Monday, November 30, 2009

Two trips down memory Lane

WoW players got their 5th Anniversary present early; a revamped version of the original Onyxia raid, tuned for level 80 players and today's smaller, scaling raid groups. Players who logged in this week also received a mini-whelp pet. They also added Mr T to the game. After all, allowing Tauren Mages would destroy the lore, but having a friendly Night Elf sitting in the middle of Horde territory putting Night Elf Mr T heads on everyone is fine as long as it coincides with a cable TV ad campaign.

EQ2 players, for whatever reason, had their anniversary presents arrive a week or so late. Besides a few in-game festival quests, the real treat was a one-week-only questline that had players visiting scaling solo instance versions of one dungeon from each of the game's expansions. (The lore forums believe that the mysterious figure who sends you on this quest is Norrath's missing God of Dreams.)

Overall, WoW's version probably took more development time and work to accomplish. It also provides a timesink - another level 80 raid dungeon - that will stay with the game for the rest of the expansion cycle. Even so, EQ2's little trip down memory lane seemed more genuine and enjoyable. Sometimes, it actually is the thought that counts.

My Sarnak with the various souvenirs from the holiday on display in his home

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Cost of Console Gaming Hardware

Having written on the cost of PC gaming hardware in the past, I feel it's only fair to give console gaming hardware equal time.

I've been keeping an eye on the price of the PS3 over the Black Friday weekend. The new sleeker version of the console retails for $300 and includes one controller and a component video cable. If you want a remote control for the machine's much-touted Blu-ray playing capacity, that will cost you an extra $20. If you need an HDMI cable to plug into your HDTV, that's going to be an extra $10 (if you get a generic one, $40 if you buy the official one from Sony, or from most retailers).

In short, you can expect to sink two years' worth of MMORPG subscription fees into hardware, which is a very expensive hood ornament for your entertainment center until you spend more money on something to actually use with the system. Games retail for $60 and often can't be counted on to last more than 10-20 hours. Is it any wonder that, at those prices, gamers are renting or re-selling games in greater and greater numbers?

Console gaming has numerous advantages. Players don't have to worry about their system specs, because every game was designed to play on the same device. The variety of gaming experiences you can expect with a console and an all-you-can-rent plan is far greater than you're going to get out of 1-2 MMORPG subscriptions. I'm just saying that the cost is nothing to sneeze at, even before you get into expensive peripherals (hello, Rock Band) and not-so-microtransactions (which gaming publishers have somehow managed to brand as "DLC - downloadable content", an acronym that deliberately does not mention cost).

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Five Game Features I'm Thankful For

In honor of Thanksgiving, a few game features that I'm thankful for (and wouldn't mind if other games copied):

Currency, mount and quest item storage

Basically all of the major games offer some form of out-of-inventory storage for items players are obligated to collect. In WoW, it's mounts, minipets, keys, and currency tokens. In Warhammer, it's currency tokens and quest items. LOTRO also stores certain quest items (monster parts, not items players use on something) and will be getting a mount panel, but is sorely lacking in token storage. EQ2 has a very inconsistent system, with some mounts and minipets classified as spells and others taking up space. (EQ2 tokens do not get a separate tab, but many are heirloom and thus can be sent to bank alts.)

Either way, developers are learning that, if they expect us to collect things, they need to provide some way to store them.

Travel with tradeoffs

Between LOTRO's reputation/deed-based swift travel routes and WoW's Argent Tabard, there's an encouraging trend toward allowing players to get to places where they have already been through the local quests more quickly.

Meanwhile, I got an interesting item from the low-level Hunter's Vale dungeon in Warhammer - a cloak that offers a 50% runspeed buff that breaks on any damage, with a 5 minute duration and a 20 minute cooldown. This cloak is a clever low level travel time solution for getting back to town that does not take the place of a true mount for later in the game.

Overall, I'm not always opposed to in-game travel on principle. I just think that the travel needs to be limited to reasonable amounts of time. In my view, this kind of solution offers a creative compromise that doesn't totally remove distance from the game, but also does not punish players with large amounts of travel time for the crime of actually attempting quests (which tend to send players places).

Any race, any class
This is an EQ2 innovation that adds a flavor of uniqueness to the game's characters.

Turbine and Blizzard stubbornly argue that their lore forbids certain class combinations. Though it's true that Tolkien's Hobbits don't practice magic, the overwhelming majority of Hobbits are also peaceful agrarian folks who do not put on heavy armor and wade into large packs of foes swinging two large weapons. It is understood that player characters are not part of the helpless silent peaceful majority - if every NPC in the village were as capable as the players, they would be able to handle all of the local threats themselves.

The fact is that the lore is vitally important to the developers when they're trying to justify limiting options on the character generation screen, but completely dispensable when they want to slap Mr. T's head on player characters or set up their travel and death systems in such a way that it makes sense to jump off of cliffs as a shortcut back to town. There's no reason why the player characters, who are by definition exceptional members of their societies, cannot be exceptions to narrow lore restrictions.

Cosmetic, Dye-able Outfits

Warhammer has armor dyes and EQ2 has cosmetic armor slots, but only LOTRO offers BOTH dyes AND not one but two cosmetic armor outfit slots. When I complete a quest, the first thing I do is check whether one of the quest rewards looks unusually cooler than what I have on. A quick trip to the broker allows you to dye your latest trophy to the appropriate color. In Allarond's case, I realized that I had collected some armor that would look great in green for the journey into Mirkwood, while the second slot allows me to preserve my old navy-blue look for traveling less forested locations.

Text-assisted vendor sales interface

The vendor interface is one area where Blizzard has inexplicably declined to make significant improvements to WoW. Items accumulate in your bags randomly as you loot them, and it is up to the player to scan each icon individually to determine what it is and whether to sell it. By contrast, LOTRO and EQ2 have alphabetically sorted lists that display the name of the item and allow you to safety lock items you don't want to accidentally vendor.

These things may seem like minor touches, but they do a lot to streamline the process of clearing out your bags at the end of the day's adventuring, and I wish that Blizzard would borrow one or more of them.

