Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Looking ahead to the next EQ2 expansion

SOE held its Fan Faire event over the weekend, and rolled out a variety of game-related announcements. The EQ2 wire has the full details on EQ2 updates.
  • The new expansion will not hit until February 2010, as SOE transitions the game to an update schedule of three live updates and one paid expansion per year.
  • It will, as widely expected, increase the game's level cap.
  • The game will be getting an achievement feature like (listed in order of live paid US server release of the comparable feature) LOTRO, Warhammer, and WoW - it is not yet clear whether these achievements will be purely cosmetic or whether they will offer gameplay benefits that cannot be duplicated through other means.
  • Players will be able to temporarily set their level to any multiple of five below their current number to pursue low level content. The good news is that this will encourage players to tackle low level group content (the game only awards AA exp for content that is not grey-leveled) without the inconvenience of someone needing to have an alt of exactly the correct level. The bad news is that down-leveled players are more powerful than legitimate players of that level, potentially leading to some balance issues.
  • There will be a new starting city and zone, which will be turned into some sort of stand-alone free trial area, with a smaller client (and thereby faster downloads - the current trial uses the full game client, which is easily an overnight download affair).
  • The game is also slated to work with scaling content that may accommodate smaller groups, or optional "hard mode" fights.

Overall, it's not a bad set of features. Perhaps they're focusing a bit heavily on things that are available in other games, but they're taking those features because they have been successful and popular.

Perverse Incentives?
The one concern I have in the medium term is what these changes mean for my own characters. Currently, I do a fair amount of otherwise trivial content in the game primarily to experience the storylines and maybe collect a bit of AA exp on the side. Once all these changes finish rolling out, Lyriana could instead set her level to the level of the quests she is working on, use the toggle slider to convert all of the combat experience gained into AA exp, and earn significantly greater rewards than she would get for doing the content now.

Of course, ALL content in MMO's might be changed to offer better rewards down the line, but the conversation changes slightly when we're talking about content that cannot be repeated. If you choose to run repeatable dungeons in WoW while awaiting patch 3.2, you are not precluded from reaping the better rewards that will be added after the patch. By contrast, non-repeatable quest content is consumed once and gone. Lyriana will be demonstrably better off waiting for at least the AAXP change, if not the increase in the level cap as well, before completing any content whatsoever after hitting level 80.

I mention the level cap because the expansion is announced to contain only two outdoor zones, plus the requisite instanced content, to support 10 additional experience levels. SOE will undoubtedly add more options to the game through Live Updates, and possibly the expansion after this one (if, like the current pair of expansions, it does NOT raise the level cap). Still, the picture for solo players at the time of the expansion's launch might have to focus on grinding repeatable quests, with a longer term plan to add more variety. That would be one of those unfortunate incentives to wait a few months/years for the rest of the content.

Overall, I want to be excited about this expansion. EQ2 has been a very pleasant surprise for me, and it would be interesting to actually be around for things when they are shiny and new. The problem simply comes up when Lyriana hits level 80, and the incentive curve strongly favors having her take a seat until February.

What to do in the mean time? Perhaps roll an alt. But not a good-aligned alt, since that new good-aligned city won't be around until February.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Breakthrough For The Women Of Age Of Conan

Spinks noticed that the latest patch to Age of Conan will allow female characters to be dismembered properly "Due to sexual equality". Really, it seems like the game has had some degree of difficulty with female graphics. One bug caused womens' bust size to shrink when wearing certain armor, while another, more roundly mocked, actually lowered female characters' DPS due to a lengthier atttack animation.

Fortunately, in a link that I've been looking for a good excuse to post for a while now, The Onion reports on new rendering technology that could save the Age of Conan.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Emblems of Heroism From Daily Quests in Patch 3.3?

I delved into WoW's PTR's last night to check out the new heirloom items. As the screenshot shows, the chest pieces were found on a separate vendor from the Heroism quartermaster, do not have armor values (see MMO-champion for stats and pictures), and have seemingly random cash costs tacked on in addition to their emblem cost (currently 40x heroism). In short, these things scream "placeholder".

Caveat out of the way, I was very surprized to see these things offered for Emblems of Heroism instead of Champion's Seals from the Argent Tournament. One of my first comments on the heirloom item system was how it did not make sense to me that items for leveling alts come from endgame group PVE content. The planned expansion of the Argent Tournament seemed like a good opportunity to make solo PVE rewards available through solo PVE daily quests. Instead, it looks like Blizzard is going in a different direction.

Daily Quests for Emblems of Heroism In Patch 3.3?
Having gotten over the initial shock from Blizzard's decision to blow up the tiered emblem loot structure, I'm wondering if Blizzard has a longer term plan for Emblems of Heroism.

Back in February, I speculated that we might see "Emblems of Valor in 5-man content and solo daily quests with some chance of rewarding Emblems of Heroism" in patch 3.3. That was before massive badge inflation hit. (I got one thing right - I'd also predicted that "Blizzard will have to consider some means of making ilvl 213 loot available to the non-raid populace".)

I'd now revise my prediction for patch 3.3 to:
- New solo daily quests will offer a guaranteed Emblem of Heroism.
- These quests also offer some sort of purse or loot bag, like those seen in other daily quests, that has a chance of containing additional Emblems of Heroism, or even an Emblem of Valor.
- There might also be some harder, small group daily quests (like Threat from Above) that offer a guaranteed Emblem of Valor.

Before last week, I would not have expected Blizzard to go that far. After all, the loot bags in the Quel'Danis daily quests offered Badges of Justice at a painfully slow rate, somewhere around 10% for a SINGLE badge.

After patch 3.2, though, Emblems of Heroism from solo content would barely make a ripple in the itemization pool. Blizzard has clearly made a conscious decision NOT to simply wipe out the old emblems and simply replace them with the new baseline Emblem of Conquest. That would seem to leave them an opening to reintroduce Emblems of Heroism down the line.

P.S., RE: Heirlooms
Interestingly, the Emblem heirloom chests are deliberately chosen to match their shoulder counterparts. I flew out to Wintergrasp and did NOT see any new PVP chest pieces on the shard vendor (or, indeed, any new items). It will be interesting to see whether Wintergrasp gets new rewards, including the heirloom chests, and whether patch 3.3 will add a third piece to the heirloom armor "sets".

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Teleporting To Quest Hubs

Mania has hit the 3.2 PTR's and, amongst other things, observed that the Argent Tabard costs a mere 50 Champion's Seals. The Tabard allows the owner to teleport back to the Argent Tourney grounds, on a 30 minute cooldown. The teleport ability was announced in advance, and I may or may not have heard the price previously, but hearing the two facts together caught my attention.

Greenwiz probably spends a good 5-6 minutes per day flying to the tournament grounds. Sometimes I'm AFK on the auto-bird, sometimes I use the time to decide what options I'm going to select from the LFG interface for the evening, but, either way, that's six minutes of /played each and every single day that I will never need to spend again after the patch. (The cooldown is short enough that it might as well not exist - when I leave to go do quests or whatever, I'm almost certainly not going to be back within half an hour.)

