Friday, May 29, 2009

Newbie Control Help

Yesterday, I got a necro-comment from Magson on my very first EQ2 post, back when I was having trouble finding the "sell" function on NPC's.

At the time, I blamed the game's "hail" command (which gives you all of the separate options for an NPC, such as buying, selling, starting quests, etc), but the more likely culprit is that not all EQ2 vendor NPC's will actually buy all of your junk. Most likely, I hailed one NPC and was given separate options to buy or sell stuff, and later decided that a different NPC wasn't buying my stuff because I had hailed him to buy instead of sell.

Nowadays, I don't hail things at all. There's an option in the user interface for "double click to perform 'default action'" (with an exception for when the "default action" is to attack the target). Clicking this on most functional NPC's will bring up their vendor UI without the need to select it from a menu.

There are two minor quirks to this approach. First, doubleclicking a quest giver who also happens to sell stuff will open the vendor UI in addition to starting a conversation with them about their quest. Not a huge deal, you just have to close the vendor window to see what the NPC is saying. The other issues is that the "default action" if you double click on a piece of player-made furniture is to "examine" the furniture. The worksmanship that went into the carpet sitting behind our guild hall broker is fascinating, but what I really wanted was to talk to the broker instead of opening a description window that I have to click on to close (pushing escape also closes the broker window that I actually WANTED open).

Sounds like a bit of an annoyance, right? Well, a bit over four months into my stay in Norrath, it turns out that I still don't know the basics of the user interface. Magson pointed out that the F key can also be used for "default action". If, instead of attempting to double click the broker at the risk of missing and examining the countertop, I mouse over the broker until the icon changes and then and push F, I'm very unlikely to miss, and thus everything works perfectly. (That said, if there's an option for "double click for default action when the default action is neither attack target nor examine furniture", I'd be happy to hear about it.)

Learning the ropes
The fact is, learning the basics of an MMORPG is pretty hard. I remember having a conversation with Riannon relatively early on in my EQ2 career to the effect of "I'm moving very slowly instead of running, and it's not because I pushed either the "X" or the "C" key, what wrong key did I press?" (Sadly, I don't remember what the answer was, so, for all I know, I'm going to need to ask again sometime.)

If you're lucky, people will bail you out when you warp into an unexpectedly hostile star system or whatever, but, for the most part, we learn by doing. It's usually possible to figure out how things work to some minimal level in order to play the game, but you won't try things that don't occur to you. For example, I have no idea what would prompt someone to think "F" for "default action". Perhaps it's merely close to the traditional WASD movement keys, I don't know. For that matter, I've hit level 61 in EQ2 without ever playing in a group, which could be a problem if I ever try to attempt it.

Then again, it's not exactly as if throwing a massive manual at the player before they've even tried the game is going to help them learn. There's a reason why Free Realms' user interface accessibility gets so much praise - you actually don't need to read a book to figure out how it works. Meanwhile, a more demanding game is going to require more options and more commands, so going with extremely simple isn't always going to be an option.

In conclusion, hard user interface design is hard.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Persistent Reward Is A Lie

The central tenet in most of the major MMORPG's these days is that time investment improves your persistent character. The persistence, not unlike the cake, is a lie. MMORPG's change all the time, whether through balance tweaks, addition of new content, or player behavior. A handful of extreme cases - the closing of AC2 and Tabula Rasa, or the complete redesign of Star Wars Galaxies - are notorious precisely because they drive home the truth that everything we have in an online game is far more temporary and fragile than we would like to believe.

In the last few weeks, we have seen an unusual number of significant mid-expansion balance changes that affect the value of incentive rewards that players have already obtained. Perhaps the changes are necessary, but that will come as little confort to players who already obtained the rewards, and are now about to discover just how temporary they were. A brief rundown:

  • WoW Jewelcrafters will have their profession-specific gems nerfed in the next major content patch, because the current versions are superior to other professions' self-only perks. Personally, I narrowly avoided getting burned by this one, as the gems were so good that I had been considering switching my own profession choices to get them.

  • EQ2 is nerfing procs after finding that the current versions produced more damage and healing than intended.

  • In the wake of problems with players exploiting City of Heroes' shiny new Mission Architect feature, the developers are removing kill badges that players had created custom missions to farm.

As Blizzard discovered in their failed attempt to reset PVP honor pre-Wrath, reducing the value of player rewards/currencies by inflation is far more acceptable than taking the rewards away outright. This puts the developers in a tough spot when they launch content and discover that they screwed up.

Consumer Confidence in MMORPG Incentives
Eric at Elder Game took a look at the Cities of Heroes situation and writes that players aren't sure which content is "safe" to play since the only policy is that the GM who banned you was correct if Paragon wants them to be. The potential effects he describes on the game - millions in support costs, and a constant need for developers to band-aid the Architect system instead of creating new content - sound troubling. However, if the lack of a policy actually undermines player confidence in the whole reward structure of MMORPG's - time invested leading to improvements to your persistent character - that would be more of a Doomsday scenario.

Many raiding guilds already run into trouble at the end of an expansion cycle, when players decide that they're uninclined to invest a large amount of time and effort into raiding for gear that will be reset in a few weeks. The last thing developers need is for players to start making that kind of meta-game decision (are they going to nerf this mid-expansion?) year-round.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Confessions of an EQ2 Non-Achiever

I have a bit of a confession to make: I have been doing trivial grey quests in EQ2.

In WoW, I tend to try and push the envelope. Whether it's min-maxing my gear with pages of gear analysis, attempting to solo old group instance, or trying to tackle small group quests on my own, I'm happy to seek out a challenge.

By contrast, in EQ2 I find myself chasing after whatever content seems the most interesting, even if it is below, or way below my level. Case in point, the newly revised Lavastorm with the Sootfoot Goblin questline, which I decided to run through even though half of it was already grey to me at the time I started. Then I went through and tackled the Bloodline Chronicles, a long storyline that pits players against vampires, intended for groups in the late 30's (which had been grey for at least half a dozen levels). From there, it was on to some largely non-combat quests on the Isle of Mara.

By the time I was done with all of this, I was left to decide whether to skip the entire Desert of Flames expansion after having hit level 60 without using any of its content.

Too much experience revisited
Back in February, shortly after I started playing EQ2, I wrote that I was concerned that I was going to outlevel and miss content due to the game's recently quickened exp curve. My concern seems somewhat justified.

The "easy" solution to my current situation would be to argue that content that's more than 5 levels below your character should not award significant amounts of experience. At the current pace, hacking away at easier content offers almost as much experience as the toughest stuff your character can handle, while requiring far less in terms of preparation, gear, and min-maxing. For example, obtaining the good quality "mastercrafted" gear is rarely worthwhile in an environment where I can expect to outlevel the gear almost as soon as I can pay for it.

Then again, that still doesn't explain why I'm spending time on quests that have gone completely grey.

This is the hand-crafted axe I had been using as a mainhand weapon until I got an impressive upgrade for finishing the new questline in the Lavastorm.

Experiencing Content, Rather Than Challenging It
In the end, strangely enough, challenge does not seem to be a big part of the game for me. Working for monks under siege by pirates, incredibly stupid goblins, and occasionally inept vampire hunters has allowed me to explore Norrath and learn about the people living there. Combat is part of the game, and I do like a tough fight every so often, but I find myself enjoying the non-combat quests (and the ones where the combat is trivial due to my level) as much as the most difficult trials.

Maybe I should care that the exp curve isn't in the right place, but, somehow, it doesn't matter to me as much as I thought it would. I'm doing the content that interests me and leaving the rest for future alts, rather than worrying about trying to squeeze in as many AA points as possible on my first character. The incentives say that this is the wrong choice. I'm supposed to be level locking and tackling as much content as possible so that my character gets the maximum number of alternate advancement points, rather than spreading the quest completions between two alts. (This is the approach I took with LOTRO's deed system.) But I'm not, and I don't regret it.

Perhaps some of it is that I don't plan on raiding. I've already come to terms with the concept that Lyriana is probably never going to see her Mythical Epic Weapon unless I let Stargrace have a few minutes at the keyboard. This means that I'm free from needing to worry about whether I have enough AA's and DPS to satisfy a group. (Indeed, I still have yet to actually do anything in a group at level 60.) Then again, I don't really raid full-time in WoW or LOTRO, and I put much more effort into min-maxing both games.

