Monday, June 30, 2008

Breast Debacles

Last night, a friend of mine asked me to sign onto my mage so she could get a portal to Shattrath for an alt that hadn't been dusted off since TBC went live. She arrived and I gaped at her armor in shock.

"Is that supposed to be a plate chestpiece?" I asked, incredulously.

The item in question, a [Brutish Breastplate of the Bear] was only level 45, so she appeared to think that I was insulting the quality of her leveling gear. My actual objection was to the "armor" itself. Take a look at a screenshot from WoWHead. This supposed suit of armor is effectively a halter-top bra that might be appropriate for a skanky nightclub. The character's midruff is completely unarmored (disembowel ftl?), as are her upper arms, and the sides of her torso (i.e. anyone standing to her left has a completely un-armored shot at her heart; if memory serves, the area under the arms was a relatively weak spot on real world plate armor, but I never knew that was because they simply didn't bother to cover that part of the body).

Given its level, this joke of an item has most likely been in the game since its launch (i.e. about 4 years now). This is not to say that the other armor types don't also fail as armor (I had to buy my wife's druid an in-game shirt to wear under her "armor"), but I had somehow foolishly expected a bit more out of plate armor.

In other news, Age of Conan's character generator apparently includes a breast size toggle for women (the minimum is estimated to be a C-cup). This has caused several problems. First, there was a freak breast reduction bug (note the "armor" in the accompanying screenshot, and see previous item). More recently, it was determined that weapon swing speed animations differ between genders, resulting in less DPS for female characters, with tongue in cheek commentary suggesting that the women's attacks are unbalanced because they are too top-heavy. This from a game that is pioneering the presence of topless women in a major fantasy MMORPG. (Personally, the "feature" is a substantial turn-off, not because I'm offended, but because I don't think I'd enjoy playing the game with anyone who looked at topless women as a selling point.)

Is this the best the fantasy genre can do?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

WWI Speculation Scorecard

Just before the WWI kicked off, I posted my baseless speculation on what would happen. I actually did better than I expected, which is kinda sad since my predictions were very unambitious. The rundown:

Mystery Splash Screen Announcement: Diablo III
True (+1)

- Will not be playable on the show floor.
True (+1)

- They may or may not announce the total number of classes, but they won't announce all of them. (I.e. if the number is 9, expect something more like 2-4.) The announced classes will include at least one new class and one class from DII.
They did indeed announce one new class and one old class (+1). When you're only releasing one game a year at best, you can't afford to announce all your classes at once; you need to save some for your next press event and/or competitor's game launch.
There is also confusion on whether or not they announced how many classes there will be. (?!) The FAQ says five, but one of the devs said it wasn't finalized. Then again, supposedly all seven DII classes were designed at the beginning, with two getting delayed to the expansion, so that may be the cause for confusion here. I would award myself a second point, but I idiotically pondered that there might be as many as 9 classes in the game and as many as four at the WWI.

- The actual game will be set up like Guild Wars. Money for the game, but no subscription fee, online only, with everything instanced.
Not announced, -1 for expecting more information out of Blizzard

Starcraft II and Wrath (Both previously announced to be playable on the show floor)

- Betas to start soon (tm), possibly this summer, but no hard dates set.
No such "soon" assurances was given, and, in fact, they confirmed that SC II would NOT launch in 2008, while level 70 content for Brewfest was up on the the PTR's this week (effectively confirming that the expansion, with increased level cap, would not be making its debut any sooner than late October after Brewfest ends). (-1)

- SC II will see new units unveiled, and details on the single player campaign.
I honestly haven't seen much in the way of SCII coverage. Incgamers' SCII site claimed that there was a new "mutated larva" that can spawn units quicker, but I'm not sure whether to count that as a unit or not. AFAIK, there were no new details on the single player campaign, which Blizz says they're only 1/3 done with. (-1)

- Wrath will see new info on inscription, the barber shop, vehicle combat, and possibly achievements. There will be info on Death Knights, but it won't be news to people who have read the alpha leaks.
The barber shop and achievements were a no-show, but there was a fair chunk of completely new information on siege vehicles, a brief mention of inscription, and some DK info that wasn't really news to people who read the alpha leaks. In fact, the new info in general was largely leaked from the alpha, which explains why Blizz gets so angry about these leaks. Not only did a friend of an employee betray them by breaking an NDA, but they don't have enough new information to produce new stuff at these press events IN ADDITION to the leaked info. (I'm ruling this a +0 since it was part right and part wrong.)

