Thursday, April 30, 2009

Free Realms and Stores

Free Realms' revised plan to avoid launch day issues for players - don't bring the servers up until launch day is over for most of the country. Ooops? :)

All kidding aside, the launch seems to be going about as usual for a new game - Tobold reports billing issues but notes that at least you're able to log in. I haven't had the time to take a look myself, and SOE is not publishing its transaction prices out of game (as is traditional for the genre) but I'm hearing that the prices on buying a pet are in the $2.50-$4 range. That's slightly shady given that the game markets the pet trainer job as "free for everyone" (you can use temporary rental pets for a small fraction of your time to technically satisfy that statement), but I guess you could think of it as a one-time fee to unlock the class. In that context, it's not the most expensive ever - it currently costs an MSRP of $80 to unlock all of WoW's classes, and you have to level a character to 55 for the Death Knight. (Perhaps ironically, SOE's own EQ2 gives you access to all of its classes and races for $15.)

One thing that is either good or bad is the roll-out of game cards. If you want $5 in Station Cash, you can pay SOE $5 and get $5 in Station Cash, OR you can pay a physical store $5 for $5 in Station Cash AND get an exclusive pet clothing item (no idea what these cost in-game, but you won't get an identical one in any case). They apparently feel they have to throw physical retail stores a carrot in order to get the stores to allocate shelf space to a product that otherwise might not be in their interest to carry - there is no required client purchase, and the store won't get a cut of any future transactions, so they might otherwise be better off NOT encouraging players to play online games instead of offline ones (which they sell for $50-60 a pop).

On the downside, this means that players who want these sorts of items have to go to a physical store to get full value for their money. Stores may not be stocking these things all that consistently, so I could see doing that hunt every time you want to top off your station cash account getting old relatively quickly. Ah, the joys of dealing with the shambling corpse of the retail industry....

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Searching for Fun in Noblegarden

Blizzard's latest holiday is up and running, allowing the visual atrocity you see before you. How does Noblegarden fare?

This was a triumph....
The good news is that Noblegarden is over comparatively quickly, and offers good rewards. I'd estimate that it took me something on order of 3-4 hours to complete, including learning the tricks to hunting for eggs. Specifically, the tricks were:

- Going to the Draenai starting area instead of the overly popular Elywnn,
- Looking for eggs during off-hours
- Once I'd settled on an area to farm, learning where the spawn points were, with a focus on the ones that other players were having trouble finding (thus leaving any eggs that spawned there waiting for me)
- And, above all else, farming up the 250-300ish chocolates in a series of mind-numbing clickfests rather than spending a single chocolate prematurely, so as not to waste chocolates buying items that I would subsequently find in eggs for free.

The haul over this time was a non-combat pet (with some... interesting animations), three complete tuxedos, one spring robe (needed for an achievement), two pairs of Playboy Bunny ears for my head, four bouquets of spring flowers, four of the item that turns your party members into rabbits, the coveted tome of polymorph: rabbit, and the all-important entry towards the holiday meta achievement. Hard to complain about that from a reward:time ratio, even after I had to destroy all the soulbound duplicates for lack of storage space.

There's no use crying over every mistake
Blizzard clearly heard the community's complaints about how certain previous world events are designed to fail players who got unlucky via the random number generator. Thus was born Noblegarden, designed from the ground up to demonstrate that a holiday can be uninteresting and generally not that much fun despite offering great reward bribes that are not at all dependent on the favor of the RNG.

The central mechanic of the holiday consists of running around in circles around towns trying to click on easter eggs before other players do.

(Klep argues, and Daria concurs, that you're better off camping a specific spawn point. I respectfully disagree. Not all spawns are created equal; some of them put the player in reach of multiple egg spawns, but good luck getting one of those to yourself. Worse, you might end up in a lone spawn point STILL racing to beat other players to click the egg. By contrast, you'll get very very few eggs running around until you learn where the relatively well-hidden spawns that players don't know about are, at which point your eggs/time ratio goes through the roof - your egg acquisition may vary if you're trying this in Elwynn forest during peak hours.)

That's it. Just about the whole holiday.

Oh, there are some other quirks, like an achievement for literally sitting still until your rabbit form lays an egg, which took my character thirty two minutes (during which time I showered, shaved, got dressed for work, packed my lunch, and took out the garbage). But the major activity is seeing whether you can click on eggs faster than the other players equally desperate to get all their egg hunting over with for the holiday. It's fun little lesson in the quirks of client-server latency - that other player who appears to have arrived at your egg after you did actually got there first in the server's opinion.

Among the things the holiday is NOT are challenging, interesting, or even especially time consuming. You need a bare minimum of 105 eggs (you need to eat 100 and I don't think the egg to set in your faction's capitol can be looted), plus enough extras to buy whichever of the required non-trade-able items (the robe, the flowers, and the pet bunny, which cost 50, 50, and 100 respectively) you don't get lucky and win outright from eggs.

I ended up getting four sets of flowers and the rabbit, after which I bought the tome (an extra 100 chocolates over what non-mages need, some of which would have been wasted if I hadn't been a mage) and the robe with chocolates (the formalwear is not soulbound and is very cheap on the AH). The chocolates-as-currency mechanic puts an upper limit on the amount of time it will take - you should be done after hitting a bit over 300 eggs even if you don't get anything but chocolates.

I'm not even angry
Buried in this holiday is an achievement that I realize in hindsight is somewhat of an exercise in objectifying women. The "Shake Your Bunny-Maker" achievement requires players to stick Playboy Bunny ears on the heads of female characters "of at least 18th level". Lest there be any confusion about whether these were a playful gag, like sticking up a pair of fingers behind a friend's head in a photo, or a reference to porn, clever Blizzard wanted to make it clear that they're not having any under-age Bunny Playmates in its game.

It was only after a while that I began to think about what this process meant for the actual players of the female characters in question. The game provides plenty of time for such thought, as the flowers required to apply the bunny ears have a 5-minute cooldown, and you need to put the ears on at least 8 women - more if you waste a cooldown because someone beat you to putting ears on your victim. On top of that, once you get the more common races out of the way, you can expect to spend some time looking for more obscure race/gender combinations (really, any of the non-Blood Elf Horde races are less common in Dalaran, from a visual inspection anyway).

I quickly narrowed the field down to two more races - Tauren and Undead. This is where things got difficult, as there weren't any players of those races standing in the middle of town, immediately clicking off their ear-buff so that others could get achievement credit. Finally, I found a Tauren female with a pair of ears on. As I waited for 30 seconds or so for the ears to expire, I noticed that I wasn't the only player following this character around. I beat the other four or so male characters camping this poor Tauren to clicking a free pair of ears on her, but then I felt a bit bad about it.

Most female characters in these games are, in fact, played by men anyway. Still, is this really a message in objectification of women that we need to be sending in a game world where most female characters have nigh-anorexic body types to begin with? How would you feel if it were your daughter or wife's character? If someone went around sticking Playboy Bunny ears on them against their will in public in real life? You could play the "it's only a game card" on that last question, but I think we can agree that "go kill 300 Circuit City employees for a faction discount at Best Buy" is further from socially acceptable offline behavior in real life than "slap a pair of bunny ears on some girl, and be told grats by all the guys".

Is this really worth the little chuckle that we get out of the "Bunny-maker" pun and the bit about the 18th level?

(Fortunately, I was able to find a deserving target for my final set of bunny ears. A female undead rogue had set up camp in plain view about 50 yards inside the Horde quarter of Dalaran, knowing that Alliance players who needed achievement credit would try to get to her only to be stunned and thrown out by the guards. What the player was not counting on was the fact that the guards don't attack players who have parachuted in off flying mounts in a kamikaze bunny ear attack. Given the chuckles they were clearly having watching players try and fail to reach them, I felt no guilt in tagging that last target for the achievement.)

Look at me still talking...
Despite all these complaints, there's no denying that the holiday is reasonably well implemented. Eggs immediately respawn elsewhere, making the spawn rate scale dramatically with the number of players present. The pet bunny has a hopping animation, and a copulating animation, both of which are a bit more work than simply recoloring an existing non-combat pet. As I said, the reward-time ratio is unimpeachable.

So why is it that I still prefer EQ2's far less elaborate live events to WoW's high production value holidays?

EQ2's events come and go to provide a little something extra to the world, a slight distraction, which offers decent rewards in and of itself. By contrast, WoW's meta achievement has turned its holidays into high-pressure time-sensitive grindfests that appears to be designed around having large numbers of players try and fail to complete the achievements.