EQ2 offers interesting plotlines, non-combat and crafting quests, and conversations with questgivers that encourage me to actually read the quest text. I guess these things have added up to shift my attitude towards the game. Given that I signed up looking for a change of pace, that isn't a bad thing.

I even went to the bother of casting Lyriana's dark elf illusion spell for this conversation with a pirate. There was no reason why I had to, it just felt right to put on a more evil-looking appearance, especially since I'd just been slaughtering his men as my normal, Fae self.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Everybody's Working On The Weekend

I suppose this would have been more appropriate for July 4th, but it's still funny.

SOE has rolled out a double exp weekend, including crafting exp. Since that area has been a bit of a struggle for me, I'm pretty happy with this development (though I wish they'd announced it sooner, so I could have saved more tradeskill vitality for the occasion). I burned through a level in about 20 minutes flat this afternoon, which is a good thing given that Lyriana gained two adventuring levels in the last day and a half.

I can see pros and cons to this sort of event. Many players, myself included, travel on holiday weekends, and might not get to take advantage. Also, there's a real question of whether I WANT more bonus exp, given that my adventuring level is advancing just fine with the boosts I already have. (There is an option to disable bonus exp, which I may temporarily activate, though I'm not sure exactly what it applies to.)

Then again, I suppose a little perk or two can be a good thing, especially since the bonuses run through Tuesday. Hope all your cookouts are free from bits of exploded Fae!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

People Watching At SOE

Yesterday's EQ2 Producer's Letter announced the departure of Producer Bruce Ferguson from the game. Explaining the move, Ferguson says only, "I'm moving on within SOE to another position".

Meanwhile, Tipa's daily blogroll documents another SOE personnel shuffle; if I'm following things correctly, EQ1's producer left for a mystery project, EQ1 then appropriated Vanguard's producer, and Vanguard players found out that they no longer had a producer from reading the EQ forums (oops).

All of this seems to mirror moves Blizzard is making as work on Mystery Project 4 ramps up in Irvine. As I said at the time, your best people need to be on board well ahead of launch if they're really going to have the opportunity to improve the game. Apparently the timing was right for SOE's mystery project as well.

Tipa is pulling for EQ3, but I'm not convinced. If they call the game EQ3 (or set it in Norrath without calling it EQ3), there are going to be the following camps of people:

A) May or may not have ever played any EQ games, but associate the brand with mandatory grouping, harsh death penalities, and mob grind-fests of old-school EQ1, and won't play the new game as a result.

B) Liked those aspects of EQ1 and sign up to play the new game, only to leave in disgust when it turns out not to be a flashback to 1999.

C) Like one or both of the current games and show up primarily on the strength of the brand name, but cancel their current subscriptions in the process (fragmenting the EQ playerbase between a total of three games).

D) Show up for the EQ brand name but with no preconceived notions and without cannibalizing the existing games' subscriptions.

Unless SOE can be certain that group D substantially outweighs the other three groups combined, they're better off leaving the name EQ3 in the wine cellar to age a few more years and going with a new IP. At least, that's my guess. We'll see what happens when they're ready to pop the cork on whatever it is they're brewing up in San Diego.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Yet Again With The Travel Timesinks

The last time I posted about EQ2 crafting, Loredena suggested that I look into the tradeskill instances added in the most recent expansion. This seemed like a nice way to break up the crafting grind, so Lyriana set off to the Moors of Ykesha to get started.

The Moors are a level 75-80 zone, and Lyriana is in her low 50's. This would seem to be a problem, and EQ2 goes to some lengths to allow level characters to progress to the maximum crafting level, so they needed a solution. The solution they came up with was to have the NPC offer to teleport players on to their next destination (corpse-hopping is not an option, as EQ2 players are revived back at the nearest graveyard after death).

Where to begin....
Among my various complaints about this arrangement:

- Upon accepting the questgiver's teleport, I was sent to the other side of a zone I have never been in before (where the next questgiver was located). A zone with mobs that one-shot me the moment they aggro.

- There is a network of balloon transport NPCs who will send you to other stations. Of course, I had no idea what the station for the town that I had started in was called, since I had not visited the balloon station before being teleported across the zone. After looking it up and watching my character spend several minutes floating there, I discovered that the station is located outside the main town of the zone, and getting back into town requires that I complete a quest. A quest that starts in the town that I was stuck outside of. At this point, I had to resort to my Dirge's "evacuate" ability, which teleported me to the closest graveyard (the one inside the town, thankfully).

- Having gotten the basics of travel around the zone down, it was time to actually start working on the quests. Though the game permits me to accept and complete these quests, doing so requires materials harvested from the highest level harvesting zones. This is sensible, because the Moors are such a high level zone. Unfortunately, I cannot harvest in the Moors due to my low level. This meant that I had to teleport out of the zone to my guild hall and do the crafting in the guild hall using the guild harvest supply box.

- Getting back to the Moors themselves requires a teleport (hope you remembered to touch the blessed shrub in the town before you teleported out) or a trip to the Sinking Sands to wait for an airship. Once you're there, according to the Wiki, it's necessary to use the cannon to leave town, talk to the balloon operator so you can watch your character fly to the main travel hub for the zone, and then watch your character fly again from there to whichever travel location your current stage of the quest is located at. Incidentally, the return to guild hall teleport has a 15-minute cooldown. I'm able to teleport one additional time per hour by recalling to my home city and using a portal I purchased for my room at the inn to get back to the guild hall. Once both teleports are on cooldown, you'll need to wait out the 15 minute timer.

- Somewhere along the way, I discovered that the Wiki is slightly misinformed. The original questgiver in the town that I can teleport to will continue to teleport me to the first of the outposts, even after I complete the quest in that town. This matters because the town in question is the main travel hub. If I do NOT complete this questline, I get keep a teleport that allows me to skip 2-3 minutes of boring AFK travel time each and every time I arrive in the zone. Given that the daily tradeskill quests do NOT contribute experience to my guild, I'm not entirely convinced that the reward for completing the quest (access to the new crafting content) is more valuable than the reward for NOT completing the quest.

A backwards approach
Getting to keep the teleport is a somewhat forgiveable offense; WoW had the same problem with several instant teleport quests, which have since been nerfed to stop working for players above a certain level. That issue aside, this entire experience illustrates how backwards developers' view of in-game travel actually is.

What the developers should be doing is making sure I know where I'm going and how to get back BEFORE they send me out into the wilderness. This would be a very good time to send me to the transport NPC and make me physically notice what location I am departing from and where the ride is taking me relative to the rest of the zone. Once you've done that dance a few times, as the quest requires, that's the point at which you've been impressed by the size of the zone and really shouldn't be obligated to take a mandatory bio break in the middle of your gaming session. (Also, you have to fly from town to the travel hub and then from the hub to your actual destination, and you cannot queue the connecting flight to happen automatically, so you actually have to alt-tab back into the game midway through.)

Putting me through the above ordeal, only to turn around and make me choose between additional AFK time each and every time I want to use this zone (which could be a lot, if I were to eventually start running group PVE content) and advancing a questline is the exact opposite of what they should be doing. Why must developers continue to insist on using wasted AFK travel time as a means of enforcing time sinks in their games?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Warhammer Faction Balance Finally Hits Home

About a year ago now, I predicted that balancing faction populations was going to be the make or break issue for Warhammer. It turns out that I was only half right. First, the game needed to fix its general performance and polish issues to get players to stay around long enough to encounter lopsided endgame population balance issues. Now that the numbers appear to have stabilized (in the 300K subscriber range), the game is ready to have the problem that I predicted would be its major challenge.

How is it going? Let's check Keen's blog for his latest observations:
"On Dark Crag Order has our King on farm status. We’re locked out of the city more than we’re allowed to enter these days."

The situation is so imbalanced that he believes that Order will completely dominate the new contested Land of the Dead zone when it launches.

When in doubt, blame WoW
In fairness, Blizzard did their best to steal Warhammer's launch thunder. I can understand some degree of animosity. However, there does come a point at which blaming WoW for everything, even if it's partially true, becomes somewhat moot.

