Anachrony

2010-08-02

Respecting the Solitary Life

So, StarCraft II. Much ink has been spilled over various aspects of the game, from the rebalanced multiplayer to the lack of LAN play to the curiously elevated price tag—$60 for this versus $50 for most PC games. There’s an aspect to this that many haven’t considered, however: the singleplayer game.

Most RTS games treat the singleplayer game as an extended tutorial for the multiplayer. There’s a thin veneer of plot slathered on, but the real purpose is to get you familiar with the units and tactics of each faction, so you can go forth to the online matches and, hopefully, not suck.

This is not the right way to go about it. For one thing, the AI opponents never behave like real people do in a match. This does a disservice to those looking to get ready for the MP, because it sets up a bunch of wrong expectations that have to be unlearned once you actually wade into the fray.

The multiplayer craze has been huge in the past few years, driven in no small part by games like Team Fortress 2 and Halo that manage to be relevant years after their release. For these games, their success is driven by the depth and satisfaction of their multiplayer modes. RTS games are no strangers to this, certainly. The whole genre, more or less, has been serving up the same MP oriented gameplay for years now, providing further and further refinements of essentially the same formula.

The problem with this, I feel, is how this affects singleplayer enthusiasts. The people who play games not to connect with others, but to get away from them for a little while. Sure, playing with others can be fun, engaging, uplifting and so forth. But sometimes, you don’t want to put up with that. Sometimes, you want to just fire up a game and play, without worrying about coordinating with other people’s schedules, without worrying about dropped connections and server hiccups and oh hang on guys, I have to take out the trash.

Singleplayer is an aspect of gaming that has been denigrated in recent years. The contest of man vs. machine is one that can be mishandled in so many ways: inconsistent difficulty, cheating AI opponents, Insane Troll Logic puzzles, narmful cutscenes or dialog that serve to break immersion, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam. Yet when it’s done right—and we have plenty of examples of how it can be—it is glorious. Games that pay attention to pacing, to challenge, to fun; these are the ones we remember for a lifetime.

This brings me back to StarCraft II. (Bet you thought I’d forgotten!) Blizzard has certainly spared no aspect of the multiplayer; they understand their fans too well to neglect that. One aspect that hasn’t gotten as much press—though there certainly has been some—is the singleplayer game. Yes, it focuses solely on the Terrans, but this is to the game’s benefit.

Instead of having to cram everything into ten missions, they have the space to let the player breathe—to absorb the game’s essence and atmosphere at a more natural pace. New elements are introduced gradually, and the player is given some agency in the progression via the research trees.

There’s certainly nothing here that hasn’t been seen in RTS games for years, but the sheer amount of care and craft that has gone into this game is phenomenal. I normally loathe RTS games; I only played through the first StarCraft with cheats on to get the story. In this one, I find myself playing the missions for their own sake.

The cutscenes can veer into cornball territory at times, but they never outstay their welcome. The shipboard scenes that serve as the mission hub are bursting at the seams with little touches put there to discover. One of these, an arcade cabinet sitting off in the corner of the Cantina, is the front end to a top-down scrolling shooter game: The Lost Viking. This bears emphasizing: Blizzard hid a whole other game inside StarCraft II, just because they could. It’s mainly meant to show off the capability of the SC2 engine, but it’s got enough depth to be enjoyable in its own right.

Blizzard didn’t have to do any of this. They could have slapped together a quick SP campaign, shipped the game with all the MP enhancements, and they still would have made a mint. They didn’t, though. They chose to put just as much time and care into the singleplayer experience as they did for the multiplayer game. The end result is a polished, refined game that’s a joy to play.

Sure, Blizzard has more money to throw at any one project than most companies have period. But that’s not what makes their games great; Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 had just as much money thrown at it, and nobody’s going to remember it in a year save the die-hard grognards who spend their life in MP matches. StarCraft II is going to be with us for years to come, because Blizzard put care and thought into making it fun as a game, rather than an interactive special-effects reel. More companies could stand to learn from that attitude.

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2009-07-17

From WoW to meh.

Filed under: Rants — Tags: , , , , — halbyrd @ 03:51

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I’ve been playing World of Warcraft since around patch 2.2, or August 2007 for those keeping score at home.  That makes it just a month shy of two years.  I’m not going to be sticking around for the anniversary, though.

It’s nothing to do with the usual complaints–that it’s a time sink, that much of the combat is repetitive, et cetera.  Grind is a central part of what makes a MMORPG what it is, and I have no particular problem with that.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but most of life is about doing the same things again and again.  WoW at least has the decency to reward me for my perserverance.

