Monthly Archives: May 2012

May in Review

The Site

What Alexa says about my readership. (Emphasis is theirs.)

Based on internet averages, tagn.wordpress.com is visited more frequently by males who are in the age range 18-24, have no children, have no college education and browse this site from home.

At least they didn’t specifically mention your mother’s basement.  Still, I cannot say that is a winning endorsement.  I am just glad there isn’t a feature that attempts to describe the owner of the site based on readership!

I suppose I should be happy that Alexa has anything to say about my site.  It has nothing to say about my other blog.

In general, Alexa says the following about the site:

tagn.wordpress.com is ranked #1,087,910 in the world according to the three-month Alexa traffic rankings. Approximately 68% of visits to the site consist of only one pageview (i.e., are bounces). We estimate that 21% of visitors to the site come from the US, where it has attained a traffic rank of 541,171. Visitors to it spend roughly 78 seconds on each pageview and a total of two minutes on the site during each visit. The fraction of visits to Tagn.wordpress.com referred by search engines is about 14%.

Wasn’t that interesting?  68% of you arrive here and immediately leave, having discovered your mistake.  About par for the course I imagine.  I am surprised that it only pegs the number of US visitors as 21% of the total traffic, as the flag counter on the side bar puts the number just over 50%.

Flag Counter Tally as of May 2012

And when two such sources disagree, how do we decide who is right?  Probably neither, but somebody is probably closer.

And that is our site discussion of the month.

One Year Ago

May 2011 was the time of the great Sony outage, with the Playstation Network down for 24 days and Sony Online Entertainment down for 13 days.  It was a communication fiasco from start to finish, with bad updates almost daily.  About all they could do was promise us all goodies for when they finally came back up.

CCP was starting the build up to the Incarna fiasco with the introduction of Aurum.

On the Fippy Darkpaw time locked progression server, there was agitation to vote NO on unlocking the Kunark expansion.  Such agitation shows up with each unlock vote.  But no vote failed until Gates of Discord came along.

The instance group was in EverQuest II… when it was up… and trying to get the hell out of the starter area.  We managed it, but it took a lot more time than I would have thought.  We started in on some dungeons and got ourselves a guild hall.

World of Warcraft subscriptions started to decline, while Trion started offering free server transfers in Rift.

And finally, as hot as things seemed to be around here, there was no rapture.  You just couldn’t buy a break that month.

Five Years Ago

The usual discussions were going around, what made WoW so successful and what games might contend with WoW?  Some of the so called “contenders” were pretty silly picks.

The instance group was focused on LOTRO for the first time.  I had things to complain about, especially the state of the economy.  And, only a month in we spotted a level 50 player.  That must have been some hard work, as the game sort of petered out at about level 35 back then.  Still, Middle-earth was a pretty place.  It even had rainbows.

Vanguard was heavily in the news.  Sigil fell and SOE stepped in to pick up the pieces, though I wondered how long before the many problems with the game became attached to SOE.  I was also wondering about the impact of the game’s system requirements.

I was wondering how many more expansions EverQuest would have, while pointing out that you could get the game and all the expansions for only $15.

The owners of Allakhazam, long a staple of EQ knowledge, sold off their gold selling RMT wing, thus removing that taint and a host of gold selling ads from the site.

SOE officially announced the Rise of Kunark expansion for EverQuest II, keeping the game firmly on the nostalgia train.  Meanwhile, I had a suggestion for the new Arasai race.

Finally, there were some podcasts I thought people should listen to again.  I am not sure you can get most of them any more.

New Linking Blogs

After having to dip into the recycle pile to reuse some past linking sites last month, this month there are three new sites to mention!

Please take a moment to visit them.

Most Viewed Posts in May

  1. Diablo III vs. Torchlight II – A Matter of Details
  2. And Then I Missed Out on the Error 37 Party
  3. Running Civilization II on Windows 7 64-bit
  4. Impressions of Diablo in the Age of World of Warcraft
  5. Clearly Diablo III is not Out of the Woods Yet…
  6. Claiming Victory in Jita!
  7. Hulkageddon V – Reaping the Whirlwind
  8. How to Catch Zorua and Zoroark
  9. Diablo III – Installer Trouble Already
  10. Hulkageddon, Technetium, and the Circle of Life
  11. CCP Clearly Victorious in “Burn Jita” Event
  12. Destroying the CSAA at YVSL-2

Search Terms of the Month

error 37
[Brought more traffic here during May than all other search terms combined]

p-51 bomb-aiming stripes sight lines for dive bombing
[A few of these… this has to be a World of Warplanes related search]

fiesta outspark atlas sword
[There is an Ayn Rand reference in there somewhere]

Diablo III

As expected, Diablo III was the focus of about half of the month.  I have had a good time with it, having gotten through normal mode with my barbarian.  I am currently in Act II with him in nightmare mode.  This second run through is going slower both because it is actually harder… they throw a lot more blue elite monsters at you… and because it is the same thing I just did, so the drive to advance the story is gone.  I know how the story goes, where the surprise twist is, and so on.  And the randomization is pretty minimal, killing another aspect of change between plays, as the anchor points of the story pretty much force things into place.  So while I am still playing, I am concentrating more on playing with friends.

EVE Online

Things in New Eden were a bit quiet mid-month.  I did managed to get out on one strategic operation, so I am at least on the kill boards for May.  Who I might be flying with in these ops is interesting.  And, of course, there is skill training, always skill training.  I should be able to fly a heavy interdictor in about a week with all skills at IV or V.  Now will I actually buy one and fly one?  That is another story.

