Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Dirge For SOE

I made a new year's resolution this year to write fewer posts about the EQ2 business model.  Part of my reasoning was what I wrote at the time - I felt that I had added what insight I had to the topic.  The other was a lingering fear in the back of my mind that something like what happened today was in the game's not too distant future.  The damage could have been worse, as the team lost "only" two members, but this does not bode well for the game.

A no win situation?
The game's current producer, David "Smokejumper" Georgson, takes a lot of flack for the state of the game and the seemingly constant push for more revenue over the last year.  It now appears that there was an "or else" behind these efforts - earn more revenue or else your staff will be cut to balance the books.

I still strongly disagree with the decision to implement free to play as a separate service rather than biting the bullet and converting the existing servers to the new model.  I can also see how the way the game is today might leave longtime players feeling left behind as Smokejumper dictated a focus on streamlining the game and adding more low level content.  To those of us on the outside, this shift calls to mind the notorious Star Wars Galaxies NGE, which also alienated the existing players while failing to bring in the new blood that SOE was hoping for.

But what choice do you have in a six year old game when you're told that you are no longer paying the bills?  Stay the course and lose staff, leaving you less able to produce content so that you lose more customers, and then lose more staff? 

Other Casualties
The two layoffs at EQ2 were actually a very small part of the bloodbath today.

SOE's entire online TCG studio reportedly got the axe.  I never actually played Legends of Norrath, other than to open the cards that come with my EQ2 subscription in hopes of getting in-game loot, but I did play the old Lord of the Rings Online CCG that was made by Worlds Apart before SOE bought the studio.  I hate the TCG business model, but that was no fault of the team in Denver - the client and everything else about the game was solid work, and I'm sorry to see them go.

The other casualty is the entire idea of having MMO's on consoles in general.  It's always risky to base a business model around a platform that someone else owns, because they will almost always someday be in a position to choose their own interest over yours.  SOE seemed poised to overcome this obstacle, because the relevant console was owned by their own parent company.

Instead, DCUO has to delay all its patches (if any more are forthcoming) on the PC while the PSN folks do their own testing, and the game's servers need to be segregated by platform (PS3/PC) for reasons that have been confirmed to be non-technical.  (Most likely that the two divisions of the same company couldn't come up with any other agreement on how to split the revenue.)  Free Realms finally launched on the PS3 more than a year late and with the same server split.  The Agency will never launch at all. 

If this is the deal you get your own partners, is it any wonder that third party devs aren't making much headway on the console?

What's at stake
Ironically, I'm one of very few who let a Rift subscription lapse yesterday so I could spend more time with a recently renewed EQ2 sub.  Most of the game's biggest champions - people like Ferrel and Karen Bryan and Feldon - are now spending their time in Telara, rather than Norrath.  Most likely I will be back to join them in a week or a month or two, but for right now EQ2 was the game that I wanted to be playing.

I never played the original EQ, so I don't have the advantage of knowing the world's lore (or the disadvantage of being offended if the latest expansion is inconsistent with it).  Instead, my experience with the game is straight up on its own merits.  On the merits, EQ2 has the best crafting content - actual separate non-combat questlines - in any game I've played.  The game's player and guild housing blow everything else on the market out of the water.  But most of all, even with the non-sparkly vampires and the complaints that all the classes now play the same, the game is the one and only MMO where I actually have stories for my characters.

I tried a Rift bard once, and I now understand why Ferrel gripes when you dress a Cleric in something other than plate armor.  I have a bard.  She has eyes and wings and hair of brilliant green and a pair of flashing blades, and when she fights, she swoops and darts behind foes to cut them down before they even realize where she went.  She believes that things happen for a reason, to the point where she's developed way more of a chaotic neutral streak than I ever intended.  She joined a guild that hailed from Halas back when that was merely a name in the history books - things happen for a reason, remember - and now that guild hall is such a part of her identify that I don't know that I could transfer her to the free to play server, even if it would save me money.

Her name is Lyriana, and she is a bard.  The weird girl in Rift who kills stuff by throwing musical notes at it is what us LOTRO players call a minstrel.  Of all the other characters in all the other games and all the time and money I've spent on MMO's, there isn't a single one anywhere else that has as much backstory as my level 20 crafting alts in EQ2.  That, for me, is what SOE has accomplished with EQ2 - I'm actually paying them money because I missed a character.  That is what is at stake if they can't find a way to make their situation work.

I'm pretty sad that the job just got that much harder.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Fae's View Of Chronoportal Lore

The following is Lyriana's take on the EQ1 anniversary event in EQ2, which has added a few mini-instances containing some famous mobs from the original game. The devs have stated that this event has no ties to the lore, so Lyriana decided to help out with a little retcon work. Any glaring lore errors are due to my extremely limited knowledge of Norrath. If you think you catch me making not-so-subtle references to a certain other game, you've been reading too long. :)

 "Did I get that about right?" Lyriana asked, as she finished attempting to repeat the gibberish that the Erudite Chronographer had been spewing at her for the last ten minutes.

"Other than completely mangling terminology that has been carefully crafted through hundreds of years of Arcano-temporal scholarship?" the mage retorted in an inpatient voice.  "Yes, I suppose that will do.  So you'll help then?"

