Spooky Forest

Ghostly Postcards from the Intergalactic Trash Pit

When your city’s appearance is enhanced by the addition of such things as spider webs, projectile vomit, and a giant, burning straw man, it’s quite possible that you have an image problem. Such is life for the inhabitants of Thayd, capital city of the Exiles, whose scrappy scrappers have established their base camp in what can only be described as an extended scrapyard. The fortnight-length presence of Drusera’s presumed cousin-in-leg-wraps, Angel, is a subtle reminder that working-class individuals view pants as an unnecessary extravagance that are therefore best ritually incinerated at the nearest tower-sized effigy to appease the wicked whims of that naughty rapscallion Jack Shade.

Shade's Eve in Thayd

It should come as no surprise that our Nexian curators needed only the weakest of excuses to turn the dial on Tales from the Fringe up to 11. The end of October and any remaining vestiges of summer’s hazy heat have given way to the leafy winds of the now frightfully decorated Arborian Gardens in the capital city’s southwest corner. What is normally a lush, thriving, cheerful forest has been draped with a gown of night-time stars and sprinkled with strangely illuminating will-o’-whims whose otherworldly glow is reflected in the eerily peaceful waters of the transplanted biome’s central pond.

Night pond in the Arborian Gardens.

The festivities on offer allow revelers to accouter and decorate themselves and their rocket homes to their hearts’ content. Collecting floating shinies has the effect of making one glow a ghoulish purple-pink for a while; burning effigies and frightening party-goers are appropriate warm-up activities for farming tricksy treats from your neighbors’ sky-acreage.

Shade’s Eve brings just the right amount of whimsy and levity to themes which at any other time of the year would be positively ghastly. The adorable shadelings that appear in the cleverly named Quiet Downs event are not quite jump-scary enough to make Dook Ookem ook his dookers, but do sufficiently terrorize those who are going for a Gold run with all of the “optionals” intact in a Monty-Python-meets-rabbit sort of way. Succumbing to the fangs of a shadeling – whether due to failure to sprint and/or dodge quickly enough, being caught in one of the numerous foot clamps, or having had one’s sense of direction “adjusted” by the plentiful noxious mushrooms in the area – results in immediate transport into a rather more sinister and sedate black-and-white version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s “Toon Town” inhabited by miniature, mobile marshmallows. Consuming a Primal Echo, which is a fancy way of referring to a rather nondescript human female in nothing more than a t-shirt and shorts, allows one to resume their usual corporeal form and once again stumble along in the spooky darkness of the forest with only a flashlight and ambient death spirits to guide them.

Ambient death spirits in the world of shadelings.

Halloween tourists would do well to stop for a drink or two during Shade’s Eve. Among the panoply of MMO jack-o’-lantern carvings on offer, WildStar is the banana-double-fisting monkey bouncing off all the trees in the forest who puts the ook in spook.

Straight Shooter: Reloaded

Straight Shooter: Reloaded

Yesterday I jumped into the second dungeon I’ve ever attempted at-level on my Healslinger, and when I say jump, I mean to say that I was quite literally in the middle of a double front-tuck vault when the “Match Has Been Found” confirmation dialog box appeared on my screen. I was once again pleasantly surprised by the speed with which I was matched with a group for the Ruins of Kel Voreth; the 19 second estimate displayed in the Group Finder tool was off in my favor by about 18 seconds.

Our group this time ‘round didn’t have nearly as much trouble as our Stormtalon’s Lair group did. We wiped perhaps six or seven times total in “KV” versus ten wipes in “STL.” It was myself and three other Spellslingers being led about by an Engineer tank who had clearly made the rounds several times previously. The mechanics of the fights were explained as necessary; otherwise, players were left to their own devices in figuring out how to deal with the various telegraphs, attack animations, and interruptible cast bar displays. This resulted in my death more than once, but in my defense I plead Murphy’s Law of Gaming Thermodynamics which states that players get worse under pressure.

