Saturday, January 30, 2010

Epic EQ2 Expansion Preparations

Thanks to Sev, Ely, and Pratt of the Halasian Empire, Lyriana finally snagged her epic weapon (the group version, not the even fancier raid version) today. Overall, the questline sent us into a variety of dungeons from the Kunark expansion (a more recent expansion has added tougher dungeons at the same level cap) and had an interesting, if perhaps a bit random, story to tell. I'm glad I was able to get this in before the expansion, just in time to have a very solid weapon for going back on the leveling trail.

(Ironically, it was snowing once again here in Washington - snow apparently tends to work out well for Lyriana.)

I was also able to finally decide on a last name for my winged Dirge. For whatever reason, my "disarm traps" skill, used to open chests safely, is massively behind - currently at something like 120/400. The result is that I almost always set off an explosive trap of some sort when I open chests. Despite repeated apologies and warnings about this, Sev and Ely apparently find it amusing for me to detonate every chest we come across. As a result, I decided to /lastname Lyriana "Lockbreaker" (as opposed to "Lock Disarmer" or "Safe-lock-opener").

Meanwhile, I've been slowly but surely working on tradeskills for my alts while I still have the 10% bonus exp for having a maxxed crafter. This isn't something that I work on when I have a full evening of it, but it's a relatively peaceful way of killing 20-30 minutes here and there, and I'm rapidly gaining the ability to craft just about anything and everything my small army of alts could want.

I don't know how much further I'm going to advance in EQ2 over the next two weeks until the expansion arrives. Technically, I could try and get a piece or two of void shard armor and/or some other loot, but it seems somewhat pointless so close to a gear reset - the epic weapon is a more iconic upgrade, and one that I will probably be willing to wear cosmetically even if I eventually replace it. I guess we'll see what I'm feeling like on a day to day basis, but I'd be ready to go if the expansion arrived tomorrow.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Turbine and Cryptic's Approaches to Paid Content Patches

A mere five months after the retail release of Champions Online, Cryptic has announced for plans to charge for a new zone for players working their way towards the game's level cap. The state of the content in that level range must be dire indeed if Cryptic is convinced that players will pay to escape the current leveling zones. It's relatively common for games to launch with a less than polished upper level experience and patch these areas up to par later, but most companies don't have the nerve to charge extra for such additions.

(As an aside, it boggles my mind that Cryptic managed to get this headline for Champions' Online on the very week where players will have to decide whether they want to cancel their Star Trek pre-orders.)

Speaking of a game that spent its first year patching up its leveling experience for no additional fee, Turbine has just announced the Volume III patch for LOTRO. If these are the highlights, the patch will be somewhat underwhelming - there's no mention of new zones or dungeons, but they found the room to spotlight new icons for Jeweler recipes and opening up existing skirmishes to full raid groups (I didn't know that there were skirmishes that weren't open to raids to begin with).

If I'm correct in reading between the lines, the new patch will send players to a variety of existing content (including an old raid zone) to collect Rangers for the War of the Ring. It certainly appears that I was right when I suggested that the new business model for LOTRO is to save all the major features for future paid expansions, leaving only minor additions and polish for the non-paid updates.

At the end of the day, you can argue that it is better to charge a $15 monthly fee and have mini-expansions that come out to $2.50/month than to charge a $17.50 monthly fee outright, since the player has the choice to play for less if they are so inclined. Perhaps there's even a smidgen more accountability when part of the game's revenue is dependent on the developers producing content that is worth purchasing in a timely fashion. (Then again, that kind of pressure could be a bad thing if it means that we will only get bite-sized chunks of content henceforth, rather than meatier experiences like Moria.) Either way, it's a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The EQ2 Battlegrounds No One Asked For

The EQ2 devs have been taking about adding instanced PVP to the game for a while now, and the details finally arrived yesterday. Let's see if we can find a trend in the feedback:
  • Cuppycake: "Is the EQ2 main player base interested in PvP? I really don’t think so, but I could be wrong."
  • Spinks: "So my question is, were any players actually asking for this?"
  • Syp: "I guess that’s kind of cool, but as Spinks said, you don’t usually think “PvP” when EQ2 is brought up."
  • Riannon, my EQ2 guild leader, via Twitter: "I'm not terribly excited about the #EQ2 "battlegrounds" announcement. Just not a PvPer, and not sure it will appeal to a lot of players."
  • Stargrace, via Twitter (having tweeted that she doesn't feel like posting about this on her blog): "I am not excited at all, in fact, I'd say I'm feeling pretty 'blargh' about the whole thing, sadly."
  • Feldon at the EQ2 Wire: "....the rewards are NOT being designed as a progression path, and you will NOT need this gear to solo, group, or raid in the Sentinel’s Fate expansion. However it is conceivable that some raid guilds will expect players to have certain gear."

So, the most positive reaction of the bunch is that it is possible that players who don't want to PVP won't be required to do so, but that we can't be sure yet. Ouch. What happened?

Good idea on paper...
On paper, this must have seemed like a great idea. The only PVP in EQ2 currently is a ganking-enabled world-pvp ruleset that dwindled down to a single server last year due to lack of population. This conceivably harms the appeal of EQ2 to players who care about PVP. Meanwhile, Warsong Gulch is nearing its fifth birthday in WoW, and players are STILL voluntarily queuing up to run it back to back all night.

The problem is, as basically everyone is pointing out, that EQ2 is a five year-old game that has not had PVP for five years. Anyone for whom this was a dealbreaker already left during that time. SOE may be under the impression that it can attract new players with the promise of PVP, but there are a number of challenges between them and victory on that front.

For one thing, the new cross-server battlegrounds will only have a single level bracket, from 80-90, which means that 80 levels of PVE content separate newbies from PVP glory. By contrast, Warhammer offers PVP at level 1, and WoW offers it not that much later. Second, and more importantly, you probably aren't going to fill battlegrounds entirely with newbies, which means that you're going to need to convert some existing players to a system that they haven't needed for years now. This would be the source of concern that the incentives/bribes will be so powerful that they could become required for PVE content.

The problem with imitating WoW...
Personally, I think that having a viable PVP game adds a versatility to WoW that is one of the game's strengths. I also don't have any moral issue with other studios copying features from WoW, much as Blizzard will not hesitate to pilfer any improvements in SOE's version of battlegrounds. The problem is rather that, when you try to attract WoW players by offering a feature that WoW has, they're going to expect you to deliver as well or better than what they already have in Azeroth.

SOE's on the right track, starting with a cross-server (including both US and EU servers) setup. Filling the queues for even three types of battleground matches might have been a challenge on single servers that are currently getting by with zero types of battlegrounds. The next feature that they've hopefully picked up is the "queue for all battlegrounds from everywhere in the world" button. There's a reason why Blizzard immediately copied this feature from Warhammer, and players are not going to tolerate having to travel to a specific location and wait there while the queue is in progress.

Finally, there's the ever so trivial white elephant crab in the room - all the class and incentive balance issues that have made Ghostcrawler the de facto face of the WoW development team. It's not easy building a system where half of your players have to lose any given encounter but still enjoy the experience enjoy to get right back in line to try again. Good luck with that, guys.

