Monday, February 28, 2011

Rift At 20

I wrapped up the head start/launch weekend in Rift by hitting level 20.  I'm most of the way through the quests of Silverwood, and have done most of the local rift events at least once. 

Overall, I'm impressed with the game.  I have not encountered any obvious bugs or server issues.  I am waffling on whether to use the low quality rendering option, but a commenter correctly discerned that this is actually my fault - the CPU speed on my laptop is below the stated minimum specs of the game (1.73 GHz, with a requirement of 2.0).  I didn't even think to check those numbers because they're usually set laughably low - WoW at its launch minimum specs would have been a painful experience - and Trion gets points in my book for putting the bar at a point where the game actually runs in a state that you'd be willing to play it. 

One thing that is a bit disappointing is the realization that the zone I've already cleared is my only option for future Guardian alts.  Yes, the experience will play differently on future characters because of different numbers of invasions, rifts, etc.  Yes, it's vitally important that players not get scattered between so many zones that there aren't enough people around to do open world content (a major problem Warhammer faced).  Even so, I've already seen some of the zone-wide events multiple times, and I'm already shrugging when the giant Satyr with the AOE squirrel-morph ability attacks Argent Glade yet again.  I'd ordinarily keep my alts on the same server/faction, but going to the other side is tempting simply for variety.

(One actual functional complaint about zone invasions - it's not always easy to tell which of the invasions and rifts in the zone are part of the bigger event, and which are ongoing random incidents.  This kind of matters because I'm assuming that you only get contribution towards the purple Rift currency if the stuff you're fighting is actually part of the zone event.)

That said, replay value only matters because I'm looking forward to at least one re-roll to see how the other callings live.  This speaks to the high quality game that Trion has put together.  I also feel that I'd like to see whether/how the higher level dynamic content is different from the entry level stuff.  So far, most of the invasions and rifts that I've seen is relatively tank-and-spank (especially with large enough numbers of players present), and I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out at higher levels. 

Regardless, I'm definitely looking forward to at least one trip through Telara.  That may seem like a low bar, but it's actually a major accomplishment compared to what other games have managed for launch. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lighting Versus Stability

I'm generally not much of one to complain about graphics quality.  I'd like my games to run, and will make some compromises in visuals to have that happen.  Where I start to get unhappy is when it becomes hard to see.

The following screenshots show the difference between Rift's high and low quality rendering scheme. 
High Quality
Low Quality

The big difference is the lighting.  In the high quality image, the torch lights up the gazebo, while the low quality version just treats the torch as a shiny object.  The issue is far more pronounced indoors.
High Quality
Low Quality

Indoors, the very same scene becomes drastically darker - with lower ambient light, they're counting more on the torches actually working. 
In any normal situation - wandering around town, soloing, or even fighting a rift in a full raid group, my computer runs fine with the normal setting.  The place where I run into trouble is when I get near the main target of a large invasion event - in this case, with hundreds of mobs and players in the same area, the client sometimes crashes.  As of this evening, Trion seems to have fixed things so that at least you don't have to wait in the queue again if this happens, but it's still a bit irritating. 
The client itself isn't sure how to advise me on this dilemma.  When I open the program in low quality mode, I get a warning upon login that I'm going to have reduced quality as a result.  However, if an invasion crashes the client on normal quality mode, I can expect a tooltip the next time I log in suggesting that I switch down to the low quality version.  
Unfortunately, you can't switch without closing and restarting the client, and you don't always know when to expect an event that will be large enough to matter, so it's a tough call.  Do you want a slightly worse experience all the time to mitigate the relatively rare instance where things get out of hand?  Or does dropping out at some crucial moment outweigh missing out on the game's otherwise impressive graphics and muddling around in the dark?
On the plus side, at least these issues don't crash the server. Still, it's an unfortunate kind of choice to have to make, and perhaps a big part of why developers have shied away from this kind of large scale event of late.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Quick Rift Pre-launch Weekend Notes

I've gotten into the Rift Headstart, with a level 14 High Elf Cleric (14 Justicar, 2 Druid, 2 Sentinel) named Telhamat on the Byriel server.  Here's a few random thoughts from the weekend so far.
  • Queue Queue Moar:
    The queues are probably the story of the game so far - many new servers have been added, and Trion is plaintively asking players to actually use them.  Either the problem will fix itself with players quitting by the one-month mark, or there are going to be chronically overcrowded servers (especially Faeblight) for a long time going forward, because no one wants to move once they're set up camp on a popular server.  Personally, I put the time in queue to productive use prank calling the Rift Watchers hotline.  (The gang plots my demise at minute 26 of the linked episode.) 

  • Rifts/Invasions Are Everywhere
    People often compare Rifts to Warhammer Public Quests, but I think they've missed the broader point.  You might log in and find a quiet solo game that plays a fair amount like, well, Azeroth.  Come back in peak hours and you might be killed four times between the newbie camp and your faction's main city by level 18 invasions that are destroying the entire zone.  (This was my experience trekking across Silverwood on opening night to sign the charter for the Telara branch of Ferrel's guild, Iniquity.