Though there are various other ways of teleporting around Azeroth and Outland, this is the first one that I can think of that is specific to a daily quest hub, as a reward for completing the local quests. The seige of the Isle of Quel'Danis in patch 2.4 had a somewhat similar mechanic, but the resulting portal is in a fixed location. This version is fully portable, and can save you a ton of time given how travel-heavy level 80 daily quests are.

LOTRO has probably the most similar travel shortcut, with its swift travel routes. Instant quest hub travel was originally tied to player level, but more recent routes have depended upon your reputation with (or quests completed for) the local faction. Travel was downright painful when the game launched, and sounds much better today with more liberal use of swift travel routes.

Games do not need instant point to point travel to any location in the world, but you should at least be able to get within several minutes of your destination. Tying the instant access to progress in the area makes sense from a story perspective. It also ensures that players do get an approximate idea of where things are, and have a chance to take in the sights at least once. (If nothing else, this is useful if your guild's raid leader ever decides to hold a "where was this screenshot taken?" contest, which is a lot of fun, incidentally.)

Overall, this is a relatively small change in the context of a relatively large patch. Then again, given the large number of cosmetic rewards that will not be wiped out by the next expansion's almost-certain gear reset, this might be one perk that players will be using for a while to come.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Midsummer Bug Fest

First off, a little tip for those of you still working on the Fire Festival. (Update: Two commenters have told me that this no longer works, though I have not been able to confirm this, read the comments for details.)

Blizzard implemented a feature in this patch allowing players to receive a refund on armor purchased with non-gold currency. This was, in part, so they would stop getting GM petitions from players who bought the wrong tier set. Apparently, some of the midsummer fire festival outfit pieces are eligible for the refund. I had the robe from last year and bought the slippers and the mantle to complete the achievement. I was then able to return the mantle.

I was NOT able to return the slippers - I'm not sure if that's a quirk of the slippers, or if you can only return your most recent purchase. (Update: The following may or may not be bad advice. Just in case, I'd recommend that any of you planning to try this buy the slippers LAST, since they're the most expensive.) Either way, I was able to get a 100 blossom headstart towards the festival pet.

Working as intended? Probably not, but, sadly, neither is just about anything else tied to the achievement side of this holiday.

Yet another buggy holiday crisis

When I wrapped up Children's Week, I wrote:
"Unless Blizzard manages to break some portion of the Fire Festival, my chances of getting the drake are looking reasonably good."

Blizzard took their best attempt. The only sighting of the ice stone, a bug that was the only fun part of the Valentine's event, comes when players go after the holiday boss. I found this disappointing, as I was expecting some sort of Northrend-wide ice stone event. The boss in question is still level 70, and therefore will not show up in the LFG interface for level 80 players. The encounter is also trivial, once you do somehow find a group to attempt it, thanks to the level difference. On the scale of issues, this was a minor one.

The potential deal breaker was that many holiday quests failed to reset from last year. Like many of the problems that have plagued World Event achievements (candy hearts repeating the mistakes of trick or treating, daily chores repeating the mistakes of its buggy non-holiday counterpart), this is not a new issue. Players have been dealing with this sort of thing since WoW's first world events rolled out. The difference is that this time, it was not some Winter's Veil crafting recipe for a level 30 item on the line.

Before the meta-achivement, Blizzard would just say that they were fixing the problem for next year, and affected players would be out of luck. In the current era, however, this issue threatened to break players' attempts at the holiday meta-achievement, by leaving them unable to complete the Fire Festival.

Blizzard acted as quickly as could be expected, given that the event went live on a Sunday (a questionable call, given that almost every single one of these events has encountered at least one bug when it went live). They rolled out a fix last night (or at your server's next restart) that supposedly reset all of the bonfires in the world, allowing players to loot them all again and gain enough festival currency to buy the required items. Of course, by this point we were a solid 36+ hours into the event, which meant that some players had already begun working on this year.

Personally, I didn't do much with the Fire Festival last year on my main - the event really shines for alts - so I was NOT looking at a situation where I would not be able to earn the required currency before the event ended. However, I wanted to tackle the achievement as soon as possible, so that there would be time to report and troubleshoot any bugs I encountered. As a result, I was part of the way through completing some of the achievements when the flame reset occurred.

Some of the outdoor flames reset themselves, though I didn't really need the extra blossoms. Interestingly, my progress on the last few zone achievements was NOT reset at the time, as the hotfix note claimed, though I was sure to finish them ASAP anyway in case they were later reset again. The big problem was the chain to steal the enemy capitol city flames.

For this chain, players must enter the four enemy capitols and make their way to loot a bonfire. The resulting flame gives players a quest to return to an NPC in their capitol. Though neither the quest log, the achievement panel, nor the NPC themselves will tell you this, the game is tracking which of the four you have completed. Complete all four and the NPC gives out a new quest that awards a hat, and the last achievement I needed to clear the Fire Festival.

Here's where my situation went awry. I had done the Silvermoon City flame before dinner and the remaining Horde cities later in the evening, ending with Ogrimmar. The questgiver had no interest in giving me the hat. Queue the panic, that my character might be somehow bugged as a result of this change. Perhaps, I reasoned, the flame reset also reset my capitol flames. Off I went all the way back into Silvermoon for a second time to loot another flame. Error, I've already completed that quest. Queue even more panic.

At this point, I figured that I should bite the bullet and re-collect the other three flames, so I could demonstrate to a GM that I had actually completed all of the quests. Back to Ogrimmar, quest already completed. Back to Undercity and Thunder Bluff... and those flames offered me the chance to repeat their respective quests. Quests complete, hat obtained, achievement complete. I have no idea how this could possibly make sense. Perhaps the reset happened between when I hit Thunder Bluff and when I hit Ogrimmar, but why, then, wasn't Silvermoon also reset?

Meanwhile, I had it relatively easy. The Horde flames are much easier for Alliance characters to reach than the Alliance ones are for the Horde. I play a level 80 mage, with a number of tools to assist in evading guards and players for long enough to loot the flames. I'm also an East Coast player on a West Coast server, able to sign in before work while most of the server is still asleep. Overall, I died only once in the process of raiding all four enemy cities twice each, because I was cocky enough to ride in the front door of Ogrimmar, and ducked into a shop instead of the tower that leads to the upper terrace.

Because the game offers no way of knowing which quests it thinks you have failed to complete, the only way to determine which flame you are missing is to go re-obtain all four of them and see which ones will give you a quest. That could be quite painful for a character who wasn't in my ideal situation.

Back to the Festival's Roots
The sad part of this commentary is that the Fire Festival was my favorite world event of 2008. The festival is packed full of incentives and perks for characters that are still gaining levels. For the most part, that event is back and working like it did last year, though attaching an achievement to dousing enemy fires all but ensures that your faction's bonfire will NOT stay lit for long while you level in a zone.

