Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Weapons in fiction: More about guns in fantasy

Balancing guns -- or really any weapon in a fantasy setting is largely a case of expressing the weapon's values. As we saw previously action economy has a lot to do with whether a weapon is good or bad. A lot of this has to do with the action cost of the medieval weapons in question. If a longbow shot only costs 1 action, then a gun really can't do better which is actually pretty good for balance.

Once you discuss action economy we can also discuss damage or special qualities. You can dial those up or down to make guns more or less attractive.

But that's all gameplay. How viable are guns in a fantasy setting, really? The answer is pretty viable. Fantasy settings are actually more likely to develop guns than real life. This is both from a societal development standpoint and a mechanical science standpoint.

Black powder is one of the easiest compounds in the world to make. It's all made from stuff that is easily obtainable in a fantasy setting. The hardest thing to discover would be sulfur, but if we're talking about a setting that has steel weapons (a pretty safe bet) and gold piece currency, sulfur is almost certainly going to be mined too. It's only a matter of time before people figure out uses for it. Black powder and steelworking is all that's required to make a gun. If a sword can be forged and a crossbow can be built, a gun's parts are considerably simple to make. We can go quite a ways (up to flintlock guns) without anything except steel, wood, flint, black powder, and lead (for the bullet). If lead is rare, other material like bismuth could be used (though lead is more common in the real world).

All of those components can be created -- possibly even mass-produced -- by various types of magic in most fantasy settings. Most fantasy settings put restrictions that keep players from making precious metals or magic components, but wood or steel or lead? Unheard of. Black powder, again, is a simple compound that was discovered before Jesus was born in our world. If steel forging has been invented and black powder hasn't, sulfur doesn't exist in your world or something crazy like that. Either way, conjuring gun parts is a possible, even likely way for guns to work.

Alchemy is another big deal in the fantasy world. Magic in general is pretty crazy but alchemy takes it to a much smaller, more easily managed level. How likely is it in a world where you can make magic flashbangs or magic glue that you can't make magic gun propellant? I'm sure that in any fantasy world, alchemy makes the discovery of new chemicals even better than black powder more likely. Their invention of smokeless powder might be nothing like our nitrocellulose but it might be even more effective. In the real world it only takes a few grains of smokeless powder to fire a pistol bullet. Even if it cost some magical materials, it would probably be not as costly as a big flask of alchemist's fire that makes a big explosion just because the resulting magical propellant would likely be pretty efficient. Alchemy could also allow skipping steps that took our science a long time, like the discovery of percussion caps. It took our science centuries of using black powder guns as a regular infantry tool before we discovered fulminate of mercury for our caplock guns. Alchemy gives a fast track since it's not as limited as chemistry.

Alchemy is in a really good spot too due to the position magic holds in a fantasy setting. Quite frankly, magic is OP as hell. Warfare in a fantasy setting should be utterly dominated by magicians. They can heal, raise the dead, rain flaming death, teleport, mind control, turn invisible, shapeshift etc. etc. If alchemy is a normal science that anyone can learn, it means that these scientists are likely working to deal with ways to give common people some kind of equalization in a world utterly dominated by spellcasters. This is even more so if people are born with magic or at least some kind of magical talent. This is why crossbows and guns were invented in the first place; it took years and years of training to learn the sword, the bow, and fighting on horseback. It takes a week to train a crossbowman or musketeer. Huge difference! Now imagine the same situation, but instead it's years and years to learn magic or only people born with magic can use it. How do people compete? They develop sciences like alchemy to even the playing field.

This isn't due to envy or anything like that. In a big military you can't rely on the 5+ year veterans of swordplay or wizardry. Your have a finite amount of time to train your soldiers and sailors, typically a month or two. Spending more time on that costs more! You want to get your soldiers to be the most combat-effective in the least time. Manufacturing tools like alchemy flashbangs or firearms is a way of reducing that gap. There might even be alchemy breaching charges or anti-fortification rocket launchers -- anything to make your army less dependent on the 1% of your population that have magical talent. Wizards might even help with research in order to lessen the amount of burden on them.

To a lesser degree this is also true of society as a whole. We develop sciences to allow our less-skilled people to do more skilled things. Think about computers in the 1980s, then in the 1990s, and finally today. In the 1980s you needed a ton of experience to handle a computer at all. You needed to memorize commands and had to be resourceful to get documentation for things you didn't know. In the 90s, things were easier, especially after Windows and Mac computers were released, but you still needed a CCNA to set up a router until late in the decade. Today, an untrained person can bridge his laptop with his cellphone in order to get internet. Win8 even defrags your hard drive for you now. Touchscreens and GUI interfaces have made computers tons easier. IT professionals have it a lot harder because the end user has it easier.

Still not convinced? Consider white rice. It's a pretty simple thing. Without anything more advanced than a pot, water and some firewood, you can cook it. It takes some skill to start the fire without matches or flint, though. You have to know what you're doing on that front. Fortunately, we have firemaking tools to help with that. Then we have to stoke the fire and keep it stoked. Fortunately, we can just dump the fire altogether because we invented the stove. Then you have to watch your water level and time when you want to uncover the rice. Undercooking it is pretty bad, overcooking it is slightly better but still bad. We invented glass lids to help with that, but in the end we invented a rice cooker so you don't even have to think about it. The machine takes literally 100% of the skills out of cooking rice, after multiple other inventions made it easier and easier and easier. That's science!

In a fantasy world, science is going to advance in a fantastical way that tries to make magic obsolete. Because magic exists and alchemy exists and real science exists, there's going to be constant pressure to create magical effects by other means, whether that's mechanical or alchemical or through some other science. Firearms are just one possibility of scientific evolution but in terms of military advancement they're far from the least likely. Because they existed without any sort of magic to speed their development, it's pretty likely that in a magical setting, they're pretty likely to be a really big deal.

