Thursday, January 10, 2019

How to Not Screw Up Diablo Immortal (and Future Mobile Titles)

With reactions to Diablo Immortal dying down, along with my desire to condemn the vocal minority of the gaming community, I think it is fair to say that while the outcry was extreme, there is some wisdom to be gleaned from it. Specifically, mobile gaming has a negative reputation and considering some of the awful games I discover through TapJoy, some of which seem to gross very well, that reputation is entirely justified. At the same time, I can understand why Blizzard would want to get into the mobile market due to the high amount of potential customers and revenue so therefore I'm not surprised they're planning more mobile games beyond Diablo Immortal.

However, instead of getting angry about it, and also because Diablo Immortal has yet to be released, I find this to be a good time to offer some meaningful suggestions regarding what can be done when it comes to Blizzard releasing mobile games that don't end up angering their fans, as well as the gaming community, even further. This is something I already briefly mentioned in the previous article, but I think it's important to go in-depth on the off chance a Blizzard employee discovers this article and forwards its contents to their superiors.

I would go as far as to say if these suggestions are followed, that it would redeem Blizzard's error of announcing Diablo Immortal at Blizzcon and make people a little more comfortable about the idea of Blizzard releasing mobile games. Note that these suggestions are intended to improve reputation and fandom security and won't necessarily result in a financial success. This also won't fix Blizzard's reputation in regards to other issues, whether they are erroneous or not.

I want to stress this advice applies to all future mobile releases by Blizzard even though I will often be referring specifically to Diablo Immortal. I wouldn't mind if other developers considered these suggestions too if for some reason they happen to come across this article because I would like more options for good gaming experiences.

Things That Should Be Done

The following are steps I think should be taken to make Blizzard's mobile game releases the best they can be, especially the first subsection.

Sell cosmetics and some convenience

As I mentioned in my previous article, Blizzard already has a tendency to do this since while I may object to the price tag of many of the microtransactions, it's difficult to say anything else negative about a $25 mount or the like without potentially sounding unreasonable. The same cannot be said about services, but while some may be completely detrimental to their respective game, very few if any can be considered something as derogatory as a harmful pay to win microtransaction.

This brings me to my point that I don't see why Diablo Immortal and future mobile games from Blizzard, or any developer for that matter, should feature microtransactions that are cosmetic or emphasize convenience. They exist in some form in many existing mobile games already, whether it's increased storage space or some sort of eye candy such as a castle skin.

When it comes to Diablo Immortal, I was initially going to list a few examples of the sort of cosmetic and convenience microtransactions such a game could have. However, Path of Exile is similar to Diablo and conveniently features exactly the types of microtransactions I mentioned. Outside of "custom content," everything in Path of Exile appears to be a cosmetic or convenience microtransaction that can be practically added to a mobile ARPG. I strongly urge Blizzard to pressure their partner NetEase to ensure these sorts of microtransactions make it into Diablo Immortal.

Start simple and encourage experimentation

On one hand, some mobile games like this one can be painfully simple and so utterly lacking in depth that it's arguably insulting to the player. On the other hand, depth can easily be done wrong such as by adding a skill tree with so many skills that it's more confusing than it is interesting and thought-provoking. Some mobile games such as this one manage to break the mold and help to encourage critical thinking through its systems that are gradually introduced and have a high level of customizability to appeal to theorycrafters and the like. The latter game I linked also features a high skill cap in terms of execution since fast movement and quick thinking are required to play optimally.

Assuming Diablo Immortal is anything like other Diablo games, giving out attribute points to spend as a player progresses gives them an opportunity to experiment with various builds while not being too overwhelmed on what to spend those points on since there's only a few attributes available. Making it possible to reset it at a small in-game currency cost helps to further encourage experimentation or at least give players an opportunity to undo mistakes. Gear progression can then serve as another form of depth by allowing players to experiment with mechanics that are a bit more difficult to compare. For example, it would be nice to see legendary equipment effects similar to the ones in Diablo 3 making their way into Diablo Immortal.

