Pen, Paper, Processing

A lot of the earliest pencil and paper roleplaying games have tended to ease their formulas to provide the right mix of complexity with ease. A lot of basic math is applied to calculate certain values, which are then the basis of desired values for an act of chance, the results of which are reflected for better or worse in the game.

“But many game fans out there enjoy the depth of skill-based adventuring, not just action.”

The appeal of these roleplaying games has always been the sense of legitimate adventure confined more by the scopes of human imagination than the limited scopes of a digitally designed world. Combine this with a sense of social interaction these games require and you have a fun and flexible product to be shared with friends.

The computer and especially the smart phone have opened up new possibilities of complex skill-based calculations, story telling and dungeon creation. This ease of use often comes at a cost, as many of the worlds created in larger titles have been the signature of someone else’s vision.

The ordinary dungeon master in his room often has access to some tools for creating his own world, such as dungeon designers and map building applications. But to apply one’s pure, artistic mark to the creation using these tools is overshadowed by the visions of the artists who created them in the first place.

There’s no real solution to this. The difficulty here is art and science versus engineering. The artists focus on creating something, the sciences on discovery. But the engineer is bound by these visions, working within the confines of what is available. These dungeon builders and systems are tools for game engineering, and they are useful if not necessary. But creating original art is much more challenging, and there is no real way to formulize it.

It requires a vision that the machine isn’t able to provide, at least at the moment.

“Exploring things is a form of very vast, unrealized gambling.”

Going back to my original point, I’ve noticed that people enjoy these complexities of game rules. Forums are awash with break downs of how the math of Diablo II worked. Some fans grumble at the lost RPG elements found in Mass Effect, taken away and replaced with a simplified system combat and no real adventure elements outside of where a conversation can take you. Discussion of the value of skills and stats in the Fallout series is a major consideration.

Simple and accessible is certainly nice. But many game fans out there enjoy the depth of skill-based adventuring, not just action. Fighting and violence is not going anywhere. But the explorative nature of alternatives can breath a lot of addictive elements into a game, as a result of discovery.

Why is this? Probably because exploring things is a form of very vast, unrealized gambling. Maybe hacking that terminal will give you easy access to your goal, or bring security down on your head. Perhaps there’s nothing in that cave, or a mountain of treasure. When you open that door, you have no idea what’s behind it. Maybe it’s an army of guards. Maybe it’s the princess. Maybe it’s One-Eyed Willy’s rich stuff. Maybe it’s a rolling boulder. Who knows? Absolutely no one, until you find out.

For a while, that’s the direction that games were evolving. Sometimes we’re still moving in that direction, or at least toying with the concept. But I have a vision to create a world of infinitely renewable adventures. Where there’s always a story oriented goal, another door to open, a mountain to be climbed. No attempt at it has satisfied me thus far. Call me mad, but I know it can, and will, be done.

Bet on the Dead

Not Pictured: The compromising position I first met him in. Let's just say it gets a little lonely out in the desert...

Not Pictured: The compromising position I first met him in. Let’s just say it gets a little lonely out in the desert…

There was, apparently, some hub bub about the Necromancer being cut from Diablo III. The fact was that they already had a curse and pet using type with the Witch Doctor. Was there room for two? Maybe… just not at initial release. And there are questions about how the Necromancer can vary against the Witch Doctor.

Having played Diablo II and III, the two classes are indeed similar, coming from the same thematic vein. But there are mentionable differences as well in the game play styles. First off, the Necromancer was capable of raising an army. Besides his golem, he could raise skeletons, magi skeletons and ressurrected monsters. All at the same time. I believe the maximum cap of each kind of pet (besides the single golem) was nine, which meant a possible total of 28 (9 skeletons, 9 magi, 9 monsters and the golem) summonings, discluding the hireling.

Granted, skeletons couldn’t hack it in later levels, but the use of magi skeletons for range and ressurrected monsters for fodder was a common build. 

The Witch Doctor has some summonings, but few are lasting. I got a little excited for a moment when I started spamming corpse spiders all over the place. Then I realized they weren’t really pets but a kind of short lived spell. They had no hit points and didn’t survive long. The summonings of the Witch Doctor include Zombie Dogs, the Zombie Wall, the Gargantuan and Fetishes. The Fetishes are only around for 20 seconds. 

I suspect that the structure of Diablo III‘s gameplay is not conducive to spamming summonings. In II one could hotkey up your skills, switch, summon, switch back. In III, that’s a pain. It takes time to reset the skill and one is limited to six skills available at any time. Not to mention that having 28 monsters on your side during a fight can be a bit murderous for slower machines. Nor is there always that much available screen space. 

The Necromancer and Witch Doctor also greatly differ in the way they focus curses. To be honest, I don’t feel the Witch Doctor has that many curses available to him, but those that he does have focus on crowd control, such as Horrify and Mass Confusion. 

The classic Necromancer curses, Iron Maiden (reflect damage) and the parasitic Life Tap, remain (correct me if I’m wrong) untouched and unused in III. This suggests that they have been reserved for the time being. Thus while the Witch Doctor’s curses strike me as more defensive than the Necromancer’s. 