Since my last dungeon run I’ve removed three healing addons that are no longer functionally necessary or even useful. I’ve replaced my clunky “aura” addon with a lightweight one and spent around an hour last night positioning off-cooldown ability icons – grouped by damage, control, evasion, and support – around my character in such a way that I can see them peripherally without occluding the battlefield. It’s a superior personal approach to ability management that has worked fantastically for me in any game that supports it.

With that bit of mental micromanagement squared away, the challenge was then to combine the mechanical requirements of each encounter as relayed via the abovementioned visual indicators with the necessity of executing under pressure. Imagine that your screen is filled with an unobtrusive number of ability icons and that you are tasked with sprinting and dodging through an obtrusive number of painful circular projectiles in the midst of which an injured, moving party member must be healed using an aimed, narrow-coned, channeled ability. For reference, here is your playing field (bullet hell begins at 1:42):

Theoretically simple, practically demanding – that is, until you’ve greased the groove of the mechanics and are able to respond with greater aplomb.

Shortly thereafter I found that I had Taken a Level in Badass which qualified me to talk to the person who would agree to allow me to join a group adventure called War of the Wilds in which players are tasked with capturing a series of objectives (totems) from rivals prior to destroying the opposing team’s main totem. Said opponents are of the trivial and might-actually-kill-you variety. Our group was again led about by an experienced tank who chatted away gamely while we blasted everything in sight and ended up achieving a Gold Medal for our efforts.

Our pixel prize was justified at the group level, I reckon, despite the fact that I did not have to do much active healing and despite the fact that there was one death when the damage dealers were situated in distant locations and I was running from one critically injured compatriot to the other based on the tank’s communications. I did have to aim my healing abilities in every case, for there are no single-targeted heals. This was the primary reason that I uninstalled most of the healing addons I was using and began exclusively tracking the positioning of friendly overhead nameplates. Having had the opportunity to enjoy this style of play at length, the “press button, receive damage” model of manually targeted abilities seems, in hindsight, rather crude and obsolescent.

It’s about time I started using the Tab key for more interesting things, anyhow.

Blaugust 2015, Day 26 – Slinging Heals

I took my Spellslinger out for another spin in wintry Whitevale today. I spent a few minutes plodding through quests and actually reading the quest text before remembering that there were a pair of level-appropriate dungeons awaiting me. I queued for Stormtalon’s Lair, the second dungeon after Protogames Academy at level 10. Sandwiched between those two dungeons are an adventure (a short instance) which offers a light-hearted group experience and a handful of shiphands (similarly short instances) which offer a solo adventuring experience, if that is your preference. It’s usually my preference.

The difference between the level 20 dungeon and the level 10 dungeon is that Protogames Academy (10) is designed to teach you how to play the instance game and Stormtalon’s Lair (20) is designed to teach you how to obey mechanics by dying to them repeatedly. I had queued up for both the damage dealing and healing roles which is perfectly acceptable to do at level 21 in assault-based gear. I was subsequently pleasantly surprised and entirely unprepared when I came up as the healer 35 minutes later. I wasn’t actually expecting to find a dungeon group prior to level 50.

I still had my Gear + Builder healing loadout in which I had slotted two attacks, two control abilities, and three heals. My healing responsibilities were in part facilitated by Grid (raid frames), Heal Buddy (uses the vacuum loot V key to autotarget the lowest-health group member) and Healie (draws health-deficit-colored lines to your group members). I’m also a little cheater-pants who uses Perspective which draws lines to anything you want that’s within 500 yards or so: quest objectives, resource nodes, enemy players, and focus targets, among numerous other things. I set the tank as my focus, thus giving me a permanent pink line to him terminating in a big pink heart so I knew where the primary object of my healing affection was at all time. For the rest of the group, keeping an eye on ForgeUI’s NamePlates sufficed provided there were not a large number of nameplate-sporting enemies afoot.

Kelestria in Stormtalon's Lair

I didn’t have AuraMastery set up to show me the icons of off-cooldown abilities right next to my character so I had to look down at my LAS every now and then to see where the CDs were at. This wasn’t a major problem; however, my priority queue would have been much more fluid had I been using a properly configured AuraMastery setup.

