Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Will the real Lyriana please stand up?

Lyriana is proud to announce that she hit level 40 (and promptly zipped past it to 41) last night. (She is currently a 42 Jeweler with 33 AA's.)

Those of you who have been paying attention might be wondering what happened to Lyriana's wings and small Fae physique. Nothing serious, level 40 dirges get a spell called "Disguise: Dark Elf" that lets them appear to be Dark Elves. (Actual Dark Elf Dirges are out of luck I suppose.)

Each EQ2 class gets a few similar fun spells. They allow for a variety of amusing tricks, such as non-combat pets, glowing auras, or full-featured disguises that allow you, your pets, or even the rest of your party, to resemble other creatures (sometimes playable races, sometimes beasts, elementals, etc). I'm not sure if I'd call them class defining (the Illusionist may be the exception, since they get so many to choose from that you could easily forget what race you actually were), but they're definitely an amusing perk to play with.

What you see isn't necessarily what everyone else sees...
Another interesting point is that a number of the EQ2 races (the traditional Dungeons and Dragons ones mostly) have alternate models that were made for one of the game's Asian releases. Here's Dark Elf Lyriana using the alternate models.

Because this is an illusion form, I didn't get to customize either version. Players who don't have the alternate models on (they're off by default, and apparently the community is not entirely fond of them) will just see the version that I showed up above. If you actually play one of the races that has an alternate appearence, though, you get to customize your second look.

It makes a fair amount of sense under the circumstances, but it's a bit odd that some players will look at the same character and see a completely different image. Personally, I prefer the alternate version to the default, simply because of the green hair (which may not even be an option for regular Dark Elves). That's a decision that I'm making about my character that the majority of players probably won't see.

Which one is really Lyriana? Well, obviously the Fae version is, and Fae don't have alternate models. But if Lyriana actually was the Dark Elf, which version would be real? The one that that most players see, or the one that I think is the better fit? I guess the bottom line is that each player gets to choose which models they want to see (on a game-wide basis, not character by character) so everyone goes home happy, but it is a weird quirk of virtual identity that I haven't seen in other games so far.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Waaagh-bulance arrives too late...

PVD and Waaagh have had an occasionally colorful history. On one occasion, I worried that Blizzard's latest PR move would make Syp's head explode, and he took up the gauntlet with Michael J. Fox in tow. In one of my serveral appearences on the Bloody Twenty, Syp suggested that I had linked him about a dozen times in my post on Warhammer's 1.2 Patch. Needless to say, I was a bit sad to see the blog's farewell post this morning.

For me, Waaagh was not merely a source of free traffic from the web's premier Warhammer site (and possibly its most prolific, at least back in its heyday). Given my blog's focus, I need good sources of updates on games that I'm not playing at the moment. It's pretty hard for a single site to provide all the news that's fit to print to cover an entire game - most of us aspire to a very specific niche at best - but Syp actually pulled it off in the months before and after Warhammer's launch. He could garner about a dozen links in a single retrospective precisely because I could count on him to have a post about each and every event in Warhammer history that I needed background information on.

The good news is that I needn't miss the writing, since Syp has started a new blog called "Bio Break" (free from Gameriot's comment registration requirement). Still, it's kind of the end of an era, with the King retiring to a quieter home in the country, Book of Grudges doing its best impression of Schrodinger's (Nerf-the-) Cat and The Greenskin "on crutches". You can't always get what you Waaagh, but I hope Syp finds his new place gets what he needs.

(And hey, I can relate to the desire for a broader, multi-game focus; the majority of my posts and the vast majority of my readers follow WoW, but I definitely enjoy the freedom to talk about other games.)

Lockouts and Rested Exp as Incentives to Play Other Games?

These days, I'm effectively juggling three characters:

Greenwiz - When a useful raidID is available (generally Archavon, though I may add Sartharion 10/25 to the list after a quick and painless 10-man PUG this week), Wintergrasp if it's going to happen relatively shortly after I sign in, and perhaps the daily heroic 5-man if the Alliance holds Wintergrasp.

Lyriana (EQ2) - Tradeskill work when time is limited, questing when I have a longer chunk of time. These two activities have separate rested exp allowances, and I'll generally try to avoid doing them when I don't have rested exp.

Cheerydeth (WoW alt) - Very occasionally, when I feel like stabbing stuff and absolutely only when she has rested exp.

Green's issue is somewhat by design - the developers feel that the quality of the rewards I can snag from these instances requires that they be limited to once per week. I'm not sure if they necessarily meant that I should not play the character once I'm out of raid ID's, but at least there's a direct connection between what the devs wanted to do (limit the rate of loot acquisition) and the result.

Rested Exp, on the other hand, was theoretically implemented to help players who spend less time online keep pace with their friends who spend more time online, rather than to deter players like myself from playing past the end of the exp bar. I don't know that it actually serves that purpose in the current era of rapid level gain - when you're gaining a level every 2 hours, it doesn't take much time to outpace your less active friends (though EQ2 does allow you to turn off exp gain in this situation).

Neither of these incentives to switch are actually bad in my case, since I'm happy to play any of the above characters. (WoW raiders who have beaten all the current content may be less amused by the lack of anything to do beyond 2-3 nights of farming stuff they may no longer need.) Still, one has to wonder whether there are other ways to work around both of these issues - pace of loot acquisition and being able to continue playing with your friends - that don't push players who are paying attention to keep up multiple characters and/or games.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Not Putting Moria's Best Foot Forward?

I set aside a chunk of time this weekend to explore LOTRO's poorly-publicized third welcome back event. My rambling thoughts:

Stuck Outside the Gates

The bad news first was that the retrial does NOT include the Moria expansion. Allarond is already at LOTRO's pre-expansion level cap, and I was very hesitant to use up any of the new content in the zone outside Moria while level capped, for fear of running out of quests and being forced to grind kill deeds to level up. Tradeskills remained at the old caps (meaning that I was unable to mine the new minerals in the area around Moria), and I also did not have access to two of the highly touted features of the expansion - the Mines of Moria themselves, and the new legendary weapon/item advancement system.

Obviously, I got what I paid for (free) here, and allowing me to gain levels might not have been a good plan. Still, one wonders whether showing off the killer features of the expansion would have been a better way to convince players to resubscribe. Blizzard has somehow figured out a way to allow non-expansion owners temporary access to expansion content on their retrial program (any characters you make with new races/classes are temporarily unavailable once the trial expires, and you are allowed to gain experience until one point shy of the first expansion-only level), and I would argue that it's a more effective way of promoting the game.

Adding Polish
This out of the way, there are a fair number of little tweaks that add up to a more polished experience.

- The devs have reorganized class traits - the game's version of talents/AA's/masteries - into sets. My champion has traits that focus on single target damage, traits for AOE damage, and traits for survival/off-tanking. Currently, I'm using the best individual traits I have without regard to sets, which means 2 single target, 2 AOE, and 1 durability trait. I'm not sure I'd be willing to drop any of them to complete a set, but there are two additional trait slots that I would unlock during the expansion, and some nice bonuses to be gained for going to 4 traits in one of the specialty areas.

- The game now has crafting guilds, very reminiscent of EQ2's system. Instead of crafting worthless junk to gain crafting experience, you can craft items which give you rep with a faction that will ultimately offer you high end recipes. LOTRO's guild recipes have a cooldown because they ALSO offer a large chunk of crafting experience. This means that they would be great for new characters leveling up, and perhaps a bit less great for players like myself who gained most of their crafting exp before the system was introduced.

- Looted quest items (ears/hides, plants, banners, etc) now disappear into your quest log, as with the similar systems in Warhammer and EQ2. LOTRO does not offer ways to expand your carrying capacity, but there's much less reason why you would need to now that these items don't take up space. I wonder how long it will be before Blizzard finally makes it onto this bandwagon?

- The new zone that I was able to get to has traditional auto-horse travel routes (get on the horse and watch it ride, with the minor perk that you can choose to dismount midway if you want), and new unlockable swift travel routes (the travel is presumed to occur offscreen) that you earn via quests in the zone. This is an absolutely great feature, one that the game was lacking at launch, and I wish more games would borrow it. By the time I've done all the quests in the Borean Tundra, it's safe to say that I've seen the place, and I really wouldn't be missing anything if the flight from Dalaran took place off-camera in a minute instead of 7-8 minutes of AFK time.

