Friday, January 30, 2009

Abuse of the expansion

PVD studios is proud to announce the upcoming 200th blog expansion at Player vs Developer, scheduled for release next week! This post will probably add hundreds of words to the verbose archives of PVD, and will, in all liklihood, discuss the incentive structures in one or more online games. Additionally, the blog expansion will kick off our "ongoing blog expansion" event. PVD founder Green Armadillo has declared a goal of producing two hundred blog expansions in 2009. Best of all, this and all of the future planned blog expansions will be available to all current and future PVD readers (and random people who click a link somewhere) at no additional charge!

The Warhammer "Live Expansion"
Warhammer's recently announced "live expansion" is impressive and commendable. In stark contrast to Blizzard's stony wall of silence, Warhammer players now know what they can expect to get in the first half of 2009. It's an impressive slate - four world events, the return of the last two classes cut in the game's beta, and a new RVR dungeon zone based on an old DAOC staple that serious fans have wanted for Warhammer for a while now. It is likely to be more than Blizzard is going to deliver in the one content patch that most players expect them to produce during the same time frame.

However, the "live expansion" is neither "live" nor an "expansion". What we have here is a series of content patches that will be released over a period of months, half of which have nothing to do with each other, which do not collectively contain enough content to fill a paid expansion box. Mythic is applying some serious spin by grouping them together so they will look more impressive to anyone who doesn't notice that this is a half-year plan rather than the patch notes for tomorrow.

(As Common Sense Gamer points out, Mark Jacobs is also claiming that: "No other subscription-based MMORPG that I am aware of has ever added 4 new careers to its game as part of a regular update/addon/free expansion." I'd be curious to hear whether Mark knows any others that had to cut four classes in the final months of beta because they weren't going to be ready by launch day.)

Further abusing the word "expansion"
I was wandering a real live offline bookstore the other day when I saw that the Guinness Book of World Records is now selling a "Gamers' Edition". I was pretty sure that this book could not end well, and I opened it up to a random page in the onling gaming section to confirm my suspicions. The book informed me that City of Heroes holds the official record for most "free expansions", noting that, while the original EQ has released 14 expansions, they were paid expansions.

Let me preface my following comment by saying that I have never played EQ1, and I lasted about one evening in COH, so I might not know what I'm talking about here. That said, I would be shocked if any of COH's "issue" updates had a feature list comparable to a paid expansion to EQ1. Moreover, though Guinness will apparently print anything they can get their hands on if they think it will occupy part of a page in a book they can sell some idiot for cash, I don't recall the COH updates being remarkably more thorough than, say, EQ2's Game Updates. EQ2 has released more than 50 of them, Sony just didn't think of calling them "free expansions".

In short, can anyone tell me who the mythical competitor is that produces the game where they would be charging for the content that "free expansion" providers are graciously giving to their paying subscribers for free (if you ignore the "paying subscriber" part)?

If there's any question of whether you need to tack another word onto it, such as "free", "live", or "blog", what you have is not, in fact, an expansion. So, my parting advice if there are any people in marketing reading this? Please stop acting like the cat who says "I am in thy library, executing a grammatical procedure of great destructive force against thy lexicon".

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Structured Unstructured Gaming Through Wintergrasp

A basic decision tree for what I do when I sign into WoW:

A) Is Wintergrasp starting up in the next few minutes?
A1: If I haven't done the dailies yet, go to Wintergrasp.
A2: If I HAVE done the dailies, but the Alliance will be attacking, go to Wintergrasp anyway, since the win is worth more.
A3: If the Alliance is on defense and I've done the dailies, it's not worth braving the lag. Skip to C.

B) What do I do when the Alliance owns Wintergrasp?
B1: Have I done Archavon yet for the week? If so, LFG for Vault-25, followed by Vault-10.
B2: LFG for heroics. Currently, this list is Culling of Stratholme and The Oculus, the last two I need for Northrend Dungeon Hero, and Azjol-Nerub on the off chance that the wand drops. I'll consider other options such as the Heroic daily if they sound like a good deal in terms of badges, shards, etc.

C) What do I do if the Alliance does NOT own Wintergrasp?
Now would be a good time to go after achievements, quests, and other things that aren't dependent on who owns Wintergrasp. I could do instances in this time - and perhaps I will if I'm looking to get a particular dungeon in and won't be on until the Alliance can get Wintergrasp back, but it's not my first choice. I'd be doing just as much work as when the Alliance owns Wintergrasp, but getting fewer rewards for doing it due to the lack of shard buff.

The schedule isn't completely in-flexible. I'll put other things on hold if there's a guild group forming up. Time-limited seasonal content jumps to the top of the list. Still, it's remarkable how one addition to the expansion has the effect of structuring a large chunk of previously unstructured time.

Death From Above Addendum
I'm not typically one to go seek out PVP when there aren't lots of battle rewards dangling in front of my nose, but I made a bit of an exception this evening after falling a single kill short of completing the daily quest for kills in Wintergrasp. I've fallen 2-3 shy before and let it slide, but a single solitary kill seemed too trivial to leave the quest uncompleted for the day. So, I rode out to the tower above the area where the eternal fire elementals live, threw on all my buffs, cast slow fall, and dropped in to rain icy death on some unsuspecting warrior, just quickly enough to cast invisibility and flee before his fellow fire farmers noticed that there was an enemy player in their midst. (Or maybe they appreciated someone slaughtering the competition?)

My apologies to the random warrior I ganked - it's a PVP flagged zone, with better drops than can be found outside for a reason, and it turns out that even a carebear like myself will, in fact, kill you for the right incentive (1.2K honor and 3 shards in this case).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

End of the line for Heroic Upgrades?

Yesterday was an excellent day for my mage in WoW - I snagged two items I've been working on for a while now, and one more that I wanted but never thought I'd actually get. Obviously, this was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, as I cross several big items off an increasingly short "to do" list, I'm realizing that I may not have another day like it on my mage this expansion cycle.

The haul:


Patch 3.0.8 finally fixed the number of quests required for Loremaster of Kalimdor. This left me with a bunch of group quests in Icecrown, some of which are actively hard to find groups for because the quest targets are only visible to people currently on the quest (the dark side of Wrath's new phasing technology, I suppose). Well, I was able to grind out a bunch with some guildies, and it turned out that I was actually able to SOLO the last two group-5 quests I needed. I guess Blizzard might want to take a look at that difficulty number at some point. :)

Anyway, this set off thee simultaneous achievements (Icecrown quests, Northrend Loremaster, and The Loremaster (for having Eastern Kingdoms, Kalimdor, Outland, and Northrend). It also let me learn to craft my own [Deathchill Cloak]. I'm not entirely thrilled with the total lack of stamina - suddenly, I'm back below 15K HP in my PVE gear - but I can't deny that it's a major upgrade for PVE purposes over the [Hateful Gladiator's Cloak of Dominance] I'd been wearing as an all-purpose cape.

The search for pants
Pants are a relatively difficult item slot to fill in this expansion for some reason. Perhaps they're going on a token vendor somewhere in 3.1. I had been wearing the [Trousers of the Arrakoa], while gunning for either the [Woven Bracae Leggings] (Heroic HOL) or [Sorrowgrave's Breeches] (H UP). Unfortunately, Loken is very tough to PUG, so I decided to focus on the Breeches, which I finally obtained yesterday.

On paper, the comparison between the Breeches and the Trousers looks like I got a pretty nice bundle of stats, as you'd expect when jumping up from ilvl 175 to ilvl 200. Then come the catches.

Because the Breeches have a red socket (which I would like to socket with a red gem, since that's best for my DPS numbers), I'm going to have to resocket something to keep a second blue gem for my [Chaotic Skyflare Diamond]. I suppose my [Sandals of Crimson Fury] are a good solution in the short term, since at least I get something back for doing so.

(I'm also going to need to deal with the loss of a second blue socket when I go from [Hateful Gladiator's Cord of Dominance] to [Belt of Dark Mending] in a day or two, so I may just need to suck it up and stick a purple gem in the [Eternal Belt Buckle] and call it a day. I'm using a [Girdle of Bane], so I'll actually be lugging around three belts.)

Second, and perhaps less problematic in the long term, this puts my crit rating substantially (over 100 points) above my haste rating. It's generally better to keep the two numbers at about the same level. Indeed, if I respec to a more traditional frostbolt build, the new pants would actually be a DOWNGRADE from the old due to trading in haste rating for crit rating.

In conclusion on the pants front, I guess I just have to keep hoping that Archavon drops a pair of [Heroes' Frostfire Leggings] for me one of these weeks.

I got the last of the 200 stone keeper's shards I would have needed to buy my rogue alt her heirloom dagger, but I'm hesitating to actually make the purchase. My rogue is the most interesting of my alts, but I'm not really excited to think about coming home and leveling yet another WoW alt, even with insanely fast experience and a nice dagger. I'm considering aiming for 300 shards, with which to purchase a [Reins of the Black War Mammoth]. This would snag me a step towards the Master of Wintergrasp meta-achievement if I decided to go that route. Realistically, I'd need 260ish shards (I actually shot well past 200) to pay for both the mount and the dagger, and that seems somewhat feasible.

