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A Collection Of Thoughts On Gaming

Much like shower thoughts, playing certain games brings various thoughts, ideas and criticism to mind. I'll be sharing some of them here and see what happens!

Author: Annwyn

The Insanity of Gear Grind

Posted by Annwyn Tuesday November 22 2016 at 3:24PM
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Hello and welcome to yet another one of my rants about MMORPGs, this one spurred by yet another wall I recently hit playing Final Fantasy 14 : My cumulative gear level was too low to gain access to the next dungeon, I needed to grind more special currency to unlock better gear... for the X-th time. To me, there is nothing more annoying than to play a game only to be told by the very same game that I can't play it anymore because I'm not "properly equipped". What is it with developers' fascination with gear grind as end-game content?


For starter, developers must always seek out a way to keep its players active in the game for extended periods of time. If a player can simply start playing the game, reach and complete the end-game in 2 weeks and then stop playing for 6 months when the next content patch comes in, the developers are losing 5 months worth of subscription fees. It makes sense to slow down the progression so that rather than achieving the end-game in 2 weeks, an average player would do so in roughly a month or two, but what happens once that player has reached the end-game? Creating new content, stories and so on takes a lot of time from a developer's perspective, and so it falls on the developers to find a way to keep the player actively playing the game even after the player has completed the last dungeon at least once. How do they do it? By requiring players to repeat the same content in order to unlock every piece of gear they need to fully equip their character with the strongest armor available, and make that equipment necessary for the next content patch.


There is no better analogy for this insanity than the myth of Sisyphus, a King in Ancient Greece who outwitted the Gods until they punished him, forcing him to push a rock up a mountain only for the rock to fall down the mountain every time and to repeat this process for eternity. Not only has the MMORPG industry absorbed this myth, they've turned it into a feature :

Sisyphus pushes the rock up the mountain – You grind all the gear available to equip your character.

Sisyphus reaches the top of the mountain – Fully geared, you've gained access to the new dungeon.

The rock falls down the mountain – The new dungeon requires you to grind a new set of gear to unlock the next dungeon.

And on and on it goes for eternity, or the next content patch.


Had Albert Camus been alive today, I would've loved to hear his opinion on this absurdity, as he wrote in his book "The Myth of Sisyphus" that he imagined that, by realizing the absurdity of the task and accepting his fate, Sisyphus might have been happy. Perhaps MMORPG players are much closer to Sisyphus than I had initially thought, that the majority of these players have accepted and are wholly content to live with this curse. I am not content with this curse however, I do not accept it and I will fight it as long as the "G" in MMORPGs stands for "Game". Video games are like books, movies and other art forms, they are meant to be enjoyed, and I find no joy in completing tasks that mimics in its repetitiveness a low-level worker whose job is to stick labels to bottles.


This sort of problem is not easily addressed. The myth of Sisyphus can take shape in MMORPGs because they are built like train tracks. The train cannot leave its rails and so the only possibility for a developer to allow players to visit new content is to extend the rail. To break away from the myth is to break away from the tracks, to allow players to go wherever they want whenever they want. MMORPGs are meant to be worlds for players to live in and the best way to extend a world is not vertically, but horizontally.


Horizontal progression removes the shackles of a wholly guided experience. Instead, it favors greater customization for players to tailor their experience to their own liking. Gear still plays an important role, but its role is limited as it does not hamper a player's access to some content, instead it is more valued for its appearances, as fluff to make your character look good based on your personal tastes. Horizontal progression does not remove a developer's ability to tell a story either, but the story is not a mean to push the end-game a level further, here it serves solely to shape the world: to explain events of the past, events you are now part of, and set in motions events that have yet to come. It allows developers to expend the world, reshape it even, without limiting its access. It opens new opportunities, new ways to play, all of which without punishing the players by holding him back with arbitrary numbers and gear levels.


I think more and more people are growing tired of the traditional genre, indie developers in particular as we're seeing many new Sandbox MMORPGs being announced here and there. Of course these games will face many difficulties, financial ones in particular, and these games may not be able to deliver on what they had hoped. My only hope is that other developers don't view these failures to mean that the genre does not work, but that they view these as lessons to build on instead.



