Saturday, February 28, 2009

DDR Incentives

Every so often, I decide that I should really exercise more, and I dust off the old PS2 to fire up some Dance Dance Revolution. I'm sure I look like an idiot doing it, but it's vaguely fun in a way that "go run around the neighborhood for no real reason" isn't.

Anyway, DDR games have a relatively straightforward incentive structure. They come with a large number of unlockable perks, but almost all of them are unlocked by simply playing the game, which you were probably going to do anyway. I started playing the most recent edition of DDR that I own (Supernova 1) but decided that I really missed some of the songs from the older version (DDR Max 2). I spent a lot of time with the old version back in the day, and all of my old records were still up on the scoreboard waiting to be challenged. However, there was something missing.... I'd already unlocked all of the things that could be unlocked in the game.

The old familiar songs are fun, perhaps even moreso than the more recent edition, but I do like unlocking things for no particular reason. I guess you can take the MMORPG incentive blogger out of the MMORPG, but you can't stop me from trying to minmax incentives....

Friday, February 27, 2009

Crowd Control is an Overpowered Form of Off-Tanking

Yesterday, I posted on the difficulty of balancing DPS and utility. I got an interesting comment on the post from Pangoria, who raises the point that WoW DPS characters contribute other things to groups, such as crowd control or off-healing/tanking.

Lots of people seem to miss crowd control lately - Tobold asked whether anyone had seen any sheep lately earlier this week. In practical terms, crowd control is a highly powerful but situational form of tanking. You can't always use it, but, when you can, the mob deals no damage or debuffs that need to be healed, and the CC'er is free to spend 95% of their time doing whatever it was they'd be doing if there was one less mob in the pull.

While I completely ignored tanking and healing in my last post for complexity's sake, the same arguments apply when you consider the real world (in which every class can somehow contribute to tanking or healing). Let's say you have:

- A mage, who contributes good DPS and polymorph
- An elemental shaman, who contributes okay DPS, which improves to slightly better than good when you consider his buffs, and can off-heal.

(Yes, I know that shammies can also hex and Earth Elemental in emergencies, but, by design, neither is as permanent as sheep/shackle/banish/etc. I will also point out that an ele shammy saved the one Heroic Halls of Lightning run I ever plan to do by healing the group through almost the entire Loken fight after the main healer died. Balance is complicated like that.)

Now say that 5-man content is designed with pulls that include 5-6 mobs, as it was in the TBC era. In that environment, the mage becomes overpowered because he contributes only slightly less damage, while his non-damage contribution is much more significant. And, sure enough, this is exactly what we saw in the TBC era - there was no reason to take DPS who didn't have the best CC. Not being able to lock down at least a few of the mobs in those six mob pulls in the Shadow Labyrinth isn't a flavor/style question or a question of doing it more easily, it's a question of success or failure.

Effectively, Blizzard couldn't come up with a good way to balance that question in the 5-man environment, where slots are so limited, so they punted by balancing the content in such a way where it does not require crowd control (smaller pulls). DPS checks don't work because the CC classes also bring DPS. Healing checks are a very dicey road to pursue because it's hard enough to find one healer for a 5-man group, much less two. You could start designing zones around encounters that need to be off-tanked rather than crowd controlled, but that just swings the pendulum in the other direction (suddenly CC'ers are LESS valuable). The easiest road to take was to diminish the role of CC in dungeons and rebalance everyone's damage output accordingly, so that's the road Blizzard took.

In short, I wouldn't be expecting to see a wide variety of sheep, turtles, penguins, pigs, rabbits, etc in 5-man content anytime soon. You can assume a certain amount of crowd control in 25-man groups (which would be an ironic role reversal, since it used to be that raids were where CC STOPPED working in the old days), but it's hard enough to deal with a required tanking slot and a required healing slot in 5-mans.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Balancing DPS and Utility

Araxes, the Ratonga Warlock, is not very happy about the level of damage done by EQ2's utility classes. I obviously have absolutely zero idea how any of these classes perform in EQ2 raids since I'm churning along in the mid 20's (though the fact that I'm voluntarily playing utility classes instead of pure DPS, even though I don't intend to do any EQ2 raids, may lend some support to the claim). I can say that I've seen this complaint elsewhere, Araxes gets the link love because he's the first one I've seen to tie the same complaint into three of the game's four archetypes. (I'm guessing that none of the healing classes do enough damage to compete in raids.)

The reason why this particular post caught my eye is because it's the same exact discussion we're having in WoW, using slightly different terms. Blizzard used the Wrath expansion to rebalance and consolidate the various group buffs in the game, bringing the damage of hybrid and utility classes up to compensate, under the new "Bring the Player, Not the Class" mantra. What's so hard about this problem that two of the top PVE games on the market can't tackle it?

The Utility DPS problem
Let's have a hypothetical raid group with 10 DPS slots - doesn't matter what game. Tanking and healing are irrelevant, as these guys all require the same amount of healing, and don't have any buffs or debuffs that affect survivability. The only thing that anyone does is A) damage or B) buffs/debuffs that increase damage.

To start with, we have no buffing or debuffing class, which gives us:
10 damage dealers, each does 100 DPS, 1000 total raid DPS.

Now let's add in an overpowered utility class, who buffs everyone in the raid for 2 DPS.
9 damage dealers (100 DPS), 1 utility (100 DPS and 2x10 DPS from the buff), 1020 total raid DPS

Obviously, that situation is a problem, because there's no reason NOT to replace as many DPS as possible with utility classes. (Doubly so if the utility guy actually does MORE damage, which apparently is possible in EQ2 at the moment.)

Either you have to give EVERYONE an equal buff to compensate, or you have to nerf the utility guy's base DPS. Giving everyone buffs is pointless, as everyone would be a buff class. At that point, you would want to stack your raid with exactly one of each so that you can collect as many buffs as possible - this is what happened to WoW in the TBC era that caused the current revamp. You might as well just raise everyone's damage and call it a day. So now we're at the point where we started, looking at calibrating the DPS of utility classes.

Who is buffing whom?
To return to my example from above, perhaps you're looking at it and thinking of nerfing the utility guy by 20 DPS. Now we would have:
9 damage dealers (100 DPS), 1 utility (80 DPS + 2x10 from the buff) = 1000 total

That sounds like a balanced solution, but now the question becomes who exactly is buffing whom. If a DPS member of the original raid with 10 DPS dies, the raid loses their 100 DPS. If a DPS member of the raid with the utility guy dies, the raid loses 102 DPS, because the utility guy's contribution to the raid is dependent on there being exactly 10 people (including themselves) doing damage.

Then the math gets even more complicated. Say that my deliberately chosen numbers are now percentages, and the buff is now 2% instead of 2 DPS. Now say you bring along TWO utility players with 80 DPS and 2% buffs that stack. Suddenly, they're both under 100 DPS because 2% of 80 DPS is less than 2% of 100 DPS.

The point being, the overall contribution of the utility guy to the raid has to be GREATER than the contribution of bringing another generic DPS, or it won't be worth bothering. So now say that you're going to buff the buff to 5 DPS (back to non-percents). This leaves:
9 damage dealers (100 DPS), 1 utility (80 DPS and 10x5 from the buff) = 1030 total

Now the devs need to go back and rebalance the raid around 1030 DPS, a 3% increase for the raid, which will mean that groups will HAVE to get a utility player to beat the content, but at least there IS a point to being a utility character.

Magnifying the tie to group size
Unfortunately, now we've hardwired our class balance around group composition. That utility character will now overperform in a group that, for whatever reason, includes more than 10 DPS slots, and will underperform in a group that doesn't include at least 4 DPS slots. You can fix the overperforming angle by capping the number of players that can be affected by a single utility ability - for instance, WoW mages have a talent called focus magic that puts a spell crit buff on a single lucky recipient. (EQ2 characters have five "concentration" slots which limit how many buffs they can have active, but it seems that most buffs hit your whole group.) The downside is much harder to solve.

Say that you have to solo through 80 levels and then gear up in groups and raids half the size of our elite endgame raid - two factors that WoW and EQ2 share. Now that utility guy is struggling through the early game at 85% of the DPS of a DPS class, and then is an actual liability to any group with fewer than five DPS. These are the kind of issues that can make it difficult to find enough of a certain class you need to fill your group out with.

One way to address this would be to have the buff scale upwards in smaller groups. For example:
1-2 recipients: 15% buff (utility guy does 95% solo or in a duo, if there are two recipients the second guy does 115%, for a toal of 220%)
3-4 recipients: 10% (utility guy does 90%, DPS do 110% for a total of 310% in a 3-man group or 420% in a 4-man group)
5-10 recipients: 5% (the group is always slightly ahead under this plan, eventually scaling up towards the 3% boost)

Of course, now it actually matters that all your pure DPS classes actually do 100% DPS. In practice, some classes do more (with a risk of aggro or death), some classes do less, etc, and it now becomes advantageous to pick and choose who gets the buff - maybe 15% for your top guy is actually worth more than 3% for everyone. Or maybe you want to SKIP the top guy because he won't be able to benefit without pulling aggro.

Alternately, you can do as Blizzard has done and try to arrange it so that you need a small-medium number of buffs that are relatively widely available, and then balance the classes with less of an individual handicap under the thinking that the class might show up with a buff that the raid already has. However, the smaller the difference between pure DPS and utility classes, the greater the danger that the utility classes will overtake the DPS.

Either way, I think this is a harder problem to solve than just buffing the pure DPS class' numbers and calling it a day.

