Solo raiding: Jumping puzzles

| Saturday, August 31, 2013
I hate phase one.

It was fine at first. There was some learning and some challenge. I learned from the challenge. It was even fun.

But I hate phase one.

I suppose I could blame phase two. It was phase two that made me do phase one over again. Phase one never asked for anything but itself. Phase two asked for phase one as well, every time, even if I didn't get phase two complete.

I hate phase two.

And yet really, can I blame phase two? It needed phase one and it couldn't help that. It only ever asked for itself and phase one, and phase one already asked for itself, so what's so bad about phase two?

But I hate phase two.

Phase three really made me angry. It asked for itself and phases one and two. Sure, they already asked, but phase one only asked on its own. Phase two was the greedy one. And phase three? Well phase three topped them all.

I learned phase one. As I learned phase two, I learned to hate phase one. I learned phase two. As I learned phase three, I learned to hate phase two. Learning phase three won't fix phases one or two. It will demand them, but it will give nothing in return.

They are, altogether, a punishment mechanic. They do not merely demand time, for that I could bear. They demand repetition, and all for its own sake. We write that we will not fail phase one a hundred times on the blackboard, not because we failed phase one, but because we failed phase two.

I was having a fun time in Guild Wars 2. Deciding that I could not live on Civilization alone, nor a small set of FPS maps, I set off into Tyria again. I was having a blast. I died more than I should have, and at times I was frustrated with things, but I had fun. And then I did something stupid: I looked at a vista and thought, "yea, I can get that one this time."

Phase one and phase two and phase three, demanding all that came before, again and again. I stopped, recognizing that it was not fun. I went off to do my story quest (by which I mean, our story quest, for there are so many the same). I saved the queen, or started to, but overflow kept me away from what I needed.

I found myself near a jumping puzzle again. I went through some of it. Then some more. The launching gears were interesting. I laughed at people who didn't see the value of tangents. I wandered off course, for the puzzles aren't quite laid out, and when there are hostile mobs in the way, it is easy to feel nudged in another direction. I found the path. I found more. I jumped and jumped, mastering my jumping, at least on that phase. And then I fell. I got up again and jumped and jumped. And then I fell. A few more rounds of this and I felt a familiar feeling, the feeling that I was repeating what I already knew how to do because of something that I did not. It was a strange sort of anti-learning, repeating that which did not need repeating.

Maybe tomorrow I will return to it. Or maybe I will go do the quests and events, leaving the absurd mechanics behind, longing for the day when we can fly, and then all will be ruined, except one small stupid thing that will instead be abolished.

Is class identity a thing anymore?

| Thursday, August 29, 2013
In the beginning, I was a troll shaman. This blog is named for their exceptionally terrible racial ability of Regeneration, which at that time allowed them to continue a whopping 10% of their out-of-combat healing, which was based on spirit. Thankfully, back in those days everything, including warrior gear, had spirit on it. So we could regenerate our awe-inspiring 5 hp per second. Though really it would have been 25 hp every 5 seconds, because that's how things were: mana/5 and hp/5. I don't recall the numbers anymore, but I suspect that 5 hp is a generous amount, despite being terrible, even back then. I'll be honest, the results of this Google search were a mix of nostalgia and not finding myself for three pages. But at least thing the I was searching for is archived: "Troll Regeneration must be nerfed."

For some reason I hung out a lot on the paladin forums. The shaman forums in vanilla were an awful place, full of people whining that shamans were OP (20% of the time, sometimes). The paladins were, of course, our rivals. So I made silly posts there and ending up finding a few friends. I eventually played with them for years until an epic betrayal and some epic fail, the latter being my own fault. When BC rolled around I found myself making a blood elf paladin, because why not? My shaman slowly faded out, finally dying to a pair of tanking bracers in Karazhan. Since then I've played a paladin, with other classes being little more than distractions.

I loved class-based quests. I chased them down. I didn't care about the usefulness of the reward, or eventually, the necessity of the quest for getting the reward, as in the case of druid flight form. Until I'd done those quests I felt that I was an illegitimate member of the class, like when you're the bastard child of the king and cannot claim the throne until you complete the quest chain to murder all your siblings.

