Sunday, October 31, 2010

Parting Wisdom From DDOCast

Jerry Snook, host of DDOcast and a real legend in the DDO community, will be leaving his show after 3.5 years and 191 episodes to go actually work on the DDO community team at Turbine.  He's certainly done enough for the community to earn a slot on the team; the podcast has played a big part in keeping me informed and involved in the game while I work on so many other projects.  Fortunately, the show will go on in the hands of two capable DDOcast regulars, but it won't be quite the same without Jerry. 

As part of his final episode, Jerry took some time to offer up some tips from a podcasting veteran to anyone who is looking to start or improve a podcast.  Though some of the tips are specific to the audio format, I'd actually endorse the discussion (starts at about the two hour mark of the farewell show) for new bloggers as well.  Concepts like establishing a track record, paying attention to the tone and length of your posts, and making sure that your content is easy to find are equally applicable to the written word.  If Turbine is looking to launch an official podcast in the near future, they would be well advised to listen to the new guy. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Balancing Polish And Ambition In Cataclysm

Chris at Game By Night argues that the state of WoW's Patch 4.0 is so bad that Blizzard has forfeited its claim to superior quality and polish.  Personally, I'm not at all convinced that the bug and balance situation is significantly worse than we've seen in the past - take the time when patch 3.0.8 forced Blizzard to disable Wintergrasp to keep it from killing the servers for just one example. 

(Or the highly unreliable server stability for game's first 3-6 months, when, incidentally, there was no PVP system and extremely limited and buggy raid options.) 

That aside, I'm more interested in addressing the second half of Chris' argument. 

Is the lore revamp all or nothing?
We've known since Cataclysm's announcement that the old world revamp was only slated to cover levels 1-60.  Zones like Azshara and Felwood are much worse off than anything you'll find in Outland because Blizzard had not planned to offer quests all the way to the cap to begin with, and didn't have time to do more than a cursory effort on the upper mid-levels before the game's initial launch.  (After launch, they had level-capped characters to worry about, and could afford only token efforts on the leveling game.) 

The problem is that this revamp is not just updating the local quests to meet modern design standards (e.g. not repeatedly sending players back and forth across multiple zones).  The timeline of the entire world is actually advancing past the fall of the Lich King, which means that these old expansions are literally years in the world's past. 

Blizzard made a comment at Blizzcon that they simply did not have time to redo the first two expansions, and Chris jumps on it, accusing them of not finishing the job of updating the lore so that the game can release in time for the holidays.

More Ambition, Mo' Problems?
WoW is currently two years out from its last expansion and an entire year out from its last significant new content.   The looming expansion has posed a morale problem for many guilds for as much as six months now, and there's a very real argument to be made that even an unfinished expansion would be better than none at the moment.  More importantly, the only reason why it's taking so long is because Cataclysm is actually a very ambitious expansion. 

Wrath of the Lich King launched with about 1,000 new quests.  Cataclysm is launching with a whopping 3,500.  Cataclysm will actually offer more new zones per level than Wrath did (five zones for five levels, versus eight zones for ten levels - I don't count Crystalsong because there are like two quests in the entire "zone") even while gutting and overhauling literally thousands of old world zones and quests (and adding two races, with new zones of their own).  The same type of math works on dungeons - there will be fewer completely new dungeons, butt more total dungeon work as Blizzard revamps a dozen old world leveling dungeons.

It's simply not reasonable to expect Blizzard to take all of that and then also expect them to go through and redo the entire contents of the game's first two expansions.  If the rules had been that Blizzard must revamp the entire game up to the present day lore or not touch any of it, an expansion like Cataclysm simply would not have been possible. 

If "when it's ready" for Cataclysm does indeed end up being a bit less polished than 1.0/2.0/3.0 (again, all of which had their growing pains), that's the cost of having Blizzard actually try something difficult and ambitious instead of churning out another cookie cutter 10-level expansion.  Time will tell, but it looks to me like the results will be well worth the price. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hallow's End Haul

WoW's Hallow's End event technically doesn't wrap up for another couple days, but I appear to be done with the event by virtue of having looted it for literally all it's worth.  My mage snagged the Horseman's mount for himself a few days after the Tauren got his hands on one.  Between the two of them, I've also obtained a total of seven of the once-rare Sinister Squashlings and three Hallowed Helms (one of each was not wasted, as the Tauren did not previously have either). 

I had no intention of ever repeating the holiday achievement grind again after the pain of going through it the first year, but the Tauren ended up with all of the hard achievements by the time he was done beating the horseman into submission.  At that point, it was just a question of doing the world tour for candy (I'd never even set foot in the zone of Shadowmoon Valley before) and looking for people to wand-zap me in Dalaran for the second leg of the dreaded meta achievement. 