"Not even if you tore my wings off!" Lyriana exclaimed angrily.  "We have Chrono-Porto-things sending people back hundreds of years into Norrath's past, and you'd like to send an invasion force of adventurers through to try and best the toughest champions history has to offer, back from the grave, all so you can analyze what the planar energy does to the old platinum coins?  No thanks, I have a strict policy that if someone comes to me with the stupidest idea I've ever heard, I say no, and you just made the bottom of the list!"

Lyriana stormed off muttering about crazy Erudite plans under her breath.  "Like it's MY fault that I asked one of them a simple question about how to absorb the power of a Mythical weapon, and they turned around to develop a technique that would allow some crazed dragon god thing to absorb world-threatening powers off of the signature blades of Qeynos and Freeport?  And now... oh dear gods a talking otter."

"Hail to you, adventurer," the Othmir said, raising a paw.  "I have come to take the chosen ones of Norrath to Velious."

Lyriana cupped her hands over her nose and mouth and took two deep breaths.  "Let me guess," she began, exasperated, "You came through some sort of Chrono-Rift from hundreds of years ago when people actually went to Velious, and now you're going to establish some sort of time foothold thing."

The othmir looked at her, puzzled.  "What is a Rift?  I assure you, Velious is real and still in the world today."

"If that's the case," Lyriana asked, skeptical, "Why hasn't anyone seen the place in centuries?  How are you proposing to get us 'chosen' folks there, anyway?"

"Easy," the emissary exclaimed, pleased to finally have a question he could answer.  "We shall ride on the back of the mighty Lodizal."

"The legendary giant turtle that adventurers used to fight centuries ago?" Lyriana asked, incredulously.  "That's the stupidest...."

She thought about it for a minute and sighed.  "You see, I have this policy about world threatening stuff and apparently this whole rift thing has gotten to the point where it's not at the bottom of the list anymore.  So I'll tell you what - I'm going to go try to deal with that, and if this doesn't send all of you crazies back to whatever age you came from, we can talk."

Not a death rift.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Pink Pig-tail Finale

Today is the end of an era in WoW blogs, as Larisa announced the finale of the Pink Pigtail Inn. Larisa has played a non-trivial role in the life of this site, so I feel it only fitting to pay her tribute. 

I started my blog a bit after Larisa started hers, but mine was an intentionally soft launch.  Though my first post was in April 2008, I viewed those early months as a warm-up for July, when I would actually have time to write on a regular basis.  I made a few posts, had the occasional comment, but things here were pretty quiet. 

I eventually ended up on Rohan's blogroll at Blessing of Kings, and then one day out of the blue I got a comment on a random post expressing appreciation but pointing out that I did not have a contact email on my page. This wasn't really something that had occurred to me previously, as the idea that a reader might want to get in touch simply hadn't come up.  Regardless, I dutifully sent this Larisa character an email, and added a gmail address to the site in case anyone else was similarly inclined. 

I hope that she will forgive a bit of skepticism in hindsight - usually, when someone emailing you is supposedly female and from Sweden, the odds aren't that great.  The truth is that Larisa turned out to be friendly, supportive, insightful, and thought-provoking.  To this day, the PPI is still one of the top traffic sources to this site, and I'm pretty much certain that I have Larisa to thank for the fact that Sweden is the number six country on my "traffic by country" chart. 

I don't know where the road is going to take this particular pink pig-tailed gnome mage, and I'll be keeping her spot in my blogroll in case she changes her mind.  In the mean time, until we meet again, I wish her all the best and good luck on her journey. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

EQ2 Epic Complete

Always fun to get a personal grats from a dev, thanks Domino

Lyriana has been working on her epic weapon for over a year now.  I completed the fabled version in late January 2010 and started working on the quest to upgrade it after hitting the new level 90 cap in June.  Unfortunately, I ran into a wall that took a lengthy hiatus from the game and a server merger to overcome.   

Mythical History
The upgraded "Mythical" epic weapons, with sometimes class-altering abilities, have been in the game for over two expansions now, and they were causing a bit of a design problem.  Classes had been balanced assuming that they had the epic abilities, but the only way to earn the weapons was to complete Kunark-era raids from 2007-2008.  Once you had your weapon, you were never willing to use anything else, because it would mean losing your epic abilities.  Neither of these conditions was tenable.

In 2010's Sentinel's Fate expansion, SOE added a new quest that allowed players to drain the energy from their epic weapon, gaining the powers that the weapon previously held as a permanent buff to your character.  The good news is that this only required single group dungeon content from the new expansion.  The bad news is that this quest was now nigh mandatory, as you would always be behind the curve no matter what weapons you obtained in the future if you did not have your epic buff.  

Looking For Server
I'm in a small guild called The Halasian Empire from the Lucan D'Lere server, so it wasn't possible to just strong-arm guildies into taking me through the content.  Meanwhile, LDL was desperately in need of a server merge due to low populations, but it did not receive one until this past February because it was an RP server, and there was no RP server with room for additional players.  This made it nigh impossible to find a group for the epic questline.  The big dungeon I needed was a zone called Cella, and I once spent an entire evening asking for it in the LFG channel on a day when it was the daily dungeon quest, without success.  This had gotten too frustrating, so I finally gave up.

