Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Is the Small Guild Endangered?

In DDO's recent State of the Game address, Turbine writes:
The team is currently busy working on some great additions to the guild system that will let guild members work together to earn valuable rewards and rival guilds compete for status on each server. One of the biggest rewards players will work towards is access to an all new guild housing system, which we are implementing in a cool and unique way. Suffice it to say, we think you will really want to be part of a guild that has earned access to this feature!

We now know that the "unique way" means Guild Airships. Less clear are the specifics. When they say that guilds will compete for status, does this mean that there will be a limited number of airships per server? When they say that players will want to be in a guild with an airship, do they mean that airships will have significant effects on gameplay?

The Increasing Effect of Guilds on Games
It seems that there is an increasing push for guilds to have more of an effect on the actual game.
  • Warhammer launched with a variety of perks, including a teleport and access to PVP gear vendors (who otherwise are only found in contested keeps that your faction might not control).
  • EQ2 guild halls make a huge impact on the player experience, from crafting to travel - I honestly don't know how well the game would have stuck with me if I had remained unguilded, even though I spend the vast majority of my gaming time solo.
  • WoW is revamping its guild system to have as-yet-undetermined effects, though these are not all that well defined as of yet.
  • LOTRO guilds don't really do that much, other than allowing guild groups to meet up somewhere for a hunter to teleport them to their final destination, but that's probably more because they have yet to get around to it than because that's what they really want the system to do.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing - one could argue that the state of the guild prior to 2008 was too weak, encouraging players to think of guilds as expendable loot gathering platforms. On the other hand, it creates the real potential for drama and pressure.

Accommodating Diversity
In fairness, guilds are intended to be a collective endeavor. Sometimes that means the bar will need to be set at a level that a single player in a vanity guild cannot reach. I'm reasonably prepared to accept this.

The issue arises when we start looking at the small to medium sized guilds. My current EQ2 guild has about a dozen active players, and I don't think I'd ever leave them for anything. Fortunately, EQ2's guild halls don't really offer that many hard choices - the most important amenities are easy to agree on, and you'll get all of the major ones soon enough. (For example, Stargrace is apparently on her fifth level 30+ guild at the moment.) On the other hand, I could certainly see how a system that allows smallish guilds like ours to advance would make advancement trivial for the bigger guilds.

Meanwhile, size isn't all that matters. WoW's plan is for guild "talent points", which might seem to imply that your average guild won't be able to get all the bonuses. How will this affect guilds with players who have different preferences on how those points should be spent? Meanwhile, I'm told that Warhammer's guild system bases some portion of their (secret) guild advancement formula to the size of the guild. This sounds fair on paper, but it opens the door for players who aren't contributing "enough", whatever that level is, to actually deter the guild's progress (encouraging the guild to kick said players out, even if they would otherwise be welcome and generally not in anyone's way).

The large guild certainly has some advantages from the developer's standpoint. Large guilds are more likely to have critical mass to run group content, and may introduce players to more potential friends. Then again, sometimes a small, tight-knit group is just more what a player has in mind. That's why the way the DDO announcement is phrased has me reading a D20 to roll a saving throw against traps. Maybe nothing bad will come of it, but I'd rather not be caught flat-footed.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Phyrric Victory Of the Additional Off-White Horse

Allarond finally completed LOTRO's Volume I, wrapping up the launch game's epic plot. Part of the reward package features a "grey steed". This horse is not only functionally identical to the rep reward horse I previously obtained in Lothlorien, it also looks nigh identical, other than different saddle blankets.

The Lothlorien rep version of the horse, both are "fast" mounts with 150 morale/hp

An Epic Fed Ex Run
The grand finale of the quest line was genuinely impressive, but it was unfortunately marred by the most idiotic Fed Ex-fest I've ever had the displeasure of playing. There's a large chunk of Volume 1, Book 15 in which players have to make no fewer than five round trips out to a questgiver located in the middle of nowhere in the Trollshaws, a swift travel route and then five minutes on a player mount away from town. In the most egregious stretch, the player leaves Rivendell only to have the quest giver ask them to return to Rivendell to ask the stable dude to send over their horse and then journey back to the wilderness to report on this one-line conversation.

All told, these five trips in and out of the Trollshaws, representing a solid hour of travel time for a player with all the relevant swift travel and recall skills (map, personal and kinship housing, racial teleport, reputation-gated swift travel routes), require the player to kill one mob and participate in one session play story flashback that isn't designed to be difficult. There is absolutely no reason why the player needs to do personally make the other three trips, other than to pad out the questline with an extra 30-40 minutes of travel time.

LOTRO has always been a high quality game, and the final instance dungeon at the end of all this travel time delivers. It also wraps up the storylines that players have been working on since level one, in a way that solo players have rarely been included in an MMORPG. Unfortunately, LOTRO's weakness - lack of quantity - spills over into diluting the quality of the questline as well. "Added one group dungeon" does not sound as impressive on the patch notes as "added a twelve stage epic book quest, including soloable content". As a result, everyone has to slog through a questline that feels like a waste of time.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Unintended Consequences of the DDO Item Shop Model

Despite my misgivings about parts of the payment model, there's no questioning that the PAX weekend deal (an extra $19 worth of points on top of the usual "bonus" for spending $50) was as good as it was likely to get in the near future. As such, it was off to Eberron to try and figure out whether the game was worth playing.

Rather than give a superficial rundown of the early gameplay, let's just say that I was reasonably convinced that I would eventually extract $50 worth of entertainment from the game. I did, however, observe some interesting quirks to the game's free to play system.

Intentional Community Scatter
If you're a chronic alt-o-holic, DDO is probably the first game I've ever seen that will actually PAY you to re-roll.

Each of the game's seven servers is treated as a separate community for the purposes of unlocking stuff. The bad news is that, if you do unlock a race or feature on your main server without paying in the item shop, you won't have access to the feature on any other servers you choose to visit. The good news is that you qualify for new player Turbine Point (the cash shop currency) awards once on every new server.

Within roughly 30-40 minutes, you can complete a handful of quests and walk away with 50 TP for the earliest reward. I went through half a dozen characters anyway, just auditioning playstyles, and ended up with 300 TP for my trouble. Of course, that's only $3 worth at the best exchange rate, but it's a nice little bonus gift. Your first 100 favor (think reputation, earned by completing quests) on each server is worth 150 TP, so that's actually a non-trivial boost if you repeat it seven times (which, again, many of us would have ended up doing anyway).

On the downside, I suspect that this system is why I've never before seen a game where it was so hard to find a character name that wasn't taken. Between the game being free to play and actively encouraging free players to go forth to multiple servers, I've really had to scrounge around to find available names. Also, obviously, rolling on multiple servers means being cut off from any friends and guildmates. You even have to physically close the game client and relaunch it if you want to switch.

