Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Honor Reset Reversed due to Epic PR Fail

Blizzard previously announced plans to reset honor upon launch of the expansion in order to prevent people from stockpiling enough honor to buy level 80 gear the moment they dinged 80. I commented at the time that this was a major PR Failure, in part because they inexplicably failed to have the new honor award info ready until a day later, but also because of an issue of consumer confidence; wiping out previously earned honor implies disrespect for the time spent obtaining said honor.

Well, now Blizzard has reversed the decision, saying that they will, instead, jack up prices for level 80 stuff. This, of course, is what they should have done in the first place. I am staggered to think that they didn't imagine there would be outcry and only thought to react to it after the news broke.

In other news, Blizzard has announced entirely sensible plans to end WoW's fourth Arena season with the launch of the 3.0 patch (allowing players to continue to play matches for arena points until the expansion finally launches). Lost in the shuffle of these two announcements is the point that traditionally Blizzard offers two weeks advance notice prior to the end of the arena season. This might mean that the 3.0 patch is more than two weeks away at the moment. Perhaps we will get a date for 3.0 at Blizzcon in a week and a half.

Monday, September 29, 2008

More on Nerfed Brewfest'08

I wrote my initial reactions to the nerfed version of Brewfest when it came out. Now that the thing is wrapping up, a few more comments.

Surveying the wreckage

I previously said that the Dark Iron attack event was broken. On this point, I may have been wrong. The new version of the attack keeps track of how many Dark Iron invaders are beaned with beer mugs for the entire group present at the brew camp. If players at the brew camp do well enough, a gear is left behind on the ground, allowing even late-comers who didn't contribute at all to the encounters, the opportunity to get a daily quest worth 10 Brewfest tokens. I've repeatedly arrived on the scene AFTER the attack was defeated and been rewarded for my timing with the free tickets.

I did eventually fight the Brewfest boss, primarily because killing him once is worth 40 tickets, which is nearly two 10-minute keg delivery runs that I didn't have to do. The boss is very very easy (well, once you find a group anyway), and the other loot isn't really worth writing about. (Indeed, I now own both the spell damage trinket AND the healing trinket on my mage.) So, basically, you have groups of five players getting 5 shots a day (presuming you didn't have to take someone who had already used up their daily summon because you were desperate for a tank/healer) at a mount that drops at less than 10% (and I'm not even sure if that's 10% chance of EITHER mount, one of which your faction doesn't really care much about).

Speaking of the keg runs, I think having these count for the vast majority of player token generation is a big part of the problem with the '08 version of the holiday. The '07 version included some non-repeatable quests that gave a fair chunk of tickets each, but the supposedly upgraded versions were too buggy to go live in '08. Instead, we're simply left with a keg run that consists of riding in circles repeatedly for 10 minutes, twice a day (I never really figured out exactly how often the thing resets, I would say 12 hours, but I could have sworn that it didn't reset for me a few times), and hoping that you don't get cheated out of credit for an apple barrel by a lag spike. (This typically happens to me about twice per run.)

Cultural Identity and Rewards

My previous post discussed the decision by Blizzard to convert the holiday's best reward, the permanent Brewfest mount, from a guaranteed purchase from solo-farmed tickets to a rare random drop (and we all love random drops) from a group-only encounter. (I was slightly incorrect when I stated that looking at others on the Brew Kodo in town was the closest I would be able to get; there is an easily obtained single-use item that lets you have a Kodo of your own for as long as you don't dismount, thus allowing me to take some Kodo screenshots.) One aspect that I didn't touch on (because it hadn't been raised yet) was Blizzard's argument that handing out opposite faction mounts is damaging to faction identity.

We have seen Blizzard get seriously concerned about entirely cosmetic issues in the past, most notably in the infamous spirit wolf incident. One might argue that the ram is already out of the stable on this particular point, as Horde characters were allowed to get and keep rams, and, frankly, I don't recall seeing all that many rams roaming Ogrimmar in the time before Brewfest returned. Some players will go substantially out of their way for the chance at a novel mount, but most will not. For that matter, the Kodo isn't really all that impressive for non-gnomes, who look amusing mostly because of the sheer size differential. (I will admit that the Brewfest Ram is not especially distinctive compared to other rams in the game, while the Brew Kodo is IMO the best looking Kodo in the game, but that's a separate issue.) In short, I think this is another case of the lore mattering only because it happens to support the decision Blizzard wanted to make anyway (moving the mounts to rare drop group content).

But hey, what do I know? Maybe if you stick a gnome on a Kodo, it will blur the lines of faction identity. The next thing you know, the poor gnome will be riding into Thunder Bluff and trying to explain to the horde of angry guards that it's all a case of mis-steak-en identity!

Ah, the things I do to my poor mage in order to sneak a horrible pun into my blog.....

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Poll Results: Progress Towards Rewards

At the beginning of the month, I asked a poll question about progress towards rewards. Well, the results are in. The question was "Which do you prefer?", fifteen of my readers responded, and the options were (in reverse order):

Slower but more efficient progress towards multiple rewards?

This poll wasn't a fair fight, I said as much in my commentary when I opened the poll, and the results bore it out. Twelve of my fifteen responses chose this route. Indeed, this seems like it is in some ways the "correct" answer. Case in point, my recent decision to go for max fishing skill. Technically speaking, I should have plunked my tail down by the uneventful body of water of my choice and reached 375 in a day. Instead, I chose to do the fishing daily quest every day and wait for the skill points to come in passively. Sure enough, I got the last point of Pre-Wrath fishing skill earlier this week. I also raked in a substantial amount of money from the fishing quest and its vendor-able rewards. Good times all around.

Rapid progress towards one reward?
This option was less popular but still took in 20% of the vote (3/15). And, sure enough, there are times when getting the one reward quickly can help you gain additional rewards, such as a minimum amount of PVP gear for survival, or a weapon if your class is unusually dependent on weapon DPS upgrades.

Brewfest might also be a good example of one-reward-at-a-time: other than the instance boss, all of the other rewards are earned by a single currency. You're not raking in any other compensation as you work towards your outfits, kegs, or brew club applications, and it's a currency, so you'll need to earn more as needed to buy the stuff you want. The advantage, though, is that you get each item you're after comparatively more quickly that is typically offered in a rep/daily quest grind, because that item is ALL you're getting for your time.

Random chance for a reward?

Those of you who have been counting may have noticed that no one selected the first option in my poll, random loot. This is in some ways remarkable because random chances at obtaining loot is absolutely standard in the industry, be it Warhammer's "Vegas Style" public quest rewards or low percentage drops from either raids or daily quests (take that cake recipe that I've been after for a while now and FINALLY got today).

It doesn't seem that anyone really LIKES knowing that they could do the quest/boss/etc an ungodly number of times and still never get their loot. And yet, somehow, this is just another one of these things that we MMORPG players put up with because we accept despite their non-fun nature. This being a blog that focuses heavily on incentive structure in games, I actually got a few comments defending the practice of random loot, and I agree with every one.

And yet, we come back to the 50+ times I ran the daily cooking quest chasing after a drop in the sub-2% range. There are reasons why random loot should be in the game, primarily focusing around longevity (or, to put it less charitably, the reality that players will exhaust all the new content in a game far faster than content can be created, requiring developers to come up with ways to convince players to repeat content they've already done). But there are also good reasons why it should not be in tere, and thus it's interesting that developers haven't found a way to make this feasible just yet.

(Wrath Note: At least some of Wrath's daily quests will feature tokens that you cash in for rare recipes instead of a random shot at getting the recipes outright. That said, all the PVE content continues to be itemized with the same random boss loot table system that's been around for ages.)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Exactly how big is the Gold Spammer problem?

The Greenskin just made a fascinating observation: In separate reports, Mythic has claimed that Warhammer has had 500,000 accounts created and that 4000 accounts have been banned for gold seller spamming. As he points out, that's a little rounding error away from 1% of all registered accounts taking part of gold seller spamming within the first week of the game's retail launch.

I've only received one spamvertisement so far, which is nothing compared to LOTRO after they implemented their free trials, but that also means that Mythic hasn't caught them all yet. Also, this game doesn't HAVE free trials yet, which means that, unless these spammers have already started compromising accounts and credit cards via keyloggers, they actually BOUGHT $50 retail boxes. That only makes sense if their market is large enough that they expected to break even on paying $200,000 for accounts in the first place. Again, that's just the money they've spent on the accounts that have been caught and banned so far, meaning that the farmers must actually be spending even more than that if they're still at it despite the bans. That's staggering.