The reason for this is that all of my Spellslinger heals are aimed rather than targeted. This means that I usually need to point my pistols at as many allies as possible based on the shape of the telegraph a particular heal sends out. This must be done while dancing and dodging around red telegraphs on the floor and remembering to use an interrupt when a foe does a Very Bad Thing That You Should Stop. The sum of these things resulted in a rather intense dungeon experience, which is just the way I like it.

The dungeon took just under two hours to complete; for at least a few of us, myself included, it was our first time running it at the appropriate level. I had run it previously on my maximum-level Stalker with Black Dagger Society in a damage dealing role; my fellow guild members seemed to be fairly well-geared and had done the dungeon several times before, so we pretty much one-shotted everything which allowed me to become familiar with the layout and boss mechanics and not much else. I was too busy concentrating on executing a respectable damage rotation in my pre-dungeon-caliber gear.

Per today’s adults-with-children standards, it was a bit too long. My ideal parent-length dungeon would be about 30-45 minutes. This is from someone who would spend 6 to 8 hours a night raiding Molten Core in college. My, how times have changed. A major contributing factor in the length of the dungeon was the fact that we wiped roughly ten times learning how to spank the bosses fast enough while not standing in red and pressing all the healing buttons. Every couple of wipes I ended up changing out one of my non-healing abilities for another healing ability and adding it to the spam-on-cooldown checklist. It sounds rather mundane in theory; in practice, ground-targeting a Voidspring in the midst of dash-dodging around red-is-dead murder-poop and remembering to then Spellsurge a C1 Vitality Burst chained directly into Healing Salve if it’s on cooldown followed by….well, you get the point. There’s a lot of stuff to do and it involves skillful ability management coupled with satisfyingly frenetic movement requirements that have me looking forward to wiping in the Ruins of Kel Vorath later this week.

Blaugust 2015 Initiative Page

Kelestria Wakes Up

Blaugust 2015, Day 15 – The WildStar Free-to-Play PTR Beta New Player Experience

I spent two or three hours today trying out the WildStar Free-to-Play PTR beta and from what I’ve seen, I’m optimistic about the game’s future using the new payment model. I spent my time going through the new player experience from levels 1 to 11. I rolled up an Aurin Spellslinger and decided to pretend that I was completely brand new to the game to see how I’d be treated. On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised with the extent to which the designers have gone to great pains to give players a no-nonsense learning experience that welcomes them to the game’s universe while retaining its characteristic quirks and flair.

The character creation process has been made much more visual; rather than relying largely on blocks of text to explain things, accompanying symbols, pictures, and videos illustrate in a very direct fashion what each faction, race, and class is about. Selecting Spellslinger, for example, told me that it’s a Healer and Ranged Damage class and showed a bordered video of the class in action. The customization process was the same as before using sliders. I did notice that we were back to copy-pasting character creation strings rather than being able to load and save customization sets, but it’s the F2P PTR beta, so I suppose it’s to be expected.

Aurin Character Creation

Spellslinger Character Creation

I jumped into the super-newbie tutorial which was utilitarian and sparse. Run through these circles using your directional keys. Fire your weapon at these holographic targets that don’t attack back. Jump up these steps. You’re done! No frills, just learn the basics and off you go to the arkship tutorial.

The first thing I noticed when I got there was that the size of the starting area had been reduced drastically. I appreciate the fact that what programmers would call cruft had been removed: in other words, unnecessary or inelegant code. Let me take a moment to say that I am in love with the WildStar universe and the wonderfully whimsical and vibrant environment that game’s developers have created. With that said, I appreciate the fact that they realize that what was fun for them to make from a design perspective is superseded by the need for players to be able fully comprehend every aspect of their starting experience from the controls to the combat to the environment (in addition to needing to know their reason for being in this universe). By essentially truncating their own original design, they make it possible for players to immediately sketch out the bounds of their starting environment which makes them feel more at ease and gives them a sense of confidence. (This includes Belle’s Sanctuary, whose atmosphere and music I absolutely adored.)