What Do You Value?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of having a currency wallet and all kinds of options in the store is that it really does come down to what the player wants to spend money on.

For example, one of the pricier items in the shop is the option to make 32-point character builds instead of 28-point builds, a perk that is priced at just shy of $15 worth of Turbine points (more at worse exchange rates). Though there's some debate in the community as to how useful this feature is, I personally value it pretty highly. One of the things I really enjoy about the Dungeons and Dragons character system is the ability to pair levels of literally any two classes in the game to create unique multi-class combinations. For example, my hypothetical dual-wielding Kensai(Fighter)/Warchanter(Bard) would want very high numbers for Dex and Cha, but neglecting Str would leave me doing relatively low amounts of damage per hit.

By contrast, just about every form of equipment or consumable item in the game can be purchased with Turbine points, but I can't help but wonder why anyone would choose to buy them. For the price of a stack of consumable potions, I can permanently unlock a new subzone that would be available to every future character I create. I suppose these sorts of perks are for people who are really pressed for real world time and therefore spending relatively larger amounts of money in the store.

The only thing I've bought so far is access to the Monk class, which is on sale this week. I expect that I'll pick up the 32-point builds, the drow race, and the Favored Soul class at some point, though I might as well sit and see if they go on sale since I've got other games I'm working on at the moment anyway. Even if I do ultimately pay sticker price for all of the above, I'd still be working with

The Something For Everyone Challenge
All that aside, the big challenge Turbine will face is continuing to add content. There is a certain amount of room for new races and classes - apparently the half-orc race is slated for later this year - but there are limits to how many races/classes players can be convinced that they need. Likewise, there is the question of content. Dungeons and Dragons isn't really designed for increasing the level cap, but at some point Turbine may run into difficulty if players have already unlocked enough of the game for free to play status to reach the cap.

We've seen a bit of a hint of that in their current efforts. All dungeons are available on multiple difficulty settings, often including a solo-only version and a raid version. Sure enough, the next major patch is slated to contain a leveling dungeon that has an end-game raiding version (similar to how Blizzard reuses leveling content as Heroic endgame stuff in WoW). But how long will this model hold up? I guess Turbine is going to find out.

Friday, March 26, 2010

How The DDO Exchange Rate Discourages Impulse Purchases

Massively has a post on playing DDO for free, which got me to take another look at the game, in particular the cash store that has helped their revenue out so much.

If there's one thing I hate as a gamer who prefers to stick to a budget, it's paying the same amount of money but ending up with less stuff because I didn't spend the money in the correct way. Unfortunately, DDO has my biggest item store pet peeve in this department.

Punitive Exchange Rate
Like many item shop games, DDO offers a better exchange rate for players who buy their currency in not-at-all micro portions. For example:
- Spending $50 gets you 5000 Turbine Points, the same exchange rate as Sony's station cash, and, incidentally, an easy to calculate cost of 100 points per dollar.
- Spending $6.50, the smallest increment Turbine will accept, gets you only 420 points, a mere 61.5 points per dollar.
In other words, the penalty for buying in the smaller increments is 1923 points (38.5%) if you spend $50 at the bad exchange rate, or a bit over $31 if you want to eventually get to get to the same 5000 Turbine points at the bad exchange rate.

Let's be clear here, they do this because they believe that making players carry a balance in their wallets helps trick players into spending faster than they intended to. The practical effect, though, is an exchange rate so punitive that it makes zero sense to pay them any money unless you're willing to pony up the full $50. Clearly, they believe this is worth it from a business perspective. But does it cost them something?

A Purchase Opportunity Lost
Let's say I wanted to jump in and try the game, but I decided that I wanted to play some exotic character like a Drow Monk. Both the race and the class are premium content that I would need to unlock to play, but I'm relatively willing to tolerate one-time fees like that if they're provided instead of an upfront fee for the game box. If I was able to get the good exchange rate, I'd be happy to sink $15-20 into the game for a starter package of sorts. Unfortunately, the way the store is set up, that would basically be wasted money if I ended up sticking with the game. So, if I do try DDO, it will probably be as a non-payer first, using a free-to-play character class/race.

Turbine can lose in several ways here.
- First, it might turn out that I would have hated the game no matter what, in which case they have basically declined to accept $20.
- Second, it might turn out that I never find a class that I like, but that I WOULD have stuck around and ultimately become a customer if only I had been able to play the class I wanted to play. (This may be less likely, but sometimes the class you play can really affect your enjoyment of the game - I've tried something like 18 of EQ2's 24 subclasses, and hated about 2/3 of them, with only one that I really love so far.)
-I might stick around but, after playing enough to decide I'm willing to invest in the game, decide that I no longer need that premium race/class. Maybe I'm happy with the character I started playing.
-Worst of all from Turbine's perspective, maybe I'm happy with the way the game treats non-paying customers and decide I don't need to spend at all.

Unfortunately, it appears that amount that Turbine and other item shop companies can extract from MAJOR impulse purchasers far exceeds what they can get from the little guy. They can even afford to blow the exchange rate through the roof for the occasional buy buy buy now now now sale (an additional 38% bonus, but only on the $50 package), because the kind of player who will jump on that deal is the kind of player who will use up the bonus cash and buy more at full price down the line. It's okay if this part of the model scares off the occasional cost-conscious consumer like myself, as long as they can make it up through the big spenders.

This, of course, is the kind of thing that has players distrusting item store games and playing it safe by sticking to the subscription.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

When Alternate Currencies Go Too Far

Kairos describes the LOTRO economy in shambles - "most l.65 players are awash with money, and have nothing to spend it on."

I've noticed that the economy on Vilya is a bit quirky as well. I can sell raw crafting materials on the AH, and my gold stockpiles have been slowly increasing as a result, but prices are lower than I remember them from previous visits to Middle Earth. Why?

For those who have not made playing the AH their main goal in the game, the purpose of virtual money is to pay other players to do things you don't want to do, using currency you earned doing something you were more willing to do. It doesn't matter whether the activity you want to avoid is boring, difficult, or simply a bad use of your opportunity cost/time, only that you want out of it, and that the game allows this to occur.

Nothing to buy?
So what, precisely, does LOTRO allow players to buy their way out of? Very little. Here are the things that matter to an endgame player:

- Legendary Item Grind: Scrolls, exp runes, and most relics are all non-tradeable

- Radiance Gear: Nope, this entire mechanic exists to make players repeatedly re-run the game's limited number of dungeons, and Turbine will resist allowing any other means of obtaining it for as long as possible

- Unique Skirmish Rewards: Marks can't be traded, so you're going to need to run skirmishes yourself if you want soldier abilities, unique cosmetic rewards, etc

- Kill Deed Credit: Nope, you can't take out a contract on the 2000 mobs you need killed, though you can and probably should find someone else to team up with if possible

- Pre-SOM Rep: The reps in Lothlorien and Mirkwood (the one new rep of the current expansion) do not have trade-able barter items that players can turn in for rep, and even require bound quest reward tokens to purchase rewards. Most of the pre-Mirkwood reputations do have this sort of option, but none of those rewards really matter that much in the long run. Even if someone did really want a different colored horse, the price they'd be willing to pay for rep barter items has a ceiling because you can get the relevant rep tokens from mobs or skirmishes very quickly - I gained several thousand rep with the rangers of Evendim just from mob kill tokens while doing the epic books.

