Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bravely Default: Old-School JPRG with Modern Affordances

I’m a big fan of JRPGs. I grew up on the Tales series and Final Fantasy, so I admit that I have a pretty big bias towards them, but at the same time who cares? If you like that classic turn-based combat, then Bravely Default on the 3DS seems like it will deliver that in spades, with modern gaming design considerations to bring it into the here and now.

The name “Bravely Default” is a bit odd unto itself. It’s a nod to the big mechanic that makes up the game’s core focus. Basically, every round each character gets an action, a point if you will. Well, now that you think of actions as points, then the next natural thing is to either save them, or spend more than one of them. In most JRPGs, you can defend, but you basically waste your turn. In Bravely Default, you can “Default”, which puts you into a defensive stance for the turn, but you save your action point. Now, if you want to spend more than a single action point in a turn? Then you “Brave”, which allows you to spend up to 4 actions.

Image from Bravely Default is the JRPG we deserve!
Here’s the kicker, though. You can spend action points you don’t have yet! For example, you could, on the first turn, spend 4 actions. You’d end up waiting 3 turns doing nothing as you saved up the points you spent, but you’ve gotten 4 actions on the very first turn! This turns saving or spending actions into a risk/reward mechanic that can be very satisfying. You feel really clever once you start figuring out how to use the system to your advantage. But note the enemies, bosses included, also use the system to their advantage.

So that explains the name, and what the primary mechanic of combat is. But what else is the game about? Well, it’s very much Final Fantasy, except without the brand attached to it. It’s the Final Fantasy we wanted and deserved, right down to Phoenix Downs and Firaga spells. Crystals, airships, 4 warriors, the whole classic shebang. Now, I’ve only played the demo, which really doesn’t get into the story proper, so I can’t actually speak to more than what I’ve heard here. I’m as much in the dark on that aspect as you are.

Screen from Looks pretty good for a handheld game
Fans of Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics will note the job system is back in full force, as well. 24 unique classes, and each character can have the abilities of their current job, as well as one other job they’ve learned. Characters also get a load-out of up to four passive skills that you can mix and match from any jobs you’ve learned, allowing you to do some pretty neat things, almost game breaking in some cases. But that’s half the fun!

Even the menu music is gorgeous.

The artwork in the game is quite nice for the 3DS, at least the stuff that I saw. Gorgeous backdrops in the demo city. But the music, oh man, the music is excellent! The combat themes have strong violins and guitar, and even the menu music is wonderful. I’m definitely going to have to shell out for the OST, because so far I haven’t heard a piece of music in the game that didn’t make me smile. And the interesting thing? Square Enix actually outsourced the soundtrack to Revo, apparently the head of a popular Sound Horizon music team in Japan. Frankly, they scored an awesome deal on that, because Revo is definitely a composer who could rival Nobuo Uematsu.

 This mid-boss music is kicking. High energy, strong melody, diverse set of instruments that don't sound out of place with each other.

The game itself brings to the table a few innovations not just around gameplay, but affordances as well. One of the ones that really sticks out is simple, yet effective: an encounter rate slider. In the settings menu, you can jack it up to +100% encounter rate, or reduce it all the way down to -100% encounter rate. Running through an area you don’t care to fight monsters in because they’re worth nothing? Stuck too far from a save point and afraid you may die? Well, you can just not have any encounters at all. Want to grind some easier battles to get a new job up to speed? Crank it up to +100%. Not only that, but between auto-battle and the ability to throw combat into x4 fast forward, grinding never was easier. Now you don’t have to grind as far as I’m aware, but if you want to, or think you have to, it’s never been more convenient.

Image from Changing the encounter rate whenever you like? Awesome!

There’s also a city building aspect, which plays a lot like those iOS building games where you use the StreetPass functionality to gather villagers from your friends, and put those villagers to work building up your city. Shops sell better items as you devote more building time to it, and a better variety as you get more buildings all around. Thankfully, you don’t need to spam Facebook to do it.

Town building. It's a thing right now. And I love it!
The game also tries to throw microtransactions at you, but allowing you to effectively purchase more turns. “Sleep Points” basically pauses combat to give you an extra turn in combat, but from what I’ve heard it’s largely unnecessary. You also earn those naturally over time when not playing anyhow. We’ll see if much comes out of it, but that’s not something I’m holding my breath on.

Me showing off the encounter slider, and fast forward in combat. Kinda hard to play with one hand holding a phone camera.

So overall, the demo was a tonne of fun, and left me wanting more. So much more, but in a good way. I’m definitely going to pick this game up (thanks Amazon!) and play the crap out of it. So very excited to have a solid, polished JRPG experience. We just don’t get enough of those anymore.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Tale of Two Raids

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

Lest I come off as too highfalutin, I don’t really think the tale of my two raids is really a matter of good and evil, darkness and light. But the fact that the two are constantly compared against each other for better or worse is definitely the cause of issues, both in myself and my raiders.