LDL finally got its server merge into a regular PVE server called Crushbone earlier this year.  The improvement is dramatic.  It still took about three days to find a group to run Cella (which is now previous-expansion content, and was even less attractive this weekend with the EQ1 anniversary event running), but I was finally able to get a PUG to complete the dungeon last night.  Two of the players in the group even accompanied me into a non-instanced dungeon area known as The Hole to kill the last few relatively weak (but not quite soloable) mobs I needed, and I was able to claim my epic prize. 


Epic Group Finder
As Rohan said in his Rift-wrapup, it's hard to overstate the impact of not having a dungeon group finder.  I actually enjoy single group content when I can actually get a group.  The thing that I don't enjoy is having an entire night feel like a waste because I spent the whole time plaintively looking for a group and failing to find one.

There were a lot of problems with WoW's Wrath era heroics (most significantly that Blizzard intentionally packed them with overgeared raiders), but a 15 minute queue time plus a 30 minute dungeon run meant that I could actually do group content whenever I wanted to.  Last night's session ended up taking over four hours and running to about 1 AM - fortunately, I was able to find a group on a Saturday, because I'm not young enough to pull those kinds of hours off on a work night anymore.

Overall, I enjoyed the actual content, and I look forward to taking Lyriana's new toy for a spin over the next few weeks.  That said, it's somewhat problematic that the logistics kept me from finishing for so long.  In an era where group players are increasingly feeling that they're being pushed to the side in favor of solo play, studios need to do a better job of helping people who actually WANT to make the jump from solo to group content do so.

Blades, blades everywhere!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Rift Elf Panties For Psychochild

Previously, in the comments at Psychochild's place:
Green Armadillo wrote: I'd like to believe that my Cleric's current armor is bugged and missing its texture, because it sure looks like she's just wearing panties.

Psychochild wrote:
Oh, my. I assume you're in plate? Got a screenshot to shame the artists with?
My original theory appears to be incorrect - if I remove my character's pants altogether, her underwear is a different color.  I suppose it's possible that they wanted the crotch colored black metallic and were going to add legs later but forgot.  At the moment, though, it looks like the leggings have indeed vanished into some extraplanar space.

Of course, maybe this is all Ferrel's fault.  Going back to old school DND and EQ1 rules, where Clerics get to wear plate armor, he argues that "Clerics do not wear chain mail unless it is under plate."  Maybe Trion decided to listen to him, cause it sure looks like you could get those "leggings" under some plate.  If you don't mind the chafing anyway. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rift Fails Public Group Accountability?

Five evenings ago, I was riding my collector's edition turtle across Scarwood Reach when I came across two players, a lumbering non-hostile robot, and the Rift public content UI.  I'd never seen this UI appear without something to kill right next to it, so I stopped to read the text.  I had just figured out that it was an NPC escort quest when the window closed up and the loot icon flashed on top of my screen.  The robot had reached his destination, and my presence for the final seconds had flagged me as a participant.

I had just accidentally completed a quest for a four-digit chunk of exp and a blue sourceshard.  I don't think I've logged into my main character since.

Victory Through Attendence
In hindsight, reflecting on this one incident brings into focus something that I've been trying to put into words for over a week now.  The problem with Rift's cooperative public content system is not merely that you get tired of seeing the same events destroy your quest hub yet again (though that does start to happen).  The problem is that in many cases I'm left feeling like victory or defeat would have happened regardless of my participation, and I just happened to be along for the ride and the loot. 

Now that I'm running with a dedicated healing spec, I can state objectively that this impression shouldn't be true - there have been several encounters where, judging from the amount of damage the tank was taking and the amount I personally was healing them for, the group would probably have wiped without my actions.  Then again, in that case they would have respawned and eventually more people would have shown up to heal the team to victory.  Moreover, even when it is actually true that my presence decided the encounter, it does not feel that way when I'm one of two dozen players spamming away at a mass of players and mobs.  When I'm solo or in a smaller group, I can tell how well (or poorly) I did, but in a massive public raid my contribution disappears into a sea of numbers. 

The bigger issue is that the public content is my reason to play the game (or possibly not as of next week).  Yes, there is solo content, it is reasonably polished, and the soul system lets me all-but re-roll on every trip to my class trainer without having to start over at level 1.  Yes, there is group content, though I haven't been able to do much of it because of time constraints.  Yes, there's PVP, which I should probably try at some point.  But the thing that Rift does that none of the numerous other games I could be playing instead does not is public content.  

Rift is still easily the best MMO launch in the last four years, and it will almost certainly be the fourth MMO that I cap a character in.   As of right now, though, my outlook on Rift is that I should probably give Trion a few more months to iterate. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

F2P LOTRO Version 2

LOTRO had its update 2 patch this evening, adding in some long awaited group content, major revamps to the UI and some existing content, and significant changes to the game's store. 

Back in September, when the F2P model was newly introduced, I was underwhelmed with the game's non-subscription model.  Today, the premium free to play option is far more attractive, especially for infrequent players and tourists, but the higher end of the store does far more to push the limits on how much of what used to be gameplay is now for sale in the cash shop.  Update 2, feels like it has moved the F2P business model to version two, with all the blessings and curses that go along with the more traditional free to play label. 

