Friday, October 31, 2008

Content driving players

Tobold blogs about his guild's raiding policy for Wrath. The more serious raiders feel that their progress is being slowed by "tourists" who aren't putting in the effort, and they're formally dividing the guild into raider and non-raider categories. As Tobold notes, this sort of thing tends to end poorly. Segregating out portions of the membership cuts the ties that hold the guild together in the first place.

This gets back to a question I discussed a month ago about how it is hard for the developers to match players up with like-minded comrades in game. As I discussed at the time, the developers don't have a huge amount of direct control over player recruitment practices. However, they do have indirect control through the kinds of content they choose to develop.

Leveling Guilds in a Massively Single Player Game
Because WoW players can solo to the cap level, there's no need for dedicated leveling guilds. Players CAN form guilds that simply consist of themselves and their friends for out of game reasons, but the in-game incentives for making a leveling guild (e.g. groups for leveling instances) are outweighed by the logistics. Players are going to level at different speeds and WoW does not have a good system for playing with characters of different levels. Also, most players seem to want to raid when they get to the cap, and a guild with 80% of its membership in the 20-60 bracket probably isn't going to be able to field raids.

Low end raiding and the 7-day lockout
Blizzard says that they want to encourage lower end raiding, and that they have tuned the revamped Naxx to provide a lower entry barrier. However, they're still keeping some of the major features that make raiding inflexible, notably the group lockout, because they don't have a good way of incentivizing the zone. If they make the loot from Naxx good and allow it to be zerg pugged like the old school 10-man Baron/Scholo/UBRS raids, players will skip the 5-mans to zerg Naxx. If they don't make the loot from Naxx good enough to justify the extra logistics, players won't take the time to run the dungeon. Given how slowly Blizzard adds new content to the game, they can't afford to spend time developing content players won't use, so Blizzard is pigeon-holed into the current raiding model.

Thing is, the issues with the 10-man, 7-day lockout system haven't changed since they caused so much turmoil at the launch of TBC. You can't reliably fill the group unless you have more than 10 players, but you can't put more than 10 players in the group. As a result, you're going to have a non-trivial portion of your guild (generally the excess DPS) sitting out content for the week, missing out on both rewards and the experience (player skill, not character exp) that would allow them to contribute in the future. This leads to the situation that Tobold is in now, where the more serious raiders accuse everyone else of holding up progress and demand various reforms before ultimately leaving for a more advanced guild.

What does the system favor?
At the end of the day, players will do what the incentives tell them to. You don't need a guild to level, and you don't really need a guild to do battlegrounds, so most guilds don't focus on these areas. You DO need a guild to raid, so guilds form to allow raiding. Once Blizzard gets guilds to stick their toes in the water, the riptide current of progression takes over and forces hard choices between friendship and achievement - no matter how good a player is, an equally skilled player with better gear and more money to spend on consumables contributes more to the raid.

In my experience, it's a very tough balance that proves very hard for guilds to manage. I've been in several guilds that tried to pull off so-called "casual raiding", and all have either disbanded or merged with a more serious raiding guild in order to pursue more challenging content. (My most recent raiding-optional guild went the latter route yesterday.) It's a difficult situation to be in, especially if you don't enjoy raiding and are limited to a single server due to owning way too many alts to be able to transfer elsewhere.

At the end of the day, you do still have the option NOT to do as the Romans (Azerothians, etc) do. You just might not have much company.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Converting arbitrary stats into other arbitrary stats

I previously blogged about the abundance of specialized statistics in WoW. One thing I lost track of while juggling all of the various ratings and powers and attributes was how stats don't actually mean the same thing for different classes anymore.

For example, all five of the game's attributes can, for some class/spec out there, add spell or healing power to your character sheet. If you're a Retribution Paladin, one additional point of strength gets boosted by 15% through talents, another 10% if you have Blessing of Kings up, doubled to turn into Attack Power, and you then get 30% of the final number back in the form of spell power.

Would the game be better off if it had only two stats (attack and defense)? In some ways the answer is no - it's nice to be able to dictate that you're doing to focus your offense on critical hits to take advantage of certain talents. I'm sure it also helps Blizzard fill out the loot tables when they can offer side grades within the same tier of items. The problem is that then you end up with a mess where it's very hard to figure out how to weigh the various ratings.

I don't think this got noticed as much with the transition from level 60 to level 70, as the jump in gear quality was so great that either you were replacing everything, or you had been raiding for long enough that you got to put off gear decisions for a few levels. The jump from Outland to Northrend seems a bit smaller, though, so this change is going to hit a lot more people a lot earlier than it did last time out. And good luck if you have alts who cover all the different class roles - so many formulae to memorize, so little time.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Warhammer World Event Incentives

My two most recent posts have been about world event incentives in WoW - specifically Hallow's End and the Zombie Plague. Each case came up lacking. Well, Mythic has a counter-offensive of sorts. Via Book of Grudges:

Witching Night (Halloween)
Witching Night is live now and sounds like it includes about what you'd expect - costumes, some tome of knowledge unlocks, and some new public quests. The new PQ's are located in the open PVP areas of the game, and supposedly have a longer than normal reset timer to make the quests more competitive. This could end poorly with population balance being what it is. Still, the game's fanbase is crying out for something, anything, to encourage world RVR, so this may be just the ticket.

At any rate, it beats fishing for random spawns from WoW's trick or treat bags. I got lucky and obtained my squashling on my main the night the drop change went live. Since then, I have been trick or treating about 3-4 times per day on my six alts, and none of them have been fortunate enough to obtain a squash. (I also don't understand how they ever thought the mask achievement was a good idea, but at least they acknowedged that one). Even if the Warhammer PQ's devolve to a mob-tapping zerg that gets locked down by the dominant faction, they're probably going to be an improvement over logging into characters for 10 seconds each to loot a treat bag and log off.

Heavy Metal
Mythic's first major content update is going to introduce the two tanking classes to the game. They wear heavy armor, and Mythic apparently likes puns, so they're holding a world event called Heavy Metal. Har har har. :P

Obviously, details are scarce, and the content that eventually appears on the servers is more important than the content that the press release claims is going to happen. That said, the Mythic approach sounds promising. There will be daily tasks of some sort, and players will get event influence (kind of like rep) for completing them. The top reward being promised is early access to the new classes, though it's unclear how they're going to implement this.

In practice, the event might turn out to be similar to WoW's world event achievements, only you're given the goals one per day instead of all-at-once. Also, throwing the entire server at a single goal (even if it's something like "perform a /metal emote over a fallen enemy player" that can be done anywhere) may be good or bad - there will certainly be others to work with, but it will become more important that each day's event is actually balanced/doable (since a large chunk of the population will be attacking it on that day, and that day only), and that whatever spawns/etc are used be able to handle the number of players who show up.

That said, this event definitely sounds on paper like it has some great potential. An event specific faction is a great approach that could add a lot to future world events. If Mythic can pull this off, they certainly deserve a /tip of the hat.

Wait, MORE scenario rewards?
One thing that puzzles me, though, is that the Metal event will feature a special event scenario, which will offer greater than usual reknown. I find this decision puzzling. I personally loved scenarios, but there's no denying that the narrative of Warhammer's first month has been dominated by complaints that players discovered how scenarios offer the best rate of advancement and haven't done anything else since - see Keen blasting the community for doing so.

I don't see why Mythic would think it's in their best interest to add yet another scenario with rewards even better than the rewards that are already better than everything else in the game. Did the people who thought ahead to put the Witching Night PQ's in open RVR zones not talk to the Metal event design team? Was this simply an unused scenario that Mythic had already developed and then cut for fear of players spending all their time in scenarios? It seems curious.

What's in store for World Events?
I suspect that both companies (and their competitors) are going to be watching closely to see how the current batch of world events play out. It's an interesting time in MMORPG history to see so many events in multiple games over such a narrow window. (One presumes that Turbine may also have something planned for the launch of the expansion no one is going to hear about, due to their decision to launch it the weekend after the 11 million pound gorilla.) Hopefully the best new ideas will win and get broader acceptance, so that we can all have better events down the road.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Could Incentives have Saved the Zombie Plague?

