All my waiting finally paid off. Bordlerlands 2 was about 13.50 this past week, and I snatched it up. I kept waiting to hear the police coming to arrest me, because at that price I stole this thing.
I had heard a lot of buzz around the “bee” shield when the game first launched, partly from one of my buddies, Kaleedity, who’s a frequent commentator here. I went to ask him what that precisely meant. Apparently there was some very over-powered feature that allowed an item to power up all your shots. No thanks, though; I don’t like things that make the game to easy.
And too easy it was not. Perhaps from playing Warframe, where you’re virtual gods, my buddy and I were dying rather frequently at the start of the game. Unlike Warframe, Borderlands 2 requires some actual care and strategy. I strongly suspect that says a lot about the free to play model; that when you’re asking people to just keep playing in hopes of them spending money, you have to make the game super easy. Having been blasting our way with ease through that, my buddy and I had to do a skill check to bring ourselves into alignment with the new system.
I played the Siren, since I almost always play ninja characters and wanted to do something different this time. My buddy picked Commando. We both went first with some healing talents, since we were struggling a little, but we quickly scaled down our “frontal assault” mentality and ramped up our “take care” strategy.
The game so far is as fun as the first, though the first was a surprise to us so we may actually have liked it more. The awe, in other words, is gone, but this is still a very solid game, unlike some MMOs that have come along trying to recapture that feeling (Wizardry Online, for example).
In other news, I’m working through the lower level jumping puzzles in Guild Wars 2. It’s amazing how many I missed my first run through some of the low-level areas. I consider myself to have a pretty sharp eye, and I’m good and looking at design to figure out what developers were thinking and, thus, hiding from the players. I found a lot of the Datacrons in SW:toR just by looking for places to climb. I’m usually the one to spot things in team games (though my wife found 3 things I didn’t on the first board of Magicka, so day-mn!). The fact that I walked RIGHT PAST 3 puzzles in Caledon forest shocked me.
So yes, I’m looking up where the puzzles are, but I’ve worked my way through all of them without a guide, though the 4th jumping puzzle in Caledon took me 3 days to do since I kept failing at a jump near the end and falling to my death. I like that aspect of the game, and it translates well to Borderlands, where there are many hidden areas with special weapon or mod chests hidden up above to find as rewards.
I also won my second game of Endless Space. I’ve lost 3 and won 2 now; I could easily plow through another science win, but I’m trying different approaches. I got a “diplomacy” win (the victory I’d lost 2 of 3 times to) in my most recent game; apparently you get it just for being at peace long enough. I was easily set up for a cultural or supremacy win, though, as I was dominating the galaxy in both those aspects, too.
At any rate, it’s going to be a long summer with a lot of gameplay in front of us, so I look forward to sharing it with you!
Stubborn (and playing)
You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m going to be taking the day off today. My grading is done, and while I do have a busy day today, I’m officially taking the day off. I’ll be thinking of all of you, though, while I go to get my haircut, go swimming, take a nap, have an early dinner with my wife (it’s a tradition, actually; we always go out to a “date lunch” on Fridays) and, eventually, go to graduation in the evening. I hope you all find today as relaxing as I will. Normal posts will resume Monday! See you then!
Stubborn (and absent)
I was struggling with coming up with a topic for today. Call it simply being very mentally busy; I’ve graded about 45 essays in the past few days, with about 45 more coming in this week. As a result, I’ve had a hard time collecting my thoughts on anything other than “opener: check – thesis statement: check” and so forth.
I figured today I’d just provide a light overview of what’s been occupying my time recently. I’ve been regularly playing six games, two for each of my “situations.”
I’ve been playing a lot of Endless Space. I bought it a while ago, played a game, and lost interest. For some reason, my interest was re-sparked, perhaps because of all the “free DLC’s” that have come out for the game. Each content update has improved and expanded the game in some way, and while I don’t really notice the differences, I’ve enjoyed it a lot since I’ve come back to it. I’m trying to win one game of each type with different factions. I usually gravitate towards science-based bonuses, as I feel that if you have the best science you can usually make up for any other deficiencies. My first win was using that strategy, but since then I’ve avoided it and worked on conquest victories, which I have a hard time at, influence victories, and all the various other ways to win.