- Consumables: Sure, you can buy these. Prices don't seem to be very high, though, at least if you don't insist on higher quality crit consumables - players need to produce large quantities of these for crafting exp.

- Raw materials: As I said, this perennial MMORPG market is at least somewhat alive, but not thriving. Part of the problem is that the new mini-expansion did not provide a new crafting tier - if you were maxxed as of Moria, you're still at the cap. Also, common harvests are not needed in large quantities to produce stuff once you're done with exp, and the rarer items can be obtained quickly via skirmishes or easy daily quests. Finally, the crafter-only relic perk might not be sufficient to convince players that they really must sit AFK for hours, watching the progress bar advance to get them the required crafting exp.

The Paradoxical success of alternate currencies
On paper, LOTRO's ever expanding range of currencies sound like a great idea. From dungeon runs, to daily quests, to skirmishes, anything the player wants to do is likely to supply their character's needs with something from a token vendor.

The problem, beyond driving an increasingly desperate need for a currency tab to hold non-tradeable tokens, is that this feels like it comes at the expense of the player economy. There's nothing to buy because everything either can't be traded or can be obtained so easily that it's not worth paying for.

The irony is that LOTRO was once a game that demanded a certain degree of reliance on other characters, e.g. with crafting vocation combinations that prevent most characters from harvesting everything their character needs for crafting. Somehow, Turbine managed to streamline that interdependence out of the economy, to the detriment of the game and its community.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Picture Is Not Worth A Thousand Mob Kills

Above is my deed log for the zone of Forochel in LOTRO. Each of the six kill deeds, in various states of completion, requires 150 kills to unlock the "advanced" followup kill deed, which requires 300 additional kills. I would need to kill over 2,000 mobs - trivial mobs 15 levels below me - to clear out the deed log for this zone alone. I'm mostly done with the grey quests of the zone, so it's not like I can fill in those deeds while working on something less mind-numbing.

Along the bottom of my deed log, you see twelve arrow-head looking things, signifying the dozen pre-Moria zones that have deeds. (The lower level zone kill deeds tend to be more reasonable - newbie zones are generally set at 30+60 - though some of these lower numbers are actually harder to get due to mobs that have placeholders that make them hard to find.) There are relatively few zones other than Forochel that would require 2,000 kills to clear out, but it wouldn't surprise me to hear that emptying the entire deed log would take 8-10K kills.

Of course, all of these deeds are "optional", if you don't care about the stat-boosting "virtues" that often cannot be capped out in any other way. Because I have chosen not to go after these 2,000 mobs, Allarond is running with several equipped virtues that are at rank 4 out of 10. Also, if I ever do level an alt beyond the teens, that alt would start with a completely empty deed log and have to repeat the process or similarly do without.

They say that the pen is mightier than the sword.
They also say that a picture is worth a thousand words.
It's too bad that posting a picture, worth a thousand words, which are produced by an implement that is more powerful than a mob-killing sword, won't get me credit for these pesky deeds.

Hydralisks: You Can Has Them

PVD held its second ever beta key contest over the weekend. (I once gave away a Wrath beta key by deliberately burying the contest details halfway down a lengthy post - my intent now, as then, was to reward my regular readers rather than get tons of one-time traffic from a contest that gets picked up and linked around the net.)

The contest was to determine how many hydralisks are in this picture. Overall, I'm pretty happy with the results.

The answer

The answer was that there were 90 hydralisks (see the picture of the soldier with the number 90 in the bottom left of the screenshot), 10 of whom were burrowed into the ground (the second group of 10 next to the 90). Yes, it's possible to make groups of 90+ units - the health panel only shows 24 per tab, but, as you can see, I currently have four tab pages worth of them in the 90-unit group.

There was technically a bit of an advantage for people who know their Starcraft - Hydralisks require two food points, and the food cap is 200, so there could not be any more than 100 Hydralisks in the image - slightly fewer in fact because I still had some drones and a few zerglings in my actual base. Fortunately, I got a range of guesses pretty quickly, and that avoided a potential situation where the first comment got it on the nose and everyone else just took their count and rolled the dice on getting the tie-breaker right.

Contest Design Post-Mortem
The tie-breaker happened because I was concerned that a simple counting problem might be too easy, but I didn't want the contest to come down purely to who happened to see the post first. From a design standpoint, I suppose "first correct answer" is somewhat random, slightly weighted towards more frequent readers, but I'm not a huge fan of a contest that you can only win by being online all the time.

So, I added a tiebreaker question that the viewer can't really know the answer to - how many of the units died in assaulting the hapless NPC base after I was done with the screenshot. The answer to that question was one lone hydralisk who decided to run ahead into the main enemy base while the rest of the pack demolished the enemy's expansion base. This is less a commentary on the power of the hydralisk (I did fully upgrade their attacks while I was setting up the screenshot) and more a commentary on how the PC had maybe a dozen ground troops total.

I had thought that burrowing some of the hydralisks would be a clever way of making it a bit harder than just sitting down with a marker and counting hydralisks. It actually turns out that it's really difficult to even tell which hydralisks are underground from a static screenshot of Zerg on creep - the player who actually owns the unit can see the top of its head, and the creep, the handful of drones, and the sheer size of the group makes it hard to see which hydras don't have torsos. When I was setting up the screenshot, I manually walked each burrow-ee over to the base first first and then directed the rest of the mob to move to the hatchery. If I'd done a video, the effect would be much more dramatic, as the horde kind of flows AROUND the spots in the ground where the buried hydralisks are.

There was also a minor point that I should have done differently, namely that I stated the deadline as "midnight". Pangoria correctly pointed out that the time can be read as 12:00 on the switch from Saturday to Sunday, when I had meant 11:59 PM on Sunday night. Things I'll keep in mind if I ever have more keys to give away for something.

The winnter
Otherwise, I'm pretty happy with the contest. I didn't want to do something that would take me a ton of time to set up, would require me to sit on the prize for a long period of time, or put me in the position of having to make a subjective judgment call on who won. Maybe there were ways to improve the design, but it all went pretty well for something I threw together on short notice.

Congrats to LOGAN, who guessed 87, off by only three. The tie-breaker didn't end up mattering since the next closest guess was Pangoria at 94, but Logan somehow nailed the tiebreaker exactly on the nose, and was one of the very first entries to boot. Logan, your prize is in the mail to the gmail on your blogger account.

