Saturday, February 27, 2010

Incentives in the Starcraft II Beta

As those of you who follow my Twitter feed may already know, I somehow landed a spot in the Starcraft II beta. My best guess is that I got added to a list for leveling a Death Knight to 80 in the Wrath beta, though I suppose it could also have been random chance. I'm actually not the world's biggest Starcraft fan, in part because I'm not all that good at Starcraft, but I resolved to spend some time playing the beta anyway, just in case logging some hours helps my odds of a Cataclysm beta invite.

Revisiting Old Friends

Let's be perfectly clear - this game is basically Starcraft with better graphics, and, given how well that game is STILL selling over a decade later, that's high praise.

The three races are all back, and each has a few new tricks. Terran supply depots can now retract into the ground so that players can use them as barricades. A Protoss upgrade can teleport ground units into any location on the map that has Pylon power. The Zerg have several new ways to spread creep around quickly, without having to establish a new hatchery.

Many units are back and do the same thing that they did before. Others have been dismantled and had their abilities parceled out to other units - for instance, Terran drop ships are now Medi-vac ships, and come with the healing ability formerly found on medics. Overall, the tech trees feel streamlined but not in a simplified/dumbed down sort of way.

Accessibility and Gameplay
As an RTS, Starcraft can't really offer persistent rewards as an incentive to pad the agony of defeat in quite the same way that MMORPG battlegrounds can. Instead, they do their best to make it easier for players to learn to play and find appropriate opponents.

All of the maps come with a "novice" version, which seals off the entrance to player bases with a giant pile of rocks that someone has to blast away before ground units can pass. These things are a speed bump if you've got a decent sized army, but they do a reasonably good job at keeping other players from having half a dozen zerglings in your base inside of three minutes.

Meanwhile, the game has no more secrets. If the other guy DOES flood your base with a dozen hydralisks before the match is 10 minutes old, you get to see precisely how they pulled it off with the new post-match replay. There's a summary of what players built when, and a real-time replay that allows you to see what everyone is doing (including which units the player has selected, how he has them grouped, what their resource count is, etc).

Finally, a new matchmaking system is designed to herd players to the correct rating relative to their opponents. I'm still playing my calibration matches, so I don't know where I'm rated or how effective it will be after it's done, but the plan is clearly to try and arrange even competition. On the downside, you can't really do much of anything else while you're waiting for a match. I guess they're hoping that the sheer volume of players will keep things running at a decent clip, but having to sit and watch it search for several minutes feels painful after having the ability to go do other things in WoW while you wait for your PVP or dungeon queues to pop.

Fortunately, the "estimated time" has been relatively accurate, and never more than three minutes for me so far.

In some ways, this is a highly polished product. The graphics look great, the game runs smoothly, and I have yet to encounter any real bugs in the traditional sense of the word (e.g. crashing to desktop). The only thing that is not at all complete is single player (which will not be tested in the beta). You can set up a custom match between yourself and an AI opponent, but the only AI setting that's currently implemented is "build a few buildings, send the player something to kill every few minutes, and generally wait around for them to figure out what all the new buttons do". (The AI will actually say "gg" when you arrive in its base with a fleet of Carriers, only to discover that it decided it was going to build a dozen marines and stop at that.)

The real reason the beta exists to test balance for multi-player. I think there is some work to be done in this area - for instance, the Terrans have a new jet-pack trooper, who can jump straight up sheer cliffs, bypassing your base defenses and landing in the middle of your workers. This is a neat concept, but it seems very difficult to counter, in part because the troops can actually outrun most units in a foot race, even if they don't simply hop up some ledge where your troops can't follow them.

Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of the RTS genre. I'm not all that competitive, so I don't get that excited to know that I just beat someone. Meanwhile, the amount of multi-tasking that you get into when you're trying to manage an economy and an army gets to be more than I want to deal with many evenings. Even so, this revision of Starcraft was good enough to occupy several hours of my time to date, though I have no shortage of other games I could be playing.

In the end, Blizzard has a plan - near instant access to a match against someone who will be a relatively even foe for you. If they can pull it off, as it looks like they will, this game may exceed even its own hype.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tyranny of the Cash Store Wallet

Between SOE's facebook promotion and the $5 in "free" credit with the expansion purchase ($40), I currently have $17.50 in credit at SOE's Station Cash store. The new expansion just arrived and, as always, I'm short on tradeskill vitality. With just a few clicks of the mouse, I could have a week's worth of vitality instantly, in the form of a potion that nominally costs $10.

Of course, the catch is that I would never pay $10 for that potion. I didn't pay for the credit I have now, but there might eventually be some other item that I will want badly enough to actually pay for. If I save my balance now, that future purchase might be free, or at least deeply discounted. Any yet, somehow simply having that balance in your wallet encourages you to find a way to spend it.

The Adversarial Design of the Item Shop
Cash stores are ultimately designed to get players to spend money. Even so, one wonders if part of the reason why players are so distrustful of the model is because of all of the tricks these stores employ to try and get players to spend more than they planned to.

