Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Starcraft 2 Single-Player Impressions


Short version: Blizzard continues to release games when they are ready. 

Long version: OK, I'm not the most impartial reviewer here.  I was predisposed to absolutely love this game after how much fun I had with both the single- and multi-player parts of the original Starcraft, as well as every installment of the Warcraft RTS games.  And guess what?  I absolutely love it.  I love it so much that I wish I could italicize that last sentence twice.

More after the jump.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Death Knights in Cataclysm: what will change?


Well, we've finally gotten the big talent tree revamp we've all been waiting for.  It's obvious that the Death Knight trees are far from finished, but we are starting to see themes forming, and getting some idea of what will change.  A lot remains to be implemented and seen, so it's hard to judge these too deeply.

Overall:
  • New rune cooldown system: this one was announced a while ago.  Simply put, runes of each color refresh one at a time.  You essentially get half as many runes during ongoing fighting, but if you are inactive for a bit you can start out with all 6.  Each of the 3 colors is basically its own energy bar.  The damage and runic power generation of the abilities and talents has been doubled across the board to compensate.  In theory, you should have more free GCDs since waiting a second to use a rune won't lead to a large dps loss down the road as future recharges are delayed.
  • Runic Empowerment: Until recently this was a first-tire frost talent, but is now baseline for all DKs.  When you use a runic power ability like Frost Strike or Death Coil, you have a 45% chance of refreshing a random rune. That's a lot of free runes.  This adds an element of randomness to all rotations.  I'm worried that it will undercut the new rune cooldown system because you'll feel pressured to always have at least one full rune of each color on cooldown in case this procs.
  • Each spec gets its version of death runes right off the bat, as well as a key ability (heart strike, frost strike, perma-ghoul).
  • Anti-magic shell no longer generates runic power off of damage by default.  This does remove a measure of skill from the class (timing AMS to optimize free RP), but hopefully new abilities will make up for it.

Blood:

  • Now a pure tanking tree, and the only tanking option.  Our own Prot tree!
  • Blood presence is now the tanking presence, having the same effect as the current frost presence
  • We just pile on the cooldowns: IBF, AMS, Vampiric Blood, Bone Shield, Rune Tap, and Will of the Necropolis all in one tree!  Also, WoN now procs a free Rune Tap heal and refreshes the ability's cooldown, adding an active element to save yourself when low on health.  We clearly have more cooldowns than other classes, and it will be very interesting to see how hard this is to balance.
  • Block equivalent: in Wrath, Death Knights have been at a disadvantage for smaller-scale fights because of a lack of a block-style mechanic (druids can proc a mini-shield on crits).  There was mention of a block equivalent a while back, where we would have a chance to auto-heal for a percentage of the damage we take.  That appears to have been scrapped, as it does not appear in the current talent trees.  I still hope it makes a comeback.
  • Innate crit immunity: say goodbye to defense rating, the most annoying stat ever in the game!  It was confusing and served as an unecessarily stark barrier-to-entry, and required too much outside research to even begin to understand.  Good riddance.  Now we get PvE crit immunity from Blood talents, just like other tank specs.  Hurrah!
  • Attack Power Debuff: just like with Block, DKs were the only tanking class with no attack power debuff they could apply to enemies (Demoralizing Shout, etc.).  That's finally changing, as talents in the new blood tree give Blood Boil the ability to apply that debuff, making it into a damaging Demo Shout.  Another great call by Blizzard, it's a necessary tanking tool that we went without for too long.
  • Dancing Rune Weapon: now you can parry for two!  In a great leap in the realm of MAKING SENSE, having a second weapon flying around in front of you gives you a sizeble bonus to your chance to parry.  But wait . . . is that another tanking cooldown?  OK, guys, this is getting a bit ridiculous.  6 cooldowns?  That's a lot of runes and runic power being devoted to survivability (even though IBF can be talented to be free!).  Hopefully that won't cripple our threat.
  • Sub-specs can only go 10 points into another tree at most.  This leaves you with very few attractive talents currently within reach for tanking.  You're basically picking between a reduced DnD cooldown and a fear immunity. 

