Thoughts on Legion & Stormblood – Ability Pruning & More


The Ugly

So far this year has been an unsurprising one for MMOs, nothing new has flabbergasted us, yet all the oldies have only gotten better. There are two games I’d like to focus on today. Ageing like a fine wine, Blizzard’s World of Warcraft gave us Legion, their sixth expansion since launch late last year. And few months later we were given Square Enix’s Stormblood, the second expansion for FFXIV: A Realm Reborn.

After recovering from a dreadful launch, FFXIV has steadily grown in popularity. I myself tried the 1.0 beta out, all those years ago. And through the dreadful UI and clumsy combat, I found a graphically outstanding and adventurous MMO, albeit it had its work cut out would it want to triumph over such other contenders at the time. WAR was just beginning to crumble, and Aion was competing for the top PvP scene. Whilst WoW was trying to follow up its most successful expansion of all time with Cataclysm.

As a side-note: for more information regarding the production and development cycle of FFXIV, I would eagerly refer you to the just-released documentary by Noclip.

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Eventually when I did take my character around the world of Eorzea, at first for 2.0 and then Heavensword. I appreciated it for what it was. Grand, scenic, story-driven and a largely homogeneous PvE game with a fantastic and supportive, loyal community. Unfortunately for me, as a PvPer first and foremost, I never put FFXIV and PvP together in the same sentence. Playing FFXIV and wanting to have a PvP mindset, was a thing you just simply didn’t do. I played the game for different reasons.

A funny example, writing this, here on Ed’s blog, there is a category or tag to talk about most major MMO releases in the past few years, be it Guild Wars 2, RIFT, or Archeage. Yet Final Fantasy is nowhere to be seen. I can’t speak solely for Ed, but as a keen PvPer I assume he didn’t give it a glancing look either.

Now don’t get me wrong, they have always tried. The team at Square Enix and Producer-cum-Director Naoki Yoshida; (rather affectionately known as Yoshi-P) has implemented PvP in an extremely largely PvE-centric game, developed on it, and pushed it to moderate success. A PvP scene had developed over time, and updates came thick and fast. New modes, ladders, leader-boards, fame, fortune, special recognition gear, pretty much everything you could want as a PvPer. Yoshida-san himself has stated before, that as a fan of WoW PvP and WoW in general, he takes no shame in taking from the best and delivering it in his own way.

The Bad

Unfortunate then, that when I first got my Paladin up to level 50 (the prerequisite level at the time!) and finally had my first match of FFXIV PvP, I immediately dismissed it. Players were floaty, as a melee, chasing others around constantly while not feeling my connections was a nightmare to say the least. Little feedback on what was happening and why it was happening was also an issue. I barely managed to get my head around class balance when I just outright decided enough was enough. It just didn’t feel right.

Maybe I was too used to WoW, where everything feels spot on and reactive. Whilst FFXIV felt sluggish and unresponsive. Part of me admits that after you play a game like WoW on and off for years you will inevitably get attuned to that engine, and so of course other games will feel off, and that it is up to you as the player to adapt to that.

WoWScrnShot_060617_212414

Undead Fidget Spinner

Fast-forward to now. I’ve played Legion, the first expansion I’ve invested in greatly since Cataclysm. And it isn’t just Mage that’s different, every class is. Referring to Ed’s last post on Class Customization, WoW has come a long way since its original conception of 3 trees per class with tens of points to delve into, your own way. Of course there will always be cookie cutter builds for this and that, but part of the fun is figuring those builds out, and part of the fun for people like myself, is to turn away from the norm, and do something different, challenging and unique. Most just want to be the best in PvP, some would rather the opportunity to thrive as a special snowflake.

This is no longer possible in WoW, and has been for some time. If you are unaware, here are three calculators to play with.

Blizzards PvP designers went in the right direction with honour talents. Now there are a whopping twelve decisions to make, instead of the previous six to make beforehand. It is a statement that when you have six more choices to play with, and you consider that a good thing, that something’s not quite right…

Without getting into too much detail, Blizzard wanted choices to be meaningful. They’ve done this, and no doubt it is much easier for them to balance when it’s just a few choices here and there, but for the players used to vast choices like Pre-Cata WoW, RIFT, Archeage and the likes, this is almost bare-bones game design, and boredom sets in fast. An Arcane mage is an Arcane Mage, a Protection Warrior is a Protection Warrior. No one is unique outside Legendary procs and trinkets, and they only work in non-rated or instanced PvP for balance reasons.