In all stores, currency must be purchased in increments of $5. If the items you buy aren't priced in such perfect increments, you may need to top off your account again in order to finish spending your current balance. Unlike some other stores out there, SOE uses an easily interpreted exchange rate (1 cent = 1 SC) and does not require a massive bulk purchase to obtain that best rate. Some games use random numbers to make it hard to figure out the real world cost of the store offerings, and require purchases of as much as $80 at once for players to get the best exchange rate. All of these games are hoping that players will fall into the trap of spending faster than they intended once the real money is loaded into a seemingly less real virtual wallet.

From the perspective of a non-subscription game where 90% of players never pay a dime, I suppose that having a player pay $50 and leave in horror when they realize that they burned through it in a month sounds like just what the bookkeeper ordered. In the long term, though, how much more would that player have spent if the game had not burned them? How much future business is lost from that player's bad word of mouth? The risk that cash store developers run is that all of these little tricks have slowly poisoned the well for ALL cash stores, not just the ones that did a bad job on their pricing research.

As the old saying goes, fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice and the shame is on me. For me personally, the "once" was the time I spent about $150 in three months on an online trading card game. Ever since then, I've always been very suspicious of item shop models, simply because encouraging that kind of spending is actually part of the game design. I wonder how many other players have already used up their item shop mulligan, and regard the genre with similar distrust as a result.

The Upside of Removing Content

In LOTRO, level 65 characters have a very limited selection of dungeons - three level-appropriate small group dungeons, a single full group dungeon, and a single raid. The early story of the EQ2 expansion is whether there was enough content to go around in an expansion that launched with fewer zones than the last expansion that raised that game's level cap. In that context, Ferrel asks why it's worth raising the level cap of an MMORPG. After all, these problems can be directly attributed to the fact that raising the cap "dramatically reduces valid and usable content for players at the max level." Why bother if all the developers aren't even going to offer new spells and abilities?

Variety is the enemy of consensus
One of the key reasons why the WoW automated group finder has been successful is that the system specifically pushes players to agree to run a random dungeon. If there are three players in the queue who insist on one dungeon, a single player who demands a second, and a third player who will only join something else, no one gets a group. The random dungeon finder may compromise on a dungeon that NONE of these players would have chosen on their own, but at least they're doing something instead of sitting around waiting for a queue to pop.

In games that do not have such a system in place yet, variety is the enemy of players ever actually getting to do anything that requires a group. The more options, the harder it will be to broker a compromise group. On top of that, player preferences will rapidly trend towards the dungeon that offers the best reward/time ratio, leaving the rest of the content underused and hard to find a group to complete.

This problem is further exacerbated by the not-so-horizontal progression that is the gear grind. Players have repeatedly demonstrated extremely limited interest in running content that does not offer their characters gear upgrades. So-called casual raiding guilds, whose less strict requirements are more likely to result in players with a wide range of dedication/attendance, are especially likely to get hit with this problem. The leading edge of the guild finishes a dungeon and decides that they don't want to waste progression time by leaving it on the calendar, as the lagging edge of the guild protests that they still need the old dungeon for the gear upgrades. Outside of guilds, this manifests itself in the form of demanding group members who overgear the instance in question to ensure a quick and smooth ride to the finish.

Ask not what your newbie can do for you...
What brings this issue to the top of developers' priority lists is the plight of the newbie. Players are especially disinterested in running content that their characters do not need for complete strangers. New players, unless they were brought directly into a guild by offline friends, are strangers to everyone on the server.

Ask yourself a question: how many hours in the last week have you devoted to running content that does not offer you personally any rewards with one or more complete strangers in your group? If your answer is non-zero, is it typical of your guild? Your server? If you (yes you personally) answered zero, then why should anyone else devote more time?

At the end of the day, telling players to be patient with camping the LFG channels all day in the hopes of finding a group that will not throw them out over their gear is not a viable solution to the problem of getting newbies ready for group content. I've spent entire evenings on such efforts, and it's really not any fun. The two options that developers have tried to date to try and cut down the size of this mountain are literal bribes (as with WoW's dungeon finder) to make raiders want to run the trivial content, or a deliberately induced bottleneck.

If you increase the cap and only have half a dozen dungeons available at the new one, everyone - veteran, alt, and newbie - ends up in those few dungeons, dramatically reducing the time it takes to get consensus on a dungeon run. That, more than anything else, is why games raise the level cap and remove content from circulation, even at times when they do not have enough content. Players will not take care of the newbie unless they are forced to, and that tragedy of the commons would ultimately leave group content to wither and die as players who leave through attrition cannot be replaced.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Automated Holiday Cheer-Finder made an interesting catch regarding WoW's temporary holiday bosses.

Remaking the Rare Holiday Loot Pinata
Currently, players must find a group for each boss the old-fashioned way (they tend to live in under-leveled dungeons, which max-level players cannot queue for in the LFG system). Once you get there, each player in the group, presuming that no one lies (you can verify this by checking your quest log to see how many groupmates also have the appropriate quest), can spawn the boss once for everyone's killing and looting pleasure. This would have caused problems for the random group finder, which does not currently screen out players based on who has or has not done a given daily quest.

With the change, the holiday bosses will be available ONLY via the dungeon finder (can't have a level 80 boss up and running in a level 26 dungeon once you remove the spawn quest). As with the emblems for completing daily dungeons (and soon battlegrounds), players will receive a special reward on their first kill of the boss per day - a bag with a chance to drop the rare loot formerly held by the boss.