Portal

I Finished Portal.  I got half the achievements.  It was fun, though pretty short.  I am glad I got it for free.  It was probably $10 worth of cool… and met that $2/hour threshold for games… but I probably wouldn’t have bought it.  Portal 2 is on my Steam wish list now, waiting for a sale.

Rift

After the instance group finished up King’s Breach, we haven’t really been back to Telara.  As a group we have to get a couple of levels before we can hit the next dungeon, and we can get about a level a week if we focus as a group.  Instead of focusing we’ve been on vacation or playing Diablo III.  I am not sure if this means any change to our future plans or not at this time.

World of Warcraft

Since I paid for Diablo III by signing up for a years worth of WoW, I have felt compelled to at least log on once in a while.  I have one character at 85 and have settled into a pattern of logging on for Darkmoon Faire every month, specifically for the tradeskill related quests, since they boost your skill by 5 each time.  This is part of my plan to have at least one character max’d out on all skills when PandaVille arrives.  And then I log in to do whatever event happens to be going on, but only if I still have some achievements left to get.  So I was on for Children’s Week.  That got me the last of the companion pets and two achievements, though I still do not have the meta achievement.  I am just not going to do those battleground achievements.

Coming Up

Summer, and the expectation of warm weather.  It has been unseasonably chilly out here for much of the month.

And gaming… hrmm… I am out of immediate goals after Diablo III.

Something will turn up, I am sure of it.  It always does.

What is Richard Garriott de Cayeux up to these days?

NBI – All The Pretty Blogs… With Some Contradictory Advice Thrown In

All good things must come to an end.  This holds for mediocre and bad things as well.  You can pick which you felt the New Blogger Initiative was.  Syp certainly seems happy about things.

As one of the so-called sponsors, I committed to putting up an announcement about the event, writing a bit of advice (I even did some advice embedded in a live post), and then posting a summing up of all the new blogs and advice shared.  And so here we are at that final step, the summing up.

Hrmm.

I really have nothing else to add, so I will let you sum it up.

(NBI advice: polls are a great way to avoid committing to an opinion!  And, as a bonus, you can always wring another post out of evaluating the results!)

That said, onto the long lists of blogs and articles, which are after the cut.

Continue reading

NBI – Spurious Blogging Tips and Lies My Parents Told Me

The New Blogger Initiate appears to be over already.  I thought the last post was supposed to be on the end of the month.  And yet I still have bad advice to spread about.  Enough procrastination.

I generally have one good suggestion for bloggers, after which my advice tends to fall into two categories.

The first is advice that is so specific to my own situation that it probably won’t be all that helpful, while the rest is so general that it will likewise not be all that helpful.

So, first, my one good piece of advice… and even that is just my opinion.

Be The Blog You Want to Read

Even that seems to be sort of a “duh” statement.

But seriously, I presume that you have decided to jump into MMO blogging after having read some other MMO blogs.  And those blogs have probably made an impression on you.  And I bet some of those sites had aspects you did not like.  Don’t do those things.  Your blog should be the example you want others to follow.

Other than that, I have a few items which work for me.

Organize

You want to know Tobold’s biggest blogging crime is in my opinion?  You cannot find shit on his blog once it falls off the front page.

Effective use of tags, categories, and timelines can make it much easier to find your past efforts on a given subject.  Unless, of course, you don’t want people to find what you have said in the past.

For the most part people won’t go looking for things.  Most people will rarely look at anything except your last couple of posts.  But if you are like me, YOU will probably want to find things you have posted in the past, and organization helps.

Have a Philosophy

I feel that failing on this front is what leads most bloggers to give up after a short time.

If the answer to the question, “Why do you have a blog?” is “Because I want a blog!” then you might not be ready to begin.  I know I wasn’t.  I started off with wanting to write a blog about online gaming and was all over the map for a while.

Then I settled down a bit when I finally realized what I wanted the blog to be.  My blogging philosophy is to weave together my own gaming experiences… tales of the weekly instance group, exploits in EVE Online, and so forth… with a timeline of major events in the industry like MMO launches, closings, expansions, and that sort of headline and press release sort of thing.  I also add in a bit about the actual act of blogging and that is the general mix that makes up TAGN.

And yet I do not feel bound by my philosophy.  I set aside the weekend for the occasional post on other topics.

Add Value

This is tough, because value can be very subjective.  For example, I do not post press releases without comment.  But my comments are rarely very insightful.  They tend to sum up the impact on me.  That is value to me, but it may not be so for you.  And if you have decided to create a MMO press release blog, you can make the argument that a single source of such press releases, especially if well organized, adds value by its existence.  But you ought to feel that there is some value to your posts.  That may help sustain you when the initial warm glow of a new blog starts to fade.

Give Yourself Some Structure

I have one regular weekly post about the instance group’s activities over the past weekend, which runs on Thursday for reasons of laziness.  And then I post a once a month summary for reasons I can no longer recall, other than it seemed like a good idea at the time.  Those two recurring posts are the structure of the blog, and everything else is extra.

Link Like You are Getting Paid to Link

When in doubt, link to something.  Link to source material.  Link to press releases.  Link to other blog posts on the subject.  Link to your past posts on the subject.  Link to definitions of big words.  This is the internet, and the biggest advantage it gives you is the ability to quickly and easily connect to other material on the same subject.  While I link out a lot, I still feel I could be doing more.  Plus, you know, link whoring.

