Borderlands: As Fun And Trashy As A Junkyard

10 September 2011

Borderlands is a bit of an enigma.  I bought it on PC after a recommendation from friends without doing a lot of research beforehand.  I quickly found the game to be a fun and original take on the Diablo formula as an FPS with highly customizable weapons.  I also quickly found myself tripping over bugs and glaring issues, enough that it was hard not to fall flat on my face and ragequit the game for good.

What kept me going through the game enough to see the great underlying gameplay was to write down the many major glitches and failures I encountered.  Almost all of these are from the first weekend I spent with the game.  How could a game make it out the door and through four DLC content packs and still have this many obvious problems?

Since almost every level has the same junkyard theme, I thought that was appropriate – it’s fun to play in a junkyard, but expect to get dirty and possibly hurt.

Outright bugs:

  1. Inventory items spontaneously re-order while you’re selling them.  This makes it very easy to accidentally sell one of your favorite weapons.
  2. The video options menu is broken.  It only lets you scroll through (say) 8 of the 15 options.  Each time you try to scroll to the bottom of the first 8 options it jumps to the top and “unlocks” 1 more option.
  3. When you have a prompt pop-up and it says to press enter, you have to press enter twice before it registers.
  4. The game has a config file with a FOV variable, but instead of honoring the config file’s FOV, as soon as you sprint the game reverts to a (apparently) hard-coded FOV.
  5. When in a vehicle, the keys for talent and skill trees do not work, and instead bring up the map.  Like many of the interface quirks, it’s really really hard to tell if this was an inexplicable poor decision, or a defect they didn’t bother fixing.  This one is probably related to the game’s poor console-to-PC port either way.
  6. Many quests have incorrect tracking locations.  Judging from the number of google hits for those quest names, everyone but the QA department seems to have noticed these.
Terrible User Interface Decisions:
  1. I mentioned the config file’s FOV is buggy.  The reason this matters is because the FOV is way too small for widescreen PC monitors.  It feels constantly zoomed in, and only looks normal when the FOV expands during sprinting.
  2. The ‘use’ key also reloads, despite the game having a separate reload key.  If you try to pick up ammo or weapons while fighting, prepare to get stuck in a 5-second reload sequence while eating a clip of bullets.  Another poor call from porting to the PC.
  3. The interface uses a nonsensical mixture of scrolling methods.  In some menus the up and down keys work.  In others they don’t, but the page-up and page-down keys do.  In a rare few other screens, the mouse wheel actually works.  Not supporting the mouse wheel is bad enough, but having to hunt to figure out what does work on every screen is downright absurd.
  4. The vehicle menu has color swatches visible for picking your car color.  After clicking on these to no avail, I eventually realized you have to navigate to them with the keyboard to pick one.  It’s a PC, I’ve got a mouse — why can’t I use it?
Gameplay Issues:
  1. Elemental modifiers play a huge role in the game.  They are indicated by modifiers X1 through X4.  Rather than being a multiple of damage, these are multipliers for a hidden auto-replenishing pool of elemental energy.  ..Or something, that’s the best I could find on the internet.  How is a player supposed to compare weapons with obtuse stats like that?
  2. No mini-map showing quest objectives?  Really?
  3. Only one quest can be tracked at a time, yet they overlap all over the map?  Really?  Did this game start life as a 1-quest-at-a-time game and get hacked into an MMO-style multiple-quest game without sufficient design rework?
  4. The gun drops are very poorly balanced.  At level 14 I was still using a level 5 weapon that was the best sniper rifle I had found.  At level 35 I was still using a level 22 submachine gun.  This kind of game doesn’t work very well if you aren’t continually finding upgrades.
  5. There is no printout or replay when you die showing the cause of death.  I died many times with no enemy on screen.  Eventually I figured out some enemies pull the pin on a grenade that can explode several seconds after they die.
  6. The talent trees for all of the classes were pretty bad.  Each tree did manage to have a very unique feel to it, but each tree also had a lot of bad or severely underwhelming talents.
  7. Roland’s special ability hawk rarely worked, making a full third of his talents worthless.  I suspect it was very bad pathing AI at fault?  Regardless, it’s critical to change designs if the current one can’t be made to work correctly.
Those are some of the issues I fought with the most in Borderlands.  The gameplay concepts have great potential, but Borderlands 2 will need a lot more polish and direction to be an all-around good game.