That's my list, what features are you happy you have in your game of choice?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reflections of a Moria Late-comer

Allarond hit level 60 in LOTRO over the weekend, putting him at the level cap with just over a week to spare before Mirkwood arrives and raises it. What have I learned as a late-comer to the Moria era?

Top-notch Solo Content

I came to Moria expecting it to keep me entertained for a month or two. I guess that's approximately how long it lasted, but the quality of the experience was much higher than I expected. LOTRO's Moria is not just a large cave full of orcs, goblins, and Dwarven ruins. Instead, it offers substantial storylines and a variety of terrain that includes firey pits, watery depths, and snowy mountains.

Turbine can't match the high production value features seen in the new content Blizzard crafted for Wrath of the Lich King, such as world-altering phasing and a new turret/vehicle interface to offer a change of pace from the quest to quest grind. Even so, I'd set the two expansions up head to head for solo content available in a single play-through any day. Turbine nails the execution on the otherwise standard PVE content of Moria, weaving in Tolkien's lore with some of their own storylines to create a well-polished experience.

(FWIW, I've used almost all of the leveling solo content to get one character to 60, with about a zone's worth of level 60 content that I'm saving for the level cap increase next week; if you switch between the Alliance and the Horde, your second WoW character will have far more different content, even counting the similar quests, than your second LOTRO character can expect.)

The Downsides
The picture of the Moria era is not perfect.

In my view, crafting in the game is essentially WoW's system with longer "watch your character craft" bars, a more confusing mix of ingredients to buy from crafting vendors and create through subcombines, and a random chance to fail to craft your item (while consuming all your reagents) that can only be eliminated via a one-week cooldown recipe that isn't even available until you complete several reputation/skill grinds (two of which I have yet to complete on Allarond). At no point during the leveling process was I able to produce any jewelry that I would actually wear, and I probably would have saved time and cash purchasing food cooked by other players from the broker rather than buying the ingredients to cook it myself.

I've discussed my thoughts on the game's not-so-"legendary" item system in the past, so I won't wade into that particular timesink again here. Though I personally have not done group content, and therefore have not had to deal with the radiance grind, it is apparently bad enough to drive some players from the game.

And finally, we have the game's travel system. Even Pete at Dragonchasers, who generally supports longer travel time, concedes that LOTRO travel gets irritating when you actually want to go somewhere to accomplish some task - which is, essentially, the entire point of quest-based PVE leveling.

I really want to like the game's travel for tying travel shortcuts to local quest deeds and reputations, but the process of getting anywhere until you finish the grind in question is far too painful. I spent a lot of time reading blogs while Allarond rode the invincible goat somewhere, and that's simply not a good gaming experience.

On To Mirkwood
As a late-comer to the Moria era, arriving after the expansion's last non-paid patch, I missed a launch that Zubon describes as a "development debacle". One would expect that Turbine will be working hard to avoid a similar fate for Mirkwood, especially if they are effectively planning to charge for content patches henceforth.

Regardless of how the new experiment turns out, though, I'm prepared rank Moria as a success. The game delivers high quality solo-PVE content, backed by the rich lore of Middle Earth, and is well worth the visit no matter what happens to the business model down the line.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Do we need friends more than groups?

In the comments on my last post, Zizlak states that Warhammer's loot system in keeps does not harm the overall experience; if you don't win an item outright, you can eventually get the same item via tokens from killing enemy players. My gentle prodding at failing to land a loot bag after placing second in a particular keep siege aside, I agree with his point. Unfortunately, this is a problem for repeatable content incentives.

MMORPG's rely on in-game rewards to motivate players to spend their time on repeatable content. This works when the reward at the end of the line is genuinely rare and valuable. It stops working as the rewards become readily available (e.g. you already have dozens on mounts and minipets) or easily replaceable (e.g. you are still leveling, or every patch includes a gear reset). When that happens, rewards cease to be an effective incentive for doing repeatable content that is not enjoyable on its own merits.

In a more traditional group game, your team-mates provide some of the entertainment that makes each evening's gaming experience different from the previous one. Everyone who raids has some quip about the raid leader or some anecdote of a mistake that is more amusing than annoying in hindsight.

By contrast, the solo player has only the content itself, generally with a fair dose of AFK-travel time and random number generator mayhem, to keep them entertained as they repeat the same content daily. This is fine as an activity you do while waking up in the morning, or as you look for a group, but falls short if it becomes the sole point of your day's gaming.

In some ways, Warhammer and WoW's efforts to place players in groups with people they do not know might actually be doing those players a disservice; technically they're in a group, spending time doing group content, but without the camaraderie that accompanies actual friendship.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Warhammer Retrial Verdict

My 10-day Warhammer retrial concluded over the weekend. During that time, I leveled a new Zealot to rank 12/RVR rank 10. What have I learned about the game?

The Challenge of Keep Siege Numbers

On my last night in game, I finally managed to catch up with one of Mythic's heavily touted "open RVR" (read: non-instanced) keep sieges. Mechanically, the warfare was relatively simple; try to protect the players with the battering ram until they beat the door down, and then zerg up the stairs to kill the keep lord. Hold the keep, or various other objectives, for long enough and you can expect substantial exp and RVR exp.

Unfortunately, the non-instanced nature of the battle reared its head pretty quickly. With equal numbers, fights devolved into zerg-fests, with neither army able to make substantial progress. Otherwise, the team with the larger numbers won, waited for the victory bonuses, and went off to attack the next zone. The team with smaller numbers either tried to hide behind friendly NPC's or retreated to attack a different zone. The open warband I joined took a number of keeps and battlefield objectives, and failed to take a number of additional ones, but rarely found that perfect, ideally balanced fight.

PVE is still filler?

I was also able to participate in a fair amount of PVE content, including the Hunter's Vale group dungeon and various public quests. From the healer's perspective, this content was all relatively straight-forward. The production values were decent, but it occasionally felt a bit simplistic; some public quest bosses simply damaged the local tanks faster than I could heal them, while in other cases I ended up spending most of my time doing (minimal) DPS for lack of damage to heal.

Overall, the group PVE content is reasonably well done, but I'm not sure that I'd take it over group content in any of the other games that I play. I could see this content getting frustrating pretty quickly if you were forced to repeat it in search of drops (which was required for keep siege gear at the game's launch).