Thanks to everyone for participating!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Oh Hai-dralisk

My Hydralisks: Let Me Show You Them

Somewhere under that mob of hydralisks is my base. Well, that's partially accurate, technically speaking some of the hydralisks are burrowed UNDER the base that the rest of the hydralisks are burying. Note that there also also some drones and larva, which are not to be confused for hydralisks, milling around or trying to go about their business.

How many hydralisks, you might ask? That's a good question. Closest guess posted in the comments of this post by no later than 11:59 PM EST on March 21st gets a Starcraft 2 beta key. In the event of a tie, the bonus tiebreaker question is how many of these little guys died when I finally got around to sending them off to destroy the Artificial Supposed-Intelligence that sat around ever so patiently waiting for me to amass this little army. If it's somehow still tied after that, I'll go by earliest timestamp with the relevant answers.

P.S. Blizzard seems to have sent a bonus key to most SC2 beta participants, so I'm about 99% sure that it's legit. The email does point to the US site, though, so my guess is that the key WILL NOT work if your local is not the US one. If you want to post a guess for the heck of it but don't want to be counted, say so in the comments. Otherwise, make sure that either you're commenting from a Blogger account (so I can verify your identity) or that you leave an email address so I know where to send your prize.

Have fun!

EDIT: Clarification, when I said "midnight" 3/21, I meant 11:59 PM PST 3/21. I will lock comments on this post at midnight if I'm still awake, or first thing in the morning on 3/22 if I'm not.

12:09 AM, 3/22: And now the contest is over! The winner is Logan, details here.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Will SW:TOR Lose Money Until 1 Million Subs?

We've known for a while that EA/Bioware's upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic would be expansive to produce. Via Joystiq is a comment from EA of exactly how staggeringly expensive the project is:

"a little over 1 million subscribers is needed to reach the break-even point"

That's right, this game could be the second most popular in the history of the genre and still LOSE MONEY for its publisher.

It's hard to tell exactly what they're projecting to arrive at this estimate - EA does not get 100% of the $50 box sale, and some portion of the subscription fee (which may or may not be higher than $15) goes to upkeep of the game. We also don't know how long they're figuring the average subscriber will stick around, or how much they expect the average consumer to spend in any hypothetical item shop.

Even so, this sounds frighteningly like what CATS would call the path to destruction. The current sales figures say that Bioware's Dragon Age has sold roughly 2.25 million copies on PS3 and XBox 360, with some additional number on the PC. That game is regarded as a pretty big success. In order for SWTOR to turn a profit, they need it to equal those numbers WITH an added fee attached.

If you're worried about whether the bar for making a new MMORPG has gotten too high, this is not reassuring.

LOTRO and the Perils of Mixing Solo and Group Content

If you asked me for a textbook example of how not to mix group and solo content in the same questline, my stock answer is the Tomb of Elendil quest in LOTRO. Back in 2007, I spent half a dozen levels and more uneventful swims across Lake Evendim than I care to recall (today's whipper snappers have an instant boat travel shortcut) to finally get to the end of the epic questline.... only to be stopped dead by the requirement for a full group.

The extremely lengthy prerequisite line severely limits the pool of available/interested players. Players who like group content may not have even bothered with the prerequisites, and, at any rate, had zero incentive to ever repeat the loot-less story instance. Players who prefer to solo are suddenly hit with the requirement for a full group. Even if a solo player WANTED to make the jump to a group - with so much time invested, I actually did - the instance sits by design at the very end of the zone's level range. That makes sense from a narrative perspective, but it's a disaster for logistics - everyone who wants to complete the quest no longer has anything to do in the area while they look for a group.

In the end, I had to give up and delete the quest. Two and a half years later, I'm still waiting to see how the Tomb of Elendil questline ends.

The Epic Book Fail
The latest LOTRO patch revised all of the pre-expansion epic content (excluding the Tomb of Elendil, which technically is not an epic book quest) to allow players to solo it. I've been running through this level 50 content at level 65, and it's immediately obvious that the Tomb was only the tip of the iceberg.

While I was sitting around at high levels back in 2007 with nothing to do, there was solo content in the game that I could not access because I had not completed the prerequisites. Group players get the prestigious content all the time in MMORPG's, but this time they too got the short end of the stick - in between each juicy 10-20 minute small group quest is a Fed Ex assignment to travel halfway around the world and solo something. Many of these story quests can ONLY be completed solo, so even the most tolerant group is required to disband.

It's no wonder that this content was impossible to complete without a pre-made static group until the most recent revision.

Can Developers Really Change Players' Playstyle?
There is a certain subset of the playerbase whose playstyle is "will do whatever it takes to win". As Rohan points out, those players will feel obligated to do all the "optional" content that offers them any benefit, whether that means being dragged into solo, small groups, PVP, or traveling halfway across the world to pick up a buff before a key fight. Those players are a non-zero demographic and can be converted, if you will, to whatever game activity happens to be paying the best at the moment.

Unfortunately for developers in general, and the LOTRO epic quest design in particular, it doesn't work the other way around. The intent of sprinkling in group instances in the middle of solo chains was supposed to encourage solo players to convert into more grind tolerant group players. The reality is that there's no incentive that can suddenly allow a player who spends most of their time in unscheduled, often interrupted play sessions to spend an hour looking for a group to clear a two hour dungeon.

Both LOTRO and WoW have moved away from this particular bit of design in their most recent content. TBC-era dungeon questlines in WoW often had prerequisites, and sometimes followups. By contrast, almost all of Wrath's dungeon quests are located right outside the instance zoneline (or even INSIDE the dungeons in question). Meanwhile, the LOTRO Mirkwood epic storyline very obviously substitutes a scalable randomly generated skirmish for each of the steps in its story that would have called for a group instance under the old quest model.

To paraphrase Yoda, group or do not. Trying to mix the two just leaves everyone unhappy.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Has Cryptic Doomed Us To Another Decade of WoW?

Syp is concerned that Cryptic's various issues may have done irreparable damage to the studio's reputation among some gamers. This particular blogger pleads guilty as charged.

I'm very protective of my time and money against substandard games that would waste either. Fair or unfair, the appearance is that Cryptic charged the full price for its games, followed by the full price monthly subscription, and then piled on additional fees to cover things like respecs, races that were ready on launch day, and new content within four months of release (a decision that had to be reversed due to uproar). All of these things feel like they should have been included with the game.

The result leaves the cynically inclined wondering whether Cryptic concluded that they couldn't afford to develop STO properly, but that people would buy a sub-standard version on the strength of the Trek name alone and they could make up the revenue gap by selling tribbles or whatnot in the item shop. (Ironically, to the best of my knowledge, Tribbles are one of the few things that they AREN'T planning on charging extra for yet.)

