Sunday, September 09, 2018

Thoughts on the decline of online virtual worlds (inspired by Tobold)

Tobold is annoyed that mmorpgs "evolved into a bunch of derivative and repetitive chores instead of living and breathing worlds" and his post inspired me to record my own thoughts in a comment which I am recording here for posterity: 

I am the same age as you Tobold and like you I once thought mmorpgs would be stepping stones towards fully immersive alternative worlds such as those envisaged by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Tad Williams.  I think a few virtual worlds did try to go that way including obviously "Second Life" but also a number of titles aimed at younger audiences such as "Club Penguin" and "Free Realms" but none of them ever really took off and in the end mmorpgs became just another type of game to play.

I think that Blizzard realised this early with  World of Warcraft and while WoW did offer a large immersive online world the game aspect always came first. This proved a smart business decision because pretty soon afterwards social media became a thing. Social media provides ways for people to hang out with their friends online without having to pretend to be elves or dwarves and it turns out that the vast majority of people are happier with that. I think that Facebook did more to kill of the social aspect of mmorpgs than anything that the gaming industry ever did.

I guess I am a bit dissapointed that the early promise of mmorpgs as virtual worlds was never realised. The world of computer games seems a lot less magical to me now than it did fifteen years ago. Games today have become incredibly polished forms of mass entertainment but they no longer seem offer the potential of becoming something more.

Recently I had the opportunity to try out virtual reality with an Occulus rift. While this quickly convinced me that the technology is nowhere near ready for the mass market it did briefly rekindle some future wonder in me and perhaps give me a glimpse of what might happen. I think the best hope now of the (re) emergence of virtual worlds is not from gaming but from business applications or from some form of social media. The business applications are already close. Companies are already creating 3D virtual models of buildings and towns that the engineers and designers can virtually walk through. It seems a relatively simple step to allow multiple users in to interact and work together in these virtual spaces.  On the social media side of things I could imagine something like facebook messenger transitioning into a 3D communications tool and from that developing persistent virtual meeting places for people to hang out in.


Monday, August 06, 2018

Buying a console to play one game (Halo 3)

Having enjoyed Halo 1 and 2 on my PC it has long been my desire to find a way to play the Xbox exclusive remainder of the series. The only question was whether emulation would provide a route before the price of an Xbox 360 console itself fell below my threshold of pain. Well it turns out that emulation loses this time because this weekend I realised I could pick up an Xbox 360 console and a few games for around €50. Even if I do no more than play the few Halo Titles (3, 4, ODST and Reach) I will consider this a reasonable investment. I was actually offered a console for €35 but on investigation it was a version without hard disk so I opted to pay an extra €15 for a Xbox 360 "Slim" with  250Gb hard disk. We already own a Wii and a PS3 so that now makes a full house of seventh generation consoles for us. I bought the PS 3 a couple of years ago hoping to play a few exclusives but in the end I only finished "The Last of Us"(excellent game). The PS3 itself is still used daily  as a netflix / Blue Ray player.  One of the reasons I play so few games on the PS3 is because it is hooked up to the family TV and I never get exclusive use of it. Learning this lesson I have placed the Xbox 360 on top of my computer and hooked it up to my monitor. I need to manually switch between Display Port (computer) and HDMI (Xbox) but otherwise the arrangement works well. The field of view and screen resolution of the Xbox 360 are not really designed for close up viewing so I find I have to push my chair back a bit for best experience but overall it is a pretty good solution and I am already about two thirds of the way through Halo 3.

Minor observation  I prefer the user interface of the 360 the the PS3 but I can't really say why. It is brighter and more colourful but it is also more intuitive I think.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Destiny 2: Can you avoid grind by just playing the campaign?

I am enjoying Destiny 2 enough to buy the expansion pack when Humble put it on sale a week after  the base game was included in the June monthly (nice move Humble). Nevertheless I don't have time or patience for mmo grind right now so I decided to see how far I could get just playing the main campaign. Hence the question: Can you avoid grind by just playing the main campaign?

The answer is: "Up to a point". I made it all the way through the base game (Red War) and the first expansion (Curse of Osiris) without any conscious effort to grind. I did pick up the occasional side mission and public quest along the way and I even indulged in some PVP but I didn't make any concious effort to grind.  I still managed to keep on level for the main quest lines.

Things changed when I hit the latest expansion (Warmind). I completed curse of Osiris at about power level 270 so I got something of a shock to realise that the introductory chapter of Warmind was recommended for level 310.  The next few chapters quickly went up to 320, 330 and 340 and in each case I couldn't get there just by playing the campaign. Happily 340 is the soft level cap so once I hit the late 330's was close enough to finish the campaign.

Grinding  involves running solo or group events (adventures) and I quickly realised that the random public encounters in the starter zone (EDZ)  are by far the fastest method. As long as you get a group of players together you can power through these and you will generally get a gear reward at the end. The EDZ seems the most popular zone because there is always a public event spawning and you will generally find a group of players jetting from one to the next. The asymmetric level system allows end game players to grind these public guests alongside newbies in the starter zones and everyone gets level appropriate rewards. Its a good system.