What Mythic has done right
As I noted previously, Mythic has removed logistical barriers to group content, and also managed to make group healing fun for a longtime solo veteran like myself.

Beyond that, I have been very impressed with Mythic's willingness to leave no stone unturned in the quest to improve the game. It can't have been an easy call to remove Fortress sieges from the game or start all new characters in a single racial pairing to ensure population, but someone made the call that these changes were for the best.

Unfortunately for Keriak, the "Vegas style" loot distribution is still in the game - I walked away from this siege empty-handed.

The Bottom Line
I won't be continuing with the game for now. I'm at a point in my personal gaming life where I'm looking to decrease the amount of time I spend on rehashing repeatable content instead of trying new things. By design, Warhammer makes heavy use of repeatable content in an attempt to encourage grouping.

Even so, I'm glad I took the time to come back and make my peace with Warhammer Online. Over the year since its launch, the game has actually delivered on most of its promise. If the game had been in its current state at launch, we might be looking at a very different MMORPG market today.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Instant Approach To Healing

Meet Keriak, my Warhammer retrial Chaos Zealot. I've never played a healing class as my main in an MMORPG, but the Zealot (and its Runepriest counterpart) was really the class that stood out amongst Warhammer's archetypes when I auditioned classes during the game's launch.

I didn't stick to my guns the first time around for two reasons - I felt like I needed more DPS for solo'ing and I didn't enjoy being singled out for a quick and painful death. With soloing deliberately off the table and a limited time to revisit the game, I decided to give healing another shot.

Warhammer's pace is a big part of why I am able to enjoy the class. As Rohan illustrates, players in WoW die so quickly that a fraction of a second on the healer's part spells disaster. By contrast, Warhammer players are designed to stay up for longer.

On top of that, the Zealot's spells are all extremely fast casting - the slowest of my healing spells takes 2.5 seconds to cast, and he has several impressive instant-cast tools to work with. Also, Warhammer characters have a constantly-regenerating power bar (like a WoW Rogue's energy bar), rather than a fixed "use it and it's gone" mana bar.

The bottom line is that I don't feel nearly the pressure that I have the few times I've been responsible for healing or debuff removal in WoW. If the target I'm healing dies, it might be because I messed up, but it's more likely that they were simply taking unsustainable damage. Either way, Mythic has managed to make a pure healing class that made me WANT to be a healer, which is a pretty major accomplishment in a genre where it seems that healing is always in short supply.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Effect of the Gradual Icecrown Rollout on Difficulty

With WoW's patch 3.3 presumptively slated for release next month, Blizzard has announced its delayed access plans. As Larisa colorfully puts it, they are once again "treating the gamers like children, only handling out a few of the candies at one time so the chocolate box will last longer". Still, there are some interesting tweaks this time around.

How much gear will players have BEFORE Arthas?
Blizzard isn't announcing how quickly each new wing of the dungeon will be released, other than to state that it will be "several weeks" before the second wing opens. That's several weeks with access to four bosses, each of whom drops loot of their own, along with current tier emblems. (These emblems will also be available two per day for random 5-mans, plus an extra 5 per week for the weekly raid quest.) As more wings unlock, players will have access to even more loot.

The end result is that players will have unprecedented access to current tier raid loot BEFORE the final boss becomes available. This means that Arthas may well be tuned assuming that the raid is already fully geared in Icecrown raid drops.

The raid that nerfs itself
The other kind of new feature is that, as weeks progress, players will be allowed additional attempts at the bosses and an increasing buff to their stats. In other words, the content will actually make itself easier (technically players will be allowed to decline the bonuses, but I doubt that many will).

This point may be a logical progression from the first one. Normally, server-first guilds have to kill the final boss clad mostly in gear from previous dungeons, while less elite guilds can expect to slowly accumulate gear upgrades as they move forward over time. If Arthas is tuned assuming that players ALREADY have current top-end gear, that option goes away.

Reflecting on Wrath Era Tuning
Overall, the major news story of the Wrath Era is Blizzard's attempt to fine tune their new system for multiple raid difficulties. Naxx provided much needed accessibility but too little challenge. Ulduar added challenge but did so with occasionally gimmicky hard mode requirements. TOC was somewhat of a filler dungeon, with a weird two-saves per group size per week hard mode option, and came with the first of two mid expansion gear resets needed to offset the improved loot being generated by all these hard modes. Now, finally, Icecrown will apparently make players wait for possibly months for the chance to fight Arthas, before even allowing anyone to take on the optional hard modes.

If nothing else, I hope that Blizzard is able to finish refining the model for allowing all raiders the ability to participate in the expansion's marquis fight. Changing courses with every patch of the Wrath era blew the entire incentive structure for the expansion out of the water. Perhaps carefully rationed, self-nerfing raid content will find the balance that Blizzard's group game has been struggling to achieve for the last year.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Group Logistics And The Perception Of The Grind

Over the year since its launch, Warhammer seems to have perfected no-hassle, instant access group content. On the map above, the glowing treasure chests are group public quests with at least two players present, and the crossed swords indicate where RVR battles are in progress. All you have to do is sign in, head for one of those spots, and pitch in.

Having a guild or a group are purely optional, as anyone can see where the action is and everyone who helps gets the appropriate share of the public quest rewards. You show up when you want, stay for however long you want, and get rewarded proportionally for your efforts. It's easy enough that I've spent about 75% of my time during the free retrial on group content, even though I'm gaming with limited time and have been known to spend the vast majority of my time solo (e.g. soloing from 1-73 in EQ2 without ever joining a group for any reason).

By contrast, World of Warcraft focuses on instanced PVE content with fixed parties (tank, healer, 3xDPS), so this sort of map wouldn't be effective. Instead, they're simply automating the process of group formation, so that players can click the "find group" button and instantly be transported to a dungeon with a (hopefully viable) full party to clear it out. It's less immersive but it may or may not be more effective in the long run, especially since the system works across multiple servers.

Is there a catch to instant access?
The issue with the Warhammer open RVR and public quests is that the options, though fun, are limited. At any given level/zone, you have maybe 3 public quests (one of which probably requires 9+ players and therefore can't be done with the available numbers) to choose from. Those three red shields on the Warhammer map represent the only three open RVR battlefield objectives in the zone, so players can expect to be battling over those for a dozen levels. You'll also have the same instanced scenario choices for that dozen level bracket.