Pre-Cataclysm Bucket List
As long as I'm rambling about my characters, it seems like a good time to update the pre-cataclysm bucket list.  Time permitting, the things I'm working on are:
  • Finishing exalted with the Frostborn Dwarves on the mage (probably 3-4 random 5-man runs to add another +1 to my rep counter, will be harder to complete once I'm no longer 80)
  • Dungeon runs on the warrior for access to heirloom rep-based head and shoulder enchants.  Cataclysm will probably add updated ones, but it could be a while before I get them.  The old ones will be better than nothing in the mean time.  Also, this will provide the occasion to try and beat each Wrath-era heroic once.
  • Soloing old level 70 heroics on the mage.  I've beaten half of them so far, and I think the Black Morass is beyond my current level of dedication.  We'll see how many I get to.  
Cheerydeth the third, my level 41 gnome rogue, remains parked until the content revisions of Cataclysm hit.  I was considering taking Greenhammer, my old level 70 Pally, out for a spin since Northrend is not due for any sort of update, but leveling felt trivially easy with my shiny new heirlooms (plate shoulders and chest, and the 2H sword).  Maybe it won't be such a bad thing if I do end up running out of character slots on Hyjal and spending more time on other servers. 

Finally, there is the Thanksgiving event that I pointedly skipped last year due to holiday burnout.  I guess there's no harm in taking a look next month to see how that goes.  The next stage of the Cataclysm launch event will also kick off sometime around then.  That said, none of this is completely irreplaceable, and I won't cry if I ultimately fail to complete most or all of it.  There's something to be said for the nostalgia tour, but there are plenty of other things to do while I wait for the End of the World (of Warcraft).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Champions' Take On "Free To Play"

Champions announced their take on "free to play", complete with a benefit matrix similar to what we've seen for other games that made this jump. 

Much of the table is pretty standard.  Non-subscribers face limits on character slots, bags, auctions, and costume slots, and will have to pay extra for access to "adventure packs".  The latter are the patches that Cryptic previously threatened to charge subscribers for.  Presumably that threat is now off the table now that it's an explicit benefit of the subscription, which is theoretically a win for subscribers (especially life-timers, as freedom from the sub is worth a lot less if they start charging by the month for content). 

The big and somewhat unique change is that non-subscribers will be forced to use a pre-generated "archetype" build instead of being allowed to customize their powersets as they see fit. 

Archetype Impact
For a very new player, having the option to go with a pre-made build is probably a welcome option.  In the long run, though, being able to pick your own powerset is one of the game's major features.  More concerning, these pre-generated archetypes will have to be optimized for something.  Presumably, that something will be leveling (possibly solo leveling) to ensure that new players stick around long enough to pay, which could leave players regretting their decision when they reach endgame.

Also, lapsed subscribers will need to somehow revert their existing customized characters (from before or after F2P) into archetype templates to continue playing them, which sort of defeats the purpose of not charging for server access - you can't sell microtransactions to people who aren't playing because they would have to permanently gimp their character in order to do so.  Perhaps Cryptic will implement a system where characters will be allowed to swap between two builds as their subscription status permits, but that does not sound like the current plan.

In the end, as readers of my EQ2X commentary are well aware, I'm not fond of so-called "free to play" models which come with major restrictions that can only be lifted by subscribing.  Time will tell, but this sounds suspiciously like the same situation.  I suppose that the shift to free to play makes it slightly more likely that I will someday try the game.  Unfortunately for Cryptic, the archetype restrictions probably mean that I will do so as a mostly non-paying tourist.

P.S. Star Trek Online, by comparison, will almost certainly make its way onto my playlist when it eventually follows in CO's F2P footsteps.  If Cryptic has a sense of humor, they set it so that STO's free player archetypes are red-shirted ensigns.  :)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Blizzard's MMO Roadmap

Another Blizzcon is in the books, and the majority of my self-described "incorrect Blizzcon predictions" for the year were proven wrong before the convention even opened.  I suppose you can split hairs on whether the event is "widely viewed as a disappointment" for lack of an announcement concerning the Mystery Fourth Project, but what Blizzard did NOT announce was almost as interesting as what they did. 

Diablo III's beta was mentioned (some attendees will win keys), but the SCII expansion/sequel's beta was not, and the game apparently is not expected in 2011.  Also not expected in 2011 is even the ANNOUNCEMENT of the Mystery Fourth Project, which Blizz says won't be revealed until 2012.  (This is remarkable since game itself will probably still be 1-3 years out AFTER the announcement; relatively few games have the luxury of a dev cycle this long.)  These announcements mean that Blizzard apparently intends for WoW to continue to be the company's flagship MMO quite possibly up to the game's tenth birthday in 2014. 

