Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

Torchlight, torchbright, first torch… no, wait, that’s silly

Well, inspired by the wave of positive reviews buzzing about the blogosphere, I picked up Torchlight last night.  It cost me $20 and I downloaded it directly from the website.  Though others on the forums had complained about very slow download speeds (as I later learned), it went very quickly for me and there was no fuss or bother.

I played for about 2 hours and quite enjoyed it.  I should say that I was quite fond of Nethack and Angband and Rogue back in the day, and later Diablo, Diablo II, and most recently TitanQuest.  The action-RPG is a genre that I find quite enjoyable in a mindless sort of time-filling way.  They aren’t terribly difficult to pick up, but there are always some good tactical choices to be made – easy to learn and hard to master is a fair assessment.

Torchlight is a sterling example of the genre.  It reminded me very VERY heavily of Diablo, for good reason (sharing as it does devs from Diablo and Fate).  The music was excellent and very evocative, and the graphics were colorful and cartoonish but appealing in a WoW sort of way.  The art directors did a fabulous job in establishing a good look and feel for the game that doesn’t require massive video resources.  I happen to have massive video resources (dual Radeon 4870s) but hey, it’s nice that hardware isn’t a barrier.  There are even graphics settings for netbooks – which is kind of funny and sad but awesome at the same time.

The gameplay is, well, Diablo.  It’s easier to mention the few ways it differs than it is to list the many ways it’s (not even based on but identical to) Diablo.

First, you get a pet, which can be a cat or dog.  The pet is quite a scrapper and can take a lot of damage, and dish it out as well.  You can teach your pet to cast up to two spells, which is fairly nifty.  Your pet has an inventory as large as yours, from which it can equip two rings and a necklace (like you) but no armour or weapons.  The pet can even run to town and sell stuff for you, which I found to be damned convenient.  Finally, you can catch fish at fishing holes in the dungeons, and the only purpose fish serve that I’ve yet seen is to feed them to your pet, whereupon said pet will polymorph into whatever creature is written in the fish’s description.  I’ve found fish to turn my kitty into a spider and a gelatinous blob (for a few minutes only)… but I haven’t spent a lot of time fishing yet.  This is amusing and probably has uses I haven’t looked into yet, in terms of customizing one’s pet for specific encounters.

A wealth of randomized items drop like leaves, precisely as one would expect, with tiers of usefulness sorted by color.  I’ve found a few uniques already and one set item, so even at low levels there’s some very nice loot to be found.  Items must be identified with identify scrolls, as usual (and yes, there are town portal scrolls too).  Some items have sockets for gems.  Items can be combined at a Transmuter, which as far as I’ve seen thus far always yields various gems.  I haven’t experimented with transmuting many nice items yet though, so perhaps there’s more to it than that.

Characters belong to one of three classes, and choosing your class, sex, name, pet type, and pet name is all the customizing you get to do initially.  I made an Alchemist (male, mage) and it’s pretty much what I expected.  There are stat points gained on each level up, as well as skill points one can spend on three skill trees per class, allowing for a moderate amount of customization.

Overall, Torchlight is not revolutionary in any way, shape, or form.  It’s however a very solid action-RPG that feels very comfortable, with nice graphics and sound, engaging gameplay, and a lot of polish.  I haven’t seen any bugs yet, and it’s generally played very smoothly for me.  I didn’t go with Hardcore mode (i.e. permadeath) but did start out with Hard difficulty, having heard that Easy was silly and Normal was still too easy.  Frankly, it’s still been pretty easy to me (lvl 8, no deaths, only 3 healing potions and no mana potions consumed), but then I’m playing to my strengths with the build I’ve chosen.  I’ll play on and see if it gets harder; if not I might restart on Very Hard difficulty.

Initial verdict: if you like the genre, you’ll like this game.  The price is right, there’s no barrier to entry, and it’s just good old dungeon-crawling goodness.