(There are technically three zones per level bracket, each with its own PQ's and battlefield objectives, but there really isn't the population to support that number. Mythic made the decision to start all new characters in the human vs chaos zone as of the most recent patch, in the hopes of getting enough player in the same place to actually fight.)

All of this is a necessary feature of easy access to groups. The more choices a game offers, the more the population will spread out. (As I've discussed before, WoW will have sixteen 5-man instances in 3.3, but you can bet that half of them will be much more popular due to superior quality loot or ease of completion. The catch is that it starts to feel very grindy, very quickly. You finish a public quest and your choices for what to do next are one of the same 2-3 quests (if anyone else is doing them) or battling over the same small corner of the zone in RVR.

Losing the illusion of variety
In terms of actual gameplay experience, the solo PVE quest grind is no less repetitive; go somewhere, kill and loot the local mobs, repeat. The difference is that the frequent change in location creates the illusion that you are going to new places and doing new things. That illusion is gone when your only option is to turn around and do the same quest that you just did, or perhaps the quest before, depending on what you can find a group for.

When the dust settles on WoW's new automated system, I wonder if its five-man content will feel largely the same way. To a certain extent, the time it takes to actually assemble a group creates an impression of scarcity - the reaction when a group finally forms is "now I finally get to snag some emblems" and not "sigh, time to run one of the same old dungeons again". When finding a group is as easy as clicking a button, that anticipation may go along with it. (In much the same way, the 3-hour timer on Wintergrasp may be a blessing in that it physically prevents players from fighting again until the next match.)

Blizzard doesn't really have a choice in this matter - the 30+ minutes it takes to look for a group and travel to the instance the old fashioned way are 30 minutes that I don't really have these days. Even so, I can't help but wonder whether having increased access will increase the recognition that the dungeon grind is, in fact, grindy.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Are Daily Quests Keeping Us From Fun?

Like many of us, Tobold's MMORPG day begins with a round through the alts to deal with the daily chores of gaming - tradeskill cooldowns and daily quests.

Blizzard claims that they originally described the daily quest as a way to allow better rewards for solo content without having them immediately snapped up by group players. Whether or not that intent was sincere, daily quest rewards were set to make players want to make sure that they collect them on a daily basis, and players were quick to adjust their behavior accordingly.

Daily Quest Bribes In Action
My current personal dilemma is with LOTRO's overpowered item experience daily bounty quests. I don't especially enjoy doing these quests, which require large amounts of time spent on AFK travel and do not offer any significant challenge (I completed my first bounty quests five levels below its stated level). Unfortunately, Turbine's "legendary" items are designed to be replaced on a regular basis, and doing so becomes very tedious if you do not stockpile several days of experience runes in your bank for speed leveling your next weapon.

I'd be happy to run the thing half a dozen times back to back when I actually have a new weapon to level, but running the quest loop, which takes over 30 minutes and uses all of my hour-long teleport cooldowns, just to stock up feels like it is keeping me from something I would rather be doing. Unfortunately, the only alternative is to wait a few days after obtaining a new weapon before getting enough runes to begin using it.

Disproportion Effects on the Busy Gamer
Describing how all his efforts have slowed up his progress on a new Pally alt, Tobold writes:
"As long as your activities are in line with your personal goals, you are playing it right."
Tobold, hopefully, is happy in the aggregate with the amount of time he spends on his daily chores as a proportion of his total gaming time. Indeed, if you're online for multiple hours each day, half an hour here or there aren't that much of a big deal. For the majority of Tobold's gaming session, he has already done the daily activities that he is interested in, and he is free to do whatever he wants.

If, on the other hand, you are trying to game on an hour a day or less, that half an hour suddenly represents a huge chunk of your time, and you will spend a greater proportion of your time with available daily rewards that you have yet to claim.

Of course, you can choose to ignore the daily chores in favor of activities you actually want to do. The reality, though, is that this means making an intentionally suboptimal choice in ignoring the superior time/rewards offered by the daily quests. The time reward curve says that the dailies are the "right" choice, your long term goals say that the dailies are "right", but the end result leaves you feeling like the game has gotten grindy and trivial. That's not the best long-term plan for developers who are in the business of trying to retain subscriptions.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Is The Server Killing The Group?

One of the things I'm learning in my foray into Warhammer is that the non-instanced group portions of the game are much more fun than the solo-PVE or the instanced PVP scenarios. I'm sure these all work fine at the endgame, but they create a huge problem for the middle levels.

I did a /who survey of my first server selection, Badlands, to see what the population looked like at my peak gaming hours. Of Warhammer's 40 levels, only rank 40 returned "too many results to display". For any other number, there were more like 2-5 hits. In other words, at any given level, you might be able to form a SINGLE group of players within a level of yourself if you could get EVERYONE logged in to join up.

Basically, Warhammer may have enough level 40 players for its seven servers (only Iron Rock and Gorfang, the free trial servers, ever display above "low" population), but it only has enough players in the newbie zones to support 2-4 servers and only enough players in the middle half of the game for maybe a single server or two. Unfortunately, you cannot simply merge all the servers due to performance issues at the top level, which is where most of the players have ended up. Therefore, you have to leave the population in the middle levels unacceptably low and hope that players will take some other path - soloing and boring instances, if they ever happen - to the level cap.

This problem isn't unique to Warhammer, though it does hit that game harder due to its RVR focus. Both WoW and EQ2's group games really suffer from current model of soloing to the cap and then trying to figure out how to group. Again, though, there simply aren't enough players in the middle levels to support a full-time grouping requirement, so there HAS to be a soloing level path, which can't be onerous and tacked on since that is what the majority of players will be using.

The only solution that comes to mind is to go to Guild Wars style of instancing whole zones. Basically, everyone is logged into one server for the purposes of forming groups and whatnot, but the server would spawn as many copies of the actual content as are needed to support players in that level range (i.e. Warhammer really could have 4 T1 zones up, a single zone in T2-3, and 5-7 copies of T4). In some ways, Mythic has already taken the game in that direction, removing the non-instanced Fortresses from the endgame path and shift players towards instanced city sieges in their place.