In that context, it's interesting to see how little we got out of Blizzcon about the content patches of the Cataclysm era.  At Blizzcon 2008, just prior to the release of Wrath, Blizzard held a community summit that outlined the planned content patches of 2009.  The actual convention itself included tidbits about patch 3.1 (described at the con as almost complete), such as dual specs and swimming ground mounts.  At this year's event, we got some pictures of new dungeons for patch 4.1 and a comment from Tom Chilton that Deathwing will arrive in either patch 4.2 or 4.3.

Why Blizzard is considering only two content patches for the Cataclysm era? 

Are they thinking that Cataclysm sets a precedent of five levels per expansion that would allow them to complete a less ambitious fifth expansion sooner than late 2012?  Blizzard has been saying that they wanted annual expansions for years now, but previously have never delivered.  Perhaps the added pressure of having the followup so far out is pushing them to pick up the pace?  Perhaps Bobby Kotick is demanding more box sales?  Or perhaps this is Blizz-ness as usual, and we'll see 4.1 in April 2011, 4.2 (sans Deathwing) in October 2011 along with a Blizzcon announcement of the fifth expansion, 4.3 in March 2012 and the new expansion in November/December 2012. 

Given my track record, I'd hesitate to guess.  Given Blizzard's track record, though, the latter may be the most likely.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

LOTRO Halloween Holiday Quality/Quantity

Stargrace, Zubon, and Syp (and his twitter friend), are all fans of LOTRO's new Halloween haunted cellar.  The atmosphere is really great.  Further, this content is located firmly in the free portions of the game's new business model (you will need to level to 5 to get out of the starter instance), so this event is available to just about everyone who wants to see it. 

Unfortunately, as with many things LOTRO, the quality isn't necessarily backed with quantity.  If you want the title for doing each of the quests in the cellar once, you will end up exploring most or all of the area a total of eight times.  It's really cool the first time, suitably challenging when you try to solve the two quests that have relatively short timers, and will probably have gotten old by visit number eight.  Even this may not be your last trip through the area if you're after your daily shot at the Halloween decorated horse. 

(Irritatingly, your shot at the horse is treated as a 24-hour debuff rather than a daily repeatable quest, so players who come back at the same time tomorrow will find that they must make their attempt slightly later on each evening of the event.  Still better than once an hour I suppose.)

The Wait For Content
Doc Holiday was the first I saw to notice the schedule for LOTRO's latest patch, which is due out in November.  Endgame players will have spent basically an entire year with only a single full group (6-player) dungeon and a single (12-player) raid at the level cap, supplemented only with scaling skirmishes, and, in the last few months, newly scaling versions of old leveling dungeons. 

The patch will add some variety to the dungeon game (I have not seen details of pricing or intended level range), but Turbine is also taking care to announce in advance that this is the first major patch in the game's history that will not include an update to the game's epic story.  New outdoor leveling/questing landmass is also officially off the table for the new patch, leaving a period of at least a year in which September's Enedwaith zone was the only new area added to the game. 

Perhaps the game's touted free to play success will someday lead to an increase in new content, but that clearly won't be starting with this patch.  I suppose that most players who have made it through the lean times of the last two years are probably used to the pace by now.  Quality over quantity has been the game's calling card pretty much from the beginning.  That said, the quantity is going to have to catch up eventually if Turbine is hoping to convince former subscribers to spend money on a regular basis, especially as the best of the limited content is often available for free. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Triumph of the Headless Horse-Mount

Whatever else I say about 2010, it's been a good year for random number generator-based mounts.  Mere weeks after my Tauren snagged the Brew Kodo, he also landed the flying horse mount from the Headless Horseman.  This mount is one of only a handful flying mounts that have a ground only mode, allowing them to be used in no-fly zones (such as Dalaran, and outdoor flagged dungeons).  In principle, I guess I would rather have landed either or both on my mage, who is my actual main.  Then again, Greenwiz has his share of shiny rides, while the warrior has only a few, so they might as well be unique. 

I haven't quite decided what I'm going to do for the rest of the holiday.  There's no guarantee that I'll land the mount on my mage, even if I do the event every day from here on out, and he doesn't need anything else that I can get from the Horseman.  By contrast, the warrior might in principle want some of the loot and achievements, but he's already got the event's biggest prize.  I guess the bottom line is that I won't cry if I miss a few days. 