Scott Jennings claims that you cannot stop gold farming via prohibition. It would certainly help if you weren't scrounging for currency at level 2. Still, if demand is great enough to justify $200K in initial investment, expecting to recoup that money and turn a profit, this issue is way larger than I ever considered.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Forging into Warhammer

A few disjointed comments about Warhammer, now that I've finally gotten around to taking a crack at it:

Population Balance:
Perhaps surprisingly, the bulk of servers seem to favor the Destruction faction by a substantial margin. This is fine by me, as I'm just as happy to play Order and not have queues. There's been speculation on why exactly this happened (see Relmstein for some), but my best guess is that all the people who play Night Elf Hunters read all the posts people make calling them immature Huntards, and decided that playing the bad guys would be a step up in the world. The practical results of this imbalance remain to be seen. On the Order side, I get to play scenarios in a timely fashion, and it doesn't really seem to make a huge difference that zone control seems to be in Destruction hands more often than not.

Credit card required to play
My very first action upon entering my retail key was to cancel my subscription. This isn't really a statement on the game itself so much as a matter of principle. Mythic can have more of my money if they earn more of my business. I see no good reason why the burden should be on me to remember when my bill date is and be sure to cancel before then.

Of course, this is another one of these industry standard practices we all put up with; you'll get the exact same terms out of Blizzard and Turbine. I guess that requiring a credit card may make it easier for them to perma-ban gold farmers or whatnot (unless, of course, the farmers get disposable pre-paid visa cards to validate their accounts with). Still, I'd rather not be forced to give out my credit card information just to get my "free" month. (FYI, pushing the red "cancel subscription" button does not cut you off from time you've already paid for, though there is no way you could possibly know that until you've actually pushed the button.)

Class trial and error
I decided to spend the evening trying out my third and fourth classes, the Empire Witch Hunter (plays a lot like a WoW Rogue with less stealth) and the Dwarven Rune Priest (the Order side's pure healing class). The Witch Hunter surprised me; I was not expecting to like it much, but it handled pretty well, at least at low levels. Indeed, I liked it better than the White Lion (that's the melee pet class), though I'm not sure how I'd stack it up against the Engineer. (One sad point; I saw enemy Magus mobs, and I thought the much touted Chaos disc they ride looks pretty silly in motion. Guess that won't be my Destruction main after all, if the player version looks the same.)

As to the Rune Priest, well, I was a bit disappointed. The Priest's PVE soloing abilities are noticeably limited compared to the DPS classes I've tried so far. Healing in an RVR scenario was a bit more interesting, but my life expectancy was very short as enemy players made my healer self a priority target. Perhaps my actual lifespan improves as I gain more defensive abilities and the local tank population learns to help protect me, but I'm not sure I'm going to like being the center of focus-fire attention. Rohan has good things to say about the Warrior Priest so maybe I'll take one of those for a spin sometime down the line.

Wait a minute, you're playing RVR?
Yeah, it is definitely unlike WoW to be heading off to RVR scenarios before I'm even level 2. Still, all of the scenarios I've seen (all three of the T1 pairings) are well executed, and there is excellent quality reward gear to be had for the entry-level character upon completing even a single scenario. The only downside is that cash, which you need to purchase your class skills and reknown rewards, is rather scarce at that point in the game. Sure enough, I got a /tell from a gold seller spambot, and I can see where their business comes from. There's no good reason for money to be the limiting factor in obtaining your level 2 rewards and skills. Still, that issue aside, Mythic has done an excellent job of bringing the two sides of this game together, and that's a big part of why I was even considering playing a healer to begin with. Maybe I'll find a tank class I like or somesuch so that I can still provide group utility without being victim number one.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

On looking for people

Note: This post is NOT intended as a cry for help, rather a general observation on the social state of MMORPG's.

My mage has been running around Azeroth with all of the global chat channels enabled. General? Yep. Trade? Indeed. LookingFor Group? Sure, why not. Guild Recruitment? Even that one.

Two Related, Unrelated Problems
I've been looking for a group to go hit up Direbrew for the group portion of the Brewfest event, not because I'm seriously hoping to get the rare mount I'm missing out on this year (it's been confirmed as an under 10% drop rate), but simply because turning in the quests once would save me two of the increasingly tedious keg delivery runs. People tend to advertise in just about any channel that comes to mind when they're trying to form a PUG, so I figure it can't hurt to listen. Also, I finally decided to remove the character in question from the carcass of a guild he was in; a failed attempt at a Karazhan guild that ultimately fell apart and boasts maybe one other account under its roof these days. So, hypothetically, I'm in the market for a guild as well.

The pickings on both fronts are surprisingly scarce. I simply haven't seen anyone looking for a group for the Brewfest event. Maybe they're zerging it down with friends from their T6 raiding guild and don't want PUG scrubs. Maybe I'm looking in IF when I should be looking in Shattrath or wherever, I don't know. One might argue that the obvious answer would be for me to simply get a guild to run the event with, but that too is not as simple as it sounds.

Looking for a guild on a four year old server
Players looking to join a raiding guild have, in some ways, a relatively defined path. Guilds typically aren't going to take people whose gear is more than a tier below their current progress, so you're looking at a rather small number of possibilities on any given server. (Aside: This is where it would help if, four years ago, you hadn't chosen to roll on a server that would, in the future, happen to share the name of a major raiding zone. "Hyjal guilds" recruiting are typically guilds that are raiding the Hyjal zone, not guilds that are located on the SERVER Hyjal.) But what if you don't want to raid?

Well, I've been a non-raiding member of raiding guilds in the past, and it has its quirks. First of all, you probably need to know someone to get your account in the door. Second, I don't quite feel like I fit in with a group that is focused on working together to try and tackle some goal while I mill around doing daily quests or leveling alts. They are comrades, and I am someone who is in because I know someone. Beyond the social stuff, sometimes raiders and non-raiders just don't understand each other. My mage's most recent guild master seemed at times genuinely puzzled that I actually didn't WANT to raid, even if there was an empty slot in the group on a theoretically farm night. It was as if he could understand not being ABLE to raid due to time constraints but it didn't make any sense that someone who theoretically COULD be raiding wouldn't choose to do so.

So, join a non-raiding guild, you might say? What non raiding guilds? I'm not saying that there aren't guilds that just bum around with their friends, but these guys aren't actively out and about advertising that they want new members; without the pressure of raiding, they don't really NEED new members. Sure enough, the new guild ads that (very occasionally) appear on our server's guild recruitment channel are typically guilds with maybe a handful of accounts at best that are aspiring to one day become raiding guilds. In short, the non-raiding guilds that would actually take me probably aren't guilds I actually want to be in. No wonder I found myself accepting a random /ginvite the last time I was guildless, simply so people would stop offering me slots on their third-string Kara group.

What's a lone player to do?
I suppose this is where being a loner by nature can be a problem in an MMORPG. I've been on Hyjal since WoW launched nearly four years ago, but there are maybe a dozen players I still know on the server, most of whom are in one of two guilds that are working on T6 raid content. But what if I were a brand new player of WoW (or Warhammer, for that matter, if I ever get time to actually pick a server and play)? It's not easy to get your foot in the door of a guild of folks you don't know without the ice-breaker of sorts that comes with looking for a very specific type of guild (e.g. raiding, or perhaps RP).

I guess this is where systems like Warhammer's Public Quests are supposed to help players make friends, as it were. Still, it's an interesting design question that the game's developers have only limited control over. How do you match up players with people they are actually likely to get along with (i.e. who share their goals, general level of competence at spelling and grammar, etc)? I guess the devs don't have a perfect answer either; the trend in recent game design appears to be to punt by allowing players to solo to the level cap and then hope to somehow convert them into group players once they're capped and out of content.

100th post!

Well, a 100th post isn't all that much in the blogosphere, but it feels like a milestone to me anyway, so here's a rundown of some stats about PVD:

- What have I been talking about in my first 99 posts?
44 of them were Wrath of the Lich King related (29 so far related to the Wrath beta), 18 were about Warhammer, 7 were about Lord of the Rings Online, and both Guild Wars and Stargate World walked off with two tags each. (Some of these entries covered more than one game.) I haven't been tagging WoW-related posts that aren't specific to Wrath (and/or in addition to the Wrath tag), since that would cover the bulk of the posts that remain in the archives, but perhaps I should. I've tagged a third of posts with the "PVD" tag, indicating that they somehow touch on the question of how developers add incentives.