This is assuming that fantasy society is half as violent as our society is. If it's anything like most fantasy settings, it's probably way more violent.

Weapons in fiction: Guns in fantasy settings

From a purely historical point of view, guns are completely imbalanced. They combine very long range, high stopping power, and in many cases a ridiculously high rate of fire. Compared to even the crossbow, the armor-piercing power of firearms destroys the viability of most other battlefield armaments and changes the way people think about combat.

Melee weapons are only viable inside the close distance that a firearm wielder can be attacked before he can ready his weapon and fire. Even inside that distance, if the gun is already readied, no close combat weapon is viable. Guns are just so deadly that they obsolete melee weapons at any distance except melee distance, and even at that range, many firearms are viable weapons. A handgun can be maneuvered at close range even if the enemy has a knife, and the firearm wielder can retreat backwards to evade a swing and is deadly at any distance.

But in fiction and fantasy this doesn't have to be the case. Many of our fictional worlds have relatively high technology levels. We like to think of our worlds as Renaissance-level in terms of cultural advancement, or perhaps we have a magi-steampunk setting similar to Eberron. Even in a setting with tech comparable to feudal Japan, guns can fit right in. They can even be OK in this kind of environment, because in our fantasy settings, we don't have the same rules as IRL.

In real life, a high caliber rifle bullet can get through steel plate armor but it's not actually a guarantee. Plate armor is actually reasonably OK at deflecting bullets. It's heavier than modern body armor, but we use steel plates in our body armor even today (though we are phasing them out for composite plates that are lighter). Against a modern handgun bullet, it should do alright. Against a lower-velocity black powder round like a musket ball or even a "modern" black powder cartridge like a 30-30, it should work just fine. It might not be as effective at stopping a bullet as it would be at stopping an arrow, but we generally don't make any differences in the armor penetrating capabilities of a rapier versus a falchion even though the difference in that case is enormous.

Even if there is a bit of a discrepancy we can easily grant magic armor or spells "equal" protection against all kinds of weapons. Fantasy is great like that.

In game mechanics terms, there really isn't that much difference between a semi-automatic rifle and a bow. It generally takes 1 action to fire a bow, and 1 action to fire a semi-automatic gun. This is somewhat unrealistic IRL; accurate aimed fire from a bow might get you 10 or so shots per minute for a skilled archer, while a skilled revolver shooter can (with moon clip or speed loader) easily fire 12 shots accurately from a single-action revolver in a minute, with a reload in the middle. A skilled handgun shooter can accurately shoot a full 18 rounds out of a Glock magazine in 1 minute. This is not a special skill held by the fastest handgun shooters. Those people can probably empty 3 Glock magazines accurately into targets with reloads in a minute. Guns are a lot faster IRL than bows. Fortunately, a single shot is a single action. It's possible a bow takes an extra partial action to draw the arrow or something, but many systems don't require this.

Single action revolvers are probably the highest-end of the technological spectrum that we would ever expect in a fantasy setting, and if we compare them to a hand crossbow, they're not that much different. A single-action revolver technically doesn't require both hands to ready for a second shot, but it's easy enough to say that the "cocking" takes both hands to do quickly. Similarly, a hand crossbow only requires you to draw a round of ammunition (generally a free action), cock the crossbow (a light pull), and the crossbow is ready for firing. In real life terms drawing the ammo is definitely slower, but the cocking is roughly the same speed and in many game systems drawing the ammo is "free" in terms of action speed. The revolver has to take an action every so often to reload the shots, too. It's definitely not superior in a game mechanics environment.

Everything else is a long gun (can be balanced around a longbow), is crew-served (not appropriate for players), or is single-shot, and thus not that significant compared to throwing weapons.

What about long guns? Well, readying a bolt action rifle to fire is a comparable amount of effort compared to a bow, and a bolt action rifle is really advanced compared to the time periods we're talking about. The first bolt action rifles came about in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Renaissance ended long before that. Most guns in those days took minutes to reload. An extremely skilled musketeer might be able to reload as quickly as 15 seconds. Go watch a YouTube video of someone reloading a black powder gun. It typically takes 15 seconds just to measure the powder in the main charge and put it in the barrel for even someone with a lot of training and practice.

Lever and pump action guns came before that but we're still looking at the 1800s. Technically revolvers did too, but that's fine. Either way, a lever or pump action gun should be roughly the same as a longbow.

This post is super late -- so late it's tomorrow's post. Blame Top Shot marathons, lol.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Science fiction weapons: how much fiction?

Sorry for very few posts. Unfortunately I had a brief case of author burnout where I didn't have anything really pressing to write about. A few times this has happened before and I forced something out, but I am not so sure that's good. I'll try to force more of it out, and the "no posts on Saturday" rule was sort of meant as a way to unwind.

Today I want to talk about science fiction and specifically weapons in science fiction. Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows I really like to talk about guns. I like shooting them, too. I have written lot about guns in the past, present, and future and how they impact a fictional world, and some of that is available elsewhere on the internets.

One thing that is usually true is how science fiction gets weapons wrong. This is virtually guaranteed. Some science fiction gets it mostly right (the UNSC weapons in the Halo series are surprisingly realistic, with a small number of exceptions), but most science fiction just screws it up.

