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Worlds of Borecraft

World of Warcraft - a dull blade

Like most teenage video game addicts in the late 80’s, I fantasized about being able to play my favourite games online along with my friends and any number of random strangers. In those days doing such a thing on an average home computer was absurdly beyond the reach of technology. It wasn’t long before commercial multi-user games appeared though, such as Shades, a game I longed to try but sadly I was unable to convince my parents to invest in a modem for that sole purpose.

I eventually realised the dream while I was at university, where I started playing an obscure multi-user game called Nanvaent. It still exists, basking in the same text-based glory that it had back in 1996. I played Nanvaent and played it hard over the next seven years, eventually becoming a “creator” or coder. Indeed I suspect it was instrumental in my failing to complete my doctorate, and equally instrumental in ensuring I was able to salvage a career as a programmer from the ashes of my academic dreams. And once I’d made that switch, I never touched the game again.

I stopped playing partly because I became too busy to devote the proper time to it, but also because I grew to understand that the basic idea of a multi-user role-playing game was founded on a nonsense. Nanvaent, like all multi-user games before and since, was full of quests many of which chained together into a plot of sorts. But all those quests were open to each and every new character. You might go and kill Grimtooth and his relatives and earn your quest points but Grimtooth still returned to the bar of the Hole and Firkin every ten minutes or so for repeated slaughter by aspiring questers or, indeed, any powerful characters who fancied the xp and the loot. The same applied to every non-player character and every quest in the game.

This inconsistency fundamentally destroyed my suspension of disbelief in the game. It was categorically not what I wanted from a roleplaying game. I wanted story, narrative and the chance to role-play, to lose myself in another world, a fantastic place that I could nevertheless believe in. Text-based multi-user games could give me none of that. And as far as I can tell in spite of all the advances in hardware and software in the intervening 25 years their modern descendants, MMORPGs, still can’t. What both kinds of games can and do offer is the possibility of exploring a fantasy world alongside a very large number of fellow humans instead of the digital constructs that have stalked the corridors of computerised dungeons since the advent of computer games.

Yes, they really are that addictive

That is a big offering. Anyone who’s ever played a computer adventure game of any sort will have bemoaned the necessarily shallow interactions you can have with the characters and monsters in single player games. Multi-player versions of those games solve this by giving you lots of other real people to interact with. But it’s a trade off, because to gain that sense of reality, you have to sacrifice the reality inherent in a linear, single-player experience.

Which brings up the big question of “which is better”? To which there is of course no one answer as different people expect different things from their games. For me, narrative wins every time. For other people the powerful sense of community offered by jointly delving into a make-believe world is what pushes their buttons. It’s not to be underestimated: it kept me playing Nanvaent for seven years. And far be it from me to proffer judgement on what people should or should not enjoy in games. But here’s the aspect I do find puzzling: I get a similar sense of community engagement from participating in websites such as this one. What drives some people to choose a highly addictive source for their online chat kicks instead?

The clue is in the question. It’s not a choice, but an addiction. The response-reward model at the heart of almost all computer RPGs is incredibly addictive. It comprises basically the entirety of the appeal in the multi-million selling Diablo series. Likewise, the sense of instant connectivity offered by online communities is also oddly compulsive, as wryly highlighted by this famous XKCD cartoon. Computer interaction is inherently obsessive. So with MMORPGs, players are hit with a triple whammy of digital crack. And once you’ve tasted that sweet nectar, there’s no going back, even when you realise the sugar is poisoning your body and your mind.

Diablo 3 - game, or addiction machine?

Truth be told, knowledge of my own weakness and fear of enslavement is a large part of what originally kept me away from MMORPGs. But as I’ve aged, I’ve found the appeal of online gaming generally to have diminished. There was once a time when I’d cram in as much of the original Team Fortress mod as I could manage. But servers nowadays are too often populated by a hideous mixture of the repellently aggressive who’ll abuse you during and after every game, and the repellently obsessive who’ll put in hour upon hour of solo play to learn the maps and relentlessly thrash any lesser mortal who sets foot on their domain. Often these two stereotypes are both applicable to the same individuals. Playing against them isn’t fun: it’s the equivalent of choosing to stand up and be bullied.

Playing against your friends, on the other hand, is fun. It’s more fun if you can actually be in the same room, but given the time and space constraints of our modern, grown-up lives, I’ll take a network connection and a headset as an acceptable alternative. And of course the multiplayer component of most games allows us to create private, password protected realms for doing just that. But MMORPGs thrive on packing as many gamers as possible into the same realms. For them, it’s not an option and everyone is exposed to the trolls and the griefers and the obsessive-compulsive in all their hideous glory whether they want to be or not. Some multi-player games, such as Day Z, make a virtue of this, but the MMORPG needs a real sense of community and cooperation to function.