Case in point, Mythic's Jeff Skalski has an interview with Massively in which he blames World of Warcraft for the fact that keep flipping happened in their game. You see, WoW players aren't like players of real MMORPG's.
"They don't know what EQ was like, they don't know what UO was like, they don't know what MUDs are, so they don't have this broad concept. They just want stuff now and they want to get out quickly. They want instant gratification and they want to be constantly patted on the back with an enthusiastic, "Good job, good job!"

What was the effect of having literally hundreds of thousands of these instant-gratification-obsessed WoW kiddies paying Mythic $50 a piece to try out their carefully designed incentive structure?
"What ended up happening was the players began taking the path of least resistance. Players even went to lengths to avoid one another, and that really confused us. We thought they had bought our game to RvR, but they're avoiding enemies! Then we had things like keep trading and round robin keeps going on...."

After all, no player of any game before World of Warcraft ever looked for shortcuts in the incentive curve. Also, it makes perfect sense for someone trying to design the next great PVP MMORPG never to play a single match of Alterac Valley.

What can be done?
Sniping at WoW aside, Skalski says that the goal of the new Land of the dead is not to replace the game's premiere city sieges. This is a mistake.

As Keen notes, the underpopulated realm on any given server loses access to the basic PVE instances that they need access to in order to obtain gear. On paper, that sounded like a good plan; players should really care about losing their city. The problem is that, in a non-instanced world, there isn't very much the players can do about losing their city. (See my comment on a loading screen tip to the effect of "what are you waiting for, go get your keep back!" from the month when I played the game.) Mythic stated that they did not want to create a situation where the losing side does not have any incentive to log in while their city is under enemy control, but that appears to be precisely what has happened.

All of which gets back to the Land of the Dead. As devs, including Mythic apparently, learn to their peril, players go where the incentives are. The solution, then, is to put the best loot in the contested Land of the Dead. This would encourage the victorious side to focus their efforts on that zone.

With the primary focus shifted elsewhere, Mythic would be free to make the process of actually laying siege to a city far more difficult. Players would still do it occasionally for prestige (much as players attack WoW's faction leaders today), but there wouldn't be as much of a reason to permanently occupy the enemy's city. This, in turn, would allow the outnumbered side less restricted access to the city dungeons, where they can actually gain the gear to compete during an occasional forray into contested territory. Also, use of a contested instance lessens the odd contradiction where the overall point of the RVR endgame is to gain access to a PVE King instance encounter.

Does this defeat the purpose of the whole "impact PVP" city siege model? Partially, yes. But so does having the best players, like Keen, flee their servers until the game is left with a bunch of one-sided zergfests. If you do not provide players with something more entertaining to do than being slaughtered mercilessly by a larger, better geared force, they will quit. Even if we accept the absurd proposition that this situation is Blizzard's fault, fixing it is now Mythic's problem.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Spectral Tiger Versus The Station Cash Store

Things have been really busy for me offline, so I haven't had much time for brainstorming and researching new post topics. Fortunately, my readers have obliged with heated discussion of SOE's latest RMT effort.

Stabs raises the example of the WoW Trading Card Game (TCG) as a subtle form of real money transactions. Though there certainly are some similarities between the TCG and traditional RMT item stores (such as EQ2's Station Cash store), there are some significant differences which I think are worth collecting in one place for future reference.

Rarity and Convenience
The purpose of the in-game items associated with WoW's TCG is to sell cards. This has an important impact on both the rarity and the quality of the items attached to the game. You're not going to sell very many cards if there's a Spectral Tiger in every single pack - people who want one will buy a single pack and never give Upper Deck another dime. Instead, the rewards must be very distinctive and very rare, to encourage players who are willing to spend the money to spend LOTS of money.

The result places the mount out of the price range that most players are going to be willing to spend, both in cash, and in time and convenience (buying a box of booster packs, opening them all and hoping for a tiger). Again, this is alright; the mount is intended to be a rare commodity, not a mass market seller.

On the other hand, when the developer makes items easily accessible via an in-game sales interfaces, priced at a level that the market will bear, the purpose of the in-game items is actually to sell in-game items. Wider distribution means a much wider potential impact on the game.

Balance issues aside, Blizzard isn't going to sell many additional Spectral Tigers if the Tigers were 5% faster than other mounts, so they're not going to feel much pressure to make that change happen. By contrast, a 105% mount that costs $20 is going to be much more popular than a 100% mount that costs $20. Meanwhile, the items are going to be more common in-game due to convenient access, allowing their presence to affect a larger proportion of the playerbase.

Cosmetics and Function
Probably the biggest question that needs an answer when you're talking about RMT is whether the benefits are purely cosmetic or have a function. In a game like Free Realms, which is financed heavily by RMT, it's more acceptable to see RMT items that outshine the best player crafted items, as Tobold reports. In a subscription-based game with more of a time investment grind, on the other hand, players are less happy to discover that they must buy their way to the top.

For the most part, Blizzard has stayed away from items that have an in-game function in their TCG. Technically, having a TCG-exclusive mount or non-combat pet counts towards collection achievements, but I think we can agree that 2% progress towards a 100 mount achievement is not going to drive that many multiple-hundred-dollar transactions on its own.

Likewise, EQ2 has avoided the sale of things like gear and healing potions to date. As I wrote previously, they blurred the line by adding RMT furniture, an otherwise cosmetic feature that becomes a gameplay issue because there is a player carpenter class. Likewise, I'm told that EQ2's own TCG (they had one well before the current station cash store) offers some things that have minor benefits, like wings that give a temporary slowfall effect or a large, rent-free apartment. The place where SOE has really decided to push the envelope in EQ2 is with mass-market RMT experience boosts.

The evolution of RMT exp
WoW's "recruit a friend" program, some form of which appears to have become industry standard, does allow players to gain faster experience from levels 1-60 by purchasing an additional account and 2-boxing. (EQ2's RAF system has largely the same features.) This is technically RMT. However, this process has a few limitations that, I would argue, keep it from being a "mass-market" product.

The RAF bonus experience is limited to pre-expansion levels, which already fly by pretty quickly to begin with, and requires that players be willing and able to two-box. On top of that, a player who creates a new account for this purpose will end up with one or more level 60 alts on a separate account. This means either a paid character transfer (to bring the new character over to the main account), ongoing subscription fees and expansion box purchases (if the player wants to keep a second account, which will not own either of the expansions), or losing a level 60 character outright. Overall, I suspect that the portion of the market willing to go to this much trouble is very small compared to the general market for faster leveling.

EQ2's various and ever widening array of experience potions, such as the subject of my latest post, have instead gone for accessibility. Even RMT supporters seem to agree that the prices on these potions are very high, but we're not seeing any discounts, so I'm presuming that the things are selling. The potions are available at any time, in any quantity (no levels caps or need to create additional accounts), so these really have the potential to hit a broad chunk of the market.

Exclusives, shortcuts, and services
RMT items can take the form of exclusives, items which cannot be obtained in game by any other means. These will obviously frustrate collectors, and will cause balance problems if the items have an in-game function that cannot be obtained elsewhere. There are also services, such as server transfers, name changes, and various character re-customization. Though these services are not obtainable in-game, and can cause problems when players go trying to hide a former bad reputation, I don't really think of changing a character's gender as a game design question. All of the options were available to all characters at creation, and the player simply changed their mind after the fact.

The experience boosts, on the other hand, appear to be more of a short-cut. There are other ways of getting experience, and many existing players are already sitting at the level caps anyway. The issue is that level caps and experience curves move.

The current EQ2 exp curve seems to be balanced towards having players arrive at the level cap with badly sub-par crafting and AA levels. The nominal goal behind the changes was to help new players get to the level cap, and group PVE content, faster. The resulting increased demand for RMT tradeskill and AA exp potions was probably a bonus for this expansion cycle. However, there will be another expansion later this year, and an increased level cap seems like a safe bet.

This is where RMT can really corrupt game design. The numbers almost certainly show that the status quo has resulted in strong sales of RMT potions, or SOE wouldn't be rolling out more of them. Very few players are going to cancel their subscriptions outright because the tradeskill exp curve was a little more grindy than they remembered. By contrast, SOE now has hard data about the portion of its playerbase that will happily open their wallets for a boost when the going gets tough. Why would any company choose NOT to deliberately keep the exp curve out of balance with tradeskills and AA's in that situation?