Does the Internet Limit Creativity in Games?

17 May 2011

Over the six or so years (six? really?!) that I played World of Warcraft off and on, the game’s community changed immensely.  Fansites evolved and players got smarter and smarter about how they played the game.  Players, as well as the dev team, found themselves facing and re-facing the problem of “cookie-cutter builds”.  These didn’t exist back when I played in Vanilla WOW, but were de facto standard when I started up again during the Lich King expansion.

Cookie-cutter builds are talent specs posted on fan sites or forums that are (allegedly) mathematically optimal.  This min-maxing of damage led to players not only using cookie-cutter builds, but also to routine bullying of players who chose their own suboptimal talent specs.

World of Warcraft isn’t the only game that has changed dramatically as the internet connected game communities and magnified their collective knowledge.  Once upon a time I used to play Magic: The Gathering.  I should have known that when they pulled the “first one’s free” trick on my friends and I at PAX that I would be hooked again.  Compared to those early-internet days when I played MTG and occasionally bought a copy of Scrye, the game is barely recognizable.  Sure, the cards all look pretty familiar, but the way the game is played bears no similarity to us kids trading cool cards at sleepovers.

What surprised me is how incredibly knowledgable the community has become.  Headed by pro tournament grinders, each new set of cards is boiled down to the best cards and decks almost before the set is launched.  “Netdecking” is a playstyle that exactly mirrors WOW’s cookie-cutter builds.  To netdeck, you get online and copy a popular tournament-winning deck verbatim and play with it.  At the moment unless you’re playing the winning $500+ Caw Blade deck, you may may as well not waste time playing.

What happened to the creative games I loved that let me put together any crazy combo I could think up?  Is it becoming impossible for designers to create games that aren’t quickly whittled down to a small hard fraction of the big fun game they created?  Has the internet completely destroyed our creativity?

I think it would be more accurate to say the internet gives us the option to skip out on creativity.  In MTG they have a few names for common player profiles.  I’m a Johnny — my goal is to flex my creative muscles with elaborate decks that I can show off and call my own.  Not everyone is a Johnny, though!  Another stereotype is Spike – the guys who want to hone their skills and win, and could care less what deck they use.  The last stereotype is the one we all start out a new game as: Timmy: a noob who sees big numbers or cool abilities and just wants to take them for a ride and blow stuff up.  You saw these same stereotypes in WOW too, and presumably they exist for every game that allows for both creativity and competition.

Overall, I think this increase in community knowledge is good for games.  It doesn’t destroy creativity, it funnels it to where it matters most.  Players can skip out on the boring work of repetitive playtesting (or worse, calculus!) to get started.  Instead, we can skip straight to the heart of what makes the game fun for each of us.  Spike can hit the web, copy a build, and go to town.  Johnny can read articles full of crazy ideas and write articles showing off his own.  Even Timmys now benefit from player ratings that ensure they play other Timmys instead of getting shredded by a pro-playing Spike.  Even designers get more feedback than ever on what is working and what isn’t in their game.  The internet pushes games to a fun, stable state faster than ever before.  I’d say that’s a win.

Update: It turns out Caw Blade’s heroes got banned, and the standard metagame has exploded to a half dozen or more decks!  Looks like Johnnys will rule the MTG tournament scene…for a little while, anyway.

Forging Documents For Profit

11 January 2011

Here is the math I just did (and posted to wowhead) to see where the Forged Documents inscription recipe would “cap” herb prices in World of Warcraft:

40s = rep-discounted resilient parchment price
10g = conservative forged document average (sounds like it goes up to 30g, so it may be more like 20g average)
3 blackfallow ink = 1 stack of 20 high-end herbs, since they net 6 pigment

You should only buy+mill herbs to forge documents if:
(Cost of forging documents) < (Profit from forging documents)
40s + 20*(1 high-end herb price) < 10g + (1 inferno ink)
20*(1 high-end herb price) < 9g60s + (1 inferno ink)
high-end herb price < 48s + (1 inferno ink price) / 20

Low-end herbs get 5 pigment per stack instead of 6, and generate half an inferno ink per stack:
low-end herb price < 48s * 5/6 + (1 inferno ink price) / 40
low-end herb price < 40s  + (1 inferno ink price) / 40