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Emotions in Games, part 1: Fear

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how well (or rather, how very, very poorly) games create emotional reactions in players, and since I tend to be a verbose bastard I’m going to separate my mind-dumping into posts on separate emotions, talking about how different media approach these emotions, and how games generally fail to do so, with a constructive eye on how this can be improved.

H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t only the past master of gothic horror; he also wrote one of the seminal works on the subject: “Supernatural Horror in Literature”.  His contention therein was that the type of horror that most effectively engages and frightens people is fear of the unknown.  I strongly agree, and one can see Lovecraft’s influence on everything from Stephen King and Dean Koontz to slasher flicks.  But let’s drill down a bit further into the ways horror, and especially the fear of the unknown, can be manifested in the media.

Fundamentally, I see three components to horror: suspense, wrongness, and startlement.  I’ll approach each in turn.

Continue reading

Mission: Inevitable

Psychochild posted an interesting article about what’s missing in our games these days, and it got me to thinking.

On a very basic level, it’s not possible to fail in the vast majority of content we’re consuming, in the vast majority of games.  Once having accepted a quest, you can feel confident that sooner or later you will complete that quest, unless of course it’s bugged.  The content might be too challenging for you right now, and so occasionally you might need to gain a level or two, or improve your gear a bit, but even this is pretty rare in my experience.

What happens if we don’t succeed?  Well, nothing.  Not succeeding immediately is always possible, though frankly it’s pretty uncommon for me not to succeed the first time I approach PvE content in any game I play.  I don’t intend this to be a paean to my l337 gaming skills, but rather a simple acknowledgement that most PvE games aren’t at their core all that terribly difficult; they’re designed to be accessible to a wide range of players, and so they are.

What we’re missing though is the possibility of actually failing.  If we don’t manage to complete a quest, or to kill a boss, we gird our loins and go back and try again.  Sometimes we might have to try over and over, but eventually the boss falls, the quest is completed, and we return to the immobile NPC who patiently waits for us, serenely unconcerned with how long it’s taken us or how many times we didn’t succeed.  What does not happen though is actual failure… whereby we attempt to do something, and don’t succeed, and that’s it.  Move on and try something else, pal, because you flubbed this.

The reason failure isn’t possible is fairly obvious; it’s a limitation of finite static content.  Given there are only so many quests in game, if players are allowed to fail, there arises the very real possibility that they will run out of content and have no way to proceed except by grinding mobs, which isn’t always even an option.  There are only a set number of instances to try, and so the designers very reasonably won’t lock us out of any of those instances just because we completely screwed up; instead, we can just throw bodies at problems until we swarm them under in the classic zerg maneuver.

This, to me, is a powerful argument in favor of… ok, you knew this was coming… procedurally generated content.  “Yeah, yeah, thanks foolsage,” you reply, “we already know you like PGC as a concept; you go on about it at the slightest provocation.”  But wait, I say… don’t you see?  If there were NOT a finite number of quests to undertake, then there’s no reason why we couldn’t be allowed to outright fail at them.  If there were NOT a finite number of instances to challenge us, then we could reasonably be excluded from trying again and again and again until we eventually whittle down the bosses or just get lucky.

What would this add to games, really?  I contend that the possibility of failure adds a lot of excitement and unpredictability; we no longer know how the story will end.  Maybe we’ll rescue the farmer’s daughter from the evil cult, and maybe we’ll fail and they’ll sacrifice her.  Maybe some other hero will have to defeat the Cyclops Lord, because we just weren’t able to.  Wouldn’t this make our actual victories far sweeter?  Wouldn’t this provide a sense of adventure that’s all-too-lacking in modern MMOs?

There are few good options for making us invest emotionally in our success.  Oldschool games like EQ approached this by having a punitive and draconian death penalty.  Dying in EQ was painful… it could set you back hours or even days of hard work.  You could lose levels.  You had to seek out your corpse and recover your gear, which could be very time-consuming and sometimes was simply impossible.  That’s certainly one approach that provides a fear of failure, but most players didn’t find that approach very fun, and so modern games have steered sharply away from such measures.  At the same time though, without anything in place to make us care about failing, games lose a lot of their excitement, and consequently it’s hard to feel like you’re having a real adventure in modern games.

