Friday, April 30, 2010

Live And Die By The Sale

Last weekend, DDO had a pretty major sale going. All adventure packs were 30% off, and the $50 Turbine Point package was awarding 6,900 points instead of the usual 5,000 points (138 points/dollar instead of 100). This week, things are back to normal, which may translate into far less money spent in the store this week.

The Impact of a Sale
For a practical example, look at the Ruins of Threnal Adventure Pack. This pack has a list price of 550 Turbine Points, which is $5.50 at the standard exchange rate. The 30% sale discounted it to 385 TP, which, at the sale exchange rate, works out to $2.89. In other words, the two sales stacked for a discount of a whopping 47.5%. This was a major incentive to buy (and, perhaps as importantly, spend) points, and I'm guessing that they did indeed do a lot of business last weekend.

The problem is that, where I would have paid $3 for this pack, I was not willing to put $47 - three months sub to the MMO of my choice - on deposit with Turbine simply to secure the exchange rate deal. Buying Turbine points in any quantity smaller than $50 is a much worse deal (in addition to not getting the bonus sale points), and this particular pack was more of a want than a need, so I decided to pass. Now, with the sale over and the pack costing twice as much, I'm even less likely to bite.

The Inflexible Sale
Sales are a powerful tool - I literally went from never having played DDO to buying $50 worth of points when the 6900 point deal was offered back in March. The problem is that the sale price affects the perception of the regular price. Worse, having such a large difference (38%) between sale and regular exchange rates makes just about any other sale Turbine could come up with moot; I'm not going to leave 1900 points on the table by purchasing $50 worth of points when there isn't a sale on, just to save a few hundred points in discounts on some adventure packs.

In the end, the content I bought with the points I had banked will last me for a while yet, but I will probably end up scaling back my DDO time (and therefore any possibility of making DDO purchases) until the next time a sale happens when a $50 purchase fits in my budget. (Given the history of LOTRO promotions, I'm not too worried about the wait.)

I'm okay with that for the most part, as I'd never really planned to have DDO be my primary full-time game anyway. Turbine might be less okay with that, if they are under pressure to produce regular monthly income. In this particular case, the inflexible nature of their heavily sale-incentivized payment model has literally cost them a purchase.

I guess they believe these kinds of promotions train players to spend more liberally in the short-medium term, and that this will ultimately be worth more than the amount of money they lose from players who actually care about sticking within a budget. In the long term, this type of attitude plays a big part in why non-item-shop players get the impression that item shop games are out to soak them for all that they're worth. Perhaps Turbine may not feel that they have the luxury of worrying about that right now, but it could come back to bite them later.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Structural Differences In Solo And Group Quests

Borror0 of the DDO Wiki stopped by my post about picking up the unpopular Catacombs adventure pack to offer some hints on why the quest is unpopular. Now I'm going back through that quest, and the more popular group Shan-To-Kor (STK) adventure pack, on hard mode, and the contrast is a bit interesting. Fundamentally, Catacombs plays like a solo quest chain, while STK plays more for groups.

Catacombs: 8 quest instances, but most are short, I'd guesstimate 10-20 minutes each
STK: 3 quest instances, but all are longer, and took me 30+ minutes (also one optional side quest located relatively near the main storyline, and included in the adventure pack purchase)

Overall, both quest lines took me about the same amount of time actually in dungeons fighting stuff (about 2 to 2.5 hours on my first playthrough).

However, the Catacombs is broken up by the frequent trips outside of the dungeon to talk to NPC's and advance the quest story. For a group, this is probably irritating, as it means that everyone must wait for the entire party to go talk to the NPC and then move on to the next instance (assuming that no one decides to take the in-between-quest opportunity to bail out).

By contrast, STK is more of an oldschool dungeon run romp, with no need to talk to any NPC's once you're started - you can run the three dungeons back to back to back if you're so inclined (though this is likely to result in some very full bags if you're doing it solo and actually looting stuff).

Progression and Pacing
Catacombs: The first six quests are normal level 3 quests. The seventh is an "extreme challenge" level 3 quest, and the final boss fight cons level 4.
STK: The three quests in the main questline are levels 3, 4, and 5 respectively.

The DDO level curve, true to the pen and paper game, moves pretty slowly, but each level has a comparatively larger effect on player power levels. No one will gain two whole levels in the course of a single run through STK. A group of mostly level 4's that runs all three quests will have an easy round to warm up and get used to each others' quirks, a normal round, and a slightly tougher final round. A solo player will almost certainly be attempting one or more of the three quests at an inappropriate level, unless they choose to disregard the narrative by leaving after each stage to go work on something else.

By contrast, the difficulty curve of the Catacombs is gentle and gradual enough that a player can reasonably expect to ramp up to keep pace if they start at the appropriate level. (Caveat: Certain classes can have a very tough time with the final boss, who is immune to generic melee attacks.) Meanwhile, a group is probably bored by the relative lack of increased challenge.

Experience Gain
Catacombs: The eight quests total for a base exp value of 5,814. On average, that means that each stage is worth about 725.
STK: The first stage, which, remember, is the only level 3 quest, has a base exp value of 1140. The three combine for just over 5,000 in base exp.

Borror0 noted that players perceive the Catacombs as having worse exp. In terms of base experience awards alone, that's not necessarily true - each individual step is worth less exp, but that is because each is also shorter than their STK counterparts.

However, there are two caveats. The first is that the long length of the STK quests make it easy to obtain the hefty bonuses for killing and smashing your way across the map. I think that the STK's may have more in the way of optional bonus objectives as well, so the real numbers may be closer. Then again, you could also argue that STK has an inflated exp number due to being higher level (and more difficult).

The second issue is one of perception; seeing the exp bar move by a few hundred is simply less impressive than seeing it jump by 4,000 in a single blow, even if the real exp/hour was no different.

A matter of perspective
In the end, both quests can be soloed, and both can be grouped. External factors, such as the availability of other competing quests in the same level range, and the general abundance of opportunities to kill undead in tombs across Eberron, also work against the Catacombs. Finally, group players may simply not be in need of an entire chain worth of level 3 content.

Even so, I wonder if the structural differences in the way these two quests are set up are a big part of their differing popularity. Personally, the ability to sign in, accomplish something meaningful, and sign out again in under 30 minutes is probably one of my favorite aspects of DDO. I can see how that same solo-friendly mechanic could get irritating for someone trying to keep a group together.

The Wrong Approach To Saving The 25-man

Blizzard recently unveiled raiding incentive changes for the upcoming Cataclysm expansion. Most notably, the larger 25-man group will no longer get higher-quality loot. They will get higher quantity (perhaps MORE than the 2.5x needed just to compensate for group size), but both formats will receive the same items. The changes were inevitable - itemizing four reward tiers (10/25 man and normal/hard) literally broke Wrath's gear curve and forced two gear resets in 2009. However, bloggers like Larisa, Rohan and Spinks are fearing that the changes will mean the end of the 25-man raid.

The concern is not necessarily incorrect - gear rewards have been pretty effective in motivating at least a certain segment of the population - but I believe it to be a misguided approach. Taking that tack pre-supposes that the activity of raiding is so non-fun that it is only viable when propped up with gear rewards, which might be why Blizzard does not find it persuasive.

The role of gear in raiding
Tobold has a skirmish with his commenters in which he argues:
"Because the gear you get from raiding is only good for raiding, if you don't raid there is absolutely no need for the stuff: You can't use raid gear for PvP because it doesn't have resilience, and you don't need it for daily quests or heroic dungeons, because it is overpowered for that. So somehow players must find raiding inherently fun."
I'm not convinced. At a minimum, PVP weapons are only attainable by top-rated Arena teams, with the explicitly stated design that other players would raid to fill at least that (somewhat crucial) slot. Also, once you have sufficient resilience, access to raid gear gives you the option of swapping in higher DPS items for more damage (a crucial element of WoW's burst-heavy PVP).

