Sunday, August 31, 2008

Shaping up for WoW 3.0

Maybe it's the natural progression of the beta, or maybe it's a sudden push to get patch 3.0 done before too many players leave for Warhammer, but either way, the current beta build has done a bit to polish up some major features.

Isn't that the cutest little pink pig-tailed Death Knight you ever did see?

I made Cheerydeth a pink pig-tailed gnome for irony, but even I will admit that her new haircut may be over the top. Her bangs (or whatever those things are) actually cover her eyes in her profile picture above her health bars. :)

Still, the good news is that the barber shop is up and running, and Cheery's now got a pair of big old hoop earrings (which exist in Wow currently), and the "cute" hairstyle. If "cute" gets on my nerves, there's another one with longer dangly braids that's kinda like the Dwarven hairstyle, or I could always go back to the original. Also, it appears that pink is safely remaining a choice for gnome DK's after all (it was disabled in an earlier build, and I couldn't use the hair color toggle on Cheery, not that the barber shop was working well at all at the time).

In a related story, there's supposedly a banshee-like reverb effect on Death Knights now, toggleable on the sound options menu. I couldn't really hear a difference, and I'm not prepared to have Cheery's voice change on me after so much time /played anyway, so I clicked it off.

Inscription v1.5

I last messed with Inscription a month ago, and they've now finally added actual glyph recipes (and the ability to advance past 125 skill). Well, kind of added.

Druid glyphs are in and require skill-level appropriate ink to create. I don't actually have a druid, and level 1 druids don't have any glyph slots (World of Raids says they first open up around level 15). Most other class glyphs have what I presume to be placeholder reagents that, for no real reason, include Mageroyal (which I don't have that much of). There are recipes up to/past 400 skill, but Blizzard forgot to add the Master/Grand Master level skill unlocks, so Cheery is currently stuck at 300/300. I will say that the pigment system (previously called pomaces) gets old when you need one more skill point off of a yellow recipe and you get one attempt per five herbs, especially since you need five of the SAME herb. Ah well, I only had to do a little bit of supplemental farming on top of the stash of herbs I had from leveling herbalism.

I couldn't make any glyphs for Cheery because there aren't DK glyphs yet, but I did make a glyph for Greenwiz. I right clicked it and was able to add it to one of the three major glyph slots in his spellbook. Then I had to find something tall to jump off of to take damage so I could tell if it was working (which it wasn't). The things I do for this blog!

It's worth noting that thee actual glyph says it has a 1 hour cooldown, but I'm pretty sure that's just for re-applying the same glyph to your spellbook. It's hard to tell how expensive re-glyphing will be; at first glance, it looks a lot closer to the cost of potions than the cost of enchantments, but I suspect that most recipes do not have finalized materials yet, and the "rare" pigments are hardly used at all in beta. Still, I suppose Blizzard felt they had to do something to save the raiding crowd from themselves (I can already see the threads complaining about the cost of re-glyphing for each boss fight), and thus the cooldown.

P.S. If anyone has a druid on the US PVE beta server (Northrend) and wants some free glyphs (I had to make a bunch of them to level), send an in-game mail to Cheerydeth. Offer good while supplies last. Player vs Developer productions takes no responsibility for bugged or non-functional glyphs, or for any future buffs/nerfs to said glyphs.

Coming Soon to a PTR near you?
Like I said up top, these improvements to stuff that hasn't really been working in beta to date could be coincidence. It's also possible, however, that they're considering getting the PTR's for patch 3.0 up and running ASAP (perhaps even BEFORE Warhammer's Sep 18th retail launch?), and decided to push on these features now to get some minimal closed beta testing in on them beforehand.

The current build is a lot less crashy than the previous one. While there are some bugs in a few of the 77+ questlines, but the game is definitely getting close to finished with the 70-80 content. If we're really rounding out the misc features like the barber shop and inscription now, it is possible that all but the raid portions of the expansion are actually going to be in place within the next month or so. (As far as I know, there is no raid content testing yet, but level 80 hasn't actually been available for that long yet.)

It looks like we are looking at a PTR for patch 3.0 in September, perhaps a live launch for 3.0 in late October (I don't think they'd mess with the revamped Brewfest), and quite possibly a retail launch for Wrath in early-mid November. I hadn't been expecting any earlier than late Nov/early Dec, but things are starting to fall into place in the Wrath beta now. Perhaps Soon (tm) will ACTUALLY be soon (or at least sooner than we thought).

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Fishing (and other skills) for recipes

On days when the beta servers are alive and well, I spend a total of 15-20 minutes on my live WoW account. I check the AH for some items I'm camping, and I complete the daily cooking and fishing quests (and maybe one or two other daily quests if there are quick ones nearby). Some of you who don't have beta keys may be horrified that I'd even consider spending time on such mundane tasks when I could be exploring new and exciting corners of Northrend, and you would have a point. Still, I find it vaguely relaxing, and it's nice to know that SOMETHING I'm doing with my gaming time these days is on a server that will still be up and running in 2-3 months.

These particular dailies are easy, and get me ever so slightly closer to a number of achievements; the cooking daily is the source of the [Recipe: Delicious Chocolate Cake] (which awards a Portal-themed achievement in Wrath), the fishing quest has rewarded me with a variety of fishing goodies (I'm still in the market for the [Weather-Beaten Fishing Hat] and the mini-pets) and, more importantly, the skill points to allow me to train to grand master in the expansion, while the cold hard cash pays for expensive achievement items like the [Cenarion War Hippogryph] or the ["Gigantique" Bag]. Some of those are rare drops that I may or may not obtain, while others allow for slow progress towards a long-term goal.

So, I find the new profession dailies that are popping up in Northrend pretty interesting. Jewelcrafters have a set of daily quests in Dalaran that award tokens towards the purchase of recipes from a vendor in town. This is especially significant for JC because you need access to a fair number of recipes just to cover your own personal gemming needs. Blizzard's crafting designer suggested on Blizzcast that this system is going to cover other professions as well. Overall, steady progress towards a fixed goal is a bit more fun than constantly missing out on a 1% drop. In addition, greater access to important recipes helps everyone who ISN'T a Jewelcrafter find someone who can cut gems for them.

It will be interesting to see what the broader effects on the economy will be (some of the less desirable cuts may become VERY rare as people get the more popular ones first). Overall, though, this looks like a win, and something that will continue to make even a brief visit to Azeroth worthwhile for a long time to come.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Greetings from Sholazar Basin

Wish You Were Here

I was wandering the jungles of the Sholazar Basin when I saw a level 72 Dwarf Hunter named Brk riding by. I stopped, thought for a second, and sent him a tell asking if he was THE Big Red Kitty. Indeed, he was, and he probably thinks I'm a nutty stalker. I never really thought about how you don't ever meet prominent WoW players in game because there are so many servers out there (but only one US PVE beta server). Even if we wanted to have a WoW Blogger's summit (there are a fair number of unused conference rooms in SW keep), folks like Larisa wouldn't be able to make it from the Euro servers. I guess this is just a downside of the way servers are done, but it's really too bad.

Questing in Sholazar Basin

Say what you will about WoW's endgame and group content, but the single player stuff is as good as ever. Where Hemet Nestwaringway is concerned, I'm literally doing the same quests that I've already done for the same guy twice before now (not to mention on alts), but the change of scenery and new mobs (e.g. Rhinos that have a little birds critter perched on their horns) is enough to keep it fresh. Blizzard has also managed to make the current edition of Nestwaringway's exploits 100% soloable, providing a mammoth mount with the man himself riding literal shotgun for the big fight with the elite at the end.

In other news, it seems like the prime design goal with Wrath quests was to allow the player to ride as many different vehicles and creatures as possible. I've been on dragons, mammoths, steam tanks, planes, gyrocopters, and now crocodiles.

Was flying a mistake?

Note that my skeletal chicken mount is not ordinarily green, there's just a bug somewhere in the deep Blood tree that makes DK's and their mounts green.

Level 77 is significant because players get a simple (if annoying; the first step has a very low droprate) questline that unlocks flying mounts in Northrend. This was really Cheery's first time flying around since she left Outland at level 68 and hasn't been allowed to fly in Northrend until now. Honestly, I missed the travel speed, but I didn't miss the actual ability to fly per se. Quests where flight matters provided mounts (typically with the vehicle interface and a unique action bar). There are enough travel points in Northrend that players can reach most locations without too much hassle, and even an epic flying mount doesn't really help much with the cross-continent flights.

