Lessons in teaching a video game

This past week, my coworkers and I spun relived junior high with a Diablo 2 LAN party. To fit the stereotype, we got pizza for dinner and picked up Doritos and Mountain Dew to power us through 4 hours of gaming. Although Diablo 2 (D2) is mostly cooperative, we split into 2 teams and raced to beat Diablo first*. Unfortunately, the winning team only got half-way through the 3rd of 4 acts, but despite the sore eyes, wrists, and right index fingers, we had a ton of fun.

*for reference, speed runners can beat D2 in less than 1 1/2 hours. Here’s a video of MrLlamaSC doing a speed run for an event where he explains in detail exactly what he’s doing

Well, most of us had a ton of fun. Although many of us have fond memories of endless Baal runs, we also had a few Diablo 2 newbies. Some were slightly too young and had played Diablo 3. Some had just played a lot of other video games but never action RPGs. Some hadn’t played video games at all. It’s was a mixed group, and in retrospect, it wasn’t a particularly fun experience for them. Continue reading “Lessons in teaching a video game”

My Thoughts on the Diablo 3 Beta

Hopefully those of you who also spent years in Diablo 2 didn’t miss the big news last weekend that Diablo 3 was in open beta for stress testing. The servers were up and down as Blizzard presumably was testing various capacities and training staff responses, but it was a tremendous opportunity for many fans of the series, like me, to jump in and try out the game.

For the unfamiliar, Diablo 3 is the 3rd installment in a fantasy hack-n-slash RPG. It’s set in a medieval world full of magic, where you wield swords, bows, fireballs, and more in a series of dungeons to defeat the Lords of Hell. The basic gameplay involves killing lots of monsters, which, to an inexperienced observers, looks like running around and clicking on monsters until they die. The slightly more observant will note that the game takes place from an top-down 3rd person view, and to defeat the monsters, you must run up to them and click them until they die. The final component to the game is roleplaying: you focus on developing a single hero over the course of the game and becoming stronger (by killing monsters) so that your character has more skills, better statistics, and better equipment, so you can kill more monsters.

Despite the relatively simple premise, the game is tremendously addictive. Although there are major quests to complete, the world map transitions you from one area to the next, where hordes of monsters have nothing better to do than to wait around for you to walk past. Moreover, the game is constantly rewarding you for playing: every monster killed means more experience (to get you stronger) and possible dropped items that make be useful to you.

As I mentioned, Diablo 2 had a large influence on my development, so I sprung at the opportunity to play this weekend. In the beginning, I was hoping to play through all 5 available classes (Barbarian, Monk, Demon Hunter, Wizard, and Witch Doctor), though I fortunately had better things to do with my time. I started with the Barbarian and quickly became comfortable with the format. Thanks to things such as reddit, work, and email, my clicking skills remained top notch despite being out of the game for years, and I had no problem with that.

Blizzard tweaked the gameplay to make some things easier: gold is automatically picked up when dropped by nearby monsters, statistics about your character are presented in a useful manner, and potions are largely replaced by health orbs that appear from dead monsters. They also changed gameplay aspects to focus more upon gameplay choices: skills are automatically gained (with builds being dependent on “loadouts” of  currently available skills), the environment like falling chandeliers can be triggered to deal damage, and crafting items has become much more relevant. Overall, Blizzard has done a good job of cleaning up the game and making changes that may seem detrimental, but actually really improve the experience.

But let’s face it: most of the time is spent clicking monsters, and in that respect, this game is a solid follow-up to its predecessors. And it’s for precisely that reason that I think I’ll pass on playing Diablo 3.

Unlike in “MacGruber”, the game is the same, but the players have changed. As snobby as it sounds, Diablo just doesn’t have quite enough to it to make me feel that it’s worth my time. Among my current interests, video games should be a low priority. And among video games, it doesn’t have the plot line of other RPGs like Mass Effect or the strategic depth that makes you feel like you’re learning like StarCraft. Out of Diablo, I get slightly better stats on my character and a worn-out mouse. Walking away from a game of Diablo frankly feels a little worse than I started because I’m only left with the desire to keep playing and feel the incremental improvement of a game that is purely grinding (that’s video game “grinding”. You better hope there’s no dancing grinding in this game).

The one thing that might convince me to jump back in is if there’s sufficient desire from my friends to play: it’s a half-decent social experience. But given the choice, I might push to do something else.

Overall, well done, Blizzard: you’ve improved the experience of a tried and true game. Sorry that I’m no longer part of your target audience.

Blizzcon 2009

It’s not often that one inadvertently ends up at an Ozzy Osbourne concert.

This past weekend, I roadtripped with 3 of my friends down to LA to go to Blizzcon and visit the area. Consistently making the best PC games, Blizzard has a huge fanbase, and those fanatics can buy up 20,000 tickets in less than a minute. It’s actually tragic to think that I’m one of them.

Until now, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a roadtrip or to a convention before. Perhaps the closest I came was going to a TubaChristmas with my section, but that’s a half-day event to play a tuba less than an hour’s drive away. This time, we drove 6 hours to spend 2 days at a convention center full of costumes, raffles, goody bags, panels, demos, and more. Because I can’t think of a better way to organize this, though, we’ll start with the drive.