- Who has been reading?
Feedburner says I've been averaging 74 daily readers (48 average daily subscribers, not sure if that count is separate or not) over the last month. Both numbers have been steadily increasing over time. Over half of you use Firefox (interesingly, most of those have upgraded to Firefox 3, I'm still using version 2 so I guess I'm behind the times), a bit over a third use Internet Explorer, and the rest use Safari or other browsers. English is the top language by far, but I see traffic in eight European languages (and Chinese).

-Where is the traffic coming from?
By far the largest individual sources of incoming links are Blessing of Kings (where Rohan put me on his sidebar blogroll), and Waaagh! (where Syp has occasionally linked to me even though he thinks I may or may not have called him chicken). Thanks guys! :)

Perhaps the most interesting of my inbound links comes from Cronache da World of Warcraft, which posted a summary and commentary for one of my posts. This might not otherwise be remarkable, except for the fact that the blog in question, and the post, is in Italian. (I hope he isn't saying that Greenwiz's mother wears twill boots or somesuch. ;)) In terms of search engines, the most popular search appears to be some variation of "how do you get to Northrend", perhaps written by players who have just gotten into the beta.

Well, that's enough rambling about stuff I've done. On to the next hundred posts! :)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Honor Reset Followup

So, the mystery items that Blizzard CM's were not allowed to unveil when they announced the honor reset have been released on the PTR's a mere day later, confirming my opinion that there was zero good reason why this information should not have been available at the same time as the rest of the announcement. The honor system gets new cloaks (the last set of PVP cloaks was added in patch 2.3 and requires PVE badges to obtain), upgraded Battlemaster trinkets (also last upgraded in 2.3, though they were available for EITHER honor OR badges), and gems obtained via Honor are no longer soulbound or unique-equipped (a nigh meaningless change, since these purple-quality gems offer fewer stat boosts than green quality Northrend jewelcuts).

Overall, very underwhelming changes, and it wasn't at all worth holding the community in suspense in the hopes that something interesting would emerge amongst the promised "special items". The only interesting news is that the current PTR build slashes the price of the blue-quality 2-minute cooldown Medallion of the Alliance/Horde, from nearly 17K on the live realms to 8K. Since my mage has 5K honor that's going to expire with the expansion anyway, I could obtain the trinket in exchange for grinding out 3K honor sometime between now and Nov 12th. Still, overall, this was a big PR debacle for Blizzard.

Honor reset fails at PR

Blizzard announced today that PVP "honor" points (and, perhaps more significantly, "marks of honor" for participating in battlegrounds, which, if you're playing in Alliance PUG's, cost you a good 30 minutes a piece of losing misery to earn) will be reset with the expansion. You could argue that this change is good for the game because it helps keep the playing field level for when characters hit level 80. You could argue that it is bad for the game because it disrespects player time investment (indeed, wipes it out). You could argue that this is a purely mercenary move designed to keep players p(l)aying for longer after the expansion launches. One thing that is clear, however, is that Blizzard's CM's should sue the company for emotional abuse.

Why have half an announcement?
There are to be mystery items in the 3.0 content patch that will allow players to spend down their existing marks and honor points before they go live. What are these items? The CM's aren't authorized to say. This is idiotic beyond belief, even for Blizzard. The entire point of having whatever it is they're having is to soften the blow of losing all your banked honor and marks. As such, the identity of the mystery items is far and away the most obvious question that anyone would want answered upon reading the original announcement; you can't decide if they're worth getting before you know what they are. Sure enough, that's the question everyone wants answered. And the answer? "We can't release that information yet" and "They should be on the PTR's this week". If you hit the Blue Post tracker of your choice, you'll see this line repeated a dozen times.

There is ZERO reason to hang the CM's out to dry like that, especially if the items are ready to hit the PTR's within a matter of days. If the mystery items really cannot be identified until later in the week (perhaps they promised an exclusive to IGN or whomever), then hold the announcement of the honor wipe until the second half of the information is good to go. I guess it's possible that the mystery media outlet didn't want to get stuck with delivering the bad news, and so Eyonix drew the short straw so that whomever gets to give the good half of the announcement after the bad news has sunk in. If, on the other hand, the mystery items are just going to go up on the next PTR build with no fanfare, this just represents very very poor information management on Blizzard's part. Whatever good will the items generate almost certainly will not be enough to make people feel better on this issue.

What about the actual decision?
My mage stands to lose 5K honor, 100 AV marks, 34 AB marks, 27 EOTS Marks, and 40 WSG marks, and my alts stand to lose small amounts of honor points that I'm not going to cry over. The good news is that I'm only 3 EOTS losses away from a second black war mount (Alliance PUG's almost never win EOTS, or, really, anything other than AV, in my battlegroup). If there is actually something worth getting from the mystery item list, I've got a nice head start (I'll probably wait for the patch to go live for achievement credit). If not, I can probably spend a night or so of PVP to burn the honor points on a gem or something and get out with my main loss being a whopping 70 AV marks, which is unfortunate, but AV is my main source of honor anyway.

The bigger issue is one of consumer confidence, as it were. Take, for example the Olympics event. One of the reasons why I was alright with hopping into the battlegrounds even though I didn't really want any of the current rewards was confidence that there would EVENTUALLY be something down the line I'd want to spend the points/marks on. This turned out to be moot since the Olympic event wasn't that hard to finish, but, in the future, I won't have that same level of confidence that my investment will still be around when eventually happens. It's one thing to PVP for X honor points and Y marks for a tangible item you want right now, but honor and marks as a currency are no longer something safe to hold onto.

I suppose Blizzard still didn't have a choice; with banked honor, players might have been able to *gasp* skip level 80 5-man content and head straight into raiding. Still, Blizzard's entire endgame is, in some ways, based on a confidence that time spent now on repetitive battlegrounds/rep grinds WILL pay off in some way down the line. Changing that model to "might pay off down the line if it doesn't get reset first" might cost Blizzard more than they expect.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ding 80!

When Wrath was announced, my reaction to the idea of a melee hero class was pretty underwhelmed. If you had told me that my first level 80 character would be a Death Knight, I wouldn't have believed you. I REALLY wouldn't have believed you if you'd said that I would have said level 80 character a month and a half before the expansion launches, by leveling straight through the entire Wrath of the Lich King beta. And yet, here I am.

Overall, I've been pretty impressed with the home stretch of Wrath. Poor Cheery got nerfed into the ground a few patches back, but now they're adjusting things back to a reasonable level. I've also picked up some decent gear from questing (including a fair amount of actual tanking gear). Zul'Drek and the Storm Peaks didn't impress me as much (indeed, a fair number of Storm Peaks quests remain broken), but Icecrown has some very fun quests including a fair number of daily quests. Meanwhile, Death Knight glyphs are finally in the game, as are inscription recipes that actually use skill-level appropriate ingredients; the profession has come a huge way in the last two weeks and is now pretty close to ready to go.

I have a kind of mini-tradition where I bring my retail characters to Shadowmoon Valley as they get very close to level 70, in order to ensure that the kill that pushes them to the level cap is a felboar (in honor of the famous boar grind carried out by Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny). I haven't really seen many boars in Northrend, so I wound up gaining that last level off of a misc daily quest. As a consolation prize, however, I may not have had boars, but at least now I get to ride a Hog.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bejeweled for WoW?

Via WoW Insider comes that news that PopCap Games is releasing a free (!) version of their Bejeweled game as an addon for WoW. This, of course, isn't the first version of Bejeweled to make it into an MMORPG; that distinction goes to the crappy inventory management system in Hellgate: London that required players to manually re-sort all the junk in their bags in order to loot items they had more than enough space for. Somehow, though, I suspect that this version may be slightly more fun. ;)

My first reaction was that this represents a triumph of entrepreneurial spirit; the demand exists, and I would have seriously considered an investment of $5 or even $10 for a minigame to play while waiting for flight paths and other such downtime. Then I actually read the article and noticed that the thing is free. Maybe they really did just do this because they like WoW? Since it does not sound like this is an official Blizzard licensed product, they probably can't charge any money whatsoever, or even run their usual "wouldn't you rather be paying for this game than playing it for free" ads in between levels without spawning a pack of Enraged Dire Vivendi Lawyers. I guess perhaps they think the PR value of getting WoW players to their website to try their products is worth the dev time?

My second reaction is that it's a sad, sad state of affairs when there is so much downtime and travel time (see my archives on this topic, occasionally with a side of rant) that there's actually interest in a game you play during all the downtime during the game that you are supposedly playing. If Bejeweled for WoW actually keeps me from spending autoflight time on some combination of bio breaks, checking WoWhead, or even surfing the comments and blogroll here at PVD, I suppose that's progress. Still, if I'm breaking out another game to play instead of sitting mindlessly watching the scenery zip by, I think we can safely argue that I'm not really appreciating how immersive the size of the world is. That removes almost all of the arguments in favor of making players wait for the full travel time it takes to cross continents in the first place.