First up is energy weapons. Energy weapons make no sense in most contexts. It is possible that somewhere in the future, electrical energy is so free and disposable that we can use it for guns. Unfortunately most sci-fi settings don't depict this as being the case. In Star Wars, the same energy used to power a blaster that can fire lethal bolts could be used to run Luke's moisture farm for days. It could run a wheeled vehicle for years. It could power your house for months. It could probably run a vehicle like a speeder or swoop for months or more of regular use. It could fly a spaceship on low impulse thrust for virtually forever. Oh, also if we converted the energy in the pack into kinetic energy, it could blow up a pretty good-sized house.

In order for energy weapons to be plausible, they need to deliver recoilless destruction greater than an existing projectile weapon. Now we're talking about enough energy to power your house for years. Maybe decades. These energy batteries would carry so much power that they could juice a whole city. It's not impossible, of course, but there would need to be no such thing as fuel anymore, or fuel would have to be so efficient and powerful that there would not be any shortages of it. Why would you use that much power on a weapon when there were better natural sources of chemical propellant?

Also, in case you're wondering, firearms propellant generally isn't made from any kind of fossil fuel, except possibly in its production -- but if you had free electricity you wouldn't need fossil fuels.

So there's some other options. Portable mass drivers are a thing. I'm not even going to refute it, the technology is plausible and if you have a lot of electrical energy for weapons, mass drivers become possible. They're still more costly than making firearms propellant but there are some advantages.

The problem with mass drivers as infantry weapons is mainly that chemical propellants are cheaper and easier to make. The main draw of mass drivers is that if you can miniaturize the firing system enough, it actually makes carrying ammunition much easier. You still need to feed the rounds into a magazine or belt, but they can be much smaller so a soldier can carry much more ammunition. A rifle mag would be slimmer and could hold 50 or more rounds. Very convenient.

What about Mass Effect where computers shard off a miniature piece of metal? That isn't realistic. The problem with shooting living things (human, animal, or alien) is that stopping power isn't just a function of kinetic energy. You could shoot someone with a 1/10th gram projectile at hypersonic speeds, but all it would do is bore through him and leave a very treatable wound. Not all of the kinetic energy would be transferred into the target, which is really undesirable.

In order for a bullet to stop a target, you want as much of the kinetic energy of the bullet to be transferred into the target as possible. Ideally, that means you need some surface area. You also probably need your bullet going slow enough that it will stop in the target before it goes all the way through, or at least do a lot of damage and exit going pretty slowly. Modern guns, especially handguns, do a really good job of this. Stopping power as a science isn't really known fully yet, but what we do know is that we have a lot of really effective cartridges that are capable of reliably stopping a human. The kinetic energy, velocity, and size of those bullets are known factors, so if we're talking about bullets that are used against people (military or police), they should have similar masses and move at similar speeds.

Another problem with mass drivers is surface area. Ha, I said it twice, right? I'm referring to expansion rather than actual physical surface area. Modern military bullets don't expand (Hague Convention, blah blah) but the most advanced modern bullets used in police and self-defense do. Yeah, you can buy better handgun rounds as a civillian than you can get issued as a soldier. Mind-blowing. Anyway, mass drivers generally use steel or some other hard, ferromagnetic alloy while modern bullets use lead. Lead is denser than steel, so you can get more mass in less space. Lead is also softer, so it deforms better. It expands when it hits something, creating more of that surface area. It's also toxic to most life on Earth, but that's really a secondary concern. You'll die of bullet trauma (shock), organ failure or blood loss long before you die of lead poisoning.

Of course if you use some other non-magnetic mass-throwing technology (like Mass Effect, or gravity, or whatever) you can throw better bullets and negate that problem. It doesn't have to be lead, of course. Lead is just convenient because it's pretty common on Earth. However, an ideal bullet would have similar properties like high density, high plasticity and low hardness.

What about explosive rounds? Well, explosive rounds used against personnel are kind of stupid. How do we make bullets better? I KNOW, WE'LL MAKE THEM EXPLODE! Protip: we already thought of that. The problem is that we already kill people in one shot with bullets. If we were fighting against aliens, we'd make bullets that could kill or disable them in one shot. I mean, 10mm Auto JHP (a pistol bullet) will put you down and probably kill you with a single shot. We have guns and bullets right now that are even more effective at killing fleshy things that aren't humans. .30 caliber/7mm rifle bullets (of all kinds) are extremely capable at killing people at really long range, and can kill tougher things than people like elk, caribou, or big wildcats. We have bigger or higher velocity bullets used to kill buffalo, rhino, hippo, elephant.

Making bullets explode is like saying that we have all this technology right now that we use to shoot bigger animals than people, but we're gonna ignore it because exploding bullets are TEH KEWLZ. In general, if it's the size of a human, .30 caliber rifle bullets are slightly overkill except at long ranges. In fact, we switched to .223 bullets because we realized that .30 caliber bullets were overkill. And then we invented .300 BLK (and 6.8 Remington and a bunch of other rounds) when we found that .223 wasn't quite enough to reliably take out a human. We have exploding rounds right now and they're used for shooting at stuff. Typically stuff made of metal, like vehicles or equipment. A lot of these exploding rounds are much bigger than the rounds we use to shoot at people (like 20mm or 30mm autocannon bullets).

Exploding bullets are fine but they should have a purpose. They shouldn't be just stuck into Space Marine bolters just because they're cool (not that anything in 40k makes sense). Exploding bullets are also bad because if they hit something and explode without penetrating, they usually end up being worse than a bullet that had penetrated a little without exploding. This isn't always the case especially with concrete fortifications (a great choice for explosive bullets), but it's true of most other targets.