The other currency question revolves around the possible Emblem of Heroism rewards. I have the offhand and the trinket, I don't want the amulet, and there's no way I'm spending 200 emblems on a single mount. This leaves the [Plush Sash of Guzbah], in case I wanted yet more belts, and saving up 80 tokens to buy a [Heroes' Frostfire Robe]. I have mixed feelings on this - the robe would be a decent upgrade for solo/5-man content, but I'm all but out of solo and 5-man content. In raids, the robe would be more of a side grade, because I'd have to swap out one or two other pieces to recover the hit rating I'd lose for taking off my [Water-Drenched Robe]. I hate to hear the word "side grade" in the context of "80 emblems" - especially since I could win the robe outright on Archavon some week.

My gut tells me to just hold on to the emblems for now, so that may be what I end up doing. I could use them to buy heirloom items, but I would end up regretting that if some better use for emblems came along in a future content patch. Worst case scenario, the heirlooms will still be there and available for purchase with my excess emblems at the end of the expansion cycle.

Remaining heroics?
Realistically, there are three items left in all of heroic 5-man content that I would roll on, if they dropped. There's Loken's previously-discussed pants (which, again, I'm hesitant to try and PUG farm due to the difficulty of the dungeon in question), the [Wand of the San'layn] (Heroic UK), and the [Rod of the Fallen King] (Heroic AN). I would like to get the Rod as a matter of principle, to replace my last full-time green item, the [Wand of Blinding Light], but I'd settle for the other wand.

I'm also in line for the belt from the Ebon Blade (I need about 3K rep, so that will be any day now), upgraded shoulder enchants if I ever finish Hodir rep, and perhaps 2-3 PVP sidegrades. And, unless I've missed something, that's every last non-raid upgrade that I don't have at the moment. (I suppose that Blizzard did a good job spacing those incentives out, since I need three more heroic dungeon runs to wrap up Northrend Dungeon Hero.)

A last ride in style?
I didn't want to end this post on a down note, so I saved one last bit of loot for the end. If Greenwiz is going to ride off into the sunset to wait for patch 3.1, at least he's going in style, cause I was also fortunate enough to win a rare mount that I would not have even considered farming for, due to the low drop rate - the [Reins of the Blue Proto-Drake].

Monday, January 26, 2009

Soloing the Lunar Festival Dungeon Coins

One thing I love about WoW is the challenge of attempting to solo group content. With the Lunar Festival in full swing, it seemed to be a good time to dust off the old solo'ing skills.

The festival requires players to visit 13 NPC's in 5-man instances, 7 of whom are in new Northrend instances. While I certainly could attempt to do all seven of those over the next two weeks, that's a lot of quality time to spend in PUG's (espec Heroic dungeon PUG's, since there's little good reason for me to run non-heroic PUG's at this point in my gear progression, I'd just mess with the group by being there with too much DPS). Could I cut some corners on that process?

Instances that CAN be soloed by a frost mage
FYI, I have a frost spec that stops short of Deep Freeze to go pick up Impact and Blast Wave, both of which make the already tough Frost Spec even better at soloing low level content. Then again, I do NOT have the [Glyph of Invisibility], which would have made the process a bit faster (and safer!). I was able to solo four of the seven Northrend Dungeon coins.

UK (Reg)
This place is full of level 70 mobs, which are grey, and thus easy to avoid, at level 80. First you can avoid or kill the NPC's in the opening hallway. Then you get to the round forge area, where you MUST kill the forgemaster NPC's to proceed. Though they do come in a pack of three mobs, they are melee only, so they were easy to take down with a Water Elemental in tow.

Once you're past the forge room, there's a room of dragon rider stables. I used invisibility to get past the group in the back of the room, and the group right behind them in the hallway, but it may be possible to walk past on foot. This puts you in the first boss room, but he and his minions won't aggro as you walk past. Next up, we have a mine-ish room with non-elite ghouls and geists, and a few wandering elite mobs. The non-elites were easy to burn down (I deliberately pulled the geists to get them out of the way), and the elites are easy to avoid.

From there it's up a flight of stairs into a towerish area with another pack of non-elite geists. The elder is in a niche off to the left (behind another group of elites that won't notice you walking by). I actually walked right past it and towards the second boss encounter before realizing that I'd gone too far and doubling back. If you get to the wargs (who can see through invisibility), you've gone too far.

Nexus (Reg)
I suspect that ANY class can solo this at 80 since, as with UK, the mobs are all grey. Walk north into the room with the dragon-popsicle and turn right into the hall of nature mobs. You're looking to dodge these guys and walk around a clockwise arc around to the Tree boss. It may help to pull the little wandering plants, as they only have 3.5K HP, and killing them when they aren't near anything else might save you from adds later.

While you're here, you might want to kill a crystal spider critter for achievement credit.

Drak'Tharon (Reg)
This was easy, but tedious, due to the need to wait for your invisibility cooldown repeatedly. It might be worth buying some [Invisibility Potion]'s from the AH so you don't need to bring a book to read while you wait.

I was able to solo the entire entrance hallway, up to the room with the zombies and the first boss, which saved me a fair chunk of time on corpse runs as I learned where it's safe to stop. This did involve the use of all my various cooldowns, fleeing for the instance zone line, and a few corpse runs, YMMV. If you can't take them, you'll have to invis down the hallway and up the stairs to the right, stopping before the doorway to the room of zombies where the boss lives. This might be pushing the duration of your invisibility buff if you don't have the glyph - try to take out at least the first pull (two melee zombies) first.

The next room has ghouls, abominations, and a big troll (the first boss) on top of the steps. Here you'll have to use invisibility (you have to avoid the abominations, even while invisible, because they have an AOE damage aura that breaks invisibility) to run up the stairs, through the boss, and right to the doorway, stopping before you go through. The doorway leads to a room of spiders - with a glyph, you might be able to run all the way through it from the boss room, but without it you're going to have to sit on your tail and wait. Once invisibility comes up again, invis and run into the second boss room. The boss doesn't aggro if you hug the wall on your right and run past, there's a door on the right into a room of bats.

Wait for your cooldown to come up again, go invisible, and take a left turn through the bat room. You'll be heading down a lengthy corridor, and you will want to make it through to the end of this corridor because there is a pat that you won't be able to see. At the end of the corridor, use your last seconds of invisibility to turn right and hide by the wall. Now you're standing outside the big dino pen. There are two raptor riders patroling this path, and the elder is at the end, slightly to the right at the entrance to the dino pen. You can either wait for your invis cooldown yet again, or sacrifice some combination of your water elemental and mirror images to the cause of holding aggro long enough for you to get your coin before you die.

HOS (reg)
This one is the highest level, and it will be very difficult to do if you can't clear the mobs at the start of the zone (a 3-pack containing a caster and two melee - sheep the caster so he doesn't chain lightning your elemental to death), a solo caster pat, and a pair of iron golems. This gets you to a circular crossroads area where you'll be heading right. I'm not sure if there actually is a safe place to have your invis expire in between the golems and the traffic circle of doom.

There are four separate patrols that matter to you - three mobs and a separate giant in front of your entrance to the big traffic circle, and another three mobs and a second giant that can move to block your path up the stairs to the right. It is possibile to avoid all of these pats with good timing and make it up to the stairs without wasting your invisibility cooldown, but you might find it easier to just stealth it. Ideally, you should be able to get to the mine shaft opening on the right before your invis wears off. When you appear, you'll be attacked by a number of non-elite shardlings, so be prepared to hit all your close range AOE buttons.

In front of you is a pack of three iron dwarves zapping the wall. I was NOT able to get past these guys without them aggroing, but I could, at least, hug the right wall and get a bit of a head start. This last stretch is the hard part, and the only place where I might have wanted the extra 10 seconds from the glyph. You need to run a kind of backwards S pattern to follow the path around the bend - the elder is just out of sight around the corner from you. I did this by abandoning my water elemental and mirror images to their fate when I suddenly reappeared in the middle of a group of mobs, and claiming my coin before I died - a more skilled mage than I might find a more elegant solution.

The dungeons you CANNOT solo
The remaining three Northrend coins, in Azjol-Nerub, Utgarde Pinnacle, and Gun'Drak, all require the defeat of at least one boss in their respective instances. In addition, the one in Gun'Drak MUST be done on Heroic mode, because the Elder is found in the room of the fifth, Heroic-only boss.

So, you're probably going to have to do these three instances the old fashioned way, in a group. The only loophole is that you can inherit a boss-less instance by borrowing a raidID from someone who has already cleared the dungeon that day. You'll still have to invis hop past the trash (which respawns), but it might be an alternative if you're REALLY having bad luck with the PUG's.

