My friend Aaron got me playing the Marvel Heroes MMO. My last blog post was about it, and I wanted to write something about the game in general. If you haven't played Marvel let me sum it up in one sentence: it's Diablo 3 with superheroes. If you haven't played Diablo 3 (or any of the series really), let me sum that up: loot, and randomness.
Let's digress and talk about Diablo 3 for a moment. Diablo 3, and 2 (I never played the first) are all about the loot. While they have some trappings of an RPG - there is experience and leveling and choosing to put points in abilities - all of that is secondary. It's really about the loot. Your abilities can give you a lot of power, but in order to survive in the game you have to get the right equipment. Each piece of armor and every weapon gives bonuses to your base stats and your powers. And all items are not created equal. The most basic ones give a tiny bonus, while the best legendary items give tons of bonuses or even brand new abilities. Without the greatest items, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to defeat the toughest bosses. Your abilities are nice, but if you're standing naked in a field of demons you're dead. You need loot.
Along with the need for loot comes randomness. Each monster drops a random item, each map is randomized in its layout every time you visit, each boss spawns with random abilities. You have control over which abilities you put points into when you level up - and absolutely everything after that is subject to the whims of the random number generator (or RNG). Everything.
Now, I've got a whole 'nother rant about loot stats vs player skill, based on my playing The Lord of the Rings Online actually. But for right now I want to look at randomness. I hate randomness, and I hate it for a variety of reasons...
Randomness is a psychological trick
A system that gives random rewards (in size/composition) at random intervals is commonly called a Skinner Box, after the psychologist who discovered that it was one of the most addictive forms of reward. You never know how many monsters you'll have to kill to get a legendary item, and you never know if the great RNG god will drop a useful legendary item when it does, but there is always the chance that it is that next monster that will have the item you've been looking for/dreaming of. It's a dirty, underhanded way to try to get someone to keep playing. Personally, I have an addictive personality, the kind of brain that falls for this sort of thing really easily. I played an ungodly number of hours of Diablo 2 back in the day, and it could be hard to put down Diablo 3 at times. Of course, almost every MMO is a Skinner Box to some degree, and a good number of other games are too. Still doesn't mean I like or agree with it. You kill x number of monsters and you level up to by y number of skills/abilities from z number of choices. That's the leveling system in a nutshell and it is very fixed, with little randomness, and if it works for a character's powers/abilities I don't know why it couldn't work for equipment as well.
Randomness creates waste
Now, with different quality of loot and multiple attempts needed to find the item you want (the more attempts needed the better the item), the system inherently is wasteful. You will always accumulate "vendor trash" - stuff that you will not use because it is beneath you, and just sell off to an NPC for some equally useless cash, typically. Well, it's not just the item that was wasted - you also wasted your time killing all those monsters and juggling your inventory to sell all that vendor trash. And, frequently, you wasted a lot of time reloading the map to try to find the one randomly spawning monster who might randomly drop the item you wanted in the first place. Waste, waste, waste. God knows I have wasted plenty of my life on my own, I don't need my games helping me.
Randomness creates frustration
Along with all this repetitive waste comes an emotion, frustration. Every gamer has known the pain of grinding through a level or area in search of a widget and not finding it. To have all that time flushed down the toilet is annoying, and when the great RNG god decides to hate you, and you spend hours after hours chasing something and not finding it, it totally sucks. Like smash the keyboard or throw the controller sucks. Spending time is okay, investing time (by doing something that gives a reward or benefit) is good, but wasting time feels terrible.
And then, of course, after spending 10 hours fruitlessly searching for the ultimate widget, you'll see in the chat channel where someone found it in 2 minutes. That always gives you a nice warm glow of thermonuclear rage.
Randomness destroys meaning
Randomness always requires repetition. If there is a 1-in-a-thousand chance of getting something, and you only ever get one chance at it, you'll either not play or immediately be out of chances. To keep this randomness going you have to keep repeating the steps, keep killing just one more monster, one more boss. And, invariably, it will be the same monster and the same bosses. Took down the Kingpen's criminal empire by killing all his thugs and then dealing with him as well as Elektra and Bullseye, good job! But he didn't drop the widget, so wait a second for him to respawn and go do it again. And again. And again.
By having bosses and monsters respawn it destroys all meaning. So what if you killed him, he'll be back. Nothing you do makes any kind of lasting impact on the world. Nothing you do matters - except to you. You finally killed him enough times to get the widget, so things are better in your own little universe. But does the self-centered pursuit of stuff really mean anything? It's not like you can use that new widget to make any changes. Sure, you can finally up the difficulty level, kill a bigger monster; who will then respawn just like the rest. It's one of the funny things about The Lord of the Rings Online, the fellowship's quest will never end, The One Ring will just respawn and somebody else will have to throw it in Mount Doom. Comics are often derided for making death cheap. When a hero, or even villain, dies it is just a matter of time before they come back in one form or another. Death does not matter, nothing matters really. Sad that one of the worst things about a genera can become enshrined in its digital form.
Having just gone over all the things I don't like about randomness, I'll admit that there is something I do like about it...
