Saturday, November 29, 2008

Are Daily Progress Limits Good?

Greenwiz is now exalted with the Kalu'ak. In order to win over these Walrus people, I have made it a point of visiting their villages for the past two weeks and:
1. Facilitating sea lion fornication. (See here for a picture.)
2. Supplying what must only be a black market trade in Wolvar puppy fur/meat - the questgiver swears he wants to protect the little puppies, but there is literally no room in the village for the 200+ puppies that I personally have delivered him.
3. Retrieving supplies from a village that has been under 24 hour continuous siege since the expansion went live, and will continue to be under siege until the day Blizzard finally turns off the WoW servers for good. I'm prepared to accept that there are literally infinite Walrus people to come defend their terrain, but what I don't get is who, exactly, is restocking these supplies once a day?

These three tasks collectively award 1500 reputation each day. There are enough non-repeatable quests to get most of the way to revered, so you're basically looking at obtaining the 21,000 rep required for the trek from revered-> exalted. That's two weeks, with a little extra time to finish out revered and/or if you miss a day.

The merits of daily progress
The ultimate goal of developers is to keep players paying to play the game. This means coming up with treadmills that players will voluntarily do. From the dev standpoint, the daily quest is the perfect compromise. The rep isn't that hard to accomplish, even for players with limited gaming time, so the sheer difficulty isn't enough to deter players from finishing. However, they still get to ensure that it's going to be X months before a player runs out of stuff to do.

In return, the players get enforced breaks from the rep grind, and generally an easier rep curve - compare the Kalu'ak to the once notorious Wintersaber Trainer grind. Even after having been nerfed repeatedly, the Wintersaber grind quests award half of what Kalu'ak quests do, AND players start all the way down at Neutral with no non-repeatable quests to get through nearly half of the grind. However, these quests are repeatable, rather than daily, and thus a dedicated player could go out and finish the content TODAY (well, probably several days from now, given the sheer number of kills required, but you get the idea). If this faction had been made during the Daily quest era, the same quests might be Daily for 500 rep instead of unlimited for 250 rep.

The same principle applies to the new Inscription discovery system. There are 60 minor glyphs, and you can discover a random recipe once a day for a small number of extremely low level herbs - your level 10 alt can get you whatever minor glyphs you need, provided you're willing to wait for up to 60 days to learn the recipe.

The Cost of Missing a Day
The unfortunate price of the guaranteed meal ticket for the developers is player flexibility. If you can't log on today, or if you DO have time to play but choose not to spend it on daily quests you've done a dozen times, you'll just have to move the day you finish the grind back one spot on the calendar. It's still your choice, obviously, but it's not a fun one.

As I've noted previously, I've definitely been steering my Wrath questing time towards quests that award reputations I want. I can go back and finish the other non-repeatable quests in the game whenever I want, but there's no way to make up for the weeks of lost headstart towards the daily quest grind if I save all the dailies for level 80. The problems get worse if you're trying to juggle a few games. It's entirely possible to get to the point where the only rewards you're working for come from rare daily quest drops. At that point, you don't have enough to do in, for example, WoW, to justify having that be the ONLY game you're playing, but the time spent running the handful of dailies in the morning can be enough to make a big hit to the time you'd be spending on any new game.

Mythic encountered this problem full on with their Heavy Metal event. The goal was to have a daily task that allowed progress towards rewards that included early access to the new tanking classes. By most accounts, the goals have been pretty successful, but Mythic had to quietly change the "daily" portion of the event twice. First they agreed to roll out the entire second week's events at once to accommodate the Thanksgiving Holiday in the US and then they had to go back an allow players to complete the events retroactively. Because the rewards required that players not miss a single day's event, Mythic HAD to make these changes, or effectively tell players to give up if they were going to miss even a single day. Now, though, there's no reason why a player couldn't just log in and complete all the events in a single day.

Striking a balance
There's no question that what we have now in WoW and other games (I know EQ2's current expansion has daily/weekly missions, and LOTRO has repeatable quests with cooldowns that aren't literally daily but achieve the same end) is better than what we used to have. But what we have is far from perfect.

My wife just asked me what I was blogging about, given that I haven't had much time to play this week. (Almost all of that time was spent keeping up with the Daily quest grind.) I explained the post I was writing, and she asked why we'd want to do the same daily quest even 30 times in the first place. This is why I named the blog Player Vs Developer - there is a conflict between the players' desire for new content/rewards and the devs desire for retaining subscriptions. The two sides of this equation aren't necessarily 100% opposed to each other - both sides ultimately win if the game is good - but there's a balance to be struck.

Do the current daily quests have it? For me, the answer is apparently yes, since I'm doing them. Am I so happy with the system that that I won't ditch Wrath's endgame rep grind if another game comes along that's more interesting? Blizzard shouldn't bet on it.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Giving Thanks

MMORPG players may spend a lot of time complaining, but we have a lot to be thankful for. More people than ever before are taking part in our hobby. Most of us have a nice shiny new expansion pack to play with in the game of our choice, while production values and general quality are generally higher than they were four years ago.

Personally, I've got a fair amount to be thankful for as well. I'm enjoying Wrath of the Lich King a lot more than I expected to after playing to 80 in the beta. I've got a great guild, so I'm actually getting to see some of the interesting small group content. I'll probably want a break from WoW at some point in the coming months, but there are three different games that I could envision paying a visit to when that happens.

And, most of all, I'm fortunate enough that I can write 5000 words per week about my favorite hobby and have people voluntarily show up to read my ramblings. It may not be obvious from the amount of time I spend picking apart some small detail of some incentive in some game, but I really appreciate both the games I play/monitor and the opportunity to set up my own little soap box on the internet.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Have a safe trip home for the holidays, wherever your hearth may be!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

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

My latest poll got a lot of votes - apparently the expansion day traffic took the time to vote while they were here, and the results were interesting.

Would you pay Blizzard to start a new (non-DK) character at level 55?
31 votes, 22% - Yes! 20-60 is the worst content in the game.
32 votes, 23% - Maybe, if the price was right (e.g. $25/character)
13 votes, 9% - No, I don't need more alts.
61 votes, 44%- No, there's no point to paying NOT to play the game.
Total: 137 votes

A divided community
I deliberately split out people who have no need for the service from people who are opposed to it on principle, and the results are interesting. Without the people who don't need more alts, you're looking at an almost dead even split between people who are opposed to paying for a head start and people who would be open to it at some price.

I was concerned that even offering a "maybe" option (for a cost in the range of what Blizzard charges for character transfers) would bias the results - wouldn't EVERYONE who wanted the service have some point at which the price was wrong? Apparently not, as the votes fell evenly between the two options. Maybe those 31 people were more concerned with making the statement that they want out of the game's pre-TBC content than with the caveat that the price had to be reasonable, but it's a striking result none the less.

What was I getting at?
There were serveral things going through my head when I made this poll:

- Blizzard had just confirmed at Blizzcon that some form of paid character customization was in the works. (The implication in more recent interviews has been that this might allow face changes, perhaps even race/gender, rather than anything that affects gameplay, but there's no real hard information on the topic.)

- Death Knights get a 54 level head start (well, call it 50 due to the speed with which you can get those first four levels, but still) and various other goodies that seriously discourage new alts of any other class.

- Blizzard does not have the time it would take to revamp old world Azeroth up to TBC standards, even further discouraging playing other classes though said content.

- The new "recruit a friend" program is designed to help new players skip past the old world as quickly as possible to help them reach the level their friends are playing at. It also allows dedicated players willing to dual box to level one or more alts of their own from literally one to 60 by abusing the free levels granted to help the veteran's low level alt keep pace with their recruit's new character.

Collectively, I've long argued that Blizzard will have no choice but to allow all classes to start at a higher level at some point in the future. The precedents I listed above suggested to me that they might at least be considering offering the higher starting level for outright sale.

Is cash for levels a good idea?
Pidge sums up the argument against cash for levels pretty succinctly in a comment on the original poll:

"After playing since launch and levelling multiple characters to 70, I couldn't see such a move as anything else than a shameless money-grub and slap in the face. I bet a LOT of other players would feel the same.

There's nothing "heroic" about starting a character at level 55, so that justification for making it free for DKs just doesn't wash."