Finally, there are the differences in the spells themselves. The Witch Doctor has always struck me as being more interested in the spiritual aspect of death, and also more flavorful of his  jungle homeland. Thus he has relied on wild jungle animals like spiders, frogs and bats. His interest in death has been more spiritual. The Necromancer however, feels more inclined towards the physical. Many of his spells actually involve the use of bones, such as the Bone Spear and Bone Armor. 

Perhaps the aspect which can change the Witch Doctor from the Necromancer is the one thing that is the most difficult to compare. Diablo III handles skill ability costs differently, in that each class has its own “thing” from the Barbarian’s fury to the Hatred and Discipline of the Demon Hunter. The Witch Doctor uses mana, but the Necromancer could probably rely on something else. Perhaps a connection to the dead that accelerates whenever he’s near a body. 

Will we see the Necromancer again? Probably. I’ve heard that Blizzard has no intention of releasing an expansion for three years. Given how long Heart of the Swarm is taking, I believe it. But they haven’t forgotten everyone’s second favorite Diablo class. Like Natalya hinting the Assassin in II, the Necromancer shows up at least twice in III, first as the foe Jondar. Then as the friendlier Mehtan, pictured above. 

But personally? I kind of hope we see the Druid first. Come on werewolf form!

Diablo 3

"I want to dip my head in oil, and rub it all over your body." -George Costanza

“I want to dip my head in oil, and rub it all over your body.” -George Costanza

I am pleased.

I’m the guy who remembers Diablo and Diablo II with considerable clarity. And let me tell you, there’s a lot of hype to live up to. It’s not even just the game, but the memories of playing alongside my brother and college buddies. Having a blast, adventuring together.

Thanks to Blizzard’s socially networked system, I got a taste of even that yesterday. My buddy Lincoln and I powered through Act I together. I caught up with an old chum, Paul, for the first time in years. And I teased Lahna about her newfound birth control pants. She pointed out that all pants are technically birth control.

…Touché, Lahna. Well played.

Part of me always worries that a new game based on an old franchise, untouched for a decade, will abandon its roots. But those gaming traditions are alive and intact. The same, simple gameplay. The satisfying murder of mass minions. The looting system that feels like a slot machine. The crafting system offers some interesting depth that I look forward to exploring.

I at first disliked the skill system, prefering the character-design approach of Diablo II. But it won me over when I got to level 10 and recognized some of the complexity of the runes and passive skills. It also eliminates the fear of creating “dead-end” skilled characters who cannot survive the higher difficulties. “Respecing” did not exist back in the day. I liked how each class handled their skill power (not always mana this time) in differing ways. Sometimes it regenerates over time. Sometimes, you build it by using your basic attacks. This gave each class a degree of variety akin to Warhammer Online.

A number of complaints have been made about Diablo III‘s online restrictions, in that it must be online. Cracked.com has already written a great article about the issue (language alert). Not just about the current problems but some likely future ones as well. How obnoxious is this problem going to become? I can’t say. I played for a few hours yesterday before my ISP decided to fail on me during my single player games.

Technically, not Blizzard’s fault. Indirectly, a design failure for sure.

But in Blizzard’s defense, I think people forget how bad cheating and abuse became in the previous games. I assure you, it got horrible. And I’m not talking about the player killing of the original Diablo. Or the ol’ “Gimme 10,000 gold and an item and I’ll imbue it for you” scam of Diablo II. I fell for that once, never again.

What I’m talking about were the mods. The mods that gave characters powerful equipment both immediately and for free. Or even created new, otherwise impossible gear. Or the fully maxed out, level 99 (despite a cap of 20, discluding item boosts) for every skill, and 999 stats. Every reason to even play the game went out the window with these mods.

With one glaring exception (Tommy, I’m talking about you), my college buddies pretty much gave up on playing with strangers for these reasons. And given that Blizzard now gets a cut of any real cash auction trades, they have every incentive to keep players honest.

But there are other reasons for forcing Diablo III to be online.

Part of this really goes back to SOPA and beyond. Tons of people (including yours truly) came out against the bill. I didn’t think about it at that time, but a lot of search results suggested that Blizzard (or at least parent company Activision) supported SOPA

If I’m wrong about this, give me your source and I will correct it. I hate spreading false info.

We wisely rejected SOPA. But this in turn also means that the industry has to find ways on its own to protect their IP. I feel that game piracy ironically threatens to kill its own host, especially given the very high costs of producing these blockbuster games. I’m sure others feel differently, but let’s not lie to ourselves that stolen games don’t hurt the industry. Businesses are not immortal. If you want to know more, you can check out the debate here and decide for yourself.

This is why SOPA got support in the first place.

No matter what, the piracy issue has to be dealt with somehow. Sure, I miss the freedom from the internet as much as the next single player. Make no mistake Blizzard, you are absolutely welcome to come up with a better way that keeps single player offline and protects your stuff. But for now, if it keeps the mod abusers* out and the gaming industry alive, I’ll bare it just to have a good, honest game.

*-I changed this from user to abuser. Technically, not every mod is a full blown abuse of the game system. Some actually fix or improve the game elements. So I’ll give the more honest, non-cheating mod developers a break.