Otherwise, the event has not changed or improved all that significantly since the 2008 edition.  There's a vaguely amusing achievement line to visit all the Innkeepers in the world for some gold and candy, which is probably worthwhile only if you're dying to see the un-shattered landscape one last time.  There's a PVP achievement that can probably be earned most efficiently by joining a Wintergrasp battle and hiding somewhere near the combat.  There's a fire-fighting event in the newbie towns that will almost certainly be won or lost without that much intervention from you individually.  Finally, the once per real world hour trick or treat mechanic is back in full effect, with at least one achievement that can only be obtained via a lucky drop and a few others that similarly hinge on the random treat bag. 

Personally, I don't think this type of system has any place in a short seasonal event.  If Blizzard wants people to fail to complete the event due to the vagaries of the RNG, the achievement in question should be tied to a daily quest so that it does not penalize players for failing to stay up just one more hour to see if next hour's treat bag will have what you need.  Talking to an NPC is not fun, it is not challenging, and it only fosters an image of addiction that the industry is generally working pretty hard to avoid when they're not stumped to think up just one more timesink. 

Somehow, Blizzard found the time to revise a similar debacle out of the Valentine's event between 2009 and 2010.  (The 2009 version was so much fun, I literally signed up for an EQ2 trial and rolled up the character who became my main, checking back with WoW to once an hour on the old laptop to see if I'd win the candy heart lottery.)  I can only hope that the Halloween version manages to make similar progress by 2011. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Night Of The Dead EQ2 Live Servers

EQ2's Night of the Dead event was a favorite of mine last year, so I suppose that I can't complain too much to see the event back with minimal changes this year - there's a new crafting book, and a new title to be earned from a quest that players will complete by clearing each haunted event once. 

I'm not sure that I would have been willing to pay for a month's subscription to the live service just to get the one additional title.  Fortunately, thanks to EQ2X, I don't have to make that choice; the scaling holiday content is free to play and not too difficult to complete while working with silver F2P restrictions.  Unfortunately for SOE, this shift means that I'm unlikely to resubscribe solely for a holiday event ever again, but such, I suppose is the peril of going F2P. 

Server Merges, and Servers Left For Dead
Speaking of peril and F2P, SOE finally announced plans to merge eight of the game's twenty seven servers.  Each closed server will be folded into an existing server, so, all told, sixteen servers' worth of players will have larger populations to play with when the dust settles. 

There are some complaints about how naming conflicts will be handled (current subscribers will receive priority over inactive accounts), but I haven't seen anyone from the affected servers say that they do not want a merge to happen.  Populations were low across the board, and SOE's decision not to open up the existing servers to free EQ2X players sealed the fates of these servers.  The only question remaining to be answered is whether combining these sixteen servers into eight still leaves too many. 

Of the eleven servers that will not merge, three (AB, Nagafen, and Crushbone) are not merging because they actually have sufficient populations.  The remaining eight are not being merged because there is nowhere for them to merge to because of language, ruleset, or other contractual obligation.  As a resident of Lucan D'Lere, I'm feeling somewhat uniquely hosed by this call. 

It's relatively obvious why you can't merge servers speaking Russian, French, and Japanese, and why the RMT servers need to remain separate.  LDL, on the other hand, is being kept separate because it is technically a Role Playing server.  The only other RP server is the game's most popular (AB), with no room for an additional merge.  The thing is, I don't think I ever encountered any form of actual role playing on LDL.  I know that there are some high quality events to be experienced, but these are almost always scheduled in advance via the out-of-game forums, and therefore could continue basically unaffected if LDL were to be merged with a non-RP server.  This option, though, is apparently not on the table.

End of the line for Lyriana?
Frankly, the last time I let my EQ2 Live subscription lapse, it was largely because I had trouble finding groups for the group content that was the main thing left on Lyriana's to-do list.  A merge during the current expansion cycle would almost certainly have brought me back to the game to try and complete her epic weapon questline before players move on to Velious. 

Now I have limited reason to pay for the live service for the remainder of this expansion.  I'd be happy to pay for new level 90 content in the next expansion, but the new continent will instead offer new level 86-90 leveling content that won't offer any significant challenge if I start it four levels too late. 

At this point, it's looking more and more like the smart play is to wait until next summer, when retailers will be dumping unsold Velious boxes for half price to clear shelf space.  There will presumably be a station cash sale sometime between now and then (it's been double SC for the 4th of July two years running), which I can use to save some money on copying Lyriana over to EQ2X so that I can play her in the future without paying for a subscription.  Though this would technically be a copy that would leave the original on the live service, I doubt that I would ever return once I invest time and money on the shift to EQ2X.  