More seriously, assuming that raid gear is not needed for daily heroics assumes that players are doing them for the challenge, which is flat out contradicted by the evidence. If players wanted to be challenged in this content, they wouldn't be running it in raid gear up to 100 item levels above what it was designed for, and using gearscore as a criterion to kick out anyone who might actually need the upgrades for fear of slowing down their loot run. The main reason why 5-mans are so popular is PRECISELY because raid gear trivializes the content. Five-man content was on its last legs until Blizzard bribed raiders into trivial content with inappropriately high-quality loot.

Emphasize the positive
If you're out to make the case for the 25-man, the better approach is to emphasize the positives. The posts that I linked up top try to move things in that direction, but the take-home message is always that players will not do larger raids unless they are bribed with better gear. As if that weren't enough, over on Tobold's post, longtime commenter Stabs notes:

"You know, I've seen a lot of people lamenting that 25 man raids won't be organised for them but I haven't seen many people who actually do the organising complain."
As Stabs predicts, Ferrel, who runs a raiding group in EQ2's smaller two-group format, seems to be pleased. This is the second big strike against the larger format, in that it disproportionately rewards the out-of-game logistics required to get a large number of players with the appropriate mix of classes online at the same time.

(Then again, there's nothing about this logic that cannot be applied to even smaller groups - if the prime directive of MMORPG's is to allow players to experience content with their friends, why does that cease to be valid for players with only 5 friends, or players with none at all?)

We live in an era where even the biggest studios cannot produce content quickly enough, and where it is no longer viable for them to set aside the lion's share of the content for a format that few players will experience. Blizzard has concluded that opening the content to more types of players - smaller, and less hardcore groups - is the only way to justify the continued development expense.

In response, the loudest, most consistent counterargument has emphasized negative stereotypes of raiding - that it is an unpleasant loot slot machine that players only do because it allows them access to exclusive storylines and superior gear. If raiding is so bad that this really a big part of the truth (it certainly isn't all of the truth for all of the players), is the format even worth saving?

Blizzard doesn't seem to be convinced, and I'm not sure if I blame them.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Perspective on the Cost of Gaming

The "correct" way for a non-subscription DDO player to advance in levels without spending too much money is to carefully spread out your limited Turbine points among mid-upper level adventure packs. (In particular, almost all of the leveling content from 10 to the game's level cap of 20 is in paid packs.) Over the weekend, I wandered off of this game plan. It cost me under $2. In the grand scheme of things, that's not actually such a big deal.

My bard was level 5 and had just genuinely struggled to clear the first quest of the Delara's Tomb adventure pack, a workhorse of a story arc that many players ride through to at least level 10. It was pretty clear that I wasn't going to survive part 2 (a level 6 quest) without either gaining some levels or dropping down to "casual" difficulty. So, it was time to go get more experience, only I had already beaten all of the level 4 content I owned, and most of the free level 5 stuff.

Then, I noticed that, with the current sale, the Catacombs adventure pack was currently priced at 175 Turbine Points (approximately $1.75, depending on what exchange rate you happen to be paying). It's one of the cheapest packs in the game, even though the adventure covers a fair amount of content (8 stages by Turbine's count), because all of the content is sitting at level 3, which most players breeze by without needing to pay for premium content. To make a long story short, I decided to spend the points.

I beat the entire pack on normal difficulty in a single sitting - level 5 is the highest level that still gets full exp for a level 3 quest - and gained the last chunk of experience I needed to hit level 6. I may or may not repeat the chain on hard mode (the bonus for hard difficulty a bit more than cancels out the penalty for being over-level). I will certainly level alts, and all of them will now have access to the adventure pack. Even if we imagine that I never touch the thing again, though, that would mean that I spent $2 on an evening of entertainment that happened to help me move towards a goal I was working on in a more entertaining fashion than repeating old dungeons I had already memorized.

$2 in an evening is more than your average MMORPG ($15/month = $0.50 per day), and the content was probably less than 5% of what we'd see in a $40 expansion pack. Even so, the amount is trivial compared to any other form of paid entertainment out there. I typically dislike this type of comparison when we're talking about things that are in an entirely different price class - I don't think that it's valid to compare your MMORPG subscription to expensive sports or theater tickets or cars (yes, I've seen people use that one), because you're not really going to be substituting one for the other - but the numbers in the DDO shop really aren't that far out of the price class, especially if you actually take advantage of continuing non-subscription access to the content you pay for.

I now own the three lowest level adventure packs in the game, none of which are rated on anyone's top 10 highest priority packs. All three were excellent, far better than the free content they compete with. I don't know if that's good for the free to play model (people who buy them will probably be satisfied) or bad (people who don't buy will be stuck with content that is less interesting, which might make them less inclined to stick around). Either way, it's interesting to see how our perception of cost scales.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Are One-Time Purchases The Bane of The Item Shop?

Psychochild and I are having a little debate in the comments of my post from yesterday about which Turbine game is in more danger as a result of the studio's recent purchase by Warner Bros. (Hopefully, we both lose, since otherwise one or both of the games are in trouble.) He brings up the oft-cited stats about how much DDO's revenue has improved since the shift to free-to-play as proof that DDO must be in good shape.

The catch is that, like basically all numbers the old Turbine released, the DDO free-to-play stats may not be telling the whole story.

The Role of One-Time Purchases in the DDO launch
Thanks to a link I heard on an old episode of DDO-cast, we're able to piece together a bit more about what DDO store purchases look like from Turbine's talk at GDC this year.

Through February of 2010, five of the top ten items in the DDO store in terms of revenue are one-time purchases - the account flags for Veteran status and 32-point builds, along with the Drow race and the Monk and Favored Soul classes. The Warforged race for whatever reason failed to make the top 10 (it is slightly cheaper than the others, and rental access to the race is included in the optional subscription), but that and the somewhat optional shared bank are the only two major account-level flags that were NOT on the top 10. The 32-point builds are also one of the priciest items in the shop (at about $15 worth of Turbine points), but the race and classes weigh in at only $8 each.

Perhaps almost all players are choosing to unlock these items, but it's concerning when one-time items from the upper-middle of the store's price range make up half of the all-time leaderboard. This means that some of that large revenue increase may be one-time spending that was needed to start up in the wake of the conversion to free to play status. This could mean that the much touted revenue spike may not be sustainable.

Trying to push consumable spending
Sure enough, if you look at the recent DDO store promotions, you see a trend that's trying to push spending on consumable items, or at least items that are bound to a single character rather than account-wide flags.
  • Earlier this month, the team reactivated the game's anniversary scavenger hunt event, where tokens from the DDO store are used to win potentially valuable in-game items.
  • Today, the game inexplicably revived the Winter Olympic "Risia ICE Games", cause late April makes you think so much of icy winter. This holiday was not quite so heavily store-based, but there are some store items associated with it.
  • The other big new addition to the store is the ability to buy a single additional bank tab on a PER CHARACTER basis for a whopping 995 Turbine points ($10 at the game's best exchange rate). In fairness, making this option account-wide might have had dire effects on server space, since it would affect many more characters, but most people were shocked to see a price tag that high on a non-transferable single-character option.

Finally, the PAX convention mega-sale on Turbine points, which improves the already skewed "exchange rate" for buying $50 lots of Turbine Points by nearly 40%, has made a sudden reappearance for the weekend. One factor in favor of this is that sales flat-out work - the original incarnation of the PAX sale was literally the reason why I'm playing DDO now instead of at some undetermined time in the future. At the same time, slashing the price by that much for the second time in barely over a month suggests to me that someone thought that sales could use a boost.