So let's go way back to mass drivers again and talk about making bullets faster than real bullets, bigger than real bullets, or both. Let me also say that anyone who made something like a bolt pistol has clearly never shot a real gun before, or at least not any gun with real recoil. A lot of fiction makes mass drivers better or more powerful than real guns, typically by making bullets faster but sometimes by making them bigger. Unfortunately, whenever you shoot a bullet from a gun, the exact same force in that bullet is also applied on you. As the bullet's energy increases, so does its recoil force. And we know that mass times velocity equals energy, so adding more of either makes things worse on us.

And again I want to point out that our science of creating bullets is really good. We've made tons of very effective ways of killing different things for different reasons. You don't need to make a bullet bigger or faster than it needs to be.

What about body armor? Well, humorously mass drivers are pretty good at dealing with it. I really like mass drivers in that role because you can hypothetically flick a switch and go from 800fps to 1500fps. The first setting is light-recoiling, doesn't penetrate walls (great for urban), doesn't ricochet as badly and will reliably stop a person depending on the bullet. 1500fps can shoot through drywall, wood, car doors, and some body armor too, but it'll recoil a lot more and might ricochet on hard objects at close range. That's a real, interesting advantage of mass drivers, that you can take the same 120 grain bullet and go from a pistol caliber carbine type bullet to a medium-powered rifle bullet with the flick of a button. That's pretty attractive, but is sadly never mentioned in science fiction.

What should weapons be like in sci-fi? Well a quick summary for the tl;dr people:

  • Energy weapons aren't viable except in extremely super-advanced society, where energy is not a problem at all. Think Star Trek levels of advanced.
  • Chemically propelled cartridges are not made with fossil fuels and are unlikely to ever be completely obsolete.
  • Mass drivers (electromagnetic or otherwise) are feasible, but the main advantages (lighter ammo weight, adjustable velocity) are rarely discussed in fiction.
  • Weapons and ammunition will be tailored to adequately kill or stop appropriate targets. In a universe without aliens dramatically different than humans, the weapons will resemble current man-stopper weapons. With aliens that are different, specialized weapons (or possibly just velocity settings) will be designed to combat them.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Summoner's Guidebook: I'm not a fan of URF

I didn't post yesterday, whoops. Sorry for anyone waiting on a post.

This week, I'm talking about URF again. More accurately, I'm talking about why I dislike it, why I think it's a waste of time. Okay, maybe waste of time is the wrong word (I play Borderlands after all). It has no real value.

URF doesn't really test any useful skills that will help you win in real League of Legends games. Of course, the game mode is for fun. Whatever, we'll get to that. You can't count cooldowns or pressure your opponent when he's low on mana because obviously there is no mana. You can throw all the skillshots ever and be extremely oppressive. There's a clear dominant playstyle and I find it incredibly amusing that a character like Sona could even get herself banned from the mode. Apparently throwing 1s cooldown shock blasts through a perma gate isn't as "good" as slowly healing anything that doesn't kill you. URF doesn't teach you to juke skillshots better because there's no sense of timing. The sense of timing in URF is "always."

But I digress. This is mostly about fun. Fun is a pretty subjective thing. It's not something you can measure, right? I disagree.

Let's think about the base game, about League of Legends for a moment. If you play URF and like it, you probably like League of Legends. You probably like the Classic gametype the most and you probably play most of your games on Summoner's Rift. Generally the people who prefer Dominion or TT tend to be much more serious about those modes, in my experience.

Why don't you play other games? Well objectively, I would assume that you find League of Legends more fun. That seems a pretty reasonable thing to guess. Of course we all play lots of games, but I specifically mean more action-packed MOBA type games. There are quite a few MOBAs that have fewer cooldowns and more energetic play. These MOBAs are great games and if you actually enjoy URF more than LoL Classic, you should try them out. I'm a huge fan of Smashmuck Champions for instance, which isn't quite the same, but it has a lot more energy than LoL Classic and is a way better game than URF.

The answer why is obvious. LoL isn't balanced or designed around URF, but other games are balanced around their more high-energy gameplay. I'm pretty sure none of us would even consider for a moment that URF is well balanced or designed. It's mostly a thought problem than anything else. What's the most broken thing in URF? Is this pick broken? Let's try it out and see! If it became a permanent mode, it'd stagnate, which is why they're not keeping it around.

Now let's think more on this. Think back to your last series of URF games. The chances are pretty good that they were similar to your last series of Classic games. Some wins, some losses. You probably had a similar amount of fun in URF. Possibly less if your opponent picked something really OP or someone on the enemy team snowballed hard. It's a lot easier to come back in Classic than it is in URF. Your bad games are generally worse in URF. This is exacerbated by the higher volume of deaths. If someone is dead more often, he or she has more time to trashtalk. This is pushed even worse by the "just for fun" kids who feel that it's okay to troll because "it's just URF."

If it's more fun to hit more buttons, you probably should be playing a different game than League that emphasizes hitting buttons more. It does nothing good for LoL, and on the path of self-improvement, even ARAM is a better choice.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Borderlands really is different

The ARPG genre is sort of stale. There's really not a lot of innovation despite well over a decade of iteration and dozens of titles. The Dawn of Magic series introduced custom abilities. Torchlight added the pet and the shared stash. Diablo 3 added crafting, free town portals and flexible skills. Diablo 2 added skill synergies.

And then there's Borderlands. Right from the start, Borderlands throws away the ARPG standards by making the game a shooter. It discarded numerous active skills in favor of one, added a huge diverse array of passive abilities, and gave all of it a robust framework of basic abilities. Every character in Borderlands can use a sniper rifle, throw grenades, and has regenerating shields. Every character in Borderlands has a melee attack. All of them can also use the same gear to augment these elements of their gameplay.

Borderlands discards the conventional wisdom of putting the variable power onto the character and instead projects it onto the gear. In a traditional ARPG, your character provides the options and the gear enhances those options. In Borderlands, your gear provides the options and your character enhances it.