- Announcement of WoW's Patch 2.5 to build things up for the expansion, possibly with an updated version of the Scourge Invasion.
Officially shot down with a "2.4 was the last content patch before the expansion" line. I will believe this when I see it; like I said above, the Brewfest content strongly implies that Wrath will not launch before late October at the EARLIEST, putting it at least seven months after the launch of patch 2.4. A more realistic predictiion calls for November, December, or maybe even January (for an 8-10 month stretch without a single content patch). There's nothing EA Mythic and Funcom would like more for Christmas, and thus I'm pretty sure we're going to see another patch. With Naxx playing a role in the expansion anyway, a recycled Scourge invasion would be the most obvious choice, and I maintain we'll see it before the end of the year. But my prediction was whether it would be announced, and it was not, so -1 for me.

- No big ticket bombshell announcements for either game. (I.e. major features like new races/classes, or big changes like 10-man versions of every raid.)
The major news that came out of the WWI on the WoW front were:
- The hunter pet skill system will be revamped into a talent-like interface (this was not leaked from the alpha yet because it does not exist, it only affects a single class, and frankly we have no way of knowing whether the net effect of the change will be any different from the current system)
- Blizzard is "considering" ways to allow access to two talent specs. If this actually made it in, it would be a significant change, and they've previously been adamant that they thought the current respec costs were fine. That said, I still don't think this is as big a deal as, say, the Pally/Shaman swap in TBC, or the various changes to the way raid sizes work.
- Misc tidbits that I didn't know: Deathknight voices will be altered to sound more deathknight like (hi, gnome voiceover!). Several stat types relevant to hybrid characters are being consolidated. Healing gear will now have normal spell damage, with the spell itself having a higher coefficient to keep the final level of heals constant. Spell and melee hit ratings will be consolidated (Panzerkin, Enhancement Shammies, and some Pallies/DK's, rejoice!), as will the respective crit ratings. These changes were hinted at by leaks, but obviously the alpha leakers didn't do much digging on the exact mechanics. This won't alter the whole face of the game, but it will make for some interesting gear analysis (and fights over class priority ;)).

Overall, I'll claim victory on this point, though it would have been a close debate of it had the "two talent specs" thing actually been announced and confirmed. There are some changes here, but nothing on the game-altering level of changing the raid group cap or the Pally/Shaman swap. (+1)

In summary, I got as many of my predictions right as wrong, which is a huge improvement from previous Blizzard press events. (The Blizzcon '07 Wrath announcement FAQ leaked the day before, and I thought the thing was faked because I didn't think they would actually launch an expansion with only one new class, for fear of everyone playing it.) I guess I've been following enough of these things to lower my expectations down to levels that Blizzard can actually meet. :( We'll see how I do at Blizzcon'08....

Friday, June 27, 2008

Baseless Speculation: 2008 Blizzard WWI Announcements

In about 12 hours, Blizzard's Worldwide Invitational event will kick off in Paris. They appear to have been working pretty hard to turn this thing into Blizzcon International, compete with developer panels etc. Last year's WWI saw the announcement of Starcraft 2, and this year they have a splash screen that numerous sites I trust claim is for Diablo III. So, we're just in time for me to write down some predictions that will be disproven before most of you have the chance to read this. :)

Mystery Splash Screen Announcement: Diablo III.

- I don't believe that beta dates for either Wrath or SCII justify the week-long build-up.
- Will not be playable on the show floor.
- They may or may not announce the total number of classes, but they won't announce all of them. (I.e. if the number is 9, expect something more like 2-4.) The announced classes will include at least one new class and one class from DII.
- The actual game will be set up like Guild Wars. Money for the game, but no subscription fee, online only, with everything instanced.

Starcraft II and Wrath (Both previously announced to be playable on the show floor)

- Betas to start soon (tm), possibly this summer, but no hard dates set.
- SC II will see new units unveiled, and details on the single player campaign.
- Wrath will see new info on inscription, the barber shop, vehicle combat, and possibly achievements. There will be info on Death Knights, but it won't be news to people who have read the alpha leaks.
- Announcement of WoW's Patch 2.5 to build things up for the expansion, possibly with an updated version of the Scourge Invasion.
- No big ticket bombshell announcements for either game. (I.e. major features like new races/classes, or big changes like 10-man versions of every raid.)