    With Invasions, Trion has tried to create the "War is everywhere" feel that Mythic hoped RVR would bring to Warhammer.  It's not safe to AFK anywhere because invasions could get you (and it's not safe to log off, because the queue will get you - yes, going back to the character select screen sends you to the back of the line).  Because NPC's actually do what the developers want, in a way that players usually don't, it looks like they might suceed. 

  • Wait, I just got all the souls?
    Having experimented in beta, I was sure I wanted to start with Justicar, Druid, and Sentinel.  My fourth pick would be easy, because I'd debated between Purifier and Sentinel for the healing slot, and it's good to have both for your healing role anyway.  I wasn't sure what I'd want next... but it turns out to be a moot point because you get all five of the souls you didn't start with almost immediately upon hitting level 13.  The "quest" to obtain these souls requires you to participate in beating any rift, and then fighting a mob version of your desired soul (which your public rift group will generally do for you, if you click the item immediately after the rift closes). 

    The good news is that it's now basically impossible to find yourself with a build
    you don't enjoy playing.  Also, I didn't really care about several of the souls, and might not have bothered to chase them down if they were hard to obtain.  Even so, it seems a bit anticlimactic to have all of the souls at such a low level.
Overall, I'd say the launch is going well.  That said, I think I can probably get to level 50 before that first monthly bill comes due.  It's going to be very interesting to watch mid-level populations (especially on the new servers) as the population moves to the cap.  

    Thursday, February 24, 2011

    Predictable Blizzard Marketing Is Predictable

    "As long as we're digging in my 2008 archives, I suppose we can expect some patch 4.1 news around the February 24th Rift Headstart, since that's how Blizzard treated Warhammer."
    - Me, Feb 1

    "Patch 4.1 on PTR - Zul'aman and Zul'gurub are back!"
    - MMO-Champion, morning of February 24th.

    Wednesday, February 23, 2011

    Rift Server Choices

    I got asked today which server I'm going to be playing on when Rift arrives.  I did decide to go with my gut and roll Guardian on the more familiar PVE ruleset.  I liked the Guardian lore and feel better than the Defiant side, and I've never been that fond of open PVP.

    Guardian Side
    My current plan is to join Ferrel and Massively's Karen Bryan on Byriel, a US PVE server.  (Their group had previously been looking at Belmont, but I'm glad they switched - being on the first server in the alphabetical sort can end poorly.) Pahonix and The Grubs guild are also rolling on Byriel. 

    The US-RP server Faeblight seems to be a choice destination for Guardians and Defiants alike.  To my knowledge, the Guardian contingent includes Syp and Pete from Dragonchasers.  I'm neither for nor against the RP ruleset per se, but I don't want to be told that my server needs to be merged due to underpopulation but can't be merged due to the ruleset.

    (This concern results from a bad experience with underpopulation on EQ2's LDL server, which lived on for months after it had become uninhabitable because there was no RP server with room to take us.  SOE finally gave up and merged it with a regular PVE server this month.  The "good" news for Faeblight is that so many people are heading there that it looks more likely to become overcrowded than underpopulated.  I've also heard a rumor that it's one of the unofficial Penny Arcade servers.)

    Finally, if you're in the market for Guardian RP-PVP, Keen and Graav are taking their folks to the Guardian side of Sunrest (the US RP-PVP server).  I know they've had good success with their WoW guild, so this alone could be

    Defiant Side
    I know lots of people who have said that they plan to roll Defiant, but relatively few who have picked specific servers.  Here's what I know so far:
    I'll probably roll up a Defiant alt eventually, if just to see some of the content, so I'll definitely be interested to see where my readers are playing.

    Anyway, that's where I stand for now.  I will keep this updated and/or tweet tomorrow if/when I get settled in.  Also, feel free to leave a comment with your server, faction, and blog/guild if you'd like to be added to the above list.

    P.S. If you're looking for unofficial oceanic servers, Buboe says you're looking for Wolfsbane (PVE), Briarcliff (PVP), or the ever popular Faeblight (RP).  

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011

    Class Selection By Role Subtraction

    Like Spinks, I'm pondering what I'm going to do about a main character when Rift's headstart kicks off this week.   Historically, I've done pretty poorly in guesstimating which classes I will prefer in a new MMO.  That said, I'm writing down my Rift open beta class thoughts anyway so I can see how they compare to what I actually end up playing.