 Frost:
  • With blood presence taking over tanking duties, frost presence now boosts damage and runic power generation (sorry, no more self-healing)
  • Pillar of HOLY SHIT (aka Pillar of Frost): I'll just link the tooltip for you:"Calls upon the power of Frost to increase the Death Knight's Strength by 20%.  Icy crystals hang heavy upon the Death Knight's body, providing immunity against external movement such as knockbacks.  Lasts 20 sec."   Notice anything . . . missing?  Like, say a cooldown?!?  It used to be at 1 minute, maybe wowhead isn't displaying it.  33% uptime is still pretty good - but where will we get the spare frost rune?
  • You can now choose between a dual-wield talent and a 2-hander talent.  This is quite a relief, as I'd love to have a 2-hander spec without a pet.
  • Frost DKs now get the 4% increased damage debuff for raids that was previously limited to combat rogues and arms warriors.
  • On a Pale Horse was moved to early Frost.  I find myself constantly wishing I could fit this mount-speed talent into my builds on live.  I hope Blizzard follows through on the promise to leave you  points for optional talents so I can pick this up.
  • The top tiers of unholy have little worth subspeccing into, so you'll end up putting the majority of your extra points in blood in the current build.  

Unholy:
  • The biggest change to unholy is the loss of Bone Shield.  Most players underestimate this talent's current impact in raids.  Taking 20% less damage at all times is huge.  It prevents some insta-gibs (hello Mauradin cleaving me as I run past him on heroic gunship), reduces healer panic from big aoes, and makes you all-around the most survivable dps in any raid.  Get lucky enough to be the first Mark on heroic Saurfang and laugh all the way to your purples.  This would be even more important in the new Cataclsym healing environment, so it was placed 11 points into the blood tree to prevent non-tanks from getting it.
  • The damage buff Hysteria was removed from Blood and replaced with a similar cooldown called Unholy Frenzy in the blood tree.  Sudden Doom also got moved from blood to give unholy free death coil procs.
  • Ghoul Frenzy keeps getting buffed in the beta builds.  It's more afforable with the new talent philosophy, but it remains to be seen if 1 unholy rune will ever be worth it, especially now that:
  • Scourge Strike costs 1 unholy rune, instead of 1 frost + 1 unholy.  Obliterate and Death Strike, the other FU abilities, remain unchanged.  Blizzard will presumably be introducing some use for the extra frost runes, as they can't possibly expect us to just cast extra Icy Touches, especially given the ludicrously long disease durations we get from epidemic.
  • The likely solution to the frost rune problem is the new Festering Strike, which further extends disease durations and is the first 1 Blood + 1 Frost ability.  I don't see the other trees getting use out of this when they could cast Obliterate or Heart Strike.

Problems:
These builds are clearly still early and in flux.  Some of the priority things for Blizz to work on:
  • Top-tier talents are lackluster in Frost and Unholy, especially for sub-speccing.  At least Improved Icy Touch, Icy Reach, and Vicious Strikes should be both reworked and shuffled.
  • Ghoul Frenzy should either have its rune cost removed, or be reworked to be a desirable cooldown.  Maybe reduce it's duration to 30 seconds, double it's damage effect, and give it a 2 minute cooldown.
  • Frost needs its "required" dps talents to be reduced in number.  Dual-wielders can only afford 1 optional utility point, while 2-hander-wielders can technically afford 4, but are forced to put two of those into Icy Reach and the other 2 into tier 2.  The whole tree really needs rearrange-in'.
  • Can you tone down the cooldowns in Blood just a little bit?  And are you sure threat won't be an issue with all those resources going to staying alive?
  • Festering Strike will have to be implemented very carefully.  Not only will it have to do more damage than an Icy Touch + Scourge Strike (remember, unholy gets Reaping automatically, so blood runes become death runes after being used for blood strikes), but it will also need a way to deal with the fact that you aren't going to be using the blood rune for a blood strike, and thus won't be getting a death rune later.  In the same patch, Festering Strike was added to Reaping, meaning that the Unholy rotation currently looks like SS > SS > FS > FS > SSx6 or something (I'm not really accounting for the new rune recharge mechanics there because I haven't tried them).
Any further evaluation will have to wait until I can actually get into beta and find out the real consequences of the new talents, the new rune cooldown system, and haste's effect on rune refresh speeds.

Starcraft 2 releasing


Yeah, I haven't been around in a while.  Got real life stuff, blah blah blah.  I'm not gone, and I'll be back, just need a blogging break.