Lunar Festival Wrapup
Overall, I'm not expecting any problems finishing the Lunar Festival meta achievement. I was able to solo the four coins above, do a legitimate AN run, and use a borrowed ID and a small group to get the coin out of GD. One more instance in the next two weeks isn't a deal breaker, and the rest is just running around to collect the coins - I might have it done tonight, if the UP PUG's are so inclined.

I was a bit worried about having to PUG seven instances during a single event, especially since some are not that commonly run on heroic (the sad part of my DTK efforts is that I may end up doing that zone again on Heroic mode sooner rather than later anyway, since it's one of the four I need for Heroic Dungeonmaster, but at least now there's no time pressure). By the time I was able to take the pressure off a bit by soloing a couple (again, I think just about any class can probably do Nexus and UK, with at worst one invis potion each), the amount of work left turned out to be relatively reasonable.

In some ways, that's the mark of a good incentive - tough enough to require work and perhaps even creativity), but not so tough that it deters players from trying through sheer difficulty.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Who is willing to pay for ads on WoW forums?

I declined to comment on Blizzard's decision to put ads on their official forums back in December. They drew the expected quantity of commentary and satire, but I didn't really see a tie-in with either players or developers in having out-of-game forums plastered with ads.

However, I did think that it would only be a matter of time before:
A) Some gold seller ad wound up on the official forums or
B) Even better, someone managed to get an ad on the official forums that used a javascript exploit to keylog people's WoW passwords.

My track record for things that I don't post publicly appears to be better than my track record on stuff that I actually post for people to read, cause today the official WoW forums had their first illicit gold seller ad.

The reason I was relatively sure this would happen is a simple question of demand. Who, exactly, wants adspace on WoW forums? Well, makers of competing games do - thanks to the miracle of tracking cookies, I get a lot of EQ2 ads on WoWhead. Presumably, whomever Blizzard is farming the ads out to knows better than to take that buy. So who else? Blogs? I like this blog, but I'm not spending that kind of money (read: ANY money) to promote it. Legitimate gaming news sites that are actually intended to turn a profit? They may actually have a promotional budget, but I can't imagine how that's an effective use of your ad dollars.

Basically the ONLY people who are left who really want to promote products specifically on the WoW forums are, well, gold sellers and other people attempting to sell directly WoW-related products. Because they are the folks who want the exposure the most, they'll be willing to pay the highest rates. Sooner or later, it is an absolute certainty that an ad that wasn't explicitly on the "do not approve" list will come across the desk of someone who isn't paying attention, and that's how we land in this situation.

Now that I'm posting this, I feel I need to amend my predictions to cover the other possibilities. What would really make the story of this senseless money grab complete would be:

C) Mark Jacobs taking out an ad on the official WoW forums that says "This is why official forums are a bad idea."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

What can we learn from Warhammer population balance stats?

MMORPG companies are pretty notorious for never releasing statistics unless said numbers can be spun in a way that makes their product look good. As Mark Jacobs once put it, if the numbers are good, you release them.

For instance, Blizzard will happily mention that WoW has 11.5 million active players, but will never provide the breakdown of what portion of those players are located in Western markets that actually pay the full subscription fee. Funcom didn't release any subscriber retention figures for Age of Conan at all, they just yanked down more than half of their servers, suggesting that the numbers weren't all that good.

(Alternately, you can do what Turbine does, namely:
1. Release the number of characters created - yes, that number includes alts, characters on accounts that have since been canceled, and may or may not include characters from the FREE open beta
2. Hope some incompetent journalist thinks they can draw a line between that lone, misleading number and the number of unique accounts paying $15 a month
3. Sit back and whistle innocently about how you can't comment on the obviously inaccurate figures being posted in the press because you don't discuss numbers.)

Anyway, Mythic has chosen to release some numbers on faction population balance, a topic I discussed back in the days when the game wasn't out and us blog-types had nothing better to do then speculate on what would happen when it came out. What can we learn from the numbers?

Relative Balance
The closest to a hard number we get is for the server Monolith, described as having "the most noticeable population Faction difference", which is an "accounts active per faction" ratio of 44% order to 56% destruction. (In all fairness, I don't recall Blizzard ever releasing anything even this detailed for Alliance/Horde splits.) A few brief caveats apply. Mythic is defining "active" as "players who are currently gaining Experience and/or Renown Points". Also, players more familiar with WoW server rules should be aware that ALL Warhammer servers are one faction per server, so it's completely unambiguous whether an account is Order, Destruction, or Neither for a given server.

In practical terms, a 44:56 ratio would mean that, if 100 players showed up to a battle, Destruction would outnumber Order by 12 players, or two full 6-player groups. That's not bad for the worst server on the block, though it might still be enough to leave Order on the defensive nigh continuously. Unfortunately, the crucial second piece of the puzzle is the average number of player hours per account.

Let's say that a large number of the Order players are actually alts of Destruction players from other servers, who picked Monolith because the server select screen desperately requested that they do so. Those players might not show up for our hypothetical battle because they're off on their mains. There's also an underlying assumption that player faction choice is independent of player dedication - if more competitive players are choosing Order to get away from the incompetent unwashed masses playing on the Destruction side, for example, the trend could be dead even, as a smaller proportion of the total players who play Destruction might be online at any given time.

If that number looks murky, don't even bother with the reported 49/51 split for "accounts active per server" averaged across all US servers. We don't even know what that number is measuring. Does an account with an Order main on one server and Destruction alts on two other servers get counted once for Order (most /played), once for Destruction (more servers with active characters), once for Order and twice for Destruction (one point for each active server - I'm guessing this is the answer based on the post) or by some other method?

Incentive Balance
The other half of the numbers are a bunch of figures showing that Mythic has managed to balance things so that - both for the average and for the worst case server - the rates of exp/time are dead even. (On Monolith, the average exp/rp per character is slightly higher for Order, which may suggest a smaller number of more dedicated players, but the rate of exp gain over time is still even.)

This is one issue that I was a bit worried about - in WoW PVP, you really don't get much in the way of rewards if your side loses - and it's good to see that Mythic has managed to keep it from becoming a problem. Perhaps the game's much-maligned open-RVR-killing scenarios are saving the day by providing the out-numbered faction a safe haven in which they can continue to level and get all of the various good progress-related things that players of MMORPG's expect to be able to get as they play. Perhaps there's something else at work - between open-RVR influence and other changes that have gone into the game during the time since it's launch, I'm not 100% qualified to say whether Mythic has come up with some other means of helping the out-numbered side keep up. Either way, it's a good number.

What numbers should we see?
In the end, companies don't like to release these numbers because they don't want to reinforce any negative perceptions in the community. In Mythic's case, I'm sure that the churn rates for the game's first two months were not pretty. Reinforcing the idea that the game was not yet ready for prime time with a number that said that a majority of its players had left might have been a bad idea. Likewise, some players won't want to play on low population servers/factions for fear of not being able to find people to play with. Then again, refusal to disclose numbers, be they subscriber numbers or population balance numbers, can paint the devs into a corner.

For example, by many accounts, it sounds like the game desperately needed server merges to get enough players onto the same server to have real RVR battles. Unfortunately, server merges generate bad press by implying to the outside world that the server populations are low. (The inside world already knows that the population is low because they have a battle and no one shows up.) Instead, Mythic had to roll out a system that said "we really should be merging your server, but we don't want to be seen as the ones pulling the trigger, so here's a transfer tool". As I've noted previously, they're allowing inactive accounts to take part in server non-merge transfers, and Stargrace recently resubscribed to Warhammer only to be encouraged to leave her server before she even zoned into the game, presumably because its population was so low that Mythic did not feel it could be saved by encouraging new players to roll on that server.

Likewise, there is much speculation within the Warhammer community that, with many players having finished much of the WoW expansion, and with Mythic's efforts to add much-needed improvements to various parts of the game over the four months since it came out, the time is ripe for players to return. If this improvement to subscriber numbers does materialize, though, no one will know about it, because we don't know what the numbers were before things improved. (Mark Jacobs may actually have come around to this view of thinking, as he implies that EA will be releasing some figures at their next earnings call.)

In the end, numbers are just measures of reality. You might think you're doing yourself a favor by conceling the fact that half your servers are underpopulated, but it comes back to bite you in the rear end when new players blunder into a server, not knowing that it's deserted, don't find the level of community they want, and quit (in the process, missing out on your game). If things are bad, your problem is that things are bad, not the crippling fear that people might FIND OUT that things are bad. In an online world, they probably already know.

P.S. If anyone is looking to release more usage statistics to flesh out a post like the one Mythic put in their Herald post, the number I'd love to see is median hours /played per account (per week or whatever time unit you use). That plus the percentage Mythic did release, would probably have cleared up all the questions I asked. Thanks! ;)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Patch 3.0.8 Drops, Wintergrasp Drops Servers

The long awaited patch 3.0.8 finally hit the live WoW servers yesterday. I didn't have work due to the inauguration, so I was able to sign on pretty soon after the servers came back up to snag the Wintergrasp rewards. I had just shy of 100 marks banked, which was enough to pick up a [Titan-forged Hood of Salvation] (finally, a Wrath-quality hat with a meta socket) for everyday use, a pair of [Titan-forged Slippers of Dominance] for my spell hit set (I was previously at the hit cap in my hit set, but lost a chunk of rating to make room for the [Sundial of the Exiled]), and an [Anvil of Titans] (Wowhead tooltip isn't updated yet, it's 84 resil and the spell power proc from the Sundial) for my PVP set.

