Tuesday, January 31, 2012

DCUO Removes Holy Trinity

Interesting news out of DCUO this week - the next patch will add a set of buffs to the game's group-finder that removes the need for tanks, healers, and controllers in the game's four-man content.  Tankless groups will take less damage, healer-less groups will gain passive health regen, and controller-less groups will regain power.  If there was any question about which role is not scarce in-game, there is no mention of a damage buff for groups with no DPS. 

My post title may be a bit misleading.  For the moment, SOE plans to continue to require group roles in the game's eight-man raid content.  They've even taken a page from Blizzard's book, with a new "novice" difficulty setting for raids.  I can't imagine that this requirement will stand in the long run. 

The team is making this move because we're looking at a playerbase that solo DPS'es their way to the level cap, double-DPS'es their way though the endgame duo content, and will now quadruple-zerg their way through the group content, spending their hundreds of emblems on DPS gear that cannot be used to heal, tank, or control.  Nothing in MMO history suggests that the easier raids will be any more successful in converting solo players to group roles.  If anything, the system raises the bar for new players who WANT to try the roles, by moving the playerbase further down the gear grind and skill curve - I can definitely imagine being told to switch to DPS mode because the group will move faster with higher DPS and automated healing. 

Before dismissing this move as desperation by an MMO that was stuck with weird console demographics, consider the context.  NPC companions are spreading across the genre, raising thorny issues about how to avoid having them become more attractive than a live player.  So is scaling content like public quests, rifts, and whatever Blizzard is calling their new feature, designed around the reality that players are unwilling to tank and heal in sufficient numbers to sustain the old school holy trinity.  Most games are building in multiple roles to most or all of their classes (before shooting themselves in the foot by requiring double the gear grind to support these roles) but DPS queues remain high. 

If Blizzard announced that this feature was in for Pandaria's launch, the only shock would be that they acted so quickly.  Perhaps modern MMO's have too much invested in the old model to change now, but at this point I'd be very surprised if the traditional holy trinity is implemented in Titan. 

If this is the deathknell of the holy trinity model of MMO's, it's vaguely ironic to have the company that made Everquest wielding the fatal dagger. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Will Raid Tombs For Story

I continued to work on my PS3 backlog this weekend with the first game in the Tomb Raider Trilogy, Tomb Raider: Legend.  Of the three games included on the disc, Legend receives the worst reviews, and I can understand why.  My experience has been that I have repeatedly gone to a walkthrough only to learn that I had correctly solved a puzzle or boss mechanic, only to be unable to execute the solution due to inconsistent controls.  However, the story from Legend continues on into the subsequent Underworld (and is relatively amusing besides), so I wanted to play through the game anyway. 

My solution to this problem, despite being a long-time gamer with experience in this series, was to set the game to "easy" difficulty.  This effectively removes almost all challenge from the game's combat - mashing on the "fire two handguns at once" button eventually kills most enemies, who deal limited damage - and with it most of the potential frustration.  What's left are the jumping puzzles - which are usually at least fun to watch and puzzle out - and the story scenes. 

When I played through Batman: Arkham City, earlier this month, I was willing to tackle the game on normal difficulty because I expected the proven stealth gameplay would make it worth the effort.  I'm considering replaying the more challenging "new game plus" because the gameplay delivered.  With Tomb Raider - and WoW's raid finder - I'm not convinced that it has. 

Balancing story and game engagement
I posted about the rise of this type of cinematic stoytelling in games - primarily single player games - nearly a year and a half ago.  (Amusingly, I wrote that I wouldn't be first in line for SWTOR, not knowing that it was still over a year from release, and for once I got one prediction correct.)  Since then we're seeing more of this type of storytelling in the MMO scene, whether in SWTOR's famous dialog trees or WoW's increasingly chatty plot-heavy dungeons. 

We've always had some story in our MMO's - LOTRO has interspersed lore cut scenes with quests and dungeons since its launch, and many MMO's historically kept their main lore and storylines locked at the end of exclusive raid content - but it's becoming both more prevalent and more accessible.  The question is whether the levels of engagement in both storyline and gameplay have kept pace.

I can see tolerating a lengthy dialog as a way to celebrate toppling an end-of-expansion boss after the proverbial (or literal) 400 wipes, but I can also see it getting frustrating to have every encounter - especially easier ones such as WoW's dungeon and raid finder - punctuated with NPC's who repeat the same chatter week after week.  Likewise, I can see it being irritating for players who actually WANT to observe the story in an era of chain-pulling to the next encounter. 

It may be possible for an MMO to launch with such sheer quantity of story that it can get by on selling players access to replay the game - if anyone pulls this off, it will be SWTOR.  For everyone else, who is still trying to sell players on using repeatable content (whether through a subscription or microtransaction consumables), I wonder if the increased focus on a story - which is generally less repeatable - is a distraction from attempts to convert players to the core gameplay. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Triumph of the Plain-er Horse

Telaran riding school requires that you stick your right elbow out to the side just so.
Having hit level 50 in Rift, I was finally eligible to snag the top 110% speed mount.  By virtue of the "digital collector's edition" (which is suspiciously like a microtransaction), every character on my account gets a 60% mount for free the moment they can access a mailbox.  There is a boost to 90% available for 35 Plat at level 30 (I think it may have been higher at some point?) but I decided to set my sights on the 125 Plat for the maximum mount speed. 

This was actually the first time in recent memory that I actually went farming for the purpose of collecting gold/plat.  Stacks of crafting materials from most harvesting nodes in Shimmersand sell for something between 3-10 Plat on Byrial Guardian side, so this was not especially painful.  While I don't think I have really done this since about 2007 (the first epic flying mount in WoW, launch era LOTRO), I didn't really mind it.  If anything, having a "primary" goal of traveling the zone to harvest more cash actually made it easier for me to convince myself that I might as well finish the quests that require killing the mobs guarding my loot.  This is something that has gotten lost in more recent MMO's, where it feels like I usually have all the cash I need as I need it. 

Since I haven't capped out any endgame factions yet, my two choices were the weird two-tailed lion-cat thing that Guardians can get in Sanctum, or a horse from the scholar faction that I apparently capped through world events the week the game launched.  I decided to go with the plain-er option because my CE turtle mount and the raptor mount I got from a world event both scale to the speed of my fastest mount for when I want to look more exotic.  On the plus side, I now have three separate appearances for my top riding speed.  On the down side, most faction mounts are set to cost the full 125 plat if I ever reach the required faction level.  Perhaps I will eventually be awash in plat, but for the moment this approach (which World of Warcraft fixed with riding skill back in 2006) would seem to discourage additional mount purchases.

Anyway, I'm now free to roam Telara at a noticeably faster speed.  This impacts travel times for everything - quests and especially zone events - in a way that makes me wonder if someone (myself or Trion) made a mistake in designing this in such a way that I was hobbling around at the lower speed until now.  Now that I have the upgrade, getting such a large boost in one shot is rewarding, but this was definitely something that was harming my enjoyment of the game up through this point.

