Wednesday, February 29, 2012

STO's Early Game

Commander Green Armadillo is sitting at rank 26, cruising around the galaxy in the USS PVD-3, a Research Science Vessel.  This puts me nominally halfway through the game's level curve, primarily through the duty assignment system, with remarkably little intervention into the game's actual leveling content.

Choose your ride
One of the quirks to STO's modular "class" system is that players have relative flexibility to swap out their role in the game.  After ditching the introductory ship, I went with an "escort" class DPS ship, hoping for faster leveling.  These ships do indeed offer firepower, thanks to added weapon slots, bonus power to weapon systems, and slots for tactical bridge officers/consoles (both of which tend to add raw damage).  However, this ship felt squishy and I was not a fan. 

The science vessel I am currently piloting is more of a utility ship.  Science vessels have good shields, otherwise balanced stats, and a focus on special abilities (including buffs, debuffs, and some healing).  The ships come standard with special attacks allowing players to damage enemy shields, weapons, engines, or auxiliary systems.  It's still really early, but so far I'm a big fan.

That said, I would also like to try piloting a cruiser when I get my next promotion.  Cruisers are slower tank-like ships, but they are extremely tough, and tend to have iconic Enterprise appearances.  The "cost" of doing this type of experimentation is pretty trivial.  The one issue I run into is that, as a non-subscriber, I am still limited to a mere four bridge officer slots. 

A subscriber would have eight by this point, which would allow me to carry enough bridge officers to staff all these various ship types.  Almost all ships take one of each type of officer (tactical, science, and engineering), but the fourth (and later fifth) slots vary.  My cruiser wanted a second tactical officer, and I then needed to dismiss a tactical officer to make room for a second science officer in my current ship.  If I understand the system correctly, I will finally get a fifth slot at the Captain rank to house the excess engineer for the cruiser. 

(I'm also nearing enough Cryptic points to buy a pair of slots in the store, but I may opt to subscribe for a single month instead.  This is supposed to grant permanent access to all of the subscriber-only slots for inventory, bankspace, bridge officers, etc which is a pretty good deal for $15.) 

A slow start
One thing that's struck me about this game is that it got off to a very slow and underwhelming start.  The duty officer system that I've raved so much about does not unlock until level seven, which took me several gaming sessions to achieve.  The early levels of combat, especially in the introductory ship, are similarly underwhelming due to the highly limited number of weapon and ability slots at this low level. 

I also clearly did not help my cause by working on crafting early, as this requires travel to a specific out-of-the-way planet.  Using just materials harvested running missions, it will take a long time to get the materials to ever build anything, especially given that you must build schematics and other random stuff for skill points in the early going.  Again, it's only now that I have tons of crafting materials coming in from duty officer missions that I'm actually able to make all the stuff I need (especially as I gain levels much faster than I loot gear due to my extreme lack of actually playing the original game as intended.
Business model note: Speaking of crafting, for each rank tier, your gear can come in one of two "mark" qualities (in addition to the normal green, blue, and purple quality colors.  The odd numbered marks - e.g. mark 5 phasers for commanders - are built using only materials and schematics.  The even numbered marks - e.g. mark six phasers, also for commanders - require the use of "unreplicate-able" parts which are bought using dilithium ore.  Dilithium can only be earned through time-limited daily quests and duty missions, and can be freely converted into cash store Cryptic points.  In my view, these upgrades aren't worth the cost when you could be spending those points on other stuff, such as additional ships, or to save money in the cash shop.

The good news to my less conventional approach to the game is that there is tons of content that I have yet to enjoy at my leisure.  Meanwhile, I've been surprisingly unhampered by the business model.  I don't really run into major issues with the limits on inventory as long as I actually use a bank every so often.  The bridge officer thing is mildly irritating, and I will probably pay for some additional duty officer slots (more because I enjoy the system and want more flexibility than because it's actually required). 