The downside to this approach is that it kills the community aspect of small, closed servers. Then again, it would also wipe out the need to worry about what server you choose to play on, and it might just mean that pre-dominantly group-based games could become viable once again. Between servers, vertical progression, and grouping, something has to give. If we want to have a game like Warhammer, which thrives on groups, that really shouldn't be the aspect that gets kicked off.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Warhammer Retrial Day 0 - Return of the EUALA

I expected to have less-than-kind things to write about the process of reactivating a Warhammer account for the re-trial, but the experience actually went pretty smoothly. My account has been dormant since the included month with the box from the game's launch ran out, and the "activate" button on the account page immediately recognized that I was entitled to the 10-day retrial. I was also offered the option to transfer any or all of my characters, since their servers no longer exist.

On the downside, the retrial does still require billing information, but I don't think that Blizzard will physically intervene if you try to resubscribe an account that is eligible for a free retrial. (EDIT TO CLARIFY: Last I checked, Blizzard doesn't require billing info for the WoW free retrial but does allow you to accidentally skip it and go directly to paid time. Mythic does require billing info, but does NOT allow you to miss the retrial you're entitled to.) Anyway, as with the first time around, the first thing I did after activating my account was to re-cancel.

My computer's DVD drive has been acting up, so I was somewhat dreading the installation process, but it turned out to be pretty straight-forward. You download the installer, which weighs in at 50 MB or so, and it downloads the 10 GB worth of game. This took pretty much all evening, but I'd actually planned for that by deliberately re-activating on a night when I wasn't going to have time to play anyway.

Where has the EUALA gone?
The one thing I did check when the download finished, 4-5 hours later, was the dreaded EUALA. This may seem like a little thing, but Warhammer took a fair amount of flak at its launch for making players sit through three "look at our logo" movies and then click through both a license agreement and a terms of service, repeating all of this EVERY time you logged in.

Mythic stubbornly maintained that having people click a box that said they had read the agreement that everyone knows that no one actually reads somehow gave them a stronger case of breach of contract in going after gold sellers etc. Legally, they might have been correct, but all of the logos and click-throughs managed to be tedious and irritating to players, without doing much to deter the actual gold spammers.

Anyway, in the modern client, the three logos displayed in one rapid-fire display the first time I launched the client and then went away for good. I agreed to the EUALA and the TOS once each and they went away too. A small change, perhaps, but a welcome one; at least the first re-impression wasn't a bad one.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

LF Warhammer Guild, PST

With recent events, I've decided that re-visiting Warhammer is a now-or-never proposition. Next month will feature LOTRO's expansion, EQ2's Frostfell Holiday, and probably WoW's 3.3 patch. The EQ2 expansion arrives in February. With Warhammer down to a mere seven servers and possibly a skeleton staff, it may not be around in April.

Most likely, this little experiment will last no more than a week. As a blogger, I have the advantage that the game can be a fail of Mythic proportions and I can still get some entertainment out of writing about it, so that's a bit of a hedge against the cost in time if I don't enjoy the experience.

Having made the mistake of trying to play the game as a solo PVE adventure with instanced scenarios on the side, I'm certain that it will fail miserably a second time if I don't find a guild. Therefore, I'm looking for a guild willing to put up with an embedded blogger for a week or so. Any realm, any ruleset will do; I'm usually not a fan of ganking-enabled rulesets, but in this case, if I'm running around trying to do solo quests and end up getting ganked, I'm already doing it wrong.

Ideally, it would be good to find somewhere that isn't too sparsely populated so that the sheer lack of population beyond the free trial zones (tier one) isn't what does me in, but I'm setting realistic expectations on that front. (Judging from the leaderboards, it looks like Badlands, Gorfang, and Iron Rock may be the most populous - the "most scenarios won this week" numbers are highest for those three.) It would also be nice not to have totally lopsided realm populations, though I realize that this too is a tall order.

Any help from my readers would be most welcome.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Is Time Holding You Back?

Right now, I've got more things I'd like to do than time in which to do them. There are literally half a dozen things I could be working on.
  • In WoW, I've got my Horde Warrior, who I'd like to get through to 80 before Cataclysm hits. I will also want to take my mage through the new 5-man dungeons sometime after patch 3.3 hits.
  • In EQ2, I've got various characters I could be working on. In particular, I'm looking forward to the forthcoming Frostfell holiday.
  • Allarond is nearing level 60 in LOTRO, though I do plan to park him for the rest of the month once he hits the current level cap - Mirkwood isn't adding that much geographic area to Middle Earth, and it might be very challenging to level in the new content on launch day, so I'm much better off having some unfinished business in Moria to work on.
  • I'd like to give Warhammer a re-trial at some point, though there is some real cause for uncertainty in the wake of the layoffs.
  • I'd like to take Runes of Magic for a spin, if for no other reason than to assess how the pure item shop business model is working in an era where most major games are going for both item shops and subscription fees.
  • Torchlight and Dragon's Age are both getting positive reviews around the blogs.
Currently, I'm working with maybe 10 hours/week of gaming time, with under an hour most nights. Giving Warhammer a re-trial would probably eat up most of a week. Test-driving new EQ2 alts to level 20 (the minimum to really figure out how the subclasses differ) is going to eat a bit over half a week for each alt. Completing the weekly Wintergrasp quests on my mage can easily consume 10-15% of my gaming week. A single play through game like Dragon's Age could kick everything else off my schedule for a month or more, even assuming I don't end up feeling compelled to follow Ysh's example and try all the opening sequences.

At the end of the day, the payoff for paying attention to my gaming expenses is that I don't need to say no to something solely because of the monetary cost. Unfortunately, there's no buying back the time. To some extent, it's making me very risk averse in my gaming decisions. Perhaps I could be having 20% more fun in game X over game Y, but I know game Y is a sure thing where the time won't be wasted. Maybe I shouldn't worry about picking the "right" character, but the cost in time of choosing wrong and realizing it weeks later makes me feel like I should try alternatives (burning more time in the process) to be more confident in my choice.