These then, are the reasons I find the allure of MMORPGs rather baffling. They offer no sense of coherent narrative. They are dangerously addictive. The communities they create have an unfortunate tendency to exclusivity. I find that a sufficiently elevated soap box to climb on and lecture other gamers on the deficiencies of the genre as a whole from a great height. But am only one individual. And surely, eleven million World of Warcraft subscribers can’t all be wrong. Can they?

The Slippery Slope of Diablo’s DRM

Diablo 3's DRM model means it belongs more to Blizzard or your ISP than you - are you happy with this model for all digital media

There’s been no shortage of pixels expended on Diablo III over the past couple of weeks. Reviews have mostly been very positive, some critics have talked about its worryingly addictive qualities in the face of what ought to seem like relatively weak play and a lot of gamers got very angry over their inability to play right after launch due to server overload. Some people have made light of this and, in fairness, entitlement-rage in gamers is never a pretty sight. But to me, this is indeed an occasion for rage. Serious rage. Just not over entitlement.

The fury unleashed by the initial unavailability of the game was a consequence of its DRM model, which requires players to be online all the time even when playing solo. However, that DRM has other consequences that don’t seem to have been widely considered. It means that if your broadband provider has a blip, as is not uncommon, the game boots you out and you may loose progress. If there’s a broadband outage, you can’t play. If, like me, you’re fond of taking a laptop on road trips or flights to help keep yourself entertained, then Diablo 3 as the source of that entertainment is not an option. The product which you’ve paid good money for is not really yours at all – your access to it hangs on the whim of a number of outside agencies who at any time may fail to live up to the service you expect, or pull the plug entirely. There are advantages too, of course, such as the ease with which you can join multi-player games and cloud storage for your characters, but Blizzard could easily have given you these benefits of always-online as an option, providing a get-out clause for people who want to play on the move. They didn’t.

This is a new and extremely dangerous precedent. Think about it for a moment: by accepting that this is a valid model for the publisher of a video game to thwart pirates, you are effectively condoning similar action by the purveyor of any digital content. You’re telling the people making the next generation of games consoles that you don’t mind if you can only play a game on it – any game at all – when it’s online. How about if you couldn’t watch the DVDs you own without an internet connection? How about if you couldn’t play the MP3s you own, or read the e-books you’ve bought, without an internet connection? Does that suddenly seem so fair and reasonable as it does with a video game?

If you think I’m overstating the issues, then perhaps you should know that copyright people are very happy to leverage child pornography in order to get governments and legislators to do what they want. That’s the kind of people you’re dealing with here, and to think they aren’t looking at the widespread acceptable of the Diablo III DRM model and not twitching with delight, or that that it’s not being stored as ammunition for use in the debate over denying access to used games, is naive. If you’re a Diablo III owner, I suggest you at least stop and think about the wider ramifications of what you’re signing up to before you next play the game, otherwise the unfortunate consequences could be with you sooner than you think.

Pondering the Diablo 3 Beta

No High Scores

Note: I uploaded these images full-size. Click for the full-res version.

I’m among the last people to hop on this particular bandwagon, but last last week I finally received a Diablo 3 beta invite and have since put in several hours with it, finishing it once with the Barbarian character class and following that up with another half-completed run using the Demon Hunter. My initial reaction to the game is that it felt underwhelming. I played a disgusting amount of Diablo 2 and, given the success Blizzard has had since then, it’s impossible not to boot this up and want it to blow me completely out of the water with its undeniable brilliance.

It’s possible that’s not an entirely realistic bar.

As I settled into the experience, however, the game continued to grow on me. I don’t see anything here that suggests this game is going to be in any way remarkable, aside from its potential scope and production values, but if you just want to run around with some different character variants and whack beasties over the head, I think it’s safe to say, even at this early point, that you could do a lot worse than what we’re going to get with Diablo 3. That may be faint praise, but it is praise nonetheless.

This established, here’s some general thoughts on the game…

No High Scores

Ultimately, this is still Diablo. It’s moody and beautiful and you’ve got some tres-cool combat animations. There’s a horde of disgusting and vile monsters that you chase after with the aim of reducing them to gory kibbles and bits. It’s jolly good fun. And when you locate Deckard Cain and he does his familiar shpeel about portents and signs and the Lord of Terror, it’s like slipping into comfortable old shoes. We’re not talking about something that’s going to win awards for massive innovation here. It’s Diablo.