Depending on whether I prefer the Cruiser or the Science Vessel, I may want to purchase a ship at endgame.  (I have a free level 50 cruiser in my bank, courtesy of the anniversary event that got me started in the game in the first place.)  Even so, I'm on a path where I will probably spend between $15-30 on this game.  Given the value I've gotten out of it so far - it's not perfect, but it's definitely different and that counts for something - that's a fair price indeed. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Price-Checking The DDO Expansion

Turbine has announced details of pricing for DDO's upcoming expansion.  There are things that they have learned from their similar experiences in LOTRO.  A few thoughts:

  • The first rule of doing business with Turbine is that patience will be rewarded with lower prices.  There will almost certainly be a similar bundle - probably minus the exp boost tome and the cosmetic pets, as with LOTRO, after the launch.  There will also be sales on both the store version and the Turbine Point a la carte offerings. 
  • Turbine also clearly remembers the uproar when they waited until very late in the game to reveal that an expansion which cost $30 in cash cost nearly $70 in Turbine Points, in an attempt to force subscribers to pay extra rather than using their regular point stipend.  This time, they're publishing the a la carte pricing up front, which adds up to 5685 Turbine Points - almost all of the points in a $60 point bundle, compared to getting the same content, plus 1000 TP and some other goodies for $50 in cash.   
  • Two pieces of the expansion - notably the long-awaited new class - are included in the subscription (good, as there is relatively little benefit to subscribing these days) and therefore are NOT included in the $30 "base" edition.  This leaves non-subscribers with an unpleasant option - pay an extra 67% markup now, or risk being stuck with an even higher premium if you want to add the rest of the expansion later.  This would hurt less if the jump from tier to tier was from $30 to $40 to $50, as it was with LOTRO's expansion, instead of the $30 to $50 to $80 for DDO. 
  • Especially for non-subscriber, the deals are better the less you already own.  The level 4 veteran status (which I already have) is a great way to get a new character out of the painful early setup levels, but many actual longtime players may have it.  The adventure packs are a mix of good/recent and less popular (for reference, I own two of the four in the $50 bundle and three of the additional four in the $80 bundle).
Overall, my gut feeling here is caution.  It does not matter how much you "save" if you purchase content that you ultimately don't end up using.  That said, there is an intriguing difference between DDO and LOTRO in that DDO's content is much more re-usable. 

In addition to replaying the same content on the same character multiple times for experience and favor, there is a "true reincarnation" mechanic that allows you to re-roll the same character repeatedly with bonuses from past lives.  I loved a similar system in Kingdom of Loathing, and the tome of pre-level-20 exp boost (which I do suspect will be available as a separate store purchase) will be a huge benefit to any such effort.  Then again, re-rolling at 20 means not using the new level 20+ content in the expansion. 

I guess the bottom line is to ask yourself a question - how much DDO - including the new stuff - do you think you'll play?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Requiem for a Duty Officer

Captain's Log, supplemental
Lt. Cmdr Green Armadillo, commanding officer, USS PVD-2

I lost a member of my crew today.  Crewman Lozza, a Tellarite hazard system officer, was conducting a routine systems overload exercise.  I doubt that I even read the entry in the assignment list when Lt. Thol K'jhyv, head of my engineering and operations departments, put it on the list for my approval.  These types of tests go off without a hitch more than 80% of the time.  Occasionally, the exercise fails, uncovering some flaw in our response procedures.  Once in a while, a crewman even ends up in sickbay.  The odds of a mishap killing someone outright are low - but apparently non-zero, so I suppose it was a matter of time.

I can't say I really got to know Lozza very well.  Her file says that she was occasionally stubborn, but generally congenial and a member in good standing of the Founders of the Federation association.  I wouldn't say that she was an uncommon quality officer, but she was a hard worker.  I vaguely remember her face, and past missions she carried out without a hitch.  She's not the first crewman I've lost, and undoubtedly won't be the last, but the sheer unexpected nature of the incident sticks with me.