So, having my flying mount back doesn't really improve my gaming experience very much. It does, however, bring back all of the quirks that flight introduces to the outdoor questing game; I don't get attacked by stuff in transit anymore, and the temptation to swoop in, snipe the quest mob, and swoop out is strong. This means less exp and less difficulty, not to mention the annoying people who fly in and steal your herb/mineral while you're killing the mob that was guarding it.

I'll be keeping a close eye on how this progresses through the remaining quests in Northrend (one questline in Sholazar actually sends you back to flight-less Un'Goro), but my personal guess is that allowing players to have flying mounts may have been a mistake (which can't really be corrected, now that Blizzard asked us to spend 6000 gold on 225 and 300 flight skill). Outland didn't have to deal with flight until level 70 and Northrend is allowing it earlier (albeit with an entire zone designed for flight-only access), so this could have a big impact on the rest of the expansion.

Beware of Water-Walking
And finaly, a brief cautionary tale. Death Knights have a great ability called Path of Frost, which allows them to waterwalk (including while mounted, and you can even fall into the water, cast the ability, jump onto the surface, and mount). This greatly improves travel time since you don't get un-mounted by wading through shallow water. It also throws up a huge amount of ice in your wake. There is, however, a tragic downside. In one questline, an NPC throws you off a cliff into a lake below. unfortunately, poor Cheery had Path of Frost up at the time. Apparently this means she gets to take full falling damage. Talk to a Death Knight you know about clicking off Path of Frost today.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Level 75 Death Knight Update

Well, the beta servers appear to be down for the day (hopefully for a new build, the current one has been giving both my computer and the server a lot of problems), so I suppose that means it's time for a beta update, starring Cheerydeth!

How much content should we need to level through?

My perception of the level 73-75 range may be skewed by the changing beta Exp curve. When last I updated Cheery's exploits, Blizzard had just ramped up the exp gain dramatically to see how that would work. The answer was not so well, so they ramped it back down a notch. I would easily be level 76 by now, perhaps even approaching level 77, had exp been at its "current" (perhaps soon to be changed again) level.

I wound up completing many of the solo quests remaining in the Dragonblight, both in the neighborhood of the re-located citadel of Naxxramus, and Wyrmrest temple (home to the dragon aspects). After that, I did basically the entire zone of the Grizzly Hills (which left me halfway from 75 to 76 as I entered Zul'Drak). I did abandon some of the later Dragonblight quests (since I outleveled them while doing both starting zones), along with most/all of the group and instance quests in both zones. I also didn't mess with the unfinished World PVP daily quests in the Grizzly Hills. Still, there is very little left in Northrend for under-75 characters that I have not done.

I suppose the good news is that you will get to see all of the cool content on your first pass through Northrend. The bad news is that there will be very little room to branch out into when leveling alts. Worse, Zul'Drak appears to be entirely neutral faction quest-givers, which means that you won't get to see different content if you level both an Alliance and a Horde character. In fairness, I don't typically skip entire major quest hubs in TBC content either (though Cherry never set foot in Nagrand, the Netherstorm, or Shadowmoon Valley, except to buy her flying mount training), but it's nice to have the option to blow off quests that have mediocre rewards or are otherwise a pain in the tail.

Quest variety is good

This is not what it looks like, I can totally explain.... no, no I can't.

If you're going to have to repeat all the quests on every character, at least the quests are good. I'm constantly discovering new things I didn't know were added to the game. In one example, there are a pair of warring tribes of Furbolgs in the vicinity of one quest location, and you can temporarily keep one of them off your back by killing the other tribe. In another, you can now individually target mobs and their mounts (see the unfortunate-looking screenshot). There's also a village that goes from friendly to hostile with you as you complete a questline, and some misc vehicles and guest appearences by lore characters.

It's also worth noting (if you don't get this from the screenshots) that there is actually a lot of varying scenery in Northrend. From Tundra to forest to icy wasteland (hopefully this one won't dominate everything you see at level 80) to jungle, Blizzard has done a good job making sure you don't get bored. My personal favorite is a ruined Iron Dwarf city (below), which takes the layout of Ironforge and covers it with overgrowth and ancient technology. Really, all of the art is head and shoulders above the stuff in the old parts of Azeroth.

Death Knight Talent Updates
The most recent build finally nerfed the overpowered bloodworms, this time making them so weak as to make them relatively useless. This was good for me, though, because it encouraged me to try out Unholy and Frost.

The Frost tree has a good core AoE talent spell that hits for double damage on targets affected by Frost Fever (a DK disease that you can spread around relatively easily) and is a guaranteed crit after any autoattack crit. Froststrike, the 41 point talent, does frost damage instead of physical (bypassing armor), and is also a guaranteed crit after autoattack crits. Both remind me a lot of my frost mage; you have the potential for some HUGE damage numbers with the right procs (though there may be a few bugs in the accounting, I probably shouldn't be critting for 4.5K damage on everything in a 10 yard radius).

The Unholy tree may actually be the new Blood tree in terms of healing efficiency. Death Knights have two baseline disease debuffs that they can apply to enemies, and Unholy specs get access to two more. The amount of healing you get out of Death Strike scales with the number of diseases you've got up, and I've gotten up to a whopping 3.2K self-heal crit with all four diseases going. (This may or may not also be bugged.) It's also hard to overstate the survival bonus of having a controllable pet out. Overall, I do about the same damage as Blood or Unholy, but the pet's damage makes stuff die faster (so I take less damage), and he can off-tank adds if I get multiple mobs. Bugs in the current build are keeping Unholy DK's from detonating their ghouls or sacrificing them for health, so this tree is only going to get better. In some ways, I'm fine with that; the melee pet class angle isn't really one that WoW has explored much.

The Perils of being a Beta Tester

I wouldn't trade the time I've spent in beta for anything in the World (of Warcraft). That said, playing through all this content in beta is definitely decreasing my anticipation for the expansion's actual launch. Don't get me wrong, the solo questing is as good or better than ever, it's just that I'm already going to have done most of it by the time the expansion goes live. I'm also concerned that the experience may ruin Death Knights for me. I love Cheery dearly, but it seems like she's always benefiting from one bug or another. Somehow, I think that playing the finished product may be disappointing, because it'll be weaker than what I'm used to.

I don't really say this to make y'all feel sorry for me or anything, but perhaps this will make those of you who didn't get beta keys feel a bit better. :)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Helping players catch up

Kotaku reports a major change in Final Fantasy XI; Players will be allowed to group with low level friends, with their gear and power level automatically scaling downward to the level in question. Previously, you had to actually have a job (FFXI's classes, you have one character who has levels in each job you have unlocked, and can switch at your player's house) that was at the same level as your friend's character, or neither of you could expect much in the way of exp. The new system means that you can literally level up with your friends without worrying about what level your characters actually are, by setting the party level at the level of the lowest character.

Some of the many solutions
FFXI is one of few MMORPG's that still has a very steep exp curve AND mandatory grouping. As a result, they really needed a system with this to help players get into the game with their friends. That said, Square is not alone in tackling this question. Blizzard has made (and/or will be making, whenever the expansion hits) a large number of assorted changes to the speed of leveling in WoW. COH has a system they call side-kicking that is kind of like FFXI's method but with significantly less in the way of rewards for the higher level player. I don't know much about EQ2, but I'm told that they actually allow you to solo to the level cap (a pretty major departure from EQ1). Warhammer is implementing a scaling system that will bump lower level players up to the appropriate level for given scenarios, though it currently won't bump high level players down (indeed, they're prohibited outright from joining scenarios they outlevel).

I think Penny Arcade summed up the situation best in a comic from shortly after WoW's launch. MMORPG's are nominally social games, and it falls to the developer to find some way to help that happen.

The Perils of Accelerated Gameplay
In FFXI, mobs award experience based on what their level is relative to yours, completely independently of what level the mob actually is. If one imagines that a level 70 mob is more difficult for level 70 characters to kill than a level 20 mob is for level 20 characters to kill, one could imagine an issue here; it may actually be EASIER to level by tagging along with lowbies. This is probably NOT what Square Enix had in mind, though their entire game system is very very dependent on convincing higher level players to help newbies through low level content.

Likewise, MMORPG's are largely a question of time investment to reward ratios. Tipping the scales in favor of new players/new alts can discourage existing players from trying new things, in the hopes that they will be nerfed later. For instance, I'm debating whether it's even worth bothering to level my Fury Warrior towards level 70 before patch 3.0 comes out, given that the patch offers less exp required per level AND the new talents, such as the impressive sounding Titan's Grip. (Note to self: If I am parking Greenraven at 61 or 62, I should probably think about picking up some 2H weapons NOW so I'll have them to use when the patch goes live.)