That last one may seem unambitious, but the feature list on Wrath looks pretty similar in length to the list for TBC. And hey, if I'm wrong in the morning, at least there'll be new information to be excited about. Realistically, though, I expect this event isn't going to live up to the hype. People seem to be getting their hopes up, but generally these events have featured a 1-2 page list of bullet points, which will be repeated between the keynote, dev panels, and interviews for the sites that were big enough to land them.

Check back over the weekend to see how terribly, terribly wrong I was. :)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Baseless Speculation: Towards Account-wide accomplishments?

I've previously discussed the question of whether games should reward your alts for time spent on your main. Well, the next generation of MMO releases may bring the question of character-specific accomplishments versus account-wide accomplishments into the forefront. So, some baseless speculation on not one, not two, but THREE as-yet unreleased products ensues. (I'm not sure if this means I'm 3 times more likely to get one of them right or 3 times less likely to get through the post without writing something that looks really stupid six months from now. ;))

Guild Wars 2: Account-wide accomplishments
The Eye of the North expansion to Guild Wars introduced a "Hall of Monuments", where players can display statues showing their characters' accomplishments. Unlike the comparative ease of LOTRO's title system (the lowest level titles unlock in as few as 30 mob kills, and some of them don't sound too stupid to ever use), Guild Wars titles are a significant grind, some of which are account-wide but many of which are specific to the character that unlocks them. The idea is that the upcoming sequel will be set in the future, but players of the original Guild Wars who actually have titles to display will be able to unearth their historic monuments and unlock stuff in the new game as well.

The news on this front was the following observation from the devs:
"Because the Hall of Monuments displays accomplishments on a character-by-character basis, many players have felt strongly discouraged from playing multiple characters.
The full tale is recounted in the (linked) June 24th patch notes, but it sounds like the new plan will let players keep all their accomplishments for all of their characters (I'm guessing that the old plan was that you had to pick a single character's monuments to import?). That's a pretty big step towards account-wide accomplishments. Based on the way GW1 is set-up, one imagines that these unlockable rewards will be cosmetic in nature.

Wrath: Maybe Account-Wide Accomplishments?
This one is up in the air, but the leaked info from the Alpha suggests that Blizzard is planning an accomplishment system. There's zero information on what the rewards would be, or even if it's going to make it into the game, but the list that's circulating around includes a number of things that would have to be account-wide rather than character-specific (some of them refer to leveling multiple characters to 80, this may be the account-wide flagging system they're going to use to indicate that a player has reached level 55 and thus unlocked Death Knights).

Again, with no information we can't say one way or the other what the rewards for these things would be. Cosmetic options (e.g. new hairstyles for the new barber shop?) would seem to make sense, though. I'd like to think Blizzard isn't stupid enough to award some irreplaceable gameplay benefit to leveling all 10 classes to 80, if for no other reason than because elite raiders/arena players would wind up paying powerlevelers to unlock them. The intriguing prospect behind exclusive titles/hairstyles/etc is for this to be one way for non-raid/arena players to visually distinguish themselves. It's been stated that Arena and Raid armor will have different models in the expansion, and perhaps a new title or whatnot will be the solo alt-a-holic's equivalent badge of honor. :)

Warhammer: Character Specific Unlocks with Gameplay Effects?
The Warhammer devs are touting a "Tome of Knowledge" that sounds a lot like LOTRO's Deed system - a variety of rewards (some of which will affect gameplay) for exploring, killing, questing, etc. I've panned LOTRO's system repeatedly in this space for, in my view, effectively requiring players to grind hundreds of mobs for trait upgrades (which aren't available outside of the deed system) or accept permanently lowered stats. I'm going to try and withhold judgment until the non-disclosure agreement on Warhammer is lifted, but this thing sure sounds like more of the same.

How many of these will I get right? As again this time next year. :)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Language and Exploration

My recent honeymoon took my wife Aili and I to Budapest. One interesting quirk to traveling in Hungary is that the Hungarian language is unrelated to other European languages. Between the two of us we had Mandarin Chinese, college level French, a smattering of Spanish, and a German phrasebook that we didn't get much use out of, but none of that really helps much. (Ironically, the most helpful non-Hungarian language in the area appears to be English.) This got me thinking about languages in MMORPG's.

In some ways, exploring the real world is not unlike exploring a game. Sadly, until we all have smartphones with internet access anyway, alt+tabbing out of the real world to consult WoWHead for the location of the evening's restaurant is not an option, but travel books play a relatively similar role. Even so, it turns out that Reading IS Fundamental. It's hard to navigate when you look up and see a sign that reads "Arany Janos Utca" and have no idea what that means. However, even a week in a strange land was enough to teach us at least some key words (for example, "Utca" means street).