Aside on DPS meters
Personally, I think we're past the time when players should have to analyze log parses to determine their DPS. Games should come with DPS meters, and the meter should credit additional damage done as a result of a buff/debuff to the person who PROVIDED the buff/debuff (something that a player-run mod would not have easy access to).

That's not to say that meters don't cause negative effects like idiots jockeying for damage meter position, but all of these things are already happening anyway. Class balance or imbalance would be a lot more obvious if you could see exactly what was going on, and utility classes might be more inclined to accept lower DPS numbers if they actually got credit for doing their jobs in the first place. (The bigger issue is how to credit tanks and healers, and that's a much bigger topic than I can tackle in a paranthetical note to an addendum. ;))

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ghostcrawler Hates Me Now....

With the 3.1 PTR's due sooner than "soon", I've been watching the MMO-Champion Blue Tracker relatively closely. Monday morning, I saw something interesting posted by Ghostcrawler, WoW's Lead System Designer, suggesting that there are actually other games out there that are worth playing.

I wrote a quick post about it entitled "Official Confirmation of the New WoW Business Model". I felt it was remarkable in the literal sense of the word, worth remarking upon. I didn't feel it was major breaking news, and I didn't even leave it on the top of my feed for more than four hours.

Then Tobold picked up the story, under the headline "Why Aren't Other MMORPG's Doing Better?".

Then Massively picked up the story, under the headline "WoW Lead Systems Designer tells people to play other games".

Now poor Ghostcrawler is probably tied to a chair in the Blizzard PR office, where they're explaining to him that he can't post things like that because some idiot blogger whose blog is about making developers miserable is going to notice and then there's going to be an embarrassing headline on Massively with his name on it.

(Note to the inquisitor currently beating Ghostcrawler with a rolled up stack of printouts of his posts - "Player vs Developer" is a phrase I use to mean "getting loot by beating the meta game", as opposed to other players (PVP) or scripted raid encounters (PVE). I'm not actually trying to ruin anyone's day here, really....)

If the next build of the 3.1 PTR's nerfs Frost mages "TO THE GROUND, BABY", I guess it will be all my fault.

(P.S. I'd love to know what all the high profile links are doing to my traffic, but apparently Google turned off Feedburner's stat-tracking feature when they migrated the feeds earlier this month. Thank you, Google!)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Blizzard Broke Our Cat!

My wife doesn't really have time to play during the semester, but we had some free time over the semester break - shortly after 3.0.2 hit - so we dusted off the old BM Hunter/Balance Druid combo. We journeyed out to Felwood, where I was counting on the zone's poorly designed quest progression to give us some easy quests to refresh our memories of how to play, followed by some stuff that was slightly above our level once we were back in fighting form. The only problem was that ALL of the content was easy. After the point where we survived a fight with 6-7 mobs of our level (2-pull that got some stealth adds and then maybe a runner that brought some more, or some repops, I lost track of where they were coming from), with neither of us even out of mana, I began to wonder if something odd had happened in the patch.

Then I tried the old freezing trap at my feet -> multishot trick to try and pull an add off of our cat and into the block of ice while we finished his buddy. The multishot hit the add, which the cat was not attacking... and the mob didn't move an inch. After some testing, it turned out that the new hunter pet talent Bloodthirsty was the culprit. The cat attacks quickly and heals 5% of his own health on average every 5 attacks. Because we use the cat as a tank, I've taken as many other talents that boost his HP as I could. That's suddenly a fair chunk of healing, which means a major chunk of aggro on any other mobs we're fighting.

At this point, my wife was getting bored from the complete lack of challenge the solo quests were presenting when attempted by two players with an unkillable tank that has rock-solid aggro as one of our PETS. Alright, I say, we can try to run Zul'Farrak if you want to, it will probably end poorly. ZF isn't quite the massive level sprawl that it used to be, and, at level 50, we were 4-6 levels above the mobs and boses in the dungeon. We have a semi-ideal setup with two forms of crowd control (her roots and my freezing trap), a tank, and both of us to supply some combination of healing and DPS. But it's a five-man dungeon, full of mobs that run to other nearby packs when injured, and there were only the two of us.

How poorly did this excursion go? Well, we didn't finish. Aili got [Zum'rah's Vexing Cane] and the [Lifeblood Amulet] off of the two toughest bosses in the zone, and it didn't seem worth making a late night of it since those were the only drops we needed. I guess they never thought about what pet talents would do to the pre-TBC game.

How good should a tanking pet be?
With respect to the hunters and warlocks out there, both classes bore me to tears solo. I feel like I'm playing my mage at ranged DPS, only without most of the work because I don't have to worry about moving or taking damage. I've tried pet classes in other games, including LORTO's Loremaster (well, I presume the bear is supposed to be a tank, though he wasn't very good at it and I gave up on him) and EQ2's Conjuror, and I find the same thing - either the tanking pet fails at tanking and is therefore useless, or the pet does its job and makes the game trivial.

(WoW Affliction-spec Warlocks can be played solo with a succubus providing general DPS and the Warlock themself "drain tanking" via using a mostly uninterruptible Drain Life to heal through the damage. This playstyle is definitely more fun from my perspective than hiding behind the big blue marshmellow man, but, at least at low levels, it's sufficiently harder that I have a hard time justifying the added risk compared to how the class is designed to be soloed.)

A role for the utility pet
Interestingly, I do like some classes that come with pets. My WoW mage has had the Water Elemental for almost the entire time the talent has been available (I spent a week or so trying out Frostfire and Arcane Barrage specs while leveling in Wrath), and I had a great time leveling Cheerydeth the first as Unholy in the Wrath beta. It isn't that the ghoul and the water elemental can't keep the rest of the pack of enemies occupied while I pick them off one at a time - indeed, the elemental is great at this because it can freeze the whole lot of them in place for me to blizzard them down from range. I guess I just hold somewhat of a distinction because it still feels like I, rather than some AI-controlled pet, am actually doing the work of killing the enemy.

Interestingly, I didn't like EQ2's Conjuror, which, like WoW Hunters and locks, gets a tanking pet and a variety of tools for keeping it alive, but I am vaguely enjoying a low level Illusionist alt. The Illusionist class is a debuff/crowd control oriented mage class, and you get the ability to summon an illusory copy of yourself who can cast most of your spells, though they do less damage and you don't get to tell the pet precisely what to do.

I don't think the class is in any danger of overtaking my Dirge (I rolled the character because I wanted to get an alt to level 10 for crafting purposes - human characters can choose an across-the-board crafting boost with their level 10 racial tradition perk), and I have no idea how it will hold up as mobs start doing more damage. Still, the class seems more like what I enjoy about pet classes - I'm doing the work of putting one enemy to sleep and killing a second as my pet entertains any additional foes that come our way. That division of labor is fine by me.

Actually tanking/kiting/etc the foe I'm trying to kill? Somehow, when I'm not in a group, I feel like that's my job.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Choosing Classes and The Perils of Blog Focus

This blog has a focus - incentive structures in online games. That doesn't necessarily mean that every single thing I post is incentive-related. Sometimes I post stuff related to business models, which generally have an indirect effect on game design (though there is an increasing official market - both in free to play and subscription games - for paying real cash to bypass timesinks). Sometimes I post about stuff that I've personally been doing in game, perhaps with some reference to what incentive it is that's motivating whatever it is that I'm up to. In general, though, incentives (intentional or otherwise on the part of the devs) are a broad enough focus that they tie in somehow to whatever I'm writing about.

Some days, though, I just can't seem to make something fit. I've been kicking around a draft of a post about picking which classes to play in EQ2 for about two weeks now. For whatever reason, I've redrafted it half a dozen times and couldn't come up with a good way to combine my thoughts, the actual character classes I'm trying out, my playtest experiences, etc, much less to tie it in with incentives.

Anyway, the part that I found most interesting was a pair of observations, so I'm going to toss them out there now to get this thing out of my draft queue. Hopefully I'll have better narrative luck next time.

How many buttons do you need?
WoW, LOTRO, and Warhammer (to the rank that I played it anyway) combat tends to focus on reusing the same handful of abilities. These abilities generally don't have a cooldown per se (though they might be limited by available of energy/runes/pips/combo points/etc), cooldowns are saved for more special moves, like a Paladin going invulnerable, a mage freezing all the local mobs into place so he can back up and nuke them, etc. Because the bread and butter abilities are not on a cooldown, my mage sometimes mows down non-elite mobs with Frostfire bolts alone.

EQ2, on the other hand, goes in the opposite direction. By level 20, I'm routinely using a good 10 abilities per fight, and I'm literally forced to change it up because almost all of them have cooldowns in the 15-30 second range.

How tough are the mobs?
The relative toughness of the player versus the mob can have a tremendous effect on how a class feels. My WoW mage now stands a decent chance of killing mobs with 2-4 hits, which means that he really doesn't need to mess around much with rooting, kiting, etc (though I have a ton of tools to do so when needed). The ability to kill things so quickly makes the class feel powerful compared to classes that trade killing speed for durability (which isn't that necessary for most classes, other than the healing specs, in solo combat).

The same exact ability set, in the context of a game where the average fight is supposed to run for more than 10 seconds, feels weaker. It seems like a lot more work to use strategies like root->nuke->kite when the mobs aren't actually going down very quickly, and suddenly standing and fighting seems like a better option.