Financing The Next Great MMO
The problem, as Tobold points out today, is that many of the costs of making and maintaining an MMORPG do not scale down based on the number of subscribers who sign up. (The two of us have actually been kicking this particular idea football back and forth for a few months now.)

This puts developers in a bind because they're competing against what's already on the market. You can't compromise on quality, or players won't play your game. You can't compromise on quantity, or half the players will rage!cancel when they run out of stuff to do, the other half will declare plans to wait a year for you to finish the game, and the revenue you were counting on to finish development will never materialize.

The next thing you know, you're just over a month post-launch and Amazon has your game at 40% off just to clear inventory. (I see no reason to pounce on that deal, since prices will only drop further before I actually have time to play the thing, but at some point STO might be worth a one-month-and-done novelty purchase.)

What the market will bear
The new Star Wars game is supposedly the most expensive production EA has ever financed, but even that budget is sounding like it will produce a Dragon Age style series of disconnected maps rather than an open world like Azeroth, Norrath, or Middle Earth. There's always Blizzard's mystery fourth project somewhere on the horizon (2012?), but will even that be ready on day one to compete with year 8 of WoW?

For all the talk of how a small minority of players will spend ruinous amounts of money if offered an item shop, it appears that the subscription MMORPG market literally will not tolerate fees higher than $15/month, whether that comes via a hard increase (which no one has even dared to try) or a soft increase (i.e. $15 + some number in item store purchases). But what's the alternative? If the market won't pay what it costs to develop a comparable game, and won't tolerate anything less, that sounds like a recipe for WoW to still be the top MMORPG in 2020. I like WoW as well as the next guy, but that would be a pretty sad outcome.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Newbies Should Have Access To Training Wheels

My post yesterday, nominally about motivation for illicit RMT, drew a fair amount of debate over my assertion that dual spec enables a more solo/group-friendly hybrid playstyle.

One of the comments came from Shintar, a blogger who has all four of WoW's healing classes at 80 and a post about how only the hardcore need dual specs on his blog about being a healer. I would imagine that he's got the basic skillset reasonably well down. But what about those of us who actually need to LEARN to play?

A huge part of the value of the low level group game is the opportunity for players to learn group roles (i.e. aggro control for DPS, tanking and healing for everyone else) in easier content, so that we don't arrive in Northrend clueless. Does it really make sense to turn around and tell newbies to try and learn with irrelevant solo talent builds? When did Gevlon of all people become an advocate for players not doing everything in their control to ensure the success of the group?

A strange place for a gold sink
The irony is that high end players - until the very top of the min-max curve anyway - actually have less need for dual specs than newbies. Solo mobs have gotten so easy to kill that a raid-geared healer would be losing more time to refilling their mana bars after swapping over to their DPS spec than if they just killed the mobs on their healing spec. It's the undergeared lowbie who needs all the help they can get with the appropriate spec for their current activity.

You could argue that the better fix would be to scale respec costs to character level, instead of lowering the price of dual spec. Switching to a group spec for the weekend and then swapping back to a solo spec afterward means dungeon run price tags of 6G, 25G, 45G, 65G, 85G, and 100G thereafter. That number is nigh trivial for level 80's, and nigh ruinous for most level 40's. Or, if you really wanted to, you could argue that the dual spec feature shouldn't be available at all to players too low to take full advantage of it (which I'd say is no longer true by level 40).

What does not make sense is to restrict the feature ONLY for players who do not have a level 80 main paying their bills. Dual spec affects gameplay far more than any mount training ever did, and that makes it a bad place to put a gold sink (i.e. a timesink, since gold ultimately costs time to earn).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Rise of Prerequisite Timesinks and Illicit RMT

Last week, Suzina at Kill Ten Rats set off a 100+ comment firestorm with a post admitting that she had purchased gold from a goldseller to to unlock the dual spec feature on her new WoW character.

In the keylogger-infested era that we live in, it is hard to separate the action itself from the social consequences of the illicit RMT trade - consequences that have driven prominent WoW bloggers like Rohan and Big Bear Butt to call for "legalization" of gold sales in the last week.

Setting aside that aspect of the debate, illicit RMT (whether the purchase of gold/items/characters, or services like powerleveling) occurs because of incentive design. Is the increasing rise of illicit RMT - and the outright fraud that makes it possible - really just a sign of a growing market? Or, is there something about the games themselves that is DRIVING the rise of RMT?

One-Track Gaming
Imagine a game in which the only activity is grinding. For the sake of discussion, it doesn't matter if that grinding is solo or group, just chain-pulling mobs or running quests, or even fighting duels against other players, so long as ONLY ONE of the above is supported. Further, assume that the rewards for that one form of grinding, be they random drops, quest rewards, tokens, or whatever, are sufficient for the player to continue to be effective as they advance. What does that environment do to incentives?

In the long run, we can expect that all of the players who continue to pay to play that game are doing so because they like the one form of gameplay. Further, because the activity is self-sufficient - you don't grind for a few hours and then have to go farm gold for repair bills or new gear - all rewards are effectively cosmetic. A sword that does +10% damage is irrelevant if you're able to grind just fine without it. A mount that makes you reach content faster might make the player happier, but they'll ultimately be able to continue their one form of gameplay just fine without it.

In short, this environment makes illicit RMT somewhat pointless. The only thing to be gained by paying a gold farmer or a power leveler is not having to do something that the player enjoys. There would need to be some form of mentoring system to help players catch up with their friends, but other than that the only people who have a reason to want to get an edge are doing so for cosmetic reasons - e.g. "I want to be the top of the damage meter". Players who go that route fit relatively well in the traditional view of "cheating".

Supporting Multiple Playstyles
Of course, the modern MMORPG does not offer merely a single form of gameplay. Instead, major games tend to support all manner of playstyles - solo and group PVE, raiding, PVP, crafting, etc etc. Personally, I think that this is a good thing, because it makes for a richer community and a deeper economy. Unfortunately, the developers making the game get paid based on how much time we spend playing (whether it's by the month, by the hour through some item shop consumable, etc). As a result, they're loathe to allow players to skip anything.

Want to do PVP? You can expect to lose unless you go out and gain dozens of levels in PVE content first. If you want to do arena matches with a pre-made group, you'll then have to farm up the requisite gear in non-premade battlegrounds.

Want to raid with your 25-man guild? Go get those levels first, then break up into five groups and farm single group content for gear and/or literal access quests for content. (Case in point, Ferrel's got a post about how his guild views a certain questline solely as something they must do for access to the zone they actually want.)

Want to craft? Often, this means gaining the levels so you can harvest (if crafting is not outright dependent on adventuring), and then running dungeons for recipes, materials, or both.

In each case, the player is expected to do something that is not what they want to do, as a prerequisite to what they're actually interested in.