Do Not Depend Too Much on Links

The flip side of the above is link rot.  While it is a great thing to be able to link to all sorts of supporting material, do not depend on it to carry the weight of your post.  I groan when I see a post that contains a “go read this” link and then offers an opinion that depends on the context of off-site material to carry the post.  Because that link is going to go dead some day, and then that post will make no sense.  I try to keep quotes and context on my own site and link back to their source… like I was writing a real paper or something.  Sometimes I get lazy and don’t, and then a link goes dead and I kick myself for it.

Do Not Take Things Too Seriously

Yourself included, unless you plan to make this your profession.  It is only a blog.  Blogs are a dime a dozen, and for each one that is against some aspect of online games, you can find another that is completely in favor of it.   So if you reach a point where you find yourself taking game companies to task because they do not listen to your advice… and you are not actually in the industry but just some person on the internet… you’ve probably gone too far.

Headlines Can Be a Lot of Fun

Even now, somebody is probably trying to figure out what lies my parents told me.  Other than the usual ones… Santa, the Easter Bunny, the impact of swallowing watermelon seeds, and the existence of El Segundo…  I cannot recall any huge, earth shattering lies.  But they might still be holding out on me.

Hulkageddon V – Destruction Comes to an End… Mostly…

Hulkageddon V is now over.  The last API verified kill has been counted.  The event, having run from April 29th through May 29th, is now over.

(That is EVE Online game time, which runs on UTC.)

Hulkageddon V – The oft used picture

It was both the longest and most destructive iteration of the event, running for a full month and leaving almost 7,600 wrecked mining vessels in its wake worth a (low) estimated 1.47 trillion ISK.  That is the API verified number from the leaderboard.

 

Champion kills are exhumers and Orcas, while Junior kills are tier 1 mining barges.

EVE-Kill.net shows more than 8,600 kills.

But that includes manually entered kills, and with Goonswarm offering a bounty of 100 million ISK for every 10 exhumer kills, you have to figure some of that is bogus.  Who could resist trying to scam the Goons after all.

I will stick with the lower number for the purpose of comparing past events.

And here is the comparison.  This is how past events have totaled up.

  • Hulkageddon IV ran for just 9 days and say a little over 1,400 mining ships destroyed, putting the rate of destruction at about 155 a day.
  • Hulkageddon III posted over 2,400 mining ship kills over its 9 day run, putting the kill rate at about 267 vessels a day.
  • Hulkageddon II ran for just 7 days, but saw a kill rate of 214 per day, with over 1,500 mining ships destroyed during its run.
  • And the first Hulkageddon was a very modest, 2 day affair, with just 88 exhumers and mining barges meeting their end.

So Hulkageddon V lead to the destruction of more mining ships than all past iterations of the even combined.  Of course, it also ran more than three times as long as past events; more days means more kills.  So when averaged out, Hulkageddon V appears to be shy of the rate of kills set by Hulkageddon III, with a rate of about 244 kills per day. (Or 278 kills per day if you take the eve-kill.net number for true.)

I suspect that the rate of kills per day would have been higher had the event been shorter.  Things got off to a very fast start and was close to the 4,000 kill mark only 11 days into the event.  If it had kept up that pace we would be talking bigger numbers.

Of course, even after the event is over, the anger from some rages on. (hat tip to Jester on that one)

And, to a certain extent, the event itself continues to rage on with an announcement from The Mittani that Goonswarm payouts for exhumer kills will continue until further notice.  This announcement even has its own official thread in the EVE forums now.

Another fine OTEC moment.  Every Hulk destroyed is more technetium sold for its replacement.  We shall see if this keeps high sec mining suppressed.

Echoes of a Crashing MUD

Last week’s crash bug fixing bonanza has resulted in a near-record uptime of 150 hours and still going.

TorilMUD New Post

They have been working hard on crash related bugs at TorilMUD.

TorilMUD has been around, in one form or another, for nearly 20 years now.  Next year I will get to write my “20 years of TorilMUD” post, a follow up to my 15 year post, as I will have played it off and on for that long.

In all that time, running without a crash for less than seven days is a record.

I guess there is a reason that uptime was displayed only as hours, minutes, and seconds.  There was no need for days to be displayed.

So this is a big success, this huge increase in reliability, right?

If you had asked me that when I was playing the game actively, back when there were 50-100 people on all the time, I would have told you that seven days of uptime was a disaster!

The thing is, crashes were points of opportunity to be valued, not disasters to be avoided.

Yes, sure, if you were doing a zone and had finally gotten through to a big fight and the game crashed, that was bad.  And you didn’t want to the game going down every ten minutes… unless you wanted to farm Bandor’s flagon or some other easily obtained item.  But no crashes for days could mean no loot for days in a very loot oriented game.

The thing is, most monsters in the game that carried anything worth having only carried that item at boot.  Once you slew the monster and took its item, it would respawn, but would come back empty handed.  You might get some coins from it and some experience, but the special item was only there once per boot.

In addition, there were a lot of rare mobs that had a chance to spawn at reboot, often mobs related to key quests in the game.

So a crash and a reboot was a time of renewal in the game.  You would spam your way out to pick off an easy item or two, help friends scour known locations for special spawns, and then start forming groups to tackle the zone content, which was the MUD equivalent of raiding.

We all loved a well timed crash, and there were few things as depressing as logging in at prime time on a weekend and seeing the uptime sitting at 18 hours.  All the easy drops would be gone by then, all the good zones done, and the world mobs likely spotted already.

Players would begin whining about the uptime and how all the good stuff have been done.  And often an administrator would take pity on us… they were all long time players and knew the importance of a timely reboot… and announce a reboot.

So key aspects of the game… loot and raiding… were predicated on the system crashing at fairly regular intervals.  How crazy was that?

