Friday, July 31, 2009

What makes EQ2 alts so tempting?

Lyriana, my EQ2 Dirge, has been stalled out at level 70 for a while now. There are some meta-gaming concerns at work here. The coming expansion will raise the level cap, and I had a hard time getting from 60 to 70, so I'd rather save any content I don't use en route to level 80 for the expansion. But a bigger part of the delay is that I'm focusing on my level 28 Warden/44 Tailor, one of EQ2's melee healers.

Kreejak is at that sweet spot in the reward curve where he's leveling quickly, but not at the lightning fast pace of the tutorial that most level 1-10 games run at these days. He's raking in meaningful upgrades in new abilities almost every evening. By contrast, I didn't know how to spend Lyriana's most recent AA point because I was choosing between three lackluster options that I cared about only because they unlock a future upgrade (yet another passive buff ability).

The Tetris Question
Wilhelm made a post yesterday on a question from his daughter: Why does Tetris get faster?

Applying the same approach to my plight, it becomes "why does the game offer fewer and fewer rewards as you progress?"

The cynic will say that this is simple Pavlov conditioning. Player power levels cannot continue onward and upward exponentially with every level (by design, I will basically be critting with nearly every swing from here on out), so progression must have a limit. Given a limited number of total rewards, the psychology says that you're better off concentrating them early on, as you teach the behavior (in this case, grinding out increasingly time consuming levels) to reinforce it, so that the player will continue to play (and thus pay) as rewards get farther and fewer between.

That said, I wonder if there isn't something different and specific to EQ2. Obviously, I do have quite a few WoW alts, but those have been leveled over the course of five years, generally in bursts of a handful of levels at a time, and never if there was something new and interesting I had yet to do on my main.

Perhaps I merely chose the "wrong" class for my main in EQ2 - for example I got my WoW Paladin to level 50 back in 2005 before deciding that I really wanted to be a mage, and ended up leaving the Pally to languish below the level cap for over two years. But, if the Warden is the class that I was really meant for, why do I have plans for numerous alts beyond him? Collectively, I have tentative plans for all but one of my character slots: a Ratonga Bruiser/Alchemist that I plan to switch into a good-aligned Monk, a mage of some sort (probably an Erudite Wizard/Sage), a Barbarian Paladin/Armorer when their new home city debuts in February, and a Ranger/Woodworker that will probably be either a Froglok or a Wood Elf.

In some ways, it all makes sense. The transition to level 70+ content in EQ2 is pretty rocky, while the early content offers the widest variety of options and polish, along with the opportunity to really sound out the feel of each of the game's class/race options. Perhaps that contrast makes starting your next alt seem more attractive than pushing ahead on your current character, especially if you do not plan to raid.

Either way, it seems to me that the average number of active characters per EQ2 player - at least among bloggers - is quite a bit higher than the average number of active characters per WoW player. SOE must be doing something right.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

An Era Of Endgame Fatigue?

A bit over a month back, I asked the following poll question:

Which of the Following Would You Like Added To Your Favorite MMORPG?

Repeatable max-level content for your main? 43 (43%)
One-time leveling content for new players and alts? 55 (56%)

The content for alts jumped out to an early lead, and held the majority position for the entire month or so the poll was open. Though this result definitely speaks to the popularity of rolling alts, part of me wonders how much of it represents burnout with the repeatable content endgame grind.

Up Close and Personal With The Endgame
None of the major games I can think of has increased its level cap recently, so it stands to reason that many of us have gotten up close and personal with whatever developers have come up with to entertain players when they're run out of content.

The LOTRO community is apparently up in arms against formal "radiance" requirement for endgame dungeons - you must repeat the lower end dungeons until you assemble a set of armor with enough radiance to allow you to function. Warhammer had launched with a similar system, only their required that players win a random roll against hundreds of siege participants. This got at least somewhat fixed, and now Mythic is free to deal with population balance issues. Just yesterday, I wrote that I'm largely uninterested in the most recent WoW loot, in part because of the pace of gear inflation.

Keen's got a post lamenting the state of reputation systems in modern MMORPG's, which are now mainly used as a way of tracking progress towards rewards rather than actually tracking how various factions think of your character. In the comments, I mentioned how unique my gnome mage's trusty old epic Stormwind Horse was back in 2006. What I didn't mention is the grind. Getting a cross-faction mount in WoW prior to the TBC era required turning in thousands of runecloth for reputation, and then paying 1000G for the actual mount (with no discount for any existing mounts you already owned). I got this gold and runecloth (and gold with which to buy runecloth) from pure grinding, hitting places like Gahrron's Withering in the West Plaguelands for hours at a time.

I can't imagine ever spending that much time on a single mount ever again. Part of this is because mounts are much easier to come by, and much meaningful in WoW today. Part of this is that modern grinding tends to be broken up by a wider variety of daily quest gimmicks. Part of this is that there are other games that I could be playing instead of chasing some grind. The bottom line, though, is that I just don't care quite as much anymore. I've been there, and done that.

Judging from the blog buzz, I'm guessing that I am not alone. If you look at what games bloggers were playing at the end of the string of major releases last fall and what they are playing today, you'll find that many players are now trying something different. Maybe they didn't stick with LOTRO very long the first time, or have never played EQ2, or even decided to go back to WoW.

This could prove to be a major problem for the industry going forward, since the rate of content generation required for WOW-style quest hubs may not be sustainable. If we're all sick and tired of grinds and gear resets and all the other tricks that MMO devs use to keep us paying after we've run out of original content, the industry (especially smaller games, with smaller budgets) could be in for some hard times.

Here's the screenshot I took back on March 31st, 2006, to commemorate that first milestone horse.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

More 3.2 Heirlooms and Tiered Loot Scaling Notes

I signed onto WoW's PTR to check out the rumored heirloom items at the Argent Tournament.

I can now confirm that ALL of the heirlooms available for emblems of heroism in Dalaran - including the new chest pieces and the two new maces (a 2H mace aimed at Feral druids, and a 1H mace aimed at agility-loving dual wielders) - are also available for Champion's Seals. The vendor will NOT show you her wares unless you have completed the Crusader title (Exalted Champion with all five city factions and the tournament faction for your side). Prices are, with one exception:

40 Heroism -> 60 Champion's Seals
50 Heroism -> 75 Champion's Seals
65 Heroism -> 95 Champion's Seals

The exception is that the new 1H melee mace for some reason costs 40 Heroism but 75 Champion's seals, which may or may not be a bug since it's the only inconsistency. It's also worth noting that the heirlooms have moved off of the Heroism quartermaster in Dalaran to a new, heirloom only quartermaster.

Scaling alternate currency rewards

Note the new comparison tooltip as part of the default UI

As long as I was milling around the PTR's, I figured that I might as well take a quick tour of the other quartermasters to see what new goodies are on sale. Wintergrasp has new rings, pants (ilvl 232), and bracers (ilvl 226) on offer for Marks of Victory (but no new Shard heirloom chests). The Honor vendors offer ilvl 226 upgrades (Furious Gladiator, without the current ratings restrictions) to the traditional non-set slots and the current ilvl 213 set items drop down to no rating required.

These items are technically itemized for PVP. However, their high item level means that they can afford to "waste" some points on resilience and still walk off ahead of ilvl 200 or 213 epics. There are also the new Emblem of Triumph rewards to consider - it's possible to obtain three of the top-end emblems from daily dungeon quests (2 for the heroic, 1 for the updated non-heroic quest), and there's an ilvl 245 (!) wand on offer for a mere 25 emblems. The latter would be the lone missing link between me and the achievement for ilvl 213+ epic items in every slot, if I'm willing to run a dozen or so heroics.

How far will incentives go?
That last question - "if I'm willing to..." - is the real issue in this patch.

I don't raid much at all, and already outgear all non-raid content - indeed, gear would not be what was holding me back in non-hard-mode Ulduar. The Argent tournament does offer some unique functionality - a teleport to the tournament grounds (including daily quest hubs and dungeons) and remote access to player banks - but I've already got enough seals to buy the tabard, with a head start on the bank access as well. I will buy some honor rewards simply because I will repeatedly bump into the game's current honor cap from playing Wintergrasp matches (presuming that I can still get into any of them with the new queue system). I will also almost certainly do at least a dozen heroic five man runs between 3.2 and the end of the Wrath era, so there's no reason NOT to gun for that wand and the achievement.