The Quest Helper: Very Well Done, But a Very Bad Idea?

LOTRO now has in in-game version of a quest helper - on the map above, areas where I have quest objectives are highlighted, much like Warhammer's version of the same feature. There's also a little arrow indicator on the minimap pointing towards the next objective for your current quest (amusingly, even if you are all the way over on the other side of the world), and the subzone name on your minimap will light up when you enter a new area to let you know if there are objectives to be found.

Overall, it's a very well-done system, and I might even prefer it to Warhammer's version. However, I'm less convinced that it's a good idea in this particular game.

As you can see from my little tracker snapshot, the vast majority of the quests I'm lugging around are to kill various mobs. What makes LOTRO stand out from all the other fantasy MMORPG's where I can kill mobs is the lore. I'm not just slaughtering ANY birds, I'm slaughtering birds that are carrying what they see back to Isengard. When the game gives you a tracking system as good as this one or Warhammer's, the temptation to just accept all the quests and let the tracker tell you what to do becomes very strong. That has the unfortunate side effect of removing the connection to the lore, if you're not bothering to read the lore in the first place.

The new feature is optional (they have it off by default, and labeled "BETA" to boot), but it's a sufficient boost to convenience that it would be hard NOT to use it. I just hope it doesn't end up detracting too much from the game as a whole.

Did this trial do service to the game?
Between the tracker's sapping effect on the lore and the lack of access to Moria/Lothlorien and Legendary weapons, I'm not convinced that Turbine did the game justice with this particular retrial weekend. They have demonstrated that the game engine is up and running, as pretty as ever, with more polish and way more content in the level 40-50 region (where many players, including myself, felt they hit a brick wall a year and a half ago). However, players who did not know these things seem unlikely to benefit from the weekend simply because Turbine has failed to advertise it - I never got any sort of email notice, and only found out about the weekend because I follow LOTRO blogs.

In terms of the big ticket items, the reasons why I should supposedly be setting aside one or both of the games I'm playing now to play LOTRO instead of waiting for even more improvements, the trial was a bit lacking. I'm not sure if the new classes are available or not (I have zero desire to ever play another LOTRO character, because I don't want to have to repeat all the kill deed grinding), but overall I didn't feel like what I saw this weekend was substantially different from what the game had in the past. Like I said, that's not necessarily a bad thing, I'm just not sure that it's what Turbine had in mind by (kind of) inviting former players back for the weekend.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Crab School of Incentive Design

Pangoria let me a tip about an interesting discussion on incentives with Ghostcrawler. Some interesting tidbits:

Time Per Token
"Players say their favorite BC instances were the CoT ones. The most popular instance though (the one run the most) was Mechanar. Does that mean they were lying? Does that mean we should do more fast instances with lots of badges and fewer unique ones? .... Mechanar was popular because it was short."

Obviously, it is interesting to see the crab pulling up actual data that players like myself don't have direct access to. I'd imagine that the similar data for Wrath would show the Violet Hold, Utgarde Keep, and the Nexus out in front. VH and UK both offer 3 emblems in 30 minutes under ideal circumstances, while Nexus is relatively easy and offers a total of 5.

I don't know that the message here, as the crab's rhetorical question suggests, is that every dungeon needs to be short and yield lots of badges. However, I would think that the data calls for developers to think about the badge/time ratio. Mechanaar wasn't merely short, it was also one of the only heroics in the level 70 game to produce five badges, as two relatively trivial subbosses produced an extra badge each in an era where most dungeons produced three.

If you're going to have certain heroics that are significantly harder, perhaps those can ALSO drop more tokens to reward the increased effort. Meanwhile, if you're going to have an easier instance, like the Nexus, perhaps you should consider whether it's actually worth five emblems (again, the extra one comes from a sub-boss).

Challenge by content type
"At this point in time, offering very good gear through content other than raiding or Arenas isn't possible for us. Why? Because we don't yet have a mechanism to make the other content difficult enough to warrant that kind of reward. If we offered epics through BGs, it would basically be (right now at least) some kind of grind fest. If we offered them through 5-man heroics or quests or rep grinds or tradeskills, the requirements would have to be similarly brutal. Right now, we think only raiding and Arenas mandate the really high level of group coordination, intimate knowledge of the game and ability to make good decisions under stress that deserve the best rewards. I do think it's a weakness in the game design though, and we'd like to figure out other ways to offer those rewards....."

"We think it's great to have so many people able to raid (again assuming they want to raid, and not that they are in a raid or die mentality).

Where we did err was that some of the 10-player content proved more difficult than the 25-player content, which was not the intent. That sets a weird mindset in the community that 25-player runs are pugs, and 10-player runs aren't worth it."

I've tacked these two lengthy quotes together because they get to a fundamental issue - is the crab's assertion that only raid and arena content can truly bring out the best of the best in terms of skill?

If you look at heroics today, compared to heroics of the early TBC era (i.e. before patch 2.4, which put in incentives for players in T5+ gear to farm Mechanaar for badges), I would argue that the current heroics are substantially less difficult for their intended audience (player in non-heroic 5-man gear). The TBC heroics required crowd control at the risk of dictating group composition. Meanwhile, heroics at the time didn't really offer all that much in the way of rewards - the loot was mostly on the same tier as the non-heroic versions - to justify the increased difficulty.

In Wrath, Blizzard has been much more careful to offer a strictly tiered reward structure. This is good in some ways, but also paints them into a corner in terms of players jumping down from supposedly harder content into the supposedly less difficult content. For example, a new five-man dungeon that dropped Emblems of Valor and ilvl 213 epic gear would be a disaster with the current model; players who are working on Naxx-25 and Ulduar-10 would jump down to cherry pick out the good loot, and the crab would subsequently argue that the content needs to be tuned for raid geared players, rather than players with limited raid experience who actually will be in need of new content at some point.

Blizzard is now all-but committed, by their decision not to launch with top-end challenging stuff, to making increasingly harder raid content be the centerpiece of each patch. This leaves them the challenge of providing something for players who aren't prepared to make the jump to Ulduar and beyond to do for the next year, or longer, until the next expansion. The upcoming Argent Tournament, with a wide array of new non-combat pets, tabards, and mounts is a good start, but these cosmetic rewards are arguably already overused, and they're going to need some new tricks for patch 3.2.

Optimizing the fun out of the game
"Sadly, many players go where the loot is. Or perhaps more accurately for them getting the loot is fun, and that overwhelms where they are getting it. If we instigated another Silithus-style rep grind where you needed to kill 10,000 Tuskarr but we rewarded ilevel 232 for doing so, I promise you (and I rarely promise) that thousands of players would be doing it, cursing us all the while."

Sorry, GC. Though, if it makes you feel any better, I'm actually enjoying slaughtering Gorlocs after giving up on getting the green drake anytime soon.

Bonus Guest Appearance from Jeff Kaplan
Via Broken Toys comes an account of Tigole's talk on quest design at GDC. One segment stood out for me:
"It's a quest that starts at level 30, it spans 14 levels," he said. "And it ends with you having to kill Myzrael there, who's a level 40 elite mob. So it's basically like putting ab rick wall in front of a player. Here you go, just bang your head against the wall for a while..."

"The reason that this is bad--it's cool to have quest chains that span a lot of content, and feel kind of expansive and far-reaching. But the reason that this particular case is bad is because the player [loses trust] in the game."

Kaplan continued to say that players begin to distrust the game when being tasked with such elaborate quests, and are less likely to take on longer quests in the future."