Bad idea or the worst idea?
At the end of the day, SOE felt that this project was worth sending its dev team to work on it instead of doing other things. Perhaps they know something about the playerbase (e.g. through surveys and cancellation polls) that the most active members of the EQ2 community (Feldon and Stargrace were both recipients of puzzle pieces in the announcement rollout) do not.

That said, something about this feature feels off. Battlegrounds appear to be slated for the patch that will go with next month's expansion launch. They will effectively require the expansion, in that the battlegrounds will have a single level bracket where level 80's who don't buy the expansion can expect to get steamrolled by level 90's. A thinking person might conclude that battlegrounds are a major feature of the expansion, worthy of at least a bullet point on the box/advertising.

Instead, SOE did not even bother to confirm the feature until a mere two weeks before launch day. When has an MMORPG ever decided not to promote the addition of an entirely new type of gameplay? More than anything else, that omission seems telling, like SOE is well aware that this is NOT something that the existing playerbase is going to be excited about.

All of which begs the question - who exactly DID want this feature added to the game? I guess we'll know when we see if anyone whatsoever bothers to queue up next month, at a time when they could be exploring the new PVE content instead.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Baseball Completionism Incentives

Kotaku reports on an interesting non-MMORPG incentive issue with this year's editon of MLB: The Show. The game will have six historic stadiums that can be unlocked in one of two ways:
1. Pre-order the game from participating retailers
2. Complete every one of the game's "trophy" achievements, a task that Kotaku describes as something that "takes a LOT of doing".

My guess is that the team was told to think of something they could hold back from the base game as a pre-order "exclusive", and decided that the platinum trophy reward was a good choice. Players who are dedicated enough to complete the trophy are seriously committed to the game, and will probably do so regardless of any extra incentive. Meanwhile, many players would not even bother trying for the trophy due to its high requirements, and therefore would not have done so even for extra ballparks.

Finally, and most to the point, it's a non-subscription console game. The developers don't really have a reason to care if players finish the top trophy or not, as they won't be paid any more if the pursuit makes the game last an extra month. In fact, one could argue that the developers are better off NOT encouraging players who don't want to finish the trophy to try it anyway. The devs will be looking to sell an updated copy of the game next year, and don't want to have customers get sick of it. As with Blizzard's infamous holiday meta-achievement, any such effort is bound to push players in the direction of some aspect of the game that they weren't playing because they frankly don't enjoy it.

More broadly, there's an interesting question here about the point of having rewards for 100% completion of a game in the first place. In some ways, historic ballparks fit that particular bill nicely, since they're cosmetic additions that might perhaps liven up the game slightly for players who have already seen it all. There wouldn't be much point in having a reward that has an in-game function, since the game, unlike a persistent world MMORPG, won't carry over into next year's edition. Then again, bragging rights are still good for something, or would have been if they weren't up for grabs with every pre-order. Perhaps something more visible, like throw-back uniforms that could be used in online play, would have been a better choice of status symbol in this particular game.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Review of Soloing Mirkwood and LOTRO's Direction

Allarond finally wrapped up Volume 2, Book 9, the epic plotline of the Siege of Mirkwood mini-expansion, over the weekend. He still has a series of epilogue quests, including quests to complete the group dungeons of Don Guldur. There are also at least a dozen remaining quests in various subzones of Mirkwood, which, collectively, will probably be enough to max my reputation with the local elves. Even so, I think I've got a pretty good handle on what the expansion contains at this point.

A focus on solo content
Mirkwood is the first time in my MMORPG experience that I have been able to clear out an entire expansion without needing a group. Moria had a healthy focus on solo content, but there was still the occasional group quest or instance that I would have to abandon, and it was not possible to complete key portions of Epic Volume 2 (which sets up the action in Mirkwood) solo. By contrast, it appears that literally all of the group content in Mirkwood has been tacked on to the optional epilogue at the end.

Part of the reason why Mirkwood gets away with this is because the soloable content is designed to tax characters to their limit. Allarond hit his hour-long emergency cooldowns and consumables pretty hard to survive, and many quests would still have been reasonably challenging with a second character. The content also contains great graphics and an impressive storyline, which I'd put head to head with any single player RPG out there.

The other part of the equation is the scaling "skirmish" system, which is used in every situation in which players would normally have to complete a group instance during the epic book. The skirmish can be set for groups of 1, 3, 6, or 12 players (though all of those players will need to do the solo-only instanced quests to unlock the skirmishes before being allowed to participate), and is probably the most time-efficient way of crafting this sort of story content without leaving anyone out.

Has Turbine chosen to concede the achiever demographic?
Though I can't argue with the expansion's efficiency - skirmishes can be used by all, and group-only leveling content tends to become a problem as games age - part of me wonders at the motivation for this dramatic of a shift.

Turbine has always struggled to keep pace with top end achievers. I originally left the game after reaching level 40, of its launch level cap of 50, a "mere" four months after the paid retail launch, only to find the content severely lacking. By a year later, Turbine had devoted its efforts to fleshing out that sparse stretch of content, where most developers would have moved on to the next paid expansion for max level players.

Today's max-level characters face the same challenges. Turbine has had to stick with a highly unpopular "radiance" gear grind because there simply isn't enough content to let players to move on to the next dungeon when the natural progression of their skill and gear would otherwise allow them to do so. This means that the system needs an incentive to keep players coming back even longer, after they have their radiance gear, to gear up newcomers. So the Mirkwood dungeons are also the source of new legendary item scrolls that provide players with yet another option for sinking tons of time into enhancements for replace-able "legendary" gear.

All of this would be a problem, perhaps a fatal one, if endgame players were the game's primary market. I can think of no reason whatsoever why I'd choose to grind LOTRO's three level 65 small-group dungeons over the other games I play when those games offer more choices (19 daily double dungeons in EQ2 and 16 random heroics in WoW), even before WoW effectively removed the unpleasant task of looking from groups with their automatic group finder. One can only conclude, then, that these endgame grinds are not what are keeping LOTRO in business.

Rather, I'm guessing that LOTRO's core market is the crowd that levels solo and, most importantly, slowly.

In perhaps the closest we're going to get for an apology for the disposable "legendary" item system, players have a brief conversation with the dwarf who was involved in the quest that granted players their first legendary item at the start of the Moria expansion. Turbine has the dwarf crack a joke about how weapons are meant to be replaced, as if Middle Earth was not a place where most characters' named weapons stay with them until they die. In an ironic twist to drive that point home, a separate questline in the epilogue has players returning a fallen comrade's named weapons to their home.

Moving Forward
My guess is that Turbine will never again require the use of group content to see the game's headline epic story content. While one part of Turbine's team was replacing all of the group instances in Mirkwood with skirmishes, another is in the progress of overhauling the launch game's "Volume 1" quests, adding in temporary buffs to allow players to solo the group content. That's a lot of work to invest in accessibility if the plan is to return to "LFG or forget the plot" in Volume 3.

The big question, then, is what exactly we will see when the new volume launches next month. Adding large amounts of landmass and content at the current level cap, when there's already plenty of content to use en route (you actually cannot complete the Epic book before 65, due to the minimum level requirement on the final skirmish) seems like it would just become redundant next (mini?)expansion. Also, if Turbine was in a position to deliver significantly more landmass than Mirkwood by February, why did they go ahead with a mini-expansion in December instead of a full-sized one now?