It's probable that Diablo 3's skill system is more likely to be used for Diablo Immortal if only because it's the most recently developed one. I only ask that Elective Mode is a thing and that there is some sort of tutorial that points players towards Elective Mode to encourage experimentation with skill loadouts.

Ultimately I do not believe that having a bunch of buttons to press along with many generic effects is not as interesting as some claim even from an execution standpoint, so I chose a different approach that features gameplay variation. It would be difficult to implement a high amount of inputs into a mobile ARPG in any case anyways.

Consider making the game pay to play

Considering the high amount of free-to-play games on the mobile market, this might not necessarily be the best tactic for pulling in the most players. However, the money made from selling the game itself could supposedly help to fund ongoing development, reducing the need for microtransactions. I have no illusions that the game would be entirely without microtransactions however, especially since Blizzard is known for making pay-to-play games with microtransactions such as Overwatch. Therefore, I believe many people may take comfort in the idea of having a pay-to-play game free of incredibly unethical microtransactions such as the ones mentioned in the first subsection.

It goes without saying this tactic should not be used deceptively. It's also important to mention the price tag of the game should have no bearing on how consumer-friendly the microtransactions are, or at least I don't believe it should be.

Treat the game like it's a handheld console game

I think all games should have at least one activity (but preferably more) that can be done in a short burst such as a single quest in World of Warcraft. This should especially apply to any game on a handheld device since they can be played on the go, meaning play sessions may end up lasting minutes, if not less time than that. At the same time, offering some way to keep players engaged for longer periods of time is good too not just to maintain a player's interest with the game longer but also to appeal to players who have longer periods of free time available in their schedule.

The recently released Super Smash Bros. Ultimate exemplifies this concept well with its event match-style Spirit Board and World of Light encounters. Its Classic Mode is also relatively brief as well and can be completed in a matter of minutes. However, all these activities can be grinded for longer periods to earn more rewards such as currency and challenge completion. There's also a lot of flexibility in terms of what the player can do to maintain longevity of the game even outside of online play such as trying out every fighter, playing under a wide variety of rulesets, or running silly computer player tournaments.

Fortunately, in the case of Diablo Immortal, a number of features from Diablo 3 can be added that work as good short-term activities. Adventure Mode's bounties were the successor to World of Warcraft's daily quest and a likely source of inspiration for world quests in that game. They are objectives that can be completed in minutes, if not seconds, often for a relatively meager reward. The cache reward for completing multiple bounties is fine to implement too for slightly longer play sessions. Nephalem Rifts can help to fill even longer play sessions. These features will serve as a good base to build upon. However, some players may not enjoy these activities even if they are reworked a little, so I recommend considering the addition of more activities that work well with Diablo's base gameplay.

One more reason I think this strategy is reasonable to employ is because Diablo 3 recently released for the Nintendo Switch, which is technically considered a handheld device similar to a tablet (which is annoying when trying to fly with one, by the way). While the game is priced like a console game on that platform, that doesn't change the fact that Diablo Immortal on other handheld devices cannot enjoy being similar to the Switch version of Diablo 3.

Have an offline mode

A lot of mobile games demand that you have an active internet connection in order to play. However, while a phone has the luxury of having a somewhat decent internet connection so accessible that I wish other devices could experience it as easily, there are situations where usage of that internet connection is limited. For example, people have limited data plans and while gaming is generally not as data-intensive as other activities like streaming video, it's still demanding enough to use more than some monthly plans allow for. People may also (effectively) have no access to the internet, with one of the most common situations being because they're on an airplane.

Because of this, I think now is a good time to depart from the "always online" philosophy of PC Diablo 3 and allow both an online and offline mode much like Diablo 2. This would further set the game apart from the many always online titles, making the game even more marketable as a "mobile gaming experience unlike any other." It would especially be appealing to players who dislike dealing with lag issues especially in various ARPGs or want an uninterrupted single player experience that mobile games from my experience distinctly seem to lack. It is worth mentioning that Diablo 3 on console already employs this mix of offline and online mode (sadly PC still doesn't and it should since there's ways to do it), so I believe this is a reasonable demand to make.

