Much like everyone else I’ve played a whole ton of Diablo 3 over the last week. Despite that fact, though, I have yet to finish Normal Mode or even start Act IV! So what have I been doing? Y’know. Running around. Hitting things. And definitely playing with friends.
The grouping mechanisms in Diablo are excellent. For those who haven’t tried them, joining a friend who is further along than you will boost you to their point in the Acts. Afterward, you can select the quest you were previously working on to return to your timeline. Joining a friend who is lower level than you lets you retain all your character’s abilities, so you’ll probably be able to kick some butt. (I’ve read that up to 10 levels difference between characters won’t significantly impact XP generation.) Everyone in a shared game gets the same quest.
The result of this very fluid feature is that my characters spend most of their time hopping around seeing what friends are up to. I feel like a Barbarian Doctor Who, traveling through space and time to kill demons and smash precious archaeological ruins. It seems as though good drops appear at an increased rate in groups, too, so folks are even happier to see you than usual. And not only am I — already established as a bit of a game-based social butterfly — enjoying the new grouping system, but it seems my entire list of friends is really getting into the spirit of dropping in on someone else.
So, apparently if you make grouping with friends easy and beneficial, people will group! Is there a lesson here for MMOs? Quite possibly. Flexible dungeon group sizes would allow for a lot more drop-in friend groups. Mentoring, or deleveling to more easily help a lower level friend, is already in a few games but I’d like to see it be built in more often. Let guildies teleport to each other (with some daily limit?) to better enable grouping, perhaps. Guild rosters could include what quest a character is currently working on, or high level characters could get a high level version of the same quest that just gives a little gold and lets them see any quest items.
World of Warcraft has put a lot of effort into making it easier for me to group up with strangers, but I would love to see someone focus on how to enable FRIENDS to group up in a casual, flexible way. Additionally, these systems in MMOs frequently ignore the whole levelling/questing part of game. Maybe I just wanna hang out with a lower level friend and help them collect 10 bear bits?
I don’t have any real answers. Dammit Jim, I’m a blogger, not a game designer. It seems to me though that the grouping in Diablo 3 works really, really well, and I would love to see an MMO that has at least thought about making friend-based grouping in the field a lot more fluid and approachable.
Bad news: no podcast this week as I get ready to travel. Good news: part of my travels includes a weekend in Las Vegas with guildies, so I put a sound recording app on my phone and I’m ready to come home with most of a podcast!
And on that note, I will see you in a week.
I haven’t been around much this week and unfortunately that pattern is set to continue for another week or two. Work has gotten crazy and filled up my days, while evenings are full of battling demons in Diablo 3 and getting ready for my vacation next week.
As I’ve mentioned here before I didn’t want to buy Diablo 3 until the very last minute, and even when I did it was more to hang out with friends than any desire to play the game itself. Almost a week later, this might not seem like much of a revelation to anyone who played Diablo 2 very seriously (which I did not) but.. hey, this is game is super fun!
So credit where credit is due — when it’s online, this game is pretty good. Here are some of my favorite bits:
1. The Lady Barbarian. I usually don’t play straight up melee classes, so I’m not even sure why I made a barbarian first but I’m glad I did. Montaña the barbarian is a wall of steel and muscle. I stand a foot taller than any NPC, and run with heft. My armor is protective, but I don’t look like a guy. I feel.. tough. For all the steel heels and the like in other classes (variety is the spice of life, I suppose), this was a big character design win for me.
2. Achievements. For all their cluelessness about other things, Blizzard is great at achievement systems. There are lots of them, and a nice selection of ones that you’ll naturally encounter and ones that you’ll have to go out of your way to get and ones that it’ll take multiple playthroughs to hit. (Although to be honest the achievement for repairing your gear made me laugh.) Not only that, but you can see when your friends earn an achievement too which adds a nice sense of community and invitation to interact. I feel part of something slightly bigger than my own game.