    The Two Honorable Mentions
    A quirk to today's flexible class systems is that in some ways you're choosing based on what you don't want to play (or at least are willing to forego) as by what you like.  For example:
    • Rift's warriors do some interesting things.  In a few examples, there is the anti-magic specialist Void Knight, the DPS Beastmaster with its off-tanking pet cat, or the highly mobile ranged elemental attacking Riftblade.  That said, warriors can't heal others and offer only limited support/utility.  If you're not looking to tank, you're just another DPS.  That's a bit of a liability in a game where you're probably going to run into open rift groups that have someone tanking but are struggling for heals. 
    • Ranged DPS pet classes always have an easy time leveling since they have a tanking pet they can hide behind.  Rift makes this even easier for the appropriate combinations (Rogues who take Ranger and Bard, Mages who take Chloromancer and either Necromancer or Elementalist) because these archetypes offer passive DPS smart healing.  You won't have to watch your pet's health, because you'll be topping it off automatically as you nuke, and you won't need to worry about aggro too much since your DPS will usually be slightly lower to account for the healing output.  No thanks.
    There are some interesting options elsewhere in the mage tree - for instance, both the Dominator (a CC specialist) and the Archon (buff/debuff specialist) have some interesting tricks, and even the Elementalist does a decent job of providing the player with offensive spells so that you're not left feeling like you're some NPC pet's sidekick.  Even so, mages can't melee (or tank) at all, and I hear underwhelming reviews of their damage potential, so I think I'll save that one for a future alt.

    The Top Contenders
    So, I'm left with the Rogue and the Cleric.

    Rogues do a bit of everything.  Beyond the smart-healing bard (which might be very useful in public rift groups, where you can't be sure who will have aggro or who else will be trying to heal them), I find the Riftstalker tanking soul intriguing.  Riftstalkers can turn their combo points into damage shields for extra durability and healing.  The other soul that stood out for me was the trap-based Saboteur.  If you're going to be tanking the mobs yourself anyway (which everyone does while solo), dropping traps at your feet seems like a good way to increase your AOE damage.  Also, throwing half a dozen explosive charges at a mob and then detonating them all at once is one of the more amusing combo mechanics in the game. 

    Priests also do a bit of everything, but with a major in healing and a minor in off-tanking (rather than the other way around).  The Justicar off-tanking soul does some passive self healing powered by life elemental attacks, including life spells you get from other souls (such as the healing/nuking Sentinel or Purifier).  Melee priests seem to like the elemental attacks of the Shaman, but I found that I was getting by alright with the Druid occupying the third slot with a mix of melee, ranged, healing, and a support-based pet. 

    In the end, I think I'm going to go with the Cleric to start with.  My favorite race, the high elves, comes with a minor bonus to the priest primary stat.  I'd like enough tank-ability to solo, but I'm more interested in healing than tanking in a group setting, and the Clerics definitely offer more options in that department (even if fewer involve smart healing).  The thing that's surprising about this decision process is that it's almost entirely driven by what I'm less interested in doing than by what I'm actively looking for. 

    Now watch me end up switching to a warrior in the first week, just because I said I wasn't that interested.  :)

    Sunday, February 20, 2011

    What Difference A Respec?

    I've spent the Rift open beta weekend finally doing some testing to see what I'd like to roll up when the retail servers arrive.  The exercise has left me simultaneously impressed and concerned about the variety of the soul system.

    Right Souls, Wrong Time
    I was curious to try then caster clerics, and a post by Ravious at Kill Ten Rats suggested that I pick up Inquisitor, Cabalist, and a misc healing soul. 

    So there I was, at level 4, with 3 points in Inq and 2 points in Cab.  My spell list consisted of a nuke, an AOE nuke, two dots, and a channeled spell that is nigh useless solo because you lose volleys whenever you get hit.  I could manage one mob, but aggroing a second mob pretty much meant my immediate demise. 

    Then I hit level 5 (gaining a point), picked up the Sentinel soul, and went to the trainer to respec.  When the dust settled, I had four points in Sentinel and 2 points in Inq.  The character lost the channeled spell, but picked up another nuke with a 30% snare, an instant heal, an instant damage attack, and an endurance buff. Suddenly, a single mob was easy, and even a second mob started to become manageable by applying dots and healing.  It was like getting an entirely new character in a single level up. 

    Know your roles?
    The soul system does look like it's going to be a lot of fun to play with; no matter how badly you bungle your character initially, there's probably going to be some combination that's actually usable.  Every single level potentially opens a previously impossible combination of abilities, especially as players get a larger pool of souls to choose from. 

    That said, first impressions in this system can be challenging, and the learning curve is a potential issue.  Based on my first attempt ("I'd like to be a caster priest, so I should take both caster priest souls"), I would have concluded that caster priests just aren't very good.  If I'd started with the other build, I might have reached the conclusion that the game is "too easy".  Throw in some of the inevitable balance issues (I think my Riftblade warrior did better ranged DPS than a mage I tried) and it could be a long time before things settle down in Telara.

    P.S. One of the more intriguing concepts is the Void Knight - a warrior tanking soul that specializes in destroying anything with a mana bar at the expense of not being able to use most of its abilities if there are no casters around to smite.  This just wouldn't be a viable class in a normal game, but Rift opens up its dual spec option early enough to have highly specialized souls. Again, time will tell whether having this degree of specialization causes problems for PVE (and/or PVP) balance.