Telaran Riding Tip: Lean to one side or the other so you can see around the giant thing on your horse's head.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Looting the Raid Finder

I took my third trip through the WoW Raid Finder this week, and I guess I must have been statistically due.  I won a glove token - which I gave away to another player when I won the ilvl 390 gloves off of Deathwing's back (don't ask) - a pair of shoulder pads, and enough Valor points to pick up the belt off the Valor vendor.  My PVE set now no longer has inappropriate items in it (e.g. PVP or spirit gear that was enough of an upgrade to be worth equipping despite suboptimal stats).  A few observations:
  • For the most part, heroic 5-mans are now no more than a means to Valor points, as I no longer need any of the loot.  The only minor exception is a caster off-hand that I might want if I ended up winning and using the spell dagger from Deathwing (almost all off-hands are itemized with spirit for healers).
  • Unless I move on to normal/heroic mode raiding, most of these items are things that I will not replace until the expansion.  Moreover, it doesn't feel like there are many choices - the challenge with effectively replacing all of the gear on all the characters in the game as many as four times in a single patch (the new 5-man dungeons, followed by raid finder, regular, and heroic mode of the Deathwing raid) is that there just isn't room for variety.
  • Blizzard intentionally did not include weapons on the regular bosses in the easy raid finder mode (which generally offers loot that's half a tier above five-mans).  The final Deathwing encounter does offer weapons, which are a full tier above what you get in five-mans, but they seem oddly situational.  The two choices for mages are a staff which spends a lot of its budget on a proc that increases haste for some of your group members and a dagger with an uncontrollable AOE proc - something which should give pause to all but the most trigger-happy of DPS.  (If you want to use the dagger anyway, you need to go back to 5-mans for the aforementioned off-hand to carry with it.) 
  • A second trinket is one area where I'm kind of lacking, and at the mercy of the random number generator.  There are three trinkets a mage can use in the raid finder, but one has another automatic AOE proc.  These are also hard to get because DPS melee shamen and druids (along with caster shamen, druids, shadow priests, and mages/warlocks) are allowed to roll need on these caster DPS-focused items, resulting in a lot of rolls when one does drop. 
Overall, it's a half-successful incentive.  I have run the thing three times now, and will probably do so a few more times between now and the expansion.  That said, I expect to hit diminishing returns on my time quickly, and it's likely a long wait between now and the next expansion.  Ironically, perhaps Blizzard's much discussed decision to offer Diablo III and the Pandaria beta with WoW's annual pass may have been motivated as much to keep WoW players happy by giving them something else to do as by nefarious plans to lock in revenue. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

If you can't say something nice?

There are a few things I could blog about today.  I'm strangely not excited about writing any of them.  I suppose when you've been at this for long enough, there are relatively fewer things that you can write that you haven't written in the past and/or don't expect to be covering repeatedly as the news in question gets closer to the present? 

On the plus side, I suppose the upshot to having a blog that's nearly four years old is that it gets easier to just shrug, /punt, and go hit the raidfinder or something. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

SOE on "Free to Play, Your Way"

"We've introduce[d?] non-recurring passes into EverQuest II, which have been really popular for some of the newer players that aren't quite as committed yet. It's a great on-boarding tool so that people can feel like they can buy a one-time pass using virtual currency, see if they like it, and then see if they can move on to a recurring fee"

- Laura Naviaux, Senior Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing at Sony Online Entertainment, in an interview with ZAM
In the early days of the EQ2X beta, devs expressed concerns that existing subscribers would cancel if allowed to buy their way out of all the restrictions on non-subscribing accounts.  They are not wrong to fear this - I would suggest that SOE's competitors, such as DDO and LOTRO, have ended up with models in which almost all players will pay less in the long run by paying for unlocks rather than subscribing. 

However, the results have consistently left me feeling that SOE never intended for the non-subscription model to be a viable and attractive alternative to the subscription.  For all the studio's talk about how they want to give the consumer flexibility, both EQ2 and DCUO intentionally retain restrictions that non-subscribers cannot lift in any way other than subscribing.  Their model has always felt like players were expected - as close to required as the studio could get away with - to "move on" to the old monthly fee if they wanted to continue playing. 

I just was not expecting to have my impression confirmed by their marketing chief. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Rift At 50

Telhamat, my Rift Cleric, finally hit level 50 this week.  In addition to a welcome back weekend, Trion handed out 3 days of game time to anyone who has an account as compensation for changing their passwords after a hacking incident late last year.  As a result, of all these freebies, I was able to reach the game's level cap without any additional paid time beyond the initial month - certainly no grounds to complain about the value I got for that purchase a year ago.

Soso Solo
I have soloed characters to the level caps in WoW, EQ2, DCUO, LOTRO (though I have yet to catch up with the latest increase), and now Rift, so I'd suggest that I have a fair amount of experience with solo PVE play.  Unfortunately, I can't recommend Rift all that highly in this department.

There's no way for Trion to balance content around all possibilities in the soul system, but any of the four DPS Cleric souls paired with 10 points in Justicar can chain-pull 3 mobs at a time with limited to no downtime or consumables.  (I didn't even realize there were drinks I was supposed to be purchasing and consuming until someone mentioned how many they consumed on a dungeon run.)  The game's zones are extremely lengthy and linear, so there's limited opportunity to push the envelope on better optimized solo builds by attempting more challenging content.

Meanwhile, the game's exp curve is inexplicably weighted in favor of killing mobs over completing quests.  If you have rested exp, you will get significantly more experience for killing 10 rats than for riding halfway across a wide zone to turn in the quest to kill the 10 rats.  Quest reward gear is generally much worse than what you can get at the same level from zergable Rift events.  Overall, zones are pretty, quests and lore are reasonably well written, but overall the long and non-challenging quest grind feels the opposite of rewarding.  Nothing about what I've seen makes me excited to work on the endgame solo daily quests.

The group flexibility niche?
My seldom-active Rift characters happen to be parked in Ferrel's raiding guild, Iniquity.  Having seen my level 50 achievement notice in guild chat earlier that evening, the guild invited me on a farming run that very night.  The group had some empty slots in an excursion back to farm the old River of Souls instance for raid currency etc, and they figured there would be unclaimed loot that could be handed to a blogger/tourist.

Telhamat, with her new hammer
The random loot table obliged, and I ended up with a belt, a pair of gloves, and a 2-handed hammer.  (I also snagged a level 50 purple helm with currency from a past world event).  Perhaps more valuable was a hint of what exactly this game has that other games do not.  Through the soul system, Rift players have unprecedented flexibility to find something they can do with the players they have, rather than attempting to find players to satisfy the needs of the content.

Healer has to sign off?  No problem, the tank will go heals and a DPS will switch to tank mode.  Freshly dinged 50 who can't hit anything due to lack of gear?  At least I can switch to a healing role and contribute somehow, since heals can't miss.  Not enough players to run this zone?  There's a smaller one that still has some tokens and loot, or the even less structured outdoor content. 

None of these ideas are original or even that impactful individually.  Taken collectively, though, I'm starting to see why this game seems to draw the older-school crowd from the days when MMO's were more of an activity than a game. 