Strangely, online games largely ignore language as a game mechanic. One low level Draenei questline (which magically teaches characters a new language over the course of about 10 minutes of game time) aside, WoW NPC's either will speak to you (neutral or better reputation) or they won't (unfriendly or worse), and they'll only occasionally mutter something you don't really need to know anyway in their native tongues. Your character's languages are listed on their skill page, and there was speculation during the original beta that it would be possible to learn others, but this never happened and WoW currently does not allow players to learn other racial languages by any means. Over in LOTRO, a new zone added in a recent patch contains villages of eskimo-like people who CLAIM they distrust outsiders, but most or all of them seem perfectly content to offer you quests, speak your language, and take your cash while you work on gaining their trust. Why not have language play a bigger part in the game?

- The LOTRO example I mentioned would have been a great place for there to be a language barrier lore-wise.
- Immersion. Slowly teaching the player or the character a smattering of the language would reward attention to detail in the world. It was very satisfying for me personally to learn how to get around foreign cities, even if it did take me a day or two to learn where to get food.
- I hesitate to say Edu-tainment, but one could, in principle, imagine an MMORPG set in modern or future times (e.g. a Firefly MMO) that actually teaches a real world language.
- Learning a new language is an example of a reward that could be offered to non-raid/arena players without affecting game balance.

- The pain in the tail factor. Kingdom of Loathing is a game that includes several randomized puzzles that basically require you to play the game with an out-of-game notepad by your side, even if you know how to solve them.
- Frustration. Obviously, not being able to find a food vendor might be one of those things that is too much like real life to justify having in a game. Depending on the setting, it might be possible to implement some universal symbols (for example, European pharmacies all have a green cross, and most cities' public transportation systems have their own logos), but I can't see having an igloo with an in-character repair anvil on it.
- The Wiki Effect. If you make a puzzle that depends on out-of-game knowledge (e.g. learning that utca means street), someone's going to put the solution up on a Wiki or forum somewhere. (The Kingdom of Loathing Devs actually attempt to banish solutions to puzzles from their official forums, and occasionally even request third party sites not to reveal solutions. The latter efforts are, as far as I know, relatively unique amongst MMO developers, and typically are about as ineffective as one might expect, though it does sometimes take a day or two for the off-site community to figure things out.) The alternative, having the character learn the language and slowly understand more of what NPC's are saying, might be cool, but probably won't be much better than what WoW does currently.
- Competence. Tolkien was a linguist, and he took as much time as he needed to make Elven languages that didn't suck. Many writers (and game devs) can't (or don't have the time to) write decent "foreign" phrases for the cultures they're creating in ENGLISH, much less a completely novel new language.

The pitfalls are non-trivial, but I still would like to think that there's some room for developers to make better use of language somewhere down the line.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Counterpoint on Travel and Immersion

I have been known to rant about travel on occasion, and I'm not alone. While I was out, Sandra at Elder Game voiced similar frustrations with one of WoW's more travel intensive questlines, and Blizzard launched a new PTR phase which promises non-epic ground mounts at level 30. Well, having been largely offline for nearly three weeks, I've been reading some actual books, and I feel obliged to offer equal time to a counterpoint.

I'm currently most of the way through Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Like many other fantasy epics (see also Lord of the Rings, or George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series), the action is set in a vast kingdom, with the reader's viewpoint jumping from character to character to account for what's going on elsewhere in the world. Kay takes the changing viewpoints further than usual, often adding a sentence or two to point out exactly WHEN the page we just read occurred relative to other events in previous or subsequent chapters, jumping to other characters (sometimes minor ones) halfway around the world just to show the reaction when a message is received, and in a few sections actually freezing the action at dramatic moments to retell it from one or more different perspectives before finally allowing time to proceed. Anyway, the point being that distance MATTERS. It is significant to the story that the army is this far away from the crucial battle, that some of the leads have gone off on a side mission that takes them far away from the central action, etc.