(This point may be why I have such a hard time predicting what class I'm going to want to play in a new game. I thought I'd go with a solo-friendly caster in EQ2, but I ended up playing a not-very solo-friendly rogue-like Dirge because I felt that all the buffs made up for the time it takes to kill stuff, in a way that having more outright damage, but still way less as a proportion of mob health bars than WoW DPS characters do, did not.)

Official Confirmation of the New WoW Business Model

I've long maintained that Blizzard's business model appears to be shifting towards a retention mode of sorts, with a greater focus on quality of life features like dual specs and swimming ground mounts.

The TBC era mega-patch, which appears to be the model for the Wrath era, really shifts the focus towards major, headline grabbing packages that just so happen to contain something for everyone. My wife's druid is still level 50, so she doesn't care about new raid content and may not have access to dual specs (Blizzard may be considering backtracking on their plan to limit them to the level cap), but she admits that being dismounted by riding through some shallow water and having to stop to remount was irritating. It's a pretty sensible guess at a business model when you consider that there are probably more former WoW players than total players of most other games out there at the moment.

Still, this is the first time I can remember a blue poster saying anything like this from Ghostcrawler, the face behind most of Wrath's class balance (emphasis mine):
Although WoW is a gigantic game, some players are just going to voraciously devour whatever content we can throw at them. There are certainly a lot of different ways to play the game that you can experiment with if you do get bored. I would suggest things like trade skills, achievements or completing all of the quests you might have skipped. Collect some offspec gear and try a different role (in PvP or PvE). Rerolling can also be a lot of fun. If you're just burned out, it's also not the worst thing in the world to try out some other games -- the past couple of years has been great for them. Just check back in with WoW every now and then. :)

It makes sense, as Blizzard is still going to make money off of players who are subscribed for a few months at a time after major patches. I'm just surprised to see that we're actually at the point where even Blizzard employees are actually suggesting that their own customers might want to leave WoW in between patches.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Paradox of Gaining Exp "Too Quickly"?

When I was looking into whether I wanted to take EQ2 for a spin, one of the things that caught my attention was the practice of "level locking". EQ2 offers a pair of toggles to disable exp from killing enemies, exp from completing quests, or both. The latter option still allows exp gain from discovery and some other sources, but cuts off the vast majority of experience. This intrigued me because it seems so counter intuitive.

The whole paradigm of the persistent MMORPG is to spend time to get character progress, the most visible form of which is in the form of experience. EQ2 doesn't really have WoW-style level-capped PVP brackets (it does offer some level-capped repeatable quests for faction), so why would players decide en masse that they wanted to THROTTLE their exp gain at a time when most companies (including, in the view of level lockers, SOE) are working to INCREASE the rate of exp gain?

What's so bad about leveling too fast?
There are two major issues associated with fast leveling in EQ2.

The first, and most important in my view, is out-leveling content. I'm going to hit level 20 having spent my teens entirely in a single zone. The catch is that there are five zones with content in that level range. That isn't true all the way to the level cap, and I will probably be back on alts somewhere down the line. That said, I'm largely here to experience the game, and missing a large chunk of the game (and/or playing it after it has become trivial) seems counterproductive.

The second issue is that it is hard to keep up with various non-experience areas, such as crafting, gear, and alternate achievement points (EQ2's talent equivalents, earned via completing quests and discovering locations on the map). Though I suppose that lagging in these areas can help add some challenge back into the game, you are going to want to catch up eventually, and that can end up feeling grind-ish if you try to do it all in a sitting.

How did this happen?
The current situation is not entirely without its merits - it certainly makes things easier on classes that are not solo powerhouses (such as my Dirge, a class better known for providing major buffs for party/raid members than for solo prowess). Still, one might wonder how the game got to the point where I'm even asking if the experience is coming too quickly.

The answer may lie in EQ2's focus on group/raid content. Though they do offer a full-featured mentoring system (high level friend temporarily drops down to group with low level buddy), the group content that's getting the most attention is the stuff at the level cap. Just as Blizzard has done, it is easier to skip players past the existing content than it is to reinvigorate the older stuff, and that goes double for a game that wants a greater focus on group content but may not have the low-level population to support it.

Still, one has to wonder whether it's in the long-term best interest of the game to put players in the position of potentially skipping so much of it. Perhaps the majority of serious new players are jumping in to join their friends in raiding, but I find it hard to believe that I'm the only one checking the game out for its leveling content. I love my incentives enough to start a whole blog about them, so when even I am considering voluntarily cutting my exp gain in half in order to see more of the sights, that might be a bad sign.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Did Blizzard Mean For People To Attempt The Holiday Achievements?

A conversation over in the commments at Spinks' place got me thinking back to something I wrote a while back.

When Warhammer's Tome of Knowledge launched, many people complained that its "tome unlocks" are hidden until players actually complete them - many preferred WoW's approach of making the information freely accessible, so that players could know what to strive for. My response at the time was that I felt that Mythic and Blizzard were doing slightly different things. Warhammer's Tome is intended to commemorate things players have already done, while WoW's achievement panel is an incentive to doing things that players might not otherwise do.

(Mythic has since backed up my idea with their World Event tome page, which DOES specifically state what needs to be done to unlock each reward, because that's the goal of those events.)

So, were WoW holiday achievements intended as incentives, or commemoratives?
The question that I'm pondering now, in the wake of the semi-disaster of Blizzard's Valentine's Event is whether this whole thing is a misunderstanding. It's clear from reading the developers' comments on the whole affair that they WANTED the mount from the achievement to be a truly rare and remarkable thing, on par with the other 310% fliers in the game. That is, obviously, the opposite of what players who are actively pursuing the mount as a goal want to hear. Did Blizzard actually intend to set players on a path, knowing full well that many would fail? Or did they simply underestimate the draw of the achievement system?

I'm sure they have numbers for how many people participated in these events in the past, and could estimate what portion of WoW's players were willing to do world event content that did not offer gear rewards in the pre-achievement world. Perhaps the system was really set up with the intent of commemorating THOSE players, rather than to convince players who didn't want to be doing the content in the first place that they needed to do every last bit of it, even if it wasn't enjoyable for them.

If so, then Blizzard seriously underestimated the draw of the achievement system, and the frustration that their desired "this achievement should be rare" philosophy would have on people who were under the impression that achievements exist to be achieved. Still, it fits all the information that we have, and it seems just as sensible as the suggestion that Blizzard set out to design content that would frustrate most of its participants.

Either way, the sad consequence has been a compromise which is going to result in a mount that will be much more common than Blizzard wanted, and much less fun to obtain than players wanted. Miscommunication or not, that's a pretty unfortunate outcome.

In other news....
Meanwhile, Blizzard just announced Blizzcon '09 for August 21-22. Seems to fit my speculation that patch 3.2 (which should be either recently released or at least on the PTR's by then) may serve to set the stage for the next expansion. I guess we'll know for sure in August....

Monday, February 16, 2009

Five Stages of Love Fool Grief

A narrative of the Blizzard Valentine's event:

1. Denial (Wednesday)
Sure, this is the same juvenile and tacky in-game event that it always has been (see Spinks' place for a concise summary). But at least this time there are achievements. Even better, there were some good memes surrounding the bugged ice stone has melted messages (apparently intended for the summer's edition of the Fire Festival). See also,

Some folks have even harnessed the spirit of entrepreneurship that exemplifies the offline Valentine's Day by finding a way to profit from it.

2. Irritation (Thursday)
Hm, now I've got all the achievements except for the one for the candy hearts. (Note: I had roses from a previous year.) That's a bit annoying. MMORPG's already have a bad name for providing "just 5 more minutes/one more quest" incentives, they don't need to add more and have them be time limited.

Don't get me wrong, I had some less than kind things to say about the previous Blizzard holidays which relied on a daily quest drop, so that's not my favorite mechanic for limiting rarity in a brief holiday either. However, at least daily quests can be done at a time of the players' choice. The Trick or Treat mechanic offers players 23 opportunities per day... but the clock is ticking at 60 minutes and 1 second after your last attempt. Hope you don't have to sleep, work, or spend part of a weekend that has two holidays in the US (Valentine's, always a great time to be neglecting relationships, and President's Day) offline for whatever reason.

3. Concern (Friday)
Alright, so it turns out that this thing is actually rare enough that it might move from "inconvenient" to "unobtainable" if I don't focus on it for the rest of the time I've got. It's some small chance to even get a candy bag out of my trick or treat gift in the first place (I've heard 20%, dunno if that is before or after they raised it), and then 10 chances to get the heart I still need (presumably 1 in 8).

Because the "do all the holidays" achievement is all-or-nothing, I MUST somehow complete this one or I won't get the reward for the three holidays I've already put a lot of effort into doing (plus work spent pre-farming several of the Brewfest achievements for next year). I'd better stay put in town until I finally get this thing to make sure I don't waste time.

(I was not alone - Daria and Larisa were also milling around town.)

3a. Boredom (Still Friday, a minute or so later)
Hmm... So I can't run instances because those take over an hour. Can't do Wintergrasp because I have no idea when it's going to happen and won't get credit if I can't stay. Already did the dailies I still need. Guess I might as well play some EQ2 and load up WoW on my laptop once an hour to loot the trick or treat gift.

(I ended up looting 7 bags over an 8 hour period, obtaining one sack of candy, and not having it contain the heart I needed. This was my third bag - according to a WoWhead comment, I should have had an 86% chance of obtaining the heart by now. Also, having a 1-minute cooldown on the bag of candy really is adding insult to injury. Making me sit on my rear for 10 minutes to click the bag 10 times just to find out that I had nothing to show for my 8 hour vigil doesn't make the mount any rarer, it just wastes my time.)

