Friday, May 30, 2008

Call back in six months

A few posts back, I quipped that I was looking forward to picking up the LOTRO expansion... six months after it launches so that the devs would have time to finish it. I was only half joking - LOTRO is a good game today, but the mid-late game needed substantial patching work over several months after it went live. Well, as Relmstein notes today, developers aren't entirely stupid - they've realized that reviewers have to publish their opinions based on less than half of the game, so they make darned sure that 95% of the polish goes into the FIRST half of the game.

Take this review of Age of Conan published by Ars Technica, a tech news/reviews blog that I otherwise have a lot of respect for. It's very clear that the reviewer wrote it just before hitting the end of the good content. In fact, he only made it 25 levels into the 80 level game, barely 5 levels out of the game's tutorial zone. If he'd stuck with it longer before publishing, he might have encountered the issues that caused one pair of prominent bloggers to quit the game. Meanwhile, Tobold notes that a post-retail patch just literally DOUBLED his framerate. It's a disgrace that their code at launch was so bad at launch that they could double the frame rate in a patch a week later, and it might well have cost Funcom some customers who might otherwise have stuck around.

Sadly, the verdict appears to be that the best time to buy a game is six months down the road, once they're actually out of beta.

Programming Note:
I'm getting married this weekend, graduating next week, and then I'm going to be out of the country for two weeks. I've got a notepad full of post topics for the next chance I get, and I'm sure I'll be adding to it on my trip, but I apologize in advance that PVD is going to be a bit sparse until late June.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

How to gear alts?

I have two level 70's at the moment, one level 45 who is actively progressing upwards, a level 48 who is parked waiting until my fiancee has enough time to play again, a level 8 priest who may hypothetically progress upwards (though it'll be bad bad news for Blizz if he makes it before the expansion), and plans to at least experiment with a DK. This doesn't make me all that unusual - it seems like most serious players, unless they raid and literally need all of their spare in-game time to deal with upkeep costs, have at least one max level alt. But this raises an interesting question - how do you gear your alts?

I previously discussed the ways in which time spent on your main can help your alts, and Wrath is supposedly adding in a new one, with so-called "Legacy" items that will be bound to your accounts but will allow you to hand them down to your alts. My discussion focused on reputation, accomplishments, and attunements since I was talking primarily about the leveling game. When you get to the level cap, however, the goal of all these activities is getting better gear.

Zereissen has an impressive shopping list to gear one of his several level 70's, and he acknowledges that time is at a premium. He has the advantage of being in a guild that allows alts to raid, and I'm sure that having three or more raid-ready alts is a huge asset to a guild that flexible. It works out because he actually wants to be raiding, and every step, even if it's distributed among several characters, and even if it takes a long time to earn the money between raids, gets the next character closer to that goal.

Unfortunately, that motivation doesn't work for me; I would rather be spending time doing a variety of content, so pigeon-holing myself into the top 10 dailies (on a cash/time basis) every single day is the exact opposite of my goals. The result is that I wind up basically retiring alts. Take my uncrushable solo Pally: I'm happy to spend 100-200 gold on BOE blues, even ones that I'm probably never going to actually use, because that's 1-2 hours of daily quest gold at the most. (Interestingly, the time it takes to farm the gold for a blue ilvl 115 item is not all that different from the time to run an instance with a competent PuG, so maybe Blizzard is better at in-game economics than we thought.) I will not spend 1000 gold on BoE purples, because the magnitude of the gear upgrade I would get is not high enough to justify the amount of time I would have to spend doing the same content over and over again.

Maybe the price is right. I certainly could keep on working on the Pally (or maybe even the mage) if I wanted to, and Zereissen's example (among many others) proves that concept in action. But one could also argue that I would like to keep playing my 70's, that Blizzard would in principle like me to keep playing them too since that's more time I'd be playing WoW. So, in economic terms, we have a buyer and a seller, and it's just a matter of finding a price I'm willing to pay that doesn't undermining other content. I don't claim to have an answer (if I did, I'd be out trying to sell World of PVD-craft ;)), but I wonder if someone will. Maybe the trick is simply to put a significantly larger gulf between the gear you have when you hit 80 and the gear you get when you start raiding or crafting epic gear, so there's more room to grow without stepping on the toes of raid content. Hopefully, Blizzard can figure it out in the next few months.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Baseless Speculation: Nerfed Spell Hit Talents Affecting Gear?

The alpha test of Wrath of the Lich King has apparently kicked off and there's lots of interesting info flying around (probably with some fakes mixed in). One seemingly minor point that has flown under the radar is a nerf to several talents that affect spell hit rating. Arcane Focus and Shadow Focus currently have five ranks and boost the spell hit numbers for Arcane Mages and Shadow Priests by 2% per point, to a max of 10%. The talents are rumored to be nerfed to three ranks at 1% per point, with a supposedly compensatory bonus of 3% off the mana cost of the respective spells. Frost mages know this particular nerf well, since elemental precision used to be 3 ranks of 2% per point for a total of 6% hit (for frost only), before changing to its current 3% hit, 3% mana cost for both fire and frost (ensuring that almost all fire mages somehow find three points to spend in the frost tree).

For those who don't know how Spell Hit calculations work, players start at 96% hit against even conned targets and cap at 99%. This means that 3% hit from talents is sufficient to reach the hit cap for even conned mobs, beyond which additional spell hit rating offers no additional benefit. You will need an extra 1% (4% total) to cap against mobs one level higher than you, and an extra 2% (5% total) to cap against mobs two levels higher. So why, you might be wondering, was there a talent offering 10% spell hit? Mobs that con 3 levels above you, which includes all raid bosses, require a whopping 16% hit to reach the cap, and, for most DPS casters, spell hit rating is more valuable point for point than any other spell stat (including spell damage) until you reach that cap. The implications of an extra 7% spell hit are significant - for a level 70 character, that's 88 points of spell hit rating that can now be replaced with bonuses to other statistics.

Why make this change?
Like I said, Elemental Precision used to grant larger amounts of spell hit until it was nerfed (back in 2005 or so, if memory serves). However, the other talents were in the game at the time and are being nerfed only now. Perhaps the specs in question are doing more damage now and thus fell within the sights of the nerf gun. Perhaps, with the amount of spell hit rating required to get 1% spell hit going upwards at level 80, a 2% bonus per talent point was deemed too great, especially since the talents in question are low on the talent tiers and often taken anyway to unlock more advanced talents.

However, there is another, intriguing possibility, on which I will now engage in some completely baseless speculation. It's been stated that Blizzard would like to do a better job with tiered rewards in the new expansion - as they described it, the elite arena gear with high rating requirements will be comparable to the current 25-man raid, the low end arena gear with low requirements will compare to the current 10-man, and the gear available in battlegrounds for honor alone would be comparable to heroic five-man loot. What if the difference between the gear quality was primarily spell hit value?

Even Heroic-mode 5-mans do not currently expose players to "boss" level mobs (which, again, will always con +3), so spell hit rating could, in principle, be almost absent from 5-man gear, as players of most caster classes would be able to get the hit rating they need from talents. Now imagine that the corresponding 10-man upgrade includes similar raw damage but ALSO includes spell hit, and that the corresponding arena upgrade again includes similar raw damage but ALSO includes resilience. Then imagine that the 25-man/elite arena upgrades contained MORE of their respective stats. Suddenly, you're looking at a system where there ARE still substantial upgrades for trying the elite material, without requiring Blizzard to cap non-raid/arena gear advancement. The spell hit on raid gear would not be wasted either - that extra rating would allow raiders who hit the cap to spec out of their respective spell hit talents, giving them more talent points to play with in their builds.

