Sunday, January 30, 2011

(Re-)Visiting New And Old

I had the pleasure of spending a bit over three days without power last week thanks to five inches of snow and one incompetent local power company.  Book-ending that experience, my Warrior finished up the main quest arc of Hyjal and the achievement for WoW's Lunar festival.

I had my choice of three quests to turn in for this achievement.  I chose the outhouse for the screenshot, in Syp's honor.

Hyjal's a pretty good zone, and its plot is actually relevant to the expansion in a way that Vashj'ir doesn't seem to manage.  That said, the two are obviously from the same era of WoW quest design, with a highly linear quest path, heavy use of phasing to change the landscape as you travel along, and the occasional vehicle combat gimmick or three for a change of pace.  In any case, the reason I was working on the zone was to pick up some exp and gear for the Lunar Festival. 

WoW's Lunar Festival is one of several world events that feature globe-spanning scavenger hunts.  In this case, ancestral elders bearing coins are found scattered around the world, including some Wrath-era 5-man instances.  I'm reasonably fond of these events, since they provide an excuse to return to a variety of older content, however briefly.  (I soloed a fair number of coins, but I did eventually use the dungeon finder to get heroic dungeon groups for the last few.) 

In some ways, both the nostalgia coin hunt and the new questing zones are sightseeing tours.  Actually killing stuff happens incidentally to seeing the sights, but it doesn't necessarily feel like the point.  In Hyjal, Blizzard is telling a story, while the Lunar Festival invites veterans to recall their own tales from their past visits to these locations.  I suppose that this is a logical progression for the direction of the game in general - and pulling the staggering numbers former WoW players back in for the occasional visit - but it does seem odd that the core combat mechanics aren't really the point of the solo game anymore.  
Another world event down, these are all generally less painful than they were in 2009.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How Long Should UI/Features Take?

The striking thing about Rift's beta events is how rapidly the developers have been adding things in response to player feedback.  Are they demonstrating remarkable adaptability, or have we as players allowed the industry to get too complacent about the time they can take to improve their products? 

Things that have changed in the week and a half since the last build include:
  • Addition of a badly needed public grouping system to go with the rift/invasion system (which drops group content on players who might not be grouped)
  • Consolidation of Rift currency tokens
  • A new character sheet that will, in the future, store titles, mounts, and collections
From the outside, we can't be sure which of these features were already in the works (e.g. because they weren't ready for testing) and which were actually implemented in the last two weeks.  All of the above are major quality of life issues that have been addressed in Rift's various competitors for years now.  Perhaps deliberately opening the beta without these items was an intentional marketing move intended to impress the community with Trion's responsiveness.  (They've got Pete convinced that they're now too responsive.)

Then again, how hard were any of these changes?  The public group button is elegant in its functionality (and superior to Mythic's original version - e.g. automatically merging two groups if space permits), but all it really does is expand traditional raid assistant group inviting privileges to anyone who happens to be nearby.  Fan UI modders routinely create things like reorganized character sheet skins rapidly, and without being paid to do so.  Consolidating storage is not something that players can do, but turning physical items into spells or lines of character sheet data actually saves server space, because at least the game no longer needs to store which bagslot the item is stored in. 

It's just interesting to me that we don't think twice when something like a mount storage panel is a major announced feature of a quarterly patch in another MMO, but Trion somehow drops it in somewhere between betas.  Have they really built an infrastructure that is so much faster and more responsive?  Or are we routinely waiting months for other studios to patch in days worth of work? 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Encourage Heals With Fun

Last night, I equipped my Discipline priest with all the heirlooms I don't usually use for solo content because they make things too easy.  I bought up some stacks of water (which I didn't end up needing), set some keybindings, and told my twitter followers that I'd miss them if I didn't make it out alive. Then I clicked the "healer" button on the dungeon finder, and signed up to be the healer in a WoW dungeon.

Healing through DPS

I was out to test the new smite-healing spec.  With a combination of talents and glyphs, the Discipline priest converts their smite spell from a modest nuke into a smart heal that never misses, can be spammed indefinitely, generates mana and a healing buff, and incidentally still does modest amounts of damage. 

The intent appears to be a character that plays like a DPS who is doing a bit of off-healing on the side.  The smite spam deals with topping off incidental damage to the party, so you're only watching for situations that require more attention (e.g. an instant Power Word: Shield followed by a Penace instant/channeled heal).  It's not any more difficult to play than being a DPS was back in my raiding days, when I had to keep myself out of the fire and occasionally watch the raid for curses to remove.  If anything, it was a bit too effective, in that I really could have coasted through the instance (Scarlet Monestary GY on level) by just spamming the smite key.

Incentives will not motivate DPS to heal...
Before Tobold dragged 18th century German Philosopher Immanuel Kant into a discussion on whether it's morally wrong to queue for WoW dungeons as a DPS, he suggested that "Blizzard isn't rewarding tanks and healers enough for taking their social responsibility".  I Kant say I'm qualified to evaluate the philosophical question, but the incentive question is more my area, and I don't think Tobold's idea is going to work.  

Tobold doesn't specify exactly what reward he would like Blizzard to hand out to good team players, but I'm presuming he means loot since tanks and healers already have shorter queue times, and since he suggests that Blizzard could alternately dock rewards for overpopulated roles (DPS).  The recent history of MMO's in general, and WoW in particular, suggests that loot is particularly ill-suited to this goal. 