4. Resignation (Saturday)
My wife asks me why I'm so concerned about this thing, as she witnesses me two boxing a pair of different games in the morning (she was out on Friday night), and suggests that I buy a drake instead. I explain that it's faster than any mount I would otherwise have access to, and that I've been working towards getting it in previous months. Still, she raises the point that I shouldn't do it if it isn't fun. Ah, the wisdom of the non-gamer.

Anyway, we're going out for the rest of the day, so I'm only going to get one chance to loot the thing before bed, and otherwise Sunday will bring what Sunday brings. I'm past the point where anything I can do will influence this achievement - either it's going to happen in the next few tries or it isn't.

And I do indeed get a sack of candy in my one attempt for Saturday evening. Seven times I click it, seven times it gives me a heart I don't need, and seven times I sit on my rear for an entire minute waiting for my next chance to click it. The numbers suggest that 95% of players should get their eight different hearts within 4 sacks of candy, but independent events are independent and my chances to avoid joining the 5% in the next 3 clicks are the same as any other - 1 in 8.

Well, I'm glad that's over with.

5. Regret (Sunday)
As Klep writes, this is a very hollow "achievement" because there's nothing I could really do to influence it. There's no skill, and not really much in the way of perseverance - either it falls into my lap in the very brief time I have or it does not.

In order to fill in this checkbox, I feel like I lost access to my character for four days. I spent some time in WoW on Sunday doing previously mundane things that now felt vaguely comforting in that my time was my own once again. I'm not even guaranteed the mount after all this - Children's Week in May is almost as short, includes a PVP achievement that calls for players to enter a battleground and disregard the good of their team in favor of fighting over the flag for the achievement, and another achievement which becomes impossible if you're not able to play on all three of May 3, 4, and 5 (plus two days adjacent to those days), or if it bugs out (which it might if they don't put it on the PTR's, since the achievement it appears to be based on had various bugs).

If Blizzard had announced a quest at the beginning of the holiday to buy surplus candy hearts off a goblin after the event for 10,000 gold, I would have paid it not to have to go through the last week, even though that's all the money my character has, and I won't spend 2,000 gold on BOE epic raid gear I'd actually wear. If you'd sent me a copy of this post on Feb 10, before the holiday began, well, I don't know what I would have done because, again, I'd already sunk all the effort into the previous holidays. If you went back to before achievements rolled out, though? Will this all have been worth it?

It saddens me that the answer may well be "no".

Sunday, February 15, 2009

EQ2 Recruiting and Crafting

The weekend's Valentine's holiday event over in WoW provided me with a lot of time in which to play EQ2 while waiting for the Valentine's Trick-or-treat cooldown to expire. (If Blizzard is going to implement something that requires 10 seconds of my attention every hour - and precludes me from doing anything that takes more than 59 minutes with my remaining time if I don't want to lose precious looting opportunities during a very time-limited event - I'm going to spend the rest of that hour doing something else.) A few ongoing impressions of some of the places where the game differs from its competition:

Recruit a friend hijincks
SOE recently implemented a recruit a friend program similar to WoW's version, but with two interesting quirks.

First, the recruiter gets the usual perks (free month of subscription and a mount), but the recruit ALSO gets various items that are not ordinarily given to newbies. These include a cloak (seems that EQ2 cloaks are primarily cosmetic) that offers a 24% runspeed bonus to all your characters - a comparatively big deal in a game where relatively fast mounts only hit the mid-50's. The upshot is that it doesn't make any sense to start a new EQ2 account without getting a referral from someone (any past or present subscriber is eligible), even if you have no intention of ever playing with them. I got one from G33kg0dd3ss, and I'm sure either of us would be happy to send on more invites to anyone who is interested.

The other quirk is that the bonuses kick in immediately when the "recruit" account subscribes (where WoW's version requires that the new account STAY subscribed for several months). If I'm reading this right, that means that there is effectively zero cost to you for the first month of a second account for yourself, and/or spouses/familiy/etc, since you would have paid for the month on your main account either way. That's much better than any other game's trial setup, because the new account gets an entire month and isn't subject to the usual limitations that are placed on trial accounts to prevent abuse. Hopefully this isn't abused so badly that SOE decides to clamp down on it, because I'd definitely try to see if my wife likes the game for the price tag of $0 and a free mount for myself. :)

Entry level bags for all!
And now for something completely different, namely EQ2's crafting system.

EQ2 has a separate experience system for your crafting class. This is a big improvement over WoW's all-or-nothing chance at a skill point, which decreases as you outlevel recipes, eventually forcing you to make items that you don't need solely for the chance at a skill point. Interestingly, crafters get to try the entry level recipes of all the professions before they have to pick their specialty. Being able to make level 1-9 weapons/spells/armor may not seem like a huge bonus, but this also means you can make your own bags and boxes.

EQ2 characters have six bagslots on their person, at least two slots in the Broker (AH equivalent, you can only list as many items for sale as fit in the bags you install there), and a ton of potential bag slots in your bank. I thought the bank looked small at first until I realized that every slot in your character's bank (and also your 8-slot "shared bank", which can be used to ferry items to your alts) can be occupied with a bag full of stuff (even including additional empty bags). That's a lot of bags, crates, backpacks, etc. Being able to craft my own - lightweight 6-8 slotters and heavy 8 or 12 slotters - is a great ability, especially since I'm doing this with materials I'm gathering myself as I level.

Crafting for fun and profit
Overall, I'm having fun with the crafting system, and am almost keeping pace with my adventuring experience level (though I can't make stuff from the current tier yet because I'm still adventuring in the newbie zone). The actual process of making items is much more interactive in other games - you do have a chance to fail a recipe (which generally only costs you some of the cheaper/vendor ingredients, you always seem to get back the valuable materials) but you can also have greater success and produce multiple doses of potions and food.

The only issue I have with EQ2 crafting right now is that I may have picked the "wrong" profession. I was planning on becoming a jeweler, since that's the profession that makes spells for rogue classes such as my Fae Dirge, but I don't have the crafting experience level or, more importantly, the materials I'd need to make my most recent spell upgrades. It doesn't make sense to use lower-quality versions of my bread and butter combat spells while I try to catch my crafting level up.

For my main, I think I'd be better off making some kind of consumables that I would use but would not buy on the open market. The two choices there are:
Alchemists - would not require a respec since I haven't gotten far enough to need to pick a subspecialty, and would let me make potions and spells for any future fighter-class alts
Provisioner - makes food, but I'd have to figure out how to respec and would lose several crafting levels in the process
I'm leaning towards the alchemist, simply because I can do provisioning on a crafting alt - EQ2 tradeskills aren't capped by experience level, so I could pick a race with a racial bonus to provisioning, level it to level 10 so I can actually select the tradeskill bonus on the alt in question, and park it by the nearest kitchen.

Overall, crafting in EQ2 seems a lot more fun than in other games. It is still possible that I would be better off selling my rare materials and using the cash to buy stuff that I actually need, but at least I'm having fun with the process where in other games (LOTRO, Warhammer) I usually end up harvesting to sell stuff if I do crafting at all.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Transitioning WoW to Retention Mode

Jeff Kaplan, a.k.a. Tigole, one of the most senior developers of WoW, is leaving the team to move to Blizzard's Mystery Fourth Project (an unannounced MMORPG that will be a new franchise).

The move makes a certain amount of sense. Starcraft II will probably make it out the door in 2009, we're likely to see a WoW expansion and DIII in 2010 (no way Blizzard gets 3 content patches and another WoW expansion out this year), and that would leave 2011 wide open for the Mystery Fourth Project. This is the window of time in which bringing their best people on board the MFP team can help it be ready to go in two years. However, I think there's more to this story than the farewell post lets on.

How will this impact WoW?
In terms of impact on WoW, based on the timing, I suspect that most of the big picture, ground level work that would actually land on Tigole's desk for the rest of the three planned patches of the Wrath era is done.

With all the information on patch 3.1 that's being released, it could hit the PTR's any minute now, so it's beyond the point where senior designers are messing around with it. While the debuggers and balance testers are hacking away at 3.1, the zone designers, coders, etc have presumably move on to building the stuff that was already outlined for patch 3.2. That means that Tigole has presumably been free to work on making the outline for 3.3. Having him move midway through that process would be unduly disruptive, and thus my theory that it's actually, for the most part, finished.

WoW is kind of at the end of a story arc. As Fedaykin and I were discussing in the comments yesterday, TBC and Wrath had villians that needed no introduction. Illidan and Arthas were marquis characters from Warcraft III and we didn't need a big buildup to prepare the community for trekking up to the frozen north to fight some guy who hasn't bothered us for four years. They showed up at our doorsteps one patch day and that was enough. Whatever we face going forward, it's going to be much less prominent in the WoW lore. (I'm now speculating that the mystery 3.2 patch, which Blizzard refused to discuss in detail, sets up the foe for the next expansion, perhaps somehow related to the war of the dragonflights.) This might be the kind of time for someone more senior like Tigole to step aside and let the new kids run the next major arc.

The business side of things
Though I'm sure that there is some country somewhere in the world where WoW has yet to launch that could add some new market share, I suspect that WoW's biggest potential market in the years ahead is among FORMER WoW players. When Blizzard launches the latest bi-annual megapatch, they want to be absolutely sure that there's something for everyone, with a special focus on features that would make former players think that things that used to annoy them have improved. To that end, we're seeing development focus more on features the fans want, like dual specs and ingame outfit switchers and swimming ground mounts.