I don't disagree in the slightest. A certain portion of the staying power of World of Warcraft is built on consumer confidence of sorts. Players are willing to put up with a time-reward curve that gets slower and slower as you get closer to being out of content in part because their time is an investment. For me personally, that is a big part of what has kept World of Warcraft at the top of my playlist for four years while I've tried and left quality offerings from Turbine, Mythic, etc al. I'm confident that Blizzard WILL (eventually) put out a next patch or expansion that I'm going to want to play, and therefore I'm willing to spend time earning temporary upgrades to help me take on that content more effectively.

Messing with that investment is a fine line. Most MMORPG players accept that it will be easier to level down the line, and that their gear may be reset from time to time. Actually removing earned honor points, however, was more than players were willing to tolerate. It's a fine line to walk, and, while charging real world money may add insult to injury, even a non-paid level 55 service would rock the boat.

That said, the fact that so many people in my unscientific poll were not only eager to skip past the low level content but were willing to pay actual money to do so suggests to me that the current state of the game is untenable. There are other problems to be faced in skipping players past content and dropping them into a high level character they have never played before - Blizzard handled this very well when it came to Death Knights, but probably does not have the time to plan a similar rollout for the other nine classes. Perhaps we will see a leveling improvement patch, similar to patch 2.3, sometime during Wrath's patch cycle (such as the largely mysterious 3.2 patch).

The fact remains that something has to change, and that Blizzard's ongoing course has been to facilitate skipping the content in whatever ways they can. I hope they come up with something more creative than asking for straight up cash, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Incentives to the Rescue of Warhammer?

Hat tip to JoBildo for posting Mark Jacob's new incentive plan for Warhammer.

To sum up, Mythic intended their RVR lakes (which Blizzard copied, to relatively little success) be a high risk, high reward alternative to leveling in safer instanced scenarios or PVE content.

To accomplish this, they're adding in incentives; influence (like WoW's reputation), tome unlocks/titles, and some assortment of missions, daily quests, and other such carrots. They're also doing a bit to lighten the travel burden (always a favorite pet peeve of mine) by allowing a second bind point and providing a better UI for determining where the fighting is - a nice addition, especially since Warhammer is already relatively well behaved on the travel front, with instant "off-camera" zone to zone flights. It's a simple and effective plan to make the content both more rewarding and more accessible.

It was a bit short-sighted of Mythic to launch without all of this stuff and to just expect open RVR to happen on its own with so few incentives in the game. That said, Mythic is doing a very good job recognizing the problem, acknowledging it in public (!), and working towards changes that may make a big difference towards fixing it. In fact, bringing players out into the world to look for RVR to participate in may incidentally help out the health of Warhammer's much touted but seriously underused Public Quest (a key feature of the game I was looking forward to but rarely used once the game arrived, because there were no groups).

The only catch is that many players came, made up their minds about the game, and left already. Perhaps Mythic will need to think about readying a free re-trial program for sometime next spring when all these changes are implmented. Either way, it's good to see the game getting back on track (at a time when its community could really use the boost).

Monday, November 24, 2008

We Didn't Start the Frostfire

When I first heard about Frostfire Bolt, I was not impressed. Don't get me wrong, my Fire-specced friends would have killed for a spell that deals frost damage to fire-immune mobs when we were raiding Molten Core back in 2005. The spell comes with a weird compromise of Fireball's base range (but NOT range extension from talents), a 3 second cast (talented fireball casts at 3s, while talented frostbolt casts at 2.5s), and BOTH Frostbolt's useful chill effect and Fireball's detrimental damage over time effect (rarely enough damage to make a difference in the fight, but just enough that you can't resheep your target if you get your targeting backwards).

Little did I realize the full destructive power that can be had by conjuring up a little water, freezing it into a large snowball, setting it ON FIRE, and hurling it at one's enemies.

The Numbers
My mage just hit 75, so I'm working with rank 1 of the spell (the level 80 version does about 100 more damage). Sitting at around 1100 spell damage with an appropriate 48 fire/18 frost build, it's good for about 2K per hit and somewhere around 4500-5000 for a crit. (By comparison, I was doing about 1800 regular/3600 crit on regular frostbolts as a deep frost spec.) What makes this spell fun is that it benefits from talents that enhance BOTH Fire AND Frost spells. At level 75, you can cherry pick the best of both worlds.

On the downside, you don't have either a water elemental (which I do like immensely), or ice barrier (which is nice because the frost build is pretty mana efficient, and having a PW:S equivalent means not having to take damage either). What do you get for giving up some goodies? Well, I decided to take a real fire build for a spin for the first time ever to give it a shot.

Crispy Fried Eagle

The victim that I found was a hapless eagle in the Grizzly Hills. What the massive chunk of combat log spam I've posted above doesn't convey is the sense of time. Let's break it down.

t=0: I cast frost nova to freeze the soon to be crispy fried bird, and incidentally dealing 636 damage. Under ideal circumstances, the bird might be frozen in some other way, such as via Frostbite, but that's the start of the combo.
t=1.5s: Global cooldown is over, I used the time to back out of melee range and promptly start casting Frostfire Bolt.
t=4.5s: As this time approaches, I start mashing the button for the instant cast fireblast, thus the note in the log that I failed to cast the spell a second time because it had already gone off.
t=4.50001s (or whatever): The Frostfire Bolt has a travel time and the Fire Blast arrives instantly, so both hit our hapless frozen bird. Enter Shatter. I'm looking at a 24% base fire spell crit rate (haven't been stacking crit rating, and the stuff I have has been degrading as I leveled), plus an extra 50% because the bird is frozen. The Fire Blast crits for 2357 damage, while the Frostfire Bolt crits for 4417.
t=4.50002s (or whatever): Now my talent procs kick in. The bird is set on fire with ignite, so he should be in store for another 40% of that 6.7K pair of crits over 8 seconds. I get a lucky impact proc, which is a 10% chance on any spellcast (not just fire anymore, it's great for Frost mages too these days), so he's also stunned for 2 seconds. He's also re-frozen by Frostbite (the crits broke the original freeze) for 5 seconds. And, to add insult to injury, I get back 30% of the base mana cost of each spell from Master of Elements (even though I probably got a discount off of that base number via talents), AND a [Mark of Defiance] mana proc for good measure.
t=4.50003s: As if all that weren't bad enough, I just got two consecutive crits with qualifying Fire spells, which means it's time for Hot Streak to proc.
t=6s: I cast an instant cast Pyroblast for 2.5K damage courtesy of Hot Streak. (The pyroblast failed to crit even though the bird was frozen via frostbite, since 74% chance to crit frozen targets is still more than 1 in 4 of failing to crit.)

The hapless bird has now taken almost precisely 10K damage over a 1.5 second window (which took me a total of 6 seconds to set up). He's also ON FIRE in as many as four different ways (DOT components of the Frostfire Bolt and Pyroblast along with the two ignites). Unfortunately for Mr. Bird, what he's already taken was 569 more HP than he had.

No, we didn't light it, but we tried to fight it
This all may sound impressive, but it gets better. The Hot Streak proc itself only lasts for 10 seconds after the second crit, but you appear to have a nigh unlimited time between the first and second crits. This means that you can wait for frost nova to cool down if your previous fight ends with a crit. You'll also note that I have, but didn't use, Combustion in this example).

The point being, these procs aren't a certain thing, but they're sure enough. I ran the Violet Hold with some guildies and had no trouble at all burning down the elite ads (which, like our friend the hapless eagle, have about 10K HP). I certainly take more damage and have slightly more downtime solo, but it's not a bad deal, especially in a group setting with a quality tank and healer. Turns out that Frostfire bolt is more interesting than I thought.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Fourth Anniversary Present is Bear

Blizzard rolled out a little mini-polar bear cub, and a commemorative letter, to mark the game's fourth anniversary. I was away from the game for about five months when LOTRO came out, and there were some patches where I wasn't playing all that much, but, in general, I've been playing the game for most of those four years.

I'm not sure that I realized when I started playing that this is something I would be doing for such a long time. My mage is named "Greenwiz" because he is a wizard of sorts, and I started all of my character names with "Green-" back in the day to make it easier for my guildies to pick out whose alt they were talking to. In hindsight, I might have put a more name-like name on the character if I had realized I would have it for so long. (Technically speaking, I could pay for a name change, but it would seem strange to change it at this point, especially since I've been on the server so long and people wouldn't know it was me anymore.)

WoW and the Massively Single Player Revolution
WoW has had an interesting legacy. Before WoW, it was standard practice for MMORPG's to require mandatory grouping - you NEEDED the holy trinity of Tank-Healer-DPS to do anything. Now, almost every major MMORPG (excepting perhaps Vanguard) is designed to follow the WoW model, with solo content clear through the level cap or NPC henchmen to serve as a substitute party when other players aren't available. This is neither coincidence nor spineless copycatting, but cold reality.