Bottom line? How about, instead of Bejeweled, we get a shortcut that skips ahead to the last leg of any given flight point, so that we can actually play the MMORPG we're paying to play?

P.S. I hope PopCap coded this thing to disable itself when the player enters PVP battlegrounds, or they might be in for some negative PR courtesy of the "AFK-Bejeweled" crowd.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Nerfed Brewfest '08, now with less fun

Brewfest 2007 literally brought me back to WoW. My old raiding guild fell apart trying to make the transition from 40 man raiding to 10 man raiding (with the understanding that it would need to be back up to 25 for the expansion's second dungeon). LOTRO had just come out, and I spent five months in Middle Earth. When October rolled around, I was sure I would be back in WoW soonish, but I figured I would wait until the forthcoming patch 2.3. What changed my mind was the debut of Brewfest, with an exclusive mount. I resubscribed to WoW in time to snag the Brewfest Ram for my mage. Brewfest was my first experience with daily quests, and there was a poorly worded promise that there would be a Horde mount in '08, so I was definitely looking forward to the return of the Brew.

New and not-so-improved
Unfortunately, the 2008 edition of Brewfest is shaping up to be a real disappointment. Two quests involving drunken antics that were working fine last year somehow got broken and removed from the game. The Dark Iron attacks on the Brew camps, which had to be removed from the game entirely in 2007 after people were able to rack up the full amount of tickets in minutes and others crashed the servers trying, are back but are bugged such that their rewards do not function.

Brewfest's main event, the riding of the racing ram, retains the same irritating bug that it had last year; riding past apple barrels is still a very hit or miss affair that intermittently causes your ram to slow to a painful crawl instead of removing its fatigue debuffs. (I'm guessing that this may be a latency issue - the server trusts your client on where your character is located, so a blip of latency at the wrong fraction of a second might cause the server to never acknowledge that you actually brushed the barrel on your way past.) One slightly positive change is that this non-Daily Quest daily activity is now a once-daily event instead of an invisible 12-hour cooldown, though they haven't upped the number of tokens awarded to compensate for fewer attempts.

But the real disappointment is the big payoff at the end of the line... or the lack thereof.

Cosmetic Rewards Taken from Solo Players to Reward Groups

The image you see to the side is the closest Greenwiz is going to get to having the promised Horde Brewfest mount. Instead of offering the mount for sale to anyone willing to run the races repeatedly over a two week period, the mount is now a rare drop from a seasonal boss that requires you to bring a full level 70 group to BRD (a level 53ish dungeon). At best, you might get a handful of shots a day at this boss, and most likely you will be facing a 5-way roll if the coveted mount does finally drop. As with all random loot, some lucky player may walk off with the top prize of the Fest after a single boss fight while others may hack away at the fight for the duration of the holiday without obtaining their ride. And, of course, if you don't have the time to look for a balanced, competent group to run the boss fight with, you can forget about even trying for that nifty cross-faction ride.

The irony here is that, once upon a time, the devs suggested that raid rewards would be no better than other items in the game, only with cooler appearances (the "flaming sword" quote). This quickly proved completely false (whether intentionally or not on the devs part), as raid drops outpaced everything else in the pre-TBC game. Cosmetic items like mounts, tabards, and pets were one of the few areas in which a solo player might accomplish something relatively unique that a raider might not have. Now, in some ways, the game has come full circle. In theory, a solo player has access to BT quality gear via the heroic badge vendor, provided you're willing to do the same four daily quests every day for a 40% chance at a single badge (out of 100+ required for the best items, see you guys in a year or so when you've replaced the gear you were after with Northrend quest rewards), while most of the best cosmetic rewards seem to drop in group content.

This shift didn't occur solely to screw over the solo player. With item inflation between 5-man and 25-man group content in TBC even greater than the gap between 5-man and 40-man content before the expansion, a substantial portion of the playerbase simply doesn't need anything that the gear-ilvl curve will allow to drop in a 5-man dungeon. The only thing Blizzard CAN offer that will coax bored raiders back into BRD is a cosmetic item. Indeed, having it be a rare, one mount per 5-man group drop ensures that people actually will use the only portion of the new Brewfest content that was actually ready to go when Brewfest happened.

QQ moar noob!
The issue isn't so much that there is a reward for the group content, as that the reward was taken away from the solo content to make the group content more appealing. I would have gladly done the races every day on TWO characters (my mage, to see a gnome on a Kodo, and my warrior, to see a Tauren on anything besides the ubiquitous Kodo/Wolf/Black War Raptor) for the mounts, even though that would have represented nearly all of my daily gaming time. In its place, we have... the brew of the month club. Ah joy, consumable novelty items.

WoW Insider notes that you can do some advance legwork on not-yet-implemented Brewfest achievements, but, again, one of the achievements requires that you kill the boss (and another requires that you obtain a mount, so I hope you had one from last year or happy farming). Realistically, I'm going to do the races for another 2-3 days until I get into the brew club, and then I suppose I'll go back to Warhammer. That's a far cry from last year's account reactivation worthy event, to say nothing of the Midsummer Fire Festival.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Actually Improving the Game

One thing that has impressed me about Warhammer is how much they've added to the game since the start of the open beta. (Perhaps I should, instead, be horrified that they didn't bother to do this stuff until the very last minute, but I'll take the half-full glass for now.) A few things that jumped out at me:

- Thanks to the anonymous commenter from my last entry for pointing out there there IS now an option in one of the game options menu that allows you to turn off self-clicking so that you don't get in your own way while looting/targeting. My poor Dwarf engineer unlocked the "Ow! My Eye!" achievement for being accidentally clicked on 100 times in the five levels I gained before someone pointed this out.

- Not really an added feature, but queues seem to have died down somewhat as of last night (the final day of the headstart). There are four servers that are simply overcrowded (and even then, three of those will let you in if you're playing Order). It will be interesting to see if the queues are actually worse tonight for the official, this-time-is-actually-it-we-swear retail launch. (Many stores appear to have distributed their preorders yesterday, adding yet another milestone to quite possibly the most separate launch dates in MMORPG history.)

- I previously complained about repeating a PQ four times (coming in first overall once) and failing to obtain any loot all four times. Well, Mythic seems to agree that this can be aggravating, so they've added in a bonus for previous no-loot attempts. It isn't a huge bonus (100 points, which gets added to your roll of 1-1000 and as much as 500 points for contribution), but it supposedly stacks and it does a lot to ease the frustration.

Overall, it's encouraging to see changes like this getting added to the game so rapidly. I'm not sure if the closed beta testers had just gotten used to the problems and not complained, if livability stuff like this was somehow deemed too low a priority to fix until the week before launch, etc, but fixing problems is definitely better than not fixing them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Warhammer Regular Preorder Head Start Launch Impressions

A few random thoughts from what I've seen so far:

Warhammer is not World of Warcraft
There are UI similarities, etc etc, but the two games are not identical. This would seem to be an obvious point, but a fair chunk of the WoW community seems to think otherwise. Honestly, that's part of why Blizzard's Wrath hype on Warhammer's launch week may be misguided; most Warhammer players will be glad to fill pages of commentary about what's wrong with WoW, while fans of WoW's PVE probably won't find enough depth in Warhammer's PVE game.

Anyway, case in point, I rolled up a White Lion, Warhammer's melee pet class, during the open beta thinking that I might like it because I liked the melee pet aspects of Death Knights. I wasn't that impressed. I also thought that I would NOT like the game's two "turret" classes (the engineer with actual gun turrets, and the Magus with stationary demon pets) because I can't stand WoW's Shaman precisely because of the need to manage stationary totems. Well, the whole mechanic is upended in Warhammer because your action points (mana/energy equivalent) regenerate rapidly, even in combat. So, where totems make your Shaman go OOM faster and have to sit and drink (forcing you to decide whether the benefit of the totem is enough to help you kill faster to offset the mana cost), the Engineer isn't looking at a huge loss for redeploying his turrets.

Did Mythic deploy enough servers?
WoW's original launch was a clear case of not enough servers. Far too few were available on launch day, and the addition of new ones even later the same day came too late. Crowded MMORPG servers tend to get MORE overcrowded as new players go to join their friends or at least go to servers with a larger economy and more guilds. By contrast, I was very very concerned about the small number of servers at LOTRO's launch a year and a half ago... but it turned out that the ones they rolled out for open beta were sufficient to hold everyone who showed up.

