Monday, October 1, 2012

Blizzard: You've lost the plot

So after playing Torchlight and Torchlight 2 over the last couple of weeks, and enjoying both of them, I've also been thinking about what a debacle Diablo 3 has apparently been.  My younger brother, who bought and played both D3 and TL2, has described TL2 as being, "everything that Diablo 3 should have been, but wasn't."

In addition to this, IncGamers had an interview with David Breivik, one of the founders of Blizzard North, back in August.  In said interview, he was extremely diplomatic, but underneath all of the couching and corporatese, the message basically confirmed the opinion of most gamers I've seen, exemplified by such forum posts as this; namely, that Diablo 3 sucks rocks the size of Gibraltar.

World of Warcraft is also still taking on water, and by all accounts, at an accelerating pace.  WoW lost two million subscribers last year, and has apparently lost close to another million this year.  From what I've read, the official claim is 10.2 million subs, while unofficial estimates are at 9 million+ and falling.  I've always believed that WoW's real playerbase peaked at around 7 million, in around August of 2007, six months after the release of TBC.  The majority of the other 5 million players are directly attributable to the Arena, and being the wrong demographic, for the sake of the long term health of the game, never should have been there at all.

This has made me think long and hard about the future of Blizzard Entertainment as a brand. Truthfully, I think long term, at this point the company is in very serious trouble.

I will be brutally honest.  I've always thought of Blizzard North, exclusively, as the "real," Blizzard.  They are where all of the company's best known games came from; and although I know next to nothing about the company's real structure, the material which they put out, and what little I was able to read, gave me a particular impression.  Namely that of something similar to a rock band; a relatively small, intimate, passionate, and highly intelligent and creative group of people, who seemed to be utterly devoted, in an uncompromising manner, to their art.

As an analogy, I often think of the central characters from the science fiction series, Stargate SG-1.  Blizzard North were the company's A-team, and I feel deserve to be regarded alongside the likes of id Software, and Maxis prior to that company's assimilation, by the demonic organisation known as Electronic Arts.

There is an equally strong sense, from the quality of Torchlight 2, that Runic Games represents a case of the proverbial band having got back together, (at least to an extent) and that that is where they ended up.  The level of polish is reminiscent of what we grew to expect from Blizzard North; and although the devs are clearly a little more concerned with balance this time around than they were with the original game, there is also a sense that they are actually passionate about the game they've produced.  Torchlight 2 does not convey the deeply insulting, pervasive feeling that I had towards the end of my time with WoW, of a sterile game produced by soulless, club tailed, bean counting suits, with the exclusive intent of making money, and also the belief that irrespective of how bad a product it was, the playerbase should simply pay for it, play it, and shut up.

Apparently, with the automatic talent point allocation, Blizzard have carried that same approach over to Diablo 3.  The same insufferable corporate arrogance is also on display with the fact that the game is server based, despite not being an MMORPG.

Allow me to offer you a clue, Blizzard.  Yes, we, the gaming population used to find WoW's routine maintenance and other server problems annoying and frustrating; and truthfully, we would not have tolerated them from anyone else, under any other circumstances.  We tolerated them from you, and the reason why, is that prior to patch 2.4 at least, with WoW, you gave us a superb, utterly peerless game.  You don't need me to tell you that World of Warcraft, at one point at least, was the greatest computer game of all time, out of virtually any genre, to the point where I am still largely obsessed with it myself five years later, to a degree where other people once regularly accused me of mental illness.  Your own prior numbers and feedback would have confirmed that by themselves.

I put up with routine maintenance.  I put up with the Warden.  I put up with the TOS.  I put up with the gutting of the addon system in 2.0, despite it being a move which I considered blatantly fascist.  I put up with Blizzard having a God complex in general terms.  However, here's the point.

You only get to dictate terms in that manner, when you are producing a game of that level of quality. 

You will not be permitted to do so, when you are selling us corporate-produced crap, purely on the basis of other people's past positive efforts, and then expect us to simply accept it and shut up. We are not under any obligation to do so, and we are not going to.  Give us quality of WoW's original standard, and yes, you'll get some latitude.  Give us rubbish, which is obviously designed primarily to fill a box and make money, and you won't.