As Erinys says in "Proving your Worth: Why Class quests had value",
What I loved about all three of these quests was the fact that they made you think about what it meant to play that specific class. Not only in terms of playstyle although all three required you to explore your spell book, perhaps the Druid and Hunter more so than the Priest, although plenty of people I knew did take Holy Nova especially for the quest but also from an RP perspective if you wished to indulge it.
These quests weren't just quests. They were a matter of class identity, of exploration of the world and character, of learning how to play.

Class quests interact in an odd manner with the concept of class identity. If we identify strongly with a particular class, then we're likely to play it more, to the exclusion of other classes. This means that under a scenario of strong class identity class quests are going to have a small audience, with a small proportion of the population getting the relevant class to the needed level to take advantage of it. Yet the quests themselves may help to cement the identity.

However, if class identity isn't a thing for much of the player population, with few people imagining themselves as primarily playing a particular class, then the class quests may become widely experienced. If play time is spread out more, then it is more likely that players will get their rogues to Ravenholt and their priests to the Plaguelands. Weaker class identity makes class quests more generally used, and therefore more justifiable from an eyeballs per developer dollar perspective. I'm assuming you're all using the latest eye-tracking technology for your gaming; the precision of movement is jaw-dropping, just like mage DPS (and just like my ability to make obscure jokes out of side comments by developers years ago).

The general theme is that if we don't particularly identify as a class, or maybe more importantly, identify as not the other classes, then it doesn't matter as much which class gets the cool toys. If we're as much a priest as a rogue, then are we going to mind much if the rogue update comes before the priest update?

But of course all this semi-sociological identity stuff means nothing if your raid leader wants you to pick, gear, and learn how to play a particular class. (do people still do organized raids?) One class will get leveled a little faster, have a little more luck with gear, be a little bit stronger, and you'll gravitate toward it. Once that happens, then it snowballs, with one always being ahead and therefore better able to get more ahead. While the rest can gear up by other means, that means more time, and sadly, everyone is forced to stop being a college student with next to unlimited time to play games. In the end you're playing a priest, not because your raid leader said so, but because your boss said you can't play at work and your kids refuse to use the can opener in a safe manner.

Something I didn't consider in my first run is that while strong identity will reduce the number of people who do a class quest, I expect that it would also tend to increase enjoyment. The class identity is part of what makes it more interesting than any other quest. Many quests send you around the world, but how many do it specifically because you're a shaman making drugs to find magical sticks? If we're willing to give some weight to actual enjoyment rather than mere play, then it can even turn out positive: few people see, but those who do enjoy it a lot more. As long as everyone gets a nifty quest there won't even be an issue of fairness.

I won; you know it, I know it, vegatable lasagna here knows it

| Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Here's something that tends to bug me in 4X games: when I've already won, but the game won't admit it. Maybe I'm more powerful than the rest of the universe combined, with a major tech lead, and a stable government/happy population/secure culture and religion. There is nothing to make me lose and therefore I will inevitably win. The question is when and how, not if. At that point I'm just micro-managing my way toward a slightly higher score, rather than victory itself.

In other words, the opposite of this:
I feel like everything is spinning out of my control.  I know it’s boring to say this, but the most fun I have with 4X games is when I’m roflstomping over the enemy with ease, not when I’m scrabbling just to stay afloat against an enemy that I have a 2-1 planetary advantage over.  It’s taking a lot of my will to play through this game and not start over.
- Syp
 This isn't to say that I enjoy the perpetual uphill struggle. After all, if I never reach the top, I will never win. I want to struggle up and then fight on the mountaintop with the guy on the next one over. Roflstomping is fun at times, having that last rush to the capitol, running up to the top of the Reichstag and waving a Soviet flag while shooting Nazis. But what is a victory without a struggle? That was a fun mission, but what would it have been without the first one consisting of dodging bullets and hoping to score a gun off the dead guy in line ahead of me?

Designing reward structures is hard

| Monday, August 26, 2013
Did you know that President Obama has personally stopped 57 terrorist attacks? I made that number up. Maybe it's zero. Or ten thousand. And that's precisely the problem: it's really hard to reward prevention, or to reward people for preventing what would have happened otherwise (for the example, let's set aside the secrecy issues involved in security). Which of course leads me to Civilization.