Every day, I approve dozens of assignments, big or small, routine or rare.  Sometimes I knowingly send men and women - usually well aware of the danger - off the ship and into harms way.  And sometimes the person who does not come home is the quiet crewman running routine tests in the very heart of my own ship.  Such, I suppose, is the burden of commanding a Federation starship.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Interstellar Cow Clicking

Tipa has always excelled at naming things, such as her post likening the new Duty Officer system in Star Trek Online to "cow clicking" in Farmville.  My experience with the game is reasonably similar with a caveat - as a newbie, I've never known the game  as it was before the advent of cow clicking. 

Some of the many assignments the crew of the USS PVD-2 are working.  The quality and traits of the officers you assign to the task affect the percentages. 
In some ways, the critique is apt.  Like a Facebook game, the optimal strategy involves showing up to click on a painfully frequent basis - the best return of duty exp per time is always found from missions that take shorter real world timeframes (30 minutes through 4 hours) versus longer missions (up to 2 days).  This makes it irritatingly easy to end up with half your crew idle.  Players can purchase an increased duty officer cap, or even random booster packs of duty officers.  You can also earn currency, which can eventually be converted into cash store Cryptic points, albeit at rates so slow that many players will be tempted to open their wallets to cut to the chase. 

Prices.  For reference, 500 CP costs $6.25.  That said, I'm not convinced that any of these are necessary.  You can only have 20 assignments (not counting crew stuck in sick bay recovering from their latest failure), so you only need so many officers.
However, the analogy does not hold up so well when you consider that there is an actual MMO attached to this minigame.  Due to cooldowns, you're not going to find the best assignments by parking your ship outside Earth Spacedock.  The system is mostly level-independent; some of the prices in energy credits are a bit steep for a lowbie like myself, but there's no combat or other restrictions.  Interestingly, it's also almost entirely solo-based.  You can, in principle, buy and sell officers and materials on the in-game auction house, but so far my crew seems to be able to find missions they can do without external support.  It's a far cry from either traditional raiding or spamming your friend feed in search of people who are too tactful to tell you to your face how little they care about your Facebook livestock. 

One thing that does worry me is the rate at which I'm gaining regular experience (skill points) through the system.  I get crafting materials but extremely limited gear for either my officers or the ship proper, and I could see getting in over my head if PVE content scales assuming that I have been earning gear through the traditional leveling path.  I'm currently at level 17, and the mission I'm currently working on the Klingon War episode arc has a minimum level of 9 (though all the mobs scale up to my current level).

Overall, though, I'm reasonably fond of the system.  I find STO's ground combat game pretty underwhelming.  The ship combat game is different, but I don't think I'd play this on its own merits either.  The story content is more interesting, but unlikely to last all that long, maybe a month or two of primary MMO playtime.  But the game where my ship and crew exist to travel the galaxy searching for things to do is both fun and original.  It also feels appropriate to the lore - hijinks like we saw on the shows can't possibly happen every single day in the 24th/25th century, or the universe would have ended by now.  Whatever its other quirks, this system feels like what you'd expect from the life of a Star Fleet Captain. 
Smed is a Congenial but Unscrupulous Ferengi.  No word on whether Cryptic has included similar shout-outs to famous competitors elsewhere amongst the thousands of duty officers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Do MMO's Teach Players To Bend The (Loot) Rules?

Allocation of scarce resources is never an easy question, but it seems like sometimes MMO players are an especially tough crowd on this front.  Which got me thinking - perhaps we are a tougher crowd precisely because of the games we play? 

MMO gameplay can be broken down into two basic skillsets - the player's ability to react to situations correctly and quickly, and the player's ability to min-max.  From our very first quest to rid the world of 10 rats, we are taught to optimize our performance.  This tactic kills rats faster with less risk to the player, while that weapon skill is ineffective compared to its peers.