More open for less money...
At the time of the free to play relaunch, the game's two pre-F2P expansions were mandatory purchases for the increased level caps.  This restriction was removed in a previous patch, allowing players to advance all the way to the cap if they were so inclined by grinding the freely available skirmishes and scaling dungeons. The Lone Lands zone was added to the completely free content, pushing players' decision points back to the neighborhood of level 30.  In another change, former subscribers are now allowed to use swift travel routes, which were previously restricted to subscribers only (one of the big things that I really disliked about the model back in September). 

The update two patch also adds a major update of the Evendim zone, which I happened to have picked up for cheap in a sale using points from retroactive reputation deeds after the relaunch.  With some sale discounts, I was able to get the riding trait for an old hunter alt for 57 TP, which is the only thing that you absolutely have to buy as a non-subscriber if you didn't have it from past VIP days.  I'll probably make that back while leveling the new character to the revised content, and I don't know that I'm going to need to spend very much money from here to the cap on that character if I really wanted to. 

...And more ways to spend
That said, Update 2 also adds many more ways to spend money.  At an approximate exchange rate of 1 cent per Turbine Point, you can now buy:
  • Up to three additional cosmetic outfit slots for $5 each (account-wide).  No complaints here since we still get to keep the two slots we had.
  • Up to five additional millstone destinations (LOTRO's version of hearthstones) for $3.50 each PER CHARACTER. All of your destinations share the 1 hour cooldown, you just get to pick multiple destinations for that one cooldown.  You can also halve the cooldown to 30 minutes with another paid unlock, that costs $5 PER CHARACTER. 

    (Note that this is separate from the reusable travel skills and consumable maps that were available at the F2P relaunch.  The travel skills share a cooldown with each other and any racial/rep teleports you might have, for $3 per destination per character - unlike the additional millstones, each skill has a single fixed destination.  I haven't ever used the consumable maps, so I don't know if they have a cooldown, but it would seem strange if they did.) 
  • Up to two additional Legendary Item slots for $3 each PER CHARACTER.  This one starts to get concerning because having additional legendary items at your disposal can actually affect gameplay by giving you more options. 
  • And finally, the big and controversial one: the Legendary Item system has been overhauled to be less random, but now there are even more consumables that you can use to upgrade your items... and they're all available in the store with no ceiling on your potential expenses.  The reaction in my kinship chat has been punctuated with the occasional "wait, you can buy what?!" as each player notices the new tab in the store. 
Throw in other stuff that's been here from the start, like outfits, consumables that raise you from the dead, consumables that let you track mobs, crafting materials, etc, and this store is starting to look much more like the traditional F2P cash shop, which is unfortunately not a compliment.   

Bargain for tourists, iffy for long-time residents?
The good news is that this game is far friendlier to low-spending tourists.  You probably won't enjoy the game you get if you try to play it without spending a dime, but you can see the world of Middle Earth for far less than $15/month - and, as with DDO, all the content you unlock is yours at no additional cost for future alts. 

The okay news is that this model is increasingly designed to get you in the door in the hopes that you'll buy stuff once you're there.  Only fair, I suppose, Turbine has to pay the bills somehow, and letting players choose what they want to pony up for is a relatively fair way to offer options. 

The bad news is what I feared when the game relaunched.  Things about the game that are not good - like the travel system or the random legendary item grind - are being preserved in order to sell cash store fixes rather than improved.  Maybe the game is still worth playing, and maybe it's even worth paying for the fixes, but it sets a dangerous precedent.  If you consider travel and legendary items "fixed", the biggest problem left in the game is the insane proliferation of bound-to-character tokens, none of which are allowed to go in the in-game currency wallet.  A dev commented that they have a proposal for this issue, and the fix may well involve another cash store purchase. 

The big reason why I like Turbine's other F2P success, DDO, is because they give you some of the game, which is good, and then you can pay them for more of the game.  The big thing that I have enjoyed less about other F2P models is that they give you the whole game, but the game is not good until you pay them to make the things they broke better.  I hope that LOTRO isn't going down the latter road. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Whose Role Is It Anyway?

Based on my Twitter feed, my Cleric has leveled as:
  • 1-14: Justicar/Druid/Sentinel (self-healing melee, theoretically tank-capable)
  • 15: Warden (healing over time build for rifts)
  • 16-21: Shaman/Druid/0 pt Warden (melee DPS with a focus on reactive attacks and healing pet)
  • 22: Inquisitor/10 pt Justicar (caster DPS with passive self healing)
  • 23-33: Druid/10+ Justicar (melee DPS with ranged abilities and either a healing or a melee pet)
  • 31-33: Purifier/2+ pt Sentinel/8 pt Cabalist (single target healer with damage wards, cabalist splash gives a quick damage combo that regenerates a nice chunk of mana)
You'll note some overlap at the end of that chart.  I didn't do much healing for a while because I simply wasn't fond of how the healing soul I'd picked (Warden) played.  When I finally got around to speccing out a different option that I liked (the Purifier - at 31, you get a buff for the tank that shares all the overhealing you do to them with the rest of the group), it suddenly made a lot more sense to actually switch on a regular basis.  Now I'll pop over into healing mode if a larger rift or a zone invasion happens while I'm questing (and possibly for dungeons, the durable druid can become squishy when dungeon mobs are involved).

