Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Hybrid Revenue Model For LOTRO?

Via Kill Ten Rats, Turbine has announced the full, confusing details of the roll-out for the Mirkwood mini-expansion. They're not quite taking this game free to play with an item/unlock store, like they have with DDO, but they appear to be forging towards a hybrid model.

Is it a paid expansion if no one pays?
The big headline is that the expansion is effectively free for many subscribers. If you are subscribed as of Oct 31, with your billing plan set to "multi-month", and you do not cancel before the expansion launch (December 1st), you get the expansion for FREE. The multi-month subscription is currently $30 for 3 months - this is described on the website as a limited time offer, but the terms and conditions make it sound like it is here to stay - so there's no reason not to switch to multi-month.

If you wanted the expansion and one month's subscription starting December 1, you could pay $20 for the expansion and $15 for the month when December rolls around. Or you could pay $30 now, get the expansion for free, and Turbine will effectively be paying you a $5 discount to accept two additional months of game time between now and then. It doesn't sound like they're going to take your free expansion back if you feel really strongly about paying $15 per month instead of $30 for three months and change it back on December 2nd.

One of the catches is that you must decide by October 31st. Still, what's the point of having a price tag on the expansion at all if basically the only people people who pay that price are newbies and people who got confused by the misleading advertising?

Spreading the DDO store?
The answer is the previously un-announced "adventure pack". For an additional $20, Turbine will sell you two additional character slots, access to a new shared bank feature, a goat mount, and a throw-in cloak that's similar to normal pre-order bonuses. However, this is not a pre-order bonus. Instead, it's an optional additional purchase, which is NOT required to obtain the expansion (unless you are a lifetime subscriber, in which case you can get the expansion and the AP for the price of just the expansion).

The character slots are a big deal if you need them (and relatively cheap compared to additional recurring fees in EQ2 or FFXI) and irrelevant if you do not. The shared bank sounds a bit more functional than EQ2's version, but EQ2's version does not come with an additional fee (and WoW accomplishes somewhat the same effect by allowing you to instantly mail stuff to your alts).

The mount is actually a bigger deal than it sounds, because it does not cost gold to purchase, and because it is willing to go in the Mines of Moria. Currently, you need to farm up a decent chunk of gold to afford your horse mount at level 35, and that mount will NOT ride in Moria - you must instead grind up rep to obtain one. I.e. this purchase allows you to bypass timesinks that non-purchasers must complete, which is relatively unusual for offers such as this in games that also charge a monthly fee.

None of these items would sound out of place to me if you dropped them in DDO's store. Of course, LOTRO doesn't have a store yet. So, instead of being able to pick and choose which of these perks, if any, are worth paying for, we have to take all or none in a bundle that costs as much as the actual content of the expansion (five levels, probably multiple zones, and a new scaling instanced skirmish system for starters).

The Best or the Worst of both worlds?
On the one hand, this rollout effectively saves me a fair chunk of cash - I'd already resolved that I was willing to pay for the expansion, and I will now get the portion of it that I'm interested in for free.

I also have the option of skipping the adventure pack, and I have no intention of purchasing it. (Indeed, there's no real benefit for non-lifetime subscribers who preorder the adventure pack.) I would NOT have chosen to pay $40 for this mini-expansion plus added optional featues (though I suspect that Turbine is hoping that players will see the two as a bundle, rather than evaluating the Adventure Pack on its own independent merits), and I suppose that I should be glad to be offered the choice NOT to purchase it.

On the other hand, unlike DDO, this game still has a monthly subscription fee. DDO has no fee but charges for new zones and other unlocks. If this new announcement sparks a trend - and I can't imagine that it will sell poorly enough NOT to set a precedent - LOTRO will charge a monthly fee AND be in the business of charging extra for unlocking new zones and features. The same is true of the traditional expansion, such as LOTRO's Moria expansion, but Mirkwood is a smaller creature than Moria or Wrath, while carrying the same price tag for players who opt for (or are confused into) the additional purchase.

In this context, the decision to all but give away the expansion to get players in the door makes a bit more sense. You can't sell transactions to people who aren't playing the game. Also, LOTRO has many lifetime subscribers, who effectively are not paying unless Turbine finds new and creative ways of adding additional, non-subscription fees. (Indeed, the $199 lifetime subscription is back, implying that Turbine will take the sure thing of the subscription money now and the prospect of selling additional add-ons down the line over the potentially greater revenue from a cancel-able monthly fee.)

Regardless, Turbine is forging into some new ground here. I suspect we will see this thing morph into a full-fledged DDO-like store (perhaps even using the same currency wallet) if it succeeds. That might be a good thing, if it props up a game that was otherwise not bringing in enough money. Or it could be an invitation for companies everywhere to charge more for features that are currently included in our not entirely trivial monthly fees. Time, and the numbers, will tell.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Alchemy and the Merits of Self-Only Perks

What did I do with the little windfall when my flying mount training was cheaper than expected? I decided to get to work on converting my Tauren into an alchemist. He just hit level 65, which allows him access to the Wrath tier of crafting professions and various self-only perks.

Perks of the Alchemist
The bad news is that I don't get to equip the [Mighty Alchemist's Stone] until level 75. In the mean time, though, I get to amuse myself with two bottomless consumables - the [Endless Healing Potion] and the [Flask of the North].

For perspective, I have about 7K HP at level 65, and the potion restores about 2K HP an unlimited number of times on a mere one minute cooldown (must get out of combat to start it ticking). I.e. I'm now regenerating 20+% of my health every minute, and might as well stop carrying food. The flask is better than Outland-quality elixirs even with my Mixology bonus, and it too is infinite and persists through death.

In principle, some of this benefit is purely monetary. With enough gold, I could buy transmutes and elixirs and health potions (seriously, I click that button every single time my HP goes down by enough that I won't be wasting most of the heal, so you'd be talking about buying a LOT of super healing potions). Then again, I would never spend that much gold, even if I had it, on leveling content where it isn't technically necessary. Instead, I'd just try to push through without, die more often, and generally have a less fun experience.

Meanwhile, this project didn't actually cost me that much - probably around 600-800G total, as I was able to turn around and dump a lot of the stuff I made (e.g. Northrend-quality elixirs) on the AH to recoup some of my expenses. In return, this character effectively won't have any more consumables costs until at least next expansion, and I'm strongly considering leveling at least one of my planned Cataclysm alts as an alchemist.

"Optional" self-only perks
EQ2 offers unique non-combat tradeskill content to get players into the trade game. LOTRO doesn't really offer much, but that also makes tradeskills eminently skippable if you just want to harvest and sell. By contrast, WoW's trade game is pretty boring - buy stuff off the AH, or spend an equivalent amount of time running around to harvest it, click button, watch crafting bar. Despite this, WoW crafting is probably far more heavily used than the systems in other games because you can get things like unlimited healing potions if you craft.

Perhaps there are some good sides to all of this. As Gevlon writes, having informed players participating in the economy is what establishes the market. I was willing to spend money to buy the Northrend herbs I needed to level so that I can benefit from this profession starting at level 65, instead of level 80. I got that money selling herbs that I actually can harvest to some combination of businessmen and other players who similarily value their time more highly than their virtual currency.

Then again, it's also no coincidence that we get gold sellers using corpse spam advertisements in major cities in a game that features mechanics like this one - do something that doesn't interest you (playing the market), as a pre-requisite for doing something that does interest you (having top quality bonuses for raiding/PVP/"coolness"). You have to wonder whether the price Blizzard has had to pay to get players doing this particular part of the game is worth the amount of extra subscriber time they manage to occupy by convincing players to play a crafting game they would otherwise ignore.