It's a good thing I made it on early enough.

The Revenge of Wintergrasp

Blizzard has previously blamed server issues on Wintergrasp, and apparently the zone decided that it should show them precisely what would happen to the servers if it ACTUALLY decided to take them down. Basically, the entire continent of Northrend would crash every time the Wintergrasp keep changed hands. This became a critical issue because A) this patch rolled out changes that make it almost certain that the keep WILL change hands each time the battle is fought and B) the battle starts over after any server reset/crash. Basically, the server crashed every 15-20 minutes until Blizzard temporarily disabled the entire battle.

(Sadly, the Alliance lost the coin toss of sorts. The last server-crashing battle before the zone was disabled was won by the Horde. Therefore the Horde got uncontested control of the zone - including the mark reward vendors - for however long it takes to fix this issue. I'm a bit jealous - I would have earned enough Stone Keeper shards for my next heirloom item last night, had the Wintergrasp buff been in continuous effect - and will shift to a bit irritated if I miss out on the week's Archavon farming opportunity because this hasn't been fixed.)

This, I suppose, underscores the need for paid Quality Assurance testers. You can let players make a copy of their persistent characters onto a temporary test servers, but most players simply will not spend as much effort on temporary clones as they will on characters they get to keep. And then, somehow, a patch that spent over a month on the PTR's manages to launch with a server-crashing bug.

In other patch-day ramblings:

Icons everywhere, and other cosmetic details
I joked about the new icon for the Wintergrasp buff, but that icon was not alone. One of my trinkets turned from something that looked like a rune into a candle. Another one of my talent procs got a new icon. Judging from /guild, several other people had new icons lurking here and there. The patch also added a number of new achievements that hadn't been in the game previously, including at least two new critter-related ones.

On the downside, my polar bear mount got a slight increase in size that makes him too tall to fit in doors. As a gnome, I'm used to being able to ride into the bank and other buildings, relying on the shift indoors to dismount me automatically. The "improved" bear no longer fits in the door, which means that I run into the doorframe and have to dismount manually. I guess I'll have to switch out my bear for a shorter mount now. :-/

Other Wintergrasp changes?
I didn't get that much of a chance to play around with Wintergrasp due to the server issues, but what I did see was intriguing. There's a new daily quest (Horde version here) for the defending faction to destroy one of the previously useless towers held by the offense in the south of the zone. It looked like there was some kind of a buff for the offense that might be removed or transferred if these towers were destroyed. More details as I get them, and it may all be a moot point due to all the other changes that favor a quick and brutal end to the match in the attackers' favor, but it could be a good first step in making the rest of the zone matter.

Random bosses and loot are random
As Klep quipped last week: "Random boss is random". After farming the Violet Hold repeatedly (10 Cyanigosa kills, and several failed PUG's that fell apart on the first or second bosses), the last random miniboss I needed for the Lockdown achievement finally spawned last night. I'm not serious about attempting all of the optional "hard mode" achievements for the sub-bosses, which is a good thing since it would suck to wait for weeks to even SEE the random boss in question and then fail to get the achievement.

Meanwhile, with the Wintergrasp swag, my desired loot list is getting shorter by the minute. There are some more side-grades I'd like to pick up (e.g. PVP bracers, spell hit neck and hat), but the two big gear issues I have right now are pants and a wand. Unfortunately, it looks like I'm finally out of gear slots I can fill with some combination of rep and currencies, which means I'm going to have to bite the bullet and farm instances.

Believe it or not, the [Rod of the Fallen Monarch] I want dropped on a Heroic Azjol Nerub run last night... but, of course, I didn't win the roll. I can try the zone again today, but I'll be up against the same odds - something like 1 in 4 for the wand to actually drop, and then a roll-off if it actually does against anyone else who wants it. This is far from the worst drop situation in the game, but it's also already feeling frustrating compared to the relative assurance that a token system will get you the item you want in X amount of time. I'd rather have certainty that I won't be farming forever than the Vegas-style chance of getting the item outright on a first kill.

I suppose the system probably isn't going anywhere to the extent that it works, and I don't have anything better to do before I'm done with the last two dungeon reps and any heroic emblem purchases. Still, this is the kind of thing that you think about when your monthly bill date comes up and it's the only thing left on your to do list.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vacation photos

I spent part of the weekend partaking of the great (offline) outdoors, therefore you get pictures instead of gaming analysis.

Welcome to the Blackrock Mountain Parking area, please park your mounts here for all your BRD, BRS, MC, and BWL grouping needs. Due to imbeciles slaughtering flying mounts in search of [Chromatic Carapace], Rend Blackhand's parking service claims no responsibility for damage to parked mounts.

The Azeroth park service would like to remind players not to feed, or attempt to tame, the wildlife. Deer standing around by the road are cute the first time. They're worth stopping to take a picture the second time. By the time you've had six encounters with a total of 12 deer, one of which made its best effort to throw itself in front of your car at the last possible moment, they're somewhat less endearing. Don't feed the bleeping deer so they won't hang out by the road expecting food, kthxbye.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Blizzard Discusses the 800lb Content Gorilla

Ghostcrawler has some forum posts up discussing the 800 lb gorilla of the Wrath endgame - lack of content. There are two points where he is certainly correct:

- "We know some players can chew through content pretty quickly. It is one of the biggest challenges of MMO development to provide enough content. Players always want more. Always."

- TBC did technically launch with much more raid content, but it was in much worse shape. Kara was tuned a bit hard for an entry level zone, forcing a transition from 10-man to 25-man was a logistical nightmare, Mags and Gruul added to the difficulty of that transition, SSC and TK were a buggy, unpolished mess, and no one was even able to tell how badly Hyjal was broken until they saw it on the 2.1 PTR. No one seems to be complaining that the raids in the game now are buggy, just that there aren't enough of them.

(In other news, GC insulted the poor SSC "Equally interesting yet non-epic-dropping non-bosses" by calling them "trash", though one supposes that the name is what the community likes to call it.)

GC also makes a relatively candid admission of a criticism I have leveled against the TBC era:
" I think the concern is because we were slow to fix some balance problems in the past so players are concerned that if we don't fix the problem now that they will be dealing with it for many tiers to come.

It is a totally valid response given our history, but we are making a big effort to make changes in a more timely manner."

This is slightly idle speculation on my part, but I do think Blizzard has set up the current expansion with future progression in mind. It is encouraging that they were prepared to talk broadly about plans for Wrath's three major planned content patches as early as Blizzcon (before the expansion's launch).

I'm less convinced that Blizzard can actually deliver these new patches at a faster rate than they've managed in the past, given, for instance, the lengthy PTR cycle for the minor 3.0.8 patch. I think Blizzard is making the right call by going for high quality over frequent quantity. Still, I'll believe that Blizzard is going to address problems - especially that 800 lb content gorilla - in a more timely manner when I see it.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Update on Level 80 Priorities

After I hit 80 on my mage, I wrote up priorities for what I'd be working on at 80. I've spent a bit of time since working on a two part Gear Guide, and I even formalized a set of New Year's Resolutions on the topic.

So, a month or so after the fact (longer on the calendar, but I was out of town for a week in there), how is it going?

Reputations and Daily Quests
Through the combined modern miracles of daily quests and tabards, Green is now exalted with Wyrmrest, the Kirin Tor, and the Argent Crusade. He's a day away from exalted with the Oracles, and was already exalted wih the Kalu'ak when he hit 80.

I deliberately chose to put off the Hodir and Ebon Blade reps to help ward off daily quest burnout. I'll go as far as I can on the Ebon Blade front via dungeon rep, because I find most of the dailies are on the tedious side. Hodir I will have to bite the bullet on, but I'm going to wait for the oft-delayed patch 3.0.8 to see how the new repeatable quest for [Relic of Ulduar]. There's also the matter of the Argent Vanguard - I'm not even sure off-line where my rep is on that front because it's a meta-faction not reported in the armory. Either way, I'm getting pretty close to finished with reps.

Unfinished Quests
I'm pretty sure I've managed to gear up beyond the level of any remaining non-repeatable quests in Northrend, but I do still want to finish enough quests in Icecrown to finish up Icecrown: The Final Goal so I can get Loremaster and craft my own [Deathchill Cloak].

Wintergrasp and PVP
I actually obtained my first heirloom item, and am well on my way to a second. The bad news is that, in my view, Wintergrasp is nigh impossible to defend. We'll see how the poll turns out, but the current stats have definitely dampened the enthusiasm I had for the zone a month ago.