Meanwhile, Deathknights start off at level 55 with an epic ground mount, feats that any other character would have to earn over time spent playing pre-TBC content (which is generally the least polished stuff in the game at this point). This makes alts of other classes somewhat less appealing. I suspect that Blizzard WILL allow level 50-55 premades of other classes, but not until a later patch, say 3.3 or so, and they won't breathe a word about it until the last possible moment for fear of deterring people from playing alts now.

Where is the balance?
WoW's current system has its flaws; they're focusing on skipping players past lackluster old content and rewarding players for finding Blizzard more real-world money rather than on the actual gaming experience. (As others have commented, the new recruitment program would be a huge help in gaming with my wife if I can ever talk her back to the keyboard, but we're not eligible because she is a former subscriber rather than a new one.) The ultimate goal is for players to WANT to spend the time at levels as they come. Unfortunately, that requires spending limited dev time on old content that existing players may have passed, never to complete again.

Then again, the increase in solo-friendly content in just about every game out there suggests that developers are acutely aware of this issue. Hopefully someone will come up with something that's interesting AND an actual solution, rather than yet another bandage.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Blizzard's Anti-Warhammer Strategy

Blizzard's strategy for damage control as Warhammer launches next month is becoming increasingly clear; hype Wrath to the gills. Today, Blizzard announced the patch that will presumably go by 3.0. Other than the information that players who own TBC but who decline to upgrade to Wrath will be allowed the lower levels of the inscription profession, there was essentially no news on this patch. Everyone knew that they were going to have to patch TBC in order to make sure that everyone was playing the same classes, roaming the same towns (outside of Northrend), etc. This patch has no ETA and no reason to be announced now.... except that Warhammer's open beta starts in a week and a half.

Syp of Waaagh has been quick to accuse Blizzard of implementing copycat features and other hijincks in an attempt to distract players from Warhammer. His head may actually explode when he hears about this one. (I hope it doesn't, I'd miss the blog.) I don't think that the competition is the only thing that Blizzard is thinking about in setting dev priorities for WoW, but there can be little question that this particular move is aimed squarely at Mythic.

Warhammer launches on Sept 18th, and Blizzard holds Blizzcon '08 Oct 10-11th, conveniently just before Warhammer customers get their first monthly bill. You can bet that Wrath will get a release date at Blizzcon to make sure that's fresh in the minds of gamers deciding whether to give Mythic a second month. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that the new 3.0 patch will be on the live WoW servers before Warhammer's second monthly bill comes due in mid-Nov. (They might even try to have the actual expansion on the shelves, or at least have the meaningless "gone gold" announcement that MMO's typically have.)

In short, Blizzard isn't out to play fair in this particular fight, they're out to win. Then again, I suppose War (and/or WAR) isn't fair.

Adding content to already-launched single player games

I've previously made the comment that the ideal time to try out a new MMORPG may be six to nine months later, due to the time MMORPG devs need after crunch time ends to finish all the promised features, fix the major bugs, and let the population disperse beyond the newbie areas. By contrast, single player games do have a tendency to drop in price after they've been on the shelves but they don't tend to get major chunks of new content or polish months down the line. The developers have already gotten all the money they're going to get, so there's often limited incentive to spend more dev time improving the game.

Well, The Witcher may be the exception to the rule. According to Kotaku's GC report, the game is now massively better, with 80% decreased load times, more variety in NPC conversation animations and random outfits, and streamlined crafting. And all of this will be available as a free download for existing owners of the game, or in an "enhanced edition" box that will replace the regular box on store shelves. (Interesting side note: The enhanced edition launches on Sept 16, the same day that Warhammer boxes hit stores, so this could possibly affect the battle of the War-MMORPG's.)

Of course, it could just be that the devs have put together a convention demo that does a really good job of hyping a relatively small amount of changes. However, this also could be a win/win for everyone involved. People who have already played the game get the updates for free (getting more milage out of an existing purchase), people who have never played the game (I'm in this group) get a crack at a game that has improved since its launch, and the devs get extra money for having a new edition out on shelves (typically stores won't give prominent shelf space to old titles, but will try to sell sexy new releases) without all of the work involved in putting together a new title from scratch. This could also help build CD Projekt a reputation as a dev that cares about quality (patch support for previous Blizzard games helped build the rep that got them the budget they needed to make World of Warcraft).

It's just slightly strange to see this unfortunate quirk of MMORPG's making its way out into the broader gaming world.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

How to get around Northrend

Well, now that I've got access to Dalaran, I figured I might as well take on a favorite target of mine, travel.

Getting To Northrend
Each faction currently has three ways to get to Northrend (not counting your hearthstone). Level 74 mages can learn the traditional portal spell to Dalaran (level 71 mages can learn the self-port to Dalaran via a simple quest, three levels before other classes are allowed to access the city). Otherwise, it's the boat for the Alliance or the blimp for the Horde, sending players to the first quest hub in either Borean Tundra or Howling Fjord. (The Horde win this exchange because both of their blimps depart from major cities, while one of the Alliance boats departs from Menethil Harbor, a griffon ride away from IF; not the longest flight in the game, but certainly longer than the time it takes to get to the Horde blimp towers). One presumes that Engineers will get their traditional teleports at some point down the line, but this is not yet implemented in beta.

Leaving Northrend
The above options all allow you to leave, as do the Druid Moonglade port and the Death Knight "Death Gate" portal. The latter is significant because it deposits the player in EPL, home to the only Death Knight trainers in the game. Again, minor victory for the Horde here because the flight to the Undercity is significantly shorter than the flight to Ironforge for the nearest bank, which is the only thing Death Knights need from the old cities. (Engineers have the luxury of bank access at either Gadgetzan or Area 52 depending on specialty.) The other way out of Northrend is via the Magical City of Dalaran (yes, they actually call it that in game, sounds like a ride at Disneyland), which offers portals to all major cities (including Shattrath), restricted to cities of your own faction.

Getting Around Northrend
I'm not familiar with the Horde flightpaths within Northrend, but I'm presuming their situation is similar. In general, getting around the zone that you're in is not that bad. Most zones have more than one flight point, which allows you to get to within a reasonably short epic ground mount ride from wherever you need to be. (Remember, no flying mounts in Northrend until level 77.)

Unfortunately, the picture for travel between zones is not so pretty. The neutral Tuskarr faction also has a turtle boat line that, I presume, offers more rapid travel from Borean Tundra to Dragonblight and from the Dragonblight to the Howling Fjord. This may or may not be quicker (I don't dare brave the turtle boat after getting disconnected into limbo repeatedly by the Daily Quest Blimp), and it's certainly cheaper than auto-flight (flying directly across the continent will actually cost you 2G since individual flights are more expensive and you need several of them). On the other hand, you don't get to go AFK on boats the way you can with flight paths.

Meanwhile, if you want to get from any inland location (e.g. Dragonblight, Grizzly hills) to one of the boat/blimp locations, you're in for a lengthy flight. That's bad news because there are no trainers in Northrend (except for mages, who can teleport to the trainer of their choice anyway, so Blizzard broke down and put one in Dalaran), and Dalaran owns Northrend's only bank (well, there are two actual banks in the city, but you know what I mean), as well as its arena, battlemasters, and the usual selection of tradeskill vendors/trainers. (There are also a variety of not-yet-implemented novelty vendors, but no Auction House, as is traditional.)

Speaking of Dalaran....
Access to Dalaran from the ground currently requires that players have already been up to the city at least once. A Kirin Tor questgiver will "helpfully" offer you a quest at level 74. What's funny about this is that it's a regular old quest, so it's not like you need to DO anything for them to be let into their city (which is the only real lore justification for not letting people in). Further, the Alliance version that I did opened up in a camp that I'd cleared three levels previously, and I would have had no idea where to find it if I had not known that I was allowed into Dalaran at level 74. (I'm told that mage portals currently circumvent the whole process and let you in at any level, meaning that you're going to want to buy a portal for any and all alts in order to set your hearthstone in Dalaran ASAP for instant access to five separate locations.)

Independently of the teleporter issue, Dalaran seems to be a bit less centrally located than Shattrath was, so you're in for a decently long flight from there to wherever you're heading.

How to Hearthstone effectively
If you're not a mage or an Engineer, you're probably going to want to bind your Hearthstone in one of the boat/blimp locations until you get access to Dalaran. This will save you the most travel time in the short run, as it can instantly get you across Northrend if needed, and, more importantly, can get you BACK to Northrend after heading to Azeroth by whatever means.