Going forward

I'm actually not done with Rift just yet - I happened to snag a very good deal on some game time earlier this month.  It appears that the biggest thing I need to do with this time is to stop trying to solo.  I have more fun in this game when I play as a healer than as a DPS (perhaps in part because I have built a Purifier that heals a lot like my WoW mage does DPS).   Trion will take my money as a solo MMO tourist, but they will never hold my attention in that role because that's just not the direction they have chosen to take their game. 

In a lot of ways, Rift is the exact opposite of the direction I'm going as a player - subscription in an era of non-subscription options, group-friendly when that does not fit my schedule.  The fact that the game makes me at least interested in trying it anyway suggests that they're doing something right. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

First Time MMO PC Builder, Part 3 (Finalizing, Testing, Troubleshooting)

When I left off last week, I had assembled the core components of my new gaming machine, with a few details to work out, a few additional components to add, and a few spare parts to obtain.  Most of all, I had some general cleanup work ahead of me to ensure that cables were routed properly and the system was in good working order.  I also had some testing and, unfortunately, a bit of troubleshooting.

Finishing Touches
The hard drives take up relatively little space in the very bottom of the case, after re-arranging some cables.
  • The first thing I did with my new shipment of parts was to swap out the right-angled SATA cables with straight ones.  I had to remove the lower front fan from in front of the hard drive bay so I could put the two drives back in the configuration that I wanted them in, but the advantage was clear - absolutely no obstruction to the two intake fans.  
  • Next, it was time to install the fan controller.  More on this story in a minute.
  • I installed two cards, which I appropriated from my old desktop - a wireless network adapter PCI card and an nVidia 9600 GSO graphics card.  The latter is definitely a place-holder - I had to check the benchmarks to verify that this card is actually superior to the Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics on my CPU - but I decided to go with this approach for two reasons.  First, I'd like to see how the machine runs with the current hardware, so I can tell how much additional firepower I need.  Second, Nvidia's new chips are expected shortly, and I see no reason to rush into a purchase when there will likely be new models or bargains on old ones in the near future. 
  • Now it was time to start routing cables.  Because my build is relatively minimalist, it only took me a dozen cable ties or so to get everything secured to my liking.  
The finished interior of the machine.
Testing and Overclocking
Now it was time for stress testing and basic overclocking.  PC builders seem to have universally rallied around a program called Prime95 to test whether machines will crash when pushed to do hard computations for extended periods of time.  After surviving an initial round of testing, I went into the ASUS bios and enabled their pre-configured automatic overclocking feature. 

With little more than a single click of a button, this ramped the stock speed on my CPU from 3.3 GHz up to 4.2 GHz, and an extended round of stress testing indicated no problems.  A real overclocker would push the envelope further, but this spot on the effort-reward curve is good enough for me, at least for the moment.  The GPU, whatever I end up with, is already going to be the bottleneck for this system, and there's no reason increase power consumption, wear and tear, etc to go beyond that until/unless I need to. 

From here, it was on to testing all the clients I copied over from my laptop. Here, the results were universally positive.  I'm not able to max out all of the Anti-Aliasing and Shadow settings, but I can have max draw distance and texture quality, which are the two settings I care the most about.  I can sort of notice the improvement in quality when you start throwing in the fancier effects, but it's not worth gutting frame rates.  I'm able to run WoW, EQ2, LOTRO, DDO, DCUO, Runes of Magic and Rift on the new machine at my primary monitor's 1920x1080 native resolution, while leaving a second monitor (an old 1280x1024 monitor) up with a web browser and other utilities. 

Overall, the project is starting to look like a win, though it will definitely be interesting to see how SWTOR, with its higher requirements, runs. 


Unfortunately, the fan controller turned around to give me my first troubleshooting experience with the machine.  I selected a Lamptron FC4 because it sounded functional and matched my aesthetics - no fancy LCD screens, and it was black with blue LED's, matching the case fans - and because it seemed priced reasonably at $30.  I was otherwise going to be out probably $15-20 for molex adapters for my four case fans, so this seemed like a small additional expense to add some additional functionality.

Reviews on Newegg were mixed - many on Newegg commented that the build quality looked a bit inconsistent - but I figured that this was the issue you always have with any sort of online review - the one person who got a dead unit has a stronger incentive to complain than the dozen who didn't.  Once the device arrived, though, I saw a bit of what they meant.  The metal brace used to mount the device in the 5.25" bay is unnecessarily short - just barely long enough to even reach the first screws - and it took a lot of repositioning to get the thing in correctly.  

Then, about half a week in to the life of the machine, I noticed that one of the LCD's on the front panel was no longer fully lit.  After a quick check, I determined that the connected fan was also no longer running.  My first guess was that maybe I did something wrong while installing it, so I removed both side panels and the front cover so I could unplug and replug the offending fan.  No luck.  Then I swapped the fan with one of the others, and it was immediately obvious that one of the four fan channels was no longer working properly, as the previously non-working fan fired up and the previously working fan sat, inactive.  (The big advantage to seemingly cosmetic LED's on fans is you can immediately tell when one isn't running.) 

Eventually, I discovered that pressing the knob down reasonably hard (not something that you'd otherwise have reason to do) caused the fan connected to it to fire back up, only to stop again the moment the knob is released.  I'm not sure if something is bent or so poorly connected that it stopped functioning after days, but I'm concerned about trusting this device with the operation of my fans if it's this shoddy.  It's possible that a pair of pliers may be able to fix the problem, but I'm not sure if I want to risk doing something that could affect my ability to return the thing if it's really that poorly made. 

Meanwhile, I didn't spend money on a backup solution to the problem of how to hook up the fans, so I would need to partially dismantle the machine and leave it out of commission until a replacement arrives.  Given that I cannibalized my old desktop for parts to set this thing up, this is a bit inconvenient.  Ah well, a relatively minor first issue as far as DIY computers go, and at least I know enough to know how to identify the problem, rather than having to go to a shop with no clue what it's not working. 

Final thoughts to follow once I figure out how to deal with the fan controller issue and have a bit more time to test the machine in action.

Guide to Moving/Copying MMO Client Installs

As I've been setting up and testing the new computer, one of the questions I ran into is how to avoid re-downloading the 100+ GB of MMO clients I had installed on my old machine.  I tried Googling the question of how to move/copy an MMO installation and got very incomplete/fragmentary information which varied by game.  I decided it would be quicker to break out the portable hard drive and test for myself.

All testing was done on a fresh 64-bit Windows 7 install.  I was able to log into a character on every game except where noted below.  This is presented for informational use only, and PVD takes no responsibility for any technical support or performance issues.