Why is this so special? In Borderlands you can change your playstyle without changing your character simply by using different weapons. Finding a new piece of gear can dramatically change your character's preferred style of fighting. You might go quite a while using close combat weapons, and then suddenly get a sniper rifle drop that mostly obsoletes them (in terms of numbers). Suddenly you're engaging enemies from very far away, picking them off one by one with your new toy.

This frequent change in gameplay breaks up a lot of the monotony of the typical ARPG grind. As you progress later and later, you also start finding legendaries that do much more than just the normal types of attack. I really like how the game smartly realizes that you're used to using the standard kinds of weapons, and starts throwing unique special weapons at you. It's not much different than Diablo 2-style uniques, but the impact on gameplay is larger. Most legendary weapons in Borderlands function quite a bit differently than their normal counterparts. It really helps to spice up the game more.

It also helps that the leveling curve in Borderlands is smoother than in Diablo 2. It's more of a normal transition where Diablo 2 had this really terrible leveling curve (very few people actually hit the level cap) and game designers realized maybe that was bad design. D3 has a very smooth curve, similar to modern MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. It's not really an innovation that Borderlands is smoother. It does help that you get new fun skills frequently along with a steady stream of neat guns, though.

Borderlands really starts to grind when you get to the point where you're only looking for a few guns of a particular type. This is especially true of the first game. You want a Hellfire and it doesn't even matter what level it is. Once you have one you want a better one. It's not the best design, definitely.

Overall though, it serves to be fun and interesting even when other games might have gotten old and stale. Torchlight 2 didn't even last to the end for me, but I'm almost through Borderlands 2 for my third time now (two characters through normal, one through TVHM) and it's still enjoyable. It definitely worked for me.

Monday, April 7, 2014

How ARPGs can learn from Torchlight

Torchlight isn't great or innovative. In many ways, both Torchlight and its sequel are slimmed-down versions of Diablo 2. The first Torchlight really jumped out and said "Hey, I'm a Diablo clone!" It didn't really try to be anything but that. It's not like Path of Exile (which also tries to be a lot like D2) where it revamps how characters work, but keeps the Diablo-like mechanics and gameplay. Torchlight has characters and classes that feel a lot like Diablo characters in a plot that even feels very Diablo-esque.

But what Torchlight and its sequel did is really something. Torchlight added in tons of convenience features that just made the game a lot better. The new pet feature acts like the followers from Diablo 2, but is completely customizable and can cart your loot back to town to sell. It can even buy consumables from the shops in TL2. This is so simple and brilliant I don't understand why more people don't jump on it. It also adds customizable ability slots that let you tailor your strategy to fit your style even more. I don't like the way they were handled in TL (having spells that healed was an excuse to not have heals in the base classes) but they were much improved in TL2.

Torchlight as a series also said, "We want you to play the game your way." There's no forced online. Even in online play you can cheat your own gear since saves are stored locally. Rather than worry about stuff like that, TL2 just let its players play the way they want. That means that TL/TL2 can be played forever with your friends, without having to worry about whether Runic will stop hosting game servers or something.

The biggest thing that other games should take away from TL2 are the conveniences. A customizable pet/follower to sell junk, more NPCs to offer useful services, and better ease of access in general. A shared stash to store loot with a lot of space. TL2 didn't make any waves, but it did make some really useful features that other games can steal. I don't know why more of them don't copy Torchlight's magnificently useful pet.

Also, why are followers in D3 disabled when you play multiplayer? Whose idea was it to make the game much harder and take away your follower?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Did the hype kill Diablo 3?

This week I'm going to be talking more about ARPGs, and because Reaper of Souls is out I feel like Diablo 3 is a great place to start it off. D3 had a lot of hype leading up to its release, and partly due to the outspoken philosophy of Jay Wilson, it had a pretty bad rap going in. Unlike most D3 haters, I don't want to rag on Jay too much because the failures of D3 are only partly his fault and in some cases not his fault at all. He was just the face for the game, so we hate on him instead of the many designers that made the decisions that ultimately caused people to walk away from the game angry.

First, let's look at what D3 did well. The classes were all interesting and well-designed, even if they weren't very balanced. The art, sounds, and music were all absolutely fantastic. The game's presentation quality is overall top-notch. Where did it all fall apart?

The first big spot is the story. Most of the story was uninteresting. The nephilim plot arc is pretty dumb even if the protagonists themselves are quite well-written (OK, the female monk and demon hunter are pretty badly written). All the villains in D3 feel like cartoon characters where they constantly get foiled by those pesky nephilim and their stupid followers. The bad guys basically never win until the very end. There's never a big climax where you feel like everything is fucked. There's no real urgency. You know the climax is going to happen the way it does just like you know who Belial is when he's first introduced.

Honestly the biggest problem with D3's plot is that there are no twists. Nothing unexpected happens. Okay, Diablo is a girl. That was a bit unexpected. Also, Zoltan Kulle died (again). That was unexpected and unfortunate, if only because having him attack the player made no sense at all. I also really liked him (because everything he said was basically true). It's unfortunate that such a good character got axed in such a bitch way.

However, I think the game's plot failings (I haven't played RoS, so no commentary there) really pale in comparison to the mechanics failings. When the game was brand new and fresh, there were a number of really silly ways to make oneself invulnerable. Playing with friends was counter-intuitive (they made the game much harder and took away your followers) unless you played with the four-monk perma-invulnerable party. If you couldn't make yourself invulnerable and you couldn't perma-stun, D3 was quite hard. Most builds fell short midway through Hell (I had to escort a lot of friends past Hell Belial) and Inferno was an insidious grind unless you played one of the OP builds.