I don't think I've ever completed that chain to the point where I hit the wall, but I have definitely noticed that Wrath solo chains tend not to hinge on large amounts of group content. It was very common in the pre-TBC and TBC eras for quests to throw in a 5-man run at some point along the chain, and I felt exactly that loss of trust in the game when this happened. There is a part of me that feels cheated when I do a questline for Akama, only to be sent into first a tough five-man and then into raid content. It really emphasized that the storyline of the expansion was not intended for me as a non-raider; when Illidan shouted that I was not prepared as I installed the expansion, he turns out to have been correct.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the remainder of the Wrath era. The famous Wrathgate questline has been described as the end of "Act 1" of the story, with two more acts to go. Though I do focus on physical incentives - pets, gear, mounts, etc - seeing the story unfold with my own eyes, rather than via a Youtube video somewhere, is an incentive as well.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

LOTRO's latest re-trial weekend

Via MMO-Quests comes the news that LOTRO is having another welcome back weekend. When? Possibly as soon as now.

Re-trialing on a fixed schedule
There are pros and cons to doing free re-trials as specific date events, rather than open re-trials like the ones offered by WoW and Warhammer. I opted not to take Warhammer up on their re-trial offer at the moment, because I don't have much time to spend playing it. By contrast, I will definitely spend some time in Middle Earth this weekend, since doing so does not cost me anything (i.e. the opportunity to re-trial at a later date when I have more time). Also, simply reactivating all non-banned inactive accounts for a weekend removes any question of asking for billing information and subsequent PR issues.

On the downside, I'm going into this thing with the mindset of "I should take a look at how the game is doing for future reference, and probably a blog post". I won't have time for a more in-depth trip into Moria (I presume that the trial includes the expansion, though their site doesn't really confirm that) given the almost complete lack of advance notice and the other things I have going on, both online and offline at the moment. A week-long trial is, if you plan it right, enough time to get the game back into your weekly routine and decide that you'd like to keep playing right now, while a weekend trial is enough to do some quests, maybe gain a level or two, and put the account back into mothballs until later.

In other news, Turbine's PR department kind of fails at promoting this thing. As of now, I still have yet to get an email advertising the event. This is a bit of an issue, since a player who hears about it on Friday but doesn't want to spend the evening's prime gaming hours watching the patcher do its thing might not even get back into the game before the thing ends. The event did make Massively's headlines, and the new LOTRO Combo Blog (a new aggregation feed for LOTRO blogs) but you'd think they'd want to promote their own event a bit more.

Advertising bonus experience
One thing that this promotion does have in common with Warhammer's version is an emphasis on bonus exp. Warhammer points out that retrial characters will get full rested exp for time away (one imagines that someone who had paid to resubscribe before the retrial program would have gotten the same benefit, but that's besides the point), while LOTRO is offering 25% bonus exp on top of rested exp. I'm sure these incentives are intended to sweeten the pot for someone considering whether the retrials are worth their time, but I find them odd from the incentive perspective.

Is the implication with these advertisements that developers think players chose to leave the game because they were dissatisfied with the exp curve? In fairness, I actually did choose to leave LOTRO because the content in the mid-late 40's was excessively grindy at the time, and players leveled similar complaints against Warhammer's exp/reknown curves. Still, the solution to those complaints are permanent additions to the game (which both games have done), not merely a temporary bonus that goes away after the retrial weekend.

The other question is whether I actually WANT bonus exp. As I've noted, EQ2's exp curve is arguably too quick after all the bonuses and exp curve rebalancing. The whole purpose of someday going back to LOTRO would be to play through the new content. Why would I want to bypass some of that content with faster exp?

With the new expansion, Allarond can gain 10 additional levels. Gaining even one of those levels during the latest re-trial (not a total stretch - again, presuming that the re-trial includes the expansion - since I gained two levels during the game's first re-trial weekend) would be like raiding the fridge to eat my dessert early; the immediate gratification is nice, but I'm just stealing from my own enjoyment down the road. (More importantly from Turbine's perspective, this is now the third LOTRO retrial, and it would seem like biannual retrials might actually allow a focused player to burn through a large portion of the game's new content.)

Perhaps players are ultimately more likely to resubscribe in the short term when given a bonus that offers immediate gratification. (In addition to bonus exp, pre-existing low level LOTRO characters might gain multiple levels immediately due to a revamped exp curve in the most recent patch.) I'm just questioning whether giving away levels helps in the long-run, or just makes players like myself run out of content faster.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

An Unexpected Upgrade, and the Complexity of Loot

With my focus on incentives and upgrades, you might think that someone like myself would be relatively good at evaluating the quality of an item, and determining whether it represents an upgrade for my character. How else would I be able to make my cost/benefit decisions?

So imagine my surprise when it turns out that I picked up a major upgrade during my weekend Naxx PUG without even realizing that I had done so!

Revisiting the hit rating dance
I've posted before on the complexity of reaching but not exceeding WoW's hit cap. Despite all that analysis, I took a good look at the [Spire of Sunset] that Thaddius dropped and quickly decided that it was not a viable upgrade over my old combo of the [Flameheart Spell Scalpel and the [Ward of the Violet Citadel]. The staff was epic and shiny, but it spent a large chunk of its budget on mana/5s, and it did not have hit rating. I don't really need mana regen, and I do need hit rating, so that seemed like a bad deal. Focusing in on the DPS stats, the trade was:

[Flameheart Spell Scalpel + [Ward of the Violet Citadel] -> [Spire of Sunset]
+99 Haste, +46 Spell Power, -50 Crit, -72 Hit

It was late at night, so I wasn't really thinking about the hit rating sidegrades sitting in my bank.

[Belt of Dark Mending] -> [Girdle of Bane]
+48 hit, -55 Haste
(Note: the Girdle will gain some crit rating if the molten armor changes go live, making this a slightly better swap)

[Sandals of Crimson Fury] -> [Titan-forged Slippers of Dominance]
+44 Hit, -51 Haste, -18 Spell Power
(Note: The sandals are socketed with a red/blue spell power/stamina gem, while the slippers are socketed with a yellow/blue hit rating/stamina piece. I needed a partially-blue gem to maintain the bonus for my metagem, and decided that the foot slot was a good place to put it due to the socket bonus on the sandals.)

I'd previously dismissed using either item, as both give up more haste than they gain back in hit rating, where my other PVP sidegrades trade in haste rating at a 1:1 ratio for hit. To make matters worse, the Slippers lose spell power, and it rarely makes sense to give up spell power for similar amounts of anything. But what happens when I combine these two seemingly useless items with that staff I dismissed as a raid item?

Running Total For Above Swaps:
+28 Spell Power, -7 Haste, -50 crit, +20 hit

Looks a lot closer now, right? Only problem is, I was previously at 367 hit rating, and the cap is 368 (you only get a fractional benefit from the last point). So that +20 hit is actually a +0.5 hit, at which point I'm giving up a lot of haste and crit in exchange for a medium sized chunk of spell power. So, a downgrade and another pair of downgrades add up to remain a downgrade.... unless I can get rid of some of that excess hit rating.

See, it turns out that I have my [Water-Drenched Robe] socketed with two of the 16 hit rating [Rigid Autumn's Glow]. What if I tweak that?

2x[Rigid Autumn's Glow]->[Shining Forest Emerald]+[Runed Scarlet Ruby]+6 hit rating (bonus for using correct colored gems in the sockets)
-18 Hit, +19 Spell Power (also a free +8 spirit, potentially good for 2-3 crit rating next patch)

Note: Why the red and green gem, you might ask? The purple/orange combo, [Purified Twilight Opal] + [Veiled Monarch Topaz] yields one fewer spell power. I would technically come out neutral if I put the green and the orange in the robe and a red in the slippers (breaking its socket bonus, but it's only resilience), which would no longer need to carry a green gem since I would have one in the robe. I disfavor this option because I would like to replace the robe some day, after which I might end up putting a new green back into the slippers.

Now let's add in this minor gem adjustment with the three downgrades.

Total for the above, including resocketing the robe:
+47 Spell Power, -7 Haste, -50 crit, +2 hit
(Plus an amount of crit to be determined later because the swap adds 46 spirit to my gear.)

Suddenly, I'm trading crit rating at just about 1:1 for spell power. Suddenly, that item that I didn't think could be used in raids is a full-time upgrade that happens to come with a stack of mana regen as a complete bonus.

1 need, 1 greed, and a bunch of confusion
None of the above would really matter, except that I didn't call "need" on this item. I might not even have been willing to use my "greed" roll, had it not been for the fact that only two bosses remained in the dungeon (and none of their loot was likely to fall to "greed" status). Fortunately, staves have a bad reputation these days, and spirit appears to be more popular than mana regen, so it fell into my lap uncontested on a greed roll.