For example, PVP rewards have been effective in getting players to AFK instanced battlegrounds, but have done very little to encourage players to cooperate with a team in the hopes of actually winning the battleground match.  In fact, just last month Blizzard managed to demonstrate that a large enough honor reward will convince players to deliberately throw world PVP matches without any in-game means of communicating their intent to do so to the other faction. 

Lest you think that this trend is specific to PVP, you need look no further than the PVE dungeon finder.  Raid quality loot was able to motivate players to zerg down trivial Wrath-era heroics with complete strangers each and every day for a year, but it did absolutely nothing to convince players that they want any part of this activity if it actually becomes difficult or time consuming.  (Thus, the current situation.)  In fairness, the minimal need to actually tank and heal the mob probably ensures that players won't be able to AFK their way to the Tobold bonus, but I have every confidence that WoW's exploitative community will find a way to subvert any system that Blizzard implemented in this department. 

(Perhaps a trio of hybrid characters can run the dungeon as DPS and votekick the tank and healer with the final boss at 1%, nominating themselves as the new tank and healers to ninja the bonus loot?  Stranger schemes have been tried.  A more pedestrian approach might simply be to ignore Heroics for a patch or two until they can be trivialized with raid gear, which seems to be more or less what's actually happening.)

... But making healing fun might.
All of which brings us back to WoW's discipline priest, which is actually in good company these days.  Rift has at least two souls that I'm aware of - the Rogue Bard and the Mage Chloromancer - that also heal by doing ranged DPS, and I think there's a melee healer in there somewhere.  Warhammer also put a fair amount of work into DPS-like healer archetypes.  I seem to recall hearing that Guild Wars 2 was going to eliminate dedicated healing altogether, though I haven't been following that plan closely enough to know if it's still being implemented. 

(Interestingly, the Warhammer Chaos Zealot is the only other class I've ever actually used to heal in an MMO, and it also focused on instant casts.  This makes me wonder if my main reservation about healing is a UI issue; let me ignore a few of the health bars with a smart heal, or remove some of the lag between when I notice someone is taking damage and when they start regaining HP by letting me use instant cast spells, and I actually start to enjoy healing..) 

As long as this particular spec remains viable, I am never going to queue this character as a DPS instead of a healer.  This is not because of the queue times (which don't bother me while leveling alts, since I can usually go level while I wait) or because of the incentives (which are identical), but because I enjoyed this particular style of healing more than DPS.  Somehow, approaching the tank and healer shortage by addressing the design issues that make these roles less fun to play seems more productive than branding the majority (60+%) of players as selfish and immoral for failing to enjoy the current design of tanking and healing in MMO's.

Immanuel Kant may or may not believe that it is immoral for a gnome mage to use the dungeon finder, because he cannot switch to another role to meet the group's needs. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

PVD Sidelined

I've been sidelined the last few days by the notorious Alienware M11x hinge issue; I was actually preparing to give the little guy a good review until the hinge broke at about the 3 month mark, leaving me without my primary gaming machine. I'll probably post an update if/when the situation is resolved.

The good news is that I've cobbled together a solution to get back into game in the short term.  Unfortunately, because I had just wrapped up a relatively major project in writing a catalog of the Cataclysm old world revamp, I don't really have anything new to report in-game.  I'm not that excited about writing business model analysis on whatever happens to be in the news this week just to put something up on the blog, so things might be quiet here for a bit until I can get re-situated.

In the mean time, may all of your gaming machines find this post in better health than mine.  :)  


Friday, January 14, 2011

Belated 2011 Predictions

Many bloggers spend late December and early January making predictions for the new year.  It's a time-honored tradition that creates filler topics for next year's holiday season about how badly our predictions fared.  (If we were good at this sort of thing, we'd be placing our bets on MMO company stocks instead of posting them.)  A few of us have even moved beyond predictions - a nefarious character known to Wordpress only as Wilhelm2451 issued a series of demands to MMO studios earlier this month.  

Personally, I haven't done predictions in the past, saving my comically inaccurate guesses for Blizzcon.  This year, though, a few things I've read and heard in OTHER peoples' predictions have convinced me to write a few of my own.

Surprise new MMO announcement
MMO Reporter's prediction episode had a category for announcements of new MMO's, but the round table somehow missed a big possibility: the rumored Turbine Harry Potter MMO.

Now that the MMO studio is owned by the movie studio responsible for releasing the final film this year, I don't see any way that this project - if it exists - stays un-announced.  Even if J.K. Rowling eventually decides to break down and write more books, I doubt that the hype on this series will ever get back to where it will be as the final film of the original series hits theaters.  Announcing this project - which some conspiracy theorists suggest is why WB decided they wanted to own Turbine in the first place - would naturally benefit from the film's advertising campaign.  Announcing it in 2012 or beyond will have a feeling that it's old news.

Incidentally, with respect to Turbine's accomplishments, I'm not sure that this particular IP is well suited to "kill 10 death-eater" quests.  If I were choosing a current MMO to copy paste Harry Potter into, I'd go with Eve.  Restrictions on the use of magic, especially where muggles can see, could mirror Eve's high/low security divide nicely, and it's not like there's a shortage of potential factions for players at Hogwarts.

Free to play switchovers and shutdowns
Syp asks which MMO will go free to play and which will shut down this year.  In the comments, STO is the leading contender for the former, and Vanguard has a decent number of votes for the latter.

STO is an obvious candidate for F2P because the backend is already built for Champions.  On top of that, so many people EXPECT the game to go F2P that it's current state of NOT being F2P may actually be harming it, as people wait for the switch to happen.  If I had to bet money on this question, I guess it's hard to argue with that logic.

