Thursday, September 29, 2011

LOTRO's Conflicting Payment Plans

LOTRO's Isengard expansion has arrived, and it appears that my post on the pricing (which got quoted by Syp, who in turn was quoted on the Multiverse) turns out to be partially incorrect. 

I had gotten the impression from Turbine's marketing materials that the two choices were to pre-order the expansion for $30 or to buy the expansion in the LOTRO Store for $60 worth of Turbine Points (albeit with the option to save money by declining to purchase the group content).  Apparently there was a third option, which, in my defense, they chose not to emphasize.  The $30 offer, minus a cosmetic cloak and an exp boost for low level alts, remains valid in Turbine's website store

Long-term value of the VIP?
While I'm sure that Turbine didn't object to trying to pressure people into purchasing early, I think that Spinks (who also quoted me) was much closer to the mark than I was.   This pricing model was aimed primarily at long-term subscribers (especially life-timers) who have excess points as a result of not spending their monthly stipends on consumables and fluff items.  The Turbine store does not accept Turbine points, only additional real world currency. 

This seems like an odd move.  There's significant value in a single month of VIP subscription to LOTRO, because any character that has been played with a current subscription gets a bunch of permanent unlocks that cost well over $15 worth of points in the in-game store.  There may even be value in subscribing for a few months to "rent" content that you intend to beat quickly and never play again.  In the long run, though, you could permanently unlock almost everything that a VIP has through the Turbine Point store for less money than it costs to keep a subscription going for a year or longer. 

By pointing out that additional cash is going to be heavily favored over Turbine Points - yes, there could be a discounted bundle later, but waiting three months will not be satisfactory to active, long-time subscribers - Turbine could very easily kick some of these folks over the fence to the Premium non-subscription side, costing themselves money in the long run. 

(Incidentally, does anyone believe Turbine's excuse for the lack of a bundle - that they are technologically incapable of selling a bundle in the in-game store that will grant access to the future instances?  You'd think they could implement some sort of place-holder if they wanted to.) 

Arriving at the wrong conclusion
I was not alone in reaching the conclusion I did about Turbine's pre-order campaign, but I should not have been surprised.   A 2009 pre-order deadline for Mirkwood also turned out to be a bluff that got extended, because Turbine priced the expansion and the price they wanted to sell the expansion at.  There's very little incentive for Turbine to risk having late-comers decline to purchase some or all of the expansion after the price effectively doubled on launch day. 

(Aside: The in-game store makes no mention of the out-of-game discount.  Is it really a good idea to let players pay for $30 worth of Turbine Points to unlock the solo content, only to find out later that they could have had all the group content for the same amount of money?) 

All LOTRO talk aside, this was an interesting lesson for me in that my reaction focused on the specifics of my own situation, as a non-subscriber who was undecided about the expansion.  By posting quickly, I missed the bigger picture of the story about VIP's.  I don't think of PVD as a news site, but I do think there is some value in having my analysis up while the topic is still news.  Then again, perhaps I would have caught more of the story if I had thought and waited a bit longer before posting (if for no other reason than because other folks figured it out).  Ah well, perils of being a blogger I suppose. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Merits of Intermission

One of the biggest lessons I've learned as a MMO tourist is to never finish your to do list.  In general, the fun goals - e.g. run every dungeon at least once - get done early, while the less fun goals tend to get put off til later.  When I stick around "too long", I find that I walk away from the game with less positive feelings and stay gone for longer as a result.

I'm at one of these crossroads in EQ2 at the moment - a bit over halfway through the non-raid dungeon progression, nearing the AA cap, and approaching the maximum on most of the current expansion factions (most of which I don't really need for anything, other than a passtime while I look for groups and some free AAXP).  Groups are getting a bit harder to find as I move away from the easy dungeons of the expansion, and the side projects I can do while I try to get a group are getting less interesting (e.g. grinding Desert of Flames factions for an additional housing option, now that we can have multi-housing). 

My subscription happens to be due, and now is about the time to cancel if I want to take advantage of the "winback" promotions that will most likely follow November's expansion - this year, the same amount of money spent on EQ2 would have netted me $20 worth of station cash and a vulture mount if I had planned my gaming schedule around EQ2's marketing promotions.  In and of itself, that's not necessarily reason to re-arrange my schedule.  Then again, if it happens to encourage me to take a break at a time that makes sense anyway, a little EQ2 intermission might not be a bad thing for everyone concerned.