The difference in subscriber numbers between the games of the Pre-WoW era and most estimates of WoW's NA/EU population is about 10-fold. This is not because nine in ten WoW players always meant to try some other game but never found the time, nor because WoW is somehow ten times better than the competition (the point could be argued in some cases, but isn't really relevant to this discussion). Rather, 90% of the modern MMORPG market consists of players who require at least some flexibility in their gaming time.

The genre has expanded beyond the stereotypes of gamers who spend 40+ hours per week in their parents' basements. The new market consists of players who aren't willing to put up with strict restrictions on their ability to play their games - e.g. that they must find a group with the correct spread of classes, and be prepared to commit 3+ hours to that group in order to make the trouble of organizing it worth the players' while. Players who are ducking on for an hour before work expect to be able to make real progress with their characters, and not merely checking the status of their auctions or barely surviving the time-consuming attempt to solo a single trivial mob that a group would plow over with ease.

Perhaps there should still be a market for games that cater to that older school market, but companies aren't willing to spend their time in that direction. The market that expects to be able to solo with at least some of their time is too much money to leave on the table.

Has the influence of WoW been a good thing?

Last night, I was doing a daily quest when my wife suddenly hollered at me. "Did you just kill a Killer Whale?!" she asked, horrified. I had, in fact, just set an Orca on fire. I was swimming in its hunting grounds (waters?) in order to catch some reef fish, it had decided that my gnome was the perfect size for a snack, and either I or the whale had to die. (Well, I suppose I could have rooted it in place with a frost nova, swam far enough away to cast invisibility, and gone somewhere else to fish, but that's a lot of work - perhaps I am a cruel cruel uncaring whale killer.)

The point of the story being that WoW has some truly spectacular production values, to the point where someone on the other side of the room can see that I just blew up what was obviously a Killer Whale. This is, perhaps, the issue with WoW's influence on the MMORPG genre. Solo quest content requires more of the precious and limited resource that is developer time.

A FFXI grinding party wouldn't think it at all strange to sit in one spot and pull a hundred of the same mob to the same location as long as it was giving them good exp. By contrast, WoW-style solo quests send players to a location, which needs to have a minimum of scenery and probably 2-3 types of mobs in the general vicinity, to kill maybe 20-30 mobs before moving on. Sometimes these mobs even need to be something other than pigs, though WoW does have a wide enough menagerie these days to fill the game world with a mix of the old and the new.

The issue with attempting to create enough solo leveling content for your game is the sheer cost - lots of content that players may only try out once, and less time to spend occupying players at the level cap. There is also the thorny issue of transitioning players from solo content into group content. Many players of non-WoW games (no offense to those of you reading this who fall into that group) blame WoW for some or all of their games' social problems as a result.

That said, there have also been real benefits to the market. Like it or not, the prospect of WoW-level numbers has raised expectations for quality. We will never know for sure what LOTRO or Warhammer might have looked like had there never been a World of Warcraft, but I'd imagine that neither would be as impressive as it is today. Having grown the market does present the opportunity for new games to grow - most players who played their first MMORPG in the last years probably started in WoW, and it wasn't actually the right game for all of them. The challenge is taking advantage of that opportunity, and I hope we do see a game succeed and get to that coveted million subscriber plateau sooner rather than later.

(It would be nice if we could, in the future, avoid doing what we did to Mythic - namely showing up in far greater than expected numbers, overcrowding the launch servers, and then leaving in equally greater than expected numbers, resulting in the derelicts of empty servers that Mythic now has to deal with somehow.)

Four More Years?

There's no indication that World of Warcraft is slowing up as it hits the age of four. Even if the game does eventually jump the shark (or, as appropriate, flaming Orca corpse), it will probably retain a fair chunk of its numbers out of sheer nostalgia value - game sellers sometimes seem reluctant to stock games that are six months old, and yet you can still find the Diablo and Starcraft games of ten years back.

In some ways, it's possible that the increasing shift in the dev cycle towards a more regular (if perhaps infrequent) patch cycle may be part of a plan to keep WoW manned - but not consuming ALL of the company's development time - as it moves ahead with the mystery fourth project and beyond. In that vein, I'll go out on a limb and predict that the second four years of WoW will see THREE expansions released instead of the two that launched in WoW's first four years. If they actually are done with patch 3.1, and mostly planned out for 3.2 and 3.3, the devs may be able to start actual work on the third expansion sooner rather than later. The fact that they're aiming at three content patches also suggests to me that they're hoping for the next expansion to be ready in a year and a half (unless the third expansion is so far out of left field that Blizzard launches a content patch post-Arthas in the Wrath era just to introduce players to the next chunk of lore).

Beyond that? As I said in that piece about the third expansion, I'm not expecting them to rock the boat. More new classes and races, perhaps, maybe even some form of alternate advancement when the prospect of characters who possess multiple 41 point talents actually breaks the class balance scheme, but nothing major. And that's alright. World of Warcraft is, for millions of players around the world, a good thing. Its happy birthday today will be followed by many more down the road.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Evaluating Lake Wintergrasp Incentives

Keen, a noted advocate of world RVR in Warhammer, came here to ask me whether I thought Lake Wintergrasp, WoW's non-instanced battleground, will add to the longevity of Wrath. I was meaning to write about this topic anyway, so I'm going to take the risk of speculating about it now. The issue from my perspective is one of incentives. In Warhammer, as Keen points out, the infrastructure for a healthy culture of frequent keep sieges is in place in the game and was there through beta, but players have opted not to use it. What will the incentives do to Lake Wintergrasp?

The Rewards
- The side that wins Wintergrasp gets a buff that awards a 5% exp bonus to the entire continent of Northrend, and the ability to loot [Stone Keeper's Shard] from any dungeon boss in Northrend (more on this later).
- The winning side gets to fight Archavon the Stone Keeper, an easy raid mob who drops tier 7 (the current raid/arena quality loot) gear. This includes the arena gear, which, unless it's changed, is a major difference because that gear otherwise requires an arena rating to obtain.
- The winners get to see special elemental ghosts in Wintergrasp (remember that you will be PVP flagged in the zone), who are good for Crystalized elements, Wrath's version of motes. These things should sell very well.
- The [Stone Keeper's Shard] is ALSO available from daily quests in Wintergrasp to kill enemy players - if I understand the system correctly, this means that the LOSING side can also get some of these. The rewards for these shards include PVP shoulder enchants, meta gems, a mount, a large number of Jewelcrafter recipes, and the coveted scaling, bind-to-account Heirloom items. Note that the vendor that takes them is only accessible to the side that wins, so your side will need to win eventually for you to spend your earnings.

The setup
Lake Wintergrasp is non-instanced and comes up for siege on a fixed time schedule, kind of like the Auchidoun ruins in Outland (home of last expansion's Spirit Shards). There are announcements about the battle in Dalaran, and there is a portal (I'm not sure if it's just for one side or both), as well as a relatively short flight from the city to the battle. The side that is outnumbered supposedly gets a buff to their health/damage numbers to try to even the odds a bit - at Blizzcon, it was suggested that the losing side can get to 300%, which could mean one-shotting unsuspecting enemies if they're not geared for PVP durability. I don't think anyone has much experience with this buff system, but it certainly sounds amusing in principle. There was also talk that the keep would get harder to hold somehow the longer one side owns it, so that may be a second equalizing force.

It is worth nothing that, unlike WoW's previous world PVP offerings, Wintergrasp is actually set up with a lot of new toys to play with, including siege vehicles. That novelty factor alone will probably convince many players to pay the place a visit at least once, but I don't think novelty alone will hold a playerbase. For example, take a look at the population in battlegrounds BEFORE the decision to offer arena epics for battleground honor was announced and the massively larger population afterwards. The novelty definitely counts for something more than what we had in Outland, but I think that Wintergrasp will stand or fall on its incentives, rather than the underlying game mechanics.

Weighing the incentives
In the long run, I don't think either the exp bonus or the elementals will sway things too much. Exp is a short term consideration, and the area is PVP flagged, so it is likely not to be a safe place for farming. So we're basically weighing the rewards for the raid content and the shards.

