RIFT vs. World of Warcraft: Upgraded skills and the RNG factor

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I don’t know if it’s been pointed out, but the other day I realized that both World of Warcraft and RIFT introduced a sort-of similar feature in each of their respective recent expansions. The feature in question is skill upgrades — that is, taking a standard skill and created a much-improved version that is so good it actually alters a player’s build.

Yet how each of these expansions is doing it is miles apart in execution, and I think it bears looking at because it highlights one of the ongoing struggles of game design: RNG versus a known quantity.

World of Warcraft is introducing these upgraded skills through its legendary items. I haven’t been playing WoW that hard over the past half-decade, but to my knowledge this is the first time that legendaries are featured so heavily in an expansion, to the point where it’s expected that a player might accumulate and equip four at once after a while. Legendaries have skill-defining traits attached, such as the one that I got last week that buffs my anti-magic shell. Before, it was a skill I hardly ever used on my Death Knight. Now that it heals me and is far stronger, it’s part of my standard defensive array.

Of course, there’s no assured way to get a legendary in this expansion; it’s all random number generator. You have to engage in certain activities — opening emissary quests, do mythic dungeons, etc. — and then cross your fingers for one. The devs said that they didn’t want a grind, so they chose the all-RNG route which makes players grind these activities over and over anyway. The only change from, say, a token grind is that the end goal isn’t defined and could happen any time (or not).

Plus, there’s the downside of not being able to get the legendary you want or need for your current build, so you could just be attempting to get the right one until the next expansion arrives.

RIFT, on the other hand, simply gives players one legendary skill point per level from 66 through 70. You know they’re coming, you can choose the upgraded skill you want, and that is that. There’s absolutely no chance to it — and no stress either. It’s exciting to ding because I want to see how my builds will change with these new skills. I can’t imagine how frustrating it’d be if these skill points were tacked on to gear and locked behind an RNG wall.

I’m OK with RNG to dole out fun rewards, and even World of Warcraft has made regular looting fun through the RNG titanforge system. Every so often I get a piece of gear that’s just a little bit better than what I had before thanks to this. But it was a dire mistake to gate all legendaries behind RNG.

A much better suggestion and in line with the expansion design as it is would be to have legendary item quest lines, a la class order hall and class quest lines. At the end of each, you get to pick a legendary of your choice and then have the option to start the quest all over again if you wanted to get a second. That would keep it from looking too grindy, keep it fun, and give players choice.

WoW might be the more popular and successful game in most respects, but dang if RIFT doesn’t actually do design better in so many small and important ways.

Battle Bards Episode 87: Elves!

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It’s high time that the Battle Bards lay prostrate at the feet of their social and intellectual superiors, the high and mighty Elves! Yes, it’s a full episode of elven music, a virtual rainbow of harps and swirly magic and slightly grumpy hosts who use this opportunity to unload their gripes against this fantasy race.

Episode 87 show notes (show page, direct download)

  • Intro (feat. “Teldrassil” from World of Warcraft and “Elf Wood” from MapleStory)
  • “Grey Havens” from LOTRO
  • “Elf Forest” from Forsaken World
  • “Allemantheia (The City of Truth)” from TERA
  • “High Elf Tomb” from World of Warcraft
  • “Unicorn’s Rest (Elven Village)” from Lineage 2
  • “Elven Theme” from Allods Online
  • “Rena’s Theme (Hope of the Elven)” from Elsword Online
  • Which one did we like the most?
  • Jukebox Picks: “Rhyldan” from The Repopulation, “OST” from Fantasy Life, and “Welcome to Rapture” from BioShock
  • Outro (“Rena’s Theme”)

Try-It Tuesday: Duke Grabowski Mighty Swashbuckler

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Try-It Tuesdays is a (semi) regular weekly feature in which I take a break from my current roster of games to play something new (to me) for an evening. You can check out past Try-It Tuesday adventures here or submit a suggestion for a future title in the comments!

A month or so ago, friend of Bio Break Spagomat reached out to me and offered me a free copy of a game that he and some ex-LucasArts devs had worked on. I’m hardly one to turn down free games, particularly in the adventure game vibe, so I ended up with a copy of Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler. A Thanksgiving weekend is a good a time as any to get all piratey, right? Sure, why not.