Gnomish Engineers may find that their portal to Toshley's Station satisfies their once-per-level training needs via a short epic flyer flight (or autobird if you're Alliance) to Shattrath, freeing up your hearth for anywhere you want to put it. I leveled Cheery relying on the flight back to IF for my banking needs, but this was pretty darned annoying because you get so much soulbound gear that's all side-grades off of other pieces that, even with 18-20 slot bags you're going to be traveling back frequently.

Should the mage portal shortcut method to Dalaran in order to bind your hearthstone remain intact, I would probably recommend it, with the slight caveat that the flight from Dalaran to Howling Fjord/Borean Tundra is lengthy, so you may be slightly regretting it until you clear those two zones. Alternately, you can portal to a city with a boat/blimp for your training needs and use that to get back, inscribers can use the scroll of recall to get back to Dalaran after training, and other classes can simply log off for the night and hearth back to Dalaran when they get back on in the morning, if you've timed things well.

The Bottom Line
Travel in Wrath is not as bad as I'd expected. A big part of this is that each individual quest hub seems to be more densely packed than in TBC; you don't have very many quests that are one or two steps and done. Typically you'll be in one place for long enough that it's worth the travel time to get there. I'd still like speedier travel, especially if you're questing in BOTH Borean Tundra and Howling Fjord (the beta offered Walrus Captain Placeholder equivalents when I was doing this, and that trek was still painful), but I'm prepared to live with things temporarily as long as travel isn't eating up too much of my time.

Friday, August 22, 2008

When 0% of a healer is better than 40% of a healer

A professional photographer is on a hike in the woods, hoping to take pictures he can sell. He stumbles upon a man who has been lost in the woods for days and is clearly dying of thirst. The photographer immediately offers up his own canteen.
The parched man cries: "WTF is this lukewarm canteen water, n00b?! If you weren't lugging around all that camera gear, you could have brought me an ice chest full of sparkling mineral water!"

My little story sounds pretty silly, but this happens all the time in MMORPG's, where beggars WILL be choosers. We may be desperate for heals, any heals, but that doesn't mean we won't complain bitterly if a class capable of casting healing spells is doing anything other than casting healing spells. Sanya of Eating Bees used to be the community manager for Mythic, and she once told a story in a Q&A column in which she said that she explained to the devs how players get very angry when hybrid healers do anything but heal. The dev responded that Warhammer would be designed in such a way where the healer would NEED to be using their offensive abilities for maximum healing efficiency. Sure enough, one of Warhammer's three healing archetypes needs to be in melee with enemies in order to get energy with which to heal (sounds kind of like a rage bar in WoW). The second archetype is more traditional, but the third archetype (the High Elf Archmage and the Goblin Shaman), has something more quirky. These classes are designed to alternate nuking and healing. Drama ensues.

Healing is Required
A photographer is walking in the woods when he comes across a camp of nine guys, all of whom are dying of thirst. He offers up his canteen, but it isn't enough water in there for everyone and most of them die. A pack of wolves, which had been staying away because it didn't want to mess with that many people, eats everyone who is left, including the photographer.

Discussing the Goblin Shaman, Keen writes:
"It’s also a tough call on whether or not speccing to deal damage will be socially acceptable. If you’re not healing constantly then people will die. If people die because you were doing damage… it gets ugly."

/random voices a similar sentiment, writing in the comments of this post here at PVD that:
"Also, in the tougher portions of PQ's (second and third stage), you better be healing, or your tanks are going to die, and then you're going to die."

They're not wrong. If there aren't enough healers to go around, the people who can heal need to do so or everyone dies and fails to accomplish whatever they were working on. In a group of ten people, there is one person who wants the Archmage/Shaman to cast DPS spells (the actual Archmage/Shaman), and nine people who want the Archmage/Shaman to heal. If the Archmage/Shaman gets with the program, the team is more likely to win the battle, and thus he is more likely to get loot along with everyone else. So, it's clearly in the interest of everyone involved for him to forget DPS altogether and heal.

A Paradox, Irony, and a Double Standard
A Photographer is walking in the woods to take pictures, only he's carrying a bunch of water coolers instead of camera equipment and.... wait, why is he in the woods again?
The problem with this model is that the player in question doesn't actually WANT to spam heals all the time. If he did, he could have rolled the archetype that actually doesn't do anything but heal. This particular player choose to play the class that both nukes and heals because he thinks it's fun. And people DO think the Archmage is fun (see writeups at Book of Grudges and Archmagery). The player may be happy spending 60% of his time on DPS and 40% healing. In the process, he might be providing some healing where previously the open group (remember, Warhammer is pioneering a come-as-you-are type group system which doesn't run out of space in the group until you have 24 players, at which point the public quest has probably devolved into a zerg anyway) had none. Unfortunately, this isn't "socially acceptable".

The paradox here is that the same player probably wouldn't have been yelled at if he had given up on his Archmage and re-rolled as a pure DPS class. In my experience in WoW, it's pretty rare for a DPS player to tell another DPS player that they should go play a healer for the good of the group. They might declare the group full on DPS when there are only two slots left and neither a healer nor a tank, but they generally don't tell the DPS to go reroll for their convenience. Perhaps that logic is too easily reversed on the questioner ("why don't YOU go level a healer and heal ME?"). Likewise, players will complain to no end if the druid the group invited (without asking how they were specced) turns out to be a nuker rather than a healer, but they are generally careful to say that the player should go respec, not that the player should go re-roll as a pure DPS class. (Can't risk permanently losing a healer if he actually takes the advice, which, ironically enough, happens due to this general attitude.)

The result is that everyone is worse off. Instead of having 40% of a healer, the group now has 0% of a healer. Instead of playing the class he wanted to, the player is now playing a pure DPS class.

Incentives as a solution?
A professional photographer was going to go for a walk in the woods to snap some pictures, when he saw on the news that there were some hikers had been reported missing in the park. Instead of bringing all of his camera gear, he brings a single digital camera and some extra water bottles. The photographer finds the lost hikers, takes some pictures of the rescue and the group being reunited with their families, and is able to sell those pictures for far more than the wilderness shots would have been worth.

A week ago, I wrote a post discussing incentive structure in Warhammer Public Quests. The post in question got linked at Book of Grudges and Waaagh and wound up attracting a fair amount of attention. Massively had advocated Archmages throwing DOT's at everything that moves in the hopes of an inflated DPS count. While this specific behavior may or may not be a real problem in game (I got many comments telling me it wouldn't be), I was actually trying to make a broader point by bringing this up. Players will do what the developers provide them with incentives to do. If there's a lot of contribution points to be had for spamming DOT's and not a lot of contribution points for removing debuffs (I have no idea whether Archmages can do that in particular, fill in the blanks accordingly), most players will spam DOT's and not remove debuffs most of the time. The incentives SHOULD reward things that players are supposed to do and not reward things players are not supposed to do. That way there's a carrot to go with the stick of failing the PQ for lack of healing and being ostracized by your server community.

If there's a serious lack of healing (which would NOT be new or unique to Warhammer), why not weight healing more highly than DPS on the contribution meter? That way players will WANT to heal as much as they can, instead of feeling like they're being forced to heal (eventually deciding to reroll because they hate their class). Two healers each spending 60% of their time healing and 40% of their time on DPS should be able to provide more healing than one healer spending 100% of his time healing. The DPS classes would win out too, because more healing to go around would improve their chances of successfully completing the PQ, and decrease the chance that they will die and not be around when reknown/influence/loot is distributed. That's how you apply incentives correctly to solve game problems.

Unfortunately, it may be a bit late in Warhammer's dev cycle to make that kind of a change. If this is the case (as in many games before), would-be hybrid healers may wind up choosing to save themselves the complaints and become 0% of a healer instead of 40%.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Battle of the Trailers

Well, the next few months may be the biggest marketing war the MMORPG industry has ever known, and each side has opened fire by launching their respective games' opening movies. Personally, I don't get why companies spend so much time and money (Blizzard has a staff of 80 whose SOLE job it is to crank out cinematics!) on these things, but I suppose we can only oblige them by doing some comparison.

First, the links.
- MMO Champion has the Wrath opening in streaming video, and a Blizzard downloader link to the high resolution version.
- Archmagery has a link to the streaming version of the Warhammer opening, and Gametrailers has a "HD stream" version. I haven't seen a downloadable high res one yet.

Both openings are excellent, and I'd advise you to watch both of them before continuing so my analysis doesn't spoil the big spots.

And now, the battle!