The raid is supposedly very easy, especially for the quality of loot it drops. If the raid can be completed by a pick up group, that could be a big draw, especially since the arena quality gear would otherwise require playing arena matches for points and rating. The boss also supposedly drops some of the PVE raid loot, but I don't expect this to make a major swing in the balance of population - Blizzard is doing a better job these days of making sure that PVP and PVE items are specialized for their specific niche in the game. The big X-factor I haven't heard anything about is how this thing will progress when the next raid/arena season begins. If the boss's loot table doesn't get an upgrade, this content would become relatively irrelevant. If the boss's loot table does improve, this raid could become very popular, especially since it is short and could be done by guilds before or after other content.

As to the shards, the soulbound rewards are not going to drive longterm involvement in the zone, but the heirloom rewards could be another story. PVP twinks will now absolutely want at least three pieces of this gear - shoulders, weapon, and PVP trinket. (This will probably have the unfortunate side effect of making low level battlegrounds even more unplayable for non-twinked alts who just want to do a little fighting as they level - exp from RVR is a key feature of Warhammer that allows players to participate in level-bracketed scenarios as they level). There is also some degree of incentive value for alt-o-holics, as this gear can be used for leveling your alts (indeed, the shoulder armor offers an exp bonus). There are other heirloom items to be had for the badges that come from Heroic Dungeons (and 10-man raids, if I have my emblem levels right), but players who are actually doing that content will probably be spending their badges on their mains for the forseeable future.

(The shards can also be converted into straight up honor, and the item in question is also account bound, meaning that you can ship honor from your PVP main to your alts.)

The Bottom Line?
The raid boss is an interesting touch, and might well encourage 1-2 major fights in Wintergrasp per day, to decide control of the dungeon during prime raiding hours. If he does get upgraded loot with each raid content patch/arena season, expect an especially fierce battle around those times. That said, I suspect that serious guilds are NOT going to schedule their raiding hours around spending X time locking down Wintergrasp before they begin, which means that most players who do the raids will probably be flying into the zone after their regular scheduled event if the zone happens to be in their faction's control.

If I'm right, we're mainly looking at the heirloom item market for twinks to drive use of Wintergrasp. The good news is that this content WILL get used - heck, people still fight over the arena drop in Stranglethorn - and the people using it will be players who actually care about PVP (i.e. probably moreso than the general WoW population). I expect this to result in a healthy battle, again, during the two windows per day that fall on peak hours, and perhaps a smaller scale skirmish during off-hours. There might be room for a medium sized PVP guild from whichever side is usually outnumbered on the server to swoop in during one of the off-hour windows and crush the straggling competition.

Will this be fun? I hope so. Will the content be used from now until the newer, better version of heirlooms rolls out in the next expansion? Yes, and perhaps even beyond (people love their twinks). Will the content replace the concept of keep siege warfare that RVR advocates in Warhammer were hoping their game would deliver? I'd like to be wrong, but, based on past experience with WoW's playerbase, I don't expect that it will.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Level 74 Wrath Update

Well, it's been a week since Wrath, and Mania beat me to the one-week retrospective punch, but I figured I might as well comment anyway.

I'm currently around 80% through level 74, honored with the Kirin Tor and Wyrmrest, revered with the Kalu'ak, and I have enough coins to be done with Grizzly Hills world PVP the next time I find the Alliance in control of the vendor. I will have basically cleaned out the Dragonblight by the time I hit 75, along with maybe 2/3-3/4 of Howling Fjord and a third or so of Borean Tundra. This is actually fewer quests than I might have anticipated to have done, but I've been able to adventure without running out of rested state, and I'm doing a fair number of daily quests. Ah well, these will be around when I hit 80, so I might as well get started on rep now.

Gear upgrades

I entered Wrath in approximately Karazhan quality gear, including the Shadoweave set and a fair chunk of Arena S1 (honor) / Honor S3 items that are Kara-quality for DPS and spend added points on Stamina and resilience. Overall, I didn't see many upgrades in the Fjord or the early parts of the Dragonblight, but it looks like 73-74 is about the magic number for replacing my old gear.

I ran Azjol Nerub, a 72-74 instance, with a group from my guild last night, and walked away with four and a half upgrades: Two quest rewards and two pieces of boss loot that the other caster didn't need. By the time I was done with these, I had broken my Shadoweave set bonus and fallen below the spell hit cap for my level, so suddenly a green 73ish quest reward with some hit rating that I had been carrying around was a clear upgrade over my shadoweave robe. Of the 16 slots where your gear stats matter, I'm now wearing Wrath items in 10.

Is the expansion too short?
Tobold calls Wrath the easy expansion, after the world's most hardcore raiders beat all the raid content in the game in under 72 hours. Scott Jennings sees this as an issue of Blizzard putting their dev time where the money is. That said, I'm wondering if the problem isn't so much the dificulty of the content as the quantity - or lack thereof.

Before Wrath even launched, Larisa painted a colorful analogy comparing us hardcore players to a spoiled dog, devouring choice beef too quickly and then wondering why he's out of food. This point can certainly be argued. That said, the question is a little bit different in the context of a development cycle that produces one expansion and four patches in two years. How quickly is too quickly to be moving through the content?

The top guild on my server has snagged at least two of the three server firsts for 25-man raids as of last night (I don't think they got Malygos yet) - these guys are a lot more dedicated than me, but not anywhere near the world elites. Note that I'm absolutely behind having a reasonable entry-level to raiding. The reason why this is a problem is because there is no second level ready now, and it won't be ready until the next content patch (which, I would guess, we won't see for a few months, since they're spending a lot of time talking about the general bugfix/balance patch that's going to come in between now and then). Are these guys too hardcore? Sure, for the sake of argument.

Or take myself. I've probably clocked more time than most residents of Azeroth, and I did have the unfair advantage of having done all the content before in beta, allowing me to really maximize the time that I do have. I'd estimate that I'm about a third of the way through the solo portions of Wrath a week in - nearing halfway to the new level cap, and probably leaving another third or so of the content to mop up for cash and rep when I get there. Am I too hardcore? Okay, let's say that I am too.

My guild has a big spread of levels. Some are 77+, some have split their time between multiple alts and/or a Death Knight, and many are in their low 70's, but almost everyone has hit level 71 on one of their characters. Are ALL of them too hardcore? If so, who ISN'T too hardcore?

Last of the Lich King?
Wrath is in some ways better than I expected it would be, but, one week in, it's looking like longevity may become a serious issue. I'm not sure what the correct level of hardcore is to make the content last from now until whenever expansion number 3 happens, but I'm guessing that - at least for people who do not choose to raid - almost everyone is going to wind up being "too hardcore".

Then again, as Rohan points out, the forum trolls may have the answer to the dedication debate. :)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What can WoW learn from the LOTRO and EQ2 expansions?

I was pretty stunned when Turbine announced a Nov 18th launch date for the LOTRO expansion. Did they not know about the 11 million pound gorilla in the room? Had some fool of a Took pulled a Leeroy on their marketing effort? All their expansion hype was going to disappear into the dust left by millions of players tromping to Northrend!

A meeting of Turbine's marketing department?

Well, when I saw that EQ2 ALSO chose Nov 18th for their new expansion, I realized what was going on. These guys AREN'T trying to expand their playerbase by winning over former WoW players in the lull after players run out of Wrath content. Indeed, I'd venture a guess that most people who have stuck with EQ2 for four years now are relatively well aware of the contrast between their game and Blizzard's. Rather, they're trying to RETAIN existing players. And that means providing an expansion at the same time as everyone else is getting their new toys (just in time for the holidays).

So here we have two other MMORPG companies designing features that they hope will help retain players, in addition to recruiting new ones (which, one is forced to concede, probably dies down as a game ages). As long as we're discussing things WoW has borrowed from Warhammer, perhaps it's worth looking at the other two MMORPG expansions of November.

Complete Editions
Both Turbine and Sony have opted to provide so-called "complete editions" of their expansions - one $40 box gets a brand new player all the other expansions that came before (and even the first month's fee). Blizzard's reasons for not doing so right now are obvious - they were presumably raking in decent cash from sales of TBC right up until Nov 13, and hoping for even more as new accounts need to upgrade twice en route to 80. Still, that, on top of the monthly fee, is both a deterrent and an inconvenience to new accounts (or upgrading accounts of former players - my wife's account still isn't TBC-capable, and $70 in expansion fees over the course of 20 levels on top of the monthly fee is a hefty price tag for re-entry). Just because Blizzard CAN throw their weight around in this dept does not mean that they SHOULD.