That's really the worst of it. You had to grind. Gear upgrades became slower and slower and the rewards became less and less. Just like in D2, you ended up grinding the strongest boss you could down over and over in the hopes of getting just one good drop. And those single good drops generally weren't for you; you had to sell them on the AH and try to buy something for yourself. Crafting sucked and crafting mats were garbage. Jewel combining and selling was annoying and not very profitable. The best money came from flipping good quality items that the "average" player needed. And as the player average got higher and higher, the value of items plummeted.

All this created a downward spiral that destroyed D3's loot satisfaction. People quit the game in Inferno, unsatisfied with the experience of the loot grind and unable to complete the full game. That experience soured the feelings of many people about D3, myself included.

Compare this to my experiences in other ARPGs though, I think that if I just stopped playing before hitting that endgame wall (if there was such a thing), I generally had a better experience. I'm having a good time playing Borderlands 2 and Torchlight 2, because I haven't made it to the "endgame" equivalent (I suspect Borderlands 2 will be fun even then, though). I think we expected the game to give us the same stream of positive reward feedback as it did back in Nightmare and it jilted us when we got to Inferno.

Of course the game is different now and I have no idea even how to classify it. I do know my best friend is playing a new wizard on Expert now and he's steamrolling the game, but I don't know how the loot curve works outside of that. I do know that there's alternate advancement now (a new way to add more positive feedback to the game) which I think is pretty good to help smooth the between-loot experience for max level characters.

I really do think that our expectations of a perfect game killed D3. Torchlight 2 was probably a better game at launch but definitely wasn't presented anywhere near as well. I think Torchlight 2 had its own mess of problems as well, but they're just less pronounced and less scrutinized than D3's were. If we look at any other ARPG's story, none of them are anywhere near the level of something like Dragon Age. Why are we so miffed at D3? Is it because Blizzard actually tried to add a story in? How do we compare it to the virtually nonexistent story in Path of Exile, or the original Diablo?

I think that's a really crappy reason to hate on D3, personally. It made mistakes, but if you like it, then that's fine. If you didn't like it or felt jilted, that's fine too, but there's no need to make it personal. I got my money's worth out of the game before RMAH transactions paid for it. I played for at least 200 hours. It was 60 dollars, but it was satisfying. Is it bad that the endgame was irritating when I played the game for 200 hours?

Friday, April 4, 2014

The essence of Diablo, Torchlight, and ARPGs

The ARPG genre is one of my least favorite genres in gaming. I don't dislike it because they're not enjoyable. I played D3 for quite a while, including a fair bit of RMAHing back when that was a thing, and over 50 hours on launch day. I played a fair bit of Path of Exile, a ton of D2, both Torchlight games, and even some other games in the genre like Van Helsing and the Dungeon Siege series. I'm even playing Borderlands 2 right now. I play a lot of this genre.

The main reason I hate the genre is the insidious addictiveness present in it. Once you've beaten them once for the story, the only reason to replay is to get more loot, more levels, and bigger numbers. They're skinner boxes with this continuous positive feedback to keep you playing. Honestly they're not that much different than MMORPGs but they're more single-player focused. It's why I kind of hate the existing themepark MMORPGs because there's already a genre for that.

I'm not really fond of the kind of game design where the longevity is entirely built around grinding more numbers. It's ultimately why I quit Age of Wushu (well the P2W didn't hurt) and it's kind of dirty to gamers. It's the same kind of design that made Cookie Clicker popular. I feel like games that have longevity should be because of their interesting gameplay. What ever happened to great games like Tetris or Bejeweled where you just play to better yourself?

If I was a AAA designer I'd totally make games like this, because the constant, guaranteed progression is the equivalent of gamer crack. People play these games and feel obligated to play them far more than they would if they sat back and thought logically about it.

I really like playing these games, but I really do not like that they're basically degenerate loot farms. It's rare that "real" gameplay actually occurs in these games. When D3 was a super kite-fest (before the Inferno nerfs and then its final removal) it felt really good to play because dodging everything and not getting hit was really satisfying. When you played against Inferno Belial (he's was sort of a gateway boss) and anything he did could kill you in one or two hits, it felt really good to dodge all of it and not get hit. Then the game became another super grind number-fest (and act 3 lashers were horrible design for that reason). What ever happened to frozen + arcane enchanted + mortar + fire chains? It got easier and easier because people apparently don't like being challenged. They just wanted more numbers.

The best of the genre really focuses on producing a great experience outside of the numbers and progression. I'll talk about D3, Borderlands and more next week. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Summoner's Guidebook: Ultra Rapid Fire thoughts

I haven't actually played URF. I think it's kind of dumb and I'd rather play game modes that actually improve my skill. All of my games since it launched have been as ADC or jungle in plain old boring SR. However, URF is a pretty interesting thought experiment. What's broken and why? What isn't broken?

First, I want to look at revive passives like Anivia and Aatrox. Are they affected by URF? I don't play either character so I don't know. I know Revive was removed from URF, lol. If Aatrox passive is affected by URF then he's really good.

"Any character with a dash is good." Pretty much true, especially if ranged. Although Ezreal is the biggest stand-out, I want to point out characters like Graves and Aatrox too. Sejuani's dash is probably ok though her kit is probably not as good.

Chain CC is a really big possibility. Most of us know about Alistar but there's also Ahri, Poppy, Nami, Leona, Brand, Blitzcrank etc etc. LeBlanc is the worst. Perma snare and perma silence all in the same go, on a character with an escape. Perma ban, in my opinion. Any kind of chain CC is just nasty.