As of 7 PM (EST) tonight, Mythic had rolled out 49 servers. Seven of those servers had queues on the Destruction side, while a smaller number (maybe 3ish?) had queues on the Order side. I have no idea which of those servers have been around since the Collector's Edition headstart happened on Sunday, or how many opened today. (This is relevant because the queue is lower on servers when they first open to accommodate the rush on the newbie zones; i.e. I don't know whether the queues are on brand new servers or not.) Also, not everyone may have decided to bother with the download for the Head Start (though, in LOTRO's case, it seemed most everyone did). Then again, folks on the West Coast aren't even home from work yet.

On the flip side, Keen complains that his server seems UNDER-populated. I'm guessing this is why Mythic was initially cautious with how many servers to roll out. We'll see if they got the numbers right.

Yep, still NOT World of Warcraft
JoBildo explains better than I can how Warhammer isn't as much fun if you're not in a group. Sure enough, I noticed that today with my newbie Dwarf, as there weren't enough people to really attempt the second PQ in the Dwarven starting area, and (despite an overwhelming Greenskin presence that completely wiped out the zone control meter) my scenario queue didn't pop in nearly an hour. My initial instinct was to go for the least populous realm possible to avoid queues. I took Mythic's "please go play Order on Sea of Malice so our pop balance doesn't go to crap" invitation, but I may need to revise that stance to go somewhere with more people I know to help the guild acquisition process.

Bottom line is that I had a good time on my second first impression of Warhammer (though selecting myself while attempting to loot corpses is still freaking annoying). I don't know how long I'll be playing this game, but it's certainly looking like it'll keep me entertained for a few months.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Wrath hype on Warhammer's Launch Week Continues

Well, neither Warhammer nor Wrath is out in stores yet, but already some of my predictions have proven false. I predicted that Blizzard would unveil the launch date for Wrath on the Oct 7th weekend during Blizzcon, and that patch 3.0 would be on the live servers before Warhammer's second monthly bill comes due in mid-November. I was a month too slow on both (well, I did kind of hedge that they might try to get the expansion out by mid-Nov). Apparently, they didn't want to risk having players wander off to Warhammer and miss that announcement, so they let fansites do the announcement for them; Wrath launches Nov 13th, just shy of WoW's fourth anniversary.

A few random reactions:
What left for Blizzcon?
One of the reasons why I'd predicted a release date launch at Blizzcon was that there isn't much in the way of immediately obvious stuff for them to announce then. Starcraft II and Diablo III are already announced, and neither is (as far as anyone knows) near launch. It doesn't make any sense to roll out the secret fourth project with both of those AND Wrath still in the horizon. Presumably DIII will actually be playable at Blizzcon, and they will probably roll out one more playable class. Perhaps there will be a beta kickoff for one or both.

Still, one would figure that they would want SOME WoW-related announcement for an event that falls a month before the expansion launch. With the beta in full swing, and the 3.0 patch on the PTR's (quite possibly live, or perhaps going live the week after Blizzcon), there aren't really any secrets about what's in the expansion now. Perhaps they really will let the event go by without any real WoW news, but that would seem like a disappointment.

Collector's Edition Disappoints
Two years ago, I shelled out an extra $30 for a TBC Collector's Edition that included an art book, a making-of DVD, a soundtrack, a mouse pad, some TCG cards I've never used, and a blue whelp non-combat pet. The Wrath CE will be identical down to the blue whelp non-combat pet (which will be a Frost Wyrm instead of a Nether Drake this time). Seriously, couldn't they think of SOMETHING original? Baby Tuskarr/Wolvar? Ah well, guess I shouldn't complain, that's $30 I don't have to spend and less hassle to try and chase down a copy of the CE.

What does this mean for the Battle with Warhammer?
If you've been keeping your eyes on this situation (see my Battle of the War-MMORPG's tag), Blizzard really wants players to know that their expansion is on the horizon. For Warhammer and Wrath, that really means that November 18th is Judgment time; the second monthly fee for Warhammer would come due a week after Wrath's launch. If Warhammer hasn't made its case within its first month and a half, players may leave for Wrath and not return.

At any rate, I would imagine that Blizzard is now out of press releases for at least three weeks til Blizzcon. The stage is now Mythic's to do with as they can.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The 3.0 PTR salvo has been fired

Patch 3.0 Hits the PTR
As I predicted previously, the patch 3.0 PTR is now up and running, just in time to beat the start of Warhammer's CE headstart tomorrow. For Blizzard employees to come in on a Saturday night to make sure this thing beat Warhammer's Sunday launch tells you just how seriously they're taking this.

PVE to PVP transfers
Blizzard also reversed the long-standing and long-disputed policy on paid character transfers from PVE to PVP servers. By some accounts, the old policy was hampering recruitment by elite raiding guilds on PVE servers, since applicants from PVP servers were not willing to permanently foreswear transferring back to PVP servers. (It boggles my mind that you would pay to move your character off a server for a TRIAL with some guild, but people apparently do it.)

I'm not convinced that either decision is going to have much of any effect. With the PTR's, you're looking at hours of client downloads, a lengthy wait for character copies, and probably an enormous queue to actually log onto the server, only to have all your progress wiped when the PTR ends. As to the transfers, it certainly makes life easier for some players, but I doubt that a large portion of the population will be affected. If patch 3.0 had actually been ready to go to the LIVE servers, that might have actually affected people's decisions regarding Warhammer, but I don't think the PTR's are going to do anything beyond reminding people that there's an expansion coming.

I suppose the X-factor is word of mouth. Warhammer is going to get good reviews, but there WILL be some problems (especially in Europe, from the looks of things), and there also will be people who don't like the game. If the buzz on Warhammer is mixed and the buzz on WoW is generally positive, well, I guess that's what Blizzard thinks is worth working through the weekend for.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Blizzard Says: Take our beta, please!

Blizzard's ongoing blitz of expansion hype continues with a new flurry of opt-in beta keys for Wrath. I have to say, I'm a bit disappointed in them. The beta servers are constantly down (or crashing), and the two zones with level 78 content are disabled more often than not, making that content impossible to test. This beta does not need more testers at the moment, but the marketing team apparently is hoping that a shiny new beta key in the inbox will be enough to make some players forget to pick up their Warhammer pre-orders next week (and perhaps even distract their friends with expansion talk).

In fairness, it would probably have worked on me if I hadn't been in the beta since July.

This does, however, mean that I have absolutely no use for the Wrath beta key that just arrived in my Inbox (yes, I checked that it's different from the original one). Which means that one of you, my readers, is going to win a free trip into the Wrath of the Lich King beta.

THE CONTEST IS NOW OVER AND ONIBLAH HAS WON! Thanks to everyone who entered!
Official Rules
- Enter by posting a comment in this entry prior to 8 PM EST on Tuesday, Sept 16th.
- You must EITHER provide an email address in your comment or log in and have an email address visible on whatever page I reach when I click on your name. I don't want to draw a winner only to find out that everyone and their wives say that THEY are Brian of Nazareth.
- This key is for the US beta. Blizzard also does not update the login server in realtime, which means that you may or may not be able to login if your WoW account has been canceled at any point from July through the present. I have zero means of enforcing on this one, but please don't enter if you aren't going to be able to use the key.
- I will use /random 1-X (whatever the number of entries is) to decide the winner in Ironforge on Hyjal US on Tuesday night after 8 PM on Tuesday. (If it's a lot of entries, I may have to /random first and re-roll if the first winner fails at the above rules.) Send a /tell to Greenwiz if you want to be invited to my group to witness the roll, level 1 alts welcome.
- I will forward the winner the email that I got from Blizzard (who stated early in the opt-in process that keys are NOT bound to the specific account that opted in for them). There's no reason I can see why the key should not work for you, but I'm obviously not going to be able to do anything about it if it doesn't. (Blizzard's position is that they also will not provide support, presumably because they don't want to deal with 10 million people who "lost" their beta keys.)

Finally, you may note that I did not go out of my way to label this post "Beta key giveaway here", and I will not be promoting this little contest (or mentioning it again until we have a winner). Realistically, word is probably going to get out, and I'm fine with that, but I won't be sad in the least if I end up with one entry from a longtime reader or a hundred from around the blogosphere.

Good luck, all!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Balancing Death Knights

Well, the Death Knight beta honeymoon is over. Blizzard spent the last two patches gutting the numbers on Death Knight DPS (along with many other classes), presumably so that they can get all the nerfs out of the way and let the news for the remainder of beta be buffs and other goodness. The results are, well, jaw-dropping for anyone who has been playing the class previously.