SOE is not exactly churning out tons and tons more content than Blizzard is, and they're certainly not adverse to making players grind, but even they do not seem to feel that certain things - like lengthy grinds during extremely short events - are a positive addition to the game. By contrast, Blizzard churns out content about as quickly as my fuzzy pink rabbit-self, and feels like every single bit of it needs to be restructured into something to occupy the time of bored achievers (such as myself). Design, challenge, fun, and even the ordinarily far slower speed on the incentive reward curve all go by the wayside in favor of anything that occupies that precious content gap for another week or two.

Getting back to a point that I made yesterday, I wonder if Blizzard isn't missing the point. It is possible for them to tack enough incentives onto an event to convince me to do whatever they've come up despite any other complaints - from that standpoint, Noblegarden goes down as a huge success.

The problem in the longterm is that such bribes last for exactly as long as it takes to finish the content - I stopped hunting after precisely 255 eggs, much as I've left behind dozens of daily quest hubs the moment I finished the relevant reputation grind. If Blizzard wants to make content that is actually enough fun that players will voluntarily continue to use it, they need to break out of the mentality that achievements for temporary holiday content need to weed out the majority of players to ensure that the rewards remain a rare mark of prestige. When players finish up an event and express a combination of relief that it's over and dread over the upcoming Children's Week, the developers are doing it wrong.

On to Children's Week, for the people who are still alive....

Monday, April 27, 2009

Knights of Honor to the Rescue in Naxx

Delving back into Naxx, this time with the guild at my back....

I first cleared Naxx-25 with a PUG, a bit over a month ago, but I did not receive credit for one of the boss kills. My internet connection went out for a second on the Loatheb fight and the WOW login server decided not to let me back on for over five minutes afterwards. When I logged back in, I was eligible to loot the emblem off the corpse, but I had not received achievement credit for killing the boss. After clearing the rest of the dungeon - and doing the last chunk of it a second time a few weeks later, I was still stuck at 14/15 bosses killed.

With many of the raiders and guilds who made PUG's like that possible now hard at work in Ulduar, getting that last pesky boss was looking like more of a challenge. So, when the Knights of Honor finally grew large enough to take a shot at 25-man content, I decided to clear some time to take a crack at Naxx in an organized group.

Making the jump from 10-man to 25-man
KOH has previously cleared all of Naxx-10, so many of the most serious raiders had already learned some of the tricks needed for the dungeon's more complicated fights. They had also cleared the Spider wing of Naxx-25 man when they held signups for the usual 10-man raid time and had 25 players show up - ever the peril of the 10-man raiding guild with lenient attendence requirements. Still, Friday's run, which spilled over into Sunday after making substantial progress, was one of our first intentional forrays into the 25-man realm.

Obviously, there were a number of newer players - some freshly dinged to level 80, and some 80's like myself with limited raiding experience - who didn't have extensive experience. This proved especially true for the notorious Heigan "dance", where players need to run back and forth across the room, stopping at specific points that are very hard to learn from written explanation, to avoid death by waves of poisonous liquid, or for fights like Instructor that require priests to do the pulling and tanking (two tasks they are not ordinarily responsible for).

For the Heigan fight in particular, I wish there was some way to practice that didn't put 10+ minutes of the guild's limited raid time on the line. I am slowly improving - on the raid's second attempt, my third total on the boss, I managed to limp off of the field of poison to die from damage on the DPS platform, a bit of a step up from leaving my body on the ground as a marker of where not to stand. I would have felt bad if my inexperience on a fight that others had practiced in the 10-man version caused a wipe - our raids include maybe around 2.5 hours of usable time, so a lengthy attempt on an untimed encounter like Heigan can eat a large chunk of the evening.

Still, we made rapid progress - I don't think we wiped more than twice on any boss, including five bosses that the guild had not done on 25-man. After various heroics on the last pull of each evening, we were able to end both nights on a high note with the victory. (The last encounter, with Gothlik in the military wing, looked like it was going to end poorly, as only three players ultimately survived the fighting on the live side, but the last few standing were able to finish off the mob spawns and survive a serious pounding by the boss until the dead side was able to bring down the gates and finish the battle.)

Among the rolls of bosses that have now been killed by KOH was Loatheb, which means that Greenwiz finally has his Naxx achievement.

Fighting along-side comrades
Though I did end up enjoying the PUG experience - which earned me a large number of badges, two pieces of loot, and the bulk of the dungeon's achievements - working with a team was much more fun. Each group of people has its own quirks, like the (occasionally) friendly rivalry between our guild's raid-leading rogue and its stable of warlocks, or the one guy who must die for the run to be considered an official raid (a measure by which last night's run technically fell short, as he did not attend). You still hear some of this banter in a PUG, but you lack the context that makes it actually funny rather than confusing.

I decided to pass on loot for the run. I'm not available for raids on any regular basis (the stars align properly for me to sign up in advance maybe once a month), and I'm actually rather well geared compared to the guild thanks to cherry-picking heroic 5-mans, farming both Archavons every single week, and a few PUG visits to Naxx. Still, even without any item upgrades, I'd take the camraderie over the bigger haul from a PUG anytime.

I guess that's the power of the MMO - sometimes the best incentives are the company you keep, rather than some combination of items and achievements that the devs set up to lure you into time-sinking content.

Though Green technically is not Frost spec anymore, freezing him in a block of ice seemed like a good enough plan for the silly /dance group photo.

Free Realms' Plan To Avoid The Launch Day Rush...

Offer barely 24 hours advance notice.

Ah well, it's free to try, and I have other things that I'm playing at the moment that are non-free, so I see no reason to spend the time dealing with the inevitable launch day server issues and bugs. I might do some creative subscription fee juggling to clear some time for this later in the month once I hear how it's going.

Further reviews, mixed
The initial blog reaction to the game's NDA drop (which we now know to be less than a week out from its public launch) was all strikingly positive, but Oz from Kill Ten Rats has come in with a more mixed review.

The post incurred the Wrath of Tobold for a pair of factual errors (one concerning the price of the game's CCG, and the other because Oz did not actually try to pay money to upgrade his soon-to-be-wiped beta character - if he had, he would have learned that the upgrade button was non-functional). Fact-checking aside, Tobold, the author of the genre's most prominent source of what Scott Jennings refers to as "player-centric commentary" ultimately concurs with Oz's most serious accusations.

Tobold writes that "Free Realms is in beta, and if SOE knew what they were doing, it would remain in beta for a while longer" due to bugs. In describing the business model, Tobold notes that "If you want everything, you easily end up paying more for "Free" Realms than for a classical $15 per month game without microtransactions."

Concerns about the business model
Reading the more recent reviews, I do see some complaints that sound concerning.

- Oz's followup post notes that non-subscribers may climb a mountain only to find that the quest icon on their minimap was for subscribers only. That sort of thing will get old really fast. The game's biggest draw for me is the prospective of having a secondary game I can pick up from time to time on a pay-for-usage basis rather than a flat rate (that I will get less and less value out of as I split time between multiple games). Being locked into a monthly fee, even if it's low compared to traditional subscription games, kind of defeats the purpose.

- Oz also notes that the game's non-combat professions level by repeated grinding of Bejeweled-like minigames which recently had their exp gain nerfed, and that some combat professions are similarly lacking in quests. As with EQ2, SOE is helpfully in the business of selling exp potions. In some ways, I would prefer NOT to be given the option to play the game at a non-fun rate of advancement. Maybe it's just a quirk of my psychology, but paying $1 for an hour of gaining exp on a fun class and not getting ANY exp when I'm not paying feels like I'm paying to get something. Having the option to gain exp at a non-fun grindingly slow rate for free with the option to pay the same $1 for an hour of exp at the reasonable rate feels like I'm paying not to have something taken away.

- Finally, Cuppy's otherwise glowing review of the game notes that it is strange from a business perspective that it costs money to buy pets, given that sales of pet accessories are a potentially major revenue stream for the game. Oz elaborates, noting that the pet trainer CLASS is freely accessible to non-subscribers, it's just the actual pets to train that cost money. On the upside, buying a permanent pet is a one-time cost that, if I'm reading things right, won't require the subscription fee. Still, this type of thing illustrates the quirky situation that the transaction model creates for content - even a non-subscription job that can earn SOE lots of money in transactions has to be designed in a way that allows them to lop off some cash here and there. Adding content to a game like that is going to be even more tricky than balancing design priorities for a traditional subscription MMO.

