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Hearthstone

March 17, 2014

Dear Reader,

Over the break, since I had a little more free time – oh wait, no, I didn’t.  You don’t know what it takes to sell a house until you sell a house.  It’s been, well, bad.

But whatever.  It’s got to be done, and I do still have some free time, which I put to good use.  For one, I finally beat the celestial tournament!  Hooray!  I chose Chi Chi for my first pet (since I already have the crazy cat lady title), but I haven’t had time to take him (her?) out for a spin just yet.

More importantly, or at least more relevant to this post, was my toe-dip into Hearthstone.  When I recently re-downloaded Diablo 3 (don’t ask), it gave me the Blizzard launcher instead of just the Diablo 3 launcher, which was a sneakily brilliant marketing and branding move on Blizz’s part.  It’s been handy to have, too, since I can just log into it and leave it up, then launch whichever game I want to play.  Since Hearthstone was right there and I’d heard it was quick to download, I gave it a go one night when my wife had gone to bed.

It was fun, to be sure, but beyond that, it was just about what I’d expected.  I played a lot – A LOT – of Magic as a younger man (and more recently online just for fun), so the whole concept wasn’t new to me, but I enjoyed Blizz’s spin on the genre.  I like the art a lot (which was always true of magic, as well), and I like the overall personality of the game; it’s a bit silly and gnomish while incorporating lore-relevant characters against which to play.  The Illidan encounter, in particular, was very funny and enjoyable.

The key differences I noticed between Magic and Hearthstone involve mana generation and the attack phase.  In Magic, you have to draw and play your mana at a rate of no more than one per round (with some card exceptions, of course).  In Hearthstone, though, you simply generate one mana per turn.  This has advantages and drawbacks; for one, you can’t have a mana short, but for two, you can’t ever have more than ten mana (which was rare in Magic, but certain decks, like green decks, could manage to have ten mana on turn 4).

The combat, too, is different.  In Magic, there’s an attack and a block phase, letting the defender decide whether he’d like to take the damage or put creatures in the way of the attackers.  With only a few exceptions, defenders have more power of choice in Magic.  The opposite is true in Hearthstone; attackers have a vastly larger pool of choice unless, of course, there’s a “taunt” monster on the table, which must be dealt with first.  That, too, is different; there’s one distinct attack phase in Magic, so all the creatures are adjudicated simultaneously, but in Hearthstone, you can attack early or late, do actions in between, and choose who your attacks target.  The attacker has much more power of choice.

So I liked the little differences there between Magic and Hearthstone, and it certainly makes old hands think hard about the game lest they fall into old patterns and make mistakes (which, of course, I did on a few occasions).  However, it still suffers from what I consider the biggest flaw in these types of games: they’re essentially just a gamble.  Bad draws can ruin the best deck.  Of course, in any card game, there’s going to be bad draws, but that’s why I can’t take those games too seriously.  My NWN buddy gave me good advice, and since it was coming from a “math oriented” person, it makes sense: you can’t view each game independently, but instead all games as a whole.  But, while I acknowledge the rightness of that approach, I’m a narrative person, and in the story of my game playing experience, each loss still cuts, especially when I’m just card screwed.  A good challenge that ends with a brilliant play makes a great story whether you win or lose.  A new strategy that opens you up to possibilities doesn’t sting.  But when your own deck turns against you, well, that’s a bummer.

So I enjoyed the experience, but I’m not sure how long it’ll last.  If you play, though, and would like a game, let me know!  I’d be happy to add you as a friend.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and moving – slowly)

Wildstar

March 14, 2014

Dear Reader,

Since the NDA has been lifted on Wildstar, I thought we’d discuss it briefly.  I can’t say as much as or provide the gorgeous pictures like Syl of MMOGypsy, so I really recommend reading her write up, as it’s both much better than anything I can provide but also, in the end, a nicely different perspective.

The difference comes from a very basic observation related to the core game play.  Her title, “Wildstar ain’t WoW – Wildstar is Heavy Metal” is quite apt for her interpretation, but mine’s a little different.  Hers is also quite glowing, and, actually, mine is too, so it’s not that we came away with different feelings about it; I think we’re both quite positive, but I disagree with her core concept.  Wildstar is very much based on the core gameplay of WoW, but to me, that’s not necessarily a problem.

To clarify, Wildstar functions on the “tab-targeting, hot-button” mechanics of countless MMOs.  However, it also vastly improves on them.  So to be clear, when I say Wildstar plays like WoW, I simply mean that at it’s core, it plays more like WoW than DDO, TERA, or Skyrim.