And this, of course, had influence that was felt long after so many of us moved to 3D graphical MMORPGs.

TorilMUD was the Diku template on which EverQuest was based.  Brad McQuaid, Aradune, and other EQ devs were long time players of TorilMUD, and if you played them both you could see the many things that were influenced by… or copied wholesale from… TorilMUD.  Races, classes, equipment stats, racial home towns, the layout of Freeport, and much more came from EQ’s text-based predecessor.

But not everything could be copied directly.  What works in text does not always translate well to a 3D virtual world.  You never dropped your weapon in Norrath for example, which was something of a relief.  They actually turned off the fumble mechanism in TorilMUD in the last couple of years, so you need not worry about losing your weapon forever in a shallow stream or a duck pond.

And the concept of aggro management started to take shape, as there was no such thing in TorilMUD.  Monsters switched to attack casters all the time and the tanks job was to use the “rescue” command, which would switch the monster back to focus on the tank.

And one of the things that the EQ team no doubt felt they could not depend on was the crash/reboot mechanism to repopulate drops and spawn rare mobs.  Depending on crashes is fine in a free game, but can you imagine a commercial MMO where a crash or a reboot a couple of times a day would be seen as a good thing?

So they had to come up with another solution to meter out rare mobs to simulate the whole crash/reboot cycle.  The decision was to put such mobs on extremely long respawn timers.

And thus the insane camp was born.

I suspect, though have no confirmation, that the EQ devs never expected players to actually sit on a rare mob spawn point for extremely long stretches of time waiting for it to appear.  I have to imagine that they thought that players would treat that sort of thing the way we did in TorilMUD, which was to run by and check the spot at intervals.  In the TorilMUD, that interval was at every reboot.  But with no such similar timer in EQ, people just sat down in a group and waited.

And waited, and waited, some times for days at a stretch, for a specific mob to appear.

Eventually, other mechanisms were created to replace the long spawn, though not all were necessarily more successful.  How many hours have I spent killing the placeholder mob over and over again in hopes of spawning that one special mob I needed?

In the end, certainly with the advent of WoW, I think most such mobs were stuck in instanced environments and metered based on difficulty rather than the amount of time you and your group could sit in one place and wait.  The age of the long camp was over, though I am sure somebody will tell you they miss it.

But for a while at least, our behavior in MMOs was influenced by the fact that they simply could not be allowed to crash a couple of times a day.

At Last, I Can Read the Diablo III Patch Notes!

Normal mode complete

Because, of course, the damn patch notes contain spoilers.  So I have held off until I got through the game at least once.

Spoiler Warning: If you have not yet completed Diablo III on Normal, some hotfixes described in this list may include spoilers.

Such is life.  But I have run through the game once, with a barbarian, in normal mode.

Work sent us home early today due to the three day weekend, so I got home and started in on Act VI which, once I reconfigured my barb from an AOE focus to single target damage, went by pretty quickly and there I was facing the big guy.

Ah Diablo, we meet again!

Another thing that Diablo III has in common with Diablo II; the last act seems much shorter than the three before it.

I probably enjoyed Act III the most.  The start on the ramparts of the fortress was amazing.

Anyway, now I have Nightmare mode to look forward to.

Or maybe I could play an MMO.  I haven’t really done much of that since May 15th.

 

38 Studios – The Legend, The Myth, The End

Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse

John Derek in Knock on Any Door (1949)

Well, I cannot speak to whether or not 38 Studios lived fast, and six years can be a long time in technology, so you can argue that the company did not die young.

But they left a good looking, if sparse, corpse in the form of a three pictures and a less than two minute fly through video of their planned virtual world.

Somewhere in Copernicus

Legends have been created out of less.

And now nobody will ever say that Copernicus, their as yet unnamed flagship game, to which the main effort of the company had been devoted for almost six year, sucks.

Nobody will complain about unbalanced classes or broken game mechanics or servers being down or sever queues being too long or any of the thousand other things that we find to pick on when it comes to MMOs.

Copernicus is pristine, a blurry mirage doomed to ever been in the distance, on which some will overlay their hopes and dreams for the future of MMO gaming.  I’ve seen it already, with some bloggers mourning not just the fact that we will now never see this game come into full bloom, but that it somehow represented our last, best hope to return greatness to the genre.  Some future games will find themselves compared to Copernicus that might have been.  It was to be the holy grail game that brought joy back to fantasy MMOs.

Which is a tune I have heard before.

It was the sort of thing some of our guild members were saying about Vanguard in 2005 when we were playing EverQuest II and it had fully sunk in that the game really wasn’t a sequel to the EverQuest experience.  And so Vanguard became the dream, the game destined to be the true successor to EverQuest.

And, well… we know how that turned out.  Sigil Games, facing their own financial woes, opted to go to market early with a game clearly not ready for prime time.

In one of those twists of timing, it was just five years ago this month that Sigil folded up shop with the now infamous parking lot layoff, sans Brad McQuaid.  But we got the word from Smed that SOE was swooping in to save the day.  SOE was a hero for the moment, but I wondered how long they would remain a hero.  Not very long, it seemed, as soon all the problems with Vanguard became SOE’s problems, and SOE’s fault for not fixing them fast enough.

It makes me wonder what image Vanguard would have ended up with had Brad opted to run out of money before launching the game.

Alas, there will be no SOE white knight to rescue Copernicus.  Those days are clearly done.  Back when SOE was under Sony Pictures, which I am convinced really didn’t know, and didn’t care, what was going on in San Diego so long as the money was coming in, was able to collect orphaned MMOs like Vanguard and The Matrix Online.  Now though, under the PlayStation people, who clearly want to hear about things that sell PlayStation hardware when they aren’t being evil, things have been trimmed back substantially.

