Archive | October, 2012

Firefall frame comparison spreadsheet

For those of you playing Firefall, hopefully this will be useful. It’s a spreadsheet I compiled showing the different abilities and upgrade modules available to each Tier 1 and Tier 2 frame for all five frame types. I’ll update it as soon as Tier 3s are released, and when changes to the existing frames are made. If you spot an error in the data, please let me know!

Click here to view the Firefall Frame Comparison spreadsheet!

The argument for addons

I was struck, when awaiting SWTOR’s launch last year, by the vitriolic debate for and against addons that raged within the fan community. Some fans — and I count myself among their number — were keen on addons; some hated the very thought of them.

Me, I love addons. I like the ability to tweak my interface to present me with the kind of information that’s important to what I’m doing. If I’m spending a few weeks grinding faction, I want to be able to see my faction standings onscreen without opening my character sheet. If I’m raiding, I want not just raid frames but easily-viewable buffs and debuffs and other important alerts. If I’m recruiting I want more social tools to hand. And I have a big monitor; I’d much rather keep that info onscreen instead of having to open up windows repeatedly to find it. I want to be able to put my action bars where I want them, and have different bars of different sizes depending on their function. I like being able to put all the elements where they suit me, style them how I like them, and hide the bits I don’t want.

For example, my WoW UI, Cataclysm-vintage:

My WoW UI, Cataclysm-vintage

Allowing players to move and resize interface components (in the style of LotRO, SWTOR, and RIFT) goes some way towards meeting the most basic needs of UI customisation, but it falls far short of allowing proper UI modding.

There are a number of reasons I like addons, both personally and on general principle:

1. Comfort

I don’t mind a single-player or multiplayer game with a locked-down UI because those games are generally limited experiences – you get in, you play, you log off. But MMOs are ‘home’ for so many of us – we log in to chat, to relax, and to socialise (and to do ‘chores’ like gathering consumables or doing dailies) as well as to actually play. The success of MMOs relies, in the long term, on players feeling ‘at home’ in their ingame environment, and UI comfort is a huge part of that. There’s a big difference between a hotel room and my own house, and uncustomisable UIs feel like the hotel rooms of the gaming world.

2. Accessibility

One of the reasons why I’m pro-addons is that they help solve accessibility issues. Not everyone is able to play with a stock UI, whether it’s vision impairments that mean you need elements bigger and more visible, hearing impairments that mean you need subtitles or onscreen warning instead of alert sounds, or physical impairments that mean you can’t move the mouse around easily while clicking so you need mouseover macros or click-to-cast addons — or some other issue. A robust addon engine means that, while devs aren’t off the hook in terms of addressing accessibility issues, players with uncommon needs or specific impairments have a much better chance of finding a solution that lets them play the game in comfort.

3. Customisation

We don’t expect everybody to play MMOs the same way or for the same reasons, and different playstyles need access to different controls and different information. It’s like buying clothing — “one size fits all” usually doesn’t fit anyone apart from those people who are within one standard deviation of the median. 1 The stock UI simply can’t be all things to all people, nor meet the needs of every facet of the (hopefully large) user base. Addons can help to make the game experience a lot more pleasant for people who fall outside the catered-to “norm”.

4. Reversion

Sometimes developers make choices that are simply ugly to your eyes, or leave you scratching your head wondering what they were thinking. (Personally, I think the unmodded original WoW UI was a simply terrible design that really doesn’t hold up to the huge screens of modern gaming computers, for instance.) Allowing addons that modify the interface means that hapless players can undo the dev choices that seem insane to them.

(Unsurprisingly, some devs are so attached to their precious interfaces that they cite the “user experience” as the reason they’re disallowing addons. Pal, if your interface design is so great, your players wouldn’t want addons to change it. Take the hint, yes?)

Customising the SWTOR UI

5. Inspiration

A vibrant addon-creating and -using community is effectively a volunteer workforce refining and playtesting the best (and worst) interface changes that addons can offer; the developers are then free to incorporate that sort of functionality into the game proper — which is good for everybody, as native features are almost always smoother and faster than those from third-party plugins. WoW has a long history of incorporating the most popular addon functionalities into the game itself, and I think other games miss out by not doing the same.

Countering the counterarguments

Unfortunately, all too many people have a kneejerk DO NOT WANT reaction to addons; to them, “addons” are synonymous with “elitist assholes who use DPS meters as a tool to put other people down”.

Certainly, every game community has its share of assholes, but despite the common arguments, addons don’t make the community toxic. Community size (plus its demographics and the basic asshole-amplifying nature of the internet) makes the community toxic. Gearscore, Recount and Omen didn’t make the WoW community a horrible place – 12 million players (and poor community policies and the proliferation of “level 1 forum alts” did that). Addons are just tools, and I can honestly say that my community experience in WoW, RIFT, TSW or LotRO (which all allow addons) was not any worse than my experience in SWTOR or GW2 (which do not).