What's going on?
It's pretty hard to miss commentary about WoW's zombie plague invasion. Here are a few of the ones I've read:

- Lume the Mad summarizes the event's griefing potential and discusses the issue of zombie-attacking ones' own guildmates.

- The Big Bear Butt blog liked the rest of the event, but wishes Blizzard hadn't given asshats such ability to force participation.

- Syp discusses whether some broken eggs are the price of innovative world content (and gets an earful of various opinions, including from yours truly, in the comments).

- Scott Jennings, the OTHER "Lum the Mad", points out that the problems should have been predictable, that the Blizzard PR response to the controversy failed (yeesh, they're doing that a lot lately), and offers a quip about the event's early ending.

- Rohan sees the ironic role reversal in a situation where people complained about being cleansed.

- Relmstein was moving this weekend, and missed all the fireworks.

What do I have to contribute to this discussion?
- Personally, I found the event amusing when it was a 10 minute timer. I'd even infect some NPC's if I got zombie'ed, figuring it was good sportsmanship. The point at which it stopped being entertaining was the point at which players started camping the zone in points to major cities, such that you'd be turned into a zombie with a repair bill and a corpse run in your future before you finished zoning in.

- As I said at Syp's place, I was shocked at how heavily the reaction seemed to be against the event. The forums will ALWAYS complain, but usually the "silent majority" that doesn't read forums has better things to do with their time in-game than to gripe. Maybe they were too busy waiting for their crucial NPC's to respawn, but I saw a LOT of in-game reaction, and it was 75% negative, even excluding public channels.

- Speaking of non-public channels, my guild no longer has a website because the officer who used to host it apparently had a disagreement with the management on whether the guild should tolerate members who approve of deliberately killing a guildmate who was trying to avoid the event, inflicting a repair bill and corpse run on them, simply because it was permissible in-game as part of the event. (I don't know that /gquiting and taking down the website represents a proportional response to this issue - in fairness, I've been with this guild for a matter of hours, so I probably shouldn't talk - but he does have a bit of a point. Ninja looting is permitted by the game, and many guilds won't tolerate members who ninja from OTHER people, much less guildies.)

- Tigole swears that they weren't changing the schedule due to "whiners", but I don't buy it. The quest in which players deliver the cure to the plague was live for less than 20 hours (starting late Sun evening) before the plague abruptly came to an end in the middle of the workday. For an event driven on player involvement, you'd think they would have let players actually see that there was a quest before pulling it down, especially since it doesn't appear that they've rolled out the next phase of the world event yet to replace the zombies.

- As always, Lore is crucially important when some Dwarf player wants to be a mage but the lore says that the Dwarves of Ironforge have forsworn arcane magic, but completely dispensable when Blizzard wants to base an event around a plague that no force on Azeroth is able to cure, only to have players dispelling it left and right and respawning as mortals after being killed as a zombie.

Some of which may be amusing, but I know the REAL question you're all reading PVD for is whether a better incentive structure could have helped make this event less of a mess. Well, I'll spare the suspense (as if the answer isn't obvious, given all the other posts on the blog) and say yes - the incentives favored griefing, and so griefing is what we got. Let's break down the two sides.

Why Fight Against the Zombies?
- Role Playing
- Self defense (though, really, the best defense was to leave the area with zombies)
- Competition with a player-run threat
- Feeling good about helping others

Also, one discentive: non-zombies have repair bills. Supposedly zombies didn't benefit from gear, and thus voluntary zombies could go naked to save on costs.

Why Fight For the Zombies?
- Role Playing
- Competition with other players
- Novelty (new skills to try out, plus who hasn't wanted to kill some annoying NPC/player of your own faction at some point?)
- Feeling good about disrupting others' play (i.e. griefing)

How does it add up?
Well, the role playing and competition sides of things essentially balance out. Perhaps early on in the event the altruistic side did win out. After all, it was a lengthy timer, with plenty of time to cure people, so even a single healer might be able to ride to the rescue of a small town. Once the timers got down to a minute (further shortened if a zombie hit you, sorry if you're a melee class and you thought you were going to fight zombies), however, the tide was pretty inexorable. The non-zombies lost most of their NPC healers, while the zombies were able to turn NPC after NPC to their cause. It didn't matter how tough the NPC's were, only that each one caused the mob to turn everything else in their path even faster.

So, the only real incentive to stand and fight got less and less significant as the event on, while the griefing potential increased with increasing numbers. Where did I spend the last night of the event? Farming low level instances for achievements.

How could the incentives have been better?
Personally, I think there is a distinction between players killing important NPC's and players killing un-flagged players on a PVE server. That said, the situation might not have been nearly as bad if there was actually an incentive to fight against the zombies (or for them for that matter). If there was actually something tangible in it for players, we might have gotten the event Blizzard wanted instead of the event almost everyone hated. It's sad, because it was technically well executed, the event just suffered from some combination of lack of testing and the equal lack of incentives.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Hallow's End Incentives Fail and Are Nerfed To The Ground

With the combined power of the Fire Festival Shoulders and the Hallowed Helm, even a level 1 character can get a hat and shoulder armor - perks which aren't available by other means until the mid-20's. But at what fashion cost, what horrible cost?!

Earlier in the week, I blogged about the incentives for Hallow's End in WoW. Unlike Mythic's Tome of Knowledge system (which I also discussed this week), the purpose of WoW achievements is to provide an incentive for players to complete them. From the outcry that ensued on Hallow's End, it appears that basing the Hallow's End meta-achievement on obtaining TWO rare drops from the Horseman failed at this goal.

The Problem
Personally, I went looking for a PUG to fight the Horseman with once (well, 8 times once we all used our summons, including the bonus summon for the half of us making our first visit of the year) for the "kill the horseman" achievement, and had no plans to chase the squashling+helm achievement, even though it is a prerequisite of the "complete all the holidays for a rare mount" achievement. As I say in the tagline of the blog, developers create content and players decide whether to use it. For this particular player, the frustratingly low odds were enough to make me decide it wasn't worth it. That's not a crisis in Irvine; I'm one player with a whole blog about MMORPG incentives, so it's fair to say that I overthink these things.

Thing is, this particular case was obvious enough that it appears that many people reached the same conclusion. That's a problem, because you cannot complete the full holiday achievement if you don't complete the Hallow's End achievement. By making this all-or-nothing, the Horseman literally removes not only the incentive for finishing Hallow's End (a title), but also the incentive for finishing the difficult portions of the other holidays as well; even if you finish all the other ones, the mount will remain beyond your reach.

The Knee-jerk reaction

In response, Blizzard added the two critical Horseman drops to the trick or treat bags. Yes, the ones that any level one character can obtain once per real-world hour from any innkeeper in the game. I don't know what the precise drop rates are, but most of my alts now have the hat (which is marginally useful if you're below level 30, since it is wearable at any level), and only one of my characters (fortuitously, my main) has gotten the squashling. So, it is still, technically, a random drop, but it's fair to say that completing the achievement just went from very difficult/frustrating to very easy (provided you're able to log in frequently to loot lots of treat bags).

I'm a bit surprised to see a SECOND major reversal on Blizzard's part so soon after the non-reset of honor points. You would think that they would have understood the effects of hinging an achievement on rare drops from a boss that is only available a limited number of times per day during a limited holiday. One day, Blizzard was assuring folks that they thought the drop rate was not horribly unreasonable, and the next everyone was looting hats.

This lack of foresight on their part threatens to put them behind the eight ball for every single future holiday achievement. Don't get me wrong, people would have complained anyway, but now they will be able to point to objective examples of achievements which were hard enough that Blizzard conceded they should not be included in meta achievements.

This round of PVD combat goes to the players
This type of showdown is what I had in mind when I named my blog PVD. The Devs wanted players to farm the Horseman 5 times a day, many players were unwilling to do so, and the devs had to change the content. The sad part is that the PVD relationship does not necessarily need to be an antagonistic one, in which either the players or the devs win. If, instead of setting the drop rate to "you could do 5 kills per day for the whole event and still not get both items", they had tuned the drop rates for 3-4 visits, people might have actually done the achievement as it was designed. That would have been enough work to keep the achievement from being universal, but enough reward to make it worthwhile.