I've already written extensively about what I believe has caused the systemic demise of World of Warcraft, primarily here, so I'm not going to repeat myself; other than to say that at the time the linked blog post was written, Cataclysm had not yet been released, and when it was released, its' only real effect was to make the situation worse, as predicted.

You've got two choices here, Blizzard.  You can either remain arrogant and unrepentant, and maintain the attitude that you know best, and that you are simply going to keep listening to your bean counting corporate overlords at Activision, and producing sterile crap that is purely focused on the economic bottom line, and to Hell with your actual playerbase.  That road will lead to further erosion of the Blizzard brand, more disillusioned gamers who feel that they have been betrayed, and eventually, the irrelevance of the company.

Or, you can swallow your pride, acknowledge that you've got a problem, listen to the criticism that is being given you by myself and other people, and start doing what it is going to take, to get you back on top.

That means, first and foremost, re-establishing a vague semblance of creative and artistic integrity, as you had in the past.  You perhaps do not understand this, but as it has most graphically been recently illustrated with Christopher Nolan and his Batman film franchise, there is a paradox where money and creativity are concerned.

Namely, that in order to make money, you actually have to completely relinquish money as a focus, and concentrate solely on exercising creative passion, and on the quality of your product.  If you have an uncompromising determination to make an outstanding product, then you need have no fear whatsoever of the market.  You will make money, and you will do so beyond your wildest anticipation.

This has been proven, time and time again.  Stop being fearful.  Stop listening to the suits.  Stop designing character skill trees and other mechanics in corporate board meetings.  That is not the place to do it.  The old way, the way that works, is for developers themselves to act as playtesters, and for game mechanics to actually be updated incrementally, while the developers themselves are playing.

It's your move.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Another Torchlight Update

I just got out of the game after playing for I think four hours.  The new build seems to be going well.  At level 16, I seem to have roughly 25% crit when Charged, with a theoretical max base crit damage of around 460.

My initial theory that it isn't necessary to stack Strength for the Outlander was apparently correct; it's a shame I didn't listen to my instincts before trashing two previous characters, but oh well.  Sometimes I have to learn the hard way.  You will need *some* strength, however, as occasionally you'll find the odd piece which you'll want to put on, which has Strength requirements.  I haven't needed more than 20 base Str so far, though; and I get a few more points from gear.

Torchlight's mechanics are deeply strange, compared to what some of us might be used to.  Dex doesn't give any base damage to Outlanders at all, even though it's one of our two main stats, with the other being Vitality.  (Stamina in WoWspeak, although apparently Vitality here adds armor as well)

The way we get base damage in TL2, seems to be primarily from the base our weapon does, and from the Charge bar.  The Charge bar seems to work something like the Rage meter from WoW, except it charges depending on when we hit something, rather than when we are hit.  As it goes up, my damage and crit rate start going up with it.  I only have around 10-12% base crit, but when I'm fully charged, I'm at around 25% or so.

The major downside with this game, as mentioned previously, is the targetting system.  The main reason why I've had to stop playing today, is because I started getting symptoms vaguely reminiscent of repetitive strain injury in my mouse hand and arm.  I don't know whether Runic could manage it in a future patch, but if they could, a targetting system similar to that of WoW would be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

By flickering Torchlight

So it seems that I now have the opportunity for a rebirth, of sorts.  Two days ago I purchased Torchlight 2 via Steam, and perhaps four days before that, the original Torchlight.

I will admit that these games certainly do not have anything like the depth of WoW.  The lack of targetting in particular makes them somewhat tricky to play, as well; but that can be overcome.

It seems that the same people who developed WoWHead, have put together an Armory type site for Torchlight 2, complete with the usual talent calculator.  After discovering it, I put together an experimental level 100 spec to use, and I'm going to be slowly implementing it.  I've become a fan of the shotgonne, primarily because of the amount of utility it offers.