As Ferrel and Starseeker discuss, this type of role-switching is the defining feature of Rift's soul system.  It has its cons as well as its pros, but you have only yourself to blame if you get bored with your first character. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spot That Stealth Pig!

Welcome to Spot That Stealth Pig, with your host, Seloxia! 
The Pig
Let's meet our first contestant, a Bloodhavoc Goblin!
Now, goblin, can you SPOT THAT STEALTH PIG?!

Different Goblin used for better screenshot.
Oh noes, the Goblin has done it!  Seloxia, tell him what he's won!
That's right, a pair of daggers, right between the shoulder blades!  Thank you for playing, Bloodhavoc Goblin!

Promotional consideration paid for not rolling on an RP server so that the name "Stealth Pig" is vaguely acceptable, and the soul system for allowing players to roll up a stealth class with a tanking pet for infinite backstabs.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Rift At 30, 15, and 15

My main hit level 30 in Rift over the weekend, and I've also got a pair of alts at level 15 with crafting skills in the 120-range.  As a result, I'm starting to get into the real "meat" of the game, with some things I like and some I find concerning.

Solo Difficulty 
On my extremely durable Cleric, I'm very satisfied with the difficulty of solo content.  I don't die that often, but I do end up pushed to the limits of what I have at my disposal to stay up.  The only downside is that a lot of the difficulty comes from mobs respawning on top of you while you're clearing an area out, which really hurts my squishier alts.

(The mage in particular feels like a bad deal - you lose a lot of versatility and a lot of durability in exchange for a bunch of different ways to do ranged DPS, but it doesn't feel like the sheer levels of damage are that much greater.)

Also, the exp curve has been pretty much perfect for my playstyle - I dinged 30 on the very last quest in Scarlet Gorge, and I was always within a level or so of the quests I was working on.  (I could see this being more of a problem if you were also doing PVP and dungeons for loot.) 

The Dynamic Game
Like most non-instanced content I've seen in other games, Rifts and zone invasions are a lot of fun when precisely the right numbers of players show up.  Soloing a minor rift is fun, and beating a major rift with 3 people is a lot of fun when all the pieces fall into place.  Less fun is having 6-8 DPS show up, wiping, and having the public group scatter rather than stick around to see if anyone can switch into a tanking and/or healing role that could win the fight with the players at hand.  Finally, as I discussed yesterday, scaling for really large groups sometimes seems to result in an extremely lengthy but non-threatening fight. 

In general, I stop to fight any rift or invasion that I run into, and I generally try to join each zone-wide invasion event at least once to see the sights.  If I do get a repeat, though (I think the Werebeast in Gloamwood spawned five times while I was working on the zone), my willingness to drop everything and ride all the way across the zone for a few dozen planarite drops rapidly.  Likewise, it gets a bit old when you have to fight off an invasion to respawn your quest hub, you go off to complete the next few quests, and return to find the place destroyed and camped by mobs yet again.

I posted about crafting last week, and I've made modest progress since then.  One thing that's striking about the system is that you really don't need a lot of raw materials to get crafting skill points - you can make an item for a guaranteed skill point and then salvage it, getting a third to half of the materials back.  My level 30 character has been able to harvest enough stuff to feed two separate crafting alts, both of whom are now crafting level 30-ish gear.

The catch is that obtaining recipes can be more challenging.  Either you need reputation with local adventuring factions - obviously, my alts don't have this at low levels - or you need to do daily quests for tokens.  Worse, the daily quests offered are based on your crafting skill, meaning that you can lose access to them if you gain too many points.  If you're near a cut-off between tiers, you're better off NOT gaining that next point until you have enough materials to gain 10-20 points, so you can open up a new work order to replace the one you're losing access to.

The next few levels should be interesting, as I unlock 32-point root abilities and then have a bit more flexibility to pick up mid-range stuff in a secondary soul.  I also haven't tried any PVP or dungeons yet, so that's another area that I can hack away at going forward.  Finally, there is another faction to try, and apparently two leveling paths from 36-50.   There's definitely a lot of stuff left to do in the game. 

That said, the rift content is the thing that this game has and the others I could be playing right now do not.  So far, it's been hit or miss, and the real hits have come at times when there are fewer people around in my level bracket (e.g. because I stopped to level a pair of crafting alts while everyone else leveled past my main).  Right now, I expect that I will pay some additional money for some additional time in Telara, but I'm not running out to buy the six-month plan. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Passive Healing And Rift Scaling

Rift's dynamic content attempts to scale mob difficulty to the number of players present.  However, even beyond the relatively simple events of the game's earliest zones, I'm finding that things are simply easier with more people. 

I'm wondering if part of the problem is passive DPS healing.  Mobs can and do get dramatically more health if they spawn in a crowded area, to account for the larger crowds beating on them.  Though they do also get a damage bonus, there's an upper limit on this effect, because the health of any individual player in the group does NOT scale with the numbers present - if the mob does 20 times more damage when too many players show up, they'll start killing people in a single hit. 

Meanwhile, Rift has several types of theoretically DPS characters who also generate passive healing as they attack.  As more and more players show up, it seems like the raid gets more and more healing just because people have built this capability into their solo builds.  As I've leveled through the zone events in Gloamwood and Scarlet Gorge, I'm noticing that even big AOE attacks don't do much to the raid's health meters because they're immediately topped off by a flurry of small green numbers. 