Then again, STO is widely regarded as more successful than CO, which means it has more to lose if existing subscribers find a way to play for less on the cash shop model.  If Cryptic makes the popular weekly "episodes" into DDO-style cash shop purchases, this could very easily happen.  I don't see a good way for this particular game to go F2P right now, though that hasn't stopped others from making the same jump.

As to Vanguard shutting down, I'm even more puzzled by that assertion.  It costs comparatively little to keep a single server running, and it isn't a licensed IP that costs Sony additional money (like Matrix Online, the major SOE game to be axed so far).  I could see the game going without any updates, and sadly I can't see the game going free to play this year (unfortunate, because I'd be interested in trying it, but not for its current price in the same tier with WoW, EQ2, Rift, et al), but I predict that Vanguard will survive 2011. 

WoW going forward
My tongue in cheek public quest reaction aside, Tobold's unambitious WoW expansion predictions deserve attention based on his track record.

I don't think that public quests as implemented in Warhammer and Rift (and rumored for EQ2) are a direction Blizzard wants to go in.  Players complain about how no one spends time in the open world anymore, but players complain even more when something like Wintergrasp actually happens in the open world, bringing enough players into one location to crash the servers.  Everything that Blizzard has done since 2008 suggests that they're NOT looking to invite this kind of strain on their hardware.

Though PQ's can make the outside world more populated, the real selling point to the system is to offer the same group play experience typically found in dungeons, but without the logistical hassles or time commitment of traditional group play.  If queue times are manageable, the dungeon finder accomplishes these goals

As to the second half of 2012, that's another conservative bet that will probably pay off, though I wouldn't be shocked to see it come out earlier, perhaps as soon as May 2012 (which I guess is almost "second half") if they do stick to their plan of releasing only two content patches for Cataclysm. There's not much point in going to the effort of making heroic dungeons more difficult if they're going to be trivial for a year or more between patch 4.1 and the next expansion. 

Either way, I predict an expansion announcement at Blizzcon 2011 (they basically confirmed that they will hold one every year, major announcements or not), with no more than five additional levels (why go to so much trouble to reduce the talent trees only to add more points?).  Just to make extra sure I'm wrong, I'll predict that Nozdormu and the Infinite Dragonflight will be the major villians of the expansion.  There will be minor changes to Outland and Northrend to indicate that characters are now actually traveling to the past to prevent the Infinite Flight from altering the campaigns against Illidan and Arthas (nowhere near on the scale of the Cataclysm revamps).  

Cheating horribly to improve my accuracy rating
DCUO will release as scheduled on January 11th, 2011.  In other news, at least one thing that I've written in this post on January 14th will actually have occurred in 2011. :)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Details of WoW's Public Quests

Tobold predicts that WoW will get public quests in its next expansion, sometime in the second half of 2012.  Here are some details about Blizzard's implementation of PQ's:
  • The system has been in development since at least 2009, and perhaps was started in response to the original PQ system in Warhammer at its 2008 release.  
  • The system will feature an incentive structure that rewards players for teaming up to tackle scripted content that cannot be soloed.  Similar to Warhammer's "influence" system, every mob killed will award progress towards some rewards, which are handed out to anyone who accumulates a high enough "influence" score.  The most desired items will only be awarded if the group successfully completes the PQ, and only to the player(s) who wins the "vegas style" roll. 
  • Players will not need to manually invite others to their group, the system will handle that for them.  
  • The system will allow players to teleport to the PQ area, so that travel time is minimized.  
  • To ensure that players earn their rewards by facing appropriate difficulty, rather than zerging down the content with too many people, the system will cap groups at five players.  
  • The big issue that Blizzard is struggling with is class distribution.  A previous version of the system was highly popular but a bit too easy.  In the iteration of the system that Blizzard is currently testing, high difficulty is leaving tanks and healers reluctant to risk wasting time trying to complete PQ's in PUGs.  This leaves DPS waiting for an hour or more before there is room for them in a PQ group.  
PVD can confirm that Blizzard's top secret answer to the public quest has the code name "dungeon finder".  Blizzard appears to have screwed up their legendary secrecy, as an internal post by lead systems designer Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street describing the current testing woes was accidentally posted on the official WoW blog this week. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Cataclysm Old World Leveling Paths

One of the things that I've been wondering about was how many new alts it would take to see all the content of the revised old world in Cataclysm.  Having covered the newbie zones of Cataclysm, here's a listing and commentary on the zones of the revised old world (from 10-60). 

Overall, pretty much every zone has at least one new flight path.  With a few exceptions, the plan is for you to spend five levels in each zone.  You'll typically have 2-4 choices for any given level range.  In most cases, you can move on to the next zone a level early - if you find yourself several levels ahead of the curve as you finish an area, you can probably run a dungeon or two with the dungeon finder and then skip a zone to move on to the next five level tier.  Here's the rundown, based in part on the list of Horde and Alliance breadcrumb quests.

Levels 10-20
Alliance: Westfall/Redridge (humans), Darkshore (NE and Worgen), Loch Modan (Dwarves, Gnomes), and Bloodmyst (Draenei, presumably unchanged from TBC)
Horde: North Barrens (Orcs, Trolls, Tauren), Azshara (Goblins), Silverpine (Undead), and Ghostlands (Blood Elves, presumably unchanged from TBC)

The quirk with this level range is that you might be starting as early as level 9 (if you ditch the newbie zone the moment you qualify for the breadcrumb quest) or as late as level 13 (which I hit on some characters with rest exp, heirlooms, and exp for harvesting).  I find it interesting that the six non-TBC zones got some of the biggest and most dramatic geographic revisions of the Cataclysm.  Perhaps Blizzard decided that they had to show veterans changes early and often if they want them to stick with new alts to level 20? 