You might think that that build looks terribly hamstrung, but when I first got the game, the class I initially tried was an Engineer.  I was horrified to spend the next five levels running around mindlessly one-shotting everything that moved, even on Normal difficulty, before I finally deleted the character due to boredom.  The worst thing about it was, that at level five I was still one shotting mobs, and taking no real damage whatsoever, with the same wrench I'd started the game with.

So my intent has been to create something which is not overpowered, but is actually rewarding and challenging to play.  The shotgonne can still be powerful enough as an offensive weapon, but I find what makes it really enjoyable, is the added knockback, and the stuns and blinding which is available from the specialisation.  I was always a fan of offtanking and slows/stuns/control oriented mechanics within WoW, so I think this build is going to be a lot of fun to play.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Happy New Year

I am writing this from the Hemp Bar, a somewhat (I am told) internationally famous venue in Cullen Street, Nimbin; in central New South Wales. I still have not decided whether to return to Victoria. Melbourne is a dangerous place, these days. Not so much as America, apparently; but political conditions are not ideal for one as restive as myself.

World of Warcraft has not been forgotten by me; truthfully, I don't think it ever will be. I still feel the urge to resubscribe at times, although I have no idea what is happening with the game. If this post reaches any of you, I would be interested to know if any of you still play WoW, and if I am missing anything?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Paradigm shift

(Note: This is an entirely non-gaming related post. Sorry about that, but just to warn you)

So four weeks ago, I flew some 1600 km north of where I was previously living. I'm now roughly an hour south of Brisbane, Australia, in a town called Nimbin. Many of you will have heard of it perhaps; the town refers to itself as "the sister city of Woodstock," and is more or less the psychedelic/hippie/"alternative," capital of the country. Some of you may also remember the animated movie, "Fern Gully," from several years ago. That film was set in what is now the Nightcap Rainforest National Park near Mount Warning, an volcano which actually exists not far from my present locationl.

I've been here for two weeks now; and the two weeks previous to that were spent in a Permaculture Design Course, taught by Geoff Lawton, a man who a couple of you may have heard of. That was also an amazing experience; permaculture is a revolutionary system of agriculture and environmental management, but there is much there that was reminiscent of Survival for me.

Moving that distance was a large extension of my previous comfort zone, especially considering that I'm still not exactly rolling in money. I finally got tired, however, of only playing characters like Mirsh vicariously within computer games. It became time to take some real risks.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Three days in Eberron



I'm still playing DDO, and enjoying it. Although I've read in reviews that it isn't so much true later on, at the moment at least, this game is a solo player's dream. Every quest takes place in its' own instance, and as mentioned, the difficulty is fully adjustable; Casual, Normal, Hard, Elite.

I tend to go in on Normal to get the feel for a place, and then kick it up to Hard for a second run through. Depending on how I did on Hard, I'll then go for Elite. The rewards scale with the difficulty, as well; on Casual, XP/rep gains are 50% of Normal, while on Elite, XP gains are 8-10% more.

It isn't all completely rosy, however. DDO's interface isn't quite as slick as WoW's. I have to have my bow and melee weapons assigned as different weapon sets, and use two hotkeys to manually switch between each. There can also be a noticeable delay when switching during combat, so if I'm going to initially kite or shoot a target, I have to time switching to make sure I've got my axe out when a mob reaches me.

The other major bugbear is the targeting, which tends to ping pong back and forth between targets, depending on what my mouse is hovering over. From memory there's an option to turn auto targetting off, though, and I also already have sticky targetting assigned to the F key, so I think I will be able to sort that out. That's just the usual sort of initial teething problem when starting any new game, really.

I only have two combat skills at the moment; Trip and Sunder. My spells apparently come much later. Trip is very useful, because it makes my character perform a foot sweep which knocks a mob's legs out from under them, and sends them to the ground. This makes them much more vulnerable, so I'm usually able to kill them in one hit after that. Sunder is like Sunder Armour for Warriors in WoW; it reduces a mob's armor class for a bit, so I can kill it more easily.