Can we then truly be surprised when players apply these same approaches to maximizing their gains out of whatever loot system - random rolls, DKP, etc?  My guess is that loot rules in general distribute loot according to the letter of the rule, rather than how their designers (developers or guild officers) intended.  If there is a loophole, though, one might expect a pack of MMO players to be the first to find it. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Alt Leveling Perks

I was leveling archeology and working on old dungeon reputations in Outland.  The TBC zones are one of the easiest places to gain skill points once you're over 300, because only two of the archeology cultures are found there.  Skill points are gained by solving artifacts, and you get enough fragments to solve artifacts faster when they're not being split half a dozen ways.

Anyway, I snagged an unusual heirloom item - an epic mail helm for level 61 characters.  If you're in a guild, you can purchase a level-scaling heirloom that comes with an exp bonus, which is obviously much more versatile.  What this item lacks in flexibility, it makes up in raw power thanks to empty sockets that can be filled with level 85 - and 90 when Pandaria hits - gems.  Theoretically, some casters/platewearers can even benefit from being able to stick 120 of a primary stat on a single item in that level range.

Overall, it's an interesting item - extremely powerful for the level, but also highly specific.  In order to benefit from this, I would need to level an appropriate character, such as a hunter or enhancement Shaman, into Outland levels on my existing server (where I don't have a ton of character slots to spare).  I don't know how likely that is to happen.  Then again, I suppose this is the kind of mostly cosmetic but occasionally useful vibe Blizzard was going for in Archeology. 

Aside: the hat looks vaguely amusing on top of a gnome.  Too bad they can't be either hunters or enhancement shamen.

Friday, February 17, 2012

STO Impressions Through Level 12

After approximately 17 hours /played, Lt. Commander Green Armadillo of the USS PVD-2 Escort ship has spent enough time in STO to have a bit of an idea of the game.  BlueKae seems to think I'm slow, but perhaps my speed is some combination of actual newbie-ness and taking the time to try some of the many things going on in the 24th century (or is it the 25th these days?).

The Main MMO
The DPS ship for level 10-19.
Beyond the IP, STO's primary innovation is a design choice to offer two separate types of gameplay.  There's the ground game, which honestly I find a bit lackluster - it feels like an odd hybrid of a first person shooter, a squad-based combat game, and a standard MMO.  The other side is the space combat game, which feels a bit more like a real time strategy game than either a standard MMO or a shooter.  This, and the Star Trek storylines, is by far the stronger half of the game.

STO has an unusually modular class system.  There are three "classes" - tactical (generally DPS), engineering (general tanking), and science (healing and utility).  Your ship "captain" (actual rank may vary) has a few unique skills based on class and any equipped weaponry (whether in your ship or on the ground), but this is a small portion of your hotbar.  The rest of your abilities are used by your bridge crew, and which crew you can take is based on the type of ship you are piloting.  For example, I elected to take the tactical escort ship at level 10 for better DPS and manuverability, so my engineering captain has two tactical officers, one science, and one engineering on his bridge at the moment.

I don't know what this does to replay value - especially since the content seems story-driven and thus may not repeat as well - but it's definitely interesting.

The Minigames
STO has two major mini-games that have probably slowed my progress through the ranks substantially.  The first is a crafting game - players harvest a variety of different things and have to truck them over to Memory Alpha - a specific star system with crafting stations.  As far as I can tell, there are no crafting subclasses.  Everyone can craft everything, given enough time to earn the requisite skill points and farm the materials.  I should probably punt on this thing and sell my mats for credits, but it continues to amuse me for the moment.
Yes, I somehow had two crew members injure themselves while scanning for stuff.  Perhaps one started singing and the other couldn't take anymore? 

Next is the Duty Officer system, which feels vaguely like a Facebook game, but manages to be fun despite this.  You can have some number of generic officers, civilians, and other people on your ship and send them out to do missions.  There are unlocks for more officer slots (you start with 100), and the option to buy the officers in the cash shop.  Different missions take different amounts of time - from 5 minutes up to two days.  Your chance of success depends on having the right types of personnel, sometimes supplying materials, and finally a random roll.  Rewards include XP, currency, and points towards what would be called reputation/faction/etc in other games, in exchange for rewards. On the downside, like a facebook game, this thing demands frequent attention, logging in to send your crew off on new assignments. 