One of these days, I'll get to equip this beauty

Monday, September 28, 2009

Flying Mounts For All?

When I bought flying mount training for my Tauren last week, I was puzzled that the trainer only wanted 200G. I had previously been to the trainer, seen that it cost 600G (which was more than I had), and went off to earn the money by mining and herbing while working on Darkspear troll quest rep for another project.

Apparently, I've been the beneficiary of an undocumented change from patch 3.2.2; the cost has been slashed to 225G, and they also placed it on Ogrimmar rep, allowing me an additional faction discount.

The change was needed to meet the goal of the mount changes - flying mounts for everyone at level 60. In fairness, I might have been able to afford the original price had I not spent all of the character's money on epic ground mount training back before they nerfed that price to the ground, but 600G (plus another 45 for the mount) was a pretty steep mountain for a newbie to climb.

That said, I wonder whether this goal was a good idea. It's one thing to accelerate leveling for alts of experienced players, who can buy the heirloom book to allow their alts cold weather flying as they start Northrend (financing all of this through their levle 80 mains). It's something else to hand the ability to fly to new players who have not seen Outland before and will have flight taken away from them when they reach the latest expansion. (I can only imagine that Blizzard will reduce or eliminate the cost for Cold Weather flying when Cataclysm hits.)

The fact is that flight breaks a large number of quests, even in Outland (which was supposedly designed with flight in mind). That's why they didn't enable flight when players first hit Outland, and why they took it away at the start of Northrend. Post 77 Wrath was, for many players, their first experience having flight while leveling. Going back may not go over well.

One of numerous quest mobs you can fly right up to on your new flying mount.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ode to a Giant Cow on a Giant Dinosaur

After all the mechanized hoopla, it seemed only fair to give Greenraven equal time.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The MMORPG Customer Is Always Wrong?

WoW's ubiquitous Lead Systems Designer has an interesting quote on MMORPG's and democracy. Blue wall of text inc:
I understand how it can seem like a double standard where you feel you have an enormous mountain to climb to make your case, while we aren't obligated to do the same thing. That's simply because we're the ones empowered to make the call. I don't state that as a power trip deal, but I think sometimes players want to turn our approachability into this being a democracy. It's not.

We're not interested in developing under a system where we have to get community buy-off for our decisions. We don't think that will ultimately lead to a strong design. I don't mean for that to sound harsh. I'm just trying to steer you away from logic that ends up where we have to justify every decision we make or you can somehow get us to make the decisions you want if you just find the right knobs to turn.

The crab has the nerve to actually say it, but he's certainly not the only developer thinking it. MMORPG's are not a democracy, and we wouldn't want them to be - we have seen what happens when you let players make the design choices. That said, I'm seeing a disturbing trend of studios deciding that they don't even feel like being the bearers of bad news.

Is Silence Better Than Bad News?
SOE implemented changes in the latest EQ2 patch this week that gutted the rewards for contested raid boss fights and implemented a lack-luster but easy to balance racial trait revamp. The PR strategy was simply to quarantine all of the negative feedback into one thread per topic (something like 75+ pages on the former and 38+ on the latter), not respond unless there was a verifiable and fixed bug, and basically ignore the issue until it goes away.

Sony is not alone. Under the crunch time wire, Cryptic quietly didn't mention plans to completely revamp combat difficulty in Champions Online until it went live on the retail servers (once you've started your head start, they are your retail servers) with a single line in the patch notes. Faced with major server queues at Aion's head start, NCSoft did technically issue a statement, but Syp summarizes it as suck it up and wait it out.

There are two problems with this approach. The first is that the customer may always be wrong, but that doesn't mean that they're always 100% wrong. Contested loot may be a balance problem, but there is no incentive to scramble to race to the spawn point to attempt bosses on no notice if the loot is no better than instanced content you can attempt at your leisure. Aion might absolutely require those pesky server queues for longterm population balance, but they are also officially charging for a service that players cannot use at the moment.

The second issue is consumer confidence. For better or worse, the current generation of MMORPG's are based around progression for persistant characters. It's a problem if you decide you're going to wipe your battleground currencies after not having done so for your first expansion (a move that Blizzard had to reverse). It's a problem when your Champion is suddenly unplayable because you didn't obey a set of unwritten rules (e.g. take a defensive power ASAP) that didn't exist when you created it; sure enough, Cryptic insisted that respec costs were fine for all of a day before implementing free respecs. SOE planned massive changes to DPS across the board earlier this year, and reversed themselves when it became increasingly clear the player outcry would be even more damaging than the status quo (with hybrid DPS ruling the day).

(Aside: One has to wonder whether SOE will simply reintroduce the tanking/DPS changes under the veil of secrecy of its expansion beta NDA, not revealing them until the last possible moment. At least this would remove some of the issues with making changes of the scope they were planning mid-expansion, but it could make for a very volatile situation in February.)

Accountability and consumer confidence
It's no coincidence that changes like these are the ones that get rolled back. It's not a democracy, but that does not mean that there is no accountability. In the subscription-based MMORPG, your consumer confidence is your meal ticket.

That's why I find the veil of secrecy so puzzling. Do developers really think that players won't notice major nerfs if they appear on the test servers without any announcement or warning? Is it better to have players discussing misinformation instead of issuing a full and detailed explanation of the changes at the risk of aggraving those who disagree? Developers may not need their customers' approval, but that does not mean they should ignore it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

When Mining Goes Wrong

My complaints about mining in WoW can be summed up with a brief visit to the Charred Vale in Stonetalon Mountains. I ran through this area as part of my project to mop up low level quests that are going away in Cataclysm, and encountered every type of metal from copper (mining skill: 1) to truesilver (mining skill: 230).

Of the three games I've played recently, WoW's other two harvesting professions (skinning and herbalism) are very very easy to level, but WoW's mining runs into big problems. The game could really use one more type of non-rare ore. Players can start mining Mithril in their late 30's, but they must collect a whopping 70 skill points off of that tier, with the last 20 earned after the mineral nodes have turned green (low chance of skill up). You can shortcut some of those points via smelting and mining rare ores, but you're going to outlevel the areas where mithril drops long before you finish with mithril. Thorium is another 55 point grind, and you literally cannot mine anything in Outland until you reach 300 mining skill.

Gathering professions are only useful if you can actually gather the stuff you encounter in the field. I'm guessing that this was part of Blizzard's reasoning in scattering lower-level minerals in higher level zones, to help players catch up. The problem is that this makes it very difficult to level expediently - either you're forced to collect low level rocks you don't need to clear the spawn points, or you're unable to harvest higher level minerals until you reach the next magic skill plateau. There's also the secondary issue that even the lower level ores are worth harvesting to sell, so it's much more common to go hunting and find that someone else has already picked the area clean.

By contrast, EQ2 offers new minerals, and crafted gear using the new materials, every 10 levels without exception. As a result, it has to be moderately easy to keep pace, and that's how the game plays out. LOTRO's system is closer to WoW's, but your prospecting skill is tied only to smelting ingots. This takes an insultingly long time sitting AFK while your character smelts (mastering the current top tier takes 1,800 crafting exp, which you have to earn 6-8 exp at a time, with each bar taking something like 5-7 seconds to smelt, vs 1.5 seconds per bar in WoW), but you only need to get a third of the way through each tier to be allowed to mine the next one - I've never had the experience of having trouble harvesting level appropriate resources quite like you get in WoW.

At the end of the day, crafting is simply less integral to WoW than to EQ2 or LOTRO. That's fine, except that Blizzard has opted to make everyone go through the exercise of leveling professions for self-only perks. Then again, the old world is a big part of the problem - Outland and Northrend are far better at being self-contained, which is yet another illustration of how deep into various systems the various flaws with old world Azeroth go. It will be interesting to see whether Cataclysm tackles this issue head on, or simply papers over the problem by expanding the range for guaranteed skill ups.