Still, that whole paragraph of caveats represents maybe a month's worth of gaming time. Will I be motivated to do extra PVP above and beyond the Wintergrasp matches I already enjoy, so that I can snag more honor rewards? Unlikely, as PVP is still not my primary focus in game, and those rewards will be out of date when patch 3.3 hits (my guess would be within six months of 3.2). Will I continue to work on additional Champion's Seals for mounts and heirlooms? Maybe, if I'm trying to kill time while looking for a group. Then again, the value of any one new mount isn't as great as it used to be, and I'm not spending the emblems/shards I already have on heirlooms because I'm not really all that excited about making more alts.

All of this leaves the new 5-man, and continued visits to the current heroics. I was doing these occasionally anyway, just because I enjoy an occasional impromptu dungeon run, and I suppose that being one or two emblems shy of an upgrade from the triumph/conquest vendors might be the deciding factor if I'm on the fence about whether to look for a group on a specific evening.

Then again, the sheer abundance of increasingly major upgrades is ironically a bit of a disincentive. When there's exactly one item that's an upgrade, I might feel inclined to chase it simply for the sake of completeness. Instead, Blizzard is offering up dozens of upgrades that would collectively require hundreds of emblems. As with the 2.4 badge vendor, I'm not going to complete all, or even most, of the available options, so there's much less reason to push on through.

Maybe, when patch 3.3 wraps up the content additions for the Wrath era, it will be worth taking stock of what items I can stock up on to prepare for the trip to level 90. In the mean time, though, I'm having a hard time seeing why I should care about these upgrades when I could be playing other games instead.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Lots of Argent Tournament Rewards Coming In 3.2?

Via World of Raids comes some interesting Argent Tournament news. The tournament will offer some previously un-announced rewards for existing Champion's Seals:

"Bind-on-Account chest pieces: 60 seals
Bind-on-Account weapons: 60-95 seals
Bind-on-Account trinkets: 75 seals"

Additional notes from Zarhym:
"These heirloom items will also be offered for emblems in Dalaran.

The idea behind the Argent Tournament (Crusaders' Coliseum excluded) is to provide the solo or duo players an avenue to acquire some good gear over time without necessarily having to do 5-, 10-, or 25-player content. This is the primary reason why the Crusader title is required in order to access items that one would ordinarily find purchasable with emblems obtained through 5-player dungeons.

Just the same though, we don't want to cut off access to these heirloom items from those who spend more of their time in dungeons than partaking in the Argent Tournament, which is why they will also be available for purchase with emblems."

Several interesting points here.

First off, none of these new heirlooms have been seen on the PTR's yet. It will be interesting to see whether these new items are carbon copies (or even identical to) the Heroism heirlooms, or some new variations. At any rate, this large variety of new items that have yet to appear on the PTR's presumably puts a damper on some of the PTR-watching speculation that the patch will arrive on Tuesday. I would guess - and this is only a guess - that the Wintergrasp heirloom vendor may also be obtaining some new chest pieces to avoid being left out in the cold.

Second, this plugs a big ideological hole with the heirlooms currently in the game, namely that you have to do group PVE or PVP content (two weekly solo quests in Wintergrasp aside) in order to get heirlooms used primarily for solo PVE. If anything, the prices seem a bit on the low side by comparison to the other heirlooms. Daily quests will award 10 seals a day, with another 5 or so available through the new heroic 5-man dungeon. I.e., you can slack a fair amount and still bang out a heirloom per week. By contrast, it takes a minimum of a month to get a heirloom via weekly Wintergrasp quests alone, and something like 10 complete 5-man heroics to claim the cheaper heroic dungeon heirlooms.

Finally, the idea of gating solo-geared rewards behind the Crusader title - which represents six separate rep grinds - offers Blizzard a potential way to get around the problem of how to continue to offer solo progression as an expansion progresses. The challenge in this area has always been how not to step on the toes of entry level group/raid content. If you stick enough rep grind requirements on the task, players who intend to do group content will just do entry level group content instead of trying to cherry pick the best items out of the solo content.

This is not a pure experiment, in that some of the reputations in question have been in the game since its launch, and the new ones have been sitting around on daily quests that players have been doing anyway since the last patch. Still, Blizzard may be watching this experiment to see who actually snaps up the newest heirlooms. It will be very interesting to see whether this concept evolves further when we move beyond the patch currently being tested and onto the final (planned) patch of the Wrath era.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Weighing Spell Specialization

EQ2 offers spells that upgrade in quality (now called apprentice through grandmaster) in addition to level (rank 1 to whatever the highest rank available is). The grandmaster rank (previously "Master II") is only available by a special choice upgrade - once every 10 levels or so, you can pick one spell from a list of four that gets the coveted rank.

On my Dirge, this was generally a relatively easy choice. I don't need many debuffs while soloing, so that usually crossed off one of the four choices. Improvements to my buff spells are nice, if I use the buff in question (you are limited to five from a list of something like 8-10), but the difference in any one encounter is small. Usually, this left a single damage spell, which I selected and moved on. My melee warden, on the other hand, just took his first Master II spell, and I agonized over the decision for a bit.

Choosing between roles
As a druid, my choices at level 14 included a DPS spell, a group heal over time spell, a single target heal over time spell, and my thorncoat buff.

The Thorncoat buff does damage to foes who hit the buffed target, and I always have the buff on myself. The upgrade from the basic crafted rank I was using to the grandmaster level nearly doubles the damage done. Unfortunately, it doubles the damage from like 4 to like 8. If some enemy is hitting me enough times for an extra 4 damage to add up to a significant amount of its health, this is because I am deliberately not killing it so I can work on my debuffing skills. Convenient, in that I wouldn't need to change anything I do to get the effect, but not very useful in absolute terms.

The single target DPS spell would have been a no-brainer for me if I'd been playing the class back in 2005. Today, though, Wardens don't really need to upgrade their ranged spells, because they have the option of turning them into melee attacks which automatically scale with level (and therefore don't need quality upgrades - this also makes the class less dependent on having spell upgrades ready when they level). This was actually a non-trivial upgrade to pass up - it would have raised the average damage of the spell from about 115 to about 180, but it turns out to be situational because I just won't use it.

The group Heal over time is pointless for me since I don't group. I'm not sure if it's even all that useful for players who do group - you need to have multiple party members who are injured but who will not die (or be healed by someone else) before the healing over time can take place. I have no idea how aggro mechanics work in EQ2 groups, but this also sounds like a good way to end up tanking.

This left a single target heal over time spell. I ended up picking this one, partially for lack of interest in the other options, but also because it improves my main single target heal over time spell to heal as much per tick as my small non-HOT heal does total. (The one major downside is that I'm going to be replacing this spell almost immediately, because its next upgrade arrives a mere five levels after the grandmaster choice.)

Pros and Cons of Picking and Choosing
Next tier will be an easier choice, because it will offer a large jump to a key armor buff that I need because I am soloing in melee. Still, it's an interesting little dilemma to face. You could argue that WoW talent trees offer the same sorts of choices, but it seems like you are more likely to be choosing between roles in the aggregate rather than specific spells that might be used in more than one role. It's an interesting exercise to weigh the significance of each upgrade against the frequency with which I expect to use it, even if the long-term impact is limited by my leveling past the spells in question moderately quickly.

The one other interesting spell quality decision is that players are allowed to task a new "research assistant" NPC to produce an upgrade for one spell PER ACCOUNT at a time. Many players probably assign the assistant to spend a month upgrading some key top tier spell, and I actually did task mine to upgrade my Percussion of Stone buff. This is a key mitigation ability from 10 levels back, with a short researching time due to the low level, and it does not upgrade again, so it was a relative bargain. That one done, I may assign the researcher to work on my alt's spellbook. Lower level spells upgrade far more quickly, and may have more of an impact earlier in the character's career. I can always order up some long-term spell for Lyriana the next time I'm going to go play another game and see if it's done when I get back.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Would Ranked Accomplishments End The "Casual" Debate?

I don't often link to comments I make on other people's blogs, but Domino, EQ2's Tradeskill dev, has an interesting post on the relative value of accomplishments. She suggests that one of the reasons why groups of players get angry about stuff that is given to other groups (e.g. established raiders complaining about nerfs for entry level raiders) is the lack of a formal hierarchy for accomplishments. With explicitly stated standards for, say, slaying dragons versus interior decoratating, Domino believes that we could avoid "endless debate over whether the MMO's rewards are "fair"."