The bottom line

What it boils down to for me is that having addons shouldn’t make life worse for the people who choose to play without them, but not having addons does make life worse for people who want (or need) to play with them. Provided I’m able to do my job in group play, and I’m not an asshole, it has no impact on anybody else whether or not I’m using addons.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to download some addons for RIFT.

  1. And this article is, totally tangentially, an interesting look at why off-the-rack clothes fit so badly.

Mechwarrior Online: the good, the bad and the ugly

Mechwarrior Online

Over two months ago, I mentioned that I was in the closed beta for Mechwarrior Online. Since then, my love affair with the game has fluctuated rather wildly, and now that they’ve lifted the NDA, I can talk about it.

My apologies that none of my screenshots show the game from the perspective of an experienced character; they’ve wiped the game repeatedly during closed beta, and I haven’t played since the last wipe, so I’m back to 0 XP, no unlocked abilities and no money.

What is it?

Mechwarrior Online is a free to play FPS from Piranha Games set in the Battletech universe. You take on the job of battlemech pilot, driving around giant mechs — twenty metres tall and bristling with weapons — in an attempt to defend or destroy strategic objectives.

Trouble right here in River City

Battletech has a rich story background as a tabletop miniatures game originally developed by FASA Corporation with the same development and licensing history as Shadowrun1, but at this stage in MWO’s development that background setting is almost entirely invisible, acting merely as a justification for blowing each other up in giant mechs. Piranha Games have promised future play modes involving more of the politics and story of the setting, but so far all we’ve seen is the default team deathmatch mode.

When you start the game you’re limited to one of four Trial Mechs, one from each weight category – at the moment the offerings are a Jenner (Light), a Hunchback (Medium), a Catapult (Heavy) and an Atlas (Assault). Trial Mechs are very limited; you can’t change their equipment in any way, and games played in a trial mech offer less money and XP than a normal mech.

Buying a mech

Of course, you can bypass these limitations (and the need to grind endless matches to save up for a ‘proper’ mech) by dropping some cash on the game; you can buy new mechs with C-Bills (ingame currency) or Mech Credits (bought with RL money), and purchasing one of the high-end Founder’s Packs gives you access to Founder’s Mechs which can be customised like a normal mech — and Founder’s Mechs also earn extra XP and cash compared with a normal mech.

Customisation in the Mech Lab

Once you’ve got a customisable mech, whether a Founder’s Mech or one you purchased, you can use the Mech Lab to change its fit-out to suit your preferences. There’s a wealth of options, all derived from the tabletop game, and unfortunately the game obscures some stats. Kris painstakingly combed through the game’s XML files to produce a very handy MWO reference spreadsheet to help with mech customisation. (Although it’s a patch or two behind at the moment thanks to the siren call of Firefall.)

So that’s where your money goes – that, and rearming, and repairing your mech after you get blown to smithereens. XP, on the other hand, is spent unlocking bonuses for the mech in which you earnt the XP – faster acceleration, faster turning speed, better heat dissipation, and so on. For now those boosts are token values, but they’ll be tweaked to get the balance right.

Unlocking mech bonuses in the Pilot Lab

The good.

There are a couple of great things this game has going for it:

First of all, Piranha are fans themselves of the tabletop game, which means that there are few glaring inaccuracies and they’re trying to replicate the tabletop experience as much as possible. (At least, inasmuch as they can when turning a third-person tactical miniatures game into a first-person shooter.)

Second, their movement engine feels good to me. Assault mechs are ponderous juggernauts with terrifying momentum when they get moving; light mechs are zippy and responsive. Apart from a few glitches, the mechs ‘feel’ like they’re the right weight. It’s not just like driving a human body in a normal FPS.

Thirdly, the pace of the game feels good – again, that’s subjective. But Battletech is fundamentally about tactics – careful positioning, terrain advantage, line of sight, and so on. MWO doesn’t have the fast-and-furious pace of most shooters, and to me that’s a good thing, because it feels more like Battletech than a faster game would.

And most importantly: you’re driving a giant weaponised mech, raining down death upon other giant weaponised mechs. That is, inherently, pretty damn awesome.

The LRM rain of death

The bad.

Unfortunately, I see two huge problems with the game as it is now, and one smaller problem.

The first problem is that there’s only one game mode at the moment: Assault, which is an 8v8 no-respawn team deathmatch where victory comes from eliminating the other team or capturing their “base”, a small unremarkable area of flat terrain. (Matchmaking for this involves balancing by weight class, so a team with seven Jenners and one Atlas should end up facing a team of seven Light mechs and one Assault.) There may be internal playtesting of other game modes, but so far they haven’t been tested in beta at all, and all the beta balancing is using Assault mode as a basis.