Production Values:
I'd expected Blizzard to run away with this one simply because of the amount of money they spend (again, a staff of 80, which is larger than most studio's DEV staff). In some areas, Blizzard really delivers; the fur on the boot, the snow, and little environmental details. However, when it comes to the character models (which are the stars of both shows), Mythic has managed to do similarily well, and craft a substantially longer production to boot. Blizzard may not have been aiming for a lengthy intro, especially with Starcraft and Diablo videos to do. Still, this thing felt similar to the TBC opening, but without the middle part where we get to see characters doing cool things. I wasn't expecting Mythic to compete in this category, and they managed it, which is a....
Verdict: Edge to Mythic

Dramatis personæ:
Wrath has Arthas, and a voiceover by Arthas' father (killed in Warcraft III). Warhammer showcases a number of its playable character classes, and has a voiceover by someone who may or may not be a significant character in the Warhammer lore, but sounds like she's trying to be Cate Blanchett as Galadriel (and/or Elizabeth, queen of England) to the uninitiated. Still, having characters is better than not having characters. See the next category for more, but in this one, it's another...
Verdict: Edge to Mythic

Do the trailers accurately portray the game?
The Wrath trailer says that Arthas is a threat and and that he has many many minions for players to fight. This is one place where I think Blizzard has managed to misunderstand (accidentally or deliberately) what fans were complaining about. The Burning Crusade was a story of why Illidan has to be stopped, but only the most elite of 25-man raiders got to actually fight Illidan, or even any of Illidan's lieutenants. Blizzard says that fans wanted to interact more with the major lore figures, so in Wrath, Arthas will put in Elmer Fudd type appearances via astral projection to tell the wascally players how he'll get them next time. (I wonder if, like Brutallus, he will overtly tell them to bring 24 of their friends, cause clearly there's an in-game lore justification for why you'd never bring 26 people to take down a Pit Lord.) Then again, in some ironic way, this trailer does an honest job of portraying the World of Wrath; Arthas throws a bunch of minions in the general direction of the player, and dealing with the man himself will be a job for someone's 25-man raid when patch 3.3 hits sometime in early 2010 (give or take a few months and/or a patch).

By contrast, Warhammer's trailer makes the Destruction faction look like extras in Lord of the Rings. The Greenskin tanking class, the Black Orc, is mowed down by the dozens by a single Dwarven engineer. The Chaos Marauder gets to stab a mage in the back, but not hard enough to actually kill the mage, and then he gets his ass destroyed in melee by what looks like a Shadow Warrior (I thought they were about bow fighting, even in melee range). The random Urukhai that Peter Jackson created so there would be a boss fight at the end of the first Lord of the Rings film put up a better fight. The squig herder is comic relief and easily beaten by just about anything (actually, some accounts claim that's relatively accurate). And the Dark Elf Sorceress is apparently just out to tease some girl on girl action. Did I mention that realm population balance is the make or break issue for this game? Depicting one of the two factions as cannon fodder is not the way to go.
Verdict: Edge to Blizzard

The Big Flying Creatures
That giant bird thing is either some unstoppable primal god of chaos and fury, or it's someone's mount that does one damage. I can never tell from appearances when it comes to the Warhammer lore, they make some pretty weak things look pretty cool. Lore factor aside, the Frost Wyrm is larger and has no vital organs (it's made out of bone, impressively detailed sinew, and magic). If we're having a Pokemon battle, I choose Frost Wyrm.
Verdict: Edge to Blizzard

Has Blizzard finally ended four long years of discrimination against gnomes by its refusal to include a gnome in a WoW cinematic?

And there you have it folks, Warhammer by a score of 3-2. This is what happens when you ignore the gnomes, Blizzard, you hear me, THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU IGNORE THE GNOMES!

On the plus side, it should be easier to make an all-gnome remix of this one because there's only one character in it, and we can have Gnome Death Knights.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Warhammer NDA Roundup

The NDA on Warhammer has finally dropped, and the internets are full of commentary. Obviously, I haven't played the beta myself, but getting the full range of reactions can be helpful. Here are my impressions of other peoples' impressions.

Classes: Innovation and Balance
Warhammer has some classes that fit existing WoW archetypes, and some that do things differently. For instance, the Dwarven Engineer is a ranged DPS/pet class with stationary pets. Many of the classes that fit WoW archetypes still implement things differently. For example, Tobold has an extensive write-up on the healers of Warhammer, while The Greenskin blog examines the three classes available to the Greenskin realm. There are also mini-reviews of all the classes in this lengthy forum thread. You might think it wouldn't be news that classes in an MMORPG can differ from WoW, but LOTRO didn't do much to prove that theory, so it's nice to see some variety.

Some observers, including Keen and Waaagh, are concerned about class imbalance. I think that's a relative non-issue because A) class balance will be adjusted in beta (indeed, Blizzard has remarked that they're not even going to waste their time balancing damage numbers in Wrath until they get all the abilities implemented, numbers are the easiest thing to tweak when you're done) and B) class imbalance cannot be eliminated. There will always be some flavor of the month class which players will flock to, only to abandon it when it gets fixed to go for the next version. This will not break the game.

Population Balance
Population balance may break the game. Tobold posted specifically on the topic, while numerous other accounts mention being outnumbered, or that RVR devolves into zergs (The Greenskin blog quips that "Given the zergs I’ve seen in WAR, you’d think this game was made by Blizzard"). At the moment, it appears that the Destruction side of things has the numbers advantage in Beta, but no one can tell for sure how things will play out in retail; it seems like the bad guys have the cooler lore and more support among fans of the tabletop game, but they may be outnumbered by the same folks who roll Alliance in WoW. (Then again, Warhammer's Destruction faction has its version of skanky elves too.)

I've previously written about my experience with LOTRO's non-instanced PVP, which is definitely dominated by zerg tactics. Of course, for Warhammer, World PVP is actually the focus of the endgame, not a side-zone tacked on to try and appease the PVP crowd, so this issue matters much more for Mythic. I stand by my prediction that their handling of this issue will make or break the game.

The Major Innovations: The Tome of Knowledge and Public Quests
So the two most major innovations that Warhammer promises are the Tome of Knowledge (see writeups by Syncaine and Jobildo) and the Public Quest (discussed below). Jobildo confirms my biggest concern about the Tome, namely that your accomplishments are character specific. I haven't seen any details about how important so-called Tome-Tactics are (one example, on WarDB, gives you a 5% damage boost and 5% damage reduction against Daemons and is presumably unlocked by slaughtering significant numbers of the above), but having to repeat large numbers of accomplishments can be a big disincentive to rolling alts.

Syp also remarks that there is a huge array of stuff you can do at any given level, which may ironically be a problem for Tome completionists. Warhammer has some sort of a chicken-based anti-ganking system that may make it difficult or impossible to complete tasks that you've outleveled, and it's also been confirmed that Warhammer's Scenarios (instanced battleground-equivalents) are strictly off-limits once you've outleveled them. Perhaps the design intent is for every player's tome to be something different, but it seems odd to miss a lot of content because you leveled too quickly.

Public Quest Concerns
PQ's are praised by just about every write-up of the beta that's out there, including, again, nice writeups by Jobildo and Syncaine. The public quest system is intended to get players working together early and often, and has been very well received. I have seen two major criticisms of it:
- The Greenskin writes that the things seem to be tuned somewhat for there being exactly one group of players in the area, with Influence (Warhammer's reputation-equivalent) gain slowing to a crawl if there are either too many or too few players in the area. The former will probably happen at launch, and the latter may kick in after launch when people level past the earlier areas, so this could be an issue.
- Many many write-ups (including some of the ones I've linked above, it's a common enough complaint that I haven't been keeping track of who said it) say that the random rolling system has a bad habit of handing out the best rewards to players who barely participated. I'm guessing that Mythic WANTS things to work that way, in order to try and hook the guy who soloed one mob and now sees the value of participating in the public quest system. Still, the complaint is so wide-spread that they probably went too far. (Showing what I know, this is actually the opposite of the issue I discussed last weekend, though players behaving anti-socially to top the damage charts could become more of a problem if Mythic takes steps to reduce the randomness of the rolls.)

Travel: Mythic Gets It Right!
Spending my previous gaming time watching my character run/fly/ride somewhere instead of actually playing the game is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Therefore, I'm glad to hear that Mythic seems to have done better than many devs do these days. This guide claims that mounts are relatively cheap, and flight paths between zones are done by LOTRO's off-screen travel mechanic. Consider me happy.

Cause for Concern for the Solo Player?
In the post-WoW MMORPG landscape, there's never going to be another MMORPG that fails to offer a solo-PVE game. There are some players who simply don't like to group, and others who love to group but would prefer to level their alts on their own time without having to hassle their guilds for help. How they will fare in Warhammer is an interesting question. Some commentaries have pointed out that the regular PVE quests all tend to be relatively boring "kill ten rats" type quests. In fairness, many of WoW's quests devolve to that too, but I find it hard to believe that all of the people talking about the solo quests have never played WoW, so I'm guessing they mean their comments by comparison.