There was an estimate that the assets of 38 Studios might be worth up to $20 million, though that sort of talk denies the reality of software development.  If you buy a software company with no people, you have pretty much bought nothing.  The people who write the software, they are the assets.  Without them you have some source code, which can be interesting, but is tough to make your own.  You can bring in your own people to try.  I’ve been down that path.  If you just want to be able to build the software and maybe make some small fixes, it can even be viable.  But if you want to own the software and be able to use it to its full, you have to know it well, which is hard work.  And the first thing that will happen is the devs will start saying that it is easier to rewrite some section of code from scratch than figure out what is really going on, and that way lies madness and repetition of the same mistakes to gain the same knowledge as the original authors of the code.

And then there is the outside influence of Star Wars: The Old Republic which, according to analyst Michael Pachter, has killed off interest in investing in MMO projects.  To quote the money line:

Nobody is buying MMOs after Star Wars fizzled

So yeah, we can blame SWTOR!  Because if EA can’t get MMOs right, then it is clearly some sort of once-in-a-lifetime black art not worth exploring.

Life in the big money lane.

I feel a bit sorry for Curt Schilling for not getting to live out his dream of creating a great MMO.  But only a bit.  I mean the guy had fame, fortune, and three world series wins coming into this deal, all while deliberately and maliciously being younger than me.  He can go back to that.  Maybe he can be a champion for small studios that reflect some of the things he was trying to bring to MMOs.

But I identify more with the team at 38 Studios, the worker bees who have to scramble to find another gig to pay the mortgage.  I’ve been down that path a few times.  The joy of Silicon Valley start ups, here today, gone tomorrow.  I worked for eight different companies in the 90s, and only one still exists.   I was there twice for the “everybody go home” company meeting.  It doesn’t get easier with repetition.

I do want to throw out a minor “screw you” to 38 Studios for buying and shutting down the Azeroth Advisor.  Grudge holding… we have that here at TAGN.

But other than that, I am sorry to see things turn out as they did.  We won’t ever see Copernicus now, and so I will be denied the privilege of playing it while complaining about insignificant details that annoy me.

Addendum: And then there is the industry insider view of this debacle from the newly returned to blogging Lum and how it is killing the very concept of massively multiplayer online gaming.

Further Addendum: And there are always methods to make a bad situation worse.

R. A. Salvatore says Copernicus was awesome, but can’t actually back that up.  He was right on one thing in that comment, he shouldn’t be commenting.  More for the myth and legend department.

Steve Danuser puts the blame on the governor of Rhode Island.

It looks like 38 Studios may have screwed some employees worse than others.  Was that the governor of Rhode Island’s fault as well?

Everybody wants to know where the money went.

Of course, there is Curt.

And then Derek Smart chimes in with a dump truck load of reality.  Refreshing to see him poking at a subject that needs it.

On Talent Trees and Skill Points

When I was writing yesterday’s post comparing aspects of Diablo III and Torchlight II, I was somewhat dreading the possible comments, and all the more so when Massively linked to the post. (Thanks, by the way.)

My fear was that there would be a parade of Hulk-like “Me smash always online DRM single player game!” comments.  That seemed to be the primary focus of Diablo III hate at launch, at least when the servers were down.

But I actually did not get any of that.  The joys of a small readership.  Or maybe I successfully deflected them all to Straw Fellow.  Evil plan achieved.

I was, however, a bit surprised to find, both here and over at Massively, that the presence of talent trees and skill points was being pushed as a big pro-Torchlight II differentiating factor.  It was sometimes hidden under “character customization,” but it was there and oft mentioned.

And I found this a bit odd because I do not like talent trees.  I see them as having proven their flawed nature over the last 15 years to such an extent that I wonder how anybody can promote them as a positive feature with a straight face.

We have talent trees, and we are sure we have succeeded where literally everybody else has failed in the past!

In theory, talent trees are great and represent a way to create a unique and special snowflake of a character.  I get that.  Lots of things seem great in theory.

In practice, there is usually one “right” build for whatever role you are seeking to fill and every other alternative is sub-optimal.

So talent trees become less about character customization and more about finding the “correct” answer.  In the end, I think that most of want our characters to be good at their chosen roles, right?  I know there will always be somebody who will view playing with a sub-optimal spec as a challenge, but I have to believe that is the exception and not the rule.

And because the talent tree allows us to make bad choices, the band-aid of the talent respec came into being.  At first it was grudging… Diablo II got patched to give you ONE respec… or expensive… recall the mounting respec bills in WoW way back when.  But eventually the devs threw their hands in the air in more recent games and gave us respecs that were cheap and plentiful while they went off to try and find that elusive “many good choices” talent tree formula.

Even EVE Online gives you a stat respec up front for free, and another one yearly.  And that is for five stats that really only impact the rate at which your character can learn skills.

But respecs are, in my view, an admission of failure.  They seem to be saying that the devs have copped to the fact that they cannot create a talent tree system with many good choices, so when you realize you have made a mistake, here is your out.

And even cheap and easy respecs were not enough in some cases.  Rift, whose big feature was the soul system, which could be viewed either as the best character customization ever or the talent tree from hell depending on your point of view, caved in and as much as admitted that the whole thing was too vast for the average player and gave us some templates to help curb the rash of bad builds.

Just show me the right answer so I can go play!