I’ve always like puzzle platformers, and the first Trine was a really excellent game. I bought Trine 2 a while ago, too, but waited on it, hoping my wife and I could play it together, as we did the first Trine. That never came to pass, so I finally delved in myself. I enjoy it a lot, too, particularly because it reminds me of a good D&D session: a bit of silliness, an overarching plot, and multiple solutions to most situations. I always max the Wizard’s conjuring first, since I like to make a lot of boxes and planks, but I actually play the thief the most, since her ranged attacks and mobility are more my preference.
My Wife and I:
League of Legends
I doubt I need to talk much more about LoL. I will mention that simply due to increased business (i.e. stress) from work at the end of the semester, I was having a hard time keeping my cool when partnered with complete mouth-breathing idiots in live games. As a result, I’ve abandoned “normal” pvp and moved to intermediate AI. I struggled when playing with my buddy with the tougher AI, which, frankly, cheats by doing super-human feats of aiming and coordination, but with my wife I’ve won all but one game. That one game was populated with the aforementioned mouthbreathers who simply would not come together for team fights, so we were continuously picked off by the much-better-organized AI. Still, it’s been a lot of fun, and I really enjoy the greater diversity of champions the computer uses in the intermediate games.
Guild Wars 2
What can I say? I was as surprised as anyone that I got back into GW2. My wife mentioned that we’d stopped playing when my buddy did, and she suggested we dive back in. We’ve been moving at a much more enjoyable and leisurely pace, moving as we see fit rather than by the hand of efficiency. We craft when we want, explore when we want, do hearts when we want, and just kind of fool around and have fun, the type of gameplay at which GW2 excels. She’s playing a ranger, and I’m playing a rogue, which work well together as a team. We’re both erring towards group healing talents and vigor builds simply to keep ourselves alive, but we’ve not really had any problem with being under-powered except against a final boss of an event in Ascalon. The boss, Horace, had some opening attack that simply killed us both instantly. We couldn’t figure out how to avoid or counter it, so that was that. It was a frustrating setback, to be unable to accomplish something, but it’s been the only one in a long stream of otherwise enjoyable gameplay.
My Buddy and I:
While I stopped making a religious attempt to log in every day, mostly because the rewards were always terrible, my buddy and I still play Warframe from time to time. It provides several exciting things: excellent, stylistic graphics, visceral gameplay excitement, and an opportunity to just turn the brain off (for the most part). Many of the missions are simply good old-fashioned shoot-em-ups, but there are times when the challenge gets notched up and you really have to coordinate and strategize to survive. Also, it’s free, which was a major selling point to my buddy.
Much like Warframe, Neverwinter offers a surprisingly good package for a free to play game. I’ve seen some complaints about it recently, particularly to do with its D&D affiliation. Frankly, I’ve played a lot of D&D, and it doesn’t bother me one bit that it’s only tangentially related to D&D mechanics. The setting is well done, the graphics are good, the gameplay is diverse enough to stay interesting, and the Foundry means that you can take part in being a creator or simply play endlessly in others’ creations. I’m very impressed with Neverwinter overall, and I think they could have adopted the GW2 entry-fee model and done just as well. That it’s free is just more icing on the cake.
So that’s what’s occupied my time recently.
Stubborn (and done with exams within a few hours)
I have to say, it was a pretty good weekend. I called it lazy in the title, but I did an adequate amount of work each day – grading, yard work, chores, etc – to not feel totally sluggish, but still, I spent plenty of time playing games with my wife and/or my buddy.
The and/or is because something new and slightly frustrating has come into my life. It truly is only slightly frustrating, but ever since we “finished” Torchlight 2 and my buddy lost interest in LoL, my wife and he have not been able to come to an agreement on any game for the 3 of us to play. I’ve always busted my bottom trying to find stuff that would interest both of them (and I think Monaco would, but since it’s not on sale, my buddy won’t consider it), but both of their extreme finickiness when it comes to games has finally rent their interests into two camps with virtually no overlap.