That said, as I mentioned, there are many improvements.  There’s much more mobility in Wildstar than WoW; if we’re being frank, it plays more like The Secret World than WoW.  There’s active dodging, the ability to cast -some- spells while moving, and a much more lucid “ability” UI that paints quite clearly which abilities will land where, instead of the big red splotches we’ve grown accustomed to in WoW.

The character development, too, is based heavily upon the WoW model, but again offers many improvements.  As has been lauded plenty already, there’s a race choice, a class choice, and a path (like an occupation) choice.   The occupations are based on the Bartle archetypes; there’s a settler, explorer, soldier, and scientist.  Each of these paths provides a secondary set of objectives that overlays the other quests within the world, like some old computer RPGs had class- or alignment-specific quests that only certain characters could get.  The benefits of each path vary, as well, so each character has an added level of customization available to it.

The setting is quite different from WoW.  I can’t make any kind of “built upon” comparison at all, really, except that I think it could be as “lore deep” as WoW.  The setting is a lot more sci-fi than WoW, very reminiscent of Firefly with an emphasis on the tongue-in-cheek nature that the show presented in between the action sequences (“Plus, I can kill you with my brain”).

The graphics are very cartoony, which again relates more to WoW than a lot of the other MMOs that seem to be aiming for photo-realism.  I prefer that, actually; I like the cartoony nature of WoW, and Wildstar again takes it further, hamming it up with some of the silly design.  Silly, in fact, is a core theme of the game, which I think will help make it popular, especially since the “serious” or “brooding” nature of The Secret World was largely rejected.

So overall, I do think that Wildstar’s like WoW, but it’s not in any way a “WoW Clone.”  It is, instead, a WoW descendant, evolved and aged to produce a more refined and enjoyable product than its ancestor was at start.

That said, I won’t be pre-purchasing or playing it at release.  I think it’s going to be a great product, and I do truly think I’ll get in there some time, but I’ve had it up to here (I’m making a line now, picture it, at about brow level) with being “still in beta but calling it release” tester for games, so I’ll wait a few months and jump in once the water’s a bit nice and warmer.

I’ll reiterate, too, that the media campaign of Wildstar is one of its greatest successes.  If you haven’t watched the multitude of videos they’ve produced, I encourage you to do so.  The silliness is well captured in them (though the most recent, “Adventures,” was of a weirder and somewhat off-putting nature).

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and no longer wild, and never a star)

The Unavoidable WoD Post

March 12, 2014

Dear Reader,

So, Warlords of Draenor, right?  Lots of changes.  Healing changes.  Class changes.  Timeline changes.  Big stuff.

I don’t know, though.  That’s my core problem, really.  I just don’t know what I want from WoW – and maybe from gaming as a whole – any more.

I had a good chat with my NWN buddy the other day about my feelings towards WoD.  To be fair, I started it, asking him if he’d pre-purchased, since he’d written on the level 90 boosts, and he said he hadn’t.  He returned the question and, again, I was faced with that answer: I don’t know.

WoW’s come a long way, and it’s impossible to deny the quality of the game, no matter how much people may try from time to time.  That quality has shifted, as well, and who enjoys which parts of that quality drives the ever-fluctuating churn.  WoW’s had a huge impact on me and my gaming; it got me over the “I’m never going to pay a sub for a game” hump, and it drove me to excel at my game play during my hardcore days.  But more than that, as I’ve written about recently, it’s left some serious scars on my psyche regarding the social aspects of large-scale games, scars I’m not sure I want to chance reopening.

Many, many years ago, when Zul’Aman was still a raid, I was tanking the firehawk boss and having trouble keeping the adds on me.  There was another paladin there, a retadin, who was criticizing the damage my consecrate was doing.  Hers was doing much, much more, as of course it would be as a retadin.  When I pointed this out, she somewhat nastily chided me with a “Psht – YEAH,” as if the point I was making was so obvious as to be unwarranted, even though I was trying to explain why her chiding me for having weaker consecrate ticks was stupid.  That “Psht – YEAH” has become a group joke; my wife and I do it to each other, my buddy and I, the same.

But today when my wife did it to me it made me have a thought that kind of bothered me.  Doing a quick mental list, I think I know more people from WoW that I dislike than I like.  I think that more than half of my overall interactions have been negative rather than positive.  Am I a factor in that?  Sure I am.  But regardless, it’s still there.  There’s been more “Psht – YEAH’s” than there’s been people I enjoyed talking to and just hanging around with.

