Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mini-Post - Diablo 3 and Non-Standard Fantasy

This is more gushing than it is analysis, but I thought I'd share.

I enjoy the hell out of Diablo 3's characters, pun intended. The main characters, that is. The Barbarian, Monk, Wizard, Demon Hunter and Witch Doctor all have quite a bit of personality. And what I find most interesting about them is that they embody the world they are from: They are between heaven and hell.

Each character embarks on the quest to eventually kill Diablo, all for different reasons. The Barbarian for a worthy challenge, the Wizard to fulfill his or her destiny, the Demon Hunter for revenge, and the Monk and the Witch Doctor answer to a higher power. They are not doing so for altruistic reasons. They are called to do so by their own will and choice. And all of them are not good or evil. Even the Monk, who is the most divine character, flat out tells the mayor of New Tristram that he is a coward and should die. His conversations with the Templar note that he is typically sent to hunt down criminals. There are not nice people, and I think that's fantastic.

It is quite easy to get into the head of one of these characters (except the Witch Doctor, but anyone who spends their free time collecting jars of spiders is one train ticket away from crazy town) and have very clear motivations. They fight beings of pure evil and ally themselves with beings of pure good, but they distance themselves from both. They fight evil because it is destroying the world, and hang out with good because Tyrael is trying to save their asses. Their motivations are fairly selfish, and I'm sure if the demons weren't threatening the world none of these characters would care about them.

They represent humanity. They are selfish and concerned with their own world and well-being, and it works. Diablo 3 isn't about saving the world to fulfill some higher purpose. It's about killing demons because F#$% demons.

Monday, May 28, 2012

In Defense of Blizzard - Real Money Auction House

Mixing money and MMO's has always been a tricky business. Players are quick to accuse developers of trying to "sell power", a term that can blanket almost anything that is not a cosmetic effect. Regardless of your opinion of developers selling power it is a fact that it does increase the bottom line for a company as well as give players a way to further support the games they enjoy. For Free to Play games this can be its only lifeblood.

Diablo could very easily fall into the category of a no-subscription MMO. One of the only major differences between it and Guild Wars is that Guild Wars makes towns public areas. Other than that, you can play both without interacting with another person at all. Having an auction house is just one of the many things that MMO players just expect to have in their online games. A real money auction house takes things to a whole other level.

Let's first hash out the details of this: It will be a separate entity from the current Auction House, so you need to choose to use it. You are free to buy something on one AH and sell it on the other, meaning you can flip items for profit of gold or money. Furthermore, it will keep the fee of the normal AH, so you would need to pay a small, real money fee to Blizzard to sell it. From my understanding, they only deduct the fee if you actually sell the item, and for equipment the fee is $1.00 USD and commodities are a percentage based. There is more in-depth information here, but that is the short and long of it.

Blizzard introduced real money into their game, and gave players a way to buy power, but they are buying it from each other. This was enough to make many sit down and think. Generally, the blogging and gaming community has been against buying power in games, but buying it from other players is a different ballpark. Someone earned it, whether through luck or hard work, and decided he wanted something in return for that item he didn't want to use. If you want to enact that trade with real money, why shouldn't Blizzard provide that service in a safe manner?

Let's face it: People are still buying Diablo 2 character to this day. I just typed in "diablo 2 character selling" into Google and my 31.5 million results should be enough proof. (Note: Please don't click any of those links.) The market is there and thriving, so why not give the players what they want? They may not be willing to admit they want it, but the demand is there. Blizzard just chose to make it safe and reliable.

Though it may cater to the many people who can (or believe they can) make a profit off of buying low and selling high, the reality is that many of its users will use it like the Auction House we have today. The average smart player will sell a nice item, and then use that money to buy another item that is more useful to him or her. It is an extremely useful tool and side option to grinding gold in the game. As I mentioned above, equipment has a $1.00 selling fee attached to it, but I highly doubt that many items will be listed above 5 or 10 dollars. And the items that are listed will be ones worth buying, not garbage. Or just garbage masquerading as good items, but that is beside the point. You'll get your money's worth, and it won't break the bank.

Even more encouraging, the fact that Blizzard is doing this fee system can put players' minds at ease of the RMAH's intent. The servers to run Diablo are going to cost money to maintain, and the RMAH will solve that issue. It is a nickel and dime process, but it will keep the game running much better and longer than the money from the box sales will. More importantly, that excess money can go towards the company and developing an expansion pack or two. Starcraft 2 has its eye on two more installments and I am not counting Diablo 3 out of this one.

With this move, Blizzard has put together a system of introducing real money into a game that provides a benefit to its players, to the company, to the game, and puts its players minds at ease about the company's intentions. Blizzard is not trying to sell its players cheats to progress quicker: Every trade will be with another player who earned that item. Even buying gold won't be an issue, as I'm sure some items will circulate for the sole purpose of buying on the RMAH to sell on the standard AH for gold. A win for the players, a win for the company, and a loss for the gold sellers and bots. I don't see a reason not to support this move.

