Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dueling Racial Revamps in WoW and EQ2

EQ2 and WoW are both coming up on their respective five-year anniversaries. Both games are planning expansions that will include new starting areas (and substantially more in WoW's case) in the hopes of helping out new players and encouraging new alts. Meanwhile, both games are planning revamps to the way they handle their racial traits, changes that will be retroactive to existing characters.

However, the two games have taken slightly different directions with these revamps.

WoW and The Goblin Racials
When fans got to play the new Goblins at Blizzcon, the Goblin racial abilities drew some attention. The famed merchant race will always receive the best possible faction discounts, even if they don't have the requisite reputation with the vendors in question. Goblins will get remote access to their banks, and a rocket belt that can be fired to shoot enemies or propel the Goblins themselves forward.

When players saw these racials, the reaction was immediate jealousy. These tricks simply sound cooler than the abilities that other races get. Meanwhile, the new Worgen will have the game's only cosmetic disguise, as the Worgen can suppress their curse and return to human form out of combat. No worries, the devs assured us, all races will be receiving similar revamps to their traits.

(They also let it slip that they were reversing their prohibition on paid race change transactions. When they announced the faction change service, they claimed that it would permanently save your original race to prevent you from changing factions twice to end up as a different race.)

The thing that strikes me about these racials, though, is how deliberately they are focused on flavor. The list for the goblins did include one passive combat bonus, a 1% haste increase, and I'm sure there are situations in which the other racials might affect a battle (e.g. the rocket jump and flag carriers in battlegrounds). Overall, though, if the goblin racials are the model, WoW may be in for racials that focus on flavor over function.

New Traditions in EQ2
EQ2's racial trait revamp is actually going in for the next patch, and Feldon has helpfully collected the info from the test server. I could go on for paragraphs on how this affects various characters (indeed, a previous draft of this post did just that), but the bottom line is that SOE has made a very deliberate choice to homogenize the racial bonuses.

The current system gave out unique combat abilities to each race - some were mostly novelty, but some gave those particular classes a major advantage in group content. All of these abilities get the axe in the name of balance. Now each race gets passive stat bonuses aimed at certain class roles. They're balanced, but they're boring - my fire-breathing Sarnak can no longer breathe fire (and, as a priest class with a spell list focused on healing, having that extra attack skill was actually useful).

You may be even less amused if your race didn't get bonuses for your class and/or had existing bonuses removed. More to the point, one of the things that I really liked about EQ2 really early during my experience there was how every race could be every class. Now, the system says that each race should be one of two archetypes.

(Also note that no races were allowed to get both the tanking and melee DPS traits, because that combination would allow tanks to double dip, so almost all of the big strong races got stuck with the tanking and healing combination. Barbarians, Dwarves, Trolls, reptilian but no-longer-fire-breathing Sarnak, Ogres, and Frogloks all differ by a handful of non-balance-affecting innate abilities, and all are pigeon-holed away from melee DPS.)

The danger of perfect balance
In the end, neither company really wants to force min-maxers to pick specific races by handing out unique abilities; Blizzard made that mistake with priest racials and EQ2 is hoping to correct that situation today. It's possible that Blizzard's more flashy traits will be a step backwards in this regard, creating new must-have flavor of the month combos.

Then again, I feel like SOE has illustrated the danger of going too far in the name of balance. I've held off making a Wizard in EQ2 because I didn't like the two races with the best racials, hands down, for the class. After all of these tweaks, the same two races that I wasn't excited about (High Elves and Erudites) end up right back on top because they were allowed a special synergistic enhanced set of mage and priest bonuses. You'll never perfect balance, but you can take out a lot of fun in the attempt.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Or you COULD just gut the item exp curve...

So I'd heard something about overpowered "bounty" item experience quests in LOTRO. One thing I didn't know until Foolsage dropped by with a comment was that these level 60 quests were actually open to Allarond at level 55.

I figured that my chances of soloing at least one of these quests with both of my emergency self-heal hour-long cooldowns available were greater than my chances of convincing anyone that a level 55 DPS would be anything but a leech to their group, so I gave it a shot. I was eventually able to complete two of the quests, accruing more item experience in about 30 minutes than I had received during nearly four levels since unlocking the legendary item system. It was fun, but also sad, since these quests will only get easier as I actually get to the correct level.