In principle, it is good that zone bosses can take a while to kill - players who were on the other end of the zone to complete invasion objectives when the boss spawned should have time to reach the final showdown before the boss dies.  I'm just saying that spending 10-15 minutes DPS'ing a boss who doesn't appear to be able to actually threaten any players can get old. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Catering to Subscribers and F2P in DDO

While all of this Rift stuff has been going on, DDO had its fifth birthday party.  The shindig introduced a new pirate-themed world event, featuring an original quest in which players lead a party of comic NPC kobold miners in search of crystals and adventure.  I didn't really feel like taking the time this weekend, so I logged in for long enough to redeem my pirate hat voucher and stick it in my bags for future upgrading.

(The sheer amount of work that went into this event makes its eventual return pretty much certain.) 

Judging from the coverage on DDOCast and DDO Cocktail Hour, there are a few interesting things about this event.
  • As Tipa observed, this is still a free to play game, and the event was accordingly designed to invite cash store purchases.  I don't know if it was mandatory to pay to play, but it certainly sounds like the podcasters spent some Turbine Points on the festivities.
  • Perhaps more troubling, the DDO store recently got cosmetic armor skins that could be applied over lackluster armor to improve its appearances.  Predictably, people were underwhelmed by the appearances of the event armor. 

  • Unlike the Mabar event last fall, this event added a scaling quest (the Kobold mining event) that actually awards exp.  For the most part, DDO does not hand out exp just for killing mobs indiscriminately, so this was a welcomed change.
The last point is potentially interesting and problematic because a big part of the premium business model is that non-subscribers need to pay for level-appropriate content to obtain the exp needed to reach the cap.  To the extent that players are able to get in without paying (which I can't judge, because I didn't try), having an event that awards exp at any and all levels could cost Turbine a lot of money.  As a result, this particular bit of fun and unique content will need to be locked away in the vault, only to emerge when the sales of festival goodies outweigh the potential losses in sales of leveling content. 

Beyond this specific event, the content scaling issue impacts Turbine in each and every patch.  Longtime subscribers generally want new content that scales for their high or max level characters.  Newer players often have a need for more low to mid-level content (though really the low levels are pretty well covered at this point).  One suggested solution has been to have content that is more flexible on level ranges, and now we finally have a quest that can scale from level 1 to level 25... but it can't stay in the game without breaking the business model.  It's going to be interesting to see whether attempting to run two business models at once has painted Turbine into a corner on this issue. 

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011

    Bowling With Ferrel And Friends

    Yesterday, a group of Guardians from Byriel US made a run at the Ancient Wardstones of Scarlet Gorge.  The team included Ferrel of Epic Slant and his guild, Iniquity (my home in Telara), along with Massively's Karen Bryan and her guild, Revelry and Honor.  It was a great example of what I called MMO Bowling earlier this week, not knowing that I'd be along for such a ride just a day later. 

    My High Elf Cleric (Telhamat) is currently level 25, which is on the low end for quests in the zone, and I'd never set foot in the place before.  This also meant that I did not have the teleport point, so I had to ride in from Gloamwood and blunder around a zone with higher level mobs and a fully greyed-out map, looking for the raid.  This turned out to be good preparation for the actual event. 

    There are supposedly 9 wardstones in the zone, which will summon a raid boss once per day if the same faction controls all of them.  We did not really know where most of these locations were.  As a result, we had a raid team of about three dozen Guardians running amok back and forth across the zone, trying to wall jump our way up cliffs (Rift is much more permissive on this front than most MMO's I've played), and possibly inadvertently wiping out one or more Defiant quest hubs that we mistakenly believed were mobs guarding a wardstone.  (I assume that is how most of us ended up flagged for PVP.) 

    Overall, we killed a couple mobs here and there, I stopped to loot the occasional harvesting node while our leaders tried to figure out wardstone locations on YouTube, and we probably gave the local Defiant population a decent scare.  (Things would probably have gotten more hairy on a PVP server, but I'm guessing that you have to make more of an affirmative effort to make a nuisance of yourself before the other faction actually mounts significant resistance in a mid-level zone on a PVE server.)  We never did find the final wardstone, and we're not sure if that's because we couldn't locate it or because it does not spawn if the boss has already been killed that day (there was no in-game indication either way on this point). 

    Despite this seeming lack of win, I had a good time and got to uncover the map of the zone amidst the good-natured mayhem.  Judging from the reactions on vent, it sounded like everyone else had the same experience.   Perhaps the zone event could have been designed more transparently, but it was a perfectly good activity for an evening with the guild. 

    Monday, March 7, 2011

    MMO's As Bowling

    Writing about Larisa's recent guild dilemma, Tobold asks:
    "Is the purpose of raiding to play with your friends, whatever the content is you can reach with those friends? Or is the purpose of raiding to reach the top, regardless of how many friends you need to ditch on the way?"
    This dilemma goes beyond merely the highest levels of raiding difficulty.  Because of their social roots, modern MMO's straddle a divide between providing an activity that is fun because of the company you keep and an entertainment medium that is expected to be entertaining in its own right. 