Specifics of this case aside, I wonder if there is a niche for a game that actually plans on players wandering off every few months.  A Tale in the Desert is notable for doing something almost like the season finale of a TV show, actually bringing down the servers at the end of a "telling".  Obviously, no developer wants to not get paid during the "season break", and perhaps the effect on the community would be disruptive.  Then again, there could be long-term gains in avoiding player burnout, and I could see the new trend of story-driven MMO's - SWTOR chief amongst them - being well positioned to taken advantage of a tourist-driven playerbase that will naturally wax and wane as content is released. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Perils of AA Inflation

Lyriana, my EQ2 main, first hit the game's level cap (then 80) in 2009, with 127 out of 200 possible AA points.  Two expansions since have increased the level cap once and the AA cap twice, with a third increase in a two year period slated for November's expansion.  Right now, Lyriana has 264 out of the current cap of 300 AA - when she gains thirteen more, she will be able to access the expansion's final ability (a two-point cost, which requires 275 spent elsewhere).  Raiding guilds that advertise on Crushbone generally include this 277+ point ability as a pre-requisite for would-be recruits. 

As it now stands, the daily quests that I do routinely while waiting to see if I can find a group get me enough experience for one additional AA.  I don't mind the system, since it rewards me for stuff that I'm doing anyway, and it's not keeping me out of content - I'll have the AA's well before I meet the gear requirements.  I could see how someone who had a guild waiting on them might feel differently. 

That aside, there is one significant aspect of the way in which the AA cap has risen - each time it has done so, there has been a free respec, and additional respecs are available for a price.  Meanwhile, in Telara, Trion apparently plans to increase Rift's not yet launched Planar Attunement cap at least once, if not twice, to unlock the second and third tiers that are currently sealed on the UI.  Trion's system controversially does not allow respecs even though the game's entire class system is balanced around players changing roles at a click of a button. 

I'm not entirely opposed to the lack of respec, especially since no one really knows how the system will play out.  However, it does beg a philosophical question - when those additional tiers open up, will there be a respec?  If not, should players who have cherry-picked the best abilities out of the current trees save up their planar attunement points to buy future abilities, rather than picking up less desirable abilities now?  Bear in mind that we have no indication whether attunement point costs will be higher on future trees - higher costs would slow power inflation due to the system, but could leave players regretting a spending spree on filler points today. 

At the end of the day, it is kind of fun to get the occasional new ability, whether it's through an increased level cap or alternate advancements.  It just seems that the consequences - power inflation on the high end and an ever steeper curve for newbies on the low end - bear some watching. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Technology Barriers to Aging MMO Demographics?

Chris at Game by Night argues that the MMO demographic is getting older, and acquiring real life responsibilities that preclude the time commitment of older games.  It makes for a great quote, and I don't disagree with the sentiment - I wrote about the push for transient content last week - but I wonder about the premise. 

Those of us who have been playing MMO's for 5-15 years have obviously gotten older during that time, but has the audience as a whole?  Or, is there some other factor, such as entry barriers to even getting into an MMO, that is letting the dreaded WoW Tourists into the genre?

Getting Online 
Back in the day, even a CD-ROM's worth of data was a hefty download and a game that required an always-on internet connection was tying up the only phone (a landline) in your house.  I would suggest that there was no possible value added for the solo player demographic that justified going to this degree of trouble; the early MMO's focused on multiplayer because that was the only thing that would make it worth the bother of being online. 

Maybe the demographics of being online at all skewed against people who were 30-40+ in 1998, and this in turn kept them out of the MMO market.  Even so, I would suggest that this aspect of the audience was incidental to the era, rather than a conscious decision by people with mortgages, jobs, and families to spurn the genre. 

Flash forward to today, where it is feasible for the largest of games to be delivered digitally and for single player games to require an always-on internet connection (to the chagrin of various customers) because it's safe to assume that even your television has its own broadband connection through one or more consoles.  Today, the "cost" of a solo player going online is greatly reduced.  In 2004, this trend opened the door for Blizzard to support solo play - albeit at a much less "supportive" level than what we see today - and started the genre down the slippery slope towards including as many paying customers as possible. 

The barriers continue to come down
In some ways, the point of this point sounds self-apparent - making it easier to get into MMO's has allowed more people to get into MMO's.  Then again, it seems to have taken a while for the model to catch up.  It's now late 2011, and we have MMO vets like John Smedley and Scott Jennings proclaiming that the free to download, non-subscription model is the way to go because this is somehow still news to the people who write the business plans. 

Streaming client downloads are the new standard, until it moves even further - Runes of Magic is developing a Facebook client that runs the full game.  Companies have to be starting to hear the message that their game needs to be a special product indeed to cross the hurdle of having customers pay $50-60 for a one-month trial that lets them decide if they want to charge $15 to their credit cards every month from now til they quit. 