There are thus three abbreviated segments in the initial Exile starting experience: the medical bay, the command bridge, and the greenhouse. The associated quests have had their numeric and specificity requirements relaxed (“kill fewer X than before, any of type Y will do instead of specific names”). Having completed these, players are free to teleport to the starting area of their choosing. Once on Nexus, they can travel between different starting areas at their leisure.

Heading Down to Nexus

In the starting areas, things become more expansive and open-ended – to a degree. Permanent non-combat sprinting allows for relatively quick travel throughout the environment which is a plus for getting new players to experience the good stuff right away. This is a key feature of the new player experience in the free-to-play model: I think that many potential customers are going to make the decision to continue to play (and thus possibly consider spending money) based on their first twenty minutes to an hour in the game. Giving them fast travel in starting zones and the means to breeze through them is therefore highly desirable.

It also sets the tone for the game: the mechanics of WildStar are such that it would be what I would call a relatively fast-paced game. Permanent sprinting, fast mounts, and the ability to double jump would lead new players to believe that experienced players who have mastered such things are capable of incredible feats. Why wouldn’t you want to learn how to move like a ninja and dodge like Muhammad Ali?

I had Loyalty Points from my time as a subscriber and was also able to immediately unlock an account-bound Badlands Raptor mount which I could use once I landed on Nexus. I kept forgetting to press Z to activate it because I was transfixed by the elegance of my Aurin female’s running gait while not in combat. Once I hit level 10, I was able to whip out my Eldan hoverboard and start swooshing all over the place in true WildStar style.

Players are given an entire set of viable starting equipment in the tutorial rather than earning it piecemeal (and potentially forgetting to equip it). Subsequent rewards are frequent and typically require players to choose between Assault or Support power (or some secondary stats which are not terribly important at lower levels). The updated character screen explains each statistic in the tool tip; the fun flavor of names like Brutality, Finesse, Integrity, Grit, Tech, and Insight, much like the awe-inspiring (and framerate-spiking) open spaces of the previous tutorial, have been dumped in favor of stats which can be understood without difficulty. Assault is for doing damage and Support is for mitigating damage (tanking or healing). Shields buffer your health. That’s it. And to top it all off, your average item level is displayed in your character panel as well.

Character Screen

There are a boatload of secondary statistics in the right-hand side panel which new players are not expected to understand. In condensing the primary stats, the developers seemed to have channeled this desire for complexity into secondary stats which cover a range of PvE and PvP situations. Things like Critical Hit Severity and Glance Chance are self-explanatory to experienced MMO players; new players, not so much. One of my concerns with these stats is that the depth the developers are presumably seeking via increased complexity may actually lead to a race condition in which iterations on the functionality of these stats are bullied into motion by brokenness or being broken by min-maxing players. Anyone who remembers Armor Penetration in World of Warcraft understands why “Wrath of the Plate DPS” was an appropriate play on the title of that expansion. One of the new stats, dubbed Critical Mitigation, should immediately raise red flags with long-time players of EQ2 who recognize this statistic as a content gating mechanism that, when first introduced, required players to achieve crit mit caps via gearing lest they be wrecked by raid bosses with enhanced critical capabilities.

Most new players should be able to get up to speed by focusing on the primary stats, however. The most important thing is that they feel fast. Leveling nowadays should really be a fun romp through the zones in which your speedy and powerful character is able to smash through a great many things with appropriate gear and increasingly skillful play. This skill is, of course, ideally gained while actually playing the game. The 1995-esque approach of making players weak and requiring them to survive in a brutal environment may be philosophically attractive but not does not generate dollars in 2015 unless you are offering a survival-type game or an experience such as Daybreak’s time-locked EverQuest progression servers. Make players feel like they kick ass right out of the gates and they’ll be more likely to stick around and spend some money on cool stuff.