Of course, the question is whether Blizzard would actually be willing to remove some of the bribe factor from raid/arena loot (i.e. you'd still be snagging upgrades, but the upgrades would be focused on stats specific to that activity and thus you wouldn't be THAT much comparatively better than a non-raiding level 80 at, say, daily quests). The downside from Blizzard's perspective is that better bribes might otherwise lure players into harder, more time-consuming content. I suppose time will tell, and this is, as I've said repeatedly, all pure speculation on my part. I just think that the potential for this kind of parallel advancement offers some intriguing new design space that didn't exist in WoW 1.0 or TBC.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Out of Time

In the off-line world, I've been struggling with a number of deadlines, one after another, that have kept me too busy to actually update PvD. Perhaps it's ironic, then, that there's a post about running out of time near the top of my "o-blog" (that's a physical pen and paper notepad that gets used to record ideas for future blog posts when I'm offline).

People make a lot of complaints about World of Warcraft, but really, all of these complaints stem from one single problem - the developers ran out of time. A few examples:

- My two biggest complaints about TBC were lack of access to lore and lack of gear progression for solo players. The sad truth is, solo content tends not to last very long (see my devouring the better part of 6 months' worth of LOTRO patch content in 2 days). Thus, the developers want to try and entice players into harder, more time-consuming raid content, and the two biggest incentives they have in this task are cool lore encounters and gear progression.

- Travel time is unnecessarily long. Time spent traveling is time NOT spent consuming content.

- Class balance (my class isn't good enough, someone else's class is too good). These complaints exist primarily because the game switches from a leveling model where anyone who plays levels up to an endgame model where merit becomes a very pressing concern. When you need to beat that Warlock to win the match, or you need to have one of the top 5 DPS numbers to get invited to the next raid, it suddenly matters a lot if your class is at a disadvantage compared to the competition. See also, the first point.

- "Blizzard isn't releasing any info about the expansion"/"The CM's never post answers to serious threads" This is an artifact of it taking Blizzard 3-4 months per content patch. They're not releasing info because there isn't much info to release, and what little info they do have is being held back by the PR dept for later use to bribe media outlets with an exclusive sneak peek that may coincidentally happen to become the cover story. Even the info that isn't cool enough to be saved for more important outlets than the forums gets held up because no one wants to hear that there's a known and fixed bug that they're going to have to pay to live with for the next four months until the patch is ready.

Indeed, the patch cycle may be WoW's worst enemy at the moment. Relmstein recently quit WoW, specifically citing having run out of content as his reason.

That said, Blizzard is not alone. As I discussed last week, LOTRO launched unfinished and the content they've added over the last six months is stuff that was already months overdue six months ago. Cuppycake posits correctly that having a working game is worth more than having all the content ready at launch, but there's a limit to how long "at least it's not crashing" will keep you in a game. Guild Wars, Age of Conan, and the forthcoming Warhammer MMO all try to herd players in the direction of PVP because PVP is infinitely reusable content, and WoW has been following suit with their new arena tournament.

So why isn't there enough dev time to go around?

When it came to Hellgate: London, Bill Roper literally admitted that they launched with what they had at the point when they ran out of money. I'd like to feel sorry for the poor independent studio, but that doesn't mean I'm going to pay them for a buggy game. As Hellgate, and Vanguard before it, show, you don't get a free pass from your customer base for launching with an unfinished product. When it costs money to stick around, you're going to be judged on what you've got now, not what you claim you'd like to code somewhere down the line.

Perhaps some developers are simply cheap - one could certainly argue that Blizzard could afford to hire more people so they can actually add content to the world's most lucrative MMORPG more than 3 times a year. Then again, how big can a team actually get before communication, quality, and tone become issues? There is something to be said for quality over quantity.

What is to be done?

There's no easy answer to this issue. Time will pass by, no matter how many people you hire, and it's almost always going to be quicker to consume content than to design it. PVP and player created content are two options, but they don't appeal to everyone and will actively drive many people off.

One thing that could, and arguably should, change ASAP is the monthly fee. Having that looming bill date can pressure you to quit now rather than wait and see what's going into the next patch. Once you're gone, it's going to be harder on everyone for you to come back. This could mean micro-transactions (i.e. free to play, but you buy items/character slots/etc) or Guild Wars style macro-transactions (no monthly fee, but you're making your purchases in large chunks instead of a little piece at a time). Or perhaps, like iTunes is slowly teaching the recording industry that they have to sell the 2 good songs on a CD for $0.99 each instead of forcing people to buy a $15 album with 13 songs they don't want, MMORPG companies will have to break down and offer to charge via usage (e.g. 50 cents per day instead of $15 per month).

I'd like to speculate further, but A) if I had the answers, I'd have my own game studio by now and B) I'm out of time. :)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Purchasing Expansions

I recently decided to pick up Guild Wars and give it a spin. I'm not expecting it to occupy months and months of my time, but a good Diablo II style romp sounded like a nice change of pace from Yet Another WoW Alt.

The reason why I'm posting about this is that purchasing Guild Wars is slightly more complicated than most RPG's. Most games don't offer that many options. EQ and EQ2 just bundle in all their previous expansions in a single box, as you can't really play them out of order. FFXI has freestanding copies of the most recent expansion, but they quickly go to an all-in-one model as well. I wouldn't be surprised if Wrath came in a bundle with TBC too - what are you going to do, play a Death Knight from level 55-60 and then go to Northrend 10 levels behind the curve?

The difference with Guild Wars is that they made most of their expansions free-standing parallel games. As a result, there are 3 "campaigns" (which share the same engine and 6 of the same classes), and two new classes each in the second and third campaigns to be released. There's also a pure expansion that can only be played by a max level character from one of the three campaigns (max level doesn't take as long as you'd think, the game has a lot of max-level content). If you're curious about the featureset, there's an entire guide to which campaign to start with.

Where this gets complicated is because many retailers will start discounting material once it's been cluttering their shelves/warehouses for long enough. Arena's asking price for the campaigns from their In-Game Store are:
Prophecies (Campaign 1): $20
Factions (Campaign 2): $30
Nightfall (Campaign 3): $40
Eye of the North (Expansion): $40
"Bonus Mission Pack": A whopping $10 for like four quests (content was previously a pre-order bonus)
"Game of the Year Edition Upgrades": Another whopping $5 for a handful of weapons that were packed in with the "GOTY" edition of Prophecies (the other thing is at least new content, I have NO idea why you'd pay that much for these things otherwise, they're not that good)

These are not the prices Amazon wants for the material, obviously. What complicates matters is that you can get Prophecies in a "Platinum edition" that costs $40 and includes the original Prophecies and the Eye of the North Expansion (material Arena wants $60 for). You can also get the "Platinum edition" of Factions, that includes the GOTY edition of Prophecies and the Bonus Mission Pack (by Arena's reckoning, a $65 value, though I maintain that the weapons at least are insanely overpriced). The conclusion being that you shouldn't under any circumstances purchase Prohpecies as a free-standing product, since buying it in a bundle saves you a lot of money on the rest of the material (which you might actually want).

Anyways, I decided to go with Nightfall off Amazon since it seemed to be the consensus number 1 pick for a starting campaign, after I spent a while looking around for the mythical $2 demo disks supposedly in retail stores nationwide only to remember that I'm not a starving college student anymore, and I can actually afford to buy a $21 game from Amazon (just over half of what the in-game store wants for it, go figure) as long as it doesn't come shackled to a monthly fee that I'd be maintaining on top of WoW. I tried it out and liked it. So, I decided to pick up the Factions Platinum Edition too, in order to get at the rest of the classes and skills for my NPC Heroes. The result being that, by purchasing the campaigns in the correct order, I paid just over $60 for content Arena wanted $105 for. I'm used to meta-gaming the IN-GAME economy, but this is the first time I can think of meta-gaming the actual purchase of the game.