If that's the way this plays out, it's a sad ending.  Unfortunately, the way that SOE has this set up is leaving me feeling like rolling on a RP server was a mistake.  If this is the only alternative they're currently prepared to offer, I guess we're both going to pay the price.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Rifts To Use WoW-Style Questing

There seems to be a debate amongst the old-school blogosphere about whether Rifts or EQ:Next will be the new EQ1.  Personally, I'm not convinced that either title is likely because both projects are high profile, but I've generally refrained from commenting for lack of more thorough information. 

Over the weekend, I listened to episode 14 of the Rift Podcast, which featured an interview about the game's quest system, featuring the studio's Senior Design Director.  According to the guy in charge, the majority of quests will be solo or small group quests, with quest hubs that conveniently distribute overlapping quests to kill 10 rat-equivalents and loot 10 potato-equivalents from the same field.  The game will also offer daily quests, rep grinds, and the option for max level players to replay the dungeons they soloed past while leveling.  Overall, it sounds a lot more like an attempt at the next WoW than the next EQ1. 

Don't get me wrong, Trion has some talented people on board, and I would love for them to succeed.  Telling players what they want to hear requires that the developers first determine what it is that the players want, which is at least one step in the right direction.  Unfortunately, I feel like the hype mirrors Warhammer more closely than any other game in my albeit limited experience.  Yes, the game engine is working and polished enough to hold an encouraging demo for the press.  Beyond that, pretty pictures are everywhere, hype is high, and the game itself is whatever the reader would like it to be for lack of evidence to the contrary. 

Learning from the past?
Beyond the possibility of raising unrealistic expectations, the things that I'm hearing about this game do not reassure me that Trion has learned from the issues that others have faced.  For example, the "soul" system for building your own class sounds really neat, but nothing I've seen has addressed how they will actually balance a game in which the majority of character setups are useless, a few are overpowered, and a few are worthless except for the one encounter that becomes trivial because the designer didn't plan for a pet that can kite and is immune to stuns or whatever. 

More to the point, this idea of having players solo their way to the level cap and then switch over to some other form of play (generally group PVE, or PVP/RVR in Warhammer's case) really isn't panning out that well across the entire industry.  Yes, solo players will buy boxes and pay fees to level - assuming that you can beat solo-focused games like WoW, LOTRO, and others at their own genre.  However, time and time again we've seen that the majority of these players either can or will not shift to the more structured group format.  Meanwhile, if the real strength of this game is supposed to be its group PVE instances, it does not make sense to encourage players to do something else instead of dungeons/rifts for 49 levels (any more than it made sense for Warhammer to encourage players to solo and run instanced scenarios instead of doing open RVR).

The especially sad part is that I'm not even convinced that this will be an especially good solo game.  In between promising little tidbits - squirreling away some quests in obscure places for explorers or whatnot - it sounds like the game's two factions will have separate starting zones and then can expect to largely share the same content (either via neutral questgivers or through slightly varied versions of the same quest for the two factions).  This is not original territory, and the studio will have to execute it extremely well if they really mean to compete in the crowded fantasy solo-friendly MMO niche. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Incorrect Blizzcon Predictions For 2010

Blizzcon is coming up in just over a week, so time to put predictions that are usually proven wrong to electronic paper is running out.  Here are my best guesses for this year's event.
  • Diablo III and the first SC2 expansion (called the second game in a "trilogy" so that Bobby Kotick can charge the new game price instead of the expansion price) will be playable.  I really am not following either game at this point, so there's not much else I can predict about them. 
  • Cataclysm's cinematic introduction will make its debut.  My guess is that it will finally include gnomes, though I suppose we can't put it entirely past Blizzard to make a point of including Goblins and Worgen over gnomes as a running gag. 
  • With most of the juicy Cataclysm news out on live servers, PTR's, and the no-NDA beta, WoW news will include discussion of patch 4.1.  The patch will include a major feature that has not been announced or discussed publicly (sorry, dance studio). 
  • Blizzard will have to announce the mystery fourth project (confirmed to be an MMO based on a new IP) if they do not want the event to be widely viewed as a disappointment.  My guess is that the new game will be more action-based, will be designed with some form of item shop or other transaction system in mind, and will not be a straight up fantasy setting (perhaps Steampunk, Sci-Fi or Cyberpunk). 
  • Date MMO-Champion leaks the juicy details: Monday, Oct 18th.
We'll see how much of a laugh we have over this post sometime next week.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Improvements to F2P LOTRO and EQ2X

Two news tidbits from September's two big Free To Play conversion stories today.

LOTRO Lowbie Sale
Via Syp comes news of a major one day sale in LOTRO - the three lowest level quest packs are all going 75% for one day only on 10/13.  I got 245 TP for new deeds that were added in the F2P launch, and I can now convert these points into two entire zones worth of content at discounts far steeper than anything that I've seen in LOTRO or DDO. 