As a result, the time-saving convenience of this type of RMT has a far greater potential impact than the occasional rare, exclusive item, like a Spectral Tiger. Blizzard was not going to implement something so exotic in the game if they weren't out to sell cards - the world would look pretty silly with hundreds of Spectral Tigers everywhere. Thus, players who choose not to obtain a tiger are not really affected by Blizzard's decision to offer one through the TCG. By contrast, players who choose NOT to consume RMT experience potions will be affected by an experience curve tuned to encourage those players who aren't opposed to the concept to open up their wallets a little more frequently.

An odd contradiction
The strange thing in this situation is where the transaction stop. Depending on how these things stack, a player who was out of tradeskill rested exp might now be able to get as much as triple experience (double by refilling their vitality, and then another 50% of the new, 200% level for the most expensive RMT potion). Such a player would zoom through levels (and, by extension, their just-repurchased tradeskill vitality allowances). SOE is okay with this.

What SOE will NOT do is turn around and sell the experience outright. With maximum RMT, you might be spending only 1/3 as much time crafting per level, but you cannot, for any amount of money, actually purchase the level. Perhaps this is merely the line in the sand that the game cannot cross without alienating its subscribers and, in the process, killing the golden goose that gets players into the game, considering RMT purchases in the first place. Then again, I don't really see a moral difference between selling enough experience to gain a crafting level in exchange for spending an hour crafting and selling the same amount of experience to the same player in exchange for spending an hour doing anything else.

Then again, perhaps the potion of instant level up is merely waiting in line for its turn on next week's Station Cash store update. With SOE pushing the limits of what RMT is allowed to provide each and every week, we never know what they will try next. Such is the brave new world of Norrath in the Station Cash era, and the reason why many players are so inherently suspicious of RMT in general.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

SOE Proves My Point On RMT Conflict Of Interest

To recap:

April 14th: I post that my EQ2 character is running low on tradeskill vitality.

April 17th: I argue that SOE has created a conflict of interest by offering solutions to areas where the game is lacking through Station Cash Real Money Transactions rather than fixing them outright.

May 10th: I elaborate on how the shortage of tradeskill vitality is "taking a big bite out of my enjoyment of EQ2" (causing me to stop playing for most of the month since the previous post, while I waited for vitality to regenerate).

May 13th: SOE announces that they are adding a tradeskill vitality potion to the store for the staggering price of $10 per consumable potion.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Quality of Expansion Experiences

Tipa has a nice summary the issues covered in my last post up in her daily blogroll.
"Green Armadillo, given the corporate need MMOs have to simultaneously nullify the accomplishments of the previous expansion when introducing a new one, but also give benefits to lapsed players to catch them up quickly, wonders if it just makes sense to skip every other expansion to get both the benefits of a hand up and a debugged game?"

Though I'm humbled, as always, to see the essence of what I spend pages on distilled into a single sentence, I have a few more comments (pages) on the topic.

Time is money, but how much?
There are two costs to playing an MMORPG; time and money. In the comments to my last post, DeftyJames rightly pointed out that I focused too heavily on the cash cost.

The cost in cash is very easy to quantify. A player who bought LOTRO's Moria expansion and payed for a three month subscription at its launch in November paid $85, while a player who waited until the current promotional deals a mere six months later would pay only $40 for that same expansion key and three month subscription. It's very easy to conclude that the player who waited until May saved $45, a moderately-sized sum that could pay for three months' subscription fees to the game of their choice.

During the six months since the launch, Turbine has also been fixing bugs and adding additional content. As a result, the player who waited until May is ALSO getting a superior gaming experience during the three months they're spending on playing the game. There isn't an easy way to quantify how much better that experience is, but fewer bugs, more polish, and more things to do add up to a good deal all around. The catch is that it doesn't matter how much better the game gets if you never play it because you're always waiting for it to improve.

In search of the sweet spot
Now we're looking at a meta-game incentive; neither the cash cost nor the quality of the gaming experience are actually in the game. How do we find the sweet spot, where you'll get the best value for your gaming time and money? The answer depends on what you're hoping to do.

If you want to do a lot of pick up groups, perhaps it's best to tackle content as it comes out when there is the most interest. Or, as Ayr suggests, perhaps it's best to arrive later in the game when players have learned how to beat the content. If it's harder to fit group content into your schedule, and you're more worried about having flexible solo content to tide you over, perhaps it makes sense to wait for subsequent patches. Then again, sometimes subsequent patches will trivialize content that didn't need to be changed.

Ultimately, this is where my compromise suggestion that the best time to play LOTRO Moria may be right after the launch of LOTRO Rohan came from. If you move at a moderate pace, you can experience Moria in its final form and still arrive in Rohan while interest is high and content has yet to be nerfed. It's not perfect, but it gets you some of the best of both worlds.

Usually, I write about out-of-game meta-analysis of an in-game incentive of some sort. In-game incentive balance is easier to fix; if players aren't doing the content in the correct numbers, the developers should change the incentive. When the incentive - future patches that improve the gaming experience - is not in the game itself, the water gets murky.

From a business side, studios have major incentives to focus on major releases. You won't get retailers to give you prominent shelf space for an incremental patch that adds a new zone, but you CAN get launch hype for an expansion that adds half a dozen. A monthly patch with a few features won't get much attention from the press, and may not contain anything of interest to people who do hear about it. A megapatch, arriving every six months with something of interest to every single player who hears about it, will make some news, which is part of why Blizzard has gone that route with it's post-TBC patch cycle.

The problem is that this schedule, while convenient for production purposes, creates the out of game incentive NOT to play the game all the time. If you're Blizzard, you don't need to worry about this because you have so many subscribers that it doesn't matter of some of them cancel for half of the expansion cycle. (Given WoW's notoriously slow expansion cycle, my best guess for its "sweet spots" would be right after the expansion launch and right after the last content patch of the expansion, skipping the middle two or so content patches, and possibly some of the dead time between the final patch and the next expansion.) If you're running a game with a smaller subscriber base, though, that kind of disruption to your revenue could be fatal.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Incentives to Skip Entire Expansions?

One year ago today (a coincidence I couldn't have planned if I tried), I wrote:
Allarond, Champion of Gondor, Protector of the Shire, Hero to the Lost, and, yes, Weird of Worms, eagerly awaits the forthcoming Mines of Moria expansion. I'm just going to wait for 6-12 months after it comes out for them to actually finish it.
Well, it's been the requisite six months since the expansion. In Syp's study of MMO-latecomers, I'm the rare person who actually took the "wait 6 months" advice. Meanwhile, prices have never been better - $40 will get me an expansion key AND three months' subscription. So, why am I considering throwing my hands in the air and waiting for the forthcoming Rohan expansion?

Case Study: LOTRO Moria
Zubon of Kill Ten Rats just wrote a less than flattering retrospective of the expansion, in particular its endgame. I can already hear Tipa reminding me that there is no such thing as a completely comprehensive review of an MMO, and I ordinarily would not give such weight to a single opinion. However, it isn't really just one opinion.

- Zubon's criticisms (e.g. "If you like lotteries, you will love these treadmills.") parallel comments I'm seeing elsewhere on the LOTRO blogs.

- My own experience with the game's launch was that the game's opening areas were highly polished, but that the content simply wasn't ready in the later levels.

- In particular, the endgame reputations, which were not even added until 4-5 months post launch, failed the "is the time/benefit ratio worth it to me" test - exactly what players are saying about 2nd and 1st age Legendary weapons today.

The issue, broadly, is how much longer it will take to get the content into shape. We know that a "Book 8" patch with more fixes is planned for June (i.e. 7 months post launch), that a "Book 9" patch is due at some point (no ETA), and that the next expansion (almost certainly Rohan) is due this year (not more than 6 months from now).

That $40 deal sounds great right now, but becomes less impressive if you figure that there may not actually BE three months worth of new content that I want to use (Zubon's update came on Day 61). Meanwhile, that expansion key for Moria will presumably be included for free with the Rohan expansion (I don't see a game that launched its first expansion as a "complete edition" changing the plan for expansion 2). If I wait until the next expansion, I will get the final, 100% polished version of Moria, and will have the opportunity to delve into the (possibly not-yet-finished) new expansion content as well.