More Iconic Lore
Turbine has a huge advantage in this department - everyone knows their lore, and actually seeing it play out has been described as "awesome sauce". Blizzard has their work cut out for them here. While they have been happy to release additional WoW lore in the form of novels and comics, most of the players who are familiar with the lore at all are probably familiar with the lore of the GAMES. By the end of this expansion, basically all of those major figures will be defeated, leaving a variety of less iconic options for the third expansion.

Horizontal Expansion?
I've often taken it for granted that Blizzard must always expand WoW vertically - i.e. every expansion must include both a level cap increase and a gear reset, to ensure that all players consume as much of the leveling content as possible. After seeing how Wrath has unfolded, with entry level raids that are actually aimed at entry level guilds, perhaps it would be possible to have an expansion WITHOUT a cap increase. And, indeed, EQ2 is doing just that.

EQ2's Shadow Odyssey does allow for player power inflation. The game's equivalent of talent points are earned via an alternate advancement system that awards additional points for various things (many of which also award exp). With the expansion, players will get more alternate advancement points to play with. There will presumably be some loot in the new non-raid content that players can use to help tackle the old raid content as well. One might argue that both of these things are simply more levels without actually raising the technical level cap. In some ways, that's accurate, and a problem since it makes it a lot harder for players to use their level to evaluate the strength of their characters relative to the enemy. Then again, Blizzard may need to look into some form of alternate advancement. There are a variety of balance problems that are going to come with tacking on more levels, more talent points, and more skills every expansion.

Item Advancement
LOTRO is introducing named item advancement, wherein your items can gain exp and be reforged into stronger items. This system is not without its flaws; there is a heavy randomization element that will make it very hard to obtain gear with the stats players want. Also, for some idiotic reason, leveling your first legendary weapon on old world content that isn't worth exp is a prerequisite for actually being allowed to enter the expansion. Still, this idea is in some ways attractive. It might be nice to feel like your trusty weapon has stuck with you without being left behind the damage curve.

Retooling the old world, and scaling
The EQ2 expansion includes a feature WoW players have been crying for - dungeons that scale from level 50 to level 80. A large portion of WoW's content, especially the old world instances, is very hard to experience anymore simply because there aren't enough players in that specific level range to run it. With scaling instances, players who do find a group have many more options. In fact, Sony also took the time to make leveling easier (needed because, even with a decent mentoring system, their game requires more time to level in), and even to add solo content for levels below the level cap - something Blizzard just doesn't have the time to do. Maybe it's because leveling takes longer, and/or because even max level players can get alternate advancements from low level stuff, but either way, it would be nice if Blizzard could somehow find the time.

Will any of these actually make it to Azeroth?
I have no idea. But I will bet that Blizzard will be watching, and it wouldn't surprise me if a few things from this list make their way into WoW sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Will Wrath's answer to Warhammer's "RVR lakes" Work?

Warhammer online has areas within its regular PVE zones where players are flagged for RVR. These are referred to as "lakes", because they tend to be in valleys or other such places to make sure it's clear where the boundaries are, and the result looks like a lake on your minimap. Wrath has an outdoor non-instanced PVP zone, Lake Wintergrasp, that I haven't spent much time with yet, but they ALSO have a very close analogy to the RVR lake. The area around the river in the Grizzly hills (with the Lumber camp at one end and Venture Bay at the other) has a number of PVP quests in the middle of one of Wrath's PVE zones.

Since, unlike Warhammer, WoW doesn't really have a culture of occasionally giving players a countdown and then flagging them for PVP (unless it's zombie week), Blizzard handled this by implementing quests that flag players for PVP for as long as the player has the quest in their quest log. Completing these quests awards [Venture Coin], which are used to purchase a handful of items (notably ranged slot items for hybrid classes, and a pair of trinkets - click the coin link for the list). There's another "lake-equivalent" area in Icecrown, but I don't know if it has a currency.

Will it work? Well, it did lure me in there, but, in true WoW PVE form, I went first thing in the morning. All the objectives can be completed by killing enemy NPC's, and I was in and out in about half an hour with 44 coins. The most expensive item on the vendor costs 70, so this is a 2-3 visit endeavor for me. I encountered a single enemy player, who killed me while I was farming mobs and was gone before I got back.

Real world PVP in WoW? Sorry, Blizzard, not this time.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

This is your blog traffic on expansion launch day

I don't check my blog's stats much more than once a week, so imagine my surprise when I saw what happened last Thursday.

Typically, I get something like 50-200 hits per day, depending on whether I've posted anything, whether the title of said post is interesting, etc. On the expansion launch day, however, that number suddenly shot straight up to 1490, with more than 1300 of those hits via Google searches. The culprit? This post about getting to/around Northrend from August. Apparently, people wanted to know that information on launch day for some reason. :)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Guide to Wrath Mage Rep Rewards and Selective Questing

One of the quirks to this being my second trip through Northrend is that I already know where the quests are, and which quests award which faction. As such, I've been careful to steer myself towards reputations that award leveling gear and away from reputations that have no item rewards in game (e.g. the Explorer's League) or ones where I'm not going to have any trouble obtaining all the rep I need (Valiance Expedition - for some reason, that rep has way more quests than it takes to hit exalted).

For my mage, this has meant working on the Kalu'ak, who have some nice robes waiting for me at level 76, and getting a headstart now on the Kirin Tor (a 78 cape and a bunch of nice goodies for level 80) and Wyrmrest Accord (78 boots and level 80 goodies). Moreover, though, I wanted a full list of all the rep rewards that my mage would have available as I level, so that I can choose quest rewards accordingly. As I noted before, you can't swap quest rewards later, so it's good to know what you're definitely going to replace in a few levels.

The result is this little miniguide to Wrath rep rewards for mages with Tailoring. Priests may also find it useful, except that the maces are missing, and I'm pretending that this isn't useful to Warlocks, even though they equip all the same items, because I haven't forgiven them for all the times they killed my poor mage in PVP. I would have done this anyway - I don't know if that's a commentary on the state of incentives, or the state of myself, though I suppose the fact that I have an MMORPG incentive blog answers that one - but I figured I might as well pretty it up enough to post for general consumption. Those of you reading this in RSS land might find it helpful to view it on my actual blog with javascript turned on so you'll get the item tooltips. And without further ado:

Rep rewards for the Wrath Mage-Tailor (Sorted by Faction)

Alliance Vanguard (I'm presuming this is actually the Valiance Expedition)
[Orb of the Eastern Kingdoms] (Haste, Spell Power) - Revered (78 blue Offhand)
[Gnomish Magician's Quill] (Spirit, Spell Power, Frost damage) - Revered (78 blue wand)
[Arcanum of the Savage Gladiator] - Exalted (Stamina/Resilience head enchant)

Argent Crusade
[Purifying Torch] (mana regen, fire damage) - Revered (78 blue wand)
[Arcanum of the Stalwart Protector] - Revered (Tanking Head Enchant)
[Pattern: Brilliant Spellthread] (50 dmg, 20 spi) - Exalted (Tailoring Recipe)
[Signet of Hopeful Light] (Haste/Spell Power) - Exalted (80 epic robes)

Kirin Tor
[Shroud of Dedicated Research] (Haste, Spell Power) - Honored (78 blue cape)
[Arcanum of Burning Mysteries] (Spell Power, Crit) - Revered (Head Enchant)
[Flameheart Spell Scalpel] (Hit, Crit, Spell Power) - Revered (80 blue dagger)
[Pattern: Sapphire Spellthread] (50 dmg, 30 sta) - Exalted (Tailoring Recipe)
[Robes of Crackling Flame] (Haste, Spell Power, Mana Regen) - Exalted (80 epic Robes)

Knights of the Ebon Blade
[Dark Soldier Cape] (Hit, Spell Power) - Honored (78 blue Cape)
[Arcanum of Torment] - Revered (attack power, crit head enchant)
[Sterile Flesh-Handling Gloves] (Spell Power) - Revered (80 blue gloves)
[Pattern: Abyssal Bag] (Shard bag) - Revered (Tailoring recipe)
[Belt of Dark Mending] (Haste, Spell Power) - Exalted (80 epic belt)

The Wyrmrest Accord
[Sash of the Wizened Wyrm] (Hit, Spell Power) - Honored (78 blue belt)
[Arcanum of Blissful Mending] - Revered (Spell Power, Mana Regen head enchant)
[Ancestral Sinew Wristguards] (Spell Power, Blue Socket) - Revered (80 blue)
[Pattern: Mysterious Bag] (Enchanting Bag) - Revered (tailoring recipe)
[Reins of the Red Drake] - Exalted (mount)
[Sandals of Crimson Fury] (Haste, Spell Power, Blue Socket) - Exalted (80 epic boots)

[Pigment-Stained Robes] (Spell Power, Spirit) - Honored (76 blue robes)
[Turtle-Minders Robe] (Spell Hit, Spell Power) - Honored (76 blue robes)
[Mastercraft Kalu'ak Fishing Pole] - Exalted (70 epic fishing pole)
[Nurtured Penguin Egg] - Exalted (minipet)

Frenzyheart Tribe (Enemies of the Oracles)
[Disgusting Jar] - Revered (purpose unknown, presumed cosmetic)
[Muddied Crimson Gloves] (spell power) - Revered (78 blue gloves)
[Frenzyheart Insignia of Fury] (Haste, damage proc on kill) - Exalted (80 epic trinket)

The Oracles (Enemies of the Frenzyheart)
[Shinygem Rod] (Crit, Spell Power, nature damage) - Revered (78 blue wand)
[Fishy Cinch] (Spell Power) - Revered (78 blue belt)
[Mysterious Egg] - Revered (various minipets)
[Oracle Talisman of Ablation] (Crit, proc for mana regen on kill) - Exalted (80 epic trinket)

Sons of Hodir
Endgame faction, various mounts, shoulder enchants, and [Pattern: Glacial Bag], but no Mage gear.