To get from the Bay Area to LA, you can either take 101 or I-5. 101 follows the coast in a curve, so while you get the scenic view of the ocean, you also lose about an hour compared to the beeline of I-5. Since we left around 7 in the evening, we were much more anxious to arrive than to squint out to see the complete darkness of the ocean at night, so we took the very barren I-5.

That really didn’t matter, though, since we were more interested in talking to one another than looking out the window. All four of us–George, Ben, Jordan, and me–live fairly close together, but we see each once maybe once a week. With a variety of details to catch up on, we went back and forth on bizarre details, anecdotes, observation, and gossip. And like all good friends, we know each others’ feats and faults, boasts and buttons, stylings and stupidity, so 6 hours turns into a blur of mindless banter.

Oh, and if a town smells like cow dung, don’t stop for food.

We arrived at Tom’s house in east LA sometime past midnight and got the tour. It was a comfy enough spot, though we immediately fell into our old ways and began playing Magic and Super Smash Bros. At first, it seemed a little cheesy that we should do the same thing as we did in the dorm, but smash is what we do when we live together. So when we’re all sleeping over at Tom’s, it’s only fair that we should play more Smash.

About 4 hours of sleep later, we drove the 20 minutes down to Anaheim for Blizzcon 2009. We arrived around 8, and after parking and getting our badges and goody bags, we decided to get in line around 9 for a 10 am opening. We saw the line down the side of the building and followed it. As it led into park-like area, we were amazed by the snake-like shape the line had taken in and around a hill and some walkways. Walking around the outside of that, we ended up behind the convention center and finally got in at the end of the line 12 minutes later. And we were fortunate; we were only in the third row in the parking lot, which filled up and had the line come back out of it almost back to the front of the building.

We scoped out the floor first, which might have been a mistake. When we got to the hall for the opening ceremonies, we couldn’t find any seats and instead had to stand on the side. It was absolutely worth being, there, though. I guess it’s similar to the keynote presentation for most other conferences/conventions, as that’s when Blizzard unveils all of the new content for their games. Currently, Blizzard is working on 3 major titles: Diablo 3 (D3), Starcraft 2 (SC2), and World of Warcraft (WoW). WoW is their biggest cash cow with over 10 million players, each paying a monthly fee to explore Azeroth. As such, the room went ballistic when they announced the newest expansion for that.

The reaction to that announcement felt somewhat crazy to me. Although I’m familiar with the game, I, unlike the majority of people there, have never actually played WoW. A fan of Blizzard’s other games, I missed out on a lot of jokes and excitement, which many attendees got very excited about. I couldn’t immediately relate to their mania, but I can somewhat relate to their passion. Seeing as WoW is coming up on its fifth-year anniversary, I bet quite a few of them have spent more than a fifth of their life playing this game, so when they announce that attack power no longer exists, that probably affects them quite a bit. And Magic: the Gathering actually just went through the biggest rule change in 10 years, to which I freaked out about for the first minute or so. I guess I can’t ridicule them too much about their dedication.

During that first day, I went to a couple panels about the new games to see what content they were putting out. In-between those, I got to play demo versions of D3 and SC2. I won’t get too much into the details, since I’m sure many of you don’t care, but it suffices to say that I had a lot of fun with both of them. Like everything else at Blizzcon, there was quite a line, but with projections of the panels and events above all of the lines, the 20 minute wait to play for 20 minutes didn’t seem so long. Even though it took awhile, the system was surprisingly efficient with a large number of computers set up just to play on.

That first night, the headline event was the costume, sound-alike, and dance competition, MC-ed by Jay Mohr. I’m not sure how applicable this is to other conventions, but at just about all geeky conventions, cosplay is a big thing. Whether it’s  as Mario, Link, Goku, or just a generic dragon, people will show up to GenCon (a gaming convention), Comic-Con, and E3 is some very, very impressive costume of characters from the lore. At Blizzcon, everything was from the Starcraft, Diablo, or Warcraft universe, mostly from Warcraft. Combined with some shtick, the costume contest was very entertaining and impressive to watch. The sound-alike contest: not so much. I don’t find it particularly impressive that people are able to mimic the voice of a voice actor. And the dance contest was all WoW content, so nothing to speak of there.

We left around 10-1030 and went back to Tom’s. Since we were unwilling to pay for convention food, we only had dinner then, going to a Tommy’s a few blocks from his house. If you happen to like chili burgers or dogs, I recommend it.

Day 2 was mostly filled with playing games. That afternoon, though, I did get to watch the Blizzcon Starcraft Invitational finals, which was something of a big deal. Here in the United States, everyone crowds around the TV for the SuperBowl because football is the big American sport. In South Korea, Starcraft is probably the national sport. Both guys and girls will go to tournaments, where 2 players will be on-stage, and the audience will be watching live matches with 6 digits on the line. George happens to pay attention to the professional Starcraft scene, and he insisted that I watch the finals for it. It’s a little silly to think that a huge crowd started cheering when one of the players moved their mouse hand a millimeter and clicked, but that’s how the sport is played.