Did the aging of the EQ1 and WoW 1.0 players bring the age (and life/responsibility) balance of MMO players closer to the general population?  Perhaps, but those numbers are also swelled with the younger players that studios are eagerly courting.  I would argue that we have players who only want to play easier games in the market today because it is getting progressively easier to actually get those games in the first place.  Here, I agree with Chris' bottom line - this is one trend that won't be rolling back. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Will Even Free Get Me Into DCUO?

John Smedley is off on a PR tour to try and make the case that DCUO's seemingly overdue conversion to a free to play model is in response to "player feedback" from PS3 players - which was loud and clear before the game ever launched - rather than a desperation move born of underwhelming performance.  In recent months, the game has: 
  • Completed its merge down to the smallest number of servers the regional (US/EU) and platform (PC/PS3) restrictions will allow (4)
  • Introduced a RMT cash shop, to zero outcry that I saw anywhere because no one seems to be covering this game
  • Announced plans to charge an additional $10 fee, on top of the fees for the disc and the subscriptions, for a Green Lantern-themed patch that was presumably intended to coincide with the movie in June.  When Champions Online tried the same trick similarly soon after launch, shock and outrage forced Cryptic to reverse their decision. SOE reversed their course at the last minute with little fanfare - apparently having already realized that even the monthly fee was too much of an ask for many players, especially on the PS3 - when the patch finally launched this month.  
According to the obligatory FAQ, all of the game's current leveling content will be 100% free to download and play.  To the extent that the current content of the game is worth paying for, having all this content available for $0 to download and $0 in monthly fees may be an attractive deal, especially to the PS3 players who apparently make up 75% of the game's current audience.  Functional, completely free games that come with a prominent license to boot are not easy to come by for the console gamer. 

Whether the change actually results in more revenue is a separate question.  As nearly as I can tell, the restrictions on free players (upgraded permanently to "premium" with virtually any purchase - possibly including use of Station Cash balances from other games on the PC side) are things that I wouldn't care about as a tourist come to solo to the cap and then leave.  Character slots only matter if you're rolling alts (which I don't plan to), inventory slot restrictions can be dealt with (especially on a character you're not keeping around in the long term), and only the currency restriction sounds like a potentially significant issue. 

Ironically, this change fails to address the biggest complaint I've had about the business model since its launch - I want to be able to play the game on my large-screen TV with stereo sound and PS3 controller in hand, but I'm not sure I want to shackle my account to a device that sits in my TV room when I spend so much of my time elsewhere with my laptop.  I would have paid for this game if I had been able to share one account across the two platforms.  Instead, I'm still going to remain conflicted even after the game is free, because I'd still be forced to choose a platform to invest my time in.

The Science Fiction Convention And The Raid

I spent the weekend finally wrapping up the latest in George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series.  I'd been saving the new book for my vacation in August, and I didn't quite get through it due to the 950 page length.  Anyway, finishing the book got me thinking about something from many years ago. 

Imagine that I told you that there was an all-new chapter that says what happens next, after the book that everyone paid some portion of the $35 MSRP to read, but that this new material was only available to people who showed up at a specific time and place to hear the text read aloud.  Everyone else will maybe be allowed to read this new chapter in five years. 

You might think that I'm telling a parable about raiders' currently-exclusive access to story content in MMORPG's, but it's also a true story.  Back in 2006, I attended two science fiction conventions where George Martin showed up to read chapters from the forthcoming book - chapters which ended up being exclusive to hardcore fans for far longer than anyone expected or intended.

George Martin has been criticised for the amount of time it has taken him to work on the novels, suggesting that he is falling shy of a responsibility to readers to finish the story, a common accusation thrown at devs for various reasons with various merit on MMO forums.  I would suggest that these folks are doing it wrong. 

Any given reader either is or is not enjoying the books; if you are, then does it really matter if/when the story ends, and if you're not, might you perhaps be purchasing and reading the wrong books?  Any given raider either does or does not enjoy the actual experience of raiding (through some combination of the gameplay and the company they keep).  For any given fan, the experience of attending the convention either is or is not worth the time and expense of attending. 