I hope Blizzard learns from this so I don't have to repeat this post next holiday. But hey, in the mean time, I guess I shouldn't complain, since I now get one of the most interesting non-combat pets in the game in exchange for merely logging in.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Poll: Would you pay Blizzard to start a (non-DK) WoW character at level 55?

I was talking about alts yesterday, and I got to thinking about whether WoW may have a "paid instant level 55" service in its future. This doesn't seem like too much of a stretch, with the recruitment exp bonus and a wide variety of other paid features in the game of late. What say you?

Would you pay Blizzard to start a new (non-DK) character at level 55?
- Yes! 20-60 is the worst content in the game.
- Maybe, if the price was right (e.g. $25/character)
- No, I don't need more alts.
- No, there's no point to paying NOT to play the game.

Polling is open in the sidebar, and will stay up for a month or so. I'll hold my potentially bias-inducing commentary til whenever I close the thing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Is this a bad time for new WoW alts?

Well, the pre-Wrath patch is live. With it came a new profession that I reviewed as very useful for an alt-o-holic, quicker exp from levels 60-70, and powerful new talents. As Larisa points out, for the first time, a new character can have every single one of their exploits tracked in the achievement system, while all your current characters have missed out on nearly four years worth of data. So clearly, the time to roll up that new alt you've been meaning to try is now. Or is it?

No Death Knights yet. Not for you.
There will not be any Death Knights until November 13th. Death Knights get a care package that includes 54 levels, an epic ground mount, great gear, and a head start on flight paths, first aid, and weapon skills. There are good reasons why DK's aren't out yet. Still, that's not much comfort if you wanted a DK alt, especially if their purpose in life is to inscribe all your spellbooks for you.

Note: If you were considering parking a healer alt at level 58 and coasting to 70 after the expansion launches by healing small armies of Death Knights through instances, bear in mind that A) starter DK's have no tanking gear, not even a shield, B) most DK's are going to be used to soloing, where their pets (most of which physcially CANNOT be controlled) are less of a liability.

The Wrath Beta balancing continues
There's still a beta going, with major class balancing work in progress. My Warrior now takes a 15% hit penalty to all special attacks as a counterbalance to Titan's Grip. Today's blue post round up says that penalty is getting slashed to a mere 5%. There's also a comment that Blizzard is re-evaluating that whole soul shard thing for Warlocks. Point being, your new class may be stronger next month than it is today.

Heirlooms and headstarts
The expansion is introducing "heirloom" items, primarily weapons, which you can mail to your alts and will scale with them from level 1 potentially all the way to 80. As I noted in my beta review, these are currently raid token only, but I can't imagine that they will stay that way indefinitely. If you're planning on starting a Rogue or somesuch from a low level, having access to a great weapon (presumably enchanted with something useful, like Crusader) may be a huge improvement. There's also the planned dual spec feature, which will help a lot if you want to be able to do group content while you level.

And then there's the question of that 54 level headstart for Death Knights. Blizzard has admitted that they know the level 20-60 content is the least impressive in the game at the moment. Combine that with the huge package of incentives for Death Knights and we're definitely going to see a lot of DK's. I've been saying for a while now that I think starting any character at level 55 is probably going to be in a Wrath content patch somewhere down the line; any other alternative would have potentially dire effects on class population balance. Meanwhile, there are hints that Blizzard may be planning to make this worth their while by charging; we know they are considering some form of microtransactions, and the recruit a friend program is basically cash in exchange for faster exp anyway.

Aside: Tobold suggests an expansion idea that sets the game's starting level at 55 and moves the timeline forward, redoing all of old Azeroth. It's a clever idea, especially for later in WoW's life, when one presumes that the Dev team will start to shrink. I think it's more likely to be done via a trip to the future through the Caverns of Time - why remove the option to level the old way from someone who wants to do so?

Bottom line?
The one thing that is absolutely certain is that Blizzard will not compensate players retroactively for making levels easier to attain down the line. It's a good time to finish up any alts you're working on now (especially if they're already in Outland), but I'm almost certain that more streamlining for new alts is coming in the next year.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hallow's End and Incentive Accessibility

Blizzard's version of Halloween is up and running, and with it a set of achievements. Well, one of those achievements requires not one but TWO rare-ish drops from the Headless Horseman, a seasonal boss who, like the main event of Brewfest earlier this months, may only be summoned once per player per day. This means that, unless you are a tank or a healer and get invited to additional horseman runs after using your daily summon, you are probably going to have no more than five shots per day at winning a one in five (less if some of your group already has one of the two items) roll on the items.

Via MMO-Champion is a fascinating set of blue posts describing Blizzard's view of how rare these things should be. One point they are clear on is that they are absolutely committed to having this be a random chance, rather than a guaranteed reward (such as a quest, rep, token, etc). That alone is not an entirely popular call - I took a poll on the topic last month, and not one player says that they prefer random loot. Moreover, though they carefully won't reveal the exact numbers (clearly, not knowing the value of the second decimal place on the loot table is all that's stopping Mark Jacobs from swooping in and making Warhammer PVE superior to WoW PVE), they're quite forthright that this means that not all who try will succeed. It's notable because there was another achievement that Blizzard decided in retrospect was too random and removed from the Halloween content, while leaving this one in place, implying that the unacceptable line is somewhere between the two.

So, where is the outrage that I expressed when Blizzard gave Brewfest the same treatment? Well, part of my complaint there was that the Brewfest mount was NOT a random drop in 2007 and became one in 2008, greatly diminishing the value of rest of the holiday. In a broader sense, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to have some random achievements that not all players can or should complete. The big issue is when your patch cycle is so slow that the really random stuff is the ONLY thing left in the game for players to do. And, sadly, that particular aspect of the MMORPG industry appears to be par for the course.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Warhammer Tome of Knowledge: Transparency, Commemoration, and Incentives

The Tome of Knowledge is apparently a popular topic with Warhammer hitting the one month mark. Syp has a one-month review of the Tome, while Rohan compares it to WoW's achievements. Both have mentioned an interesting design decision that I've been meaning to write about for a bit. Mythic has chosen not to reveal the possible unlocks until players actually discover them. This isn't some strange oversight on their part, but rather an interesting design decision.

Accomplishments as incentive
If you look at existing accomplishment systems in MMORPG's, they tend to focus on incentives. The content in question is out there anyway, but players may or may not be using it. The hope is that the addition of incentives will convince players to use the content. Some examples:
- Guild Wars offers a small number of hard to accomplish cosmetic titles.
- WoW offers a variety of easy to get achievements that award points. Other players can check out your point totals and see which achievements you have completed. There are also some more involved achievements that offer other cosmetic rewards (tabards, titles, mounts).
- LOTRO has a deed system that I've complained about before. On the surface it looks like Warhammer's Tome unlocks - the deeds award titles, exp, and even stat upgrades you can't get elsewhere. Like Warhammer, the deeds aren't visible until you've started. However, dig below the surface and you find largely the same incentive system. Players may get started on their deeds in the course of normal questing, but the deeds are designed to take longer than players will spend killing mob X or exploring zone Y. The design goal is ultimately the same: convince players to do content they might otherwise have left behind.

Accomplishments as commemoration
Here's where the Warhammer system diverges. Sure, Warhammer's Tome offers exp, titles, etc, in exchange for some very lengthy goals (e.g. literally thousands of kills). The difference? These are things you'd be doing anyway. The unlock for killing goblins doesn't care whether you're offing level 1 goblins, level 20 goblins, mobs, or goblin player characters. No matter how you are choosing to spend your time, you're moving towards a goal.

So why the secrecy?
The thing that makes the tome unique is that it is designed to commemorate things the player has done, rather than convince them to try things they aren't doing. (The game has other approaches to that incentive question.) Now the catch to having rewards, any rewards, is that some players will go out of their way to look for them. This is why it was important to Mythic that the tome rewards NOT be revealed in the default game UI - put them there and they encourage players to go cherry picking them (and, in the process, get ticked off if the unlock they want requires way too much work, because it's designed to be completed over time, not as the first thing a player does when they start a new character).