Speaking of the patch cycle, we also have some unusually candid discussion of the game's development schedule. I've previously called this the "800 lb content gorilla" in the room that Blizzard previously hasn't liked to mention, so that represents a real shift. Blizzard appears to be officially saying that the small, relatively frequent (every month or two) patches of the game's early years were possible because they had stuff that they had started but not finished in time for launch. (Clearly, this didn't hurt them in the way that it has hurt more recent games, because they were still the best on the market at the time.) The six months per patch of the TBC era is, Blizzard claims, the rate at which they can generate completely new content.

Part of this may be a matter of deliberately trying to downplay/lower expectations in the face of a community that has been beginning to grumble about the (short) length of the current expansion. On the other hand, this whole process may also mark a shift to a more regimented patch/expansion cycle. Patch a total of three times, every 5-6 months, launch the next expansion at the end of the fourth window, rinse and repeat as long as people are willing to pay.

That's not necessarily a bad thing for players, or, for that matter, for competing games trying to figure out when to launch (hint: I wouldn't pick two months before the next WoW expansion if I were you). It does mean that players are going to either need to make their own fun in-game with their friends (e.g. guild social events) or be prepared to spend some of their gaming time in other games. The latter is fine by me - there are a fair number of other games on the market these days - and it's probably fine by Blizzard. They literally can't create content fast enough to retain everyone, and they're still going to make a fair chunk of cash off people who are subscribed for a few months after each content patch.

Looking back, this seemingly minor announcement may be a bigger milestone in the life of WoW than Blizzard would like to admit in public. If I'm right, well, it's probably bad news for those of you who would like the game to be something different than what it is today (such as something that it was in years past). For those of us who are happy with the game as it is, perhaps with the occasional vacation to other far-off lands of adventure, more of the same is not necessarily a bad thing.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dual Spec News and Impact

Ghostcrawler has a Q&A on the upcoming dual talent spec feature of WoW. As I suspected, the feature is now so anticipated that they're willing to commit that it will be in the patch - I think they'll have to delay the whole patch it dual specs aren't ready.

The key details:
- You'll need to pay the trainer a one-time fee at level 80 to unlock dual specs.
- They're implenting an in-game Gear Manager to facilitate swapping out gear sets, which will incidentally help when you have to swap your healing gear out for your tanking set. (This is a potentially major announcement - this feature has been kicking around for a while now, and Blizzard at one point suggested that your secondary gearset might not take up bagspace - GC doesn't mention that either way here, other than to say that more info will be announced later.)
- You will need a Lexicon of Power, the thing that lets you scribe your glyphs, to swap specs. Inscribers will get an item that lets you summon a temporary lexicon to your location via a ritual with group members.
- Hunter pet talents will be wiped when you swap specs, and won't cost money to retrain anymore. Additionally, they're going to get an ability to summon a replacement pet from the stables for when they spec out of Beast Mastery and their exotic pet goes back to the stables.
- Glyphs and hotbars (all of them?) will swap out when you swap specs.
- The revamped system will also add some sort of a confirmation dialog to the talent spec process, so you don't start spending after a respec and realize that you misclicked.
- It's possible that none of this will be ready at the start of the 3.1 PTR (which I believe will be in the next week or two).

Some other thoughts:

Replenishment Duty
This feature comes at the same time as they're implementing nerfs to mana regen and balancing even 10-man raids around the assumption that the group has replenishment. The popularity of Ret Pallies makes this a safer bet than you might think, but a 10-man raid with its Pally slot occupied with tanks or healers could run into problems.

Of the four DPS-only classes, three have a specific spec that will offer replenishment - frost mages, survival hunters, and destruction warlocks. I dunno about locks and hunters, but frost mages are the lowest DPS of the three specs. This change raises the possibility that one of those three classes will have to hotswap in a lower DPS spec to provide replenishment if there isn't a Ret Pally or Shadowpriest in the raid.

(Not sure why Subtlety Rogues were left out - they're also a non-preferred raid spec, and Rogues are now the only class that cannot bring tanking, healing, or replenishment to the table.)

Fixing the healer shortage
Your experience may vary (especially if you play a healer :P), but my experience in groups and watching the LFG channel is that groups are never stuck indefinitely looking for tanks when they already have healers. Apparently the improved DPS/solo ability for tanking specs, and/or improved tanking ability of non-dedicated specs of tank classes, and/or the new Death Knight class, have made the "tank shortage" much smaller than it used to be, or even nigh non-existent. But will dual specs help heal the healer shortage?

For instance, Shadow Priests might seem like ideal candidates to swap in their second spec. The other two priest trees focus on healing, so they're either going to spend their second slot on a second version of a shadow spec, or on one that can heal. Their main spec will require spellcasting stats anyway, so they'd just need to swap in some mana regen gear. However, players who have opted to play shadow priests, especially knowing what the relative demand is for healers vs dps, may simply not WANT to heal, or, indeed, may not be able to do so due to the learning curve involved.

Pallies and Druids face an additional challenge in that they have two slots but can, in principle, spec for tanking OR healing in addition to DPS. Experienced tanks may call me out on this, but, as someone whose paladin very occasionally had to either tank or heal, tanking seemed much more familiar to my solo playstyle than healing did. I suspect that many Ret pallies will take up Prot for their second slot, and Feral druids might actually be tempted to pick up a cat-focused DPS spec and a bear-focused tank spec without ever messing with anything that would require gear that has intellect on it.

Then there's the quirk that Druids and Shammies can both do either ranged or melee DPS, and, again, might prefer to cover the second role (which might be better for single target vs AOE, or other situational encounters) instead of taking a more unfamiliar healing assignment.

Overall, I think that the prevalence of healers WILL increase - people who are willing and able to heal will probably just swap into their healing gear and spec before they go LFG. Perhaps some of them will even join a group in their preferred role but be willing to switch to healing later. I just don't think it'll be anywhere near as effective as the tanking revamp at Wrath's launch.

Social Issues
There are two major points that could be a topic of social strife, especially in PUG's.

Loot Everything!
In general, the spec system may blur the lines between main spec and off-spec for everyone, at least outside of raiding. "I could use that if I respec someday" is less of a case for being allowed to roll than "I might need to fill that role for a future group, maybe even this one". You may see a lot more players who want concessions on the loot rules in exchange for tanking or healing. For example, "I'm willing to heal, but my main focus is DPS so I expect to be allowed to roll need on both types of gear". They're not wrong to ask (and groups also won't be wrong to turn them down), but it's the kind of situation that begs for drama.

Does the rest of the group tell the DPS who joined thinking he wasn't going to have competition for X rare drop that he can let the healer roll so the group can leave now, or he can find a new group? I suspect the answer, at least where PUG's are concerned, will depend on whether the DPS in question (or one of their friends) is the group leader. Again, the prospective healer isn't wrong to name those terms, but usually it's only going to be one or two members of the group that are going to be adversely affected, and they're going to be put on the spot with three other pairs of eyes watching.

Why aren't you specced for my convenience?
The other probable social issue is that healing-capable classes who spec for DPS might get a lot of grief from the PUG community. This goes double for Shammies and Shadow Priests (who don't have the excuse that Druids and Pallies have of needing the second slot for tanking), triple for players who have a PVP variant of their DPS spec in the second slot, and quadruple all of the above when the group has been looking for a healer for 30+ minutes. (Generally, I give up on the prospective group if I've been able to finish all my daily quests for the day during the time we spent looking for a healer - this happens more often than you'd think.)

This is nothing new, I remember a UBRS PUG I left promptly thereafter chewing out a balance druid for not being specced to heal. It just might get more prominent if the player in question actually COULD be healing at the touch of a button. (Then again, maybe groups won't want to trust their DPS to heal if it turns out that many of us aren't very good at it. ;))

A Very Big Change
Overall, I like what I'm hearing, though I also think that limiting dual specs to level 80 is a mistake. I realize that you don't want too much complexity for beginners, but low level players have even MORE need for spec flexibility than level 80 characters do, because their income potential is lower (the respec fee is constant regardless of what level you are - this should probably change to something scaling by level as long as they're overhauling the system) and because there are fewer characters in those level brackets available to fill the tanking and healing niches.

This feature is very rapidly shaping up to be the marquis feature of the 3.1 patch, I'd say even moreso than the new and much-needed raid dungeon. It may be difficult to overstate the effects that these changes will have on the game.

Other games, including EQ2, have done dual spec systems. However, EQ2's classes are more specialized than WoW's - I don't think there's a single class in the game where you could fill the group with different specs of just that one class and succeed. WoW has two of those in Pallies and Druids. Maybe I'm wrong and everyone will just keep on doing what they're doing. Still, it's not often that the devs take the options available to a character in game and allow them to literally double the length of that list with the push of a single button.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why Not Join the Age of PUG Raiding?

Fedaykin, a longtime commenter on this blog, makes an interesting suggestion on my post about patch 3.1 from yesterday.
This is really the age of PUG raiding, so given your interest in content and upgrading your gear, you should look into them. Some are bound fail, but the content is pretty easy right now.

It's interesting, and perhaps especially relevant for me this morning, as Anub'arak finally coughed up the [Rod of the Fallen Monarch] I've been chasing. This marks the final item on any heroic 5-man drop table that would see immediate use in my spell hit set (which is now entirely ilvl 200 blues and purples).