On another note, my Demon Hunter is having a really hard time keeping up the dark and brooding act while wearing bright pink, knee high boots, courtesy of the Auction House.

Monday, May 21, 2012

In Defense of Blizzard - Always Online DRM

Before I begin, a brief note: Besides the guest keys for the starter edition, one of the most exciting things I found in the Diablo 3 box was a Diablo themed notepad. I have no idea why. Probably because I am a man who loves his lists. This may explain why I enjoy reading Bullet Points so much.

Back on track, on a wonderful suggestion I've decided to do a trial run of a series of posts based around a theme. This first run will be in defense of Blizzard's more controversial decisions. I hold no illusion that Blizzard requires defending, but in a sea of those who enjoy bashing the company I'd like to try my hand at challenging those arguments, if only to explore both sides.

This first post will be in defense of Blizzard's (not-so) recent decision to make Diablo 3's gameplay online all the time, regardless of whether you choose to take advantage of the online features. In the days since launch, I don't feel like I need to explain  how this can go sour. It is largely considered DRM because it prevents players who only want the single player experience from playing the game alone, it prevents used or pirated copies from being played (for now, those pirates will find a way somehow) and it keeps anyone without an internet connection from playing the game entirely. This feature alone has caused its Metacritic score to fluctuate wildly, with low fan scores flooding the site in protest of this feature.

I won't argue that point: Having to be online all the time is a hindrance to the single player experience. Blizzard could have easily chosen to create a single player mode that detaches itself from the online experience entirely. Give it some limitations, such as not being able to play on the highest difficulty or something of that nature, if only to encourage players to play online. But locking out the solo'ers and anyone without a dedicated internet connection was a low blow to many.

However, connecting Diablo 3 to servers wasn't done arbitrarily and it wasn't done without significant benefit to the players. Blizzard did not stop at simply adding DRM: they made the DRM part of the experience. The connection to, the auction house, and the seamless co-op gameplay.

Let's work our way backwards through that list. Connecting Diablo 3 to your account allows players to rather seamlessly hop in and out of co-op games, or at least when it comes to hosting. Opening up your game to the public allows others to hop in and out as they please, which can only assist and enhance your experience. Loot and gold are automatically divided up, and the difficulty adjusts for each person who joins. You get to progress in your storyline and those who join get their experience and loot for the assist. Hopping into someone else's game requires a few more steps, but if you have friends with the game you can easily link up with them and roll out into a dungeon.

The last paragraph is completely pointless to solo players: They want to take their character and conquer Diablo himself without any assistance at all. For those who enjoy the hack and slash genre the multi-player offers no replayability at all. But there may be times when a wealth of gold and a lack of items may strike a player. That is where the auction house comes in. Disregarding the real-money AH (which has yet to be implemented anyway) the AH allows players to skip some of the grind and pick up the items they need to progress. This adds an entirely new dimension to the game that many WoW players are familiar with: Either rely on random chance to get the gear you need, or save up a form of currency to earn it. Either way involves work, but now players get a choice as to how they want their work to be rewarded. Gold is not hard to get in Diablo 3, and there aren't many things to spend it on. The Auction House relieves that while providing a more stable way to receive rewards. Even if you don't want to play with others trading with them is just as viable an option.

Even if a player chooses to forgo both the auction house and the multiplayer, it is hard to imagine that player living in a vaccuum. They may frequent a forum, be a part of a gaming group or have some real life friends who enjoy the same solo challenges they do. The achievement system alone allows players to hand off links to their characters, showing off their achievements and gear easily. We may laugh at the kid now, but in a gaming world that is dominated by achievements, trophies, and even Facebook posts that record our milestones, gaming has become a far more social experience than in its early days. Your Xbox Live profile and Steam profile showcase your achievements, even if you only play single player games. Blizzard is trying to turn into that kind of network and they are doing it well.

The always online DRM may place restrictions on those who cannot or do not want to play on the internet, but it frees us in more ways than it restricts us. Cross-game chat allows the thousands of Annual Pass buyers to keep in contact with their WoW friends (who are probably playing Diablo anyway) while still playing the game they enjoy. That simple act of communication is a huge wall being torn down. Blizzard is pulling down the walls between their games to allow their players to communicate and share while still doing the things they enjoy, rather than making them regret their decision to leave their WoW friends to play Starcraft or Diablo. We, as gamers, are very used to the idea that playing a different game means abandoning the previous one. Any loyal Blizzard customer doesn't have to now. Perhaps these console gamers have really got something here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Brief Update - What I'm Playing

I have a more detailed post forthcoming, but I thought it'd be nice in the meantime to give a rundown of what I've been playing.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have stopped playing SWTOR. By far the largest reason for this is not due to lack of content, or boredom with the game mechanics, but it demands too much of my attention at any given time. Having a well thought out reason and story to my quests started to bother me due to my shortened gameplay times. It's like being constantly interrupted during a movie and having to pause it repeatedly and then come back the next day. The stories were great, don't get me wrong. But it just asked too much of my attention as a player.