Personally, I think the debates are caused by the concept Tobold proposed; players engaged in a tug of war to convince developers to make a game we want because we can't afford to develop the AAA MMORPG of our own. Still, it's an interesting question, and my comments won't make sense out of context, so I'll just post the link and call it a day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Best Buy Wants PVD To Go Back To The Shadows

Tony at Mmeow noticed something interesting at his local Best Buy: $10 Moria expansions (regular and CE) and 60-day time cards for LOTRO. I decided to check up on this tip in the Washington DC area.

The local Best Buy had Moria collector's editions listed at the original list price ($80). In keeping with general retail practice, they also had out-of-date boxes from the original LOTRO release with a $20 price tag, which no one would ever want since Turbine is carrying the all-in-one package that includes the original game with Moria for $10. However, I didn't see any regular editions or time cards in the computer gaming section. I was about to leave when I noticed a row of crates full of discount games - "buy one, get one free" - at the checkout line. I went over and, sure enough, found the missing regular editions of Moria and a game time card. As a result, I walked out of the store with an expansion and game time card that retailed for $70 last November for a grand total of $10.

It's hard to tell whether we can draw any broader conclusions from these major discounts. Best Buy only stocks games in the first place in the hopes of selling hardware and accessories, and one can make the case that game time cards are especially obsolete now that players who need to pay in a store can just buy a pre-paid credit card. If someone in the corporate structure is paying attention, they might have concluded that now is the time to cut their losses on Moria boxes, before they get rendered obsolete by a new expansion, especially since Turbine itself is selling the all-in-one pack for $10 (75% off of the launch MSRP, 8 months later).

Then again, Turbine can't be thrilled to see their product being dumped from store shelves at prices that undercut a direct subscription. If they can't count on shelf space in stores anymore, attracting new players could be difficult. Turbine can't even count on revenue from the game's most faithful players, since many of them purchased lifetime subscriptions at launch for a mere $200. If this is where the game is, the aggressive free retrials make a bit more sense.

(Just two weeks ago, I wrote that I would be skipping the Moria era. Like most of my less-than-reliable predictions, I failed to anticipate that a major retailer would offer me two months of a LOTRO expansion I did not own for the price of two months of premium subscription to Free Realms. As an aside, if anyone has any advice beyond the public realm forums on how to find a good LOTRO guild on Vilya-US, I'm apparently in the market for one. The timing coincidentally works out reasonably well for me - given my struggles with EQ2 expansion content, I'm not going to want to use any content while level-capped until after the expansion in February.)

Levels 60-70 in EQ2, and the Tyranny of The WoW Quest Hub Model

Two months ago, things were going pretty well for Lyriana in EQ2. She had hit level 60, happily chugging away at whatever content caught her eye, and was considering skipping the Desert of Flames (level 50-60) in its entirety in order to experience the T7 (that's levels 60-70) content at an appropriate level.

Other things have intervened during that time - I carved out some time to attend WoW's Midsummer Fire Festival and made a final push to level 80 jeweler so that Lyriana no longer has to worry about leveling her tradeskill until next expansion. The fact is, though, that the Kingdom of Sky expansion hit Lyriana like a brick wall, and it took a while to recover and pull through to the tier that hosts the game's current level cap.

Ironically, I dinged level 70 from a collection that I legitimately completed by harvesting the final item. Often, when you gain a level off of a collection turnin, it's because you were just shy of the level at the end of the night, and decided to bite the bullet and buy a few collection items to finish the job.

Symptoms of the same problem
The Friendly Necromancer has a post up arguing that Wizard 101 erred in deciding to try and create multiple parallel leveling paths in a recent patch, rather than raising the level cap for existing max-level characters. Meanwhile, Keen has a post up lamenting the loss of world atmosphere since EQ1.

Though I can't agree that the world was better off when it took all night to get from one newbie area to another, Keen does have a point. There does seem to be less effort spent on the atmosphere of worlds thes days. Sure, WoW still has its token giant player-stomping mobs here and there, but the vast majority of the Northrend (outside of the city of Dalaran anyway), its mobs and landscape, is all there for a specific purpose. If you see a mob or a cave somewhere, there is almost certainly some quest you haven't gotten yet that will send you to clear it out.

The issue here is not that Blizzard wanted to make a less immersive world than Norrath, or that Wizard 101 specifically wanted to leave its level-capped players bored and out of content. The issue is that there simply is not enough time to develop enough content to satisfy the requirements of the WoW quest hub system - basically a standard feature of the genre since November of 2004.

Running low on content in and above Norrath
One of the things I really enjoyed about my journey to level 60 in EQ2 was NOT having to rely on a quest guide. I would fire up the wiki if I needed to know where to find a legend and lore book, or didn't know what zone to visit next, but I did not need to follow the guide line by line to scrape together enough quests to make my levels. I did the quests that were in front of me until either I finished them or they bored me, and then I moved on. In the process, I skipped the entire continent of Faydwer (like Wizard 101's recent addition, content that was added to offer additional options from one to the level cap - then 70) and the entire Desert of Flame expansion (which originally raised the level cap from 50-60). I was happy to save this content for future alts.

Then I zoned into the first zone of the Kingdom of Sky to be presented with a choice of either repeating a few uninteresting gathering/killing quests right by the zone-in point or trying to tackle Heroic content that I really could not solo. Okay, fine, I said, maybe this expansion just sucked. I went back down to complete the half of the Desert of Flame that had not yet greyed out, in the process taking a detour to learn the Djinn language and gain access to the Poet's Palace, both of which Lyriana will need if I try to go after her epic weapon.

After that, it was back to the second and third zones of the Kingdom of Sky, where I had to play with the Wiki timelines open in a second window in order to try and find every last soloable quest so that I could continue to advance. At some point, the available solo quests were somewhat above my level, so I had to break my personal goal of saving Faydwer for alts and use the solo content in the Loping Plains to fill a gap. This and the rest of KOS left me stranded about 2/3 of the way through level 69, so I decided to bite the bullet and brave Kunark.

Kurnark was the expansion which raised the level cap to its current level (80). The area has a bit of a reputation for a massive increase in the difficulty of the solo content, as the mobs were tuned to challenge players in level 70 endgame gear. Playing with a class not known for its immense solo prowess and using whatever low end crafted gear I was able to pick up almost 10 levels ago, I was not really ready. I toughed it out anyway, one tough mob at a time, to obtain that last chunk of a level, making me more officially "ready" for Kunark. (The content will probably continue to be very challenging until I can equip the set of mastercrafted level 72 armor I have waiting in my bank.)

With a single change in level bracket, the game went from having more content than I knew what to do with to requiring me to scrape together every last solo quest in the wiki to advance.

There can never be enough
My point in this post is not to condemn EQ2 for the state of the 60-70 bracket; the game has a far stronger focus on grouping than WoW does, and more traditional solo powerhouse classes could probably solo some of the quests that I had to give up on. Instead, I feel that my story illustrates the challenge that developers face in trying to implement the WoW style quest system Keen refers to as putting the player "on rails". I basically burned through the usable portions of two entire expansion packs (minus one zone of DOF and plus one zone from Faydwer) in about a month (when you take out the time I spent doing other things), and obtained only 10 of the game's 80 levels in the process.

To be absolutely clear, this is not something that Blizzard has actually done much better at. As the Necromancer notes, WoW launched with a large number of free-standing independent paths through the game. Players have a wide variety of choices up until level 30 or so, which Blizzard was able to produce during the game's lengthy pre-release development cycle. After that, players really have to get onto the rails if they're not grinding dungeons for exp, and much of the flexibility to pick and choose zones from 40-68 comes from a reduced exp curve in that level range (rendering some previously required content optional).

The amount of content needed to sustain WoW's quest system at its best is beyond even Blizzard's reach, with the world's most lucrative MMORPG. Games that have adopted the WoW system on smaller budgets have been even more pressed to come up with the content to support their games (see the first year of LOTRO).

The need for a sustainable path
I lasted for all of a month in the only old school mob grinding game I've tried (FFXI), and I would not want to go back. However, my experience trying to drag myself through T7 in EQ2 has forced me to acknowledge that the WoW quest system does not appear to be sustainable. To place a typical quest, of the kill 10 X/loot 10 Y variety that players now deride as unoriginal, into a zone that the world geography team has just finished creating:

- Someone has to write a paragraph of text, which has to be revised, proofread, checked for lore issues, etc
- Someone has to design and place level appropriate mobs, mob drops, and/or lootable objects somewhere in the world, preferrably in reasonable proximity to the questgiver
- Someone has to itemize level appropriate rewards. Even if you're using recolors of old raid gear for art (a big reason why WoW does NOT offer armor dyes or cosmetic armor slots), there is a degree of attention and sanity checking in making the rewards useful but not accidentally creating a level 74 solo quest reward that is competitive with drops from level 80 5-man content (see the [Wand of Blinding Light]).