Many of these factors are beyond the developers' control; they don't set my schedule for me, and they can't design the game with fewer choices just to avoid confusing players like myself. On the other hand, the reality that I am crunched for time affects them, as it influences how likely I am to try or stick with their games. It's a crowded market right now, and I'm not the only gamer to run into similar problems.

First impressions may or may not be fair, but they're going to matter more and more. Helping players find the class that's right for them before they get to the point where they quit than re-roll matters. You can't give players more time to work with, but you can and you must optimize the tour that you give players with the time that they give you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Triumph of the Tame Riding Goat

Allarond was finally able to scrape together the gold he needed to purchase his rep reward riding goat, so he gets his obligatory picture on the blog.

Commenters here have been somewhat dismissive of the value of/need for the Moria goat. Unlike WoW, mounts aren't a free pass to ignore all monsters and terrain while flying at quadruple your normal speed from point to point throughout the (post-2007 portions of the) game. Unlike EQ2, mounts aren't a passive buff that automagically boost your speed appropriately in situations where mounts are allowed.

Instead, LOTRO mounts have limited speeds and extremely limited durability - a few hits from most mobs will kick you off your ride and force you to get by on foot. It is true that Moria has a large number of relatively narrow hallways full of enemies where the use of mount simply isn't viable. However, it also has a fair amount of vast and somewhat empty space (in particular, anywhere near just about any zone line) where having a mount can save you a lot of time.

There is still a broader design question of whether the reputation (and, to a lesser extent, gold) costs of the goats continue to make sense when the expansion arrives and Moria is reduced to a temporary leveling area, rather than hosting most of the endgame. I finally obtained the mount a significant portion of the way through level 58, which puts me very close to the point at which I will no longer need it.

Even so, I don't have any buyer's remorse on this particular purchase. If nothing else, it's a souvenir in a game where all the other mount options to date are horses (and, really, it would be hard to justify much of anything else in the lore).

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Financial State Of The Industry

According to Scott Jennings' sources, EA has laid off 40% of Mythic's staff. This group supposedly includes 90% of the folks responsible for the content in Warhammer, with the rumor that the game is being shifted to "maintenance mode" - EA will keep enough folks around to run the servers and collect the subscription fees, but they're apparently done investing more in trying to improve the game.

Three stories down on the Massively news feed, we learn that Cryptic will launch Star Trek Online on February 2nd. It was just three months ago that the studio pushed Champions Online out the door with large portions of the game balancing incomplete, under a very aggressive "quick, get their money before they have the chance to try the game" lifetime preorder promo. To see them launching their other major title under six months later, even if that was the original schedule, makes me suspect that they're somewhat concerned about having cash on hand right now.

That's the economic context in which I haven't had time to blog about anything but business models in the last weekt. In some ways, we've learned something we already knew - that the market has very little patience remaining for games that clearly need significant amounts of work at their paid launch. Unfortunately, things don't get any easier when you raise the average monthly cost to the player via additional transaction fees; that's even more financial incentive for the player to make a snap judgment and pull the plug ASAP.

(Personally, I'm torn on Warhammer. I've always intended to get back to the game someday, and there's a real possibility that it's not going to get any better than it is today. Then again, the pragmatist in me says that it would be a waste to invest time in a title that's looking like it may be gone in a year, when there are half a dozen other games I'm interested in exploring. I'd like to respect Mythic's willingness to think outside the box with their recent campaign reorganization, but it's hard to invest the time in a game whose publisher has left it to die.)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Lessons From Facebook Scams

Here's an excerpt from "How To Spam Facebook Like A Pro: An Insider’s Confession":
People on Facebook won’t pay for anything. They don’t have credit cards, they don’t want credit cards, and they are not interested in shopping. But you can trick them into doing one of three things:

[scams 1 and 2 deleted for space]

Give up their phone number: You took the IQ Quiz, so give us your phone number and we’ll tell you your score. Never mind that you’ll get billed $20 a month or perhaps be tricked into inviting 10 other friends to beat your score.

Last week, Tech Crunch managed to call some attention to these sorts of scams being run on free-to-play item-store games on Facebook. Players thought they were taking some survey in exchange for item shop currency on Farmville or Mafia Wars, and wound up with massive cell phone bills. Everyone responsible is very sorry that they got caught, which means that we're nigh certain to hear about something similar in a few months.

The lesson in this tale is that, if you are using a professional quality product, whether it's a game or anything else, and you are not paying for it, someone else is.

Many players, myself included, will grudgingly say that we're okay with microtransactions as long as those transactions are limited to cosmetic items. The problem with this approach is that it's effectively a vote for "if you guys really feel that you need more money, you should charge someone else". You'd think that everyone would have largely the same opinion, but it turns out that there is a group that's happy to be charged more, if it means that they can get a greater variety of high quality cosmetic items.

Should we really be surprised that games that add item stores end up adding more and more items that get closer and closer to the nebulous line of having "too much" effect on gameplay?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Subscription Game Item Shops Are The Third Trammel

The original Trammel was an alternate version of the Ultima Online world that did not permit free-for-all PVP with the victor free to loot all of their ganking victims' stuff. History tells us that, finally given the option to vote with their feet, players overwhelmingly chose to go "ganking optional" and we have never seen FFA PVP with full looting in an AAA MMORPG since. I'm sure there are folks who were (and are) unhappy about the changes in the genre that resulted, but the numbers who were actually willing to cancel their subscriptions for lack of ganking were dwarfed by the numbers who were staying away from the unrestrained griefing.

I would argue that WoW's solo quest system was the second Trammel. There are many arguments that the shift towards "massively single player" gaming have hurt the genre, but we haven't seen forced grouping in an AAA MMORPG since. Again, the number of players who are actually willing to cancel their subscriptions were dwarfed by the number of people who were able to enter the genre for the first time because they were no longer required to play in chunks of time long enough to make looking for a group worthwhile.

If that's the case, the rise of the item store, downloadable content, not-so-micro-transactions, etc may be the third coming of Trammel. Personally, I believe that item shops create an inherent conflict of interest; the game developers have a financial incentive not to make design decisions that would hurt item sales, where previously their sole incentive is to create a game that people want to play. Unfortunately, like FFA PVP'ers and forced groupers of the past, my vote doesn't really matter.