More to the point, there are ways for that experience to be unique - hearing the words in the author's own voice, as he holds a pencil to make notes on words he wants to tweak after hearing them aloud - that do not hinge on the exclusivity of the experience.  Millions will read the same chapters that we heard at those conventions five years ago, without diminishing the experience for the fans who showed up for a preview.  Perhaps MMO players - and the incentives that developers produce for us - could use a bit more of that outlook.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Easy Raids And Player Conversion

Rohan at Blessing of Kings is looking vaguely prophetic.  On Thursday, he wrote about a split between what he calls "transient" players - those only willing to tackle content designed to be completed in a single session - and "extended" players - those willing to invest greater amounts of time over multiple sessions in traditional raid content.  He wrote:
The single biggest problem with the endgame of WoW is that it persists in believing that if the incentives are just right, Transient players will transform into Extended players, and everything will work out properly.
In a followup post on Monday, he suggests that having a lower difficulty raid setting with automated group finding is a compromise solution that could provide transient players with an endgame, while preserving the more traditional endgame.  Today, we learned that Blizzard has been hard at work implementing his suggestion, and that the looking for raid tool in patch 4.3 will indeed send players into a lower difficulty level. 

Dealing with Transience
To greatly abuse numbers, I'd suggest that transient players make up 80+% of the MMO market - that's the approximately 5 million NA/EU WoW subscribers versus the approximately 500,000 subscribers to the most successful MMO's that pre-dated WoW. Some portion of that increase may be the fabled Blizzard "quality"/"polish", the popularity of the IP from previous games, etc. However, I just don't think that these things account for an order of magnitude. Instead, I believe the additional numbers are transient players, who Blizzard chose to invite into a previously closed genre by allowing them to solo to the level cap.

The challenge ever since has been how to entertain transient players now that they are here, providing the majority of the revenue for the genre and voting down the extended players (including the EQ1 vets who now work as developers at places like Blizzard) on questions about whether it's appropriate for expansion storylines to culminate in raid zones that only elite players can complete. 

Some games, like LOTRO, have effectively punted - that game's core story is now soloable, with group content as an optional additional-fee add-on.  Others have struggled to find the resources to tack a solo game onto a model that was intended for something else.  Meanwhile, a few hold-outs, notably WoW, have tried to hold the line for the extended old-guard, selling everyone the same expansion with the same storyline, but reserving the ending for not merely regular raids but harder "heroic" raids, with heroic-only encounters like Sinestra and the final phase of the Firelands Ragnaros encounter. 

Continuing the trend?
Assuming that this does play out the way it sounds like it will, transient players will indeed get to see all of the zones in the game.  The real question I'm wondering about is "why".  If the answer was "to provide more content, without having to re-design raids for 5 players", this plan would make sense.  However, according to the interview summary, the one of the goals of the system is to teach players how to raid for future efforts in the "real" difficulty settings.  If so, I believe the effort is doomed to failure because it continues the mistake that Rohan pointed out - the belief that somehow players who are paying to play a game on their own schedules can be convinced to switch over to more structured raid schedules, if only they can be made to see the light. 

Nothing that Blizzard or anyone else has attempted since 2004 has succeeded at this, and I don't expect that exposing players to 24 strangers in WoW's notorious random dungeon pool will do the trick.  Meanwhile, if Blizzard intends to reserve the real ending of the raid storylines for players who do the traditional non-easy versions of the raid, I doubt that most transient players will be impressed. 

In principle, this whole thing should have limited impact on "real" raiders, who are supposedly raiding because they actually enjoy raiding.  If the plan succeeds, real raiders might even see more experienced recruits coming out of the raid finder.  That said, to the extent that some raiders are motivated by exclusivity, Blizzard may see some customers heading for the exits. Whether this number will be offset by increased retention among players who can now PUG all the raids remains to be seen.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Curious Case Of The Dissappearing Rift Podcasts

As someone who plays and writes about many games, podcasts are a hugely important source of gaming news.  Anyone can type up an article to convey the same information, but a good podcast will give you a real sense of the game's community, and why the stories matter (or do not).  Throw in the fact that I can listen while not in front of a computer, and I literally don't know if I'd still be able to do this blog without podcasts. 

Which is why I find it interesting, sad, and perhaps a bit disturbing that, as Rift hits the six month mark of release, I'm on my third Rift Podcast in search of a fourth. 

The Rift Podcast
Around a year ago, when I started hearing rumblings about this game called Rift that people were getting excited about, my first real info came via The Rift Podcast - the oldest post I have tagged with Rift is actually a link to one of their old episodes.  To this day, I associate Rift's login screen music more strongly with the podcast than the actual game, and the interviews definitely played a major role in letting me know what this game was about. 