Head Resist Enchants (All are +25 of X resist, and +30 Sta, all require Honored Rep)
Arcane R - Wyrmrest
Fire R - Kirin Tor
Frost R - Sons of Hodir
Nature R - Ebon Blade
Shadow R - Argent Crusade

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Warhammer exit poll

As you may have gathered from recent posting volume, I did not renew my subscription to Warhammer at the end of the month that comes with the box. (Brief aside: I don't understand why the online gaming community - not just Warhammer players mind you - calls this a "free" month, since you can't get it without buying a box that costs more than a month of the service.) I didn't feel this decision especially worth commenting on at the time, as it had more to do with wanting to play Wrath on my main (which I have been playing for four years now) than with NOT wanting to play Warhammer. As Syp describes, reports of the death of this game are greatly exaggerated by the timing of its launch. This is the tyranny of the monthly fee, I suppose - having more patience with the game literally costs money out of your pocket.

Well, Mythic sent out a poll to former subscribers to try and found out precisely how many of us aren't playing anymore because of Wrath. I figured that I'd cut them a little deal, by putting a little more thought into the survey than I otherwise would have, in exchange for providing me with material for a blog post. This way (hopefully ;)) at least someone is going to read it.

Question 1: Why did you decide to stop playing?

I have zero complaints about customer service, the general quality of the game, etc, etc. The two gameplay tickboxes I did click are the same ones I, and everyone else, has been talking about - the incentives herd players into scenarios, meaning that there aren't players around to participate in public quests or open RVR. And, ruh roh, I clicked the "went back to another game" box....

Question 2: You're leaving us for Wrath, aren't you?!

Lest there be any doubt about why this particular survey was sent out this particular week, note that they've allowed two separate checkboxes for World of Warcraft AND Wrath of the Lich King, just to make absolutely sure that they get everyone. Also note that they strangely do NOT list Lord of the Rings Online, which has an expansion coming out this week. I suppose you just don't talk about competitors that are smaller than you, for fear of giving them publicity.

Question 3: What makes that game experience better/different than Warhammer?
Response (my actual response to the form):
"Warhammer's scenarios are excellent, but the server population in my level bracket did not support open RVR or public quest content (which was good when players were available to participate). World of Warcraft offers superior solo quest content; though its PVP is inferior, I feel I am investing in a character I will use again in the next patch/expansion. I did not feel that item rewards from RVR/PQ's improved my performance sufficiently to be noticed in scenarios. Either there were other players supporting me and my side won, or we were disorganized and my side lost. This basically removed the incentive to participate in the non-scenario content, and thus most of the depth from the game."

Question 4: When you played Warhammer Online, how did you primarily play?
A: Solo RVR. Other options were solo, PQ's with an informal group, PQ's with a group you joined (I'm guessing this means finding a group first and then looking for a PQ, rather than joining whatever open group - if any - is already at the PQ when you arrive), Joined and played in a Guild, Scenario RVR, and joined a warband to crush my enemies. Yes, the crushing of enemies thing was actually in the survey. I suppose I could have ticked the Scenario RVR box instead, but I wasn't sure if they meant that to imply joining with a premade group.

Question 5: How likely would you be to play Warhammer again if your issues were addressed?
A: Definitely would consider (5 on a scale of 1 to 5), by which I mean that I'm almost certain I will get back to Warhammer sometime in the next year (though EA only cared about the number, rather than any additional commentary).

Question 6: What additional feature would influence you most to logging back in?

Honestly, there isn't that much wrong with the game's zones or creatures, the issue is that the incentives don't encourage players to use the above. Of the options, I felt the quest team was the closest one to blame, but this one could really have used a write-in.

Question 7: So, which one of our marketing people gets credit for selling you the game in the first place?

A: At least this time they included a write-in, so I made sure to give a shout-out to the blogosphere.

Question 8: What did you like most about the game?

A: This one was easy, RVR and exploring the world. I suppose I should have written in scenarios just in case they're listening to the people who want them gone from the game. Oh well.

Question 9: Are you allergic to the concept of paying monthly fees?

The actual question asks whether you've played MMO's before, but they break it out into subscription vs free to play. Inquiring minds at EA, home of microtransaction central, want to know!

Question 10: How many other MMO's did you subscribe to while playing Warhammer?
A: 1, choices were 0, 1, 2, and 3 or more. Perhaps they're following up on Mark Jacob's silly assertion that the idea that players only play one subscription game at a time is silly. Personally, it's not so much that I can't afford the second fee as that I don't have time to play more than one game, so I effectively vote with my virtual feet.

Question 11: Have you ever subscribed to the following MMORPG's?

Again, LOTRO, which was, as far as I know, arguably the number 2 North American MMO until Warhammer came along, is not even on the list. Can't risk reminding players about the competition I suppose. Technically speaking, one could argue that it isn't possible to "subscribe" to Guild Wars, whose entire business model is the lack of a monthly fee, but I suppose it's a bit much to expect the guys in EA marketing to do that much research. Also, I paid Square about $5 in pro-rated monthly fee before pulling the plug on their mandatory grouping based game, so I'm not sure that I really count as subscribing per se.

Question 12: What other systems that EA sells games for do you own?

The PC is the clear winner in terms of my gaming time, and I do occasionally stick my nose into the web-based Kingdom of Loathing (which I used to play a lot more seriously a few years ago). I wasn't sure which of my various consoles, none of which I've bought a new game for since March, to list in the number three slot. And, if I start getting email from EA regarding random Wii shovelware after clicking the Wii checkbox, I won't feel a moment's guilt in flagging it as spam.

Question 12: How much time do you spend gaming?
A: More than 10 hours/week. Actually, it's probably more like 10 on the nose, but 10 or more was the largest option in the poll. The others were less than 3, 3-5, 6-9, 10+, and "not sure". I'd be curious to see why they didn't ask about a higher number, given MMORPG stereotypes and all.

Questions 13-15: A/S/L?
A: Actually, they wanted my email instead of my location, and I would have thought that they already HAD my email since they sent me an invitation to take the survey. Go figure.

Strangely, they didn't actually ask me for any suggestions, other than the multiple choice "what would bring you back". If they HAD asked for a suggestion, I might have suggested some form of looking for guild interface, or *gasp* forum. I wasn't in a guild until the very end of my time in Warhammer, and, frankly, they were mostly active in the tier above my level bracket. (I might not have joined a guild at all, except I needed one to get at the RVR gear vendor.)

Overall, though, I didn't leave Warhammer with any hard feelings. Perhaps I would have gotten more tired of it if I'd spent more time doing nothing but scenarios (which were, at least in the quantities I did them, enjoyable). This way, Mythic can have more time to polish the game up, notably with the forthcoming Heavy Metal patch, and it should be ready to put its best foot forward when I decide I want a break from Wrath. Everyone wins. Well, except EA. They're very sad that I'm not paying them anymore. Sorry EA.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Wrath and the drive-by reputation

One of the quirks of playing a game in beta is that that some of the content that you see isn't really done yet. For example, when I wrote about Northrend's blimp daily quest, I had no way of knowing that some of the non-repeatable quests I had completed around the frozen North were going to become daily quests. With these changes, it appears that most or all of the reputations in Northrend can be soloed to exalted. This is a good thing, even if some of the daily quests are a bit, well, quirky.