This is, of course, my view of the world.  It is based on history, but also on the fact that I don’t really want to play the talent point game.  And that is clearly an opinion.  Even as I was preparing to publish this, I saw that Syp over a Bio Break has a post up asking why we don’t have MORE talents and stats and such to tinker with in games.  To me it is like asking that we ignore the last 15 years or so of MMO development.  But we all play these games for different reasons.

Anyway, from my point of view, the choice made by Blizzard in Diablo III seems like a clear win, and improvement over the past.

Instead of constraining character development by making me spent points in a tree system… and running to a vendor to get a respec when I make the inevitable errors… Diablo III just opens up new skills as you level up and constrains your character development by making you choose which of those skills you want to use.  With elective mode [boobies] in the options, you can build up a set of six abilities from your choices as you see fit and never have to spend a talent point or get a respec.

Of course, the system is not perfect.  As Keen points out, some of the Diablo III skills are sub-optimal.  Hey, you can still make bad choices.  But it still seems like a step forward to me.

As I said, the idea that this is a step forward is clearly not held by some.  So today I will let you validate your opinion with a poll.  Numbers always add value to opinions!

And, of course, you can post your anti/pro talent tree manifesto in the comments.

Diablo III vs. Torchlight II – A Matter of Details

[Note to Massively readers: The “no-holds-barred Thunderdome deathmatch” was cancelled, the honeybadger called in sick.  We’re having a tea party instead.  If you are looking for a post complaining about Diablo III requiring you to be online to play, go read this.]

Runic Games had a Torchlight II beta event this past weekend.  A beta event during the first weekend after Diablo III launched.  Crazy, right?

Maybe, and maybe not.

Certainly there is a lot of anti-Blizzard ire in the air after the rocky launch day made error 37 the banner around which those angry about the always “connected nature” of Diablo III could rally.  Torchlight II, as detailed in this comparo chart, offers up online, LAN, and offline modes of play.  The latter seemed pretty attractive last week.

While I had seen updates from Runic about the beta, I was not planning to join in on it.  You know… first weekend of Diablo III and all that.  But they sent me a key for the event, and the download was pretty painless at 750 MB… versus 7GB for Diablo III… which is a little over an hour of file transfer with my internet connection.

The download went while we ate dinner, and when the time finally came, I was able to sit down and launch into Torchlight II.

I logged in (the beta is online mode only, so just like D3), made a character (berserker, the melee class), picked my pet (wolf), got into the game, and spent about 10 minutes running around.

At that point I was a bit dismayed with the graphical style so logged off and went off and played Diablo III for the next three hours.  And D3 was glorious.  I got through most of Act II, played with another friend for a while, and had a great time.

In the light of the next morning though, I felt that I had, perhaps, given Torchlight short shrift.  So I went back and played it for a couple of hours, just to be sure I got it.  And it was a good thing I did, as Torchlight II really has much to recommend it.

The key difference between the two games is what each team decided was important to continue the legacy of Diablo II.

After the break, a long discussion of how they differ, which I attempted to organize.  I did not do a very good job.

Begin wall of text.

Atmosphere

I’ve harped on this topic a couple of times, and how important it is to the Diablo franchise.  And if I was disappointed that Diablo III did not live up to the standard of gloom and shadow set by its predecessors, where light sources were important things, and where casting a fire spell actually lit up the room, then Torchlight II falls further behind in that department.

While Diablo III dungeons appear to lit by indirect lighting, the level of detail that went into the art, and the amount terrain that breaks, explodes, or just falls apart when you battle over it make up for the lighting choice for the most part.

And then there is the blood…

Torchlight II dungeons also suffer from the same interior design lighting choices.  They seem a bit brighter at times, but not annoyingly so.  The prime difference between the two games when it comes to dungeon atmosphere is more a matter of the budget dollars than anything else.  Blizzard had the money to make exquisitely details interiors, and that money paid off.

A well lit dungeon

Outside of dungeons though, Blizzard keeps up its atmosphere ambitions.  The game feels gloomy and oppressive when it suits.  And the epic battle on the ramparts at the start of Act III is amazing.  Torchlight II, on the other hand, is more modest on the surface world.  It can be gloomy… but sometimes it is bright and sunny and the grass is green and the flowers are blooming and it might be “Happy Elves go on a Picnic” that you are playing… at least until the bad guys show up.

But that just goes with the art style choice that the team at Runic Games has adopted, which clearly owes more to Team Fortress 2 than Diablo II.

Story

The Diablo series is a story.  The story was pretty simple in the first game.  It became an integral part of game play in the second, as you were guided through four acts, each with their own story quest line.

How story gets handled this time around clearly separates the two games.

For Blizzard, story is all consuming.  The whole game takes story up several notches from Diablo II.  There are more cut scenes, more references to back story, more quests, more stages per quest, and much more dialog.  You are never left to go wander around for a couple of zones worth of content looking for some location or item as you were in Diablo II.  You are always reminded that you have a task to accomplish, even as you pick up those side events, loot every corpse, break every barrel, and so on.  And it is so well tailored and immersive that it really works well for me in a way that MMO quests do not.

And the story also cements the relationship with the series.  I raised an eyebrow about having to visit pretty much every location from Diablo II again.  But it is a continuation of a story, and that story takes place in a world already defined.  I can see how running off to some new location might not help with the bond Blizzard is attempting to create.