It'll be interesting to see what happens tomorrow, when this game finally goes beyond the realm of beta testers (who probably aren't representative of the market as a whole, simply for their willingness to pursue a beta key to get in). I'd certainly like to see the game succeed and emerge as a viable pay-for-usage world, but they've definitely got a few challenges to tackle before they get there.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Harnessing Dual Spec DPS Potential

Back before dual specs went live, I speculated on their impact. I figured that they would make a big difference for classes than can spec into tanking and healing, but didn't think the effects would be as dramatic on DPS classes. Now that I've had a chance to play around with dual specs on my mage, I've been impressed with the added options and diversity the specs add to the class.

Major Options
Mages have a number of options available to them. The more common ones:

- Fire PVE: There are two main variations on fire specs (either one uses 53ish points in Fire) depending on which main nuke you prefer. The Fireball version takes 18 points in Arcane (to get Torment the Weak), offering the most raw damage potential at the expense of mana efficiency (and the need to take more hit rating gear, as you cannot get any hit from talents).

The Frostfire version, which I'm using as my raiding spec in one of my two slots, takes points in Frost to beef up Frostfire bolt, offering substantially more mana efficiency at the cost of some raw damage potential. I pulled down 3.4K DPS on Archavon (no flask) this afternoon, which is a huge step up from my old Frost-based Frostfire spec (low 2Kish DPS). Raid buffed with the right procs, I've seen my Frostfire Bolts crit for nearly 12K.

- Arcane PVE: Uses the new Arcane Blast combo point-like mechanic (stack 1-3 Arcane Blasts followed by either a Arcane Barrage or a Missile Barrage), combined with frost for Icy Veins. (There's also a variant that gets the improved scorch buff if your raid needs it.) My understanding is that it's less sustained damage than the Fireball spam build, but with better burst damage via cooldowns, better ability to burn excess mana for damage, and sometimes better damage for fights that require movement due to Arcane Barrage. You are somewhat dependent on being able to safely channel all 8 seconds of evocation to avoid going OOM.

- Arcane PVP: A more traditional version of this build focuses on picking up survival talents like improved blink, instant cast invisibility, and lots of instant cast burst damage. I'm using an Arcane Barrage/Impact build that takes my favorites from the survival talents (invisibility, counterspell, magic absorption) with as many of the damage talents as I could afford and the revised impact. Serious PVP'ers don't use Molten Armor (in part because PVP gear doesn't typically have much spirit on it), but the armor combined with lots of instant cast spell options is enough to make my fire blasts a nigh guaranteed stun. I'd probably get slaughtered in the arenas, but it's fine for Wintergrasp, and the arcane combo mechanic is much more fun than Frostfire for farming and daily quests. Also, I love having the Glyph of Evocation (adds major HP regen) in a build with a 2 minute Evocation cooldown, it basically eliminates all downtime while farming.

- Frost PVE: The good news is that you get to provide Replenishment and the raid spell crit buff with your primary nuke. The bad news is that you're doing much less damage than the other options. The other bad news is that you need to avoid taking all of the ranks of your replenishment talent because having a 100% proc rate refreshes the replenishment effect too frequently, causing your entire group to get less mana regeneration than they should (even if there is a less ineffective version of replenishment in the raid).

- Frost PVP: Here you get even better survival than Arcane offers, thanks to ice barrier and more frequent ice blocks. The water elemental shatter combo lets you pull off decent burst damage, and Deep Freeze (Frost's effectively PVP only 51 point talent, since most meaningful PVE mobs are immune to stuns) can mess with someone's day.

- Niche options: Fire PVP is sadly a mess, and the crab says he doesn't know how to fix it without stepping on the other two trees' toes (much like Frost PVE remains an issue). Frost-based Frostfire builds aren't really good for much of anything, though one could imagine a Focus Magic/Master of Elements/Water Elemental tri-spec build that really taps the maximum potential of Blizzard AOE spam. Some people have brainstormed hybrid Arcane/Frost builds to try and squeeze all the survival talents out of both builds for Arenas (at the cost of damage potential).

Freedom to Experiment
Greenwiz carried some form of Frost spec for the better part of three years. It wasn't the best option, just the most versatile in terms of covering solo, PVP, and raid content (albeit poorly) in a single build. Now that I have a second option, it's okay that my Frostfire build does tons of damage in group setting and is not very fun to play in other settings. It's okay that I've optimized my off-spec arcane build for non-raid content, as I'm no longer leaving nearly a third of my DPS potential on the table come raid time.

I do think that some things have been lost in this switch. I used to describe Green as a Frost mage, and now he's either Fire (with a minor in frost) or Arcane (with a minor in fire) depending on what I'm doing. In some ways, the system even favors using the two specs for two completely separate roles; there's no way that I'm going to fail to notice that I'm in the wrong spec for the situation (in the way that, for example, I fail to notice that I'm wearing PVP or farming gear instead of spell hit). Removing the cost of specializing allows diversity, but it also removes some of the consequences of bad (or at least highly situational) decisions when you can have a cookie cutter spec available at the push of a button.

Still, I have to say that I view the feature as a much bigger success than I expected. There really are differences in playstyle between the various specs, and being able to swap back and forth has made the character feel more versatile and powerful without actually increasing his power level at any given moment. This particular persistent virtual world is still first and foremost a game, and I'm willing to put up with some cost in terms of virtual world identity in exchange for a more interesting gameplay experience.

Friday, April 24, 2009

More LOTRO Bargains

Massively got some updates from Turbine on the present and future of LOTRO.

An unheralded bargain....
Sometimes, I have to wonder about Turbine's marketing department. I never received an email invitation to last month's welcome back event for former subscribers, though I'm told that some people did. They did send me an ad for their anniversary welcome back event, but they failed to mention an absolutely crucial point that I just learned via Massively.... they're now selling the expansion (which includes the base game) for only $10.

For perspective, a former player like myself who does not own the expansion would ordinarily have to shell out $20-30 for the expansion and then pay $15 per month for the subscription to come back to the game full time, for a total of $65+ if you presume a 3-month visit to Middle Earth. With the box sale and the anniversary promotional rate, that same expansion key and three month subscription will cost only $40 (with further savings if you stay subscribed for longer). It's unclear how long the box sale price will last, but the subscription promo will run through the end of June.

I'm not sure why they're not actually, you know, promoting this promotion. There's absolutely no way it makes sense for me to carry three subscriptions at once, but the price factor alone is making me reconsider whether it's worth suspending one of my existing games in the short term to snag this thing before it expires.

Geography and Level Caps
I've speculated that we will see an expansion that focuses on Dale and the events from The Hobbit in 2011. That's still possible, but Massively's info says that players will see parts of Mirkwood forest and Don Guldur later this year.

The other bit of news is that the game will see an increase in its level cap sometime this year. They don't specify whether this means that the next expansion (almost certainly Rohan) will be arriving in 2009, but that possibility certainly makes a fair amount of sense. Between frequent discounts (including some lifetime subscribers who will never pay another monthly fee) and a smaller-than-WoW playerbase, Turbune can probably use the revenue from expansion boxes. Expansion launches are also a chance to try and get some press (you know, if you have marketing people). Raising the level cap in a free patch would be something else entirely, but I think it's far safer to presume that the next expansion hits this year for the time being.

P.S. Does anyone play on LOTRO's US Vilya server?

Free Your Realms

The NDA on SOE's upcoming game, Free Realms, came down yesterday, and various commentary ensued. (See Tipa, Syp, Stargrace, and Cuppy for their thoughts, and links to even more commentary from people who have actually played the beta.)

Though it's easy as always to get caught up in the shiny new game hype, there are remarkably few naysayers, and most of them are focused on the transaction-based business model. In fairness, this is an area of concern, given recent SOE behavior in EQ2 and Vanguard. Then again, deciding whether it's worth paying to play the game is only necessary if the game is worth playing in the first place, so that's a comparatively good problem for the game to have.

As always, I'll believe the hype when I get to play it for myself. Judging from the reviews, this thing is pretty close to ready for prime time, so that may be sooner, rather than later. It would be nice if this game succeeded - we could use some more high quality hit games in the marketplace. If the worst strike the game has against it is the business model, it could be a pretty big hit. Even an aggressive transaction sales model might still be a better deal for infrequent players like bloggers' spouses (many of us have observed interest) or more serious players who want the occasional change of pace from their primary game of choice.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Yet Another LOTRO Retrial

Turbine has re-opened its doors for its traditional launch anniversary re-trial weekend, and this time they actually remembered to send me an email (I never received an invitation to the last one, even after it became nearly two weeks long). I would offer this move more applause except that the most recent re-trial was barely three weeks ago.