Levels 20-25
Ashenvale (both factions), Wetlands (Alliance), Duskwood (Alliance), Hillsbrad (Horde)

Though these zones are considered "contested" territory on PVP servers, the contest has been won in all but Ashenvale; the remaining three zones only offer quests for the closest side.  (From here on out, everyone shares all the zones.)  It's kind of unfortunate that the Horde bottlenecks into literally two choices so early in the level progression. 

I've actually done Duskwood on an old Discipline Priest alt.  All of the major plots from 2004 remain in the zone, they've just moved so that you don't have to run back and forth across the zone repeatedly.  

Levels 25-30
Stonetalon, Arathi, and North Stranglethorn Vale

I'm kind of looking forward to NSTV because I hear that there are quests in the former raid area of Zul'Gurub.  Otherwise, I can't say that any of these really interest me.

Levels 30-35
Desolace, Hinterlands, South Barrens, Cape of Stranglethorn (South STV)

This is the only range between 20-60 with four zone - more on this below.  The Alliance breadcrumb quest for South Barrens is a bit weird, in that there's no flight path or boat - you have to run/swim from either Ratchet or Theramore.  You'd think they could have chartered something for the occasion, given that the NPC is standing on what appears to be a dock. 

Levels 35-40
Ferelas, West Plaguelands, Dustwallow
WPL was just about the first place I went to visit when 4.03 went live.  The geography has not changed, but the zone has a completely re-written plot, many areas that are no longer plagued, and a variety of solo quests pitting players against the bosses of the Scholomance instance.

Levels 40-45
Thousand Needles, East Plaguelands

Here's another unfortunate level range with only two options.  Worse, IMO one of the options is way better than the other.

The Scourge-mopup operation in EPL is not as far along as the effort in WPL, so the zone looks very similar to how it did previously.  Also, this area probably holds the record for most flight paths in a single zone, since ALL of the former world PVP towers get their own neutral flight points. 

Meanwhile, TN was once a canyon and is now completely underwater.  Can't say this is going to be a very hard choice. 

Levels 45-50
Tanaris, Felwood, Badlands (45-47) + Searing Gorge (47-50)

Blizzard opted to deal with some of the sparser zones of the Central Eastern Kingdoms by having them span narrower level ranges.  The Badlands is supposedly amusing.

Levels 50-55
Un'goro, Winterspring, Burning Steppes (50-52) + Swamp of Sorrows (52-55)

This is another range that I'm just not that excited to see.  The geography is pretty much the same as it was, and there aren't any major changes in the balance of power (like, say, the Forsaken conquering Southshore). 

Levels 55-60 (or 58)
Silithus, Blasted Lands

There's only two options here, but you do have the option of moving on to Outland and the unchanged TBC content at 58 if you don't hate that entire expansion.  Also, you now get hit with a 90% exp penalty for mob kills once you exceed that expansion's level cap (60 in this case), and you can unlock flying mounts (usable in Azeroth if you have the Cataclysm expansion - note that everything else in this post is 100% available to players who do not own Cataclysm). 

I'm definitely more interested in the Blasted Lands, which got bumped up by 10 levels (while WPL and EPL got bumped down with the demise of Arthas) so that players can actually be standing at the Dark Portal when they reach the appropriate level.

A math error at Blizzard?
Loosely speaking, you're looking at two core paths that get you from level 25-60 using roughly adjacent zones: 
  • Kalimdor: Stonetalon, Desolace, Ferelas, Thousand Needles, Tanaris, Ungoro, Silithus
  • Eastern Kingdoms: Arathi, Hinterlands, WPL, EPL, Badlands, Searing Gorge, Burning Steppes, Swamp of Sorrows, Blasted Lands

There are also three little detours:
North+South STV (25-35)
South Barrens+Dustwallow (30-40)
Felwood+Winterspring (45-55)

Looking at it that way, I wonder if Blizzard screwed up the level ranges on South Barrens and Dustwallow; if these zones had instead run from 35-45, there'd be a complete third path from 25-55.  Now, there is instead an inexplicable glut of content from 30-35 and a painful gap from 40-45.  I suppose that you can make up the difference with the dungeon finder (or do the two STV's and then run all of South Barrens and Dustwallow over-level). 

One final note, Wowhead says there are about 2900 quests from levels 20 to 60, and about 900 of those are available to both factions (i.e. neutral questgivers).  This does not account for situations where the two factions have the same quest with different flavor text (and does catch some of the early TBC quests), but it gives you some idea of how much duplication you're going to see if you're playing all the paths on both sides. 

The answer:
So, how many leveling paths are there in the old world revamp?

12 paths to level 5 (2 unchanged from TBC)
10 paths to level 10 (2 unchanged from TBC)
8 paths to level 20 (2 unchanged from TBC)
5 paths to level 25
3-6 paths to level 55 (depending on how you're counting neutral quests)
2-4 paths from 55 to TBC

The odds that I'm going to end up with four new level 60's by the end of Cataclysm aren't great, but I suppose they're not zero either. 

Guide To WoW Cataclysm Newbie Area Revamps

I've finally "finished" my survey of the new level 1-11 content in Cataclysm.  If you're considering rolling up a new race and have no idea which way to go, there's a rundown.