It seems to me that procedurally generated content solves this problem nicely, allowing players to fail without punishing them unduly for it.  This would cause us to care about outcomes, to pay close attention, but at the same time, allows for a more gentle and modern approach to failure.  If you didn’t save the farmer’s daughter, well, it sucks for the farmer, but you can always go find something else to attempt.  Maybe you’ll win next time.

All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us

I’ve not logged into LotRO in a month or so, and I’m seriously considering unsubscribing.  That’s a sad truth and one with several core causes.

Before explaining why though, I must repeat that I feel LotRO is one of the finest, if not the very finest, PvE experiences available.  The world is lovely, the epic quests very well written and immersive, and the crafting is the best I’ve encountered in an MMO.  It’s a fine, fine game, and one I’ve enjoyed a great deal.  I’m excited about a lot of the concepts coming in the Siege of Mirkwood, and yet on the cusp of this new content I’m considering leaving.  What then troubles me so much?

Really, I have two core complaints, one of which is far greater than the other.  The lesser complaint is about how legendary items work, and the greater complaint is about content gating.  I’ll approach each in turn.

The fundamental idea behind legendary items seems excellent – characters gain items that can grow with them over time, which makes those items more a “part” of the character.  Frodo didn’t toss away Sting and upgrade to a better dagger, and Gandalf didn’t replace Glamdring with a slightly sharper and shinier sword… those items were extraordinary and remained with the owners.  The reality of how Turbine has implemented legendary items flies in the face of this basic concept though.  While the items do grow and change over time, they’re also EXTREMELY disposable.  My lvl 60 Champion went through probably hundreds of weapons to get the ones he now uses, breaking down one failure after another until he got the traits he sought.  On a basic level, this makes no sense to me, and it certainly doesn’t fit the lore.  Did Aragorn destroy weapon after weapon, keeping the choice relics to reforge them into Anduril?

The legendary item system is being revamped with the Mirkwood expansion, but the fundamental concept remains; it’s a timesink and nothing more.  The designers decided that players should seek to obtain myriads of weapons, then break them down into components to use in upgrading yet other weapons.  The legendary items drop at a high rate of frequency, meaning they don’t truly feel all that legendary… and considering how we treat them, obviously they aren’t especially notable in-character either.  I can’t sustain any level of immersion here, and don’t really like playing the lottery again and again and again and again until I finally get a weapon that fits my needs… knowing as I do that I’ll just replace it with a new weapon once the expansion hits.

More gravely troubling though is the content gating system introduced with the Moria expansion.  I played the original LotRO, Shadows of Angmar (SoA), into the ground.  I had 4 level 50 characters and 3 more characters lvl 35-49.  That’s out of seven classes available mind you, with a level cap of 50.  One of the very best things about LotRO was how casual-accessible it was.  Even when I wasn’t playing it casually, it wasn’t because I had no choice.  Items could be obtained from crafting, random drops, quests, PvP, and bosses, and by and large each route brought one to the same place.  I felt I had a lot of freedom to play the way I wanted to, and I explored each of those paths happily in my own time and in my own manner.

At its core, SoA was completely open and lacked any sort of gear gating.  If you were high enough level to visit a dungeon, you could go there, and providing you had enough skill, you could defeat the challenges.  There were a handful of dungeons that offered some of the best gear in game, true, but you didn’t NEED to visit those dungeons if you didn’t want to.  You could go to Urugarth and never set foot in Carn Dum.  You could visit Barad Guluran without having first visited Sarnur and Haudh Iarchith.  You could even go to the most difficult two instances in game, Helegrod and the Rift, without ever having been into a single other instance in game, and again, you could do fine there provided you played your class well.

With the Moria expansion though this changed fundamentally, and for the worse.  Now there’s a gear-gating system, whereby one must gather enough Radiance (gained only by killing select bosses in select instances) to be able to fight yet other select bosses in select instances.  It’s no longer possible to pursue one’s own path in game and still experience all the content; raiding is now absolutely required in order to experience the top end instances.