World of Warcraft
  • Game Version: Cataclysm Patch 4.3
  • Files copied: Entire WoW directory (28.3 GB, including screenshots and UI mods)
  • File to launch: Launcher
  • Comments: No issues, game immediately launched as if it had always been there.
Lord of the Rings Online
  • Game Version: Rise of Isengard, Update 5
  • Files Copied: Entire Directory (14.3 GB)
  • File to launch:  Turbine Launcher
  • Comments: The first time I tried to log in, the launcher crashed just after selecting my server.  Undeterred, I tried again, and got in fine.  I'm pretty sure I remember the same thing happening on my other machine the last time I did a clean install. 
Dungeons and Dragons Online
  • Game Version: Update 12
  • Files Copied: Entire Directory (6.46 GB)
  • File to launch:  Turbine Launcher
  • Comments: Same issue as LOTRO, probably unsurprising since both are the same engine.  Second login attempt went fine
Runes of Magic
  • Game Version: 4.0.6
  • Files Copied: Entire Directory (10 GB)
  • File to launch:  Runes of Magic
  • Comments: No issues - real relief to have this one installed fully patched, because their patcher is a very slow and painful process.  
EQ2 (streaming client)
  • Game Version: Game Update 62 (Age of Discovery launch update)
  • Files Copied:EQ2/assetcache folder (14.2 GB)
  • File to launch:  Launchpad
  • Comments: I did this one by downloading the installer for the streaming client, installing it, and then closing the downloader.  I then added the assetcache folder to the new install.  This folder contains all of the fixed data about content (e.g. textures, music, etc).  After copying this over, I re-launched the downloader and let it mop up what was left, which was under one GB.  No issues.  
  • Game Version: Game Update 8
  • Files Copied: Entire Directory (17.7 GB)
  • File to launch:  Launchpad
  • Comments: This time I encountered an issue - the launchpad took my login and downloaded the updates, but I did not have any version of DirectX installed on the machine and was not able to launch the client.  I downloaded the DCUO installer from the DCUO website, and it offered the option to "repair" an existing installation (rather than install a new one or uninstall an existing one).  I selected this option, it downloaded the missing DirectX, and the game launched smoothly with extremely limited download time.
  • Game Version: Don't remember, probably 1.5 or 1.6.
  • Files Copied: Entire Directory (~10 GB)
  • File to launch:  RiftPatchLive
  • Comments: I initially tried running the "Rift" executable before I got DCUO up and running and received the same error message for missing DirectX.  Apparently DCUO installed a version that Rift was happy with because the game launched without issue.   It's entirely possible that Trion also offers a repair tool that could have rescued this issue, I just happened to have done DCUO's first. 

    Update: I initially copied this to Program Files on my SSD for faster loading, but noticed that screenshots were not saving, apparently because Windows does not want the client writing to the program directory.  I moved the game to Users/Public/Games and the problem was resolved.  
SWTOR (see note)
  • Game Version: Thanksgiving Beta Weekend
  • Files Copied: Entire Directory (18.5 GB)
  • File to launch:  Launcher
  • Comments: I don't actually own an SWTOR account yet, so I don't know for sure whether this works.  The patcher patched itself and gives me a login screen, but I can't download the updates (or log in, obviously).  This entry is included primarily because people often find posts like this through Google months after they've been written - I will edit this once I actually have a SWTOR account to verify that it works, but I do not anticipate issues. 

Conclusions I've heard conflicting things about whether MMO clients could be copied without issues, but it appears that the modern MMO patcher is able to recreate whatever it needs to function (e.g. registry keys) if deposited in a new location with minimal issues.  This has a few practical implications:
  • If you're moving from a still-functioning older machine to a new one ,you can move the data over via a portable hard drive, network sharing, or whatever other means are at your disposal.  You could probably even use multiple DVD-R's for clients that won't fit on one disc, as long as you can break it up and reassemble it correctly.   
  • If you are using an SSD that has room for some, but not all of your MMO's and you do not play all of them every month, it is possible to copy over your current favorite, and send it back to the data drive the next time your subscription lapses.
  • If you have just the one hard drive (with enough empty space available to duplicate the clients you want to copy) and you need to reinstall Windows for whatever reason, you could, in principle, create a new partition and send your clients (and/or other files, though I would definitely back up anything that can't be easily re-downloaded given time) into that area for temporary storage.  Then you can format the original system partition, reinstall windows, recover the files, and remove the partition. 
Breaking news?  Probably not, but it was useful for me, so perhaps it will be useful for someone else out there.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Weekly vs Daily Engagement

As a result of my dungeon and raid finding activities earlier in the week, there have been no more Valor points available for me to earn in WoW since Thursday.  This new, more flexible system point system makes WoW a game that requires weekly engagement, rather than daily engagement.  While this change may be good and even necessary, I wonder what effect it will have on community and retention.

The new system
I earned the VP for the week as follows:
  • I attempted three dungeon runs on Tuesday night (reset night in WoW), two of which were successful, for 300 Valor Points. 
  • I went two for two on Wednesday night for another 300 points.
  • I spent Thursday night on a Raid finder marathon, and would have been awarded 500 VP's if not for the weekly cap of 1000 points (i.e. I only received 400 points due to the cap).  I even re-queued to loot the bosses I missed the first time around. 
Effectively, I had maxed out the potential gains I could get for the week before Friday rolled around.  Having killed each boss once for the achievements, I probably won't re-queue in the raid finder just for the chance to loot items that are a tier behind what is on the Valor point vendor.  A single night, or two at the most, will probably be enough to pick off the most valuable rewards. 

Min-maxing by minimizing
In terms of both schedule and level of burnout, not having to grind away at WoW is definitely a good thing.  The reality may very well be that the game can no longer hold player interest seven days a week.  The issue is that the old daily rewards did not just prolong the time it would take players to earn all the rewards. 

Having a reason to sign in every day encourages full guild chat channel.  I wonder whether players will begin to notice emptier guilds as the population on a whole adjusts to this new, reduced commitment.  This could, in turn, reduce player involvement and ultimately make the online world less "sticky" than it was before.  Are we looking at a tragedy of the commons, in which players want flexibility but will be disappointed when their friends aren't around due to the same flexibility?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Overprepared For Raid

I spent most of the week gearing up.  Upgrades were obtained, boosting my item level to 377, one shy of the maximum possible with drops from heroics.  Expensive enchants and gems were applied.  Food and flask were purchased.  I installed Deadly Boss mods and read strategies on the wiki.  All of the preparations had dearly depleted my cash reserves, and I dreaded the coming repair bill.  Never the less, there was nothing left to do but face the madness... of Deathwing. 

Well, that was modestly anticlimactic.  No loot, but I did snag over 320 gold in bonuses, because the raid finder inserted me into in-progress raids on my first visit to each of the two halves of the zone.  I had to go back through the first half of the raid a second time to kill the remaining bosses and qualify for the achievement needed to run the second half, and I decided there was no harm in killing the fourth boss a second time for the 80 gold prize, rather than leaving the group to find a replacement.  Then I ended up doing the same for the second half.

All told, first runs through the raid finder, 400 Valor points (docked by 100 due to the weekly cap) and a large PROFIT in gold after only two deaths.  There wasn't really even significant loot drama, though some people definitely made some questionable rolling decisions.  Four hundred wipes, it isn't, but then I can't say that it made me want to line up for a raid slot to do this the "real" way either.  On the plus side, I win teh Cat-a-cal-ismz.  . 