On the plus side, all of the Thorium, and all of the Mithril I had to harvest to get it to respawn as Thorium, was worth a lot of money. Greenraven is no longer too poor to buy flying mount training. I guess mining had a good perk after all (though I still think that the herbalism perks are much more interesting).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Did Aion Learn From Warhammer Population Woes?

A new heavily-hyped PVP-focused MMORPG has just launched, and they're having queues and faction population balance issues. Apparently this is going to be the new tradition for September, take note if you've got a similar game in development. What has Aion learned from the launch of Warhammer?

The "good" news, and I use that in quotes because there's nothing fun about it, is that they have decided to take the long view on server queues. Server capacities must be set lower during the launch window since all of the players are crowded into the same few zones (precisely two in Aion's case). If you expand too aggressively and don't have the population to sustain that, your PVP players won't have opponents and bad things will happen.

The bad news is that they seem to be convinced that they can do PVP with two factions (and an NPC faction that supposedly turns on whomever is currently winning) and balance the sides by physically shutting off character creation for the winning side. This is going to cause a very misleading and false sense of security.

Players will not permanently abandon their friends to play on another server just because of some temporary server queues. They will watch like a hawk for the opportunity to be reunited with their comrades, they will invite their friends to further swell the ranks by piling on to the same server, and they may even feel strongly enough to pay $50 in transfer fees to rescue their old character via paid faction and server transfers.

The only players who are going to change their minds are the dreaded WoW tourists - players with no social ties, who value being able to play their faction of choice over being on a particular server with other players. Sounds mighty accomodating of them, but can you really count on these players to stay with the game? (Aside: the current server stats say that there isn't a single server where the good side has the population advantage. That's a problem.)

As Saylah writes at West Karana, the current rules are splitting guilds down the middle. In the long term, this is very counter productive - keeping that guild together, playing with their friends, is what keeps people in the game. If one of the two sides is full of guilds who chose to play on that side and brought all their friends, while the other side is full of random players who switched because the character select screen asked them to, which side do YOU think will be on top when that first monthly fee comes due?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

What A Long, Strange Trip It Has Been

The year-long ordeal is over. The Violet Proto-Drake, with its coveted 310% flight speed, is mine. To reach this milestone, I:

The trip was not merely long and strange, but also rocky, and, frankly, an embarrassment for the developers of the world's most lucrative MMORPG. There is no excuse for the easily forseeable bugs and reset issues from previous years - those of us who were actually paying attention were warning them about things like the Children's Week dailies (seriously, why was it a good idea to require players to play on five consecutive days out of seven to begin with?) months in advance.

For me personally, wrapping up this chapter in the Wrath era leaves me with two major lessons about myself and the genre in general.

Lesson 1: All Incentives Are Temporary
Two years ago, I was all about the gear grinds. I went through and made my Pally alt into an uncrushable tank without setting foot in an instance just because it amused me to be able to do so. Then came more expansions and more gear resets, especially the game-changer in patch 3.2.

Today, I literally have emblems that I could be spending to upgrade my current gear, but I'm not even bothering to do so. I already outgear all of the content that I actually use, and the gear I might buy will be obsolete in mere months. I might as well just save the emblems for heirlooms I can use on alts next expansion, which won't be obsolete in a year.

Even the shiny mount that I worked so long and hard for drives this point home. The mount flies at +310% speed, a slight increase from the otherwise standard 280% speed of epic flying mounts (though I barely notice it). The catch is that JUST this mount moves at that speed. The Proto-Drake was the 73rd mount added to my stable. That means I have 72 mounts that force me to go slower in order to ride them. If this sort of thing does not dampen your enthusiasm for further mounts, you're just not paying attention.

Lesson 2: Just because you CAN get it....
More personally, this trek drove home an important lesson about attainability. There are other 310% mounts in the game. You can be in the top percent of the arena bracket, or you can raid some of the game's toughest content. These things never affected me in the slightest, because they were unattainable.

By contrast, the only thing really standing in between players and the proto-drake was the random number generator. Blizzard somehow thought that players would start on the achievement grind with the easily attained achievements (e.g. buy and eat a cheap item from a vendor), come up short on one or more of the more onerous achievements (e.g. find a group and fight this daily boss five times a day for the entire event and still have a significant chance of never winning the drop), and not feel like they'd been the victim of a bait and switch.

Alternately, players could push on through events that, frankly, were rarely fun even when they weren't crippled by poor testing and bugs. The further you progressed into the event, the greater the pressure. Giving up after that 12th candy heart attempt meant not getting credit for the hours and hours you spent working on it. Giving up later meant giving up the reward for even more. In the end, the reward was attainable, but that does not mean that it was WORTH attaining.

Fun in spite of the incentives?
Where was the fun in these achievements? Forcing players who don't PVP into battlegrounds that they are not geared for, to do things that impede the nominal goal of the team in winning the match? Running around some newbie area to try and beat dozens of other players to click on the egg literally hundreds of times? Riding a ram back and forth on a track hundreds of times? Storming an instance at level 80 to beat the stuffing out of some poor level 71 non-heroic boss who had the misfortune of obtaining a Santa hat?

That's not to say that the holidays on a whole failed. The holiday quests were, in most cases, legitimately interesting (or at least brief). Little extra incentives to explore the world, though the elders in the Lunar Festival or the bonfires at Midsummer were fun, especially now that we know we were actually making a bit of a farewell tour around the old world. However, these things had very little to do with the achievements - they were fun before achievements arrived and remained fun in spite of the new system.

Until this holiday grind, I can't think of something that I have spent the effort to work on in an MMORPG that I ultimately regretted pursuing. There's a first time for everything. In fairness, part of this experience was colored by the unreasonable time requirements of the Valentine's event (which were so bad that they retroactively awarded credit to people who gave up, even after some of us suckers actually completed the task as designed). Even without that unreasonable entry, though, I cannot think of anything I did specifically because of an achievement that I really look back on and am happy that I did.

In some ways, this journey explains my shift over the last year away from a focus on a single game and towards sampling the best of all worlds. I have been burned by the Wrath of the Achievement King - it turns out that the rewards I've been working for aren't really worth it, and I might not even enjoy the journey to get them. And I have one very violet mount to prove it.

As advertised, this is one very very violet proto-drake.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Time for NOT Soloing?

Mythic's Jeff Hickman gave a talk at GDC with a list of things he feels Warhammer did wrong. In the talk, he suggests that making the game too easy for solo PVE was a bad idea because it removed the need, and thus the desire, for players to group. Syp disagrees, arguing that it would have been even worse if the game had broken players with brutal entry level content, and that he found plenty of groups just fine on his own thank you very much. I'm the guy who juggles three separate games for my solo PVE fix, so obviously I'm on Syp's side, right?

Not exactly. My biggest mistake in Warhammer is that I set out to play it as if it was World of Warcraft - solo PVE, with instanced scenarios on the side. I never added anyone to my friend's list and barely joined a guild a week before my time ran out, because I needed access to the guild tavern in order to get RVR reward gear.

The basic solo PVE quests weren't that interesting, but it wasn't really likely that, with dozens of PQ's littering the landscape, you'd happen to find one that people were actually working on beyond T1 (a guild would have helped with this). Open RVR areas were places I snuck into off-hours to try and complete a few quests without being ganked, patting myself on the back for cherry-picking the best rewards. (In my defense, basically none of the other access or reward mechanics around oRVR were actually in place at the time.)