Obviously, I can't be sure whether the other folks in the raid who passed entirely on the item have a similar set of the banked spell hit sidegrades that I needed to make this complex swap work. I would be kicking myself this morning if I'd let the staff get away, except that I probably wouldn't even have KNOWN what I missed, as I wouldn't have done the above math if I hadn't been looking for a way to make the swap work.

So, why am I talking about this? You'd think that someone who spends all this time thinking about stuff like this would LIKE it when all of their competitors potentially failed to recognize an upgrade and passed on it. The reason is that Heroic Naxx has a 228 BOP item loot table, 95 of which are usable by mages (though some of those are melee weapons or jewelry). There is no way that even I have time to individually examine 60ish items to see if some combination of them plus something in my bank results in an upgrade. Evaluating those items will get even more complicated now that we have to consider that a portion of spirit is a DPS stat (whose value depends on whether you have a glyph, which is only worth having if you have enough spirit - a vicious cycle if ever there was one).

There is a value to having what gear players choose to wear make a difference. Still, I'm not sure that we haven't gone sufficiently in the direction of too many stats that it's no longer worth it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Naxx 25: Easier Than I Expected

It was Saturday Night and the Alliance offensive was plowing through the West Courtyard of the Wintergrasp Keep when the tell arrived. An old friend of mine from my days as a 40-man raider was in a Naxx-25 PUG that was looking for a few more DPS, and he wanted to know if I was game. I considered it for a second - it was already pretty late at night in my time zone, and I've had some misgivings about PUG raiding in the past. Still, it was an opportunity to give something new a try with at least one friendly face in the crowd. I decided to go for it and left behind the rewards for the Alliance's impending victory victory a few minutes later (approximately 3K honor, a stone keeper shard, three Wintergrasp marks, and 13G) to accept my first summons into a Naxx-25 PUG.

I warned my friend that I hadn't really done the zone since our guild was attempting the 40-man version back in 2006. No worries, he said, Naxx is easy these days.

A Blur of Bosses

Naxx contains a total of 15 boss encounters. It eventually took us about 8 hours spread over two nights to kill them all, which sounds like a lot of work, but also comes out to less than half an hour per boss including time to explain strategies, recover from wipes, and distribute loot. The lion's share of the time over those two nights was spent on four encounters - the Four Horsemen, Thaddius, Sapphiron, and Kel'Thuzad, as those were the four bosses we wiped on repeatedly. (Night one featured smooth sailing through the spider, plague, and military wings until the Horsemen, while night two was a quick shot through to Thaddius and the remainder of time on those last three.)

I won't claim to know those last four bosses cold, but I have a reasonable understanding of what was going on, and I might in principle be able to repeat them without making too many beginner mistakes. For the other twelve, though, I can't really tell you what was going on, other than that my job was to stand and cast spells.

My old guild cleared Anub'Rekhan and Instructor Razuvious during the 40-man days, so I know that the former used to involve kiting the boss around the room, and the latter required that every single mana-using member of the raid get out of line of sight of the boss every so often on pain of extreme mana burn. Anub's formerly "must kite or die" attack now deals so little damage that the healers can just heal through it, while Instructor no longer has his AOE attack, and has apparently been toned down enough that he can be tanked by an actual raid tank for brief periods of time. (In 40-man mode, your best bet if you didn't have a mind-controlled understudy handy was to have a rogue use evasion, which made them unhittable for 15 seconds, after which the rogue would die.)

Without the context of knowing what the fights were about, I'm not sure I would have really understood anything other than my specific role(stand and nuke the boss, with a brief detour in Anub's case to stand and nuke the adds) in even the encounters I was familiar with. The only fight I truly bombed on was the Heigan encounter, where one phase requires running laps around the room with relatively precise timing to avoid a ground attack - I would feel worse about this if that fight hadn't killed 60% of the group (the remaining 10 were able to down him on the first try). Other than that, it's a bit of a blur. I could tell you what I did on most bosses, but that would be a very incomplete picture of what's going on in the raid as a whole.

The Rewards
Collectively, the 15 bosses drop 16 Emblems of Valor (Kel'Thuzad drops two as a reward for finishing the place). I've been earning them at a rate of two per week off of heroic Archavon, so I can literally say that I made eight weeks' worth of progress towards emblem rewards in a single night. Sadly, I suffered a disconnect during the Loatheb fight, and did not receive credit for the Fall of Naxxramas achievement that some PUG leaders request as proof that a player already knows the content, but I did receive the other five achievements in that category, which is about as many achievements as I've done in one shot anytime recently.

Because this was a PUG, loot was distributed by random /roll - players were limited to one "need", one "greed", and one class armor token per night. (BOE items were distributed by "need" or "FFA roll for the whole raid", and any item that no one wanted to spend even a greed roll on was opened up for FFA rolling.) Each boss drops four items (again, Kel'Thuzad drops an extra one for being at the end of the line), so that works out to about two items per person.

Sadly, the bosses weren't feeling the need to drop best-in-slot (read: no spirit please - even with the upcoming change, it's not worth what it costs) mage loot. I did, however, walk away with a pair of BOE shaman caster gloves (others have them listed at 800G on the auction house, but I have no idea whether they actually sell at that price, given that there are four of them listed currently) and one piece of legitimate loot - the [Spire of Sunset] off of Thaddius. The large amount of mana regen makes this a sidegrade for raid purposes (I need the hit rating from my old combo of the [Flameheart Spell Scalpel and the [Ward of the Violet Citadel]), but it's a major upgrade for farming and 5-man content, which is where I spend the majority of my time anyway.

Having seen the place in action....
Overall, I had a great time staying up way too late on back to back nights to clear out Naxx. The company was good, even if the raid start time was not, and there was an excellent nostalgia factor to finally getting to see the entire dungeon after all those nights of wipes in 2006.

That said, the experience reminded me more of an old-school UBRS raid (15 players - but undergeared and inexperienced ones since this was very early in WoW's life - zerging down 10-man content) than a real endgame raid. Someone commented around these parts that the 25-man content isn't harder than the 10-man stuff, and I'm prepared to believe it - I'm not even convinced that the 25-man stuff isn't the EASIER of the two, since there is (on most fights) a larger margin for error.

The raid leader had a ton of work to do since so much of his raid was new to the dungeon, and we had some excellent players, but the group also had to deal with players like myself who were inexperienced and low on the DPS meters. I don't think I was dead last amongst DPS, and my spec does provide the 10% spell crit buff (the other mage was Arcane, which offers much better DPS but does not provide this important raid buff), but I guess a part of me does feel like there SHOULD be something in the game that's hard enough that a group that takes players like me won't be able to burn through quite so easily.

Green, feeling reflective with his new shiny staff

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The challenge of parallel exp curves

Tobold proposes that players prefer to solo because the exp is better, i.e. that players choosing not to group while leveling, sometimes to the detriment of their own gaming experience, is an incentive issue which can be solved by throwing more exp at the group players. Why haven't studios tried this?

The group/solo decision is not purely an incentive problem

First of all, the suggestion that players will group more if presented with better rewards is, at best, an oversimplification of the issue. A player who cannot commit the time needed to find a group and complete the group content will not be able to change that reality simply because someone has doubled the rate of exp gain per time for dungeon content. (In WoW, the bare minimum time to clear a 5-man heroic dungeon is somewhere between 30-60 minutes, depending on the dungeon, but that time can easily double in a group that needs to practice the fights, and triple if you just can't find a healer.)

This added overhead to attempting and completing group content can be improved via accessibility - this was what made Warhammer's Public Quest feature sound so exciting - but it cannot be entirely eliminated. One point that Tobold DID catch is that we can't be talking about SLIGHTLY more incentive to group. Because of the time investment required to find a group, players probably aren't going to bother for a small exp boost. You need to be offering LARGE amounts of exp and gear before it is worth the hassle.