To be fair, Pam – that was her name – wasn’t really a major factor in liking or disliking.  That guild had the two biggest bullies I’ve had to deal with – a husband and wife couple, no less – and still represents one of the most frustrating and probably mishandled (on my part as well as others’) guild encounters I’ve had.  It really set the stage, like an early formative experience, for how I’ve interacted with guilds since.  My hypersensitivity to potential guild problems stems from that first horrible encounter, from seeing similarities to the people involved and actions taken, and while I can intellectually say I’m aware of that and should be able to avoid it, often emotionally I’m simply not able or willing to.

All of this feeds into my decision to play WoD or not.  It’s not a money issue; my buddy rightly pointed out that I’d easily cover the “Ed Value” of the purchase, but to be “worth” playing in my eyes, I need to be doing something that challenges me, that engages me with the deeper mechanics.  I tried dps for this whole expansion, and got to a place that I’m satisfied with, though I’m sure it’s woefully beneath anything a hardcore raider would accept.  Dps just doesn’t interest me, though, so I’d likely go back to healing or tanking.  So it’s not really that the play itself is a factor, either; I’m sure I could find something “interesting” to do.

That only really leaves the social aspect.  I fit where I am now because I really only vacation there.  I know a few people, say hello now and again, and chat with my buddy regularly.  The people there seem nice, and those who may not have impressed me as “nice” still impress me as “fair,” “serious,” and “level-headed,” which are all good qualities for fellow raiders when “nice” isn’t on the table.

So I don’t know.  This post is as much me thinking it out myself than anything else.  I’m not sure if there’s others out there struggling with the decision, or who even think the decision is “big” enough to be worth struggling about.

But that’s where I am.

Stubborn (and unsure)

Back!

March 11, 2014

Dear Reader,

So, I was at a conference most of last week, as I mentioned, and didn’t get a chance to do any posts.  Not only was the conference busy (including my presentation, which went very well, for the most part), I also had no “real” computer access, as even though I was in a ritzy Hilton, their only “business center” was actually a FedEx business center that charged by the minute, like back when the Internet was a new thing.  Unbelievable.

The presentation went very smoothly, and I had good turnout.  That may partly because I went into the hall beforehand and played a carnival barker, which some people at the conference loved and found endearing, and others found “obnoxious and overpowering,” which was one of the comments I had left on my evaluations afterwards.  Ah well, the person stayed for the presentation anyway, so who really cares?  The other comments were all positive, so overall it was an excellent experience, though I don’t think I’m likely to do it again for a long while; it’s pretty draining.

I got back late Sunday, then had the Monday of People Coming to the House.  We had a painter, the professional carpet cleaners, and the real estate agent all come by on the same day, so that, too, was pretty draining.  However, it’s now “done.”  We don’t have any more major work (unless the roof gets done), so it’s all just the minor work of keeping neat and tidying up before people come by.  We’ve heard from several people that “our house never stays on the market long,” so hopefully that will hold true, as that’s one of the two ENORMOUS monkeys on my back – that and, of course, finding a new job, again.

So unfortunately there hasn’t been a ton of gaming in the past week or so, which is why I didn’t bother to do any “make-up” posts.  I’m playing LoL with my wife.  I’m playing Civ 5 with my wife.  That’s about it.  I do really like all the additions the various x-pacs on Civ 5 provide: trade routes, religion, and the like.  As it’s a many-years-old game now, I’d say it’s worth getting them on sale when you can.

But that’s really about it.  Hopefully I’ll have more to say next time, but since it’s Spring Break, I’m not sure when next time will be.  Regular schedule resumes next week, regardless.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and breaking)

I Really Am Getting Old

March 3, 2014

Dear Reader,

I’ve been feeling old in my game play recently.  Perhaps “getting old” is simply an excuse for mediocre players who’ve finally reached an age where they can use it for an excuse, but in the last four games I’ve played, I’ve really felt my age affecting my play.

I’m getting forgetful.

In Witcher 2, the button scheme is super-complicated (from my point of view).  I’m frequently forgetting in between combats what buttons are what.  During the tutorial, I did all the tasks as required and learned the buttons.  When the end came, you’re given a trial to fight three dudes at once.  I couldn’t remember the button sequences from minutes before, though,and got killed.  The game then set my difficulty to easy, which I scoffed at, insulted.  I changed it back to normal, but I’m not so sure that was a good idea.  I’ll let you know as I progress.

I’m going blind.

I happen to by playing two first person shooters right now, too; one with my mostly-blind buddy, one with my NWN buddy.  Far Cry 3 I play with my mostly-blind buddy.  He beats me at shooting challenges sometimes, which distresses me.  I can’t seem to keep my hand still any more to make long-range shots as effectively, but more on that in a second.  In longer maps, I almost always come out on top for kills and headshots and measurements like that, but there’re times he spots things that I had completely missed.  Since his vision in one eye is basically totaly shot (like colors only) and is pretty bad in the other eye, when he sees baddies coming that I’ve missed, I’m baffled at my own obliviousness.  My eyes aren’t great, but they’re okay, and I’m missing these small details that I used to be the pro at finding.  It’s a disconcerting change.