Thanks for reading!

The stupidity of AI in video games

Posted by Annwyn Tuesday November 8 2016 at 4:47PM
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Today I wanted to cover a subject that has bothered me for a very long time that affects not just MMORPGs, but the video game industry as a whole, and that subject is Artificial Intelligence, or the lack thereof in gaming. Whether it’s how quickly NPCs are to brush off the arrow sticking out of their head as “Just the wind” or how a monster will stand still in front of you as you beat up on him repeatedly while his brethren watch from afar, Artificial Intelligence in video games just suck.

The year 2017 is in sight, less than 2 months away, and yet despite decades of video games, AI in video games has barely made any progress. So why is that? Why have we neglected AI for so long? Is it out of laziness by the developers? Is it perhaps because gamers are perfectly content with the current AI formula? Is the gameplay itself limiting the AI of its inhabitants? Does improving the AI render the game too difficult? The answer is all of the above.


Let’s take a traditional MMORPG for example. Here, monsters and NPCs act as small piñatas that contain some loot and also rewards the player with a small amount of EXP that the player needs in order to become one step closer to his next character level. In MMOs, there is a sort of urgency to reach the end-game and so progression must be balanced in a way that doesn’t make it feel too tedious to most players. A piñata stands still while a player repeatedly hits it, it may offer some resistance, but unless the player is taking unnecessary risks, the challenge is not enough to endanger the player’s life. What’s more is that these monsters work alone regardless of their types or their lore (a band of bandits for example), they are only “pulled” individually unless a player makes the mistake of attacking another or stepping too close, otherwise the player only needs to worry about a single piñata at a time. All of this allows players to repeatedly chain these piñatas with ease, sometimes even greedily “pulling” multiple monsters to kill them all at once.


These simple encounters allow players to quickly progress through the game, reach the next zone, etc. It is a boring process, but simple enough not to annoy most players when the end-game is in sight. Improve the AI however, and suddenly a previously simple task becomes a frustrating one. The monster keeps running away, it hides behind a tree breaking your line of sight, it blocks your attack more often etc. You’ve effectively turned simple tasks into annoying ones. Progression is slowed, quests need to be rebalanced to take into account the additional time it takes for a player to kill a single monster and also to avoid frustrating the player.


Improving the AI of Bosses in traditional MMOs also leads to a different set of issues. In today’s MMOs, Bosses are not challenging because they have great AI, they are “challenging” because they heavily punish players for missing a step in a long dance that must be learned by watching Youtube videos or reading online guides otherwise you risk causing the untimely death of you and your dancing partners...multiple times. A boss follows a pattern and never strays from it, there is no unpredictability, no real difficulty. The outcome of a battle is determined merely by the ability of the whole party to dance together, and sometimes the level of their gear in order to dance properly. Developers rely more on the audio and visual effects to give players the impression that they are taking part in an epic battle.


If we were to suddenly give bosses a more detailed AI that favored unpredictability over a wholly-scripted encounter, you’d end up with a more challenging encounter, however we run into a few different problems. 1) Encounters are now less forgiving because of the randomness, increasing the chances of a player dying or partying wiping. 2) Classes would need to be rebalanced, in particular tanks and healers to account for the bosses’ randomness. It actually makes perfect sense for traditional MMOs to choose heavily scripted boss battles, as it allows developers to have complete control over the difficulty of the encounter. It also gives players a chance to know what’s coming and be able to act accordingly, easing the overall difficulty once a player is familiar with the dance.



Single player games have not been spared from the lack of “intelligent” AIs either. Take The Elder Scrolls V : Skyrim for example, which recently came back into the spotlight. An enemy spotted you? Hide and in 10 seconds he’ll return to his position, blaming the wind. Kill his friend right his front of him; Must have been the wind. Cast a shower of meteors; must have been the wind. Shoot an arrow through his head that does not kill him; Must have been the wind (as he moves around with the arrow dangling from the side of his head). If there is at least one thing that a game like Skyrim did “right” with its AI, is that the attack warns other nearby NPCs as well, unlike MMOs where only a single NPC will be warned. Also the fact that different NPC groups can clash with each other is certainly an added bonus (like a group of roaming bandits attacking a pack of wolves).