I suppose that would reflect poorly on me and my attention span, but when it comes down to it, if I'm not having fun it's time to move on.

Mobile games have recently taken a front seat, and I've had my eye on a few concepts, specifically the back and forth, pick up and play aspects of games like Words With Friends and Draw Something. I would love to see this kind of feature implemented in turn based strategy games, but at the moment I only see a few taking advantage of the feature.

I have returned to WoW thanks to a very wonderful woman in my life who has decided she wants to pick up online games with me, so having someone to play with has reinvigorated my interest in the game. So inbetween bits of playing with her I have been leveling my 80's to 85 in preparation for Mists of Pandaria. So far my bear druid is at 85, my Prot Warrior at 81, my Prot Paladin at 81 and my Blood spec DK at 80. Can you tell I like to tank? I cannot wait to try out Brewmaster tanking on a Pandaren.

For longtime readers, yes, I'm aware of the irony of the last paragraph.

I picked up and then put down Mass Effect 3. I was hesitant due to the bad publicity, but picked it up and do not regret my purchase. I haven't finished it yet, but it seems so many people complaining about it enjoy glossing over the fact that nearly every plot from the first two titles is wrapped up in the third. For longtime players, it makes for a very satisfying journey. I haven't reached the end, so I won't comment on it.

And I will likely have a post or two about Diablo 3. My brother received a review copy (as he is a game journalist), so I will be spending some time with it very very soon. I've always enjoyed the Angels vs. Demons stories, so I'll be interested to see this next iteration.

And lastly, I recently attended a meeting of the IGDA (Independent Game Developers Association) where we got to hear Michael Gnade, founder of Indie Game Magazine, talk about the right and wrong ways to market an indie game. Very interesting stuff. As a writer, I was aware of some of his talking points, but the whole experience of his talk and the organization gave me a lot of hope for game developers around my area. I'm looking forward to the possibility of joining a project in Philly soon. I highly suggest finding one in your area. Even if you don't want to develop a game or join a project, it was a great experience just to be in a room of people talking about design decisions and the processes that go into creating a game. Click the link up there and take a look. It was the best decision I've made this month.

Friday, May 11, 2012

On Personas and Long Absences

Whether you are reading this because I was not removed from a blogroll or feed (whether due to forgetting or faith in my blog), or because of new initiative on my part to revitalize this blog, welcome or welcome back to Straw Fellow's Field. My life has recently been through some hectic times for me, and as of now it has both steadied and become more hectic. As of yesterday I am no longer a part of ForceJunkies through my own choice. They are a fantastic website and I wish the Rerollz network the best in everything they pursue, but I no longer play The Old Republic and no longer have the time to keep myself up to speed on it.

Due to new employment, my schedule has steadied and this blog has always been in the back of my mind. I stopped writing because it became a chore to keep it up alongside my ForceJunkies work and I apologize to all of my readers who I have disappointed. I will make no promises, but I sincerely wish to rejoin the community I enjoyed so much last year.

When I first created this blog, I created the persona "Straw Fellow" both as a means to keep my identity safe and separate the part of my life that had a passion for gaming from the everyday. Almost every game forces you to do this in some way, whether it be under the guise of Marcus Fenix or a character of your own creation. You could say it is a bit of a habit for us all. Nils, Tobold, Syncaine, Gevlon and many others all chose new names and identities to signify their entry into a different world. How much thought went into each name as well as any potential meaning behind it is irrelevant: They were setting their passion for writing about games into a separate area of their lives in a very neat package with a title.

I know for a fact that Tobold has openly stated the reasons he doesn't release his true identity, and I feel that Nils has at some point as well, though I can't be sure. I may be thinking of another blogger. My own reasons were due to a very recently recognized sense of shame. It is not a secret that having a passion for something that is commonly seen as toys for children can bring some weird looks at best, and at worst being outright shunned. That may be a bit dramatic of an explanation, but the point is made: I've never felt my passion has been respected very much.

With that, I've decided I no longer like having a persona. My passion for games is not just an enjoyment of the titles, but of examining game features, discussing trends in the industry and immersing myself in rich, well-written and designed worlds. It is a part of who I am, and not something I want to put in a box to be pushed aside when it is given odd looks. I want it to be a recognizable part of my life.

And with that, I say hello. My name is Justin Puik. It's nice to meet you.