Having all of these positive aspects of the holiday overshadowed by the inevitable achievement bugs is a real shame. The world event meta-achievement has turned each and every event into a high pressure situation - the devs now MUST respond quickly when things break, often by nerfing achievements that they do not have time to fix, while players have a limited time to choose whether to pursue the latest bug-fest or give up on their previous progress through the chain of world events.

Overall, I suppose the most positive thing I have to say about the Fire Festival achievements is that they were over comparatively quickly. Two days into the two-week long festival, I have the required achievements on my main. Now I'm free to go enjoy the rest of the time on my alts, armed to the teeth with the latest in shiny heirloom toys. Either way, it's hard to describe the achievements as anything other than a disappointment. I can't say that I'm looking forward to seeing how they manage to break Brewfest, the last stop in the achievement tour, this fall.

(It won't be via the mount achievement, which has been replaced with a trivial achievement for using a mere handful of festival tickets in the current PTR.)

Greenwiz's latest title, along with the 30 food items (10 extra) and two spare city flames I needed to get en route to the hat, thanks to that pesky reset bug.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Low-Playtime Solo PVE Overtakes Vana'diel

I lasted a matter of weeks in FFXI before giving up on forced grouping in the notorious "Dunes", so I'm not entirely qualified to comment on the state of the game. Fortunately, Massively points to a survey of people who CAN comment on the game, Square's official player survey.

There's a fair chunk of interesting data in there, but one pair of stats jump out.

- According to the actual server logs, over 85% of characters log in for no more than three hours per day, with an average for all characters of 126 minutes. That's obviously not an entirely trivial number, and it would be interesting to see how that 85% breaks down (e.g. if a large number of those characters are actually only on for a couple hours per week, with the rest sitting just shy of the 3 hour/day mark). Also, the number might be artificially deflated by the use of mule characters, since storage in FFXI can be a nontrivial task. (Note that, unless this has changed recently, there is a monthly fee per additional character; mules seem to be at least somewhat popular regardless.)

- Meanwhile, over 25% of players cite solo ability as the reason why they chose their "job" (class in other MMO's). This made soloing the 2nd most popular choice in the survey, trailing only the generic "it's fun". There may be some selection bias in this sample (i.e. perhaps solo players were more inclined to answer the survey in order to advocate for more content/dev support), but it's still striking to see such a large response in favor of soloing in a game with a strong reputation for mandatory grouping.

Suddenly, the decision to emphasize solo play in the forthcoming FF XIV becomes crystal clear (pardon the FF lore pun).

Friday, June 19, 2009

Things to Do, Or Not, Til Patch 3.2

Spinks calls patch 3.2 the "Filler Patch", which seems about fair in terms of the game's plot. However, based on the news that's come out about the any-minute-now PTR launch, the filler does have a bit of bulk behind it on the incentive front. Because the game now has a month or two of testing in its future, we're in an odd middle ground where the value of certain incentives will be up in the air. What is worth focusing on now, or putting off until 3.2?

Things that may be EASIER now....
- Power-leveling professions. The patch will be buffing the self-only profession perks across the board to allow for epic-quality gems to be added to the game. I don't often delve into market projections, but I'd imagine that some people may switch their tradeskills after the patch.

- Obtaining items with MP5. Blizzard has announced that existing and future items with MP5 on them will be receiving approximately 25% more MP5. If your class benefits from these items, e.g. if you are a Pally healer (Blizzard is attempting, once again, to nerf crit as a mana regen stat), you might find less competition now than in the future.

- Collecting those last few emblems/gear drops in 5-mans? The change to tiered badge drops will accomplish their primary goal - luring raiders into 5-man content they outgear and outperform. Unfortunately, the changes would also mean that the majority of players interested in 5-man content will be interested only in maximizing their acquisition of emblems. Bringing along players who actually still need stuff from 5-mans could impede that goal. Indeed, with the daily 5-man quests offering emblems from the HIGHEST tier, but ONLY to groups that complete the entire dungeon, the penalty for failure of a PUG has never been higher. Right now, demand is low and players might actually bring you on their PUG runs rather than wait to get a raid-geared player. After the patch, players who actually need the upgrades might not be so welcome.

Places where you might be better off waiting....
- Large scale farming of any pre-Ulduar-25 content. If you're not afraid of the PUG scene, the same work will award you better rewards after the patch hits.

- Buying epic flight skill. You might not even want it anymore, and, if you do, you can save 1000G through faction discounts by waiting for the patch.

- Working on Argent Tourney dailies for rep and Champion's Seals. It sounds like all of the new daily quests will require Champion status, and some will also require Crusader status (exalted champion status with all five cities) and/or your side's tournament faction. We do not know if there will be an additional new currency, but you will be able to purchase a portable bank squire for 150 Champion seals. My guess is that there will be additional quests to allow for faster seal acquisition, though, so don't despair just yet if you can't stand some of the current dailies. Also, you might want to finish any other daily reps you are working on, to clear time for the new stuff.

Working on Alts?
This gets its own subheading for sheer variety.

- There will be a new heirloom chest piece, with an exp bonus that stacks with the shoulders. We don't know what currency it costs, or how much. If this item works like the shoulders do, the melee leather could offer the best bang for your seal/emblem costs. Your mail-wearers won't even know the difference before level 40, and lose only armor value afterwards. Even your plate-wearers get some benefit from the stats. (Caster cloth is also a potential bargain, though your balance druids and elemental Shaman may be more likely than melee to miss the added armor while solo.) I'm not delaying any alts just because of this one, but it is a small perk.

- Previously discussed mount changes and other travel tweaks will save travel time. This one mostly affects characters in the 20-30 bracket (currently no mounts, 60% after the patch), and from 40-70 (100% ground at 40 and 150% flight at 60 post patch).

- WoW will finally get experience-locked battleground twinks. If I had a twink, I would not touch it until the patch, after which you can guarantee that it will never accidentally level out of your bracket. In exchange, locked twinks will be segregated into separate battlegrounds, making the battlegrounds safer for players who just want a brief change of pace. Ironically, Cheerydeth, with 4 heirlooms and counting but no particular aversion to gaining levels, might actually be well positioned to terrorize the mid-level battlegrounds of Azeroth post-patch. Also, some class-based travel perks will become available in the 10-19 twink bracket thanks to the mount changes, and 60% ground mounts will be coming to the 20-29 and 30-39 brackets.

- Shaman Totem Changes. If you have avoided rolling a Shaman because you can't be arsed to bother with totems (it's the only class in WoW that I have yet to reach level 20 on), the new totem drop option may be what you've been waiting for.

Cosmetic Rewards for the Long Term
One thing that I've found striking about the Argent Tourney, and its planned expansion, is the emphasis on cosmetic and utility rewards. This content will collectively represent a massive expansion in the number and variety of mounts, minipets, and tabards. It will even include the option to teleport to the daily quest area, and a squire who will serve as as a portable bank.