I gain standing with city states for clearing camps, if they are targeted. I also gain standing every time I kill a barbarian. I gain standing for liberating workers. So of course I try my hardest to never do the first one. Why would I clear the camp for a short boost when I can farm the stream of barbarians for more rep over time? In fact, why kill them so soon? I'm better off letting them wander into the city state and kidnap workers, then killing them to liberate the worker. In fact, I'm no even rewarded for clearing camps, and I won't do so if my cities are safe, unless they are targeted by the city state. The problem is that I'm not rewarded for an outcome such as "no barbarian attacks for 20 turns" or "no workers captured for 10 turns". Instead I'm rewarded for removing problem, but only when those problems get to be bad, even when the terrible problem was readily preventable.

Similarly, other civilizations are glad if you join them in a war. However, if you win the war too much, they get suspicious. That's right: no destroying the warmongers. Apparently Montezuma is supposed to be defeated, but never permanently, as if he were the Joker. On the other hand, if you just leave them to die, that's cool. Roll in later and liberate their cities and they'll be eternally grateful. In fact, they'll be so happy that they'll vote for you for world leader, which I think is the only way to make that happen. Once again, you're better off letting terrible people do terrible thing and cleaning up afterward.

Often we try to reward the actions that typically lead to outcomes. Killing barbarians is a key step toward making a city state safe from them, and of course they're going to care only if you're killing their barbarians rather than the ones wandering into their rival's land. Similarly, clearing the camp is a way to permanently fix the problem. Yet the permanent solution is less rewarding than killing individual barbarians, despite the fact that clearing the camp is as effective as killing infinite barbarians and liberating every worker, or more so, since no worker turns are wasted.

The city state could reward outcomes, such as no barbarian attacks for 20 turns. Who do they reward? Usually the civ that clears that camp contributed something. But what if the one who cleared it just jumped in at the last moment and someone else had killed every barbarian leading up to it? The second civ certainly contributed more, what with bringing in three archers while the other guy had a scout wander through. How do you track that, damage inflicted on barbarians within two tiles of the city and camp? That seems rather complex, and in fact encourages farming. Players who are behind could try to block other civs to have a chance to get in damage themselves.

Designing reward structures is hard.

I don't care what you're doing in your MMO

| Thursday, August 15, 2013
What you are doing is the same as what everyone else has done. You are going to do the same content, in possibly slightly different order, as every single other person. You will run the same places, play the same races, roll the same classes, as everyone else has. This isn't your fault; it's the game.

The twist will, of course, be social. That won't help much. Most likely you're going to interact with random people, strangers. Odds are you'll have neutral or negative reactions. Those range from "don't care" to "heard it a million times; we don't like people either". Maybe you'll really mix things up and play with friends and have drama! Ooh! We still don't care. We simply lack the context for any of it to mean anything. The other day I saw HJ for about the third time that week. You don't care, do you? If you knew who he was, you might, but you don't.

In short, you have no story to tell.

If, however, you're playing a game that is prone to unexpected and significant events, events which are unlikely to be repeated by anyone else, then I might have some interest. Of course a round of Calvinball would feature many expected events which will never be repeated, so clearly there is something more to look for. Perhaps a common set of rules from which events may grow would do the trick.

Perhaps a game of chess would suffice. Yet I feel this is not the right game, for while it is widely known, it is not widely understood, so many significant events would be lost on the audience. Beside that, it is a little too abstract. Perhaps if they were animated knights who beat up one of your friends, and you were a wizard, and then of course it is too specific and we've already established that we don't care about your friends getting beat up.

What we need is a game with rules that create events, which can in turn be woven into a narrative. There could be twists and turns. Or perhaps just the brute force of domination, writing the history books as you go. Perhaps... might a 4X game do the trick? I do believe so! One could take a 4X game and write a bit of history with it, removing some dull bits, adding those side boxes that doesn't quite fit into the narrative but somehow still seems fitting, and there you go. Suddenly, I do care what you're doing in your 4X game.

Maybe I can enjoy the narrative itself. Maybe I can learn strategies from it. Maybe I'm playing a drinking game in which I take a shot every time this simple-minded blogger with the vocabulary of a newt uses the word maybe at the start of a sentence, seemingly incapable of setting up the general concept of a series of possibilities and running with that, but instead needing to constantly remind the reader, who is doubtlessly of little greater intellect, and who therefore should, but does not, appreciate the, as they say, "dumbing down", of the writing.

