Saturday, June 02, 2012

Improperly Tuned Content

I've been thinking a lot the last few days about content which isn't properly tuned. By this I mean content that the developer thinks should be a particular difficulty but ends up being far easier or far harder than intended. In those situations what should be done?

When content is too hard I think the solutions are fairly straightforward. Adjust the numbers/fix the bugs such that it falls in line with what you intended. Not everyone will be happy with this solution, of course, but even the unhappy people don't have all that much to complain about. Some people would have been able to beat the harder version and will be annoyed that now other people get to trivialize their accomplishments. However, the hardcore people in this case did get the rewards earlier. They got to use the power thus gained in other areas, getting a head start on the competition. And they get to brag about being able to beat the pre-nerf content. Maybe some people were very close to beating the harder version and will be annoyed that they don't get to finish it up but if my experiences with people are any indication they'll ultimately be happy to have the fight beaten, to finally have the loot, and to be able to move on to other things. People who weren't even at the content yet should be thrilled. Clearly they aren't intense enough to have gotten to the fight at its hardest and can actually fight it as intended when they get there. In general, a good thing.

Now, that isn't to say starting content out too hard is wise. The straw that finally broke my WoW camel's back was the tuning on heroic Atramedes. The fight had some bugs, and it had some really stupid numbers, but some people were still beating it so in general people didn't see it as a problem. We bashed ourselves into it for a while and I simply couldn't see a way where I could get better to avoid the instant kills I was eating (flying chasing lazer beams that started on top of me when I was already running and killed me before anything could be done) and really couldn't see a way for some of the other people in the raid to get good enough to avoid the instant kills they were eating. I got fed up and quit. Maybe if that fight was tuned a little saner I wouldn't have gotten fed up and would still be playing WoW to this day.

What about when content is too easy? Here you have a very sticky situation for the developer. If they keep it too easy then their grand vision gets ruined. If they make it harder then the people who got there first will have earned illegitimate rewards that other people simply can't get with the same amount of time/effort/skill. Depending on the rewards this could be a small problem or a game changing catastrophe. One infamous example of this is Kerafyrm the Sleeper from Everquest. This guy was supposed to be an event which rampaged through multiple zones killing everyone in sight, and could only happen once per server. A couple years later a server which still had him sleeping decided to try to kill him. He could only be damaged by a couple of spells in the game (probably someone forgot to toggle him as immune to mana burn) and had multiple instant death attacks. Unfortunately for him he had no AE death spells so it turned out that if you simply had enough people present when he spawned you could resurrect people faster than he could kill them. Three guilds on one server worked together to do this. After fighting him for over 3 hours Sony despawned him! (And this is a game where death caused permanent loss so graveyard zerging something for 3 hours had a very real cost.) Eventually they decided to reset the event and let the guilds kill him off but not after a lot of sketchy explanations. Fortunately for Sony nothing really broke by letting them kill this guy but the fact they despawned him rather than let him die shows just how far developers will go to prevent people from doing things they "shouldn't" be able to do.

This has come up a few times so far in Diablo III. There was a resplendent chest that could spawn in Act 2 that wasn't guarded by anything tough at all. People would start a game near the chest, run to it, open it, and repeat. It was a way to introduce a lot of potentially powerful loot to the game at a rate that was unmatched by actually killing things. In addition a couple of class abilities (in particular force armor) allowed people to survive in inferno more easily than anticipated. In all cases Blizzard let people 'exploit' the issues for a few days and then patched them out of the game. (I use exploit in quotes because I don't know that there's anything exploitative at all about using a survival class ability to survive.)

Here's the problem... You can't really play in Act 1 inferno with loot you found in hell. You need a high damage weapon and good defensive gear that realistically comes from Act 2 inferno. You certainly can't really play in Act 2 inferno with loot from hell or Act 1. The jump in difficulty and in loot is really extreme. (Possibly this content is tuned too hard.) There were ways around the difficulty (like force armor) and there were ways around the loot rarity (like the easy to reach chest) but those ways were only available to the early few who got to the front and thought of them in time. Someone who didn't read about easy ways to get loot or who leveled slowly has no chance of survival.