For the most part, these rewards will remain equally valuable into the next expansion. The same cannot be said of gear upgrades. (For the moment, we do not know if there will also be new gear available, though the Conquest gear would probably dwarf it in any case.) Heirlooms are also a bit more long-lasting, since you will continue to be able to pass them along to new alts that you roll up next expansion.

Some players aren't going to be interested in any of these things, but I do think that Blizzard's increased focus on them is noteworthy. Perhaps this is some small way of trying to create content that will remain rewarding as the next expansion looms and arrives.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

So Much For Tiered Badge Loot?

And we have a game-changer in the PTR notes for Patch 3.2:
Emblem System Changes
Both the 10 and 25 player instances of the Crusaders' Coliseum drop a new Emblem of Triumph.

Any dungeons that previously dropped Emblems of Heroism or Valor, such as Naxxramas or Heroic Halls of Stone, will now drop Emblems of Conquest instead. Emblems of Conquest can still be converted to Valor or Heroism.

The Heroic dungeon daily quest will now reward 2 Emblems of Triumph and the normal daily dungeon quest will reward 1 Emblem of Triumph.

I'm guessing that tiered badge levels haven't worked out so well for continued use of the 12 - soon to be 13 - level 80 5-man dungeons in the expansion.

That said, it seems bizarre that you could knock off a 5-man boss that drops ilvl 200 rare loot and walk off with an [Emblem of Conquest] good for ilvl 226 epic loot - effectively three loot tiers above the content you just tackled. It's especially odd because the Conquest vendor prices range from 19 emblems (necklaces) to 58 emblems (two pieces of the Ulduar ilvl 226 class sets), prices that were presumably based on an expectation that players would not be downing that many bosses in Ulduar.

Again, I don't disagree with the motive, I'm just saying that this sounds a bit like overkill. I could see bumping every content tier's badge quality by a single tier, but jumping by two tiers in a single patch feels excessive. Then again, I guess even semi-serious raiders have long since run out of stuff to do with Valor emblems.

Also, one might expect to see very high prices on the new Triumph reward vendor if we're allowing players to obtain 3 of the new badges per day from daily 5-man quests.

It'll be interesting to see if this major change in design philosophy stands, and/or if we get any explanation that goes beyond my speculation on why they might have made this call.

Edit to add: Here's the staggering part of this change - with Conquest emblems (which can be traded down to lower tiers) a mage can get ilvl 226 items in 5 of the 8 armor slots, with ilvl 213 for the other three, along with an ilvl 226 neck, ilvl 213 cloak, and 2 ilvl 213 rings. Some of those items aren't exactly best in slot, and you'd still need to look elsewhere for trinkets (or live with the old ilvl 200 ones for Heroism), and your weapon/offhand/ranged stuff.

Still, we're not talking about a few isolated gear slots, the way we were with the Badge loot in patch 2.4. That's a complete gear set. Basically everything on any reputation vendor or 5-man dungeon loot table in the game would be turned into a placeholder that you wear while you work to farm up hundreds of badges from whatever content offers the best emblem/time returns.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Poll: Endgame Vs. Leveling Content

Here's a little poll to follow up on something I thought of over in the comments at Unwize's post on WoW and LOTRO's old content revamp policies.

Which of the Following Would You Like Added To Your Favorite MMORPG?
-Repeatable max-level content for your main?
-One-time leveling content for new players and alts?

Polling will be open in the sidebar at http://playervsdeveloper.blogspot.com/ for approximately a month.

Devs Defending Their $15

During the TBC era, Blizzard chose to focus four of the expansion's eleven new outdoor adventuring zones, and two of the expansion's three new cities, on level 1-20 content for the new races. Pre-60 content was also a major focus of one of the three major content patches of the TBC era. By contrast, the only new content for characters below level 68 in the Wrath era through two of its three planned content patches (barring some 11th hour pre-PTR unveil of old-world revamp content for patch 3.2) is the brief starting quest area for new Death Knights.

My guess is that this is no more an accident than easier raid difficulty or the addition of the Death Knight class. But why would Blizzard reverse course so dramatically on pre-60 content? Gevlon describes the changes to raid difficulty as Blizzard doing "the goblin thing, defending their $15". My suspicion is that Blizzard's internal metrics showed that spending time on the pre-60 world was not an efficient way of defending their $15.

Blizzard did not add any additional content for level-capped solo and small group players (or 25-man raiders for that matter) for nearly a year that passed between patch 2.1 and 2.4. Given the chance to add new quest hubs to the game in patch 2.3, they chose to focus on a low level zone instead of new content for level 70 players. The thing is that level 70 repeatable content, provided players are willing to take part in it, can last a level-capped player with nothing else to do for months. The new Dustwallow quest lines provide several hours of additional content for players who have other alternatives for their leveling needs.

I'm sure players used the content once it was available. The real question is how many chose to make new characters specifically because of the new content (as distinct from exp curve changes that also went in with that patch)? How many chose to stick with those new characters once they'd used up the new content and got deposited back in the old world content that they weren't interested in repeating before patch 2.3? Collectively, how much additional time did players, new or old, spend in pre-60 Azeroth because of these changes? How does this number compare to the amount of additional time - and subscription fees - that would have been spent on new level 70 daily quests?

Given Blizzard's actions since that time, I think we can guess what answer they arrived at, based on their internal numbers.

However much we complain about the state of pre-58 Azeroth, it was good enough to get millions of players through to level 58, and, as Saylah discovered, more players are still signing up over four years later. Low-hanging fruit like adjusted level curves or lowered mount requirements are a very good investment in the task of helping new players catch up. More time-intensive revamps, when they come at the expense of content for players who are out of things to do, may not be.

Then again, perhaps you feel that it isn't worth doing repeatable content grinds that will be reset in the next expansion. That's why I'm curious to hear what all of you think. Happy voting! :)

Why MMORPG's Need Constant Progression

There are a number of posts on the persistence of MMORPG rewards in the blogopshere of late.

The Problem With Progression
The central problem driving all of these issues is the need for constant progression. Basically the entire genre to date is designed around the principle that time invested in a character results in a more powerful character. The specifics of "more powerful" are unimportant. Whether your players are gaining levels, gear, talents/AA's (Tipa's post claims that entry level EQ1 raiders are expected to have earned a staggering 3,000 AA points - merely clicking to spend that many points sounds like a pain), or even cosmetic rewards, you're creating an entry barrier for new players to overcome.

You cannot expect new customers to spend four years of gaming time to get to the point on the power curve where the four year veterans are. If the new players don't all quit on the spot and actually spend the requisite four years, they'll simply arrive to find that the veterans are another four years beyond them. The problem becomes even worse if the progression path requires players to find groups of other players in the same level range (and/or players willing to do low level content that offers them little to no benefit just to help newbies).