Though I said at the time that I was not not all that interested in PUG'ging dungeons, I have wound up doing PUG Heroics for the excellent rewards. I'm halfway through my newly revised goal of finishing all twelve heroic dungeons.

On hold til patch 3.0.8 due to pending material cuts.

I'm considering taking my rogue for a spin once I get the 80ish shards I need to get her a heirloom dagger (an unusually big deal for a Rogue because they have dagger-required attacks, and it's irritating to choose between sticking with an out-dated dagger and losing several key skills). How far that project goes will depend on whether the novelty of literally burning through levels outweighs the fact that I've done all the old content multiple times. Not feeling much interest in taking the Ret Pally through Northrend just yet.

Misc Achievements and Cash
The cash is piling up as a result of day to day activities, and I haven't decided if I want to save it, spend it on misc projects (e.g. dropping Tailoring and powerleveling Jewelcutting, etc), buy raid BOE's (I'm never fond of that much money for incremental upgrades, but I suppose I'd reconsider if a best-in-slot BOE came along for a price I can afford), or burn the cash on fluff money sinks (e.g. mounts, pets). I do still want a motorcycle for my Hunter, but that is NOT something I'm going to be making a top priority out of.

As to misc achievements, those are getting closer to the top of my list because I'm running out of other stuff. We'll see how far I decide to go on that front.

Newish item: Gearing up
Since I wrote my gear guide, I've actually obtained a good 10 items off my shopping list. Right now, the major holes remaining in my gear are the hat (solved with 3.0.8), the pants (Heroic Loken or Archavon), and maybe a wand (Heroic Azjol Nerub?). I will also need to juggle some items to stay at the hit cap on my hit set, and to meet meta gem requirements, and there are a few slots with some minor upgrades, but, at the moment, nearly half my gear is what I consider best-in-slot for my status as a non-raider.

New item: Experimenting with specs?
I'm currently running with an unconventional Water Elemental/Critical Mass Frostfire build. I wasn't very interested in Deep Freeze at the bottom of the Frost tree, and I REALLY wasn't interested in removing the snare from my main nuke with the [Glyph of Frostbolt]. Meanwhile, going with a 24 point investment in the Fire tree gets me Impact, Burning Soul (works on Frostfire Bolt), and some other goodies. The catch is that it's very clear in group settings that I'm doing significantly less damage than I should be based on the quality of my gear, while often literally being unable to spend my mana fast enough.

The real question is where to go from there. I tried the cookie cutter Fire/Frost Frostfire build back when I first got the spell but it felt like being a Frost mage without two of my key frost tools (Ice Barrier and the Elemental). Euripedes has a 2-part post up on the Arcane Barrage + Shatter Arcane/Frost build. I find this intriguing for PVP (lots of burst damage and instant casts), but I'm not looking to formally adopt a PVP-focused build until dual specs come out.

One alternative I'm considering is the currently less-than-common Fire spec that actually still casts Fireball over Frostfire Bolt. (Broadly speaking, it's something like this build, though apparently Molten Fury and Torment the Weak are currently incompatible due to a bug). This appeals to me because I dislike total cookie cutter builds. The big major catch is that there's no room in that build for 8 points in the Frost tree, which means that I would lose 3% hit rating from Elemental Precision. I haven't decided how much this bothers me - I'm still near 6% in my everyday gear, which means I can hit cap 5-mans without it, but it could be a problem for my raid boss hit numbers. Then again, this build may be good for more than a 500+ DPS upgrade over my current numbers, so a little hit rating may be the least of my concerns.

Either way, I'm probably keeping my 50% uptime Elemental til I finish those Icecrown quests, but, after that, it may be time to experiment.

How is the length of the expansion doing?
As I predicted/feared, I'm getting pretty close to done with all of the non-raid things I can do in the game that will advance my main's gear after a month at 80. That's the same boat everyone is in, raider and non-raider alike, but it's unfortunate. Unless there's some treasure trove of stuff I haven't done and never knew I wanted to, odds are good that I may be playing a second game on the side (most likely EQ2) by the time I hit 2 months at 80.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Waiting for 3.0.8

We were having a discussion of how to fill the "2 blue gems" requirement for the [Chaotic Skyflare Diamond] over at Subcreation, when I noticed something that I find puzzling.

If you want a cloth hat with a meta socket, you have very limited options in Wrath content. There's the moderately cheap [Hat of Wintry Doom], which is crafted, but has two handicaps - it's only ilvl 187, which puts it a tier below heroic loot, and it has hit rating, which you may or may not need more of. There are a pair of heroic dungeon rares, both of which are good for about 100 spell power if you stuff a red gem in their respective sockets (which you may or may not be free to do, since you'll need two blue gems for the Diamond's meta bonus), only each spends a huge chunk of its budget on 50+ points of spirit. And there's the [Savage Gladiator's Silk Cowl] for those of you who are dying to spend 60K honor on a blue item with PVP stats. The ilvl 200 epics aren't any better, featuring three drops from late in Naxx-10, an arena epic that requires a 1735 rating, and an engineer-only hat.

Why didn't I complain about this when I did my Wrath gear guide? Because relief is possibly coming in the form of a pair of Wintergrasp mark reward items that have been languishing on the PTR's for over a month. I hadn't even bothered to check the alternatives, since I figured that a non-content patch wouldn't take so long to clear the PTR's, and I'm swimming in Wintergrasp marks for whenever it finally arrives.

From the current PTR build (9464, SS taken 1/16/09), the hypothetical Wintergrasp reward hats. I remain hopeful but suspicious for their appearance on live realms until it actually occurs, because PVP items of "Salvation" typically have spirit rather than haste (and Dominance typically has crit rating rather than hit).

Awaiting easier grinds
The hat isn't actually the only thing I'm waiting for in this supposedly minor patch. As of the most recent update, Blizzard has also decided to allow low level mobs to grant full reputation gain, which will dramatically improve the speed with which I can complete the Timbermaw grind. Meanwhile, both enchanting and tailoring (a profession I might not even be sticking with) are in line for substantial reductions in materials required for leveling recipes, which would make it much easier for me to gain the remaining skill points I need.

How long can a mini-patch take?
Though Blizzard has not breathed a word of this, it's possible that the extremely lengthy PTR for a bugfix patch may be due in part to the holidays. There were no new PTR builds for a decent chunk of time around Christmas and New Years, and perhaps some of the staff got a vacation with the worst of the expansion launch bugs behind them.

Things look like they're finally winding down now, though it's impossible to tell with Blizzard since they won't even confirm that today is NOT patch day before the servers go down for weekly maintenance - the major news sites are left to speculate based on the EU maintenance schedule, because it's certain that Blizzard would lose millions of subscribers in a fell swoop if they announced a patch day and then had to pull it for a bug. (After all, not having the weekly denial that the patch is today might be taken as confirmation.)

Still, it's a bit disconcerting to see a minor update take as long as this one has. How long will we be waiting for patch 3.1 (possibly - though Blizzard doesn't want to promise that either - to contain the much-awaited dual spec feature), if this is how long it takes to test some bug fixes, a few misc items, and a few balance changes? How much stuff will we have to put on hold while we wait for improvements to make their way to the live servers from the PTR's?

With February fast approaching, we're unlikely to see patch 3.1 go live before mid-March. I suppose four months from the Wrath launch to the first major content patch isn't bad by the low standards of the TBC era, but that's going to put ever increasing pressure on the content that's currently in the game as more and more players complete it. The shoes that patch 3.1 will be expected to fill are growing by the day, and it may have a hard time meeting those expectations.

A bonus, PVD exclusive, patch 3.0.8 preview: The buff for owning Wintergrasp is getting a new icon (distinct for the one for mana regen from your Ret Pally). This is NOT the kind of feature that's going to drive subscriber retention.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Poll: Is Wintergrasp Defensible During Peak Hours?

Is it possible to defend Wintergrasp during peak hours? Suicidal Zebra was on the wrong end of a battle that would argue that it is possible to defend the keep. My experience has been completely the opposite. On Hyjal-US, Wintergrasp changes hands very reliably every two hours and fifty five minutes (2:30 of control by the victor and not more than 25 minutes of seige by the next offensive campaign) or so during peak hours. (It's a West coast server, I'd define peak hours broadly as between 3 PM server - when the East Coast folks start tricking home from work through til 10 PM server - when I usually go to bed and therefore stop tracking who has the keep.)

Lag conquers all?
This may, in part, be due to the massive lag the zone experiences. In the first month or so of the expansion, a strong defense could win the battle - I remember one fight in which we were able to defend the orb for over 12 minutes by focused AOE. Now, with more players hitting level 80 every day, it's not uncommon for the Alliance to have two full 40-man raid groups in the zone, with the Horde not lagging that far behind (maybe a single Tenacity buff).

