The Guiding Hand of Dark Souls

Dark Souls is widely regarded as an outstanding game for a variety of reasons, such as the “hard but fair” ethos in which its only demand is that you prove your growth as a player at each step.  The world is similarly praised for its clever interconnectedness.  I want to illustrate the level of thought that went into the level design, using a series of highlights progressing through the game.  This is somewhat inspired by this analysis of Super Metroid, a game which itself is clearly an element of the Dark Souls pedigree.  Many of the concepts described in that article apply to this game as well, but Souls has to maintain a special focus on one particular element: quietly helping the player endure the intense difficulty that the game itself created.

One of my goals is to refine the image that both fans and non-fans have of Dark Souls, as being defined solely by difficulty.  Perhaps its best-hidden secret is that it does not actually leave the player lost in the wilderness with no direction and death awaiting at every turn, but rather guides and supports them in subtle ways.  The game fulfills two roles at once: presenting a seemingly crushing challenge, but also, behind the scenes, doing what it can to make it more likely that each player finds a way through.  The defining emotion of Dark Souls is the thrill of both facing the challenge and then eventually surpassing it, and the game succeeds because it does everything it can to provide both of those experiences.

This post will take us through ringing the Bells of Awakening.  Many of the themes of the level design are shown most strongly in this first segment, when it’s critical to give a player an understanding of how this game works, and most importantly, to give them the tools to succeed in what comes after it.

Undead Asylum

The game opens with one of the very few moments that I’m going to question.  Before its threadbare tutorial is even complete, it throws the player into a boss fight, the Asylum Demon, where the solution is not to fight, but to escape through an open door elsewhere in the room.  I’m not sure what this is intended to teach, since nowhere else in the game is there a boss fight that you can run away from; you’re always sealed in (there are occasional large non-boss enemies you can run from, such as the Bridge Hellkite or the Hydra, but they’re in open outdoor spaces that make it obvious anyway).  These opening minutes are precious for hooking the player and starting to teach them, and adding a potential sticking point with no teaching utility is not parsimonious.  Arguably, one hint is that the boss fight is completely unfair (you don’t have a real weapon yet, so no non-expert player has a chance), but it’s too early to rely on the player’s trust that Dark Souls is never unfair.  Building that trust is a key goal of the early levels.

The escape door is behind the pillars on the left.

The escape door is behind the pillars on the left.

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Healing Discussion Podcast #10

Back for another show!  We start with some current goings-on related to trinkets; there have been a few recent changes that affect healers.  That gets us into a discussion of some aspects of healer stats generally and the mana situation.  Then we use remaining time to get started on a topic we’re both always happy to talk about, Challenge Mode healing.

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0:00 – Intro & Catching Up
1:35 – Recent Healer Trinket Changes
> 1:55 – Patch 6.1 Changes to healer loot tables (background)
> 3:20 – Spirit’s historical budget & value on trinkets
> 7:20 – Bonus Armor analogy and why Blizzard made the change
> 12:50 – Loss of interesting loot choice
> 14:45 – Mana inflation concerns (my post on the situation before this)
> 20:55 – BRF Trinket re-evaluation (AutoclaveTalisman)
> 23:30 – Distinguishing Int DPS trinkets from Healer trinkets
31:35 – Alchemist Stone trinket
36:55 – Tertiary stats and the case for Avoidance
40:35 – Challenge Mode Healing
> 40:35 – Differences from raid healing
> 44:20 – Tank healing & encounter knowledge
> 45:40 – CM mana management
> 50:40 – Spirit vs Int for CMs
> 57:35 – Pacing for speed in CMs
> 1:00:55 – Hamlet’s Gold CM guides
1:02:05 – Outro & good-bye!

Previous episodes

Quick notes on Int/Spirit trinket changes

Quick notes for now since I’m at PAX East. I’m I’ll give this more discussion going forward, probably on the next podcast (hopefully soon) especially.