Then again, perhaps the revamps of the 40's and 50's suggest that Turbine is not afraid of breaking a few metaphorical content eggs with some redundancy. Either way, the content has been well worth the visit so far (with the caveat that the best stuff starts 50+ levels into the game, a bit removed from newcomers). Time will tell whether this model can ultimately pay off.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Death Penalty Difficulty Fallacy

Discussion of the Rise of the Leet King exercise continues on the blogosphere. Responding to some suggestions about harsher death penalties from Tobold's original post, Gevlon says the following (bolded emphasis mine):
- Slower leveling: long =/= hard. Saying "cheese" is easy. Saying it 10K times is long, but not harder. Yet it would be great if one could finish his questlines without greying out all the quests and monsters.
- Experience loss death penalty: Definitely yes. Without death penalty all content, regardless difficulty can be brute-forced: you try and try and try until the RNG gives it to you. So without death penalty nothing is hard, just long (need more tries).

For someone who spends a lot of time talking about opportunity costs, I'm especially surprised to see Gevlon of all people fall for the "harsh death penalty = more difficult" fallacy.

ALL MMORPG death penalties are really just time
When you die in WoW, you suffer two penalties:

- Time lost running as a ghost back to your corpse to revive, recast any buffs, and deal with any respawned mobs.
- Money spent on repair bills and refreshing any consumables that ended early because of your demise.

The time is, obviously, time. The money, however, can also be measured in terms of the time it would take you to replace it.

Now let's look at the exp penalty that Gevlon says prevents players from repeatedly retrying content until they win via RNG default. Experience debt on death delays your next level, while the losing levels outright might obligate you to go back and regain the level immediately before you can continue what you were doing. Still, both penalties are ultimately reversed by spending more time playing to re-gain the lost exp.

How about item loss? Games with item loss/decay very rarely feature items that simply cannot be replaced. EVE veterans repeat the motto "don't fly it if you can't afford to replace it". In this context, loss of items is effectively loss of money, which we've already established is actually loss of time.

But what if the game goes even further, and actually inflicts irreversible harm to the character, whether it's permanent loss of an irreplaceable item or even the almost-never used extreme of permadeath? Even in this case, the amount of damage the developer can inflict on the player can be reduced to a quantity of time - the time it would take to replace their character re-starting from scratch.

Unless the developers are actually charging you real world money by the death - and playing a game with that business model would be a real leap of faith - there are no penalties that cannot be reduced to an amount of time that it takes to recover from the damage.

The effect of increasing time penalties
Though all penalties are ultimately an amount of time, there is no question that the amount in question differs drastically from game to game. In WoW, I find that the gold cost for repairs and consumables is all-but irrelevant in the context of my daily income. In EQ2, the experience debt for a death can be fully paid off with a handful of mob kills, or logging off for the night. By contrast, losing a level in FFXI can put the player in the difficult position of having to seek a group that's farming in a different level range.

Even so, all of this is merely increasing the time the player is penalized for their mistakes. And, as Gevlon himself says barely a line before falling for the death penalty fallacy, long is not necessarily hard. If anything, the game that players actually experience when harsh death penalties are implemented becomes easier, not more challenging. Players are not willing to risk failure when the penalty in their time is so steep, and thus they are far more inclined to demand group-mates who outgear the content or can otherwise demonstrate that they will provide a SAFE experience.

Ironically, we're seeing precisely the same behavior in WoW today, despite its supposed lack of death penalty. The fact is that a five-man group that wipes twice on every boss and needs to replace someone midway through via votekick or frustration can easily spend double or triple the time it takes an overgeared raid team to clear content that's five tiers below them. And, sure enough, players bail out on unpopular dungeons and immediately votekick their team-mates if gearscores and achievement checks raise concerns that someone will not be able to pull their own weight. Perhaps even WoW has more of a death penalty than people realize.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mario, the Rise of the Leet King and MMORPG Difficulty

Tobold has posted a bit of satire titled Rise of the Leet King, in which he points out that many of the things that were supposedly harder about pre-WoW MMORPG's were merely more time consuming. I made a similar argument with 100% less Fake Jeff Kaplan last year. What is so hard about difficulty in MMORPG's?

Character Progression and Relative Difficulty
In a somewhat related discussion, Evizaer blasts the "theme park MMO" for its treadmill mechanics "because the in-game rewards are only useful on the journey". Effectively, character progression is a lie, because the relative power of the player compared to the appropriate level enemy (which is generally what the "theme park" MMO will have you fighting) stays approximately the same no matter how much work the player invests. More generally, though, this game mechanic critique is true in just about every game with character progression, be it levels, skills, gear, or whatever.

If you look at Super Mario Brothers, Mario basically does not have any character progression. Mario gets all of his abilities at the beginning, but levels get progressively harder. In the absence of character advancement, the player must improve in skill (or brute force memorization of where the foe that killed them last time came from) to continue to succeed.

By contrast, the entire point of levels in RPG's is for players (and developers making the content) to remain at approximately the same power level relative to the advancing content. Though the relative difficulty of the content does sometimes increase (more commonly in single player RPG's than MMORPG's), it is understood that a level 20 foe can be beaten by a level 20 character (or group thereof), and a level 55 foe can be beaten by a level 55 player.

Why Doesn't Mario Scale To The MMORPG?
One reason why MMORPG's don't increase in difficulty the way that Mario does is scalability. There is a theoretical limit to how difficult a level in Super Mario Brothers can get - once the entire screen, save for a single Mario-sized hole, is filled with enemies, it actually can't get any harder without becoming impossible. Long before that point, however, all but the most dedicated of gamers will have given up on the game. Fortunately for Nintendo, Mario games have a finite number of levels, so the game ends before it gets there. If you're looking to keep an MMORPG running for years, which you'll need to if you are sinking millions into development, that's not an option for you.

Perhaps the far larger issue, though, is that pesky "multi-player" aspect of the game. Some people are simply better at Super Mario Brothers than others. Nintendo's approach to this in the most recent game has simply been to throw all the players on the screen at once and give them the option of literally carrying their buddies to the finish line if they're so inclined. Though this is much more fun than the old model of taking alternating turns attempting each level solo, it has the effect of drastically reducing difficulty. With multiple players, the action continues as long as at least one player survives, with the others having the opportunity to jump back in (and keep the level rolling forward for the first player, should they subsequently die).

If you want to have multiple players without trivializing the difficulty, you have to design the content in a way that causes the entire group to fail if one player cannot make the cut. That's a big problem if you're going to start pushing the envelope in terms of things that actually increase the difficulty, rather than merely the time required to play the game effectively. Ironically, as Tobold notes, the only thing developers seem to have found that makes the game harder is to lean more and more heavily on player reflexes, with raid fights that require split-second response times. Pushing that side of the gameplay is bound to leave some players - and eventually most players, and all of the other players stuck in groups with those players - behind.