Characters with burst resistance are especially good. Blitzcrank passive is really good if it is affected by the 80% CDR. Poppy's passive is also crazy; it takes a lot of hits to bring her down, even in URF. Characters with inherent tank seem very strong. Singed, with his perma ultimate, is probably a lot more dangerous than he appears even if he doesn't get a lot from 80% CDR otherwise. Same with Leona and her perma Eclipse.

Characters that can unload lots of damage, especially from range, are great. Jayce and Ezreal are among the best. I think Nidalee is highly overrated; her spears are rapid but everyone else gets more rapid stuff too and Nidalee can't deal with getting jumped on. Ziggs is the real terror. Multiple minefields AND ranged poke AND a near-global ult AND a dash (sort of?) What the hell.

Initiation is really crazy with Flash being up every minute. Galio is probably the biggest. Morgana and Kennen are probably OK. Hard to say with other characters. The best initiations are probably actually picking tools like Nautilus' ult/hook, Blitz hook, Morgana binding, etc.

I'd say that you need either insanely good one thing (Galio ultimate) or really good in lots of things (Ezreal). Melee characters are a big liability. I think you basically need to be as good as Poppy (nigh-invincible and chain CC and huge damage) or be not really a melee (like Maokai or Gragas) to be good in URF. Due to the huge amount of gold and infinite mana, Poppy is probably decent. Akali is probably also good due to chain Shroud (takes away from the number of trinkets enemy team can have, since they need to Sweep her) and huge huge damage.

Jayce, Ziggs, Karthus, LB, Alistar are probably must-picks if open.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sometimes I really hate gaming journalism

Gaming journalism is relatively new. There are certain parts of it that people understand pretty well (esports journalism is essentially sports journalism, which has been polished greatly over centuries) and other things that we don't. Gaming reviews, opinions, and editorials are not that much different than other forms of media journalism, only there's probably many times more dedicated gaming journalism outlets compared to all other forms of media journalism combined. Additionally, well... we don't approach it with the same sort of professionalism that media journalism carries.

Professional media critics -- particularly movie critics -- tend to have education related to media study. Literary critics tend to have literature degrees (or at least humanities degrees), except in the case of independent bloggers/streamers/tubers/whatever. Even a lot of them do. A huge number of media critics also have education or experience in acting or media production.

Compare the gaming journalism industry. I know literally zero gaming journalists with a literature degree, and only one with a humanities degree. I know of only one with any formal literary analysis education (myself) and I never finished my degree. No journalists that I know of are former pro gamers or have any significant gaming history. Most have no industry experience; gaming journalism tends to be a stepping stone towards working in the industry for many. Generally, once you've got a job in the gaming industry, you tend to get other jobs in the industry rather than working for a media outlet. This doesn't mean that gaming journalists aren't educated, but most have some other education that doesn't give gaming insights such as web/graphics design, computer science, and so on.

The average quality of gaming journalism is really poor. The writing quality is pretty bad even in print publications, and online publications tend to be terrible. Most of this is due to the lack of writing education among gaming writers. Most of our language comes from the games we play and the books we read. I had a discussion that went far longer than it should have with another gaming journalist about whether we should use "they" as a gender neutral pronoun. For writing professionals, we kind of suck.

We're even bad as gamers, too. I really hate reviews that emphasize aesthetics or story over gameplay, especially when that same reviewer does the same thing continuously. We're game journalists. Not art critics, film critics or literature critics. Yes, many things can sell a game, but when a journalist bashes a good quality game (objectively speaking, not based on my opinion) and says "I couldn't get into it" because the game was visually unappealing or because he didn't like the story, it makes me really angry. Yes, those things can hurt the experience, but the point is to review the game and not the story or the visuals.

I also hate when reviewers inject excessive personal bias. Game reviews are biased. There's no way around that, but most reviewers are really bad at separating their own personal preference from what makes a good game. They're also really bad at identifying what an average gamer might like. Reviewers tend to almost exclusively use "I liked it because X" and not "It's a good game because X."

An example of how to not do this is when I reviewed Path of Exile. Let me go right up and say that game is not my type of game. I just really couldn't get into it, and I would never play it without friends (I don't play it now). It's not a bad game, but it's definitely designed for a gamer that isn't me. I pointed out my hangups with the game, talked about the strengths of the game and said that if those hangups aren't a problem for you, you'll probably like Path of Exile. I did the same thing regarding LoL too, actually.

What I hate the most about gaming journalism is the sensationalism. People like to read things that make them feel stuff more than they like to read things that make them think stuff. As the strikethrough above indicates, this is not just a gaming journalism problem. People read stuff not to learn or to be informed, but to be emotionally moved. Unfortunately, that's the way the industry moves too. You can't really sell articles or be successful by teaching, honestly. If you are successful, it's probably not because your writing is good, and more because you have something else going for you. For instance, pro gamers can write terrible game guides (this is normal, they're not paid or trained to be good at conveying information) that get upvotes because the pro gamers are successful or popular.

The biggest reason why gaming journalism is like this (all of the above) is because honestly, we're not paid enough to be professional. Let's say you get paid 100$ to do a review of a game. It takes you 15 hours to beat the game, 3-4 hours to write the article and you didn't get the game for free. Now I will give you the big shocker, too -- we're paid even less. Most gaming journalists don't even get paid, though it is possible we will get a review copy of the game. Streamers get paid less per hour on the average, but the flip side is that they can work more than we can, and popular streamers make more than us. How can you expect gaming journalists to be actual professionals when we don't even get paid minimum wage? Most gaming journalists cut corners in some way; not actually playing the game enough to do a full review, for instance.

Is it any wonder then that biased reviews occur? All it takes for us to like the developer is for us to get a review copy. We don't even rate bribes. We're so poor that getting paid and getting to play games for free (ish) is enough.