Ironically, I'm now swimming in free trial codes for a variety of NCSoft games. Go figure.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

LOTRO Whistle Addendum

When I logged back into LOTRO last week for the free re-trial, one of my first comments was:

On the downside, they've added an animation in which, when you go to summon your horse, your player whistles, looks around, and whistles some more for the horse to show up. This was already annoying the very first time I saw it, and LOTRO requires you to dismount a lot (e.g. to talk to anyone). /sigh.

Little did I know that I'd identified a major controversy that had just entered the game. I failed to mention that the whistle was shrill and annoying, and, worse, you'd hear any OTHER players near you making the same whistle whenever THEY had to mount up too. Quoth Patience on the LOTRO forums:
"The whistle is being reviewed.
We realize a lot of people hate the whistle and will be reviewing several possible solutions and potential compromises/changes. Please stop making new threads about it."

Well, apparently this was one thing they were able to review quickly - a patch today made the whistle quieter, and you only hear your own whistling. I don't know why a game with a relatively robust music system wouldn't just allow user-defined mount songs (Hi Ho, Silver!)... well, alright, I suppose I can see how idiots would ruin that. But I'm still glad for anyone who's actually still playing LOTRO that this got fixed. :)

My Characters: Let Me Show You Them, Part 3 (Allarond of Gondor)

Lord of the Rings Online hit the scene a bit over a year ago. They had good timing - Blizzard's expansion had just come and gone, leaving many longtime players shocked to discover that they'd hit level 70 in a month or two only to find the same old raiding endgame they'd been so eager to leave behind. Many of us wanted something new, but not TOO new, and the game that I referred to as "World of Tolkeincraft" fit the bill nicely.

I tried a minstrel in beta and enjoyed it during the low levels, but I was concerned that the class' DPS would drop off at medium-high levels, so I rerolled a Human Champion named Allarond when the game went live. Now sure, the game allows you to hail from places like Rohan or Dale, but for me nothing says LOTR quite like Gondor, and indeed, "of Gondor" was the only title I wore above my head for the six months I spent playing the game. In some ways, that sums up my LOTRO experience - there are many games out there where you might be known as "Goblin-foe" or "Warg-Hunter" (and, perhaps not as many where one might be known as "Weird of Worms", whatever the heck that one means), but only One License to Rule Them All in which a man can hail from Gondor or become a Protector of the Shire.

Turbine spent a lot of time and effort on the starting areas, perhaps because they knew that these are the first places a player sees (playing a large role in whether they stick around). Elves and Dwarves start in an area west of The Shire that doesn't get much attention in the books, but Hobbit characters begin their careers in The Shire proper and humans begin in the vicinity of Bree. These areas have the right mix of original content and interaction with NPC's who actually appeared in the books, and the zones look as you might imagine they would; I actually got lost frequently in the Old Forest, and preferred to go there only during the day so that I'd have more light to work with.

Class design in the game is very well done. The minstrel concept does slightly strain credibility (LOTR lore doesn't really allow for instant healing and resurrection, so the health bar is called "morale" and being stabbed repeatedly by a band of goblins makes you demoralized and forces you to "retreat" - thus minstrels do what MMORPG players would think of as "healing" by "restoring morale"), but the class had a nice combat pace to it and good survivability. I've already discussed how true to life playing a Warg in PVMP was. The champion is also a lot of fun - picture a prot pally who does AoE damage actively (i.e. abilities that hit enemies in a frontal arc) instead of passively, wears heavy armor, has a few panic buttons to restore his own health, and generally controls crowds by killing them.

Unfortunately, there were also some relatively major flaws in the game.

The Grind System
I've already panned the deed system, which forces you to run every quest and kill hundreds of every mob just to get current traits to put in your trait slots, in the process ruining the title system by ensuring that almost none of the game's many nifty titles will actually be rare. Actually, the deed slope starts off at a nice and friendly pace - in the starter zones, players might actually complete titles in the course of their normal activities. This leaves a relatively fun choice - go and kill a mere 50ish mobs (a quest or two's worth, give or take) for an exp award and a trait or move on. Unfortunately, as players level up these tasks shift from a fun bonus to "the devs ran out of time to implement content, so they hope you won't notice if they quietly crank the number of kills up to an absurd 720 for certain kill deeds in Angmar".

Travel revisited
I've also already panned the game's travel system. Bree is the geographic center of the game but players will be required to jump back and forth between zones on opposite sides of Bree as early as their late 20's. At these mid levels, so-called "swift travel" routes (in which the travel occurs off-camera) are rare, meaning that, when you run out of quests in the western part of the Trollshaws at level 30 and have to get to Evendim, life gets ugly. You will have to run though half of the Trollshaws (mounts aren't available until level 35) to Ost Guruth, ride the slow autohorse all the way across the Lone Lands (Turbine implemented a much much much needed swift travel shortcut for this after I quit the game) and half of Breeland to get back to Bree, run across the city to its West stable master (yes, the city has two travel NPC's, with a swift travel route between them for the extremely lazy), swift travel from there to Michel Delving in the SW corner of the Shire, take the auto-horse to the entrance of Evendim in the north central portion of the zone, and then possibly another autohorse to the portion of the zone that you actually wanted to get to. Unlike WoW, you cannot queue up your connections before you depart, so you will actually need to be at your keyboard to start each leg.

If you thought that last part sounded long, imagine doing it a few times per week. I had my "map" (hearthstone) bound in Bree until level 29, when Men get a second hearth to Bree (in exchange for, you guessed it, killing 150 wargs - no, wargs you killed before 29 don't count), Hobbits get a less useful hearth to Michel Delving, Elves get a hearth to Rivendell, and Dwarves get a hearth to their mostly useless capitol city (sorry Dwarves). I don't think I've actually used my map for its intended purpose (getting back to your local quest hub because you have to sign off and don't have time to run back) since about level 10, it's always been set at one of the extreme non-Bree locations to allow me to mitigate some of the horrible pain of traveling. The auto-horse system was actually excellent for traveling within a zone (you can dismount at any time if you're willing to abandon your fare), but horrible for traveling in between zones.

(Edit: The above comments, of course, don't apply if you happened to roll a hunter, in which case you get access to nine various "teleport" spells to just about anywhere you'd want to go. )

Bad Reputation
Turbine didn't even have their reputation system ready to go at launch, resulting in a screwy situation in which they patched in retroactive reputation gains for previously completed quests months after finally adding a rep system. The system was idiotic - for example, the reward for reputation with the Men of Bree was a bunch of level 40ish gear; problem was, the only way to gain said reputation was to farm up hundreds of reputation tokens from even more hundreds of mobs, at which point you would have outleveled the rewards. Turbine finally did a WoW-style reputation, wherein players have actual choices on how to gain rep, in the most recent content patch, but the rewards still seemed lackluster compared to the crafted stuff I bought off the AH. The one set of rewards that are worthwhile are a set of swift travel routes to various out of the way locations that need them, but I'm nowhere near the requirements for any of these, and don't see why I should be required to grind just to keep travel between the game's 3 major cities (Bree, Rivendell, and the Lossoth capitol) from being a painful painful long haul.