Ed and his blog has always specialized in PvP analysis and eccentric theorycraft for the insane. Just a few examples like M.A.S.H healer, and Riftblade Warrior, these are fun builds that I had the pleasure to experience first hand when we enjoyed our brief time in RIFT together. If this trend of simplifying and pruning continues, Ed won’t have much to talk about anymore.

The Good

Maybe we don’t get to choose what we want to be down to a T, but maybe we find something else worth staying on the scene for.

Legion introduced PvP stat templates. So for everyone new to an arena match, freshly geared and freshly dinged, your stats of health and other numbers will be defined by a ‘class template’. You should have at least a good to great chance of winning the match with little gear in PvP now. However, every item level over a specific threshold gained you a single percent above that template. See below for a simplified example.

New max level mage with item level of 720;

  • Item level rises to 800 in PvP, (template buffer zone).
  • Set Health at class template of 3 million.

Max level veteran mage of item level 890;

  • Item level advantage of +90 of the buffer zone of 800 gives player +9% in all template stats.
  • Sets Health at class template of 3.27 million.

So we have two mages that are vastly different, but much the same inside PvP. The veteran surely has an advantage, but he won’t making one-shot montage videos anytime soon…*cough*.

This also allows Blizzard to finally balance PvP separately. Is the Demon Hunter needing specific tuning? We can do that now, without affecting the main game.

dh stats

I’ve had my fun with WoW for now,  for I try to reach a decent rating for each expansion I play and have my fun, see the new art, marvel at how well the engine holds up, and then take a break until the next thing catches my eye. I don’t think anyone truly quits.

And as the dust from Legion was clearing, a storm cloud gathered on the horizon. FFXIV beckoned me once again. I had been largely absent from the game for some time. But I kept up with the news. Among that news was that PvP was being completely redone. Consider me interested.

Some specific changes caught my attention:

  • You can PvP from level 30 now, not 50 as previous.
  • All modes are available at 30.
  • Role templates borrowed from Legion.
  • Gear irrelevant and cosmetic.
  • Extreme pruning, most classes have a maximum of 15 buttons to play with.
  • You can now gain PvE experience by doing PvP.
  • Extreme CC pruning, stun-free environment

I can’t say if at the time I considered them all changes for the good. But it allowed me to be on that other side of the fence, and jump in on equal footing, from a fresh perspective. First and foremost, my time with Stormblood’s PvP has been a blast. It is different, fun, engaging and challenging enough to keep me occupied.

ability pruning

Not much to keep track of is it?

However, this isn’t without some faults. Yes, the ‘floatyness’ aforementioned is still there and thus playing melee is hard to adjust to. I recently learnt that everyone in FFXIV, PvP or otherwise, plays at a simulated rate of 200ms of input lag. This does explain why I could always finish an uncompleted cast, or that when you step out of AOE at the very last minute, you may have already been too late. I suppose this is to try and lower the boundaries between people on poor connections or PS4 and people who are playing on an advantageous 20ms. Since knowing this, I have adjusted my play style accordingly and some fun tricks are actually possible with this in mind. For instance if you play a caster, the range on your abilities in PvP is sometimes hilarious because although it looks like the enemy is out of reach, your spell might just clip him anyway.

Specialization wise, there isn’t much. In some ways even less so than WoW. Stormblood has probably taken the most extreme approach to this almost MOBA-like cutting room floor of PvP game design I have seen yet. A Bard will always be a Bard in FFXIV, it is very vanilla like that and I don’t see this changing. But in PvP you have a few options given to you, and a few taken away. See the Square Enix’s great Job Guide for more specific info.

On entering any PvP instance, (there is no world PvP at all in FFXIV as of yet), your hotbars are swapped for their PvP counterpart respectively. Your health and mana is set at a fixed rate per your role (Tank, Healer, RDPS, MDPS), and some combo skills are even consolidated to a single button press, (similar to how Aion did combos).

As for as customization, these are your options:

abilities

Pick two abilities out of seven (all classes can access these seven abilities).

traits

Pick three passives out of nine (all classes can access these nine passives).

That’s it. You may say, how meaningful are they? But you’d be surprised. If I want to play a bit more defensive I can do that and take the required traits and skills. If I want to go all out, I can. The numbers are a funny thing too, if your skill says it’ll hit for 1000, it’ll hit for 1000, give or take what traits they have or if they’re buffed.

Akin to WoW, the choices are good, but if you’re the kind of PvPer like myself and Ed, you have to put that side of your gaming mentality away and hopefully you’ll get a different experience.

I had that roller-coaster emotion moment, when leveling one of the new classes, Red Mage, I gained a healing spell. This is great off-heal support in PvE, and I love to be able to have that dual personality and versatility. Cue my broken heart when my heal spell was not present on my hotbar in PvP. Again, they have gone to extreme lengths of pruning. Tanks will tank, DPS can DPS, healers will heal. No one else.