Torchlight II… at least as far as I played into it… seems to take a bit of a step back from the Diablo II level of integration with story.  They are not quite at the original Torchlight, where the town seemed to be a parody of an MMO quest hub at times.  But you end up with a few quests at a time, which may or may not be related and which may or may not have anything to do with the over-arching story.  While Blizzard limits and controls any distraction from story, Torchlight II keeps a much looser grip on your tale.  It isn’t a sandbox by any stretch of the imagination, and if you want to play the game through, you’re going to have to take up the story and your character will have to act out their pre-ordained  part.  But story isn’t as all consuming.

Whether one or the other is better is a matter of taste.  I am enjoying Diablo III‘s focus on story, but the light feel of Torchlight II has its benefits too.

Characters and Skills

Both games have finally decided that you can be either sex for a given class.  A victory for all of us I think.  I could never play my Diablo II Amazon in multi-player.

Diablo III has five classes, Torchlight II has four.  Each has the requisite melee, ranged weapons, and caster class covered as barbarian/berserker, demon hunter/outlander, and wizard/ember mage.  The other classes do not really overlap.  The engineer in Torchlight II is sort of steampunk melee, while the monk in Diablo III gives you martial arts melee and group healing.  And Diablo III’s witch doctor seems to be geared towards those who delight in throwing jars of spiders at people.

Aside from the spiders, the classes are reasonably on par.  The barbarian and the berserker are especially similar, but how far wrong can you go with a crazy melee class?

The path between the two games diverge when it comes to how you develop your classes.

Torchlight II is clearly in the old school Diablo II camp.  You get talent points to spend on talent trees, there are three trees per class, and the items on these trees unlock or enhance your skills.  Likewise, with every level you get points you can apply to your stats, and there are stats that are clearly better for any given class.  And you will run into gear drops that are stat constrained; e.g. You must be this strong to wield the Coyote Sword of Obliteration.

Diablo III went down a new path.  You do not spend points on talents or stats.  Stats go up as you level.  And as you level up you also unlock abilities.  Abilities are sorted by type, and are abilities of the same type are mutually exclusive, you can choose only one.  In the end you can have six abilities active, one from each grouping.  You also unlock runes for each skill which gives that skill an additional effect.  So for my my main melee attack, I chose the skill that hits up to three bad guys in front of me, then added the rune that makes anything I kill with that attack explode (!!!) like a bomb, damaging those around the victim.

For somebody like me, who dislikes the classic talent tree (I always choose badly early on), the Diablo III system is a thing of beauty.  You have to make choices… hard choices… as you can only have six skills active, and each can only have one its runes selected.  But you are not locked into any given skill.  You can open up your character window and change things up at will.

Random Game Mechanics

As with characters skills, Torchlight II saw fit to leave a lot of the Diablo II mechanics alone.  So you have health potions, scrolls of identify, scrolls of town portal, vendors, and the whole lot, all in the Diablo II vein.  Spells are different… but they work the same way they did in Torchlight.

In the end, it is a lot like Diablo II, down to the red and blue health and mana balls, now moved out to the edge of your peripheral vision just like in Diablo II.

And Torchlight II seems kind of obsessed with levels, in a very MMO-like way.  Quests, zones, mobs, all have levels visible. which are sometimes brought vigorously to your attention.

Are you leveled up enough for that zone?

Diablo III has done away with the scrolls, having made town portal a skill and identify something you apparently do by staring really hard at an item for a few seconds. (Which makes a sort of sense… it is a friggin’ axe, how tough could that be to decipher?)  Vendors are the same, though aside from the occasional ones you run into in the wild, they almost never have anything for sale that you need.  I am always wearing better gear and I have yet to run out of health potions.

And then there is the auction house.  The gold driven one.  It took me a bit to figure out what would drive this in a game that rains loot on you in every battle.  There are a few factors, but the one that I think makes the big difference is that all of the yellow gear that drops… that is the good stuff… shows up usable by a character many levels below yours.  In the his mid-20s, my barbarian is getting yellow drops usable by level 14 characters.  They are showing up almost too late to be useful for him, since he is getting blue drops as good or better.

But those yellow drops make a great gift for a lower level alt!  And hey, if you want to pick up a meaningful piece of equipment for your main, the auction house has plenty of similar items at your level.

As for the RMT driven auction house, which isn’t open as of yet… a couple of people will likely do well out of it… or will tell you they are doing well in order to sell you a guide so you’ll know how to do well.  I think the most likely buyer will be somebody seeking the in-game currency, since Blizzard fixed the gold glut that was in Diablo II.

In Diablo II, by the end of the second act you probably had more gold than you could carry.  There was nothing to spend it on really.

In Diablo III you have the auction house, expansions for your shared stash, and leveling up your crafting NPCs.  The glut is gone.  Now I have more things to spend gold on than I have gold.  And that feeling, the need for gold, will drive people to spend real money.  The so a new generation of gold farmers, now working legally, will arise.

Finally, just to finish a comparison started above, Diablo III seems to go out of its way to NOT look like it as obsessed with levels as an MMO.  Zones, monsters, quests… none of these things display levels.  But they all have levels, Blizzard is just hiding them.  I thought they might be scaling things, but the word on the street is that levels are still the in thing.

Companions

Both games have branched off from Diablo II when it comes to companions.

Runic Games added a pet companion in Torchlight, where you could choose if you were a cat or a dog person.  This has been expanded with Torchlight II.  You now have more choices, including an adorable ferret pet that my daughter loves.

It has little goggles!

Aside from different skins however, it is the same as the Torchlight pet.  It assists you in battle.  You can teach it spells, which is pretty cool.  And you can load your pet up with drops and send it back to town to sell… though, of course, then you are standing around in the dungeon without your companion for 30 seconds to a couple of minutes.

Diablo III has curtailed the Diablo II companion vendor and has given you three companions, the scoundrel, the Templar, and the sorceress.