The danger of leaning on one-time purchases
I'll consider the latest Turbine point sale, but I think I will pass this time. Part of that is for budgetary reasons, part of it is that I'm weird enough to actually enjoy the strategic aspect of making spending decisions with slightly limited funds, and part of it is that my past experience with LOTRO subscription discounts suggests to me that this deal will be back before I finish spending the remainder of my last Turbine point purchase.

The scary part, though, is that I'm not actually sure what exactly I'd do with an extra 6900 Turbine points if I were given them on the condition that I must spend them immediately. By waiting on sales and leveling, the 6900 points that I bought last month will be enough to unlock all of the race/class options, 32-point builds, and leave room left over for 5-8 premium adventure packs. That is, enough to roll any type of character I want to and level them most or all of the way to the cap without too much in the way of dead spots where I'm stuck with limited free-to-play content.

In the scenario where I suddenly had to spend down a ton of points, I'd go for the shared bank (which I view as more of a want than a need, usefulness for account-bound item transfers aside) and then I guess I'd just start unlocking adventure packs at random. By the time I was done, I'd end up owning permanent access to something like 80% of the current content in the game, leaving me with even less reason to spend more in the future.

I'm actually not opposed to spending money on consumable items that would provide a more steady stream of income to the developer as a matter of principle. The problem is just that, when you give me the option between unlocking content or buying a stack of healing potions or a respec token, I'm going to take the content.

If Turbine has to actually rely on adding new content to bring in an acceptable amount of monthly revenue, that could become a long-term problem once players finish unlocking all of the account-level stuff that they feel they really need.

UPDATE 4/23: The DDO sales of the week include 30% off ALL adventure packs (typically you'll see 2-4 on sale for 20% off) and 25% on the two premium races and the 32 point builds. Guess they REALLY want to move some Turbine Points this weekend.

Will SOE Regret EQ2's 3 Days for $5 Option?

In the midst of a relatively interesting week for out of game news, SOE has rolled out a 3-day subscription plan for EQ2 at a price of $5. Reaction is pretty cleanly split between arguing that the price is too high compared to the monthly fee and arguing that this is a good thing because it could hypothetically lead to some alternate billing model that wasn't a bad deal for 90% of potential customers (such as non-consecutive day passes or even hourly billing).

Personally, my view is that ANY new billing option, as long as it is not deceptively marketed, is a good thing for players, even if it's not a GOOD option for the vast majority. The question I'm more interested in is what SOE thinks it's going to get out of this deal. Who would potentially elect this plan?
  • Former players considering a full-time comeback? That's effectively a $5 bet that you don't think you'll be sticking around for more than three days. If you're wrong, and you resubscribe after your trial, you lost the $5. If you're right, you "win" the $10 you saved compared to paying for a full month to retrial. But why are you even bothering if you think you're not even going to like the game?

  • Multiple account holders (a demographic that's specifically mentioned in the promotional material)? My guess is that most people who are willing to go to this expense either maintain the multiple accounts or they don't. Multi-boxing is not for the faint of heart - you need to pay for multiple account keys, multiple subscriptions, possibly multiple gaming machines, AND you may need to keep your multi-alts up to speed with your main character (unless you only play them as a multi-static group). I don't see people who've put that much into it deciding they're just going to moonlight on their additional characters one weekend per month.

  • Infrequent gamers? The plan is limited to being used once a month to encourage people to stick with the traditional recurring monthly subscription, so you'd have to be a very infrequent player with a very fixed schedule. You'd also have to be relatively insensitive to the cost, since it would be higher on a per day basis than most games, but not SO insensitive to the cost that you would be paying the full monthly fee if this option weren't available.

  • People who want to cherry-pick quick access to the occasional time-sensitive event, such as in-game holidays, bonus exp weekends, or perhaps a guild birthday celebration? To be perfectly honest, there's a half decent chance that I might take this option myself at some point. The problem for SOE is that I have previously re-subscribed for the entire month if there was something sufficiently interesting going on. I.e. sometimes they'd be getting $5 that I wouldn't have given them, but sometimes they'd be missing out on $10 that I would have paid AND losing out on the chance to convince me that maybe I'd rather stick around for more than the one month.

Like I said, it's not a plan for everyone, but there is a specific niche market that could benefit from it. I'm just not sure that this particular market actually gets SOE more money in the long run.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

ACME Falling Anvil Flattens DDO Offer Wall?

I wasn't initially going to comment on Warner Bros' purchase of Turbine, for lack of any obvious immediate effect on the studio's MMORPG's. However, on further reflection, I'm wondering if the purchase hasn't already caused a bit of damage on DDO.

Turbine's official explanation for last week's offer wall fiasco was that they wanted a no scamware/spyware policy but somehow failed to implement it before pushing the system live. The bit of information that we did not have at the time was that the studio was a week away from being purchased - presumably a bit of information that the DDO team already had. My guess is they rushed the offer wall live before it was ready in an attempt to get it out there before the purchase was announced. If I'm right, they were afraid that the wall would be seen as a mandate on high from the new owners, and that this would only further hurt its perception amongst the community.

Unfortunately, the rush job meant that the wall did not have the best chance at success. This is a problem because the original version's failure to keep the scams away will color perceptions of any future version of the wall. Worse, the incident could affect Warner's view of the game's future potential - "oh, those freeloaders will revolt at any attempt to make their game profitable, so we should just kill it".

Perhaps that's a far-fetched scenario - Warner will probably leave Turbine alone as long as the studio remains profitable. However, this could have an impact in the future, especially if the hypothetical Harry Potter MMORPG is the reason why Warner purchased Turbine in the first place. If the DDO team gets stripped down to send its best people to work on Harry Potter, and the remaining dev team can't deliver as much content to a game that literally depends on new content to survive, this incident could be the beginning of the end for DDO.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The EQ2 Producer Cataclysm

For someone who is supposedly learning the ropes and not making big decisions yet, EQ2's new producer seems to be implying some pretty big changes inbound for the game. First, some history:

EQ2's year in review
Back in May of last year, EQ2's producer stepped aside and was replaced by what is, in hindsight, looking like an interim pick, Alan "Brenlo" Crosby. As an existing member of the team, Brenlo might have been expected not to rock the boat. And yet, his tenure at EQ2's helm saw major changes.

Probably the biggest headline of the year was the addition of instanced battlegrounds - not a feature that existing players were clamoring for, and one that caused significant server stability issues in the process. Beyond that, the game's biggest focus was the early leveling game. The team has created a new starting area for May's content patch, which will retire two of the oldest and least polished starting options. It revised the worst stretch of leveling content in the game and is working on a "storyteller system", also theoretically slated for that May patch, to provide context for the rest of the game.

Last week, Brenlo stepped aside and was replaced by a new guy, David Georgson, who returns to the SOE fold from running a free to play game elsewhere. Now the new guy is making the rounds of the press, and what he's saying - and NOT saying - is telling.

The Interview Roundup
Georgson sat down with Massively and EQ2 Zam to do some meet and greet work this afternoon. Based on what he's saying, it sounds to me like he's been brought on board to continue the trends of the last year. A few quotes:
"We have a good sized team, but it's still a limited size, so it's not like we're a pre-launch team with resources coming out of our ears. We have to make everything the biggest bang for our buck, and that means we have to decide on what we're interested in doing.