The partnership formed by the three girls - Arithion and Desikis the podcasters, and Cindy "Abigale" Bowens at Trion - accomplished something that may never have been done before, at least on such a scale.  Ari and Desi were given pre-beta NDA's so they could come in each and every week and hold live interviews with the people actually building the un-released game.  Exclusive access to the devs sounds like any podcaster's dream, but some of the stories Ari told late in the show's run made it sound like managing this working relationship was much more work and pressure than a typical podcaster has to go through.  Likewise, I'm sure that Cindy was taking at least somewhat of a risk in bringing outside people onboard to talk to everyone from the community team up to Scott Hartsman.  Fortunately for everyone, it paid off.

The Rift Podcast shut down shortly after the game finally launched, as Ari was suffering from health issues, and I was genuinely glad to hear that she's fully recovered.  In the mean time, the dedicated Rift slot in my podcast playlist was up for grabs.

Rift Watchers
I'd actually been listening to several of the other podcasts that opened up as the game hit open beta, but my new favorite was Rift Watchers.  There was no hot Austrailian chick, and Gavin did once threaten to hunt down and camp the corpse of Brian "Psychochild" Green because of something I had tweeted - apparently he thought "Green" Armadillo was somehow a cover name for the more famous developer.  Other than that, the show was great, with player round tables and a notorious call-in phone jingle. 

Then literally everyone involved suffered from nigh simultaneous cases of new or more involved jobs, additional projects, etc, and the folks decided to go their separate ways.  (Amusingly, poor Ferrel was finally promoted from recurring guest to official co-host the week they canceled the show, which sounds like something Joss Whedon would do.)

Player Versus Rift
So, it was back to the podcast pool yet again for a third podcast.  This time, I settled on Player Versus Rift.   Their sense of humor is a good change of pace from some of the other shows on my playlist, and I suppose I can support their choice of the name (which has absolutely nothing to do with me as far as I know).  So everything has been going well for like all of a month... and then out of the blue Casey announces that they're ending the show because he has a new job or something. Planes bleep it all. 

Morals of the story
The first moral of the story is that if any of you know a Rift podcast that you'd really like to see shut down in a week or two, let me know so I can add them to my hitlist and make that happen for you - this post is really all about me after all.  :)

That said, I wonder if there is something up here.  Podcasts open and close all the time, but this rate of Rift-related podcast attrition seems unusually high, especially since everyone seems to still like the game as of when they signed off.  Is it just inevitable that pre-launch enthusiasm will die down, as podcasters realize how much of their potential gaming time they have to spend working on their shows?  Or is there something else going on here? 

I don't know, but I suppose I have some dead air in which to think about it as I debate which Rift podcast to kill next.  :)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Buy Now Or Else

With the unveil of Turbine's pricing plan for players who fail to "pre-order" the Isengard expansion, the model feels more like a threat than a bargain. 

The Offer
Under pre-order pricing, $30 gets you the solo content, the (single) raid, and the 3 single group instances (to be released later), along with some pre-order bonuses of various value. 

Under the Turbine Point pricing, a $30 Turbine Point bundle on "double bonus sale" (one of the best sale exchange rates, comes around every other month or so) will buy only the solo content.  If you want the raid and the instances too, you're going to have to wait for the double bonus sale and drop $50 (which will leave you with about 900 TP left over). There may eventually be discount bundles or sales that increase the number of "leftover" points players have after unlocking the expansion, but I suspect that the minimum real money pricetag of a bundle large enough to get the expansion will likely remain around the $30 range. 

Unlike the game's low level content, it does not appear that there will be an option to purchase individual zones worth of content for smaller amounts of money - players will be forced to purchase all three zones at once for $30, or attempt to grind out 10 additional levels using unfinished content from previous expansions and scaling content like skirmishes.  (One wonders in hindsight if the decision to increase the level cap from by 10 levels to 75, increased from the originally announced 70, was intended primarily to make the latter option less attractive.) 

How to respond?
The irony of the situation is that the hypothetical $30 is not a terrible deal - that would represent the only real money I would have spent on the game in possibly a three year period between when Mirkwood content dried up and whenever the next expansion hits, and the purchase would provide full access to the endgame if I ever wanted to pursue it.  Unfortunately, Turbine's decision to use strong-arm tactics makes choosing to pay under these circumstances feel less like getting something I want and more like giving in to a blackmailer - buy now or you'll be sorry when we make you pay twice as much later.

At the end of the day, I'm strongly inclined to call Turbine's bluff.  If I "win", I get to see the game's epic core story without paying Turbine a dime (or, alternately, the experience is sufficiently unenjoyable that I quit the game outright).  If I "lose" I eventually end up paying the $30 for less stuff, but I probably wouldn't have used most of that stuff since I haven't done much with the access to instances I currently own from past LOTRO expansions. 