My wife isn’t interested in FPS games. My buddy isn’t interested in 4x games. My wife doesn’t like Magic: The Gathering. My buddy won’t consider going back to MMOs for a second run. It has become harder and harder to find a middle ground, and, finally, I’ve given up trying to. My wife and I enjoy Guild Wars 2, League of Legends, and Civ 5 (though I’m interested in a new 4x game for the summer when we both have more time to kill. My ideas are to get Gods and Kings (the Civ 5 xpac), get her a copy of Endless Space, or to find something totally new for both of us so we’ll start on a level playing field. I’m happy to hear any suggestions). My buddy and I play Warframe, Neverwinter, and M:tG. It seems that never the twain shall meet.
Often, it’s not a big deal, since both of them have weird schedules, but on the weekends, there’s the unique problem of having to choose. Since I can’t just say, “Let’s go play Torchlight!” I’m stuck with picking one over the other. Well, brace yourself, world, but my wife always wins that contest. But that means that my buddy and I haven’t played much of anything for the past several days, and with summer coming up, my wife’s schedule will open up a lot.
It’s odd; I’ve worked hard to avoid this situation by trying to find games they’ll both like, but now that I’ve given that up, it doesn’t seem like there’s nearly as much pushback as I’d expect – or want. Both seem complacent to just let me play with the other. That should be comforting, but, and perhaps this is just my nature, it’s not. Regarding my wife, it doesn’t bother me because I see her all the time, but for my buddy to be so willing to just fade away into obscurity bothers me. I feel like he should want to find something to do together, but his inert lifestyle may very have crushed any motivation in him to strive for anything. I don’t know.
Regardless, hopefully something will come along soon that will entice them both. As always, only time will tell.
Stubborn (whose birthday is today)
My left arm has been hurting recently from the wrist to the elbow, along what feels like a stress point that exists from resting my hand the way I do when I play video games and have to mash the hotkeys. Is this the beginning of carpal tunnel? I took a bit of a break from games to let it settle down, but it still starts to flare up if I play or type for more than a half hour a day or so, and with a ton of portfolio essays and final exam essays to grade, I’m going to be resting my arm like that a lot simply due to work. I can type okay if I rest my arms like a piano player would, draping my wrist and making a C with my thumb and fingers, but it’s very awkward and, not being a pianist, I can only hold my arm that way for a certain amount of time. It sucks. Anyway, that’s on my mind. Thoughts?
Today’s correspondence, though, is not on that topic. As we’ve been discussing various social aspects of games recently, such as “community” and “social fabric,” I saw a lot of pushback against the importance of those elements. The argument I saw most was that a strong community could not make up for a game being inherently un-fun. Rather than getting into the boggy depths of “What is fun?” (it’s the perfect matching of your level of skill to the game’s challenges until you reach mastery, for the record, but we’re NOT getting bogged down in that), I began to wonder “In what other ways do games try to conceal their lack of fun?” In other words, “what crutches do un-fun games use?”
Take grinding for example. It’s not fun. I’m not criticizing the activity; if you just want to turn your brain off a while and go easily massacre monsters over and over, that’s perfectly fine, but it’s not fun. How do games cover up for that? I came up with a few ideas to create a base list, but I’m curious what else I may not have thought of. Here’s where I started:
I tend to agree with the comment that community cannot sustain an inherently un-fun game, but many game developers have certainly tried. Even WoW, to some extent, has utilized the relationships we form in game, guilds in particular, to sustain long periods of content drought. During those times, WoW becomes an immersive Facebook. Using an MMO as a social network was what I was going to discuss the day I ended up talking about Bartle Archetypes as Developing Identities. The only reason I, and I’m sure some others, too, log on to WoW is to see our old friends. The game itself isn’t that much fun any more, but we miss our contacts if we stop playing.
Not only the positive aspects of community bind us, but as Green Armadillo voiced in the previous discussion of social fabrics, but negative aspects of community – social obligations – factor in as well. I don’t think there’s been a single MMO burnout that wasn’t exacerbated by continuing to play due to duty when the player should have stopped and taken a break.