Frankly, Warhammer's biggest problem was that they ran out of money and launched too early. That aside, I think it is somewhat fair to say that the mistake I made was somewhat encouraged by the way they set up the game. If I ever get back into Warhammer, I'm going to be looking for a guild from day one, sticking it out with that Rune Priest/Disciple that I liked (but chickened out of playing, because PUGS didn't do much of a good job of keeping me from being slaughtered), and doing as much RVR as possible. The fact that I happen to prefer solo PVE does NOT mean that EVERY game needs to be solo PVE even if that does not play to its strengths.

Perhaps encouraging community with less-soloable content would not have been enough to cover for the lack of finish. It certainly might have hurt their initial box sales. It's possible, however, that they wouldn't have lost 2/3 of their customers in the first few months (and thereby wouldn't have had to fold so many servers). Of course, they probably went down this road in the first place because they were hoping that making the game as WoW-like as possible would totally let them steal all of WoW's players. That didn't work out too well for them.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Juggling MMORPG's and budgets

After my Labor Day rundown of my activities in various games, a reader wrote me to ask what I actually spend on a monthly basis. The actual cash number isn't that high - I rarely have two overlapping subscriptions for more than a week at a time, and I'm not above keeping an eye on the calendar around my potential bill dates to see if I can save a buck or two by letting a subscription drop for the weekend if I'm going to be out of town. Overall, I'd guesstimate that I spend less than $20 a month on subscription fees.

Of course, as the goblins say, time is money. How much time do I spend on making this work?

Setting Priorities
Limited time events generally bump their way to the top of my calendar. The continents of Kunark and Northrend and the Forest of Lothlorien will still be there next month. Brewfest, or the planned Quellithulian Spires Event in the next EQ2 patch (next week?) will not. Sometimes an event appears on little to no notice. Not planning in advance to spend 100% of my cash budget means that I don't need to feel guilty about picking up a second game when the unexpected happens.

The second part of priority-setting, though, is deciding what can afford to wait. WoW, LOTRO, and EQ2 are all getting expansions in the next year, and there are random upgrades scattered through patches (e.g. EQ2's racial trait revamp) in the interim. These changes can make some activities more timely now or more polished and enjoyable down the road.

That aside, the most rewarding part of this exercise for me personally is taking the time to evaluate what I'm playing and why. If there was a lifetime subscription to WoW, I would probably log in once a week to zerg down Wintergrasp and maybe run a five-man or two. There's no particular reason why this needs to be a top priority - I'm rapidly approaching the point where I'm going to run out of things to spend stone keeper shards and honor points on - but the weekly reward seems too good to pass up. It's still fun - I wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't - but so is taking the time to actually explore other games.

The bigger challenge in all of this is finding the time. I could afford to pay the subscription fees for multiple games - with the caveat that a second fee does add up to a lot of extra money over the course of a year - but I rarely have the time to actually take advantage of them. The limited time budget is what really makes me feel that it's worth sitting down and planning out what it is that I'm most interested in doing next month.

Crowding out the new guys?
The one broader bit of commentary I'd offer is that the current state of the market is a double-edged sword for developers. It's great that there are all these options on the market, but time may increasingly become the limiting factor in what new (or old) games I am able to pick up.

If I'm just playing WoW, as I was last August, it's easy to decide that I'm going to take a month to try out Warhammer at its launch. Now I'm playing WoW, EQ2 and LOTRO on alternating months. WoW's got this month for Brewfest, EQ2's patch and event will probably claim next month, and LOTRO's expansion launch will probably be gearing up in November (opposite WoW's 5 year anniversary event). If I do unexpectedly find time, there's that Warhammer free retrial I never got around to using, and I would really like to take Runes of Magic for a spin at some point because it would be nice to have a game where my costs are tied to how much I play the game, rather than a flat monthly rate, somewhere in my rotation.

With all of that going on, when and why would I bother lining up for launch day for a game like Aion or Champions? Someone else can get stuck with the character whose powers got nerfed into the ground by the last minute balance mega-patch, and I can get a more balanced view of the game once the launch hype settles.

Worse, if you're developing some new game and hoping for some free publicity from blogs like this one, you've got a higher bar to meet. When there are so many games that I know I would be happy to play at the moment, asking me to spend $50 on a box for a game that I don't know that I will like is a tough sell. Perhaps FFXIV will make the cut if it lives up to its more solo-friendly billing, but that's the only announced upcoming title that I'm seriously considering at the moment.

It may be a great time to be PLAYING online games, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a great time to be making them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Graphics Card Crisis Solved

Thanks to a $35 purchase from Newegg, my gaming machine is up and running again. Sometimes, when a specific component starts making a funny noise at exactly the time your machine stops working, that's actually the part that's broken. A few of the things I've learned from the experience:

- The deal I got on the new card probably represents some sort of clearance as the manufacturers roll out a new model. The result was an absolute steal on the price/performance curve. I'm taking a bit of a decrease in raw GPU power, but I'm certainly not noticing any changes in WoW. I really didn't want to sink a large amount of money into this machine right now, and it was hard to justify spending three times as much when I could solve the immediate crisis so cheaply. I'll keep you all posted on whether I notice a difference when I get back to EQ2 and LOTRO.

- If you're going to be spending a few days on a machine that's desperate for RAMspace, you might as well take the opportunity to pare down your UI mods. Half of my old UI wasn't even working anymore anyway because people have stopped updating old mods from a few patches back. Now I've got a shorter list of must-have mods that actually work.

- The total lack of documentation on the power connectors that came with the new graphics card was a real pain in the rear. I spent 30 minutes on google to answer the relatively simple question of why the new card wanted a different set of plugs than the old one did. That said, I would have had to pay a repair guy $100 on top of the cost of the card (and they may or may not have been on board with me ordering a new card online instead of paying them retail) to do this for me, so it worked out in the end.

Finally, if anyone has any advice on what to do with the carcass of my old graphics card, I'd be curious to hear it. The fan was still working, so whatever failed was probably somewhat more expensive and difficult to replace. On the other hand, the deceased is actually still a relatively high end card, so it would be good not to have it end up in a landfill somewhere if it's salvageable.

The Difficulty With Timed Challenges

WoW Mount Management would like you to know that this particular Bronze Drake is a Mount. It is not to be confused with the Albino Drake, the various Proto-Drakes and Nether Drakes, etc, which happen to allow you to ride them places but are not formally labeled "mount" in their name.

Heroic COS was the daily on my Alliance server yesterday, which meant that about half a dozen members of my guild completed their very first timed run through the zone in the approximately 90 minutes of peak hour time that I spent online. I was one of them, and was fortunate enough to run it in a group where everyone already had the mount, so my mage now gets a member of the Bronze Dragonflight to personally fly him around places.

The timed run is basically a race against the clock to clear the entire dungeon up to the final boss in 25 minutes, and then run to catch a special optional boss who will run and teleport away if the clock runs out while you're fighting him. If you win, everyone gets the achievement and one party member can get the drake if they don't already have one. (It's also good for an Emblem of Conquest and four Stone Keeper Shards if you own Wintergrasp, since the guy is an extra boss.) We got to the boss with maybe 90-120 seconds left on the clock, but he fortunately doesn't do much except die quickly, and we beat him in the nick of time. Taking down the nominal final boss of the instance felt anticlimactic after the frantic rush to clear the timed run.

Of course, therein lies the problem. This type of challenge is very very tough when you're trying it at the correct level, somewhat easier as gear inflation works its course, and presumably becomes trivial once the level cap increases.

Coping with mudflation and challenge rewards
Various games have taken different approaches to this issue. WoW has outright retired certain special mounts and titles from more difficult level-appropriate raids. Gear inflation takes care of some of the work of devaluing rewards on its own - characters who can breeze through the content don't need the rewards, but that alone doesn't always solve the problem.