What’s the trouble there, really?  I mean, if you want to go to the most difficult raids, you have to do the easier raids first, right?  Well, the problem is twofold.  On a basic level, I enjoyed the freedom of being able to craft endgame gear, or PvP for it, or seek random world drops, or quest, or kill bosses.  I enjoyed all of those methods and sought them all out whenever the fancy struck me.  Some days I wanted to raid, so I raided.  Some days I wanted to craft, so I crafted.  Some days I wanted to PvP, so I PvPed.  All of these activities had the potential to reward me with items of roughly equivalent value, and so each activity was equal in its own way.  This is by no means true any longer.  Now if I want to fight the Watcher in the Water, I have to have defeated a certain number of bosses in other instances, and moreso must have done so often enough to have obtained the items they drop.

This leads me to my second concern with content gating: I like playing multiple characters.  I generally have a “main char” but I always have several alts, and in a game as fine as LotRO, I loved bringing all my alts to high levels.  I’d intended, when I started playing again, to get all my characters to lvl 60, including my two new ones.  I cannot however stomach the thought of grinding all the same instances over and over again with one alt after another in order to obtain for each the gear I need to move onto the next tier of instances.  I want to be able to work in my own way and on my own time, equip my characters with gear that’s good enough, bring them to appropriate levels, and experience all the challenges in the game.  I don’t however want to be pigeonholed into only having one possible path… and then repeating this exact path for every character.  The thought fills me with Dread… or is that Gloom?  Well, it’s unpleasant anyhow.

This is exacerbated by the shift in my social circles in game.  I belong to a kinship that was quite casual but is growing considerably less so.  I also play (well, played until recently) with a group of people who aren’t in my kin, but belonged to a variety of different kinships.  They were all good people, fun to play with and very skilled.  Some I’d known from before I returned, and some I met more recently, but all are good players and all want to get good endgame equipment.  This circle of friends formed a new kinship with a hardcore focus, and at the same time my own kinship turned hardcore.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a hardcore player.  I however am getting back into dating after my divorce, and I don’t want to commit a ton of my time in advance to being available for raids.  There’s nothing wrong with those who do want to do so, but that’s not really what I want at this point in my life.  I want to be able to play casually, without commitment, to log on and off when I want to, to not show up for several days at a time or to play for hours on end, as my schedule permits and my whims dictate.  Both my kinship and my circle of friends though have instituted a DKP system, which is frankly anathema to the casual gamer.

The problem is essentially this: a DKP system rewards those who play hardcore, those who schedule raids in advance and especially those who make themselves available on preset days regularly (e.g. Monday and Friday evenings my kin has preset raids to kill the giant Turtle).  DKP systems are not really compatible with the way I want to play these days.  I still want to raid, but given the LotRO raids are largely 6-man affairs, I just want to join up with friends who are raiding and hit dungeons for an hour or two, when it’s convenient for me.  That’s not a difficult proposition since the group size is so small and the instances so short; there’s absolutely no reason casual raiding can’t work in LotRO, and I speak from considerable experience here.  This was never a problem with SoA and with my old kinship, wherein I used to raid a LOT but largely on the spur of the moment… but now it’s very much a problem.  My friends are all shifting to a more hardcore approach, and are by extension less casual-friendly, and it’s all directly caused by gear gating.  I correspondingly don’t honestly think this is the game for me anymore, which is saddening.

Yes, I could leave my kinship and join another more casual one.  It’s disheartening though to think of all the friends I enjoy playing with, but not to join them anymore on their raids.  Joining them on their raids is still an option of course, but I’d do so knowing I wouldn’t be eligible for rewards for X amount of time until I had enough DKP stored up, which is frustrating.  It’s fair, surely, but then so is having everyone roll for items.  It’s just a matter of taste and preference, and the direction my friends have taken isn’t one I wish to take.  Given the context of my concerns with the two basic game concepts that trouble me so, I haven’t found myself wanting to play.