What would happen however if we suddenly crank up the AI a little in Skyrim? For example, NPCs no longer give up so quickly, their search range is increased sufficiently, and NPCs are put “on-guard” even after they return to their initial position for a greater amount of time, boosting their detection abilities. For one, Thief/Assassin-type players would be punished more heavily for failing to sneak past their enemies, making future attempts more difficult. Other types of players would have to take into greater account their locations for example, choosing their battles more appropriately else they risk getting overwhelmed by deadly NPCs. Perhaps some would deem those changes annoying, but making tasks too simple or forgiving the player too much removes all meaning to the objective. If an NPC dies in front of another, why should that NPC simply blame the wind and go back to his seat for a drink? It makes absolutely no sense. Of course I’m well aware that all of this can easily be reverted by the player by reloading the game, but an example was simply necessary.



So what is my solution? Unfortunately none that could work on existing games. AI is too intrinsically linked to the design decisions made by the developers (combat type, emphasis on questing, etc), they are only able to slightly deviate from the original format without affecting the balance of the game too significantly. An example of slight deviation would be in games like Final Fantasy 14 where monsters can use AoEs with a range that is marked for the players, forcing players to move out of the AoE or receive significant damage.


There are some games that have actually managed to create interesting AIs, but they did so by creating a more complex battle system. Mabinogi for example, uses a combat system where both players and monsters alike fight in a rock-paper-scissor-esque fashion (but with magic and other types added to the mix). Monsters will use different abilities depending on the occasion, some even pretending to be using one ability when they are in fact preparing another. Another example would be in games like Dark Souls (or MMOs like Vindictus) where monsters and especially bosses are less predictable and requires the players to be constantly aware of the flow of the battles, paying attention to visual cues in order to decide on their next action, avoid an attack, etc. Of course I’m not saying that all games should be as unforgiving as the rage-inducing Dark Souls, that game was built to be very difficult, but that many games would benefit from creating more unpredictable AIs for their monsters and bosses. Nor should they copy the Mabinogi formula (although I wouldn’t mind having some non-anime looking games out there that used a similar system). But there is no doubt that in order to bring more intricate AIs into video games, developers need to go off the beaten paths and start creating their own paths instead, but that’s assuming they even want to.


Thanks for reading!

The absurdity of a hundred spellbars

Posted by Annwyn Tuesday October 25 2016 at 3:43PM
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Hello again. Seeing as my previous blog post was viewed 582 times in 5 days (as I'm writing this, which was rather shocking to me), I think it's fair to think that I may have hit the nail on its head with the title of the first one. So I decided to go crazy and write another one. Even more crazy, I decided to try something a little different too on top of the blog post, I made a video where I talk about both this post and also touch on my last blog post as well, albeit not in as many details as these blog posts. You can watch the video here if you want. Quick note however, English is not my first language, so I might butcher some words here and there, but hopefully not badly enough for Shakespeare to turn in his grave. So without further ado, here's my new blog post!


The absurdity of a hundred spellbars

This being a website dedicated to MMORPG, I think it's safe to assume that the majority of you have at least played one MMORPG where each classes are given 30-40 different skills and spells. You are given so many in fact, that not only is a single hotbar is not enough, but sometimes even adding a second hotbar does not offer enough slots to place all your skills and spells. More annoying is that it becomes a mess to keybind a total of 36 hotbar slots, so annoying that there is even gaming gear dedicated to helping solve that problem like mouses with 12 buttons on the side that can be used to bind macros or key combinations to cover a whole hotbar.