Out of Content
The reputation debacle was actually part of the really big, game-breaking issue with LOTRO, which is that there's not enough LOTRO. LOTRO zones are larger than Outland zones, but essentially their entire game at launch was about the size of WoW's expansion. Players have more than enough to do in the 1-15 range, but a solo player will have to start pingponging to opposite sides of the map as early as the mid 20's level-wise. The lengthy travel example I gave above didn't actually even exist at launch, because it took them an extra month and a half to patch in an absolutely vital entire zone full of solo content for level 30ish players. That got the game to the point where players could actually reach level 40, but woe to the solo player who did since there was absolutely nothing to do solo once you got there, unless your idea of a good time was grinding 300 lizards to level. (Don't take my word for this, an official dev diary in December - remember, this game launched and started charging money in April - described the process of gutting and overhauling the entire freaking zone of Angmar for a then-upcoming patch - something the closed beta testers could have told them was necessary eight months previously.) Most of my friends who had come over from WoW quit, but I struggled on, because I did not want to abandon my champion so close to the level cap. And then, finally, I gave up a third of the way into level 48. My bill date had arrived, I had exhausted almost all of the solo content other than deed grinding that would be available to me for the trip to 50, and I had frankly started to hate the game.

As I mentioned, last weekend, Turbine re-opened the doors to former players to see what they'd done with the place. What they've done is finished the level 40-50 content. They redid Angmar, added an entirely new level 45-50 zone, and expanded the Misty Mountains as well. I have no interest in testing this out on another character (who would have to repeat content that I have no real desire to play again), but I'd imagine that the trip from 40-50 would be relatively pleasant. I was able to finally reach level 50 (in the process, completing somewhere between half and two thirds of the new quests introduced in the last six months over a single weekend in which I had a lot of other stuff to do, though I was over-leveled for much of it and thus cleared it more quickly). There are many things I love about MMORPG's, but being charged 100% of the price for enough content to complete 80% of the game isn't one of them.

That said, this game is the closest we've come to another WoW, and I'd whole-heartedly recommend it in its current state to any WoW player who wants to solo some new content while waiting for Wrath to arrive, provided you don't expect there to be anything in particular to do once you get there. (There are always more deeds, and even more quests, but why waste potential sources of exp by doing them while level-capped?) The game also comes with virtual world features that put WoW to shame. Players can throw on cosmetic outfits over their armor, if you'd really like to swashbuckle in a dress, dye their armor so it doesn't mismatch horribly, change their hairstyle at a barber, and purchase both player and guild housing. (One wonders if Turbine reads the wishlist of stuff WoW players want that Blizzard won't give them and tries to go out and implement those things.) All of these in addition to a wide variety of iconic locations from the lore.

Allarond, Champion of Gondor, Protector of the Shire, Hero to the Lost, and, yes, Weird of Worms, eagerly awaits the forthcoming Mines of Moria expansion. I'm just going to wait for 6-12 months after it comes out for them to actually finish it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Population Balance and World PVP

Tobold ponders "Will Order or Chaos prevail in WAR?". This has been my big question about Warhammer - how do you reconcile a system where the side with more people wins with real lasting consequences? (Warhammer promises to allow the sacking of capitol cities, which can leave the losing side without auction houses or bankers as a penalty even after they suffer the indignity of being bailed out by NPC's.)

Personally, I play on a PVE server in WoW because I don't find anything especially enjoyable about being killed while questing, not being able to enter instances because one side is occupying the portal, etc. (Apparently, a non-zero number of people who rolled on a PVP server, thinking it would make them more hardcore, don't like these things either.) I suppose spirit shards are actually a decent bonus, the [Mark of Defiance] is a great trinket for casters (though your side need not WIN to get the tokens for it), and it's good to have access to the vendors in Halaa once every so often when you have stuff to turn in. In general, though, WoW's world PVP is not about lasting consequences, and therefore the fact that superior numbers carry the day matters less.

My main experience with numbers-matter PVP was in LOTRO's Ettenmoors. Players can roll up a "monster character", basically controlling a level 50 mob. It's actually very well done - playing a stealthy Warg, shadowing the enemy raid and its healers, you really get the flavor of THINKING like a Warg, lurking until the moment is right and preferably striking in a pack. Problem is, the "creep" side needs to kill players to get rank to unlock their skills, and the game is balanced such that the creeps need a slight numeric advantage (or turtling in their NPC keeps) to stand a chance. If there are no organized groups of freeps roaming around, hordes of bored creeps wander the countryside, killing any brave or foolish adventurers. If organized groups do show up - which happens on a semi-regular basis since people are more likely to care about rank on their persistent player character than a relatively disposable creep - the freeps can steamroll their way across the zone.

There are several ways to balance this sort of situation. Blizzard's approach to battlegrounds was to instance everything and cap entry so that the sides are even (at least before AFK'ers, etc), but that inherently takes away the persistent part of the equation. Turbine's was to make several attempts to design and introduce super units - Trolls for the creeps and Rangers for the freeps - and make more of these super units available to whichever side was losing at the moment. They've had to pull the feature several times due to bugs that let people deploy more Rangers/Trolls than intended, and I didn't have time to see how the system has evolved in the last six months during the weekend's re-trial.

As to Warhammer? Well, it's a bit too early to say for sure - there are few details available, and those could all change since it is still a beta. But, with the stakes higher than you see in either WoW or LOTRO, the balance is far far more critical to Warhammer's success. Someone in the comments section at Tobold's suggested that they are considering carrots to encourage people to join the losing side (if I remember, DAOC had this feature too), but also sticks to try and slow down the winners - e.g. faction specific queues (not much unlike Blizzard's battleground queue only for the entire server).

I cannot imagine a commercially successful game telling players that they cannot play their characters because their side is too popular at the moment and having that go over well. Players want to play with their friends, not on some other faction or server. But, at the same time, the losing side is going to go from losing to nonexistent if players log in to find their cities destroyed and themselves zerged under every time they enter contested territory.

I wish them all the best, because I'd rather see more competition for Blizzard to force them to keep on their toes, but this issue is going to literally make or break their game.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Will Wrath Solve All of WoW's Problems?

Blizzard's months of nearly complete silence on the forthcoming expansion was explained yesterday as they unleashed a mammoth media event designed to garner the front page of every major internet gaming outlet out there. This was pretty successful.

In my opinion, the two biggest issues in TBC were the inaccessibility of major lore events and the lack of progression past a certain point for players who do not raid. I've discussed the gear issue into the ground here on this blog (notably here and here), but this is probably the first I've mentioned the lore issue. As an expansion, TBC has a single, main plot that hits you from the moment you pop the CD into the drive and watch the opening cinematic - Illidan and his minions are doing terrible terrible things, and must be stopped. Where the original WoW features many storylines (only some of which actually dead-end in raids - though some simply dropped off the face of Azeroth only to come back 3 years later), TBC is all Illidan, all the time. Everyone experiences that story, and knows WHY Illidan must be stopped, but only a small fraction of players will ever actually get to see the big finale (the story sequences during the Illidan, and apparently Kil'Jaeden, encounters), as these are limited to 25-man raids. It's like buying a book and turning the page to discover that the final chapter will only be available to you if you join a 25-man book club that meets at fixed hours, requires preparation work before mettings, and generally forces members to completely change the way they read.

Well, the info blitz suggests that Blizzard is taking a swing at both problems in one fell swoop. Every single raid zone, including Arthas' lair in Icecrown Glacier, will be available in 10 and 25-man flavors. Don't get me wrong, I'm still not going to get to see the Arthas fight unless I'm able to pay someone to take me there (which might be possible if the fight isn't tuned so hard that it cannot be beaten with a single under-geared/coordinated player), but it's certainly a step in the right direction.