Despite that, it's hard to contain my excitement today.  Starcraft 2 is finally releasing, after more than a decade of waiting.  It was far and away my favorite PC game until WoW came out, and my favorite non-Nintendo video game until the HD era as well.  It introduced me to the RTS genre, which is a perfect fit for my tastes but I had never seen before.  I love Sci-fi and I found the campaign mode revelatory because of how it merged storytelling with the gameplay.  SC so perfectly crystallized what makes a game great for me - and specifically to my personality - that it will always hold a place in my personal pantheon of great video games.  I bonded with lifelong friends over it, even.

So I'm quite relieved that Real ID isn't overstepping and I can play, with a clear conscience, this game I've been waiting for.  My amazon preorder has already shipped, and I'm spending today drooling in jealousy at the countries that, due to the vagaries of time zones, exist in the future and can already play.

My life for Aiur!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blizzard Does Listen To You


Honestly, I'm pleasantly surprised: Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime just announced that Real ID will no longer be required to post on the SC2 and WoW forums.  They are responding to (an unprecedented level of) player feedback and concerns and rescinding Tuesday's announcement.  We can all breathe a sigh of relief: we get to continue using the forums without having to risk the dangers of exposing our real names.

I am both overjoyed and relieved.  It took them longer than I'd like to figure it out and make a statement, but you have to give them credit for doing the right thing, listening to the players, and even having the Big Man himself sign the statement.


I'm still worried about privacy, and the direction of Real ID.  I'm still worried that my game about killing internet dragons will be transmorphed into an intrusive social network.  Hell, the fact remains that even if they went back on it, Blizzard still claimed Real ID was "only for people you know and trust" while planning to give out your real name to anyone with an internet connection if you used the forums.

But Blizzard deserves credit and some positive press.  And I've re-preordered SC2 and will not be allowing my WoW account to lapse.

I am so glad that I no longer have to choose between my principles and my games.  At least for now.

Thank you, Blizzard.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Who is Activision/Blizzard's Customer Base


Traditionally, the customer for a video game company (publisher or developer) has always been the gamer.  Or, to avoid categorization, anyone who purchases a game to play it.  As a moneymaking venture, gaming companies focused on eliciting as many purchases as possible.  This motivated the developers to provide games and features that the most gaming customers would be interested in paying for.

Ask the average person on the street, and it's likely they think of television the same way: that the customer of the television industry is the viewer.  You would think, then, that this would motivate television companies to make decisions in the interest of the viewer, because their primary goal would be to make the viewer happy.

And yet, Firefly gets canceled, great shows get underpromoted into obscurity, and we're inundated with reality shows that everyone claims to hate yet everyone seems to watch.  [I believe they watch mostly because they want to watch TV and that's what happens to be on, and because it's something they can talk to coworkers and strangers about as a shared point of experience, much like sports; but the reasoning doesn't really matter to the point I'm trying to make here]

So why doesn't television cater to the audience in the way you'd predict if the viewers were the network's customers?

Because the television network's customer is not the viewer.  The network's customer is the advertiser.

NBC is not in the business of providing television programming to viewers.  It is in the business of providing eyes to advertisers.  Every decision is not made based on providing quality programming in a way viewers want to see it.  Decisions are instead made based on the most cost-effective ways to get advertisers to pay top-dollar for ad space.  That just so happens to lead to television striving to attract viewers, which often leads to the network acting in the viewers' interest; but such actions are coincidental.  They are simply a side effect of serving advertisers.

There's no need to demonize the networks over this, but it's important to be aware of it so we have realistic expectations.  Television networks do not consider you to be a customer, so don't be surprised when they routinely act in ways that seem unfathomable to you as a viewer.  If they lose 10% of viewers over intrusive product placements or longer commercial breaks, they'll do it if it increases the other ad revenue by 11%.  They'd never do it if viewers were the customers.

So what does this have to do with video games, and Activision/Blizzard's expansion of Real ID?  I'm glad you asked.

Actiblizz's recent actions seem unfathomable.  They are going against the wishes of the vast majority of their players.  They are startlingly unresponsive to criticism from the customerbase on the Battle.net and Real ID issues.  They are taking actions that are clearly contrary to the best interests of their players, and are going out of their way to avoid explaining them (except through the ocassional half-truth like "cleaning the forums").  People are canceling WoW accounts and SC2 preorders left and right over something that seems so easily avoidable or fixable.  Don't they care about losing so many customers?

You have probably guessed where I'm going with this by now: we, the players, are no longer the World of Warcraft's customerbase.  Advertisers are.