Instead of five shots at a five-way roll against your group, you will now have one shot at loot that is guaranteed to be yours. Statistically, it's probably pretty close to a wash, unless you were sneaking in more than five boss kills per day by some method (such as agreeing to tank or heal for a desperate group, with the understanding that you had already used your summons). It also has the side effect of reducing the sheer number of the boss' common loot drops (such as necklaces, trinkets, etc) that enter the world, as most players will only kill and loot the boss for their regular loot once a day - I think I ended up with the complete set of trinkets from Coren Direbrew last brewfest, including the melee ones on my decidedly non-melee mage.

Philosophical Implications
Beyond logistical convenience, the first thing that jumps out at me about this change is that it drastically reduces the penalty for failing the encounter. Under the old system, once you verified that everyone had their summons, it was in your best interest to quietly sit back and let someone else go first. That way, if your group proved incapable of beating the encounter and disbanded immediately, your summon would still be available.

Under the new system, the group can simply try, try again until they get it right. This could be viewed as reducing the already-low difficulty of the holiday bosses, or it could allow Blizzard to crank up the difficulty a bit more without unduly penalizing that hapless first player.

More broadly speaking, there is a clear message that WoW players now expect the convenience of the automated dungeon finder to come standard with as much content as possible. This is understandable, but how will it play with the system's general push towards easy content (to alleviate players' fears of fail pugs)? I'm not convinced that holiday events really are the place for difficult encounters, when they are already limited by both time and the random number generator to begin with, but what about elsewhere in the game?

At the risk of repeating myself, it is going to be very interesting how Blizzard balances the level 85 heroics when Cataclysm arrives.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Item Store Games Are Supposed To Require Item Store Purchases

Syp has a comprehensive roundup of the blog reaction to the Allods Online cash store. To recap in extreme brief, Allods is a pure free-to-play (no box fee, no subscription, just an item store) game that was getting very good buzz until the game's item store prices turned out to be an order of magnitude higher than expected - for example, an absurd $20 for a six-slot upgrade to your bag space.

This incident may or may not do irreparable damage to the game's word of mouth. Publishers can try price tag brinksmanship, but it may not be forgiven, even if prices are later reduced. The bigger story, though, is that there was a giant red flag that should have warned players that something would have to change.

You know your item shop is broken when....
Buried in Keen's recap of the incident is the admission that, as of the patch before the sticker shock and awe, there was no need for players to actually purchase anything from the cash store to complete all of the content in the game. That's a big problem.

Though it's technically possible to build a free to play game in which 99% of the players decline to pay, I'd suggest that this would not be a game worth playing. A game in which 1% pay is a game in which 1% of the players matter. If they want fluffy cosmetic pets, that's where development will head. Hardcore raids? Expect the hardest of the hardcore raids anyone has ever seen. Whatever the specifics, the end result will be a game that will, by design, not cater to the overwhelming majority of its playerbase. That might sound fine if you think you can squeeze yourself into the 1%, but why not just make it a niche subscription game and cut out all the middlemen? (This might, in hindsight, be what happened to Free Realms.)

The most equitable way to implement an item shop is to design it as effectively an hourly fee. You might allow players to "pay" in time (grinding in-game currency to trade to cash-payers for items, or somehow toughing it out without the use of items at some greatly reduced rate), but everyone must pay somehow. Everyone has room to win under this model - the infrequent player gets a top-notch product without having to pay the full monthly fee, while the hardcore player knows that their voice actually does carry more weight.

Where should the price tag lie?
The irony is, if you look beyond the absurd bag upgrade, Allods might not have been as far off as you'd think. Keen estimates that serious raiding/PVP would rack up a $50-75 monthly bill. That's probably double what it should be, but - if the game actually delivers (which its fans seemed to think that it did until this week) - it's not a 10-fold overcharge. If the market standard is that everyone pays $15/month, there should be a niche for a product that comes in the $20-25 range for players in the top tier of content, with service to match. If anything, it's better to put the prices at the highest rate you can imagine and then lower them than establish a price point and have to raise it later.

Whether the damage has already been done is a separate question - this incident is more than enough to kick Allods to the bottom of my list, for "wait and see how this shakes out before wasting any time on it". That's unfortunate, because they might have gotten more right than the market gives them credit for.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The WoW Dungeon Finder And Future Difficulty

Tobold writes about the second demise of Naxxramas. Structurally, nothing about the dungeon has changed or broken since its heyday a year ago, when even non-raiders like myself were pugging it. Its current disuse is purely a failure of the incentive curve.

Easier 5-man content currently gives equal or superior rewards. Because the only real penalty for failure in a MMORPG is loss of time, choosing to do something that offers sub-optimal returns for your time means that you have already failed, even if nothing else goes wrong.

The Leeching System
The dirty little secret of WoW's dungeon finder is that the system is built on trivializing content. Icecrown raiders can easily triple the DPS I was doing a year ago when I cleared all the heroics for the first time, so even a single raider can literally carry two empty slots' worth of DPS through a five man group. Tobold himself titled a post describing the system "Sometimes you just have to leech" just a week ago.