    Friday, February 18, 2011

    Multiple Classes, Fewer Options?

    Massively reports that the US version of Runes of Magic will be adding an additional class option to its dual class system in April. 

    The present and the possibility
    Currently, each character has access to two of the game's eight classes (with a further restriction that two classes are exclusive to each race).  At any given time, one class is your primary and the other is your secondary, providing access to some of its basic skills and a handful of unique "elite" skills that can, in some cases, fundamentally change how the class plays.  For example, my Druid/Rogue learned a primary nuke spell powered by the Rogue's infinitely regenerating energy bar, rather than the druid's standard mana bar, leaving the entire blue bar for self-healing. 

    Massively's post repeats a rumor that the new system will actually give the player full or partial use of three classes at once, but the comments suggest a less balance-altering suggestion - apparently some international versions of the game currently allow characters to have ACCESS to three classes, while only permitting the USE of one primary and one secondary class at a time.  (This would explain the odd class-swapping UI - there's no reason why you'd ever want to do without a secondary class once you've earned the ability to use one, but the game makes you select your one and only second class from a pulldown menu when you switch them.)

    The three classes each have their own exp level, so players will have to obtain the exp to level the third class from one to the cap if they want to use it.  The devs are probably figuring on selling more exp potions this way, since that is one of their primary sources of revenue.  Storage could also be an issue for your third set of gear.  On the plus side, you could keep the third class separate for running low level group content, or playing with a static group.

    (The most efficient way to level the third class will probably involve using your existing high level classes to grind out some daily quests, and then switching over to your new low level class to turn them in for large exp awards - I was already running low on content in the 30/30 range with two classes, much less three.)

    In terms of options, players will be free to take the "optimal" secondary for their preferred role in group content and an additional class for other purposes (e.g. solo or PVP).  Alternately, a player could fit all three holy trinity archetypes on a single character (again, with a potential issue with gear storage). This also insulates you a bit against future nerfs - with six possible pairings, it's almost impossible for all of them to become unplayable.

    Butting heads with Rift?
    One commenter suggests that this move is intended to combat Rift's more versatile soul system.  I maintain that this change is more about selling more potions, storage, gear, etc than a direct competition.  Though both systems will give any one character access to about a quarter of all possible specs, Rift is designed to allow players to swap on the fly to up to four specs.  ROM still appears to be designed around less frequent changes. 

    That said, it will be interesting to see whether the addition of more options leaves one or both games feeling ironically like there is less variety left for future characters, when your first can fill just about any role with an appropriate spec switch.

    Thursday, February 17, 2011

    Auto-tweet spam to drown out grassroots?

    RiftJunkies reports that Trion has hit on an obvious idea that has to have their competitors kicking themselves for not having implemented it first.  The open beta build added an in-game twitter client that can post both pictures and screenshots. 

    The feature can be set to automatically tweet in-game achievements, labeled with the character name and the #rift hash tag.  The problem that RiftJunkies notes is that this tag was being used by regular players to post their thoughts on the game.  Though players can change the settings, many people will probably use the default option.  This could potentially make the hash tag useless for its original purpose, as it gets overwhelmed with achievement spam. 

    When people suggest that Rift may be getting overhyped, others argue that the hype is okay because it is legitimate grassroots buzz coming from real players.  Auto-tweets aren't exactly astro-turfing, but I wonder whether Trion (and the inevitable companies that imitate this feature) will regret diluting the buzz with material that's much more advertisement than authentic endorsement. 

    Wednesday, February 16, 2011

    Cooperative Versus Contested Open World Content

    Feldon's got a writeup of the EQ2 expansion beta.  One segment jumped out at me (underlined emphasis mine):
    "Public Quests is a ripoff homage to Rifts and Warhammer and lets you wander into a field of Giants and Dwarves fighting and contribute to the battle. The events scale depending on how many people are in the area of the event. If you’re solo, you get solo rewards. If you are several players, even if you’re not grouped, you get a group reward. This is the OPPOSITE of contested mobs. Everyone gets to loot the chest, whether you are grouped or not. If 24 players show up, the raid loot starts dropping. Now, this loot doesn’t have all the effects and adornment slots on it you might be hoping for, but it could be a good stepping stone if you are behind on gearing up."
    As a bit of background, contested open world raid content was the most prestigious content in EQ2 up until relatively recently.  In general, this content would be locked down by one or two top guilds - the nature of the beast is that guilds that might have the requisite skill to beat the content will never get the opportunity because they're not online at the random hours when the mob happens to respawn. 

    Much as EQ1 veterans may like the old school contested approach, the fact is that the content - and associated rewards - might as well not have been in the game for the overwhelming majority of the server population.  The result is that the majority of players had no reason to waste their time trying, which made the non-instanced content no longer worth the development resources required to maintain it. 