Let’s back up a little and dole out a little context, shall we? In the guild that I’m in, I am neither an officer nor a guild leader. We’re a social guild that just happens to have raid teams. It so happens that I’ve led or raid-called the Sunday night raid team for  four and a half years now, since the tail-end of Ulduar, actually. Now, I don’t always run the raid per se, but I find myself doing the raid-calling because I seem to be able to pick up strategies and mechanics relatively quickly and usually (though not always) have the mental bandwidth to direct the raid and perform my role at the same time.

As an aside, push-to-talk is an evil that raid-callers cannot afford. If you’re raid calling, switch to talk-to-talk rather than push-to-talk. It’ll save you an immense amount of grief as far as performing your individual role. My DPS and Healing throughput went way up once I stopped using push-to-talk, and despite the copious fire sirens near my house that seem to transmit more easily than my voice, it was totally worth it.

Anyhow, at the tail-end of Cata I also got into our Wednesday raid as a raider, and naturally (perhaps because I am loud and insistent) I also picked up the responsibilities of raid-caller in that raid. So for all of Mists of Pandaria, I’ve been raid-calling two raids, but actively performing the leadership role in the Sunday raid only, which involves everything from attendance to kicking people for being jerk to helping folks get better at their class.

Wednesday has a core group of 10 raiders, and we have 1 or 2 people on bench who get called up if someone can’t make it, but it’s just those 10 folks otherwise. Sunday we have a rotating roster, so about 14 raiders, and it’s basically 2 weeks on, 1 week off. Both raids only raid 3 hours a week. On Wednesday we just got Thok the Bloodthirsty down (yay!); on Sunday we just got Galakras down a couple weeks ago (and last week barely managed to defeat Sha of Pride despite not having that much trouble on him before).

So this is where things get juicy, I suppose. We’re now in the tail-end of Mists, and I’m looking at the two raids and wondering what I did or could have done differently. The Wednesday group is self-driven and progression-minded, but moderately hardcore in attitude, whereas the Sunday group is split: we have a core of self-driven folks, but we also have a few folks who need to be constantly prodded and wheedled to get better. And they do get better when prodded, but I admit that I tire of micro-managing a handful of raiders. The Wednesday group, all someoneanyone, not just the raid leader or raid-callerhas to say is that DPS needs to get better, or we're not surviving this part of the fight, and everyone thinks about it and comes back the next week better prepared. There's no chasing that needs to be done, no digging for them, people just do it.

This image got me through healing Thok as a Holy Paladin. It still makes me giggle.
But here’s the kicker: the two teams never were supposed to be the A-Team B-Team of our guild, they were just to have different attendance philosophies. However, it’s apparent that many raiders in the Sunday group treat it like they’re in the B-Team, both by what they’ve said and how they behave. And it’s a little bit funny, because at the beginning of Mists the Sunday group was ahead of the Wednesday group for the first couple months. So what happened?

I think part of it can be blamed on the rotating roster itself. I implemented the roster because I was stressed to the max trying to find bodies at the end of each expansion that were capable of raiding. In Wrath, in Cata, and now in Mists, I always got burnt out by the final major patch. I hate dealing with the administration part. Attendance schedules, shuffling people because of personal emergencies, and wasting every Sunday afternoon desperately trying to find someone qualified enough to actually not be a burden to the raid (which is really difficult because most of the folks who are capable of raiding are already locked by Sunday or already in the Sunday raid).

So here we are at the end of the expansion, and I find myself stressed to the max dealing with 14 people instead of 10, but at least I’m not wasting every Sunday afternoon digging for people, so that was a success at least. But between those extra bodies, and the fact that many people only play during raid, the rotating roster seems to have backfired. Instead of raiding 12 – 15 hours a month (if they were to raid every week), folks are only playing 6 – 9 hours a month, and there’s no chance for people to solidify their skillset nor really put boss mechanics to muscle memory. The Sunday raid is completely inconsistent. One week we’ll smash through everything, down Galakras, and get Iron Juggernaut to half health in 3 pulls. The next week, we struggle to down Sha of Pride.

And not only are folks not playing as often, they’re also not gearing up as much, so that also ends up slowing us down. But that’s not even the most insidious thing about the rotating roster. I think what differentiates the Wednesday raid and the Sunday raid isn’t just the consistency, but the attitude. Like I said above, we’re primarily a social guild, which means that we’re aware that folks have other priorities, and real life happens.

With the rotating roster, it gave me a chance to be lenient with those folks. Can’t make it because you have to take the significant other out for their birthday? No big deal, we’ll just pull someone who’s off this week and let them raid the extra week. Car emergency? That’s fine, you’re covered.

But this “no big deal” attitude seems to have pervaded other aspects of the raid, as well. When you’re up to bat, you’re still expected to actually be up to bat. We’re “casual” in that we only raid 3 hours a week and we have the capability to deal with someone having to vamoose for real life, but we’re also technically billed as progression, which means that we have to, you know, progress eventually. And 1 boss every 3 – 4 weeks in a 14 boss raid (9 - 12 hours of raiding!) is really slow. It’d be one thing if we had to clear half the instance first—the Wednesday group locks every other week, sometimes we’ll lock two weeks in a row—but it only takes like 45 minutes to get to the boss we’re struggling on. But it feels like, at least on my side of the fence, that many people don’t look to get better at their class between raids unless I ask them specifically, or that they don’t look up strategies on their own. Granted, this is a bit of a generalization, not everyone falls under this, and different people suffer various gradients of this issue.