But why would overgeared players want to do this? The answer is that they didn't until Blizzard offered rewards that were absurdly out of line with the difficulty of the content. This simultaneously made success worth the raider's time and nigh-guaranteed success by ensuring that groups would be filled with at least some similarly overgeared players.

Both side of this equation are crucial - without rewards, players won't want to run content, but it doesn't matter how good the rewards are if players believe that the attempt to get them won't be successful. This was the problem that made Blizzard attempt to raise the ante for the unpopular Oculus.

(The same principle holds true for leveling dungeons - players aren't as likely to massively overgear these dungeons if they don't have heirlooms, but character power has increased significantly since 2004 due to more powerful talents, glyphs, etc. The result is that appropriately leveled characters are more powerful than launch-era dungeons were balanced for, especially if you consider that players who voluntarily opt into group content repeatedly when they could solo instead are likely more experienced and competent at running in groups.)

Implications for Cataclysm
Tobold says that the current massive rewards for use of the group system were necessary only to convince players to give the new system a try. I am less convinced. There was a non-trivial period of time (at a minimum, the entire 3.2 era) in which it was very hard to get groups for 5-man content, even though that content was likely to be easily cleared, because none of the rewards were relevant to current tier raiders.

Raiders are generally among the most active group players in WoW, and I am not convinced that the current level of demand for the dungeon system is sustainable if Blizzard fails to provide motivation for raiders to participate. The random dungeon rewards in Cataclysm will certainly start at least a tier below the top raid rewards at launch, but I would be very surprised to see them stay there beyond the expansion's first content patch (or, at most, two patches in). The bigger concern is that, as I mentioned above, there's a second side to the effort-reward equation. It does not matter how good the potential rewards are if players are not confident that they will receive them.

The real test of the automatic group finder will be seeing how it tolerates the early months of the expansion, when few players will be overgeared, making the content relatively more difficult. The dungeon finder may have expanded the demographics of players interested in group content, but many of those players now equate dungeons with quick, easy, and highly rewarding content. Blizzard will have a lot of unhappy players on their hands if the competent players that make the current ease of the dungeon system possible decide that only pre-made groups are viable due to the increased relative difficulty of the content.

Future Proofing Expansion Experience Curves

EQ2 got its latest expansion on Tuesday, which meant that, inevitably, it got its first characters to reach the new level cap (90) on Tuesday.

This isn't especially unique to EQ2, even if the time involved was unusually short (reportedly as low as three hours after the servers came up) due to some of the game's quirks. First off, there are seventy five slots in player quest logs, not counting collection quests. This allowed players to "bank" an unusually large amount of exp to redeem immediately on launch day. On top of that, there are a variety of experience bonuses (recruit a friend, paid exp potions, and unpaid veteran reward exp potions) that are fair game even on expansion launch day. All of these added up to some very quick leveling.

Personally, I picked up nearly half a level in an extended launch night session. Judging from past experience, I will probably hit level 90 in about a month and be "done" with the solo quests, tradeskills, and reputations for Lyriana in around two months (plus or minus depending on workload and how beefy LOTRO's Volume III patch ends up being). That would put this expansion approximately on par with the time I've spent on other recent AAA expansions (WoW's Wrath, and LOTRO's Moria expansion), before working on alts or serious "endgame" content.

How long should an expansion run?
Though a single month or two may seem short, even in the context of an expansion every year, it's worth remembering that this figure represents a month just to get from the old cap to the new one. If you're joining the game from scratch, as I did about a year ago, you've got far more time ahead of you before you get to the level ranges where most of the players are.

Where you could make an argument is for a slightly tougher experience curve at launch and reduced requirements as the expansion ages (especially if the next EQ2 expansion does not increase the level cap - the game has only been raising the cap every other expansion for a few years now). However, what purpose would that really serve?

Having the steepest experience requirements on launch day, which is typically when there will be the least content available, runs the risk of leaving players without enough to do. Indeed, SOE had to spend a significant amount of time this patch adding content to the 60's because that level range relied too heavily on group content that players can no longer count on being able to complete. Moreover, if you ultimately do opt to speed the leveling curve at a later date, your latecomers may actually end up at a disadvantage in terms of less time to obtain gear and cash before their next level.

At the end of the day, experience levels are an arbitrary number. What matters is whether the expansion provides players, of whatever level, with enough to do.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Battle For the 70%

Much digital ink was spilled last week over the revelation that only 30% of WoW's free trial accounts reach level 10. Like Elder Game, I find that number remarkable only in that it is surprisingly high. Even if you presume that security lockdowns have made the accounts unpalatable to spammers, and ignore the occasional throwaway account for non-newbies (I once made a trial account just to invite my alts to my bank alt guild) there has to be some portion of potential players who just aren't as interested in a 3rd person MMORPG.

More interesting, though, is the apparent belief amongst the major games that this number can be improved. Blizzard's Cataclysm expansion will deliver less new solo content for max level solo characters, to free up dev time for that old world revamp. Turbine has Orion steadily working away at revising the game's entire array of launch content. SOE made a new starting area - the game's sixth - and revisions from 20-70 a priority on its expansion plate, though the new area ultimately failed to make the expansion launch.