Scarcity of Content

Looking beyond that, for the sake of argument, Tobold is effectively proposing that a game be designed with two separate exp curves - one for solo players and one for groups. This is not a bad idea in theory, but it runs into the 800 lb content gorilla in the room - developers simply cannot create content as quickly as players can clear it.

For the most part, the content in WoW is set up so that players solo all the way to the endgame and only then begin the group content. This setup causes various problems - players either do not want to make the switch or turn out not to be very good at their new group role for lack of practice, and, as Tobold complains, are not very community/group minded because they simply haven't had to be. Tobold suggests that the problem would get better if Blizzard simply went through and added a parallel set of content for groups that offered double the exp, but this plan cannot get past the gorilla.

The current setup in WoW is not accidental. Due to the time requirements for forming groups, the players who would be able to take Tobold up on this offer are the ones who are spending the most time online. After we're done adding the parallel content, effectively 1/3 of the game would be group content and 2/3 would be solo content. It simply does not make sense to take the most active players, who are going to run out of content the fastest, and have them completely skip 2/3 of the content in the game. It makes even less sense if you consider that Tobold's ultimate goal is to get the majority of the community participating in groups, at which point the majority of the community would be skipping the majority of the content.

Under Blizzard's current model, the players who can do small groups must first use up most of the solo content, the entry-level raiders must use up most of the small group content, and the elite raiders must complete the entry level raids. There is simply no way for Blizzard to produce equal amounts of all of this content in parallel. (Even if they did somehow manage it, players would promptly start poking holes in the incentive structures - when WoW launched, players overwhelmingly preferred to run the 5-man level 60 dungeons with 10 players, even though this drastically reduced the challenge of the content.)

A niche for scaling content
Tobold thinks there is a market niche for a game that maintains accessibility without sacrificing community. I think he's right, I just disagree that having a parallel solo content track is the way to accomplish this. The "every class must be able to solo" paradigm is not the only route to accessibility, it's just far and away the easiest to implement since it does not rely on any assumptions about the player having the appropriate number of willing group-mates of the appropriate class mix to beat the content.

The approach that might work would involve scaling content. Content would need to scale with the number of players available (from some minimum, perhaps 3-5 to start, going upwards to whatever limit the server can handle) to clear it and, more importantly, needs to scale with the ABILITIES of the group. The accessibility of current group content is hamstrung by the requirement that a specific proportion of the players take on specialized tanking and healing roles - activities the devs have not been able to make sufficiently interesting to attract a sufficient proportion of players to fill those roles. If dedicated healbots simply aren't enough fun, the devs could shift towards a game with no healers and some mix of self-heals (e.g. one class has a large instant self-heal on a cooldown, another class has a medium self-heal they can cast as needed, a third class has a small passive heal for dealing damage) to maintain the challenge level.

You would also need to offer options for shorter content, or some variation on the Warhammer "come whenever, stay as long as you can" public quest to maintain accessibility. And you would be critically dependent on having enough population to support the system (i.e. if a player was the only one online, they'd have literally nothing to do). Alternately, you could implement crafting with an EQ2-like separate exp bar and have that be your solo content.

Designing, implementing, and balancing such a system would be tons of work. However, the potential payoff would be huge. You would no longer to worry about parallel content - everyone playing the game would have access to all the content. You might lose some people who absolutely cannot play uninterrupted for more than 5 minutes at a time, but that's a given when you're talking about a niche product. And, most importantly, you wouldn't need to make enough content to go head to head with World of Warcraft. The WoW approach requires a volume of content production so large that even Blizzard can't keep up with it, and anyone else making the attempt will not have Blizzard's dollars to pay the development bills.

Anyway, the point being that sometimes the game, not the incentive curve, is the actual cause of the problem.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Feeling Cold, Impacted and Dis-Spirited

Though there are many nice things in the forthcoming patch 3.1, there are also a few major changes that my mage will NOT be looking forward to.

Nerfing Molten Armor

Mages have been complaining that spirit is a useless stat for us for a while now. Blizzard wants to put it on gear because the other clothies all benefit from it, and spending item budget on it slows the growth rate of caster DPS. The catch is that mages currently get no DPS benefit from spirit, and, by design, get only minimal benefit from spirit for mana regen.

To keep from pigeon-holing mages into the increasingly small minority of caster gear that does not have spirit (such as all of the gear that I'm currently wearing), Blizzard is gutting the molten armor spell, and allowing mages to make up the difference with spirit. The spell currently offers 3% crit - 5% with the glyph - and will now offer 25% of your spirit - or 40% with the glyph - in critical strike RATING. It takes 46 rating to get 1% crit, so it would take 575 spirit for a mage with the glyph to get back to the 5% mages currently have.

The catch is that I don't raid, so I won't have access to Ulduar gear (which offers spirit in addition to, rather than instead of, my current DPS stats). I also cannot count on the various spirit buffs that help members of 25-man raid groups approach that 575 spirit number. As a result, in most settings, I will lose 3% crit from these changes.

Farewell to Impact
Impact is also being changed from its current form, a 10% of a stun on all forms of mage damage (including Blizzard and Molten Armor, which can be talented to work at range), to a new stun tied to fire blast. This change was probably needed for PVP, and at least this time I'm the target of the nerf. Having a random stun on my main nuke, against every foe that hits me, and in the stunning, chilling, freezing, crit spamming storm of death that is Blizzard with all the utility talents has been a lot of fun.

Other than in solo play, I will miss the effect most on caster trash mobs in instances. Like mages, caster mobs who are randomly stunned lose their spellcasts and have to restart their cast bar when the stun wears off. When you're rounding up instance trash for AOE, the stun from Blizzard actually interrupts a significant number of spellcasts. It also keeps the mob in the Blizzard area, where it is taking damage, has a chance to be frozen, and generally is not running over to kill the mage. Those of you mages who have not experienced this may want to give a Frost/Fire spec a try sometime before the patch (or you may not, if you don't WANT to know the fun you've missed) on some hapless heroic instance run. Bring a Pally tank. :)

Losing more damage to balancing
In addition to all of these changes, Blizzard is halving the effect of Winter's Chill (a buff I was able to supply) and Improved Scorch, due to concerns that crit rates are already high. Added to the Molten Armor change, I'm losing 8% crit on patch day. In addition to damage, I also rely on critical strikes for mana via Master of Elements. I'm not fond of sounding melodramatic, but I think that the spec I've had fun with for the past few months may be dead after these changes, collateral damage of balance changes that may (or may not) have been needed for other parts of the game.

The Frost/Fire talent combination is the worst of the six possible tree/off-tree combination for mages at the moment, in terms of raw DPS. In best-of-heroic 5-man gear, I am able to break the 2K DPS barrier that people draw when they want "good" DPS - the lost crit may knock me back down below that line. In exchange for this mediocre DPS, Frost/Fire mages get unparalleled utility - all of the talents that real frost specs get, an extra seven points to spend on utility talents (normally spent on talents that affect frostbolt but NOT frostfire bolt).

After the patch, I will offer less utility due to the loss of Impact and the nerf to Winter's Chill, less damage due to the crit nerf, and, as a final insult, I will not even be allowed to provide the group replenishment buff that real frost specs are getting, because that talent is specific to Frostbolt. (Real frostfire specs - the fire based ones that do competitive damage - cannot reach 43 points in frost, so I'm really unclear on why they feel so strongly that replenishment cannot include frostfire bolt.) Oh, and Water Elementals still do not have "standard pet AOE avoidance", which was granted to priests' Shadowfiends, meaning that 10-15% of my DPS depends on the RNG not deciding to drop an AOE on my helpless elemental.

Surveying the fallout
The crab comes into a lengthy Q&A thread from dissatisfied mages, and argues that the rebalancing to crit is alright because soloing is easy. Technically speaking, he may be correct. However, it is strange to see the low end of content - the solo and 5-man stuff I focus on - effectively written off as not mattering for balance because it's all easy anyway.