    MMO's As Bowling
    At the risk of drawing an analogy about an era I largely did not participate in, I'd suggest that the old school MMO is kind of like going bowling.  A modern MMO player might complain that bowling is a poorly designed game - when you go out with some of your buddies, you can expect to spend the majority of the evening either waiting for the machine to return your ball or waiting for the other players to bowl.  The thing is, all that downtime becomes part of the point.  The game becomes an activity that you do to provide an occasion to spend time chatting with friends.

    Likewise, us newcomers look at the things that EQ1 vets say made the game harder and dismiss them as merely time-consuming, rather than difficult.  Again, this comes from a different perspective - to a fan of the game, spending up to 40 minutes mostly AFK for boat travel in FFXI might merely be an opportunity to chat with your linkshell.  (Or, they might find it as intolerable as I did, I didn't stick around long enough to find out.) 

    The Price of Entertainment
    The conflict is that MMO's are shifting from an activity into more of a game, because that's where the money is.  A game that's only fun if you're playing it in a group with your friends works if the majority of players and spending 3+ hours per night every night (or specific scheduled nights etc).  It doesn't work if players show up for infrequent, sporadic hours and rarely have the opportunity to play with friends.

    From allowing players to solo to the level cap, to implementing automated group finders for PVP and dungeons, to offering open groups and public quests to encourage players to drop in for non-instanced group content, studios have worked hard to make sure that you can play the game (and therefore choose to pay for the game) without having friends on the same schedule. 

    This change makes it feasible to spend tens of millions developing the modern MMO, but it also impacts just about every aspect of the game itself.  Far too many of the MMO genre's basic tropes don't stand on their own merits if you're not spending the time joking about them with your friends. 

    All of which brings us back to Larisa's dilemma.  In the new, more entertainment-driven model, players who might have spent their time hanging out in mid-level groups in a game like EQ1 are suddenly thrust into WoW's hardest tier of content.  For WoW in particular, the need to get new players, friends and alts up to par quickly has created a bowling alley with multiple lanes per group and instantly returning bowling balls.  For people who were enjoying the wait, this change is not a good thing. 

    Rift Progression Curve Notes

    My Rift Cleric hit level 24 over the weekend, but I've side-tracked a bit working on some alts (a level 12 Mage with Outfitter and a brand new level 7 Rogue).  A few observations:
    • After seeing how Blizzard did Cataclysm, I'm really glad to have the exp curve set in a way that allows me to do stuff like Rifts without outleveling the zone I'm in.  I might skip the last hub or two of Gloamwood when I get that far, but that's more because the zone somehow hasn't caught my attention - it's pretty, but I've seen dark and gloomy many times before. 
    • As I noted in my first launch impressions, getting all the souls for a class in the extremely low levels feels like an odd progression choice.  By the mid 20's, my pure soul builds are already nearing the top "branches" of their soul trees.  There are still a few more abilities to be gained from the "roots" (and many abilities scale with the total points spent in that soul, up to 51 if you go back and take everything including the stuff you didn't want the first time). 

      The good news is that I can now look at a 10-12 point base in another tree without doing too much damage to my intended main focus, so this opens up options, but it is starting to feel like progress is slowing down.
    • Of all the Cleric builds I've tried, the 20+ Shaman/10 Justicar build seems to be the most effective.  I don't have much for ranged, which can be a problem in Rifts with bouncing aggro, but I do good damage and I can solo a single elite mob (or multiple non-elites) through self-healing.  On the downside, it's starting to bore me because it's getting a bit easy (which is part of why I'm trying the other classes suddenly).  
    Overall, things are still fun, and it still looks like I have a decent amount of game ahead of me.  

    Saturday, March 5, 2011

    Crafting For NPC's In Rift

    MMO economies often have an odd trait where finished crafted items are worth less than the materials it cost to make them because so many players are flooding the market with stuff they made for the skill points.  A non-crafter can win by using the auction house to "craft" their stack of ore into a weapon and walk away with a tidy profit. 

    In Rift's case, though, there were so many stacks of soft leather on my local auction house that it was a borderline call whether to risk the deposit fee for the chance at selling marginally over vendor price.  So, I took my mage alt and turned them into an outfitter.

    Basics of Rift Crafting
    Outfitters, like EQ2 Tailors, do cloth and leather armor, along with bags.  Cloth drops from humanoids and leather is skinned from mobs using butchering (also sometimes yields bones, which I haven't needed yet).  This leaves you with an empty third slot, which I'm using for mining on the alt, while my main remains a triple gatherer.  (Runecrafting, Rift's equivalent of WoW's enchanting profession, is another common choice since it does not require a gathering profession.) 

    Once you get the materials, the actual making of items is like we have in WoW or LOTRO - stand by the tool (e.g. a loom), click the button, watch the progress bar.  There are optional enhancement items, which drop from rifts, and are used to add an additional stat to the item you're crafting.  Crafting the base item cannot fail, but the attempt to add the enhancement might - if this happens, the enhancement item is destroyed but you do not lose the other materials, so you'll always be able to make the base gear if you run out of enhancement items or give up. 

    Sinking the skillup items
    Interestingly, Rift offers two ways to dispose of the crafted items you make for skill points. 

    First, my outfitter can salvage armor, including stuff I just crafted, for some crafting materials (and a special "salvaged cloth/leather" that is used in some side recipes).  