In discussion of PVP rewards, Blizzard implies that there will ALSO be an implementation of tiered progression below the 25-man raid level. The example they use is for PVP rewards, where they suggest that the top end, high rating arena gear would be on par with the current 25-man raid gear, the low end, low rating arena gear would be on par with the current 10-man raid, and the no-rating-required honor gear would be on par with heroic 5-mans. Of course, that's not much in the way of details, and they don't say whether they will extend the concept of continuing progression all the way down to solo/daily content (though they seem to be very aware that this demographic pays a fair chunk of their bills). But it's certainly a start.

There's a lot of other interesting tidbits of info out there, but details are scarce and subject to change, so I'll refrain from making comments/predictions/analysis that will likely be proved wrong down the line. But, where the big picture is concerned, it sounds to me like Blizzard hasn't missed the point the way they did with TBC at its launch (where their response to complaints that raiding wasn't a gameplay style that people liked was smaller raids).

Thursday, May 8, 2008

UI tweaks

Lord of the Rings Online is running a free re-trial weekend this weekend to celebrate their first anniversary, in an attempt to lure back all the players, like myself, who quit due to lack of mid-high level content. The timing couldn't be worse for me personally - I defend my PhD dissertation tomorrow in that crazy off-line world - but I suppose you get what you pay for. The chances that I'll resubscribe to LOTRO are almost nil, but I'm definitely curious to see what they've done with the place.

I stuck my nose into the game for a few minutes during my lunch break to see how it looks. Interestingly, they've made a lot of tweaks to the user interface - it's easier to tell which of your traits are equipped, you can actually put kill deed progress in your quest tracker, the quest log is massively reorganized and easier to navigate, and they've got a system where, if you're turning in 36 stacks of reputation tokens, you can do this with a vendor-style interface instead of accepting and turning in a repeatable quest 36 times. None of these design improvements have anything to do with the content development people I generally talk about on this blog. But they're nice little touches, and anything to make some of the game's basic and necessary functions more accessible is a good thing.

On the downside, they've added an animation in which, when you go to summon your horse, your player whistles, looks around, and whistles some more for the horse to show up. This was already annoying the very first time I saw it, and LOTRO requires you to dismount a lot (e.g. to talk to anyone). /sigh.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Should games reward your alts for time spent on your main?

Yesterday's rant about one of my personal pet peeves in MMORPG design, time spent traveling instead of playing the game, got me thinking about a bigger picture question, namely the balance between providing more stuff to do on a player's "main" character versus making it easy for interested players to roll alts.

As I previously discussed, developers love it when players voluntarily roll alts and reuse content instead of running out of stuff to do on their main. However, many players DON'T want to be told to start over after spending hours and hours developing a main character. So, the devs face a delicate balance between encouraging investment in an individual character and not discouraging attempts to start additional characters.

Two brief asides before I wade into the nitty gritty here - firstly, I'm going to be discussing rolling alts for the purpose of re-playing the game, whether because you're out of solo content on your main, or you just wanted to try another class/faction. Some players re-roll because their raid or arena team needs another of class X and they drew the short straw, meaning that the whole point of the character is to get it to the level (experience, gear, and skill if there's a learning curve for the new class) of the previous main as quickly as possible. The latter group is out of luck in most games, since very few allow players to skip to maximum level (Guild Wars is one, and WoW has recently released a tournament PVP ruleset that allows pre-made characters with 100% gear parity). I'm presuming that the journey to the cap is at least part of the fun. Second, I'm excluding accomplishments that players are going to complete naturally in the course of leveling, to focus on things that require effort above and beyond what an average player of the correct level would do as they pass through the zone in question.

Time investment for things like factions, mounts, titles, etc, generally falls into one of three categories:

- Accomplishment on your main has no bearing on any future alts
A prime example of this category is LOTRO's deed system (which Warhammer sounds like they're planning to imitate). Deeds sounded great in principle for players with limited time - if you have time to kill even a single mob, you're technically advancing that kill deed counter by a notch, and thus making progress towards advancing your character. There were two problems with the system in practice. First of all, the number of enemies required to advance deeds doubles and quadruples, to the point where high level deeds require 400 kills of the same boring mob type in the same small corner of a zone. This might have been alright if the only reward was cosmetic (i.e. a rare title), but the second issue was that these massacres are REQUIRED in order to unlock trait upgrades that enhance your characters' abilities. (In fact, ironically, LOTRO ruined the most advanced and creative title system in MMORPG's today by requiring players to grind out the cosmetic titles BEFORE they could unlock the gameplay reward - Elbereth forbid that players stop at a mere 150 mob kills when the devs could make them kill 450 - thus ensuring that all of the interesting titles would be vastly prevalent.)

The end result being, you had to consume every last little bit of content in the game - every quest, and farming hundreds of every mob - just to finish your first character. However, doing so has no bearing on how quickly your future alts would be able repeat the accomplishments - 500 mobs is still 500 mobs. Thus a system that might otherwise have rewarded dedication to a single character becomes a huge deterrent to ever making a second one. The travel issue is another example of this - unless the main limiting factor in obtaining a mount is access to cash (again, developers, the gold sellers thank you from the bottom of their cold, hard hearts), your 5th level 35 character runs just as slowly as your first.

- Accomplishment on your main speeds advancement on an alt
Here, I'll cite the various reputation rewards in the WoW expansion. Technically, it's 9000 reputation from neutral to honored whether it's your first level 60+ character or your 10th. However, a character with a rich level 70 uncle might find himself with enough money to purchase 360 [Unidentified Plant Parts], instantly hitting honored with the Cenarion Expedition upon hitting level 60. This means saving all of the reputation to be gained from other CE faction quests for the path from honored to revered, which ultimately helped make my uncrushable solo Pally a reality. Likewise, money for mounts can be a big deal on your first character, but becomes easier and easier with high level breadwinners to pay the bills.

Then again, inflation being what it is, even my level 42 Horde alt had the money to buy his level 40 mount, AND to bank 360 plant parts for level 60, thank to the joy of selling low level crafting materials to bored 70's with disposable income. So the disadvantage is that an easier road for alts may ALSO mean an easier road for mains.

Accomplishments on your main are account-wide
Blizzard has actually been toying with this idea for attunements in the new expansion. Many of you may remember the infamous Burning Crusade attunement tree, that had to be abolished because players did not want to go to that degree of trouble for their alts, and both new raiders and old raiding guilds seeking replacements faced considerable difficulty with the old system. Blizzard claims they're considering account-wide flags - presumably this was going in anyway for the Death Knight - to permit one attunement run to attune all your future alts as well. Guild Wars has something kind of like this in place where your NPC "heroes" and PVP characters have access to skills unlocked on previous trips through the PVE game.

The advantage is clear - new alts are easier, and new alts means more time paying to re-play the same content. However, there are also downsides. Players will spend less time on each alt, and may not get the experience playing that alt that they would otherwise have obtained. This isn't a bad thing if the player is re-rolling the same character class (if, say, you're re-rolling the same class as part of a move from a European server to a US one), but might be problematic if you're jumping from, say, a mage to a Paladin tank having never tanked an instance (which would be a non-trivial problem for me if I ever intended to tank on my Pally).

So what's the correct balance? I don't know for sure, and perhaps the right answer is a mix of all of the above. And, of course, the bar can and should be higher for cosmetic rewards not needed for gameplay (like titles, again, Turbine, I'm looking at you) than for stat boosts players are going to need on every character they play. It also may make some sense to lower the bar for functional endgame rewards when the level cap goes up (Blizzard made some changes to pre-TBC reputation gain, but IMO may not have gone far enough in that department). Regardless, it's definitely something that I wish developers would be more mindful of, especially if "go re-roll" is going to be a big part of their solo "endgame".

