An Ode to High Skill Ceilings

areluin-48I miss the days when MMOs created classes that had high skill ceilings. By that I mean classes where your success or failure actually hinges on how well you can play your class. This is why I love my rune-keeper in Lord of the Rings Online; depending on how well I’m playing that day, I can take on four or five things my level at once, or die after a single one-to-one fight. Like in chess, I have to think several moves ahead, about how long I can keep throwing DoTs before I switch to putting bubbles and HoTs on myself before switching back to damage. When it works out, it’s the best feeling on Middle-Earth. When it doesn’t, I have no one to blame but myself, and I’m ok with that. Somehow the knowledge that I couldn’t have possibly beaten an encounter because of my class and level makes the game feel scripted and robs it of some of its fun. Both rune-keepers and wardens are looked down upon by some players as “bad” classes, but I’ve seen people do some amazing things with both. It’s not the class that’s bad, it’s that it’s less forgiving to bad players. Sure, we need both–everyone has to start somewhere–but I love when I find a class that allows me to solo group quests, but doesn’t feel overpowered because I had to work for that win.

The worst case is when the skill required to do well is high, but the game doesn’t reward players for it. For instance, I remember when Star Wars the Old Republic’s Shadow/Assassin class could out-tank any other class if the player knew what they were doing. Their rotation was complex, with a lot of defensive cooldowns to make up for their light armor, but it was totally worth it to learn. Sadly, from what I’ve heard from current players, they’re only a shadow of their former selves (pun totally intended) in that respect. They can still tank, but at the end of the day they don’t make better tanks than the Knight or Vanguard, who have to do only a fraction of the work to accomplish the same thing.

Sadly, it seems like many newer games tend to have lower and lower skill ceilings. Some would say it’s because the genre is being slowly dumbed down and casual-ified, and, while there’s some truth to that, I would argue that it has more to do with balance. It’s much easier to balance classes that have a pretty low skill ceiling, because you’re fairly safe in assuming that everyone is going to be playing at or near that ceiling. Also, your testers don’t have to be experts in every class to get an accurate picture of how it will play in the hands of players, just average. I really like WildStar’s solution to this. In WildStar, classes are fairly simple, but player skill is still a huge part of doing well, because you’re constantly moving and dodging red telegraphs while making sure you’re pointed at whatever you’re currently attacking/healing.

My House In TESO vs. My House In LotRO

I’m really glad ESO has added housing. I always love seeing the things players do when given creative freedom. But seriously, guys, I ran all the way to a public instance in Shadowfen from Ebonheart (because it was the closest wayshrine I’ve been to), and all you give me is the “deed” to a hotel room? (Who sells a deed to a room in an inn anyway?) They weren’t even nice enough to start me out with any crappy starter furniture; I have to go buy it off of a vendor before I could claim it. Oh, and I can put my pets and mounts inside for some reason, so if you’ve ever wanted a horse for a roommate you’re in luck. I suppose I should be grateful that I can run all the way to Shadowfen and unlock housing at level 15 thanks to level scaling, but until I get 40k-50k more gold, and then some more for a reasonable amount of furniture, it looks like my choices are between a tiny hotel room or a slightly larger hotel room. Granted, I’ve been playing LotRO a lot longer than I’ve been playing TESO, but I feel like I should be able to get something larger than a prison cell even at this point.

LotRO, however, has housing that is much more accessible to low-level players. Several of my characters’ crafting professions have several housing decoration recipes–something I have yet to run across in TESO despite my obsessive habit of checking every box and barrel in sight–in the first two or three tiers of crafting alone, and I commonly get animal skin drops that can be taxidermized into trophies for free. A few weeks ago, I would have complained about LotRO’s total lack of position controls, but recently (on the same day as TESO’s housing patch, oddly enough) they added in sliders that allow players to move items on the X, Y, and Z axes, allowing for much more freedom. It feels like a super quick-and-dirty fix to a clunky old system, because that’s precisely what it is, but it’s so much better than what we had before.

I guess the difference between the two is that TESO’s housing is geared toward endgame players and LotRO’s isn’t. Maybe level 50 me will look back at this and laugh at the fact that I’m complaining about shelling out 50,000+ gold for a house. We all know that inflation is unavoidable in MMOs (the gold cap in WoW used to be an unimaginably high 37 gold at launch, which is positively destitute by today’s standards), so it’s probably best to aim high on this sort of thing. But right now it’s frustrating that I technically have access to this cool system, and can see screenshots and videos of all of the fun things people are doing with their housing plots, but can’t really do anything myself. I almost wish it was level capped.