Other folks' damage meters have recorded me in the 1900+ DPS range (presuming my elemental lives, AI and Molten Armor but no consumables) using a Frost-based Frostfire spec that the devs acknowledge is not competitive, so I should be able to deliver at least 2.5K-3K raid buffed DPS in a cookie cutter frostfire spec. That should be more than enough to get me into the many pugs that form up on my server. So, why NOT do PUG raids?

The Pain
As I've experienced, PUG members, occasionally including myself in all fairness, can do some pretty stupid things. This isn't any more or less true for raids, except that the content is slightly harder. I have no idea how successful the pug 10- and 25- man raids are on my server, but I'll guess that they fall into one of two categories:

- Can't get it together to kill even a single boss, disbanding with a repair bill (and possibly a week-long raid lockout)
- Overgear the instance and zerg down every boss on 1-2 tries using strats that most of the group already knows.

The former would be painful, but the latter might paradoxically be just as disappointing for me.

The Challenge?
I used to be a 40-man raider once upon a time. When my old guild, the Phoenix Syndicate of Hyjal, fell apart, I left the game to go spend some time in Middle Earth. When I came back, I didn't know precisely WHAT I wanted to do, but I knew that I didn't like what raiding did to my real life schedule. However, where was the challenge in the game, if I'd already topped out on reputations and solo content?

For me, the answer was gear. How close to the top of the line could I get on my own terms? In TBC, the answer was closer than I would have thought. Through battleground PVP, and those possibly over-powered BOP Tailoring epics, my mage would not have needed almost anything in Tier 4 raiding. Meanwhile, I was able to take a Pally alt I'd never even bothered to get to level 60 before the expansion and get him enough gear to qualify as an uncrushable raid tank (with the minor caveat that I'd never tanked anything bigger than an outdoor group quest boss before) without setting foot in an instance.

Now let's say that I managed to join that perfect dream of a 25-man Naxx Pug. Within an evening, the place lies dead (again) at our feet, 20+ emblems of valor (which I'm otherwise earning at a rate of 2 per week from Archavon) in my pockets, and maybe a few /random rolls for the very best drops currently in the game. That should be a triumph - suddenly I'd be standing at the top of the hill. But would I really feel that I had accomplished something?

In that kind of situation, I wouldn't really even have time to learn 15 fights in an evening. I'd just be doing my best to follow directions from the people who'd been there before. Perhaps, if I did it repeatedly, I'd eventually be able to learn the zone and be one of the people carrying the next generation of new PUG raiders. And sure, I wouldn't have gotten that group invite if I hadn't done the work that I have done to date.

But would it really feel like an accomplishment? Or just like the game that I used to play, of trying to make the best of the content that I can do on my schedule, was a waste of time? Why hope that one day there might be a daily with a chance at solo emblems of heroism when I could be mowing down Naxx for 20?

Striking a better balance between difficulty and reward
The ironic thing about my Azjol-Nerub run from last night is that it wasn't the smoothest run ever. The dungeon in question has about three trash pulls to go with its three bosses, and can be steamrolled through in about half an hour by a good (read: overgeared) group. Last night's wasn't one of those runs - it took us three attempts to kill the first boss, two to beat the second, and something like 5 to kill the final boss. The irony being that this "bad" PUG experience would actually have been a great day in 40-man raiding; I remember spending whole nights repeatedly wiping while we worked on the pull for some encounters.

Perhaps the content in Naxx-10 is actually at a point where pugging it will be more like a 5-man run that actually has to work for the loot than a 40-man wipe fest. Or perhaps the solution is for me to try and find time for some guild raids, so that at least I can view the time/gold spent on the attempt as a social event and a contribution to the guild community.

(The downside there is that the guild really doesn't seem to need more DPS available most nights. We're in that weird middle ground that happens to guilds our size where we don't have enough tanks and healers for a second Naxx RaidID, but we have to leave a lot of DPS on standby when we're only running one. Our raid leader is doing a great job with it - /wave Anni if you're reading this - it's just a quirk of having the main raid in the expansion be a 10-man dungeon with a week-long save state. I'm not sure it would actually be fair or responsible of me to ask to be included in the rotation for a random night every other week when it means that other players who can actually commit to a more reasonable schedule would be left on standby.)

Either way, I'm not quite ready to jump into the Age of PUG Raiding just yet. Ah well, at least I have other things I'm working on, and vague plans/hopes for the badges I'll be earning in the mean time.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Speculation on Emblem Progression in Patch 3.1

I'm currently sitting on more than 90 of WoW's Emblems of Heroism. I should, in principle, have a good idea of what to spend these on, since I wrote a post on the topic.

There's a spell hit belt, the [Plush Sash of Guzbah], which would make a good sidegrade (up to 69 hit rating if buckled and socketed with a pair of yellow gems) for my spell hit set. There's the token that gets me the [Heroes' Frostfire Robe] (though I remain reluctant to pay 80 emblems for an item I could win outright off Archavon). If I really don't want either, there are some shiny heirloom items I could pick up.

So why am I sitting on that many banked badges? Because there's a patch coming.

The picture as it now stands....
Before the expansion's launch, the discussion was that 10-man raid gear would lag 25-man gear by a tier (which apparently means 13 item levels). Presuming they've stuck with that plan, here's what we already know:
(By M/S/K I mean Malygos, Sartharion w/ at least 2 drakes, and Kel'Thuzad, who drop loot from a higher tier due to their signature status)

ilvl 239: Optional bosses/hardmodes in Ulduar-25
ilvl 226: Ulduar-25, M/S/K-25, Optional bosses/hardmodes in Ulduar-10
ilvl 213: Naxx-25, Sartharion-25, Ulduar-10, M/S/K-10
ilvl 200: Naxx-10, Sartharion-10, Heroic 5-man end bosses and Emblem Rewards, Exalted Rep Rewards, Top end crafted items as of 3.0
ilvl 200 BLUE: Heroic 5-man regular bosses, pre-exalted level 80 rep rewards
ilvl 187 BLUE: Non-heroic 5-man, pre-exalted rep rewards (attainable prior to level 80)

Via a lengthy thread on arena itemization, we have a few more tidbits:
- There will be an Emblem of Conquest from Ulduar-25. I think I heard that Ulduar-10 will drop Emblems of Valor, but I don't have a source for that on hand.
- Kel'Thuzad is on a higher reward tier in part because Blizzard underestimated how easy he would be to get to.
- There are no plans to allow trades of 10-man Emblems of Heroism for 25-man emblems of valor (which makes sense in the context of Ulduar-10 dropping Valor emblems).
- Ulduar will be balanced assuming Naxx loot.

Will the non-raid game see progression in patch 3.1 or beyond?
I don't think there is any way that non-raid content will see ilvl 213 epics in this patch cycle, and, I think it is highly unlikely that there will be new 5-man content in patch 3.1. Though I have finished the current heroics, the expansion launched with a dozen of them, compared to only three raids. (Naxx does come with 4.5 wings the size of a 5-man, so it's not exactly 12 to 3, but, then again, Naxx is recycled content). Heroics already have their "hard mode" reward for bosses in the form of a meta achievement, and it would not make sense to add optional, tougher bosses to existing heroic dungeons unless Blizzard had the time to cover all twelve dungeons (otherwise, players would overwhelmingly prefer the dungeons with the good loot).

(I also don't think we will see rare-quality ilvl 213 items this patch, or ever this expansion cycle. As you can see in a comparison of PVP robes, the difference between rare and epic items of the same tier is about identical to the difference between epics of different tiers. I.e., an ilvl 213 blue item would look a lot like an ilvl 200 purple one.)

In the short term, it is possible that Blizzard may expand either access or variety in the Emblem vendors. I think we could see, at a minimum, more cosmetic rewards (such as pets, which aren't currently available, tabards or mounts), and possibly a wider selection of gear as well. As I noted when I did a roundup of pre-raid mage gear, there are a number of slots where the pickings at the heroic level are very scarce. New rewards would help convince people to continue using the existing non-raid content while Blizzard works on the raid game.

In the longer term, I think Blizzard will have to consider some means of making ilvl 213 loot available to the non-raid populace. This is more likely to happen somewhere further down the line, such as patch 3.3, when even the 10-man raiders have moved beyond that tier (similar to the addition of Magister's Terrace in patch 2.4). At that point we might see Emblems of Valor in 5-man content and solo daily quests with some chance of rewarding Emblems of Heroism. The comparatively low cost per item - most cost 40 or fewer emblems - is an obstacle there, but these items will be well behind the gear curve at that point in the expansion cycle, and heirloom items may be the most attractive rewards as a new gear reset looms. With heirlooms involved, players might be willing to continue using that content for the heirlooms AFTER the next expansion hits, which is about as good a return on the dev time as anything in Blizzard's toolbox at the moment.

(Yes, in principle the 10-man raids are puggable and/or will become more so as players have more time to outgear them. Personally, I have a hard enough time pugging heroics. My one and only attempt at a pug 10-man featured TWO melee DPS who flatly refused to even attempt to move out of the WALL OF BLEEPING FIRE on Sartharion, and then pulled out damage meters in an attempt to blame everyone else's "low DPS" for the ensuing wipes - apparently the high numbers they were able to rack up as a result of not moving outweighed even the possibility of loot for doing the fight properly.)