But this is the age of the Internet, you may say. Won't people just fire up the databases and look the unlocks up? Yes. And Mythic made the decision to stick to their guns and go with it anyway. For a hint as to why, see Jobildo's write-up of an interview with Mark Jacobs. Jacobs says:

"Players are always going to look for the quickest way to level. That’s true for any MMO. Any developer that doesn’t see that hasn’t been paying enough attention."

They're not going to redo the system that they wanted to create because of cherry pickers. The only thing they do to keep this in check is limit the rewards to exp (which is available other places), cosmetic stuff, and PVE only Tome Tactics (arguably optional in a game that aims for RVR at endgame).

Like it or hate it, Mythic is actually trying something that's different here - a narrative system that records your deeds rather than dictates them. Will it work? Beats me. But it's definitely a clever idea.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

New "solo" content in Patch 3.02?

Sure, Patch 3.02 introduced a new profession and new talents, but what about new content? Well, I've spent the weekend working on some challenging content that has pushed my solo abilities to the limit. What content would that be, as all of the normal level 70 solo content gets blown out of the water by the new talents? Level ~55 instances.

I was hacking away at the non-combat pet achievement, when I realized that I was two shy of my skunk. And, sure enough, there were two non-rare pets I didn't have... from quests in LBRS. LBRS wasn't very popular when I hit level 60 (it was all UBRS/Strath/Scholo), partially because the rewards are slightly lower level and partially because the place is such a sprawl. Still, the mobs have about as much HP as a level 70 non-elite mob, their spells are very unlikely to hit due to the level difference. I like a challenge, so I went in and took a crack at it. It turned out to be fun; I finished the quests without difficulty (well, other than getting lost because I hadn't run the instance much) and decided I might as well clear out the whole place for the heck of it (and a UBRS key).

This is probably not something that Blizzard specifically planned, but low level instances become increasingly possible for higher level characters, especially if you spec creatively. I'm running with a water elemental/impact build that includes many options for freezing, damaging, and stunning mobs. (Impact now affects ALL spells, including my frost spells, as well as molten armor.) It's almost unnecessarily good for farming solo daily quests, but the build really gets to shine when I have to pull packs of 6+ mobs. I tried out Stratholme next and had a lot more trouble (the mobs were generally undead, taking Polymorph out of the equation, and the packs were larger), but was able to fight my way from the front door back to the service entrance to kill the Magistrate for a key to the city. (I never looted one at 60, cause I didn't want to have to carry one badly enough to roll for one.) I might have more luck in there if I respecced to have improved Blizzard for better AoE, but that would be a trade-off in terms of single target DPS for bosses.

Of course, I'm only really doing this for amusement and achievement credit, and I'm probably not going to make a point of doing this repeatedly (at least, unless it turns out that I can farm the Baron effectively enough to consider trying to solo his mount at 80). Still, it's a start, and potentially some added life for some of the game's more interesting content, which otherwise stands to fall by the wayside over the years.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why bribe players away from your strengths?

One of the major critques of Warhammer is that players are mostly doing scenarios repeatedly, to the exclusion of all the other content in the game. Some of this is a quality issue - as Scott Jennings puts it, "PVE isn't all that" - but there's a deeper problem at the heart of this discussion: incentives.

Jobildo has a great series going examining the incentives behind Warhammer content, namely Public Quests and world RVR. Tweaking the rewards is a far better approach to the problem than making no-scenario servers.

The fundamental issue is that reknown is only available in RVR, but RVR also offers regular exp and gear. Mythic can tweak the numbers for the next few months, but there is no solution to this issue. The only other source for reknown is world RVR, and it doesn't matter where Mythic sets the dial on that curve unless they can solve population imbalance. Meanwhile, they don't want to take an RVR game and force players to spend more time on PVE content (either by nerfing scenario exp or via greatly increasing PQ exp). They're marketing to PVP players who don't want to do PVE content, and, at any rate, boosting exp in PVE content would just encourage players to level to the cap and worry about reknown when they get there (in the process missing the best part of the game in the low-end scenarios).

Honestly, the best solution may be not to mess with things. It's too late to completely redesign the game's progression system, so they might as well stick to their strengths. The best part of the game are the scenarios, so I don't see why it makes sense to work so hard at getting people to leave them.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

More stats than the gear can hold

I've previously discusses how there are now more stats than I know what to do with in WoW. Why, beyond confusing my math skills, is this a bad thing? Take the quest Testing the Antidote. Okay, this is a simple, very short chain, kill some level 61ish felboars, loot some blood, kill an angrier felboar, collect ilvl 93 green gear. And yet, I managed to screw it up for my Fury Warrior.

See, the two choices of use to a Fury Warrior are the [Helboar Carving Blade], a 2-handed sword, and the [Dreadtusk's Fury], a 2-handed mace. Now I was already swinging a random green 2-handed mace, so I figured I might as well take the sword. This way, I'd be able to keep two of the three weapon skills that matter to the Warrior going forward in practice at the same time. Why was this the wrong choice?

A new gear niche
It turns out that I just passed on the only 2-handed weapon with a swing speed faster than 2.8 in all of Outland. (I've excluded feral and caster weapons from this measure, for relatively obvious reasons. There are some stat-less white and grey vendor weapons with faster speeds.) The 2.8 belongs to the [Zangarmarsh Claymore], comes from a Sporeggar rep quest, and I wasn't planning on doing that rep on this character. There are no others below 3.0, and the vast majority are 3.5ish. There is a single quest reward in Northrend with a 2.7 speed, and no other 2-handed anywhere since 2005 that swing faster than 3.0.

Now, in fairness, there were no classes in the game until today that would want a fast 2-handed weapon for their offhand. One could argue that it doesn't even make sense to add gear to the game that is only of interest to one spec of one class. And that's the problem you end up with when there is too much specialization in the game. Unless you're willing to go the Warhammer route and offer class-specific loot at every single turn, there's no way to deal with this. And the Warhammer route isn't without its drawbacks; either you offer less loot less often, or you offer players lots of loot they don't need because they already have something better.

Choices are good. Making the loot table so complicated that there's no room for items that some classes need is bad. I don't know where the right balance is; only that I'm regretting having picked the wrong reward for a random level 61 quest that would otherwise be completely forgettable on the journey to level 70.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A retrospective of The Burning Crusade

With the sun about to set on the Era of the Burning Crusade, I figured it was a good time to write up a little retrospective. Many thanks to the patch page at WoWWiki, which I'm trusting for launch dates cause my memory isn't quite that good.

August 22nd, 2006: Drums of War, a.k.a. patch 1.12, the last major patch of the pre-TBC era. (Patch focused on PVP balance, the last real content was added in the Shadow of the Necropolis patch on June 20th.)

December 5th, 2006 (105 days later): Patch 2.0.1. Not wanting to leave players with nothing to do over the holidays, Blizzard pushed the TBC talents and honor system live. (This pretty much gutted 40-man raiding.)

January 16th, 2007 (42 days later): TBC is actually available in stores.

May 22nd, 2007 (126 days later): Patch 2.1 goes live. The patch added Nether Drakes, Daily Quests, and Illidan's Black Temple raid. (Kael'thas, the final boss of TK, and the entire Hyjal raid were technically in for the TBC launch, but they weren't doable due to bugs, so one might argue that these were added in this patch as well.)

September 25th, 2007 (another 126 days): Patch 2.2, the "content patch" with almost no content. The patch included an overhaul to the sound engine that no one asked for, a VOIP feature that no one uses, and lots of bugs in the above features that delayed testing of the patch people were actually waiting for, 2.3. They did kind of add holiday content, in the form of the original version of Brewfest a week later, mostly because the holiday in question had to start on that date.

November 17th, 2007 (175 days from patch 2.1, or 49 days from 2.2): Patch 2.3, the first of the recruitment patches. Added the 10-man ZA raid, an overhaul to the level 20-60 leveling curve, epic-quality arena gear via the PVP honor system, and guild banks. Anecdotally, this patch brought many former players back to the game.