Is the annual expansion model creating an incentive for me NOT to resubscribe and buy the current expansion?

Case Study: Unnamed EQ2 Expansion for 2009
The only semi-officially confirmed news we have about the new EQ2 expansion is that there will be a new good-aligned city, balancing the number at 3 for each faction. (Technically, they haven't confirmed that the city will be in the expansion, but both arrive this year, and it would make sense for the city to be a listed "major feature" on the expansion box.)

Unofficially, I would say there are a few safe bets:

- The new city will include starting area content for levels 1-20 (balances the good/evil split - several of the good races have only a single choice of starting zone, and it wouldn't make sense to implement high level content for just one of the two factions)

- An increased level cap (they're still working to tune the AA curve six months out from the last horizontal expansion, so I don't think it would make sense to leave the cap unchanged again - fresh 80's would need to work through two previous expansions just to get ready for the current expansion, at which point they'd effectively be far more powerful than level 80 in all but actual level number)

- Player crafters who have chosen Carpentry will not get new furniture recipes that are good enough to hurt the sales of RMT furniture items.

That speculation aside, I am not expecting the content that is currently in EQ2 to last me through to the expansion, even if I roll an alt in the mean time (probably an evil-aligned character, to save my other good-aligned alt plans for the hypothetical new starting areas).

Again, it seems like I am, in some ways, better off passing on the just-past-beta version of the November 2009 expansion, so I can get the expansion key and access to the fully polished version for free when I buy the November 2010 expansion. If I do indeed decide to punt on the Moria era in LOTRO, I'd have that game's first two expansions to tide me over during the time when I might otherwise be playing this year's EQ2 expansion.

Publish or Perish?
In some ways, games that have a smaller subscriber base face greater pressure to release frequent paid expansions than a Goliath like Blizzard. When you can't rely on literally hundreds of millions in fees every month, you need to think creatively about expansion box sales or RMT options (and this goes doubly for Turbine, which chose to offer lifetime subscriptions for LOTRO and therefore has a portion of its playerbase that ONLY pays when a paid expansion is launched).

On the other hand, the expansion box fee, like the all-or-nothing monthly fee, is another point at which players need to decide whether to remain customers. When expansions are a mere twelve months apart, you do end up with a perverse incentive for players to simply wait out the next expansion cycle, an incentive that gets stronger the further we get into the year. You can blunt that slightly by offering aggressive discounts as the year progresses, as Turbine has done, but you do so at the risk of convincing players that they should await the discounts.

There's also the social factor to consider. Let's assume that, if you skip the worst of the endgame grinds, you're left with 2-3 months of content per annual expansion cycle, some of which is packaged in content patches post-release. If you do two expansions worth of content in one 5-6 month stint, that's enough time to make social ties, join a guild, etc. If you split it up into multiple month-long stints as content is added, you're not going to have the chance to meet people (especially if your fellow players are doing the same game-hopping dance, and may be gone themselves when you return).

I don't know if we're actually at the point where it makes sense to play every other expansion just yet. Still, the fact that you can make a case for doing so is as strong an argument as any that we may need to consider business models - both on the billing and content generation sides of the equation - that have a bit more flexibility than the all-or-nothing buy the boxes and then subscribe or quit model.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The End of a Wintergrasp Era.....

Greenwiz walked down the stairs, to come face to face with the enormous Stone Keeper, Archavon. The giant looked down at him sadly.

"Thirty nine times have you invaded my home," Archavon said. "Thirty nine times have you and whatever rabble you could find to accompany you shattered my body to claim the prizes I collect from your battlefields."

"Though you have never set foot in the arenas, you have claimed a [Hateful Gladiator's Silk Rainment], discarded them when you looted me again for a [Deadly Gladiator's Silk Rainment], and the [Deadly Gladiator's Silk Trousers] you have on right now. From my trove, you have wrested a [Heroes' Frostfire Robe], TWO pairs of [Heroes' Frostfire Gloves]...."

"Hey, I didn't ask for the second one," Greenwiz protested feebly, "I was the only mage in that PUG and the Master Looter gave them to me without a roll!"

"Two pairs of the gloves," the Giant continued, "Both of which you have disenchanted after you looted a pair of [Valorous Frostfire Gloves] from my corpse on yet another occasion. The 40 Emblems of Valor you wrested from me were more than half of the total you paid for your [Valorous Frostfire Shouldpads]."

"I thought I would know peace when my brother, Emalon, opened the door to his vault and destroyed the disorganized pillagers that you invade our halls with. But The Makers have deemed his Tempest Minions too powerful, so now you have even slain him as well."

"And so, I ask you, mage, one question. WHAT do you WANT from me?"

"Pants," replied Greenwiz, confidently. The giant frowned and looked puzzled. "Oh, don't get me wrong, these PVP pants are great. I don't think I could ever have earned the 1810 arena rating needed to get them the old-fashioned way. But really, what I want is some Frostfire Leggings. Heroes' or Valorous, either one would be a great upgrade for PVE. I know you've got some, I've seen you drop them before, but it always seems that some other mage walks off with them when you do."

"Thirty nine times..." the Giant growled, "Nineteen times have you slain me on normal mode, and another 20 on heroic. For literally four months, you have come to slaughter me every single week without fail, without pity, and without remorse because, after all that you've taken from me, you desire even more?"

"Hey," said Greenwiz, "I don't mean to interrupt, but what's that sticking out of your pocket? Oh wow, that's a pair of [Valorous Frostfire Leggings]!"

The mage looks around at his comrades.

"Waitaminute," Greenwiz continued, "There are two other mages in this group, but one DC'ed and the other is AFK. Those pants... could be mine?"

Archavon sighed and bowed his head for a moment. "If you obtain this item, which you have pursued so doggedly week after week, will you finally leave me in peace?"

Greenwiz stopped and thought about this. "You know, that hadn't really occurred to me. I mean, I do kind of need more emblems, but my guild is farming Naxx these days. The Valorous robes would be a tier upgrade, but they're some not-very-manly shade of purple. The set bonus is pretty good, so I'm not sure it would be worth breaking it even if Emalon does drop some tier 8. Look, I'll tell you what. I can't really promise that I won't be by to kill you from time to time, but I won't make a point of doing it all the time anymore...."

Archavon had heard enough, and leapt through the air to land on the mage.

Ending a chase
It's been harder and harder to find a VOA PUG since patch 3.1. The experienced raiders who made these groups quick and plentiful have moved on to Ulduar with their guilds, and Emalon was too difficult for random groups until his adds were nerfed abruptly a week or two back. Even on Monday night, with the Alliance losing control of Wintergrasp in an hour and not having a chance to reclaim it before the weekly maintenance, the group was strongly reluctant to kill Archavon and save themselves to the instance with a group that could not down Emalon. Fortunately for me, the group leader went after Archavon anyway, kill number 40 was the charm, and I finally have the number one item on my loot wish list.

Sadly, I did have to use suboptimal gems to meet the hit cap and blue gem requirement for my metagem, but it's an impressive piece regardless.

Incentives to STOP using content
It's ironic that this particular era in my experiences in Wintergrasp came to an end last night, shortly before a comment from "Lurker" (not sure if Lurker is his/her actual callsign, or if they just wanted to indicate that they are usually a lurker on the blog, but I appreciate the tip in any case) informed me of a paradigm shift in Wintergrasp incentives.

The zone has struggled with overpopulation ever since enough players got to a high enough level to use it - a problem that Wintergrasp has shared side-by-side with Warhammer's keep sieges. Servers simply cannot take that many players converging on a single objective at the same time.

To counteract this, the developers introduced tactical incentives to spread out. Though these changes have not been entirely ineffective - I have done some fighting in the southern half of the map on both offense and defense - the tactical incentives have not been accompanied by the selfish personal incentives needed to actually get players to take them.

So what is Blizzard's latest solution? Reducing the rewards by converting the highly rewarding daily quests into moderately rewarding repeatable quests that can be done once per week, in the hopes of driving players out of the content.

I say it's a paradigm shift, because it is pretty unusual to see a developer make a change to the incentive structure specifically in the hopes of convincing players NOT to use the content. Usually, they have precisely the opposite goal. I suppose that convincing players to voluntarily abandon the siege is still better than physically kicking them out (a solution that Mythic considered for Warhammer, but ultimately abandoned after public outcry).