There are other mini-games in the world - for instance, a Dabo-roulette which appears to have no discernible strategy other than clicking the bet button repeatedly (but is required for an optional objective in the new featured mission).  There are also mechanics that feel like minigames, like training up your crew through a variety of trainers, recruitment commissions, vendors, etc.  As I said, I probably spend less than half of my time in this game actually leveling.
If there's a strategy here, I don't know it.

The Business Model
And so, the controversy begins.  Good news first - large number of daily quest-like activities, including the duty officer minigame, award a currency called Dilithium, which can be freely exchanged for Cryptic points, albeit slowly.  I.e. in principle, everything in the game can be unlocked given enough time.

Unfortunately, while content is all free, there is a lot to unlock.  There are cosmetics.  There are ship slots, character slots, costume slots, inventory slots, bank slots, duty officer slots, etc etc.  There are also bridge officer slots, which are probably the first restriction that's genuinely irritating, as free players are really locked down in terms of being able to have different officers for space/ground, or for different ship types (which you would most likely end up having to pay to purchase).  These unlocks tend to run a couple dollars a piece, and aren't really a big deal. 

The C indicates Cryptic Point cash store currency.  This model upgrades the second engineering station to allow 2nd tier abilities (the officer's lieutenant skill, in addition to their ensign skill), and it also includes a transwarp (teleportation) drive that to my knowledge isn't elsewhere in game. 
Then there are upgraded ships.  These run from around $10 - $25 for the max level versions, but are strictly level-limited; in the space game, your stats and available equipment slots are fixed by the ship you are flying, so you are going to pitch that cash store ship the minute you gain the next level.  The cash store options include almost every ship available which requires the level 50 cap, unique perks per specific ship, and, even at my level, allow more and/or higher ranked bridge crew, for access to a larger array of abilities. 

I'm already two levels into my current tier, so I can't say that I would be impressed with the value for the money if I had paid for a premium ship.  Perhaps the higher levels will take long enough that it's worth paying $15-20 as a non-subscriber.  However, these charges stand even for subscribers (who get a stipend - you could purchase one level 50 ship in five months). 

Then, there's the lottery thing.  As Blue Kae and Tipa describe, especially desirable ships aren't even to sale on a fixed price; you pay your money for a lottery ticket.  The current promotion drops the lockbox at a high rate in game, forcing you to weed through your loot to avoid picking up and having to trash an item that requires a cash store purchase to open.  Assuming that the in-game spam every time someone wins this lottery does not lie, there are a fair number of these entering the game despite the cost.  Some may come out of points that the players in question didn't pay cash for, but it certainly looks like a successful, if unsavory program.

Early conclusions
Overall, the game gets points for being different, and telling the Trek story effectively.  The gambling thing is a bit pervasive and irritating - from generating bridge and duty officers to in-game roulette to the actual lockbox thing, larger portions of this game do seem to revolve around gambling-like mechanics.  That said, nothing about the business model surprises me given that Cryptic was selling access to iconic character types at launch - this is who you're doing business with. 

My guess is that this is a game I will play occasionally for the story but probably not turn into a primary game.  It will be interesting to see where I hit business model roadblocks and whether I end up paying for some of them, but overall I expect the game will be reasonably fun and return good value for the money I spend on it.  Given the game's increased willingness to put pure character power up for gambling in the cash shop under its new ownership, however, I'd be extremely hesitant to attempt to make a longterm home in STO.  The frustration is predictable, and you have only yourself to blame if you fail to avoid it.
Beaming up and out, the effects definitely fit the IP

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A MMO Valentine Wedding

I was vaguely aware of Trion's plans to hype their in-game marriage system for Valentine's Day, but I wasn't expecting a world event prompt.  There happened to be someone in the guild getting married, so I stuck around to "liveblog" it.