3. Only seeing your own drops in co-op. Loot used to really stress me out in Diablo 2 co-op because I am one of those people who worries all the time about being fair. Should I pick this up? Could the other person use it more? Did I pick up too much last time? Let me just open my inventory to look at the stats on this and oh hey sorry you died. I’m having way more fun playing with friends now that I don’t feel the need to worry about any of that!
4. The battle physics. Bashing groups of imps in the head and scattering them around the room feels good. Knocking down shelves and beating in doors feels good. Hitting a dude so hard his skeleton flies out of his body looks awesome and feels good! The art style is a little cartoony (in a standard Blizzard way), but actions have proper weight and things feel satisfyingly thuddy.
And just to be even handed, one thing I don’t like about Diablo 3:
1. Bugs. Specifically, the Act II bugs that shoot bugs at you. They’re jerks. :(
I wasn’t going to buy Diablo 3 for a few weeks, but as it turns out today is payday and I’m working from home, and.. oh what the hell, right? I’ll just pay for this, install that, create an awesome lady barbarian and …
GEE ALWAYS ONLINE SINGLE PLAYER SURE IS AWESOME.
Funcom’s The Secret World had an open beta over the weekend, and although I wasn’t personally invited I did have the opportunity to speak with a number of folks about their experiences. A lot of the stuff I heard about the gameplay was.. cautiously positive. People seem to enjoy some of the more unusual mechanics, like only having one active quest at a time, but I’ve seen a lot of dissatisfaction with the character choices and animation.
The most interesting feedback to me, though, were the folks who found the setting and content to be problematic. The Secret World is one of the few (the only?) large MMOs to be set in present day Earth. The factions are The Dragons, The Templars, and The Illuminati, and that theme of conspiracy theories and shadow governments permeates the whole game’s setting. In theory I’ve been pretty interested in (finally!) getting away from elves and dwarves and playing some modern stuff with blue jeans and handguns, and on the surface lizardmen and cults and contrails and the like seem like great material for a game world setting.
In practice though, the game content seems pretty problematic on a number of fronts. For example, let’s look at Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s description of the opening video for The Dragon faction:
“In Seoul, S. Korea, our heroine is kidnapped and dumped in a van, driven wildly through the streets, until she’s eventually dumped out. [...] In an extremely sexually charged scene, as the player lays helplessly on the bed as this mysterious lady crawls over us. [...] ‘When our minds are empty, we are receptive to the truth,’ she mutters, before slowly slinking down our body, until her head is just off screen, and rather close to our ladyparts. And then the cunnilingus begins. No, seriously.”
Huh. Now, to be fair the degree of any sexual assault or coersion in the video (note: slightly NSFW) is somewhat open to the interpretation of the viewer, but clearly there is enough to allow for a very unpleasant conclusion.
And that’s not the only problematic content. One friend felt pretty uncomfortable with the way churches and preachers were portrayed. Another talked about how they were saddened that their character joined what is basically a terrorist organization without any option for player agency or anything beyond “do as you’re told”. Yet another felt weird about the frequent appearance of the Iron Cross and other symbols that have taken on extremely unpleasant connotations in North American culture.
I’m not interested in addressing the validity of any of these statements. All these people genuinely felt uncomfortable, and that is authentic enough for me. Instead, what interested me was the idea that an MMO set in modern day Earth will by its very nature be problematic for much of the audience.
I think one of the benefits of fantasy / science fiction MMOs is that we can play them without necessarily bringing the burdens of modern life with us. By default, my wood elf does not worry about rape culture in Norrath. People can make a human with brown skin in SWTOR and not ever have to think about how it might affect the way other internal characters might treat them. To be sure, players themselves can bring in these real world issues, but they’re not inherent in the game world. (This is also why people can feel upset when these elements are introduced through mechanics, such as Ji Firepaw’s gender sorting.)
It’s harder to shut out undesirable elements in a fake world when it looks just like what’s outside your window. (Zombies and monsters aside, of course. Hopefully!) You’re not just killing the evil Archbishop Benedictus with your orc friend in the basement of a giant tower dedicated to dragons (as in WoW), you’re killing a dude who looks like your priest in a church that looks like your church for corruption that sadly puts you in mind of the ways real corruption happen.