Will it work?
The daily quests previously awarded 1.2K honor, 13 gold, and 3 stone keeper shards each. There were a total of five dailies, two of which can be done against mobs when there is no battle going, and one of which is specific to defending the keep. MMO-Champion is reporting that the revised weekly quests will now be worth 3.7K honor, 13 gold, and 10 stone keeper shards.

The "good" news, if you're Blizzard and have abruptly decided you want to make using your own content less attractive, is that a player who previously did each daily six times per week would now receive 65 fewer gold, 3.7K less honor, and 8 fewer shards during that time. Multiply that effect by five, presuming that all five quests were changed in the same way, and you might actually be talking about a large enough difference to make repeated visits to the zone less rewarding. Mission accomplished, right?

There are, however, several problems. To name a few:

- With the daily quests resetting for everyone on a single day (Tuesday), one might expect even larger than normal crowds on that day.

- If the quests work the way they appear to, it will now be possible to obtain a whopping 15K honor and 50 shards off of a single match (a defensive victory), or, more likely, an offensive victory and a defensive run at the southern towers. To put this into perspective, a player who repeated this cycle twice over two weeks would earn enough honor to buy a pair of ilvl 213 epic PVP bracers for an hour or two's worth of work. Maybe they have discouraged some players who used to do Wintergrasp every single day, but the insanely high payoffs for doing at least one match per week may actually attract MORE players (or alts of current Wintergrasp veterans) to the zone.

- Unless they're changing the way the victory marks work, players who want the victory rewards (including the hat my mage wears full time) will have to play multiple matches for marks.

Overall, the net effect may be fewer people in the zone, but the path to get there might not be pretty.

Intended and Unintended Consequences
A few misc observations:

- One can only presume that they also saw this occasion as a convenient time to reduce the total weekly honor that a player can milk out of Wintergrasp. Previously it was possible to snag 5-8K honor for playing a single match per day, which was probably higher than it should have been in the context of items that don't cost any more than 60K honor.

- They have also created an overwhelming personal incentive for players on the defending side to destroy the southern towers, presuming that the daily in question gets the enhanced 1/week rewards. I have no idea what this will do to the balance of power in the zone. It could leave the keep less defended, it could basically lock down the southern workshops for the defenders. Time till tell.

- Finally, this does cross one item off of my daily quest rotation. I have made a point of completing at least the two non-seige-related dailies every day, and I try to get as many of the other three done as possible. Now I will definitely push to complete all five once per week. Beyond that, there isn't really anything to replace the extra time that I spend in Wintergrasp with, so this translates into less stuff left to do in WoW.

Overall? I'm glad that I'm almost done with the major accomplishments I wanted to tackle in Wintergrasp (e.g. rapidly closing in on the 1000 shard achievement). The zone continues to be a fascinating case study for incentive design, but, if Blizzard really wants me to spend less time there, they may have found the right price to make that happen.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The 800lb Content Gorilla Attacks Middle Earth

Let's talk about a major MMORPG that launched an expansion back in November. Since the expansion launch, players have complained about an increasing focus on solo content (evidenced in part by the lack of a new, multi-boss raid dungeon), and a general push towards accessibility at the expense of immersion (in the process removing the challenge of low level content in the name of streamlining the leveling experience for new players). Those of you who didn't read the title of this post might be thinking that I'm referring to Blizzard and WoW, but those accounts, courtesy of the LOTRO Combo Blog, are actually talking about Turbine and LOTRO.

Different game, same problems
Turbine is widely praised for the frequency with which it produces patches that add content to the game. Personally, I feel that this reputation is exaggerated; Turbine had to add a tremendous amount of content to the 30-50 game in the first year after its launch because the game was MISSING a tremendous amount of content in those level tiers at launch, and the "book" patches generally have not been as large as the Blizzard twice-a-year megapatches. However one feels about the past, though, it appears that Turbine's reputation will be put to a true test in the present.

The challenge here is the 800 lb gorilla in the room that no one really liked to talk about because they weren't able to fix it; players consume content far more quickly than developers can produce it. (Blizzard has since decided that their patch cycle is so notoriously slow that they might as well give up and talk about it in public.)

This challenge is magnified in the expansion era; when a game launches, it's usually in the neighborhood of 40+ levels, with large numbers of zones to support that leveling process. Even if there is a lot of room for improvement at launch, that content provides a scaffold on which to build (and potentially lure players into underutilized pre-existing content).

By contrast, an expansion generally adds no more than 10 levels and a handful of zones. If, for example, your expansion consists of Moria and Lothlorien, and Lothlorien is really only being added into the game piece by piece during book patches, that's going to be much more noticeable simply because it represents a larger chunk of the game as a whole. Perhaps the expansion took only a fraction of the time that the base game did to develop, but players aren't really going to care about that - they weren't being charged a monthly fee to sit, bored and out of content, at the level cap when the original game was two years from being released.

Consequences for everyone
The consequences for the top end raiding guilds are obvious - unless you add some sort of time-limit gimmick, the best guilds will beat all the content in the game within a matter of weeks and be left waiting months for more.

The effects on other players are more subtle. The developers, or at least the publishers, have a strong incentive to keep players from running out of content. Instead of letting players use up the very last of the content and inviting them to cancel their subscriptions until the next patch, we get increasingly grindy mechanisms like daily quests (which I'm told are in Moria, though I haven't seen them for myself), reputation grinds, and cosmetic reward hunts.

For one example, take a look at LOTRO's expansion "Legendary item system". Unwize has a lengthy critique of the randomness in the system. These flaws are not accidental, though. Rather, Turbine has made a deliberate effort to ensure that players will NOT obtain a perfectly ideal weapon, in the hopes that players will grind out the advancement for the best weapon they have and then go through the entire process a second time if they find a better one. If, by some chance, players DO eventually obtain the best possible combination of traits, Turbine's backup plan is raising the level cap in the next expansion, sometime by the end of the year, to render that weapon obsolete.

The ironic part is that having a system that requires players to discard their weapons frequently is the exact opposite of having a character stick with a single, named legendary weapon. The system was advertised as a way for players to get their own named weapons - treasures like Sting, Glamdring and Anduril that were wielded by the members of the Fellowship. The entire point of the system from a lore perspective gets kicked to the curb in the hopes that they can convince players to spend yet more time leveling up yet another slightly better weapon instead of canceling their subscription.

In short, the problem with the content gorilla is not merely that players can expect to run out of content, but that the content that does get added to the game will be made less fun and more repetitive in the hopes that it will occupy more of the player's time.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Mid-level Crafting Grind in EQ2

It's been almost three weeks since my last update on my EQ2 progress, simply because I haven't spent much time in EQ2 during that stretch. I had hit a wall - Lyriana literally does not have the money to upgrade her spells if she can't craft them for herself, and I had run out of the crafting rested-exp needed to take the edge off of the grind.

The solution to the problem was simple, if unsatisfying - don't play EQ2 for two weeks, other than to consume rested exp as it accumulated, so that I could get enough of a headstart to be able to level without worrying about my crafting falling behind. The plan seems to have worked out; it coincided nicely with a pair of world events in WoW, and I've been able to gain nine tradeskill levels, leaving Lyriana at 52 Dirge/59 Jeweler, though time will tell how long that lead holds up. But how did things get to this point?

The crafting mini-game

Above is a picture of the EQ2 crafting interface (using ProfitUI, but the panel on the right is basically unchanged. You'll see a variety of colored bars and six hotbuttons. The only one of these that actually matters is the bottom-most green bar (half-empty in the picture). Green designates the item's durability; if that bottom most bar runs out, and I'm not able to repair it in time, the crafting attempt fails.

In principle, crafting is supposed to be a careful process of using the buttons to speed the item's progress without damaging it. In practice, I spam the buttons that make the item get done faster when the green bar is doing well, and I spam the buttons that repair the green bar when the bar starts doing poorly. There are "events", which pop up in the box above the buttons and require you to push the correct button, but, in my experience, failure to respond correctly very very rarely causes me to fail to complete the item.