In defense of whomever hands out the Valor Points, killing Deathwing, the bringer of Cataclysm and destroyer of Azeroth, would be worth a whole 100 VP more than completing some random heroic, except for the weekly point cap.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

First Time MMO PC Builder, Part 2 (Initial Build)

Last weekend I sat down in a room with a box of parts - carefully selected after much deliberation - and embarked to turn them into a computer.  Two key lessons right off the bat:
  1. The internet is your friend.  I had a ton of questions that I was able to answer through guides - this step by step guide on Tom's forums was a key reference - and asking Google questions.  I don't know that I could have pulled this all off without that knowledge available (on a computer that wasn't lying in pieces on the desk).
  2. Allow time.  My goal was to install the bare minimum parts needed to see if the ones I had installed were working correctly.  This still took me most of the weekend.  More to the point, as a first timer there were definitely some things I ended up ordering, and it was just lower stress to know that finishing the project up this weekend was part of the plan.  
Anyway, here are my experiences approximately step-by-step.

Cables Everywhere
The first thing I did was open up the boxes to find and read (yes, read) manuals, examine cables and connectors, etc.  I was struck by how many cables there were.  My case alone came with 4 fans, each of which has a three pin power connector and a speed adjustment switch.  Throw in motherboard hookups for the front-of-case USB and audio plugins and you're talking 10 loose wires in the empty case before I even started putting anything in there. 
Some of the surplus cables that I have no planned use for, along with two of the fan hookups, stick out the side of the case as I wrap up for the night.  Many of these will have to live in the cable management compartment, above.
I can immediately see why so many people talk about "cable management" as a major part of building.  My case comes with a little nook, a bit under two inches wide and maybe half of the case's height, where apparently I can literally stuff the tentacle-like mass of excess cables writing out of the end of my power supply.  Speaking of which, I immediately had an unfortunate surprise in that the power supply had to be installed fan-side up because there is no venting in the floor of my case.  It would have been easier to stash the surplus cables if it had been the other way around.

In my shopping list post, Xaxziminrax II suggested that power supply manufacturers add excessive cables so they can then charge us to not include so many in more expensive "modular" units.  On one hand, I can see how it could be cheaper to have one model that everyone can live with, rather than separate models for people who actually want eight hard drives (the number of SATA power plugs on my power supply) and no PCIE plugs for graphics because they're running a server with intergrated or no graphics, versus people who want one hard drive and multiple GPU's.  That said, my power supply may have been excessive - the two universally required connectors for the mother board are joined by two for graphics cards, eight all-purpose four-pin MOLEX connections, the eight SATA connectors, and a pair of floppy disk connections - yes, not one but TWO of something I haven't seen on a computer in a decade - for good measure.

The swarm of cables threaten to overrun the hard drives.
Ironically, all these cables and I still didn't necessarily have as many as I needed or the right shapes and sizes.
  • The fans came with three pin connectors designed to be connected to motherboards, but A) the motherboard only has two chassis fan connectors compared to the four fans in my case and B) this means allowing the motherboard to determine whether and when to run the fans, and I had some trouble figuring out how to get it to do that properly.  A cheap solution to this problem is to buy some adapter plugs to convert the three pin inputs to the molex connectors that I have so many of.  A slightly more expensive but functional solution, which I opted for, involved ordering a fan controller (which will allow me to adjust the fan speeds from outside the case, because I'm definitely not opening the side to get at the controls on the fans).  
  • The motherboard came with a pair of SATA cables for connecting hard drives to the motherboard.  I have a pair of hard drives, so this should have been good, except for a minor problem; the cables have right angle connectors (you can see one, with the white tip on the black cable, pictured above).  The case has a floor mounting for an SSD, which would allow me to leave two of the three slots behind the lower case fan un-obstructed by hard drives.  This is also a cheap fix (under $4, shipped), but one I didn't think ahead to order.
  • As long as I'm ordering cheap cable-related items, I also snagged a sack of cable ties.  I got about 10 of these with various components, but I expect to use a lot more than that in the process of securing all of the fan cables.  On the plus side, this only cost $5, and I needed some cable ties to deal with my poorly organized home theater setup in any case.  
Putting it together
I showed my wife my progress at several stages along the way, and she remarked that in some ways it was like a very fancy Lego set. This is an exaggeration, but assembling a computer is nowhere near as complicated as I expected.  The only tool I needed was a screwdriver.  When you deduct all the time I spent looking up answers to questions like "can you plug a three pin fan connector into a four pin plug on the motherboard?" (answer: yes, the fourth pin is optional, and there's a plastic tab to force you to pick the correct three pins), the process was also remarkably fast.
  1. Install power supply.  This could go later, but the power supply is heavy enough that I'd rather lock it into place early.  I'd be even more nervous about waiting if my case had a top-mounting, because then I'd be juggling a large heavy object over an assembled motherboard.  Also, for people working in primarily plastic cases, this may be helpful in reducing the risk of static shock by adding a metal object - my case is almost all metal, so I was probably pretty safe even before strapping on the wristband. 
  2. Place hard drives in bays.  Ironically, I ended up undoing this work when I figured out that the cables weren't going to work the way I had it set up, and I'll need to re-do it again this weekend to get it back the way I wanted it.
  3. Get out the motherboard, screw in "stand-offs" to the case for future installation, install input/output bay shield (more on this in a few steps).
  4. Install CPU on motherboard.  This was the step that scared me the most, because it's theoretically possible to damage the components.  That said, it's apparently gotten a lot easier.  My CPU did not have pins on the bottom, instead a mostly flat surface that sits in the flat compartment with tabs that physically prevent you from doing it wrong.  All you have to do is remove the cap, set the chip down, and pull the lever that used to hold the cap back into place to secure the chip. 
  5. Install CPU cooler.  My cooler selection was common enough that I was fortunate to have pictures on the forums.  This was helpful, because the instructions aren't that clear if you don't already know what you're doing.  There's also a step where you need to apply thermal paste - hopefully the amount I added was correct, but I'm not opening it up to mess with it unless I encounter problems down the line.

    Note how close the CPU cooler sits to the top RAM slot.  Fortunately, my motherboard did not require that slot if you are only using two DIMM's, and I should not need to upgrade to 4 anytime soon since I started with 8 GB of RAM.  I could see why people suggest installing the RAM first if their situation was different, and it's possible that I would need to replace the CPU cooler with something smaller if I do want to try this in the future.
  6. Install RAM.  This is easy enough, chips are notched so that they can't be installed backwards.  The only thing that's surprising about this process is that it actually does take some amount of force - not excessive but it definitely don't just slip in like a USB plug or anything.  
  7. Now that the motherboard is loaded with the things that do not have cables attached to them, mount it on the standoff's.  Here's where I had a bit of a struggle with the input/output plug shield.  This thin piece of metal is apparently used to make sure the jacks on the back of the machine are touching a piece of metal that is touching the metal case, to ensure that any static charge that happens to be on my USB plug doesn't end up on the motherboard.  The catch is that some need to be bent out of the way to avoid blocking ports, while some need to be NON-BENT to avoid blocking the installation process.  This part actually took me a non-trivial amount of time.
    Here is the exterior of the I/O shield, you can kind of see the little metal tabs going into the case.
  8. Start connecting cables!  The motherboard gets two inputs from the power supply.  The hard drives get one power cable and one data cable to the motherboard.  The case-front USB, audio, and even the power button/light all have their own spots on the motherboard (the manual: it is your friend).  Fans have spots.  And so-on.  
Once I got this far, I had reached my minimum goal of being ready to test functionality.  Having onboard integrated graphics means not having to plug in a graphics card and wondering whether that is why the whole system didn't turn on at the moment of truth.  I didn't connect the data hard drive because it won't be needed, and obviously I didn't even have enough cables to hook up all of the (arguably excessive) fans for my build.  Because I'm using an external DVD drive, that was one more thing that could be deferred. 