After the patch I'm going to go from having a relatively unusual but fun spec to having the same two specs that most other mages will carry - a frost/arcane replenishment spec (18 arc is mandatory thanks to Torment the Weak), and either a Fireball spec or an Arcane Barrage spec for actually doing damage. That loss of individuality is unfortunate in an era where all of the non-cosmetic distinctions between characters are already blurring.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Rise of Opt-In PVP

Like many gamers, Sanya Weathers is passing on Darkfall because she prefers to have a choice on whether to participate in PVP. Darkfall's relatively unique niche in the current market - FFA PVP at all times, with full looting of killed players - aside, I find the question of opt-in PVP interesting, because I'm currently doing a fair amount of it myself.

Voluntarily risking Greenwiz's neck in Wintergrasp without a raid group at my back, for the right incentive

Luring players to conflict with carrots, rather than sticks
We've recently seen a major rise in games offering non-instanced PVP that centers around certain locations where the normal rules of engagement do not apply.

- LOTRO offered its version back in 2007, with the Ettenmoors, a zone where player characters can be attacked freely by enemies controlling various monsters (Turbine felt that there was no lore justification for the Free Peoples fighting each other).
- WoW has made various attempts at world PVP in the past, but I would argue that Wintergrasp is the first version that gets the job done properly. Wintergrasp offers the right mix of incentives to participate and automatic PVP-flagging of participants. Though I strongly prefer WoW's non-PVP ruleset (I would call the distinction "ganking optional" versus "ganking enabled" - Warhammer offers the same rules under the names "core" and "open"), allowing players to hang out, without being flagged, near the fighting until the odds favored them was neither sporting nor good design.
- Warhammer has its RVR lakes and keep sieges, and now has the incentives needed to go along with them.

The systems share in common a central concept of a high risk, high reward alternative to the non-PVP content. Wintergrasp and the Ettenmoors both offer valuable crafting resources and a path to gear and other loot, while Warhammer's oRVR offers these rewards PLUS the game's separate RVR experience and access to the higher end siege game.

Of course, some of these incentives can be obtained by sneaky players during off-hours, when the risk of actually encountering the enemy is minimal. There's still a sense of accomplishment - e.g. "I pulled that off without being killed" - but it's not exactly PVP if you don't encounter other players. So imagine my surprise when I've found myself going into Wintergrasp actually LOOKING for other players to fight.

Seeking out conflict for the right price
Wintergrasp offers a daily quest with decent rewards for killing 20 enemy players. This might sound like an easy enough task, but simply receiving an "honorable kill" of a target does NOT necessarily grant credit for the quest. (My guess is that enemy players are considered "tapped" by a player or raid group for the purpose of the quest, as it seems like I have a lot more trouble completing this one when there are multiple raid groups up and running, especially when my group is smaller.) There have been quite a few days when I've ended up short by as few as a single kill, or perhaps as many as five.

A month ago, I would have given up and waited for the next battle (or the next day if needed). Nowadays, I'm not afraid to try and finish the job without a raid group at my back. Part of that may be due to gear - my PVP set now exceeds 800 resilience and 18K HP thanks to all the Wintergrasp and Archavon rewards, and there are certainly times when it feels like I have an enemy overmatched by virtue of all my shiny PVP loot. Still, I'd argue that there is something more at work here.

For every time I get the drop on a player engaged in combat with a mob and gank them - something I feel no guilt over since most will not hesitate to do the same to me while I work on quests, and because all have opted into PVP by entering Wintergrasp - there are just as many times when I find an even match, or even end up outnumbered and overwhelmed. One day, I was riding around looking for a fight when I saw an enemy who seemed determined to ride away from me at all costs. I pursued him for a bit, only to round the corner and find that he'd led me into an ambush by a group of his friends. I regret only that I did not have time to salute his ingenuity before my swift demise. At other times, the enemy will have reinforcements, and I will struggle to see if I can take one of them down with me.

In the end, I'm pretty sure that I still lose more fair fights than I win. From the incentive/time perspective that I usually apply to most of my MMORPG gaming, this would seem like a terrible deal - I sometimes spend significant time hunting for a foe who ultimately defeats me, earning no rewards whatsoever in the process. I'm okay with that trade, though, because it was my choice. The fair fight that I win, especially if it's against a hated Warlock (uncommon but oh so sweet), combined with the in-game incentives, is enough to make it worth my while.

I'm not saying that there is no role for the stick that is mandatory, ganking-enabled PVP. However, that ruleset has never appealed to me, precisely because it cuts off the choice on my end. The carrot of incentives to get me to opt-in to PVP of my own free will, on the other hand, has me actually attempting and even ENJOYING non-instanced PVP for the first time that I can remember. Sometimes a carrot really is that much more effective than a stick.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Collecting and Managing Cosmetic Rewards

Monday's post (I'll get off the topic eventually.... maybe) got me thinking about how games in general are offering more and more options for mounts, titles, and other cosmetic rewards. This set me off on a survey of the cosmetic rewards I've got amongst my characters.

Titles of choice

WoW's sorry excuse for a title selection system in action - this thing could really use a better UI now that there are so many titles in the game.

- In WoW, Greenwiz already owns 14 titles, and could pick up a couple more from upcoming world events. Ironically, my current favorite is one I've had since long before the achievement system rolled out all the new titles. Greenwiz earned the rank of "Knight" in the pre-TBC honor grind, and now happens to be a member (with the rank of Knight) in the guild Knights of Honor. It's not a very common title anymore (players received only the highest rank title, so only players who reached Knight and no higher prior to 2007 - and who have not subsequently switched characters - can possibly have this particular title), and it's appropriate for where I am in life.

- Allarond, over in LOTRO, owns probably dozens of titles. LOTRO offers a bunch of titles PER ZONE for grinding random mobs, and players are obligated to unlock a fair number of these for trait upgrades (unfortunately making those titles not at all rare). On top of this are titles for specific questlines. Ironically, given the variety available to him, Allarond wore the title he was created with for pretty much his entire career. I can make a melee DPS character in any number of games, but only one allows me to roll up Allarond of Gondor.

- Lyriana in EQ2 hasn't been around for that long, but she already owns both a prefix AND a suffix title. The suffix, Knight of Bayle, came from a quest that is available for players who join via the referral program (yet another reason why you should never start a new EQ2 account without a referral). The Prefix, Wayfarer, is one of five titles per class available via the game's Alternate Achievement system. You unlock a title when you purchase the final ability in one of the game's AA trees (the original tree, not the two newer ones), so you can actually choose to display your spec (especially if yours happens to sound halfway interesting. I'm sure there are more interesting titles, but this isn't a bad selection for a month-old character.

- Cheerydeth the second didn't have that much time to rack up titles in Warhammer, but she still owned a fair number by the time she was done. Warhammer offers up even more titles than LOTRO, including options for just about anything, such as being killed by a given class in RVR, finding hidden stuff while exploring in PVE, or even clicking on yourself. Sadly, I don't remember what title I was using, and poor Cheery's former server appears to have disappeared into limbo.

Riding in Style
- Greenwiz's mount count is currently well over 50, including a variety of slow ground mounts (never used), fast ground mounts (see Monday's post for more on this), slow flying mounts (again, never used), and fast flying mounts. Sometimes I use a random mount, sometimes I just drag a favorite onto the mount spot on one of my side bars.

- Allarond owns only one mount, but he was actually able to upgrade it to a holiday version during an easy world event that happened to fall during a free re-trial weekend. Other than a few such alternatives, it doesn't really seem that the game has a focus on obtaining mounts. If I recall, there were some rep rewards and a PVP option, both of which decrease the chance that being attacked will dismount the player. There also may or may not be goats in the game these days.

- Lyriana technically owns a slowish mount because I bought the most recent expansion in an actual retail store. She never rides it because it moves slower than she can fly unassisted, and being on a mount prevents her from using her wings to glide. It does seem that mounts are relatively uncommon, though the very best actually offer you stat bonuses.

- I don't actually remember the mount situation in Warhammer - Cheerydeth the second certainly didn't get that far.

Cosmetic Outfits
- WoW doesn't actually have a cosmetic outfit system. You can cobble one together, but it replaces your actual armor. You also can't even dye your existing armor, as Blizzard is saving re-colors for use elsewhere in the game (i.e. the 10/25 man versions of the same raid). This is a niche that I'm surprised that Blizzard hasn't expanded into yet.