The business difficulty with game difficulty
Some players value the opportunity to progress more than their in-game comrades, and would gladly allow the game to reassign them to a new guild/raid team based on their current DPS/HPS/TPS numbers. These players are just as likely to declare victory and go home, taking their subscription dollars with them, when they decide that they've done what there is to do in the game. By contrast, players who have social ties in the game have far more of a reason to stick around, even after they have finished the game's content. As Evizaer uncharitably puts it, the "friends you make and the good times you share" are the thing that justifies the time spent on repetitive and occasionally shallow gameplay.

In short, increasing difficulty in a way that removes players from the friends that are keeping them in (and paying for) the game is the very last thing that a developer wants to do.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Can A Pre-Order Bonus Go Too Far?

Syp has a bit of a parody of Cryptic's latest promotion for Star Trek Online. By paying $300 for the game plus a lifetime subscription (offer expires before the official retail launch), you can secure the right to play the "Liberated Borg" race for the Federation.

Cryptic hasn't explicitly stated that the Borg race would never be available via any other means. Even so, this seems like a slightly dangerous road to go down as a pre-order bonus.

Would players who are interested in the game decide not to play because they were unable to choose a race that has played an iconic role in the game's lore? Perhaps not. Then again, playable races are often the headline features of paid expansions. If nothing else, honoring the spirit of this pre-order offer would seem to preclude having a playable Borg expansion down the line.

On the other side of the equation, though, how badly would it erode confidence if this feature trickles out to the playerbase at large at some point? Cryptic is presumably planning on item store sales as a major portion of STO's revenue, and players may regard the next limited time offer with far greater suspicion if exclusives like the Borg (or the "Joined Trill" race, of Dax from DS9 fame, which is exclusive to some digital "deluxe editions" of the retail game) make their way into the game at large.

Perhaps this promotion will sell more lifetime subscriptions and therefore turn into a win for Cryptic. That said, this evolution of the high pressure pre-order sales pitch sounds like a lose for players. I can't think of any precedent for an MMORPG restricting access to a player race like this, much less a licensed game (where the licensed races are a major selling point of the IP). All that changes in a few weeks, and time will tell how it plays out.

LOTRO Skirmish Exp "Nerf" Coming?

Turbine just rolled out a medium-sized bugfix patch for LOTRO. One change struck me as odd:
"The monster kill XP buff inside Skirmishes now has a buff icon associated with it. The Skirmish Monster Kill XP buff will remain in effect until the release of Volume 3 Book 1."

Personally, I didn't even know that there was a buff to skirmish monster kill exp - nor did Doc Holiday. I ran a skirmish to observe the promised buff icon, which claims that exp in skirmishes has been boosted by 25%. The patch note makes it sound like this number is temporary, in order to encourage use of the new skirmish feature, and will be removed in the future.

Pulling the rug out from under skirmish rewards?
First of all, this is a bit of a communication fail. In this particular case, many people wouldn't have realized why the experience simply dropped when the Volume 3 patch hit, and now will be wondering why their exp buffs are suddenly missing.

The bigger issue, though, is whether players will simply give up on the feature when the rate of reward suddenly slows down right at the point where they're starting to notice that it's all randomly generated content that has reward scaling issues. The silent majority of gamers may not see the forum posts decrying the removal of the buff as a "nerf" to skirmish exp, nor will they necessarily realize that they are gaining 25% fewer exp per kill. What they will notice is that it suddenly seems to take more and more skirmishes per level, enhancing the feeling of grindy-ness.

Was an incentive even necessary?
Ironically, I'm not sure that this kind of buff was necessary to get players to try the feature in the first place. In hindsight, I realize that a boosted rate of skirmish exp may have been part of how I ended up gaining so many levels before I actually tried Mirkwood content, but I wasn't running the skirmishes for the exp - I was trying them for the skirmish marks and soldier rewards. (Here Turbine was a bit more clever, artificially inflating the mark reward levels for early skirmishes with some easily attained entry-level deeds to get players into the system.)

Also, because of the completely scaling nature of the skirmish feature, it had the potential to be used to boost players past areas of content that were sparsely populated with content. Don't like the quest options in the 30's (really the last part of the leveling game that Orion has yet to address)? There's a skirmish for that. Want three-man content to level with your static group? You were probably out of luck until skirmishes arrived, but now you can generate a 3-man instance on the fly. Does Turbine really want to discourage the use of this feature to pave over the rough spots in their own content?

(P.S. Also included in the mini-patch was a fix to a bug that treated healing done by your skirmish soldier as an attack that deals a negative amount of damage. This AI shortcut meant that your armor was mitigating your incoming heals. Suddenly, my herbalist is healing my Champion for a lot more, to the extent that I'm no longer challenged by some of the encounters that I previously needed to burn cooldowns for.
P.P.S. I understand how the Captain/bannerguard "encouraging shout" type skill fits into the "morale as hp" concept, but how does a herbalist improve your morale? Are they handing out the "special" brownies or something? The lore says that no player character is ever actually injured because there's no means for them to heal in a timely fashion, so they're clearly not disinfecting wounds or anything.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

EQ2 Bonus Trade Commentary, 2010

EQ2 rolled out another one of its traditional holiday weekend bonus exp-fests. As I have done in the past, I was able to turn that weekend into a ton of tradeskill exp - an aggregate of 51 levels (!). The damage:

+4 levels of Tailor (cloth and leather armor, plus bags and charms for all, now 54)
+6 levels of Sage (makes spells for mages and priests, now 42)
+19 levels of Alchemist (makes spells for fighters and potions, now 28)
+22 levels of a brand new Weaponsmith (makes weapons, now 22, the new alt also gained 17 levels of Shadow Knight and 7 AA).

A few misc comments:

Valuing Alt Trades
I had originally planned making the baby Shadow Knight into an Armorer. Your armor occupies seven slots, compared to no more than three weapons per 10-level tier. The thing is, my current and planned alts don't really wear heavy armor. Lyriana does, but I'm not planning on advancing the new kid fast enough to be useful to her. As a result, I'd only be using that character's trade for her own gear, where all of my other professions are useful to at least two alts.

By contrast, everyone needs a weapon, and the sheer variety of stats and swing speeds available makes it handy to be able to browse from my own custom shop. As of the weekend, I can make spells for any character up to 26. I'm also on the track to being able to fully gear up my caster alts in-house.

(Technically, I don't "need" any trades anymore, since I could get whatever I need through some combination of guildmates and the broker. That said, it's nice to be able to impulse buy, and I like having access to the tradeskill content.)

Preview or Power Loss?
EQ2 allows all characters to make everything for levels 1-9. From levels 10-19, characters can make items from their trade archetype (spell upgrades, gear, or miscellany). It's a clever system, but the irony is that you end up feeling like you're actually losing power as you go.

For instance, I thought my tailor would be able to make fistwraps for monks because those appeared at the tailoring station at level 19. It turns out that those are weapons and therefore are crafted by weaponsmiths, even though my weaponsmith doesn't use the tailoring workstation for anything else.

Ironically, I leveled the weaponsmith by making tailored armor for my last planned alt, a monk to visit the new starting area in the expansion. I will never be able to craft more advanced tailored armor on that character again. (Fortunately, I have an actual tailor for that.)

