Sunday, 27 February 2011

The drunkard's walk

One of the more entertaining problems that mathematicians have addressed is what is known as a drunkard's walk. You can tell it was invented in a pub:
"Hey, what would happen if we were so pissed that we just wandered in a random direction, for a bit then wandered off in another one? How long would it take us to get home?".
"What do you mean, if? Hic!"
I've been spending a little time in the Rift beta and preview recently and some of the design decisions feel a little bit like that. One minute, I'd find myself thinking "That's fantastic! Every game should have that." and then the next I'd be sighing "Seriously, have you learnt nothing in the last six years?".

The character creation process is a good example of this. The drunken walk begins in the brighly lit streets of factions. I like the way they've done this, with the faithful Guardians pitted against the technological Defiants, each blaming the other for what's happened to the world. Like WOW, they've avoided the lazy "good and beautiful " vs "evil and ugly" clich├ęs that pervade this genre.

Wandering into the "racial choice kebab house", the menu seems rather limited. There are only only four really different player races: human and elf (both sides have these), plus dwarves for the Guardians and a big race for the Defiant (the barmey Bahmi), so the choices are relatively limited.

Fortunately, there there is a wide variety of sauces available to liven things up, via the fabulous level of character customisation. There may be only four races on the menu, but the level of control of facial features, hair styles, markings, skin colour makes up for that. Two members of the same race can look very different. Particularly praiseworthy is the ease with which convincing non-European looking characters can be made. Too many games seem stuck in the "only white people are human" stereotype that comes from the European origin of many fantasy novels. Whilst some games (DDO and Vanguard) have tried this in the past, neither really made it big, so it's good to see a potentially A-list game admit the existence of non-white people, even if it's been a long time coming.
Seriously Blizzard? How hard would it be to add some additional skin tones and facial types to your humans? Way easier to code than new hairstyles, I'd suggest. Pull your finger out and sort this. Now.
After the relative harmony and diversity of the kebab shop, our drunk then proceeds to make a complete fool of himself with the young ladies in the vicinity, insisting they disrobe for his entertainment and getting rightly slapped for it.
Seriously Trion? How hard would it be to put some clothes on your female player characters? They're soldiers, not strippers. There are plenty of good-looking female clothing sets in game, so pull your finger out and sort this. Now.
Staggering back into the street of starter zones, our drunk is pleased to notice that his vision isn't too blurry yet. The graphics in Rift are excellent. Different in style to WOW, in that they go for the more "realistic" look (which has tripped up many games in the past as they struggled with poor performance), but it still runs well without the latest graphical hardware. They've got the balance between graphical quality and performance just about perfect here.

Unfortunately for our drunk, there aren't many available routes for getting home. That's OK the first time, but he'll get bored with it if he has to make the same journey every week. The decision to use only two starter zones seems like quite a blow to re-playability for Rift. They've definitely gone for the "quality rather than quantity" approach here. It's a relatively small world, which is fine when you're playing it for the first time, but could get old within a year.

Fumbling for his change for the night bus, our drunken mathematician manages to scatter it all over the pavement. He reaches down and picks up a coin and Hey Presto! they all appear in his hand. I love AOE looting, I really do. It's one of those "why did nobody think of this before?" moments.

Sitting on the bus, the drunken mathematician thinks back to the conversations in the pub that led to him getting so drunk in the first place:
"What would win in a fight between a crocodile and a bear?"
"No, bear!" 
"A croco-bear would beat both of them!"

Rift's soul system is incredibly flexible, allowing you to blend together the attributed of three classes. Want to be half-paladin, half-riftblade? No problem. Pick the right 3 subclasses of cleric and you could be the mythical dpshealtank.

I remember when WOW felt like that and we were all marvelling at the innovation that was talent trees. Finally, an end to all characters of the same class being the same, we could build our own little custom warriors, with a little bit of DPS, a bit of tanking and a dash of PvP. Then the mathematicians came. Not drunk ones this time, but sober. And they found the optimum tank spec and the optimum healing spec and posted it on the internet and social pressure did the rest. There was one "right" way; do anything else and you're an idiot. Ironically, by giving people choices, choice had been removed. Right now, I love the soul system, but I fear that Rift will be reduced to a handful of "correct" combinations within a few months. The sheer number of possible combinations means that balance is likely to be an issue for some time.

Is Rift worth buying? Overall, I'd say yes. It has some significant issues, but it's probably the second-best MMO out there right now. I doubt it will have the longevity of WOW, but it's pretty good and should prosper in the short term just by being a change of scenery. Also, it's important to send a signal to the market that new MMOs have a fair chance of making a profit. That encourages investors and brings us new games, which is all for the good.

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