The New (Worgens in Gilneas, Goblins in the Lost Isles)
Cataclysm added new introductory experiences for the new Goblin and Worgen races.  I don't say "new zones" because, like the starting storyline for Death Knights, these stories are ONLY available to newly created characters (who are not allowed into the "real" world until they finish them).  If you like the DK intro, or the linear quest style of the level 80+ zones in Cataclysm, these new areas are not to be missed.  If you dislike the "theme park", well, at least you'll be done in two hours or so? 

Many people like the Goblin story for its sheer uniqueness - there are a lot of vehicles and other gimmicks, along with a storyline that continues into the new Azshara.  For some reason, I wouldn't rate it so highly.  I don't know why - the content is pretty, and the comic relief fits with the personality of the race.  Somehow, it felt like I was spending more time watching travel than I did in other zones, and like almost every quest involved some gizmo from my amazing toolbelt.  Maybe I was just burned out by the time I got to this one (which I saved for last because it got such good reviews).

By contrast, I really enjoyed Gilneas, which I felt captured the feel of an old school werewolf story nicely, while bringing in clear reasons for the Worgen to side with the Alliance against the Horde.

The Abandoned (Eversong for Blood Elves, Azuremyst for Draenei)
It appears that these areas did not get significant attention for the Cataclysm.  Both have new voiceovers explaining what the races have been doing for their respective factions in the four years since TBC.  Azuremyst has at least one new flight point, and Eversong has two.  Unfortunately, it looks like that's where the changes ended.  I didn't see any new content in Eversong, and I gave up on my Draenei when I realized that all the quests were still set in the immediate aftermath of the crash of the Exodar four years ago.  (Sorry, gang, just didn't feel like doing that arc yet again, even for the blog.) 

On the plus side, these areas are both a bit less linear (especially Eversong) precisely because they're older, which I guess is good if you miss that sort of thing.  However, both areas are more isolated than ever now that lowbies from the other races get equal quality loot in their new areas.  The BE still at least have some personality, but the Draenei would have been better off if the Exodar had been destroyed in the Cataclysm so that they could start somewhere else (perhaps Elwynn?).   

The Half-Stories (Trolls in a corner of Durotar, Gnomes in a corner of Dun Morogh)
Both races get their own content from levels 1 through 5-6 before joining their Orc/Dwarf comrades on their leveling paths.  As with most new Cataclysm content, expect significant quality time with NPC voiceovers.  The intended epic feel of these stories is cut short by the abrupt endings; it's hard to build that much accomplishment into a story that ends at level five.  Also, I'm not a huge fan of the zones that either of these feed into.

The Revamps
The remaining six races got a range of updates.  There are limited changes to the geography.  (On the other hand, there appears to have been an conscious effort to Cata-splode all of the level 10-20 zones except for the abandoned TBC areas.)  All zones also got significant travel improvements - at least one new flight path, and often some one-way rides from one hub to the next to save some time running without a mount.  Some of the zones got a more dramatic scripted event as a finale.  The rundown:
  • Durotar (Orcs, later trolls): The level 1-5 section was completely untouched.  The north west chunk of the zone has been partially flooded, and feels poorly paced - you're sent on a long circuit around the area, but it's not clear what quests you need to do first, and I found myself outleveling them (perhaps because I went out of the "correct" order?).  Also, the zone storyline just ends with routine breadcrumbs to The Barrens.
  • Dun Morogh (Dwarves, later gnomes): Level 5 characters no longer need to run through the cave of troggs - an NPC gives you an airlift out of the starter valley.  Beyond that, the content seems to have gotten a fair amount of attention, but there's actually too much of it.  They could have easily left out at least one quest camp and still had enough exp to go around.  Instead, there are too many quests and you end up feeling dragged around by the nose as you go somewhere to be told that you only need to kill 6 rats (or whatever) before being sent on.  At least this zone does get a finale event. 

  • Teldrassil (Night Elves): The major change here is that there are no more quests that require players to run all the way back across the zone to talk to the dude by the lake in the far eastern corner.  Your quests will either be turned in near where you did the killing, or at the next hub.  Also, the zone has a finale event.  Considering that this was the most painful zone to start in previously due to insane travel, making it up to average status is a huge improvement.

  • Mulgore (Tauren): The story here is similar, many quests provide one-way travel on to the next location, and the zone got a finale event (before putting you on a flight path to Ogrimmar to hit The Barrens).  I've always loved the look of this zone, and now it's just a bit less painful on the travel.  That said, if you've done this zone before, you're probably going to find it very familiar. 

  • Elwynn Forest (Human): The newbie area has been attacked (and set ablaze) by Blackrock Orcs and Goblins.  I don't know if your average newbie realizes that these guys are NOT the factions in The Horde, but they're certainly more memorable than the previous residents of the area.  Travel time out to the lumber camp on the far east of the zone has been fixed with a much needed new flight path.  The finale is the most epic-est encounter that any level 11 will ever attempt and (possibly) survive. 

    Also, I might have been doing things wrong by trying this on a completely un-twinked warrior (a class that really suffers from outdated weapons), but this was far and away the zone that challenged me the most.  Elwynn seems to have more social mobs than most areas, there's a few areas even a perfect pull brings multiple mobs, and one quest target who has a whopping three helpers in his hut with him. 

  • Tirisfal Glades (Forsaken Undead): Among the existing zones, this was far and away the most dramatic revamp.  All of the lore has been re-written to accommodate the fall of the Lich King.  An additional mini-hub has been added to avoid some previously long travel time.  We get some new supporting characters who will apparently be following us to Silverpine.  Overall, I give this zone the highest marks, both for the improvements and for creating the most compelling storyline - if I had to delete ten of the eleven new characters I created for this exercise, the undead is the one storyline I would choose to continue.