It is worth mentioning other mobile titles beyond Diablo Immortal released by Blizzard may require an internet connection to even function. For example, a multiplayer-only game would require an internet connection to play. That is why I only ask for mobile games beyond Diablo Immortal to have an offline mode if it's possible to have a single player offline gaming experience.

Things That Should Not Be Done

Unlike the previous section, I think Diablo Immortal and other mobile games from Blizzard should follow these subsections to the letter or risk facing the wrath of many of their fans. Those who have read my previous articles may know what's coming but for those who don't, I think the following subsections could be applied to all mobile games where applicable and the gameplay experience would be improved.

Do not hard time gate the majority of the game

When it comes to time gating, I define hard time gating as a method of completely preventing players from doing a certain gameplay activity for a period of time. These may be used to definitively control how often players can participate in the activity in an attempt to reduce burnout from repetition and shrink the disparity between more and less dedicated players in terms of personal progression. However, I believe soft time gating to be an effective enough solution for resolving such issues. In addition, liberal usage of hard time gating can leave players unable to play the game, which artificially reduces the amount of time the player is engaging with and becoming immersed in the game, which seriously harms player retention. The point is, hard time gating isn't fun.

Assuming Diablo Immortal remotely resembles other Diablo games, it'll involve going on a monster murdering spree for loot with a nice dose of power tripping. When implemented well, this can be considered so fun that grinding for specific loot won't feel as much like a boring chore even if the game is inherently using a Skinner box system. Arbitrarily cutting the player off from their fun and possibly asking them for money to continue is liable to upset them to the point of being disinterested in the game, assuming they weren't already disinterested because they're not engaging with the game as much as they would like and choose to do some other activity.

While I've seen some counter-arguments in favor of hard time gating, such as to curb addictive behavior, most hard time gates in mobile games are tied to some sort of numeric stamina or lives system that can be refilled by paying money, meaning a player can spend money as if they're inserting more quarters in an arcade machine to continue playing and feed their addiction anyways. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I believe soft time gates can address addictive behavior, effectively using a lesser form of negative punishment.

Using hard time gating sparingly and not tying microtransactions to bypassing them would also make a game less like a typical mobile game, further feeding into the idea of making a mobile game unlike any other that may appeal to existing fans.

Do not add (harmful) pay to win

While Blizzard is far from the most egregious offenders when adding harmful pay to win systems to their games, it has still been done in the past such as with release Diablo 3's RMAH and Hearthstone in general (in my opinion, the WoW Token doesn't count, see here for why). It is also easy to follow in the footsteps of other highly successful mobile games that utilize the sort of pay to win microtransactions that cause a strong correlation between real life wealth with in-game performance. Gachas certainly don't help the matter either, though as I've said before, I consider such a system one that can be used well or poorly and that harmful pay to win is the more serious issue, especially as behavior in literally any competitive setting has shown.

I wish I didn't have to add this subsection at all because Blizzard's history has shown they rarely dabble in it even after Activision supposedly began influencing them, but some people have strong opinions on what they consider a mobile game because of the systems and microtransactions they feature and I believe such fears are justified even if the way that fear is expressed sometimes comes off as fallacious. The last thing that needs to be done is to confirm what players fear will end up in a mobile game from a company they still might have some respect for.

Closing Thoughts

I personally approach the situation of Blizzard entering the mobile gaming space with skepticism. I have played enough mobile games to know there are some terrible games that, at best, make for fun F2P challenges. However, not only are there good gaming experiences that can be had at the moment, but there's no rule stating a mobile game has to be riddled with unethical microtransactions and subpar game design. Because of this, I have some hope for Blizzard to apply some innovation like they have previously and bring something new to the platform. As I mentioned at the beginning, this article is a laundry list of suggestions for how Blizzard can avoid alienating their fanbase or other consumers by bringing such innovations to mobile gaming. While some people may never be swayed to try mobile gaming, that's fine since Blizzard is trying and should continue to try to maintain a presence on the platform that has brought them much success: PC.