Lag is a tremendous advantage for the offense, as the goal of the defenders is to destroy enemey tanks (a task that takes longer when a 2.5 second spell takes 10 seconds to cast - your target may no longer be in range when the spell finishes) and damage enemy players in the flag room to interrupt their capture attempts (which, again, requires that your spell/ability actually happens sometime in the next 10 seconds). Since we started having server-crippling lag in the keep, I cannot remember a single prime time match where the keep did not change hands.

Did Blizzard go too far to protect the smaller faction?
My first reaction when I heard that an outdoor world PVP zone was going to play a larger role in Wrath was skepticism - wouldn't the more populous faction control it all the time? Tenacity was one prong of Blizzard's attack (indeed, having tenacity can be a big advantage for the offense, since they are more dependent on the survival of their tanks) on this front - if your side is outnumbered, you get substantial buffs to help even the odds.

Beyond that, though, I'm starting to wonder if they designed the keep itself to be taken. There is no active win condition for the defenders - destroying the enemy's southern vehicle workshops has minimal effect on the battle (it takes so long to drive tanks north that no one does it to begin with), and it is difficult (if not impossible) to destroy or capture the midfield workshops without leaving the keep undefended. The walls look tough if you're plinking them with a catapult, but they'll crack pretty quickly under pressure from even a single tank. The only major advantage the defense has is the ability to AOE the orb with a relatively close graveyard within the fortress, but this has been crippled by the lag and targeted for elimination with instant flag captures on the 3.0.8 PTR (along with tougher vehicles and a weaker final keep door).

You still need a certain minimum number of players to capture the keep - I'd guess the number is somewhere around 30, so there will be players not in tanks available to guard the tanks, which are not good at fighting off enemy players. When 10 people show up to attack the keep, they're not going to get very far. Barring that situation (which happens in off-peak hours), it really seems that the attackers always win.

Somehow, the match is a lot less fun knowing that its outcome is a foregone conclusion - I don't even go anymore unless I have yet to complete the daily quests or I'm looking for an Archavon group after the Alliance offensive. I guess this keeps the lower population faction happy - both sides are equally unlikely to have custody of the buff during the time when they would like to be doing Archavon or looting shards in instances. Then again, being able to keep control of those benefits was the single largest incentive for helping your faction win the battle, and, instead, that incentive is just divided 50/50.

The Poll
Anyway, I'm curious to hear whether other people have observed the same trend in Wintergrasp.

Is Wintergrasp Defensible During Peak Hours?
- Yes, a good defense can hold the keep.
- No, the keep flips every 3 hours like clockwork.

Poll is open in the sidebar if you're reading this on my blog, it'll stay open for maybe a month or so. For those of you who do see the keep withstanding the seige on a regular basis, I'd also be curious to hear in the comments whether there are enough participants in the battle to cause major lag in the keep, just to see if that's the difference-maker.

Happy voting! ;)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Disneyland Souvenir Accessibility

Tobold wrote an analogy for raid accessibility in the form of a petition to Disney Land. Rohan provides a counterpoint response from Mickey Mouse. This meme amuses me, if for no other reason than because - as Tobold noted in his first post - it will confuse the heck out of Google. (Sorry if you found this post via a Google search, with no intention of getting MMORPG blogs. ;)) Therefore, I present a discussion of WoW incentives by analogy to Disney World.

(I suspect that I will get some number of flames for this post, as Rohan and Tobold did for theirs. I'm okay with this, though I will point out that analogy is, by definition, not 100% accurate, and some exaggeration has been employed for the sake of satire.)

To The Disney Board:
As you are no doubt aware, recent additions to the park have changed the way in which parkgoers obtain epic quality souvenirs. Originally, patrons who wanted epic quality souvenirs would participate in the park's traditional progression, in which they would form groups of 40 (more recently reduced to 25) to farm the Haunted Mansion for attunement to Space Mountain, where a handful of randomly selected souvenirs that may or may not have been on anyone's wish lists would be awarded to the group once (and once only) per week for distribution by whatever means the group felt were appropriate. The new changes have added two prominent alternate paths to souvenir progression:

PVP (Patron versus Pirates)
We observed that a larger than expected number of parkgoers were only interested in riding the Pirates of the Carribean ride, due to its convenient location and accessiblity, and an inexplicable fascination with Orlando Bloom. Prior to Park Update 2.3, however, the PotC souvenir store provided only rare quality souvenirs, which resulted in limited interest in repeatedly queueing for the ride. Under the new system, Piracy points awarded for PVP can be exchanged for epic quality souvenirs, allowing patrons to collect a full set of souvenirs solely through PVP.

Badges of Wishing Upon a Star (BOWUS)
We also discovered that patrons who had already advanced to Space Mountain had no incentive to continue to use easier rides, leaving them with little to do while waiting for Space Mountain to reset with the new week. Meanwhile, patrons who were unable to complete easier rides, such as the Haunted Mansion, were similarily out of things to do in the Park, as they had completed all the rides that were within their reach. To provide incentive to use easier rides within the park, we implemented the BOWUS in Park Update 2.4. The badges can be earned on entry level rides within the park, such as Splash Mountain, and can be exchanged at a special badge vendor for epic quality souvenirs that are nominally of equal quality to those obtained randomly at Space Mountain.

Effects on the Value of Traditional Park Progression Incentives
Though these changes have allowed Disney to sustain and grow its customerbase, while every single other theme park in the market slowly but surely loses customers over time, there is much concern amongst patrons who had been sucessful in the traditional park progression that greater accessibility for epic quality souvenirs somehow diminishes the value of their more difficult achievements. We have taken care to ensure that PVP and vendor epic quality souvenirs are not quite as good as their group progression counterparts, but many feel that the park has gone too far to cater to the less dedicated park patrons.

Ultimately, we have opted to continue and expand the use of PVP and Badge souvenirs in the park's recent second expansion, as we feel that these new systems are in the park's best interest. However, many of our lead park designers are themselves fans and veterans of the old school park progression, and we wanted to give our most dedicated progression fans a little nudge nudge wink wink to let them know that we'd be looking out for them if only the bean counters upstairs would let us.

Therefore, we are officially endorsing the use of the term Welfare Souvenirs (45 sec- 1 min mark on the video) to describe the souvenirs obtained through PVP and badge vendors. Some of our patrons might feel that our use of this term is inappropriate for the following reasons:
- We designed and implemented the souvenirs in question, because we wish to retain the revenue that customers interested in obtaining these souvenirs provide.
- The term is insulting to both our customers and to people who are actually on welfare, in ways that one might figure are inappropriate for a major entertainment corporation's employees to publicly endorse.

We, obviously, disagree, and will instruct all Disney employees to continue to use the term (even though, ironically, some have said that the welfare souvenirs now come from our most recent group rides, rather than PVP/badges). We do recognize that mocking other park patrons' "welfare souvenirs" at a family park might upset their children. Though we aren't sure the community team will allow us to use the term ourselves, we're told that the appropriate response is "cry more, kid".

This type of inter-patron class warfare might seem counterproductive to the good-natured spirit in which Walt Disney founded our company. We are alright with that - anything our users are complaining about that distracts from the true root of their displeasure, namely the glacial pace at which we have historically added new content to the park, is fine by us.

Respectfully submitted,
Jiminy Cricket, CFO

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Do Incentives for Victory Break the Learning Curve?

"So the less players are driven by the motivation to see new content, the more you need to motivate them by something else: Rewards."

- Tobold, writing on reward distribution in WoW today.

Underlying yesterday's discussion of PUG's is a bit of a philsophical divide.

In one camp, perhaps spear-headed by Larisa, are players for whom the experience of doing the content is its own reward - as she put it in the comments, there are precious moments that make you forget all about the past failed runs.

In the other, we have players for whom the content would NOT be worth doing more than once on its own merits. Players like, well, myself, who size up the incentives for doing the content, weigh them against the cost (in time, frustration, effort, whatever), and make a cost-benefit decision on whether the content is worth doing.

Developers target players in the incentive-driven camp with the (hopefully) careful balance of reward structures that I refer to as the Player Vs Developer game. This time around, I'd argue that Blizzard has done an excellent job in crafting incentives that encourage players to use the content.

Solo vs group?
Let's say that I have 90 minutes or so to play this evening. I can:

A) Solo daily quests and walk away with 2-3K in various relevant daily quest reputations (spread out over various factions based on what quests are available), maybe 6-7 Stone Keeper Shards and 5K honor points if Wintergrasp happens during the window, and something like 200 gold.

B) Do a PUG heroic. If the group is a success, this will yield 1500-2000 rep in the championed faction of my choice, 3-5 Emblems of Heroism, 12+ Stone Keeper Shards if the Alliance owns Wintergrasp, and possibly a shot at immediate loot that I would use right away if it dropped. (Unless it's a flawless run, there will probably be some net cost in gold for repair bills etc, but that's relatively trivial from where I sit.) A failure of a heroic group, which happens in my experience maybe 10-20% of the time, can still often down at least one boss, walking away with a few hundred rep and an Emblem (+4 shards w/Wintergrasp), albeit at a higher price in repair cash.