You can use blackfallow ink for other things, so you also want to make sure it’s cheaper to craft than your profit from the forged documents:
3 blackfallow < 1 forged documents = 10g – 40s (parchment)
3 blackfallow < 9g60s
1 blackfallow < 3.2g
AND Backfallow Ink is worth < 3.2g

10 Blackfallow can be traded for 1 Inferno ink, so you also want to make sure:
Inferno Ink < 10 * blackfallow ink value
AND Inferno Ink is worth < 32g

Considering the glyph and Darkmoon card markets, it won’t be worth spending inks on forging documents any time soon.  Even late in Cata with a huge herb supply, lower glyph prices, and lower demand for these mats, I don’t think forging documents will cap herb prices.  Each scribe can only forge 1 set of documents a day (1 stack of herb) — there aren’t enough scribes to forge a significant percentage of the herb gathered daily.

That said, this recipe is one of those knobs the designers could turn to increase herb prices later on — either by increasing the sell value of the forged documents or by lowering the cooldown.

Turning Bad Feedback Into Good Feedback

26 November 2010

One of the biggest challenges designers face is interpreting feedback from users. I’m thinking of the rabid online communities around video games especially, but this applies to any product subjected to users’ brutal gaze before the product launches.

This article on addictive social games included a perfect example — even more telling that it was provided to show how “useless” feedback is:

McMillen said Super Meat Boy was designed without the aid of metrics. And while there was one focus testing session for the game, most of the feedback was thrown out. (One tester suggested that having a static loading screen would be preferable to a cutscene that couldn’t be skipped for the first few seconds because the level was loading in the background.)

The developer apparently disagreed with the tester’s solution and said “What a stupid idea, focus testing is worthless”. This is a very common type of feedback in game forums – bad solutions. Stuff like “Make my character overpowered” or “Throw out this level entirely”.  But solutions aren’t the goal of focus testing to begin with! What you’re looking for are problems.  Then you can have your experienced designers find the best solution to those problems. The trick here is converting the user’s bad solution into a problem, then working back to a better solution.

In the Super Meat Boy example, the user’s solution translates to a meaningful problem that most likely made it into the released game. I’d guess the user’s problem description should have looked like this:

“The cutscenes get old and take too long. I was unable to skip the cutscenes.”

Adding cutscenes to pretty up loading screens is a fine idea. But it sounds like this user may not have realized the cutscenes were skippable at all. Notice the developer says “Couldn’t be skipped for the first few seconds”? Is there any indication to the user that those cutscenes can be skipped after the first few seconds? Or do users mash the spacebar, see that it can’t be skipped, give up, and go get a sandwich? A silent delay in skipping cutscenes could easily cause extinction of the user’s attempt-to-skip behavior.

Maybe text could show up that says “Press spacebar to skip” once the background loading has completed. Or a progress bar could be overlaid at the bottom of the cutscene. Or the cutscene could switch to a blank loading screen after a keypress to help speed up loading (however slightly).

These are some possible solutions that should have been explored as a result of the user’s feedback. From the sound of it, the developer treated the focus testing feedback as change requests, rejected them, and tossed the whole exercise out the window, bathwater and baby. If feedback had been translated into stories about the user’s problems then focus testing would have have been a valuable tool for improving the game.

Torchlight: Extended

24 January 2010

I wrote about how flawed the Torchlight demo was in a previous blog post.  I decided not to buy the game after it rehashed Diablo’s formulate to a fault, except with bugs that culminated in a game crash losing my progress after a very long boss fight.

If you know me and how many times I’ve pulled Diablo 2 and even Diablo 1 back out of the closet, though, you won’t be surprised to hear that I ended up buying Torchlight anyway.  After playing the demo with the other two classes and farming the demo’s boss a bit, I just had to plow ahead and see the rest of the levels and spells.  For a $20 bill you can’t be but so picky, right?

My experience with the rest of the game stayed very true to what I said of the demo.  The game mimicked Diablo to a fault, had numerous glitches, but also remained fun throughout as I gathered loot and blasted baddies as I upgraded my spells.  In fact, the game stayed true to what I said of the demo a little too well.

The final boss is a very big monster with a very big health bar.  I would guess the back-and-forth fight took me a full 10 or 20 minutes to whittle his health bar down to zero.  He exploded in a hail of colorful loot which I carefully picked over when – cue shocked gasp – the game locked up, losing all of my progress.  I suppose I can’t say I didn’t know what I was in for after playing the demo.