Normally one would think that having more skills simply means that the player has a wider range of playstyles that he can create by combining different skills to his liking in order to create his own personal build, however most MMOs will restrict the players in its playstyle through the use of pre-made classes where newly-learned abilities only serve to enhance the core spells offered by a class. This leaves every classes with roughly 5-6 core skills that are used continuously in combat, while other skills are only useful in specific situations, or some abilities are rendered useless either because their design does not reflect how the class is played, or because of the addition of new content that circumvent those mechanics or spells.


So why do we need so many abilities if using our 5-6 core skills is more than sufficient to progress through the game? Some would say that having all these situational abilities adds complexity to the game, but there is no complexity in pressing a 7th key on your keyboard once in a blue moon. A few games have realized and attempted to solve this problem by giving players more choices in how they want to play the game. Rift for example allows players to combine spells from up to 3 different classes in the same archetype to create a more varied playstyle, although the game still suffers from having too many skills and spells cluttering your spellbars "in case you need them". Guild Wars 2 gave players a variety of different weapons that will change how each classes are played by assigning different skills to different weapons, and those skills are dependent on the class you are playing. In other words, while both a Necromancer and a Thief can wield daggers, they will have different dagger-related skills. To top it off, a player can select up to 5 different class spells (I believe 4 class spells +1 healing spell but I may be mistaken) out of a pool of class spells to customize their build even more. The Elder Scroll Online also attempts to offer an alternative by giving players choices that can add to their chosen class. A player can wield any weapon and armor (and use their respective skills) while also having the ability to level up class skills, and some other groups like guild skills, that they want to use to create their own character build. TESO also has a maximum number of spell slots (5) (and another 5 when swapping to your other weapon set).


Should all MMORPGs do what Guild Wars 2 or Elder Scrolls Online have? Of course not, but developers need to stop adding more "situational" class skills and spells for the sake of "complexity", and need to start thinking of creating abilities that alters how you as a player can play your chosen class. They need to abandon this idea that a player needs to have 3 full hotbars before they enter a dungeon, and instead focus on giving players choices that matters to fill a single hotbar.


I can hear some of you thinking "but Annwyn, regardless of how many different builds and playstyle there is, players will just follow the same 'best' builds as everyone else, so why does it matter?" Yes, you're right, players always move towards the "best builds" out there, but that in itself is not an excuse not to offer players a choice. Even in MMOs with 36 hotbar spells all ready to go, players will rotate towards the "build of the month" as developers release new content where some classes are more efficient than others, or as developers nerf or buff certain skills. There is no escaping that, developers can only continue to tweak the skills in hope of offering a more balanced experience for all playstyles, it is the natural evolution of every multiplayer online games, not just MMOs. But by offering players the choice in how they can create and customize their character, you are improving their overall experience of the game, and by limiting this hotbar insanity, you are not removing complexity, you are merely removing finger gymnastic. Complexity is created through challenging content, not screen clutter.



Thanks for reading!

The toxicity of questing in MMORPGs today

Posted by Annwyn Thursday October 20 2016 at 6:40PM
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Before the age of downloadable content, Questing appeared in single-player RPGs in 2 forms :

1. The main storyline, typically a complex story carefully woven that will carry the player from the very beginning until the end. There will be plot twists, there will be drama and action, a bit of comedy and more.

2. The side quests/storylines. Many older RPGs would often hide various optional quests throughout the game, these quests would bring great loot, add to the story in some way, bring additional challenges (difficult optional bosses or puzzles). To reveal these "quests", a player would have to talk to various NPCs who would talk to the player about rumors and legends and it was the player's task, should the player decide to take on the challenge, to find and solve the mystery. Taking on a side quest was a choice that could benefit the player, but would not punish him for not taking on the side quests (with some exceptions of course). 

In older RPGs, progression happened naturally as the player would visit new areas, defeat bosses, etc. In some RPGs the player might also have to grind, but unless the goal was to reach level 99, the grind was not mind numbing.


Enter subscription-based MMORPGs where the goal is the keep the player active in the game for as long as possible. Progression is slowed down heavily, forcing players to grind for hours on end to gain a single level. This raises a problem however with an aging player base who has less and less time to spend gaming. To keep the player base entertained, developers moved to a different formula, one that allowed players to achieve and be rewarded for completing tasks that can be accomplished rapidly: they focused on questing, and there begins a new problem.