Monday, May 5, 2008

Lies about travel

Psychonia of My Life as a Cartoon says that this blog "is filed under provocative". Well, I do hate to disappoint, so, in the word of The Man They Call Jayne, let's be bad guys. :)

My Tauren warrior recently hit level 40. You might think this would be a significant time in the life of the character because it allows me to wear plate armor, and obtain a 31-point talent (in my case, Bloodthirst), but really, most WoW players know level 40 as the end of the hazing ritual that is playing the game without a mount. Now don't get me wrong, WoW is far from the worst game out there when it comes to travel, and they've done a lot to retroactively add some flightpaths to various out of the way locations. That said, the game is actually more fun to play with a mount than without - to the point where having to slug through the 30 levels from 10-40 without one is a significant deterrent to rolling a new alt, an activity which, as I previously discussed, the devs would really like players to do.

So why does games require players to make it a significant number of levels through their game before allowing mounted travel? Without further ado, I give you:

Lies your developers tell about travel to justify wasting your limited gaming time by making you watch your character run places

Lie: Removing travel time makes the world "feel smaller".
Truth: First of all, large expanses of empty space that players have no reason to visit make the world feel like it was designed by lazy developers. But, more to the point, this argument is rendered moot because every single one of these games actually DOES allow mounts. By the time you get to Outland, you're riding a mount that doubles your ground speed, and there are flight points located every 5-7 minutes worth of road distance. Now compare that to running the length of a zone like Ashenvale or even Elwynn Forest. Players actually spend a GREATER proportion of their time on travel early on. If faster travel makes the world feel smaller, then clearly those earlier levels are more epic than the content that follows. Would anyone (other than the guys who kited Hogger to Undercity) like to argue this position?

Lie: Faster travel is inconsistent with the setting or breaks immersion
Truth: I group these two together because sometimes a game like LOTRO will try to claim that it's a low magic setting and that rules out teleportation (true), only to implement an off-screen travel system where the game cuts to a loading screen and players are assumed to have traveled at the normal rate off-camera, with the action resuming when they arrive. If only Frodo and Sam hadn't lost their maps, they could have mapped back to the Shire after turning in the quest to destroy the One Ring at Mount Doom. (WoW actually pilfered this system for patch 2.4, with a flight point from Ironforge to the Sunwell that skips ahead after it leaves IF to meet up with the flight from the Blood Elf capitol of Silvermoon.) But this actually gets to the heart of the second point, namely that immersion breaks whenever the developers want it to, and is only cited as a valid argument if it justifies the decision the devs already wanted to make. (Case in point: The picture of the miraculous marathon running orphan, who kept up with my level 40 kodo all the way across the Barrens.)

Lie: Travel perks for certain classes but not others are fine because they make you appreciate those perks more when you're actually playing that class.
Truth: First off, let's distinguish between perks that have a use in combat that incidentally makes you travel faster (e.g. a Rogue's sprint ability, perhaps a hunter's Aspect of the Cheetah) and perks that simply speed travel (a mage's teleports, Druid and Shaman travel forms). There are good reasons why a rogue needs to be able to sprint (stealthed or otherwise), as they need to be in melee range to actually kill anything. There is no good reason why certain classes should be penalized with more time spent watching your character travel instead of actually playing the game, simply for picking the wrong class. I made the mistake of picking the LOTRO Champion instead of the Hunter, and the massive added travel time penalty for not being a hunter was a big part of why I hated the game. I was pondering picking up EQ2 and decided against, cause the class with the travel perks didn't really interest me.

Lie: Okay, okay, you can have mounts, but we're going to make them very expensive so that obtaining them will be an accomplisment.
Truth: The gold seller industry thanks you, devs, from the bottom of their hearts, for making their business possible.

I'm not advocating instantaneous point to point teleportation anywhere in the world. I'm just saying, I'm paying to play the game, not to watch my character travel to a location at which I'll be able to play the game (and certainly not paying to farm consumables for a highly dangerous trek that could result in me dying and losing levels on the way to the place where I get to play the game, thank you FFXI). For all I occasionally rag on LOTRO, I think they may have gotten it right with new swift travel points that open up as you complete the local content (so you can instantly reach the area before the one you're actually leveling in, instead of having to actually cross the entire world every time you run out of local quests - which happened often when LOTRO first came out). Another option is a purely out of combat speed boost that's available sooner than "real" mounts that let you ride through dangerous areas (I seem to recall that EQ2 has the concept of out of combat speed boosts).

I'm just saying, this is something that the devs choose not to fix because they think the pre-mount hazing period is fine. It isn't. So please stop wasting my time.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Uncrushable Solo Pally

If there's one thing I dislike more than pugging dungeons for rep, it's pugging dungeons for rep on an alt. As a result, I resolved not to do any dungeons on any of my alts, including my previously discussed Paladin. When patch 2.4 came along, I realized that several items I wanted to get but couldn't, including the engineering goggles and the Heroic Badge Libram, would now be available to me solo.

After I got working on that, I realized that I was actually moderately close to becoming uncrushable. Players fighting mobs that are three or more levels higher than the player (notably raid bosses) are subject to 150% damage crushing blows from melee attacks unless they can get their combined dodge/parry/miss/block percentages up to the magical 102.4%. Raid tanks are expected to manage this somehow (the exact methods differ per class), and since I was getting close anyway, I was curious if I could make this raid-ready status without ever setting foot in a 5-man TBC dungeon. The answer is apparently yes.

I don't really know why I bothered, other than because I had nothing better to do. I've never tanked anything more difficult than an outdoor 5-man boss in my life, so it's not like I'm going to jump into LFG and announce that I'm an uncrushable tank looking for work. But I figured I might as well write up how I accomplished the deed in case anyone is starting a Protadin or converting an existing Pally to Prot.

First, some summary stats:
Total Crush Avoidance With Holy Shield Active: 104.12% (The agility on BoKings pushes that to 104.64%)
Unbuffed HP: 9457 HP (Note that I am NOT using a real tank spec, the number would be just shy of 11K in a real tanking build.)
Armor: 13144 (Again, note that I'm only 2/5 Toughness and therefore leaving 6% of my armor value on the table.)
235 spell damage
Talent Build (key points: 5% parry, 4% armor, 20 Def skill, again, this is NOT a tanking build, it's a solo grinding build)

Some of my gem and enchant choices could be improved, and there are a few crappy green items in this gearset, I just stopped working on improving it when it became clear that the libram would push me more than over the top. Again, this was done without setting foot in a 5-man dungeon, relying on daily quests, rep rewards, and BoE Blue items (there were some purples that might have helped, but I wasn't spending 1K gold on an item for a joke set). Without further ado, the breakdown:

Epic Gear:
Head: [Tankatronic Goggles] (engineering BoP)
Gem/Enchant: [Glyph of the Gladiator] (18 Sta/20 resil), Enduring Talasite (4 def/6 sta), [Eternal Earthstorm Diamond] (12 def, 10%shield block value), +6 Sta Socket Bonus
These became available to the non-dungeon-running public when primal nethers went unbound in patch 2.4. If you aren't an engineer, you MIGHT be able to scrape by with an Alchemy or JC trinket and a [Felsteel Helm], but I'd do the math on that before spending the money. Note that, as a solo player, your only two choices for head glyphs are this and the melee DPS one from CE. If you are revered with the Keepers of Time because you actually run dungeons, a [Glyph of the Defender] will make your life much much easier.