Though Turbine is obviously fond of sales, my guess is that they're really looking to lower the entry barrier to those first paid areas as they try to convert more of the new players who have come in with free to play into actual paying customers.  The thing I'm wondering now is how it makes sense to have players who take this deal (a single $6.50 purchase of 400 TP - the worst exchange rate and one that I would ordinarily never recommend - will cover it) own most of the content from 1-40 (you're missing part of the Trollshaws) and then most of the content from 50-65 with the mandatory expansions.  Sales of content might not be the game's primary source of revenue for this to make sense. 

EQ2X Broker Purchase Access
Meanwhile, over in EQ2X, non-subscribers who pay for the one-time "silver" account upgrade are now permitted to purchase stuff from the broker at no additional charge. Silver players were originally not permitted to use the broker at all, and an earlier compromise required the use of a broker token (about 15 cents per) to either buy or sell anything. 

In practical terms, this change removes one of the major roadblocks to playing the game normally as a nonsubscriber.  Any player may now pick up a pair of bags (such as the 40-slot mottled leather backpack or sumac strong box) for a relatively attainable amount of gold.  Useful items such as crafting/harvesting tools and mastercrafted weapons are now also available without a real money token purchase. 

At the same time, subscribers (and silver members who pay to sell stuff) win because this dramatically increases the market of players who are able to (and therefore interested in) purchasing their wares.  Sony might even see more token sales with this change - before, it did not matter that I had a bunch of sellable stuff sitting in my bank because I had no way to spend the gold I could get if I did manage to sell anything.  Now, I have an incentive to list my goods so that I can turn around and use the gold to buy other things that I want. 

This everyone-wins approach is how free to play models are supposed to work, and it's really encouraging to see SOE taking a step in the right direction on this front. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Value Of Emblems

With patch 4.01 looming, I'd been agonizing over whether to purchase heirloom maces for my planned Enhancement Shaman alt. This class prefers slow swinging maces over the fast daggers I already own for other characters, but none of the other classes I plan to play would want to use them. On the other hand, the maces are costly at the Argent Tournament (overpriced compared to other heirlooms), and my current supply of emblems would not buy even one at the newly increased level 85 prices.

In the end, I decided to take the maces, and I also traded in all the emblems on my warrior for the heirloom staff to use on my second server.

In principle, both characters could or perhaps even should have used the emblems/justice points for actual gear for themselves instead. That said, the thing I realized as I pondered this question was that it's only virtual money. I got a good deal if I actually end up using the things, and, if I don't, my "losses" are digital points that I'm going to earn more of anyway. Sometimes, it's worth remembering that.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Re-Pricing DDO Around Sales

Turbine has announced plans to raise the prices on the existing races and classes in DDO, as part of an announcement that the game's two new races will be significantly more expensive than the current ones.  My guess is that the change was prompted by the game's frequent - and probably lucrative - policy on sale discounts.  If you're throwing around 50% off sales every 2-3 months, you're going to adjust your regular prices to account for that.

Mitigating Price Discrimination In DDO?
Here are the new prices, effective when Update 7 hits later this month:
Name Old Price New Price Other Notes
Warforged Race 595 TP 795 TP VIP Rental
Drow Race 795 TP 995 TP Easily unlocked on a per-server basis
Favored Soul Class 795 TP 895 TP Difficult unlock on a per server basis
Monk Class 795 TP 995 TP VIP Rental
NEW Half-Elf Race N/A 1195 TP VIP Rental
NEW Half-Orc Race N/A 1295 TP VIP Rental
BOTH NEW Races N/A 1995 TPVIP Rental
The Favored Soul got a smaller price increase because it is a relative pain for VIP subscribers to unlock, and the others went up by 200 TP across the board.  This increase might be as much motivated by covering the 500 TP jump from what races and classes cost now to what the Half-Orc costs if you pay full price as with any strong desire to pocket an additional 200 TP.

More to the point, all of the existing races and classes have been discounted by 50% as part of sales in both July and September, and are routinely discounted by 20-25% in regular weekly sales. These sales have been very successful - the producers stated that the first day of the PAX sale in September was the game's best sales day ever - but also mean that players are flat out paying 50% of what the store designers originally intended. With the new model, it looks like they're expecting to make the bundled price, so a player who picks up one of the races (at a premium for just buying the one) on sale for 20% off is paying closer to the what they were expecting anyway.

No Impulse Purchases On Races?
My guess is that players don't make impulse purchases of character options, such as races and classes, the way they do with content or consumables.