Overall, I'm glad I went on this little project, and I hope that this info is at least somewhat useful to some of you who are considering new alts.  I should have a followup in the next day or so looking at the paths from 10-60 (no, I'm not planning on actually leveling characters through all of them). 

Monday, January 10, 2011

An Hour Of Rift Beta

 A variation on the theme of Lyriana, now with 100% more Razorbeast.

I got in the dreaded single hour of time with the Rift beta over the weekend - long enough for any thinking person to form an opinion and short enough for anyone who disagrees with that opinion to dismiss it as too hasty.  Overall, I'm reasonably convinced that there's at least a month's worth of high quality entertainment there, but I did not see anything to alleviate (or exacerbate) my concerns about the game's longevity

Smooth purchasing experience
Within two hours of clicking "purchase", I had received my game serial number, been invited to the ongoing beta event for the weekend, and downloaded the client.  (Direct 2 Drive's only contributions to this transaction were undercutting the official Trion store by 20% and offering up the 18 MB installer, which got the remaining files from wherever it gets them.)  That might not be quite as fast as you can enter Norrath or Azeroth with the respective streaming clients, but I'm still reasonably impressed; games have launched with worse account creation infrastructure. 

On the downside, like many MMO companies, Trion requires billing information and consent for recurring billing as a condition of letting you have the 30 days you paid for when you bought the game box.  At least the "remove payment method" button works as advertised. 

I can also confirm that you remain eligible to sign back up for the multi-month "founder's" subscription rate if you cancel your subscription, which means that you should be able to change your mind about which plan you want up til the March 15th deadline (and will then have the next two weeks before you're actually billed to decide to go back to month to month). Personally, I'm not sure that even $60/6 months is a gamble that most players are going to win, but at least you're not irrevocably locked in/out the minute you sign up. 

Not in Azeroth Anymore
In Azeroth, the exclamation point is not as shiny, and doesn't get to be enclosed in a green circle.

As promised, the first hour, which is basically what I got to see, is a linear series of quest hubs.  I rolled up a Defiant Bard/Ranger/Nightblade and got to level six, at which point Sarah Connor sent me back to save her son from Terminators Telara from the threat of Regulos.

The comparisons to Warhammer make a lot more sense now that I've seen the game.  The art style definitely reminds me more of that game, and the interface when you enter a rift almost identical to the Warhammer PQ interface (except without the option to join open groups, since Trion has yet to implement these).  The rifts I saw - one as part of the intro questline, and a second right next to where you zone in afterwards - were also very similar to PQ's, though the more experienced players say that these aren't "real" Rifts.

Unlike Warhammer, though, the solo PVE content is actually fun to play on its own merits.  (Unfortunately, also unlike Warhammer, Rift has implemented the scourge of NPC class trainers who demand nominal amounts of coin in exchange for training players in "rank 2+" of skills - see Zubon's KTR commentary on this topic.)  The rift content could fall flat on its face and I'd still be fine with paying to play as much of this stuff as Trion can release. 

Dabbling in souls
Because I was really pressed for time, and because the character is going to be wiped at the end of the betas anyway, I decided to save some indecision by rolling up a bard named Lyriana (as is traditional). 

Bards are the Rogue archetype off-healing spec; by level 6, my default attack was automatically regenerating my (solo) party's HP.  Unfortunately, like LOTRO's minstrel, most of these skills require the playing of a brief musical tune that is sure to get old eventually. 

Next, I added the Nightblade, a more traditional melee rogue with some elemental attacks mixed in for flavor.  This was a large disappointment.  Similar to Warhammer's mastery system, all your class abilities scale with the total number of "soul points" you have invested in that soul.  As a result, my fully upgraded bard abilities were always a better choice than my baseline melee attacks.  Also, the Nightblade doesn't actually get the stealth ability until four points into the tree (level 12, further than I was going to get this time out), so that choice was basically useless. 

With my final soul pick of the newbie area, I added the ranger, which is your stereotypical archer with pets.  Again, I never actually used the bow attacks because my (now self-healing) bard songs were more powerful, but the baseline boar pet was more than capable of holding aggro, and I never seriously felt threatened after that. 

The last experience highlights my general concern with the soul system - when developers offer a ton of options, some of them are going to end up significantly and obviously more powerful than others, making the remaining choices much less interesting.  Yes, I'm free to deliberately choose something different for the sake of challenge (e.g. my latest WoW alt, a Disc Priest who wears the statless festival outfits for armor), but it's nice if the game doesn't cease to be fun as a punishment for making good decisions. 

There's also the question of my "incorrect" choice of the Nightblade soul.  Perhaps I would have found a good way to use it somewhere down the line, when paired with later acquisitions.  Perhaps it won't really matter because everyone will eventually gain all eight of their archetype's souls anyway.  Perhaps the bard/ranger combination is so good for solo content that there's nothing you could put in the third slot that I would care about.  In the short term, though, I was left feeling that I had chosen poorly due to limited newbie information.

At the end of the day, there was more good than bad in this first, limited experience.  The game appears to actually deliver what it promises at the low end, and I'll definitely be curious to see how NPC invasions play out in practice. I'm still concerned that souls will be horribly unbalanced and invasions will get old quickly (Ravious @ KTR already writes about wondering if there's an end in sight during a long rift-closing session).  Even so, many games don't get far enough for the long term to matter, so this is progress.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Newbie Info Overload

I've been getting ready for the launches of Rift and DCUO by spending some time on the local wiki's (Telarapedia and the DCUO Wiki respectively).  This has me thinking about the amount of information that newbies need to get ASAP in a new game.