In that environment, the portion of the players who have an incentive to cheat is much larger - the thing you'd be paying someone else to do (farm gold, power level your character, farm honor, etc) is something that you actually DO NOT ENJOY doing.

The Prerequisite Timesink Pushes Players Towards RMT
All of which gets us back to the case of Suzina. In modern WoW - post automated group finder - dual talent specialization is no longer a cosmetic upgrade in the manner of excess DPS or non-combat mounts.

Before patch 3.3, the only reason to ever have a low level character specialize in tanking or healing would be if a player was only using that character to run instances with a static group. The cost of not having access to a more solo-friendly DPS spec was simply not worth the low chance of finding a group for dungeons. Everyone just soloed to the current expansion and learned (or attempted to learn) their group roles once they got there.

The random group finder lowered the difficulty of forming groups to the point where it actually makes sense to play as more of a solo/group hybrid. It's actually feasible to swap back and forth on a regular basis now... only the cost of resetting your talents before and after every dungeon run would be prohibitive. Access to dual spec - unless you're all DPS all the time and don't mind the associated lengthy queue times - is actually a prerequisite to the playstyle.

(Aside: A number of commenters at KTR assert that dual spec at 40 is pointless because you have so few talent points at that level. I wonder how many of them would be happy if their PUG healer zoned into the instance in Shadowform and did not have a second spec.)

In the end, buying gold from illicit RMT is still cheating to the extent that the player is refusing to abide by the rules that say you either earn the gold by some "legitimate" method (such as using Auctioneer, which is getting closer and closer to being an unattended AH bot by the day) or you do without. As games add more and more timesinks that serve as prerequisites for things players have to do, however, they shift the motivation for this kind of cheating. Motivation leads to higher demand, and high demand is the reason why this issue is not going away anytime soon.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Unreasonable Player Expectations

Quoth Cryptic's Bill Roper, in an interview with Massively:
"If a game comes out and it's not what the players believed it was going to be, what they think they deserve, what they were promised -- the amount of rage associated with that is kind of frightening, to be honest."

Where do players get these crazy ideas from?

For example, imagine that a hypothetical producer was out making comments about how some equivalent for gameplay-effecting items in the real money item shop will be available through in-game means. Why would someone reading that statement be surprised if, less than six months post-launch, the game announces plans for a paid "expansion" that is no larger than the content patches that all of the other games on the market include in their monthly fees? No one promised that new content would be included in the monthly fee, regardless of whether or not it looks suspiciously like "content that didn't get finished in time for the game's full priced retail launch".

Besides, it's not like trust matters in the MMORPG marketplace or anything.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Leveling Pace And Quest Structure

Ferrel argues that MMORPG's would be better off if it took longer to reach the game's level cap, with an increased focus on the middle game to ensure that it was actually fun to remain at those level ranges. I agree, though I'd also argue that this is largely like saying that higher quality would make games better. The more interesting question is this - why have games strayed from that path in the first place?

Why Rush The Cap?
The current rush to level has more to do with the need to get new characters (whether newbies or veteran alts) up to where other players are for grouping than any intrinsic desire to have players hit cap quickly. At least until WoW's cross-server automated group finder, no developer had found an effective answer to the question of "who will the level 40's group with when the majority of the playerbase is level 80?"

The hope is that accelerated leveling will get newbies to the cap fast enough to help balance out attrition among endgame guilds. As an added, if secondary, bonus, less total time spent leveling means less time spent on those pesky middle levels, which tend to be the thinnest on content these days.

At the end of the day, the actual rate at which the arbitrary level number by the player's head advances doesn't really matter. What matters is whether the player is having fun while playing the game. This is where it's no accident that the rise of solo play coincided with the rise of the WoW-style quest.

The Solo Quest And the Grind
Ferrel finds the solo quest path boring - to be precise, he describes them as:
"Boring, mindless, pointless, chores that your boss gives you at work because he sees you sitting still for one minute and cannot handle that fact."
This is actually a tangentially related problem to the time it takes to reach the level cap.

Grinding in a group, like the EQ1 groups Ferrel reminisces about, provides both entertainment (e.g. joking with your friends) and unpredictability (e.g. someone screwed up and suddenly there are a dozen mobs eating your corpses) to an otherwise trivial task of chain pulling identical mobs. If you think solo quests are boring, you should try solo grinding (e.g. LOTRO's "kill 300 mobs for +2 agility" kill deeds) sometime.

In the absence of other players to supplement the fun, Blizzard came up with the guided tour of Azeroth. The point of the quest is straightforward - encourage the player to change the scenery before they can get bored of hacking away at the same mobs solo. The large chunk of experience for completing quests is basically reimbursement for players' travel time, while the hope is that slight variations in mobs and environments between quest areas will keep players entertained.

In terms of gameplay, this is no different from standing still in one location killing the mobs (or, for that matter, walking in a straight path killing mobs, as you will often find in a single player RPG), but - if and only if the developer has the resources to create a world large enough to sustain the model - the feeling is that the player is on a guided tour through a large world.

Supporting the world
Unfortunately, as I've written in the past, it is nigh impossible to actually generate content fast enough to sustain this model. If most players are spending an entire level grinding at a specific camp, the game only needs one or two grinding spots per level. In fact, having more choices can be problematic if it splits the grouping pool and makes it harder for players to agree on where they want to go. This leaves a lot of room to spare for optional content, exploration, while still producing way less content per level (and therefore spending less in development time/money).

By contrast, the entire point of the scenery-changing quest model is that players should change locations after some approximately fixed period of time before they get bored, no matter how many times that has to happen each level. This drives the resources needed to support that playstyle through the roof, to the point where not even Blizzard can fully support WoW style questing. (See the forthcoming Cataclysm expansion, which is, in part, motivated by the hope that sprinkling in new leveling content will encourage players to use the remaining older content in between revised areas.)

Ultimately, this is where the tangent of solo quest structure comes back to affect leveling pace. Some portion of the level acceleration comes because developers end up tuning the exp curve around players hitting max level by the time they run out of the game's limited content.

Mixing the solo and the group
Personally, I think there still is value for both sides in having solo and group players co-exist within the same game. Solo players get a larger world than is typically possible in a single player game, along with the option to access the multiplayer aspects of the world (especially a more robust economy) if they choose. Group players get the higher all-around production values that are made possible by a broader audience. That said, there is also room for conflict, a conflict only becomes more pronounced as aging games get less and less new content over time.

At the end of the day, I think that there is plenty of room in the market right now for a game to take the Darkfall approach to PVE. Players may need to adjust their expectations for such a game, bearing in mind that Darkfall's rocky launch was actually a FEATURE that allowed them to keep their development costs low enough to write off the solo market, but this should be well within possibility as long as the investors go in with realistic expectations and deep enough pockets.