This spread of rewards is no accident. The 5-man content offers substantially greater rewards over the same window of time, even after deducting time spent looking for groups (during which you can be doing the solo dailies if you want to) and a reasonable rate of groups failing. If the rewards had been the other way around, I might still have done all the dungeons once each for the Dungeonmaster achievement, but I would probably never set foot in another Wrath 5-man again. With the rewards, the 5-man content is typically going to be my first choice when my schedule permits.

Shifting the community
I'm not alone - many players, who might not have felt the rewards were worth the effort in TBC, are hitting the LFG channel and joining PUG's, precisely because the rewards for 5-man content have never been better. We're doing content - and, for me at least, having fun doing that content 90% of the time - that we would not otherwise be doing. It's a textbook case of a Player Vs Developer encounter where both sides come out with a win.

The catch is a shift in player attitudes - Klep has a discussion on this topic today - that is driving to the great PUG divide. If you're doing group content for incentives, it's much more important that the group be able to complete the content. An unsuccessful group actually does ruin your day if you're planning your time investment around the expectation of success.

Ultimately, the devs have to reward success over failure if they expect players to attempt to succeed. Much of intentional bad behaviour on the part of players, such as AFK'ing, ninja looting, etc, happens because the incentives reward players for doing it, rather than because they're actively out to grief their teammates. It is much better to reward players for good behaviour, which should, if the game is designed properly, lead to success in instances.

The real question is whether the learning curve is set in the right place. As Klep points out, everyone had to learn how to play at some point. There needs to be room in the system for enough leeway to let players learn from their mistakes, rather than brutally wiping the floor with them; the latter leads players to be insular and distrustful of anyone who might slow them down. Time will tell whether that part of the learning curve is in the right place.

Virtual Materialism?
At the end of the day, am I on the wrong side of this argument? Valuing camraderie and overcoming adversity certainly sounds like the "good" side, while striving for loot (which exists only as abstract and arbitrary pixels and bits on a server) seems like the materialistic perspective of the "bad" guys.

For myself personally, though, I view gearing up as an intellectual exercise. I know that I'm neither willing nor able to clock the hours raiding, farming, studying strats, etc needed to beat the top encounters in the game. The challenge, for me, is finding the sweet spot on that cost benefit curve, where I can get ever so much closer to where the more dedicated players are on my own terms. From that perspective, things have never been better than they are in Wrath.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Northrend Dungeonmaster and the Helplessness of Joining PUG's.

I had a moderately busy weekend and, incidentally, managed to complete the last three 5-mans needed for the Northrend Dungeonmaster achievement, one of my New Year's Resolutions. Having been through all of the 5-mans of Northrend at least once, I'm reasonably impressed with the lot of them. Blizzard seems to have done a reasonable job of making some unique dungeons with good scenery and variety of challenges.

Though I am in a great guild, I do play a DPS character, and I'm not reliably on at predictable enough times to participate in scheduled dungeon runs. As a result, many of those dungeon runs are in the dreaded PUG (Pick Up Group).

What people are saying about PUG's
Everyone who joins PUG's has a few good stories. Klep has had a few mixed experiences with the PUG. Rohan has an entire roundup of PUG-related entries from the blogosphere, though he says his own experience hasn't been that horrible (perhaps it helps to be a skilled healer?). Keen got hit with a stat check while looking for heroic groups, probably at the hands of people who were tired of getting burned by PUG's. Larisa looks back at it all and asks if we're getting too picky with the easy content. Overall, it's pretty hard NOT to have an opinion on this topic unless you NEVER join a PUG.

The Good and the Bad
The thing that really strikes me about the PUG is how hit or miss they can be.

On a good day, like yesterday, I can burn through three Heroics, a PuG 25-man Vault run, and that last lingering non-Heroic I needed for the achievement (in hindsight, I could have skipped that run because I wound up finishing the same dungeon later that day on Heroic), and not have to put up with too much idiocy. (The only down spot was the healadin who refused to accept a summon to the instance until he finished "2 more kills" and proceeded to spend start a followup quest with a lengthy scripted event - which wound up taking 20 minutes while the rest of the group waited by the summon stone - but at least he was able to heal reasonably effectively when he finally showed up.)

On a bad day? Let's see, once I took a 100% repair bill in a Heroic Gun Drak run that only managed one boss. Another time we had a healer - in fairness, I think he had just respecced, and I acknowledge that the learning curve is a problem - who could not keep the tank alive for the first trash pull of Heroic UK. (That was actually NOT a worst case scenario, since it became obvious very quickly that this group was not going to make it.) I've been recruited as a replacement to Heroic Violet Hold by people who "forgot" to mention that they'd downed the first boss on a previous attempt until after I'd zoned into the instance and been saved to their raidID - a bit of a double red flag, since it meant being saved to an instance with less than the full number of badges with a group that had already failed the instance once (though we did manage to complete the instance for the remaining two badges).

Overall, I have to admit that things aren't THAT bad if those are my worst stories - two legitimate failures and a few less than courteous groups that still managed to complete the instance, out of maybe a dozen or so attempts. What frustrates me about the state of the PUG is how helpless I feel to influence that outcome.

Helplessness in a PUG - Can you really save the group?
Because the 5-man portions of WoW's level 80 game offer much better rewards than the solo content, I don't really feel like skipping PUG's altogether is really an option. I got more reputation in yesterday's Heroic marathon than I get out of a week of daily quests (actually, more like a month, since the rep in question was Kirin Tor, and they offer so few daily quest options). Even that disasterous Gun Drak group I mentioned still downed a boss for one Heroic Emblem and four Stone Keeper Shards, which are more of each than I could have gotten solo during the same amount of time.

(In fact, Blizzard recently nerfed one of the Wintergrasp daily quests, because three stone keeper shards - as many as a single, non-heroic, level 80 5-man boss - was too much in their view to award from a soloable daily quest that involves a limited number of mobs that do not respawn faster when there are more players around, and that are located in a mandatory PVP flag zone.)

However, once I've resolved to PUG it, it doesn't really feel to me like there's all that much I can do to avoid the questionable groups. Sure, I can decline the invitation if some guy named "IRLEET" sends me a blind invite through the LFG interface (Blizzard obligates you to specify something that you want a group for in order to get listening access to the LFG channel) without even saying hello or mentioning what instance I'm being invited to. I can try to learn the names of all the players on the server (not very feasible) so I can learn to separate the competent from the idiots.

After those rudimentary screens, though, it often comes down to take it or leave it. That mage who is only willing to invite me to his heroic Violet Hold run if I agree not to roll against him for the spell hit trinket may be my only ticket into the instance for the evening. (In that particular case, which has come up more than once, I was sufficiently confident that I would repeat the instance for badges well past the point when I got all the loot that I needed that I was willing to stomach the loot rule - I ultimately proved correct, as I've got everything I'd want from the instance.) There are only going to be so many groups formed in the window between now and when I have to turn in for the night.

I can't tank for the group, heal for the group, or fill the other two DPS/CC slots for the group. All I can do is accept the invitation and hope that I'm going to bed in two hours satisfied that I made some progress instead of frustrated that I wasted the time on a disaster of a PUG.

Now sure, these things all apply to guild 5-mans/raiding as well. However, with a guild, at least you've got the opportunity to kid around with your friends and maybe help people learn a thing or two about playing the game so that you'll all have better luck next time. When you're teaming up with a bunch of total strangers, you're not very likely to benefit from the investment or enjoy the experience. So, all you're left with is the possibility, maybe 10-20%, that the guy in the ice cream truck is going to punch you in the face instead of giving you an ice cream cone. That, more than the failure itself, is what makes PUG's so frustrating.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Can Keep Warfare Overpopulation Be Fixed?

This week has seen both Mythic and Blizzard hard at work to deal with a fundamental problem with the design of keep seige warfare in MMORPG's - the seiges are TOO popular. This would seem to be a good problem to have, since it means that people are actually chosing to use the content. Unfortunately, MMORPG servers are built with the assumption that players are going to be spread out over the entire game world, and they tend to develop problems when hundreds of players are fighting it out for control of a single room. How can we deal with this?

Mythic: Throw the bums out (first)!
Mythic's approach is to add a new system that throws under-leveled players out of the keep to make room for max level players as the area becomes overcrowded. This isn't entirely without controversy on its own, as much of the draw of the Warhammer Public Quest approach is that anyone can come as they are, even under-leveled, and contribute to the battle, but I suppose most people will agree that max level characters will contribute the most.

Unfortunately, this alone is not enough to clear out server-crashing crowds, so the system will eventually lock down the entire area, punting even max level late-comers to the nearest warcamp. Players are concerned about what happens when you die and need to run back, amongst other details.

It'll be interesting to hear how this works in practice, but it does seem that "open world RVR" loses some of its lustre if it has to be partially locked down, even if this stops shy of actually instancing the keeps outright.