    After a year plus of this situation, SOE appears to have come up with a plan to reverse the trend.  While the Public Quest may not be an entirely original idea, the implementation is interesting.  Warhammer public quests dropped a greater quantity of loot when more players were present, but the content was relatively static - with too few players, it was more difficult, and with too many it could become too easy, but the highest quality of loot was constant in either case.  The result was relatively little incentive for players to congregate at any one public quest site. 

    By contrast, the EQ2 version is, as Feldon says, the opposite of contested, but rather cooperative.  When players see a PQ up and running, they have an incentive to participate, and bring their friends in the hopes of getting otherwise unattainable loot.  Rather than being exclusive to a tiny minority, the goal is to be inclusive of a large enough population to actually justify its existence. 

    I don't know whether the system will live up to its design in practice, but it's definitely a different perspective.  Players have complained that modern EQ2 offers too little content in the open world and too little reason for solo players to group up.  On paper, their take on the PQ might help address both issues.  Unfortunately for the EQ2 team's efforts, the feature arrives on the day that Rift launches with an entire game focused on this concept.  Somehow, I suspect that SOE's seeming rush to have Velious boxes in stores a week earlier (as Rift players happily log into their pre-order access) may be too little too late. 

    Tuesday, February 15, 2011

    The Curious $10 Multi-Month Deal

    I learned from the latest episode of the DCUO-Unlimited podcast that the game is currently offering a discount subscription plan that comes out to something like $30/month.  While it's possibly telling that I didn't hear about this promo for a week after it rolled out (it's supposedly good through the end of the month), this type of rate is now increasingly standard.

    Back in 2007, LOTRO launched with $10 monthly pre-order pricing.  (The game has offered $30/3 month plans nigh continuously since then.)  In the last few years, we're seeing this type of deal more and more frequently, including on brand new releases - I don't remember what STO did, but Cryptic's CO launched with a $60/6 month package, and Trion is offering that price for Rift. 

    On one hand, the buyer should beware of some of the lengthier commitments - despite what MMO marketing departments tell you, these rates can work out to significantly more than $10/month if you don't end up playing full-time for that entire half-year.  (My guess is that publishers approve these sales because they like their odds.)  On the other, this trend has now carried over to too many big budget, high priority titles from too many studios to be purely driven by cynicism that the product isn't actually worth full price.

    My guess has always been that development costs have been going up, while prices and subscriber numbers for successful MMO's have hovered in about the same range.  That would suggest that studios are feeling pressure to make more money through their subscription fees, especially if they're not offering a cash shop to supplement their income.  Instead, they're seemingly lowering their prices.    Maybe even us cynics underestimate how likely the player is to lose in the long run when they sign up for a six month subscription, or maybe there's something else going on here. 

    I suppose I should be worried - the old saying goes that if you can't figure out who the sucker in the deal is, it's probably you. 

    Sunday, February 13, 2011

    Are Player Factions Worthwhile?

    The guys at Rift Watchers are starting an RP-PVP guild when the game finally makes its debut.  Personally, I've never been that fond of the PVP ruleset, but I might be willing to give it a try - perhaps pressure to make myself a less attractive target to gankers would encourage me to group more.  There's only one minor problem.  They're rolling Defiant, and my limited experiences so far in game are telling me that I'd rather roll Guardian. 

    Building the lore....
    In an interview with the lore leads for the game's two factions, Trion told the RW crew that the best faction is the one that each individual player enjoys the most. 

    I tried Defiant first, and wasn't that impressed.  The whole "look at us, we're rebellious and challenge authority" attitude feels cliched, and the faction's introductory storyline features a contrived time travel plot that doesn't appear to explain how the Defiant can have any player characters who weren't physically present with the player when they personally hit level 6 (since the portal to the past appears to be open for just long enough for the player's party to jump through).

    In fairness, the Guardian story has its share of fantasy cliches as well.  Somehow, I just preferred the feel of the faction, which I suppose is precisely what Trion's lore team worked so hard to accomplish.  Players should not only identify with their faction but actually feel a stake in beating the other side - and not just because they happen to be sitting on some in-game bonus that players would like to capture for themselves.  That said, has Trion done the job of making the factions stand apart a little too well? separating people?
    EQ2 nominally has two factions, and I'm sure that some people really care about the respective lore, but I'll concede that I don't really care.  Players are free to group and guild with characters from the other side, and it's left to the individual to decide whether and how to address the good versus evil conflict.   As long as you're on the correct server (and it isn't the game's sole surviving PVP server), you can play with your friends, even if your character races are incompatible in the lore. 

    By contrast, a hard split between factions, as in WoW, Warhammer, or Rift, does the game no favors when it comes to gameplay.  WoW in particular hasn't done much to justify segregating the playerbase.  Unlike Warhammer, open PVP between factions was not a major factor in Azeroth in recent years.  WoW's last two expansions featured neutral cities, neutral factions, and enemies that both of the two warring factions wanted dead.  The flavor text was different, but it often felt that there was no good reason why we shouldn't be able to join our friends on a raid against common foes - indeed, the two sides attempted just that during the famous Wrathgate cinematic, straight from Blizzard. 