Of course what this all comes down to is this: I'm rather enjoying Syp's Master of Orion series, despite initially thinking that it was an exceptionally stupid and self-centered idea. It's not stupid.

Jedi are assholes

| Wednesday, August 14, 2013
It's a common sentiment among those not sensitive to the Force that Jedi are arrogant and distant.  I tended to regard these sentiments as stupid. Of course they're arrogant relative to the weak and unwise. Who wouldn't come across as a bit arrogant when they can predict the future, read minds, and use a lightsaber?

Yet now I understand. I'm playing through Knights of the Old Republic II again. I'm noticing things that apparently escaped my notice the first time around. Such as how absurdly arrogant and douchy the Jedi are.

I see one in a cage and break him out. He yells at me about how I just rushed into action and didn't think about the consequences. What? Apparently I was supposed to know that they were allied with the Exchange and planning to attack the settlers. And that they were only delaying attacking because they had a Jedi prisoner. Because somehow that makes sense. And somehow leaving him in the cage was going to fix the problem.

I'd played KOTOR before and should have picked up on this, that many Jedi seem to regard any action, ever, as hasty action happening too soon. They'd rather sit around and see what happens. The Mandalorians were destroying the Republic and the Jedi response was to wait. And then exile anyone who went to defend the Republic. I wonder how things might have gone if the leadership had joined the war, had been there to provide some guidance. War might have still been corrupting, but if that corruption had been noticed and dealt with, things might have gone better. Surely it is better to know what is going wrong than to reject all opposition and then be caught off-guard when it turns on you.

Maybe it's the medium. I do not think the Jedi in the movies were quite so stupid. When apprehending Palpatine they correctly determined that the smart thing to do was to kill him on the spot, and moved to do so. Though they were stopped from doing so by a ridiculously impulsive and arrogant little brat. In The Empire Strikes Back Yoda tried to keep Luke from rushing off, which, far from being excessively cautious, was smart. Even if it hadn't been an intentional trap, the travel time involved meant that by the time he got there he'd be too late. Better to plan things out a bit, train some more. Maybe Yoda would have helped if it looked like something more than an impulsive suicide mission.

Maybe it's excessively far sight. The Jedi know that impulsive action will eventually become a really bad, dangerous, awful thing. So starting thousands of years in the past they work to remove impulsiveness. Unfortunately, they end up just being slow-moving idiots. Perhaps they were too quick to not be quick.

All the Adventure with half the Violence

| Tuesday, August 13, 2013
I'm not sure what magical creature to blame for this, but somehow this post, fully-written, sat as a draft, unpublished (redundancy ensures that you have enough).

We've previously established that I like violence in games.  Shooting, smashing, smashing with objects normally reserved for shooting, and of course shooting smashing things (gravity gun) are all great violence.  Sometimes slicing substitutes for smashing.  Explosions!

At times I'd wonder if adventure required violence.  After all, without the fight, what is left?  Travel time and story.  Yet what is the story except the adventure itself, and therefore nothing without the conflict?  It's like circular logic swirling into a black hole.

Yet here I am playing Don't Starve and having a blast.  It's a dangerous world, yet it's not a world of battles.  I avoid fights.  Except with spiders, because spiders are jerks in this game.  But even then, how violent can you be when it hurts?  My meat-drying operation means that I can keep my health up, but it's not a solution if I rush into mindless conflict.  A log suit only gets you so far.  I only have a football helmet because a tree killed a pig.  I suspect that was my fault, for riling up the tree with all my chopping.  It had no appreciation for the classics.

Death is dangerously close to permanent.  I've only found one touch stone.  It's not too far away, and I did take the wise step of leaving an old log suit, some earmuffs, and some small jerky in a chest near it.  That's what I learned after I nearly froze to death trying to recover my items in an earlier game.  Maybe the real lesson is not to get in fights with birds twice your height.  Once summer returns, I'm only about halfway through winter, I can shave my magnificent beard for a meat effigy.