Rolling Up New Characters
When I ducked into DCUO's beta for an hour or so, I really felt that I didn't understand the choices I was being asked to make.  Which options affect gameplay, and which can be changed later?  No one wants to spend their first hour in game reading tooltips, but it's equally irritating to be hours into the game before you discover that your character doesn't do what you wanted it to because you made an incorrect choice before you knew better.

From what I can tell, DCUO has six character classes, all of whom have a DPS spec and one group role - Fire and Ice tank, Mental and Gadgets do CC, and Nature and Sorcery heal in their alternate roles.  I had absolutely no idea how this worked from the beta character generator.  Newbies are also asked to choose a combat style - such as martial arts, energy blasts, or dual swords, and a movement power.  Though I'm sure that these choices matter to min-maxers, they're not nearly as important as failing to realize that you've rolled up a tank. 

Rift has it easier in this department because at least their archetypes have the traditional MMO labels, but even then I've heard that "how do I replace a soul I don't like" is a common question in beta.  It's problematic that the answer is "you can't, but we'll let you get the rest of your archetype's souls if you keep playing for long enough". 

Showcasing your game
In a related topic, Pete at Dragonchasers and I have been going back and forth on how early Rift should actually hit players with Rifts.  My point is not that newbies should log in to see the tutorial tooltips abruptly cut off when rifts open and 100 elite mobs destroy the starting area.  On the other hand, players have to make decisions about whether to continue playing the game based on the information that's available to them at the time.  If you're going to advertise the game as "not in Azeroth anymore" (in fairness, this was marketing's decision, not the designers) you need to present the portion of the game that doesn't play like Azeroth as quickly as possible.

In an era where the default way into an MMO was to buy a box with a month of pre-paid time included, developers had the relative luxury of time to get new players situated.  Today, though, players are just as likely to wander by through a free trial (or open beta) feeling that the hours they spent on downloading the client were already a significant initial investment.  I don't know how you balance that against the reality that there are limits to how quickly you can present information.  Then again, with more and more options competing for less and less of my free time, I can't fault anyone who is very quick (yes, even within the first hour) to pull the plug on a game that doesn't somehow convey the crucial information fast enough. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Rift Digital CE For Less Than Regular Edition?

Syp observes that Trion is offering a digital version of Rift's Collector's Edition, handing out a mount, a pet, and a larger base backpack (!) for $10 more than the regular edition of the game.  (He comments that this seems like a bargain compared to the retail CE, which costs $20 more than the digital CE but only contains some physical goodies.) 

I'm not generally a fan of paying more for digital goodies; because I tend not to subscribe to all my MMO's at once, it makes much more sense to save the extra $10-30 to pay for an extra month of access to the whole game than to spend it on a perk that goes away with the rest of the game when my sub runs out.  However, Massively just posted about sale at Direct 2 Drive that offers the chance to both have and eat this particular piece of cake.  This weekend only, D2D is offering 20% off all MMO's, including preorders of the un-released DCUO and Rift.  The discount would presumably knock $12 off the price of the digital CE, which, at $48, would be cheaper than the regular edition at launch.  (The regular edition would be $40 during the sale.) 

I'm not a fan of the paid closed beta phase of MMO marketing, but Trion at least seems to have realized that taking money for access to beta and headstarts means that their "testers" are now officially customers; Brannagar had a good customer service experience with getting his pre-order key in time for this weekend's beta event.  Meanwhile, Trion's announced founder's multi-month discount pricing will be available until March 15th (two weeks after retail launch, three weeks after the headstart), which is encouraging in that it shows more confidence in the product than demanding long-term commitments before anyone has had the chance to play the game. 

In this context, I'm strongly considering picking up this particular pre-order sale.  Rift is probably a game that's better experienced at launch anyway due to larger populations for the scripted events.  If I was going to spend $50 on the regular box anyway, getting the digital CE bonuses for $48 is probably worth paying in advance for a pre-order. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Cataclysm Class Rotation Design

MMO-Champion held a contest for writing guides in their forums, and I've been reading through the winning DPS guides since I'm experimenting with so many specs at the moment.  I was struck by a common thread in the advice:
  • "Shadow Priests do not have a DPS "rotation" in a classical sense. Instead, we operate on a priority system, determined by which of our spells should be cast at a given time, given its supposed superior damage benefit over other spells." - Newnoise's Shadow Priest Guide
  • "In contrast to the Fury Warrior who has more of a preset rotation, the Arms Warrior's rotation is a priority based system that constantly fluctuates based upon inconsistant procs and abilities that pop up randomly throughout the rotation..." - Loto Bordeau's Arms Warrior PVE Guide
  • "Alright, the first thing you need to know about frost's rotation is that you're not casting spells in a repetitive cycle. You're conforming to a priority list." - The Ultimate Guide to Frost by Karrok
  • "Cats don't use a set ability rotation; instead we have a priority list of buffs/debuffs/abilities to use." - The Cat Guide, 4.0.3a edition by Mihir
I don't know enough about the endgame to tell whether these guys know their stuff or not, but my personal class impressions back them up; Blizzard seems to have gone out of their way to add some kind of reactive proc mechanic to DPS classes.

This approach makes sense because it provides more room for character performance to scale with player skill.  In a world where bosses like Patchwerk sit still and take whatever players are dishing out, gear and a pre-set rotation can account for the majority of player performance.  Moving to a world where players need to adjust their actions allows more room for superior skill to shine through.  (It also means that a subpar random DPS player in an automatically generated group might be that much further below what the dungeon was balanced for.) 