- LOTRO and EQ2 rolled out cosmetic armor slots at around the same time. In LOTRO, I'm not really using my cosmetic slots yet because I have a matching set of crafted armor (and have even dyed it). I may shift these items into my appearance slots if/when I outlevel them, just to preserve my current look.

- In EQ2, on the other hand, I routinely check every quest I complete to determine whether some of the rewards LOOK cool. I'm leveling quickly and replacing armor on a regular basis, so I'd actually rather get a permanent cosmetic upgrade than a very temporary minor upgrade to my real stats.

I was very excited to discover a questline a few days ago that offered a full set (well, 5 items of a 7-piece set, but I don't display my helm and already had a chest piece I liked - these items are unbound, so you can always buy the missing pieces later) of matching green healing leather. Lyriana isn't a healer, but she is very happy to have armor that matches her wings. On the downside from SOE's standpoint, I hypothetically never need to think about my appearance again, as I'm not depending on them for stats. (See Tipa's blog for the horrible truth of what might be lurking under your appearence armor.)

Lyriana's new green gear.

- Warhammer doesn't have a lot of cosmetic options, and can't for PVP reasons. They do, however, allow you to dye your outfit one piece at a time or, even more convenient, all at once. You never need to look like a hobo if you don't want to.

Unique looks versus variety
As I wrote on Monday, cosmetic items offer a fine line. If your character has as many options as Greenwiz, they really do lose much of their significance. The idea that Lyriana can now have her own distinctive look for the entire rest of her career in EQ2 if I want is appealing, in the way that Green's one faithful horse was back in the day. On the other hand, choices are good, especially if they provide fun for players AND incentives that the devs can add to the game.

I'm not sure where the right balance is. Much as I enjoy collecting stuff in WoW, though, I'm afraid Blizzard has taken that side of things a bit too far in the name of providing more timesinks in lieu of more original content. Then again, I'm still doing it, so is it really all that bad?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Addendum of the Mechanostrider

Larisa appears to be suffering from Post Traumatic (Mechano-)Strider Syndrome after my post on my rogue alt's new robo-chicken from yesterday. I don't disagree with her that the sheer amount of noise the mount generates can get a bit old (if not quite as old as spending a new Death Knight's first hours in the real world repeatedly enduring the shrill Deathcharger noise while training herbalism from scratch). Once upon a time, I hated it myself. What changed?

The World of Mounts in 2005
My first level 40 character was the Paladin, on January 23rd, 2005 if the census archives are to be believed. At the time, 100 gold for a mount was such a big deal that it was practically a right of passage for newly level 40 characters of other classes to post to the forums complaining about the free mounts for Pallies and Warlocks. The mage got started sometime shortly thereafter, and I'd guesstimate that I got my first chicken sometime in late August or early Sept 2005. At the time, I was just happy to be moving faster than walking speed, but I'll admit that I began to share some of Larisa's distaste for the clanking of the chicken.

In those days, we didn't have riding skill - you actually had to pay 100G (1000G for epic mounts) for a SINGLE mount and would have to pay it again if you wanted a different one. I decided that I really wanted a horse, both to get rid of the chicken and because I thought a gnome on a horse would look cool. At the time, there was no realistic PVP option (the AV ram was slightly cheaper than a robo chicken, but you needed to be exalted with AV, and I wanted a horse), and quest rep was very hard to come by (you got dramatically less rep for quests you'd outleveled). The only path was to farm runecloth (and cash with which to buy runecloth) and then to farm yet more cash with which to buy the mount - all of this while mounted on the noisy old non-epic robo-chicken. This took a pretty long time, but I finally pulled it off and got to ride an epic Swift Brown Steed around Azeorth.

Expanding the Stables
Over time, it became easier and easier to obtain additional mounts. The AV ram was temporarily available for a trivial amount of gold (in between the riding skill revamp and the honor system revamp just before TBC), so that was two. Farming honor right after the honor system revamp (which converted it to its current currency-like status) left me with enough tokens to buy a cat.

Even with the relatively cheap cost, though, it took me a while before I was willing to buy a chicken to add to the collection. I think I finally did it after I got a random mount macro set up, so that I would literally not know which of the four racial mounts was going to appear when I pushed the button. Still, in some ways that was a cop-out, as it meant, by definition, that I was only going to get the chicken a quarter of the time. Eventually I decided that I didn't want to spend the bagspace on carrying all four mounts, and so I started leaving three at a time in my bank. The chicken was almost always one of the three gathering dust.

Slowly, I obtained more options, such as a Talbuk from Nagrand, an Elekk from the Exodar, and a ram from the 2007 Brewfest. It was only with the 3.0 patch, and its infinite mount storage system, that I actually ended up collecting all the ground mounts I could buy off vendors, and having access to my chickens at any time. However, by that point I had so many options that the mechanostrider really doesn't come up frequently at all.

Besides, I can't really use a random mount macro anymore because half of my ground mounts are too large to fit through doors. Most of the places where I have to use a ground mount are cities with archways I have to pass through (look a few pictures down this post for an example of the problem) or PVP areas (where I don't want to make myself so obvious of a target).

(If you're on Hyjal-US and I've ever thrown a cone of cold or somesuch in your face as you exited a store, my apologies - I don't have a keybinding for dismounting, and I do have keybindings for various instant cast spells that dismount me.)

Lessons from the changing face of transit
So why, beyond my general fondness for storytelling, have I subjected all of you to this tale? It gets back to Larisa's dislike for clanking and all that time I spent in search of my very first horse way back when.

My guess is that I rode that chicken full-time for almost a year. Because they were so hard to replace, mounts were, in some ways, a part of your identity. The vast majority of players were riding around on their race's mount due to the effort required to obtain any other option. I got a number of compliments just because the sight of a gnome on a horse was exceedingly rare back then.

This is something that players who started the game in the post-TBC era have not experienced - Blizzard has chosen to change that sense of identity, replacing it with a new, wide-open world of customization (and, a cynic might argue, incentives for grinding). I do occasionally get compliments nowadays, but they're generally of the form "Where did you (and thus where can I) get that mount?" The accomplishment of obtaining your SECOND mount has been pushed to the wayside in favor of the in-game achievement reward for getting dozens of them. Even my Paladin, who ended up spending three years on the journey from level 50 to level 70, somehow found the time to hit exalted Ironforge rep so that he could ride a ram.

I guess that's where the nostalgia comes from today. The low level game is the only place where your racial mount really says anything about your character anymore - that you actually are a gnome or whatever other race. For the first time in years (well, second time when you count the previous incarnation of Cheerydeth), I'm actually obligated to clank around on that old mount I worked so hard to leave behind all those years and levels ago.

And, as it turns out, walking uphill both ways to school wasn't as bad as I remembered it. After all that time with unlimited alternatives, returning to the metal bird for a brief visit every other week is like a brief flashback to older - not necessarily happier, but different - times. The clanking is like an old classmate you weren't necessarily fond of and haven't seen in years - the old annoying quirks are still there, but so are the memories, the good along with the bad. It's a little piece of history in a game that, like time itself, marches slowly forward, away from its past and towards some uncertain future.

In an era with dual specs, barber shops (and even paid sex/face changes), mount collections, and the checklist-like achievement list, there's less and less about your particular character that's unique. Paradoxically, I've been riding custom mounts for so long that riding the default one (even if I did buy all four colors for no real reason) feels like something different; a throw-back statement from a long time ago.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Another Triumph of the Mechanostrider

Cheerydeth the Third hit level 30 this morning. Thanks to a change introduced in last summer's 2.4.3 minipatch, this means that she gets to pay a visit to the riding instructor 10 levels "early". I immediately got an in-game mail from the riding instructor pointing out that I was eligible for a mount and explaining where to go (and how much money to bring). I don't know if this has been around since the summer, or if it's more recent (it may have been triggered by the achievement for level 30, since achievements can trigger mail messages), but it's good feature for players who didn't know this information.