All of this work goes into something that is designed to be completed in 20 minutes. The insatiable need for content to support this system sucks all of the time and resources that could be spent on things like creating the kind of atmosphere Keen misses from EQ1 or the multiple progression paths that other games either are or are not adding to their games.

For once, WoW - or at least the efforts by other developers to borrow the game's defining accessible solo quest hub mechanic in the hopes of duplicating its revenue - actually is a part of the problem with the MMORPG industry. I don't know what you offer in its place, but I don't see how this model can be sustained.

One thing I did get out of my time in the KOS was the first reference I can recall seeing in-game to Odus, site of the forthcoming expansion. I don't know that I really want to see more of the bird people, though.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Are Dogs Like MMORPG Players?

Last week, I discussed how MMORPG's are like dogs. After having picked up our new dog, a dark brown Boxer/lab/mix, I'm now prepared to address the question of how dogs are like players of MMORPG's. To illustrate the discussion, I'm going to borrow Arbitrary's old animal posting gimmick from Book of Grudges.

Meet Meg, who appears to have decided to roll as a subtlety rogue (note the lurking in the shadows under the table, and the bandanna). People say that WoW has been dumbed down, but apparently a 10-month old dog can't solo the Deadmines just yet, so she's going to have to wait a bit to get a [Red Defias Mask]

Since the last time I had a dog, people have apparently invented dog toys that you can put biscuits into, so that the dog has to work to get the treat out. Unfotunately, Meg has apparently been reading a bit too much of her owner's blog, because she has quickly concluded that our little treat dispensing ball is too much work for too little reward.

The Quest Hub/Camp Mentality
Meg is a bit of a nervous dog, having ended up at a rescue after some tough times as a puppy. When we brought her home and showed her the cage and bed we had set up for her, she went right in and didn't want to come out for a while. Eventually, she got brave enough to venture out and explore the room. Then she went out into the next room, quickly darting back to the safety of her nest when startled by anything (dogs barking across the street, whatever).

The next day, she'd grown a bit more comfortable, learning to hide under the coffee table (pictured above) when the people-folk were out in the living room. From her new home base, she would venture to the kitchen, the deck, or the study, returning to the living room often. After a while of that, I lured her down into the basement with some treats so I could set up the TV. She was initially a bit freaked out to discover that there was yet another room in the house, but, after I showed her around a bit, she set up her next little base on the couch across from the TV and explored the basement from there. Finally, I talked her into setting up yet another camp underneath my computer desk, so that she can sleep at my feet when I'm gaming.

This all sounds suspiciously like the quest hub structure of WoW and its descendants. Players explore the area, with frequent return trips to the questgivers, before being given a breadcrumb quest that leads to the next location. I suspect that Meg would do well with WoW if I could teach her how to type.

Exploration and Socialization Are Their Own Rewards (Sometimes)
Though she remains nervous around unfamiliar people and locations, Meg appears to be genuinely curious to explore. After only a few minutes, she decided that she actually likes us and took to following one or the other of us around the house whenever possible. She's also markedly less nervous when returning to locations she's already explored - we spent the weekend establishing a walk route, and this seems to have helped her calm down a bit outside.

She also seems to have grasped the concept of seeing what level mobs con at. There's this pair of vicious-sounding Chow Chows living next door to us, who have a nasty habit of barking and pawing at the ground by the fence between their yard and ours. Like any good not-so-risk-adverse MMORPG explorer, Meg is very curious to check out that side of our yard. That doesn't mean she won't pop sprint (and hopefully not her owner's wrist clean out of its socket) to high tail it out of there if the resident high levels wander by.

Like any good rogue, our dog is getting used to odd camera angles while doing melee DPS.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Worgen: Playable or Red Herring?

Somehow, nothing seems to prompt information about Blizzard's plans emerging like when I post speculation. Various sources, including MMO-Champion have unearthed pictures of Goblin and Worgen Halloween masks. Because only playable races have masks to date, and because there are reasonable lore ties between the location of the Goblin home city and the Maelstrom, leading expansion candidate and a good fit for the name "cataclysm" (see Random Ravings of Warcraft's summary), it seems like we might have un-earthed the new races for the expansion.

Then again, Blizzard has to know that every last byte of the PTR client will be datamined into the ground. Is it really beyond a company with an 80-member CGI team (larger than many whole studios) to generate textures for a Worgen mask just to confuse people? The tie with the goblins is relatively clear (goblins work for cash, so there's no reason why a specific sub-faction of goblins wouldn't join the Horde without screwing up all the neutral cities in the game), but I don't see any connection between the Worgen and the Maelstrom, nor any compelling reason why they'd suddenly be showing up to join the Alliance at this precise moment. They've been seen in game before, and perhaps they don't like the Forsaken, but having them show up in Stormwind without warning would be like having a new race fall in from outer space....

Okay, the new Alliance race is probably Worgen.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Voluntary Downward Vertical Progression

I've been spending a bit of time on a return trip to the Kingdom of Loathing recently. KOL is a massively single player broswer-based game, running on a free-to-play with RMT item shop business model, and I'm taking another shot at the game in part because I'm pressed for time.

My wife and I are in the process of moving to our first house and acquiring a dog (yes, in that order), and I've been hard pressed to carve out the kind of 2 hour sessions needed to find a group and run a 5-man in WoW or make serious headway on leveling other characters. KOL has fit nicely into a niche of something I can sneak 20-30 minutes at without feeling like it has taken half of my gaming session just to reach my quest destination.

Anyway, the reason why this becomes blog fodder is that I have just started my first "Bad Moon" ascension. When characters beat the final boss of the game's main plot, they can ascend and start the game over as a reincarnated level one character who retains one of the class skills from their previous life. A character who earns the ability to choose to be reborn under the unlucky "bad moon", however, loses access to everything - all their skills, all their gear, all their familiars (including the ones from the RMT item shop), everything is off-limits until they can complete the Bad Moon ascension.

Why would someone like myself, a relatively achievement-oriented player who has taken the time to complete seventy two ascensions (my character history is here, if any of you play and are curious) suddenly choose to reset myself to the status of a completely new level one character?

When Scaling Becomes a Problem
The developers have made an impressive effort at the nigh-herculean job of balancing the game around a single character potentially having access to every spell, skill, and bonus in the game.

Most abilities scale with a character's current level/stats. Your muscle-bound fighter classes can use the top end offensive spells in the game - indeed, knowing them is a huge advantage when faced with physical-immune monsters - but will do only a fraction of the damage that a real caster can. Still, you will eventually cherry pick enough abilities to start papering over the weaknesses of your current class, ignoring the places where its tools are limited in favor of superior skills from elsewhere. Starting with a clean slate means an opportunity to experience each class as a stand-alone entity, something I haven't done since 2005.

The other issue is somewhat specific to the game's turn system. Players actions per day are limited by a consumable resource called "adventures". You get a certain number of turns each day regardless of your actions, and can increase that number by eating food, drinking booze, and grinding unused equipment into a chewable gum-like paste (that's the way logic works in this game ;)). However, the quality of the stuff you can consume is also limited by level, and players have a limited daily appetite.

Starting off with a totally blank slate in-game, but a solid knowledge of where to go to farm level appropriate consumables, I was able to generate maybe 60 adventures per day. With the crafted foods and bonuses I have access to when I'm not using any voluntary restrictions, that number is well above 100, and it probably breaks 200 if I'm prepared to use the really expensive, high end stuff.

In other words, the amount of time it will take to use up my available turns can swing by 2-4 fold depending on my in-game level. (You can roll over up to 200 adventures per day, but you can still end up with 100+ use-or-lose turns per day relatively easily.) This can translate into less time than you would have liked to spend on the game at low levels (before you've unlocked the best stuff) and more time than you would have preferred to spend at higher levels.

In my new Bad Moon run, on the other hand, I can only eat what I'm able to catch, and I wouldn't be able to cook the best stuff if I did stumble upon the proper ingredients. I still generate more turns per day at higher levels, as the consumables obtained from regular adventuring improve in quality, but it's much less of a steep curve than I have with all the crafting skills.

Incentives and a trustworthy item store
There are some in-game incentives to complete a bad moon ascension. I can still learn a new skill per run for use whenever I choose not to play the Bad Moon game. There is also reward gear that offers massive stat bonuses, useful for attempting to meet the bar for some optional endgame content that requires players to achieve insanely high buffed stats. There are also records and leaderboards for completing runs in fewer days/turns.