None of these measures are purely for the benefit of newbies - veterans who choose to make a new alt pay the same monthly fee that brand new accounts do. Likewise, a steady stream of new players may be necessary to keep endgame group content viable. Even so, none of these measures are without cost - specifically the opportunity cost of working on older areas over new content for existing characters.

Setting a revamp of old leveling content as a priority ultimately represents a bet that this will be the best use of the studio's limited time, even though many of them pointedly have NOT been focusing on early game content over the years until now. I don't know whether it will ultimately work out, but this battle over the 70% of players who wander off sooner rather than later is rapidly shaping up to be the major trend of 2010.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Turbine Asks An Obvious Question on LOTRO Legendary Items

Turbine has a "tell the community team" exercise up on their forums, with a focus on changes to the legendary item system.

It's a strange exercise for two reasons. First, usually game devs (including Turbine's, on recent podcast interviews) tell players to tell them the problem and let the devs do the job of finding the solution. Second, and more to the point, the entire questionnaire seems a bit disingenuous.

The overwhelmingly most popular complaint is that the system places more emphasis on being an unending timesink than either gameplay or lore. Middle Earth is a world where characters (both Tolkein's and Turbine originals) carry their named weapons until the day they die. Basically all of the suggestions boil down to "less randomization" and "don't require players to replace their items". Judging from the way the questions are phrased (and how Turbine has developed the system over time) an overhaul of this magnitude simply isn't on the table. It sounds like they're actually looking for "what minor and easy things, like letting you make your weapons green, can we do to make you happier about the fundamentals of our legendary timesink?"

That said, those who don't vote don't get counted, so here's my attempt at playing along with their rules.


Question 1
You are given the opportunity to make two changes to the Legendary Item System. What are the two most important changes you would make? Please limit your answer to only two changes.

A) Deconstructing a legendary item should return most or all of the scrolls used to enhance it (level/legacy increases). The amount of player time investment returned when replacing a weapon is inappropriate given the frequency with which weapons are designed to be replaced, and serves as a disincentive to using the system.
B) Slayer Titles should have a separate slot from damage type titles. For me personally, the handicap of being stuck doing common damage against all other creatures is enough to prevent me from ever using single creature type bonus scrolls.

Question 2
Name two things about the Legendary Item System you enjoy the most.
1. The concept of making customization choices that have a meaningful impact on characters. It would be nice if the system was more about "what do you want to improve" and less about "what did you get lucky enough to get".
2. Use of barter systems for obtaining LI's and upgrades. This allows players to choose how they want to work on their LI, and provides a way of rewarding players for running dungeons with their friends.

Question 3
A two part question!

Name three things you enjoy most about LOTRO.
1. Solo questing (especially the epic book storylines!)
2. Exploration (the landscapes are excellent)
3. Skirmishes (convenience, accessibility, and variety)

Name three things you enjoy the least or do not participate in.
1. Travel times. The amount of time players are expected to non-interactively watch characters travel is unreasonably high given the frequency with which players are asked to travel, and is a big reason why I have never been interested in making alts. I didn't like the Hunter class best at launch, and always felt that I was being punished with long travel times for not finding a way to make that class work for me just for access to teleport abilities.
2. Crafting. The amount of time spent non-interactively watching the progress bar advance is unreasonable given the number of combines needed to advance your crafting, and the items that you produce in the process of doing so are virtually unsaleable because everyone else is also making dozens of the same items.
3. The fact that the last quest in the extremely lengthy solo Evendim/Anduril line requires a group. Cheers to Orion for revamping Volume 1 to allow solo players to complete the content. I hope he will finish Volume 2, and tackle this supremely irritating quest in Evendim. Mixing solo and group content in the same questline is never fun for either type of player, and it becomes especially problematic when we're talking about content at the very end of the level range for a zone - the only players ready to complete the instance don't have anything else to do in the area while they look for groups.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Snapshot of a Year

Today is Lyriana's first birthday. I happen to know this because EQ2 actually records characters' date of birth, along with other stats, and because I happen to remember the circumstances under which I decided to roll her up (dealing with WoW's sorry excuse for a Valentine's event last year). What exactly have I accomplished in that year?

Apparently there are stats for that too. I gained 80 levels of Dirge, 80 levels of Adventurer, and 141 AA's. I killed over 9000 foes, completed more than 1100 quests, learned 3400 recipes (crafting 3300 items in the process) and have dealt 5,000+ damage in a single hit.

It appears that players can expect this level of snapshot detail of our careers henceforth - the idea of social networking type pages for each of our characters is basically a standard feature at this point. I don't know if that's good or bad. At least it manages to be interesting.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blizzard EQ2 Jarsath Marathon

Washington got hit with yet another pair of blizzards over the last week (it's officially the worst winter ever in DC), so it's time to dust off my silly pun about a blizzard encouraging an EQ2 marathon once again.

Based on my limited experience in the expansion beta, I concluded that I was not going to need all of the existing content I had yet to complete to supplement the solo content of Odus en route to 90. As a result, I decided to finish off Jarsath at level 80 for the alternate advancement experience. The beta pre-made characters started off at 150 AA, and I was able to reach 140 through my various meanderings, so it was probably a good thing that I took the time to catch up a bit.