March 25th, 2008 (133 days from patch 2.3): Patch 2.4, the self-proclaimed final content patch of the TBC era. Added a little something for everyone - a 25 man raid, a 5-man dungeon, and a ton of daily quests.

October 13th, 2008 (a whopping 202 days from patch 2.4): If nothing goes wrong, we're getting a content patch tomorrow that contains accelerated leveling from 60-70, another round of talent revamps, the achievement system, and Wrath's new profession, Inscription. For consistency, we'll call this the dawn of the Wrath era.

Total Time Lapsed: 678 days, from Dec 5, 2006 through October 13, 2008. Four content patches, one of which did not contain much in the way of content. Even including patch 2.2, that's an average of over five and a half MONTHS between each content patch.

Why did it take so long?
I've long maintained that the major growth demographic for WoW at this point in the game's lifespan, at least amongst Western markets that actually pay the full monthly fee, is FORMER WoW players. The best way to catch the attention of former players is with mega patches that contain something for everyone and get the front pages of all the gaming news sites. Sure enough, Blizzard chose to go with huge, impact patches, even if the cost was six months per patch.

What went in the patches?
Realistically, patch 2.1 was the last patch of the TBC beta, rounding out key features that were promised for the expansion but not delivered in January. Anecdotally, the patch 2.0 era was not kind to less-dedicated raiders. Tigole famously coined the phrase "Equally interesting yet non-epic-dropping non-bosses (or “Trash” as the community likes to call it)" to justify two hour trash respawn timers. The pacing argument sounded convincing unless your guild preferred three hour raids over two hours (too short to get anything done) or four hours (hard to schedule if your guild spanned too many time zones). If you weren't willing to meet the bar, your only real choice was to quit. Again, anecdotally, people did, and I'm guessing that the subscription numbers behind closed doors in Irvine backed that up.

Patches 2.3 and 2.4 introduced substantial gear inflation to help players through content that had been in the game for 6+ months but that had proven too hard for players. They also added much much more in the way of non-raid alternatives. Judging from the fact that these approaches are included in the expansion, and from Blizzard's Blizzcon statements that they don't intend to do a raid as hard as Sunwell again, I'm guessing that Blizzard likes what they're seeing in the subscriber numbers.

What can we predict about the Wrath era?
Well, as I said in my review, Blizzard seems to have done a much better job planning out the progression for the current expansion. They've even gone so far as to announce the contents of the three planned Wrath content patches, and they spent far more time than I expected at Blizzcon talking about patch 3.1 (which they say is almost done).

Overall, it looks like Blizzard really is planning to take the lessons learned from the last two patches of TBC and deliver more of the same in the Wrath era: a mega-patch with something for everyone and a partial raid gear reset every 5-6 months, and a new expansion hopefully in early-mid 2010. Not the most ambitious plan, but I guess they don't see the need to tinker with success.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Good times in Nordenwatch and elsewhere in Warhammer

Cheerydeth Lives!

I haven't quite decided what to do with the Cheerydeth name on my WoW server just yet, but it appears that there will be a Cheerydeth after the Wrath beta servers come down - I couldn't come up with a new name I liked better, so I stuck with it for my Witch Hunter in Warhammer. It's hard to top a motorcycle-riding pink pigtailed gnome Death Knight with a name that combines the word "cheery" with a deliberate misspelling of the word "death" on the irony scale. That said, a member of the inquisition who runs around with a rapier in one hand and a gun in the other isn't bad.

Trying to lure players to an Order-challenged server
As I noted earlier, I'm playing on one of the first servers to be given an exp bonus in an attempt to lure in fresh Order players. This was a nice attempt, but it looks like it may fall short.

There are enough low-level Order players to make an attempt to control the newbie zones, but the increases certainly have yet to trickle up into tier 2 content. There's also the question of what happens when the bonus expires on Thursday. If the bonus was what actually swayed people to roll Order, taking it away just as players are getting out of T1 and into the content where it takes longer to level is not a good plan. However, by pre-announcing that the bonus is for one week only, Mythic painted themselves into a corner. If they extend the bonus, they will create the perception that it hasn't been successful (and, by extension, that the server's Order side is REALLY underpopulated), which may further hurt recruitment. If, on the other hand, the job actually isn't done, not extending the bonus means, well, not getting the job done.

Treating the wrong symptom, instead of the disease
Meanwhile, Syp reports that Mythic is considering releasing a no-scenario ruleset. This is a backwards and potentially damaging mis-reaction to the problem. On most servers, the population heavily favors Destruction. As a symptom of this problem, the few Order players tend to go play instanced scenarios (battlegrounds if you're from the WoW crowd), where they can't be stomped into the ground by superior numbers, and the Destruction side sits in their fortified keeps wondering why no one is attacking them. Given that Destruction is the majority, and that non-instanced RVR was intended to be the game's real endgame, this means that a large number of players are unhappy.

Taking away scenarios won't magically make those out-numbered Order players mindlessly throw themselves at Destruction-controlled keeps solely for the Destruction players' amusement. Instead, they will either re-roll somewhere else in the hopes of gathering together enough Order players to field a competitive battle, or they will quit the game. Worse, the false promise of more RVR on the no-scenario servers would lure players from existing servers, gutting their communities. I hope Mythic does NOT go this route, cause I think they will regret it.

No Chickens in Scenarios

Someone posted a while back that, if you managed to gain a level that made you ineligible for the scenario you were currently in, you would be turned into a chicken for attempted ganking of lowbies. It appears that this is no longer true. I carefully killed nigh-trivial wolves to get my exp just shy of level 12 before entering Nordenwatch, where I promptly gained level 12... and failed to turn into a harmless chicken. I apparently took out my frustration on the hides of twelve destruction players. Boo to Mythic for nerfing chickens in scenarios! :)

Beta testing the exp curves
Cheerydeth has had her progress hindered by exp curve issues before. The difference is, that was during a BETA. Mythic has been making some major changes to Warhammer's exp curve, especially in the higher end content. (At the risk of harping on this point, Mythic did not allow access to during the open beta, but they assured everyone that it had been thoroughly tested, and the community promptly decided that anyone who doubted their word was just a carebear WoW-playing naysayer.)

Obviously, fixing problems is better than not fixing problems, but I'm not sure how many points you give back to a company for fixing problems after they're charging money for the game when the issues should have been obvious during testing. (Lest Warhammer fans think I'm being unduly harsh to Mythic, take a look at my coverage of LOTRO, or, for that matter, WoW - I'm working on a TBC retrospective that would warm your hearts. I named the blog "Player vs Developer" precisely because game design is sometimes an adversarial activity.)

What are you waiting for, go get it back!
The other curve Cheery is having trouble with is the gear reward curve. I'm leveling almost entirely via scenarios, because I'm having a lot of fun in scenarios. The problem is, I haven't gotten any gear upgrades in five levels. You see, the PVP reward gear vendors are located in keeps. The keeps that Destruction owns 24/7 because there are so many more of them. Mythic's loading screen "helpfully" suggests that, if the enemy has a keep, I should go get it back, as if there actually are enough players from my side on the server to accomplish this task.

There is a workaround - guilds that have reached level 6 are allowed into a tavern (provided their faction's capitol city is not currently in the possession of the enemy, which has not happened yet but may happen sooner than Mythic expects) with a gear vendor. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of Order guilds on my server that have reached level 6 on my server, and none of them appear to be wandering the low level content recruiting. (Not that ANYONE other than gold spammers uses the in-game chat for any reason.) So, I'm reduced to solo grinding the first stage of deserted public quests for gear (since there are few, if any, groups working the local public quest scene).

Maybe I'm just on the most deserted Order side in all of Warhammer, but it would have been nice if Mythic had anticipated that this type of situation might arise.

So.... you really hate this game, don't you?
Not at all! I realize that you might get that impression from reading several pages of criticism, but there's a reason why I'm STILL PLAYING this game despite all those points. I'm playing lots and lots of PUG RVR scenarios. This is content that I hate being forced to do in WoW, and I love it in Warhammer, even when I get a terrible group that gets steamrolled. That's a tremendous accomplishment on Mythic's part.