Awaiting another PTR....
So that's why I'm sitting on my emblems for the time being. Perhaps this patch is too early to expect any changes, but I find it hard to believe that Blizzard would fail to offer any further non-raid progression for the rest of the expansion cycle (which is likely to run for at least a year from now, more like a year and a half given Blizzard's track record).

Will I be disappointed when the PTR's happen (probably in the next week or two, judging from the increasing amounts of information Blizzard is releasing about the patch)? Perhaps. But hey, at least the emblems aren't taking up bagspace anymore. :)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Would Warhammer Be Better Without Scenario Exp?

A Thought Experiment
Let's say that you were placed in charge of Warhammer development sometime prior to the game's September launch.

The basic rules are:
- You have foreknowledge, through some combination of thought experiment future vision and/or focus groups/playtesting, of what major problems the game would face when it went live.

- The game's launch cannot be delayed due to harsh financial reality.

- Locking Mark Jacobs in a closet somewhere for a few months so that he can't make promises his game won't be able to deliver on, though potentially satisfying on an emotional level, won't actually solve any problems.

- You can make two types of changes in the game.
The first are things that don't require major coding, such as changing the values of things that were in the game as of September 18th (such as exp rewards), which we'll presume that Mythic could have done freely.
The second are substitutions - new features (or ones that have subsequently been delivered in patches, such as oRVR influence) that require significant programming. These, however, would require reassigning programmers from elsewhere, and therefore cutting a similar sized feature elsewhere in the game.

Is there a single change that could have been made that might have left Warhammer in better shape today?

The Challenges
Two of Warhammer's biggest issues at launch were general client stability, which is presumably too big of a fish to fry for our little experiment, and World of Warcraft (specifically, having hundreds of thousands of bored WoW players slam the servers at launch, forcing the creation of new ones, only to leave those servers deserted when Wrath came out two months later), which is also beyond our fictional control. Cross those off the list, though, and it seems like the largest issue that people were talking about was how everyone was hidden away in instanced scenarios. This meant that no one was out in the non-instanced world to participate in open RVR, or the game's highly touted public quests.

Mythic has since attempted to address the RVR issues with increased incentives for open RVR via world events and a new influence system (though some people have argued that this has led to keep flipping). The public quests have proven a tougher nut to crack, and Mythic ultimately opted to rebalance some Public Quests for smaller groups to allow the smaller than expected outdoor PVE population to cope. However, presuming everything is wrapped up by March, these changes will reach live servers six months after the game's retail launch, and I can't even begin to guess where we could cut six months elsewhere from the development process to have any of them in place back in September.

An imperfect solution?
Those of you who read the subject of the post can figure out what I'm about to suggest here - what if Warhammer's scenarios did not award experience?

The essential issue, which I summed up back in October, is that you can get experience in either outdoor quest content or in instanced scenarios, but you can ONLY get reknown, Warhammer's PVP experience, in PVP content. Reknown doesn't just get you a head start on your RVR level, it ALSO gets you access to Reknown reward gear. This stuff isn't as good as public quest rewards, but there's also no "vegas style loot" roll to see who gets it, and no need to worry about whether there are enough players to beat the boss of the public quest. Just click "queue" and you'll get a group of players and a large chunk of both exp and reknown, win, lose, or draw. Why would you choose PVE for exp and gear when scenarios offered exp, reknown, gear, AND were more fun besides?

(We're ignoring non-instanced RVR for this thought experiment because it was underutilized until Mythic made the changes they made, and I'm not sure what could have been cut to cover it.)

If one imagines that experience from scenarios was reduced or eliminated, it might follow that players would choose to do more non-instanced quests to get levels. These players would then be out in the world in sufficient numbers to complete public quests and attack battlefield objectives. Could this change have made Warhammer less of the scenario grind players complained it became at launch, and more of the balanced game that Mythic had in mind when they created all the non-instanced content that ended up sitting around, underutilized?

The Catch...
For a counterpoint, I'm going to quote myself from last October:
"Meanwhile, they don't want to take an RVR game and force players to spend more time on PVE content (either by nerfing scenario exp or via greatly increasing PQ exp). They're marketing to PVP players who don't want to do PVE content, and, at any rate, boosting exp in PVE content would just encourage players to level to the cap and worry about reknown when they get there (in the process missing the best part of the game in the low-end scenarios).

... The best part of the game are the scenarios, so I don't see why it makes sense to work so hard at getting people to leave them."

Clearly, I would not have liked this change, had it appeared in a patch sometime mid September.

The charge of "forcing PVP players to do PVE" is one that I can't rebut, though the truth is that this may have happened anyway with Warhammer's current system of ward armor. There's also the issue that not having to PVE to PVP was one of the game's talking points in comparison to WoW, and taking away the RVR-only progression path might have encouraged players to compare the two games on solo-PVE content (where WoW generally wins, since that's arguably the game's main focus today).

There's also a secondary issue that many players were already concerned about the experience curve with the game as is, and removing a source of experience would exacerbate that problem. You could kind of attempt to bandage that by guesstimating that the average player gets X% of their experience from scenarios and reducing the experience requirement per level by that amount, but even determining that that number should be might be a more in-depth exercise than our thought experiment would allow us to carry out without cutting something else from the game.

Finally, it's worth noting that Mythic could always have reverted or adjusted this hypothetical change in a subsequent patch once the incentives for the rest of the game were done. "Our latest update delivers a major feature players are asking for, greater experience from scenarios...."

Effects on retention
Last week wasn't the best of times for Warhammer. EA finally released a subscriber number as of the end of the fourth quarter, and it was 300,000. Given that the game had 750,000 accounts by mid-October (and presumably continued to register additional accounts for the subsequent two and a half months, though no one is saying how many), the game's retention rate wasn't great. See a full Book of Grudges roundup for more community details, and /cheer that BOG is back up and writing. ;)

Some of those players were going to leave anyway. Some who stayed might have hated the change I'm suggesting here badly enough that they would have left. Still, the overabundance of incentives for the game's (thoroughly enjoyable) scenarios did not help Mythic showcase the game as it was intended to be during that crucial first month. Perhaps more drastic action might have made a difference.

Does anyone else have a better answer to my little thought experiment?

P.S. This post was inspired by a remark from Snafzg last week, on the game's financial situation:
"I really wish WAR would have delayed for more polish, but given EA’s Q3 losses, their books would have been hit even harder. I wonder if it was worth the trade off from a management point of view. Seems like a catch 22 to me..."

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Managing the hit cap

My wife sometimes watches me game from across the room while she's working on other things, and she noticed that I had gotten out a pencil and paper and was jotting down stats from my character sheet. Whenever I start writing stuff down (or using a spreadsheet), either I'm being slightly neurotic about my gear planning again OR there's something wonky about game mechanics going on. She was curious which it was this time.

To backtrack a step, I first got the gear to reach the Wrath "hit cap" (368 for mages who are able to get at a 3% talent) with the assistance of food a month ago. The setup I had, however, proved short-lived.

PVE Gear Upgrades
First, I got the [Sundial of the Exiled] trinket for heroic emblems. This thing is good enough for mage DPS that it was worth falling 55 rating below the cap just to have it instead of the [Rune of Infinite Power]. Next, I finished the Loremaster achievement, earning the right to make a [Deathchill Cloak] which rendered my old [Cloak of Seething Steam] obsolete. Finally, I obtained a [Girdle of Bane], which competes with my [Belt of Dark Mending] for my waist slot in PVE.

PVE sidegrades
As if that part of the picture wasn't complicated enough, there are also PVP sidegrades to consider. I do still run Wintergrasp at least once a day, so I'm swimming in Wintergrasp marks. That allowed me to snag a [Titan-forged Hood of Dominance] to swap in for my everyday [Titan-forged Hood of Salvation], and a [Hateful Gladiator's Pendant of Ascendancy] as a backstop for my everyday [Hateful Gladiator's Pendant of Subjugation]. Both of these are nice to have because they're one for one trades of haste rating for hit rating. Many of my other spell hit pieces offer less in the way of spell power and other stats (see the belts above), but with these I'm just swapping out one rating for another that's more valuable against raid bosses.

Somewhere along the way, I also picked up a pair of [Titan-forged Slippers of Dominance], which shares time with my [Sandals of Crimson Fury]. (Ironically, the slippers were my main PVP shoes for a while, because I opted to purchase all the other Wintergrasp rewards before finally going back to get the more PVP-oriented [Titan-forged Slippers of Salvation]).

Adding it up
Now you may be able to guess where the pencil and paper came in. For those keeping score at home, my gear minus the two pieces that I got major upgrades for was at 273 hit rating. That would appear to be a 95 point deficit. Then I resocketed my [Water-Drenched Robe] with an orange and a green gem that offer hit rating. This cost me 19 spell damage, but gained me 16 hit rating (I didn't go with pure yellows because of the socket bonus, and because, at the time, I needed a blue gem in one of the slots for meta purposes), leaving me with 79 points to cover. The pencil and paper were to figure out which two items I should swap for their hit rating upgrades from the following list:

[Titan-forged Hood of Salvation] -> [Titan-forged Hood of Dominance]
[Hateful Gladiator's Pendant of Subjugation] -> [Hateful Gladiator's Pendant of Ascendancy]
[Belt of Dark Mending] -> [Girdle of Bane]
[Sandals of Crimson Fury] -> [Titan-forged Slippers of Dominance]

For extra added bonus confusion, I can choose to eat [Snapper Extreme] for 40 hit rating instead of [Firecracker Salmon] for 46 spell power. (I don't always run with a food buff, but I do try to make the extra effort when there's a boss fight involved.)