Is it possible for an MMORPG to have a modern setting yet avoid making people uncomfortable with real life parallels? I don’t know the answer, although if I had to guess I’d say, “No”. And that isn’t always a bad thing — there are a lot of great artistic works based on modern times and modern problems. However, after a great deal of thought I think I have to confess that I don’t necessarily want games to push my boundaries on real life issues. Usually when I sit down with a game, it is specifically for fun and recreation.
For a couple of years now I’ve been griping about the stereotypical fantasy setting in MMOs, and just how over dwarves and such I am. However, after this weekend I’m thinking I should start being specific about futuristic or science-fiction settings. The modern world and all its problems are real enough for me offline, for now.
I cancelled my SWTOR subscription yesterday, although I still have 45 days of playtime left. I felt bad doing it, to be honest. I like Bioware, I like Star Wars, I like “the fourth pillar” of story. Somehow, though, at the end of the day it all came together into something I’m not interested in playing, or at least not interested enough to pay $15 a month to play.
The SWTOR folks clearly did not set out to design a hardcore MMO, which is neat. However, I feel they then fell short on including “softcore”, fluffy things. It’s fine to not have serious PvP, or hardcore raiding, or reputation grinding, or sprawling achievements, but you need to fill that space with other things. You shouldn’t just create a nifty multiplayer RPG and then bolt on a weak version of WoW’s end game.
Let me stress now that even though I am not continuing with SWTOR, I know a fair number of folks are still playing and enjoying it. However, here are a few things that I think would have improved my SWTOR experience:
More Costume Choices: The modular gear was a really cool idea! However, there just wasn’t enough variety in costume gear for my tastes. Jedi gear was always really brown and bathrobe-y, for example. I want crazy alien outfits and parkas and weird sci-fi hats for all classes.
More Race Choices: Under the new Legendary system players can mix up races and factions, creating Chiss Jedi and the like. This was definitely a step in the right direction, but the race selection in general is pretty underwhelming. Human, human with robot parts, blue human, bald human, etc. I totally understand that (I think) it’s a whole lot easier to make armor fit properly if every character is a similar shape, but it felt a little drab. Why can’t I be a mon calamari or a nautolan?
More Mount Choices: Are you sensing a trend yet? The variety of speeders were cool, but again when you have a universe of weird machines and crazy animals, being limited to speeders seemed somewhat staid.
Ship Decorations: This one probably isn’t very surprising considering my housing manifesto yesterday, but I want to decorate my ship. I think the fact that I have a ship is a step in the right direction, but it feels pretty generic. Let me earn flourishes in quests or as part of the Legacy system, and display them on my ship. (A guild ship would of course be amazing, but that seems like a lot to ask for short of an expansion.)
More Involved Crafting: Using your companions to craft is pretty neat and I liked the lengthy completion times for high level items, but even with companions it’s still the standard boring crafting design of picking an item from a list and queueing up several iterations.
Fewer Bugs: The end-game activites were pretty buggy for the first few months of the game. This was also mostly fixed in 1.2, but it was a little too late for me. I was never able to finish the Directive 7 dungeon despite multiple attempts because one of the later bosses was bugged. When learning Soa the Infernal, the final boss in the first raid instance, we wiped due to bugs as often as we did due to strategy errors. New games are new, but it got a little tiresome.
This all being said, there’s certainly a market out there for SWTOR, and it’s a market that has generally been neglected in modern MMO design where levelling is considered a chore that should be finished as soon as possible. I think SWTOR has a great initial levelling experience, and is definitely worth $15-30 for a month or two of that.
For me, though, as someone who usually focuses on one character the game just didn’t have enough obvious fluff to keep me happy. In my experience, once I hit the level cap I found Bioware’s combination of RPG and MMO made each element weaker instead of stronger.