The River City assault

This is an issue because — assuming equal player skill — heavier mechs are better for straight-up combat than light mechs, because they can pack more weapons, more ammo and more armour. So there’s no incentive to take light mechs (unless you really like them), and the devs are treating the Light › Medium › Heavy › Assault path as progression, as Bryan Ekman (the Creative Director) says:

There will be some progression – Light to Assault by virtue of how we’ve designed the economy. This is a good thing.

He doesn’t, however, explain how it’s a good thing, and I don’t think it is. In the tabletop game, mech classes have different jobs and different strengths, and light mechs aren’t at such a disadvantage because you can use heavier mechs to support and cover them. As it stands in MWO, you get one mech to pilot per game and if you want to play a light mech, you’d better hope that your teammates are coordinated and interested in backing you up.

To a certain extent that’s an unavoidable problem when you’re turning a squad-based tabletop minis game into a first-person computer game where the player only controls a single mech, but I’d been hoping that other game modes would mitigate the power differential somewhat by giving more value and tactical advantage to the scouting and evasion abilities of lighter mechs. However, the devs treating Assault mechs as inherently ‘the best’ mechs (which is the logical result of Ekman’s ‘progression’ attitude) does not bode well for the playability or balance of other potential game modes. Obviously this is still a case of wait-and-see, but it has shaken my confidence somewhat.

The other – more serious – problem is a mechanics issue. In order to make the game ‘feel’ right as a first-person shooter, the devs reduced the cycle time of mech weapons (and doubled mech armor to make sure people weren’t falling over within seconds of being targeted). However, they didn’t adjust other numbers to compensate for this. To clarify the problem, I should explain some mechanics of the tabletop game:

  • You can fire every weapon once per ten-second turn.
  • Each weapon builds up heat in your mech; as you reach certain heat thresholds you suffer negative effects up to total shutdown and often-fatal ammo explosions.
  • Your mech has heat sinks; there are some built into the engine, and extras in other parts of the mech.
  • Each heat sink dissipates one point of heat per ten-second round (or twice that if they’re submerged; eg. they’re in your mech’s legs and you’re standing waist-deep in water).
  • So, as an example, if you’ve got a stock HBK-4G Hunchback with 13 heat sinks, you can fire off both its Medium Lasers (3 heat each) and its Autocannon 20 (7 heat) indefinitely while stationary without building up any heat. If you fire its final weapon, a Small Laser (1 heat), you’d slowly build up heat every turn until you shed some by not firing all your weapons for a turn or two, or by standing in water for a while.

So that’s how it works in the tabletop game. If you were playing the same Hunchback variant in MWO, and fired both Medium Lasers and your AC20 under the same conditions at every opportunity, you’d shut down or blow up in short order — you’d build up 44 heat over ten seconds (or 53 heat if you fired that Small Laser as well), and you’d still only be able to shed 13 of that. That’s because they’ve reduced the cycle time of all the weapons, meaning you build up heat much faster, but they haven’t increased the heat dissipation of heat sinks to compensate.

Shutdown sequence enabled

This wouldn’t be such a problem if it applied uniformly — it’d just mean everyone has to ease off on the trigger now and then. However, based on the tabletop rules, heat is just one balancing mechanic, and not every weapon generates significant heat. Energy weapons like PPCs and Lasers have high heat to compensate for the fact that you don’t have to pack ammo for them, while ballistic weapons like Autocannons and Gauss Rifles have low heat because you’re limited by ammunition. This means that high-heat weapons are very problematic in MWO — energy weapons are at a serious disadvantage compared with other weapons, especially ballistics — and yet I’ve never seen the devs explain why they haven’t beefed up heat sinks to cope with the faster pace of MWO, and the game has had patch after patch without a single tweak to (or even mention of) this fundamental imbalance.

If you try mentioning this on the forums, however, you get a chorus of yes-men shouting you down with “it’s a beta, it’s not done yet”. Of course it’s a beta; of course I’m not judging it like a finished game. But there’s a difference between “this is buggy and incomplete” and “this is a fundamental design problem that the devs seem to be happy with”. This is the third problem with the game: the community. It’s entirely too full of mindless fans eager to applaud Piranha for everything they do. (Today on the forums I saw a long, detailed post of criticism and suggestions and the first response to it was literally “don’t worry, it’ll all turn out fine”.) I’m all for positivity and giving a game a fair chance to succeed, but this is meant to be a closed beta; this is the time to improve the game and solve the problems. Uncritical backpatting does nobody any favours.

The bottom line.

Right now, I have serious concerns about the long term playability of MWO. I want it to be a success, but some of the balancing decisions seem absolutely mystifying, and without more game modes and more tactical options I fear MWO will devolve into a mindless Assault mech slugfest that’s only satisfying to let off a bit of steam at the end of a long day.

  1. It also spawned a pen-and-paper roleplaying game and a series of very popular video games.