This is by far the most obvious attempt to sustain long-term interest in simple, un-fun activities. Grind dailies for rep. Grind dungeons for gear. Grind raids for more gear and achievements. Again, I’m not criticizing the activity, just that I wonder how many players are self-aware enough to realize they’re being manipulated in that way. The older generation likely is, but what about younger players?
All of those examples refer to MMOs, but the mindless chaos of Xbox FPS games like Call of Duty aren’t much different; they provide rankings and achievements in much the same way. How much work did people do for “…the Insane?” Having the title may be a mark of “honor,” but the activities cannot possibly be described as fun.
Aligning with the previous one, particularly regarding the idea of younger players, are the habit-forming behaviors that more and more video games are trying to build. Warframe is a prime example. Each day you log in, you get a reward. The more days you log in in a row, the better the reward. The game is trying to form the habit of logging in with those extrinsic rewards. I mentioned in our last correspondence that Neverwinter had a few designs like that, too; it offers free rewards each hour that you log in and invoke at a shrine. It’s a little disgusting, if you think about it, but clearly it’s effective for the free-to-play model. Sub models do it, too, with dailies and weeklies, and none of us are fully immune. We want to get as much as we can if we care about progression, so we almost feel “self-obligated,” like we “should be” doing certain activities, and we feel guilty when we do others. That’s clearly not fun.
Future promise of fun
Another typical MMO tactic is to promise more fun in the future if you get through the un-fun of the early game. To be fair, WoW only really got bad about this later on; in the start, leveling was as much fun for most of us as we expected the end-game to be, but once you’ve done it on your first or second character, it begins to lose merit. Clearly the devs agree, as they keep reducing the amount of xp you have to gain and boosting the bonus xp you can get through guild and gear bonuses.
Other games work in a similar fashion, that they “unlock” new fun options as you play. Warframe is like this; you get new classes through an absurd amount of grinding or paying real money, but you can only play them and thus change up the gameplay a little from the otherwise extremely repetitive FPS model by playing more and more of the extremely repetitive FPS model. Even with the cash shop available, you cannot play the “Rhino” class until you, the player, is level 2, which takes probably 20 hours of play. Then, with the new suit, you’d have to repeat the first 20 hours to get it powerful enough to survive the levels you were previously at with your old warframe. That’s not much fun.
As much as it pains me as an English teacher to admit it, narrative is often a crutch for bad gameplay. The desire to find out what happens next is an extremely powerful force to most humans. Curiosity killed the cat, and it can cause a player to plow through a lot of un-fun game mechanics to advance the story. Old console RPGs – which I loved, to be fair – often allowed you to grind hours and hours to get to secrets that might have a tiny change overall in the story. Multiple endings are similar to this; often to get the “best” ending requires more work, not necessarily more fun.
So those are the crutches I came up with off the top of my head. What did I miss?
Stubborn (with a hurt hoof)
First, you’ll have to forgive me if my response to comments is sporadic the next few weeks; it’s the end of the semester here, so I have three sets of portfolio essays to grade, topped off next week by three set of exam essays. I’ll work to make sure I keep my regular update schedule, but the comment responses may be put off longer than normal.
In the little free time I’ve had recently, I’ve begun playing Neverwinter Online with my buddy. We initially heard about it at PAX 2012, but other than getting yelled at for “touching” the Dracolisk (which my buddy wasn’t) and then noticing that the cute young girl that went up and tried to ride the thing did not get yelled at for “touching” it (which she was), we didn’t have much to do with the booth this year. As a result, we didn’t realize how soon it was going to come out and were surprised when we learned it was available (from the omnipresent (in a good way!) MMO Melting Pot, so thanks!).
Our expectations were low, since it was a Perfect Worlds game. My last Perfect Worlds encounter was a catch 22 situation when my buddy and I were trying a lot of free games back to back to find one we liked. I’d made a login for Forsaken World, but couldn’t retrieve my password. I got the “no account matches this email” error when I tried to reset it, but got the “this email already has an account” when I tried to register anew. Since I couldn’t be bothered at the time to deal with such nonsense, we skipped the game.