The main solo goal of the zone is to complete lengthy quest chains for three separate factions. Capping out that many reputation bars sounds intimidating, but all of the reputations hit their maximum just from completing all of the solo quests. The reward is a hammer that teleports you to the zone when you use it as a weapon. Why is this teleport in the form of a hammer in general, and/or an equippable weapon in particular? Perhaps some developer finds it amusing if someone forgets to unequip the thing and accidentally uses it to teleport out of a dungeon, I dunno.

I also visited an older dungeon called Unrest - apparently a remake of an EQ1 zone - with some guildies. The place was well crafted and pretty rewarding (I got an entire AA's worth of experience from the named kills), but it also had a moderately high amount of trash and a bunch of puzzles that I can't imagine would still be novel if you were running the place repeatedly. Given that class set helms and chest pieces drop off of the bosses, I'm guessing that running it repeatedly is exactly what players did back when the level cap was 70. Ah well, to each their own, I suppose.

When I wasn't killing stuff for AA, I took a bit of time to reorganize my UI and hotbars. I'm going to get a few new abilities, and I really needed to move and re-size some hotbars in order to make that work without eating up my entire screen. (I currently have a total of 17 buffs on my buff-happy Dirge, and I'm going to get a few more in the expansion and/or as I gain AA's.) It's amazing how many settings there are that I would have loved to have known about, but didn't set when I started playing because I was too new to know what they were for.

My last real goal for the pre-expansion rush is to learn the language of the dragons (which is needed for the new Mythical buff quest) and generally clear out space in my quest log for new and exciting areas I have yet to visit. As part of this quest, I had to go into the evil-aligned city of Freeport anyway, so I decided to complete the evil side of the expansion launch world event. What would a good-aligned Fae like Lyriana want with the title "Champion of (the Evil Overlord) D'Lere"? Given that I do technically play on an RP server, this seemed like a bit of a stretch. But what if Lyriana had an undercover disguise as an evil Dark Elf?

It's the little places like this where EQ2 gets me to actually think about my character and the storyline that really stick out in my memory in the long run.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cryptic And Additional Fee Brinkmanship

Two weeks ago, Cryptic announced plans to charge for Champions Online patch content that sounded suspiciously like "sorely needed content that wasn't finished in time for retail launch" (September 2009). Yesterday, they reversed this decision.

As Syp points out that we've seen this kind of reversal of unpopular decisions in the past. The example that stands out in my mind was a pre-release interview in which EA suggested that Warhammer might be worthy of a monthly fee higher than $15. The market apparently wasn't prepared to tolerate a game that appeared so similar to WoW coming in at a higher monthly fee than WoW. Likewise, Cryptic seems to have learned that the market is not yet prepared to tolerate paying for missing content so soon after a game launch.

Though I get Syp's point about giving companies the benefit of the doubt as they try to change for the better, I don't see that much cause for celebration here. Imagine that you went to the movies and, 2/3 of the way through the film, the theater manager comes out and says that the ending of the film wasn't included in your ticket price. Is anyone really supposed to feel better about going back to that theater if they later decide that they are going to show the ending of the movie anyway because they care about their customers? Cryptic announced plans to charge more because it intended to charge more, and there should be no doubt that it will make the attempt again in the coming months.

More to the point, it appears that there is no reason for companies who are considering higher and/or additional fees NOT to engage in this sort of brinkmanship in the future. People who choose not to forgive Cryptic for even making the threat would not have paid the additional fees in any case. In short, we can expect many more of this type of incident until someone finally succeeds in moving market expectations to the point where they can get away with it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What the WoW Valentine's Holiday Really Needed

A limited-time daily quest boss with a rare mount is apparently just what Blizzard thinks the WoW Valentine's event needed.

In all seriousness, they've apparently revamped the entire event into a token based system after last year's debacle - Lyriana, my level 80 EQ2 character, was literally born during an evening I spent logging into WoW exactly once an hour to hit on the city guards. All of those achievements (even the once rare "perma-peedle" pet) are now guaranteed token drops, presuming the event is long enough to collect enough of them.

Of course, removing the RNG from most of the event doesn't necessarily change the complaint I raised about the easter holiday, in which Blizzard continues to design limited-time world events around a minimum amount of time investment they are hoping to get out of players. Did they get it right this time around? Not my problem, I've been there and done that.

Best of luck to anyone trying it this year, it can't possibly have gotten worse.

Friday, February 5, 2010

EQ2: Sentinel's Fate Beta Report

The NDA on the EQ2 expansion (launching in less than two weeks) has finally dropped. Here's what I've learned from some rooting around in the beta.

Base stats have changed to ensure that each class is primarily interested in two stats; stamina for HP and a primary stat (STR for fighters, AGI for scouts, INT for mages, and WIS for priests). ALL of your abilities scale to your primary stat, regardless of whether they are physical or spells. AGI and WIS are still nominally used for physical avoidance and spell resistance respectively, while STR still determines carrying capacity.

The good news is that it will be much easier for classes with both physical and spell-based attacks to gear up, as you will no longer be chasing both STR and INT, and all of your crit chances etc have now been unified. The bad news is that this means all the gear in the game needed to be re-itemized (and SOE will almost certainly miss a few spots in the launch rush). It also means that lots of crafted gear is now only good for a single archetype, and the one they picked may not be the class you happen to be.