As far as I'm aware, nothing substantial about the game has changed since late March. I still won't have access to the new expansion classes, my character still won't be able to gain experience (and therefore can consider trying the new content he can get at only at the peril of running out of stuff to do later), and I still won't have access to Moria. All of which is well and good in the context of a completely free re-trial.

However, I have to wonder what the marketing department was thinking opening the game up for a retrial at the Lothlorien patch launch (a bad idea because existing subscribers were logging in more frequently than usual to check out the patch, and adding a retrial resulted in queues and server issues) less than a month prior to the anniversary retrial. It kind of makes them look disorganized, and/or desperate.

In other news, they're also offering a $9.99 subscription rate, conditioned on a 3-month subscription (for either current or former subscribers, rate locked in until the next time you cancel). This appears to be a good move on paper, since it puts their money where their mouths are - as a pre-order "founder", the game charged me that rate until I canceled, and it would seem to be a slightly easier sell to come back at the same price, rather than a higher one. However, offering this promotional price approximately twice a year also discourages me as a player from resubscribing at any other time. One might think they'd be better off either making the founder pricing a permanently standing offer or sending it away for good.

Then again, they've wrangled free publicity for their event out of this blog, so I guess they must know what they're doing, despite any appearances to the contrary.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Algalon Thanks You For P(l)aying

Via MMO-Champion comes the news that Algalon, the final Hard Mode boss of Ulduar, who can only be fought after a number of the dungeon's other hard mode challenges, despawns for the WEEK after a single hour of attempts.

Fair and balanced
You could argue that I shouldn't even be commenting on this for any number of reasons. A few:

- This design quirk is never likely to affect me, as the entire encounter is not meant for me. I count myself lucky to occasionally PUG Naxx, and Ulduar non-hard modes aren't designed to be as PUG friendly.

- The one hour limit is about as fair as anything in an MMORPG can be. There are no loopholes or negotiation. One hour and you're done unless everyone in your guild can field an entire second save with Hard Mode Ulduar-ready alts. In principle, someone might catch up to your progress while you wait for the weekly respawn, but they would still have to beat the boss with less total time practicing to overtake you in the rankings. Guilds that killed the non-hard versions of the prerequisite encounters may technically lose a week's worth of time because their save can no longer summon Algalon, a decision they might not have made had they known about the one hour per week time limit. Like I said, about as fair as anything in an MMORPG can be.

- Having the time limit creates a high pressure situation that players may find rewarding when they finally triumph. (Note that, like the Doomsday Device, this incentive is only effective if players know that exists, which they did not until someone actually discovered it the hard way, probably NOT playing as if they had only the single hour.)

- Hard mode is hard.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), I've never been one to let a list of reasons deter me from posting. A few of the potential issues with this design:

- Having only a single hour creates intense social pressure. I'm not talking about "you must buy consumables", which, frankly, aren't going to be that costly for a single hour, and should probably be assumed at that level of performance anyway. Rather, this sort of time limit puts pressure on a raid leader to say "Sorry, Green, your DPS is 10% lower than the other mages and bringing you could cost 24 other players the chance at the kill for the week."

- Going back to my point about time to catch up, it is worth noting that more and more information about the strategy for the fight will come out over time. Technically, the uberguild who got there on week 1 will have had an extra hour to practice the fight without spoilers compared to the guild that arrives a week later with full Wiki strats. However, it might be that the uberguild would have won on week 1 if they had been given three hours to practice, while the Wiki guild could NEVER have prevailed without a published strategy.

- It will be very interesting to see whether the world first 25-man Algalon kill goes to a guild that's been running three 10-man saves per week to get in practice on the 10-man version before starting the clock of doom on the one that counts. Blizzard claims that the point of the tiered raiding system is NOT to require players to run 10-mans as a prerequisite for 25-man content.

- Guilds that get to Algalon have presumably beaten everything else in the game (perhaps excluding some hard modes that may not be required). Telling them that they must wait a week is a very ham-handed attempt on Blizzard's part to delay the fall of the game's most challenging encounter (presumably for the next six months or so, barring an unexpected change to Blizzard's patch cycle).

He feeds on your subscription dollars
Historically, the toughest boss in WoW hasn't fared very well of late. Illidan didn't last two weeks. Kil'Jaeden went down pretty quickly after Blizzard made balance changes that actually made the preceding boss killable. Kel'Thuzad and Malygos famously failed to last even three days, including time spent leveling to 80. I can definitely understand a desire on Blizzard's part to having this final boss last a bit longer, if for no other reason than PR.

Unfortunately for Blizzard, I don't think that the time limit is really going to fool anyone. Technically speaking, Archimonde was the final boss of TBC at launch, but no one ever got to test this theory since A) SSC was incredibly difficult, B) TK was bugged and unbeatable, and C) even if both had been cleared, the attunement quest for the Hyjal raid appeared to require 6-7 WEEKS to attune a single full raid group, just to make extra sure that no one got to content that was clearly unready before Blizzard wanted them to.

Either there's enough content in the 3.1 patch to last through the next installment in Blizzard's glacial patch cycle, or there isn't. Artificially propping the final boss up for a few more calendar weeks with a time limit won't change the answer to that question. What the time limit may do, however, is create significant strife for guilds making the attempt. Perhaps the guilds that make it over the hump will ultimately be satisfied with the result, but many others may come to a slightly different conclusion than Blizzard intended when told that they should spend less than one hour a week working on Algalon - zero is indeed less than one.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Patch 3.1 Daily Travel Quests

WTFspaghetti has a map of the new argent tournament daily quests. In addition to these dailies, the patch introduces a new random-location fishing daily quest which sends players to one of five locations (some of which are relatively far afield), and makes one of the Wintergrasp dailies substantially easier to do on off-hours (NPC guards now count for the "kill players" quest). Adding these onto the map can make the daily quest travel route span literally the entire map.

Realistically, solo daily quest content is not going to be very challenging unless it relies on something like the vehicle system that gives the devs absolute certainty as to players abilities and damage potential. With the sheer range of classes, abilities, and specs, content that pushes the best solo specs to the limit would be impossible for others. So, we get mounted jousting and we get dailies where the challenge is external to the actual task at hand - the Wintergrasp quests present the possibility that you will encounter and have to fight the enemy, while the others fill out the time by making you travel across the world.

The latter is frustrating and lazy design. Unless you're stuck waiting for a respawn when you arrive, the time it takes to travel to the locations of most of the new dailies significantly outweighs the time you'll spend there once you arrive. There's no challenge, thought, or entertainment anywhere in the process; the devs have simply decided that each quest should take a certain amount of time, and placed the quest objectives accordingly.

For example, one mob literally involves flying across two zones, killing a single nonelite mob, flying across two more to use the quest item, and then flying (or teleporting part of the way, for mages and owners of the Dalaran hearth rings) all the way back to the start. Seriously, they might as well have frozen my character in a block of ice for 10-15 minutes and awarded the quest complete for all the interaction the quest requires on my part.

Overall, some of the content is still well done, but it is very disappointing to see "watch your character fly places" play such a major role in the content pacing.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Reviewing 1-50 in EQ2

Lyriana hit level 50, EQ2's original level cap, this week. That seems as good a time as any to take a look at the game thus far, since EQ2 reviews seem to be the hip thing to write of late.

Delivering Solid Solo PVE
Unlike many bloggers who are currently re-visiting Norrath, my very first experience with the game came less than three months ago. All of the increasingly positive buzz aside, I was looking to pick up a game with solo PVE content to explore, and I figured that four years' worth of EQ2 probably contained more solo content than LOTRO's new expansion. EQ2 delivered far more in this department than I had expected.

Overall, I would guesstimate that I've cleared out about 2/3 of the solo content from level 20-50, which is, in my view, exactly the right amount - enough that you're not missing out on the majority of the game if you only play a single character, while still leaving enough unexplored ground that your first alt can spend a fair chunk of their time in new territory.

The quests are industry standard stuff - kill enemies, visit locations, or loot items - but they're well executed. The player actually gets to talk back to the questgivers (conversations that are often pretty amusing), and quests automatically update themselves to the next objective; where WoW might have a quest to kill orcs, which players must run back to town to turn in, only to receive a followup to go kill the boss of the orcs, an EQ2 quest will automatically progress from the first stage onto the second, and only require you to return to the questgiver when all your business in a specific camp is complete.

The system doesn't do anything on the scale of WoW's new "phasing" technology, where players get to actively advance the storyline even though it's still a non-instanced world, but it also doesn't produce the sheer gimmickry that sometimes accompanies WoW's quest system. Sometimes it's better to just stick to your strengths and do them well. I'd still take the quests in the next WoW expansion over the quests in the next EQ2 expansion in a heartbeat, but the good news is that there's no reason why I can't play BOTH.