EQ2 takes the additional step of not allowing mobs to drop the good loot if the party is overgeared. Then again, no system is perfect - EQ2 allows higher level characters to "mentor down", and the resulting character is apparently still more powerful than a character of that level would typically be. There's also the sometimes sticky issue of raiding guilds renting their raid slots to players who need to kill a specific raid mob for their Mythical Weapon quests. In some ways, this sort of thing is necessary in an era where routine instance PUG's have their mythical weapons (much like WoW PUGS that demand 3K DPS and the epic gear achievement for 5-mans).

Expansions present another kind of issue. SOE is planning to replace Mythical weapons in the new expansion, but is talking about allowing players to retain their current weapons in an additional trinket-like slot. If this requires new players to somehow get groups willing to take them through the old content, that could be a problem in the new expansion. (LOTRO has a similar issue with the pre-Moria level 50 class dungeon quests, though the items in question can at least be bought off of the broker if you've got enough money.)

In the end, I guess the best approach is to determine whether a specific reward is really meant to be a prestige item, and remove it or not based on that. The Bronze drake does not appear to have been intended as a true prestige item, and it has the lack of rarity to prove it.

Sometimes that's approrpiate, especially when you consider that this was Greenwiz's 72nd mount. Still, I do feel just a bit like I snuck in under the wire on this particular achievement. It simply was not as hard as it would have been six months ago (when I would not have won the mount by default on most runs). It's another small step in a trend in WoW that is increasingly diminishing the significance of the very incentive rewards that Blizzard is hoping will keep us playing the game.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The End of Retail PC Gaming?

A Tour of the Retail Scene
My local Best Buy has five shelf blocks (something like 4-5 display rows per block) devoted to PC gaming. One entire block is reserved entirely for Blizzard - WoW, Starcraft 1 and Diablo II. They didn't even have enough copies of these 5-10 year old games and their expansions in stock to fill an entire shelving block, even with the box art facing out, so they used some Blizzard artwork to fill the remaining space. Half of a block is devoted to a face-out display for The Sims (2 and 3 with various expansions). About a block and a half are devoted to the Bejeweled and Solitaire games of the world. This leaves two shelving blocks, a mere 40% of the space, for the entire rest of what we might consider serious PC gaming, MMORPG, FPS, or offline. This stuff has to be crammed in on its side such that you have to scan the box spines for titles, while there was literally empty, unused space in the Blizzard and Sims areas.

The local EB Games does not even appear to be willing to use any shelf space for PC games when it could be occupied with used PS2 games instead. They did, however, have the Brady guide to Wrath of the Lich King on display in their magazine and strategy guide rack. (A brief caveat: Gamestop's primary business these days involves collecting a 100% markup on used console games, and PC games are using increasing DRM or online-only features that make them effectively impossible to trade in.)

The local Target is more in line with what what Best Buy had, and approximately the same proportions - maybe 25% for WoW and The Sims (displayed with box art facing out), 50% for casual games, and 25% for everything else (mostly crammed into shelves spine-out, though there were a few new titles that got the coveted box art out treatment).

Maybe you could convince me that ONE of these establishments had a WoW fanboi of a manager who wanted to screw Warhammer et al and no else in the store knew enough to complain. Once we're talking about three companies who want to make money, it's less of a coincidence. In fact, if they were going to be biased, you'd think they'd bias their space AGAINST WoW and towards games that WoW players like myself don't already own. Instead, they're allocating their limited shelf space to products that they are selling. We've known that WoW and The Sims have been on top of the NPD charts for some time now, but it's striking to see those statistics reflected in actual floorspace allocation.

Implications on PC gaming
It would be hyperbole to say that PC gaming is dead, but it looks fair to say that the retail PC gaming scene is in for a bit of an overhaul. The second class treatment that everyone not named WoW or The Sims is getting doesn't even come for free - many developers (but notably NOT Blizzard) are now offering exclusive retailer-specific pre-order bonuses to the very stores that will be burying their products in a few months.

The Hardware Niche
The hardware problem is certainly part of the issue. Console developers are prepared to live with the fact that the specs of the latest Playstation or whatever are going to be fixed for the next decade. If you own a Playstation, you can buy every Playstation game until whenever the PS4 comes out, so it's up to the devs to work harder to make their games look prettier on the same console that everyone else has.

By contrast, PC developers are all-too-willing to drive up the system specs and not worry about the fact that the majority of PC's sold can't play the games they're producing. Sure, gamers are probably savvy enough to get the appropriate hardware, but that means you've already conceded the mainstream market to the Bejeweled clones of the world.

The Growing Role of Word of Mouth
That problem aside, the big issue that we're going to see as retail space for PC gaming slowly wastes away is publicity. Studios are willing to let stores take such a large chunk of the box profits because they believe that they will make it up in volume by attracting walk-up impulse buyers. This is a taller order when your impulse buyer had to be sufficiently well-informed to have the appropriate hardware, but not so well-informed that they've read reviews and made up their minds about your product before they walked in the door.

Certain games - the FFXI/FFXIV's and Champions Online's of the genre - are going to try and straddle the line between consoles and PC's in the hopes of getting some retail shelf space that way. This choice means that the game needs to be playable using a controller.

For everyone else who isn't named Blizzard, the alternative is online advertising - either covering the WoW Wiki with ads for some other game (happens pretty regularly these days), hoping to make it big via Facebook and twitter, or even sending company reps to personally visit the blogs. The investment/payoff ratio on this strategy is huge - the company keeps all of the revenue, and does not have to spend very much - but word of mouth is suddenly the lifeblood of the game. Then again, Warhammer had a relatively big AAA retail launch and that didn't seem to help them when the game wasn't quite ready to go and word of mouth went bad in a hurry anyway.

Follow the Money
There's more economics than I actually understand at work here, but it doesn't hurt to follow the money. More and more games are struggling to find ways to offer downloadable content, microtransactions, or paid account services. Though Turbine will never say, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they made more money on their $20 download-only mini-expansion than on last year's $40 retail expansion after you consider manufacturing costs and markup for both distributors and retailers.

This part of the business model will be the big thing for gamers to watch in the coming years, because the age of retail PC gaming does not appear to be coming back anytime soon.

The Cost of Gaming Hardware

Something or other in my gaming computer seems to have broken. One evening it was fine, the next it just wouldn't start. When you push the power button, the system fan comes on, followed by the graphics card fan (which seems to be making a different noise than usual) and all of the usual flashing lights on the front of the box, only nothing happens after that. No loading up the hard drive to start booting up, no waking up the monitor, the machine just sits. Based on the new noise coming off the graphics card, my guess is that the problem is there, though I have no idea whether a dead graphics card will physically block start-up while still drawing power to run the fan etc.

This machine cost about $1,500 two years ago, and replacing it with a machine that has similar specs today would cost about half that. Replacing the graphics card, if that's what's dead, would cost about $70-100, and I could do that myself, but I'm hesitant to buy a new one without being absolutely certain that it's the (only?) part that is broken. My alternative is taking it to a repair shop that's going to want $50/hour plus parts and may or may not be irritated with me if I insist on picking out a new graphics card online rather than paying retail for whatever they happen to have stored in their parts closet.

In the mean time, I'm stuck with my backup machine, a laptop with an integrated graphics card and a mere 1GB of RAM that I bought to serve as a portable word processor back in grad school. They quip that WoW can run on a toaster, and this particular machine is indeed slightly more effective at playing WoW than making toast.