If you do not take any action to help new customers enter the game, you'll eventually run out of customers as your old ones leave. This means that every developer of every game has to take the kinds of actions we're talking about on the blogosphere - faster leveling, occasional gear resets, etc.

You don't necessarily need to raise the cap and reset gear every single expansion, nor is it absolutely essential to go with a Zubon's idea of a fixed /played time to the level cap. However, the longer you allow things to build off of a static base, the taller the mountain is going to get. (Even EVE's notorious real-time-based skill system has a limitation of sorts; a new player will never match the versatility of a veteran, but there are only so many ranks available for most combat skills, so there are limits to how far ahead veterans can get in any one specialized area.)

Why not leave the progression behind?
Progression may be the root of the problems with older content, but it's also a fundamental part of the genre and its business model. We have games that offer class-based tactical PVP combat and zero need to reset gear or worry about trivializing older content. They're called First Person Shooters. The thing is, FPS players are historically very hostile to any concept of persistent character progress - see Keen's comments on a recent failed attempt to add random gear drops to Team Fortress 2.

This leads to an issue of scope. Persistent worlds and characters add a tremendous amount of incentive for players to stick with a game. Valve isn't going to have a problem if I play TF2 for 10 hours, decide that there's nothing for me to work towards, and quit. I've already paid them all the money they're going to get for the game, and I might even pay them for the sequel if I had fun during the time I did spend playing.

Valve would have a problem if they wanted to create a massive world, like Azeroth, Norrath, or Middle Earth. That type of project would cost money that can only be recouped through truly massive sales (which no investor can count on) or the power of the monthly fee. Perhaps players will eventually be willing to pay the kind of money that MMORPG's require for games that offer fewer incentives for sticking around. At the moment, though, that's simply not where the market is.

In a very real sense, constant progression for everyone - not merely players who got into the raiding circuit years ago - is the price we pay for the ability to experience the game worlds we get to play with. That doesn't mean that it isn't disappointing when an expansion or patch diminishes our efforts. It certainly doesn't mean that we won't consider a probable impending gear reset in deciding whether it's worth grinding X repeatable quest Y hundred times for Z minor upgrade. Still, we all expect our games to make enough of a profit to remain open, to continue to add content, and to attract enough new players to fill the inevitable open spots in our groups as old players drift away.

Personally, it's a trade that I'm glad to make.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Patches, Patches Everywhere

It's been an unusually busy week in MMORPG patch news.

Sony is so confident that EQ2's Game Update 52 is ready that they sent out an email announcement declaring Tuesday as the patch's "expected live date". Amongst other things, the patch includes an invasion plotline the almost certainly confirms that this year's EQ2 Expansion will be Velious (a major continent in the original game).

Warhammer's Patch 1.3, including the long-awaited Land of the Dead contested zone, has gone to pre-download status, also expecting a launch on Tuesday. Mythic has once again launched a viral marketing campaign on the blogs - Ysh has a good summary. The campaign is so tasty, Syp can't help but sink his teeth into it.

LOTRO's Book 8 patch is also in the works, and Jairos posts about the new splash screen ad. Meanwhile, true to form, Blizzard has been rolling out patch 3.2 updates all week. The latest is a preview of the new battleground which basically sounds like a remake of Alterac Valley with vehicles. We could very easily see a PTR debut next week.

Overall, it's interesting that so many of the major current generation MMORPG's launching their latest at the same time. Perhaps there's now some level of competition to provide an answer to competitors' latest updates. Perhaps there are external factors - e.g. guilds having a harder time fielding raids with school out for the summer - that favor launching content now to help tide people over. Either way, we've got some interesting times ahead.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Even More WoW Travel Streamlining

In a followup story to my last post, Blizzard is rolling out even more travel updates in patch 3.2.

Horde will get a Zeppelin from Ogrimmar to Thunder Bluff. This will be very helpful once in the life of each new Horde character to save the run across the Barrens to unlock the flight path. However, unless this Zeppelin arrives and departs more frequently than the current models, I'm not sure if it would be worth using for regular travel. The current flight path does not take that long compared to the wait if you just miss a Zeppelin. I stand prepared to retract this statement if the new Zeppelin is some sort of super rocket turbo-charged monster that covers the ground in a fraction of the time at some insane speed, rather than the current "wait five minutes to zone to the other city" model.

They are also taking the cosmetic portals at the Dark Portal, supposedly allowing access for NPC troops from Stormwind and Ogrimmar into Outland, and making them 2-way and usable. This is a small but welcome change for the Alliance (saves a few minutes in flight and a brief ride across the Blasted Lands), and a massive improvement for any Horde who don't have a mage with the Stonard portal handy.

Finally, they will be adding a flight path from the Dark Portal directly to Shattrath. This strikes me as another once-per-character addition, especially since characters can get 150% speed flying mounts at level 60.

The question that interests me is whether the new portals (and/or the Dark Portal) will still require level 58. Unless it's changed since the Wrath beta, you need a mage portal or a summons to send a low level character to Shattrath so you can bind your hearthstone there and have quick access (recently reduced to a 30 minute cooldown, see a trend here?) to the four major cities of your faction. If you can now portal from SW to the Portal and then fly straight on through, binding your hearthstone will be a snap. The only real downside would be if some legitimate newbie got lost and ended up in Outland, charging into the infinite horde of level 70 demons beseiging the portal at level 7 and deciding that the game sucks. You'd imagine that this would be a relatively rare case, since TBC is still an additional purchase onto the base game, but it could happen.

Latest WoW Mount Revamp

For the second time in a one-year period, Blizzard is planning a major change to WoW Mounts. It was less than a year ago, in Patch 2.4.3, that Blizzard reduced the level requirement for the non-epic ground mount from level 40 to level 30 (with a corresponding drop in gold cost). The next patch's changes are more sweeping.

Changes and Fallout
That entry level mount will now drop to level 20, just beyond the newbie zones and literally a matter of hours into a character's life. The old epic ground mount, once an achievement that required level 60 and the princely sum (in those pre-expansion days) of 1000G, will now sit at level 40 and a mere 60 gold (compared to the 100G that the slower level 40 mount originally cost). Level 60 characters will now be permitted their entry level flying mount 10 levels early. Moreover, the speed of that mount will be drastically improving, from +60% to +150%. The epic flying mount will remain at level 70, but the training can now be discounted for faction with the trainer, a potential savings of 1000G.

Beyond the boost for players who do not want to purchase the epic flying mount training (apologies for those of you who have done so recently), this change is leveled squarely at low level alts. Blizzard is increasingly hinting that they do not want to raise the game's starting level to 55 to skip players past old-world Azeroth. Travel time in many of the old world 20-60 zones was occasionally quite onerous, and players can now look forward to substantially faster travel in each of those level brackets. That, plus a faster exp curve and the massive boost from heirloom items, might be enough to entice veterans like myself to dust off neglected old alts.