How's the gameplay diversity?
I can only answer some of that.

EQ2 has probably the most robust housing and guild system present in the MMO's I've played. The sheer amount of functionality they've allowed guild halls to have is a very impressive feature. Being in a guild that traces its roots back to the game's launch, and has the guild hall amenities to prove it, has made a huge difference in my quality of life in this game.

The game's crafting system also takes top honors among crafting systems I have tried, with the caveat that the crafting minigame can hold my attention for about 30-45 minutes at a time, so it is somewhat important to me that the crafting exp curve allow me to make sufficient progress in sittings of about that length.

I am not aware of any real PVP on my non-PVP server. Not really a downside for me, and I'd rather not see something haphazardly tacked on with subsequent dire effects on class balance, but not having an alternative to the ganking-enabled PVP ruleset might be a significant downside for some players.

As to group content, the only time I can specifically remember joining a group of players was a guild social outing, after I was already level 50, when we moved into a larger guild hall. I can't remember EVER teaming up with another player to quest for any reason, not even the ad hoc teamups that happen in WoW and LOTRO when you arrive at a tough quest target and find that there are other players after that same mob that you can join forces with for a minute or two. Obviously, I'm alright with a purely solo playstyle. Whether it's a good thing that I have arrived over halfway to the level cap with zero grouping skills and no in-game adventuring allies is a separate question.

Graphically, I like the game reasonably well. It's not the prettiest game on the market, but I like the art well enough. The downside is that the game appears to have unusually high texture loading requirements. My gaming machine isn't top of the line anymore, but it's well above average for 2009, which should mean silky smooth performance in a four-year-old game. Instead, I experience load times when I zone that were so lengthy that I upgraded my computer from 2 GB of RAM to 4 GB in the hopes that this would help.

I don't especially feel like dwelling on the business model, which I've covered extensively in the past week or two, but I don't feel that I can completely skip the money factor in a review either. EQ2 is very affordable for completely new players like myself - $40 gets you the complete game with all of its expansions AND the first month of subscription (make sure you get an invitation from an existing player so that you can get a free runspeed boosting cloak for all of your character henceforth).

However, the game charges the normal $15 monthly fee on top of very frequent expansions - at least one a year historically - making it arguably the most expensive current generation MMORPG even if you don't partake in the real money Marketplace that SOE is pushing more and more aggressively of late.

Bottom Line
Overall, I strongly recommend EQ2 to players who enjoy solo PVE content who are looking for a change of pace. Between the wide variety of races and classes and the polish factor that a game picks up during four years of continuous updates, Norrath is a great place to visit. What I'll do when I actually hit the level cap is a separate question (I am at least vaguely considering potential alts), but I won't consider my time in Norrath a failure if my reaction to hitting level 80 is to cancel my subscription and save up for the next expansion box. It's been a fun ride thus far, and I'm glad to be writing one of those "EQ2 is better than people realize" reviews rather than reading them.

Lyriana and her Halasian Empire guildmates, about to purchase their massive new guild hall.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Real Money Transactions and Conflict of Interest

Stargrace points out that the latest addition to EQ2's real money marketplace will be unique, high quality furniture for player housing. (True to form for these things, the announcement does not include a price.)

Player housing is a pretty big deal in EQ2 - there is an entire forum on the official site for players to show off their decoration projects. For two examples, see this thread showing apartments players have made using only furniture and items that new players would have access to, or take a look at the old Halasian Empire Guild Hall (Lyriana's guild, decorated by g33kg0dd3ss, who has her work cut out for her since we just upgraded to a bigger one last night).

Though these are not the first house items to appear on the real world money Marketplace (see West Karana for all the finest examples of house doll theater), there are several distinctions surrounding the furniture:

- There is an entire player character profession tasked with crafting housing furniture.

- Furniture items are also found as quest rewards - one guild on my server just posted an ad offering to help powerlevel characters in exchange for a bookshelf reward from a quest in the mid-30's.

- EQ2's appearence armor slots allow SOE to make cosmetic-only armor with no stats, which doesn't not compete quite as directly with armor available in the game by normal means. (There is still some overlap - see Lyriana's green armor set.) Housing furniture is, with few exceptions, purely cosmetic to begin with, so there is much less room for the two niches to co-exist. Either the paid version is of much higher quality than the stuff available in-game, or it is not worth buying.

Regardless of the question of whether these cosmetic items are such a major part of the game that they're no longer cosmetic, it's hard not to look at the current situation and ask the questions Stargrace is raising. Is all the best fluff is being held back from the regular parts of the game, like crafting and questing, in order to charge real money for it in the Marketplace?

Creating the appearence of a conflict of interest
The finances of MMORPG's are shrouded in secrecy; from the outside looking in, we have no way of knowing if, for example, SOE feels that it would literally need to cancel EQII outright without the extra income the Marketplace is providing. They have also claimed that they have hired new people specifically to create the content for the Marketplace, rather than diverting them from existing content. It is certainly possible that there is no real conflict of interest between the designers trying to make a positive gaming experience and the publishers trying to make it profitable and sustainable.

However, the appearence of a conflict can matter almost as much as the reality of whether there is one. If, when the next expansion rolls around, all of the new carpentry recipes look unimpressive (or, worse, there are NO new recipes), players are going to assume that the devs were told to make them less attractive to ensure that they would not compete with lucrative marketplace items. (In fact, such complaints are basically a certainty after this move, even if the new furniture for crafters is the best that any game has ever seen.)

Or, to use an example that hits me closer to home, take the Marketplace Exp potions. While WoW's 3.1 Patch contains updates I'm interested in, the bigger reason why I'm focusing on WoW this week over EQ2 is because Lyriana is out of tradeskill rested exp. I can't continue to play her without leveling my crafting, or I will lose the entire benefit of my profession (being able to craft my own spell upgrades as I need them).

In this particular case, it's unusually easy to quantify the point at which crafting goes from something I'm willing to work at to more of a grind than I'm willing to tolerate - having versus not having the vitality bonus (I'd guesstimate about 1/4 to 1/3 of my total exp) is the difference. Not only does running out of rested exp mean more time per tradeskill level, it also means making more items for exp, which means more money spent on fuel from vendors and more time spent harvesting to replenish the guild harvest supplies. As a result, I feel like it's best to leave Lyriana signed off for a few days until her rested exp recovers. This is an unfortunate design.

In the context of the game's accelerated experience curve, one could make the case that both its tradeskill and its alternate advancement exp curves could stand to be faster. Perhaps the devs have had a candid discussion on this topic behind closed doors and decided that they're happy with the current state of the exp curves.

However, from the outside looking in, I can't help but feel the same questioning that Stargrace feels. That exp bonus that I feel is missing is available right now, anytime I want it, if I'm prepared to pay SOE for exp potions. By opening the door to real money transactions, they have created the APPEARENCE that potion sales are influencing the exp curves, even if the reality is that the potential loss of Marketplace sales is not a consideration in game development.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Emalon and the new Wintergrasp incentives

Wintergrasp has always been a fascinating case study for incentives driving player activity, and the new patch does not disappoint. What has 3.1 brought to the zone?

No vehicles, not for you
Back in December, I wrote that the game needed incentives to make it worthwhile for players to hold other locations during the Wintergrasp siege. Without such incentives, players swarm into the non-instanced keep and destroy either their machines, the server, or both. Before the PTR's, Blizzard made a comment acknowledging that the revamped Southern towers weren't doing enough to ease the crowding at the keep, since the win-or-lose objective of the battle is, in fact, the one central keep door, and most of the zone's incentives value being present for fighting.

In response, Blizzard rolled out a change in the new patch. The two seige vehicle workshops in the south of the map could previously be destroyed (preventing the attackers from building vehicles there - which they would not want to do in any event due to the time it would take to drive to the keep from there), but could not be captured. This meant that the attackers would always have access to 8-16 vehicles, depending on ownership of the midfield shops. In patch 3.1, this was changed so that the defenders could capture, rather than simply destroy, the south workshops.

Hm, what from my proposal is missing from this change?

Oh, right, any incentive for the attacking forces to take players away from the battle at the keep to go stand aimlessly at one of the southern workshops, hoping that someone comes to attack but does not bring overwhelming numbers with them.

The defending side now has significant incentive to attack the southern shops. Owning the shops will make it easier to destroy the towers, removing the attackers' damage buff (adding it to the defenders' side) and 10 minutes from the 30 minute timer for the assault. (Destroying the towers is also substantially quicker now that the defenders don't need to drive all the way across the map in a slow vehicle that is destroyed by water.) With the new change, capturing an un-defended shop, which a single player can do, will take four vehicles off of the attackers' vehicle cap. Doing all of these things makes it highly likely that the defense of the keep will be successful.