    To the extent that Trion succeeds in making the faction lore matter, they add yet another factor - Defiant or Guardian - to servers and levels and itemization as reasons why players in a supposedly social genre are prevented from playing with their friends.  If they don't succeed, though, they incur all the costs of having two factions without the benefit of a more immersive world.  Right now, it's feeling like a lose/lose situation.  I wonder whether Trion will wish in the long run that they'd gone with a more permissive lore.

    Thursday, February 10, 2011

    Revamping WoW's Valentine Event

    The WoW Valentine's Event of 2009 was so bad that I literally quit WoW to play EQ2 after spending an entire weekend "two-boxing" a free EQ2 trial on one computer while logging into WoW to fail to loot a candy heart once an hour on my backup laptop.  I declined to come back to see the 2010 revamp, so this week was my first trip through the updated holiday. 

    If you failed to heed my advice to snag a bouquet from a trivial Wrath-era dungeon before they finished updating the event, you will need a level 80+ character to farm one from the new Cataclysm five-mans.  All of the other achievements are earned via daily quest tokens.  My Warrior went from zero to complete inside of five days, and the holiday now spans a full two weeks.  Some achievements, including the notorious candy hearts, are technically RNG dependent, but the threat is that you'll have to wait one more day, not that you'll fail to complete the event.  I even snagged the previously RNG-only Peedlefeet minipet on my mage, which cost less than two days' worth of tokens. 

    (It's also possible to clear the event more quickly if you do a good job of getting stuff you need from other players and saving your soulbound tokens for stuff that you must buy for yourself.)  

    In the aftermath of the 2009 event, I speculated that Blizzard had intended for most players who attempted the Violet Proto-drake grind to fail, in order to keep the then coveted reward rare.  Today, the pendulum has swung full circle; all the achievements I have tried so far have been quick and easy, and anyone who doesn't want to bother can simply buy the mount speed upgrade for 5000G.

    Perhaps this reward should never have been attached to a holiday achievement in the first place, as it's arguably "too good" for the effort required today.  Either way, world events in WoW are now much closer to the far superior ones in EQ2; fun distractions rather than stressful grinds.  Limited time events aren't an appropriate venue for lengthy time investment with a significant chance of failure for reasons beyond the player's control. 

    Monday, February 7, 2011

    Telara's Honeymoon Over At T-Minus Two Weeks?

    I snagged the "digital collector's edition" of Rift when it went on sale for a significant discount a few weeks back. It was only with this weekend's final "closed" beta event that I learned what I had actually purchased.

    In addition to the semi-traditional cosmetic minipet, the CE flags all the characters on your account for a free turtle mount.  The current beta push removed the level restriction on all entry level mounts (previously level 20), so CE purchasers can have their mounts as soon as they can reach a mailbox.  Non-CE purchasers reportedly have to cough up two plat worth of in-game currency for the comparable in-game versions.

    (The future gold spammers of Telara would like to take this opportunity to thank Trion for dangling highly desired in-game perks in front of players at a point before they will have legitimately earned the money to purchase them - in related news, your third "role" costs 4 plat, and I assume that the fourth one costs even more.) 

    The Details Go Downhill From Here?
    If Trion announced a cash shop tomorrow, and said that the first offering was a package containing the mount, the pet, and a four-slot upgrade to your backpack space (which may or may not be upgradeable by other means) for $10, the reaction most likely would not be positive.  The only difference between the cash shop plan and what Trion has actually done with the digital CE (which contains nothing to actually collect) is that anyone who has already purchased the non-CE version is unable to pay for the upgrade later.  How long will Telara remain without a cash shop, when they can spin it as something that at least some players who passed on the digital CE actually want?

    CE vs Cash Shop aside, my point is that the curtain is about to be drawn back on Rift as it actually is, rather than how its' top-notch marketing campaign has portrayed it.  No one is talking about how the game apparently will not include max level content in it's final beta event next week, and continues to maintain an NDA on its "simultaneous alpha".  The last major MMO I can think of that did not drop the NDA for its endgame testers up to and past the open beta was Warhammer, and that proved to be a harbinger of exactly how un-prepared Mythic was for its endgame. 

    I've been saying for months now that the most obvious concerns with Rift's staying power are not likely to be apparent from first impressions at press events or carefully controlled and staged beta windows.  What I wasn't expecting was to see the honeymoon come screeching to a halt before the game even hits its "early start" pre-launch.  Now, Syp's wondering if the game is getting overhyped and Pete, formerly a staunch supporter, wants a "classic" server with the beta two build from December.

    If this is where we are before the open beta even starts, things might get very ugly around March 30th when those first subscriptions come due. 