Feedback I left in beta (approximate text): Don't come crying to me when the parents' groups say that the game encourages walrus fornication!

One thing that they've actually done pretty differently is designing reputations that are relevant as players level. Wrath had some reps and rep rewards targeted at low level players, but they often took so much work to complete that players would have outleveled the rewards before they finished. This isn't bad for rep grinds that award endgame items, but it's a problem for leveling items.

Enter the Kalu'ak. I'm already most of the way to revered with the faction, just for working on non-repeatable quests (and there are more than enough left to put me into revered). There are two daily quests (which weren't repeatable in beta) that I know of so far (haven't finished the Borean Tundra stuff yet), so this is going to be a nice easy trip to exalted, on content aimed at players around level 70-72.

The rewards are gear for characters at 76 (honored) and 78 (revered), which is perhaps a bit odd given that I'm going to have the rep for both long before I hit the level to use it (a complete reversal of the trends from Wrath). I would have expected level 72ish gear, with the stuff from the later 70's reserved for content that's actually in that level bracket. The rewards at the end of the line for getting to exalted with the walruses are a [Mastercraft Kalu'ak Fishing Pole], and a penguin non-combat pet. It will be worth some attention to go back and tackle this stuff, even at level 80, for players who like to fish or collect pets. Overall, though, this rep is designed to be just about finished as you level.

Personally, I'm not 100% decided on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing yet. I like my rep rewards as well as the next player, and I would have been willing to do a little bit more work to get them, even though they're leveling items. Then again, I played in beta, and I already know where all the quests and quest objectives are. Either way, though, this is something new to WoW and perhaps different (well, unless you play Warhammer, in which case you might say that it bears a bit of a resemblance to the PQ influence system). Perhaps Wrath has more tricks up its sleeve than I realized.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ready to embark to Northrend

Well, I've picked up my expansion box (ah, the joys of having to go to a physical store to pick up a small sticker on the outside of the disc holder), and upgraded my account for Wrath. In an ironic turn, I'm actually not feeling all that well today, but I will be at work faking being well on expansion launch day because there's a meeting I didn't want to miss.

This screenshot does a reasonable job summing up my preparations. My quest log is completely empty. I've cleared out all but the most useful of the stuff from my bags - remaining are my hearthstone, enchanting rod, reagents (note the lack of light feathers, thanks to the [Glyph of Slow Fall]), fishing gear, and a few consumables. (I also have a small care package with some mana regen weapon oil and foods and mats for a few bags I had been holding off on making until I could get tailoring skill points for.) You'll also note some empty spots on the sidebar where items for level 70 daily quests used to live. I'm signed off in Menethil Harbor of the Wetlands, the closest Inn (gotta start on that rested exp for the first time in two years) to a dock that leads to Northrend.

Haven't logged off there in a while...

I do wish that I'd had time to clear out more space in my bank (I've only got 20-25ish slots), and to finish out a few achievements and quests (the items for which are occupying space in the crowded bank), but, either way, I'm ready to roll for the expansion.

Edit to add: My old post from August about getting around Northrend appears to be popular with Google searches over the last few days. If you're curious about your travel and banking/training needs, you might find it helpful.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Loremaster of Kalimdor and Retrofitting Achievements

My mage needs to find 15 more quests somewhere on the continent of Kalimdor. Supposedly these exist, though I've swept every town and questhub on the continent. I know where to find a few of them - 2 for finishing the Timbermaw grind, a couple in Dire Maul, there's the very end of the Dartol's line that I'm not turning in unless it's the only way since I don't want to lose the furbolg rod, and there's the other side of the centaurs in Desolace, though those guys really hate me because you lose 100 rep with one faction for every 4 rep you gain with the other. On the other hand, I've completed a decent chunk of the raid and dungeon 2 questlines, which, by some accounts, should excuse me from some of the more onerous activities.

Retrofitting old content
Say what you will about the differences between WoW's achievements and Warhammer's Tome of Knowledge unlocks, but Warhammer's system gets a big advantage for having been in place at launch. Adding in these achievements for the old world has caused a real phenomena in the game, documented in this comic.

Most of the attention for the WoW Loremaster achievement line has been focused on Kalimdor; Outland and Nothrend have zone-by-zone sub-achievements, so you know exactly where to look, while the Eastern Kingdoms has way more quests than are needed for the achievement. Kalimdor, though, requires very close to the maximum for the Alliance side, which means that it suddenly matters how many quests don't award credit for the correct (or any) continent, etc. It's all very inconsistent - one major questline from the Shimmering Flats awards Kalimdor credit for quests done in the Eastern Kingdoms as payment for the favor that the guy in Kalimdor wants, while the infamous Rakinishu, Demon questline from the Blasted Lands awards a chunk of Kalimdor credit even though you're doing it at the behest of the ghost in the Eastern Kingdoms.

The UI is lacking

The root cause of the problem is that Blizzard didn't go through and do the job properly, because they simply don't have the time to wade through thousands of quests and make sure each step of each one is scored for the correct zone (perhaps accompanied by sub-achievements). The symptoms, though, are a mess.

Lots of new quests?

One thing Blizzard has done to improve things is implement a low-level quest tracking system. The bad news is that the system does not distinguish between repeatable and non-repeatable quests. The worse news is that some repeatable quests do count for the achievement, while others do not. But the real kicker is that there's no reliable way in game to tell whether you've done quests that start from item drops. The item won't drop again to let you know that you've already completed the quest when you click on it. In many cases the quest NPC's at the end of the line don't in any way acknowledge that you did whatever it was for them. So, you're just up with your memory of what you may or may not have done four years ago.

Nope, just a bunch of repeatable quests that don't matter.

There is a design question as to whether the achievement itself is too hard, but, beyond that, the real problem is that it's very hard to go back and retrofit content without having side issues like this. The achievement system on a whole remains a good addition to the game, with nice incentives to tackle out of the way content. Still, little frustrations like this one, which I'm probably going to park until after I'm level 80, definitely detract from the overall quality and fun of the system.

Pre-expansion server blues

To recap the last 24 hours:
- WoW's servers went down yesterday at 8 AM for the weekly maintenance (the one that we are not entitled to compensation for).
- Somehow, something they did during the maintenance wiped the contents of the in-game mail system. This is actually a major issue because players use the mail system for item storage. I question whether that is more work for the database than just letting you keep as much stuff as you need in inventory, actually moving all of the various soulbound currency tokens into the currency tab so that they don't take up space, and/or reducing the number of items you literally cannot replace if you get rid of them. Regardless, this kept the servers down until almost midnight.
- Now the servers are down again because they somehow managed to remove all costs from some of the PVP gear. This bug popped up in beta and I'm guessing some tired tech didn't check their builds while dealing with the mail debacle.

That's not a very impressive record leading up to the day the expansion goes live. I guess the goal is to have the servers up and running at midnight, when the actual big event happens. In the mean time, while Larisa is taking a walk down memory lane as the TBC era closes in Europe, I'm looking at an empty select server screen. Somehow, perhaps foolishly, I had expected better of Blizzard. This may bode poorly for the weekend.

(In fairness, Blizzard did issue a three day time credit a week ago for the first round of expansion-patch related downtime and server instability. If you figure on 5 million North American/European subscribers paying $0.50 a day, that's a $7.5+ million apology.)

P.S. Street Dates
Meanwhile, and I put this in its own section since it's technically something I have a choice on, if the servers are up this time tomorrow, when I would normally log in, I won't be able to visit Northrend. That's because I won't be picking up my expansion box in time to get it installed until after work. I suppose it's a way of self-selecting the people most eager to get on - people willing to come home after a midnight launch party to start playing will have a chance, if the servers are even up, to play with the most quiet continent of Northrend the game will see until the next expansion.

Still, it's a bit of an annoyance to have the servers go live on the game's actual street date, especially when you read stories about how other players managed to snag copies from retailers who were incompetent enough to break the date. LOTRO is not only allowing direct online upgrades to the expansion but ALSO allowing them in advance, so that everyone who wants to participate in their launch can do so without staying up all night and/or skipping work.

(Blizzard probably doesn't have the option of doing direct download on launch day - retails would quite possibly retaliate with decreased shelf space if denied a cut of the expansion launch sales.)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Last Ride of Cheerydeth, the Death Knight

With the end of the Wrath Beta, Cheerydeth, my level 80 beta Death Knight, officially retired into the mists of history. I don’t regret the 5 days and 9 hours /played I invested in Cherrydeth The First in the slightest – the beta was a very unique opportunity to see how the development process I spend so much time writing about actually works in action. Still, in the absence of a formal end of beta event bash, I felt that Cheery deserves one last hurrah. Hopefully, you, my readers, will indulge her with one post on Player vs Developer that isn’t directly about either players or developers, but rather, one pink pig-tailed Death Knight’s ride into the sunset.