And to cap off the closing ceremonies, Blizzard brought in Ozzy Osbourne for a show. Although he might sound like a  random pick, there’s apparently an inside joke with him and WoW. Ozzy is known as the “Prince of Darkness”, which also happens to be attributed to the villain, the Lich King. To be honest, his appearance doesn’t mean much to me, so I watched most of his performance on a screen while in line to play D3 again. I did go over to that hall for about 3 minutes just so I couldn’t be faulted for not having taken the chance to see him live. He was surprisingly coherent and lively during the performance, so I’m betting he takes stimulants to get through his acts. That doesn’t change the fact that spraying the mosh pit with a foam hose is kind of weird, but it seemed like he gave them all a decent show.

Having pretty much experienced all of Blizzcon, we left around 9 and this time headed towards Ben’s house on the other side of LA. We geeked out for the evening playing Magic until about 3 in the morning and woke up around 11. We went on a walk and saw a Trump golf course right by the water. It’s a little ridiculous, but I guess the money has to go somewhere. After that, we went back to Ben’s and played board games with some of his friends. After dinner, we left to drive back. Some good signage let us dodge a 2-hour delay along I-5, and we ended up taking the 101 back up. We were pretty tired, but the radio was good bonding. We were constantly scanning the stations as we passed through different towns and got a good dose of 90s pop. While I’ve snubbed 90s music for awhile now, I guess there’s no point in pretending not to like fun music, so we shared a couple sing-alongs between naps all the way back to campus.

Sorry if that ended up sounding like a play-by-play, but maybe I’ll try to be more insightful next time. Instead of leaving you with a thought, I’ll instead give some details on SC2 and D3, if you care. Most of you probably don’t, but I can’t do a Blizzcon report without talking about the games.

So, Diablo 3 first. Diablo 3 is good. They gave us something like level 12 characters put in the middle of a desert (very much like act 2 of D2). The playable classes were the barbarian, witch doctor, sorcerer, and monk. The gameplay was pretty close to D2, which is probably a good thing. Now that I think about it, I didn’t feel like things have changed a lot. They eliminated potion spamming by putting a cooldown on that, but it’s compensated for by monsters dropping healing orbs. Playing each of the classes felt pretty simplistic. The caster classes were somewhat dissatisfying for me, since it was mostly just spamming ranged attacks. Although the barbarian is also just a click-fest, there was something a lot more satisfying about going toe-to-toe. The monk was probably the most fun to play. He chains together attacks, not unlike the assassin from D2. Instead of it being charges for a finisher, though, each of the 3 strikes has a unique effect. It was definitely the most interactive of the 4 classes. And the game is much better multi-player than single-player. It’s actually a little depressing to play by yourself.

Starcraft 2 was amazing. I got to play 2 campaign missions, including the on-ship briefing stuff. They weren’t that hard, but the action is varied enough that the objectives aren’t quite as trivial as in the first game. The main heft of the game, though, is in the multi-player. It’s going to take awhile to adjust to all the new units, but I promise they’re a lot of fun. There’s probably going to be some more balancing before it comes out; as it was, the colossus (think strider from hl2 or the walkers from war of the worlds) was pretty devastating. I’ll definitely be playing zerg, but I thought the protoss was a lot of fun to play. Lots of new abilities are probably going to be overload for awhile, but I think it’ll be easy to get used to. Things like queens pumping out larva and warpgates add fun mechanics without a lot more cognitive load, so the game remains fun. I was worried that additional complexity in SC2 would make it less fun for casual players who don’t practice their micro, but they’ve made lots of changes to simplify those as well. For example, you can rally workers to mineral patches automtically command-groups have icons on the bottom, you can control up to (I want to say) 32 at a time, and you can select multiple buildings at once to build. So more strategies, less fuss.

So overall, I’m a lot more excited about SC2, and a little less excited about D3. My concerns about SC2 were dealt with, but D3 didn’t show me anything special about the new classes. In the end, while they’re certainly doing a lot to add more to these games, they both very much retain the feel of their predecessors. As such, I played D3 and found it not as fun as I thought it would be. At the same time, I couldn’t think of any way that it was worse than D2. I realized that it just wasn’t as much fun because I’m not so pumped about playing more D2. I’ve pretty much exhausted that game, so while I’ll certainly buy D3 immediately and play it, it’s not something I need. As it is, I actually do want to play more SC, though. I just wish it had better graphics, ran more smoothly, and had more interesting mechanics, all of which SC2 provides.

So the bottom line: both SC2 and D3 follow their predecessors heavily. Be as excited as you are about playing those games.

(Edit) I was reminded by a FB comment about one of the big things that I forgot. If you remember, an important part about SC was the “Use Map Settings” maps. In this originated Tower Defense games, and in the Warcraft 3 custom games came DotA. Blizzard is smart, and they realized that people were extending their editor far beyond its original intentions, so at a gameplay panel, they demoed what you can do with the new map editor. And I have to say, it’s insane. It’s not just a SC2 editor; it’s a game development platform. They showed 3 clips, all of which are absolutely amazing. You have to watch it as you won’t believe it until you see it.