DDO's complicated and unforgiving character system strongly encourages players to put a lot of thought into any new characters they roll up. If you're putting that much preparation and attention into it anyway, waiting for a month or two to start that new alt is a relatively small inconvenience in exchange for 50% off. By contrast, you usually determine that you need to buy more adventure packs when you hit a certain level and find that you need more content. This is a more immediate need and therefore more likely to convince the player to go ahead and pay full price (or at least a less-impressive sale discount price).

The other quirk to this increased use of sale pricing is that it really hits players who aren't willing to plan ahead. The half-orc race alone, if bought individually at the worst Turbine Point exchange rate, costs nearly $20. The same race, purchased for 50% off using points obtained at the best rate (6900 TP/$50, offered about once a month, including this week), costs under $5. Though I maintain that the free to play version of the DDO model is the better deal for attentive players, the all-inclusive VIP rental/subscription will start to become more attractive for players who don't want to be bothered with watching for all these sales.

At any rate, this is a straight up price hike to previously created content, which is not costing the developers any more than it did before the increase. Turbine is also apparently willing to charge inattentive players as much as a full expansion costs in other games for the two new races alone. I'm generally a big fan of the DDO business model, but there's no sugar coating this announcement. Whether taking our medicine - higher list prices - results in better health (more content in the future) remains to be seen.

Two LOTRO Addenda
If there are any concerned LOTRO players reading this, I think you're pretty safe for now. There's no room in the lore for new player races, and it would be hard to justify increasing prices on existing classes that are included in the Moria expansion (which frankly shouldn't be sold separately to begin with, since such purchases are wasted when you are forced to upgrade at level 50). If Turbine does add new classes to LOTRO, though, expect prices in the 1200-1500 TP range.

Also, Doc Holiday linked an article on Joystiq containing some news about LOTRO's first month of free to play.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

4.01 PTR Heirloom Prices Increased 5x

A week ago, I took a look at the test server pricing on existing items, in order to determine whether players who current have emblems, stone keeper shards, etc should buy now.  These prices apparently were not final.  In particular, heirlooms are now going to be much more expensive, and PVD advises readers to buy their heirlooms ASAP. 

The Changes 
Justice Point costs for existing PVE heirlooms have increased by five-fold.  JP costs on other items have remained mostly constant, suggesting that this particular change was deliberate, and not merely some across the board tweak to the exchange rate.  We should have seen this change coming, because level 85 dungeons will award the same Justice Point currency that we will get for our old emblems in the patch.  The current prices are more in line with what level 85 dungeon rewards cost in JP - the intent is presumably that heirlooms will be as easy to get at level 85 as they initially were at level 80 when Wrath launched. 

The Wintergrasp side is even worse; prices on these heirlooms increased by 6.79-fold.  This appears to have been part of a broader sanity check pass on new honor point pricing, so further changes may happen.  Level 60 and 70 PVP gear prices have decreased dramatically, probably to account for the fact that new honor points are more valuable, and therefore will be awarded in drastically smaller numbers.  The old PVP mounts have also had their prices slashed 4-fold, and now seem more reasonable compared to the other items we can see.

The good news is that Argent Tournament heirloom prices have not changed.  Though this could change in the future, my gut says that it might not.  The tournament uses a separate currency that is only available through the current (level 80) quests (and one heroic dungeon).  An item that costs 60 seals will still require you to complete 60 daily quests, because there won't be level 85 daily quests that award 3 seals.  Also, unlocking the vendor to spend these seals requires completion of a lengthy daily quest-gated rep grind, and there's no reason for Blizzard to discourage players from signing up for this if they really want to.     

Buy now?
Prices could change again, but my advice to readers is now to buy any and all heirlooms you can afford if you have any interest in using them.  The worst thing that can happen if you do this is for you to end up with a full arsenal of heirlooms.  The alternative is a real risk that these items will be harder to obtain in the future. 

I've got several hundred emblems on my mage right now, which will net me either half a dozen heirlooms or a single piece of patch 4.0 level 85 dungeon gear.  The heirlooms will stay with my account indefinitely, while the gear will presumably be trashed in patch 4.1.  Frequent dungeon runners will still end up with heirlooms because of the hard cap on Justice Points, but these players have even less of a need to have a piece of gear waiting for them as a reward for past efforts. 

Finally, anyone looking to cash out Stone Keeper Shards should bear in mind that these can only redeemed when your faction controls Wintergrasp.  Don't wait til the last minute if your faction loses the majority of Wintergrasp battles. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Brewfest 2010 Haul

This year's uninspiring edition of Brewfest will draw to a close tomorrow morning before daily dungeon quests reset, marking the final chance to zerg Coren Direbrew for the year.  My two characters each killed Direbrew the requisite 16 times, generally in under 30 seconds per kill.  (I'm not sure whether this year's 32 kills is more or less than last year, since last year's version had players kill Direbrew five times per run.)  This yielded 32 emblems of frost for each character, which will convert into 370.56 Justice Points, possibly as early as next Tuesday.