As to the reduced level for flight in Outland, I'm less convinced that this is a good idea. Much as I love zipping around places at 280% flight speed, I believe that giving players controllable flying mounts was a mistake. While Outland and Northrend were supposedly designed with flight in mind, granting players the ability to swoop into the middle of an enemy camp, avoiding all of the guards, to swipe an object or assassinate a boss and then fly out guts the challenge level of many quests. It seems especially contradictory that Blizzard went to the trouble of restricting players from flight in Northrend to get players to experience the world at ground level, only to turn around and turn all of Outland into flyover country.

Baseless speculation for the future
Looking to the future, streamlining mount progression may also be a way of paving the path to some future new level of riding skill in the next expansion. Underwater mounts perhaps? Or a revamp of old world Azeroth to permit flight?

The other interesting point is that this feature is slated for the "next major content patch", presumptively patch 3.2. Between this change, announcements about the Argent Tournament and Colosseum dungeons, and a full image gallery of new models for druid cat and bear forms, the amount of information we know about this patch is increasing rapidly. Historically, things pick up like this as the patch gets closer to release on the PTR's (at which point players will discover everything that hasn't been announced). This latest change makes me wonder if patch 3.2 might be coming sooner than people (myself included) expect.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Relics of Endgames Past

It appears to be Fabled Harvesting Cloak week in EQ2. In our little guild of 6-8 players, I completed Lyriana's cloak this weekend, Ysh and Monty also got their cloaks, and even more people commented on her post to say that they too are wrapping up this quest line.

Though some part of this sudden flurry of harvesting may be great minds thinking alike, SOE may have played a role in the quest's sudden popularity. Originally, you had to start the quest at or near the tradeskill level cap and go back to harvest in half of the low level zones in the game. In the most recent Game Update patch, though, the quest was changed so that players can start it at any level. This means that the quest effectively completes itself as you level a new character, as long as you know where to go to start it. Such is the fate of endgame content over time.

Endgame Grinds and The Level Cap
The endgame reputation grind is a compromise of sorts. Many players would prefer to continue doing what they have been doing - completing one quest at a time, and moving on to the next, with small rewards from time to time. Developers would prefer for players not to run out of things to do, so that they continue to pay a subscription fee. The compromise is the reputation grind - instead of doing different quests for small rewards, the player does the same quest 10-20 times and walks away with a comparatively larger reward.

The big issue arises when the level cap goes up with the next expansion. At that point, the developer's interest lies in getting players to see the shiny new stuff that they've spent time developing, rather than forcing players to continue to beat their heads against content they did not want to complete back when it was the old endgame. For this reason, expansions generally have to provide some form of a power level reset, such as WoW's phenomena of replacing raid epics with green quest rewards. The developer wants to sell expansion boxes and subscription fees to everyone, not just the players who made it through the last endgame's grinds. This, in turn, blows up the incentives to do the old endgame content.

As a case in point, consider the Shattered Sun Offensive from WoW's patch 2.4. Blizzard spent time adding an entire zone's worth of carefully crafted, top-notch repeatable content. None of this is worth doing in the current game. In the time it would take to earn the reputation to unlock the next rep rewards, players could be getting superior gear for completing the new, non-repeatable quests in the first zones of Northrend. Even if someone was bent on trying to max out all the old reputations in Outland before moving on to Northrend, in defiance of the incentive curve, the experience they would gain during the attempt would cause them to level up and render the content trivial. I've noticed largely the same phenomena in EQ2, where there are a variety of repeatable faction quests that don't offer rewards I would use if SOE gave them to me outright.

One way to insulate against inflation is to include cosmetic rewards. Minipets, titles, mounts, etc are things that players want but would not be required to beat their heads against before moving on to less repetitive pastures. WoW's Argent Tournament looks like it has been designed with level 90 in mind - most of the quests are carried out on tournament jousting horses, who presumably will NOT gain levels when the next expansion comes out, and the best rewards are mounts, tabards and minipets. Still, you can only hand out so many of each of the above; the value to the player of obtaining their second unique mount is relatively high, but the value of obtaining their 46th is going to be much reduced.

One partial solution might be to offer a shortcut to old reputations once the level cap increases. Faction levels have relatively little inherent value - though there are now achievements in WoW for reaching exalted with additional factions, most players want to be Exalted with the Shattered Sun because the Offensive will sell them stuff. Once those rewards are rendered obsolete by the next expansion, there's much less of a reason to be so protective of the amount of time it takes to obtain the reputation points. For example, perhaps the questgivers might note that most of Kael'thas' forces have been defeated, and award players a large chunk of the reputation needed after completeing each unique quest once.

There are some kinks to be worked out of the system. Certain cosmetic rewards might become comparatively too easy to obtain, and would need to be retired or receive cost increases. Neither is necessarily a bad thing, though mount collectors who have changed characters recently might disagree. There might be a bit of a dis-incentive to completing the content during the last month or so of the old expansion, though this is true anyway.

Still, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Players have a reason to see well-crafted content, which makes the developers' time making it more worthwhile. Maybe you are going to replace all of those Shattered Sun rewards promptly in Northrend, but it would still be a very worthwhile haul if they could be obtained for doing each quest once or twice instead repeatedly of over a period of weeks. Overall, everyone wins if we can find some way to make these old relics worthwhile once again.

Friday, June 5, 2009

What Does Your Character Worship?

The Gods of Norrath are a curious bunch. Apparently they got tired of being farmed for loot in EQ1, so they decided to leave the planet en masse. In (or because of) their absence, various things exploded; a moon, the game's main continent, the political balance of power, etc. EQ2 opened after several hundred years of this chaos. The Gods made their triumphant return to the planet a few years into the game, where players promptly began farming them for loot once again. Someone seriously needs to teach these guys how to diety.

Choosing a god

Lyriana has been looking around for stuff to work on after attempting to hit EQ2's Kingdom of Sky expansion and discovering that it appears to consist largely of group content, with some token repeatable rep questlines for soloers. This meant a focus on learning enemy NPC languages (which are needed for some high level quests), completing legend and lore quests (dissect members of an NPC race via mass slaughter, to add them to the list of targets for a powerful special attack), and general exploring. At some point, I remembered that I had yet to choose a religion.

Norrath is currently populated with fourteen various Gods, some good (Mithaniel Marr, god of the Plane of Valor), some neutral (Solusek Ro, hailing from the Plane of Fire), some Evil (Bertoxxulous, from the Plane of Disease). In exchange for characters' devotion, the Gods bestow you with a non-combat pet that offers slight bonuses to one or two stats related to the God's area, a cloak with the God's emblem and some special effect, and the ability to pray for favors (generally buffs) and miracles (generally active abilities like nukes/heals/etc).

Though I didn't entirely disregard the in-game bonuses, this type of decision is one of relatively few places in a game where I do stop and think about what my character would want. It's not like I have some huge connection to the lore - I'm not sure what a Fae would do - but some race/class combinations "feel" correct to me and some "feel" incorrect, even if the game allows them without penalty. What exactly would a Fae who had become a Dirge, a bard who sings songs of despair, misery, and lamentation, choose to worship?