However, when I learned it was really a Cryptic game, I got more excited. I enjoyed Star Trek Online quite a lot, much more than my buddy, who found the ship battles slow and dull but enjoyed the ground missions. I let him know that this would be all ground missions, and he was a little more excited, even though he said, “How do you know there won’t be spaceships in D&D?” He’s a jerk like that.
We logged in and were immediately drawn in to the excitement from character select. We love D&D, have played a ton of pen-and-paper D&D, played almost every D&D game (minus Daggerdale, which we heard was terrible). Just getting to make race and class selections got us excited. He decided on a half-orc Great Weapon Fighter. I chose a dwarf Devoted Cleric named, of course, Stubborn.
We played to about level 7 and were having a really good time, except that I was destroying him in damage. He decided to reroll mage, so I played a rogue up to level 7 to help him catch up. I enjoyed both my classes immensely, but decided to stick with the Cleric for practical purposes.
I waited to write about it until now because we’ve just capped level 18, and I think all the basic features are open to us. We’ve got our professions, our companions, our powers and talents, have done a dungeon and a skirmish (but not PvP, nor do I expect he’ll be willing to). I did a foundry quest, which I really enjoyed.
Overall, I’d say the game is so far 90% excellent. On the positive side, I feel that the class designs are fun and well-themed. I think the professions are sensible, especially since you can access them from anywhere with Internet from a web page gateway. The companions seem to make the game more soloable, if that’s your preferred playstyle, and you’re given your choice of your first one for free; I chose a tank. The combat is fun, if a little repetitive at times, and the bosses have so far been of an acceptable difficulty without being too punishing.
The game has been scaffolded very well for new players. Every few levels a new feature appears, so while you can see everything that you’ll eventually be able to access from the start, you’re not immediately overwhelmed by it. You’re led in slowly through a very useful “What’s New?” feature at each level that breaks down exactly what you need to do when you level up.
On top of that, Cryptic ported over what made STO such a late-game success: the Foundry. The foundry allows players to generate content, which is perfect for a D&D world where so many of the players could be former DMs. To help separate the wheat from the chaff, there’s a ranking system that prompts players to review each foundry mission they play afterwards and leave feedback. This lets the game choose to highlight certain missions and, in the end, gives the game nearly infinite replayability. This is one of the greatest weaknesses of conventional MMOs; eventually, content is exhausted. Even with frequent patches, if all the content comes from the same team, eventually, the ideas are exhausted. By allowing players to participate in the creative process, Cryptic has empowered its fans not only to be able to play as much as they want but more importantly to become creatively invested in their project. Much like other projects’ embrace of fan fiction and art, Cryptic knows that allowing the players to be a part of the design helps build community and investment in the game. Ingenious.
There are a few features that are problematic, though. After mobile, fluid combat in Secret World and Guild Wars 2, going back to having to stand still to attack or cast has made combat feel very static at times. Additionally, you cannot dodge to avoid attacks while attacking or casting, so if you’re unlucky and start a cast a split second before an effect begins that you need to avoid, you may just be stuck in it with no recourse. I vastly prefer the option that dodging breaks or cancels your casts or attacks, as survival is usually more important to success.
Additionally, some things smack of addictive free-to-play behavior modification. You can pray to your gods once an hour to get free stuff, which compels people to log in over and over. One of the things you get from that is a currency that disappears if you don’t log in each day to renew it, so they’re attempting to force you to log in every day. To be fair, the currency isn’t used for much and can only be accumulated up to 7, so the compulsion is admittedly low, but to some people – like my buddy – who will not lose anything he can avoid to lose, it’ll probably become an issue. On the currency topic, another Free-to-play gimmick is the three currencies in the game: zen, which is the real-money currency, crystals, which can be accumulated in game, work as an in-game currency, but can also be speculated for zen in a stock-market like set up, and gold, which as far as I can tell serves little practical purpose, but is what most quests reward. It may be that eventually people are forced to get crystals one way or another, which may force them to purchase Zen or grind in game. Regardless, it is a business that needs to make money.
Overall, there’s far, far more good to say about the game than there is bad. I strongly urge you to give it a try, and if you do, look me up. I’m on the Beholder server as Stubborn Goldfarb.