Are we interested in more endgame content for the existing users to make them happy on that end? Are we interested in growing the business, getting more people in? If we are, does that mean we have to do something to the beginning of the game more fun and easier to learn?" (from the Massively interview)

The statement about limited resources is honest, but also strikes me as a warning that something is going to end up on the chopping block to make time for the new focus. The comment about bang for the buck, combined with the part about endgame content, sounds suspiciously like his guess is that the endgame raiding content may NOT be worth the bang for the buck in terms of development hours spent on it. See also:
"ZAM: I think the longest term plans we've heard is of course the next expansion. And they committed to at least one raid per Game Update for the next fiscal year.

Dave: Well long term plans, like I said, what I'm going to be doing is asking people a lot of questions about why. That's probably the most annoying question I ask on a regular basis to a dev team. “Okay, that's great, you want to do a raid every quarter. Why? Tell me the reasons. What does that do, who does that feed, how many people is it?” You know, that kind of questions. And if those are all good answers? Absolutely we'll keep doing that." (from the ZAM interview)

"I want the beginning of the game to be such stupid fun that no one ever quits. After playing the beginning, everyone sticks around to see everything else EverQuest II has to offer. Whether that wish happens, I can't commit, but I'd like to see that. There's so much great stuff in this game and I want people to see it." (from Massively)

Of course, this is all carefully hedged language, but it seems to me like the push for revising the early game is all but set in stone. When the guy who gets the job after the team spent a year of work on this area to come on board saying that it's his top wish for the game, that's no coincidence. Revamping the game to attract a "broader" market appears to be SOE's top goal. Indeed, it seems to be a target for most games these days.

The catch is that this is a very hard feat to pull off. Attracting more players who like your existing product, through some combination of polish and promotion, has worked out reasonably well for a variety of games. Attempting to attract players who want something that your game doesn't offer - like, say, instanced PVP - and shoving stuff that your existing players want - like, say, one raid per patch - to the wayside doesn't always work out so well for MMORPG's in general. We need go no further than SOE's infamous "New Game Experience" revamp of Star Wars Galaxies to illustrate that case.

And finally, the new guy's thoughts on microtransactions:
"I'm a big fan of microtransactions. As a player, I'm a fan of them. And the reason I'm a fan of them is if the content isn't good, then the developer doesn't make any money." (Zam)

"From a player's standpoint, I'd personally rather have microtransactions than anything else. Why? If a dev team is running on microtransactions and they don't do the right stuff that you like, they don't make any money. If what they're doing isn't fun, then they don't make any money. If it's not at the right price point, they don't make any money. The burden shifts from the old school style into a new, "What have you done for me lately?" kind of perspective for players. This makes developers become genuinely interested in giving you the things that you want." (Massively)

I don't really disagree with his assessment of the situation. Indeed, I've written similar sentiments about the state of the MMORPG market, and the responsiveness is one of the things that intrigues me about the DDO business model. The thing is, Mr. Georgson might want to be careful what he wishes for.

In the long term, a game's community is forged not by the tourists like myself who come for the new content and stay no longer than the newest stuff lasts. Bringing in sparkle ponies ("Well... if someone wants to buy one... *laughs*") may indeed help the game's numbers in the short term, but an increased emphasis in that direction comes at a price. In the long run, 200K subscribers who stick with you through thick and thin might be more sustainable than entering a hard-to-win race where your patch has to be better than everyone else's patch each and every month, just to stay where you are.

In fact, if anything, WoW's sparkle pony proves the point - if you have enough of a community to attract and retain players, larger cosmetic purchases become more attractive precisely because those players are fully certain that they will remain in Azeroth long enough to enjoy them. That's a side of the business that might slip through the cracks if the game shifts towards a shorter term model of trying to serve up whatever they think will sell well at this particular moment.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Min-maxing Versus Building For "Good Enough"

One of the quirks to Dungeons and Dragons is that the player's choices - many of which are very hard to fix through in-game means - actually make a big difference in their characters' effectiveness. Many numbers, like HP, damage, armor class, etc aren't actually all that large, so a small discrepancy can make a comparatively larger difference. The interesting philosophical question is where to draw the line and declare your character "good enough".

Case in point, the very first decision I had to make in creating my new bard was what stats to start with. It is very common for two-weapon fighters to start with 16 Dexterity, even though the two-weapon fighting styles will require a base score (not counting gear and other relatively easy-to-obtain in-game boosts) of 17 Dex. The way to get away with this tactic is to obtain a "tome" that permanently enhances the character's Dex by one or more points before the character reaches the level where not having the missing point delays their development. This way, the character never needs to take an increase that could be directed to their strength (which determines both hit and damage rates) and apply it instead to their comparatively less valuable dexterity.

The catch is that the tomes in question - in particular the Dex tome because of precisely this tactic - are relatively expensive (especially by the standards of what a newbie like myself can afford). After pondering it for a bit, I opted to take a few points out of my Charisma stat (which determines Bard spell points) to start with the 17 Dex so I would not need to worry about it. Of course, the serious builders would tell me that I shouldn't be putting that many points in Charisma to begin with, since higher level content is balanced around hit point totals that are possible if the player min-maxes properly.

In the end, my judgment was that I'd rather build for low stress and settle for running content that's a bit below my level if that's the content that I'm able to beat. I've also spent spell slots on learning feather fall and expeditious retreat (a runspeed buff), even though both effects can be obtained by other means, because having those abilities innately seems appropriate on a character who might secretly be a Fae refugee from Norrath. I might come to regret this approach, but that, I suppose, is what alts are for.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Tale of Two Bards

A Fae and a Tier Dal

Once upon a time, there was a bard named Lyriana from the land of Norrath. A Fae from the treetop city of Kelethin, she had eyes and hair and wings of brilliant green. In battle, she darted around her foes with a pair of blades, slicing and dicing faster than the eye could see.

Lyriana always felt most drawn to the epic songs of destiny, tragedy, and fate, and so she chose the dark path of the Dirge over the more upbeat Troubadour. Dirges especially revered the Tier Dal, the Dark Elves of Norrath, and all Dirges were trained in how to take on the shape of a Dark Elf. This ability actually proved useful to Lyriana in her travels, as it allowed her access to places where a Fae would not be welcome.

The Dark Elves of Neriak were allies of Lucan D'Lere, the evil overlord of Freeport, while the Fae of Kelethin were aligned with the city of Qeynos, Lucan's archrivals. Appearing as a Tier Dal allowed Lyriana to avoid all manner of inconvenient questions from time to time - she even invented a new name for her Dark Elven self; Narilya, Champion of D'Lere (and an anagram of Lyriana's own name).

A Flight and A Voyage

One day, Lyriana traveled to the clifftop city of Teren's Grasp, seeking advice on her latest adventure. She was about to depart for her next errand, when she heard some patrons in the local tavern talking about a mysterious ship that was just about to set sail from the docks of Kylong.

The ship hailed from a far away land called Eberron, a place that none had heard of before, and it was bound to return to the mysterious city of Stormreach. What had caught the attention of the tavernfolk was the strange creature on the crew, a mysterious half-golem half-living creature called a "Warforged". The rumor was that the Warforged were relics crafted during some great ancient war. Lyriana had seen the magical constructs crafted by the Erudites and the great archmage Miragul, but she had never heard of such a creature before. She could only imagine what treasures might be found in a land that had produced such wonders.

Lyriana set out from Teren's Grasp as fast as she could, and arrived at the cliff overlooking the Kylong docks to see that she was too late. The ship had pulled away from the pier and begun to row out of the harbor to unfurl its sails. For most Norrathians, the chance to catch the voyage to adventure had passed. Most Norrathians do not have wings.