Until the second volume. Don't get me wrong, I respect the concept of the timely arrival. Tolkein used it repeatedly in LOTR. J. Michael Straczynski once remarked that spacecraft in Babylon 5 traveled "at the speed of plot", meaning that they would arrive, or not, based on what the plot required rather than calculations of how far away they were and how fast they can travel. It is possible for the characters to overcome some ordeal so great that their once-in-a-lifetime travel at speeds greater than humans could manage is justified. It becomes a problem when multiple characters develop a variety of means of teleportation, flight, etc. Much like the threat of characters dying ceases to have meaning if the characters always live, the threat of characters falling off the map for half the book and not arriving in time for the climactic battle if there's always a travel shortcut that gets there in time.

I've actually enjoyed these books a great deal, I just thought I'd note that this is what developers mean when they talk about "breaking immersion" or "making the world smaller". I still stand by my other points (once you're handing out hearthstones to every single level one character, the immersion ship has already sailed), but I will concede that travel can affect the story you're trying to tell.

Two further comments on gaming travel
- I'm not sure whether a big, mostly empty world is worse than a small, well-populated one that isn't to scale. LOTRO made the decision to put the entire landscape into the game, but the downside is that a character can run from the Shire to Rivendell in under an hour (even while staying off of the road for fear of Nazgul). Age of Conan chose instead to make their world the "correct" size and use zone lines (and thus the presumption of off-camera, non-instant travel) to separate the geography. The quirk there being that the character just walked/rode a long way without anything of note happening (no questgivers, no mobs, no loot), and then suddenly the landscape was littered with stuff to do at their destination.

- Though our hotels in Budapest and Vienna didn't think to hand out hearthstones when we checked in, both cities have great public transportation systems; there was maybe once when we had to spend more than 30 minutes traveling somewhere within the city. It never occurred to us to complain that the devs of Austria-Hungary had made their world too small. ;)

Friday, June 6, 2008

Program Note, Part 2

And I'm off on my honeymoon. I'll be back sometime the week of June 20th. Holler if anything interesting happens! :)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

How to teach WoW in a duo

or, My Characters: Let Me Show You Them, Part 4 (Greenstrider and Aili)

In honor of getting married last weekend, I figured I should finally post the tale of my Hunter. Lots of digital ink has been spilled on the topic of "how to talk your significant other into playing WoW". In my case, the sell was easy enough - in November, 2004, when WoW came out, my girlfriend had just graduated from college and moved from Boston to Baltimore for work. Any activity that we could do "together" despite the distance was a good plan. The question that I might actually be able to say something original about was more "how do you actually teach someone who doesn't play video games how to play WoW"?

Well, there was a husband/wife duo in my guild at the time that played a warrior and a priest (respectively), and I'd heard that this combo was an excellent choice. So, I had her roll up the priest while I rolled warrior. This ended poorly - I could hold aggro semi-well, but the durability wasn't quite there at low levels, and she didn't really know how to heal yet, so I'd die, and then she'd die. Next we tried reversing the roles - this time I could heal her, but she didn't really know how to tank yet, so I'd pull aggro and die, and then she'd die. I think we may have tried another variation or so on this (maybe I was a druid and she was a rogue) before finally, inspiration struck.

I rolled up a hunter named Greenstrider. My girlfriend (now wife) rolled up a druid named Aili. I'm not very fond of WoW's two pet classes while solo - I feel like I'm sitting there watching my pet kill stuff. As a duo, though, the hunter is a lot of fun. It turned out that my girlfriend's natural role was caster DPS, with some healing on the side. Our pet cat does enough DPS to get aggro and tank, while the two of us can supply enough DPS and healing to keep the cat up and kill stuff. We were able to routinely handle elite quests as a group of 2 (plus the cat) that I remember wiping on repeatedly in full groups as I leveled my other characters. (A few examples include the elite lines in Duskwood and the ogres in Alterac.) Massive numbers of adds (e.g. when some runners escape) also weren't a problem. We stuck our noses back into Azeroth after patch 2.3 and were actually a bit disappointed - our little team LIKED being faced with elite mobs, and we had a hard time chasing down appropriate challenges with the streamlined leveling.

My reasoning in picking these two classes was that the hunter solos very well, and the druid can do just about anything (tank, melee, caster DPS, heal). Perhaps most importantly, the pet tanks and I can heal the pet, so the learning curve was relatively shallow until my girlfriend learned the ropes. It's self sufficient without leaning too much towards destroying mobs before your partner even knows what's going on (in a way that, say, a mage might - especially if paired with a melee character who has to chase after the mob when it goes running after the guy who just hit it with a fireball). We haven't made it to level 70 yet (maybe after the dust settles on my move), but we had a lot of fun trying.