No, my problem with WoW centers around player skill.  People have held that in this game, life really begins when you hit the level cap.  From this perspective, the process of going from lv. 1 chicken chaser to lv. 60 70 80 badass is, in essence, an extended and extremely forgiving tutorial.  You have time to mess about, learn the mechanics, and see some interesting scenery along the way.  This is fine and good–in fact, I think more games outside of the MMO scene could stand to take a lesson or two from this model.

Once you’ve climbed that mountain, though, what’s there to greet you?  If life begins at 80, what does this life entail?  The answer, in WoW’s case is: not much.  You can go the hardcore PvP route, ganking noobs for fun, sharpening your skills in battlegrounds, and competing “for realz” in the arenas.  This tends to fall flat, for the simple reason that WoW was not designed around this kind of competitive play.  PvP has been shoehorned in after the fact to appease the griefer contingent, but it’s ultimately a distraction from WoW’s true focus: Raiding.

Before Arenas, before Tournament realms, before moneyhat-driven dreams of eSports fame, and even before Battlegrounds, WoW was all about Raiding.  Getting a bunch of people together, finding some godsforsaken castle or cavern, and running from one end of it to the other, with nothing but the entire population of Murder City between you and glory.  With potent magic, huge phallic swords, and ridiculously proportioned shoulderpads, it’s all designed to feed our inner Viking.

Scratch the surface a bit, though, and you begin to see why the Viking lifestyle doesn’t hold up long-term.  Coordination SNAFUs turn your engine of destruction into a tangled scrap-heap faster than you can yell “LEEEEEROY JENKINNNNNS!”.  Underperforming damage-dealers turn even routine pulls into a molasses-filed quagmire.  Inattentive healers let the raid crumble around them while they admire the scenery.  Clueless tanks soldier on, bashing away ineffectually at the boss while his minions tear through the squishies behind like a chainsaw through butter.

To a certain extent, this is expected.  Dungeon running is about teamwork, right?  Yes, but there comes a point at which it all becomes too much.  Sometimes, the game just throws too much at you at once, too hard and too fast for any but the most Borg-like raids to cope with.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Sunwell Plateau. This was WoW at its most brutal.  Wiping on the first trash pull was commonplace, even after everybody knew what they were doing. The vast majority of raiders never made it to Kalecgos, never mind all the way to Kil’jaeden. Guilds that made it through everything the game had thrown at them to date shattered on this dungeon.

Was it because of poor teamwork?  Insufficient preparation?  Simple inattentiveness?

No. It was because the game mechanics themselves made it all but impossible to proceed.  The tension between PvE and PvP game mechanics has been a problem in WoW ever since battlegrounds got added in 1.4.  It wasn’t until the addition of Arena combat in 2.0 that this became a real problem, however.  From that point onwards, the game designers have been pulled in two conflicting directions: the desire to avoid overpowered talents/abilities/gear for PvP balance, and the desire to boost threat/damage/healing for PvE viability.

This resulted in player classes that simply couldn’t participate in Sunwell raids, because they were carrying the PvP millstone around their necks in a dungeon that consisted of Olympic-level sprints.  Your best raid healers are Druids?  Too bad, only Shamen are allowed, because Chain Heal is required to keep up with the punishing damage auras and area-effect spells.  Want to bring some Mages or elemental-spec Shamen for damage-dealing?  Too bad, you won’t finish the DPS race alive unless you stack Shadow Priests and Warlocks, due to ridiculously short enrage timers.  Want to bring a Paladin who isn’t a tank?  Too bad, you’re SOL for damage-dealing and healing.

Blizzard has wisely backed off on this for normal raid progression in the latest expansion, but the damage has been done.  The game now has a permanent case of Dissociative Identity Disorder.  Raids routinely fall apart because half the class/spec formulations don’t function properly in their intended roles, and the people who can fill the roles properly frequently contract a nasty case of Real Life Problems.

The practical upshot of this is that you can routinely find yourself failing and having  to start over because the game itself is getting in the way of playing it.  I ran into this problem about 3 months after I first started playing, when I first started doing end-game raiding, and it has never gone away.  I’ve stuck around for quite a while hoping it would, because Blizzard has put together an extremely compelling world in this game. Compelling or no, though, this game is fundamentally broken, and Blizzard has no real intention of fixing it.

One common definition of insanity is repeating the same actions, in the same kind of circumstances, expecting different results.  I think it’s time I stopped paying Blizzard my presubscription fees for crazy pills.

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