With a mighty leap, Lyriana jumped off the cliff, extended her wings, and strained to catch enough of an updraft to glide out over the water and intercept the departing ship. Even with her determined leap, she by all rights should have fallen short and landed in the bay. At the last moment, though, a twist of fate threw Lyriana a literal lifeline.

If one believes in alternate universes, this was surely a moment where two otherwise identical journeys diverge. In one, Lyriana had to return to shore and remained in Norrath to continue her adventures there. In the other, the fate awaiting Lyriana on this particular day, a loose rope flew free from the rigging and whipped just within Lyriana's reach. She grabbed it and held on tightly as it swung her around and slammed her into the side of the ship. She barely managed to hang on, pull herself over the edge, and hide in the shadows to see what she could learn of this ship, its crew, and its homeland.

During the journey, Lyriana learned a number of things about the land of Eberron. There were no Fay in that far-off land, no surprise due to the great distance from her homeland of Faydwer. There were dark elves, but they went by the name "Drow" rather than "Tier Dal". Many of the adventuring professions of Norrath were also practiced in Eberron, but there were enough subtle differences to make even an expert feel like a newbie when attempting the others' techniques. One thing remained constant, though - there were few forces in either Eberron or Norrath as feared as the Dragons.

Unfortunately, that was precisely the fate that awaited the doomed ship that sailed from Kylong. A mighty Frost dragon destroyed the ship, with all hands and passengers, off the coast of an island known as Korthos. Indeed, the dragon continued to menace the island for days to come, until it was driven off by a band of adventures assisted by a new recruit - a Drow bard named Narilya.

A New Beginning
One evening, a young elf noble spent a large sum of gold attempting to get Narilya the bard drunk. As the hour grew late, she asked him if he wanted to hear a secret. When he agreed, she leaned in close, so that only he could hear, and whispered, "I have wings, and someday I will use them to fly away home."

The Drow maiden got up and walked out of the tavern before the elf had even begun to ponder what she might have meant. He followed her out into the darkness but saw no sign of her. All he heard was a distant laugh, like a Fae disappearing into the canopies of the trees.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

WoW Pet Shop Reloads, Unloads Wallets

The World of Warcraft pet shop was updated with two new items yesterday - an additional minipet for $10 (same as the two pets in the store's initial launch) and a cosmetic mount for a whopping $25. The mount manages to remain a cosmetic item because it can travel no faster than the fastest mount that a character already owns (i.e. all it does is allow you to change your mounted look).

Two Blogosphere Extremes
The two most extreme reactions I've seen so far are from Keen, who applauds Blizzard from finding such a voluntary way to make more money and Darren the Common Sense Gamer, who blasts Blizzard and its customers alike for the cosmetic item that costs more than numerous entire games. I agree and disagree with parts of both positions.

I'm not as quick as Darren to tell others that their use of money is incorrect, but he does have a point. The $55 that it would cost to obtain the Blizzard store's three minipets and one mount is more than the total that I've spent on DDO, where I'm unlocking content that I will continue to have access to without future monthly fees.

Likewise, the prices for future mounts may climb even higher, and, like Keen, I don't have a problem with that. The concern is rather that there may eventually be an upper limit to how many different cosmetic minipets and mounts players will be willing to purchase. If that limit is ever reached, the next step will be to offer something that has more of an effect on gameplay than a +1 to the mount or pet collector achievements. This will happen, indeed, the market says that this should happen, but that could very easily take the game and the genre in a direction that Keen himself just forswore a few months ago in the Allods fiasco.

The Disenfranchisement of the Majority?
The success and expansion of the store was nigh inevitable. Non-users don't really get a vote against this type of change, since few, if any, players are actually willing to cancel their subscriptions over it. The only way for the original round of pets to have failed would have been if they had been priced inappropriately to turn a profit. Given the literal line to purchase these latest additions, it appears that even the higher mount price is no deterrent on that front.

Wherever it is that Blizzard thinks they're going, it doesn't look like anything us bloggers do or don't say is going to slow them down any.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Breaking The DDO Wall Down

DDO's recently unveiled offer wall has apparently died a quick death, with an announcement by Turbine that they are "stepping away from the ‘Offer’ category for now".

The Short History of the Wall
Thus ends probably the worst 48 hours to be working in the Turbine PR department since Asheron's Call 2 closed shortly after a paid expansion launch. On Monday, the feature went live with a wide variety of scamvertisements. On Tuesday, Turbine rolled out a statement saying that:
  1. They knew that these things could be scammy and wanted to be sure their version was clean.
  2. They therefore crafted a detailed policy of what would not be allowed, which would have been effective in keeping the scams out had it been enforced.
  3. They then declared victory and went home without bothering to screen any of the ads that would be live on the offer wall on day one, despite their knowledge that the things are often plagued by scams.

The wall was cleaned up in accordance with the newly published policy, but this revamp did not last long. Shortly thereafter, players discovered that Turbine was sending player email addresses and account usernames to the sketchy offer provider, even if the player did not actually agree to try any of the sketchy offers. The wall was pulled down for evaluation, and terminated less than a day later.

Whether you believe Turbine's version - in which one or more of their employees screwed up in spectacular fashion - or you believe that the revised policy was a knee-jerk damage control effort is perhaps moot at this point. What is more interesting is that the very short-lived version 2.0 of the site was intriguingly different from what players saw at launch day.

The Free Money Problem
The initial version of the wall was doomed to fail due to the free money problem - namely that there's no such thing. The model is for companies to pay Turbine in exchange for obtaining something from players, and for Turbine to turn around and give the player a cut in the form of "free" Turbine Points.

Despite what some forum users think, marketing companies do not write checks to people for seeing how many variations of "" and "" they can collect via a survey. The only reason they're willing to pay is because the true goal of the survey is to load players' computers down with spyware intended to track their every movement online (or even engage in outright identity theft) - information that they can turn around to sell to even less savory elements for a profit even after their payout to Turbine.

Jerry at DDOCast argues that this arrangement is fine as long as the users knowingly consent to "paying" with their privacy. The problem is that the consent is generally anything but informed. One security-minded forum user signed up for all the offers on a carefully firewalled test machine and then ran a spyware scan. They found that they had over 150 spyware-related elements, including over 100 changes to the registry. No one would ever knowingly consent to that in exchange for pennies worth of Turbine Points, if for no other reason than because all the registry items will actively harm their gameplay by slowing their computers to a crawl.

So, the fine print simply doesn't mention what the vendors are planning to do. Instead, they simply say that you agree to their privacy policy and to the installation of their software. As a result, you have players proudly posting about how they got 150 TP for some stupid survey without any idea of what they had done. And, worst of all, Turbine had an incentive to cooperate with this duplicity, because they were receiving a cut of the ill-gotten gains.

Affiliate For The Win?
The changes made to the offer wall between days one and two ultimately were not enough to reassure players - perhaps the worst of the offers were gone, but players' information was still being sent to the same sketchy offer provider that had been willing to do business with scammers a day ago. That said, the day 2 wall was a philosophically different creature from what we saw on day 1.

All of the free money offers were gone, leaving only deals that kick in Turbine Points in exchange for the player making a purchase. Players who weren't busy denouncing the effort as a scam denounced it as being pointless on the grounds that they could just buy the Turbine Points instead of buying a magazine subscription. This critique entirely misses the point.

The Day 2 wall was never intended for the player who does not have a credit card and never spends any money. Rather, it was an attempt at a win/win scenario in which the player makes a purchase that they WERE GOING TO MAKE ANYWAY, Turbine manages to get paid a commission for directing that purchase to a partner site of some sort, and the player gets Turbine Points for using Turbine's partner. It would have been very interesting to see how this approach would have taken off, had Turbine gone with a more reputable vendor and not poisoned the well against the entire model by allowing the first day to taint public opinion.