A greater role for autoattacks
One of my earliest posts regarding Death Knights pointed out that I was able to fight higher level mobs easily in part because my weapon skill and hit rating didn't matter; there are talent bonuses to the hit rate of special attacks, and runes regenerate whether or not my autoattacks miss (unlike a Warrior/Bear's rage bar). Well, autoattack damage is relatively similar to what it was (after all, Blizzard will be trying to balance all the melee DPS specs in the nearish future), which means that almost all of the nerfage came off of Death Knight special attacks.

After seeing this in action, I wish they'd gone the other way. My biggest complaint about the design of the original Paladin was that the class was about casting your seal and then AFK auto-attacking for a minute or so. The DK felt more interactive than other melee classes precisely because so much of its damage output came from active skills on the player's part rather than passively waiting for white damage to pile up. The Frost tree feels especially hard hit, not necessarily because it sucks, but rather because the whole point of the tree is to get a combo going for a large burst number. When the payoff for your combo is an unimpressive number, well, it makes you question why you went to the trouble.

Death (again?) to ghouls
As I've long maintained, one of my favorite aspects of the Death Knight is the Ghoul pet. Fighting side-by-side with your minion is a different mechanic from the true pet classes in WoW. The good news is that my little pets now get a random name each time I replace them, and the bug that prevented Unholy DK's from sacrificing their pets for health has finally been fixed. The bad news is that the little guy seems to be dying. Often.

Part of the problem is that I am struggling to hold aggro over my own pet. Most DK's are going to have at least some points in Blood, probably including threat reduction while in Blood Presence (the DK's DPS stance). Combine passive threat reduction with a drastic reduction in DPS and suddenly the little biting critter is pulling aggro off me. I'm not sure if he's actually squishier than before (I think he is, but the fact that I was killing mobs so quickly may have masked that), but I'm at the point where I'm messing with my spec to try and do a better job keeping the poor little guy (un-)alive. I suppose he is supposed to be expendable, but, as things currently stand, he dies so often that you're not going to get much use out of the little guy at all unless you spec for Night of the Dead.

Ironically, Unholy DK's now feel like they have more healing capacity than Blood DK's, thanks to frequent access to Death Pact and more diseases to proc off of Death Strike.

Picking up the pieces
Obviously, Blizzard had to do something to DK's in order to prevent them from being completely overpowered compared to other melee classes. This is not going to be easy, especially with the distracting patch 3.0 PTR presumably going live sometime in the next week. I just hope they can find a way to balance it without losing the balanced for awesome feel that the class had before they fixed it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Standards of Service

Imagine if your phone company declared that Tuesday was maintenance day. Sometime on Monday night, if they remember, they will post the details of whether tomorrow will be a "rolling restart" day, with a random 15-minute window of downtime between 8 and 9 AM, a regular maintenance day (perhaps 6 hours of maintenance, from 8 AM to 2 PM EST), or an extended maintenance day with 8+ hours of scheduled downtime. Of course, all downtime estimates may be extended at any time without notice or revised estimates, and no compensation of any kind will be provided.

This would end poorly. People would leave that phone company in droves. The United States Congress would probably be involved within the week. And yet this has been the standard maintenance schedule for World of Warcraft for the last four years now.

When a game is not just a game
There are, of course, a number of differences between my hypothetical phone company and an online game. Not having telephone service for the better part of a day would be crippling to businesses, and potentially life-threatening to anyone who needs a phone to call 911 during that time. By contrast, online games are "just games".

Scrabble is also just a game. When you go to the store and buy a Scrabble set, you own your shiny new game. Your game does not go away if the publishers go out of business, you decide not to pay them a recurring monthly fee, or you are banned from international tournament play for whatever reason. There are limitations to your rights; for example, you cannot make a knock-off, post it on Facebook, and expect not to hear from the lawyers somewhere down the line. You can, however, freely resell your one copy of Scrabble via a yard sale, EBay, etc.

Your MMORPG account lacks all of these aspects of physical ownership. Indeed, companies are quick to point out that you are licensing the use of their software, and that they own your characters (some microtransaction game somewhere is going to lose a lawsuit one of these days for nerfing some item they were happily charging real world cash for), i.e. that your MMORPG is NOT a game which you own, but a service.

Are we setting the bar too low?
Tobold writes that MMORPG customers are remarkably tolerant of, well, poor service. We will complain, some unhinged minority of us will apparently post that they wish snipers would kill Scott Jennings over class balance issues, but we tend not to take our money anywhere else.

Part of that is because of there isn't anywhere else to go. There are a limited number of triple-A MMORPG's out there, and a given player can probably rule out half of them based on playstyle preferences. Part of that is physical reality; apparently online games requires more downtime and maintenance than global telecommunication networks. (Technology is strange like that.) Some things that are inconvenient for certain players (e.g. not being able to play on Tuesday morning, having a bit torrent patch download clog your home network) are more convenient for others (at least the downtime is off-peak, and the downloads are faster if you've got the bandwidth).

Still, I can't help but wonder why the default response anytime someone raises this question is "it's just a game, you shouldn't get worked up over it" and not "why isn't the service better?"

P.S. This post was originally inspired by the Warhammer EU open beta debacle, perhaps the best summary of which is at The Greenskin. If you are at all familiar with the incident, I highly recommend the following video linked via the Greenskin coverage. It's like the modern version of the famous Fangtooth, Pally CM video.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Time Management with multiple MMORPG's

Depending on how you choose to keep count, I've arguably got three MMORPG's going right now:
- Retail WoW (which I'm actually paying for),
- The Wrath Beta (which I'm not paying for), and
- The Warhammer Beta (which I'm sort of paying for, to the extent that the promised open beta and head start access factored into my decision to pre-order rather than wait for launch and watch the dust settle).

The irony is that I've spent the evening watching the Sarah Connor Chronicles, doing some housework, and now reading the blogroll and writing up a post instead of playing any of the above.

I'd guesstimate that I'm scraping together maybe 10 hours of combined gaming time per week since I started my new (real world) job. In some ways, that's actually a fair chunk of time; billed at minimum wage, that is more than the box price for a new game. In comparison to the time commitment for high end raiding in WoW, that's not much at all.

So many choices, so little time
I find this all interesting because I'm noticing that my current time constraints are definitely influencing my decisions in terms of how I spend my time in-game. For example:

- I'm probably not going to fire up the Warhammer beta for the little time that remains in the evening after I post this, even though it's the newest toy that I have the most questions about. As I posted yesterday, there's a server wipe coming in a week, and the four hours I spent on it over the weekend represent nearly half of the time I spent on games this week.

- The cooking and fishing daily quests I'm doing on my retail WoW account might seem like the least interesting choice of the three, but that's the only thing I'm working on right now that will still be around in December.

- I will finish up Cheerydeth's level journey, simply because it will be cool to be able to say I had a level 80 beta Death Knight. That said, I'm leaving the heavy testing of the Storm Peaks and Icecrown to people with more spare time, and will put off trying it for myself until the zones aren't so buggy that they're bringing down the whole server. I wouldn't trade my WotlK beta experiences for anything, but I'm not sure if I would have opted to invest the time in leveling a beta character if the opportunity to do so hadn't come at a time when I was waiting for a new job to start anyway.

- Speaking of past decisions, I'm not sure what I'd think about taking on a project like my uncrushable solo Paladin in the future. For one thing, I don't know if I'll even have the time to get good old Greenhammer to level 70. My mage remains my favorite character, and the warrior has content in front of him that I've never seen before, along with Titan's Grip to cut through all the mobs that much faster. Would I want to use a low DPS Pally for a third (fourth counting the beta) trip through Northrend? Even if I did, would I really want to sink 100% of my gaming time into grinding out the level 80 equivalent of badges (it took the Pally approximately an hour a day for nearly two months)?

- What about other alts? I'm not sure I'd want to play a retail Death Knight, but leveling any other alt in WoW represents a fair chunk of time leveling through old, uninteresting content pre-Outland. (Part of the solution here may be to wait; I think it's likely that Blizzard WILL allow level 55ish alts of non-Death Knight classes at some point in the next year.)

- Meanwhile, let's say I wind up sticking with Warhammer. It appears that any single character will miss out on a lot of the game's content, but spreading out your gaming time between multiple characters could seriously slow your main's reknown ranking.

I'm not sure that this is really a "Player vs Developer" question. Perhaps it's more "Player vs Self". Either way, I'll be curious to come back in a few months and see what choices exactly I've wound up making.