I’d never heard of it before, but right from the get-go I was on the receiving end of some serious Monkey Island vibes. That’s probably intentional, considering the art style, irreverent tone, and subject matter. Instead of a gawky, ambitious pirate, the titular character of Duke Grabowski is a hulking dullard of a man who throws in his sword to become the new ship captain. Nobody’s really having it, so they send him on a wild goose chase to successfully woo three women, which the rest of the crew figures is impossible with his temperment.

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From there it’s a very straight-forward, relatively easy adventure game featuring limited (as in three) mouse commands, lots of dialogue, and those trademark quirky situations and characters that we got with the Monkey Island series. If you enjoy the puns (there was even a SCUMM joke) and goofy attitude, the world will prove to be plenty engaging.

However, I found myself really adverse to the main character. I get that the devs were trying to subvert expectations by taking what would traditionally be a background character and shoving him to the forefront, but I couldn’t get into Duke very much. He’s quite slow in all mental respects and everyone dances around him verbally. And his character model — especially his face with the giant, bulging eyes, is off-putting. It made me miss Guybrush Threepwood and other sarcastic, intelligent narrators of adventure games. A thinking game in which your character can’t think seems so wrong.

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I played for a little over an hour to get a feel for it, but I wasn’t getting sucked in. The background artwork and music are top-notch, as is most of the voice work, and occasionally the game made me chuckle with a well-timed pun or two. And I’d always rather an adventure game err on the side of puzzles being too easy than too hard, although there was nothing that taxed my brain here.

However, the foreground models (including the characters) did not mesh well with the background, giving them a disconnected quality. And most of the NPCs I met were, to put it nicely, crudely designed. It’s as if there were two art departments, one which kind of phoned it in and one which did a tremendous job.

Ultimately, without a main character that I could get behind, I wasn’t going to invest any more time. It’s nice that the game was made and that the devs from the LucasArts era are still hard at work, of course. It just wasn’t for me.

With special thanks to Spagomat!

World of Warcraft from my seven-year-old’s point of view

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I want to talk about my seven-year-old son today, because he’s started to form a rather interesting relationship with World of Warcraft.

As I might have mentioned before, I haven’t really been pushing video gaming on my kids, mostly to give them more time for physical play and development now before they get hooked on the digital stuff later. We’re not forbidding it or anything, it’s just not a daily fixture around here. But every so often my son begs me to let him “fly the owl,” and I give him some time to play my Druid in World of Warcraft.

First of all, if you’ve never had or worked with younger kids, let me tell you that it’s downright scary how fast they pick up things. The only instruction I gave to him was in how to move his character and the camera angle, along with a couple of helpful keyboard keys. Then I turned off the UI and let him explore the world.

He’s since figured out how to traverse most of Azeroth, thanks to the boats and flight. The Druid is great for exploring, with its insta-flight form and quick shape-shifting to a water form when submerged. And exploring really is all he does. Without a map, he’s memorized boat schedules, where the “volcano” (Blackrock Mountain) is, and how to get to his absolute favorite location, an ice floe in Northrend covered with penguins.

I caught him standing around this floe and asked him about it. He then launched into a long speech about how the penguins were his family and he was feeding them. I think he meant the visual effect that the resto Druid’s artifact weapon causes, with flowers and greenery springing up around the character. So with only his imagination to fill in the gaps, he stands there to feed his friends — and there’s such a deep satisfaction and joy at doing this that us grizzled veteran players could only dream of once again attaining.

It’s so exciting to him to explore this world. There’s no context to it, no lore, just whatever stories he and his sister make up as he flies around. Players who are toiling for levels and gear occasionally have this owl-bird fly over their heads, blissfully ignorant as to the “real” purpose of the game and content to do its own thing. I’m in no rush to teach him how to play it properly, so to speak.

He has figured out that there are dungeons. I found this out the other day when I came back to my computer and saw achievements popping up as he exited a dungeon. You see, I had given him ONE attack spell (Moonfire) just in case a critter was attacking him and he needed to finish it off to be able to fly again. Well, he took that one spell and went right into one of the Blackrock dungeons and cleared it. Probably helped that he was grossly overleveled, but I was still flabbergasted that he did it at all.

Doing so made his NIGHT, let me tell you. He wouldn’t stop babbling excitedly about doing it, telling me that he wanted to make me proud and get something helpful for my guy. Also, there was this gem: “I got an achievement! I got an achievement! …what’s that?”