The rewards aren't so great either, at least not where I am. I wanted some spider silk so I could make some beehouses, which require catching some live bees.  Hunting spiders is a pain.  Then just to add insulting irony to it all, right after I made the houses winter hit and they've so far done nothing at all.  A few days later I went to fight more spiders, hoping to get more silk for bird traps.  I found enraged beefalos wrecking the nest and I just walked in to get the silk and spider egg.  A few minutes sooner and maybe I'd have just been trapped between a dozen spiders and a dozen beefalos.

I worry much more about freezing to death.  This means carefully-planned runs for wood and rabbits, without time to spare for random combat.  Of course that's when I hear the growling of the hounds...

The first lesson I take away is that combat is most games is far too rewarding relative to the costs.  Save points and respawning mean that there is little incentive to avoid a fight unless the mission is specifically designed for stealth.  The result is that in a sense the violence isn't even as violent, being reduced to an immortal fighting mortal opponents until the latter are all dead or the former is frustrated, yet still entirely alive and unscathed.  That's slaughter, not violence.  Of course so many games are deigned to be entirely about combat, so it's no surprise that they're designed so that combat is inevitable and always winnable.

The second lesson is that danger does not require violence.  The environment can be the danger.  Basic survival can be the danger.  It's not as glamorous as mowing down rows of Zombie Muslim CommuNazis, but it's fun in its own way.  This has been a gameplay element for a long time.  How much did Mario fight relative to time spend jumping over pits of lava?  The jumping puzzles are a different expression of the same concept.  More recently, there is the world of Stalker, in which anomolies like to wait, nearly invisible, before turning you inside out.  They don't add to the action, but rather invert it, forcing an otherwise-uncharacteristic level of caution.

Maybe the problem is one of challenge.  A violent world can have action without challenge.  A non- or less-violent world can end up seeming as if nothing is happening.  Making survival challenging brings back the adventure, yet the challenge may drive people away.  I can imagine a great deal of frustration in a game like Don't Starve, where you can build up and up, only to leave yourself in the cold a little too long, stray a little too far, eat a little too infrequently.  Suddenly it all comes crashing down.

Cave "Mengele" Johnson

| Monday, August 12, 2013
The other day I wrote about how we as players may casually commit what would in real life be genocide, war crimes, or some other varied form of evil. This led me back to an idea that has been floating around in my head for some time, though I only recently understood it fully: GLaDOS is not the villain of Portal. Nor is Weatley. Instead, the true is evil The Old One, a being who was so profoundly evil that it still permeates all aspects of the institutions and structures that he created. GLaDOS is merely a tool, as is Weatley, and the player. They are also all the victims of this evil.

Think of GLaDOS and her compulsive need to test. She couldn't not test. Yet, what was testing? It was about as scientific as shooting the floor while ordering someone to dance.
This first test involves something the lab-boys call repulsion gel. You're not part of the control group by the way - you get the gel. Last poor son of a gun got blue paint, ha ha ha! All joking aside, that did happen. Broke every bone in his legs - tragic. But informative! Or so I'm told.
This isn't reckless pursuit of knowledge. This isn't a man driven to know, regardless of the consequences. He is instead a man driven by the consequences.
Just a heads up, we're gonna have a super conductor turned up full blast and pointed at you for the duration of this next test. I'll be honest, we're throwing science at the walls here to see what sticks. No idea what it'll do.
Science isn't about why, it's about why not. You ask: why is so much of our science dangerous? I say: why not marry safe science if you love it so much. In fact, why not invent a special safety door that won't hit you in the butt on the way out, because you are fired.
There is nothing to learn here. There is nothing to learn from substitution repulsion gel for blue paint. There is nothing to learn from creating AI that are tortured if they are not torturing.

What we see here is a man creating an institution of evil. He fired all who dissented, who even hinted at the concept of human rights. He created the AI. He forced employees to be both torturers and victims thereof.
Ha! I like your style, you make up your own rules just like me.
No one said that the √úbermensch would be a moral person by any measure that we can comprehend. Yet he is clearly an immoral person by many measures that we can comprehend.

When I stop and think about it, Portal is a profoundly disturbing game series. It feels so light-hearted in its presentation. It is silly. Yet it is a game set in a world with a horribly twisted history. We can set aside the part where Portal takes place in the same alien-occupied world as Half Life; Aperture is terrible enough. I suppose it's true what they say, that comedy is tragedy plus time.
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