I'm not sure what the answer is. You can't pay gaming journalists with money that isn't there. Someone has to foot the bill, and budgets across the gaming blogosphere are pretty lean. There's a 1% that makes a lot (people like Yahtzee, TotalBiscuit, etc) and a lot of people that make basically nothing. Even the well-off guys aren't that well-off. It's really telling that gaming celebrities make six figures or less when the industry is bigger than the movie industry.

That's a tangent though. God the gaming industry is messed up.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

What ever happened to challenge?

Somewhere along the line, games stopped being games and started being either movies or skinner box reward simulators. The games today that aren't like that are generally virtual worlds where interaction is the game and whatever game is behind it is secondary. Even the games that are really interesting -- stuff like Gunpoint or The Stanley Parable or whatever... those games aren't really games where you have a win or lose condition. Losing in Antichamber or Stanley is impossible and losing in Gunpoint or Long Live the Queen is just a test in optimization: rewinding time back a bit to see what you can do differently.

I shouldn't really be so harsh. I would never dare to say that Gunpoint isn't a game or something like that. If you say it's a game, then I'll probably agree unless there's basically no interaction at all. Stanley's a game. Mass Effect is a game even if you take out the combat, though it becomes a somewhat shallow visual novel.

My real point though is that there's no difficulty in getting to the end. The emotional reward you feel at the end of Mass Effect is ultimately fake. You didn't do anything except invest some time and make some trivial decisions that didn't really matter. Millions of other people did the same thing and got similar rewards. Doing most dungeons in most MMORPGs are the same. You spent some time and got some loot, gained some levels, whatever. A monkey could do it. If it's too hard, the people that are dumber than monkeys complain and the challenge gets nerfed.

Challenge is so rare and nebulous that we'll even accept fake challenge like Dark Souls. It isn't hard. It isn't even sort of hard. Rogue Legacy is a harder game than Dark Souls. The difference is that Dark Souls creates unfair situations where you're almost certainly going to die, while Rogue Legacy tries very hard to be as fair as possible. Both are roughly the same type of game; you have guaranteed progression in both games. You will eventually get to the end if you keep trucking. You'll probably die a proportionately similar amount of times in both games (both Dark Souls games are much longer than Rogue Legacy). Yet we embrace Dark Souls as a hard game because it's dickish about how it kills you.

So... why aren't we making really hard games anymore? Let's explain what I mean by hard. A hard game needs to be:

  • Not random, or the challenge isn't derived primarily from randomness (most roguelikes)
  • Not allow for level-up progression which makes the game trivial (Dark Souls, most RPGs)
  • Have some kind of significant death penalty, forcing the player to lose progression or try over 
  • Challenge can't be derived from other players (a good thing, but outside the realm of this discussion)
  • Memorization should not be the key element of player skill, though it can be one element of many (again, Dark Souls)
The first thing means that player skill should be the driving factor in victory. No Binding of Isaac where you reroll continuously until you get a map you like. How far a player gets should be a function of his skill. Randomness can exist in some form; I like challenges where memorization is emphasized less than adaptation, but fixed challenges are fine as long as they're not trivial even when memorized.

The second thing should really be obvious. I really like Fortune Summoners for this reason because it caps your level-ups, although you can honestly level and gear up enough that the game is basically one step away from trivial at any given point. Devil May Cry (any game in the series) is a probably better example since you can't trivialize the "hard" or DMD settings regardless of how leveled you are (they basically expect you to be maxed out going in). Grinding should never, ever be the key element of skill. You shouldn't be able to farm slabs and souls in order to get so powerful that the game is easy.

Death penalty is mainly important to remove fluke outcomes. Once you've passed a challenge, it shouldn't be because you just got lucky. You should be able to demonstrate beating it again, and that probably means that when you fail at some other challenge, you should be forced to do stuff you've already beaten again. It's mainly a failsafe to ensure that the skill tests are genuine and not just a product of the laws of chance. Boss fights are tricky, and it's where games like DMC kind of fall short. You only have to beat a boss once in a lot of games, unless that game makes you start from the beginning when you die. That's probably not so ideal for something truly hard.

PvP really requires no explanation. It's obviously a great thing, but it's not really a factor in really hard games.

Memorization is a huge problem. I would guess that probably 99% of the challenges in Dark Souls can be solved with memorization. Most don't require any really special execution aside from the basic skills involved in playing. Virtually all of the challenges that can't be solved with memorization aren't affected by the death penalty (meaning, you only have to succeed once and you don't have to do them again). Why is memorization such a big deal? It's a skill too, but I think most people agree that memorization isn't something that contributes to a really challenging game. This actually hurts some games that are pretty hard like the original Ninja Gaiden, but the difference is that even with memorization, those parts are still hard. That's why fixed games like DMC can still make the cut; even though you know what enemies are coming, you still have to beat them and it's not easy.

Games with the above qualities force players to flex their gaming muscles. You can't just expect to win. The best of these games feature easier difficulty settings where players can beat the game and get the normal sense of accomplishment, but then turn it up to 11 for the harder settings. When you've beaten a DMC game on DMD, you can say you've done something very few have done.

I miss that sort of design. I really don't like the design of games where the "hard" settings are an afterthought to the cakewalk easy normal settings, and the game clearly wasn't balanced with hard in mind. Why can't there be more honest, challenging games that don't just offer cheap BS challenges like ramped up enemy health and damage? Anyone can put the enemy damage at 200%; not everyone can create challenging puzzles with their game engine.

I think more than anything else it's that game designers are leaning more towards delivering more content than delivering richer content. It's sort of unfortunate.