Update: Removing Mana From DPS Classes in WOW

11 November 2009

The precursor to my previous blog post Removing Mana From DPS Classes in WOW was a post I made to the WOW forums. It turns out Ghostcrawler read it and liked it enough to quote it!

Ghostcrawler:

This is a prettty good summary. The answer is that we are changing mana-based nukers but not by removing their mana. Instead we are just going to make them less dependent on mana regen, specifically Spirit. You are correct that we really only want healers to run OOM, and we can’t really get rid of it for reasons Squirrelbot mentions. DPS casters still have to manage mana to some degree but they should have tools (e.g. Evocate) to handle that. They shouldn’t “run dry” the way a Holy priest or Resto shaman needs to run dry (ideally — I know this isn’t happening now) when the encounter isn’t going well for you.

Sounds like no plans for a new resource system for mages or warlocks, but that is confirmation that evocation and similar mechanics are intended to give all dps caster specs near-infinite mana.

Removing Mana From DPS Classes in WOW

10 November 2009

After several hints leading up to this year’s Blizzcon, Blizzard announced they would be changing the Hunter class to use a Rogue-like resource called focus. A Blizzard designer answered some questions about it recently on the World Of Warcraft forums. Quoting for emphasis:

Ghostcrawler:

you can’t balance mana-using spells around cost since casters have nearly unlimited mana at any point in time and certainly early on in a fight. Energy (and focus, and rage to a much lesser extent to where it’s actually a problem) are limited at any given moment but come back pretty quickly. Mana-spells have to be balanced around cast times and cooldowns instead.

Abilities and damage can’t be balanced based on mana alone. If you gave mages an ability that takes 50% of their mana and does huge damage, mages would cast that ability twice (gibbing 2 players) and then complain that they go OOM too fast.

Mana is a fight-timer mechanic, not a DPS or rotation balancing mechanic. This used to apply to all ranged classes as well as healers. For healers the fight-timer mechanic is obvious: once your healer is out of mana, the group is going to die. If you can’t beat the boss by then you need a new strategy or better gear.

Applying a fight timer to ranged DPS is less clear-cut. I believe it was intended as a trade-off for the fact that ranged classes took less AOE damage.

Increasingly mana has been made near-infinite for damage classes and specs. Likewise, AOE in the LK expansion has spread out to the ranged dps. The primary purpose of mana in the game is now only to limit the longevity of healers.

This is ultimately a good thing. It guarantees you won’t brute-force encounters by, say, 2-manning a single raid boss for 3 hours with the paladin spamming his biggest heals while you slowly chip away at the boss’ life. More practically speaking, if your group’s tank or dps undergear an encounter, the healer’s mana will prevent you from completing it.

The fact that ret paladins and enhancement shamans also have healing specs prevents them from being converted to a new mechanic. Instead they will continue to receive near-infinite mana in their DPS specs, requiring their abilities to be balanced around cooldowns and buffs/debuffs.

Without a healing spec, it will be much easier to convert hunters to a new mechanic that can influence their dps and rotation decisions. It also “feels” right because mana is traditionally a spell-casting mechanic.

What about the other two non-healing ranged DPS classes that currently use mana? Mages and warlocks could also be improved by switching to a new mechanic. Why should those classes continue to be limited at 5 minutes of damage, while hunters and melee can dps indefinitely?

It might feel strange having mages not use mana, but perhaps they’ll come up with another mechanic that feels equally magical. I don’t think we’ll see this in Cataclysm’s launch, but I’ll still cross my fingers and hope for it!

Diablo Expansion Pack: Torchlight

08 November 2009

I just finished playing the Torchlight demo. From the moment the game begins, it is made abundantly clear that this is not just a game “in the grand tradition of Diablo” – the game is Diablo. The town, the vendors, the music, the random dungeons, the potions and scrolls: they’re all here.

If you’re looking for a Diablo expansion pack to keep you busy until Diablo 3‘s eventual belated release, Torchlight fits the bill. There are enough new monsters and abilities to keep any fan of Diablo interested, and the price is right at $20.

However, Torchlight is also contending with many other fine games, most of which have more unique and interesting mechanics. Torchlight copies Diablo literally to a fault. Only a handful of new mechanics appear, such as the Shared Stash (no more running 2 copies to trade loot with your mule) and the omnipresent Dog or Cat by your side. Most of the time the same problems and annoyances from Diablo lurk in Torchlight with no efforts at improvement. The gameplay shows signs of poor polish and QA – making it feel even more like a hurried 3rd-party expansion pack milking a quick buck out of the franchise.