The Ranger Tempest is meant to be a dual wielding class as well, but I think I already mentioned that being a Half-Orc means I get initial two handed proficiency early on. This is a real lifesaver, because while I'm levelling up, before I get the full bonus from Two Weapon Fighting, I've still got a hit penalty to the offhand, similar to what I actually had when dual wielding as a Survival Hunter in WoW.

As far as shooting is concerned, my Strength is sufficiently high that I do almost as much damage with my bow as with my axe; but because my Dexterity is lower, my hit chance is only around 10-20%, currently.

More than anything else, I'm actually enjoying the feel of being low level again. It makes things challenging, and means that I really have to focus on what I'm doing, in order to survive; especially if I keep the difficulty on Hard or above. Kiting is a lot more tricky than in WoW, particularly given that I don't have auto attack, and have to click to fire as I freelook with the mouse; but I'll get it eventually.

It's a funny paradox, you know. DDO has all these funny little interface quirks that WoW had smoothed out at release on the one hand; but now, DDO also actually has enough real challenge that it can keep me interested in playing on the other. DDO is not homogenised in any sense of the word. I suspect that even if WoW does somehow manage to recover from its' current slump, that fact will mean that Turbine will continue to receive my money.

Monday, May 23, 2011

As one door closes...

...Another opens.

I've uninstalled WoW from my hard drive, and cancelled my subscription. In its' place, I've installed Dungeons and Dragons Online. I've been playing it for the last three hours or so as I type, and already I'm able to tell that with this game, although I loved Survival, I'm going to be able to get at least a good part of the playstyle that I'd always wanted from Surv.

My class in DDO is a Half-Orc Tempest Ranger. Rangers in DDO are a true melee/ranged hybrid. At the time of rolling, I had 17 base strength, straight out of the gate, and was also given a large two handed axe with a fire enchant during the starting quest, as well.

I'm now running through the early quests two shotting literally everything, and even though ranged combat is supposed to be the weakest element of DDO, I think I've figured out a way to get around that. Half-Orcs have very high base strength, and although Dexterity (the equivalent of Agility in WoW, roughly) is usually the stat needed for ranged damage, Tempests get a skill later on which allows us to use Strength as our ranged stat.

I do a little (though not much, truthfully, because I got a very nice repeating crossbow as a quest reward) more damage melee than I do at range, but I can shoot when I need to, for getting casters or other mobs that I don't want to get so close to, that they can damage me. So I have a lot of versatility. Rangers can even wear shields, although I am not going to do that, because as a Tempest, once I get the skills for it, I will be dual-wielding. Tempests apparently have two hand specialisation that is even better than what Fighters (the Warrior equivalent in DDO) get, but they're still quite a bit stronger than we are, as well. Still, I'm doing just fine as my own tank right now.

Rangers aren't a pet class in DDO, but I'm that much stronger melee, that I really don't need a pet; although it is possible later on to get spells which let me summon one for ten minutes or so.

DDO is a completely PvE oriented game; there's no PvP at all, at least that I know of. The instances can also be run either solo, with a human group, or with NPC hirelings, and the difficulty level is fully adjustable. Payment options are equally flexible; you can either pay a monthly subscription, (which I'm doing) or pay for Turbine Points at the DDO store, which seem to allow content to be unlocked on a per-transaction basis, although the initial content is free to play.

I've subscribed for an initial three months, as I said, and I much prefer subscribing than gated microtransactions, because a subscription means I immediately get access to everything up front, that someone doing the initial free-to-play would have to spend a lot more money for, on individual points. At $30 for three months, it's 30% cheaper than World of Warcraft, as well.

DDO's graphics might seem a little limited to some, but I like them. It uses the classic 70s style of fantasy art, as also seen in Age of Conan. They not long ago added support for DirectX 11 though, and I had to actually put the settings down to DirectX 10, because my video card started running at 85C.

If you've been upset about the direction WoW has gone in since Cataclysm, though, DDO is at least worth a try, I think. I'm very happy with it, and while it comes across as non-mainstream and a little old school, that is exactly what I was looking for. It might be your cup of tea; it might not.