I admit that I am definitely part of the problem here. I created this rotating roster, and my behavior has allowed things to get a little out of hand. Or more accurately, my lack of putting a foot down. It was all a grandiose experiment to see if we could reconcile a casual mindset with a progression mindset, and while I’m not ready to say the two are impossible to put together, it’s definitely not as easy as just expanding your roster and rotating the bench. It’s not as if I haven’t approached people. And I dig through raid logs on a weekly basis to see if I can pull out information to help folks get better, and provide actionable feedback, but at the same time, if you can’t practice that, because you’re on the bench and not playing otherwise, it certainly won’t stick.

Next expansion, if I continue to lead the Sunday raid, I think I’ll be going back to a static 10 roster, even with the Flex capability. With only 3 hours a week, we lose too much ground having to switch people up: healers not being able to gel properly, and tanks not necessarily having the same roles each week.

But for today, what do I do? I put the Sunday raid on hiatus this week (today is our week off) while I think about it, but I haven’t come to a good answer yet. Either I cut 4 people so we’re down to 10 and move forward, except a lot of folks signed up under the premise they could have weeks off, and the fallout from such a shakeup could be extremely detrimental to the guild as a whole; or I shake my fist, tell people to shape-up or ship out, and start cutting underperformers, which I probably should regardless; or drop us down to Flex difficulty (which would come into direct conflict with the Monday Flex raid that our guild has); or just throw up my hands, say I’m not having fun anymore, and just pass on the leadership mantle like I do at the end of every expansion, which is kind of lame, but probably the only way I’ve managed to stay sane, but at the same time, feels a lot like running away from the issue.

I said I’d have an answer for people, and after a week of work being an absolute bear and consuming all of my waking hours, I really don’t yet. And I honestly don’t feel that motivated to get an answer either, which may be the answer itself. Perhaps I just need to step down and take a hiatus from raid leading the Sunday raid.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Purchasing Level 90s in WoW: It's the End of the World As We Know It, and I Feel Fine

So Blizzard will (likely) allow folks to purchase level 90 characters in Warlords of Draenor (where the level cap will be 100). While unofficial workarounds would have existed, which Blizzard even mentioned—namely purchasing a second account, getting a free level 90, and then merging accounts—turning it into an official feature means something a lot more.

I wanted to wait a few days to see what the reaction was going to be, but for blogs it’s either been non-existent, or rather optimistic on the outcome. The cesspits that are the MMO-Champion forums bring up a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. However, the level of discourse in most forum threads isn’t precisely high, and I only survived a couple of pages there before my brain ran for its life, quivering in fear in the recesses of my skull.

WARNING: NSFW language.
This is how I imagine the MMO-Champion forums. Except this is probably more entertaining.

In my mind, granting the ability to purchase near max-level characters is Blizzard embracing the fact that they have two games: the levelling game, and the end-game. To be fair, many of the developers have outright stated that people want to play with their friends, and all the things that happen pretty much happen at end-game, but this goes a little bit further.

This is effectively World of Warcraft II, but anyone who already has level 90 characters are grandfathered into the new game, similar to the transition from FFXIV to FFXIV: A Realm Reborn. With a new model of questing from 90 to 100 based on the Timeless Isle, the pervasiveness and scale of the Garrisons, new character models, new level 90 introduction experience for boosted characters, the ilvl squish, and a new isolated continent (granted, a new isolated continent is kind of their modus operandi for expansions), they’re changing how the WoW levelling game plays pretty significantly, and potentially how that dovetails into the end-game as well. A new game within the game, if you will.

It’s basically the ultimate reset button short of making everything pre-90 completely inaccessible and declaring Warlords of Draenor WoW II, which they likely would never do because that’s a lot of content they have for “free” between pets, old raids/dungeons, zones, etc. And just because you can buy a level 90 character doesn’t mean everyone will. We don’t know what it will cost yet, and some folks just love leveling.

But as far as grandiose experiments, this one is still a doozy. It’s as close to “Paying to Win” as you can get without actually paying to win, ignoring the fact that the game really begins anew once you hit max level and level 90 won’t even be the max level next expansion. But if the only thing you care about is leveling—and many folks do—then yes, this is Pay 2 Almost Win. And you bet every other MMO developer is going to be watching this experiment extremely closely. If it goes remotely well, expect every other MMO to copy it.

In the end, though, I really don’t think this will turn out poorly like the Diablo Auction House did. And lest folks forget, we’ve already had an MMO where the leveling system was pretty much non-existent: the original Guild Wars. You were basically max level once you completed the tutorial, and you made personal progress by collecting skills and gear. So you can have a successful MMO without having levels at all. We’ll just have to see if WoW can pull it off.