Except, that is, by buying loot from the people who did. It's entirely plausible to farm the end of hell for cash. Spend that cash on the auction house for inferno quality loot. Use that loot to survive the early part of Act 1 inferno and farm that for cash. Maybe even find an item or two to sell to the people stuck in hell. Use the new cash for Act 2 loot. Use that loot to progress further in Act 1. Repeat. It's certainly a way to play the game, though it isn't the same game you were playing up to 60. My wizard is wearing one item I found myself (a set ring) and everything else I had to buy. Even then, as Sky points out in yesterday's comments, my gear is trash. Despite buying almost exclusively items with int and defensive stats I don't have enough defensive stats to survive and I don't really have enough int to do damage. If I want to keep playing I need to farm more and more money and buy better and better items. Items that I can't feasibly generate for myself. I may hit the jackpot again and get another set item to drop but realistically I'm going to be geared out in rare items and those items are going to be from Act 3 or Act 4 and not from anything I can actually kill. My place on the pyramid scheme is to find items to sell to people barely able to play in Act 1.

I want to play a game where I kill things with my laser beams, look at the loot that drops, and think about putting it on. I don't want to play a game where I need to look at the loot that drops and think about how much I could sell it for. I don't want to play an economic game. (Especially not one with such pathetic data and communication tools as D3. I should play EVE if that's the sort of game I want.)

Perhaps the biggest problem is I can't see a way to possibly catch up to the people ahead of me. Because I can't improve my character's gear on my own I'm stuck relying on those ahead of me to generate loot I can use and price it at something I can afford. But this drains my money and adds to theirs. So when the really awesome stuff from Act 4 drops who gets to buy it? It's certainly not me. I don't have my money anymore, people in Act 3 do. And people in Act 3 don't even have my money anymore, because people in Act 4 do. Indeed, the only ways to catch up that I can see are to find my own undertuned content and 'exploit' it while I can or to spend cash when the real money auction house opens up. In that way I can bypass the in game gold limit where I'll never have more than the people I buy from and jump ahead.

Which makes the cynical part of me wonder if the content was really undertuned at all in the first place... In order for people to play in Act 1 now we need people in Act 2. But how does anyone ever get to Act 2 in the first place if no one can play in Act 1? Well, we let them sneak through some holes we built in to the game! Insert some loot at the start of the system to prime the whole thing!

Blizzard was pretty clear from the get-go that inferno difficulty was going to be really hard. The monsters were going to hit like trucks. How did a wizard spell that reduced all incoming damage to 35% on their max health ever get into the game? As soon as I saw that ability while playing in inferno I could tell it was broken. (As for why I didn't do this right at the start and become one of the lucky people ahead of the curve? I didn't have advanced tooltips turned on so I didn't know what it did.) Either a lot of people at Blizzard are really bad at knowing how things work, or they didn't actually test anything in inferno at all, or they left this rune in on purpose to allow loot to start getting generated. I don't even know which of those options I want to be true. No matter which it is my desire to play the game isn't very high. The issues with chat, the AH, server stability, and account hacking are all contributing to this feeling.

Getting back to the topic... How should Blizzard have handled undertuned content? I honestly think they needed to catch the 'easy' ways to play/get loot in inferno mode before launch or they needed to leave them in for everyone to use. Especially in a game where loot isn't soulbound in any way! World of Warcraft wouldn't have had such an issue. Some people would have more stuff and be further ahead but that wouldn't actually impact the way other people play the game. In Diablo III it does drastically change the way I'm able to play the game. Now, without the early priming of gear they'd probably need to tune down the difficulty curve in inferno or ramp up the gear at the end of hell. I think those would have been better options. But the fact that status quo makes buying gear on the real money AH almost a necessity for anyone who wants to catch up makes me really suspicious...