When the expansion came out, the Wrath installer complained that this machine fails to meet the game's minimum specifications, but I insisted on installing it anyway and it runs about as well as TBC did (without objecting to the machine's specs). Dalaran is a bit of a slide show, Wintergrasp is outright impossible, and the gameplay is so choppy that I fell off of Thunder Bluff for the very first time the other night. Still, I've been able to run around the sparsely populated Barrens without any real issues. I even snuck into a Heroic 5-man TOC run on Greenwiz, where I probably didn't do as much DPS as usual, but I'm far enough above the gear requirements for 5-mans that this need not be a deal-breaker.

Implications of the hardware barrier
Some of you may be reading this and wondering where the game design question is. This old laptop cost about $800 three years ago, two years after the launch of WoW and EQ2 and just before the launch of LOTRO. I've attempted to play LOTRO on it before, and it kind of does so, but you have to set all the settings to the minimum, which makes everything look blurry and still isn't quite enough to keep the gameplay from being choppy. I don't even dare to try EQ2 on the laptop, as EQ2 wasn't all that happy running at the auto-detect settings on my gaming machine until I upped the RAM to 4 GB. Even Free Realms calls for a graphics card, which the integrated chipset kind of technically satisfies, but not very well or very happily.

Somewhere along the line, it became standard practice in the gaming industry to require hardware that substantially increases the cost of the machine. Though I do appreciate the visual effects - the reflection of the moon on the lake outside Moria, for instance - sometimes I wonder whether we've gotten a bad deal. When something goes wrong on the hardware end, we're left with unpleasant alternatives, just to restore the proper function of a visual feature that isn't really necessary for gameplay.

In fairness, some of the community will actually complain bitterly, when a new game looks like a four-year-old one. I wonder if they'd stop complaining if they ever had to spend a few weeks on the kind of computer that most non-gamers have to live with full time.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Diminishing Returns on Incentive Rewards

Gevlon weighs in on the apparent trend away from RNG-based loot tables. He looks at the loot tables and concludes that a completely ungeared level 80 resto druid in WoW entering the heroic 5-man Nexus dungeon for the first time can expect, on average, 1.6 gear upgrades per run. The number includes gear that is more suited for DPS casters than healers, but Gevlon suggests that the deficit there can be made up via skill. Fair enough.

Then Gevlon says that there are 17 gear slots on a WoW character, and, at 1.6 gear upgrades per run, a new player can expect to be outfitted in "best in slot ilvl 200" gear in only 11 runs (17/1.6). It apparently wasn't Gevlon's best math day, as he also states that there were 11 5-man dungeons at Wrath's launch, when it was actually 12. The bigger issue with the analysis is that the 1.6 gear upgrades per run number is not a constant.

If Gevlon's hypothetical new druid gets that best-in-slot healing mace on her first run, any subsequent healing weapon drops aren't all that useful for her. Alternately, a future run might allow the druid to replace a DPS-focused item with a healing-focused item as one of it's 1-2 useful drops for the druid, but that retroactively diminishes the value of the previous run. Either way, the frequency and magnitude of the upgrades drops as the player completes more dungeons.

This is a moot point if you're in Gevlon's position, capable of literally buying a whole guild's worth of alts past a bit over an entire tier of content. For them, 5-man content is a mere waystation on the way to bigger and better challenges, which they are more than able to overcome even without all of the best gear. If, on the other hand, you play in 1-2 hour chunks on no fixed schedule, and therefore cannot raid any higher content, the diminishing reward curve on the random 5-man loot table becomes an issue. That is where Blizzard, Turbine, Mythic and SOE see a role for loot tokens.

How many mounts do you need?
Though dungeon drops can be the most prominent example - my first trip through Heroic TOC got me an upgrade and a side grade, but I haven't won any useful loot in 3 runs since - this problem is not unique to gear.

Let's say that you're hoping to get players to collect more mounts - Massively reports that Turbine may be going in that direction with LOTRO. Sure, they can tell me that my horse won't follow me into Moria and try to sell me a goat. I'll probably purchase one, if for no other reason than variety.

The thing is, like gear, I can only use one mount at any given time. If they're planning on saying that Moria goats are too scared to go into Mirkwood, that's where I'm probably going to draw the line on LOTRO mounts. If they don't, what is the benefit to me of doing any work whatsoever for additional mounts?

Cosmetics? Perhaps, if the amount of work is reasonable. But appearence too has diminishing returns in that there are only so many different colors that you can slap on a horse.

Faster speed? You can go that route - I suspect that Runes of Magic will have to since selling mounts is one of their main revenue streams - but that has its drawbacks too in that it renders the slower mounts obsolete. I have a number of cool-looking WoW mounts that I never use because they're the non-epic slower versions. Ironically, that 310% holiday proto-drake would actually relegate the dozens of existing mounts I have to the slow lane. It's best not to have your new timesink remove all of the player's incentive to continue working on your older timesinks, if your goal is to sink as much of the player's time as they're willing to.

A universal problem
Other rewards are similarly affected. I'm up to 72 minipets in WoW - I'll do the Shattrath daily fishing quest when it happens to be "free baby crocolisk for fishing in Stormwind" day (it appears to be a 100% drop now until you've collected all four, where it was previously pretty rare), but I'm not spending thousands of gold or grinding out factions just for a minipet anymore.

Cosmetic outfits in games that offer them (EQ2, LOTRO)? Well, having more outfits is kind of cool, but you've only got so many slots for them, and you have to store the items you're not wearing. Titles are in the same boat - I have over a dozen of them and have worn maybe two in my WoW career. You can offer the occasional rare unique reward, like the Squire from the Argent Tournament with remote bank access, but there's a limit to how many of those you can add before they too cease to be unique.

Exploring New Worlds
Even though we do completely different things in game, Gevlon and I share a common motivation - experiencing new content. He spends time posting hundreds of glyphs on the auction house to finance his raiding habit. I roll up alts (in WoW and other games), while I do dailies and 5-mans on my main so that I'll be geared well enough to break 3K DPS on the rare occasion when I'm able to sneak into a guild raid that's short a player. That's a problem for the developers, because new content takes time. Slapping a recolored mount or vanity pet onto the end of a faction grind, a token system, or a RNG drop table is quick and easy.

The problem is that, for them and for us, these activities suffer from diminishing returns. The more mounts and pets that Blizzard adds, the easier it gets to cherry pick out the easiest ones and get to the best rewards (ironically, additional mounts and pets). My solution to this is to simply hop games when I run out of things that I consider fun to do, but that's obviously not the route that the developers would like me to take. It'll be interesting to see whether the current or future generations of games can come up with better solutions.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Barrens Versus The Theme Park

Some bloggers are spending a lot of time these days complaining about how WoW has become a "theme park" with an on-rails, low challenge experience. Going back to the Horde side of The Barrens, content I have not done since the open beta back in 2004, I can certainly see a difference. To illustrate that difference, I present a PVD photo comparison between one of the game's older quests and one of its newer ones. Analysis will follow at the bottom.

My apologies for any of you viewing this over a slow connection.

The Barrens

Welcome to the Crossroads, home of many Alliance PUG raids and Horde newbies searching for Mankirk's wife. It is still a bustling area, even four years later - I've had competition for quest mobs for some of the quests I've been mopping up on Greenraven.

On top of this tower is an orc who wants you to kill a Harpy named Serena Bloodfeather. Note that, back in 2004, questgivers did not appear on the minimap (I think they copied this from LOTRO, though the exact timing is a bit fuzzy). Unless you were in the habit of running up random guard towers, most of which were deserted, or you happened to look up at the right angle to see the ! (and they say the hardest thing to get players to do is look up), you might not even have known about this quest.