That point aside, The Greenskin remarks that he "found this game to be not so fun without people to play with", especially RVR. Of course, the idea that pickup PVP is less than fun would not be new to Warhammer either, but it matters MORE in Warhammer than it does in the likes of LOTRO or WoW because RVR is a far more central part of the game. My solo PVE alts in WoW/LOTRO don't need guilds cause they solo, but it sounds like the best parts of Warhammer really don't come into their own unless you can find your way into a good guild (neither so small that they can't field groups or so large that they're essentially a cross-section of the server). That might be a daunting task as a new player; does "I'm not sure if I'm going to like this game or not, but it sounds like I definitely won't like it if I don't have good company" sound like what you want to hear out of your potential recruits?

It sounds like Warhammer is neither the savior of the MMORPG nor the worst game ever launched, which is probably about as much as one can hope for at one day post NDA-drop. If you like MMORPG's, you should be pulling for Warhammer to succeed; it would be good for the genre to have more variety (and perhaps a little competition to get Blizzard off their rear ends). I personally would like to see it fly if for no other reason than because I'm going to want a break from Wrath far sooner than I might otherwise have due to all the time I've spent in beta (I might even be ready for a vacation come mid-September). I don't care as much about the large-scale RVR issues because I don't expect that to be my favorite activity in-game, but the solo questions (and the need to somehow make my way into a good guild) are slightly more concerning from where I stand.

In the mean time, this game still has another month of testing, so I guess we'll all have to wait and see what Mythic is able to get together over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sympathy for the Developer

Hellgate: London was not a good game, and I stand by any and all of the various less-than-kind things I've said about it in the past. Like the blog says in the tagline, Developers make content and Players decide whether to use it. I'm a player, it's my limited time and money that's being spent, and I'm not going to cut very much slack to a game that wastes either. That said, via Broken Toys we get the other side of the story. Flagship founder Bill Roper, former Diablo II mastermind, has given a lengthy and impressively candid interview on the end of Flagship Studios.

What have I learned?

- It is really clear that they did their best to take care of people when things went south. The servers are up and running, and former subscribers get all of their account perks for free for the time being. Employees were kept on until the Board of Directors actually had to pay the staff out of pocket for a month. They didn't have to do these things, it might have made more financial sense to just pull the plug, but they did the right thing anyway, and I respect them for that.

- It kind of sounds like they simply didn't have much of a conception of budgeting. They added feature after feature (e.g. the Vista client, and localization into 17 different languages) and then didn't have the money to finish anything. They did impressive things in terms of game engine design and network protocols but didn't have the time to add more diverse gameplay (Roper mentions the idea of more single player content). Some of these things are an unfortunate consequence of being a start-up. If you're trying to get someone outside your organization to give you money to make something, you have to make it sound like it's going to be a great product, worth their investment. Problem is, that's potentially a lot of promises to put on the table before you know what you can deliver. Big companies like Blizzard have the cash to simply sit on their major announcements until they're confident that all of the big picture issues are doable.

In short, Flagship's flaw was that they tried and failed to deliver an incredible game, when they perhaps could have produced a less ambitious product that would still have been above average. You have to respect trying to make the game the best it can be, even when the results didn't turn out so well.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Borean Tundra Complete

Cheerydeth has cleared out (to my knowledge) all the outdoor quests in the Borean Tundra, including one that requires a cheap new Engineering item (which I had to buy off the AH for 200G because the Grand Master trainers are only located in Dalaran, where my Engineering Pally cannot yet venture). She is currently a third of the way into level 73 (had she entered Northrend after the exp nerf, she would be just starting level 73), which means that the current state of EXP in the beta allows a level 68 character to reach 73 by clearing BOTH of the two starting zones AND some of the earlier quests in Dragonblight. She is currently halfway from revered to exalted (!) with the Valiance Expedition, halfway from honored to revered with the Kalu'ak Tuskarr, and halfway from friendly to honored with the Kirin Tor.

Scripted Events Abound

Like the Howling Fjord, there are many more scripted events in quests than ever before. A typical quest might enlist a small flight of dragons to bombard foes from the sky while you swoop in to complete an objective. Also, I never cease to be surprised to turn in a quest and unlock yet another followup. These followups aren't necessarily difficult (though one quest line leads to a showdown with one of Arthas' minions and a very nice blue weapon reward), but they're worth the time due to the 20K exp rewards.

New and interesting incentives

One corner of the zone features an interesting look into Murloc culture courtesy of Druids for the Ethical and Humane Treatment of Animals, complete with a convenient excuse for Blizzard to reuse the Blizzcon Murloc costume as part of a quest (the costume is strictly limited to a single area, but I suspect that won't stop people from abandoning the questline so they can take it for a spin in the future). It's also got an interesting new mini-grind: the [Winterfin Clam].

While completing this random set of murloc-related quests, you'll have the opportunity to loot clams from the ground and/or from enemy murlocs. These are a soulbound currency that I presume will be going into the new Token storage page when Blizzard implements that feature. Anyway, the clams are good for some swimming-related comsumables, hats for Cloth and Leather wearers, and a trident (Cheery's first Polearm). The Polearm was actually a bit pricey (100 clams), but the hats are priced at 50 clams, which is maybe 10-15 above the number of clams you're likely to collect while doing the quests in the area. So, you've got the option of grinding out a few more clams if you're interested in getting something, and it allows Blizzard to include some interesting but perhaps slightly below top notch items (e.g. Polearms, not the most common weapon choice out there). And it's optional in a way that many Outland rep grinds weren't due to the sheer number of rewards; there was almost bound to be something you want on any given faction quartermaster.

In short, it's kind of a light version of a rep grind, not as immediate as a quest but not as involved as grinding thousands of whatever. I hope they'll use this system more.

Dead End at the Dungeon

Cheery snaps a few pictures while falling to her doom, thanks to a quest that fails to provide a teleport back down from the platform with the boss.

Unfortunately, one thing that hasn't changed from vanilla WoW to TBC to Wrath is that major questlines tend to lead into 5-man dungeons. In fairness, there is a lengthy questline in Borean Tundra that leads to an encounter with Arthas that can be beaten by 2-3 players, but there's an entire corner of the zone (surrounding the Nexus, home to some 5-mans and the raid against Malygos) where ALL the questlines dead end outside that blue portal. I only had one dungeon quest from the Howling Fjord, but I've got three in Borean Tundra. It's a bit frustrating to have put in all the work to see the story unfold but then be forced to join a PUG (which are increasingly hard to come by if you're not a tank or a healer) to get at the final chapters.

Vehicles Need Some Work

Finally, I'd like to touch on vehicles for a minute. The good news is that the basics are in place on vehicle quests in various zones of Northrend and the new DK starting area. In some cases, the "vehicle" interface comes up in situations that you might not traditionally think of as vehicles, such as riding a Mammoth into battle against poachers. The bad news is that the system still needs some work. In other zones, I've frequently had problems with bugged or unresponsive controls (the Mammoth wasn't a problem, but it was a comparatively easy quest). The good news is that the new code allows Blizzard to code many more diverse things to ride on (including several kinds of planes, tanks, dragons), and these new rides get a lot more tricks than the old "throw a bomb over the side" versions. I think it'll be a good system over all, but it's clearly not ready to go live just yet.

Parting Thoughts and Moving On
The Borean Tundra is an interesting zone and the quests are well-crafted. I still prefer the Howling Fjord, but this thing is better than any single zone of Outland. Obviously, I can't comment much on difficulty, since I was over-leveled for just about my entire time in the zone.

From here, I've got some open quests in the Dragonblight and some in the Grizzly hills. I'm half tempted to jump ahead into the Hills for now so that I can actually tackle even level content again, but I guess it'll be a mood thing. I'm also looking at essentially permanent rested exp state from here on out (I can't spend the stuff fast enough), so that alleviates my earlier concerns of running out of quests. More Northrend (and the city of Dalaran) awaits!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Baseless Speculation: Will Warhammer Reward Bad Behavior?

I've tried to resist the urge to comment on Warhammer as much as possible as the game is still in beta, the NDA still in force (with the one month mark on the game's retail launch looming, and many pre-order customers set to be admitted into the beta in the next week or so), etc. There was a tidbit in Massively's authorized pre-NDA-drop coverage, however, that has me concerned.

Reflecting on WoW's Honor System
As I discussed last week, WoW places the incentives for its PVP system in the wrong place. The goal of any given battleground is for the team to win, which generally requires capturing and defending strategic destinations. The problem is that the very same honor points that you get for winning the battleground are ALSO available for being alive and present for honorable kills (HK's) of enemy players. Now sure, it's nice to get the honor bonus for winning, but it's even better to be where the action is during a battle your side eventually wins so that you get BOTH the bonus honor points AND the HK honor points.