    Sunday, February 6, 2011

    WoW Valentine's Bugfail

    WoW's Valentine's event is up and running with a variety of bugs of moderate severity because the event apparently wasn't updated to account for the new expansion.  Most are expected to be fixed by Tuesday's patch. 

    One thing that isn't on the list but might be a bug is the bouquet of roses, which only drops from a handful of 5-man instance bosses... in old Wrath era dungeons.  The easiest, the first boss of UK, can be easily soloed on normal mode by most, if not all, level 80+ characters.  Soloing this means not having to look for a group and rolling five ways to see who gets the bouquet (after which some groups will literally disband, to the chagrin of anyone who wanted to complete the dungeon).

    My guess is that this was not intended, and that the bouquet drop will be moved to Cataclysm five-man dungeons as soon as Blizzard can manage.  If you're in the market for a bouquet, I'd fly to UK with all due speed before this gets fixed. 

    Friday, February 4, 2011

    Short Term Goals For New 85's

    Spinks argues that a shift to shorter term goals may be endangering WoW's retention time.  What exactly are the short term goals for a new level 85 (such as myself)?
    • Finish Cataclysm Quest Zones: Depending on how you leveled, you probably have one or more Cataclysm zones worth of quests available.  If you haven't done Twilight Highlands (and possibly Uldum), there are probably gear upgrades to be had.  You might be able to snag rep rewards (and therefore additional gear), along with cash.  You might also have the chance to snag tradeskill materials - in particular, enchanters will find a fair number of quest rewards to disenchant. 

      (Personal Status: My main has about 90% of Hyjal and Twilight Highlands left to do, along with all of Deepholm.  It's worth noting that Deepholm has a questline that's an absolute requirement for access to one of the reputations.)

    • Work on Professions: You can typically expect to level your professions to either 475 or 500 for access to all your self-only perks.  Depending on your profession, you may produce gear that you can use during this process.  This is another place where Enchanters win, since they get to equip extremely minor upgrades and then disenchant them later for materials. 

      (Personal Status: 476 Tailoring, need 500 for Embroidery, 486 Enchanting, need 500 for disenchanting max level loot.) 

    • Daily Quests?  Surprisingly, there are relatively limited PVE dailies in Cataclysm.  There are some in Deepholm, some in Twilight Highlands, and all of two in Uldum.  (Hyjal will get new dailies in patch 4.1.)  There are also some profession dailies, but the rest of the bunch are specific to Tol Barad.

    • PVP: Speaking of TB, you might not be snagging an epic per win anymore, but it's still there and should still be good for some honor.  More on this topic when I get around to it. 

    • Dungeons: Love em or hate em, but it's definitely worth running each instance at least once for guaranteed quest reward loot.  You get more Justice Points for accepting the random luck of the draw, but you might prefer to run specific dungeons in search of certain gear.  (Also, two of the five random options for level 85's are lower level dungeons that drop inferior loot and, once patch 4.0.6 arrives, markedly worse JP.) 

      (Personal Status: Have yet to run the three level 85 dungeons.  My average ilvl is 320, so I've got a bit to go before I can unlock heroics.) 
    Overall, the list looks a little bit shorter than the comparable list did in Wrath.  Then again, it doesn't look disproportionately so when you consider the smaller number of zones, especially if most players are going to roll up an alt sometime to check out the new leveling content.  

    Should we be playing just for loot?
    I get where Spinks is coming from on the gear reset - if we assume that we're going to get a gear wipe sometime around April (plus or minus a few months), that might impact your willingness to grind out all the best stuff.  Also, because of automated currency downgrades, individual players can hit a point prior to the patch where it is no longer worth doing random dailies because they will not be able to obtain sufficient numbers of the top tier currency before the patch resets it.  For those of us who are planning to spend Feburary 24th through March 30th (or possibly longer) in Telara, it probably makes sense to bank JP and honor to cash in when we get back to Azeroth.

    That said, I'm not sure that this is a bad thing, even for Blizzard in the long term.  If you're having fun playing, it doesn't matter whether you're still going to be using the same gear in a few months.  If the only reason you're playing is to upgrade the arbitrary numbers on your character sheet, then yes, you've got less incentive to stick around.  If that's the case, though, I would argue that you're probably not having that much fun.  From Blizzard's perspective, it's not worth dragging one last $15 fee out of you if it means that you're hating the game by the time you finally quit and you end up staying away for months or years.  In that case, everyone might be just a little better off in the long run if you take a break and come back when there's new stuff to do.

    Thursday, February 3, 2011

    Uldum Complete, Level 85

    I finally hit level 85 on my Mage this evening, clearing out the quests of Uldum.  Personally, I enjoyed the zone for the pretty scenery and a decent level of challenge - I had to actually use cooldowns to survive encounters, especially if I got multiple mobs unexpectedly.  I'm actually somewhat looking forward to tackling the Twilight Highlands if it keeps the content at the level of Uldum. 