If anything, I think that the resurgence of the group model with less total content and longer leveling times may have a brighter future in the short term than solo PVE. As many games have demonstrated over the last few years, just tacking on a few solo quests is not enough to retain players who expect both WoW-level quality and quantity from day one. This entry barrier may now be too high for anyone to overcome. If you can't do solo content better than WoW, you might very well be better off not trying to do it at all.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Trust and Living in the MMOment

Technology site Ars Technica has a problem - 40% of its tech-savvy readers use ad-blockers. Fundamentally, this is an issue of trust. Viewing the ads on Ars requires that readers allow a dozen various servers script access to their browsers, and fires up Flash for extra security vulnerability potential.

Unlike suspicious email attachments or phishing sites, the browser exploit is problematic because the viewer has missed their last opportunity to protect themselves by the time the page loads. If you do not run ad blockers, you are literally placing the security of your computer in the hands of every site you visit (and, more problematically, every third party advertising network they sell space to). Even the most reputable sites on the net, like the New York Times, make the occasional screwup that could cost users their credit card info (and, as us MMORPG players are all to well aware, our game accounts).

Losing Trust in Developers
Keen's latest Allods update is a bit telling on why us gamers are so suspicious. Inevitably, the game's publishers were forced to lower the costs on their most excessively overpriced items. To make up the difference, they turned around and increased the number of these items that players would need to consume. Apparently, the price tags they launched the store with were the more honest representation of what the publishers wanted to charge than their concerned apologies that followed the uproar, so it was only a matter of time before they found some way around their supposed concession.

Really, though, this is but the latest in a growing trend of cases that prove time and time again that gamers trust developers at the peril of their wallets. Inexplicably large numbers of players apparently expected Star Trek Online to launch relatively complete and relatively free from additional fees to unlock industry standard features, despite the fact that Cryptic had just finished launching Champions Online shy of both bars. Players who sunk their time and money in now discontinued games like Hellgate or Tabula Rasa with the expectation that those games would continue similarly lost out.

The sad truth is that players cannot trust anything that the developers or publishers say about games anymore. Their job is literally to lie about whether the game is finished and/or worth playing, if that's what it takes to sell copies. Because games are propriety products, developed behind closed doors, there are limits to the ability of journalists to protect us from this. The only alternative is not to trust anyone.

The Peril of Living in the MMOment
The lesson that the cynical observer walks away with is to live purely for the moment. Why put a long-term investment into a character in a game that might not be worth playing in a few months?

In my personal experience at the moment, I'm willing to run my LOTRO character through the newly solo-able epic books to experience the storyline, because that is fun right now. I'm not willing to farm the literally thousands of trivial mobs I would need to kill to max out all of my kill deed traits, even if having those bonuses might be fun later, because it would not be fun now and I cannot be confident that I will want to stick around long enough for that investment to pay off.

The problem is that a certain degree of repetition is all but essential to the MMORPG business model. There is never enough content to go around, but the game needs to provide something that justifies paying a monthly fee - resources that are ultimately needed to support the continued development of games of the size and quality that players have come to expect. The idea that players characters represent a longer term investment that would grant easier access to future content was part of the payoff that kept players around. Nowadays, even if the game is still around a year from now, the gear you worked for will probably have been leveled in a gear reset.

If you look at it purely as a business transaction, the player's choice is straightforward - consume the fun parts, skip the boring, and take your business elsewhere the moment you stop being entertained. The problem, as with the adblockers, is whether that plan leaves enough revenue to support the content.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The End of an Eriador Era

Imagine for a minute that, upon the December launch of Siege of Mirkwood, Turbine had come to you and confided that LOTRO was going to close. Now, Turbine wanted you to tell them how to spend their last months of development on one final swan song patch.

The recently released Volume 3, Book 1 patch would have been precisely the patch I would have asked for under those sad circumstances. Lacking the time to properly explore the lands of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor, the best that a player could hope for would be a patch that cleans up lingering issues with the game, opens up as much existing content as possible to players who have not had the chance to see it, and offers a farewell tour of sorts through the game's content.

In reality, there is no evidence that Turbine plans to pull an Asheron's Call 2 (the studio holds the dubious distinction of having conducted probably the shortest window between "pay us for a new expansion box" and "sorry, game's closing" in a major MMORPG) on LOTRO. Even so, this patch has an inexplicable feel of farewell nostalgia.

The Farewell Tour
The Volume 3 patch is fundamentally about getting additional mileage out of existing content.

  • A newly expanded "inspired greatness" buff is designed to allow players to solo previously group-only content from the original game. For me personally, this has meant a chance to see content that I just wasn't able to find groups for back in the day. I've completed Books 4, 5, and 8 of Volume 1 so far, and there's a fair amount of that story remaining that might as well not have been in the game, given how hard it was to find groups to access it.

    (In an ironic twist, one questline has the player traveling to Rivendell to forge a named sword for a Ranger. He does not immediately turn around and have a relic master break it down for relics - perhaps he wanted to get some item levels first, to improve the components he would get back in the process?)

  • Several existing skirmishes have been opened up to additional group sizes. The bigger news in this department, though, is that all skirmishes are now available for two players. Apparently 40% of all 3-player skirmishes that anyone was trying prior to this patch were being attempted by a duo. When I mentioned this addition to my wife, she was shocked that it hadn't occurred to Turbine that players would need a duo feature before pushing the system live without one.

  • With Aragorn off to Rohan, someone has to go round up the Rangers. That someone would be you, the player, in the one new quest chain of the patch. Basically, this entails traveling to every zone in the game where there was a ranger handing out quests, and running some minor errand locally to convince that ranger that it is safe for them to depart.

    (Elrond tells the player that only they can make the journey fast enough to reach all the rangers - given the lack of magical travel in Middle Earth, there's a valid question of whether it would even be possible for a single character to have done all of this in the time that the lore allows.)

    Make no mistake, this story involves more time in transit than dialog or combat. However, it gets by anyway on sheer nostalgia value - I remember clearing each of these zones back in the day (often with fewer swift travel options than the present game offers), and I'm fine with a nostalgia tour as long as it's so readily obvious that this is what we're up to.

    In a bit of an insult to the player's intelligence, each stage of the quest offers a choice between a single use teleport to the next NPC - often only one or two jumps away via swift travel - or a valuable scroll that would otherwise cost 25+ dungeon tokens.

What isn't here
At the same time, this patch is most notable for what isn't here. If you were hoping for a second single-group dungeon or a second raid (yes, the current level cap offers just one of each, though some players are still running stuff from the previous expansion), you're out of luck. New areas to explore (i.e. the long awaited expansion to Rohan)? Nope. Changes to the grindy legendary item and radiance gear mechanics? Not this patch.