At the end of the day, when I'm disappointed with Mythic, it's because getting this part of the game right was the hard part. Getting the incentives right to balance the rest of the game should have been easier. I'm like a disappointed family member here - I'm disappointed because I like the game, and I really feel like it has a lot more potential than it's living up to at the moment. The tragedy would be for the game to finally get into shape after many players have already left. Life, war, and WAR, aren't fair like that sometimes.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Blizzcon Wrap Up

I've had a mixed record on predictions, with things turning out better when I predicted less of Blizzard. In that vein, I posted a very unambitious set of predictions for Blizzcon 2008. Though there may still be information trickling out from fansite interviews, most of the con is now in the books, so let's see how I did.

I predicted that very little new information would be unveiled, beyond the already-revealed features of post-expansion content patch. Here's the pile of minutia that we actually learned:

- The dual talent spec system that got mentioned at the WWI is going to be in the game, for patch 3.1, not in time for the launch of Wrath. The revamp may come with a better talent allocation UI (e.g. a confirmation box, so you don't end up accidentally spending points by mis-clicking), and players will be allowed to swap specs on the fly (the implication was anytime out of combat). This would be big news except that they pre-announced that they would be talking about it at Blizzcon. Notably, they did say that you will be allowed a second set of glyphs for your second talent spec (along with keybindings and action bars), which should help save a bit of money (especially since you can't swap glyphs outside of town).
- Ground mounts will learn to swim in patch 3.1.
- Ingame default UI's for Item Rack, boss warning mods, and random mount/non-combat pet are all being considered, along with some tweaks to the quest log UI.
- The Dance Studio, which was included in the feature list when Wrath was announced a year ago, is also not yet ready to go but will be added to the game somewhere down the line.
- They may remove the internal cooldown from Windfury, which I don't claim to fully understand (I don't know much melee theorycraft), but the melee seem to think this is a good thing.
- They also may, at some point, allow raid leaders to hearth AFK players out of the raid zone, to free up a slot for their replacement. (If you've never raided, it might never occur to you that this would be a problem, but it happens.)
- reports that there will be some kind of paid character customization in WoW's future. Blizzard also touted the recent recruit a friend program as a solution to the length of time it takes to get through sub-standard pre-Outland content in the game. It's going to be interesting to see how far they're planning on taking microtransactions, especially after adding the barber shop (and the hypothetical dance studio) as major non-microtransaction features in the expansion.

That's not an impressive slate of information.

Diablo III
I predicted: "Playable on the show floor, with the unveiling (but not necessarily playable debut) of a third playable class."

Indeed, the game is playable on the the show floor, and indeed there's a new class, the Wizard. The Wizard sounds like a Sorceress, but they've opted to re-name it; I'm guessing so that fans of the previous version don't get to insist on all the same skills the previous version got. The other news is that there will be skill respecs, and Blizzard will remove the idiotic incentive to hoard skill points in order to avoid wasting them on skills you won't use at higher levels. Nice to see that Blizzard understands the flaws in the Diablo II's skill system, even if the members of the DII team who went on to work on Hellgate: London did not.

Starcraft II
I wrote that Blizzard would unveil a beta date at best. They've confirmed that this year's Blizzcon beta cards are for the SCII beta, but no firm date and certainly no release date.

There was an announcement that IGN is calling a "bombshell" on Starcraft II - The game will be split into three campaigns. This sounds new, scary, and intimidating, but Kotaku was able to get an explanation out of Blizzard. Basically we're looking at a regular release, with all three races playable in multiplayer, and one triple-length single player campaign (Terrans only) instead of three regular length single player campaigns (for each race). Then we'll get two expansions, with triple length Zerg and Protoss campaigns instead of three normal length campaigns. So basically all this alarming headline indicates is that Blizzard is planning two expansions to the game instead of merely one. Hardly cause to stop the presses; if it takes them another 10+ years to finish Starcraft III, a second expansion to SC II is hardly breaking news.
I predicted more information about the upgraded bnet would be revealed. None was.

Mystery Project
I predicted that it would not be at Blizzcon. I was right, though they did confirm that it is an MMO and is NOT based on one of the big three franchises.

Misc WoW ramblings
There wasn't real game news, but there was some interesting insight on design philosophy.
- The 51 point talents are intended to be more situational, instead of adding yet another button to add to your regular rotation. This may seem like a subtle point, but it makes a difference with specs; I expect to see many specs that bypass 51-point talents in favor of more signature talents in a second tree.
- I previously posted about Wrath's UI. Apparently it took the UI design team literally months to cram everything in.
- The expansion has in fact had the meaningless "gone gold" announcement I predicted back in August.
- Blizzard admits that Sunwell was tuned above the heads of most of the raiding playerbase, and claims they won't go that far overboard this time out. (This did not sit well with the people in the crowd who've beaten Sunwell.)
- Blizzard was also asked about the potential for a more puggable 10-man instance like oldschool UBRS, but said they weren't considering it because they'd have to remove the lockout and therefore wouldn't be offering good loot. I could probably type a whole post in response to that one, but I guess this is what we put up with for paying the devs by the month. (See also, resist check fights, which Blizzard defended despite immense boos from the crowd.)
- Allowing players to swap out their talent specs mid-raid defeats the whole purpose of dual specs. Tanks and healers have been crying that they can't farm in their group content specs. Now they're going to be expected to carry a single target spec and an AOE spec for different raid encounters.
- Blizzard officially confirmed that Pandaren were not added to the game because of cultural issues with China. This was heavily heavily rumored after every journalist who got to tour Blizzard before the announcement of TBC said the Alliance race may be Pandas, but this is, as far as I'm aware, the first time it's been stated publicly.

Overall, I got more right than wrong, but that's only because it was a very lackluster show. They barely even confirmed that patch 3.0 is scheduled to go live on Tuesday (only indirectly, via a comment about the old Naxx at the raid panel). Very disappointing.

Warhammer population incentives gone bad?

I've talked about Warhammer population imbalances before. (In fact, as the screenshot shows, the post in question is somehow inexplicably the top Google hit on the topic; I hope Marc Jacobs hasn't read it and sent assassins to kill me.) So you'd think I'd be in favor of something, anything to fix the problem. Well, Mythic actually did one of the things I said they should, namely offered increased exp gain to Order players on servers that had been dominated by Destruction. As a low-level Order player on one of the three servers picked to be the very first guinea pigs for the new boost, what do I think of the results?

Well, I used to have nigh instantaneous scenario queues, and now they take 10 minutes. Order used to have groups of relatively higher level players show up, and would occasionally actually WIN scenarios. Now we get a crowd of level 3-4 characters (bolstered up to level 8 and dumped in a scenario against level 10-11 Destruction characters - and the bolster buff doesn't give you access to the skills you're missing as a result of being under-level), I've topped the damage meters while on suicidal "sacrifice myself to kill the enemy healer" duty, and we lose. Badly. Often without successfully holding any of the objectives. The ironic result is that these measures to help my side out have actually made playing my side less enjoyable. I guess this whole population balance thing is harder than us armchair designers like to say it is.

Other thoughts on Warhammer
Realistically, other people have said all of the meaningful things I have to say about Warhammer. Here are some of the things I would have written about if others hadn't beaten me to the punch:

- I observed that I had a hard time picking a class and Rohan has figured out why: Warhammer classes are VERY specific in their flavor and abilities, and you either find one you love or you're not even going to get off to a good start in the game.

- Tobold didn't like having a bullseye on his head for the mistake of playing a healer, the same reason why I gave up on my Rune Priest.
- Snafzg noted that "questing/grinding is too slow", following it up with a more in-depth look at the flaws in the exp curve. Syp appears to agree that you need to supplement your PVE with RVR, which is precisely why the issues I'm seeing in scenarios (my favorite part of Warhammer) since they added incentive exp are threatening my enjoyment of the game so much.

- In addition to covering the above points, Tobold's post on why he's leaving Warhammer for Wrath commented on polish. Now WoW certainly isn't bug free, but Warhammer crashes more often due to client bugs than WoW did at its launch (in fairness, WoW crashed a lot in that era, but that was due to server issues rather than debugging), and many more quests - including the really low level ones that lots of people have seen - that aren't finishable due to bugs.