First Impressions: Warhammer Beta

I don't expect to spend much time in Warhammer's open beta; realistically, I can mess around with low level characters now, or I can do it after the head start begins and actually get to keep the guinea pigs. That said, a few very early impressions:

- Maybe I'm getting old and suffering eye strain, but some of that flavor text in the chat window can be hard to read, especially the lighter grey color reserved for NPC's background chatter. I dunno if it needs better contrast or a larger font (or if the game's default UI can be configured to provide these things), but it's a bit annoying.

- I rolled a High Elf White Lion, a melee DPS class that comes with a cat as a pet. This was actually just about my first choice of classes in the game, but the constant pattering noise from the cat's feet has caused me to reconsider that plan.

- As Rohan noted a while back, it's possible to accidentally click on yourself and/or your pet while attempting to loot corpses (or, indeed, target foes if you're relying on the mouse for that). Not fun.

- Public quests are interesting, but they're not without flaws. I had actually outleveled the game's second PQ (i.e. all the mobs were below my level) by the time I reached it. Also, it is VERY annoying to come in 1st on the contribution chart and not even get a crappy white loot bag due to an unlucky roll. I'm not sure whether I'd rank that above or below doing the same PQ four times to finish out my influence bar and getting white or no loot on the other three times too.

- I picked the lowest population Order side I could find for this day 1 test, but the character select screen does seem to have the threatened separate login queues per side. I've probably said this before, but having to wait in a queue for a server that has the physical capacity to take more players simply because my side is too popular will get old really quickly (like the first time it happens).

- The UI seems to be good; generally, if I can't figure something out, it's because I've failed to notice the on-screen directions. (E.g. you have to right-click on your unlocked titles to actually wear one.) Both the quest tracker and the minimap are pretty useful.

- Scenarios: As promised, the first words I saw when I zoned into a scenario were "if you can heal, you have to heal!" That said, this was not really my problem since I took my own advice and didn't roll a healing class, so I was free to try to learn to play. (Aside: You get a group health bar UI, but I suspect that the learning curve may be a bit intimidating if you haven't healed before AND are a priority target.)

The T1 Elf vs Elf scenario seemed reasonably evenly matched, well-designed, and fun. As I said with PQ's, perhaps my biggest regret here is that you permanently level past scenarios and can never go back on that character, no matter how nostalgic you are. Still, I'd rather play the one scenario I've tried than any of Blizzard's current battlegrounds, so that's definitely progress.

Also, at least the early stages of the Reknown grind (players have a parallel PVP level to their character's actual level) were very quick. I picked up a title and two ranks in a single scenario.

- Quests: Kill X baddies, loot Y items off the ground, or use Z quest item. The non-public PVE quests aren't exactly ground-breaking (though the game's map screen will give you hints on where to go next), but, as Rock, Paper, Shotgun says, this is not necessarily an insult. One quibble is that quest items are stored in their own secret tab of your backpack, which you can forget to check and then wonder why the drop is taking so long to find. Ah well, I guess it's worth not having to worry about the bag slot your items are occupying.

- Combat: Well, the game does still have some pathing issues, which may have hit me harder than usual because I was playing a pet class. That aside, combat is good. It's definitely a notch slower paced than WoW, with a greater emphasis on your abilities instead of auto-attacks. Also, I don't know how well this scales, but it seems like my health and mana/energy equivalents regenerate very rapidly, which means minimal downtime.

So far, so good. I may not bother to log into this thing again until after the open beta character wipe, but that's actually a good review. Obviously, I haven't seen much of the game, or any outdoor RVR yet, but the actual game content that I have seen is pretty good. I may just have to get used to the concept of not being able to finish large to massive amounts of content every level, but I guess there's no real harm there since it seems like the scenarios and public quests are generally more interesting than the solo stuff anyway.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Beta Premades!

Level 80 premades are now available on the beta servers. Sadly, we only get three copies to work with, so there are some decisions to make on my part. One of the three was easy; I've wanted to test out Titan's Grip for some time now, but my warrior is only level 61 and has a combined 25 points of weapon skill in the three 2H weapons the talent works with. This way I will actually be able to compare the Wrath Fury spec with the Death Knight on similar footing (though not identical, since the premade warrior comes with epic PVP gear). Obviously, with Cheerydeth halfway through level 77, I don't really need to copy a premade to get a level 80 DK.

Still, that leaves eight classes and two copy slots. One option is to send over the mage and pally premades. My existing 70's are both on the beta server (indeed, I can send a second copy of each to compare level 70 specs side by side if I want, since I'm no longer saving a slot for my warrior), but I have zero interest in spending significant time leveling them. Testing my existing characters would really let me look at what my favorite classes gain from level 70 to level 80.

The other option is to send over characters that I haven't played as much (or at all) in the live game. I've done this exercise on recent TBC PTR phases so I have some idea which classes interest me. There might not be level 80 premades for a while once the expansion goes live, so this might be my best chance to see whether classes I haven't played really shine with their new goodies. Of course, then I don't have much of anything to compare my experiences to, and I won't even know how to spec and play the classes in question.

This isn't a formal poll (I do have a poll going) but I'll be happy to hear any persuasive arguments you all might have on this topic. :)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Mark Jacobs Saves the MMORPG Industry

Warhammer Online mastermind Mark Jacobs jumped into the blogosphere yesterday, opening up a new blog (amusingly titled "online games are a niche market") with a bunch of posts. There was much rejoicing, and people did feast on wildebeasts and breakfast cereals and maybe roasted squigs (I don't know much about Warhammer cuisine) etc etc.

The meatiest of his posts is titled "What does WAR's success or failure mean for the MMORPG market?". Obviously, you should have a salt shaker in hand, since the man does have a product to sell here. That said, I agree with his general take on the MMORPG community as we near Warhammer's launch. This game comes in with a well known license, an experienced studio, a reasonably large budget and dev cycle, and the behemoth of all video game publishers working distribution. For better or worse, this WILL be seen as a referendum on the triple-A subscription MMORPG. I'm less convinced that Warhammer's success will instantly wipe out doubts about the genre's viability (again, the deck is slightly stacked in their favor), but a win would certainly be better than a loss.

Coming soon(er)...
Meanwhile, there's an odd game of leap-frog going on to determine when The Showdown actually begins. Warhammer's "open" beta (for values of open that are currently still restricted to pre-order customers, unless there's been a wider release of keys that I haven't heard about) was scheduled to start on Sunday, but Keen reports that pre-order customers who got into the stress test "Preview Weekend" are being let into the open beta two days early (which would, if my maths are good, be tomorrow). This was probably intended to ease congestion in the starting areas before players who haven't gotten to play the game yet arrive, but it may turn out to be a big deal.

See, meanwhile, Blizzard may have been planning a first strike. Mania speculates that World of Warcraft's "What Warhammer open beta?" patch 3.0 PTR will go live tomorrow. I think she may have it right. Which would be very puzzling given that the marquis feature of the patch, the first few tiers of the Inscription profession, isn't even finished in closed beta yet.

Hopefully they are going to hold off on forking the 3.0 patch off of the closed beta for as long as possible. Patch 2.0 diverged from the TBC beta before it hit the PTR's, and was pretty out of date in terms of balance changes by the time it went live (which was the state the live game had to live with for a month). Still, I can't see a way to spin this as a good thing for the development and testing of the actual patch and expansion. That's a lot of effort to go to just to screw with your competitor's launch.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Poll: Progress towards rewards

I've been thinking about how I choose the stuff I do in WoW these days (yes, I know, loot incentives are kinda the title of my blog, bear with me), when I remembered that there is a poll feature that I haven't used in a bit. So, without further ado:

All else being equal, which do you prefer:
A) Random chance of immediately obtaining a reward (e.g. 10%)
B) Fixed, rapid progress towards a single reward (e.g. 10% of the rep or honor points needed to get a reward)
C) Slower, more efficient progress towards multiple rewards (e.g. if you can do two quests in the same area and make 6% progress each towards TWO rewards in the time it would have taken to do option B)

Go forth to yon sidebar and vote, I'll wait. :)

Alright, so here are my thoughts.

Random Loot
This is my least favorite option by a wide margin, and I'm not alone. And yet, this seems to be the developers' favorite, as the very best loot in many games is often primarily handed out by random drop tables. The problem with random loot is simple; that 10% chance that the boss drops the loot doesn't actually mean that you're going to get your item if you kill the boss 10 times. You might get it on attempt 1, you might get three in a row, you might not see the loot at all in 15 tries. So what's this annoying mechanic still doing in MMORPG's?

Do developers prefer to waste players' time by handing out worthless rewards so players will need to come back for the stuff they want?
In some cases the answer is yes.