I don’t know if there are lessons for us to learn from watching kids play MMOs, other than perhaps that it’s OK to play the game our own way outside of the prescribed paths that developers lay down. Silly, fluffy things that offer no progression or power can still be entertaining and fulfilling.

The Secret World: A rat in a maze (City of the Sun God #11)

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(Join Syp as he attempts to document a complete playthrough of The Secret World from start to finish. What will The Secret Adventures discover next? Find out in this exciting installment! WARNING: Spoilers and stories ahead!)

In the Dusty Dark (investigation mission)

Boy am I torn on this mission. On one hand, this is like the Indiana Jones-eque quest to end all such quests in MMOs. Crawling around the guts of an enormous evil pyramid has so much potential, and to their credit, the devs did not skimp. It is a HUGE mission that will take upwards of an hour, even if you know what you’re doing (and much more if you do not). On the other hand, it’s just wayyyy too long and has several points of frustration that still had me screaming the second time through.

At least the atmosphere is spot-on. The mission aids in this by deactivating your headlamp (you get a sarcastic “out of batteries” debuff for the duration) and forcing you to use a torch. I had quibbles with how easy it is to drop the torch if you accidentally dodge, but it’s still kind of neat. And I even like some of the rooms and little story beats, like running through hallways of poison darts, escaping a boulder (the second such event in this game), and finding ways to electrocute otherwise-invincible mummies.

Oh yeah, there are invincible mummies. Take that, Indiana Jones.

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Oh wait, you can’t. You’ve fallen into a huge pit and cracked your skull. Way to go, Jones.

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This is kind of an ongoing tradition of mine: Getting killed while trying to grab the perfect screenshot. The streaks of blood on the floor is a nice touch, although I do wonder who resets the boulder. The mummies?

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There are five (I think) big rooms requiring you to solve a physical puzzle to proceed. Any one of these rooms would be a quest in and of itself, but nope, do five in a row. I still loathe the jumping room.

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But the real capper is the labyrinth at the end. By this point you simply feel like you deserve to see the completion of the quest, but nope, here’s the longest and toughest part. Lots of puzzles to do while evading a string of InvinciMummies.

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Once again I found myself cursing under my breath as I kited a monster while trying to figure out the final puzzle. It was such strong deja vu, especially when I vowed — AGAIN — to never, ever go through this quest in the future.

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After such a long time making one’s way through ancient ruins, it’s so jarring for the final door to open up into a modern-looking room, complete with force fields and a genie in a bottle.

Cue a final fight against the Unbound and I don’t even want to write about it any more. I am DONE. I am DONE with City of the Sun God. I am DONE with this quest. Transylvania, prepare for my arrival!

The Secret World: Eating a frog (City of the Sun God #10)

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(Join Syp as he attempts to document a complete playthrough of The Secret World from start to finish. What will The Secret Adventures discover next? Find out in this exciting installment! WARNING: Spoilers and stories ahead!)

The Angry Earth (investigation mission)

There’s this quote attributed to Mark Twain that goes, “Eat a live frog every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” An organizational practice based off of that sentiment encourages people to “eat their frogs” first and foremost every day — that is, to pick the largest and most onerous task of the day and make it the first thing you do. With that out of the way, the day doesn’t seem so bad and you don’t have this terrible thing hanging over your head and causing you to procrastinate.

Well, it’s time to eat my Egyptian frog in The Secret World, because I’ve been putting off Issue 14 for this character long enough. While it’s a newer story arc, I’ve not been keen to do it for this series because (1) I just did it a couple of months ago and (2) it was really long and kind of annoying. But it’s standing between me and finishing up City of the Sun God, so frog… into my mouth you go.

The whole story starts in Agartha, as tremors ripple out and make the Conductor quite uneasy (and boy do I want to find out what his story is one of these days). It’s nothing major… yet… but any tremor in Agartha means terrible things elsewhere.

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I head into the Scorched Desert for some more investigation (this being that sort of mission and all). Seismographs help me pinpoint a few places where the tremors are originating, although it seems like everything really points to the Ankh. An audio tape there from a Dr. Klein talks about how the world has been reset several times in various ages, with artifacts continuing on and causing more and more ripples to the pattern. Is there an endgame? Can we ever get it right? And is Earth right now nearing the end of the fourth age?