My best guess before I got tired of thinking about it was that the Hood and the Pendant are the winners since both rep reward purples are better than their counterparts. That puts me at 367, which means that I have some small miss rate, but it's not worth fretting over. (I suppose I could always regem the robe again for a yellow, which would cost me the 6 rating socket bonus and result in a net gain of 2, which would be one point over.)

The upgrades aren't necessarily finished, however. I'm still using a green wand, the [Wand of Blinding Light], because it's actually one of the best options for pre-raid mages, and I could lose the 15 hit rating on that piece if I upgrade it. That one I could paper over (again, resocket the robe to a pair of yellows).

The robe itself is the larger issue. I'm currently getting 84 hit rating out of that one slot, and could push that to 94 with yellow gems. The robe that I use in my everyday gear, the [Robe of Crackling Flames] spends so much of its budget on mana regen that I'm comfortable making that swap. If I were to pick up the [Heroes' Frostfire Robe], on the other hand, I'd be in for some tough decision-making. The robe has spirit and crit rating, and generally I get better scaling out of haste, but it also offers some every nice spell power and would unlock the 2 piece bonus for my mage. However, if I filled the yellow socket with an orange spell power/hit rating gem, I'd have as many as 80 points of hit rating to make up. I can do 40 of those with the food, but I'd also have to swap in either the belt or the boots to make it work.

(On the flipside, the [Heroes' Frostfire Leggings] replace the resilience on my [Deadly Gladiator's Silk Trousers] with hit rating, and thereby free up one of my other slots. However, it would also create a new problem because I'm using the blue socket on the Gladiator pants to fill meta requirements. If I do get those pants, it might be the last straw that convinces me to go Jewelcrafter so I can use [Runed Dragon's Eye] to end the blue gem problem.)

Is the blogger more crazy than the game?
All of which brings me back to the question I asked the first time I talked about this issue. Is having a hit cap that I have to try and reach, but not exceed, really the best design for this system? I don't know, but I'd like to think that it's not just me.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Trials of Norrath

As you might be able to tell from my recent string of WoW achievements, I'm all but done with the non-raid content of the expansion. As such, it seemed like a good time to take up one of my New Year's Resolutions and give Everquest 2 a try. Some early comments from my first evening in the free trial.

Irritatingly, I had to go to the technical support forums for instructions on how to get the Station Launcher to work in Vista - it was triggering the Vista "are you sure you want to do that" prompt in ways that apparently made it unhappy, and the game literally would not start until I did the workaround. I really would have expected them to have come up with a better solution - this is a two year old operating system we're talking about. The initial download took overnight sometime last week, and there was another patch of some sort that it missed and had to grab last night that didn't take nearly as long as the updater claimed it would (estimated: 20 hours, actual: 20 minutes).

Server selection was relatively light on population information, as I suppose is traditional in the industry. The top PVP server, and the game's flagship RP server, were both listed as "high", but I'm not really inclined towards either ruleset. All the others were "medium", so I picked Crushbone since I'd heard it has the highest population of the regular servers on the forums. I'd definitely be open to suggestions on that front if anyone else has a server they'd like to recommend.

The gameplay
I rolled up a Sarnak Fury (think of a lizardman Balance Druid) for reasons I'll get into in a bit to try out the newbie area. As with most MMORPG's these days, the early quests are easy, and I breezed through to level 8 in about 2 hours despite various trials and travails trying to figure out the UI etc.

Things I really liked
- Travel:
EQ2 characters get a "sprint" ability that allows them to burn their mana-equivalent for faster movement speed. On top of that, my Sarnak has a racial sprint that gives me a 50% boost for 36s on a 5 min cooldown. The two actually stack, for a temporary 90% runspeed boost at level 1. I absolutely love this feature because it makes my return trips back to town (after I've already seen and explored the terrain on the way over) quick and easy. Less time spent watching my character run places means more time actually playing the game, so that's a big plus in my book.

- Quest Journal:
I'll admit, I'm probably going to take months to get used to pushing the "J" key for my questlog, but it's a nice interface that holds a ton of quests and actually records interesting information such as the date on which you accepted the quest (now you can actually PROVE that you've been working on a quest "forever").

- Spell Acquisition:
First, you automatically get your new spells when you level. You can further upgrade your spells with items from vendors or crafted upgrades, but getting the base rank immediately is nice. Also, at least at the early levels, you get spells at a rate of 2 or so per level, which means that you assemble at least the basics of your class' toolbox at a rather early level. A number of classes in WoW don't get certain stances/forms/etc that completely alter their playstyle until level 30-40, which makes it hard to tell what you're getting into.

- Race/Class Diversity:
The game has a good selection of races, and 24 classes, which gives you a lot of room for unusual combinations. Also, each class has a sister class that's a slight variation - for example, good-aligned players can start as a Conjurer and summon elemental pets, while evil-aligned players can start as a Necromancer and summon undead pets. The neat thing is that you can actually SWITCH your class to the sister class if you do a questline to betray your starting city and join a different one. (Stargrace apparently is somewhat fond of swapping classes. ;)) It's more work than a traditional respec (the game has those too), but it's also interesting to have the possibility of switching up your playstyle if you're so inclined.

(Slight downside: Your good/evil alignment is determined by your starting city, and many of the races are restricted to specific cities. If you want to play the good-aligned version of a class with a race that is forced to start as evil, you will have to plan to betray later. Also, the evil-aligned Sarnak starting zone, the most recent one added to the game via an expansion, is widely regarded as the best, but you can't start good-aligned races or classes there.)

Things I didn't like
- Spellcasting Skill:
Back in WoW's beta, the weapon skill mechanic also applied to casters. (I'm guessing both games get this "feature" from EQ1?) Blizzard removed it because it simply isn't fun when you're playing a class that can't mill around in melee range casting spells (while losing casting time to incoming damage) all day just to skill up. Don't get me wrong, I don't like weapon skill either (especially the ages it can take for the last few points), but at least you can level your weaponskills reasonably quickly by hacking away at low level mobs who aren't doing much damage without taking spell pushback for it.

Anyway, EQ2 still retains several skills for your different spell schools. By the time I got my first debuff spells, my skill in the appropriate school was painfully low because I literally did not have any spells in that school I could cast to level it. This meant that I just got a spell that almost never actually works until I can get the appropriate skill up to par. Apparently curing poison is also on a skill of some sort, which means that I need to go and get poisoned repeatedly so I can work on that skill level.

This is one of those places where realism should take a back seat to avoiding irritating gameplay. I just gained 8 levels in the hour or so, meaning that I'm more than twice as hard to kill, and I spontaneously generated 10 new spells I'd never cast before during that time. Can't we just agree that I was practicing my spellcasts during whatever time I used to learn to be stabbed twice as many times before I die?

- /Hail
When I right click on an NPC who has only one function in the game (e.g. giving out a quest, or selling stuff), I want to do that one thing, not have to select "Hail" from a menu that has a single option. Maybe this is still in there for RP purposes, but that's not without flaws either - pretty much every quest I've seen so far has my player speaking specific dialog to the questgiver. What if I want to RP a character who doesn't talk like that? It would be better to leave my character silent so I could fill in what he would say if I were so inclined.

(Bonus/Related Point: If you're buying stuff and want to switch over to vendor mode, it appears that you have to close the window and re-hail the merchant to select "sell". Can't this function be merged, like it is in all other modern MMORPG's?)

- Root and Nuke?
The Fury class sounded appealing to me because the class offers caster DPS (a role I'm familiar with), a reputation for good soloing capacity, several travel perks (a runspeed bonus talent and teleports), and can heal for added group utility. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that I'm going to get very tired of the caster playstyle, which (once you get to high enough levels that the mobs actually damage you) relies on casting a root spell at range and hoping the roots don't break while you nuke until the roots come off cooldown.

I should probably give this a bit longer before passing final judgement, if for no other reason than because I still haven't been able to max the casting skill on my root spell after having it for a level and spamming it in situations where the mob was already in melee range, just for the chance at the skill point. Also, my spells are currently at a pretty low level of quality since I'm such a low level character - right now, I'm not sure that I actually kill things faster with spells than autoattacks, and I know that's not supposed to stay true as I level. Still, I can see myself getting very frustrated at having my life depend on whether or not my roots break.

Ah well, what's a trial for, if not trying out new classes (especially since the travel perks matter less than I thought they would since all classes have the sprint skill).

What does this mean for PVD?
In case I have any concerned readers (or guildies), I'm not planning on canceling my WoW subscription anytime soon. WoW still has daily quests, world events, and other things that I'm interested in working on. I'm just in a position where I don't want to make the jump to raiding (indeed, I can't make the "I'll be here at X time and won't need to leave for Y time" commitment in advance), and sometimes spending 2+ hours LFG for the last few heroic dungeons I'm farming isn't my idea of a fun evening.

I might not even last past the 2 week trial in EQ2 (I think I will, but making up my mind is what the trial is for ;)). Regardless, I'll definitely be on WoW at LEAST one evening a week to beat up Archavon for easy loot, plus my usual morning daily quest runs, and some evening heroic dungeons when everything falls into place (e.g. daily Heroic dungeon is one that I want, the Alliance has Wintergrasp, and I have the time to find and complete a dungeon run).

In short, I don't expect the focus of the blog to shift dramatically. Many of my posts are based on out-of-game news anyway, and I've always enjoyed being able to address incentive questions by comparison to other games.