As many healers have noticed, in Patch 6.1, all non-Spirit items were removed from the healer classes’ lootspecs.  So healers can’t get them from any source that respects lootspec (bonus rolls, personal loot in dungeons or raids, LFR, mission tokens, challenge mode rewards, and so on).  This seems like an odd choice since Int vs. Spirit, especially on trinkets, was generally considered an interesting loot choice and there was a lot of variation in people’s views on it.

To briefly summarize why it happened: tanks have a similar situation with Bonus Armor, and for them there isn’t as much choice.  Bonus Armor is unequivocally better for tanks, and so this change was needed in their case–it prevent them from getting non-Armor items they’d never use.  But for healers, Spirit is not always unequivocally far better than Int; in fact many healers have situations where they choose Int on trinkets.  So this change has the odd effect of removing an interesting loot choice.  Blizzard’s stated reason is that they want “healer” and “DPS” trinkets to be clearly delineated, so there aren’t items with overly broad competition in a raid, which is frustrating.  That makes sense, but overall I don’t think the 6.1 solution is a good way of addressing it.

There are some mana balance issues unrelated to all this.  Disc has a super undercosted spell so they have excess mana (separate class toolkit issue). Paladin doesn’t have heals with enough marginal gain over Holy Light casts (separate class toolkit issue).  For now, let’s take a class with a very well-working mana game, and a good spellcasting options which are influenced by mana constraints (Shaman or Druid).  Right now, the weird thing is, things should be totally fine for these classes.  Int and Spirit (on trinkets) are reasonably well-balanced options.  That’s a hard thing to do and it’s done surprisingly well.  There are good cases for both stats and it can vary with content/encounter.  Furthermore, they removed the choice from most slots (4 where you always want Spirit and many where you never do) to prevent being able to swing it too much, but left the choice in 2 important slots (trinkets).

Everything about this, so far, is so good and healthy that it’s a little bizarre that they feel a need to stamp it out.  We’re talking about removing actual, good, gameplay in the form of meaningful stat choices (one of the most prominent places such a thing remains).  The biggest problem with the solution is that it seems to ignore that the class/stat design doesn’t support this notion of Spirit being unequivocally far better in every situation.  That’s not even close to true, even for a class like Druid (even if Spirit is often slightly better in many situations).  That might take an expansion-level change, again.

And furthermore, they’d have to massively buff Spirit in a way that didn’t accelerate mana flooding (which is okay in Warlords, but touchy, as I got into here: Healing Theory: Warlords Spirit Update | It’s Dangerous to Go Alone ).  That’s okay–for example, the recent Monk change was careful about this.  Watcher’s suggestion in a recent interview of making Spirit also give SP to healers would do it for all healers.  But totally reworking the function of the stat seems like next-expansion territory.

If they do make an big fundamental change, wouldn’t it better to still have the option of regen stat vs. throughput stat–an option that is already designed, implemented, and well-balanced (rather than mashing them into one stat)?  It would be perfectly fine to have Spirit and Heal Power trinkets, both of which were not shared with DPS.  Or simply go the Mists route of having some trinkets that only proc on damaging events and some that only proc on heal events.  There are various potential ways to have clearly-defined “DPS trinkets”, “Healer Spirit trinkets” and “Healer throughput trinkets.”

In short, this change feels a little reactionary in response to players exercising a choice of stats (which is of course a good thing).  Not only does it sacrifice a solid, if minor, bit of decisionmaking, but it doesn’t even solve the problem.  Healers will still want exactly the same items they wanted before, but now, in certain cases, it will be much more annoying to get them.

Challenge Mode Video Guides for Warlords

In case anyone follows this blog and hasn’t come across me talking about these elsewhere, I just finished a pretty large project: a full set of video guides for the challenge mode dungeons in Warlords.

Click for a playlist with all 8

These provide a lot of detailed info on everything you should need to know about each zone to seriously work on getting the Gold time.  Let me know what you think with comments here or on the videos!