Hanging with the companions…

You meet each as you progress through the story.  Each has three skills that you can choose as they level up, and there are some clear match ups.  The Templar is a tank with some healing, the sorceress is a caster that has a healing choice, and the scoundrel is a ranged DPS rogue.

So for my barbarian, the clear choice of companion is the sorceress… or maybe the Templar to get healing.

But I always group with the scoundrel.

Why?

Because the companions have personalities… as does your own character.  You do not get to choose who your character is, you play the personality of the class you choose.

The barbarian is dour and fatalistic.  He is on a quest, he is going to slay evil, and he fully expects to die in the process.  He is the unsmiling Arnold Schwartzenegger character, all muscles and determination.

Meanwhile, I have nicknamed the scoundrel “Ford Prefect.”  He wants to loot some gold, make time with girls, and get in out of the cold.  He comments on the trail of dead bodies in our wake and moans about the state of dungeons, but when push comes to shove he is there with me, a few steps back, shooting up the bad guys with his crossbow, shouting “That’s how we do it in Kingsport!” at then end of a fight now and again.

The interplay between the barbarian and the scoundrel is endlessly amusing to me.  They have some regular repartee along with scripts that go with certain events.  The only downside is that when you join up with a friend, you companion goes away.  I am pushing ahead with my barbarian solo for now in part to see how their relationship unfolds.

Yes, the whole thing is scripted , and not exactly written at the James Joyce level, but it is fun.  And I wonder how the other companions react at similar events… and how they interact with the other character classes of each sex.  Too many possible variations!

Game Modes

Blizzard made a drastic choice with Diablo III by making it always online.  Straw Fellow has a good write up on this, so I will try not to belabor the point.  I will just say that it is a classic “less is more” choice.  Blizzard decided that Diablo III was a multiplayer game, and that playing with friends was the key feature.  So they made playing together as easy as possible by forcing everybody to be online.  And my own time spent with the game over the weekend showed that it seems to work.  I spent a lot of time playing with friends primarily because it was so easy.  There was no need to coordinate; you see your friend, you jump on in.

Runic Games, on the other hand, wants Torchlight II available for all of the Diablo II play styles.  So you can play offline.  You can setup a game over the internet privately.  Or you can log into their own version of Battle.net and play in their public space.

The catch is that all this flexibility will keep “playing with friends” from ever being as easy as Diablo III has made it.

But Torchlight II has some additional things to throw into the pot.  For one, you can set the difficulty mode of your game to any setting without having played through the lower settings.  If you want to start off in hard mode, go right ahead.  With Diablo III… which outside of bosses seems kind of soft in the initial difficulty setting… I am not sure I will want to play through the whole game twice just to get to hard mode.

And the other key item is that Torchlight II will let you have up to 8 players in your game, versus 4 in Diablo III.  For those of us with a regular group of 5 or 6 people, this will be a boon.

Other Random Items

Diablo III has achievements, and making achievements feel worthwhile is something that Blizzard does well.  You get them for the usual things, and the special events you expect, but they also throw in a good number or cool random ones.  At one point I had a quest to free villagers who had been caged up in their town.  I only needed to free 8, but after I finished I noticed that there were more and I could still free them.  So I did.  And there was an achievement for freeing all of the prisoners.  It almost solves the sixth slave issue.

Torchlight II, in addition to normal experience also has fame… sort of notoriety ala LOTRO… as did Torchlight.  You get that for slaying bosses and other special monsters.  And I would tell you what fame was for… but I totally forgot.

Diablo III takes crap screen shots.  The compression is set really high… hey, another feature LOTRO shares… and so the fine detail looks much worse in screen shots than in the game. (And the damn cursor is in all the screen shots… see the companions shot above.)  But Torchlight II doesn’t take screen shots at all… at least not yet.  So I had to get Fraps out… which takes great screen shots since I can control the quality, so I should probably run that with Diablo III as well.

Neither has what I consider the definitive MMO feature, which is the ability to turn off the UI.  So they are not MMOs.  Hah!

Actually Playing

Same for both games.

Click on shit until it dies.

Press a button for a health potion.

Press another button for a spell or something.

But mostly just keep clicking, just keep clicking.

It is the simplicity of combat and the non-stop slaughter as your hero… and in both games you are clearly not just another feeb fresh off the turnip wagon, not another noob in the starter zone, but a full fledged hero… tears through the bad guys that sells the genre.

If anything, both games step up the pace of action over Diablo II, and that is a beautiful thing.

What Do I Recommend?

I will be playing both.

Diablo III continues the franchise story, a story in which I was already emotionally invested.  Not playing the game never even occurred to me.  That it turned out to be a great game that adds to the genre is simply a bonus.  Anybody saying that Diablo III brought nothing new to the table clearly isn’t playing the same game I am… and I would bet that most aren’t playing the game at all, but just complaining from the sidelines.

My big question is what will Blizzard do with the game they have created?  Eventually it will be played out for most people.  Will it get expansions or new game modes or new games on the same platform?  Time will tell. [9/20 Update: time says that Blizz dropped the ball here.]

Torchlight II is light and awesome and the game I will play with my daughter. (Diablo III is a bit too grim for a 10 year old I think.)  While not endowed with Blizzard’s art budget, it is still a superior example of the click action genre.  And with a $20 price tag, I have no doubt the instance group will give it a try.

And, being open for mods, it will likely find new life as time goes along as a platform for people to do their own stories.

But either way, I think I am pretty lucky to have both games available to play this year.

This will definitely cut into my MMO time.