I’m twitching.

I’m also playing Mass Effect 3 multiplayer with my NWN buddy.  When given the option of various classes, I often pick the high-accuracy, skillshot based classes.  In ME3′s case, this is the infiltrator.  However, the ME3 multiplayer requires a lot of movement.  Instead of being able to stay in place and pick my targets off, I have to constantly reposition and, often, aim carefully while running.  I can’t handle both of those tasks any more.  If I’m moving and go to take a shot, my hands twitch a lot and I often miss.  That’s a critical failure when using a slow bolt-action gun.

I’ve seen the same problem in League of Legends recently, too, the 4th game I’m playing.  I’ve been practicing a lot on LeBlanc, and I’ve gotten very good against bots (which means nothing, I know, but still).  I finally got to play her in a live game (instead of everyone else saying mid mid mid mid as soon as the damn champ select starts), and I did quite well against the Katarina that was there.  However, I had a hard time finishing my combo, though, because the only real skill shot – a line attack – I kept missing because I’d twitch a tiny bit right as I clicked to shoot it off.

This is definitely different than my past.  I’m from the south and spent a decent amount of time as a youth shooting guns.  I was never a deadeye, but I was okay.  I could hit smallish targets at medium ranges with a fair frequency, even with stronger caliber guns.  The kick wasn’t that big a deal.  I can’t imagine the “kick” of clicking the mouse is what’s throwing my aim off.  I think I’m just getting old.

I don’t like being carried.  I want to pull my weight, and I’m starting to feel like the only way I can safely ensure that is by playing with people my own age, even if that means playing on “casual” difficulty, which I was forced to resort to with my blind buddy after being mauled repeatedly on co-op.  That’s not to say I’d turn down my younger buddy’s invitations to play games, but I certainly do feel like starting to withdraw a little from the multiplayer game world.  Like so many stereotypes of old people before me, “I don’t want to be a burden.”  Cliché, perhaps, but true.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and feeling old today)

The Curse of Knowledge

February 28, 2014

Dear Reader,

There’s a well-known phenomenon in education (thought I’m sure we can all name teachers and professors who clearly had not heard of it) called The Curse of Knowledge.  Its premise is that the longer you know about a topic, the harder and harder it is to explain it to newcomers.  If you think about your mathematics professor who went too fast and became frustrated when you couldn’t keep up or your English professor who looked at you like you were stupid because you didn’t know what a dangling modifier was (btw: linguistic nerds, I just heard about “contrastive reduplication.”  I think it’s a stupid name, but not stupid stupid.), then you’ve got a good idea about what it’s like to be the victim of The Curse of Knowledge.

I have no doubt this applies in video games as well.  Koster describes this in his own terms as “priesthoods:”

The historical trend in games has shown that when a new genre of game is invented, it follows a trajectory where increasing complexity is added to it, until eventually the games on the market are so complex and advanced that newcomers can’t get into them–the barrier to entry is too high… Priesthoods develop, terms enter common usage, and soon only the educated few can hack it.
-Theory of Fun

I think that’s spot-on accurate about the communities that surround them, about how The Curse of Knowledge affects the old-guard player, the early adopters.  And he’s not passive about the matter, either; he goes on to say, “priesthoods are a perversion of what games are about.”

I think a lot of the hulabaloo about various changes to any particular game are about the priesthood defending its turf.  They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a new player, or someone strapped for time, or someone who can’t seem to find a good fit for a game or play group; they’ve been infected by The Curse of Knowledge.

The downside is that it’s a curse that cannot be cured from without.  It’s a self-inflicted curse brought on by people who don’t associate enough with new players, don’t reflect on their play style, and/or isolate themselves within high monastic walls, like elite guilds.  To be clear, none of those behaviors are inherently wrong, but they can lead to a kind of mental seclusion where the elite play that they witness on a daily basis becomes their norm against which all other play is judged.

Games – and all hobbies – need dedicated players who push the limits of the game, plumb the depths of what can be done or where can be reached.  It’s necessary for the game to develop; if no one ever killed H Rags, then what would the point of a new expansion be?