If you are a priest or a scout, you are especially likely to be wearing a stat (STR, INT, or both) that you no longer need. Regardless, check all of your gear carefully when the patch happens, to make sure that it still does what you want it to.

More Gear Progression
Of course, all of this gear will eventually become irrelevant as part of a gear reset anyway. For reference, here are the DPS ratings of some weapons:
  • Level 72 Mastercrafted weapon: 75.4 Rating
  • Level 79 Legendary (looted from the Crypt of Agony): 84.5 Rating
  • Level 87 TSF Treasured Quest Reward: 94.5 Rating
  • Lyriana's Shiny new Fabled Epic Weapon: 95.8 Rating

Why, you might ask, did I bother to complete the quest knowing that? Well, there's a new quest that will allow players to trade in their epic weapon (either Fabled or the raid-quality Mythical) for a permanent self-buff that provides the unique benefits of the Mythical Weapon (which had become class-defining for many classes). It's worth doing the quest if you can get a group for it, even if it will only get easier as you level.

The Delay of New Halas
In case you have yet to hear, New Halas didn't get done in time for the expansion launch (which means we also are not getting the Thundering Steppes revamp). Both are slated for the next GU. Given that SOE is forcing players to go to a physical retail store if they want the expansion during its first week of release in an attempt to get stores to stock more copies and attract new players, I'm not clear on why it makes sense to fail to finish the new player content before the expansion arrives.

On the plus side, there are apparently some much-needed new quests in the KOS zones, which are currently pretty sparse on solo content. I literally canceled my account and went off play other things for a few months because that stretch of levels was so painful. In one zone, a row of buckets with notes tacked to them that say "collect hides from nearby mobs and deposit here" are what passes for solo quest content - they couldn't even be bothered to write two lines of dialog for an NPC to request the hides in person. I'd been half resigned to stopping any future alts at level 60 rather than deal with KOS again, so this is a very welcome change.

Revamping AA's
The game's AA trees have gotten the traditional revamp, complete with a new "branch" of sorts at the bottom of your class and subclass trees. These AA's, which become available at level 81 with 70 AA's spent in the tree, tend to enhance existing AA abilities, and there's a new endline for each.

The other huge change in this department is that they removed the entire row of nigh useless stat boost AA's from the class trees. After spending the first point, as you do currently, you are free to spend your next five picking up all five combat arts if you're so inclined. This is a pretty big deal for fighters and melee priests, who don't have a ton of attacks in their spellbooks, and can also help if one of your attacks has a useful secondary effect. For example, the Dirge STR line attack can block the next AOE attack aimed at your group from hitting you - this may not have been worth five AA's with the old prerequisite, but it's certainly worth one.

Welcome to Odus
Given my extremely limited time these days, it didn't make a lot of sense for me to sink large amounts of time into leveling on a temporary beta server. (I did, however, take advantage of the level 80 pre-mades to test drive some potential alts, carefully not mentioning that I had done so on beta servers when I wrote it up for the blog. ;)) Based on the time I did spend exploring, the expansion is very pretty (see EQ Traders, EQ2 Wire, and EQ2 Zam for official previews).

Structurally, it's very similar to Kunark - the two overland zones of Odus are about the same as any two zones from ROK, both in terms of landmass (there are auto-flightpoints) and number of quest hubs. Each of these areas seem to have their own local rep grinds to go with the new content. It also looks like there are a bunch of tradeskill quests and factions to go around, which could mean less reliance on grinding city rush order writs for craft exp.

Actually Playing the Expansion
In terms of how it actually plays, I copied Lyriana over and found that she fared about as well against level 82 expansion mobs as she does against level 82 non-expansion mobs, so the power curve looks relatively consistent (compared to the atrocious jump between KOS and ROK when you hit the 68-70 range). The exp per kill and per quest completion seem about consistent with what the current level 80 quests give out, and I also snagged around 2 AA's just running around as fast as my little Fae wings would carry me, picking up discovery exp all the while.

The catch is that these two zones are all that solo players have to work with. I don't fault SOE for that decision, because full-sized group play is comparatively more important in EQ2 than WoW or LOTRO, but it does mean that you go from having about six zones to level in during the 70-80 range and only a third as many for the next ten levels.

This is not necessarily a crisis for new level 80's like Lyriana, since there was a lot of content that I did not use en route to 80. My plan is to go to the Moors, a zone from the TSO expansion that I barely touched en route to 80, when the level cap increases. I can then self-mentor back down to level 80 when I'm ready to hit Odus. Solo players who have already cleared out all of the solo quests in the current game might have a harder time of it, but I suppose that problem will get better as more content is added over time.

Bottom Line
It does not look like there's any reason for players who are not yet level 80 to run out and buy the expansion for full price on launch day. This is NOT because SOE has been neglecting lowbies, but rather because they appear to have decided to give away all of the low level features as part of the game update when the expansion launches. (If you have yet to purchase the game, I'd strongly advise you to wait until the revised all-in-one pack arrives so that you don't have to pay more if you eventually move on to higher levels.)

For everyone else, this expansion seems to deliver the traditional additions at the traditional price. If you're happy with the current game, you're probably going to be happy with the expansion, and that seems to mean that SOE has done their job.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Charging for AH Access Vs Charging For Races

Of all of the possible issues with WoW's offline auctions, the added cost is the one that bothers me the least.