So which system is “better?” The answer is that I like the accessibility of LotRO’s housing, and it’s much better than it was, but TESO’s objectively has more potential. There are more decorations allowed, there’s more freedom of placement, and it’s simply a newer game with better design. I also think some of that potential will be tarnished by a system that’s designed to tempt you to just skip the fundraising stage and just buy a furnished house from the cash shop, but with cash shop house packages ranging from around $20 to well over $100 (!), I think I’ll stick to saving up my gold.

2017 Predictions, Hopes, and Resolutions

Well, here we are, another trip around the sun and the world hasn’t exploded, civilization as we know it hasn’t come to an end, and the MMO industry hasn’t completely evaporated. I know 2016 was getting a lot of hate, but as for me, I had a pretty good year. And I think the gaming industry–especially the MMO industry–had a pretty good year as well. I thought I’d use the first post of the year to talk about what my predictions and hopes are for next year, and what would a New Year’s post be without resolutions?

Predictions

A New Guild Wars 2 Expansion
This isn’t much of a prediction; we’ve heard very strong rumblings of a new expansion to Guild Wars 2 set in an area from Guild Wars 1. Sadly, I haven’t played much of the original Guild Wars, so I have no specific predictions there, but it seems reasonable given the direction the living world story is going. I predict that it will include a new class, probably something revived from Guild Wars 1, and a new zone that’s less vertical/gliding-focused (and, by extension, hopefully less awful to navigate). As much as I’d like to see a new race, I don’t think that will ever happen; it would be a lot of work to fit them into the existing storyline. I don’t think raids are going away, but I think we’ll also see a couple of new dungeons in 2017. I could be totally wrong on this one, but I think the community hasn’t been as thrilled about raids as ArenaNet thought, and I think they’ll finally break down and give us some new dungeons.

WildStar Sunsets Near the End of the Year
It really saddens me to make this prediction because I love Wildstar, I love its combat, I love its setting, and I love its housing, but I just don’t see WildStar lasting much longer. What’s worse is that it becomes kind of a self fulfilling prophecy; everyone keeps saying it’s dying, and nobody want to get invested in a game that’s going to shut down in six months, so no new players come in, and the game shuts down. But hey, it’s possible that it’ll just downsize and put content out more slowly than before and keep on keeping on for years to come. I really hope so. Only time will tell.

LotRO and DDO Flourish Under New Management
Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online recently went indie with developer Standing Stone studios. While the fact that they’re being published by Daybreak isn’t exactly comforting, as Daybreak has been making some weird decisions ever since it changed hands from SOE, not the least of which was the media silence and eventual demise of EverQuest Next, I think the fact that Standing Stone was willing to pick up development of the games says a lot about its future. I’ve popped my head into LotRO a few times over the last few days, and the community seems cautiously optimistic. I’ve talked to a few long-time players that say that the game was better when Turbine was indie, and hope that this is a return to that standard. It seems like the excitement is even bringing some past players back, which is always a good sign.

Kickstarter Falls Out of Favor
To say that 2016 was not kind to kickstarters would be like saying that a few celebrities died in 2016. Mighty No. 9 was a colossal failure, VR was (predictably) not as game-changing as Oculus et al. claimed it would be, the Pebble smartwatch sold out to Fitbit and canceled most of its Pebble 2 preorders, John Smedley’s Hero’s Song failed it meet its Kickstarter goal and then closed its doors just after Christmas, a variety of kickstarted MMOs suffered from setbacks, delays, and disillusioned backers, and that’s just to name the ones I was following. I think people are starting to realize that making a video game is a very expensive endeavor, and that maybe paying for it before it’s even produced isn’t the best way to motivate inexperienced developers to release a quality product. I really like the idea of crowdfunding, but I’m going to need a lot of convincing before I back anything else.