It's pretty clear from this interview and other statements about Real ID about how they "have been planning this change for a very long time" that Real ID is the lynchpin in an effort to leverage an untapped asset that Actiblizz has more of than any other company out there except Facebook: our personal information

Facebook makes its revenue from advertisers by using our personal information to help them target us more accurately, and by using our social connections to lubricate the spread of marketing messages.  Activision has done the math, looked at their potential to help advertisers target 12 million people, and decided that, come hell or high water, the potential loss in subscription revenue will be dwarfed by the potential gain in ad revenue along with the other benefits to emulating the Facebook business model with a near-captive mob of players to be tapped.

Blizzard once had a reputation for making games for the players.  They were known for scrapping sub-par products rather than releasing them for a quick buck.  They were known for being more player-friendly than any gaming company outside of Valve.  But to Actiblizz, we are no longer the customer.  We are an asset to be monetized . . . stock in a warehouse . . . entries in a quarterly earnings spreadsheet.  We are now Actiblizzard's product, to be sold to advertisers for more than our subscription is worth.  This is, ironically, our reward for making the game so popular.

Actiblizzard has signed a contract with Facebook.  They are committed to this course of action, no matter what we say.  And no matter how many of us quit, it's most likely going to be a profitable move for them.

From this point forward, Blizzard's reputation is done.  We can stop expecting them to treat us like customers.  Advertisers are their primary customers now.

I wonder if Actiblizzard treats them as well as the old, dead Blizzard used to treat us?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Real names on the WoW forums.


I cannot comment on this right now because I feel too betrayed and angry to be rational.  Just thought you might like to know that anyone who wants to keep their real name private can't use any Blizzard forum anymore, including WoW and SC2 forums.

http://bit.ly/9ZfjeD

Fuck you, Blizzard.

UPDATE: some comments added.  This is what I posted in the thread under one of my alts (gotta savor the anonymity while I have it):

This is a terrible idea, Blizzard. I know that you're going to go through with it no matter what we say, but hey, I gotta try. I love this game and I had a lot of respect and loyalty to your company, and that is all gone now with the advent of Real ID and it's expansion to other parts of the WoW experience. How long until giving out my personal information is no longer optional for simply playing the game?

You say that you're trying to improve the level of discourse on the forums. Do you realize that what you are doing is driving out every intelligent adult?

Any grown-up with a career outside the games industry? No longer posting on the forums, because it will hurt their career for their boss and peers to know they play WoW. Gaming is not understood by the masses, especially the career-minded.

Anyone mature enough to have a healthy sense of how to protect themselves online? No longer posting on your forums.

Any female who has ever been stalked (ie almost every female)? No longer posting on the forums.

Any female who has ever been ignored or disrespected simply for being female, but found herself finally treated as an equal in WoW because her gender was hidden? No longer posting on the forums.


What's left? Teenage boys who don't have enough career aspirations to want to keep their gaming a secret. The dumbest, most immature, most dead-end teenage boys.

That's the forum culture you are building. Good job thinking that one through.  




UPDATE 2:  You can post a complaint to the ESRB here:

https://www.esrb.org/about/contact.jsp

I'm all for parents supervising the gaming activities of their children.  It is in no way the game company's responsibility to protect children.  BUT the ESRB has taken that goal upon themselves to help inform parents.  And a "TEEN" rating is not high enough when the game is giving out your personal information on the net.  No minor, including 17 year olds, should be allowed to purchase this game without the presence of a responsible adult who is well-informed about the parental controls available to them.  No minor should be able to choose to give out their personal information this way.

Here is the content of my complaint to the ESRB (limited to 500 characters, excuse the grammar):


Filing a formal complaint about Blizzard's announcement today that their forums will display your real first and last name.

It poses a security and privacy risk, especially for minors.  Please raise the rating for all Blizzard games to at least what you would give Grand Theft Auto (preferably Adults Only).

Giving out personal information is more dangerous today than letting a child see the content in GTA.

The move also shows a startling disregard for privacy that you should keep an eye on.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Cataclysm Talent Tree "Bloat"


Blizzard's stated goal in revamping the talent trees for Cataclysm and adding the Mastery aspect has been to remove a lot of the "required" talents from the trees and leave players with some options for utility talents.  They know they can't eliminate "cookie cutter" specs, but what they want is for those specs to include the sentence "spend the last 5-10 points anywhere you want".

So far, they are failing.