Whether you play FFXIV, WoW, TESO, etc, questing has become practically the principal mean to progress in the game, and with this came many problems that no MMO has managed to solve.

1. MMO Developers applied the formula of Questing from Single-Player RPGs, where the player is the hero, to MMORPGs. This means that all MMO players will complete the same quests and be hailed as heroes by the same NPCs, it takes away the chance for the player to properly feel like a hero when xXxSephiroth07xXx has completed the same exact quest and gained the same exact reward.

2. Because questing is now the primary form of progression and that MMOs must retain their playerbase for as long as possible, developers have to strike a balance between the amount of quests and the time it takes a player to progress. This often means that players will often have to complete dozens of quests in order to gain a single level up.

3. Exploration is also halted by quests, as in order to have access to the content of Area B, you may be required to complete the content of Area A, and so on for subsequent Areas. Players are sometimes "forced" to complete a near copy of the content in the Area before it, but with different flavor text, before being allowed to complete another set of the same quests in the next Area.

4. Producing a large amount of quests means a large amount of repetition. There are only 36 different types of dramatic situations and MMOs have thousands of quests. The quests can quickly become repetitive, uninspired, boring, but worse, they sometimes stop making sense. A so called "Hero" sheering sheeps and other chores for other NPCs makes little to no sense. How many gamers do you know who reads a quest's text? Personally, I know of none besides myself, and even then sometimes I just give up reading them for a while, not that the text is not necessarily uninteresting, but that it contributes in no way to the storyline or the lore of the MMO.

5. Players are not interested in re-visiting old areas they've already completed, because there is no purpose to it, nor will it help them progress towards the end-game. This will often leave the low-level areas underpopulated, making it more difficult for newer players to group up with other players or at the very least have some form of interaction.


Some MMORPGs have attempted to give players alternative ways to progress, often through "Dynamic" Events, by opening the PvP area sooner, creating multiple dungeons accompanied with a PUG tool that rewards the players for using it. Some have attempted to ditch Questing completely in favor of using almost purely Dynamic Events, but they all fall in the same trap : they have only changed the name, for the basic mechanics remains the same "Protect this farmer and kill 10 rats".

Questing has become toxic. Not only does it not create enjoyment, it hampers it, but worse is that no one has a solution. Instead, companies have turned this into another cash opportunity : "Pay $20 to unlock a level 100 character!", and there is something seriously wrong with that, and yet it works.

By now if you've kept reading since the beginning, you might be wondering, "Well what's your magical solution?" The truth is that I have none. You've read all of this for nothing, in fact, you knew all of these things already. MMORPG gamers have become so used to the current formula that I worry there is no going back, no opportunity for them to discover other avenues because they will all be savagely compared to the current formula. I don't see any foreseeable changes to the genre until it reaches Virtual Reality, which is many years away, maybe even decades.

My theory is that the arrival of mainstream MMORPGs in Virtual Reality will push the genre's focus back to the idea of creating Worlds for players to live in. It will not remove questing completely, but it will force developers to put more energy into building activities that caters to a wider range of gamers. Because keyboards are a liability in VR, developers would have to create a game that will use video game controllers, meaning that the combat would be more action-oriented, and this opens the door for content where a player's skills, as a person rather than as a character, will be put to the test.  Real "heroes" will be born, skilled players that others can look up to. There would still be a lot of quests, but now building the world would be a task just as important, if not more, not only in the eyes of developers, but especially in the eyes of gamers.

Until then however, as much as I love being part of a MMORPG community, I can no longer enjoy a MMO for extended periods of time, and that really saddens me. I can only play for a week or two before I need to take a break and play a different genre of games instead, otherwise it feels like a reenactment of the myth of Sisyphus, and I'm not one for pointlessly pushing boulders up a mountain, not anymore at least. 


Thanks for reading my long rant!