And so, we're off to the Dry Hills. Note that this quest is actually the third quest in a chain. Part one called for players to go to the Dry Hills and farm Harpies for feathers. After going all the way back to the Crossroads, part two sent players all the way back out to the Dry Hills to kill more Harpies for signet rings. Perhaps the player blundered into the right corner of the zone the first time and forgot where the Harpies lived, but it's probably safe to assume that they weren't going to get lost a third time, even before the days of Wowhead and Questhelper.

Greenraven arrives at the outskirts of the Dry Hills on his epic ground mount. Elapsed travel time was about 90 seconds (and I even passed up some herbs en route so I could get an accurate time for you, my readers). Note that a level-appropriate character attempting to complete this quest back in 2004 would not have had an epic ground mount, or even a regular ground mount. As a result, you'd have been looking at 6 minutes of watching your character run for each of the three legs of the quest line.

Where in this area might a player find their victim, assuming no advance knowledge? Well, it's relatively standard design in this genre that, when you're hitting a camp repeatedly, the later targets will be deeper in. Indeed, the previous two stages did just that, so the player can probably guess that they're headed for the very back of the camp. On the downside, that player can also expect to aggro all the mobs, and therefore have to spend large amounts of time clearing their way into various dead-end corners until finding the right one. I'd guesstimate that it would have taken me another 30 seconds of epic mount travel time if you knew precisely where you were going, though, again, this would not have been uneventful travel at the appropriate level.

Oh hai, Serena. This particular mob is just out in the open, provided no one has killed it recently. If someone has killed it, and the corpse has despawned before you arrived, you might have no idea that you wandered past her spawn point. Still, that's arguably better than other quests in the Barrens - sometimes the named only appears if you go to the vicinity of his camp and start killing henchmen, and other times the mob rides a circular patrol around a wide swath of the zone, populated with hostile mobs. Combined with a long respawn timer, the latter type was a real pain, as the place where you find the body may not be the spawn point.

Killing the mob is generally the easy part, though it gets a bit easier when you have 42 levels on it.

The questgiver wants proof that you have done the deed. In narrative fairness, there are many quests in this game where the questgiver has absolutely no way of having verified your kills. On the downside, apparently you can't loot heads in the Chinese edition of WoW anymore, so they had to replace all the icons with sacks that supposedly contain the heads.

Satisfied that I'm one of the thousands of people to present him with the head of Serena Bloodfeather, the questgiver coughs up a reward worth 17 silver, some exp, some rep, and one more tick towards Loremaster of Kalimdor. Quest complete.

The New Dustwallow
For comparison, I dusted off Cheerydeth and went to the recently revised Dustwallow Marsh. This zone is actually immediately adjacent to the Barrens, but it got a massive overhaul in patch 2.3, making it the most recent leveling content outside of Northrend.

I've been investigating a burned out Inn, which, it turns out, was torched by the Grimtotem clan of Tauren. Tabetha, who lives out in the middle of the swamp in a location that certainly didn't have a convenient road leading up to it until patch 2.3, is not happy to discover that these guys are living in her backyard.

Here's ye not-so-olde world mappe. I remember getting lost whenever I had to go looking for Tabetha's hut back in the day, so I'm pretty sure it wasn't depicted on the map, much less on a small road. Anyway, the Grimtotem live in the little tent just north of my current position.

Getting there took about 15-20 seconds on the epic ground mount, which is actually level-appropriate in this era. Players would certainly have their 60% speed mount if not their 100% speed one. There is a road where you can stay mostly clear of enemies, though you might not want to - the only two types of critters found in between the two locations are targets for other quests at Tabetha's place.

Kill, kill, kill, loot, raze. Sucks to be the Grimtotem.

This quest would have been a bit tougher if I had been on the lower end of the level range and armed with green gear, but it's not a difficult quest. You pull a bunch of single humanoids, simultaneously getting credit for a kill 12 Grimtotem quest, walk into the huts and burn them down. One of the tents has a Forsaken mob instead of a Grimtotem, and you get an extra quest to turn in a letter that you loot from the body.

All told, that makes 3 complete quests from a single trip to a single camp that's maybe 30-40 seconds away from the quest giver, with two additional quest completes en route if you want to stop and kill the wildlife. By time I had finished all five of them (with rested exp and one heirloom bonus), I'd gained nearly half a level, in about as much time as it took me to clear out that old quest line in the Barrens on a character who was one-shotting all the mobs.

The Pros and the Cons
There certainly are some things to miss among the old content. There is much more of a sense of exploration when you're journeying out further from your most recent home base hub. In general, the quest area was much more densely packed, including stealthy mobs, making it far more dangerous for even-conned players (and thus potentially an environment where it might make sense to team up with another player). Unfortunately, these good attributes come with a bunch of ideas that have been removed from the game for a reason.

Like many old-world questlines, the first stage of the quest is level 15, the second is level 16, and the finale is level 20 (because the named mob is level 20, level 17 or 18 is more realistic). There is no way that the player gained 2-3 levels doing this one quest chain, which means that the player most likely ends up doing some or all of the quests at the wrong level. Maybe the truly epic questlines are worth having a step where the player has to come back in a few levels, but killing random harpies does not meet that bar.

Though the Dustwallow quest may be too close to its hub, there is absolutely no excuse for sending players to make two extraneous six minute un-mounted round trips before returning to the same camp for the same quest line. Inserting twelve minutes of additional "watching your character travel to players where you will get to play the game" time is not challenging, nor is it really immersive for the guy who hates the harpies not to credit the player for killing harpies until he formally assigns a quest for doing so. In a more modern quest, your faction might have a scout watching the enemy on a ridge nearby, so that you only had to return to town at the end of a given quest camp.

(I can only guess the repeat visit approach may have seemed convenient at the time because players would gain additional experience fighting their way past mobs they'd already killed for the two previous steps, increasing the total exp/quest ratio and thereby reducing the total number of quests that Blizzard needed to produce. Also, players had far more limited bagspace back in the day, and might have actually needed frequent return trips to empty their bags.)

Finally, the Barrens despearately needs some of the faster respawn mechanics that are used in TBC and beyond. Even four+ years later, it's not uncommon to arrive at an area with a named quest mob and find someone else standing on top of the corpse awaiting the next respawn. The wait is a waste of time AND an immersion killer at the same time.

It's no harder to find the boss if you have to spot the corpse instead of the living mob, and it's frankly a bit unfair to the player to miss the boss' location because they had the misfortune of arriving after the old corpse despawned but before the enemy respawned. You might have to reclear a few mobs while you wait, but that's not really adding to the challenge either, just the time. It's far better to offer an item that spawns the boss, avoid the use of single boss mobs when they're not actually going to be any harder than regular mobs, or just offer faster respawns if you must (very few Wrath era quest targets have 5-minute respawn timers).

Taking The Good And The Bad
While I've been working on this little project, Tobold has helpfully summed up my point. There are many areas where WoW of 2009 is huge leaps above WoW of 2004. If you really do want to convince players to rail against the least common demonimator of theme park gaming, it would be good to learn from the areas where WoW has actually improved the genre.

This is not to say that all you have to do is fix spawns, travel, and level tuning to get players to embrace five-year-old content. Part of the reason why Barrens chat has is reputation is that so many of the quests are very frustrating in the absence of out-of-game knowledge. Some players won't have the patience for more exploration - you'll note that the photoseries deliberately glosses over the whole combat side of things that is, for some folks, the point of the game. Still, fixing the issues that don't hurt the difficulty might help make this type of content more palatable to more players, which is what needs to happen if developers are going to spend time making it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Mechanostrider Always Triumphs

I know I said I was parking my other WoW alts, but I needed Cheerydeth the third for a project (more on this later). As long as I was signing on, there was no reason NOT to upgrade her mount skill, for a fraction of what Rich Uncle Greenwiz makes in an evening.