The ceremony took place outside the Hammerknell raid instance.  I assume no raid mobs are going to come charging out the gates to kill everyone, but you can never tell with an MMO.  The happy couple happens to be a male and female character, but the NPC officiant refers to them as the spouse of the Sun and Moon to get around dealing with the marriage gender issue.  Apparently it was a Dwarven ceremony, as the priest proceeded to bless a mug of ale and then instruct the couple to "forge a hammer" in the ritual of the Heart Forge.  The thing is also fully voiced, complete with harp-like wedding elevator music. 

Anyway, I received an achievement for witnessing this shindig.  Also included are booze, cake, and a wedding souvenir collection item.  No wedding guests were killed during the festivities.

Trion asks that you hold your divorce proceedings for 24 hours so they can get a count for their PR stunt.
That said, I wonder if this level of MMO-Valentine's festivities is more than your average player wants to see.  People who are actually spending the time with loved ones aren't in game.  People who are in game - especially anyone observing Involuntary Singleness Awareness Day (I-SAD) - may be there precisely because they would rather have a break from this over-commercialized holiday.  What do you all think?  There's a poll up on the sidebar of the blog if you don't feel like doing more than clicking on this question.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Triumph of the Hot Pink Flightless Bird

With a few days to spare, I've snagged one exceedingly pink mount - the Valentine's Swift Lovebird, which takes the relatively less common Strider model and turns it very pink indeed.  The latest addition to the event is not without its downsides - you can snag 30-40 tickets per day (with an extremely limited/costly approach for getting more in a hurry if you must) and the mount requires 270.  I.e. you'll have to play on most of the days of the event if you want the mount.

That said, this mount differs from past world event grinds in that almost all of the grind is earned from killing mobs that you'll be killing anyway in just about any activity that you can do in WoW.  There's a quick and easy daily to hop the portal to Uldum, and the obligatory fight against a holiday boss who may not last longer than the duration of Heroism/Bloodlust/Timewarp, but in general all you need to do is play. 

This is a much better approach than introducing some new activity, such as a minigame or a trick or treat RNG-fest.  If you're playing WoW, you are probably willing to tolerate killing mobs. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

10% of WoW Subscribers Are Annual Pass Customers

Headlines about today's earnings call by Blizzard have focused on the top number for World of Warcraft - the game lost "only" 100K subscribers, for a total of 1.8 million over 2011, ending the year at 10.2 million.  The figure that I find more interesting is the annual pass statistic.  "More than one million" annual passes have been sold "in the west". 

That's 10% of the overall subscriber base, and a larger portion of the Western market.  If, to put a completely made-up number next to a real one, half of WoW players are in Asia, the "over 1 million" could be 20+% of the Western playerbase.  This fake number happens to be just about the result I saw when I polled my readers to examine how polarizing the Blizzcon announcements were - 32% though Blizzard was jumping the shark, while 21% (including myself) had signed up for the annual pass.  

A few implications:
  • Us bloggers have referred to 2011 as a bad year for World of Warcraft.  The reality is that there is maybe a single MMO in the world right now that has more month-to-month subscribers than Blizzard has ANNUAL subscribers, to say nothing of the other 80%.
  • It's easy to be cynical and write that this whole thing was a trap to make sure that people are "paying, even if they weren't playing".  Perhaps some of the same people who pay hundred dollar price tags for free to play lottery boxes literally snapped this thing up as an impulse buy for the bonuses.  Even so, we're likely looking at hundreds of thousands of players who picked this thing up because they thought they would be in WoW for the long haul.  I'd be very curious whether other games have anywhere near 10% of their players signing on to even six-month commitments.  
  • With the promotion, possibly one million accounts will never purchase the $60 DIII box.  (I say possibly because you can in principle purchase separate annual passes for multiple WoW accounts attached to the same account.)  Blizzard may come out ahead on that deal in the long run, but I'm definitely curious whether it will put a dent in the game's launch sales/revenue.  
  • With the same caveat as above, possibly one million accounts will be invited to the Pandaria beta.  Thanks to SWTOR, a million beta players isn't entirely unprecedented, and not all may go to the trouble of participating, but I'm curious how the logistics (e.g. number of servers) will work. 
In the long run, the real implication may be that large numbers of players are experiencing the game as something that they don't really pay for by the month anymore.  My experience has been that the game is actually more fun if you play it when you feel like playing it, instead of trying to cram all the grind into as few monthly fees as possible.  Blizzard's increased focus on weekly, monthly, and annual holiday events over daily requirements seems to support that approach as well. 