But at the same time, we should all work to safeguard ourselves from The Curse of Knowledge.  I have to do it on a daily basis with my students, but many of us don’t have to interact very often with people so clearly on a different level in whatever area we’re pursuing.  I get a lot of joy out of doing that; of watching my class of can’t-sit-stillers work 30 minutes without a single interruption (writing endurance is as real as running endurance, and it takes time to build), of the first really beautiful thesis statement a student produces, out of the goosebumps I get when students find something in a text I’d never considered.  I’m constantly reminded that I know very little about the grand scheme of things because my students keep me that way.  But many don’t have that kind of opportunity.

I’ve never been one much to pay attention to invisible boundaries, either, the kind of boundaries that the priesthood often develops.  As I mentioned in a comment to my last post, when I finally level capped my paladin and was learning to tank, my buddy, a warrior, tried to teach me, but tanking mechanics worked very differently back then.  So I asked around about what was the best guild on the server.  This was Earthen Ring 4 or 5 years ago (edit: wow, no, it was more like 8… sheesh), a huge server with a big population and some very serious raiding guilds, mind you, so when I found out who was on top, perhaps I should have considered whether it was “my place” to cold whisper someone.

But I didn’t.  I /who’d the guild name, found a max-level paladin, and asked them for some help.

And they gave it.  They gave about an hour of their time just to talk to me, point me at websites where I could get more information, explain some of the more jargonistic terms (like “off the hit table”).  Rather than acting like a part of the exclusionary priesthood, this person brought me into the fold, showed me how to further help myself, and bettered the server around them.

I know now how lucky I was.  Had I landed on a jerk instead of a hero, who knows how that would have affected my perception of the game.

Now consider how many new players are still finding their way into Azeroth, and how much colder the community has become.

Work to avoid The Curse of Knowledge in all aspects of your life.  You have no idea how important it will be to the people around you.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and casting decurse on all you readers)

Guilds: the Life and Death of a Game

February 26, 2014

Dear Reader,

I recently received sad news from a friend that she would no longer be playing WoW.  It wasn’t totally unexpected; both she and I have logged very little play time for the past several months, so I fully understood her decision.  In our discussion about her quitting, she mentioned that it had been hard to find a group of people to play with like she and her husband had in previous expansions.  In short, guilds had failed her.

I’m so immediately and emotionally connected to that sentiment that I felt I should write on it, perhaps “again” as it’s nothing new to this blog.  The game – whatever game it may be – is never better than when you and your group are meshing perfectly.  We write about those times, about the heroic and funny stories of boss encounters, pvp situations, and even role-playing events.  We share the joy and laughs of those good times because we’re bursting with the desire to share how great things are.

The other side of that, though, is that the game is never worse than when play groups fail.  Guild drama, raiding problems, /gkicks, and the like all make up the measure of the worst type of gaming stories, the ones we write for sympathy and as words of warning.  We’ve all seen our fair share of those, and many of us have had to endure them.

Play groups are the lifeblood of every single MMO out there.  They’re what makes a game an MMO; just being online with a lot of other people – parallel play – is meaningless, really, and only visually distinguishable from a single player game, in that there’s other people around that you know aren’t AI.  Play groups make or break a game, and having enough bad experiences with play groups is often the cause of people quitting a game.  Players may say it’s about the mechanics or a shift in the game’s design, but if they still had a play group they loved, none of that would matter.

Of course, burnout is a very real and different reason that people quit, and not even a good play group can always cope with burnout, but from my personal experience, burnout has always led to breaks, but failing guilds have sounded the death knell of WoW, even if its actual death came somewhat later:

My buddy quit after our initial guild fell apart, then again after my previous “best guild” mistreated him, then permanently after a bout of guild hunting that landed us in several different guilds on different servers, none of which worked out.

My two friends who are brothers stopped after guild drama of various types.  Both came back, but didn’t stick with it because they weren’t part of anything larger; they couldn’t find a guild they meshed with.

My wife stopped playing after our last guild (which for me is three guilds ago, to be clear) fell apart.  She comes back for a little of this and that, but she’s never really had interest since.

Every one of these cases came down to play groups, and all were avoidable, but now I’m left in a similar place; I’ve none of my old guard to play with.  I bounce around with my new buddy in the flex raids once a week, but that’s all I do.  The clanging heartbeat of excitement we used to have when we raided in a great guild is gone, and the game’s subsisting on life support.  If my schedule changed and I couldn’t make those flex raids regularly, that would be that, without a doubt.

Folks, if you’re in a good guild, treasure it.  Thank those people the next time you see them – you know the ones – the players who make the social circle an inclusive, warm place to be.  Tell them how much they mean to you and your gameplay, and when things go a little wrong, fight with all your interest in gaming against things falling apart.

Those play groups are all that separates that fun from dust.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (who reminisces about his old days in good play groups)

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