Not joining the parade of bloggers leaving Warhammer... yet.
Overall? I'm concerned about this game. Sure, they've managed to sell 750K boxes, but that's a lot different from convincing those people to open up their wallets for a recurring fee in a week or two. I should have been a very very easy sell for Mythic - while I like Wrath of the Lich King, I've already played the portions of it that I was really interested in, and I would have been very happy to spend more time in Warhammer and come back to Northrend later. Now, I'm not so sure, especially with WoW's patch 3.0 most likely going live before my next Warhammer bill date (as I predicted Blizzard would plan it).

I'm not quite ready to throw in the towel on Warhammer yet - I was really having fun with my Witch Hunter in RVR until the exp boost went live, and its effects may be mitigated by the fact that the program has since expanded to a bunch of other servers (and is temporary). Still, Mythic has some work to do in the next month if it doesn't want to see a mass exodus when Wrath launches.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

PVD Beta Review of Wrath of the Lich King

Well, it's the moment of truth. I split out my reviews of the new inscription profession (verdict: feels like a cash sink) and the new Death Knight class (verdict: fun new class) for space, but now it's time for my beta review of the expansion as a whole.

I'll save y'all some time by putting the bottom line first:

Wrath of the Lich King is more WoW.
If you like the current direction of WoW, you can expect more of the same, and with ever improving production values and polish. If you don't like WoW, you're probably off playing Warhammer or some other game, and you're probably not going to want to come back.

Now then, on with the review.
Experience: I have logged a total of 5 days, 9 hours /played on my Death Knight, whom I leveled from level 55 through to 80. I also leveled Herbalism to 450 and Inscription to 400. Completed most or all of the solo content in Borean Tundra, Howling Fjord, Dragonblight, Grizzly Hills, Zul'Drak, and the Sholazar Basin. Completed a substantial portion of the solo content in Icecrown and the Storm Peaks. (That would be all of the outdoor zones in Northrend, presuming they don't add significant amounts of content to Crystalsong Forest at some point.) Did not participate in group or instance content.

Massively Single Player

Northrend: It's like Mordor, but more blue and icy.

World of Warcraft has been criticized as a "massively single player" game due to the large portion of its content that is soloable, and the resulting tendency for players to reach its level cap with no idea of how to handle their characters in a group. That said, the game's second expansion is hardly the time to reverse the focus of the entire game, so Northrend is fully soloable.

The good news, if you like solo PVE in WoW, is that the solo PVE is better than ever. Quests offer a variety of storylines, mechanics, and changes of scenery. My view of the exp curve is probably distorted by the several times Blizzard adjusted it during the beta, but my impression is that, like Outland before it, it flows well, with content coming at you fast enough for you to level up via quests alone. Like TBC, some of the major solo quest lines come to a screeching halt against a wall of group-only content that forces you to look for groups or abandon the quest. However, other quests find a way to make victory over tough mobs possible, mostly via the vehicle system.

One random note is that, with the amount of exp required to gain each level rising substantially as players hit Northrend, rested exp plays a larger role than ever before. Warhammer has a rested exp system too, but Mythic has stated that the rate at which you earn rested state slows down as you get to higher levels (as more overall experience is required per level). Blizzard has left their rested state as it has been for four years, at a flat rate of 5% of your exp bar flipping to rested state every eight hours spent in a inn/city (whether or not you're online). I basically never ran out of rested state in Northrend, as I couldn't spend it fast enough. The downside is that, if you do, for some reason, insist on trying to power through to the level cap in marathon sessions, you can expect to have a much harder time as you run out of rested state and effectively lose half of the exp value of all the mobs you kill.

Advanced Technology
The advantage of having a four year old engine is that Blizzard can keep adding new tricks to their toolboxes. Last expansion, we saw flying mounts and daily quests. This time out, we see a two major advances - a unified user interface for vehicles/turrets and something called "phasing".

The vehicle interface is used for quests where players ride something (which may or may not be mechanical) and does a lot to ease the learning curves involved - you may not have seen that particular vehicle's action bar before, but it'll be relatively easy to learn what it does. In addition to one-time uses for quests, some player mounts (notably the engineering motorcycles, and a Wooly Mammoth caravan complete with room for other player passengers and a bazaar of vendors) have the vehicle UI and have their own separate HP bars.

As to "phasing" for the first time, the plot of the game can actually advance. For example, a questline involving a military campaign can actually have the friendly NPC's advancing forward as you complete quests. Quests can literally offer an entire town as a reward, as well as flight masters, vendors, etc. It's a nice touch to add to a game where Katryna Prestor got to sit in the Stormwind Throne room for literally years after players started hanging the head of Onyxia from the city gates.

The NPC who gave me this questline implied that I would have to sneak/fight my way to the giant rhino. Instead, I swooped in on my mount. I'm probably supposed to be down on the ground right about now, scared of the battle unfolding around me, but instead I'm happy flying above the fray.

Speaking of advances, last expansion's big ticket feature/gold sink is back, well, once you pay an NPC 1000 gold anyway, and available at level 77. Last time out, most players didn't get to fly until they were mostly done with the solo content of the expansion. This time, you'll be mounting up and dropping in to snipe the quest target and fly away for three whole levels (plus the remaining level 80 stuff). IMO, actually giving players controllable flying mounts permanently was a mistake. It's a mistake Blizzard cannot take back now that they used it as the last expansion's major gold sink, but it's something that really detracts from the content in the game.

Player Vs Developer Time: Incentives in Northrend

Tabard reward for exploring all of Azeroth (and Outland), delivered to your mailbox when you complete the achievements.

For the first time, it really feels like Blizzard has actually PLANNED the level-capped progression of the game. Consider:
- Daily quests are present in every zone, and appear to offer most, if not all, of the useful reputations in the expansion.
- Say what you will about Kalgan's plan for PVP being derivative of Warhammer, but it indicates that Blizzard actually has a plan for getting players from leveling gear to crafted PVP gear to honor-only gear to arena gear.
- Raiding has carefully been set out in two tiers, with staggered drop quality in each tier (so that it's worth a 25-man raider's time to go hit the 10-man zones if they're lagging in some upgrade, while offering meaningful progression for 10-man raiders).
- Achievements have been set up to commemorate all sorts of misc activities that previously went unrecognized (and with purely cosmetic rewards, meaning that there are few balance issues involved).
- Even straight up cash money is good for stuff; Blizzard has included a fair number of vanity items in Dalaran including mounts, a very expensive ring that serves as a second Hearthstone, etc.

If you're a mage and you have 3.5K to burn, this vendor will happily sell you a new Polymorph variant and some Arcane Intellect variants with a unique icon. Of course, us longtime mages may remember the infamous patch in which the only attention the class got was a new icon for the mage armor buff, so I suppose we should be thrilled.

Anyway, overall the PVD decisions in Northrend have been fine; there's almost certainly something that any individual player would want that is somehow within their grasp.

One incentive that's raid-only
There is one point, however, that doesn't sit very well with me. Blizzard has implemented so-called "Heirloom" items, primarily weapons, which are bound to your account rather than your character, and thus can be enchanted (pre-TBC stuff only) and sent on to your alts to level with from level one on; the weapon stats scale as you advance. The items are even named after famous gear from the level 60 days, such as the Dwarven Hand Cannon or the Arcanite Reaper. The catch? These items are only available for badges. Raid badges, if I'm not mistaken.

This makes absolutely no sense; raiders probably want to be spending their badges on stuff they can actually raid with, while non-raiders have alts they'd love to twink out too. Blizzard will probably get around to fixing this eventually (in the "please come back and roll alts instead of canceling" patch, which I predict will also allow higher starting levels for the classic WoW classes sometime in 2009), but it's irritating that Blizzard still has this mindset that only group content is worthy of the best rewards. That's doubly true when you're talking about items that are basically about leveling low level alts who are no threat to anyone's progression.

More polish and features

The token storage UI, which will hopefully expand to cover the rest of the various soulbound currencies in the game eventually....