That's basically the crafting game. I collect a "rush order" from the NPC in our guild hall, and have 8.5 minutes to craft 6 or so items. When the crucial green bar is full, I spam 2, 3, and 5 as often as the cooldowns allow. When it's okay, I push 1, 2, and 3, and, if things really start going poorly, I switch to 1, 4, and 6. In general, I finish the order with a minute or two to spare, turn in the quest for 10-15% of a level total. This, and the size-able bonus for completing each new recipe for the first time, is how I get my crafting exp.

Perhaps now it will make sense why I chose to park my character on a shelf for weeks to avoid having to do this process at something like 2/3 the rate of exp gain after running out of rested exp.

Something for the pain...
I didn't have any of these complaints really until the late 40's level-wise, so my guess is that this entire situation arises in part because of recent changes to the game's exp curve. Similar complaints have been leveled against the game's Alternate Advancement curve, which is apparently going to get some long-demanded changes in the next patch.

The perceptive reader might also note that I did not make any mention of harvesting materials in this discussion. Basically, I end up borrowing the non-rare materials out of the guild harvesting depot, which I eventually pay back by harvesting down the line (slacking on this is NOT in my best interest, since selling rare harvests is my main source of income). In addition to helping its members out, the guild gets experience towards its next level (which raise the amenity cap in the guild hall) from completed rush orders, so everyone wins.

(If I was NOT in a guild with a depot, crafting stations, and rush order NPC, I would need to be harvesting as I went, and hoping to sell the harvests I don't use. EQ2 characters can harvest everything, even the stuff that their crafting class does not want, and are required to do so as all harvest types share spawns - if you don't pick veggies, no ore will respawn. Players apparently put up with that for almost four years before the launch of guild halls; personally, I suspect that I would have given up long ago if you added harvest grinding into the equation.)

There are some new crafting missions from the most recent expansion, which I should be eligible to work on. These do not contribute experience to the guild, though, and they're tied to a different faction than the one for my homecity. Also, I'm told that there is a reaction event that gives the player loot, so I would actually have to start paying attention to using the correct buttons. Then again, I'm told that the instances are not timed, which removes the small amount of pressure that I have when working on writs. Overall, it's still the same minigame, whether or not I'm doing the crafting in the comfort of the guild hall.

Overall, the increasingly grindy feeling of crafting is taking a big bite out of my enjoyment of EQ2. I don't feel that I can really give it up (I'd just end up spending the time grinding harvests to sell so that I could purchase my spells instead), and it just doesn't seem feasible to keep pace without either shelving the character repeatedly or spending more and more time on a minigame that is getting less and less interesting. Now the question, with world events out of the way in WoW for another month or so, is what I'll do to occupy the time when Lyriana has to stop questing again.

Puzzled Lyriana is Puzzled. Why can't SOE make crafting more fun?
(This was an attempt at a profile picture for the EQplayers site gone horrible wrong.)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Mage solo approaches

A friend of mine asked for advice on good solo specs for level 80 mages. It doesn't seem like there's much discussion of this question, perhaps in part because daily quests are more focused on travel time than actually killing anything. I don't think my raiding Frostfire spec is very good at soloing, but it's somewhat of a moot point when you consider that, fully raid buffed (including a flask), I have a 40% crit rate and will one-shot many daily quest mobs on a crit. So why am I less than fond of the spec for soloing?

(Note: If you're not familiar with mage specs, I did a bit of a rundown of the major mage specs in my discussion of the new dual spec feature last month.)

Balancing Mana, Health, and Time
When a frost mage is soloing and ends up with more mana than health, the frost mage can turn that excess mana into HP quickly and efficiently by casting Ice Barrier. Indeed, I used to make a point of NOT casting ice barrier to conserve mana by taking damage while solo farming/questing. Recovering from half empty health and mana is much faster than recovering from full health and no mana because the current mage foods regenerate both at once.

When an arcane mage ends up with more mana than health, they might use mana shield, though this is very inefficient, or they might simply break out the big guns. The Arcane Blast combo mechanic, paired with missile barrage, gives the spec the ability to convert mana into damage very quickly, which kills the mob and thus indirectly causes the mage to take less damage. Meanwhile, Arcane mages will have a 2-minute cooldown on evocation, which makes the [Glyph of Evocation] a substantial source of healing. Again, this gives very efficient use of downtime, if you even need any between evocation breaks.

By contrast, the fire mage's mana sink, the talent Hot Streak, triggers only when the mage gets two consecutive critical hits. The very situation in which you would WANT access to extra burst damage - because a mob is hitting you - is precisely the one where you will generally NOT have access to Hot Streak. Maybe this factor is less pronounced with Fireballs than Frostfire bolts, but most solo enemies aren't going to SURVIVE two consecutive crits in the first place (i.e. either it doesn't proc, or it does but the mob is already dead).

(The tables turn in group content, where you will be nuking a large target repeatedly enough to count on using your hot streak proc. Meanwhile, keeping the mage healed in a group is someone else's job, so it's the frost mage's ice barrier that becomes irrelevant.)

Creating the impression of downtime
The frost mage avoids damage through a variety of snares and freezing effects, and by having a pet up 50% of the time. You really don't have to take much damage.

The arcane mage also has several damage avoidance tools, including Slow and access to a wider variety of spells that can be cast while kiting a slowed foe.

The fire mage, by contrast, doesn't have either a snare or the impressive combo between the old form of Impact and Molten armor. Spells like Dragon's Breath, Blast Wave, and the new Impact+Fire Blast buy the mage barely more time than the global cooldown for casting them. Though mobs will occasionally get burnt to a crisp by a single massive crit, I feel like I'm taking more damage. Without either ice barrier or 2-min glyphed evocation, recovering from that damage means sitting and drinking more.

Maybe I'm still killing faster in the aggregate, but it FEELS like more downtime. This is especially true by comparison to the arcane spec, since that short evocation cooldown will count off while you're en route to your next destination.

Considerations for future content
As I discussed in my dual spec post, players in WoW no longer need to choose between a spec that works much more efficiently in a group (such as the Fire and Frostfire specs I avoided for so long) and a spec that is better for some combination of solo and PVP.

On the other hand, it does seem odd that, relatively early in the expansion cycle, it doesn't really seem to matter that much which spec I'm using. If I forget to swap out of raid mode and decided to kill a few mobs using my Frostfire spec, they still die pretty quickly. Perhaps my memories of the TBC era were colored by not having raided, but I really don't remember the combat portion of daily quests getting so trivial so quickly.

I guess this may have been part of the impetus to go to a vehicle interface for the Argent tournament quests. The current quests are equally difficult no matter how good the player's gear is. Still, it will be a bit disappointing if the only solo tasks for my mage to tackle for the next year til the next expansion are little more than fed ex runs, with the occasional stop to loot.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Why Is It So Hard To Get PVP Incentives Right?

It's been a busy week at Player Vs Developer productions, which has been holding up this post for a few days now. Despite the late arrival, I'd like to get back to discussion of the Children's Week Achievements because there's an interesting incentive design question at hand.

Euripedes seconds the complaints made by Scott Jennings - that the PVP achievement for the holiday encourages individual players to pursue selfish activities in a group battleground, thereby screwing over players who actually want to fight battles instead of work on holiday achievements.

Why are PVP incentives constantly causing so many problems in games?

Absolute versus Relative Merit
Players who are attempting to tackle group PVE content, such as raids, have to meet an absolute progress standard. The raid must be able to deal X damage before everyone dies. There are ways of reaching that goal - increasing the raid's DPS so that the boss dies faster, or learning to avoid attacks so that the raid takes less damage and lives longer - but victory or defeat is ultimately an absolute question. Either the raid got the job done or they did not, and the value of their victory depends on how hard the boss was to kill.

By contrast, the value of a victory in PVP depends entirely on the quality of your opponents. Blizzard can try to generate better match-making algorithms (and apparently failed at that task yet again for the current arena season), but there is much less of an absolute standard. A poorly rated team might beat a much better opponent because of a favorable matchup, or an untimely disconnect.

This distinction gives rise to a second difference between PVP and PVE rewards.

Incremental progress versus all or nothing
That PVE raid encounter is all or nothing. Either you beat the boss, or you did not. Perhaps you learned something from the loss that will help you win the next time, but there is no explicit, in-game incentive for trying and failing.