As a result, the third entry in the Triumph of the Mechanostrider series.

There should be some non-filler content sometime this week, really. ;)

Monday, September 7, 2009

What I Will Be Working On Eventually: Lyriana (71 Fae Dirge, EQ2) and various alts

I haven't been on EQ2 recently, but it's the last stop on my Labor Day tour of in-game goals anyway.

Insert random old EQ2 screenshot here.

Lyriana is level 71 and in no hurry to make it the rest of the way to level 80. Though EQ2 has substantial amounts of solo content, that is not necessarily the game's primary demographic. The Kunark expansion, which moved the level cap from 70 to 80 primarily via solo questing, was not entirely appreciated by veterans of the group game. My guess is that the expansion that raises the level cap in February will contain a solo leveling path of some sort, but will not contain as much original solo content. I want to be sure that I save anything that I don't need to get to level 80 for the trek to 90.

Beyond routine questing, I'm not sure what Lyriana's immediate goals will be. She is already level 80 in her crafting profession. Unless they're changing the way this works, she cannot use mounts without forfeiting her racial slowfall and gliding abilities, so there's no point in grinding for mounts. There are some misc rep grinds, including the tradeskill epic questline, but I'm not necessarily in the market for grinding for gear - if I wanted to be doing that, I could be doing it in WoW. There's also the epic weapon questline, but I don't know whether I'd be likely to be able to complete it.

I guess the fact that I DON'T know what I'd be doing with Lyriana may be part of why I haven't moved so quickly to finish her leveling process.

The Army of Alts
Instead, I've been working on alts. Kreejak is sitting at 31 Warden/46 Tailor, and will probably work on the TSO tradeskill quests when he hits 50 tailoring. He is, unfortunately, going to be hit relatively hard by the racial trait revamp; he loses an attack I use on a regular basis, and got stuck with the healer/tank trait packages (would be a plus except I play him as solo melee DPS). Also, I am somewhat dependent on my guildies for spell upgrades, and, while they're very cooperative in that regard, I prefer a bit more self-sufficiency when I can manage it.

I'm also planning a large array of potential alts, which I've discussed previously. These guys are relevant because they would allow me to stagger my tradeskilling and adventuring. Between Lyriana and Kreejak, I have armor and jewelry covered both for the Ratonga Bruiser/Monk+Alchemist and the mystery race Wizard+Sage (perhaps Kerra or Half Elf for racial tracking skills?). The Monk would, in turn, be able to supply the post-expansion Barbarian Pally+Armorer with spells.

Having a larger stable of alts would make it easier for me to adventure when I'm in the mood for adventure and craft when I'm in the mood for crafting, without as much concern about one getting ahead of the other. It also seems that the longtime EQ2 players who don't raid have similarly large stables of alts, so perhaps they're onto something.

Overall, I'm probably going to get back to EQ2 in October and stay there until the LOTRO expansion is ready. From the way the calendar is playing out, it doesn't look like I'm going to be bored anytime in the next six months.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

What I'm Working On: Greenraven (62 Tauren Warrior, WoW)

Continuing my Labor Day series on what my characters are up to, here's the latest on Greenraven, at level 62, the highest level Horde character I have had to date.

I've always vaguely wanted a raptor mount, but not quite badly enough to level a troll character or lose 90 PUG battlegrounds for the PVP version. With Cataclysm poised to wipe out a bunch of the old world Horde content, much of which I have never completed, I figured it was a good time to go complete low level quests. Obviously, you don't get much challenge when you run in and one-shot everything, but at least you get to see the storylines. If this activity incidentally propels me to exalted with the trolls, that's two birds with one stone.

All of which is just as well, because Greenraven kind of got screwed over by the mount changes. I purchased epic ground mount training for him last expansion, but then never finished Outland. If I was already level 70, I would be in Northrend, without Cold Weather flying, and not really missing the entry level flying mount. As is, I could be flying around Outland right now if I hadn't spent all of his savings on a purchase that I didn't really benefit very much from.

Professional Issues

As long as I'm running around lowbie zones anyway, I decided to take Gevlon's advice on gathering skills. Greenraven was originally mining/skinning because, as a Horde alt, he needed money and I was not inclined to do a lot of work on his professions. The problem is, mining can be a pain to level in the 40-60 range, as you will either be passing a lot of minerals you cannot mine yet for lack of skill, or you will be mining a lot of minerals that no longer award points, in the hopes that they will respawn as something better. I fell behind and realized that I have zero interest in keeping up.

On top of all of that, Wrath added more self-only perks to professions. Mining and skinning do offer some modest bonuses, but I would like the character to have more interesting professions, but without having to invest in major rep grinding to unlock key recipes. After some brief consideration, I decided to try herbalism and either alchemy or inscription. (I'm unlearning the skinning now and leveling herbalism to Outland standards first, so that I can also continue to mine anything I see while I'm working on this project.)

Alchemy would probably be more useful to this particular character, but, as Gevlon notes, raiding consumables are a mature, high volume market with relatively little room for major profits. By contrast, inscription features a large number of recipes, many of which are equally relevant to high level characters. I saw several minor glyphs posted at 75G. There probably isn't anyone buying at that price, but my mount cash problems would disappear if I could turn some level 1 herbs into even 10-20 gold glyphs.

Onwards and upwards
After I deal with the profession issues. I will also be leveling the warrior through Outland and Northrend, skipping neutral faction content that I've done to death whenever possible, so I can see the unique Horde stuff. If I get to 80 in a timely fashion, I might do Wintergrasp in the hopes of earning a heirloom gun for my hypothetical Goblin Hunter. All of my other WoW alts are effectively parked until the expansion; I'm not going to miss the stuff I've already done on the Alliance side. Fortunately, two characters are probably enough to keep me occupied in Azeroth for the time being.

Hey, so the guys in /general won't tell me where to find Mankirk's wife, can you help?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

What I'm Working On: Allarond (56 Human Champion, LOTRO)

Continuing my Labor Day weekend series of "My characters: let me show you them", Allarond is mid-way though level 56, and a bit over halfway through the Moria portion of the Mines of Moria expansion.

In general, the content has remained very good. There are four major quest hubs that I haven't been able to explore yet, and these could very well be enough to get me to level 60 before I even hit Lothlorien. I'm making some progress on crafting, though that system is not that much less irritating than it was back when I decided to blow it off in 2007. More exciting is that I'm nearing the rep level that will let me claim the low-end Moria-capable goat mount.

I'm still on the fence about whether to bother with a Runekeeper alt - Turbine has revamped some of the game's lowbie areas recently, but I'm still way behind on kill grinding deeds for my main, and I'm not eager to start over from scratch. I guess it will be a mood question whenever I get around to it.

The breaking LOTRO news this weekend was that Turbine is launching a mini-expansion later this year with an increased level cap. It makes absolutely no sense for me to rush on through to level 60 now, waste content by completing quests that won't award exp because I'm at the cap, get frustrated at the grindy nature of Turbine's endgame, and leave the game in an angry, dissatisfied state (as I did in 2007) when there's an expansion coming so soon. So, I'm going to be putting off the rest of Moria until the expansion gets closer.

As Yeebo points out, there are some reasons to be skeptical of this new project - it will be very interesting to see whether this model means that Turbine will now be charging for the content that previously went in its no-additional-fee patches. Still, in principle the timing works out pretty well for me. If I pick up LOTRO again in late October, with the mini-expansion arriving in November, that's probably time to make it through Mirkwood before EQ2's expansion in February, which would, in turn, probably last me through until the pre-Cataclysm world events start up in WoW. After having paid so little for the current expansion cycle to begin with, I might be willing to forgive a little bit of an extra money-grab if Turbine actually delivers on more Moria-quality content.