Ramping Up the Exp Curve
On a focused weekend session like this, I tend to spend most of the time in front of a guild hall crafting station. The result is greatly added attention to how quickly the levels accumulate. It isn't coincidence that I gained massive numbers of levels on my lower level professions - you actually get level 10 and 20 for free as you pick your specialty, levels 11-19 are insanely fast with vitality and bonus exp, and even levels 21-30 move moderately quickly. It's only once you hit your 30's that things start to get substantially slower.

In some ways, this ramp up mirrors the pace of leveling your adventuring profession, which is also very fast at low levels and somewhat fast at mid-levels. However, it does feel like there's a bit more variety in the PVE adventuring path than in the crafting - there are crafting quests, but these make a fraction of your total experience in the game's middle levels (especially the 40's and 50's).

Wrapping up
Ysh and Foolsage argue that this kind of accelerated progress defeats the purpose of actually playing the game. In fairness, all of the numbers are arbitrary - compared to myself, it's always bonus weekend for Stargrace thanks to all of her level-capped characters. If I had her numbers, I'd probably think that the grind kicks in at 40 instead of 30.

That said, I think there is some value to the occasional speed boost. At the end of the day, crafting is something that I do primarily for the end reward - being able to make stuff. My adventuring levels can sometimes creep up on my unsuspecting crafters, and then I find myself less interested in adventuring. A little chance to let the crafter sneak in a headstart every once in a while is just what I need to hold my interest.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

EQ Players Refuse To Tweet For Station Cash

Over the weekend, SOE made the decision to throw in the towel on their Twitter contest. They're now handing out the promised Station Cash rewards solely on the basis of each participating game's Facebook fan page.

As I wrote previously, SOE actually did a better job than most companies in designing their social media incentives. The plan was that everyone would win if what seemed to be a very attainable number of people added SOE games to their social media lists. The catch is that Twitter isn't anywhere near as large as Facebook, and apparently players were not willing to sign up for a service they don't use for the sole purpose of participating in an SOE advertising campaign.

Allowing Twitter to drag down the far more successful Facebook side of the promotion by leaving all of the prizes out of reach would have been counterproductive. The whole point was for players to encourage their friends to participate, and the inclusion of Twitter was threatening to Fail Whale the project by placing even the lowest prize level out of reach.

Incidentally, SOE just rolled out a weekend Haiti Relief drive. The result is a somewhat unique situation in which Station Pass subscribers to both EQ1 and EQ2 can turn in $5 in virtual currency they didn't pay for to secure a $10 donation to disaster relief. (Sadly, SOE has yet to credit Free Realms accounts, so EQ2-only subscribers who added a Free Realms character to their Station account probably won't get credited in time to participate.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Importance of LFG Distractions

Though working on Lyriana's epic weapon was one of my New Year's Resolutions, I haven't really made much progress on it. The item I needed to start the questline dropped in a popular enough area that was relatively easy to PUG, and I was able to do the next couple steps solo, but the next group stage requires a mob in Karnor's Castle, a leveling dungeon that no one has any reason to return to.

I'm not that objected to group content as a matter of principle, within the confines of my schedule. I'm happy to participate in WoW random 5-mans, and would probably be doing so if five man content were not merely a waypoint en route to raids that I lack the time to complete. I was happy to spend the majority of my time in the Warhammer retrial doing groups, facilitated by that game's open grouping system. The logistics are the thing that really stops me in my tracks when I would otherwise look for a group.

There's nothing that I find more frustrating than setting "find a group for X content" as my goal for the evening, spending all of the time I had to actually have fun that night plaintively posting "lone DPS LF entire group for dungeon that no one wants" into general chat every few minutes, and never actually getting off the ground. If the group never happens, I leave feeling like my entire evening was wasted, and I don't have entire evenings to spend on gaming all that often anymore.

Say what you will about the immersion-breaking effects of instant, world-wide teleport queues like Warhammer and WoW offer, but at least players have the opportunity to do something with their time while they wait. (EQ2 bases access to global chat channels by character level, so I can't even work on alts while passively watching the high level LFG channels.) If someone's actually attempting to make the jump from solo to group content, developers really need to do a better job of removing the feeling of helplessness and boredom from the LFG process.

(Fortunately for Lyriana, I have guildies who might be able to help me with this over the long weekend here in the US. That doesn't change the critique - players shouldn't have to drag their friends into backfarming trivial content just to complete a questline that significant portions of the EQ2 community consider to be a mandatory prerequisite for endgame content.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Post-Newbie Learning Curves

My new Runekeeper alt got her ceremonial first death out of the way. This milestone is a rite of passage for new LOTRO characters because the game offers a title for reaching level 20 un-defeated. Having gotten it over with, I'm free to play Kelthwyn (Kelethin + Gorowyn, because I've decided that I'm officially stealing names for my characters from other games henceforth) without altering my playstyle out of worry of breaking the streak.

The thing that struck me about the death - at level 10, shortly beyond the earliest newbie quests in the game's non-instanced world - was how abrupt it felt. One quest, I was fighting mobs that had half as much HP as I did, who would die in about three hits and who could be pulled singly without difficulty. The next quest sent me up against mobs with as much HP as I have, who like to attack in groups. By the time I figured out exactly how violent spell pushback is in LOTRO when you're being attacked by two mobs, I was dead.

There is a possibility that Rune-keeper is simply the wrong alt class for me - though many Champions pick that class as an alt (perhaps because the two are just about the most different that you can get), I've never been a fan of cripplingly brutal spell pushback. That said, the slope of the learning curve in this particular case seemed unreasonably steep. Maybe the point was to deliberately make the first levels easy on newbies learning the UI and then pound the fear of death defeat into players.

I hope that's it, because I want to play some sort of LOTRO alt, and I'm not that excited about any of the other options.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Access Versus Depth For Skirmish Soldiers

After a bit more experience with LOTRO skirmish soldiers, I've seen an interesting design issue with the system.

Depth, As In Variety Of Options
Almazar has a writeup of the soldier roles, which was further discussed on this week's LOTRO Reporter. His critique of the Archer class seemed a bit familiar at first - I'll concede that, with all the NPC's that are running around your average skirmish, it can be hard to even notice the added DPS from your soldier making one individual foe die faster.

That said, the thing I really noticed about the Archer was that they actually make a half-decent off-tank. Archers come with medium armor, and I further toughened mine up with a trait that bulks up their armor and an in-combat morale regen trait. The Archer does entirely single-target attacks, so they're not going to get more than one foe the way the squishier Sage soldier will. With the survival enhancements and decent single target DPS, the Archer can comfortably solo the single weak or regular solo mob that they decide to attack, without my intervention.

I don't always want them to do this, since my goal is generally to gather all the foes up for AOE, but it can be useful in certain defensive skirmishes when you're running around trying to trigger some encounter for bonus skirmish marks and want to take a little bit of pressure off of the friendly NPC's. I could also see caster classes with skills that can be interrupted by damage happy to have one foe out of their hair, without attempting to micromanage the tanking soldier (though I suspect that the tank would still be superior for those classes). It's still not my favorite soldier, but I was impressed with this little chunk of versatility.