Blizzard: End the battle, end the lag: destroying Wintergrasp to save it
Blizzard is outright blaming Wintergrasp crowds for general server lag. As someone who is almost always actually in Wintergrasp when the battle is on, I think Wintergrasp may be falsely accused here - some of the worst outdoor lag I've seen has happened when Wintergrasp was NOT up and running. That said, it's certainly a problem when 300 people show up in peak hours and you can't actually see anything that's happening - I've been feared during the server lag and had the server freeze up for so long that my character physically ran clear through the keep wall before the server recovered.

In response, Blizzard added some balance tweaks in the January 7th PTR patch notes that appear to be aimed at ending the battle more quickly.

Without delving too deeply into the nitty gritty, there are three outer courtyards that the attacking team can go after, from which they attempt to break through to reach the one central courtyard. From the central courtyard, the attacking side has to batter down the final door to the keep, and one or more attackers has to go in and capture the orb, a 10 second channel that breaks on any damage. Under the new changes, the keep door will become much weaker and the orb will be captured instantly upon being clicked by an attacker.

I understand the problem that Blizzard is trying to address here - the initial stages of fighting spread out the battle across (or even outside) the keep, but the last stand against the door and in the orb room really force all the players to pack into a server-crippling mob. Once that happens, it may be in the server's best interest to end the battle quickly, and Blizzard has a clear preference for ending battles in favor of the offense so that the keep will change hands often.

The issue is that these changes, coupled with an increase in vehicle HP (which favors the attacking team, since they need vehicles to break through the walls), are going to vastly worsen a balance of power that already greatly favors the attacking team. Simply put, they may be destroying Wintergrasp to save it.

Can keep seiges work without crashing servers?
A large part of the problem may be due to the lack of options; WoW has only the single keep (and it is attackable on a fixed, if hard to keep track of, timer), while Warhammer's zone control system clearly indicates to players which fortresses are currently available for capture. If players COULD spread out to attack multiple fronts and still maintain some of the feel of the seige campaign, perhaps they would - I suggested incentives for just such an approach the last time I wrote on Wintergrasp crowding.

The other side of the problem, the technical one, though, may sadly be unsolvable. There is a lot of room for server optimization, perhaps including code that renders things at a lower resolution when the going gets rough, but the servers have a limited capacity. Eve recently asked players to schedule their invasions in advance, but Blizzard already knows when the Wintergrasp battles will occur, and that doesn't seem to be helping them fix the congestion. If two of the biggest guns in MMORPG's today can't fix this problem, perhaps MMORPG technology is still too new to fix this problem just yet. That's a real shame, because a good seige can be a lot of fun.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Examining the Wrath "Hit Cap"

My mage finally got his hands on the coveted [Mark of the War Prisoner] last night, putting me within reach of the "hit cap" for Wrath. With the Mark, my spell hit set provides 357 hit rating, which is 11 shy of the "hit cap" of 368. However, one of my spell hit items is the 29 rating [Cape of Seething Steam]. If I take off that cape and go with whatever I would normally wear instead, I'm exactly 40 shy, which is exactly what you get from the well-fed buff for eating [Snapper Extreme]. That does mean passing on a spell power buff, but it's probably worth it in the short term since it lets me keep more of my everyday gear on.

Reaching the "hit cap" was not a high priority for me, since Archavon is really the only raid content that I do. Now that I'm kind of here, though, I might as well take a look at the mechanic.

What is the Hit Cap?
WoWwiki has the basics on Spell Hit. With changes that came with the 3.0 patches, the maximum hit rate for spells is now 100% (it previously capped at 99%). It is very beneficial to reach this cap, because it means that you won't have spells failing to hit (in the process, failing to proc trinkets/talents, crit, messing with your threat output, etc). For my mage's current gear output, hit rating is slightly more valuable than even spell power.

The first catch is that there are actually THREE 100% marks to watch. Against other level 80 targets (e.g. players in PVP), reaching 100% requires 4% hit bonuses from gear, talents, buffs, etc. Against level 82 targets, the highest level you will encounter in 5-man content, that magic number is 6%. Against level 83 targets - raid bosses count as three levels above the player, which, in this case, means 83 - the number jumps up to 17%. (You may have noticed this while leveling - Blizzard seemingly does not want casters to fight mobs that are more than two levels above our heads on a regular basis.)

Almost all DPS caster specs have access to 3% spell hit via talents (Smite-Spam priests are out of luck, while Arcane/Frost mages are slated to get access to 6% hit in patch 3.0.8 due to a tweak to Elemental Precision), so those first two numbers are not all that hard to reach from hit rating that's on your other gear. The worst case, in which you've opted to skip your spell hit talents and need to get enough for 5-mans from gear, is only 158 hit rating, which is still easier than it sounds. So, really, the only "hit cap" that requires serious attention is the raid cap.

A further moving target
Once you move into a raid group, the numbers tweak again. If your raid has a Balance Druid for Improved Faerie Fire or a Shadow Priest for Misery, they will grant everyone in the raid 3% spell hit (the two do not stack). Additionally, Draenei grant members of their party (but, from what I've heard, NOT members of other parties in the raid) a 1% bonus from Heroic Presence (Draenei mages will grant this bonus to themselves).

So, you want 14% hit after talents, unless some combination of those other buffs push you down to 13%, 11%, or 10%. See why I've been using airquotes around the term "hit cap" yet?

So, what are the actual numbers?
The actual number for a caster with 3% hit from talents trying to reach the raid hit cap is 368 hit rating. The tension here is that the hit cap really is a cap - the server won't kick you off if you go above the cap, but it also won't give you extra credit for doing so. If my raid gets a Shadow Priest or Moonkin, that 3% bonus makes 79 points of hit rating temporarily moot. That nice [Mark of the War Prisoner] has 73 hit rating on it, so I'm basically getting no benefit from the passive part of that trinket anymore.

As a result, it may or may not be helpful for your hit set to allow you to shed 26 rating (to 342 when grouped with Draenei), 79 rating (to 289 with the Shadow Priest/Moonkin buff), or 105 rating (to 263 with both of the above) as needed.

(Incidentally, did I mention that NONE of this information is documented officially in-game? I guess anyone who raids is supposed to figure this stuff out by hand, and the rest of us are supposed to know on our own that there's no need to enchant gloves for hit rating if we're not raiding and already have the minimal hit levels needed for solo/5-man content.)

How am I getting there?
My hit rating is split between small amounts sprinkled on my everyday gear and large chunks on specialty hit gear. The breakdown:

Everyday stuff:
[Flameheart Spell Scalpel] - 34 hit rating
[Ward of the Violet Citadel] - 38 hit rating
[Wand of Blinding Light] - 15 hit rating
[Heroes' Frostfire Gloves] - 33 hit rating
Boot Enchant: Icewalker - 12 hit rating

Total: 132
(Again, just my everyday gear puts me well over the top for 5-man stuff - I could spec out of two of the three points of Elemental Precision if I wanted to.)

Hit Rating Sidegrades:
[Water-Drenched Robe] - 68 hit rating w/ socket bonus (actually equal to the hit rating on the [Ebonweave Robe])
[Cape of Seething Steam] - 29 hit rating
[Mark of the War Prisoner] - 73 hit rating
[Rune of Infinite Power] - 55 hit rating
Total: 225

Right now, the sidegrades are all upgrades in situations where I'm not at the hit cap. That situation may not continue to hold up as I improve the gear in those slots (especially that green trinket, and my wand), and then I may have to start looking other alternatives (e.g. [Hateful Gladiator's Pendant of Ascendancy] to trade in the 34 haste rating on my Pendant of Subjugation for 34 hit rating) to compensate.

Why have a hit cap?
I guess the question I'm left with as I consider how to move forward is whether it's actually a good thing to aim players at a specific rating cap.

Casters aren't the group that encounters problems with arbitrary caps on stats we're otherwise encouraged to stack. Tanks encounter the same thing with the need for uncritable defense ratings. Back in the old patch 2.4 days, when I made a solo uncrushable Pally simply because it was possible to do so. The paradox was that defense rating was very valuable until I actually became both uncrittable and uncrushable, after which additional contributions to block rating became much less valuable. Then again, even in that case, the added defense rating was not totally wasted - it contributes to avoidance, and to block rating when Holy Shield is down. Hit rating is actually wasted when you have too much of it.

None of this would matter if we actually had direct control as players over how item budget is spent. Since we don't - perhaps in part so that Blizzard can add better items later - I don't think it's entirely unreasonable to be ask that large blocks of item stats don't suddenly stop working because something pushed you over the cap.

It may seem obvious that you can't hit more than 100% of the time, but couldn't excess hit above that cap spill over into something else, such as crit? Mages aren't going to deliberately stack excess hit rating to get more crit - what we actually want is spell power - so I don't really see how this would be abused, but it could always be taxed at some rate if needed (e.g. 50% of excess hit rating becomes crit rating). Regardless, having to juggle various sidegrades in order to continue to meet a static cap (be it hit, defense, etc) when you upgrade other portions of your gear or your party changes is a very clunky, meta-game heavy mechanic. I would definitely like to see some change on this front.