I double checked all of the connections, hooked up an old monitor, double checked again, plugged the thing in and pushed the power button.  Never before has the absurd "no keyboard detected, press F1 on non-existent keyboard to enter setup" message been so welcome - if the fact that I hadn't plugged in the keyboard yet was the biggest problem (and the machine was well enough to recognize this), I was in good shape. 
The guts so far.
Ironically, I got further than I'd originally hoped.  The machine accepted my wireless keyboard/mouse and the external DVD drive without any issues, and was easily set to prioritize the DVD drive over the empty hard drive.  I was then able to go on and install windows onto the SSD without issues - and let me note that the machine boots nice and quick off of the SSD.  I hit a minor snag because Windows didn't have a driver for the ethernet port on the motherboard, but fortunately the DVD that came with the motherboard did, and I was then able to go online for my antivirus and Windows Update needs.

There are a number of tasks left for next weekend.  I will need to install a graphics card, a wireless network card (the finished machine won't be sitting on the desk with the router), move and install the secondary hard drive, install the fan controller I ordered and connect all the fans.  Then will come the more involved tasks of actually securing all the cables in a way that does not leave loose cables to block airflow or get caught in moving parts.  After that comes stress testing and overclocking (nothing too agressive, but on paper I should be able to bump the stock CPU speed by several hundred MHz based on the hardware I have).

More on this project - and eventually the fun part of actually taking it for a spin in games - next week.

    Tuesday, January 10, 2012

    Rise of the Raid Finder

    MMO-Champion has been doing some Armory scraping and produced some statistics on WoW's new raid finder.  Out of a sample of 4.4 million level 85 characters who have been active since patch 4.3 in December, over 30% have completed the Deathwing Raid using the new automated raid finder on easy mode. 

    As Chaud notes, it's hard to get to the proportion of players who have completed the raid.  The percentage of players who have cleared the zone can be no higher than the percentage of characters (i.e. if no one had ever cleared the zone on an alt, which is unlikely).  We can almost certainly say that 70+% of players who have a level 85 character that has been active since 4.3 have yet to clear the raid finder. 

    Likewise, one imagines that many traditional raiding guilds are taking their people through LFR for gear and practice, which would mean that not all of these folks are new to raiding. A part of the long-term test of this system will be how many players beat the raid finder once to see the grand finale and then never return. 

    Even so, the numbers have to be viewed as a success, as they will only increase over the remaining months until the new expansion.  The dungeon finder effect also has a way of amplifying itself - as more people beat the content, groups will gain experience and be better able to triumph even with newbies on board.  For better or worse, this feature is assuredly here to stay. 

    Monday, January 9, 2012

    First Time MMO PC Builder, Part 1 (Shopping)

    I often lay out New Year's resolutions that either get done immediately or not at all, and this year's plan to build my first computer ended up in the immediate camp.  My dissatisfaction with my current laptop, coupled with current prices was enough to push me off the fence early - there's always something over the horizon or some future discount you can snag, and I've definitely stuck it out too long on previous machines because I wanted to wait for just one more thing to come out.

    The Past and the Plan
    I'm never built a computer from parts before, but I've done various sub-portions of this task - installing RAM, graphics cards, wireless cards, and hard drives, re-partitioning and installing Ubuntu on an old laptop that is now reborn as a websurfing machine, etc.  Basically, what I hadn't done before was pick out my own components and assemble a machine. 

    I'm hoping to get 3 years out of this machine as my primary gaming platform and then have it retire to work as a media server or whatnot.  My approximate budget was $800 for hardware not including the graphics card - I have an old card I plan to use until I see whether this whole endeavor catches fire and sinks into the swamp, and I knew going in that this was something easy for me to swap out later.  Either I will buy a long-term solution or a medium term one that I plan to replace (and possibly carry over into the computer after this one).  This is a machine I plan to live with and upgrade, so I'm not as concerned with minimizing expenses on everything that doesn't directly inflate my benchmarks, especially for stuff that would make my life more difficult as a first-time builder.  I decided early on not to mess with any design with either dual graphic cards or water cooling for this reason. 

    I also made a deliberate decision to break the project up into two weekends.  I was certain that there would be something I would need to order, that I would run out of time, etc etc.  My goal for week 1 was to install the bare minimum parts I need to confirm that things are working, leaving add-ons, final cable-routing, and actual setup to a second weekend. 

    The Parts
    As with system builder custom, I will break out separately mail-in rebate values, since these are intentionally designed to be difficult and time-consuming to actually collect. 
    • CPU: Intel "Sandy Bridge" Core i5 2500K - $220
      Based on reviews and benchmarks, this appears to be the sweet-spot on price performance.  It's a solid chip that can overclock well, if I get that far.  The guys at Tom's tried to put the comparable priced AMD chip in their $1200 build last month and came out much worse off, despite a major investment in graphics. 
    • Motherboard: Intel Z68-based ASUS P8Z68-V LX: $125 ($10 mail in)
      The Z68 chipset supports the integrated graphics capabilities of the Sandy Bridge processors.  This can theoretically save power (no need to fire up a graphics card for basic Windows functions), provides extra monitor slots if I try to install more monitors than my graphics card has outputs, and also means that I have a backup option for troubleshooting in the event of a malfunctioning graphics card (which happened to me on my last machine). 

      It was actually remarkably difficult to get a comparison of what the differences in the various P8Z68 models - the board's fan club has a comparison chart.  The -V boards effectively do not have a second graphic card slot - which fit with my plan in any case - but you quickly get down into the weeds on all kinds of numbers like USB 3.0 slots etc, which snowball around to hit whether or not your case actually has extra USB 3.0 plugs to plug those into, etc etc.  In the end, I made a judgement call that this board fit my budget and was good enough for my needs. 
    • SSD (system+program drive): Corsair Force GT 120 GB: $179.99 ($30 mail in)
      This relatively splurge immediately pushed me to the high end of the budget.  Pretty much everyone agrees that an SSD system drive is a great upgrade.  In this approach, you spend about $80 on a 60 GB drive that will take Windows, basic programs, and maybe one MMO (though WoW's 28 GB may be pushing this). 