I’ve tried a few different classes in Stormblood so far, and my favourite mode is the tightly packed 8v8. The queue times are literally non-existent now that you can level via PvP, and it requires just the right amount of tactics rather than the other more zerg orientated modes.

There are some downfalls, as of about a week into Stormblood proper, I had gotten my PvP set for both my main classes, and there isn’t anything else to work towards while it is pre-season. You cannot chat before or during a match, to talk tactics or otherwise, everyone has commands that you can use (Attack my target! Out of Mana!), and I assume this is to prevent abuse but I’m unsure why it is disallowed in the smaller modes and allowed in the bigger 24v242v4 matches.

All in all, I’ve learnt to put away that side of myself in MMOs at the moment, as it seems Ed was right, class customization isn’t going to be a thing in the future. There are games that excel in that, like Path of Exile. But with more choice comes more exploitation and frustration in others, and developers don’t much enjoy the outcry response that echo afterwards and beyond.

If you’re stuck for something at the moment, and aren’t keen on World of Tanks, try something new, it might shock you. FFXIV is free until level 30. Give it a shot and support the scene and the game.

Gameplay soon to follow.

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Posted in Content, Game, Game Design, PVP, World of Warcraft

Is Class Customization Going the Way of the Dinosaur?


In MMOs, on opposite ends of the spectrum you have two models for class design:

  1. Each class supports very high customization, where the player can invest in particular skill trees / talents / abilities to support their preferred playstyle and capabilities. E.g. WoW, RIFT, SWTOR, WildStar
  2. Each class allows zero functional customization, any customization is strictly cosmetic (skins, etc.). E.g. Overwatch

For years, the high customization model was the industry norm, starting with WoW and later reaching its zenith with RIFT in 2011. In RIFT each of the 4 classes – cleric, mage, rogue, warrior – had 9 (yes, nine!) talent trees, and you could mix-and-match any 3 trees and decide how to spend your talent points in your chosen 3 trees. I loved the RIFT’s class design – there were so many different combinations and I had a field day trying to create different viable specs and builds, including my M*A*S*H Melee Healer Cleric spec for PVP.

One obvious issue with the high customization model is balancing trees and classes, both within a class and across classes. This was very true in PVE for classes that could play the same role, e.g. tank or healer or DPS.

Exacerbating objectively real balance issue are two factors:

  1. The ability or inability of players to understand class mechanics and make sensible builds
  2. The popular misconceptions on class balance. There were times when the community incorrectly believed that specs were non-functional/underpowered or overpowered, when in reality players simply hadn’t sorted out yet how to play them correctly or counter them.

A good example of a misconception of balance was Prot Pally in early Cataclysm. When the Cataclysm class changes were announced, many WoTLK veteran paladins wrote off Prot as a viable PVP spec. I was able to sort out how to make Prot work based on the new mechanics and abilities, even though I had no prior endgame PVP experience with Prot Pally. Sometimes you just gotta think through the mechanics and experiment yourself.

However, there were definitely cases where particular classes and builds were stupidly OP, as was the case with DPS Spellslingers and DPS Warriors in WildStar. The balance was so pitiful that Spellslingers and Warriors were selling carries to 1800 rating in 2v2 Arena for 50 platinum, and it screwed up the economy and created a context of have-and-have-nots, not based on player skill primarily but rather heavily influenced by selection of character class and willingness to spend RL money. I managed to reach 1800 Arena rating with a non-FOTM spec, my “Melee Mage” Esper, but it was frustrating having to face players with faceroll specs, especially when they had already acquired a full set of faceroll Arena gear (gear scaling is a story for another day).

I believe that striving for 100% balance is a theoretical goal and not a practical one. In reality, if the 10% overpowered specs/classes and 10% underpowered specs/classes at any point in time are gradually tuned, a game can have reasonable class balance. In many cases it’s fairly obvious to highly-rated players which trees and abilities are problematic from a balance standpoint. And of course with telemetry and analytics, a developer can do the number-crunching to identify outliers in terms of measurable performance and which classes/specs are prevalent at higher ratings.

In recent years, especially with the mass popularity of MOBAs, we’re seeing more minimal-or-no customization games, where a given hero/class has predefined capabilities. Some MOBAs have the in-match customization where you spend points on things as you level up (which I’ve never liked, I find it tedious). Overwatch has taken no customization extreme – each class is 100% fixed in terms of abilities.