I play three major MMORPG's: WoW, EQ2, and LOTRO. All now offer things that I would otherwise want to obtain via some form of added transaction. Where would I go if I did want to exercise my supposed right to "vote" against the RMT model? Even single player console games have paid downloadable content these days. Very few players will be willing to give up on gaming altogether, and those few lost purchases will be more than offset by the vast amounts of money players will happily spend in item shops.

With WoW finally on board, along with most recent and upcoming games, the pure subscription game is most likely dead. Item shops, like optional ganking and solo leveling, are now a standard feature of the AAA MMORPG.

A Brief History Of Paying Blizzard Cash For WoW Pets

Ways to Pay Blizzard Cash For WoW Pets:
  • Pay $30 for a Collector's Edition of the game or its expansions (fee includes some books and other stuff)
  • Pay potentially hundreds of dollars for TCG cards, or engage in a difficult-to-secure transaction to buy one off another player who spent big bucks on TCG cards
  • Pay something like $100 plus travel costs for a ticket to a convention with an exclusive pet
  • Pay $40 for the online streaming feed of the most recent Blizzcon
  • Pay something like $20-25 (forgot the exact price) for entry in the most recent arena tournament, followed by finding someone willing to log in with you to play the minimum number of games to qualify as a participant and receive the prize.
  • Pay $10 to get the pet straight from the item shop, not bundled with anything.
Basically, WoW has been selling minipets since the day it launched. The new item store just cuts out the middleman and incidentally lowers the price by a substantial margin by no longer requiring pet-seekers to purchase anything else to get the pet. (As Syp points out, this "lower" price is still 2/3 of a monthly subscription, but I'd still call the Blizzard store pets a bargain compared to the rest of the above.)

That isn't to say that this store won't spread to what Tobold calls "classics" of item stores - gameplay affecting items like potions and mounts. Spinks says that every game will now charge both a subscription and not-so-microtransactions. The precedent of having the genre's largest player on board is significant - in my view, there continues to be some market pressure against charging more than WoW which is now officially off the table, not that it deterred all the games Zubon mentions from beating Blizzard to the punch.

I'm just saying that, as a cataclysmic event, this one is a bit more of a whimper than a bang.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

LOTRO Goat Conflict Of Interest (w/ bonus WoW Petstore commentary)

Author's Note: Due to my work schedule, this post was written before news of WoW's new RMT pet store broke. My brief reactions to this new development:
- Unfortunate, but neither unprecedented nor entirely unexpected.
- Expensive, but the pets are of markedly higher quality than WoW's non-RMT pets, so make your own call on whether you are getting some value.
- At the moment, WoW has yet to cross the line from cosmetic items to items that affect gameplay (mounts, exp potions, gear). They have respected that line in the WoW TCG to date, but time will tell whether they continue to do so in the future.

The Cost of a Goat
Allarond just earned the rep with the Moria Miners to purchase a Moria-capable goat mount. More experienced players tell me I should have been working on the Guards' faction instead to unlock a legendary trait, and it took me until level 57 to earn the required reputation. After all, I will likely be leaving the mines in the near future, and therefore will have less need for a mount that can ride in them. Still, it's an accomplishment that I set my mind on and achieved... but for one minor catch.

The goat costs 5 gold. I have 2 gold. For perspective, Khazad-Copper Ore, which I haven't been selling because I need it for my Jeweler profession, goes for about 10 silver per chunk on the broker, so I'd need to mine and sell about 300 chunks of ore to afford the goat.

The Item Shop Conflict of Interest Rears Its Head In Moria
Perhaps the current numbers make sense now, with the current endgame in Moria, but they will make less and less sense going forward as Moria turns into a waypoint en route to the real endgame in Mirkwood. Unfortunately, Turbine's $20 RMT "adventure pack" pre-order comes with a goat mount that requires neither the reputation nor the gold. This means that Turbine has a financial incentive not to lower the in-game price of the goat, even as the new expansion comes out and players spend less and less time inside Moria.

This would be one of those examples of how NOT to do macro-RMT-transactions that Cuppy warns us about. Perhaps there wasn't an official decision not to touch the cost of the in-game mounts specifically to try and herd players towards the adventure pack, but the perception will always be there once a game goes down the road of selling items for cash.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Level 5 Paywall Comes To Free Realms

Massively has an interview about Free Realms and decided to bury a huge news bombshell behind the "read more" link:

Starting in "early November", all classes (including previously subscription-only classes) will be free to try, but all classes (including currently free-to-play classes) will be capped for non-subscribers at level 5.

Pre-existing characters will be grand-fathered in and allowed to advance to the level cap (currently 20) on the currently free jobs. There is no word on whether non-subscribers will be able to permanently unlock progress to level 20 on a per-job basis through a Station Cash transaction. However, given SOE's willingness to add anything and everything that players will buy to EQ2's SC store, I'd imagine this will arrive at some point.

(There's also a question of what happens to lapsed subscribers - do you stop being able to use your jobs because you advanced past level 5 while you were paying? Or perhaps you automatically mentor down to level 5 until you resubscribe? Again, per-job unlocks could fix these sorts of issues.)

On the plus side, it would be nice to actually be allowed to try all the jobs. In particular, Free Realms' only free combat job is the melee DPS Brawler - if you want a tank or a healer, you must subscribe (or chug healing potions - there are some free samples, with more available in the item shop). I can also concede how the old model lent itself to players coming, doing all the content, and leaving without ever paying for anything.

On the other hand, Free Realms is now all but officially a subscription game with a free trial, rather than a free to play game with an item shop and optional subscription. Perhaps it is more intuitive, but it's also a pretty major change of philosophy.

(And seriously, did Massively try to bury this story to avoid appearing to be critical of SOE? There's absolutely no excuse for this not to have been the big bold headline of the article.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Great LOTRO Coverup?

Saturday's deadline for "preordering" LOTRO's oddly marketed Mirkwood expansion by signing up to a discounted multi-month plan came and went. Suddenly, there's a two week extension, with the program now running through November 18th (two weeks prior to the expansion launch date, I wouldn't put money on either side of whether it'll get extended again).