Libram: [Libram of Repentance] (15 Badges)
One of the cheapest BoP Badge rewards out there, this irreplaceable libram can be yours by opening a mere 150 Shattered Sun Supply boxes (your 10% drop rate results may vary), which can currently be accomplished in 30 days of doing the same five daily quests every single day, and will take an extra 7-8 days doing only 4 dailies once 2.4.2 goes live. Alternately, you can get into a guild that's clearing Kara and have your libram in 3 hours. I'm not bitter, really. But seriously, if you're going to solo just one badge reward for your Pally, and you use Holy Shield, this thing is great, and libram drops tend to be pretty limited in variety, so you will likely get a fair amount of milage out of this thing even into the expansion. I don't regret farming this in the slightest.

Shield: [Sunward Crest] (SSO Exalted rep reward)
Enchant: 15 block rating
The spell hit rating may be questionable, but the 33 shield block rating counting the enchant is good for just under 4.2% of the crush avoidance you need right here.

Bracers: [Vindicator's Lamellar Bracers] (S3 PVP honor reward)
Gem/Enchant: 12 def enchant, +4 def/+6 Sta, +2 resilience rating socket bonus
I'm not really getting much in the way of defensive stats out of this slot for tanking, but at least it's a nice chunk of spell damage, and I'm not going to meet the rating requirement for the S4 version, so I'm happy with my investment here. (Aside: This and the hat are the only sockets on my everyday grinding gear, so I had to gem them in order to activate the meta gem without help from the other slots. While the resilience won't help my uncrushable tanking set much, in my everyday +def/spell damage farming gear it pushes me to uncrittable by level 70 mobs while wearing farming gear and swinging a 2-handed weapon.)

Rare Rep Rewards
Neck: [Strength of the Untamed] (CE Revered)
This is one of the best ilvl 115 blue tanking necks out there, it's a real bonus that it's from a rep that you can, in principle, obtain solo. Note that you must use repeatable quests, most commonly 360 unidentified plant parts (330 for humans), to get to honored in order to have enough rep left over to make revered without dungeon running.

Chest: [Vindicator's Hauberk] (Aldor Revered)
Enchant: 15 Def
Again, a nice solid tanking chestpiece from a soloable reputation. You'll need exalted anyway for the shoulder enchant. I'm not sure if it's possible to make it to uncrushable solo as a Scryer or not.

BOE Rare items
Weapon: [Crystalforged Sword] (BOE from the Ogr'ila area)
Enchant +40 spell damage
There are several alternative weapons that also offer 121 spell damage, notably a revered rep reward with the SSO. This one, however, ALSO offers precious shield block rating. Will run you something like 200-250G on the AH.

Gloves: [Felsteel Gloves] (Blacksmithing BOE)
Enchant/Gems: 10 Sta (Heavy Knothide Armor Kit), 8 dodge rating, 4 def/6 sta, 3 parry rating socket bonus
This is a popular item for attempting to gain blacksmithing skill, and as a result is sometimes on the AH for less than the value of the shard you'd get if you DE'ed it (I bought mine for 20G). You could substitute a Vindicator's Armor Kit here for an extra 8 def, and I have no idea whether the socket bonus was worth it or not, but I figured I might as well go for it since the bonus does add to one of my crush avoidance stats.

Pants: [Felsteel Leggings] (Blacksmithing BOE)
Enchant/Gems: 10 Sta (Heavy Knothide Armor Kit), 8 def rating, 4 dodge/6 sta, 4 def/6 sta, 4 dodge rating socket bonus
Again, reasonably priced because smiths make it to level up (I paid 70G). If I were at all serious about this tanking thing, I'd replace the armor kit with a [Runic Spellthread] for an extra 10 sta and 35 spell damage. I suppose you could also go for the Vindicator's Armor kit for the 8 def, but the spellthread is much better. It's also more than I wanted to pay. I'm not sure why I socketed the red and blue sockets the way I did, but the socket bonus is a keeper, and I suppose I figured I was going to make uncrushable and should start working on Sta. Either that, or those gems were just cheaper. :)

Back: [Deathwing Brood Cloak of the Knight] (+27 Stamina, +18 Defense Rating, +21 Spell Damage and Healing) (Ogrila dragon hunting reward BOE)
Enchant: +12 Def
A [Cloak of Eternity] would have been good for an extra 5 def and 9 sta here, but I already owned this cloak for my everyday gearset. One might also argue over whether I would be better off enchanting for 12 dodge rating instead of def now that I'm uncrushable, but, again, that's money I don't really feel like spending.

Ring (1): [Delicate Eternium Band] (Jewelcrafting BOE)
This thing is probably more of a feral ring, but it was better than the green quest reward I had in the slot, and it was cheap (again, skillup item, I think it was something like 40-50G). However, see commentary for the other ring slot below, a random green might actually be better for the Pally. (Then again, I'm already uncrushable, so moving some points from +def to +dodge isn't necessarily a bad thing.)

Quest Rewards:
Shoulders: [Nexus-Guard's Pauldrons] (reward from a Netherstorm Questline)
Enchant: 15 dodge rating, 10 def rating (Aldor Exalted)
Bad news here is that the other reward is a 10 mana/5s trinket with a healing on use power. Trinkets are hard to come by, but so are non-raid shoulders with block rating.

Trinket (1): [Dabiri's Enigma] (reward from Dimensius the All-Devouring in the Netherstorm)
A great tanking trinket versus a very solid pair of plate healing pants. Tough call if you like to heal, since the PVP heal sets are spell crit focused instead of mana/5 focused. Again, note that Alchemists and Jewelcrafters have alternatives here that might make the choices less painful.

Trinket (2): [Regal Protectorate] (reward for killing Arazzius the Cruel in Hellfire Peninsula)
It's telling how hard trinkets are to come by that the ONLY other quested tanking trinket comes from a level 63 quest. The two alternatives are a spell crit trinket (which would NOT crack my level 70 healing set) and a melee crit trinket (dunno what the alternatives are, I'm not ret). Then again, I think a few adjustments to sockets and enchants (see also, the crap items below) might allow me to replace this trinket with a 45 sta trinket (engineering, or Netherwing).

Ring (2): [Ring of the Stonebark] (quest reward in Blade's Edge)
You're choosing between an array of rings, including a nice healing ring, and a melee DPS ring. Being a hybrid sucks like that sometimes. A top end random green [Amber Band of the Champion] is actually good for 16 defense, 25 stamina, and 16 strength, so one or two of those isn't a huge huge downgrade here if you already took the alternatives.

Crappy Greens
I'm almost ashamed to include these, but there aren't good, affordable crafted alternatives, and I needed to fill out the last two slots, so:

Belt: [Fearless Girdle] (quest reward)
Gems: +8 def, +8 def
The two sockets allow this thing to outpace a higher level item with an "of the champion" random enchant. Pretty sad though.

Boots: [Conqueror's Greaves of the Champion] (+21 Strength, +31 Stamina, +21 Defense Rating)
Not even enchanted
I've wasted a lot of money on this project, but even I couldn't bring myself to enchant a crappy green of the champion item from a daily quest box once it became clear that I wouldn't need the enchant to reach my goal, even if it was an upgrade from the other junk tanking boots I owned. Vindicator's Armor kit here I suppose for +8 def.

And that is how you make an uncrushable Paladin without setting foot in an instance. Be afraid. Very afraid.

Uncrushable gear profile via WoWDigger

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Decision Time: New Alt?

Moranin suggests that I consider a new alt to deal with my impending lack of WoW goals. I'm undecided on this point - I've already got a mid-level Warrior alt that's I'm working on when he has rest exp available (don't see the point in leveling him without rested exp and having to scrounge for quests to make up the difference), but what good is a blog if not to consider options at times like these?