Hopes

A Strong, Traditional, Western MMORPG Appears
It doesn’t have to come out in 2017, but we really need an announcement of something to fill the void that EverQuest Next left. I’ve played EQ2 for maybe a couple hours total, and even I was extremely disappointed in EQN’s cancellation. I’m not saying that if one of these games doesn’t materialize in 2017 the entire MMO industry will be doomed to stagnation and death, I’m just hoping for this because I enjoy playing new and different MMORPGs. All of the scrappy Kickstarted indie MMOs floating around out there are nice, but I don’t know if they’re going to have the presence, impact, and drawing power that EQN would have had. I think we need a big AAA studio to come out and make a statement that, scoff all you want, but there’s still lots of money to be made in MMOs, and plenty of life left in the formula.

SWTOR’s F2P Gets Better
Star Wars the Old Republic has always had one of the most restrictive free-to-play options. I know of no other game where you have to pay to hide your head slot or have enough hotbars just to have access to all of your skills. But with the addition of the Galactic Command and the removal of weekly content passes, they’re basically telling free players not to plan on doing any endgame without subscribing. I was really hoping that SWTOR’s business model would get less restrictive over time, not more. I’m really hoping that there’s enough negative feedback that at least some of it gets reevaluated, but I’m not holding my breath.

Resolutions

Play More Mobile Games… While Exercising!
I have a desk job, and my MMO hobby isn’t exactly the most active one, so my wife and I have been looking at putting our Christmas money toward an elliptical, and I really like the idea of motivating myself to exercise by finding a game that I only play while I work out. I’ll probably be looking for something turn-based like Hearthstone or the various Final Fantasy games available on Android, so if you have any suggestions, let me know.

Spend Less On Steam, More On MMOs
I have over 350 games on Steam right now, and I’ve only finished a handful of them. Generally, the average Steam game I buy gets played for a couple of hours at most, yet I’ve spent countless hours this year playing MMOs. Why, then, do I tend to spend way more money on single-player games than on MMOs? I want to make a conscious effort to spend less on Steam and more on the MMOs I play. I just wish MMO cash shops had as many sales as Steam does.

I’ll pull this post back out a year from now and see how I did on everything. Happy new year, everyone!

My End Goals in Various MMOs

I’ve been playing a good amount of Star Wars the Old Republic lately. I’ve been meaning to get back in and see the last couple of expansions’ stories if nothing else, and Dark vs. Light gave me incentive to do that. Then recent announcements about changes to endgame that basically say that they don’t want my money unless I subscribe (cliffnotes version: no engame gear for F2P players, F2P players can no longer buy weekly passes for dungeons, raids, PvP, etc.) had me ready to ragequit, but, when I thought about it, I realized that I have literally never done a raid in SWTOR, and it’s been years since I did a dungeon with anything other than a PUG. Sure, this means that I will never expand beyond this kind of occasional, casual play that means I will give them little to no money, but still, it doesn’t mean much for the way I play right now. This got me thinking about what I really want out of my MMOs. The answer I came up with was that every game’s end goal was unique. Here are a few, in no particular order.

Star Wars the Old Republic
Since we’re on the subject of SWTOR, let’s start here. Since BioWare has basically told me the only thing I can do as a free to play player is story, that’s all I’m likely to be playing. After all, it’s what BioWare is best at, and what their focus has been on for a while now. If I skipped this expansion it wouldn’t be the first, but Knights of the Fallen Empire has me interested, so I’ll probably stick around at least enough to see the story once. I bought a couple of character slots while they were on sale, so I’ve been playing some vanilla content I’ve never seen before along with the newer stuff, which has been fun. It’s not likely to keep me in the game for long, but it’s fun for now.

Guild Wars 2
I created a new guild with some friends, and, in the first couple of weeks, the eight of us have done more as a guild than I (and several others) had done with their much larger guilds. This, combined with running the Halloween event (I finally got the Hexed outfit!), has, strangely enough, renewed my interest in the game. I’m looking to get enough hero points to finish off my elite spec on a couple of my favorite characters (necro is mostly done, working on my revenant now, as well as my healing ranger a little) and I’ve been running dungeons with friends more often. I’ve somehow never done fractals, so I’m looking to do that soon. Maybe even get into some raids eventually?

Rift
I like Rift, and I finally have a couple of characters that I like, but I’m still not sure what my goals are for this game. I’m certainly not playing it for the story, and I’m not sure I’m dedicated enough to want to get into endgame dungeons or raiding. I guess I’m just playing for the sake of a new game to level in? Nothing wrong with that, I guess.