(Apparently there was a miscommunication between the quest implementation team and the quest reward team - as with recent WoW daily quests, the sheer travel time required represents the majority of the work on these quests, unless your class is lucky enough to have travel shortcuts. Somehow, the reward guy saw "go to another zone and fight a boss" and thought that these must be tough quests deserving of a major reward. The quest mobs are heavily camped, and there's talk of slapping a longer cooldown on the quests.)

None of this really changes the rest of my complaints about the system. It's still random as heck - I reforged a weapon, intending to trash it, only to pick up a DPS boost that suddenly made it better than the weapon I was using. There's still a point at which continuing to stick with your current weapon represents a longer-term commitment that you may regret when you randomly generate a better one. The main difference is that the inflated exp - until it gets nerfed at any rate - covers up the flaws by making it easier to start a new weapon or acquire relics (leveling a throw-away weapon to 21 is not that hard anymore) to replace the ones that are stuck in an old one.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Midway Through Moria

Allarond and the Well of Doom

When I haven't been blogging about Cataclysm, I've been making some progress through LOTRO's Moria expansion. Allarond has hit level 55 (out of the expansion's level cap of 60) and has cleared out the first two zones' worth of solo content inside the mines. Without further ado, the good, the bad, and the silly.

The Good: Challenging Solo Content
As I've written before, the devs face a lore conflict with content in Moria. Even with party members like Gandalf and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, you don't quest in Moria; your quest is to get out of Moria alive. The Epic Book story implies that things will take a turn for the worse, but the early going has been just like any other MMORPG, pacifying the mines one quest hub at a time.

That aside, the solo content is absolutely excellent. For reasons I've discussed at length, WoW doesn't offer much in the way of challenging solo content and EQ2 tends to jump straight from easy solo content to group content. Moria has really pushed my Champion to the limit in ways that I haven't seen in other solo games of late.

An NPC healer keeps me alive in a solo instance boss fight

Some of this is accomplished via fast respawns, frequent patrols, and "signature" boss mobs that are tougher than regular enemies. The game also offers solo instanced content, sometimes including helpful NPC's to assist with the tanking or healing duties. Meanwhile, the game manages to tell a story of the the Dwarves attempting to take back their home.

The Bad: The Disposable Advance-able Item System
Turbine hyped the Legendary Item system as a way for players to have their own version of the named weapons the Fellowship of the Ring carried into battle. Unfortunately, the Turbine needed another timesink more than they needed the system to be any fun for players.

The relic slot machine

A legendary weapon's base DPS is based on its level, but all of the weapon's stats are randomly generated when you pay a forgemaster NPC to "identify" it for you. I've identified 20 or so legendary weapons so far. The majority had totally useless bonuses, a handful offered marginal or situational bonuses, and one or two weapons were actually worth considering. So there's a random number generator, that's fine in and of itself.

Then there's the relic system, which will seem to WoW players like an unholy union between disenchanting, jewelcrafting, and a slot machine. Relics are obtained primarily by breaking down existing legendary items. Of the six relics in any given tier, 4-5 of them will have irrelevant stats for your class. Moreover, the only ways to get higher tier relics are A) to level up the legendary item before you deconstruct it or B) to combine five current tier relics for a random chance at random relics from the next tier up (again, remembering that most of those relics will be useless to you). Fine, yet more RNG.

The problem is when you foolishly attempt to use your hard-earned relics in your latest randomly generated weapon.

You get to reforge your legendary item every time it gains 10 levels, rescuing all of the relics you had slotted in it. Bear in mind that you might have had to combine a hundred tier 1 relics to get up to one useful tier 4 relic, so you want to get those relics back if you're going to stop using a weapon. You're obligated to take your first weapon through to level 10 to enter the mines in the first place, and I have gained more than two whole player levels since - the expansion only added ten - without gaining enough item experience to recover my relics from that initial starter weapon at level 20.

What if you find a great new weapon and you can't wait to try it out, but your most valuable relics are currently sitting on a weapon that's halfway between reforges? Now you get to lug around a weapon you don't want, with its exp gain slowing the rate at which the weapon you're actually using can advance, just so you don't get penalized for the mistake of foolishly sticking with it the last time you had the opportunity to recover your relics and cut your losses.

(Adding insult to injury, the starting weapon cannot gain combat or quest exp when it is not equipped as your actual weapon; you don't just have to spend exp on it to get your relics back, you actually have to keep using it, unless you're prepared to swap it in for quest completion and/or the exp-granting runes that you sometimes recover when breaking down an item you have previously leveled.)

In a similar vein, because weapon legacies are entirely random, you have no good way of predicting whether the one that just dropped is "close enough" or whether you're going to come across a far superior option right after committing to at least ten levels by socketing your precious relics.