Wrath brings in a fair number of other features and UI tweaks, notably the mount/pet system, the barber shops, and the token storage system. There's nothing ground-breaking here, but at least it shows some awareness of problems players actually complain about, such as bag space. I'm guessing that the promised dual talent spec technology, along with the less-promised resist gear/outfit storage system, will be coming post-launch to an expansion near you.

Still, the mount/pet changes at least are a step in the right direction. I suppose being limited to a mount per bag slot makes your decision on what to ride a bit more meaningful; you had a range of choices and you chose the blue one. That said, having to devote a precious bank slot to your unused mounts (and pets) was a real deterrent to collecting, and why would Blizzard want to deter collectors? This is also an area where the achievement system really opens up a new pass-time for people who are so-inclined. Before you couldn't really collect things, and now you can, AND you get a reward for doing so.

In conclusion
Like I said up top, Wrath is the game's second expansion, and it's not a time for rocking the boat. If your biggest complaint about World of Warcraft is that you're all out of World of Warcraft (a non-trivial market), Wrath is more of a good thing. I will also say that the game's single player experience is better than ever, and might be worth your time even if you don't have plans to continue past the level cap. I've already played through the thing once, and I'm definitely going to give it another pass.

Arthas wants YOU.... to buy his expansion.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Beta Review: Death Knights

Yesterday, I posted the first part of my Wrath Beta review. I gave a harsh review to the new profession, Inscription. Will Cheerydeth, my beloved Death Knight, suffer the same fate in part 2? Time to talk Death Knights!

A different kind of melee
Classes in WoW can be boiled down to two characteristics; how much damage do they deal, and how much damage can they take/avoid/mitigate/heal. The Warrior deals a fair amount of damage and mitigates pretty well. The Mage and the Rogue deal more damage and aren’t so good at taking damage, but they can attempt to avoid damage from stealth or range. The Pally deals very little damage, but gets very solid durability (perhaps the best solo) and even the option to heal others. Where does the Death Knight fall on the scale?

The Death Knight is definitely closest to the Warrior. At the moment, DK’s appear to skew towards avoidance over mitigation due to the lack of a shield. In exchange, they seem to deal more damage than warriors, despite substantially improved self-healing abilities compared to pure DPS classes. I don’t know so well how the class stacks up as a tank, but it is as tough as any class out there for solo content. The DK also has a few unique tricks, such as Death grip (pictured to the left), which physically pulls casters right to you (in the process ensuring that you won't have to deal with any adds). Even without all its pets, the DK has a lot of tools to work with while solo.

That said, I think the class will not be largely successful at alleviating the “tank shortage”. You can get people to play a class that has the capacity to tank, but that doesn’t give them the gear or skill needed to do so. In practice, I avoided the tanking-related talents almost entirely in my spec experiments, and, even though they’re scattered over multiple trees to allow any spec to potentially be a tank, I suspect that other solo and DPS players will do the same.

The Hero Class
Hero classes were originally envisioned as an evolution of existing classes, but that option simply wasn’t feasible this far out from launch. What would Blizzard tell people who picked the wrong base class for the hero they wanted sometime back in 2004? How would Blizzard simultaneously upgrade classes for every class (and, potentially, spec, since some of the hybrids would NOT be amused to hear that their hero class only does one of their roles)? It did not make sense. The compromise was to make NEW classes (well, ONE new class at the moment) and call them hero classes.

Starting the Death Knight at level 55 has several advantages. It allowed Blizzard to skip players past the less-impressive portions of the level 20-60 game, instead offering a new starting area with an impressive plotline that does its best to explain how Death Knights wound up in the Horde and the Alliance. (The new plot does NOT do much to explain why Death Knights feel the need to take a ten level detour in Outland before going after their true foe, Arthas, but I suppose there isn’t really much of anything in game that explains exactly why characters go to a specific area at a specific level.) I’m sure Blizzard is also hoping that the higher starting level will encourage players who don’t current have alts to try one out; there’s less time investment, and, again, players get to bypass the least impressive content in the game.

I don’t dispute that the higher starting level makes sense in the lore, or that it allows Blizzard to pace the acquisition of new abilities nicely over the 25 levels that Death Knights have to level 80. I do, however, think the level is going to cause serious problems by skewing the alt population towards Death Knights. A new DK starts with excellent gear, solid weapon skills, all the flight paths in the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor, a good headstart on first aid and weapon skills, and an epic ground mount, on top of 54 free levels. That’s a lot of bribes to pass up to start a new character at level 1. Between the head start and the strong solo capacity, there is no better choice for an alt to take up some misc tradeskills for you, or perhaps do daily quests if your main doesn’t farm very well. I strongly suspect that Blizzard is going to have to offer higher level alts of other classes at some point in 2009 or risk having the game’s population skew more heavily towards the Death Knight than they intended.

There may be a few Death Knights around Azeroth after Wrath launches....

Specs and uniqueness

The level 80 Death Knight panic button spell, Army of the Dead, causes you to be surrounded by, well, an army of the dead.

The Death Knight has a mix of complexity and rhythm. Compared to other classes, the DK has a total of four different types of resources (three flavors of rune, and a runic power bar) that dictate what abilities the DK can use. On the other hand, the need to wait for specific runes to regenerate means coming up with a rotation that uses all of your available runes, in the process greatly encourage hybrid talent specs. Despite the power level of dual specs, the DK talent trees each have their own strengths and feel. The Blood tree continues to offer up healing, the Unholy Tree turns the DK into a melee pet class (a relatively unique role in WoW, with apologies to any melee hunters in the audience), and the Frost tree offers burst damage (along with good AoE abilities).

Another novel DK talent brings you back as a ghoul after you die.

The other thing that really struck me about the Death Knight was that I actually liked playing a character who uses a 2-handed weapon. Warrior 2-handers never appealed to me because of the potential for rage starvation when a slow swing misses. Pally 2-hander specs as of TBC consist largely of turning on a damage seal and watching the character autoattack, with some options that do a bit more damage in exchange for burning off your mana bar very rapidly. I haven’t spent much time with either class in beta, so I don’t know if they still have these problems, but the DK definitely does NOT suffer from a slow swing speed. Blizzard has largely avoided “on next melee swing” abilities with the DK, and the constant regeneration of runes over time ensures that you will not be too sad if the occasional swing misses.

Should you re-roll Death Knight?
I can’t answer this question for you, but I can give you some tips. If you are currently playing an Enhancement Shaman (melee DPS), any Pally, or a Feral Druid, you should ask yourself if it matters to you that you will no longer have the ability to help heal others as a Death Knight. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on how strongly opposed to healing you are. (Likewise, if you’re playing a Rogue, re-rolling DK would allow you to take up tanking in your spare time; whether this is good depends on your desire to be able to tank.) In fact, if you’re just interested in being able to tank the occasional 5-man dungeon, DK’s may be more appealing to you than some classes, as they have the option of taking some tanking talents in any tree. If you're willing to allocate a few talent points to the tanking goodies, you should be able to tank without a respec.

You should also ask yourself how much you care about your rep, soulbound cosmetic rewards, etc; these things cannot be transferred to your new DK. Another playstyle question you might think about if you raid is how much work you're willing to spend on group buffs. A Pally has to manage a pile of blessings, and a Shaman has to juggle totems. By contrast, the vast majority of the DK’s group DPS boosts are passive, and will be stacked on while you fight. (There is one exception, the DK’s answer to Battle Shout, which boosts melee DPS stats and has to be re-cast every 2 minutes.)

Personally, I won’t be changing my main, as I love my mage dearly. My Fury warrior might be in more danger of being replaced with a Death Knight, should Titan’s Grip etc prove unimpressive, but that’s a question for a while from now.

The Death Knight still has some balancing issues to resolve; finding the right place DPS-wise in comparison to other classes (which tend not to have the DK’s self-healing tools), and the Frost spec still needs a bit of work IMO, but overall the class is very well done. Blizzard has done a great job with the storyline, abilities, and general feel of the Death Knight. I’d love to have seen more than one hero class in the expansion, as having only one new toy is only going to exacerbate the alt population issue (which I believe is going to need to be dealt with in the first year of Wrath). Overall, though, I think that WoW’s first new character class is a good one, and a positive addition to the game.