On the one hand, fixed classes makes it much easier for players to understand how a given class should be played, since they have zero control over how the class is designed – the issue then becomes playing it correctly. Whereas with the high customization model there are two hurdles: player understanding of what is a functional spec and playing it correctly.

I believe these two hurdles are less of an issue in our current world, now that many highly-skilled players stream high-rated PVP on Twitch/YouTube, talk about how to play classes, and discuss what balance issues exist. These players are the experts.

I would so love to see games with RIFT’s rich class customization. I love dialing in how a spec works, kind of like making cookies with the ingredients you like, versus having a fixed menu of cookies to choose from.

Which model of class customization do you prefer and why?

Posted in Game Design, PVP, RIFT, SWTOR, WildStar, World of Warcraft

Where the Heck I’ve Been


It occurred to me when looking at my recent (well, not really recent) blog posts that I pretty much disappeared from the face of the earth for the 2nd half of 2016 and didn’t address it here.

We had some major issues come up IRL related to heath and housing and had to move several times during that time. It was super stressful and exhausting, and for many months we were too busy sorting through personal concerns while I kept up with my product management day job for me to play online games, let alone blog or YouTube about them in my free time. Those 6 months were by far the worst period in our lives.

Thankfully, things have been getting better. We moved into a new place in late December, and while there are a couple issues we’re still working through, we’re settling in and life is returning to a semblance of normalcy.

In terms of gaming, some folks have asked which MMORPGs I’m going to play. To be honest, I haven’t had the time to keep up with MMORPG space, aside from dropping by massivelyop.com every few weeks. I know Camelot Unchained and Crowfall are coming, and I’ve heard good things about both, but I haven’t yet checked out either meaningfully. To some extent I’m also burned out of early Betas as we have seen so many games flop after launch – just tell me when the game is launching or moving to “Open” Beta and I’ll play it, and if it’s a good game hopefully enough people will stick with it so that there’s critical mass.

In the meanwhile, I’m continuing to play World of Tanks, which for a variety of reasons (it’s fun, it has a high skill cap, and it has a large active population) has been one of the only games that has managed to sustain my interest over several years (the others being World of Warcraft and to a lesser extent Guild Wars 2). I can add Armored Warfare to the list of online games that I stubbornly continued to play even when it was clear that the population was struggling and not likely to recover meaningfully.

At any rate, I wanted to drop y’all a line and let you know where I’ve been. I hope RL is going well for you!

Posted in Armored Warfare, Blog Musings, Camelot Unchained, Game Design, World of Tanks

RIP Armored Warfare, Road to Unicum is Back


As you may have heard, game publisher Mail.Ru is pulling the plug on Armored Warfare (AW) game developer Obsidian Entertainment (OEI) and taking the development effort in-house.

This is rather unfortunate, as I had a positive impression of OEI and thought they were heading in the right direction with Balance 2.0, which was a major rework of many mechanics, including normalizing damage based on gun caliber and normalizing HP based on size/weight to prevent power creep across tiers, plus positive changes to create better balance among classes.

Mail.Ru doesn’t seem to understand the Western market (EU/NA), so I have no confidence Mail.Ru will meaningfully improve AW.

Beyond that, switching development teams always creates massive churn, partly because the new team doesn’t know the existing code base and architecture intimately, and partly because people always want to change something to fit their particular vision.

I wanted to share two things with you:

  1. My AW clan leader Gatortribe posting an in-depth writeup on what happened with AW. It’s a fascinating read
  2. I went back to World of Tanks (WoT) several weeks ago

The move back to WoT wasn’t based on prescience on my part – I was simply tired of waiting for Balance 2.0 to launch and the PVP and Global Operations queues were not popping in AW due to the pitiful NA population. I went back to WoT to see whether I’d enjoy it.

The short answer is that I’ve found WoT very enjoyable even after playing AW. I think WoT is rife with pay-for-advantage mechanics, but that’s not going to change, and I’ve grown to realize that the vast majority of the community doesn’t care either.

I’m adding to my WoT “Road to Unicum” series, here’s the latest episode:

Posted in Armored Warfare, Game Design, PVP, World of Tanks

Interview with My.com Senior Producer Josh Morris on Armored Warfare at GDC 2016


I sat down with Josh Morris at Game Developers Conference 2016 for an hour to discuss all things Armored Warfare (AW).

Josh is the Senior Producer at My.com and previously worked at Wargaming for three years as NA Producer for World of Tanks (WoT).

We covered a wide range of topics, including tank balance, PVP and PVE evolution, determining how modern tanks should work in-game, and matchmaking. Warning, very long wall-of-text incoming :)

Read more ›

Posted in Armored Warfare, Business Analysis, Game Design, Interview, PVE, PVP
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