The question, then, is how many annual passes there will be this time next year.   Will players grow accustomed to this model and stay subscribed?  Will Blizzard not be able to find a carrot as enticing as Diablo III to get players to sign up for another year, and then have trouble retaining them on the old, pricey month-to-month basis?  Will the proportion of players on long-term plans increase as more casual players and those who disagree with the game's direction wander off and the die-hards remain?  Whatever happens, I'm going to be much more interested in the annual number than the monthly number in the year ahead. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Barter Economy With Coins?

This week, I've learned that I was dramatically underestimating my level of income in World of Warcraft. 

Because I don't generally play the game for more than a few nights per month, there had been an extended stretch in which the rate at which new gear that I could obtain was added to the game far exceeded the rate at which I was obtaining it.  What I observed was my overall gold balance dropping steadily, as I used my cash reserves to pay for gems and enchanting materials for my latest acquisitions. 

Now that my gear acquisition has plateaued out - half of my gear is now the best available to me for the rest of the expansion, and the remaining upgrades include several pieces on the valor point vendor that can only be obtained at a rate of one every 2-3 weeks - I'm seeing that the net change was not the whole story.  It turns out that I was bringing in substantial income the whole time, only to have that wiped out by even more staggering costs.  Now that the costs have abated, my cash balance is shooting steadily upwards.

I've balked at paying thousand gold prices for minipets on the auction house, but it turns out that I make that in 2-3 evenings.  Ironically, I no longer need any of the reputation rewards for any of the daily quest factions (other than the shoulder enchant token, and various achievements).  Instead, I'm effectively pulling down a third of a minipet or a stack of tradeskill ingredients or whatever else gold can buy as a reward for basically whatever I was doing in game anyway. 

I didn't realize this is what I was doing, but effectively I had already made the choice that my time playing the game has more value than the virtual currency.  I'd subconsciously arrived at a budget threshold for what I was willing to pay (e.g. yes to blue gems, no to purple enchants) based on how quickly my gold balance was dropping.  Knowing the real numbers may or may not change my behavior, but it's interesting - even though there is a currency involved, I'm effectively functioning as if it was a barter economy. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

First Time MMO PC Builder, Part 4 (Continue Testing)

Meet GArMOS-1 (short for Green AR-madillo Made,
with added Portal reference)
I've been up and running on my new PC for about three weeks now, and things have been uneventful, which I suppose is what one would be hoping for on a brand new machine.  I've got over 150 GB and counting in MMO clients on the data drive (good thing I didn't try to go pure-SSD), as I install everything I'm playing, and a bunch of things that I might hypothetically play in the future (since this machine will unfortunately be deployed on the wrong end of a DSL connection, which I distrust immensely, in the near future).

So far, everything I have attempted to run has run, despite the older graphics card.  Given what I'm hearing about specs for the next generation of GPU's, I'm definitely expecting to get better value in a few months.  In the mean time, the only settings I have had to downgrade are things like max quality shadows or anti-aliasing.  I guess I sort of notice these, but I don't consider these performance issues so much as cosmetics.  While modern MMO's are delivering maximum settings that require some serious computing power, developers aren't abandoning the mainstream (and my machine is a bit above mainstream even with the out-dated GPU).