Lyriana is a good-aligned character, so all of the evil gods were out. Mithaniel Marr and Bristlebane (the Trickster) offer reasonable stat bonuses, but neither valor nor mirth felt quite right either. The stormy Karana had a reasonable mix of gameplay benefits, but Dirges have nothing to do with storms. Brell, God of the Underground, also has some nice abilities but absolutely nothing to do with the above-ground flying race of Fae. The Fae have close ties with Tunare, Goddess of Growth, but that didn't seem like quite the right fit either - the Fae are upbeat and lighthearted as a people, and something about Lyriana had convinced her to take a darker outlook on life.

I settled on the concept of fate. A character with a strong belief in fate and destiny might feel a stronger pull away from tales of heroism and triumph, such as a Troubadour might sing, and towards songs of despair and tragedy, like the Dirge. It's not a matter of reveling in sorrow, as a more evil-inclined individual who chooses to dwell on death might. Rather, it's a belief that these things happen for a reason, and feeling a pull to understand and communicate that destiny. Norrath does not currently have a diety of fate and/or destiny. Still, thinking about the Pantheon in the context of what would appeal to someone like Lyriana, in the context of what might have put her on the path she is on, left one obvious answer.

Lyriana chose to worship The Tribunal, the neutral Council of Justice. Their concept of neutral justice - looking beyond the outcome for good or for ill - fit with my concept of Lyriana's personality and motivation. She would not revel in seeing evil escape punishment anymore than she would rejoice in the death of a hero. However, she would understand and respect the process of ensuring justice, in the same way that she would understand that fate had led good people to a sad end.

More story than players realize
Players often criticize the MMO genre for a lack of storytelling. Stopping the action to tell a tale can be problematic in a game that is designed around repetition - scripted events are going to be much less impressive the 10th time you re-watch them, and having the enemies respawn minutes later destroys the immersion value of players' accomplishments. However, actually attempting to advance the game world plot forward carries its own challenges - Wrath's "phased" questlines are brilliant for story progression but a nightmare for logistics, as players who are on different stages of the quest are physically separated from their groupmates.

But perhaps we're not looking hard enough. I'm not much of a role-player - indeed, I'm not sure I could tell you anything about what motivates Greenwiz or Allarond - but this relatively simple in-game choice was enough to convince me to construct a story of my own.

To be sure, game design helped with that. If there had been a God of Strength, Agility, and Double Attacking, I might have picked that one and been done with it. As it was, almost every choice offered enough perks to be worth considering, and that left me free to choose on considerations beyond min-maxing.

The overall effect isn't perfect. EQ2's quest dialog system is fun, but there's generally only one conversation that gets me from talking to the questgiver to actually receiving a quest. There are also still a number of missing chapters in Lyriana's life - what was it that drew her to the path she is on? Still, it says something about the genre in general and the world of Norrath in particular that I can now come here and tell you more about Lyriana, a four-month old character, than about Greenwiz, a four-year old character. Perhaps there is more story to this genre than we realize.

Lyriana's new Altar to the Tribunal, and the shrouded Tribunal's Bailiff companion pet

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Ride of the Lone Chocobo Ranger

Update on Final Fantasy XIV Online:
G4 reports from the Square Press Conference that the game will have solo content at launch. The devs confirm that they "want to make it so the player can choose to play solo, in a party, 40 minutes, all-day... there will be content for ALL of those play styles and systems for all of those play styles".

Guess that answers that question.

No word yet on the game's job system, pricing (a monthly fee is probably a safe bet), or beta/launch schedules (other than the original announcement that the game will arrive next year).

They do confirm another absolute no-brainer, that they will NOT offer character transfers from the current game to the new one. Interestingly, they comment that, even though the game is set in a different world (FF games almost always are), they went out of their way to make the races look visually similar so that players would find them familiar. I guess that could be somewhat comforting, though I'm not sure that I wouldn't choose to make a clean break with a totally different look if one of my current games does go to a sequel.

Finally, the game's trailer is available - apparently some of the fight scene on the boat was actually done with the game's engine, in which case we can expect a moderately pretty game.

Return of the Online Chocobo

There was a big MMORPG sequel announcement at E3, and it wasn't EQ3 or WoW 2. Square is working on Final Fantasy XIV Online.

We know the game will share two things in common with the current FF XI online - multi-platform status on PC and the PS3 (the current version is on the PC, PS2, and X-Box 360), and chocobos. The real questions have yet to be answered. Will the game have mandatory grouping? The current game's job system (which allows one character to level as every one of the game's character class equivalents)? Harsh penalties for death, unsuccessful crafting attempts, or joining a suboptimal PUG that would rather fail and disband than settle for farming mobs the group can actually handle?

I would love to play an accessible solo-friendly FF MMORPG. Fans of the original, understandably, would be less than thrilled with this outcome. There are perils to either approach. A more accessible game that draws in fans of the single player games, which have collectively sold tens of millions of copies, would have a huge potential upside. On the other hand, alienating fans of the current MMORPG with a game that is noticeably less hardcore would sacrifice the new game's most likely market. A failed attempt to split the difference could leave EVERYONE unhappy.

To the best of my knowledge, Square has not gone out of their way to make FFXI more accessible. This might mean that they are happy with the game's current subscriber numbers. Then again, it might mean that they recognize the difficulty in attempting to revamp an existing game, and would act differently with a clean slate on a sequel.

As with any new title, I wish them the best; after all, it's potentially another dish for my salad bar. Square also has the advantage of being an established studio that (hopefully) knows how to budget, build, and ship an MMORPG, lessening the usual concerns of the studio going bankrupt before the game ever launches. Still, there are questions that can't be answered by a pre-rendered trailer. I'm going to want some more information before I start getting excited about the latest MMORPG announcement du jour.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Implications of MMORPG-Hopping

I'm apparently what Syp would call a "Salad Bar Diner" of MMORPG's. As Syp puts it:
"...you’re flitting between games, but it’s not out of desperation to find something to hold your interest — it’s because you like to sample them all (or at least a nice variety). Any future titles that come down the pike are welcome additions to your buffet.
There are other names (the dreaded "WoW Tourist") and tweaks to the description (for example, I tend to have a vague plan of where I'm heading next, which Syp places in a different category), but the charge is basically true.

As Tobold points out, most of us don't have $50 million to fund development of a game just for us, so we're left to choose between the games that are currently on the market. Complaining about the devs' priorities is good for raising your blood pressure and your blog postcount. However, it's relatively unlikely that Blizzard is going to bring out more content more quickly because PVD says so. If studios are going to reduce content development into a business decision - e.g. raids need to be more accessible to justify the development time spent making them - there's no reason for players not to do the same.