At any rate, I can see wanting to start a hardcore party up. I can see trying to grind out some more achievements (2590 points and counting!). But I just can't see actually playing the game at level 60. It's just more frustrating than it is fun.


Anonymous said...

I think you're missing the bootstrapping effect of guilds (or rather, friend groups that are effectively guilds). Just as the magical Bung-fairy brought you a tarnhelm in D2, I think it's reasonable for people in A2 to bootstrap those in A1 (and down the line).

I enjoy that part of the game, finding a friend at a lower level and looking through my stash for something that might help.


Nick Page said...

Yeah, I wish that were really feasible. One of my lamentations is with the communication system which is really terrible. If we could form a guild or even a chat channel where people could ask for help or to create new groups or whatever that would be pretty great. Or if I could mail an item to someone. But as it is, if I find something someone might want I'd have to link it to each individual person who could conceivably want it. If they're online. And if the message gets through. (Robb and I chat on Skype while playing and he tells me about in game chat messages he sends that I never get.)

I could bug Sky for better gear that he sees, but the problem is most of the stuff he finds that I would want is worth a fortune. Remember, he isn't finding gear he wants either. He's selling what he finds in order to buy what he needs. So he'd be setting himself back by helping me out. Not that he wouldn't still do that, but it does come with a real cost.

Grouping up is no better, since the monsters get more than double their health with 2 people in the game on inferno. They do more damage, too, so his gear that can barely survive a hit suddenly becomes trash if I'm around.

The game would certainly be more fun with a guild atmosphere. But I don't think the inferno setup would be.

Tom said...

One way I saw some people 'grouping' is four people spam games near a waypoint where a treasure goblin is known to occasionally spawn. As soon as someone finds one they all join his game and kill it then split up again to find the next one.

Nick Page said...

Hah! I wonder how long until they remove any goblin spawns near a waypoint. 8P

Sky said...

I don't think the gear problem is as big as you make it out to be. It is true that weapon dps is very limited by what act you are in but I am quite certain that I could beat a1, a2, and a3 with gear from the previous act and have it be a cakewalk. Imagine if my weapon for a1 were a 500 dps 1 hander and my gear looked like this:

150 vit
150 int
50 res all
200 armor
100 life / sec
*Move speed / attack speed / etc.

I would *explode* a1 with that gear and that gear is available in hell difficulty. Granted the farm time to get items like that is approximately a billion years but you don't need items anywhere near that good to win. I am progressing nicely in a3 using 2 blue rings with level reqs of 53 I think, gloves I crafted, an amulet and an offhand I found in a1 off a trash mob. I bought the rest of my gear on the AH but aside from the weapon, which I could have easily found in a2, (I found an equally good monk weapon and sold it to buy my weapon) none of it is outside the bounds of a1 drops.

It helps *hugely* to buy a weapon from a later act. However, that is the shortcut and you can certainly win without it, it just takes more farming. It is easily possible to get fantastic items that would sell on the AH for 10+ million in a1 just by getting good itemization on them. Diablo 3 is a game where you can slowly grind out your own gear ignoring the other players entirely (very slowly, using crafting) or you can find gear and trade with them via the AH and gear up quickly. You don't need them to feed you stuff from later acts though.

As a note, I am happy to supply gear to people that I find and won't use myself. I have been doing that pretty constantly actually but the problem is that if I find a fantastic piece of gear with Int on it I probably want to wear that gear so you are far less likely to get it than someone using Dex or Str. You are right though that if I want to get better gear by using the AH I can't give away everything I find to my friends because then I have no source of cash myself.

Nick Page said...

I took a look and there isn't a single item on the AH from hell with 150 int, 150 vit, and 50 resist all.