Unfortunately, when players fight other players, half of the players are going to lose. As a result, developers HAVE to include some rewards to compensate the LOSING players for their time if they want to attract a large chunk of their players into PVP. If there is no reward for failure, the worst players will never win, never get rewards, and therefore quit playing. Then there will be no one that the second worst tier of players can beat, so they will cease to be able to win and earn rewards, and they too will quit. In the end, there can be only one.

(This might sound like a good deal if you think you can be that last one standing, until you realize that the resources your developer can afford to spend improving your experience are going to be cut drastically if no one else is using the content.)

Sharing one goal
As a result of the first two points, there is relatively little incentive for an individual member of a raid to act against the raid's best interest in pursuit of a selfish achievement. If the raid wipes because someone was tanking with no pants, EVERYONE misses out on loot. Sometimes the entire raid might decide to behave sub-optimally in pursuit of an optional achievement (e.g. sitting several raiders outside the zone to get credit for beating the bosses with a non-full raid), but, in the end, the boss still has to die or no one gets anything.

By contrast, your PUG battleground group is full of players who have differing goals. Some players are chasing achievements and don't care if the team wins or loses (and, in fact, may prefer to sabotage their own team by failing to defend flags so they can get more chances to recapture them). Meanwhile, by putting a value on failure, the devs invite each and every player to make their own personal game theory decision on when to give up. All of which is a disaster if you were actually there because you wanted to fight and win the match. This is NOT a new problem for Children's Week, the achievements merely make the issue more obvious.

Your timesink or your game
In the end, this is one of those places where the developers face a conflict between the quality of their game and its ability to occupy players' time. The Children's Week achievement had to be what it was, rather than a requirement for helping players' sides to victory in the actually battleground match, because otherwise players would have attempted to claim the required victories while AFK.

In a perfect world, there's enough new content to keep players entertained so that you don't have to try and bribe them into grinding battleground content that they don't want to be doing. The issue is that Blizzard doesn't have the capacity to create enough other content (nor, in fairness, does anyone else). Not only that, they especially cannot afford to spend precious time developing content that some of their players will not use (/gasp).

As a result, they MUST try and lure non-PVP players into PVP (with selfish personal incentives), they MUST try and lure raiders into solo daily quests (with money to pay repair bills and cosmetic rewards), etc. And so, instead of rewarding the one part of PVP that actually matters - who got the win or the loss - we get selfish and detrimental incentives. A true PVP meritocracy, no matter how well it functions, simply will not be enough to convince players to continue reusing battleground content from 2005 on a regular basis.

And now, if Tom Chilton is to be believed, we get a new battleground in patch 3.2 with all of the same incentive holes that are attached to the five current ones.

Too bad that player created content thing didn't work out, because the problem is, as it always has been, that Content Is King and there just isn't enough content.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The problem with player-created content and incentives...

I call my blog "Player Versus Developer" because there is an ongoing arms race of sorts between the two sides - players want to maximize their incentives over time by whatever means necessary, while developers want to maximize subscriptions by getting the limited content they can create to last a long time.

Now, on paper, allowing players to help with the content creation might sound like a good idea to alleviate the lack of things to do. What could possibly go wrong if you let players make their own content? Let's see what players of COH did when given the opportunity via the game's new Mission Architect feature....

Uh oh. Apparently, players are making custom levels full of carefully designed foes that appear to be strong enough for their level, but have a glaring weakness that the players' class is well suited to exploit. Then they run their characters through these trivial instances, gaining 20 levels in a single run. The devs, who were ever so proud of how much content players made (more in the first 24 hours than the devs had done in all the years since the game's release), have had to shift into damage control mode.

The head designer now claims that they ANTICIPATED exploitation. Not enough to actually, I don't know, announce that exploiters would be banned BEFORE rolling out the system - wouldn't want to rain on that press release - but they totally definitely knew that this would happen, and made a rational decision that they would rather roll the system out with no exploitation policy and ban people after the fact than articulate one in advance. (Seriously, guys, you're in uncharted territory here, there's no shame in admitting that it never occurred to you.)

Maybe player-created content is the future, but the future isn't quite here just yet.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Children's Week, and a Tweak to Dailies

I'd been dreading Children's Week for two reasons:

- The Daily Chores achievement, which had to be functionally removed. (I'm pretty sure the counter somehow went backwards from 3/5 to 1/5 when I logged out for an hour or so on Friday, so I promptly did the remaining four quests to get it over with and safely no longer subject to resetting.)

- The PVP achievement, which you can read about at Klep's place. This achievement turned out to be much easier than I expected. EOTS and AB were trivial, WSG was an irritating click-fest, but one that only took 20 minutes or so, and AV took me three attempts because there are only four objectives to capture. I fully endorse Scott Jennings' critiques of this achievement, but it turned out to be relatively tame from an incentive/time ratio perspective - your milage may vary if you're not sporting 800+ resilience from faithfully farming Wintergrasp and Archavon.

I already had the two cooking recipes and ingredients banked before the holiday (Daria reports high prices if you had to buy everything, though probably still cheaper than the time it would take you to farm up the ingredients yourself), and the rest of the holiday was quick and easy. Unless Blizzard manages to break some portion of the Fire Festival, my chances of getting the drake are looking reasonably good.

Collecting randomized dailies
One thing that appears to have changed in the 3.1 patch is that you can now obtain more than one of certain randomized daily quests. Previously, if a questgiver offers one of a selection of daily quests each day and you have a previous one in your quest log, you cannot get the current one. Now there are some daily quests (not all of them) that allow you to collect multiples if you come back on subsequent days - examples I have seen so far are the daily quests from the Frenzyhearts, and the Argent Tournament valiant "go get a weapon" quests.

Why would you want to do this? To use the latter example, the only effort in those particular argent tourney quests is the travel. I don't think it's worth my while to do ONE of the three quests due to the sheer time involved. If, on the other hand, you collect all three over subsequent days, you can combine them all into one big loop - get the flowers at the dam in Crystalsong, kill the fire elemental above the Crystalsong -> Dragonblight border, drop off the flowers at the edge of Grizzly Hills, go kiss frogs in the Grizzly Hills, fly south just across the border to the Fjord to thaw out the dryad, and finally fly (or teleport/hearth) back to turn in all three. Because so much of the time is spent on travel and so much of the travel overlaps, it actually becomes worth doing all three quests when you can get them all at once.

(Collectively, this makes the Argent tourney relatively lucrative - two of the champion dailies overlap with two of the valiant dailies, and then you can clear out the three valiant weapon dailies 1-2 times per week on top of that. The Frenzyhearts are looking similarly profitable, with the chance to clear out most of their quests in a single loop around Sholazar if you wait a bit.)

Obviously, not doing all the daily quests every day will slow your progress somewhat. However, this can be a good thing - less daily quest burnout, more flexibility to do other things (such as doing holiday achievements, or cherry-picking the most rewarding dailies each day), and better time /played to reward ratios. It's nice to have an option that doesn't cause you to lose too much ground if you just don't get to everything every night.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Children's Week Achievement Fails, Is Nerfed To The Ground

WoWinsider reports that the dreaded "Daily Chores" achievement has been nerfed to the ground within hours of the Children's Week event going live. Instead of requiring players to do a daily quest each day for five consecutive days (it's unclear whether the intent was to do the SAME daily quest, whether the achievement is supposed to reset if you go for 24 hours without completing a daily - which some players believe it does and the devs never clarified), the achievement is now doable in minutes. Any five daily quests on a single day now complete the achievement.

People who have been attempting Blizzard's world event achievements have been begging Blizzard to actually test this achievement, whose non-holiday parent has always been plagued by bugs, since the meta-achievement was first announced. The original design was arguably a bad call in any case - a five-consecutive-day requirement in a seven-day holiday mandated that players who wanted the achievement MUST play on specific days in the middle of the week. However, apparently months of advance notice, including two lengthy PTR phases, were insufficient for Blizzard to get the testing job done. Having gone live with the achievement broken, Blizzard had no choice but to effectively gut the thing, since the achievement would have become impossible to complete if left in a bugged state over the weekend.

It's not like this sort of thing has happened before or anything. Ladies and gentlemen, the most successful MMORPG studio in the business, hard at work.