But limited depth, as in further development?
As Zubon noted skirmish soldier training seems to hit a "soft cap" of diminishing returns very quickly. I'd argue that the increase in soldier power, especially considering the increasing cost in skirmish marks, starts to trail off to the point of irrelevance as early as ranks 6-7 (before which the soldier is almost useless in some cases). It feels like they decided how effective a fully maxxed out soldier should be at rank 20 of everything, but then decided that the early ranks needed to be more rewarding and ran out of room to reward the higher levels.

There might be several reasons for this. Many players will want to try more than one soldier type, either for experimentation (as Almazar and I both did) or because the soldier you want in group skirmishes is different from your favorite soldier solo. There's also the quirk that the system is designed scaling from level 30, but many players are picking it up as late as the early 60's because it was only implemented in the new expansion. Something had to be done to help existing characters catch up more quickly than would be possible if the soldier advancement curve went more smoothly.

As an aside, I find the concept of doling out 90% of the overall power level at something like a third of the soldier level cap interesting. Would this work for player characters? My feeling of lack of progression with the soldier argues otherwise. Then again, this type of system would largely solve some of the issues with vertical progression and attempting to play with friends of different levels. Who knows?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Core Solo Skills For EQ2 Melee

I did a rundown of core skills for caster characters a while back, after checking out some of the various casters in EQ2. I finally dug up the time to do a similar rundown of the melee classes I haven't tried (Fighters and non-bard Scouts). Though this collectively spanned ten different classes, it seemed like most characters did some combination of the following three things.

DPS Race
Several character types basically engage in a DPS race with the mob/mobs. They don't heal, crowd control, or sneak, the two just meet and pummel each other and whomever runs out of health first wins. I was looking at both tanking classes and DPS classes, and the two differ slightly in approach - the tanks have more health and mitigation, while the scouts rely more on dodging. Even so, this seems to be the baseline, I guess for obvious reasons.

Positional Attacks
All of the scout classes have at least one flank attack, one stealth attack, and sometimes some combination of rear attacks, rear stealth attacks, etc. Two of the scouts really seem to be built around this sort of mechanism though - Assassins specialize in backstabbing, while Rangers specialize in melee/ranged hybrid attacks, hoping to root/immobilize foes and then dart out of range to pepper the foe with arrows. Though each class has some limited tools for attempting to position unruly foes accordingly, I had a lot of trouble making either class work solo. I'm sure they're incredible with a tank.

Self-Healing and other Utility
Intellectually, I realize that utility can be deceptive. Generally, classes that get to heal themselves and/or increase their own DPS have less baseline DPS to compensate for this advantage. Even so, there's something that feels elegant about giving yourself a leg up in the DPS race by healing yourself AND doing damage at the same time.

Is Variety Better Than Power?
Interestingly, my Dirge actually blends some of each - moderate DPS and lots of evasion for standing and fighting one on one, medium self-healing abilities, and a few ranged and positional attacks (along with lots and lots of speed to help use them). I didn't feel like any of the classes I took for a test drive offered quite as much variety. To sum up my top three potential alts:

- The Brigand offered a good balance of positional abilities I could actually use and raw DPS, but felt like it was missing a dimension for lack of heals and speed.
- The monk was a bit of fun - decent damage, avoidance, and a self-heal - but it lacks the positional part of combat and didn't have a ton of combat arts. I felt like I would end up just standing there trading blows.
- The Shadow Knight... well, that guy just felt overpowered, with high DPS, more self-healing than the Dirge, heavy armor mitigation, and even a broad selection of AOE abilities (one area where the Dirge is decidedly lacking).

Are any, or even all of these objectively more powerful than my Dirge? Quite possibly. Still, it didn't feel like any of them were quite as well rounded. It's quite possible that I semi-accidentally blundered into the single class in EQ2 that best fits my playstyle and keeps my interest. With 24 options to choose from (well, minus a few that I didn't consider seriously for being more group-focused than I would prefer), the odds of my having gotten it "right" on my first serious character weren't that great (though I did try out about half a dozen classes before settling on the Dirge).

As an aside, as I mentioned previously, if there's anywhere in the EQ2 experience that could seriously use some help, I'd say that it's pointing newbies to the correct subclass in a reasonable amount of time.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

LOTRO Travel Satire

In my summary of LOTRO, I wrote about how often quests make players travel to remote enemy camps repeatedly. Frandoc in my LOTRO guild pointed me to a post by a player named Aereana, who has written a fantastic satire of the way LOTRO questgivers think. An excerpt:

Dwarf: Excellent work my elf friend, but the news is ill. Our spies say that Larry, Curly and Moe have doubled their efforts to bolster the orc forces. Return and thin their forces! Defeat 5 siege masters and 5 berserkers and deal a demoralizing blow!
Me: I told you Larry, Curly and Moe are tough. I've fought them twice now, don't you think I should deal with them? Or maybe go straight to the top and take care of Bob - I've fought him twice as well and I can take him.
Dwarf: Such an errand would be folly elf! Thin their forces and they will be driven back!

The sad part is that five followups to the same camp from the same questgiver is an exaggeration, but three is pretty common. Sometimes there's another questgiver with quests in the same camp who might send you back a fourth time if you didn't juggle the two sets of quests in precisely the correct order.

It reminds me of the quest in Evendim where a hobbit says he simply does not believe that there are no boars to eat in the zone. Players need to spend at least 30 minutes supposedly looking for boars (you can do whatever you want with the time) to convince him that there are, in fact, no boars in Evendim. What does Turbine do to follow up on this satirical take on their own quest design? Send you to kill 10 bears instead.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Analyzing Emblem Over Time Potential

Via comes a link to a fascinating chart of time to emblem ratios. Karatheya compares the number of emblems available in each dungeon to a survey-based estimate of how long it will take a group to do a routine clear of that dungeon. The result is a list of how many minutes players will need to "work" per emblem obtained in each dungeon.

A few comments:

Bundling Emblems of Frost and Triumph
The chart values current raid tier Emblems of Frost and previous raid tier Emblems of Triumph equally in arriving at its minutes per emblem number. In the comments, Karatheya defends this practice by arguing that even the player who has no need for Triumph Emblems can trade them for saleable tradeskill materials.

First, Gevlon may be weeping openly at the suggestion that experienced players should boost social morons and slackers to free loot from five-mans in order to convert the emblems into less gold than they could obtain by playing the auction house.

Second, Emblems of Triumph currently drop like candy - a player who does a single successful random heroic per day for the daily Frost Emblems will rake in 30 or so emblems per week just from Heroics, with additional emblems from any other level 80 group content they do (other than ICC, which drops Frost Emblems). With Triumph Emblems that much more common, it seems pretty counter intuitive to think that players would value them equally with the far rarer frost versions.

Finally, and most to the point, it has been possible to trade heroic emblems for salable trade goods for most of the Wrath era, and I have not seen any evidence that players run heroics for emblems to convert into gold. Once we got past the early phases of the expansion, where the majority of players could actually use gear from heroic dungeons, it became very hard to find a group for anything other than the daily heroic, even the easy runs like HUK and HVH. Even the daily could be hard to group for until it started offering current tier raid badges in patch 3.2.