WildStar
I actually have a decently geared Esper healer, and I was signed up to go raiding with my guild shortly before they fell apart. Finding a new guild has severely decreased my interest in playing, which is sad because WildStar remains one of my favorite MMOs, and it needs all the players it can get right now. The death of my guild has, however, freed me up to finally check out the opposite faction. I’ve been slowly but surely leveling a Dominion engineer, which has been a fun experience. I may have to level one on the Exile side when I’m done. I like the Exile faction a lot better in general, but man, their capital city is a dump. The one for the Dominion is so much prettier.

Elder Scrolls Online
This one is almost the same story as Rift. The story is a little more interesting, but I don’t have any clear goals, and the angst that comes with building a new character is paralyzing. I decided to put this one on the shelf until One Tamriel came out, but now that’s here and I haven’t decided on a character to play.

Lord of the Rings Online
Really, all I want is to simply walk into Mordor.
Seriously, though, my only goal is to see all of the world/story content in this game. I keep getting right up to the gates of Moria and stalling out. The rune-keeper class really clicked with me, and I want to get back to this one as soon as possible.

LotRO: Three Reasons Why I Hate Angmar

Areluin 43
Every MMO has that one zone where characters just absolutely stall. For me in Lord of the Rings Online, it’s Angmar. It’s funny, I just passed the exact spot where my Beorning is parked. In a way, it’s discouraging, because he’s still several levels higher than my Rune-Keeper, but in another, it’s a reminder that this new character could easily share his fate if I don’t push through. There are a lot of reasons to hate Angmar, but here are my top three.

The Lore Is Boring
I’m no Tolkien expert, but as far as I remember from the books, Angmar was basically just “that place where the Witch-King is from.” I’m not sure if all of these tribes of hillmen are a real thing in some obscure scrap of Tolkien lore, but if they are, The Professor didn’t feel the need to burden us with the details the way LotRO does. Don’t get me wrong, expansions upon existing lore are one of the reasons why I love well done licensed IP games like LotRO, but if I thought of Angmar at all, I’ve always pictured it as a mini Mordor, ruled by a Nazgul and crawling with orcs, not a land devoted to a couple of warring tribes that feel completely disconnected with the rest of Middle-Earth. I read most of the quest text in LotRO–a lot of it is really well written–but once I hit Angmar I skim at best.

The Quest Structure Is Awkward
My biggest complaint about LotRO is not the awkwardly lumpy player character heads (although, for goodness sake, could we get an update to those? NPCs look better than player characters in the newer expansions!), it’s that the quest tracker only holds five quests at a time. I’m sure there’s some legitimate technical reason that they haven’t fixed this, and I guess it’s better than nothing, but it’s really annoying in a zone like Angmar where most of the questgivers are packed into one corner of the map and not really arranged by area at all. What I end up doing is picking up everything I can while I’m in town, finishing the five quests that fit in my tracker, then taking them off and adding five new ones back on, and hoping I don’t end up doing too much backtracking because I didn’t know I had to pick some flowers in the middle of a field overrun with Duvardain half way across the zone that I just ran through to do the last quest I finished (no seriously, there’s literally a quest to pick flowers in the middle of this barren wasteland). Add to that the fact that 40 is when you really start to feel the level curve ramp up, and the whole zone really drags on.

The Setting Is Just Plain Oppressive
The zone is mostly desert with a little bit of swamp mixed in. Just look at the screenshot above; dead trees, scrub brush, and ruins. That pretty much sums up the scenery. And what’s up with the sky? It’s red all day long, with some kind of weird magical glow that I haven’t ever found an explanation for. Even the music is almost nonexistent here, replaced by some creepy ambient noises.

LotRO: Rune-Keeping

Areluin 29I’ve never been a big fan of elves in any universe, and it all goes back to Tolkien elves. After all, basically every modern fantasy story can trace its roots, directly or indirectly, back to Tolkien, especially anything to do with elves, which, prior to Tolkien, were depicted mostly as small, mischievous pixies rather than tall, beautiful (arrogant, know-it-all), and graceful humanoids with pointed ears. To be perfectly honest, though, I’ve always been a little torn about Tolkien elves. On the one hand, they have a cool culture, and Tolkien went to all the trouble of writing a whole history book and an entire language for them. On the other hand, mostly what we see of them in the Lord of the Rings is them saying “Oh, the greatest threat Middle-Earth has ever known is returning? Yeah we’ve known about that for ages. Well, we’re packing up our army of immortal supersoldiers and sailing west, see ya.” And let’s be honest, cramming a weird dwarf-elf love triangle into the Hobbit movies where it didn’t belong didn’t improve my love for elves either.