The last boss of the demo drove these problems home hard enough to scare me away from the full game. I picked the mage-like Alchemist and started my way down the Lore skill tree. The first tier of abilities have you raising minions from the corpses of dead foes. When I got to the boss though, there were no corpses in the level to raise my minions from. This left me going toe-to-toe with the level’s boss using only my wand.

Ironically, the wand was my most powerful weapon – doing 30-50 damage, where my only magic spell did 6 damage. I had to kite the boss around the room, only stopping to attack when range and line-of-sight allowed. Being a mage without any useful spells made me wonder if they spent any time tuning to ensure all 3 characters and 9 skill trees played sensibly through the early levels of the game.

After this long and clunky ring-around-the-rosy fight, I finally defeated the boss. An NPC appeared for a cut scene, said one line, and then proceeded to wander around the dungeon aimlessly. I can only guess her pathing broke. With the keyboard locked out entirely for this never-ending cut scene, I had to End Task the game process. I didn’t bother starting it back up.

The Tochlight demo left a bad taste in my mouth culminating in that glaring bug. I won’t be buying Torchlight myself, but I can certainly see the appeal of playing Diablo for a few more levels.

Portal and WOW Pumpkin Carving

22 October 2009

It’s about that time to start thinking about what nerdy emblems can be carved into a pumpkin. Here are the past couple years of geek-o-lanterns my wife and I made:

GLaDOS
Portal’s GLaDOS survives as a Pumpkin.

For The Horde!
For The Horde!

Squirrel
Squirrelbot before pre-decompisition into a forsaken.

Murlocs-night
Trick-or-treat!  Go ahead and reach in for some candy…if you don’t mind losing a hand to the murlocs. You can’t see them, but I also toothpicked some pumpkin slivers on their backs for spines.

Installing a Linux Left 4 Dead Dedicated Server

01 December 2008

Here’s what I did to install a dedicated linux server for Left 4 Dead. Ideally you want to do this on a non-root account.

First, prep a directory for your steam client. Your game installs will reside here, each in its own subdirectory.


mkdir steam
cd steam

Download the linux steam client and unzip it. Type yes when prompted. Afterwards you’ll have an executable named steam which is used to download and update games.

wget http://storefront.steampowered.com/download/hldsupdatetool.bin
chmod +x hldsupdatetool.bin
./hldsupdatetool.bin

Run ./steam and you’ll see a list of options for the steam client. I used the command below to download, but I’m not sure yet what l4d_full is. I figure I can switch to that easy enough if I run into a roadblock with left4dead.


./steam
./steam -command update -game left4dead -dir .

I like to run servers inside screen so that I can logout and log back in from any computer with ssh. This will also keep the server running in the background if your desktop has to reboot.


cd l4d
screen
./srcds_run

You’ll see a bunch of text fly by, and now your server is running! Press ctrl+a then d to detach from your screen, getting you back to the command prompt. To bring the left4dead server back up make sure you’re logged into the right user and run screen -xD. The screen program is quite elaborate but these are the basics to keep a process running in the background.

This just gets a very basic server running. There are plenty of things you can customize in your steam/l4d/left4dead/ directory. For instance:

motd.txt: This is the message displayed when players join your server.
missioncycle.txt: Pick which missions are played and in what order.
maplist.txt: This is the list of what maps are available on the server. Essentially these maps can be picked by an admin or possibly by player vote, even if they aren’t part of the normal rotation.
host.txt: This appears to be a website displayed when players join the server. This may be displayed alongside the motd.txt?

In the steam/l4d/left4dead/cfg/ directory there are some options for configuring gameplay. A lot of these appear to be defaults for other types of servers and even client configurations which are irrelevant to the server.

server.cfg: This is the one that you typically put all your custom config options in. Fortunately the defaults are very good.
game.cfg: I believe this is the client-side version of server.cfg. So on your machine you play on, you can put custom options here that aren’t part of the default options interface.
infected.cfg: Looks like changing this 0 to a 1 lets humans play as zombies on your server. infected_off.cfg is the same file with the 0 set

I don’t have a good listing of the options that you can put in game.cfg, but if you check through some of the default configs in that directory like two_players.cfg and infected_360.cfg you’ll see a few of the options you can change.