All in I spend about five hours in total grind just making up the levels between quests in Warmind in order to complete the campaign. My character is now power level 341 and cannot really advance further by because  rewards from normal activities are capped around this level. There is end game content and I believe it is possible to grind all the way to level 380 but I am not really interested at this point. I will put the game on the back burner for now. dipping in an out for some shooter fun but not seriously making an attempt to progress further. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Destiny 2 has asymmetric level scaling for mobs.

I have been playing a bit of Destiny 2 since I picked it up in the June Humble Monthly. The game is an mmorpg / fps hybrid. The FPS combat is pretty tight and enjoyable in its own right but the mmorpg bit adds quests and progression to the mix. The developers (Bungie) use level scaling in an interesting way however that impacts on how players deal with enemies of different level.

Progression is based on level and gear but the two are closely coupled because the gear you pick up  is tied to your character level. Playing the game normally equipping the gear I got from drops and rewards I found that my Power Score (which is effectively a measure of gear) hovers around 10x my character level while the maximum power score achievable with exotic gear seems to be around 12x character level. 

When I first started the game I occasionally wandered too far from the beginner zones and stumbled into mobs that out levelled me substantially. I was unable to inflict any damage on these mobs while they could one shot me. No surprises there this is standard mmorpg fare. What was surprising was then when I gained a bunch of levels myself and travelled back to the original starter areas I found the low level mobs still presented a reasonable challenge. It was as if they had been scaled to my own level. Given that players of low level were successfully fighting the same mobs it would be more correct to say that I was being scaled down. 

Reading about this it appears that Destiny 2 and its predecessor Destiny employ assymetric level scaling. If a player has a lower level than an mob then the mob remains more powerful than the player. If on the other hand the player has a higher level than the mob then the player is scaled down to the mob level.  Loot drops however are always scaled to the player level. That level 1 mob will still present a challenge at level 20 but at least you will get a level 20 drop.

I have not come across this system before but I think it is a pretty clever and it has a few beneficial impacts: There is incentive to progress in order to tackle more challenging content but on the other hand you never really outlevel old content. In a game with a lot of co-op content and random world encounters this allows players of widely different level to fight alongside each other with everyone making a significant contribution and everyone getting rewards appropriate to their own level. It is common enough to see level 30 payers fighting alongside level 5 or 6 players in the starter zones and all seem to be having a good time.

Is there a downside? Those of the "Achiever" player stereotype might be disappointing at the lack of visible evidence of progression. A high end player cannot one shot low level mobs and even though the game encourages you to grind for high end gear and skins they don't look all that different to the normal stuff at least to my eyes.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Super ... Hot ....Super ...Hot ...Super ...Hot

I played a demo of Super Hot several years ago but I only got around to playing the full game recently. The full campaign took me just over four hours much of which was spent dying and restarting as I learned how to overcome each of the levels. There is an ongoing "endless" gameplay mode however for those who wish to keep playing.

Superhot is a shooter with a simple twist that completely turns the gameplay on its head. When you stand still the game time slows to a trickle but whenever you move time moves.  You can rotate your vision while time is slowed but moving, attacking or even picking up a weapon allows time to flow normally. It is not like bullet time in other games because when you move at normal speed just like everyone else. You cannot move faster than a speeding bullet. You can however use the frozen moment of time to predict exactly where that bullet will travel and to try an ensure you aren't there.

The main challenge of Super hot and its main learning curve is to stifle all of your natural gaming instincts honed over many years of playing other games. When an enemy appears in front of you and fires a gun your overwhelming instinct is to run for cover as quickly as you can. This will likely get you killed in Superhot as you blindly run into a bullet or another enemy. The correct play is to first do absolutely nothing. You stand still and time will freeze. Then you carefully look all around to gauge where the bullets will fly, where the enemies are and where the safest spot is likely to be. Then and only then you move one step at a time. After each step you freeze again to reassess. If you do this carefully and methodically you can pull off incredibly feats of ninjaesque prowess dodging bullets and slicing through multiple enemies when the footage is replayed in real time. Once you master this the game does become rather easy (hence the relatively short playtime) but I did find my natural instincts constantly trying to reassert themselves particularly during those later levels when the number of enemies ramps up. An additional body swap mechanic is introduced for the later levels which allows your to swap with any enemy instantly killing them. It allows for some extra puzzle complications.

Superhot has a beautiful blown out white aesthetic and it does have that terrific "gimmick" but the plot tacked onto it is rather weak in my opinion. There is a storyline of sorts involving some kind of 1980's era computer text that really didn't grab me. In fact I found the frequent cut scenes and plot exposition sequences tedious and would have been happier if they could have been skipped to get to the next level. The levels themselves are compelling however.