The random group finder obscures this question, since there is no longer a single instance that will be the most popular on the server for the day, but I'd be curious to hear whether anyone reading this A) does not need Emblems of Triumph for anything and B) continues to do significant numbers of random dailies beyond the first on each day to obtain more emblems anyway.

Upside Versus Downside
The other point, which I offered in my look at the Oculus, is that this chart examines only the potential upside of each dungeon. If all goes well, the revised Oculus is indeed an insanely good deal of Emblems per time invested. The problem is that players are less concerned with theoretical long-term efficiency, and more worried about the short term consequences of spending their evening in a failed run.

I'm sure there is a good psychological basis for this. Perhaps the painful failure is more memorable than the uneventful success. Perhaps the odds of success in WoW Heroics are so high that failure is bizarre and unusual. Or, perhaps the extreme ease of doing the content in overgeared groups is sufficiently un-interesting on its own merits that players aren't willing to put up with anything that prolongs the experience. Whatever the reason, this is how players actually appear to be acting on the live servers.

The Assessment Of Crowds
This type of data is not new, or specific to WoW. Of LOTRO's three current 3-man dungeons, one is reportedly overwhelmingly more popular due to some combination of ease and reward. As to WoW's Heroics, Blizzard comments have repeatedly noted that they are well aware of players' tendencies to maximize incentives.

And yet, if we buy the numbers, players are actually acting irrationally. In the long term aggregate, all players look like they will come out ahead if they tolerate whatever group and dungeon the random group finder selects and muscle on through. Excepting the rare, unique case like the Oculus where there's something specific to the experience that kills it, perhaps it is possible to overthink these things.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Role of the Five-man and Oculus Incentive Calibration

Syp accuses Blizzard of taking the "easy solution" to the Oculus problem, rather than figuring out why players dislike the instance. I suspect that Blizzard knows precisely why the instance is unpopular, but can't address that side of the equation because they knew what they were doing when they made it that way. Like Spinks, I think the better question is whether the latest rewards go far enough.

The Instance
The Oculus is one of two five-man instances in the Wrath era that requires the use of "vehicles" (in this case, flying dragon mounts), which are essentially different classes. These new classes aren't terribly complicated - each has a mere three active abilities they may use - but there is no way to practice the new classes other than on the instance's final boss. (The dragons are minus their crucial third ability until the final boss to prevent players from skipping the other, non-mounted encounters. By contrast, the jousting combat used in 5-man TOC can be practiced in a daily quest.)

The problem is not with the implementation of the dragons, but rather with the speed at which the average WoW PUG is capable of learning new things. Not all players who go looking for groups at level 80 can be counted on to know how to play their actual character class in groups, so asking those same players to learn something completely new during a boss encounter can be a stretch. Also, there's no mechanism dictating what drake players should ride (indeed, there's an achievement for trying them all), so even getting the group to agree on which drakes each player should ride can be a challenge.

There is no "fixing" this aspect of the dungeon. You can simply remove the dungeon from circulation altogether, or you can try to bribe players to attempt it anyway (as Blizzard has now done), but this particular learning curve is not something you can eliminate without removing the whole point of the instance. (I'd also argue that this unique factor means that we're NOT on a slippery slope towards nerfing other "unpopular" instances that simply take longer to complete, but time will tell.)

The role of the five-man
The primary role of the level 80 5-man heroic instance in WoW today is to get newly level 80 characters geared for raiding ASAP. With all of the item inflation in this expansion era, Blizzard had to provide a mechanism for new characters to catch up that did not require their guilds to fit 2-3 "farm nights" of old raid instances on the weekly raid schedule.

To ensure that there would be enough demand for this feature, Blizzard made the decision to offer current tier raid emblems to get raiders into the random group finder once a day. As a result, a large proportion of the players running random five-mans care about exactly one thing - the group's perceived ability to complete the dungeon in a quick and painless fashion, so that they can get their emblems.

(Elnia, never one to shy from controversy, suggests that we are exploiting our PUGs like porn stars, and the analogy may be more apt than Blizzard would like to admit.)

The unique nature of the Oculus makes players unusually nervous about the PUG's ability to get them their emblems so they can get back to content they actually want to be doing. This makes a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the players who could make the Oculus run go smoothly quit, making the dungeon go even less smoothly for those who remain.

The real question, though, is whether a small quantity of additional cash and yet another cosmetic mount are enough of an incentive to convince reluctant players to run the Oculus. If the players Blizzard wants to win over are only in it for the frost emblems, it might turn out that nothing short of more frost emblems will convince them to remain in an unpalatable instance.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Progress At The Level Cap

Due to the timing of Mirkwood's release, Allarond ended up with a fair chunk of unfinished content from the Moria expansion. Between this backlog and the new skirmish feature, I had already advanced from level 60 to level 64 - out of the new cap of 65 - before I made a serious attempt at the expansion content.

Now that I'm going through the new content to experience the new areas and storylines, I've noticed two things. First, the content is surprisingly hard given that I have 2-3 levels over most of the quests/mobs I've been completing. Secondly I feel that some of this content is slightly wasted on me because I'm already level capped.

I would easily have gained another level or more by now if there were more levels to gain. I'm occasionally finding a gear upgrade, but a single minor upgrade every few hours does not add up to an impressive feeling of progression. My legendary items are progressing at a decent clip, but I haven't found one that really replaces the ones I entered Mirkwood with, and I'm not going to put a lot of effort into looking until I figure out where to get the level 65 items. Even the quest deeds inexplicably cap out at 30 quests in the entirety of Mirkwood (which I had finished before I left the expansion's first subzone).

There is still progress to be had - I'm gaining reputation with the new expansion faction, and have a ton of their more common currency for whenever I find all of the reward vendors. (I want to know all of the choices before I start spending, to make sure I don't regret my purchases later. Doc Holiday posted the best list I've seen so far.) I'm also advancing the epic book plot, which may very well be the most impressive storyline ever crafted for solo players in an MMORPG. Even so, it feels like a part of the paradigm - complete quests, gain levels - is missing.

Next month's Volume 3 launch patch promises new content, and many players are expecting some new landmass as well. I wonder what Turbine can/will do with this new content, which clearly is not needed for leveling to the game's current cap, to make it feel like characters are advancing.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Role Playing, Gaming, And Failure

Gordon @ We Fly Spitfires talks about the conflict between the gaming side of MMORPG's and the role playing side (if any) of MMORPG's. Thinking more about my post on irreversible choices in Dragon Age, I think this arises because of the way motivation and consequences have to work in an online game.

Learning through failure
Take the ubiquitous "move out of the fire or die" mechanic in MMORPG boss fights. Assuming good faith on the part of the developer (intended and implemented the content to be beatable), the point of the fire is to teach the player a lesson. When a fire appears at the player's feet and they begin to take damage, they are expected to move. The player's death, in the event that they fail to move, is intended to teach them that lesson - indeed, the only point of having visible fire at all is so that the player can know how far they need to move to stop taking damage. The player has knowledge of the consequences of their actions, and this makes whether they live to receive the reward for victory something that is within their control.