Beyond that, though, the actual experience of playing the game differs dramatically as players take on more voluntary challenges. Though there is combat, the game is fundamentally a puzzle-solving exercise. If you're trying to beat your personal best time, you will want to arrive at level 10 with as much of the groundwork for completing the level 10 quests as possible. In more permissive modes, that means preparing stuff in advance (during your previous ascension), while the more limited modes require that you find the time to farm the stuff yourself.

In particular, I've been very impressed with the relatively laid back approach to RMT in the game. The item shop offers equipment (usable in some of the game's modes), familiars and skills (usable in all of the game's modes other than Bad Moon). Most of these items are limited edition, buy it this month, hope you can find it on the game's mall, or do without. If you're bent on pushing the envelope and making the leaderboards outside of Bad Moon, you will almost certainly want at least a few of these items, and may never be able to be fully competitive with people who have the old stuff. If, on the other hand, you're just in it to set a new personal best, gaining a little bit more power with each run, you can literally play the game every day, for free, indefinitely, without ever paying the devs a cent, or ever being nagged in game about why you should be purchasing anything.

Part of this is possible because the game's graphics are black and white, 2-D line sketches. Even so, I don't think I've ever seen a game that depends on its RMT item shop to pay the bills voluntarily introduce a format that makes a level playing field by effectively banning all RMT items. They actually want you to be able to have fun - even if you're competitive - regardless of whether you want to support them. I don't really need any more item shop rewards these days - they are all permanent, and I have enough from back when I played the game daily that I can get by without any upgrades. Still, comparing my feelings about the way this game handles its RMT to more current offerings, part of me feels like I should buy up the next item I have a chance of using, just to support the game.

As to the question I asked up top about why I would voluntarily take a huge number of steps down the vertical progression curve, even if only temporarily? Sometimes the journey really is more the reward, and the incentives are only the sign posts that point you in the direction of the next adventure.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Does WoW Have All The Classes It Needs?

I was skimming through Stropp's blog, when his post on Blizzard's Cataclysm trademark reminded me that I never got around to commenting on that whole somewhat overblown kerflaffle. As he notes, Cataclysm sounds more like the name of an expansion than a new product, and the next WoW expansion is almost certain to be announced in a month at Blizzcon.

I actually took a crack at predicting the expansion's contents, just prior to the Wrath launch. At the time, I accepted Tobold's unexciting prediction that the expansion would contain a healing-based hero class. After all, healers and tanks are the two hard roles to fill, and this expansion added a tank. It appears that we may have been incorrect.

More Niches Than Classes?
The former WoW Insider links to an interesting interview with WoW (the game, not the now confusingly-named news site) Producer Tom Chilton. Though he confirms nothing, in true Blizzard fashion, he does state:
"...we don't feel that we can support the pace of adding a new class with every single expansion."

Looking back, this makes a fair amount of sense. WoW now has four tanking-capable classes, four healing-capable classes, and four classes that cannot do anything besides DPS. (Those numbers add up to twelve instead of ten because Pallies and Druids can both tank AND heal.) Breaking it down by talent trees, we have five healing trees, six tanking trees, and twenty three trees that can be used for dps (including feral druids and the three DK specs, which can also be used for tanking, for a total of 34 instead of 30.) Carving out a niche for each of those variations is a tall order that Blizzard is struggling with at the moment.

Eight months ago, I thought that the need for more people willing to heal outweighed those difficulties. Now, I'm less convinced.

Do more healing classes mean more healers?
Blizzard made a decision to design the Death Knight with three trees that could BOTH tank AND DPS, in the hopes that this flexibility would encourage them to tank as needed. In practice, the way the game is set up strongly favors players making up their minds which role they intend to pursue and sticking with it. As I noted at the time, you can get players to roll as a new tanking capable class by making a shiny new class, but that does not necessarily convince them to become tanks. The hypothetical Arch-Druid/Warden healer hero class, with three trees that can both DPS and heal, would have suffered largely the same fate.

Instead, Blizzard decided to go with dual specs so that current players of healing-capable classes could learn to do so. Though I don't have statistics to back this up, it does seem like finding a healer for a PUG (if not necessarily a great healer) has gotten much easier since patch 3.1. This solution is not necessarily ideal, as it blurs character identity. Then again, as Spinks observes, adding more and more tanking class options don't necessarily help find the tanks raid slots. That may be just as important a factor as the actual merit of the classes in question.

So What's Left for the Cataclysm?
The Chilton interview claims that there is a fair amount of ground left to cover, but chooses to mention only the two long-time front runners - the South Seas Islands with the Maelstrom, and the Emerald Dream. He also notes that they feel that new playable races should be races that have been seen in WoW before, rather than dropping Draenai in with no warning from Outer Space. Though he does suggest that BWL Drakenoids would be a cool player race - which would fit nicely with my Clash of the Dragonflights idea for an expansion - I'm not sure that making those guys playable would actually seem any less out of left field.

Perhaps Blizzard still would favor new races, with the opportunity to add in some new scattered content settlements in the 20-60 range to flesh out the new backstory. Or perhaps we're looking at a new expansion with neither new races (Blizzard does not seem inclined to use neutral races, so they would have to add two at once) nor new classes. If that's true, though, there will be extra pressure on Blizzard to deliver something that really makes players sit up and notice, if they don't want their expansion announcement - 10 new levels and what else? - to be a big disappointment.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Why MMORPG's Are Like Dogs

Via Tipa's daily blogroll post is a post from We Fly Spitfires comparing MMORPG's to dating stereotypes of women. Pete of Dragonchasers fame found an even better response comparing MMORPG's to menfolks. I don't have any new and amusing dating stereotypes to add, but my wife and I are in the process of hunting for a dog.

Here are some dog comparisons that are sure to offend fans of the games and the dog breeds in question, as well as anyone who doesn't like the badly mixed metaphors that are about to ensue.

World of Warcraft, The Labrador Retriever
The world's most popular dog for a reason, WoW is exceptionally friendly to all sorts of players and seems to be able to do a little bit of everything (solo, raid, PVP, etc). Detractors point out rightly that there may not be a ton of variety or depth - your Black Lab (Gnome Mage) is going to look a lot like hundreds of others in your neighborhood.

As it gets older, WoW isn't doing as well at keeping up with the kids in the yard, which is a disappointment to the teens who used to run along with it when it was a young dog. However, the slower pace suits some of the younger kids, who couldn't keep up with the dog in its prime. Still, even the folks who swear that they've outgrown their parents old lab seem to have a bit of nostalgia, occasionally stopping to give a lab a scratch behind the ears from time to time.

Lord of the Rings Online, The English Springer Spaniel
You can't look at this dog without recognizing its impressive heritage. Other breeds may aspire to this faithful companion of Kings and Presidents, but only this one has the history from The Shire, Rivendell, and the other locations of Middle Earth. The springer may not be the best at hunting (PVE, Raiding), but it's worth watching that distinctive springing through the underbrush, looking to flush out birds, just because of the history behind it.

Warhammer Online, The Border Collie
This is a very intelligent breed, which turned out to cause some problems for Mythic. The trainer thought they could train Warhammer to be a game that prized open field RVR over all else. The problem was that the Collie was too smart, a natural bred herder, not a herd-ee. She quickly learned that scenarios offered a better ratio of treats to time than the other tricks Mythic was trying to teach her. The problem is that sheep dogs only have something to do when there are sheep and dogs around and in reasonable numbers (proper ratio of sheep dogs to sheep, etc). Mythic is apparently still working on that.

Everquest 2, The Husky
EQ2 has retained some of the look and behavior of its wolf ancestors (EQ1), and is arguably bred for running in packs (PVE groups/raids) as sled dogs. Everyone knows of the breed - it's a common University mascot - but many of those don't actually know that much about the breed, even though it's been around for a pretty long time. Under that thick coat of cold-weather fur is an intelligent, friendly dog that can carry its owner further than they might have thought possible.

I'll call it a day there, since those are the games I've got the most /played experience with. Your additions, flames, and MMORPG's Are Like [x] followup posts are welcome.