As a result, when I run out of stuff to do in a game, I try not to take it personally (though sometimes I fail). If it's a business transaction in which I'm offering up my gaming time and money in exchange for entertainment and the other side is not delivering, the rational thing to do is to take my time and money elsewhere. With very few exceptions, the studio in question will be happy to save my character records and take my money at some point in the future when their product has improved. (FFXI was the only recent subscription MMORPG I am aware of which actually purged inactive account information, and they finally reversed that policy last week.)

So What?
There are some advantages and disadvantages to salad bar dining for the game-hopper. However, these primarily affect that one player. The broader, and more difficult to answer, question is whether this sort of activity actually has an effect on the game's development (and, by extension, the future content that's available for the people who aren't switching games on a monthly basis). Two cases come to mind off-hand:
  • Salad bar diners decided they weren't interested in a second helping of Warhammer, leaving the game with four times as many servers as it needed.

  • In the days since WoW patch 2.3, the game's focus has shifted heavily towards accessible content. I suspect that something cataclysmic must have happened to subscription metrics in the aftermath of the TBC launch and patch 2.1 to convince Blizzard to make such a major shift in content philosophy.
On the other hand, the game's development budget is ultimately going to be affected by projections of the game's revenue. There are limits to how democratic the game design process should be. After all, us meta-gamers are apparently a little too good at judging content based on incentives. Perhaps the salad bar hopper's opinion is a bit less important than the dedicated fan's, because the latter is more likely to continue paying fees year round. Still, everyone's subscription dollars go into the same balance sheet at the end of the day.

The one major danger is that hopping in and out of games will diminish the variety of options available at the salad bar. A behemoth like WoW can afford to have players leave to try other games. Smaller games, whether from major studios or independent developers, might find themselves in a downward spiral of decreasing budgets, which hurt retention and force more budget cuts until the game finally folds (as the Matrix Online announced last week).

Then again, if, for example, LOTRO goes the way of AC2 while I'm waiting on the next expansion, what could I actually have done about it? I doubt that my $15/month (less with the various and increasingly aggressive deals they're offering) could ever be the difference-maker in a game living or dying. Maybe Tobold is right when he suggests that big RMT spenders can carry a game that might not be able to scrounge up enough revenue via subscriptions, but this route raises its own design challenges.

The salad bar plan ultimately means having more alternatives, which insulate the game hopper from issues - up to and including the demise of the game - that crop up with any one of the items on the menu. For that reason alone, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, June 1, 2009

EQ2's take on melee healers

It was another busy off-line weekend, and I wound up sinking a fair chunk of time into my fourth attempt at a Sarnak in EQ2.

Giant lizards 2 and 3 failed for straightforward reasons.

The second was a Shadow Knight, a tanking class with life-draining self-healing powers that lingered in mediocrity for ages and suddenly became the flavor of the month after November's expansion. (Counter programming to WoW's Death Knight?) I'm sure it was a big step up from my Dirge in both damage potential and durability, but it "felt" less interesting without the stealth, stunning, and flanking aspects of Dirge combat.

Sarnak number 3 was a Warlock, on the theory that I might as well try one of the game's pure caster classes. The problem, as Araxes' "Warlock or Wizard?" post points out, is that EQ2 Warlocks are focused on AOE attacks in a game that is mostly focused on single targets. EQ2 features many otherwise nonhostile mobs that wander around in the vicinity of hostiles, where they are likely to be struck and enraged by true AOE attacks, which are the Warlock's specialty. I could have tried being a Wizard, I suppose, but somehow the Warlock felt more appropriate to the Sarnak race than the Wizard did.

The really interesting contrast, though, was between the first and the current Sarnaks.... both of whom are druids.

Contrasting Sides of a Class
My very first EQ2 character was a Fury, a druid that relies on casting spells for soloing and DPS. Furies are widely regarded as an excellent solo class due to reasonable damage capacity along with roots and speed enhancements (for easier kiting) and self-healing abilities. Unfortunately, I didn't like the class at all.

Part of the problem was a day-one learning curve issue. Low-level Furies have two damage spells, one of which does damage over time and therefore is not well suited for repeated blasting of a foe. That damage is supplemented significantly by a system called "heroic opportunities", which allows characters to chain together certain types of abilities for a bonus, in this case, a significant additional chunk of damage. Unfortunately, I didn't figure this out on day one in Norrath, thinking that the Heroic Opportunity system sounded like LOTRO Fellowship Manuvers and whatever the group combos were called in FFXI. This meant miserably low damage at a very early level, which I took to be a bad sign.

The other problem is that my view of how DPS casters should work is influenced by four years of playing a WoW mage. Casters in WoW rarely, if ever, have any reason to actually swing a weapon. There is no reason to waste a global cooldown hitting something with your spell power staff for trivial damage when you could be casting another spell, or kiting to some range from which to cast another spell. By contrast, the EQ2 autoattack can be toggled on during spellcasting, and the character will simply take a swing between each spellcast each time their swing delay permits.

As a result of this system, EQ2 has developed an interesting little niche for melee DPS healing classes. Half of the healing classes are focused on spellcasting DPS, while the other half specialize in physical attacks. The melee healers get to use good weapons and armor and, at higher levels, receive large passive bonuses to their attack stats (some can hit 100% crit). On top of that, they get the ability to convert their ranged damage spells, which take several seconds to cast and can be delayed by damage, into melee attacks with practically no casting time.

Enter the Fourth Sarnak, a Warden (the other flavor of Druid) named Kreejak. (As in "Jaffa, Kree!" and Jack O'Neill of Stargate SG-1 fame, but we won't tell people that in general chat since it's technically an RP server.) I have the same two damage spells that my ill-fated Fury had, but now they're melee attacks that are accompanied by hits from a 2-handed battle hammer. I still have access to a root spell and the ranged versions of the attacks, which allows me to soften up foes as needed, and I can top off my health with some quick-casting heals as needed. On top of all of this, the character is still a druid, granting access to perks like water breathing, running at speeds greater than your average mount, and teleportation. Oh, and he breathes fire, since I opted to pick that racial tradition at level 10 so that I'd have an extra attack (actually a pretty good one at that level).

Overall, it's a very interesting take on a healing class. The other two melee healer types have other interesting tricks. The Inquisitor (evil-only) wears plate armor and has both regular heals and "reactive" heals that heal a target after it takes damage (but does NOT have a fast runspeed buff). The Mystic (good-only, I would have tried this one, but Sarnaks are technically evil-aligned) has a 2-handed spear and a spirit wolf companion, and casts "ward" heal spells that prevent damage before it occurs. (I might try one of these sometime down the line, perhaps as a Wood Elf or a Barbarian, but I wanted to play a Sarnak and figured I might as well wait on the next expansion's new good-aligned city to try another good character.)

Regardless of which exact type you choose, the melee healer is a very interesting change of pace from trying to level a healing class as a slightly less effective caster with the option of healing oneself after battle. Also, players can switch sub-classes by betraying their home cities, allowing you to level a healer as the melee flavor of the class and then switch over to the other version if you prefer for raiding etc. Anything that makes healing classes more interesting is a win in my book.