All that to say, of the multitude of characters I’ve made in Lord of the Rings Online, not many of them have been elves. I made Areluin (the Sindarin Elvish words for “royal” and “blue” run together) a while back because I needed another character for crafting, and I made him and elf because I hadn’t done the elf starting zone in a long time. I didn’t think I would ever end up playing him, but somehow I ended up doing a little questing with him one night when I was bored, and quickly fell in love with the class.

The Rune-Keeper is a really interesting, fairly unique class. They have an attunement bar that moves toward either DPS or Healing as you use spells of each type that increases the potency of those types of skills. I’m not sure why I haven’t played the rune-keeper sooner, since it’s practically nothing but HoTs and DoTs, and that’s been my favorite class archetype over the last few years. It just feels so “right.” I’m super squishy, with not much health, but I feel like I have a lot of power and survivability because I can DoT my target up and then hit a button to switch to healing, put a bunch of HoTs on myself and finish with a bubble that resets my attunement, then go back to damage before my DoTs expire. That requires constantly thinking a few steps ahead–you have to estimate when you’ll need to switch to self-healing, especially since some of my attunement resets and switchers have long cooldowns–but that makes it all the more interesting for me. I’d be lying if I said I died less than on my Beorning or Captain, but I don’t feel nearly as helpless as, say, my lore master. I’d love to try the healing game, but low-level dungeon runs are hard to come by in LotRO these days. Maybe I’ll ask around some time to see if any guilds do lowbie/alt dungeons on a regular basis. (Let me know if you know of any guilds on Gladden that do this!)

I feel a little bad starting yet another character on LotRO. This is the game where my altaholic tendencies were born, so I’ve done the Lone-Lands so many times that I could navigate it in my sleep, and the beauty of Lake Evendim now looks more like a painfully slow swim to the island of Tyl Ruinen (I just heard the zone referred to as “Everswim” in world chat). Also, as much as I’m loving the rune-keeper, I said basically the same things about the beorning just last Febuary. Will this character suffer the same burnout? Only time will tell, but it would be nice to get at least one of them into Moria. I’ve paid for several expansions that I’ve yet to see, and I’d like to remedy that situation.

Is It Possible To Balance Melee and Ranged Classes?

It’s a perennial problem for MMOs: either melee classes have the advantage or ranged ones do. In WildStar, the constant moving and dodging out of red means ranged classes have an advantage simply because they can keep attacking while they move. In older MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online, where most of the ranged classes are rooted casters and most of the melee classes have a lot of instant casts, melee classes have the edge. From what I’ve heard about SWTOR, it seems that they’ve recently swung the pendulum; melee classes have always had more DPS/tanking potential, but many of the recent dungeon and raid bosses have included mechanics that require melee classes to move back to avoid massive damage, thus limiting their output. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that I do better with melee classes in games with action combat like Elder Scrolls Online because I’m more likely to miss with ranged attacks. Sure, this isn’t really a balance issue so much as a “stop failing” issue, and probably less of an issue in dungeons where, if it’s anything like every other MMO I’ve played, most bosses are the size of a small house, but still, this is a genre where people create massive spreadsheets of damage output to determine the META, and I’ve seen people literally complaining that one race or faction has an “advantage” over the others because their casting animation is a little more subtle.

The best solution I’ve seen to this problem is in Guild Wars 2’s, where most classes can be either melee or ranged depending on what weapon you’re holding. This allows the developers a lot of freedom when designing fights because everyone should be able to step back and hit things from range at least sometimes. Unfortunately, it also means that you really have to have at least one ranged weapon set to be viable most of the time, which is annoying because there are many classes that have two melee sets that I like (for instance, Revenant’s Mace/Axe and Sword/Shield). Couldn’t I have a whole bunch of weapon sets like Guild Wars 1?

So what do you think? Is it possible to truly balance these two class styles? Have you played any MMOs with any clever ways of bringing these two class types into balance?