Randomness creates uncertainty
As soul-crushingly horrible as randomness is, there is one thing it does right - it creates uncertainty. Will this work, or won't it? There's the old saying about the "best laid plans..." and randomness provides that. You have a great plan, kill the monster and take the treasure, but sorry Mario, your princess is in another castle. Uncertainty is good. If you know you're going to win (or even lose) then there is less reason to play. Victory without challenge is hollow, unearned, and failure despite your efforts is beyond frustration.
Uncertainty is what makes the journey work taking. Not knowing means you have to try in order to find out. It gives an impulse, a shot in the arm to take the plunge and go for it. It also keeps you on your toes. Not knowing what is behind the door, around the next corner, if Plan A will work or if you should start warming up Plan E - all of that keeps you thinking, keeps you engaged. And randomness does help create that uncertainty, which is admittedly vital to any enjoyable game.
Now, with the little good for all the bad we get from randomness, the question is how can we create a system that gives us more good than bad? That's an excellent question and one that I do not have a ready answer for. I never tried any of the few "diceless" role-playing games, though the idea does appeal to me. Even in a pen and paper RPG there can be a little too much randomness, though nowhere as bad as in computer games; and why I prefer to play tabletop instead. Single-player computer games tend to have less randomness, the LEGO Marvel Super Heroes game is nothing at all like the Marvel MMO. And honestly with so many people in the same world, I'm not sure how much randomness you can cut out of an MMO. It may just be the nature of the beast. Still, I'd love to see somebody try.
Okay, well, to wrap things up a few more thoughts on the Marvel MMO that I started talking about.
I don't know why they went with a Diablo-clone as a model with the superhero genera except for marketing reasons. While some heroes are all about the gear, like Iron Man, others have very little care about their clothing or stuff, like Cyclops. So the Diablo-loot-centric design feels very off for some of the characters. It's plain ridiculous for others - Captain America has a "shield" slot that lets you equip different shields with different abilities; and this is a character defined by his one-of-a-kind, cannot-be-duplicated piece of equipment ! Likewise Wolverine can equip different claws as if it was that easy to just pop out the old set and switch them for a new model. It is just so stupid if you actually think about it. (I know, I know, thinking bad)
They have over 40 characters, but a fixed pool that you can test run. This sucks because the character you want to play may not be in the list of starting characters to choose from. You can play each starting character to level 10, and can only choose one to reach the level cap (currently 60). So you might really want to play Rogue, but she isn't starting so you either have to shell out real money or play another character and collect the in-game "eternity splinters" that can be used to unlock things for free (well, for time spent playing, really). That kind of sucks. It would be very cool of them to give you x number of trial slots to level 10 and one (or even 2 to be really nice) full slots. As they keep adding more and more characters it's more of an annoyance.
The control scheme also sucks. You have left- and right-mouse-button powers, and then 6 other powers (defaulting to 'A' through 'H' I believe, I changed the scheme myself). All your moving is done by clicking the left mouse button, so there is a key to hold yourself in place since that's also an action/attack button (and so much fun when you kill a bad guy and then casually walk into the middle of the group of other bad guys he was a part of). All your targeting is done by where the mouse is on the screen. It reminds me so much of Guild Wars 2 - both of these games have a limited enough set of abilities that they would be great to use with a controller, and neither has support for a controller. I am a mouse guy. In a typical MMO I use my left hand for the 4 arrow keys to move, and maybe a hotkey to target the nearest enemy. My right hand on the mouse does all the work, it selects and activates abilities. For some reason I have the worst time getting my fingers to hit multiple keys without tripping over themselves. I changed the Marvel scheme to A, S, D for half the abilities and Q, W, E the other half. This lets me put a different finger on each ability, minimizing the screw-ups, and I can move my whole hand to a new row. That helps, but is still nowhere as good as having a controller with 16+ keys available, and each hand able to do different things. I have only played Diablo 3 on the Xbox 360 with a controller, so I know it can be done, and work really well. And getting a controller for a PC is dirt cheap, the one I have is $20 and works great when a game actually supports it.
So, as you can see there is a lot about the game that I am not fond of. However, it can be very fun to play. Cyclops is my main character, and I do love melting everything with red eye-beams. The characters feel different, so you can play more than one and have them all be interesting. It looks pretty, I couldn't play the game on my old laptop. And of course, the biggest reason for playing any game is the people. My friend really likes Iceman, and this is the only game out there with him (in fact, cold-themed characters of any kind are sort of scarce). So he gets to play his favorite X-Man and I get to play mine, and we can play together. We just got Sara into the game too, so we also have an angry little raccoon with a tactical nuke helping us out. People always make the difference, in games and in life. And having my good friends to play with mitigates a lot of what I don't like about the game. Plus, honestly, I don't think there is a good MMO at all - they all rely so much on randomness, repetition and concepts that I am not fond of; so this games isn't really any worse than any other.
Anyways, thanks for sticking it out through my rant/review. If you have any thoughts on Marvel, or MMOs in general feel free to leave a comment below.