Update for Bonus Dog:
Kingdom of Loathing is The Dalmatian
Off the top of my head, the characteristically black and white Dalmatians have appeared in a Disney cartoon and a series of Budweiser commercials. Kingdom of Loathing, a browser-based somewhat massively single player online game, is illustrated entirely in black and white stick figures. The game offers a relatively unique "ascension" mechanic, in which characters that beat the game's final boss are reincarnated as a new level one character of a class of the player's choice, allowing them to replay the game with a growing array of perks from past lives. I'm not quite up to a hundred and one yet, but sometimes it feels that way (which can be reassuringly familiar or annoyingly tedious depending on the mood). Finally, booze is a major daily consumable, with a character needing to consume five or more margaritas per day for maximum benefit. I'll call that three for three.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Argent Achievement Spam, And Yet More Alt Updates

I finally completed the last of the current Argent Tournament rep grinds last night, setting off five separate achievements and two titles. Cosmetic fireworks aside, this achievement will be needed in patch 3.2 to unlock new daily quests for more champion's seals. The seals, in turn, will reward players with a tabard that offers teleportation to the tournament grounds (where the new dungeons are located) and with the ability to check your mail or bank remotely via your squire non-combat pet.

If you too would like to spam your /guild chat with five achievements at once, Spinks has coincidentally posted a guide on the tournement earlier today.

Ding 40 x 5(6)

In other news, Cheerydeth the Third, the rogue who inherited the name I was saving for my beta Death Knight, only to decide that the released version of the class might seem underpowered compared to its beta incarnation, hit level 40 this morning.

Cheerydeth marks my 5th level 40 character in WoW, behind my Pally (70), Mage (80), Hunter (50), and Warrior (62). If you count the beta version of the Death Knight (80), that gives me significant playtime on six of WoW's ten classes. Of the other four, my Warlock sits at 24, my Shadow Priest is parked at 23, and I played a Druid through level 22 or so in the very first stress test before WoW went into open beta (no talents, since they weren't yet implemented for druids - I have also occasionally taken my wife's level 50 balance druid for a spin). I think my last attempt at a Shaman failed somewhere in the mid-teens, but I deleted that character for some inexplicable reason - I should probably give it another shot at some point, just so I can say that I've taken all ten classes through level 20.

On a whole, it speaks well of WoW's classes that I've found it worth my while to try out each of them. That said, the mage is far and away my favorite - I think I actually have more /played on the mage POST-80 than I do on all the other characters put together. The mage offers a very delicate balance; too little damage and they become very squishy, while too much damage (which is what I've got right now when tackling dailies in ilvl 213 gear) makes fights trivial. When you're actually in the sweet spot of doing just enough damage to beat foes using all the various tools at your disposal, though, you'll never want to go back to hiding behind a pet or under a suit of armor.

To some extent, that may be what appeals to me about the rogue. Having done all three plate-wearers in the 60+ range, I've had a number of opportunities for the stand-and-fight style of melee. Thus, I opted to go with a pure subtlety build - more commonly associated with PVP - that really focuses on my ability to sneak around, try and split pulls, and burst down an unsuspecting foe or two before I can be overwhelmed by a larger group. I can definitely see why the leveling guides all recommend more versatile builds (generally Combat), but my various heirloom items make Cheerydeth tough enough to compensate for the bad situations where a murloc goes running off and returns with a bunch of its friends. (In particular, having a permanent set of scaling daggers makes a huge difference since Ambush requires them.)

Holding Pattern Until the Patch?
Overall, I'm in an odd sort of holding pattern at the moment due to upcoming patch changes. I technically can be farming Champion's Seals on Greenwiz now, but it will be much quicker and more convenient when the patch hits. My Paladin, Rogue, Warrior, Hunter, Priest, and Warlock alts all qualify for mount upgrades when the patch hits (as would any new Death Knights hitting Outland). I could make the attempt at a Shaman, but I'm not really that excited about it; they'd have more available heirlooms next patch, and there are vague hints that the next expansion will offer new races rather than new classes.

It's not bad timing personally - I'm moving next week and expect a large number of home improvement issues for the remainder of the month that will cut into my gaming time. It's just a bit odd that I honestly can't tell you what I'm working for in the game at the moment. I keep doing random PUG 5-mans when the opportunity arises because I have fun doing them, but it's not as if I'm chomping at the bit to actually spend all the shards and emblems on heirlooms. Ah well, the patch will probably be good to go in a month or so, and I'm almost morbidly curious about how Brewfest will unfold.

Incidentally, this game really desperately needs a new title interface. Having a pulldown menu made sense when there were like three titles in the game, and it just starts looking stupid at this many.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

What If You Could Pick Two Classes?

When I'm checking out a new RPG, online or offline, video game or pen and paper, the first thing I take a look at is the class system. Historically, I've been pretty bad at predicting which class I'd actually prefer in MMORPG's - invariably something about the pace and timing of combat, or the relative strength of players and enemies doesn't work out quite the way I'd intended in my head. Still, I check out the class section first, because I'm curious about the tools that are available to players in the game.

Anyway, while researching yesterday's post on Runes of Magic, I could hardly resist at least taking a look at their class structure. The game's dual class feature makes reading the spell list a little tricky. If you take a look at the Curse database list for scouts, you'll see a ton of tabs. There are:
  • "Primary only" spells, that can only be used by characters who are currently using Scout as their primary class
  • "General" lists for skills that can be used when the Scout is either your primary or your secondary class
  • Five additional tabs, one for each of the possible secondary classes for so-called "elite" skills; these skills are only available to scouts with that paricular secondary class
  • In addition to the three tabs (Primary, general, class), a level 10+ Scout ALSO gets access to the general skills of their second class, which you'll need to go to that class' page to find.

It's an interesting way of providing a fair degree of variety and customization without having to create an indefinite number of individual spells. Looking over the lists also got me thinking about the logistics of playing a game that offers dual classes.

Dual Considerations
ROM's system has some similarities to FFXI's system, but also some important differences. Though FFXI does expect you to level a secondary job (and the community may expect you to level a tertiary job, if your primary job is not an appropriate subjob for leveling your subjob), players can freely switch between all the jobs they have unlocked at any time. This largely relieves the developers of the need to make any given job combination viable - if a combination does not work, the player can (and will be encouraged to) switch to something better.

By contrast, ROM class and subclass choices cannot be reversed, even through RMT. It will be interesting whether they eventually offer this option because sales would be good, or whether they would rather have players re-roll in the hopes of selling the new characters more stuff. Either way, there's some degree of pressure on the developer side to have both sides of each class combination work in some way, simply because the system is a major feature of the game.

The intriguing part is the decision making process for the actual player in choosing their permanent combination. Do you go with a secondary class you're not so fond of, knowing that you will have to level it separately from time to time, because it is the best fit for your primary class? Do you go with something completely different, even if that technically hampers your effectiveness, because it offers you the chance for a real change of pace when you swap out the jobs? Do you want to be able to swap into tanking and healing roles, or are you so opposed to healing that you'd rather NOT have the option and wait longer for group invites than be asked to switch to a role you don't like?

Looking at my current games
What would I pick if the other games I've played recently offered ROM-style dual classing?
Greenwiz (Level 80 Mage, WoW):

I think I'd go Rogue here. I've tried just about every class in WoW at some point (my last Shaman stalled out in the teens, every other class has reached at least level 22), and I've never been able to get into any of the other ranged classes. I always get frustrated that they aren't mages. So, I'd be looking for a change of pace, and rogue fits the bill nicely.

Allarond (Level 50 Champion, LOTRO):

My guess would be Warden. The Champion is a heavily armored melee DPS character with some self heals. I haven't played the Warden yet, but it's also a melee character with even more of a focus on self-healing and buffs. Seems like the two would complement each other nicely.

Lyriana (Level 67 Dirge, EQ2):

Shadowknight if there weren't alignment restrictions, or Berserker. Lyriana is a little squishy, and has very limited ability to damage more than one mob at a time. Either of the two AOE plate tanks would fix those problems up nicely, and both would benefit from the Dirge melee buffs.

Of course, when you're building a game for dual-classing, you're not going to build in as much hybrid capacity in the first place. You don't make off-the-rack combinations like the Champion or Shadowknight that do tanking, self-heals, DPS, and AOE, you achieve that collection of abilities through combining less complex classes.

ROM Class Speculation
Finally, my guess at Runes of Magic class combinations, so I can look foolish if/when I get around to playing the game and hate them:

Scout/Warrior: Combines Archery with melee DPS and a bit more durability, while giving the warrior some more range and precision damage skills. On paper it sounds like a way to lessen the traditional dependence on kiting for ranged non-pet classes. No danger of being asked to switch to heals.