Do devs think that the happy day when the boss drops the two best items from his loot table outweighs the multiple unhappy days when he drops things no one wants?
I talked about WoW's current daily cooking and fishing quests last week, and let's just say that I'm not going to be going out of my way to do any of the current cooking quests ever again if I finally get the cake recipe.

Does random loot in group environment help conceal the fact that most of the players present didn't actually get anything tangible for their time?
Maybe this is only a subset of the first point, but it does deserve some special attention. Now sure, most raiding guilds will come up with some sort of out-of-game loot distribution system (e.g. DKP) to reward players for showing up. Anyone who has ever raided can probably produce paragraphs on what was wrong with their loot distribution, no matter what that system was. In my view, once your players are having to post rules and spreadsheets at some out of game location to handle an in-game task, the devs in question fail.

Rapid Progress vs Efficient Progress
Given the option between one reward quickly and two rewards less quickly, I'm going to take the long view. If I'm not planning to stick with the game long enough to get both rewards, it probably isn't even worth my time to keep playing for the first one. If I do obtain both rewards, going for one first and then the other represents a waste of time.

That said, there are situations where this one gets reversed. Maybe you're just starting out with a new raiding/arena/RVR guild and your short term performance really matters. Maybe the amount of time you save by doing the two tasks in parallel isn't enough to really matter.

Still, I find that the most rewarding activities in game are the ones where I'm making progress on more than one front. Perhaps that's gold AND a shot at a random reward, or honor AND progress towards an achievement (whenever patch 3.0 happens) or reputation for two factions with nearby quests.

Then again, I think about this stuff too much. And that's why the polling booth is open. :)

Monday, September 1, 2008

Why push unfinished content live at launch?

Massively reports that Stargate Worlds will increase their level cap every three months as they roll out episodic content. This exact system probably wouldn't fly in a traditional MMORPG, which tend more towards large chunks of new content at once and more stability at a given level cap for longer. Still, this got me thinking; why is it that, even as developers work insane crunch time, cut a variety of features, and generally launch unfinished, modern MMORPG's insist on launching with their final level cap? Here is a not-so brief case study:

World of Warcraft
WoW launched with more solo PVE content than any other MMORPG that had come before it, including enough material to solo to the level cap. At the same time, it's very clear where the polish lies; in the early game, to impress reviewers and new players, and towards the end, where new dungeons were added in the 50+ range, other content was revamped (e.g. Silithus for the level 58+ crowd).

It's not informative to directly compare the content in the 20-58 area to the 58+ content in the expansion; obviously they had a more mature engine with more features, and more experience making interesting quests. However, there's a real drop in quality there, and it is no longer time efficient for Blizzard to go back and address it now that many players are butting their heads against a level 70 cap. Instead of re-doing the content (which, again, would be time that would never be appreciated by players who have all the alts they want), Blizzard has simply helped players bypass it with faster leveling and better loot.

What if the game had launched with a level cap of 40, and an "endgame" of the Scarlet Monastery? One could picture moving the plot from Strath Live to a raid wing, and patching in zones and level cap increases over time. Perhaps you could have an event where the Argent Dawn mounts an offensive at the Bulwark and Chillwind Camp to break through Scourge defenses and open up the Plaguelands. Of course, you'd have to figure out how to deal with players who prefer raiding and PVP (both of which are disrupted by raising the level cap, though PVP was non-existent at WoW's launch and the raid game really wasn't tested much in beta). There's also the issue of crowding into the new zones as they open. On the other hand, there is time to clear each round of instances as they open up, and balance is easier with fewer levels and skills.

Lord of the Rings Online
I've blogged in the past about how LOTRO suffered from not having enough content at launch. Their level 1-15 experience (available in open beta and widely played by pre-order customers, reviewers, and the general public) was as good as any MMORPG out there, including WoW. The content was not quite as good, but functional from there until level 30 or so of their level 50 launch cap. Soloing past level 30 was a nightmare until the first content update, a month and a half after launch, patched in a crucial missing zone. The level 40+ content was so obviously last-minute placeholder junk that they spent the rest of their first year live gutting and replacing the contents of one of the two zones for level 40+ characters, expanding the other by a good 50%, and adding an entire third zone for the 40-50 crowd around the game's 1-year mark. By the time they'd finished the job, many of us had canceled and gone back to WoW.

What if the game had launched with the level 1-30 content? Instead of putting together boring, grindy and uninteresting junk (e.g. killing generic boars in Angmar, home of the Dreaded Witch King), they could have focused on finishing the stuff players were actually going to encounter first. They could easily have sealed off Angmar (with an event to open it later) and the area east of the Ford of Bruien (say that the flood that killed the Nazgul's horses made the area temporarily impassible). The first content patch could have carried the story onto Rivendell, making it highly anticipated. From there they could have expanded north into the Misty Mountains and so on, finally ending up in Angmar (seemingly the logical place for the game's first story arc to end).

Age of Conan
I've never played this game, so I'll limit my comments to the observation that many people claimed that there simply wasn't enough stuff to do past level 30 or so (which was, no coincidence, further than reviewers were likely to play the game before posting their comments).

Hellgate: London
Well, the devs didn't have more time, and they apparently didn't do much planning with the time they had. The business model (free to play base game, subscribe for perks and new content to be specified at a later date) was not a good idea. Still, could this thing really have been WORSE if they'd launched with some of the current content, perhaps a lower box price, and immediate, documented plans for X money on Y date (instead of the nebulous monthly fee that is charged whether or not anything new is added) gets you the next Act?

Warhammer Online
This game isn't out yet, and there are limits to how much anyone can say on the topic of its endgame since the few closed beta testers that have seen it are still gagged with an NDA. We can, however, say that the devs decided to cut 4 of the planned 24 classes along with four of the six capitol cities. Ironically, this brings Warhammer closer to following my advice.

Most games have all their classes in place for launch. When there is a need to balance the classes, they have to go in and mess with players' live characters. Adding in multiple classes after the game has gone live means that they can balance the existing classes against the NEW classes. For example, if it turns out that tanks are just too hard to kill, the new classes can feature armor penetration and/or debuffs that reduce healing. That's definitely more fun than taking existing classes and nerfing them, while the actually unfinished classes cry in a corner somewhere because they aren't getting the attention they need.

Obviously, Warhammer can get away with this more easily than, say, WoW would be able to; Warhammer still has a lot of classes, and players will spend the majority of their time fighting other players (who will learn to react to new classes) instead of raid bosses (who would need to be re-programmed and balanced to react to new classes). Still, it's better to launch with the classes that are finished than to launch with more classes that require major fixing.

What does this all mean?
To sum up my little tour of current MMORPG's, it seems that developers are more concerned with the APPEARANCE of the game being finished (look, it's technically possible to reach the level cap!) than with the REALITY of whether the gameplay is ready to go. If the game isn't a total failure, they can white-wash the early levels and hope that they will get to the later stuff before people get there, realize the game just isn't done, and quit.

The thing is, let's say you did set your level cap at 30 out of 50 for launch. Some of your players aren't even going to get to level 30 before you finish the content through to level 40. Sure, it might be temporarily annoying for the rest of the gang to be stuck at a level cap, but would people really prefer to push forward into mediocre content? Personally, if it's a game that I like and am confident that I will continue playing, I will be happy to try out whatever the devs have provided (e.g. rep grinds, PVP, group content, fishing) while camped at the level cap. If I haven't liked the game, in particular the part of the game I played MOST RECENTLY since that's freshest in my mind, I'm just going to cancel.

Now sure, there are some downsides. When you're raising the level cap repeatedly in a non-instanced world, you're going to get a lot of crowding every time a new area opens up. In a game with WoW-style item inflation, you're also going to have to offer cosmetic rewards that stays with a character (e.g. titles for killing a level 40 raid boss with no characters above level 40 in the raid), because gear rewards are going to be diminished in value with each increase to the level cap.

And, finally, there is the PR issue of not making it look like you launched your game half-finished at full price. Perhaps a decreased price for the initial box might help off-set that part, while simultaneously reducing the entry barrier for purchasing an MMORPG account that you can't resell on the local used game market if you hate it. Also, a LOT of the work that goes into making a good game is infrastructure stuff (the game engine, server code, network protocols etc) that is going to have to be done upfront regardless of content; players WILL notice if companies respond to a lowered bar by lowering their own standards even further. The real money in the subscription MMORPG market is in the subscription fee, so releasing a bad product is shooting yourself in the foot.

Bottom line? Whatever you're releasing, make sure it's good.