    Second, there is a daily quest for each tier of crafting, where you turn in some number of a basic crafted item in exchange for small amounts of exp and special tokens that are used at recipe vendors in your capital city.  These crafting quests appear to be the only way to earn these tokens, and the higher level recipes cost hundreds of them, so dedicated crafters are going to want to do these as often as possible. 

    In principle, this should create a natural sink of these materials out of the economy.  (In fact, that might be the problem with the soft leather - the outfitter dailies don't use any of it.)  You might even be able to craft these items for skill points and sell them on the auction house (if you don't want the tokens for yourself) to high level crafters who want to get their tokens quickly. 

    Unfortunately, I don't see a huge reason why it's important for me to do my own crafting.  It's useful to have a low level outfitter on my account just so my future alts (well, 1-2 more since I now already have two of the four callings) can ship their cloth over in exchange for bags.  That convenience aside, it doesn't look like there are self-only perks or significant amounts of crafter-only content (as in EQ2).  I'm not convinced that it's worth the trouble compared to farming for the auction house. 

    Friday, March 4, 2011

    Building Blocks For Classes

    I've started up a low level mage alt in Rift to see how it compares to the DPS caster version of my existing cleric.  One of the things that really strikes me about the system is how you build your own class from three souls. 

    For example, six points in the Elementalist tree gives a fledgling mage a tanking pet, a damage shield, and an ability that basically removes out of combat mana regen downtime by draining your charge bar (built up as you cast spells, sort of like a Warrior's rage bar in other games). You can stick these types of capabilities into your character like building blocks, ensuring that you have the basics that you need to play before advancing into a tree that you really wanted to focus on. 

    The results can be remarkable.  I was not so impressed with the caster Clerics initially.  Then I respecced and added some points in the Justicar soul.   Justicars get low levels of self healing to begin with, but investing 10 points enhances that baseline self-healing to significant levels.  Suddenly, my caster priest was noticeably more durable than any caster I've ever played before, combining medium-heavy armor with significant amounts of self-healing just from my DPS spells. 

    Rift is not the only game to offer customization options.  Building a multi-class DDO character feels slightly similar - for example, many players start their characters with a level of rogue to pick up some sneak attack damage, the "use magic device" skill for self-healing, and some other goodies.  However, respecing that DDO character later is rare or costly (in the cash shop).  Rift characters can pick up their second role basically immediately, and my cleric has her third slot (out of four) by the early 20's.  Respecs are completely free until level 14, and seem cheap thereafter (with the cost scaling as you level, a sensible plan that still wasn't in WoW when last I checked). 

    All that said, I am leveling the mage now in part because I want to see whether it even makes sense to do so.  In addition to having the most healing options in the game, my Cleric can melee, cast DPS spells, and even off-tank.  By contrast, the mage gets only a single healing soul (which may or may not be the best choice for certain purposes) and is compensated with a variety of ways to nuke and buff/debuff.  Does one character really need half a dozen different variations on DPS casting, especially when many will include a common core of skills (like the six points in Elementalist)?  I don't know the answer, but I'm working on it. 

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011

    Lessons From Launch Queues

    Rift Server Status Page, 9:15 PM EST, March 2nd 2011
    Trion's Rift Server Status Page allows you to sort by number of players currently in the queue, which makes it easy to identify the game's most overcrowded servers.  At the time of the above screenshot, fifteen US servers had a queue.  The top twelve (the only ones in the triple digits at the time) were all amongst the seventeen servers whose names were announced prior to the beginning of the headstart.  The fact that the initial servers continue to make up such an overwhelming portion of the overpopulated list is potentially concerning. 

    Chris has a post up on Rift Watchers comparing the game's queues, and addition of servers, to other game launches.  I was present for the launches of WoW and Warhammer, and can attest to the fact that they did indeed feature queues.  Blizzard, Mythic, and Trion all chose to launch with conservative numbers of servers and plans to expand rapidly if demand called for it.  The jury remains out on Rift, but I maintain that this tactic is a mistake.

    The problem is that players who plan to show up in these games with their guilds are going to pick their server from the list that's available the night before launch, not the expanded list that's available after the queues hit.  The players who are able to change their server plans when they see a launch day queue are probably showing up on their own.

    This means that the game's most dedicated players are going to end up stuck on a server with queues that may not get any better anytime soon.  Back in 2004, my guild opted to remain on one of the original 40 WoW servers, and we paid for that call many times over with multi-hour queues that persisted on and off for around three years.

    Meanwhile, the servers that are added later fill up with players who have no social ties, making them more likely to change servers again or even leave the game outright (as Mythic discovered with Warhammer). Either way, I'd argue that having to double the number of servers after the fact is far more damaging than launching with a few servers too many. 

    LOTRO aside
    The one launch that seems to have gotten this question right is LOTRO.  The game had eleven servers during its open beta/headstart period, and it did not add or remove a single server until the free to play relaunch in 2010 (which added three new servers to the mix).  I was horrified when Turbine announced that they were not adding any new servers for the official retail launch, but they had gotten very reliable pre-order numbers and were able to make the correct call.

    (The way the LOTRO headstart worked was that you could keep your characters from open beta, but ONLY if you pre-ordered by launch day.  By contrast, Trion's open beta was wiped before the headstart, so I'm guessing that players opted to wait for the final servers to arrive before submitting their pre-orders.)