I checked out the limited cash shop offerings; you achieve points on what appears to be an experience bar that rewards you with items once you’ve “leveled up” by buying stuff in the shop. You earn OmniBits, an in-game shop currency, by playing the game; during my 3 hours from level 1 to 11 I believe I earned about 30 of them which doesn’t really buy me anything. Longer amounts of play should allow players to buy items over time. It’s just going to be slow.

WildStar Store

It seems that GW2 has been inspiring WildStar in more ways than one: in addition to implementing a holo-wardrobe which resembles GW2’s inventory-less, skin-driven wardrobe, WildStar has started mimicking Tyria in other areas. For example, F2P WildStar now has GW2-style daily login rewards. I actually smiled when I saw them for the first time. WildStar, of course, in turning all the dials up to 11, goes well beyond GW2’s 30-day login reward cycle and plows straight through to 180 days of rewards. Interspersed throughout are purple-text items that represent the epic loot showered upon you in return for hopping into the game every single day, even if it’s just to collect your goodies and perhaps check your auctions.

Daily Rewards

Additionally, you are now able to waypoint around zones whose level ranges do not far surpass your character’s level. By clicking on the circular rocket icon located next to the mini-map, you can select a destination for immediate transport. Keep in mind that you’ll be spending substantially more money for the convenience of not having to sit through the banality of a comedian-taxi’s canned jokes. At level 8, fast travel cost me about 25% of the currency I had earned thus far.

The new player experience guides players through objectives with warmer hand-holding; pressing F while not near an actionable object often shows you an arrow to your next objective which, by default, will also be your nearest one. Tasks reward decent amounts of experience provided you are not two or more levels above them. I was regularly seeing experience gains of anywhere from 5-10% of a level per task. This is a welcome change from the previous leveling experience in which completing tasks was actually suboptimal because the experience rewards were so abysmal. As a Scientist, datacubes were highlighted on my map. Finding all of them was one of my objectives, which was pretty cool. And, finally, you’re given a purple-quality rucksack which contains level-appropriate rewards every couple of levels. I got everything from costume items to shiny pieces of gear to a potion that gave me full rested experience when consumed. Every time you open your rucksack, out pops your stuff and your new, higher-level rucksack. Bags within bags, just like in Guild Wars 2. (You can’t see my Colin Johanson smile right now, but it’s there.)

There were a significantly higher number of “discoveries” in Celestion, the post-starting-area low-level stomping grounds of the Aurin (my people). Clicking on these yielded similar rewards to the rucksack. In one case I found an Aurin cave whose inhabitant sold me an upgrade for one of my equipment slots; in another case I was given a short-term damage buff that helped me pew-pew through baddies even faster. I thought that was pretty neat. Throughout the zone, there seemed to be far fewer creatures that were aggressive by default. I also noticed what seemed to be lower NPC damage output across the board. At level 10 I was able to take down level 14 infected Mordesh by playing intelligently; previously they would have destroyed me. The same went for the giant Lopp Crusher creature near Hijunga Village who would normally swat me pretty hard. The new version was much easier to kite and dodge around. I never lost more than half my health.

Overall, I’m a fan of the new player experience. Make players feel like they’re just fast enough – empower them – and they might decide to spend some money on boosters to be just a little bit faster. (150 DPS is “insane” when you’re used to topping out at around 100.) Offer them cool-looking housing items and music tracks for their personal plots and they’ll eat that stuff up. We know this from other MMOs with well-designed player housing systems. Give players the tools to learn how to be super-fast and super-furious by playing a game that makes them want to play it and – if the leveling experience is smooth and speedy – they might just throw down for character slots so they can do it on alts. Let them select the “dodge or be vaporized” difficulty setting at the top levels and you can still maintain your hardcore edge – when players ask for it. Based on the first ten levels of the free-to-play PTR beta, I like what I’m seeing in terms of the way new players are being treated. Keep it up and we’ll still be playing WildStar years from now.

Blaugust 2015 Initiative Page