Cheery has been making very rapid progress thanks to her rich uncle Greenwiz. She wields a [Balanced Heartseeker] with the once-coveted Crusader enchant, a [Sharpened Scarlet Kris] with the Lifestealing enchant, and a pair of the Wintergrasp [Exceptional Stormshroud Shoulders], enchanted with a [Zandalar Signet of Might]. (The enchant is currently no longer allowed due to its effects on twinking, but was not removed from existing items. It appears that patch 3.1 will temporarily deactivate high level enchants when equipped on low level characters, so presumably Cheery will be down 30 attack power on patch day.)

It may seem like she's been advancing slowly in real-time, but I only play Cheery when she has rested exp available. I'd say I'm gaining a level every 1-2 hours of serious play thanks to all the perks and general knowledge of where to find stuff. The journey should only move faster now that I have a stable of mounts to choose from. (I was torn between red and unpainted grey until I remembered that Greenwiz can rake in 36 gold in a matter of minutes - I'll set Cheery up with a random mount macro so she can pull up a random colored strider each time I summon one.) It's nice to see Cheerydeth back on a Mechanostrider after the issues getting one the last time around. :)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Vanguard Allows RMT Sales, and Warhammer's Free Retrial Requires a Credit Card

I just learned via MMOQuests that Sony will now be allowing Vanguard players to sell their items, characters, and in-game cash on an official site.

I'm sure many of you have opinions on whether this is selling out, devaluing the legitimacy of player accomplishments, or a win/win in which Sony gets a cut of transactions that were already occuring in exchange for preventing fraud. (To my knowledge, there are no publicly available subscriber numbers for Vanguard - for all we know, the game is losing money and this is a last ditch effort to break even before closing it, which would lead to a very different view of the announcement.) I'm not tremendously interested in wading into that discussion at the moment, though you all can feel free to have at it in the comments if you'd like.

Bringing real world cash into in-game incentives
What I do find interesting is the same question Stargrace raises - what does this mean for people who are playing the game and have no interest in buying or selling stuff? As she points out, anything and everything that players want in-game can be traded for whatever real-world dollar value the market will bear via an officially sanctioned site. That's a real world incentive for all manner of unsavory activity - for example, mining ore while someone else fights the enemy that was guarding it or ninja looting the items that dropped from the boss. People do this stuff anyway when there's just a digital item at stake, so the incentive will be even stronger when there's real money involved.

Normally, games rely on social consequences to keep some of this stuff in check. A player who loots a guild's bank might end up on a server blacklist. Those consequences are irrelevant to a player who has already decided to sell the whole character. Sony will now guarantee that the character you're buying will come with the shiny new sword, just as advertised, but let the buyer beware. It may be you who not only pays a higher price in cash for the newly well-armed character but ALSO deals with the social costs of whatever its former owner did to obtain it.

I hope Vanguard's devs have done a good job with their incentive structures, because this could very well be the first time a change that angry forum posters say will kill a game actually succeeds in doing so.

(There is a second angle to this story in that the entire game is included in the new RMT program. EQ2 has a pair of servers that allow similar transactions, but those were newly created to house RMT characters - i.e. players on those servers knew exactly what they were getting into. Vanguard players who had no intention of ever doing any RMT may now find items they need posted at inflated prices by players hoping to sell the proceeds for cash. SOE's steady introduction of RMT into existing subscription games has been more of a down escalator than a slippery slope, and one wonders whether this trend will harm the studio's brand name at some point.)

A catch to Warhammer Retrials
The Ancient Gaming Noob points out that Warhammer's retrial signup requires that you enter credit card information. Mythic's official position is that this is for verification and convenience, and the cynic in me says that they do indeed want to verify that you have the means to pay and ensure that they have convenient access to your wallet.

In principle, they are not supposed to be charging credit cards until the 10 "free" days expire, but some anonymous (and thus unverifiable) commenters are claiming that they were charged immediately. Maybe they're just trolls, but this is a PR hit that Mythic could have avoided entirely by not requiring billing information for a supposedly free transaction. Requiring billing information to use the "free" 30 days that come with a boxed MMORPG (note: box costs more than 30 days' subscription) is an industry-wide bad practice. Requiring billing information for a re-trial is something that I have never heard before, and really squanders the good will that their creative retrial campaign generated.

If the game has actually improved, players should be lining up to re-enter their billing information the second they run out of free retrial time. To my admittedly over-critical mind, requiring the billing information up front suggests that Mythic does NOT believe free re-trial users will stay, but is hoping that some will forget to cancel and be billed anyway. Does Mythic really want "better re-cancel my re-trial so I don't forget" to be the very first thing I think about when I sign up (just as it was the first thing I had to think about when I bought the game in the first place)?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Warhammer Free Retrials, and The Latest From Mark "No Spin" Jacobs

As others are reporting, Mythic has rolled out a free re-trial program for Warhammer. The unique thing about the announcement is that the form email is addressed directly to your character (I'm guessing it picked the highest level one). It even says that two of my "friends" are still playing (I don't remember who these people are, presumably I /friended them because they were in the guild that I joined for the last week or so before my time ran out). This is by far the most creativity I've seen in such an invitation. There's even a promise of some sort of an in-game item reward and full rested exp.

I've been suggesting that there should be a re-trial program since as far back as November, so I'm glad to see Mythic put their money where Mark Jacobs' mouth is. They have just launched the 1.2 patch, which sounds like it has improved many of the rough edges that the game had at launch. It's arguably only fair that Mythic foot the bill for players who felt the game didn't live up to their expectations the first time around to give the game another chance. One would expect it to be a good business decision as well - if even a handful of players who take the re-trial decide to resubscribe, the program should more than pay for itself (especially since the free time probably doesn't end up costing Mythic much, if anything).

Personally, I'm going to save this thing for sometime when I would actually be able to play it - I'm already happily juggling two games, and don't have any interest in dropping either at the moment to make room for a third. When I do have some spare time, though, there is no reason NOT to give War a chance at a price tag of "free".

Separating the Product from the Spokesman
As I said in my look at the 1.2 patch last week, I've been having a bit of trouble writing about Warhammer of late. I have generally warm feelings towards the actual game. In my view, they got a lot of difficult things (classes, combat, scenarios) right, but ultimately didn't really get a fair shake from the market due to a combination of timing and a few areas (including incentives) that needed some work. On the other hand, much of the actual news about the game comes via its semi-official spokesman, Mark Jacobs, who reminds me of a used car salesman who has stretched the truth so many times that you don't want to buy a car from them on principle.

Scott Jennings has the latest from Mark on the recent server mergers. (Poor Cheerydeth the Second will be on a new server if/when she returns, as her first home is among the 40 US servers - out of the 55 the game rolled out during its launch - that are folding.) Mark says that the servers had to be closed because there were no players on them. Then he points out that these servers no longer have any players on them because Mythic strongly encouraged players to transfer off back when the servers were underpopulated, but technically not-yet-closed.

A reasonable person might infer that the decision to merge the servers was made - but not announced for PR reasons - before they decided to make the underpopulation worse by transferring players off. Indeed, Mythic still might not be using the m-word ("merge") to describe what they're doing - involuntarily transferring all remaining characters off the servers and then closing them - if the sharp-eyed Brooke Pilley hadn't noticed the details buried in an innocuous-looking announcement and reported it on Massively.

What gets to me about the post is the part where Mark declares that they're making this move because the community demanded it (which is technically true, but was a symptom of the problem rather than the cause) and that he's not trying to spin us (which is laughable in the face of such semantic acrobatics). Did he really think the community is so stupid that no one would notice 40 servers closing as long as they called it a "source server transfer"? The decision to do the merges was absolutely right call. The suggestion that it was the community that forced the closure of the servers by taking the heavily encouraged transfers is outright insulting (or, in Mark's words, "OMG Fail").

At the end of the day, I'm a bit of a critical/analytical thinker, and I am very protective of my limited gaming time and money. When someone is as creative as Mark is with language (he's not the only one hawking the game's gimmicky "live expansion", but he has been quick to push the "no other game has..." angle), my gut reaction is that he's trying to swindle me. Even though this may not be entirely true (the game actually has improved), it's hard for this distrust not to color my view of any news of the game that comes via Mark's desk.

Like I said, I don't know how to compensate for this in my writing/analysis. Then again, if admitting you have a problem is the first step, I suppose I'm somewhere on, or at least near, the road to recovery.