarves.... but not the races of more human proportion...

Sometimes advancement I find dissonant. Again, with Warcraft as my example...
The level 90 talent choices for mages. You spent hours leveling your mage, 1-89 managing your mana a certain way. But right at max level that all changes. You HAVE to change your mana management among these three choices that will very much change how you need to play in general. You trained 89 levels playing one way, for level 90 to be completely different.

I'll be exploring all of these later on in their own posts.

For now I'm just going to list some blogs I read, the ones which inspired me to create my own.

I don't always agree with them, but I always enjoy their insight.

Gevlon the Greedy Goblin.
To him, I am probably both a moron and a slacker. The kind of player he hates to love. Constantly reminding me how easy rules and mechanics can be bent and broken within the rules.

Syn the Hardcore Casual.
I love his insight on single player games, and sometimes agree with him about MMOs.

Thanks to each of them, as I've been reading for multiple years.

Until the next post.