If you're reading this on my actual site, you'll see in the sidebar that I've already got a Mage, a Pally, a Hunter, and a Warrior. The remaining classes follow, ranked based on how likely I'd be to roll an alt in them. Commentary on any of the below is more than welcome. :)

5. Warlock: My past experience with the class on the live servers includes a 16 Lock and a 23 Lock (on Hyjal). I didn't like it much cause I felt like I was sitting around watching my pet kill stuff. No chance.

4. Druid: My past experience includes a 22 Druid in one of the pre-open-beta stress tests (at which point the class did not have talents), and the occasional test-drive of my girlfriend's OOMKin. I'm not really a fan of Balance - it's like a mage, but it isn't one. With apologies to the blogger in question, I think I'll pass on the Big Bear Butt, especially since I'm already leveling a Warrior, and I don't see why I'd level a LOLCat instead of a Rogue if I wanted a stealth class.

3. Shaman: I have a 14ish Shaman stashed somewhere, and I spent a fair portion of the 2.2 PTR's messing around with a pre-made 70 Shammy because I thought it would be the best new class for me to try. Like the Balance Druid, Ele fails with me for not being a mage. Enhancement was a lot of fun, but I hate totem management. WoWInsider's Shammy columnist quipped that an Enhancement Shammy who doesn't use totems might as well go roll a Rogue or a Fury Warrior. I thought this was good advice, and proceeded to do just that.

2. Rogue: I last tried a Rogue in open beta, I think I gave up around 10 or 11. I can't be arsed to stealth around - I lack the patience for it - and I CERTAINLY can't be bothered to stun mobs and run through them to get a backstab off. If I didn't have a Warrior going, and possibly a DK in the expansion, I'd give this a shot. For the moment, though, the Fury Warrior plays the way I'd want a Rogue to play, and I've already got the Warrior.

1. Priest: Again, leveled to 12 or so back in 2004. That said, I hear interesting things about Shadow, intriguing enough that I'm seriously considering this, even if the leveling guide calls for actually spending talent points in wand spec (!). It has the advantage of not being a melee class, which is a good thing if I wind up picking up a DK. A subplot of this question would be what race to make the hypothetical priest, since that actually matters for priests. We'd definitely be talking about an Alliance alt here, and I'm not doing another human, so the choices are:
Dwarf: Desperate Prayer (free instant self heal, not usable in Shadowform), Chastise (instant damage and root, also not usable in Shadowform), Stoneform (meh), and Find Treasure (useful for "loot off the ground" quests, but conflicts with mining)

NE: Starshards (free instant DoT, actually usable in Shadowform), Elune's Grace (meh), 1% dodge (better than nothing), wisp (yay corpse runs!)

Draenei: Symbol of Hope (free mana regen, USABLE in Shadowform), Chastise (meh-ish, as above), 1% spell hit (never hurts, though I'd probably be getting enough spell hit to cap from talents anyway), Gift of the Naaru (free Heal over time, not usable in Shadowform), +5 Jewelcrafting (I'd definitely be going JC, since it's the only profession I lack and I'd like to be able to detonate ore).

Starshards is the single best item on the list, but the rest of the NE package doesn't impress me much (also, my hunter is a NE male, and I'm not sure if I'm willing to play a NE female). I actually have a Dwarf priest bank alt (I'd always figured that, if I ever did a priest, I'd want Fear Ward), but both racial spells can't be used in Shadowform, and what's left isn't much. The Draenei probably has the best overall package, especially until I get Shadowform (HP regen, MP regen, an extra instant damage spell, and useful misc bonuses), but I may prefer the fake Dwarven accent to the fake Draenei accent. If I did go Draenei, I might pull a Shamaxx and go female solely cause the male voice annoys me.

Ah, decisions, decisions. As I said, comments welcome.

Almost done with the Pally (Cherry Picking Problem, Part 2)

So I talked about something I called the Cherry Picking Problem last week without really defining it. Fortunately, it's my blog, so I get to post followups to my own stuff. :)

Basically, picture rewards - implemented by the developers of a game - as cherries on a tree. The rewards can be levels, they can be gear, they can be titles, it doesn't really matter as long as players want them. Some rewards are easy enough to get that everyone gets them just in the normal course of play. In WoW, these rewards are levels 1-70, and the last set of quested gear (generally stuff up to about ilvl 114 greens and ~106ish blues from Shadowmoon Valley and the Netherstorm). Then the next set of reward cherries are hanging from slightly higher branches on the tree - you can get there solo with a fair amount of work and grinding (rep reward ilvl 115 blues, PVP epics), but really, it'd be a lot easier to reach those rewards if you got people to give you a boost up (5-man groups, low end arena teams). Then there are the best cherries on the very top of the tree that you certainly can't reach alone, and need very good help (top end guilds or arena teams) to even consider getting at.

Now that I've got that analogy set up, picture my Pally, exalted with the Shattered Sun and only needing a single badge for that [Libram of Repentance] I've had my eyes on since the badge quests were announced. Poor Greenhammer is a 50/50% shot away from picking the very last cherry he can reach tomorrow. Now sure, in principle there are some upgrades beyond that cheapest of badge rewards - I could do massive amounts of painful PUG PVP for better spell damage gear, pay thousands of gold on the AH for low end BOE epics, or even try to keep farming badges (at a 40% chance per day of getting a lone badge once 2.4.2 goes live, while a single daily heroic run can cough up six in under two hours) towards one of the more expensive rewards (remember, a 20 badge reward will take 50 days of repeating the same four daily quests) Realistically, though, those particular cherries are further up the tree than I'm willing to climb. In my view, the cost/benefit of going after them just doesn't pan out given the likely gear reset in the expansion and my distaste for PVP. Like I say in my title, Player versus Developer is all about devs making content and players like me deciding whether or not to use it.

The problem is, I'm out of cherries, and, in the devs' view, they can't put better cherries on the branches of the tree I can reach (solo daily quests, rep grinds, etc) without having those cherries be more attractive than the cherries on the next higher branch (5-man dungeon content, and maybe even some Karazhan/Arena S1 loot). They're not making this decision just to be mean to me (though, in fairness, I would rather have a lead dev who didn't use the term "welfare epics" to describe rewards for the majority of his playerbase). Instead, they think that players who might otherwise have climbed higher and spent more time and money on the game will instead stop at the bottom of the tree, pick all the good cherries, and then quit. I think there are some flaws to this - for example, I'm not convinced that giving an ilvl 120 blue item for completing 100 daily quests (presume that these dailies do not ALSO award cash and other goodies) would do much to hurt the popularity of instant rewards from low end group content (now including BT quality badge loot). But then again, the goal of Karazhan isn't to keep people's attention, the goal is to make them into raiders, willing to spend the extra time required by that style of play.

So, instead, the problem falls back into my court. Given the choice between content I don't want to do and retiring my Pally until the expansion (or, perhaps, the "even more bribes to apologize for delaying the expansion even more" patch), I have no problems retiring the Pally. This does, however, raise the question of what to do with the time I've been spending on farming his badges for the last month. In the short term, I'd like to at least get my mage (my nominal main) to revered with SSO so he'll have access to the PVP head glyph (since who knows whether the level 70 equivalent will be more painful to obtain than handing over a bit of cash to a rep vendor). I've also got my warrior, though I'd rather stick to leveling him when he actually has rested EXP. Maybe I'll come up with something else.

Either way, I'm facing some annoying choices because Blizzard has failed to solve the Cherry Picking Problem in a way that provides me with incentives to keep playing without providing dis-incentives for other players to engage more challenging content. If Blizzard can't solve the problem better than that with all the money they've got in their bank right now, who can?