Of course, PUG's tend to be motivated by personal incentives, rather than team incentives. The only thing better than winning the battle is winning the battle because other people did the strategically necessary stuff while you farmed kills for extra honor at midfield. This area is where the changes get especially lopsided.

Any defenders going after the south objectives can now get both their battlefield rank (necessary for participation rewards and the ability to drive a vehicle) and their daily quest kills off of the NPC guards. They also get the previously implemented daily quest reward for being alive and present for the destruction of a tower (hope no one picks you off at the last minute before your teammates destroy it). Defenders who still have the attackers' daily quest for being present when vehicles destroy stuff in their quest logs from a previous battle can complete that quest down south at the towers. If anyone from the offense shows up in vehicles, the defenders would be able to complete their own daily to destroy enemy vehicles instead.

By contrast, any attackers who choose to try and hold these objectives won't even get credit for being in the battle at all unless they find 15 players and/or NPC's to kill first, as there are no eligible NPC's in that part of the map. They won't get credit for the daily kill quest (though you are now permitted to do this by grinding NPC's when there isn't a battle on). There are no buildings to destroy, so there is no way to complete the attackers' vehicle quest; attackers with the defenders' quest in their logs can only complete it if someone shows up with vehicles but not in sufficient numbers to overrun any defense. On top of all of that lack of personal incentives, defending the south is only doing the attackers side any good in the battle if they are attacked by a defeatable number of defenders.

It's a perfect recipe for entire PUG offense to complain in /raid chat about why someone else other than them isn't forsaking all of the zone's rewards in a likely fruitless effort to defend the south. Oh well, I guess the battle was still slanted a bit in favor of the attackers previously anyway, and at least the achievement for killing players in every corner of the zone should be easier to obtain now.

Emalon First Or Last?
The Vault of Archavon also got a new boss, who drops Ulduar quality loot, but is substantially harder than his stone cousin the loot pinata.

Over time, Emalon is likely to become easier to defeat. At the moment, though, he is very challenging, mainly because the raid will have a mere 20 seconds after a raid warning to identify A) that an add has been overcharged, B) which of the four adds has been overcharged, C) switch to the overcharged add (which requires movement for the melee), and D) remove the add's 700K HP before it explodes at the end of the 20 seconds and wipes the raid. I'm sure this process will become quick and painless in the long term, but, for the moment, this boss is looking somewhat un-puggable.

All of which is actually a good thing. I was, in some ways, disappointed by how easy the original Archavon was in the first place, and the new version drops even better loot. The issue is that the two bosses share a single raid lockout ID.

This is where the raid optimist/pessimist has a real debate. Does the group do the easy boss first, obtaining the easy loot that they're actually capable of obtaining, but saving everyone to a raidID before establishing whether the group can beat Emalon? Or, does the group insist on going after the hard boss first to preserve the possibility of getting the top end loot for players who are able to make another attempt later in the week if the group is unsuccessful?

This is going to be an interesting split to watch over the coming weeks, presuming that the fight does not become as trivial as the original in the near future. The side that wants Emalon first has two powerful arguments. It is hard to recruit replacement players for a raid that stalls on Emalon after killing Archavon, as the replacements would be coming in knowing that they will not get Archavon loot that week but with no guarantee that the group (which has already failed) will kill Emalon. Also, for players who are in established raiding guilds and already have experience farming Naxx, Archavon's loot is comparatively less valuable (especially given Blizzard's decision not to add new token rewards to the Valor vendor in the patch), so they're only interested in killing Emalon in the first place.

On the pragmatist side, the Vault is on a one-week timer and is only available when your side controls Wintergrasp - which may or may not become more difficult to predict due to the change to the workshops. If you're not going to get another shot in that week, it's better to kill one boss than spend the hour wiping and fail to kill any bosses.

Overall, I wish they had gone with separate instances for these bosses. Most likely, we're going to see a third and maybe even a fourth in patches 3.2 and 3.3, as the vault has room for at least one more (a third fork in the initial hallway, which is not currently in use). This will complicate matters even further going forward.

New Token Rewards
After weeks of going back and forth on whether the emblem vendors would see new loot in the patch, Blizzard ultimately did not add any new BOP loot to the 5/10-man Heroism emblem vendor and added only a small number of specific items (ranged-slot items from the Naxx loot table) to the 25-man Valor Emblem vendor. Given that 10-man raiders in Ulduar will get the same Valor emblems, this was a bit of a disappointment.

There are presumably updates to the honor items coming in a week or two with the new arena season, and the Argent Tournament is another topic since this is already a lengthy post.

Where we have seen some additions are to the Wintergrasp Mark Rewards. That vendor now sells ilvl 213 epic chest armor and belts (the cloth versions are available with hit or haste rating), and ilvl 213 trinkets. One set of these (3 total) are straightforward PVP-only trinkets (lots of resilience and an activated burst DPS ability). The other are more intriguing, as they offer large chunks of DPS stats in combination with the traditional PVP trinket ability to break crowd control. The passive stats alone may make these guys worth looking at, especially if there are PVE encounters in which having the trinket effect is useful.

Though Tobold may be right in his dismissive assessment that 3.1 is "yet another patch", they've made some significant changes to the state of Wintergrasp. This makes sense given the area's growing significance as it gains access to more and more, better loot - for instance, the PVP-statted, ilvl 213 epic [Titan-forged Rainment of Dominance] was an upgrade for me from my ilvl 200 non-epic [Water-drenched Robe], even though the latter does not spend budget on PVP stamina and resilience, simply because of the difference in item level.

No matter how slowly the rest of the World of Warcraft gets its updates, Wintergrasp seems poised to keep me occupied both in and out of game (thanks to this blog) for a long time coming.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Innovations of the Splitpaw

As promised, I avoided the patch day downtime in WoW last night and, instead, wrapped up the solo portions of EQ2's Splitpaw Saga "adventure pack". There are some interesting things going on in there, both good and bad.

Charging for Content Patches
In my rant about Warhammer's "Live Expansion" hype, I commented that I didn't know whom exactly it is that makes a habit of charging for content patches. Apparantly the answer was SOE, which released three paid "adventure packs" for EQ2 during 2005 and 2006. These packs are about the size of free updates from a variety of games, including EQ2's own recent, FREE LU51 patch.

All in all, SOE managed to release FIVE boxed expansions and the three patch-sized adventure packs in a four year period. These frequent paid content updates made EQ2 far and away the most costly of the current generation MMORPG's for a player who bought it at launch, paid the monthly fee, and purchased all the content add-ons as they rolled out.

SOE has since formally abandoned the practice, which we can only assume means the adventure pack fees weren't worth SOE's while. They charge an extra fee for access to EQ2's version of the Armory, in addition to various forms of RMT, so they certainly aren't squeamish about collecting extra money when they think they can get away with it.

I suppose we should all be grateful that the concept was not more successful (perhaps in part because these paid adventure packs were coming out opposite free updates of similar size from Blizzard, back before they fell in love with the model of releasing two mega patches per year), or everyone would be charging for their regular content updates.

Scaling Content, Puzzles, and Solo Challenge
Nowadays, the old adventure packs come standard with the all-in-one boxes, so everyone has access to them. The thing about the Splitpaw saga that has really impressed me, though, is scaling content.

The Splitpaw quests are instanced, and the mobs are set at the player's level (up to level 50, the game's level cap at the time). In addition, many of the quests either offer a parallel group version (populated with heroic mobs, EQ2's version of elites), or offer a single cave with a short path where groups can blaze through tough heroic mobs, and a more round-about path with solo mobs. The scaling isn't perfect; apparently it's easier to do the content as you level, because you'll have more spells and abilities to work with, but it was pretty nice to walk in a number of levels later than I was "supposed" to and still have a challenge.

Some of the splitpaw zones actually include jumping puzzles, where players can move boxes or boards to jump over obstacles. Lyriana cheats a bit on these, using her racial gliding ability (Fae weren't in the game at the time), but they're definitely a change of pace. I'm told that one of the raid encounters actually has the group split up into two parties and run an obstacle gauntlet before reaching the boss.

Finally, the instances do probably the best job I've ever seen of replicating the group dungeon crawl experience solo. This does include the bad (tons and tons of trash mob pulls) alongside the good (wading into a crowd of mobs and having a chance at emerging victorious, as long as you're careful not to pull any adds or make other mistakes). I have no idea how long some of these challenges would have taken to complete on a character that lacks stealth - it seemed like you could be clearing some of those halls forever, with the prospect of death (forcing you to restart the instance, or possibly even wait for a lockout timer before restarting the instance) a single bad pull away.