The system still work in an organized group of your friends, where you've got camaraderie with your teammates, confidence that your strategy will be rewarded with victory (or at least that your guildies will kick you out of the group if you won't follow orders), and security knowing that you're eventually going to get a turn on the front lines to soak up the extra honor. For those of us not lucky enough to be in a guild that likes to PVP, however, the only alternative is the dreaded "pick up group" (PUG).

Unfortunately, your typical PUG tends to fare pretty poorly in battle. The problem isn't hard to identify; if you watch the battleground chat, you will see a lot of complaints that the team isn't defending various locations that need to be defended. The people making these complaints typically are NOT actually guarding some remote but essential location to make sure that any lone enemy that wanders by can't seize it unmolested. Instead, they're running around following the action in order to soak up the HK honor. But they feel very adamant that somebody (who isn't them) should be doing this job for the good of the team.

In short, the system rewards players for behavior that isn't in the team's best interest. And, shockingly, people do what's in their best interest rather than sacrificing their best interest for the good of a team of strangers. Losing because you lost can be hard, but losing because most of your team wasn't even making an effort to win is very frustrating.

Is Warhammer's Public Quest System Walking The Same Road?
Warhammer has a much touted "public quest" system that is intended to encourage players to team up. Massively has been writing up some examples; in one typical quest, there's an initial stage where players have to kill 30 soloable mobs, followed by a second stage where players have to kill 15 mobs that are hard to solo, and finally a third stage with a boss that is intended to require a group. Unlike a traditional quest, you don't get an entry in your quest log etc, you simply pitch in when you're in the area and your chances of obtaining loot when the dust settles are based on how much you contributed to the victory. It's not exactly like a WoW battleground (for example, battlegrounds are instanced), but there are parallels; your success is ultimately going to depend on the cooperation and competence of others.

And here's where I get very very worried. In a writeup of the Archmage class, Massively offers the following advice to players:
"You see, in PQ's you get rewarded at the end of it based on how much you contributed. As an Archmage with instacast DoTs, you are going to be on the top of the charts. Just drop a DoT (or two) on every single mob in the PQ area. If there are enough people there, all mobs will die too quickly to even take a swipe at you. With your ability to DoT multiple mobs, your total damage output for the PQ will at or near the top."

Yes, that's correct, they just advised players to throw a bunch of damage over time effects on a greater number of mobs than they could possibly handle in order to leech damage contribution from the players who actually kill those mobs. This is almost certainly not in the team's interest in terms of everyone beating the public quest. It is, however, in the best interest of the individual player who is running around slapping DoT's on everything and reaping the rewards. If this is actually the case, you can bet that players will do it.

Will this bring down the Public Quest system?
It's hard to say. Warhammer's NDA is still in place due to one major issue that the devs believe they can fix in the immediate future. Massively's information could be out of date. It's also possible that social consequences may be able to rein in player behavior; WoW battlegrounds are pretty anonymous (most of your teammates may not even play on your server, a change instituted to reduce queue times, and it's not like you can keep unhelpful players from appearing in your next PUG match), but there are potentially more times in a heavily PVP game in which getting a bad reputation for leeching public quest rewards might burn players down the road. (Whether would-be offenders will realize this BEFORE they do it is a separate question.)

Either way, I'm very concerned to see the incentives in a place that may end up repeating WoW's mistakes. Public Quests are a major feature of Warhammer (/random argues that they will play a major role in building faction community), and I would hate to see them fail.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Northrend Exp Update

Blizzard is clearly in "troubleshoot the exp curve" mode, having expanded the amount of EXP required for levels 70+ by 80% in the most recent patch. This is almost certainly an overadjustment in the opposite direction (it was a bit too fast previously). Anyway, I was feeling concerned about getting poor Cheery stuck in a hole that I couldn't dig her out of exp-wise, so I decided to backtrack into Borean Tundra.

What's the damage?
I have one major subzone to deal with in BT, having cleared all of Howling Fjord and the first Alliance questhub in Western Dragonblight previously. This got Cheery to level 73. That's the good news. The bad news is that I hit level 71 prior to the exp nerf. Had I needed the extra 80% for the 70->71 transition, I would still be bogged down in level 72 as I moved into higher level content in Dragonblight. That's not entirely a disaster; I also started Northrend at level 68, which consumed about 1.2 million experience prior to level 70.

Taken collectively, my guesstimate is that a level 70 character entering Northrend now would hit level 73 if they clean out both starting zones. On the other hand, most players aren't going to want to have to complete every single quest in both zones, especially on multiple alts.

A growing role for rested Exp?
One of the quirks of the escalating EXP curve is that rested state experience is starting to play a larger and larger role in the game. In WoW (and subsequent games, such as LOTRO), characters accumulate a bonus that gives them double experience for killing monsters (but not quests, discovering geography, etc). For each 8 hours you spend logged out in an Inn or major city, 5% of your exp bar converts into rested bonus (to a maximum of 150%). In my experience, this bonus amounts to about a third of my experience leveling via questing at midlevels in WoW (one third is the base exp amount, and the last third is quest completion bonuses).

At low levels, this bonus makes you level faster, but isn't a huge deal. Moreover, it's easier to use it all up and get stuck with the regular rate of exp gain. Once Blizzard starts setting the exp for your next level at 2.3 million, however, the 15% of your exp bar that converts into rested state if you log off for 24 hours is over 300K. The good news is that someone who plays an hour or two a night no longer needs to worry about using up all of their rested state. Heck, I had to sign off early last night due to server instability, and I had more than enough rested state to carry me through a lot of questing today. The bad news is that, if you do somehow run out (or have to log out somewhere that isn't an Inn), you may have a harder and harder time making your next level.

Time will tell, and this won't be a problem for players who juggle a lot of alts with rested state, but players who want to burn to the cap for raiding/arena may not be happy.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

DK Spec Update

Well, there's a new beta build in town, and that means time to mess around with some new specs on the Death Knight. The timing works out well anyway, as Blizzard is currently attempting to tune the exp curve. It was previously possible to outlevel more of the continent than Blizzard could have intended, so they decided to increase everything by 80%. I think something in the 30-50% range will probably be the final answer, but I guess it doesn't hurt to experiment. Anyway, I decided I might as well backtrack to Borean Tundra (where the content is actually just below my level) to test out some of the new specs.

Bloodworms, version 3.0
So the Bloodworms got redone again. The first iteration had a 30% to spawn 3-5 worms when you killed a diseased target. This was inconsistent, but almost certain to win you the fight when it happened. The second edition healed for slightly less, but you had a 60% chance to spawn 3-5 worms off Death Strike, which you can spam twice per 10 seconds. That was way way too consistent, and it was possible to heal through insane amounts of damage by letting the worms heal away.

Version 3.0 gives the worms a 12% chance to spawn when you attack stuff, and the number of worms has been reduced to 2-4. There may or may not be an internal cooldown, or it may only work off of your main hand attack, I'm not sure, but I rarely if ever had more than one batch of worms up. Unfortunately, this version is still very strong. Death Knights can dual wield, have a 20% bonus to attack speed in the Frost tree, and there is plenty of haste rating to go around in Northrend. You can't collect 10+ worms anymore, but it's possible to keep the 2-4 worms out nearly continuously, which is still a very nice chunk of healing. I was actually running with a build that included points in all three trees; 33 points in Blood for the worms, 18ish in Frost for the DW-related talents, and a few in Unholy for improved disease durations. I'd really like them to keep this very unique talent around, but I fear there may need to be a fourth version.

Night of the Dead: Don't leave home without your Ghoul
Night of the Dead is a new 35-point Unholy talent (it was in the previous build, but wasn't working) that has a novel mechanic; it refreshes the cooldown on your ghoul-summoning spell (which has a 5-minute cooldown) by a minute each time you apply Plague/Scourge Strike. This means you can summon a fresh ghoul every 30 seconds or so if you aren't using your Unholy Runes for anything else. This has implications for two spells; detonate, which blows up the ghoul for AoE damage, and Death Pact, which sacrifices the ghoul to heal the Death Knight for 20% of their health (though the spell doesn't work at all at the moment due to a bug of some sort).