Then again, I'm also looking at these classes from the bottom up, as I play around with each at level one.  Everyone now has some way to restore HP to either themselves or their pets, generally pretty early on in their character's lives.  The casters all have a spammable nuke and the melee all have an instant attack of some sort.  Everyone can now expect some sort of light-up proc that tells them to drop their bread and butter skills and use some more beneficial situational ability.  Though various classes get various buffs, it seems like these too have been shared around enough to make sure that most raids will have most of what they need without too much suffering. 

It's certainly possible that there are exceptions - the Arms guy says that Fury is EZ-mode, though I'd take that assessment more seriously if it came from an actual Fury player - but the result seems to be that you're getting a very similar play experience as you level.  There are still differences in feel - the hunter's focus mechanic is different, some of the healer DPS specs are locked out of healing by stances, etc - but I wonder whether the similarities are going to start standing out more if and when players spend more attention on rolling up alts.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Blackrock Espionage

That's an interesting patch of grass you're looking at there, really, but maybe you'd rather find some higher ground?  Or point the telescope a bit upwards, towards our base?  Or not be chopped in half by my greatsword?  Not trying to tell you how to do your job or anything....

(In other news following up on yesterday's post, it looks like they have not updated the Draenei starting area beyond the addition of a flightmaster(s?).  The first quests are still set immediately after the crash of the Exodar, even though the new voiceover explains what the spacegoats have been up to since then.  No thanks, one more area off my list.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Shattering Month 1.5

It's been about a month since my last update on my post-Shattering army of WoW alts.  What has my $15 contribution to the Blizzard world domination fund accomplished this month?

  • Greenwiz, my Gnome Mage and nominal main, hit level 84, having cleared out Vashj'ir and done various other things that were neither questing nor extensive dungeon running.
  • Greenraven, my Tauren Warrior, hit level 82 after doing about half of the quests in Mount Hyjal and five Blackrock Caverns runs in pursuit of a hat for the Winter's Veil achievement.  
  • Tangleroot, previously level 9 Druid, advanced to level 16 (Balance), clearing out the remainder of Durotar and the pre-Crossroads portion of The Barrens.  Unlocked turquoise cat form and green bear form.  The enchanted heirloom staff is really killing the enjoyment of this character, as I routinely one-shot mobs with eclipsed Starsurge. 
  • Sorrowdusk, a new Undead Warlock, hit level 12 (Destruction) clearing out the revised Tirisfal (probably my favorite revamp of a pre-Cata newbie zone so far).
  • Seloxia, a new Blood Elf Priest, hit 11 (Discipline) with a number of quests yet to go in the zone.  In search of a way to challenge myself, my plan is for this character to actually wear the cosmetic holiday armor outfits.  This means I'm statistically (and cosmetically until the Lunar festival hits, since the Christmas outfit is underwear on females) naked, and actually finding a fair degree of challenge as a result.  Possibly the most fun I've had on any alt so far, even though the disorganized quests of Eversong appear to be all but unaltered.
  • Blackwold, a new Worgen Hunter, hit level 13 (Survival) while clearing out Gilneas. The scripted storyline is impressive, like most of the new Cataclysm content.
As it now stands, I still have three newbie zones left to go on my survey project (Goblin, Human, and Draenei).  I also have yet to see the majority of the new level 80+ solo content, even though I have one character most of the way to the cap.  Overall, I suppose the content is probably about where it should be; I've still got more stuff left to do in Cataclysm (albeit in part because I'm now running a second max level character) than I did a month into Wrath, and way more stuff to do if I actually continue to work on the new low level stuff.

I will note that I have long since given up on using heirlooms for my budding alt army because they break the difficulty curve.  That aside, I find it slightly mind-boggling that Blizzard designed the new content as a linear quest "theme park" but then set things so that the exp curve breaks if you ever log off (thereby earning rested exp).  Isn't the whole point of a theme park that you arrive at new quests at the appropriate level, rather than after you've greened them out?  I guess the current system is fine if you're just in it for the next level up message, but it's a bit disappointing if you're actually hoping to see the new content at an appropriate level.

(P.S. If anyone who plays Alliance on a US server wants a visit from yours truly, I'm out of slots for the Human and Draenei characters on Hyjal.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Do Flexible Classes Hurt Replay Value?

I've been rolling a bunch of low level WoW alts since the old world revamp, and I'm currently waffling on whether my Goblin should be my third hunter, my second shaman, or my second rogue.  WoW has twelve races, each of which has at least some new content in the 1-20 range.  It has only nine classes which start in that level range (since Death Knights still get a free pass to level 55), and I already had alts of most classes up to at least the 20's.  

In principle, each class has three talent trees that could broaden the options a bit.  Then again, do I really need to roll an Elemental (spell-casting) Shaman when I could instead respec my existing Enhancement (melee DPS) Shaman instead?  Do I need any new Warriors or Mages when my high level characters of both classes already get access to two of their three talent trees through dual specs?  

(Meanwhile, how will this affect Rift, which has only four base archetypes?  The game's soul system adds a lot of options to each individual character, but your fifth character will not be able to do anything that isn't already available to one of your existing soul-swaps.)

The philosophy behind this type of system is that increased access to group roles (especially while leveling) is worth any decrease in replay value.  For most players, that's probably a safe bet.  I just wonder if there is any way to mitigate this drawback to flexibility.