Several people during the process commented that my tales of troubleshooting prove that I should have just paid someone to build a machine for me - in particular, the Canadians apparently have a chain that is well known for this sort of thing.  I'd say a few things to this:
  • Paying someone else to build the machine - and provide a warranty - may be more costly than you realize.  Doghouse Systems (official sponsor of numerous MMO podcasts) charges $1750 for a machine that's roughly comparable to what mine will be when I upgrade the graphics card, only mine cost under $1200.  Maybe your local shop manages to be cheaper without compromising on reputation, but they have to pay the employees who will provide your warranty service somehow, along with shipping, any expenses for parts, etc. 
  • As those of you who have read my posts about F2P business models know, I'm someone who derives some degree of satisfaction out of pursuing and obtaining a good deal.  Technically speaking, it may be correct that my time is worth more than the money I save on this exercise, but that's part of the fun for me.  I could definitely see how someone with a different personality would find this less enjoyable.  
  • In the longer term, I value the knowledge I've taken away from this project.  Because I assembled this machine, I don't have to shrug when something stops working.  That knowledge - especially since this is unlikely to be the last computer I ever assemble, has some value in the long run.
At the end of the day this type of project may not be for everyone.  I personally enjoyed it greatly, and I wish the best of luck to anyone else looking to take the plunge.  

Sunday, February 5, 2012

World Events Collide

This week is an odd confluence of world events in World of Warcraft.  We are currently midway through the Lunar New Year event, which is set by the Chinese calendar and therefore does not always fall in the same window in the US.  WoW's Valentine's event has been expanded out to two full weeks to accommodate a lengthier token grind - albeit a big improvement from the original iteration of the event, which was both short and purely random number generator dependent.  On top of that, the newly revised Darkmoon Faire carnival is up and running for the first full week of the month. 

I actually am in game working on various projects during this busy stretch.  I just completed the token tour for the new lantern minipet, during which I dug up a bunch of Archeology sites.  Charm bracelets for the Valentine's event, and its new pink ostrich-ish mount, are earned through normal killing of mobs.  Effectively, these events are holding my attention because they offer additional rewards for stuff I was planning to do anyway.  The other side of the coin, however, is that I tend NOT to work on WoW when there is NOT an event going.  I suppose I'm holding out for a little more in exchange for my time in WoW, in the same way that I hold out for a little bit more in exchange for my money in non-subscription titles?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Ever Test An Indie MMO?

Eric at Elder Game has opened up signups to test his one-man indie MMO, Project Gorgon.  I don't have the time to justify taking a slot among his testing ranks, but it's definitely an interesting project.  It's fascinating for me as someone who analyzes game design to see the choices that a real live developer makes on allocating development resources - choices that are easier to comprehend because of the scale (one developer, as compared to the $100 million AAA MMO studio).

If you have the time, and you find what he's written on the project interesting, I recommend the project.  It sounds like fun, and you might learn a thing or two.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

STO hits 2 years, two weeks

Star Trek Online has a curious double-two birthday - two years as a game and two weeks as a free to play game.  This game has been on my list of things to maybe try when it went free to play.  The promise of a raincheck for a free level 50 ship - there's a thinly veiled implication that it will be cash store only whenever after this weekend it returns - was enough to get me to sign in and grind out the requisite five levels. 

Lt. Green Armadillo, commanding officer of the USS PVD-1, and his bridge crew
It's hard for a rank newbie to say much about a two year old game that hasn't already been said by two years' worth of rank newbies.  The two week old business model is a bit more interesting to judge.  There are definitely things about the model that are attractive to a visitor - such as no charges for content.  The catch is that this feels more like a traditional F2P game than a retro-fitted subscription game.  Case in point, there was a kerflaffle a few weeks back where they introduced a desirable new ship using a cash store-facilitated lottery approach.  Not necessarily an auspicious start to a free to play game, though I'm told that some of these antics existed back when the game also had a monthly fee.

That said, the big thing that this game has going for it is that there are some things it does very differently from what we see in any MMO - not just the space combat system but how the crew system is used to determine your ship's abilities.  While I maintain that free to play games that charge for content are generally more trustworthy, the cost of trying this one for a bit for some variety - $0 - is not that bad.
The anniversary Enterprise-looking ship, which may someday possibly be the USS PVD-5 (or however many ships I go through before then)