If Isengard actually turns out to be worth the money, this high pressure sales pitch was unnecessary - place a fair price on the thing and I would probably have purchased it.  Instead, Turbine has chosen to reinforce every negative stereotype of the non-subscription MMO model, and I'm none too keen to support them as a result.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What I'm Working On: EQ2

EQ2 marked Labor Day with a double exp weekend, and I took advantage by finishing off all of the solo content I had yet to complete from the current expansion.  As a result, my AA count shot up from 241 to 258, finally entering the new ground from the current expansion, with a mere two months to go until the next one.

Having 10 points on the third tier of the DOV AA tree means that one of my default buffs now offers a 10% boost to the coveted Crit Chance stat.
After picking up the new AA abilities and trading in some more shards for Ry'Gorr shard gear (now including the gloves, bracers, hat, and boots, along with the T1 chest), Lyriana is sitting about midway through the heroic instance progression.  Her stat sheet includes 118% Critical Mitigation (with a few empty adorn slots I could fill if I wanted to spend shards on adornments), 205% crit chance, 125% crit bonus, and 164% multi-attack.  Instances in DOV are strictly gated by these types of numbers - especially the Crit Mit and Crit Chance - but I've got the gear to get my foot in the door of the KD instances. 

Overall, EQ2 is generally the game I go with given the choices amongst all the MMO's in my stable, and that's usually the criteria I go by when deciding what games to pay for and play.  Unfortunately, SOE is consistently testing my resolve on this front. 

Unfortunate updates and decisions
The last Game Update brought in a messy revamp of every item in the game - Arkenor has been covering the ugly and unpredictable details.  The mere fact that there were some issues with items that pre-date the current design might have been forgiveable if the current design was good.  Unfortunately, it's hard to recommend the itemization plan.  A Scout like Lyriana requires a specific amount of crit to auto-crit all mobs in a given zone, and a corresponding amount of crit mit to avoid being one-shot by AOE attacks.  Once you're at that number - if and when they get the itemization progression in the order they plan, this will be a highly regimented progression from tier to tier - you're just after multi-attack and crit bonus to improve your DPS.  It's neither creative nor interesting. 

Meanwhile, the weekend featured SOE's latest Winback promotion.  If only I had let my account lapse no later than August 2nd, I would have received three days of free game time, an exclusive mount, and $5 worth of Station Cash just for resubscribing.  As someone who routinely comes and goes between MMO's, the message is really clear - when my EQ2 subscription runs out, I should not renew it until the next time SOE offers me a bribe to do so. 

Between this promotion and another one that was carefully designed to exclude players who came back voluntarily for the expansion earlier this year, I have missed out on $20 worth of Station Cash that I would have received had I been willing to schedule my gaming time around SOE's marketing gimmicks.  That's half the price of an expansion, which would have done wonders to soften the blow of having SOE ask me to open my wallet for a second paid expansion box in nine months come November.  This goes doubly when the allegedly feature-focused expansion consists of a bunch of features I'm not that interested in bundled with an AA cap increase that will presumably be mandatory. 

Amidst all these adjustments, cross-server grouping is en route to EQ2, possibly as early as this month.  This could have a major impact on my EQ2 play.  As a Dirge - a class that provides crucial and arguably overpowered buffs to melee party members - I have routinely enjoyed quick group invites which have made it possible for me to spend time in Norrath's heroic dungeons.  Depending on how the automated system plays out, it is very possible that this gravy train will be derailed shortly. 

Beyond this milestone, and the expansion, lies an interesting thought experiment - how long can an otherwise enjoyable gameplay experience remain so in the face of what I see as major issues with the game's itemization, mechanics, business model, marketing, and general development direction?  I suppose I'll keep y'all posted. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

What I'm Working On: Round-Up

I'll come back to EQ2 after the bonus exp weekend wraps up, so for the moment that leaves me with the games that I haven't done much with recently to round up my MMO update tour.

WoW is simply not a high priority for me at the moment.  I will, in principle, want to clear out all of the level 85 heroic dungeons sometime before the next expansion, and there are some new features, including cosmetic items, to be tried whenever 4.3 happens.  What I'm really not interested in is signing in on a daily basis to earn a few more tokens towards Firelands dailies that could someday award me gear that I'm not even going to use before the next gear reset.  At least in EQ2 (and soon Rift) I can earn AA exp that will stay with the character beyond the next patch if I do spend time on daily quests.