“They say that the world is ending,” Cheerydeth thought to herself. “Funny. After the struggle against Illidan, the invasion of the Scourge, and the counteroffensive by all the peoples of Azeroth into the heart of Northrend, I always figured this world would go out with a bang. Instead, they say we’re all just going to cease to be. Probably the mages’ fault, or maybe Malygos. Magic can be irritating like that.”

Cherry shook her head as she rode her motorcycle down the streets of Dalaran. A cheese vendor lept out of her way at the last minute, cursing the day the Kirin Tor allowed regular adventurers into the city. Somehow, Cheery had a hard time feeling bad for them. She’d rather be flying overhead on her gyphon than running people off the street, but apparently the mages felt strongly about not allowing flight inside the city. Some idiocy about how having people swooping in and out to conduct their business in peace disrupts the feeling of the city. Cheery wasn’t sure why a group that wouldn’t let people in unless they appeared to be powerful enough to be useful cared quite so much about community to begin with, but then, she supposed that she might make a few changes of her own if someone ever gave her a magical flying city to run.

Cheery swung by the bank to dig through the piles and piles of arms and armor that littered her vault. Back in her living days, she would no doubt have been horrified at how many soldiers of the Alliance must have fallen in battle to leave so much gear lying around for every random post commander on the continent to hand out sets of armor to anyone who could complete a basic assignment and come back alive. If she ever wanted to start her own army, she could personally equip a decent sized adventuring party, perhaps even a small raid. Cheery passed by the enchanted jewelry from the mages, the armor of the Argent Crusade, the weapons of the Valiance Expedition, and the miscellaneous shiny objects from the strange puppymen of Sholazar Basin, for something she had not dug out for a very long time.

Most of her fellow Death Knights of the Ebon Blade had been eager to replace the Saronite gear they had worn until the day that the Knights ceased to serve Arthas. Cheery, though, had carefully stashed every last item away in her vault. Perhaps the Adamantite armaments of Outland had proven more effective in combat than the crudely forged gear of the unliving Scourge, but Cheery was not willing to forget who she had become so easily. Arthas’ plague had transformed her into something neither Gnome nor mindless Scourge, and the power of the Light had returned her will and control of her mind. The jet black plates and the glow of the runeblade reminded her of whom she had been, and why she had fought so hard to protect others from the same fate.

Cheery climbed to the top of the Inn and hopped out onto the roof, again cursing the Mages’ no-fly zone for making her take the long way, to take one last look at the city. She supposed that it was impressive how a city that spent years enclosed in a bubble within the ruins of Lordaeron now hovered above the serene but nigh deserted Crystalsong Forest. Despite the forest’s central location on the continent, neither the Scourge nor the invading forces of the Alliance and Horde had established much of a foothold in the area. Cheery guessed that the explanation for the general lack of population in the area beneath the city was probably another one of those magic things she’d rather not know about.

“Well,” she muttered, “might as well take advantage of it while it lasts.”
Cheery hopped off the roof, injuring herself, and tapped the power of one of the blood runes engraved on her Runeblade to instantly heal the wounds. There are, she supposed, some perks to the un-life. The Silver Covenant had installed portals to all of the cities of the Alliance, and even Outland’s Sanctuary city of Shattrath, in the courtyard. Cheery didn’t consider her choice for long, as the moments until the end of the worlds ticked away. Without hesitation, she stepped through the portal to Stormwind and returned to where her journey had begun.

Upon materializing in the Mages’ tower in Stormwind, she let her Netherwhelp out of its carrier, and summoned a ghoul for good measure. Riding around with a ghoul seemed to make the living folks around town nervous, but Cheery was somehow alright with this. That idiotic beggar outside the Stormwind Auction House didn’t seem to bother her so much when he saw a slathering ghoul at her side; Cheery did not for the unlife of her understand how none of the heroes inflicted with The Plague during the invasion had bothered to eat him first. Cheery lept from the ramp leading down from the top of the Mages Tower, tapping the faithful Blood Rune a second time, to avoid Archmage Malin. She may not be alive anymore, but, somehow, she couldn’t quite look the man in the eye after events in the Dragonblight. Sometimes the Kirin Tor could be more ruthless than the Ebon Blade when it came to such matters.

Cheery activated her white Mechanostrider and rode towards the Harborway that she had helped build, literally a life ago. As always, the ghoul, and her intrepid Netherwhelp somehow kept up, despite the Strider’s speed. Cheery never fully understood why the Lich King had taken everything of her former life but the little blue Dragonling’s collar. Perhaps a Lich King simply did not trouble himself with such harmless creatures, despite the great speed they exhibited when their master was speeding away on a robotic strider. Cheery closed her eyes for a moment, listening to the bird’s metallic clanking.

She had kept the armor and the Runeblade that Arthas had bade her soak in the blood of the Scarlet Crusade, but she did try to keep her use of the Deathcharger bonded to her to a minimum; its shrieking was, frankly, annoying. Obtaining a new strider had been one of the first things she sought after breaking free of the Scourge. While riding it, trusting that its navigational computer would take it to her destination, it was as if she were still alive.

Finally, Cheery reached her destination. She peered out across the canals around the grand archway and the path to the harbor that sat on the coast below Stormwind. The harbor had always been there, of course, but seemingly no one knew where it was or how to get there. Lord Bolvar had commissioned a fine team from Dun Morogh to blast a path down the mountains so that the people of Stormwind could reach it, ironically right before the Scourge had invaded and more adventurers than ever had needed to reach the port, and, through it, Northrend. Cheery wasn’t sure how many of the Ebon Blade had anything from their past lives that evoked any sense of pride; certainly the deeds they did since they turned had done a bit to dull the enthusiasm for their own past. Still, Cheery always loved that archway for some reason. Perhaps its sheer practicality was enough to appeal to the ruthless sense of aggression that simmered under the surface of all Death Knights’ cold exterior. Cheery wasn’t sure, but it was here she waited for the end.

Cheerydeth staggered groggily down to the main room of the Gilded Rose, dusting the cobwebs from her eyes. She gratefully accepted a glass of [Ice Cold Milk] from Innkeeper Allison.

“Another rough night?” asked the Innkeeper, worried about the sleep-deprived state of her guest.

“Yeah,” Cheery muttered, “More dreams.”

“Out hunting Witches again?” asked Allison, “What was that city you lived in, Altdorf?”

“No,” said Cheery, shaking her head. “No such tall, leggy antics for me. I was my regular old, gnome-shaped Death Knight self.”

“Oh,” said Allison, remembering the night when an Argent healer had delivered a barely-alive gnome who had narrowly survived infection with the plague infesting the city.

“Yeah,” said Cheerydeth. “It’s strange, though, it’s like she was somehow going away.”

Allison thought about that for a minute. “Maybe it’s the news from the front? That we’re taking the fight to Arthas, that the Argent Dawn has launched a crusade and even the Horde has joined us in striking back after the invasion?”

Cheerydeth nodded. “Yeah, perhaps that’s it.” She munched on a chunk of [Freshly Baked Bread] for a minute. “Oh, that reminds me. I heard back from Master Shaw... err, I mean the guy from the inscription shop. They said they didn’t have anything for me just yet, but someone named Marshal Dughan was looking for adventurers in some town down the road. Maybe I’ll be out of your hair sooner than we thought after all.”

Allison smiled. “Well, I’m sure they’ll find a good use for you in Goldshire. Say, when did you take an interest in inscription?”

Cheery shuffled uncomfortably for a second, thinking quickly. “Uh, it’s something the Death Knight version of me did, seemed like it might be fun. And hey, the market for glyphs took off overnight around here. No one had heard of them last week, and now everyone seems to have a few. Certainly seems safer than my old job as an engineer.”

Allison thought back a moment to the time she went past the canal district while Cheerydeth was working on the SW Harbor gateway, only to see her perched on top of a literal wagonload of explosives. “Fair enough. Well, you’re welcome to leave your Hearthstone here at the Rose for as long as you want. ”

Cheerydeth nodded. “Absolutely. I’ll be in and out of town to visit the trainers anyway. This won’t be the last time you hear of Cheerydeth.”