Still, I had a lot of fun with the content, especially a mission that called for me to blow up supply boxes, which can be done entirely from stealth. I walked out with of the splitpaw den with a nice pile of experience, a giant glowing boar head trophy to mount on the wall in my house, an item that allows me to teleport back to the den from anywhere in the world (a more relevant reward at the time because the area includes some raid encounters) and a spell that summons a little mushroom dude as a non-combat pet, the first permanent non-combat pet I've seen in the game thus far.

Lessons of the Splitpaw
Overall, players won't miss the onerous fee structure, but there are some ideas in this content that I wish we could see more of. One of the instanced quests granted me a massive regeneration buff that allowed me to compensate for not having a dedicated healer around when the time came to pull group mobs that I would not have been able to survive solo. I wish that more games could find a way to offer scaling, for level, number of players, and presence of tanks/healers. Perhaps some content wouldn't be able to be as challenging, but it's a great way to solve the problem of having some content for everyone with limited dev time.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Adventurer, Outfit Thyself

With WoW's patch 3.1 launching (or attempting to launch) today, tonight is looking like a good night to plan on playing some more EQII. Euripedes has a roundup of the troubles facing Azeroth in the patch, but the server issues that have accompanied the last two patch days make Yogg Saron look like a soloable quest mob.

The only problem is, I'm having a hard time with Lyriana's crafting efforts. Lyriana crafts her own spells, which means that I want her crafting level to keep pace with her adventuring level (so I have upgrades ready and waiting when they're needed). This is getting harder and harder as I make more progress in the game.

Keeping Pace With Experience
We had a lively discussion the last time I mentioned this topic about whether crafted goods were cheaper than raw materials. Setting aside the 64,000 Gold question, though, it is definitely more fun to be able to craft stuff for a character as you level rather than crafting stuff that is weeks out of date and hoping you can sell it to recoup costs. How does this work out in practice?

I was very impressed in Wrath with how easy it was to keep my mage's enchanting and tailoring up to date. It may have helped that I can make cloth gear (tailors get more cloth from defeated enemies, thanks to a new passive harvesting skill) and then disenchant it for enchanting mats, but I really didn't notice much of a crafting grind at all in the expansion. I made a few items I was able to use, and was able to enchant and wear random quest rewards, a big step up from my pre-enchanter days leveling in TBC, when I didn't get to use most quest rewards because I wasn't prepared to pay someone else to enchant them. From my experience, it appears that herbalism, skinning, alchemy, and inscription are similarily user friendly.

Unfortunately, mining and the other gear crafting professions are much more challenging to keep up to par. Part of this is that ore nodes are required for many more professions, and a bigger part is that the items produced by these professions tend to be durable goods (i.e. gear that you keep), rather than consumables, and their costs are balanced accordingly. Also, I technically had a 25-point headstart on Wrath crafting, because Blizzard chose to start the new crafting tier 50-points into the 75 point TBC era crafting tier in order to avoid having to nerf material requirements for level 70 endgame items.

WoW has no mechanism for turning crafted goods into something more than vendor/disenchant fodder, and that it offers self-only buffs to crafters for maxxing their professions (albeit smaller buffs than last expansion), generally flooding the market with anything that players would make in order to level. As a result, I find it hard to justify the costs for training and materials needed to level crafting professions for the sake of actually crafting when you can skip the training and the time and just sell your raw materials to get the finished goods instead. Maybe things are better this time through, especially now that more professions have consumables. I'll let you know if I do end up leveling any alts with any of the professions I'm talking about.

I leveled Allarond as a Tinker (Mining, Jeweler, and Cooking - you have to buy uncooked food to cook since LOTRO's vocation bundles generally include a crafting profession that lacks its associated gathering profession) back in mid-2007. Mining was interesting in that you need to smelt ore into bars to gain the exp that allows you to harvest the next tier of ore. After you've filled the exp bar once, you can fill it a second time (actually, a second and a third time, as the second bar requires twice as many points) to "master" that tier of crafting. Mastery gives you a chance of critical success - for mining, this means a 5% chance of gaining 3 bars instead of 1 from a smelting attempt. Useful if you're smelting the bars because you want to craft with them, but it also means that unprocessed ore is in some ways more valuable on the market (because the buyer can get mining exp).

Actually keeping my mining skill mastered was not that hard as I leveled, in part because I made a point of grabbing as much ore as possible to sell. LOTRO offers regular ore and precious metals, and I needed the precious metals for jewelcrafting, so the regular ore was a great candidate for smelting until I mastered the mining tier (getting me a little bit more of the bars of precious metal I needed for crafting). The regular ore, meanwhile, sold very well on the open market in either smelted or unsmelted form, as several different professions require it. My personal experience was that the AH was very efficient at turning ore into weapons and armor for my character.

The crafting skill took a bit more work, though it was still relatively easy to keep pace with given that I was deliberately doing a lot of mining and exploring (to complete deeds) anyway. Perhaps most importantly, compared to WoW, quest reward gear (especially jewelry) tends to be less impressive than crafted gear of the same level. The result was that, even if I was lagging my level by a bit, it was still worth my while to wear my own jewelry. This added to the incentive to keep my crafting skill up to par.

There was the minor snafu at the original endgame because Turbine decided that the top end precious metal, Misty Mountain Silver, should ONLY drop in the actual Misty Mountains (dramatically reducing its availability compared to other tiers, since it didn't drop in most of the zones it should have dropped in). Forunately, they've since decided to rename it ancient silver and have it drop in the appropriate areas, so that problem is solved.

Finally, as Tipa is finding out, LOTRO's crafting exp system has some quirks - you need to think about which recipes offer the optimal exp gain for your materials. Then again, as I discovered in the recent retrial event, the game now offers crafting guilds for mid-high level crafters, which let you craft items for reputation. This is a huge step up from the old WoW and LOTRO methods of having players craft lots of gear they don't want just for crafting exp.

Like LOTRO, EQ2 has actual crafting exp in place of WoW's "you may or may not get a skill point for this recipe" method (though it uses the latter system for its secondary tradeskills). In many ways, though, crafting is even more integral. All characters can, provided they keep their harvesting skills up, harvest every type of raw material (fishing, hunting for meat and hides, gathering roots or veggies, mining gemstones and ore, and lumberjacking).

Meanwhile, where LOTRO has a single new crafting guild for your preferred profession, EQ2 crafters have multiple different crafting-specific factions, and, in some cases, get to generate experience for their guilds in addition to experience and faction for themselves. You can make random junk simply for experience - indeed, you get a nice chunk of bonus exp for your first successful attempt at any recipe - but this represents a much smaller portion of your crafting progress.

The bad news is that crafting experience requirements for each crafting level get steeper as you advance. Lyriana benefits from extremely rapid adventuring exp thanks to numerous changes and adjustment to progress levels over the years, and is having a harder and harder time keeping up, especially with crafting rested exp (which, I would argue, has outlived its original purpose). Without rested exp, crafting exp takes twice as long and costs twice as much in materials and fuel.

One other downside is that, while the new spells I want come one level at a time (i.e. my level 49 class spells are available when I hit level 49 in jeweler level), my melee class jewelry is generally at least 8 levels out of date because of where it falls in the recipe books - the level 40 jewelery is learned by level 48 jewelers.

Still, in general the system has worked as long as I stop leveling to wait for my crafting rested exp to catch up every so often.

Keeping crafting relevant to the changing leveling game
All three games have increased the speed of their PVE leveling curves of late, and WoW's patch today will supposedly be streamlining some of its low-level recipes to remove various random mob drops that made a lot of sense as part of gear when most players were in their 40's and 50's and make a lot less sense now that most players who want crafted gear in that level range have a high level alt doing the farming for them. Still, I would imagine that the net effect has been that keeping crafting up to pace with your exp level is getting harder in all three games as a result.

Personally, I think it's important that developers find some way to keep the speed of crafting at around the same rate relative to experience. Crafting your own gear as you go is a much more organic experience than riding around on a max level mount, killing level 5 critters to take their copper ore because the time has come to powerlevel a crafting profession now that you're at the endgame. Unfortunately, all three games do struggle a bit with this - you CAN level as you go, but it's arguably more time efficient to sell your raw materials, buy the finished products you need, and then purchase materials to powerlevel a profession if desired using your greater earning potential once you're level-capped.