From that perspective, missing out on some reward because you didn't say the right thing to the right NPC feels like capricious game design. Unless you have looked up the details on some out-of-game site in advance, you cannot know the consequences of your choices at the time you make them. Whether or not you receive the reward is out of your control. (Note that I can't say whether this happens at any point in Dragon Age - indeed, it seems like many conversations reach the same outcome regardless of which of the options the player chooses to say.)

The catch is that, for the role player, having bad things happen to the character (and/or having good things noticeably fail to happen) is its own reward. As long as it doesn't happen so frequently that it feels like the game is abusing you, this type of story conflict is precisely what the role player might be after.

Impacting others
The problem that online games have is that they expect players to play together. Imagine that your guild spent hours on the journey to level 80 and it turns out that your tank can't possibly tank the dragon, because only the Dwarves that he pissed off are able to craft armor that can resist the dragon's fire breath. The consequences of that roleplaying decision are affecting more than the one player who made the choice (or did not if they didn't read the spoilers).

In this setting, there are real limits to how much damage you can do to characters as a result of role playing decisions. As a result, role playing is limited to false choices (the conversation proceeds to the same outcome regardless of player actions) and cosmetic stuff (whether the guards salute you in town).

It will be very interesting to see how Bioware deals with this in SWTOR/KOTORO, if indeed it actually is massively multiplayer in the traditional sense of the word.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Pressure of Irreversible Choices

LOTRO's login servers were down during prime time last night, so I decided to finally fire up the new copy of Dragon's Age from my Christmas stash.

(Incidentally, they included a pair of single-use DLC codes in the retail box as a way to deter/charge pirates and used game purchasers. Installing this content on the PS3 is a bit of an ordeal - if, perhaps, less of an ordeal than the LOTRO patcher - as the console won't download while the game is actually running, making the background download feature pretty useless.)

Anyway, the game does seem impressive, but one thing that kind of jarred me out of the box was all the gameplay-affecting choices. My mage got two new spells at level one, with a dozen options (each of which leads to further upgrades down the line). It doesn't matter so much if I take a randomly generated appearance without knowing that there was some "better" option, as long as I can live with it. By contrast, presuming that there is not a respec mechanic in the game, I'm stuck with whatever spells I take. I might not be able to do the things I later discover that I want to do with the character because I lack the appropriate prerequisites and/or don't understand how good certain choices are from reading the tooltips.

Then I got into game and actually hit the trademark dialog trees. Again, the sheer volume of voice acting is impressive, and, again, scary choices. Right off the bat, I was able to talk two NPC's out of fighting me. But would the reward for beating them have been better? Will saying the wrong thing to the wrong NPC cut me off from some cool quest line or reward down the line? I don't have the time to play through this game half a dozen times (perhaps excluding the introduction scenarios) because I missed out on something really interesting by screwing up, so, if I miss it, it's probably gone.

MMORPG's rarely make players actually live with the consequences of such decisions. That can be bad in any number of ways, but the upside is less pressure while you're actually playing the game. Perhaps it's neither good nor bad, but it's certainly different.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

What's Next For LOTRO?

WoW and EQ2 have relatively straightforward plans for 2010 - boxed expansion launches, content patches to support them, and probably more creep of real money transactions into account services and item stores. LOTRO's plans for 2010 are potentially more interesting. What happens next?

Business Model Developments
The guys at LOTRO Reporter have a debate going on whether we're going to see any more traditional boxed retail expansions, or whether the game is going more towards a model of paid mini-expansions. LOTRO took a major step towards a hybrid business model last year, releasing a paid mini-expansion accompanied by a somewhat RMT-like "Adventurer's Pack" containing two character slots and a shared bank feature that really looks like it should have been an upgrade to the base game's bank interface.

Personally, I think LOTRO is done with boxed expansions for the time being. Launching a retail expansion means giving a cut of the revenue to a variety of middlemen necessary to produce, ship, and sell physical game discs. This raises prices, and thus expectations, without necessarily adding to Turbine's bottom line. Meanwhile, higher prices bring higher expectations, and there isn't any indication that the live team has the resources to produce any more content per year than they did in 2009.

Realistically, I'm expecting one paid mini-expansion which, unlike Mirkwood, will actually require ALL players to pay (the first one is always free, at least in the US - sorry EU folks). It will also be interesting to see what additional features get separated off for an additional fee - I don't think that Turbine lost any significant number of subscriptions for the Adventurer's Pack, and they got extra cash from everyone who chose to buy one, so there's no incentive for them not to continue the trend.

The speculation is pretty unanimous that the next expansion will be "Riders of Rohan", which is what we all were certain that THIS expansion was going to be before it turned out to be Mirkwood. Also, Ravious posted a screenshot showing that Dunland and the Gap of Rohan have been added to the map. This throws a wrench into things because Dunland is adjacent to Isengard and there is absolutely no way that the campaign advances to Isengard without exploring the political situation in Rohan proper.

Then again, The Fellowship is still camped in Lothlorien, so I suppose it's possible for players to visit Theoden and be kicked out (perhaps even with Eomer and company) BEFORE Gandalf and the three hunters arrive. For that matter, players could potentially run into Gandalf in Dunland or Fanghorn, as his whereabouts in the story aren't really pinned down until he is reunited with Aragorn.

In one final possibility, there is still that pesky Peter Jackson film adaptation of The Hobbit, due out at the end of 2011. I've predicted that Turbine may want to move the game towards Dale and the Misty Mountain around the time the film arrives, since that will probably be the single best time to take advantage of that portion of their license.

New Features and Gameplay
In the somewhat likely event of a story advance to Rohan, there's going to be a lot of attention on horses. Cosmetic traits for your mount (similar to what skirmish soldiers and monster players get) seem like a no-brainer. People want to see mounted combat and massive large-scale battles. Then there's the question of whether the game is overdue for new classes. Mirkwood arrived relatively soon after Moria added new classes, but the game will have been two years without new character options by the time Dunland/Rohan/whatever arrives.

New classes can be good all around for several reasons. Beyond raising excitement for the expansion in general, they provide an incentive to re-roll rather than crowding the new content on launch day, and they encourage players to take advantage of recent revamps to leveling content.

On the downside, there's the issue of how to fit them in with existing classes. Even if the expansion does get mounted combat, I can't see a new class that never dismounts. If you asked me to brainstorm a sometimes-mounted skirmisher, the first thing that jumps to mind is the already existing Warden class - medium armor, highly agile, with some ranged ability. Where's the niche for one or more new classes?

That said, the game's skirmish system could offer one way to get more exotic combatants into the game. I could certainly imagine new soldier race/class options that allow you to bring a mounted Rohirrim into battle with you, or perhaps even an Ent (after the inevitable rep grind to friendly with the Ents of Fanghorn). Orcs didn't sack the Shire on a daily basis in the books, but the current skirmish system offers precisely that scenario, so I don't see why Ent soldiers would be ruinous to the lore by comparison.

LOTRO's lore can be limiting at times, but it also gives a sense of direction and expectation to the game. Amongst possible WoW and EQ2 expansions, there's nothing as certain as LOTRO's advance on to Rohan. Time will tell whether Turbine can deliver, but there's certainly the potential for some interesting developments in Middle Earth this year.