For what it is - a filler patch designed to occupy time while Turbine saves the real content meat for the next paid expansion - the Volume 3 patch offers LOTRO's usual excellent quality. As always, though, the quantity comes up a bit shy. Improvements to crafting and content access are great as part of a patch, but here they make up basically the entire patch. If this is all that Turbine is prepared to add the game on a once every three months basis between paid content updates, one has to wonder whether that will hurt subscriber retention in the long run.

In the end, long months with mere morsels of content will be forgiven if Turbine can deliver Rohan, in a state that meets the bar they set with Moria, this year. In story terms, that shift may partially explain the farewell atmosphere of the current patch. The gathering of the Grey Company is really the last point in the story at which it makes sense for characters to still be running around Eriador.

The current landmass of the game will remain relevant for tourism - holiday festivals and whatnot - but the real meat of the story ahead lies in content that players have not yet seen. More than any content to date, Rohan needs to stand on its own. As much as us players may be nostalgic for the days of Eriador, one wonders if Turbine will miss the crutch of being able to throw together a patch like this one without the ability to lean on three years of existing content.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Gear Rentals Versus Gear Incentives

Aion has announced plans to allow players to rent gear in an upcoming patch. Given the central role that gear plays in modern MMORPG incentive structures, how does this model affect the game?

The Dual Roles of Gear
In most item-based MMORPG's, gear plays two roles. Gear determines what the player character looks like. It also determines the character's power level, and therefore what in-game goals the character can accomplish (generally "what can you kill?").

On the surface, the cosmetic question sounds less affected by gear rentals. All they have to do is ensure that the gear looks less desirable and the incentive to get the non-rental gear is preserved. The problem is how to reach that goal. If you make the gear look actively unattractive, some players will want it precisely because it is so garish. Meanwhile, Aion is a PVP game. If you make the rental gear look drab compared to the good stuff, some veterans might actively PREFER to disguise themselves as an undergeared newbie, rather than wearing a distinctive suit of armor that identifies them clearly as the biggest threat on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, the power level question is no easier. The fact is that many players prefer the persistent world MMORPG precisely because it is possible to reduce the difficulty of a challenge (be it a mob or a player) by obtaining superior gear. That appeal is eliminated if anyone who logs in can immediately rent top end gear. On the flip side, there is the risk of providing gear that is "good enough" to accomplish the player's goals. Once the player reaches that threshold, the value of further advancement is diminished.

The Goal And the Danger
In the end, leveling the playing field is precisely the point of this move. Aion is a bit of a young game to level the playing field by the more traditional route of gear inflation via a gear reset, and the rental plan is intended to help new characters (newbie and veteran alike) get their foot in the door.

That said, the problem with rental is that it removes the sense of ownership from player accomplishments. If I have to run a dungeon 10 times to get the gear to hit the next dungeon, I feel a sense of ownership of that gear. If I can jump into the next dungeon right away with rental gear, the only incentive to go back to the old dungeon is to stop paying rent on my rental gear. That might be a strong incentive if the activity I have to do to pay the rent is not-so-enjoyable (e.g. repetitive daily quests), but is the newbie who wants to run dungeons really better off when you tell them to do daily quests first to pay their rental fees?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Will Keyloggers Kill The Cataclysm Alpha?

Blizzard kicked off the week with a massive wall of text concerning the revamp of item stats that will be arriving in Cataclysm. Though I suppose that these details might be so fundamental that they're basically carved in stone at this point, usually this kind of information dump happens only very close to public testing of the changes in question. Historically, that would mean the Cataclysm alpha test, but there may be a big reason for Blizzard NOT to hold an external alpha test of this expansion.

Wrath's alpha non-disclosure agreement was basically a joke. Blizzard made the client publicly available to people who weren't in the alpha test, and all of the datamined changes promptly ended up on a wiki hosted by someone willing to thumb their noses at a Blizzard cease and desist letter. WoW Insider reposted the info, got hit with a cease and desist, and complied by replacing the posts in question with repeated direct links to the wiki, accompanied with "we can't post this ourselves but..." taunts to the lawyers. Blizzard could have stemmed much of that tide by password protecting the client download, but there probably still would have been some more conventional leaks to be had.

The problem is that nowadays we're in an era where hackers are taking out google ads against every WoW related search term imaginable, often with typo'ed URL's that direct inattentive players to keylogger sites. If Blizzard goes ahead with an alpha NDA, literally thousands of accounts will likely be compromised by the top search results for "cataclysm alpha leaks".

Realistically, is the testing feedback that Blizzard gets from the "friends and family" pool really worth all that? My guess is that it is not - if Blizzard did an external alpha of Starcraft II, I certainly didn't hear about it, so I don't see why they'd find a Cataclysm alpha any more necessary.

P.S. Bonus Cataclysm Beta Tea Leaf:

The Icecrown Citadel raid has begun nerfing itself as of today, with a 5% buff to player hp, damage, and healing. All of the encounters other than the heroic 25-man Lich King (with his 100 million hp) were beaten by the top guilds in the world without this buff, so one might conclude that Blizzard wants more players to complete the content sooner rather than later - something that would not be in their longterm interest if Cataclysm were somehow delayed and didn't arrive for a year.

The buff scales to 30% - if it increases by 5% per month, it would hit that cap in August. WoW expansion betas tend to run about four months, so the Cataclysm beta could start as late as early May and still make a September launch.

LOTRO Cooking: Your Timesink Or Your Life

LOTRO has a new patch out, and with it came a minor revamp of cooked foods. Previously, food had two purposes - it was something that you ate to fill up your HP immediately, but also something that gave a more long-lasting in-combat regeneration benefit. The good news with the patch is that the out of combat regen lasts longer. This means that you're not going to have to sit watching your health regenerate because you still have a regen buff that you don't want to waste by eating more before the old food expires. The bad news is that these two goals are now set in opposition to each other.

Now you have a "choice" in the type of food you eat. Do you want 50% more out of combat regeneration, decreasing the time it takes to recover your health after combat (generally spent doing nothing but watching the screen, unless you're in a very crowded area where you might be attacked)? Or do you want to double the amount of IN-COMBAT regeneration from your food? The latter stat can literally save your life in a tough situation. The former merely reduces your downtime.

Making trade-offs to improve your effectiveness in game is a reasonable place to put a gameplay choice. Previously, the choice was between health regen, power regen, or a combination of the two. This was an interesting choice, because tanks might just want health, non-tanks in a group setting might just need power, and soloers might want a mix of both.

Having a choice between "die because you didn't have enough in-combat regen" and "spend more time waiting for out of combat regen ticks" is not a strategically interesting choice - in the long run, the amount of time you will lose if you die because of incorrect food selection outweighs the increased regen, so the only reasonable choice is to spend more of your gaming time sitting and watching the screen while you wait for the slower out of combat recovery. More time non-interactively watching the screen is the very last thing that LOTRO needs.