Realistically, new players have an extremely limited ability to compete in an economy driven by what bored max-level characters will pay, unless they are able to sell their harvests. That creates a conflict since both LOTRO and WoW limit harvesting in a way that makes players choose between selling their gathered goodies for cash or using them to train their crafting skills. There's no reason to create this kind of pressure on players when there is more and more room for developers to shift the crafting grind from a race to keep up with your experience to endgame mechanics like factions and tokens (WoW is starting to get to the latter, with daily quests for Jewelcrafters).

If anything, keeping the accesibility of crafting at the same level as the rest of the game will get more players interested in continuing the crafting that they took up as they leveled. This can only increase the developers' return on the time they spend working on crafting systems. In the end, I'd rather see a game with a fleshed out and interesting crafting system like EQ2's than WoW's more mercenary environment of crafting for the sake of a self-buff.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Poll Results: What games are PVD readers following?

My most recent poll asked readers which games they follow. You were permitted to choose as many of the options as you wanted, so hopefully no one decided to mess with the data by clicking "none of the above" in addition to other options. ;)

- World of Warcraft 120 (83%)
- Warhammer 35 (24%)
- LOTRO 15 (10%)
- EQ2 18 (12%)
- None of the Above 4 (2%)
Total Votes: 143

As expected, the majority of my readers follow WoW; the majority of my posts are still about WoW, and most of my inbound traffic comes from WoW blogs. (The post spread, based on my own arbitrary tagging, is 189 posts tagged for WoW, 48 for Warhammer, 22 for LOTRO, and 21 for EQ2, some posts are tagged for multiple games.)

I have a healthy minority who follow Warhammer (half of whom also apparently follow WoW), smaller numbers who follow EQ2 and LOTRO, and a handful of you who either read this blog even though you don't play any of the games I write about on a regular basis or just can't resist clicking on every last checkbox you see. ;)

Nothing major about the blog is going to change based on these results, I was just curious to see what the numbers would look like. Maybe I'll repeat this thing in another year and see if the numbers have changed any.

One-Track Storytelling Versus the Imagination

It was a busy off-line weekend, but my wife and I finally found the time to watch the last two episodes of Veronica Mars. The show's first season is possibly our all-time favorite from anywhere in television, but it proved a tough act to follow. We lost track of the show during its months-long 3rd season hiatus, during which time the CW network slashed the remaining number of episodes and ultimately canceled the show. A drama which had spent its entire run dealing with multi-episode mysteries was left to tie up loose ends with a series of stand-alone episodes, that had been filmed without knowledge of whether the show would be renewed.

We bought the DVD's over a year ago, but still didn't get around to watching the final episodes until now. I certainly could claim to have been busy - this was technically very true - but the truth is that I did not WANT to see those final episodes. Before this weekend, the story may have ended any way that I might have imagined or wanted it to. Now I know exactly how it ended (or, in part, didn't fully end, because they were leaving the door open for a new season that never happened), and that ending is up against any and every idea I could ever have had for how to conclude the show's run. It's very hard for the real thing to be anything but a disappointment; Rob Thomas literally had to do a better job at satisfying me than my own imagination.

Storytelling in online games
Online games have additional storytelling challenges that non-interactive stories do not. The very idea of an advancing storyline stands at odds with a persistent online world, in which one player has already unmasked the King's adviser as a traitor, while another still needs the traitor standing in the throne room for quests. Beyond these technical hurdles (which games are attempting to tackle with technology, such as instancing or Wrath's new "phasing"), though, games face the same sorts of challenges.

Many players have invested even more time in the characters and worlds of an MMORPG than they have in your average TV show. I can't imagine many players out there who really thought that what WoW needed for the grand finale to the Burning Crusade expansion was for a bunch of NPC's from a book that most players have never read to come and save the day, but that is apparently what Blizzard thought the lore of that particular encounter needed. In the context of a world that is not yet ready for ordinary players to be besting the likes of Kil'Jaeden in a fair fight, perhaps they were right.

The issue, in the long term, is how long that particular type of tactic works. How many Old Gods, Dragon Aspects, and greater Eredar can the heroes really beat because of some gimmick, or because they had the good fortune of arriving too soon (foolish Executus), before the feeling that you're in what Spinks calls a railroaded plot?

Perhaps these questions are only side issues. Many of us are playing for the underlying games, or the company, more than the storytelling. Still, the story isn't pointless - sometimes it's even the main selling point for a game - and it's an area where games could really use some innovation in the future.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What's in a (Spell) Name?

Via the Ratonga Warlock, comes the announcement that EQ2 has opened its spell name consolidation poll.

The issue
As a bit of background, EQ2 for whatever historic reason gives a different name to each new rank of a spell you obtain. For example, the basic Dirge lifedrain/damage attack is known as:
"Singing Strike" at level 1
"Singing Blade" at level 8
"Singing Thrust" at level 15
"Thuri's Doleful Thrust" at level 29
"Bereavement" at 43
"Grievance" at 57
"Siphon Blade" at 71 (current highest rank)

Though I'm sure there are interesting lore reasons for this - for instance, characters in the game probably wouldn't tell you they were teaching you "Singing Blade (Rank 3)" - it can be very confusing. I had to look that list up, because I have no idea what any of my bread-and-butter attacks are called at any given level. Instead, I rely on a combination of the icon and keeping the keybindings constant. This makes it hard to tell what abilities will be affected by your AA points, much less have conversations with other players about what spells do.

Anyway, SOE decided to consolidate the spell names within each line (within each class, not for the entire game), and they're holding a massive series of polls - one for every spell line for every one of the game's 24 classes - to determine what the lines will be called going forward.

Lessons from spell names
I based my votes for Dirge ability names primarily on what names sounded cool. I can usually guess what spell we're talking about when you give me the whole list of names, but have no idea what spells for other classes do. There are some interesting trends in the polls and voting:

- In that Singing Strike -> Siphon Blade line I listed above? The poll shows a split between "Singing Blade" and "Thuri's Doleful Thrust". I have no idea who Thuri is, or what is so doleful about his or her thrusting. Perhaps I would see nostalgia value in the name if I did. (Some of the other "named" spells reference the EQ pantheon of gods, most of which I've at least heard of, but it seems that many classes have one or more unfamiliar names attached to spells.) There are also some spells where an otherwise unimpressive name is the community favorite because it had that name in EQ1.

- Some classes actually do identify with having different spell names as they level. For example, the Conjurors (pet class that summons elementals for tanking or damage) have made numerous write-in comments on their polls (e.g. the poll for their tanking pet line) AGAINST consolidating the names. A level 1 Conjuror's tanking pet is a little beetle, and they slowly gain the ability to summon more powerful pets, up to a massive golem. The conjurors (and their necromancer counterparts) rightly point out that "Tanking Earth Elemental Rank 2" is a less interesting name for a pet than "Tellurian Soldier".

- Sometimes, players have no idea what name to pick. Take this warlock poll, which appears poised to name the "freeze" line "encase", but is a pretty significant 4-way split with votes for every option but "deter" (which has nothing to do with ice - this is the kind of name you get when you have to name 100+ spells for 24 classes).

- Some of the lines have some really random names. Here's another warlock poll in which SOE has managed to name the ranks of a poison AOE attack:
Gas Cloud (good)
Putrid Cloud (good)
Grievous Blast (no longer a cloud, nor does it sound specifically poisonous, and I'd guess it was a single target spell if I didn't know otherwise)
Dark Nebula (uh, kind of cloudlike but nothing to do with poison)
Nebula (kind of cloudlike but not even referencing darkness)
Radiation (the fact that we call it "radiation poisoning" does not mean that radiation is like a biological poison).
Dark Nebula currently has a substantial lead in that poll.

- Another funny little trend is that many spell lines can't even agree whether the spell in question is a noun or a verb (see example wizard poll). Some spell lines actually managed to keep their naming relatively consistent (take this druid line where all the spells are somehow "untamed"), but many do not.

A single target direct damage attack by any other name....
If you're going to consolidate spell names anway, you might as well get the fan favorites, though I wonder what they will do with the closer votes (e.g. three separate options with over 25% of the vote, as with the Freeze line above).

Beyond that, there's an interesting question about what's in a spell name. Is it supposed to sound cool? Offer clues as to what the spell actually does? (This is one thing that I wish EQ2's spell names would do better.) Should spells be named after famous characters (either lore, or actual players)? What would you name the spells on your favorite character, if you could? Or would you not want to rename a spell that you've been using for a long time now, even if a better alternative came along?

It's an interesting little exercise for something that emerged out of a need to clean up the naming system.