LOTRO has an expansion launching this month, and I have yet to make plans.  It's not entirely clear to me how the thing will work with the business model, which currently includes the level cap, physical access to zones, and the epic questline for all players regardless of payment.  If this is the case for Isengard, I don't see why I'd want to pay $30 for the "expansion pre-order" instead of $5-15 for the content I need a la carte.

(I'm not sure if the world of Middle Earth isn't slightly more atmospheric if I make a point of NOT owning all the generic quests so that the only quest available to me at a new camp is the Epic story, rather than having the wilderness campfire lit up like a Christmas tree with quest icons.  I still have a bit of Mirkwood content that I have yet to finish, along with epic storyline in Enedwaith and scaling skirmishes, so there is, in principle, content I can use to earn exp if I don't buy all of the new stuff.)   

My current plan here is to wait and see how much content I actually end up needing, rather than rushing to pre-order now and ending up with content that I don't bother to use.  DDO has basically fallen off my plate, leaving me with about $30 worth of unspent Turbine points and a fair number of quest packs that I paid to unlock but have yet to play because my characters are not high enough level.  Because it's a free to play game with no real time limits, it's possible that I will still come back one of these days and get good value for that money.  Even so, this situation is what I don't want to have happen in LOTRO - no matter how much of a "better deal" the pre-order is, the money is still wasted if I buy it before I plan to play it, and don't end up using it once I do so. 

What I'm Working On: Runes of Magic

Runes of Magic is a game that I sign into every other week or so when I remember, run a daily or two, and sign out.  Probably the biggest decision I've been pondering is which class to take as a third option to accompany my Druid/Rogue. 

The optimal min-max solution would be to go with either a scout or a warrior, as either class can be used as a secondary class with the Druid to heal, and in some combination with the Rogue to do DPS (melee as a Warrior/Rogue or Rogue/Warrior, ranged as a Scout/Rogue).  The more I've considered this approach, the less interested I am in pursuing it. 

The primary role of the character as I'm currently playing it is to do ranged caster DPS on the Druid/Rogue combination, and try to somehow scrape together the bare minimum Rogue levels needed for stats, skills (and Elite skills), etc.  In principle, given indefinite time, I could earn enough TP to allow the Druid to also pursue healing with the alternate subclass, but it's really not likely that I'm going to invest the time needed to make that happen. 

Instead, I'm strongly inclined towards picking up the Warden, a melee pet class (when used as a primary) that contributes mana-based melee attacks when used as a secondary.  I've always enjoyed pet classes where the player fights alongside the pet, rather than hiding behind it.  I would have the option of leveling as either Warden/Druid (allowing the Warden to heal herself, rather than just her pet) or as Warden/Rogue with more DPS and the option of dual wielding.  It's possible that I will enjoy Rogue/Warden more than I enjoy Rogue/Druid (a melee class that just feels lackluster because its other half does not melee), or that the Rogue will continue to be something I level as much as I have to. 

If I ever attempted endgame, I suppose this would leave me as a character that does two flavors of DPS (ranged on the Druid/Rogue, melee on either combination of Rogue and Warden).  That said, as I wrote about Rift, I'd rather have two roles that I enjoy - even if they don't earn me group invites - than many roles that are useful on paper but that don't make me want to log in to use them. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What I'm Working On: Vanguard

Tell that tree that I've had enough of its amateur shenanigans!
My "what I'm working on" update for Vanguard is less of a current work in progress than something I got done on the way out of town for vacation.

I was finally able to get off of the newbie trial island, hitting level 11 in both adventuring (Disciple) and Diplomacy.  The last quest area would have been very tough to solo, but was fine with a second person - fortunately, there are people running around the temple during peak hours.   

The Lucky Charm bracelet, for completing the newbie adventuring line.  The item is much prized because it goes on your diplomacy outfit but gives you adventuring stats, and cannot be earned in any other way besides completing the newbie island as a new character.  Also note that it will be sent into your diplomat bags automatically if there's room - I spent about 5 minutes trying to figure out where it went when I obtained it. 
As I had anticipated, getting into the game's real world did indeed make a big difference.  Unlike the generic lore of the starter island, the game's original starting areas have lore that is tailored to each race.  Meanwhile, parts of the game begin to make sense than they did while staring at page after page of UI's - for example, the equipment tab for your mount allows players to swap in different colored barding on the same mount model, where every other MMO just has the player buy multiple mounts that are pre-outfitted.  