Maybe what the game actually needed was some version of an Amazon Affiliate account. That approach probably would not offer as much of a payout per transaction, but it might make up for it in sheer volume by allowing players to participate with just about anything they want to purchase. I know I'd be willing to click through a few extra login screens if it meant getting a dozen Turbine Points with every purchase on Amazon.

Unfortunately, the way in which this debacle unfolded may mean that it's going to be a long time before anyone is brave enough to test this theory.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Calm Before The Feature Storm

There's always something over the horizon in MMORPG's, but it feels like things are unusually stuck in "coming soon" mode this month. To cite a few:
WoW: Cataclysm Class Previews
The Cataclysm beta is clearly coming, with every class getting a preview of what their shiny new mechanics will look like. For instance, I've been vaguely considering a balance druid for a while now, and the spec will be revamped to expand its rotation beyond spamming a single spell when Cataclysm arrives. All of these changes will accompany the headline massive revamp of the game's leveling content, along with an increased level cap, new zones, etc.

The catch is that the betas typically last about four months, so we're not likely to actually receive any of these shiny new toys until September.

EQ2 Storyteller System
Stargrace has a post about this upcoming feature. SOE doesn't quite have the resources that Blizzard does to gut and overhaul their entire low level game, but they're working smarter, not harder, to make the content they do have more meaningful.

Too often, players are presented with the small picture (local man's sidekick eaten by fishmen, one or both sides vow revenge) but not the big picture (why are we at war with the fish men?). That often requires out of game knowledge from past games, websites, or even novels. The Storyteller system will supposedly provide some much needed context. The ETA? Perhaps the May game update, if it doesn't slip.

LOTRO Mystery Paid Expansion
Most players expect the game to head for Rohan, though it's less clear whether that means following Aragorn and company, exploring areas like Dunland that the Fellowship didn't really travel to in person, or even going off on another unexpected mystery romp in another direction.

Whichever route they take, based on the limited contents of the game's most recent patch (new icons for jeweler recipes actually made the patch features list), it seems rather likely that the next landmass added to Middle Earth will be in a paid expansion of some sort. When will this mystery expansion arrive? It isn't even announced yet (perhaps this will happen for the game's 3rd birthday, on April 24th), so we're probably looking at September at the earliest, maybe even later if it's a larger expansion that requires more extended testing and development.

Anyone else currently feeling like they're killing time waiting for one patch or another?

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Honest Mistake Versus the Dishonesty Commission

Last week, Mythic's payment provider overbilled Warhammer customers. This week, rolled out an "offer wall" as a way to obtain Turbine Points for the DDO store. I'm a bit surprised by the difference in reaction between the two.

Billing players multiple times - hitting some players who pay for their subscription with a debit card with fees from their banks in the process - was the very last thing that Mythic wanted to do. I'm not saying that this absolves them of responsibility, but I genuinely believe that this was not intentional. At best, they will have to refund the over-billed charges and emerge with a PR black eye the game can ill afford. At worst, they could be out much-needed revenue in the form of canceled subscriptions and any bank fees they opt to reimburse players for (assuming that EA's lawyers don't make the payment provider cover them). Mythic has absolutely zero incentive to permit, much less encourage, this sort of debacle.

By contrast, the currency offer wall is exactly the system that has given Farmville such a bad name. At best, these offers tend to be ill-advised ("sign up for more credit cards!"), the majority will literally install some sort of spyware to track consumers' online activity, and the worst will commit fraud and identity theft. It is nigh inevitable that at least one bad apple will fall through the cracks - and neither Turbine nor their payment provider have any incentive short of consumer outrage to crack down on these lucrative scams, because each of them gets a cut.

Perhaps most telling is that the Turbine reps aren't even remarking about players posting proudly that they used some throw-away email address and intend to immediately cancel the services they signed up for in return for pennies worth of Turbine points. A legitimate business would have to march in and lay down the law with the clause about how defrauding the system is a bannable offense, etc. The scammers' real goal is the spyware installation, not the throwaway email addresses from people who think they're smart enough to scam a scammer.

Personally, I'd much rather forgive the honest mistake than the system that is built around exploiting the customers who fail to read - or understand - the consequences. Unfortunately, like most of these ever more aggressive monetization strategies, the only vote players who don't like it have is to give up the game entirely. Most players in that boat weren't paying for the game anyway, so their loss is more than offset by all the juicy offer revenue.

Can Word of Mouth Really Help?

On last week's episode of The Multiverse (where they also gave me a rather generous shout-out, thanks guys), Riknas' rant focuses on unknown free to play developers. As he says, some of the smaller - and most successful - free to play games are being made by studios that no one has heard of. Chris adds that, for players, supporting studios that we haven't heard of is the only way to drive real change. I don't disagree with either sentiment, but allow me to play devil's advocate.

Over the weekend, I got an out-of-the-blue apology email from a longtime commenter who felt in hindsight that he'd given me too much of a hard time for my take on his favorite MMO. The email said that he felt that defending the game against blog comments was necessary - i.e. that, if untrue claims were not countered, they could drive off new players and ultimately hurt the success of the game and its ability to continue. Personally, I don't think that any such apology is really needed - comes with the territory of expressing an opinion, especially if you're brave/foolish enough to play as many games as I do. It does drive home the point that the perceived stakes in the word of mouth business can be high. But is that really true?

Beyond the reach of Grassroots?
For those of us who aren't Curt Schilling, the fact is that our individual contributions don't make all that much of a difference in the fate of a game. (Schilling, incidentally, sounds like he's having a bit of buyer's remorse about having tied most of his net worth to his new studio.) A few players here or there, or even all of their friends, aren't going to make or break the success of a game with a multi-million dollar budget (that is to say, almost any game that could credibly deliver "massively multiplayer") in the short to medium term. The product either does or does not deliver, and the majority are going to base their payment decisions on that truth, rather than any matter of principle word of mouth crusades.

The paradox with supporting the studio that no one has heard of is that there is a factor that is correlated to whether the game can deliver - its development budget. No one is that worried about the mystery fourth Blizzard project, the supposed EQ3 at SOE, or the mystery possibly-Harry-Potter project at Turbine because these companies have the money to finish the development job. When you look at some studio that has yet to deliver a working product, like, say, Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment or Flagship Studios, it turns out that neither had the resources to actually produce the promised games.

CME's situation was so dire that they went under without ever launching their MMO (though they did try a non-MMO prototype that I'm gathering did not fare so well from the lack of fanfare). Hellgate's legendary launch failure brought down the studio, complete with the more promising Mythos project. Any additional funds that a player sent in the direction of those studios (e.g. purchasing additional copies just to support what the devs were doing) would have ended up in the pockets of creditors when the shops went under.

Is success pre-determined?
So here's a question - when we see a game that launches big and flames out - like, say, Warhammer or the two Cryptic games - versus a game that launches small and builds on positive buzz - perhaps Eve, Wizard 101, Runes of Magic, etc - can we really credit the word of mouth with that success? Or is the positive word of mouth just another effect caused by the games' success? Clearly, you can create a PR disaster bad enough to affect your reputation, but I'm less convinced that the effect in the opposite direction works enough to change outcomes.

Games live and die on their quality, and most of the work on that front isn't really something that can be patched in later because subscription numbers were 10% higher than expected.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Close Encounters of the Massively DDO Kind

Last night, I kind of "attended" the first edition of "Syp's" Massively DDO night. The air quotes are because I accidentally blundered off to do something else and because the event did not include the advertised quantity of Syp due to arrival of new baby. (Grats Sypster!)