      As someone who plays a bunch of different MMO's, I really wanted to have room to share the SSD love with more than the one game, but I couldn't justify the cost.  Then this drive went on sale for $150 with the rebate.  Even then it's still a bit more of my budget than I technically "should" be spending on storage, but this buys me the space to have my top 3-5 games of the moment on the SSD.   
    • Data Drive: 500 GB Western Digital Caviar Blue - $80
      Gamers tend to covet the Caviar Black model, which has gotten very costly in the wake of flooding in Thailand.  Still, I didn't view going without a data drive as an option; even with the larger SSD, there are still going to be 100 GB of game clients I use once a month that are going to have to go somewhere.  This was a price that I could afford, and it's still very good from a performance standpoint. 
    • RAM: 8 GB (2x4GB) Corsair XMS 3 DDR3 1600 - $48 ($10 mail in)
      Lots of people just go with the cheapest 4 GB DDR3 1600 kit they can find and call it a day, and I was initially inclined to go along with this.  The upgrade to 8 GB turned out to be under $20.  I like being able to run in windowed mode with a browser sometimes, this upgrade was cheap, and reportedly sometimes an improvement. 
    • Power Supply: Corsair TX-650 V2: $90 ($20 mail in)
      The power supply is one of those components that system builder challenges tend to skimp on, while experienced builders caution that this is a highly important part that can fail catastrophically and greatly affect performance in the mean while.  Throw in a touch of uncertainty about how much power my as-yet-unselected final graphics card would require and I was stuck on this one for a while.  Then a well-reviewed model with enough juice to fill my needs went on sale.  One thing you don't get in this price range is "modular" cables - it's apparently cheaper for them to build one model that leaves dozens of excess cables hanging out in the case than to make the cables fully detachable.
    • Optical Drive: External HP 24x DVD burner 1270e - $30
      This is an unconventional choice - most people go with an internal drive that transfers data through a faster SATA port on the motherboard, rather than a slower USB port.  This difference for me is that I don't get my software on souvenir coasters anymore - my current laptop doesn't have an optical drive and I've done fine without for almost a year and a half.  I also don't use the computer for watching DVD's when I could be watching them on the TV instead. 

      Bottom line, I need this drive only when I go to re-install windows, or perhaps an MMO recent enough for the client disks to still be worth using (e.g. SWTOR if I get it in the near future).  In exchange for a slight drop in speed, I have one fewer thing to install internally, and, more importantly, I have a drive that can be shared amongst the present (and possibly future) computers in the Armadillo household that do not have working optical drives (my Alienware, my wife's Macbook Air, my old Dell desktop whose drive broke several years ago) for the price of one internal drive.  Your mileage may vary but this was an easy choice for me. 
    • Case: Antec Three Hundred Illusion - $70
      This choice baffled me for a disproportionate amount of time precisely because it is relatively hard to measure objectively.  You can get a case for $30-50, but it's likely to be hard to work with and require additional purchases.  You can get a case for $150, but that really doesn't make sense in the budget range I was aiming at.  In the middle are compromises, but it's hard to tell which of these compromises really matter.  There's also so much personal preference involved that every case has someone who swears it was a pleasure to work with and someone who hated it. 

      In the end, I decided to go by popularity.  I liked the look of this case, and I liked what I read about it in the September edition of Tom's $2000 build.  Unlike the entry level version of the Antec Three Hundred, the Illusion comes with a pair of intake fans.  I actually had to go back and make a slight switch to my planned motherboard at this stage - I'd been planning on paying slightly more for the P8Z68-V LE, which has headers to support two front USB 3.0 ports, but this case only had USB 2.0 ports.  It's actually remarkably hard to get an answer to a seemingly simple question like "does your case have USB 3.0 ports", but it seems like the answer in this price range is generally "no". 
    • CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus: $29
      I chose this based on overwhelming popularity, and the fact that it was paired with the case I finally selected in the linked build at Tom's.
    • Anti Static Wrist Band: $5
      Waste of money?  Perhaps.  Do I look silly clipping my wrist to the metal case?  Perhaps.  If this is snake oil, at least it's a bit of snake oil that only cost me $5 and that I can reuse for all my future computer building/modification needs. 
    • Monitor, Keyboard, Mouse, Wireless network card, and Starter Graphics Card: Hand me down's from past systems ($0)
    Grand Total: $875, before $70 in mail in rebates

    There are a few miscellaneous cable purchases yet to be added to the total, so realistically I'm slightly over where I was aiming, primarily because I jumped on an SSD deal that was a bit of a reach for my budget. 

    Overall, so far I am happy with all of my choices, though some gave me headaches during installation (tomorrow's topic, this one is already long).  I will say that I was definitely struck by how difficult it is to get all the answers about what types of plugs your components have/need, etc.  I've also probably made a number of mistakes that some of you may be laughing at me for as you read this. 

    Even so, I'm glad I embarked on this project.  I definitely feel like I know more about computers in general and what makes mine in particular tick.  Maybe knowing exactly how to reinstall and even replace components at will can eventually save me some money. All that aside, it was actually kind of fun.  If the end result is a solid mid-end computer - which, incidentally, will be far more than I would have gotten for the money through any other approach, I'll be happy. 

    Saturday, January 7, 2012

    Keep Flipping Hits SWTOR

    According to the latest episode of the Darth Hater podcast, keep flipping has come to SWTOR's world PVP planet, Ilum. 

    The gang is playing on a server where they believe the Sith outnumber the Republic by 5 to 1 (probably in part because the Sith side on that server is home to the guys who spent 3 years recording 100+ episodes before the game even came out).  The Republic has no chance to take objectives in a fair fight, which means that the Sith has no opportunity to claim the incentive rewards for taking the objectives back. 

    As a result, when a lone Republic player shows up, the majority of the Sith do not attack that character, and berate those on their faction who do so.  This creates the opportunity for one of the hosts to grief his own faction ... by doing what the Sith are supposed to do and defending their territory from the Republic.

    Here's a tip for Bioware from the PVD history office: The last time a new release MMO by the Mythic half of Bioware-Mythic had a keep flipping problem, they responded by blaming WoW for letting players who would do such a thing into the genre.  Hopefully you guys have a better approach?

    P.S. People who reach the level cap in the first month can always expect some rough edges, but the Darth Hater crew seems unusually downcast/concerned by the state of the endgame.  Raiders are reporting the content easy but buggy and threatening to leave.  While I think it's possible that retaining players in the traditional MMO endgame is just less important to the game's strategy than having them play through all eight carefully crafted storylines, I hope this isn't Bioware's best effort.

    Thursday, January 5, 2012

    How Much Can A Class Change?

    Ferrel points out a fundamental issue with Cleric DPS in Rift: any DPS soul can currently pick up a set of abilities that causes a percentage of their DPS to be turned into passive healing for their entire group.  This puts a ceiling on how good Cleric DPS can be for obvious reasons - no one would want a pure DPS if clerics dealt as much damage AND provided free healing - and Trion has apparently recently attempted to add a new stance that increases DPS and reduces healing to help work around the issue.

    Dr. Ferrel's prescription: Nerf the "broken" Justicar soul (which provides the passive cross-role healing), to clear the way for "unique" fixes to increase the DPS of the four DPS souls (rather than the non-unique buff), so that once the dust has settled Trion can remedy a lack of love for the three healers (in particular the Purifier, which Ferrel claims "needs a redesign" due to a "terrible" signature mechanic/"gimmick"). 

    Personally, I haven't spent enough time with Rift to conclude whether any - or all eight - of the Cleric souls are in need of such dramatic changes.  That said, the discussion raises a design question that goes beyond the current state of one class in one game - how much is it fair to change the way classes play and feel in a live MMO? 