Rogue/Priest: The Rogue gets more survival via heals, the Priest gets a DPS/manastealing side that might make soloing more fun.

I'm less interested - on paper anyway - in the Mage and Knight classes. When I try mages in other games, I'm almost always disappointed that they aren't as powerful as WoW mages. Also, I'm told that Mage/Priest is the most overpowered and overplayed combination in the game. As to the Knight, it's apparently your typical heavy tank with poor DPS, and I don't think I would enjoy having to level that side of my character.

Of course, it'll probably be mid-fall by the time I have the time to consider playing ROM. By that point, the new classes will be out, and perhaps this preliminary list will look completely different. Either way, it's fun to speculate.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Developer Incentives In RMT Item Shop Games

Darren, the Common Sense Gamer spent the weekend on a one-blogger crusade against the $10 horse in the Runes of Magic item shop. Personally, I didn't link to the flurry of posts at the time because my contribution is not terribly original.

I would be outraged if we were talking about a subscription game, but Runes of Magic is Free to Play. The developers need to pay the bills somehow, which means either charging for content (as Darren favors) or charging for convenience. Personally, I'd rather have the option to keep playing, spending money as I need to, than be presented with a financial decision at every quest hub. (E.g. is it worth X money to unlock the next quest hub?) The $10 price (it was higher the last time I examined the game) is not that bad if you imagine that you will actually be playing on that character for a large number of hours. Still, something about this potential transaction bothered me, and it took a few days to put my finger on what it was.

Player Satisfaction in the Subscription MMORPG
At the end of the day, players want to continue to be rewarded for doing whatever it is that they enjoy doing. Whether it's soloing, daily quests, tradeskills, PVP, or raids, pretty much everyone asks for ways to continue their progress. It is not possible for the developer to fill all these requests at once, but their financial incentive is to take the course that keeps the largest portion of the playerbase happy and continuing to subscribe.

In short, as Sanya Weathers explains, the developers don't hate anyone's playstyle. They will occasionally hit you with things you don't like, such as gear resets, because that is the only way they can think of to continue to provide onwards and upwards progression. At the end of the day, though, they get paid when the incentive structure they have put in place is enough to convince you to keep on doing whatever it was you were paying them to let you do.

Different Incentives in RMT Item Shops
By contrast, the devs of a pure item shop game like Runes of Magic get paid when players buy items. Broadly speaking, ROM is in the business of selling mounts, bonus exp potions, and item enhancements. Sure enough, their next major patch will include:

- A new race and two new "classes" (more on this in a minute), to encourage players to make new alts that will need exp, mounts, and gear.
- An increased level cap, so that existing characters will need exp and gear. (They are also releasing new mounts - so far all have had identical stats - on an approximately monthly basis.)

On paper, these actions sound no different than what subscription games do. The difference is motivation.

When Blizzard adds additional mounts to the Argent tournament vendors, their goal is to provide players with a reason to continue participating in the tournament. The fact that I might now be disappointed that I spent my 100 seals on the current mount when I would have preferred the newer model is incidental to the goal of providing me with a reason to continue playing the game.

When Runes of Magic adds additional mounts to their cash shop, the fact that I might rather have had the one that's on sale today instead of the one I bought yesterday is INTENTIONAL. If I don't look at the shiniest new mount (in the last seven months, the game has added rhinos, ice beasts, ostriches, lions, and various other critters) and wish that I had it, someone in the item shop dev department has literally failed at their job, and I will not be paying the company as a result of that failure.

Power Inflation and the RMT shop
What's the problem, if I'm willing to pay $10 for a mount and there's a new one that I think is better than my current one? The issue is that the $10-20 is a relatively reasonable price for the FIRST mount. As Darren points out, I'm not really getting any more content when I buy a mount. I'm effectively paying to be relieved of some of the travel time that the developers have put into the game to make me want a mount. Paying another $10+ for a second mount that looks different, leaving the first mount uselessly bound to the same character, would not make sense. Perhaps a sale on an especially cool-looking mount might be the deciding factor in buying it for an alt, but players only need so many alts.

This makes it almost absolutely certain that ROM will eventually offer mounts that are superior to the current 60% ground model. They can't cut the prices without giving up revenue from new players, and they will eventually reach the upper limit of various creatures that players will pay to ride on. When that happens, the only way to continue to sell new mounts to existing players will be to offer faster mounts. Moreover, the improvement has to be noticible. WoW's prestige flying mounts move at +310% instead of +280%, an increase of approximately 10%. In context, that's not a number you're going to notice unless you're running a race. ROM's faster mounts will need to offer a much larger boost in order to catch the eyes of veteran players.

The Balance Nightmare of Rapid Power Inflation
This brings me back to the new classes. ROM describes themselves as having six classes, which could be thought of as archetypes (tank, healer, ranged dps, melee dps), but all characters are actually dual classed. For instance, a Mage/Knight gets added defense and holy-based nukes while playing as a mage, and a Mage/Rogue gets shadow damage/lifedrain attacks. Effectively, the game has 30 character class combinations, each of which plays in two separate ways (i.e. you can swap which of your classes is the main one - each class needs its own exp and gear, opening the door for yet more exp potion and gear enhancement sales).

The new Elves will have Wardens and Druids in place of two of the existing classes. This will effectively add 10 new character class combinations to the game.

Obviously, the new classes are just announced. We don't know how different they will be from their human counterparts, or how they will affect balance as secondary classes to the remaining classes. What we do know is the motivation. If the new classes are not sufficiently good compared to the existing classes to make players consider starting new characters, buying those characters new mounts, exp potions, and gear enhancements, the developers have failed.

I cannot imagine a subscription game adding 33% more class combinations - even if they are only subtle variations - to the game in a single shot. This is a potential balance disaster. Subscription games will not do this kind of upheaval because it is almost certain that there will be broken flavor of the month classes that will have to be nerfed later. As Saylah experienced first hand, sometimes balance changes will turn your impressive "Battle Monk" into a "Magus Gimpus". When you're in the business of making money when your players re-roll, however, that's a bonus, not a drawback.

I'm not entirely fond of the all-or-nothing choice forced by a monthly fee. I don't have time to play multiple games on a daily basis, but sometimes I like a little variety in my week. I'd much rather have a non-fee alternative for part-time use than pay full freight for two games. Perhaps the ROM model is the answer I'm looking for. I'm just not sure if I trust the developers to hold the game together when their incentive pressure will always be for more - better races, better classes, faster mounts - until the day I quit or the servers come down.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Desperate-Sounding Turbine is Desperate

It must be a month that has at least 28 days in it, because Turbine is rolling out yet another LOTRO welcome back event for former subscribers. I've lost track, but this makes at least three free-retrial so far in 2009, and that last one ended up running for well over a week due to server issues. (Why they want to repeat that situation by increasing server loads right after a patch AGAIN is beyond me.)

Seriously, guys, this is getting embarrassing. I've already decided that I'm waiting for Rohan. Keep this up and you'll start to scare me into thinking that your numbers are so bad that you're planning to pull an AC2 by launching the expansion box to cash in one last time off of your remaining faithful before pulling the plug. As I already discussed a retrial or two ago, I can't even take advantage of your retrial right now if I wanted to, because my character is level capped for not owning the current expansion.

If you're really interested in luring me back into the game, here's a deal I would snatch up without hesitation:
1. Wait until one month before Rohan launches.
2. Re-offer the $30/3 months deal.
3. Offer a free Moria key (currently $10) with a paid Rohan pre-order.

Yet another chance to resubscribe at full price (worse than the deal you were offering last month) with the expansion so far away that you haven't even announced its existence yet is just not going to cut it.

Time-Consuming Is Not The Same As Difficult

There is an entire genre of blogpost these days grousing about how Blizzard is dumbing down and trivializing World of Warcraft, removing all difficulty from the game to cater to those stupid casuals who won't get off of the poster's digital lawn, etc. Well, Cheerydeth hit level 38 last night working on the old classic quest Mudrock Soup and Bugs, a basic kill 15 or so turtles quest located just outside Theramore. I first did this quest on my Pally sometime circa January 2005, again on my mage back in August 2005, and yet again on my hunter sometime in early 2006, so I'm relatively familiar with the then and now comparison.

2005 (The Good Old Days)

A level 38 character would not have a ground mount at all. They also may or may not have all of their spell upgrades currently trained, as 100G was a lot of money back in those days, and I definitely remember passing on upgrades for spells I wasn't using as I tried to save up. Once you got the mount at level 40, it would kick you off and force you to spend 3 seconds (and a non-trivial chunk of mana for Pallies and Warlocks) remounting if you set hoof in shallow water.