The bad news is that it makes very little sense to stop at 37 points in the Unholy tree (though you technically could, at level 79, and be able to get both Night of the Dead and the Blood Worms with a point to spare). Even a single additional point in Unholy grants you Crypt Fever, a third disease debuff (which is a big deal because many of the best DK abilities scale depending on the number of diseases you have inflicted on the target). Another point gets you Bone Shield, a buff that reduces a few damage for you and gives you a small passive DPS buff, all for the cost of a single Unholy rune (great for tough pulls, because you can cast it and wait the 10 seconds for the rune to refresh). If you make it to 41 points, you get Scourge Strike (an upgraded version of Plague Strike that does SHADOW damage instead of physical, bypassing armor mitigation), and for 45 points in Unholy, Crypt Fever morphs into Ebon Plague, increasing disease damage by 60% and magic vulnerability by 13%. My point being, this talent really only makes sense if you're going 40+ unholy, because you're too close to too many goodies to stop there.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. Death Strike heals for a lot when you have three diseases on your target (I may even go for Unholy Blight, which adds a fourth debuff). Combine that with regular use of Death Pact and we may finally have a spec that rivals blood in terms of self-healing. Don't get me wrong, I've liked my experiments with Unholy and Frost, I've just always felt like I was worse off than I would have been if I'd just stayed with at least 33 points in Blood for the Bloodworms. Now I'm even toying with the idea of an Unholy/Frost spec with zero points in Blood in order to improve Obliterate (which would allow me to use it to trigger Desecration, a flashy AoE snare effect that also boosts my damage by 10% for 7 seconds).

To sum up, this is the cool part about beta that makes all the server crashes (it crashes a LOT, especially in prime time) and bugs worthwhile. Before my eyes, Blizzard has taken a class that needed a lot of work and made some pretty big improvements. I think Frost still lags behind the other two trees for lack of a good healing bonus, but either way, it's a lot of fun to see the class evolving as the beta unfolds.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Howling Fjord Complete

The Howling Fjord is finished.

Well, maybe not entirely finished. There might be a thing or two that needs work, like this dude's hair, or the vehicle quest that was too buggy for me to complete. But, those issues aside, I've finally cleared what appears to be all the quests in the zone (including the outdoor small group quests, thanks to the overpowered Death Knight).

What has Cheerydeth done?

Well, my previous comments that I was just about done with the zone appear to have been slightly premature. The remaining quests all turned out to have followups, and sometimes those had followups as well. Throw in the group quests and I managed to hit level 72 before wrapping up. In the process, I maxxed my herbalism skill (which was, in fairness, at 410 when I left Outland), hit revered with Valiance Expedition (I did complete the daily quest five times to unlock a pair of achievements), and honored with the Kalu'ak (the neutral Tuskarr faction). Overall, levels 68, 69, 70, and 71 took me about 22 hours in Northrend. I did have the benefit of rested exp from time to time, since I was careful to log off in places where I could rest, but it certainly wasn't 100% of the time. Perhaps with full rested Exp I wouldn't have needed to do any Borean Tundra quests to get from 68-72 (again, remember, levels 68 and 69 combined add up to about as much as level 70, level 71 doesn't boast nearly so wide a jump).

How is the zone?

It often seems that the most recent zone Blizzard has worked on is the best, and this one was no exception. As my screenshots may show, there are a lot of fun things that happen on quests, in addition to the usual kill/loot variants. Actually, I'm not sure if I've seen a single escort quest yet, which may be a good thing since the difficulty there usually comes from the stupidity of the NPC's. There is also a major story arc going on, complete with a cameo by Arthas himself (who shows no signs of remembering a Death Knight he personally welcomed to the World (of Warcraft); if only I could do 139 million DPS...). There is some snow, especially towards the north of the zone and along the coast, but the place is far from a frozen wasteland.

What's next?
I decided to leave behind the rest of Borean Tundra (I completed most of the quests in Valiance Keep, and some Tuskarr quests later in the zone) in favor of pushing the envelope towards tougher content, as I've outleveled most of what I would face in the rest of that zone. It appears that the next zone on the agenda is the Dragonblight, a snowy, dark place and home to the re-located Naxx. I might cut my stay there short and move on to the Grizzly Hills (rated for levels 73-75) if I get bored due to Cheery's insane solo capabilities. After all, it's not every day you get to gank the wandering elite mobs that you're supposed to run from, and smite the frost wrym solo.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Too Many Stats on Wrath Gear?

Pop quiz time! You're wearing plate leggings that have 1104 armor, 34 Str, 57 Sta, and 38 Haste Rating. You complete a quest and one of the reward options is a different set of plate leggings with the same item level, also 1104 armor, but this one has 22 Str, 45 Sta, and 53 Critical Strike Rating. Which set of pants should you wear for solo DPS? Will the answer still be the same when you gain your next level? How about if you respec?

In fairness, this situation is not unique to WoW's newest expansion. Combat Ratings were introduced in TBC as a way to keep players from amassing 100% crit, etc. Things have gotten more complicated in Wrath of the Lich King for several reasons.

Ratings are everywhere
The change to combat ratings has allowed much more gear to have these stats than previously; if level 60 gear was going to offer a crit bonus, it was 1%, 2%, or nothing. As a result, it was easier to get away with simply not caring what the ratings were worth until level 70, at which point you could memorize the 3-4 ratings that are relevant to your class. Ratings allow Blizzard to dole out small amounts of multiple stats on the same item, making it even harder to compare than my initial example.

There are more distinct ratings
The later tiers of TBC raiding (ZA and the Black Temple) awarded haste rating and armor penetration, two stats which were not widely used in prior content. These stats are now available on level 70 quest rewards in Wrath, where they join hit rating, crit rating, Attack Power (which can also be gained from pure stats, and is further split into Ranged and Non-Ranged flavors), and Expertise. (That's just the melee DPS stats, there are separate stats for spellcasting and defense.) It's one thing to remember that hit is best until you reach the hit cap (which, incidentally, is not documented in the game UI anywhere), and then you want crit or pure damage, but it's another to try and figure out how armor penetration (which is also going to be converted into a rating), haste rating, crit rating, and attack power compare to one another.

More talents mean more differences between specs
As the talent trees get taller and taller, the differences between two specs of the same classes get greater and greater. Maybe this spec now has talents that are especially dependent on getting critical hits to proc, while this other spec is plagued by slow attack/casting time and needs haste rating.

Ratings Degrade as you Level
If your gear has 50 attack power, it will still have 50 attack power next level, 5 levels, and 10 levels from now. By contrast, the ratings on your gear give your character less benefit per point every level you gain. The author of Rating Buster (a mod I view as nigh essential, which does the math for you on what percentage your ratings are worth at any given level) reports that ratings at level 80 will actually be worth as little as 50% of what they were at level 70. The result is that your non-rating based gear will age more gracefully as you level.

Ratings are worth comparatively less as you get more of them
I'm not entirely clear on all the theorycraft here myself (and I do love my theorycraft), but my limited understanding is that the way the attack table works in WoW means that 1% crit is worth more when you're starting from zero than it is when you're starting from 20%. I'm going to stop talking now before I say something wrong, but the point is that you can't even memorize one number and count on it to still be correct after you've been getting enough gear upgrades (or "downgrades" as a result of your existing rating decaying).

Gear upgrades come faster while leveling than at the cap
This is a temporary problem, but one I'm experiencing now. Once you've been at the cap for a while, you have time to get to know what kind of gear you're wearing and where your next potential upgrade is coming from. While leveling, upgrades come more frequently. You probably haven't taken the time to plan out your choices on every single minor quest reward, and you may not even know the current rating conversions for your level. Again, this is temporary, but it only serves to add to the confusion.

What can be done?
Well, the band-aid fix is to download Rating Buster and EQCompare (for reasons beyond my comprehension, Blizzard's default UI will not compare gear tooltips for items in your bags to what you're currently wearing, even though the UI does offer this option at vendors, quest reward windows, and the Auction House) and keep a spreadsheet on hand to crunch the numbers for your current level. You can also download a theorycrafting mod (such as Dr. Damage) that evaluates your spec and gear and determines what, for example, the average damage on your Frostbolt is going to be so you can compare it before and after equipping a new item. The numbers behind these mods are going to be debatable at times though (see previous discussion RE: crit procs vs speedier attacks), and need to be reverse engineered manually every patch. (Blizzard could, I suppose, cut out the middle man and add their own version of this to the default UI, but that's how the UI slowly gets more and more crowded over time.)

At the end of the day, though, this can only be changed at the design level. Blizzard apparently feels that the choice between various highly specialized ratings is worth the added complexity (but that actually making the numbers transparent so you'd stop stacking hit rating when you're capped would be too complicated). And maybe they're right. Ask again in the comments next year when I'm tearing my hair out trying to determine whether whupass rating is superior to coolness factor and boredom penetration.