Perhaps they're concerned that players who called their bluff on the original deadline will be even less inclined to change their minds and resubscribe for a worse deal than they could have gotten last week - such is the peril of the high-pressure pre-order. Still, what's the point of charging for an expansion and then going so far out of your way to give it away?

What's In Mirkwood?
Yeebo has a detailed comparison of content added to LOTRO in content patches before and after the Moria expansion. He ultimate argues that Moria has gotten much less content in its content patches than the original game.

LOTRO's original release had 2-3 content patches that introduced as much new geographic area as the described size of the corner of Mirkwood Turbine will be adding in this expansion. Other than that, this new paid expansion includes one new dungeon, one major new feature (new instanced PVE skirmishes), some refinements to the existing systems, and an increased level cap.

The level cap sounds like an open-and-shut argument that Mirkwood goes far beyond your average content patch, but levels are only an arbitrary measure. LOTRO's new levels won't actually contain any new class skills, or, to our knowledge, include any other changes that will make level 65 substantially different from level 60.

The only two consequences of increasing the number, rather than simply adding the content while keeping the cap at 60, are that players will HAVE to upgrade to play group content with their friends and that all current "legendary" items will be obsolete in a month. Neither of these is really a favor to the playerbase, many of whom are not happy with the "legendary" reset.

The First One Is Always Free
My point is not to argue that Mirkwood is not objectively worth the $20 Turbine is asking for it. Rather, it appears that Turbine has taken all of the major improvements which would have been included in Moria's content patches and saved them all up to pad out the feature list for Mirkwood. Effectively, it looks like they're charging for stuff that used to be included in your subscription, and juggling the feature list for patches in the hopes of hiding what they're up to.

Sure, Turbine will be happy to collect whatever cash it can get with early renewals, and sales of the misleadingly marketed "adventure pack" (which does its best to disguise itself as the expansion preorder button on the account page). Even so, it appears that the real goal behind this give-away is for players to accept that LOTRO patch content now costs money - the same deal as Turbine's DDO players get, but with BOTH the subscription AND the per-content fee for access. If that's the case, it's no wonder Turbine is so eager to make sure that as many players as possible get the chance to take this "deal".

Sunday, November 1, 2009

EQ2 Ding 4x20

My latest EQ2 alt, a level Iksar Necromancer named Stonara Dustwallow, just hit level 20 this weekend. This makes four level 20+ characters, though I've yet to finish my first 80 in the game.

Lyriana (Fae 76 Dirge/80 Jeweler)

My nominal main has finished those quests in the Fens that seem to drag on indefinitely, other than one last series in a mine full of goblins that are making her life miserable. In her spare time, she bought a large new house and has decorated a room to make an indoor forest garden. I was a bit skeptical about some of the cosmetic plant rewards when they were announced, but they are actually a lot of fun if you're willing to decorate a room around them.

(On the downside, my wife now complains that I've spent more time decorating Lyriana's virtual house than our real house.)

Kreejak Sholvah, Sarnak 35 Warden/48 Tailor
Kreejak gained a few levels working on the Night of the Dead event. I still love the melee healer playstyle, but I feel like he could really use an additional attack to work into his attack rotation. I should probably just bit the bullet and convert all of his exp into AAxp for a bit, as there's another attack on a short cooldown if I can get another dozen points or so.

Hopefully the Stargate fans of the server are amused to see the two words of Gou'ald I know in the guy's name. ;)

Feldev Fireclaw, Kerra 20 Wizard/35 Sage
Feldev (sounds much more like a respectable fantasy name, though in reality fel = feline and dev = developer as in PVD) was my attempt at a root and nuke caster, with a side business of making mage and priest spells for himself and Kreejak. The two of them would, in principle, be self sufficient since Kreejak produces the armor and Feldev produces the spells.

The issue is that I find the playstyle simultaneously boring and risky. The root spell is on a 6 second cooldown, and the effect has a chance to break on any damage. As a result, the best strategy is to root, wait a few seconds, and then cast your biggest nuke, with the root ready for immediate recasting if the attack sets the monster free. After trying it for a while, I decided that I would rather be some sort of caster hybrid instead.

Stonara Dustwallow, Iksar 20 Necromaner (Undecied Trade)
The EQ2 Necromancer is a very close match for WoW's Warlock - pets, DOT's and lifedrains abound. My tanking pet is a skeleton, while my mage pet is a zombie, so it's got the flavor of raising the dead down cold. Pet classes usually bore me, but the relative difficulty of combat in EQ2 makes having a pet seem more reasonable and less like easy mode.

One minor flaw I'm noticing is that the relative level of the pet compared to the mob is a huge deal. Against lower level mobs, the tanking pet is all but invincible, and will happily solo multiple enemies without any support from me. Against mobs that are even a single level higher, or tougher even con mobs, the tank takes damage very quickly. This will probably get better at higher levels when I start getting more pet healing tools via AA's.

On To the Character Cap?
Ideally, I'd continue to level Kreejak and Stonara, with Feldev providing spells for both of them, Kreejak providing the armor, and Stonara taking up a different profession for some future alt (most likely Alchemy for fighter-type spells or Armorer for heavier armor crafting). The catch is that EQ2 has 24 classes, but only seven character slots. If I keep using Feldev as my Sage, I'll be tying down a character slot with a character that I don't intend to take into the field.

In the short term, I'll need to audition some fighter and scout alts to try and gauge how many more slots I'm actually going to need. I'm done with caster alts, bards, and (probably) melee priests, but that still leaves 10 classes left to evaluate and compete for 3-4 character slots left on my account.

I'd rather spend my time on my existing characters, but it's still early enough that I could make Stonara become the account Sage and delete Feldev if I need the slot. I never thought I'd be at a point where the number of allowable alts would actually be affecting my enjoyment of the game, but there I am. Whether I hit 7 (or more) x 20 before I hit 1 x 80 remains an open question.

Finally, the more attentive folks among you may note that I've managed to fill four slots without using any Tolkien races. My future alts will almost certainly include a Ratonga and a Froglok (hopefully Frogloks will be allowed to start in the new starting area coming in February's expansion), and I will definitely make a new Kerra (some sort of Fighter, to benefit from racial tracking abilities) if Feldev gets the axe. I may end up auditioning tons of potential alts, but at least I'll get to look different while doing it.