My mage, who owns the ram from the 2007 guaranteed ram racing event, received three of the now-worthless remote control that was previously used to teleport to Direbrew's lair (before the dungeon finder did that for you).  I saved one as a souvenir.  I also netted two of Direbrew's previously rare BOE epic maces, which I suppose I'll save in case I ever have an Alliance character high enough to use them. 

My warrior, who dinged 80 during the event, lucked out and received the coveted Brewfest Kodo mount.  On one level, this is a huge waste, as the character in question is a Tauren with access to all the other Kodos he could want.  On the other hand, the Brew Kodo looks much cooler than the other Kodos that are available, and it seems like Blizzard set player height such that a Tauren on their own racial mount is less likely to hit their head on a doorjam and have to dismount than a Tauren on, say, a giant raptor.  The warrior also netted some trinkets that he actually uses simply because his gear is not yet that impressive.

Overall, I'm not sure what to make of the haul.  Though the fight is trivially easy, none of the rewards are exactly game breaking, especially two months out from an expansion gear reset.  Guess we'll see what happens next year.

Cataclysm Digital Download, War On Retailers?

WoW's Cataclysm finally has a release date, December 7th 2010.  If you compare the press release to the announcement for Wrath two years ago, you will notice a small but significant difference. 
"The expansion will be available on DVD-ROM for Windows® XP/Windows Vista®/Windows® 7 and Macintosh® at a suggested retail price of $39.99 and will also be offered as a digital download from the Blizzard Store."
For most players, this means very little.  Personally, the DVD drive on my gaming machine is broken, so I'm probably going to take Blizzard up on this offer even if it means not having a box to set on the shelf with my other WoW packaging.  For retailers, though, this may mean war.

Both previous WoW expansions were not available as a digital download on launch day.  This means that Blizzard had to share the launch revenue of these expansions with a variety of middle men, from the guys who manufacture the boxes to the shippers and distributors to the actual retail store that ultimately sold the game.  For Cataclysm, all the revenue will go straight to Blizzard - they won't even pay for the majority of the bandwidth, since they managed to set a precedent six years ago of using the customers own bandwidth to serve patches. 

The Retailer's Dilemma
This will put retailers in an interesting position.  On the one hand, the older expansions are apparently still selling in large enough numbers that every store that carries any PC games carries them.  Blizzard has not announced plans to obsolete the old expansion boxes by offering an all-in-one box like other games (such as EQ1/2 and LOTRO) have done. 

That said, stores generally don't get a cut of the recurring revenue from subscriptions, excepting the portion of players who use time cards.  Instead, they lose revenue from players who stay subscribed to WoW instead of buying other new games from the retailer. 

Don't get me wrong, it's certainly going to be possible to walk into a store on December 7th and pick up a copy of Cataclysm.  Whether or not they like what Acti-Blizzard has done here, Cataclysm may be the biggest selling game of the year, and they'd be hurting themselves by sitting out the expansion launch.  The question is whether they will continue to allocate as much shelf space as they do to the game's four boxes even as Blizzard takes greater efforts to promote digital downloads, or whether stores will let their current stock run out and cut shelf space accordingly. 

Do MMO's Need Shelf Space?
In the end, there's an open question of how much retail space actually matters. 

SOE clearly thinks that it does matter, as they made a point of delaying the digital version of the latest EQ2 expansion by a week to encourage stores to stock it.  In my view, the gesture was half-hearted.  The all-in-one box obsoleted all previous SKU's of the game currently on store shelves, one of which had been released less than six months prior.  SOE also included a coupon for $10 off the digital download of the expansion in the retail box, to encourage players with friends or multiple accounts to take their business straight to the source after buying a token box from a retailer - perhaps they make more off of a $30 digital download than a $40 retail sale.  Retailers apparently were fooled, though, as I've seen many more unsold copies of TSF on shelves than previous expansions, all of which will be obsolete in five months. 

Then again, the EQ2 story raises the question of whether MMO's, which are inherently online only, actually do get a lot of walk up impulse purchase traffic.  How many of these boxes are actually sold to new players, and how many were bought up on sale months later by knowledgeable players when the full priced digital download cost more?  Perhaps a lapsed subscriber might see a new box someday and decide to try the game out, but otherwise the commitment required for MMO's tends to draw a more informed consumer.

Especially in Blizzard's case, it's possible that the stores need the sales more than WoW needs the store.