Overall, this does not sound like a feature that is going to pay for itself by driving additional subscriptions. (There might be a few econ-minded players who might pay just to play the AH game, I'm just guessing that we're talking about hundreds rather than millions of players.) If, for the sake of argument, we accept that this feature is an improvement to the game (the far bigger issue in this particular case), an additional fee is the only way to make it happen.

By contrast, we have the latest from Star Trek Online, which, on launch day, turns out to be charging for access to races. Klingons are fully implemented as their own faction, but unlocking Klingons who have defected to the Federation will cost players $1.50. Unlocking the Ferengi, who were apparently implemented in beta but not included with either faction, will cost $0.50.

Both types of characters were regulars on the TV shows, so there was clearly going to be some demand to play these races. Rolling up a new alt can actually keep a player occupied for long enough to bring in more subscription dollars. Meanwhile, Cryptic seems to have designed the game system specifically to make the addition of new races relatively easy. This should not have been a feature that needed to end up in the cash shop with a separate price tag in order to make implementing it viable, unless it ended up as a headline feature of a larger paid expansion.

In the end, players have a choice. Those of us who don't feel like playing those characters (or aren't willing to pay even a dollar to do so), don't have to pay. People who distrust the business model sufficiently can choose to skip STO outright. (Between the pre-order races and the new paid zone in Champions Online, players who fear the nickel and dime effect have plenty of reason to stay far far away.)

The catch, of course, is that the vote to quit the game is more of an all-or-nothing decision for both sides. Relatively few players are going to quit rather than try a new alt because they're morally opposed to the $0.50 to unlock the Ferengi. If, on the other hand, the player has used up all of their included character slots, AND would have to pay for additional races in any case, the total bill might add up to a large enough number to make players reconsider. If Cryptic is simply hoping that they already took that player for all they were worth by locking them into a long-term pre-release subscription, they might be in for a very harsh landing in the word of mouth department.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Implications of Out-of-game Access to the Game World

Blizzard has announced plans to allow players to "access the Auction House directly through the Armory website or Armory App". This changes a number of things:

1. Expect the inevitable local news story about someone who lost their job for playing the WoW AH at work. This isn't Blizzard's fault, or necessarily a reason not to implement the feature, but it's yet another chapter in the addiction narrative that all of us are pretty tired of hearing by now.

2. There will be an additional fee for this feature, and, in fairness, I'm prepared to believe that developing it will cost Blizzard some additional money. We're going to be having players accessing the same AH via two separate clients, and that's got to be an interesting database question. There is, however, a certain irony here. EQ2 had its armory-equivalent at launch, but for a fee. Then Blizzard added the Armory for free. Last month, SOE dropped the fee for the EQ2 site. And now Blizzard will be charging. We've come full circle.

3. My guess is that this feature will REQUIRE the use of an authenticator. Inviting players to check the AH from additional computers and (insecure) wireless networks only increases the odds of someone typing their password into a compromised environment. It's also nigh inevitable that the gold scammers will announce an improved Auctioneer program that just so happens to need your password so it can log into the Armory site and make money for you while you're offline. Finally, my understanding of the iPhone is that it cannot multi-task, and therefore the armory AH app would have to be integrated with the mobile authenticator app to be used on an authenticated account.

4. It's looking like Blizzard is trying to build into its own version of Facebook. The Armory now has a non-optional Facebook-like feed of your activities in WoW. The new system will have cross-game chat for WoW, SC II and Diablo III, if said ever actually come out. And now WoW players will be day-trading the auction house. All of this means that players will be spending more time logged into Blizzard products, giving Blizzard a powerful advertising platform to leverage.

5. Oh yeah, and this is a fundamental shift on access to the virtual world from the offline one.

Consequences of Increased Connectivity
Historically, MMORPG's have been pretty reluctant to allow players access to the world by any means other than actually logging into the world. Cooldowns and timers tick away regardless of whether the player is logged in or not. Bargains may be posted on the AH at this very moment, where only alert online bargain hunters will have a chance to snag them. The latter, obviously, is no more.

Beyond the logistical concerns - will auctioneer bots run wild in the absence of the more restrictive environment enforced by the "Warden" security system on the WoW client? - this path is potentially genre changing.

On the plus side, it would be nice to be able to sign off with full bags and deal with the basic vendor/save/auction triage sometime at your leisure before your next play session. The next question would be whether this opens the door to other activities, such as instructing your character to take auto-travel routes while you're offline, so that you don't have to spend gaming time on AFK-travel. How about clicking the "transmute" button the moment the cooldown expires, an activity that would take all of 5 seconds to complete if you were able to log into the game?

That said, it is very easy to create a scenario where failure to check in on your characters on a regular basis places the player at a disadvantage. Even the AH utility starts us down that road - you might be way better off buying or selling during hours when you don't currently play the game, based on how the daily supply and demand curves work. The option to check in on the game at times when you can't normally could ultimately create pressure - real or perceived - to do so. This pressure will only increase as our games get more and more connected to the outside world, a trend which Blizzard neither started nor finished here.

In the end, this technology is neither good nor evil, but it probably will be used for a bit of each.