However, their presence could easily crumble if the fears regarding what Diablo Immortal or other future mobile titles Blizzard releases come to fruition. While I personally find myself at odds with Blizzard's fans (and anti-fans) sometimes, especially during trying times like early WoW Cataclysm or now, that doesn't mean they should be treated with contempt (intentional or not). Producing a game with unethical microtransactions and subpar game design would be perceived as a form of contempt well beyond a poorly timed announcement and I am highly certain the level of outrage leveled at Blizzard would not only be immense but a more understandable reaction by comparison.

To put all this another way, I ask this: "Is it worth abandoning a large portion of the existing fanbase for a chance bring in new fans from another platform while having to directly compete with other highly popular games that are a huge success?" Personally, I do not think so and while what I suggest may sound risky and possibly even too demanding for NetEase and too unreasonable for the executives at Activision Blizzard, I think it's actually less risky since it minimizes the bad press Blizzard receives, reduces the loss of existing fans, and avoids direct competition with other mobile games.

I may not be a massive fan of Blizzard, but I am fond of the company and try to help them through articles such as this one that involve offering suggestions and being strongly critical of some of their actions. However, I won't particularly have a difficult time moving on because I am aware of the other options I have for how to spend my free time, including critiquing something else I may happen to become fond of. I do not think I'm alone in this, considering there are many at least discussing Blizzard and their games, even if a fair amount of it is negative and destructively critical.

If Diablo Immortal releases in the state people fear where it is riddled with terrible microtransactions and subpar gameplay (but especially the former), then I will end up treating Blizzard like Nintendo. I will occasionally buy their games if they happen to be good, but care far less about the fate of the company. I can't even say I would remember Blizzard all that fondly because I'm not all that nostalgic and my ability to become so deeply invested emotionally in anything faded long ago. I would like to see mobile gaming be in a better state though.

So I close with this: Blizzard, NetEase, and maybe Activision. There is a good opportunity here, so do not screw this up.

Monday, November 5, 2018

My Thoughts on Diablo Immortal (and the Reactions To It)

The Diablo Immortal announcement at Blizzcon has caused a significant stir, mostly of ire, within the gaming community. Controversy of this magnitude compares to the ongoing discussion regarding loot boxes, which I weighed in on a while ago. After seeing what others have to say on the game's announcement and what came after, I thought I might weigh in a bit sooner this time especially since I would like to think I've learned a bit about mobile gaming since I last wrote articles regarding that medium in particular.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

My Brief Thoughts on Battle For Azeroth

TL;DR version of this article: Perceptibly underwhelming != Bad

Several months ago, I took a hiatus from writing articles, citing reasons such as moving on to other projects and being critical of the state of World of Warcraft. Now that Battle for Azeroth is here and people have had plenty of time to form thoughts on the expansion, I can't say I'm surprised to see a lot of negativity. However, I'm also disappointed in how wildly negative some views and it doesn't help that there's meme phrases going around like "Beta for Azeroth" that convey such viewpoints. While I could go and address some of the longer posts, particularly on the subreddit, that's time I could be spending writing other articles or, more importantly, working on other projects. Therefore, I'll summarize my thoughts briefly in this article and follow up later with my thoughts on some of the game's content and suggestions regarding reward systems. Take it for what you will and for the double digit amount of viewers who read this article, feel free to ask me for more nuanced thoughts on various aspects of the state of the game.

To start, I largely stand by what I said regarding the expansion in the aforementioned article. I find myself in disagreement with some of Blizzard's design philosophy and believe they didn't address certain issues like the consequences of removing Legion's Artifacts or improving the game's leveling gameplay sufficiently. However, as I also anticipated, Battle for Azeroth turned out to not be a bad idea to play rather casually, which to me translates to focusing on solo content to make gold rather than doing group content.