    Changing the game
    My limited experience suggests that Ferrel is absolutely right about the constraints the passive healing builds (called *-icar because you're tacking some Justicar onto whatever soul you're actually playing) place on the design for the rest of the class, or even the entire game.  One of my comments from the game's launch was that the sheer amount of passive healing generated by solo DPS builds - including Clerics - appeared to be harming the challenge of the non-instanced group content.  (There was a nerf along these lines in the game's first major patch, but Ferrel's post would suggest that the problem persists.)  Meanwhile, the value of free-form customization is greatly diminished when every Cleric build that will ever solo or DPS must spend most of its off-tree points in a specific soul. 

    That said, my character is a Cleric because I actually like the current playstyle.  The types of changes Ferrel proposes - such as moving key abilities deeper into the tree - would have a huge effect on the leveling experience for all clerics.  Moreover, the philosophy behind the adjustments would dramatically alter the way the class feels - from a slow DPS'er with zero downtime due to a constantly regenerating health bar to hopefully a higher DPS class that is more dependent on active healing to survive. 

    My opinion as someone who hasn't been a fulltime player of Rift since its first month doesn't really matter all that much, but how many others who are still in game chose the current Cleric class because they preferred its slower pacing?  If there are significant numbers who would be dissatisfied with the change even if it results in a mathematically superior (better exp/hour or whatever) class that loses the current feel, how do their needs balance against the arguably more severe consequences being suffered by players who would trade the survivability for DPS?  (To what extent did the current abundance of disgruntled Cleric DPS directly result from the ease of leveling the current Justicar splash builds?) 

    Parting Caution
    Two parting caveats to this discussion:
    1. In my experience with class balance as an MMO player since 2004, this is not the first time I've seen players of a specific class argue that one mechanic of their class should be nerfed to clear the way for future buffs.  The nerfs that even players of that class agree are needed generally happen.  The compensatory buffs don't always materialize. 
    2. Speaking more generally, I can think of one big example of a company which believes that classes can and should be radically redesigned every time the team feels that just one more revamp will solve the problems.  I know of relatively few players who are entirely satisified with this aspect of World of Warcraft, even when they agree the the problems with the status quo are legitimate and the proposed changes are objectively superior. 

    My oddly famous blogroll widget

    My evenings have been strangely packed so far this year - in part a consequence of having been out of town for a week over the holidays and therefore having a bunch of deferred errands to run.  As a result, the blog has been relatively lacking in content, so I suppose it was inevitable that the most interesting part of PVD this week has been... the "most recent post" sorting feature on my blogroll widget. 

    First, Psychochild's year-end wrap-up named me as the number three traffic source to his site.  It didn't occur to me that I personally represent a significant portion of this traffic, because I often use my blogroll as an improvised RSS reader, until Indy commented that he also uses my blogroll for the same purpose.

    Then Wilhelm started playing with post tags on his archives, and my blogroll apparently concluded that his blog had last updated in 2006.

    If anyone else is working on a post about my blogroll widget to add to the coincidental January 5th publicity blitz, I suppose there are a few more hours left in the day?  (Actual content incoming, really.) 

    Sunday, January 1, 2012

    Three Predictions for 2012

    Here are a few predictions on the state of MMO's in the coming year.  Ironically, though I hadn't planned it this way, the three topics I came up with address (albeit in a different order) Wilhelm's top three questions for 2012

    Go Big, Go Small, Go Free, or Go Home
    The subscription MMO isn't dead, but there are basically two very specific circumstances under which it can work:
    1. Have a nine-figure budget like the reported $100 million in venture capital that founded Trion or the even larger figures that EA is rumored to have spent on SWTOR.  Ever notice how the three corporations able to foot this type of bill - Blizzard, Trion, and EA-Bioware - are the ones who are still touting the subscription model?
    2. Serve an un-filled niche, such as sandbox PVP (see Eve, Darkfall, or perhaps the forthcoming Dominus) or old-school group MMO (see Vanguard, lots of room for a newcomer in this genre).  The big-budget one-size-fits-all MMO that includes solo, group, raid, and PVP has to make compromises  to fit all these activities under one roof.  This makes it possible for a more specialized game to offer something that the big guys cannot.  However, as CCP found out last year, this also means that your entire company lives or dies by its ability to continue to keep one segment of the market satisfied.
    Note what's not on that list.  The best licensed IP's out there don't guarantee you $15 a month - see DCUO and LOTRO.  Neither does implementation of a specific feature in what's otherwise a one-size-fits-all MMO (e.g. RVR in Warhammer and PvPvE in Aion).  Even the huge budget is no guarantee of success - probably the most remarkable thing about Rift's progress is how much discipline the team has shown in implementing only what they can actually accomplish and accomplish well.

    The bottom line is that if you have yet another fantasy MMO, you're not solidly in one of the two categories above, and your business plan depends on collecting a $15 monthly subscription - FFXIV and Tera come to mind, along with Copernicus if they're not thinking F2P - you are in for a rough time in today's crowded market.  Of course, you're also in for a tough time in the crowded free market, but at least the bar is lower to get potential customers to actually try your product.   

    SWTOR will have high churn... and high revenue
    Both sides of the discussion on SWTOR's longterm prospects tend to assume that the game will be a failure if there is a mass exodus by the 90 day mark.  Ironically, there has never been another MMO so well-positioned to handle a high rate of churn. 

    Yes, the game has guilds and PVP and dungeons/raids, all the traditional MMO trappings that tend to do poorly with high churn.  As long as Bioware was spending whatever ungodly amount they spent on this game, there was no reason NOT to support these playstyles and collect the associated revenue.  However, the core thing that has everyone raving is the Bioware story.  With the past Bioware games, the customer pays once for the box, and maybe once more if the expansions/DLC are worth purchasing, no matter how long it takes the player to complete the game or how many times they replay it.  With the monthly fee, EA gets paid every month for every playthrough and replay, regardless of how little or how much content Bioware actually adds to the game in future patches.   

    With such a focus on a highly replayable single player story, SWTOR doesn't need half a million year-round subscribers.  They can get the same effect with 1.5 million players who pay 4 months out of the year when new content is added - or when players choose to replay the old stuff.  I don't see how Bioware can lose here - which is probably why they got so much of EA's money to spend in the first place. 

    Mists of Pandaria Will Ship This Summer, Or Heads Will Roll
    Many intelligent people are predicting that Pandaria won't ship until Q4, and there is strong basis for making this call - Blizzard is not known for shipping its products on time.  This round, however, I think the stakes are higher. 

    Blizzard spent 2011 losing subscribers by the millions - to Rift, or wherever else - and SWTOR will not help this situation.  No amount of spin about how the lost players are in the less lucrative Asian markets, or how players have returned to WoW after the launches of past competitors, can change the reality that Blizzard will continue to lose customers and money until something changes.  A scenario in which the content that was available in early December 2011 is still the only content available in early October 2012 is unacceptable. 

    My guess is that we will see the paid closed beta phase of Pandaria (courtesy of the annual pass) kick off in May-June, with an aim for an early Q3 release.  Delaying this product further is not like delaying Starcraft II or Diablo III, which do not have monthly fees - every month means more subscribers lost from the current live WoW service.  I'm prepared to believe that Blizzard might let the expansion slip anyway, but I think that there will - and frankly should - be consequences if this occurs. 

    What do you all think will happen in 2012?