Stubborn (the druid, not the cleric)
As we were discussing improving social fabric last week, I had a few interesting exchanges with commentators and people I know in the real world and think I had a bit of a revelation. We keep longing for those strong social bonds we felt in our early MMOs, and I kept asking why we can’t rebuild those. Some people attribute those strong social bonds to increased hardship in those early games and a lack of conveniences, and I used to think the same, but I don’t know. The Secret World was pretty tough at times, but I didn’t see an unusually strong social fabric there. Plenty of games come out without modern MMO conveniences, too, but neither seems to do anything to improve a community. My revelation, instead, was that what built those strong early communities didn’t have anything to do with the games, but with who we were as players back then.
Imagine the first time you logged in to your first MMO. Visualize standing there inside this gigantic virtual environment. Remember that first encounter with another player that unfolded seamlessly in this broad virtual world. These moments struck us with a feeling of awe, of being a part of something epic and larger than ourselves, something grand, and something new.
Awe’s a powerful force, and sharing in that awe with others creates a link that’s hard to break until the awe breaks down into the routine. This brief article summarizes findings of a psychological and neurological study into what kinds of stories we share. Surprise surprise, stories that evoke awe are among the top few. McGonigal talks about it in her book Reality is Broken, as well. Experiencing awe is incredibly powerful, she argues, and it leads people to work together to create great works, such as Golbeki Tep, an enormous temple that predates Stonehenge by several thousand years. Awe is a community builder.
Chasing awe is in our nature, it seems, and in his book Awe: The Delights and Dangers of our Eleventh Emotion, Paul Pearsall describes how awe can lead us to form communities, seek adventure, and even engage in unnecessary risks. The beauty of an MMO is that we can do all those things from the safety of our own home, much like sympathizing with a character while reading a story can evoke the same brain blood flows as actually experiencing those feelings about oneself. Our early experiences with MMOs filled us with a feeling of awe, and it brought us all together and helped us overlook the many vast inadequacies of the various games we played or people we played with.
Then time passed, as it always does, and what was once magical became mundane. Our feelings of awe were replaced with expectations that are nearly impossible to meet. Each new game is presented in its hype cycle as something massive and new – something that will strike us with awe – but never does, because it is largely by design a copy of something else. I don’t mean that in a “This is just a copy of WoW” sense, but that all MMOs are copies of one another in most gameplay features, particularly those that first struck us with awe: playing with others to conquer incredible challenges. Remember the first time you saw Majorodomo Executus summon Ragnaros? The first time you saw Onyxia?
The potentially depressing side of this argument, then, is that those feelings will never be replicated by something similar to what first evoked them. Our early experiences with MMOs blew our minds, but now, our minds are blown and can’t be re-blown by the same material. That’s why those of us who’ve been doing this for ten or so years often find ourselves hopping from MMO to MMO, chasing a hope for another experience like our first that simply can’t be replicated. Those who formed strong bonds with their fellow awe-goers might use those bonds to maintain interest in a particular game, but often even those groups migrate from game to game. Others accept what used to be literally awesome as commonplace and make a life for themselves there, accepting a game for what it is in its current un-awe-inspiring iteration. Those people “settle,” as my buddy calls it, for what they know.
I suspect that’s where many of us are with whichever game we’ve chosen to make our home, why certain games seem to keep drawing back their natives despite boredom with most of the content. It’s comfortable. It’s something we used to love. Now it’s a place where we feel comfortable.
Rather than look at that negative side, though, I prefer to look at the future. I don’t think MMOs are the end-all, be-all of games, and I suspect there’s another trend hopefully not too far in the future that’s going to grab us again, shake our conceptions of what it means to play a game with others (game, by the way, has the same word root as gather, meaning they are inherently social events). Those new games – things we can’t even conceptualize yet, for if we could, they wouldn’t blow our minds – will fill us again with awe, throw us together in communities of sharing that awe, and start us afresh in this cycle of feeling important in a new epic endeavor.
So the positive side, then, is that all we have to do to find that awe again… is wait.
Stubborn (and trying to be patient)