Battle for Azeroth's start feels remarkably like Legion's in many ways, especially in terms of the content available. There's plenty of World Quests to do and as before they're fairly hit or miss. There's Mythic+ dungeons for players who want to do group content without the potential stress of raiding with many other players. There's a medium-sized raid with a new, larger raid on the horizon. There's a fairly lengthy, reputation-gated questline at level cap for players who wanted some story they can experience solo (and it's not as ridiculous as the Nightfallen questline in terms of reputation requirements or gated by missions, which are big plusses in my book). Other extraneous activities, such as Pet Battles and cosmetic hunting, also got some new content with this expansion, though it never hurts to have more.

In addition to this, there's some new things to do that were introduced with this expansion. Island Expeditions could use polish (shrine buffs seem kind of rare, etc) but are quick to group for and a nice way to blow off some steam. Warfronts can be fun and rewarding especially during the Battle Phase, but only when that phase is available. War Mode seems to have brought back a lot of world PvP and I also enjoy the risk-reward aspect because of the strength of many of the PvP Talents that would probably destroy competitive PvE. All of these activities are also rather extraneous and in the case of Island Expeditions and Warfronts, could use some improvement. I have plans to write articles on both of those features in the future.

However, much like in Legion, the reward systems need serious improvement. Titanforging and other random elements of gearing outside of getting gear to drop are still criticized heavily and I have suggested improvements to address player feedback. The currencies introduced in this expansion (War Resources and Seafarer's Dubloons) are about as useful as Legion's introductory currencies, making me wish once again the game had Justice Points. Character progression especially in later stages of the game could use improvement, not just in regards to the Azerite system, but I find myself in agreement with critique that players don't gain much character power outside of equipment after about level 90 or so. Furthermore, I find myself in strong want of more rewards that are eternally relevant, such as a Paragon Level system. If there's one thing of interest so far in this expansion though, it is Scrapping since it provides an alternative to vendoring useless gear since players can salvage raw materials instead.

To conclude, despite some treating Battle for Azeroth like it's a dumpster fire (un)worthy of comparing to expansions such as Warlords of Draenor or Cataclysm, I think the expansion is better than both and overall okay, but in need serious improvement. Patch 8.1 and 8.2 look fairly promising and assuming Blizzard doesn't do what they did in Cataclysm and cut content or downsize upcoming patch content (e.g. Abyssal Maw and War of the Ancient raids), what players are currently perceiving as an underwhelming start to an expansion may make the expansion more enjoyable.

...In the worst case, Classic WoW is coming soon and there's always similar options available (now if only Final Fantasy 14 actually had a WoW Token equivalent).

Saturday, October 27, 2018

If Survival Hunter Was Ranged Again

Survival is the Hunter specialization that has probably seen the most change out of the three specializations for that class. It started as an underwhelming melee spec, but eventually developed its own identity as a ranged specialization that liked to use traps and deal elemental damage, especially in the form of damage-over-time effects. After many expansions of this, it was abandoned in Legion in favor of trying to make it a melee spec again. Personally, I am in disagreement with how readily Blizzard abandoned much of their old design as they shoddily attempted to push its remnants into Marksmanship.

Instead, I thought Survival could've gone much further with the aforementioned thematic of elemental damage and trap usage and it helped that there were some concepts in Warlords of Draenor that could've served as inspiration. Specifically, I am referring to Exotic Munitions. While it wasn't a great talent in terms of sheer power, it did explore the idea of enhancing ammunition much like with Rogue Poisons and Paladin Seals. Unfortunately, Exotic Munitions was also discarded in Legion and the source of inspiration was largely lost.

This article will attempt to portray how ammo enhancements could've been expounded upon alongside the previous ranged version of Survival that emphasized traps usage and elemental damage. What I ultimately came up with is a survivalist that uses innovation, whether it be technology or strategy, to make the most of the situations they may find themselves in.