What does "static group" mean again?
In the absence of everyone's favorite Bio Breaker, one poor Massively editor was left to wrangle a 32 member guild on his own. Rubi did as well as he could under the circumstances, but it seemed like an occasion to take a little initiative. I said oh hai to Ethic from Kill Ten Rats, and then I saw one of the Massively guild ("OnedAwesome") say they were looking for more, so I joined in.

It turned out that the group in question was a group of normal players who happen to have picked up a couple of us just by virtue of being in the right/wrong place at the time. This was fine, even great, because it was a good team that was fun to play with.

Unfortunately, being a noob to the DDO chat interface, I clicked the chat panel over to "party" because I couldn't figure out how to make my chat go to party by default on the general tab. What I didn't realize until an hour later was that this would effectively mute my guild chat. As a result, I never saw the chat messages indicating that the plan was to deal with the first few quests in town, pose for a picture, and call it a night.

In the absence of instructions to the contrary, I figured it was "move at your group's pace" night. Thus, Massively called their night at level 2 and just outside of town, while my group powered through the entirety of Korthos Island on both hard and elite, ending up at level 3 and reaching Stormreach harbor. Ooops?

WTB New Starting Area
I've actually played through the early town quests about 8 times by now. This is relatively typical of my early days in a new MMO, since I like to try a variety of character types to see what I like before committing to a main. As long as I was auditioning characters, I figured I might as well switch servers to claim more server first Turbine Point awards - I've claimed the 5 favor award on all seven servers, and, with the Massively festivities, have reached 50 favor on two servers for a grand total of 450 "earned" Turbine Points to date.

On a personal level, I could really stand to see an extra starting area at this point. DDO literally only offers the one set of questlines (with the upshot being that I've now got enough practice to re-roll and catch up to the Massively group in under an hour if I wanted to). For an event like this one, I can see the merits of this approach, as it theoretically ensures that everyone will be in the same location for grouping. (There was some way to screw up and wind up in "snowy" Korthos instead of "Sunny" Korthos, but that didn't seem to bug me any.)

On the other hand, if Turbine added a new level 1-2 zone to the Turbine Point store - specifically so that free to play players could stay in the current experience to find groups, while veterans seeking variety would have an alternate path, I'd pay the Turbine points without question.

Trial of the Wizard
As long as I was going through the starting areas yet again, I figured that I might as well try a Wizard, a class that was very low on my priority list due to poor solo capacity. This seemed like less of a handicap for a character I was making specifically for grouping.

Unfortunately, the low level DDO wizard is probably the most useless I've ever felt in a MMORPG group. At level 2, my main damage spell hit for 4-10 damage, and I could use it about 20 times before running out of mana. Level 1 mobs seem to have about 20 HP, and it seems like the game provides a rest shrine for recovering your spell points approximately once every 15 mobs. I was literally doing better DPS by swinging a rapier with barely any strength, and the rapier never runs out of spell points. (I picked the Drow race, cause we all know how much Syp loves Elves, and all Drow are proficient in rapiers.)

In fairness, this aspect of playing a caster comes out of the 3.5e DND ruleset (which is actually even more restrictive on casters). If things are implemented correctly, the class will eventually be able to absolutely cripple foes with debuffs and unleash devastating alpha strike nuke spells on bosses to make up for having to hang back on trash mobs. I might even give the Wizard another chance whenever I pay to unlock the Warforged (a race of bio-golems unique to the Eberron campaign setting - they get 50% healing from normal heals because of their golem side, but can also be healed by arcane magic, which means that a Warforged wizard can heal themselves between nukes). For now, though, this character is almost certainly going on the shelf.

DDO Grouping Experience
All miscommunication aside, my first time in a DDO group was actually a lot of fun. I was moderately familiar with the content, having seen all of it at least once, but it was still at least somewhat challenging to a full group with some newbies in tow when set to elite difficulty. (We did have three relatively more serious veterans, who probably could have carried the whole group if need be, but that may also be in part because these were newbie quests.)

I had not pictured myself actively working to spend more time in groups, since that's generally not my playstyle in other games, but I could see myself potentially spending the extra effort in DDO, if I find myself in the right type of community. Coming from a solo player like me, that means that DDO must be doing something right with its group game.

Requiem for a Blood Spec

Earlier this week, Blizzard announced that they would be gutting and overhauling the Death Knight tanking talents. The class was originally designed with three talent trees (same as the other classes), but each tree contained both melee DPS AND tanking talents. This predicament was not entirely unique - Feral druids also use one tree for both tanking and DPS - but I can see how it is a balance challenge that will only increase as Cataclysm allows more cross-tree points.

As a result, the Death Knight blood tree will become a dedicated tanking tree in the expansion. I'm a bit puzzled about why DPS blood, as opposed to frost, was chosen to get the boot, when the DK frost stance is used for tanking. ( claims that DPS blood had drifted closer to DPS unholy, which is as good an idea as any.) I'll also admit to a bit of nostalgia.

The blood spec I knew and abused in the Wrath beta is long since gone - at varying points it the beta, it was possible to spawn half a dozen blood worms and solo just about anything that couldn't one-shot you. I ultimately opted to reincarnate Cheerydeth as a rogue rather than suffer the disappointment of playing the Death Knight in a state that actually resembles balanced. Even so, I'm a bit sad to see the option of revisiting the minion horde go away.

In related news, Klep quips that shaman tanking will be the next spec overhaul. The new spec that has me really excited, only a week late for April Fools Day, is the new Frost Mage kiting/tanking setup. The Frost mage taunt will be a skill called "got your nose" that only works on frostbitten foes, and forces them to chase the mage until they can get in melee range. The ability also applies a debuff called "to spite your face" that reflects any non-melee damage the afflicted mob might otherwise be tempted to send the mage's direction.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Seeking The MM-Slo Lane

Official forums aren't always a good indicator of what to expect from a game community at large, but they can at least help with learning the local lingo. Case in point, this rant-turned-discussion of looking for more requirements in DDO.
  • "Know quest" and "not learning friendly" are relatively obvious.
  • "TR XP Zerg" means that the characters in question have undergone a True Resurrection, which grants certain bonuses if the player is willing to reset back to level one and level again with a harsher exp curve. Because DDO quests are worth diminishing exp each time they are repeated, these players can least afford losing the "no one died" exp bonus for a flawless dungeon run.
  • "Be self sufficient" and/or "BYOH/Bring your own heals" is another common qualifier - many classes can self heal and fix their own debuffs, while others can use cheap many-use wands for these tasks, and an unlucky few must actually resort to chugging potions. Apparently, the worst case in that department involves an entire inventory tab full of potions for things like resisting specific types of damage, curing half a dozen different classes of debuffs, etc.

(It is worth noting that some players pay real money for experience boosting potions from the DDO store, and therefore have extra motivation for demanding speed and efficiency above and beyond the time pressures seen in the other games I've played.)

The Challenge of Finding Your Pace
Personally, I'm just as happy NOT to jump into a group that's going to trivialize the content - almost as happy as they would be not to have me. This problem is in no way exclusive to DDO, as I've seen overly efficiency-obsessed groups in both WoW and EQ2. So why is it so hard for players to find other players who are on the same page?

My impression is that we see this type of screening - WoW's version is the gearscore check - more readily as the number of times that players are expected to repeat the same content increases. This only makes sense - if you run each dungeon a single time, you're going to be as unprepared as everyone else and only in so much of a position to complain, while your patience may understandably begin to wear on your tenth trip through.

The unfortunate conflict is that group systems depend on enough players being available to fill out the groups. The most active players, who are best able to fill the need for groupmates, are the most likely to have already exhausted their patience. As a result, we see incentives structured to make it worth their while, whether it's a positive incentive (overpowered loot tokens) or a negative one (go re-run these old dungeons even more times than it took the first time you leveled through them). The problem is that this creates an environment that's even more hostile to the actual newbies who need the training and experience.