    (For those keeping score, I did Hyjal and plan to do Deepholm on my Warrior, while the mage did Vashj'ir, Uldum, and some of the early quests in each zone.  I also got a lot of exp from some dungeon runs, archeology, and the daily cooking quest.) 

    Armadillo, Green

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    Contents May Shift In Testing

    Rift may end up claiming the record for most bloggers who are not playing the beta events because they have already pre-ordered.  I don't know if there's an official list, but I've definitely read this sentiment a few times since the betas launched.  (Syp's contribution was the easiest to find.) 

    For me personally, not playing the betas is mostly due to being relatively busy.  We're sitting about three weeks out from the game's "head start" launch, at which point we'll be allowed to actually keep our characters. 

    The main thing that I would be doing if I did clear out time for Rift right now would be test driving possible builds.  Then again, it is still a beta, and things could change before launch.  For example, I heard some complaints on the Rift Reporter podcast about mana regen issues, and how they've been improving during the ongoing testing.  I don't want to miss out on a potentially fun class because it wasn't quite finished yet when I got around to trying it. 

    The game is getting down to its last few beta builds, and hopefully things are starting to settle down.  In particular, we're all better off if the way that characters work can be settled before launch, rather than afterwards.  It's just an interesting artifact of Trion's decision to run short beta events rather than the traditional 24/7 beta; each build/event is made to seem like a major milestone in its own right, which may magnify the impression that big changes are still coming down the pike. 

    Tuesday, February 1, 2011

    Difficulty Versus Subscriber Retention

    When it comes to MMO design decisions, the customer is not always right.  The challenge for the developer is that the "correct" decision sometimes makes it literally impossible for large portions of the market to play your game, no matter how well you do everything else. 

    From Raid or Die to EZ-Zerg
    The thing about WoW's ongoing dispute over 5-man dungeon difficulty is that we've been here before.  The year was 2007, and Blizzard had finally released the game's first expansion.  After years of complaints that the endgame was "raid or die", Blizzard's response was to offer smaller raids.  The cap was reduced from 40 players to 25, and TBC also offered both the 10-man Karazhan raid and the raid-like experience of heroic 5-man dungeons. 

    Though these changes made some of the logistics simpler (and some, like trying to run two 10-man Karazhan lockouts in a 25-man guild, more difficult), the lower numbers left each player accountable for a greater portion of their group's performance.  Those of us who were below average in our old 40-man guilds no longer met the difficulty bar for this new, "more accessible" content.  In my old guild, about a third broke away to form a new raiding guild, a third disbanded and scattered to other guilds, and a third of us quit the game.

    No one outside Irvine knows exactly what happened to WoW's retention numbers in the wake of TBC.  What we can see is how Blizzard reacted to those numbers with future development.  As I commented way back in 2008, my guess is that Blizzard did not like the trend they saw. 

    Blizzard did not add another top tier raid to the game for 10 months after patch 2.1.  In the interim, they added gear inflation in the 10-man ZA and, as Sunwell arrived, with the first iteration of high end raid loot for heroic dungeon tokens.  Then Wrath arrived with zergable heroics (yes, even in the month the expansion launched) and raids so easy that even a PUG could complete them.  Then Blizzard made the already easy content even easier by rolling out the dungeon finder and bribing Icecrown raiders to run random dungeons once a day. 

    It certainly appears from Blizzard's actions that they saw easier content as a way to draw more players into the endgame.

    Ripping off the cast before healing the wound?
    Making the game so easy was almost certainly the wrong call, and bringing the difficulty back up is most likely the right one (especially since the dungeons will only get easier as players overgear them).  The problem is, as Eric at Elder Game suggests, that it's hard to hurt your retention numbers by making the game easier.  By contrast, making the game harder because that's how things "should" be fails to address the core problem that got us to the Wrath era in the first place. 

    Many players are not looking for the current level of difficulty in their PUG content.  Personally, I like the current dungeon difficulty, but the longer queue times (three times what we had in Wrath) are drastically limiting my ability to actually run dungeons.  With a 15-20 minute queue and a 20 minute dungeon zerg, I could run a Wrath heroic whenever I wanted - I was actually spending the majority of my WoW time in groups.  With a queue time of 45 minutes to an hour, and then about as long (or longer if things go poorly) to actually complete the instance, five-man content is a much larger commitment, which I can fit in maybe once a week. 

    Things aren't as bad as they were back in 2007; with the dungeon finder, at least I can actually get an instance group when I do have several hours to burn, where this was nigh impossible for a lone DPS in much of the TBC era.  Even so, nothing in Blizzard's history since 2007 suggests that they're in the business of keeping players away from content though high difficulty.  Perhaps gear inflation will solve this problem for them whenever they get around to releasing patch 4.1.  Otherwise, it's going to be very interesting to see what gets changed. 

    (As long as we're digging in my 2008 archives, I suppose we can expect some patch 4.1 news around the February 24th Rift Headstart, since that's how Blizzard treated Warhammer.)