Triumph of the horse that let me choose the color of its saddle-blanket equivalent.
For me personally, the thing that really stands out about Vanguard is the variety of non-combat quest options - the crafting and diplomacy quests are a refreshing change from the normal MMO world where violence solves everything.  That said, this area bumps into the area where my impression of the game and its older UI is the the weakest, namely travel.

Intercontinental travel is handled by a system of teleport crystals - for a very small fee, players can teleport to the location of their choice, and the NPC's will even offer breadcrumb quests to all the level-appropriate locations in the game.  Once you're actually in the zone you want, though, your only guide is a compass that does not indicate altitude, or even whether you're on the right continent. 

The second diplomacy quest once you're off the newbie island points players at one of the game's major cities, which I had never heard of and was not located on the continent I was on.  First, I went to the correct coordinates, which were clearly indicated on my map even though they were on the wrong continent.  Then I somehow missed a turn and ended up in the city docks, trying to figure out why I couldn't get to the coordinates which were up above on top of the cliff.  A few steps later, you're sent off to another city on yet another continent, and again it took me a while to figure out that the new location was not actually in the place the compass seemed to be pointing to. 

Fans of the sandbox and immersion may argue that this system is realistic (real people may assume that you know approximately where famous cities are) and leaves more for the player to figure out on their own.  Fair enough, and perhaps this would have impressed me back in 2005.  Today, the fact that it takes 5-10 minutes to ride my horse from the teleport point on the outskirts of town to a Fed-Ex quest objective that I actually know how to find (and will immediately leave for the next mission) is a dealbreaker by the second or third time it happens. 
A shiny flight beacon, for a "how to use the rental flying mount" tutorial.
Overall, I liked Vanguard better than I expected to, despite some arguably unfortunate design choices (such as sending free trial players to the highly generic newbie island).  On some level, complaining about sandbox in one of the last sandbox-like MMO's standing is like rolling on a "PVP" server and complaining about being ganked - if you don't like it, you picked the wrong place to play. 

And so, I wandered off without much fanfare.  Not because I was out of things to do, or because I hated the game, but simply because there were other things that I would rather spend my time on.  I guess that's a mixed review, but I don't especially fault the game for it, and I hope it sticks around for people who enjoy it. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

What I'm Working On: Rift

Sitting about three quarters of the way through the year, Labor Day has often served as an occasion to talk about what I am (or am not) doing in MMO's and why.  Given the recent "half-birthday" welcome back re-trial in Rift, I figured I might as well start there.

My cleric, now level 43, with her DPS cabalist build in action, numbers flying every which way.
My Rift subscription initially lapsed with my cleric at level 36 at the end of the first month.  I wasn't sure exactly why I wasn't too keen on continuing, but I figured that there was no hurry, because the game would only get better until I felt like picking up.

In hindsight, it's possible that I over-thought my class selection.  If Rift had asked me to pick one of 32 classes, instead of 32 souls organized into 4 callings, my choice would almost certainly have been some sort of DPS Warrior.  Given a system that prizes role flexibility and that I am no fan of tanking, this seemed like a bad idea.  Instead, I went with the Cleric, secure in the knowledge that they can do everything (tank, heal, melee, and ranged DPS).  A big part of my lack of motivation with the game may well be that it's better to have one role that you actually enjoy than eight that you're ambivalent about playing. 

Over six months and two re-trials since, in which I advanced from 36 to 40 and then from 40 to 43, two things have changed.  The first is that they have done some work on the Cleric DPS souls, which are always going to be my default option for soloing.  In particular, I enjoy the newest iteration of the Cabalist caster soul better than previous attempts at the Cabalist or Inquisitor. 

Second, it turns out that there is a role that I actually enjoy - healing on the Purifier soul.  I didn't have much of a chance to actually do this while leveling, because neither solo content nor small scale rifts/invasions require that much healing.  On the most recent retrial, though, I used the cross-server group finder to land myself instance groups as a healer, and the groups I was in were able to survive Runic Descent (even level for my Cleric) and King's Breach (which I am a bit over-leveled for).  Having basically instant queues as a healer makes this role far more accessible as something I can do on a regular basis.

Looking ahead
I remain skeptical of whether the new alternate advancement mechanic - which appeared for testing this weekend - will be a good thing in the long run, but the fact is that it's coming as soon as this month, and I see no reason to push on to 50 until the dust settles and I can get credit for all the stuff that goes on at the level cap.  That aside, I think my decision to hold off on leveling has paid off, as I will reach a much more mature and polished endgame than I could have if I had continued back in April. 

Overall, I expect to be spending more time in Telara by the end of the year, so perhaps this is a case where the advice we always give each other about waiting six months on a new MMO was the right call.