In the end, I won't be sad if I can't complete all the dungeons/quests/etc out there, as long as I'm having a good time playing with players willing to move at a rate I'd actually find enjoyable. It's just frustrating when the primary roadblock to that playstyle is figuring out where to look for those players.

A Tradequesting Revolution

Lyriana finally hit EQ2's new tradeskill cap this evening. Not so-coincidentally, I'd just completed the last of the expansion's new tradeskill quests, including the signature quest for the class specific crafting tool/weapon. In my view, the current expansion crafting content is the best in any MMORPG I've seen. The biggest complaint I have to offer about the experience is that it points out how sparse the earlier crafting content is by comparison.

My new crafting tongs have a better DPS rating than my offhand weapon. They've also got a tradeskill exp bonus that I'm not going to need until the next time the level cap increases, which will probably be at least a year from now.

The Evolution of the EQ2 Crafting Quest
The thing that's really unique about EQ2's approach to crafting content is the use of tradeskill-only quests. These quests are a great change of pace in a world where most problems are resolved by stabbing something. Sometimes, the player has to craft some gizmo. Sometimes, the player has to craft some gizmo and turn it in to a questgiver, who will then turn around and hand it out to the next adventurer who comes along needing a tool to complete some mission or another. Add in some amusing writing and you've got a recipe for a pleasant change of pace.

The catch is that the content does not kick in at low levels. The crafting tutorial will deposit players at level 10, but, after that, they're on their own with a single original quest every ten levels through to level 50+. Instead, the bread and butter trade leveling are handled through grinding out recipes. You can grind items to sell, or grind items to turn into a writ agent for guild experience, but grind grind grind it is for hours at a time.

The continent of Kunark starts to try and shake things up, offering repeatable tradeskill quests for some of the area's major factions. It's a nice attempt, but falls short because the rate of reputation gain is often laughably low - two of the three reps are easily maxxed by adventuring, so players who intend to quest eventually anyway would be wasting their time if they bother with crafting.

The next expansion, the Shadow Odyssey, still shared three of its four trade factions with adventuring. It also has a badly designed introductory quest - because EQ2 crafting is intended to be independent of adventuring, the quest offers teleportation shortcuts across a massive zone, but the shortcuts go away if you actually complete the quest. There are also AFK-flight paths, but we're talking about flights that take 3+ minutes, which I would have needed literally dozens of times during my stay in the Moors - well worth delaying access to the TSO crafting quests in my book, so I did not complete any of these quests until after I was done adventuring in the Moors.

TSO did also introduce a crafter-only rep grind, including the only group-based crafting quests that I'm aware of anywhere in MMORPG's. These quests offer amusing storylines - the story for the one I actually did is that a raid group is getting slaughtered, and the player needs to fix the portal out of the zone before the fleeing raiders arrive, presumably with some angry boss in hot pursuit. (The quests also do not warn you in any way that the quest will require a total of 108 combines to complete. I would not have attempted the thing solo had I known that it would take nearly two hours, though I suppose I did get most of a crafting level, two rare harvests, and a random piece of salable jewelry out of the effort.)

The problem here is that the rewards for participating are, frankly, a bit underwhelming. There are entire sets of gear that offer crafting bonuses, but any character with the required reputation and tokens to purchase these items has already completed the hardest crafting content in the game. There are mounts that offer increased harvesting skill, but it would take a very long time for that investment to pay off when you consider the time it takes to earn the mounts in the first place (time which you might otherwise have spent on harvesting).

The really hardcore crafter had the chance to make raid-quality gear for fewer dungeon tokens than the NPC vendors charged, but there's a really limited amount of value in the whole exercise for players who aren't in it so professionally.

TSF Gets It Perfect
So, after all of this, players hit level 80 crafter in time to hit the new expansion. Sure enough, there are, once again, quests. Only this time, we're not talking about a few lines that duplicate reputation that can be obtained more easily by some other method. Crafting quests lead to crafting-only reputations that offer unique recipes. Players who set out to craft so they could make their own gear/spells/etc can actually expect to reap the benefits of finally reaching the cap.

Meanwhile, the quality is accompanied by a large quantity. There are four separate trade factions to interact with, each of which offers generous reputation through their introductory quests before offering up daily repeatable quests to finish off the relevant reputations. (Each of the three crafting vocations has a specific faction that offers them more quests and sells their recipes.) Overall, the end result was that my trip from level 80 to 90 was as smooth as the typical leveling path for PVE questing, with very little time spent grinding miscellaneous rush order writs in front of the same crafting station.

The Paradox of Improvement
The problem with EQ2 crafting at the moment is that it is entirely backwards. Crafting an item requires an equal amount of progress at level 1 and level 90, but the level 90 character has improved crafting abilities and gear that make the recipe far easier to complete. In other words, the very first items players attempt to complete are the hardest that they will ever suffer through. When you pile that on top of the extremely limited amount of content available to lower level tradeskillers, I'm a bit surprised that more players don't give up on the mechanic entirely.

Perhaps even more than adventuring, EQ2 crafting could really use a Cataclysm-style revamp to gut and overhaul the pre-70 trade content. I don't know how likely this is, but it would be a huge improvement to the game in general, and my willingness to repeat the experience on future characters in particular.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Supporting Optional Niche Roles

One of the quirks to Dungeons and Dragons is that the game system has always had a class (currently called the rogue) who specializes in opening locks and disarming the traps found in dungeons. From a design perspective, this raises a bit of a chicken and egg problem - if your dungeons does not have traps, there's no need for a rogue, but is it really fun to tell a group they're flat out screwed if they don't have a rogue but the dungeon is packed full of traps?

The workaround for this in the traditional tabletop game is that players know who they're playing with and what classes they're intending to play - effectively, someone can step forward to play the party rogue. In an online game where you're playing with strangers, that plan runs into a bit of a snag - it's hard enough dictating that there has to be a tank and a healer (however your game of choice handles those roles) without adding in an additional role that is sometimes essential and sometimes useless.

So how does Turbine attempt to address this problem? Incentives.

Exp modifiers

As with the pen and paper game, DDO does not hand out experience immediately when players kill mobs, advance quests, etc. Rather, an exp number is doled out when players complete the final objective of the dungeon - killing all the mobs, or sneaking past them are both valid ways of approaching the problem. However, in this model, sneaking past mobs would always win - less risk of being injured in combat, less resources/consumables spent, and less total time per quest leading to higher exp.

So, DDO modifies the base experience number in a variety of ways. Killing most of the enemies in the dungeon gets a bonus. Completing the dungeon without dying gets a bonus (part death penalty and part insurance policy so that players don't use suicide tactics to pick off foes in pursuit of the killing bonus). And, as you see in the screenshot above, there are bonuses for uncovering hidden doors and disarming traps.

I have no idea how well this system works out in social practice, but it's a fascinating principle. It means that the traps in the dungeon can be optional, but players will still want to bring a rogue to obtain an across the board experience boost. Almost all DDO quests can be repeated (and sometimes must for sufficient exp gain), but the exp award drops with each repeat, so every bit of exp potentially matters, especially for players trying to get by at higher levels with the relatively more limited selection of free to play quests.

Of course, a minor side effect of this plan is that many players choose to add a single level or two of rogue to their existing builds so that they can serve as a "trapmonkey" while still filling whatever their normal class role would have been almost as well. Sometimes there's no keeping us pesky players in line. :)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Worlds Collide

I thought I was playing EQ2, not DDO? ;)