You can find a 500 DPS 1-hander for sure. Unfortunately I couldn't kill butcher with a 626 DPS 1-hander. Maybe a witch doctor could do it, but nothing I tried could possibly kill him fast enough with a 500 DPS weapon.

Sthenno said...

I think the problem is exactly as big as Ziggyny is making it out to be. There is exactly one way to progress your character - get more gold.

If no one had bootstrapped at all then it wouldn't be nearly as bad but they did and it is that bad.

What's worse, at one point I went to look at rings for auction and I saw one that was awesome for 30k. I went to buy it but it was already gone. When I searched again it was back, but listed for 150k. I bought it anyway.

The person who did that got lucky to sell it so quickly, but the fact is that they are progressing their character *much* faster than I am progressing mine and they aren't even playing the game.

In their quest for game balance Blizzard decided we should stop earning experience, that we couldn't have fun quest rewards like adding a socket to an item, and in all other ways restricted progress in the game down to finding items that have a little more int and vit. They still got it wrong and allowed broken things to get through. They still got it wrong and made some abilities very overpowered and others unusable.

I've probably played diablo 3 for about 150 hours and I played the beta for easily that much as well, so it would be very silly for me to say that I don't think the game is fun to play. But it is a disappointment and the tuning that Ziggyny describes here is a huge part of that problem.

Nick Page said...

Yeah, that's exactly the sort of thing I mean by playing the economic game. Someone who is bad at the economic game got 25.5k for the ring they found. Someone who is good at it got 97.5k for trolling the AH. I guarantee I'm in the camp of people only getting 25.5k and not the camp making 97.5k appear out of thin air.

I'm not saying there isn't skill in manipulating the AH. Obviously there is. I even used to do similar things in WoW. But even then having lots of money mostly let me do silly things like get Insane in the Membrane. It didn't make me stronger in the only real way to get stronger.

Maybe I should put in the time to learn the economy and start grabbing my margins where I can. It would be a better use of my time than trying to farm gear, which makes me very sad. Frankly I'd rather play Mystic Quest than play the markets and I think that says some pretty terrible things about D3.

Anonymous said...

I still think guild equivalents are the answer. Maybe what you enjoy is farming high level, and someone else likes economies, so instead of you selling what you find, you feed items to the economics player and they feed back higher items by playing with money.

The lack of a proper guild system disappoints me, but I think there are ways around that as well, I don't know if it's as silly as having a google spreadsheet of high end items for trading around or something, but there's something there.


Sthenno said...

I think the idea that you can get better gear by not playing than by playing is what is really irksome. In reality it was true in D2 as well (Honest Bung seemed to have a lot of quality goods, after all), but I think it was a lot less in-your-face, and maybe we never hit a wall where we thought: "I can only go further by getting hugely better gear."

Of course I got Mass Confusion on my Witch Doctor and started having a huge amount of fun with that. And I switched to an Archon build to farm Hell act 3 on my wizard and managed to stay in Archon so long that my buffs ran out, which was also great fun.

I think it's just that the end-game isn't for me. It never really was in D2 either. The trouble with D3 is that it is hard to imagine making a third wizard, let alone a fourth, fifth, etc. (I'm sure I leveled up 20 sorceresses in D2). It's an awkward convergence of problems.

Sky said...

I guess there is money to be made just camping the AH but you don't need to spend that much time to get reasonable money for your gear. Just check for gear with similar stats and put yours up for a bit lower than what is out there.

As far as making money by trading vs. playing D3 is exactly the same as D2. I always made enormously more profit by fleecing the rubes than by killing the monsters. The real problem here is that we have no XP bar beyond level 60. Once I ding 60 I cannot progress my witch doctor any more at all except by getting more cash so I play my DH instead to farm faster. The best answer for 'how do I progress my character?' should not be 'play another character that farms money faster.'

I completely agree about the guild thing. The fact that we don't have a simple guild interface with green text where we can link items and randomly chat is a disgrace.