As I go down into the Ankh, I pick up The Voice of Klein (side mission), which tasks me to pick up more of his audio recordings in the solo dungeon. Klein talks about running an experiment on himself by injecting micro-doses of the Filth. Raise your hands if you think this is a good idea. Yeah. I thought so. This is how super-villains are made, man.

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See? You’re a DOCTOR. Did you think that injecting yourself with world-destroying goo was going to have a happy ending? You look like Professor Quasimodo now and you’re not getting invited to any more dinner parties.

Klein wants to know what I know about the tremors (spoiler: not much) and he’s willing to torture me to get the info. Said torture is actually torture for the player, not the character, as he puts me into a ring of death and makes me dodge various filth attacks and activate my special mysterious device at certain precise moments to avoid being insta-killed. Even though I’ve done this before, I had to play through it about four times until I stopped failing so bad at it. Klein vanishes afterward like a Scooby-Doo cliffhanger and I am encouraged to go check out the City of the Sun God for more answers.

An Interlude of Sand (investigation mission)

One interesting thing about Issue 14 is these little interlude missions, which aren’t so much missions as they are cutscenes. In the City of the Sun God, the statues are growing increasingly worried about the tremors, which apparently aren’t coming from Aten at all. Someone is digging — with explosives — and that could spell disaster.

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Digging Too Deep (action mission)

Yeah! This is more like it — action! Fighting! No more thinking!

Maybe the cultists have something to do with the tremors, but before I can investigate, a courier knocks me down and I give chase. It’s all good, as he leads me to a cultist summer camp and I spend many delightful afternoons basket weaving and canoeing. That is to say, I lay waste to them with the judgment meted out by my twin pistols.

It turns out that, yes, the cultists are kind of being jerks here, what with throwing dynamite at Filth inside of caves and seeing what happens. An overseer’s journal talks about how a voice has whispered up from one of the cracks, beckoning him.

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An Interlude of Bedtime Stories (investigation mission)

As I’m risking life and limb, Ptahmose is reading Aladdin to his children. Gee, where’s the game where I get to read stories while others go fight on my behalf? He mentions that there’s some element of truth to the story, namely in the Jinn and signet ring. He suggests I cozy up with the ever-delightful Amir, who will probably want a present before agreeing to help.

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Appeasing the Flames (action mission)

Amir, as we’ve well established in this series, is a raging jerk of a jinn — and what’s worse, he’s pretty much the only one who will talk to you or lend you a shred of aid. And even after I spend a half-hour combing the desert to assemble Solomon’s ring, he has a hissy-fit and demands that I get him a fat Atenist instead.

I don’t know what’s worse about this mission: The fight with the fire-creature that can swat you down quick if you’re not paying attention, or the escort quest from hell in which your escortee escapes several times and keeps trying to shotgun you in the back. Even at the end of all of that, all Amir does is rant and rave and suggest I go check out some jinn rituals. Fine. You are OFF my Christmas card list, pal.

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Fight For Your Rites (action mission)

I suppose one of the reasons that I am not so fond of the Issue 14 chain here is that so little about it is interesting or enjoyable. Instead, it’s a dull slog through one of the dullest zones in the world, sending you out again and again on scavenger hunts and ending in a bizarrely long investigation dungeon topped by a pretty tough boss fight. Funcom’s generally done better and better with the newer issues, but man, this one was a misstep. I think there are devs over there trying to salvage this zone and prove that it’s not a complete loss. Sunk-cost fallacy and all that.

Anyway, the tedium continues as Amir sends me off to recover four tablet pieces that have the answers I seek. I don’t care what kind of build you’re going for in TSW, you are going to want to incorporate a heavy element of AoE into it. Packs abound here, even two- and three-packs of mini-bosses, and I get a lot of use out of my four AoE skills as I go along.

The culmination of this mission leads back to Ptahmose and An Interlude of Mythos, where he shares some insight into what the Jinn call “The Unbound One.” Apparently it was the first and mightiest of all Jinn who had a wee too much freedom and power and starting causing havoc. King Solomon tricked him into a pocket dimension, which is now tucked under the Black Pyramid. The shape of this structure really lends itself to all of the layers of bad things within, I think you’d agree.