I have not played with the Witch Doctor, Wizard, or Monk classes. The Demon Hunter is pretty bad ass when wielding matching hand crossbows. There’s a neat skill that allows her to shoot and automagically flip away from danger when fighting a monster that’s closed in too close. This is a character design that oozes cool factor. The Barbarian, the lone true holdover from Diablo 2, is every bit the melee grandmaster of funk that he was in that game. I still get a charge out of leaping into a group of nasties and yelling, “It’s clobber’n time!” at my monitor. (Note: I do not actually do this, although I might start.) There is no longer a two-weapon fighting skill for him, though. You simply choose to equip two weapons or you don’t.

This, in terms of the design direction, is the aspect of Diablo 3 for which fans of Diablo 2 should be most prepared – there are no character attributes (strength, dexterity, etc.) and no skill trees.

You probably know this already, but let’s talk about the effect of their omission because it’s really rather disconcerting and it’s tempting to say the game’s design has been simplified to play better on an eventual console release. That’s a bit too easy and I’m not laying this at the foot of tired “console tard” cliches. There’s nothing in the Diablo 2 game mechanics to speak of that would prevent it from being workable on a console. If I had to draw a conclusion about the design philosophy at work here it’s that Diablo 3 is simplified for the sake of making it more accessible. There’s a considered effort here to remove overtly redundant or repetitive tasks that don’t add a lot of value to the core gameplay. It’s almost the opposite of what Blizzard did with Starcraft 2, which, by reputation, is every bit as fiddly as the original.

Sometimes this works. I really don’t miss having to manage how many town scroll scrolls I have on hand. I don’t especially miss that feeling of realizing the points I just put into Intelligence are entirely wasted on the character I’m building. I don’t miss having to do umpteen calculations in my head to determine if this sword ultimately does more damage than that sword or which armor best protects me from freeze attacks. Diablo 3 is very slick and very efficient and it generally makes sure you know what you need to know when you need to know it, although the final product does need to be a bit clearer about assigning skills and whatnot. Sure, I like attribute assignment points as much as the next RPG nerd, but let’s be honest: There was an optimum way to assign these points in Diablo 2, based on your character class. All Blizzard has done here is put everyone on the same playing field by having the game manage the most redundant and math intensive tasks for us. Weapons tell you specifically what their DPS is. When you change armor, you’ll see exactly what percentage of damage reduction you stand to lose or gain. While there obviously is an inventory page and a skill page, there is no character sheet whatsoever. There are no attributes that you can see (or that I could find).

No High Scores

Likewise, skills just unlock as you hit their requisite level. Once they do, also based on your level, you have a certain number of skills you can keep active at any given time. This, again, takes a lot of decision making out of your hands because it won’t be the case anymore that your level 32 Wizard can’t use a particular skill -one you chose to ignore or not buff up with skill points- but rather that you simply chose not to use it. So, if you change your mind about how you want to play after devoting 30 hours to a build and now want to use Skill X, there it is ready and waiting and it’s no less effective for your having ignored it all that time. For the player who just wants to sit down and throw a bit of time at the game, this is probably a really smart change.

That established, I really do miss the fiddly bits. My gut is Blizzard missed the mark on this one. I think part of the legs of Diablo 2 lies directly with the fact that character builds are so diverse and you have to devote a lot of time to trying any particular build out. “Hey, I’ve been running a Javelin-based Amazon for forever. Now, I’m going to do a completely different Amazon build that focuses on bows.” Then you restart the game and you go about it all from scratch. I think for a lot of players, that’s a perk rather than a flaw. Assigning attributes and putting points into skill trees may have been a repetitive process that only served to undermine your build should you make a mistake, but it’s just not as much fun not having those choices to make. Perhaps this is the RPG-elitist in me, but I think it would have been more interesting if they had made character building more complicated, rather than simpler. By all means, do more to put the information in front of us and take all the math work out of our hands. Just don’t forget that the real opportunity here is to let the player be creative and make choices.

No High Scores

More and more games don’t seem to think the player is interested in making choices and they’d rather just keep hitting the same feeder bar over and over again. I think that’s a mistake. I hope that, when we get the final produc
t, Diablo 3 will not just prove me wrong, but prove me ridiculously wrong. I hope it’s riddled with choices and novel ways to develop your character’s abilities. This would not be a shock. Those people are incredibly good at what they do. But if the Diablo 3 beta (which is not under any kind of NDA; players are encouraged to write about their experiences) is meant to set the tone for all the wonderfulness to come, I have to say I’m pretty firmly lukewarm to it all. I want to play it, let there be no doubt, but at this point I don’t expect the kind of long-tail experience we got from Diablo 2.

EDIT: More thoughts on this topic here.