The best way to reach Theramore was to fly from Ironforge (the likely home of your 1-hour cooldown hearthstone) to Menethil Harbor and await the boat. If you were coming from Booty Bay anyway, you could take the boat to Ratchet and physically run south on foot - there was no neutral flight path in Ratchet at the time, and I'd guesstimate that the un-mounted run took about 10 minutes, assuming you didn't try to go through the middle of the easily avoidable Murloc camp. In principle, you could also spend some massively long time on the auto-bird from Auberdine. However, the only way you would have gotten there would have been by taking the wrong boat from Menethil, unless you were for some reason fond of grinding Centaurs in out-of-the-way Desolace.

Present (WoW Patch 3.1)

The basic ground mount became available at level 30 about a year ago, and learned to tread water (same swim speed as an unmounted character, but you don't have to wait to remount when you emerge). The advent of the minor glyph means that my rogue can now sprint across the surface of the water at mounted speed for 15 seconds at a time, which significantly decreases the time it takes to get out to the rock where Nat Pagle lives.

Getting to Theramore is substantially easier. Mages have a direct portal. There is a flight path from Ratchet. Anyone can bind their 30-minute cooldown hearthstone to Dalaran (extra teleportation for Cheerydeth courtesy of the Inscription profession), take the portal to the Caverns of Time, and make a brief ride through the Tanaris desert to fly to Theramore.

Soon (Patch 3.2)

The originally level 40 mount will drop from level 30 to level 20, and the faster epic ground mount will be available at level 40. The casting time will also be reduced to 1.5 seconds, which adds up if you're mounting and dismounting frequently enough.

The thing is, I don't see the supposed challenge that has been taken away from the next generation. What was harder about spending more time watching your character auto-run? The one additional mob that you might decide to stop and fight after it dazed you? Does that outweigh the dozen additional mobs you will be able to fight during the time you will save in transit by being on a 100% ground mount at level 40? What was more challenging about a 10-minute quasi-AFK autorun from Ratchet? The chance that you'd be distracted by the baseball game you were watching and forget about the one camp of murlocs? (Ironically, Blizzard actually added some aggressive mobs amongst the non-aggro turtles, extending the portion of the beach where the player needs to pay at least some minimal attention.)

Access to content
The fact is that the actual content in old world Azeroth isn't as bad as people think it is. The old quests lack the custom scripted eye candy events of Northrend, but the underlying gameplay is the same as anywhere else in WoW. The difference is that the developers didn't think twice about putting the followup to the quest I did last night in Dustwallow Marsh all the way on the other side of the world in the Swamp of Sorrows. There isn't really any added challenge in taking a boat, no fewer than three flight paths (you couldn't queue these up either, so you had to dismount and talk to the flightmaster at each stop to take the next leg), and a run across a zone patrolled by aggressive, PVP-flagged orc guards to kill a dozen spiders either. However, old school WoW's exp curve required that players clear out a much larger proportion of the game's total content, and the hope was no doubt that players would stumble across some of the handful of Alliance quests in the Swamp.

Personally, I think the move to level 20 ground mounts is a good change (try running across Ashenvale without one sometime), and the move to level 40 epic ground mounts is unnecessary but largely harmless. I would have instead added more of an emphasis on regional teleport hubs (e.g. adding Theramore and Stonard portals to Dalaran) with players using local travel by flight paths and mounts to reach their final destination. I would also add a requirement, present in EQ2, that players actually visit a given location before being allowed to teleport there in the future.

Some bloggers, often ones who proudly declare that they don't like WoW anymore (sometimes backing that statement up by actually not playing WoW anymore), argue that players need to be forced to spend time watching their characters travel places, even though that time is largely non-interactive, in order to see how big the world is. I would argue that it's the content of the world, rather than its sheer size, that is really impressive. Cutting down on travel - not eliminating it entirely, but streamlining the process of returning to locations players have already reached - allows players to retain a sense of the scale and layout of the world while putting more of the content front and center.

Monday, July 6, 2009

EQ2 Bonus Tradeskill Commentary

It was a busy offline weekend (all of them are these days), but I was able to harness the power of EQ2's bonus exp weekend to significant effect. My various characters picked up over 30 crafting levels, and there were other members of my guild who were trying even harder - the guild gained a level from all the crafting activity.

  • Lyriana was finally able to hit level 80 Jeweler, starting from level 72. (Thank you shout out to Ysh for reminding me that some of the veteran reward exp potion packs include tradeskill bonuses.)

    What did I do to celebrate? I ran out and did three more tradeskill writs. Ironically, the last few levels were unusually quick due to an abundance of new recipes (spells that get one last upgrade before the level cap). I ended up hitting level 80 with a number of first pristine combines bonuses remaining, and three writs shy of 40,000 rep with my city's tradeskill faction.

    I finished filling up the rep bar to claim the "Master Liason" title, and the ability to craft my own AA mirror (EQ2's version of dual specs). The mirror can be comissioned from another crafter, but I felt strongly about making my own, since it was obvious that I was going to pick up most of the required reputation during the course of leveling.

  • Kreejak, my Sarnak Warden, jumped from crafting level 10 (fresh out of the tutorial) to level 28, having chosen to specialize as a Tailor. Here was where the combination of vitality, first pristine bonuses, and the bonus weekend became slightly absurd - I think I averaged about 2 combines per level for the entire 10-20 range. Crafting takes slightly longer at lower levels (your abilities add more progress at higher levels, while the total progress required to complete an item remains constant), but this was still insanely quick. I suppose it has to be, since players level past that level range so quickly, but I was pretty shocked.

    It seems like the most beneficial profession choices if you're not in it for the money are the jobs that craft either your character's spells or their armor. (Weapons are a major performance upgrade, but you only need 1-2 of them every 10 levels.) I'd just done spells on Lyriana, so I decided to go the other route on the Warden.

    Tailoring seems like a great deal - though their overall market is smaller (more than half of the classes wear mail or plate, which is crafted by armorers), tailors get to make a variety of non-armor goodies. These include hex dolls (the EQ2 equivalent of crafted trinkets), backpacks, throwing weapon sacks, and even fistwrap weapons for the unarmed Bruiser and Monk classes.

  • Speaking of my little Ratonga Bruiser (who I intend to turn into a good-aligned Monk someday, if I ever actually get around to playing her), I dusted her off as well and launched into the tradeskill tutorial. I went from level 2-8 in a handful of combines, significantly ahead of the pace that the tutorial is intended to run at. I would have pressed onwards if I had any idea what I wanted to do with the character. I guess she'd become an alchemist by default, since Lyriana and Kreejak have literally all of her gear covered.

  • I also dusted off my provisioner for a single level (27->28) before deciding that I was right to drop that character the first time. EQ2's provisioners are limited to cooking two servings at a time as a stopgap measure to keep already-flooded markets from getting even worse. Unfortunately, the status quo means that you're going to spend 10 minutes to cook a stack of food. I'm prepared to live with crafted goods being worth less than the materials I used to make them, but I'm not prepared to spend 10 minutes of crafting time on the project.

    (In fairness, a single serving of food in EQ2 generally lasts for about an hour, so you'll outlevel that stack of food before you finish eating it. The problem is that you're still going to have to cook SOMETHING to gain the experience levels needed to have better food available when you hit the next tier.)

    At this point, I'm strongly tempted to give up on the profession outright and hit the reset button (which would revert the budding chef to level 9 and let him pick a new profession). The main hesitations are deciding what profession to replace it with, and, indeed, if I want to just delete the character outright. EQ2 currently offers a mere seven character slots for the standard monthly fee, and most of mine are spoken for by current or planned characters. I'm not sure that it makes sense to tie up one of those slots on a character that I'm unsure that I'll want to play in the non-crafting game.

Though I have hit the tradeskill level cap, there is a lot of tradeskill content remaining in EQ2. I have not started on the various tradeskill reputation grinds of the most recent expansion, one of which leads to an epic tradeskill item. That said, it might make more sense to tackle some of this content on alts who still need tradeskill exp (or to wait for the higher level cap in the next expansion), especially since some of the rewards are account-bound.

Either way, Lyriana now has a crate full of spell upgrades and is free to move on all the way to the level cap without worrying about where her next upgrade is coming from. That's not a bad way to celebrate Independence Day, all considered.

Lyriana, looking into her new AA dual spec mirror. For those who are curious, EQ2 mirrors can display very sharp reflections, this particular one is intentionally murky.