Overall, the system not only fails at its stated lore purpose - how often did we see the members of the Fellowship breaking down their weapons for parts? - but it also removes all the fun of the supposedly customizable items. In practice, any given weapon I have found will not have more than two stats that you want to improve anyway, so there isn't really that much in the way of difficult decision-making for lack of options. It is too bad that Turbine decided to exploit this system to create an endless and frustrating grind, because it was otherwise one of the most interesting concepts in the expansion.

The Silly: Death Travel
As we all know, you totally don't get to teleport in LOTRO because that would break the lore. Only, two of the classes get to "swift travel" instantaneously off-camera to a large number of locations in the game. But, since I'm not one of those lucky classes, I need to run places. Unless I get lost trying to run past a bunch of orcs en route to the 21st Hall. The path that I couldn't find while running as if I was being chased by a pack of hungry worgs was immediately apparent once the not-so-hypothetical worgs in question bit me until I fell over of demoralization and then decided that they were too bored to eat my defenseless body.

So Allarond found the 21st Hall for the first time by clicking the "retreat" button. This had the unfortunate side effect of incurring a 10-minute "defeat" debuff. After unlocking the local Invincible Goat Travel Route, I decided I might as well ride back to the settlement where I had been questing previously. I went AFK while riding the Invincible Goat, confident that none of the orcs, goblins, man-eating bats, and vampire-women would dare mess with my invincible goat. I came back to see that the goat was about to ride past the Chamber of the Crossroads, another small quest hub. I happened to have a quest to go there, so I hopped off, unlocked the local branch of Invincible Goat Travel Ltd, and went to talk to some Dwarf.

Then I noticed a giant well in the center of town (see the picture at the top of the post). I couldn't resist, I had to know what would happen if I jumped in. The answer was a deed and a title for having jumped in the well, poor Allarond falling over again from the demoralizing embarrassment of having plummeted several hundred meters, and yet another Invincible Goat Travel route unlock when the handy retreat button caused me to find yet another town I had never visited.

Remember kids, handing out a title to reward players for flaunting the game's health system (there's no instant healing in the lore, so all your "damage" is actually morale) is fine. Allowing the other seven classes access to the same array of swift travel that the two lucky chosen ones get, on the other hand, would be totally devastating.

Reflections on Moria

Oh hai, giant sight gag.

Overall, I'm enjoying the game pretty well, despite its major new feature (the legebdary item system). The content and the zone design are both excellent. The gameplay is challenging and exciting. Even with all the stretches to the lore, it is legitimately fun to climb over a mountain ridge and discover the carcass of the Balrog lying where Gandalf left it.

I'm not in a hurry to clean the expansion out - if I was, I would probably have hit level 60 by now, and there is zero chance that the legendary item roulette will keep me in the game a single day beyond when I run out of actual content to complete. Regardless, the quality of what I have found in the game is enough to make up for the shortfall in quantity.

According to the Wiki, the later chapters of the Epic book storyline do actually require groups, so it is certainly possible that I will eventually find myself cut off from the narrative that is the game's greatest strength. In the mean time, though, Moria is definitely shaping up as a great place to visit as new content is available, even if I wouldn't want it to be my MMORPG home year-round.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On The Supposed Death Of Solo PVE In Cataclysm

"There will in effect be no more solo content in the game. That's why there is only five levels. In the expansion, the only critical question will be what guild you chose to belong too.

Solo is dead."
- DeftyJames, in the comments on my Friday post on the expansion
"The big picture take away message from Blizzcon 2009 is simple: solo content is dead. The real cataclysm is not to the the physical geography of Azeroth but to the entire game experience. Solo questing as a major game mechanism is finished and guilds moves to the center of the game play experience."
-Elnia, posting at the Pink Pigtail Inn

I spend 90% of my gaming time on solo PVE content, I have a blog, and I'm not afraid to use it in thousand-word increments. Shouldn't I be the one writing about the imminent demise of my own gaming style? The answer, like most arguments on the Internet, hinges on how you define your terms.

Will you need a posse like Marshall Windsor's in order to do anything in Cataclysm?

Confusing the Incentive and the Gameplay
Defty's choice to quantify the expansion in terms of levels instead of content tells you where the difference in our perspectives is coming from.

Levels are an arbitrary incentive reward given out for playing the game. The whole intent of the "on rails" quest system is for players to attain their next level at the same time as they use up the content from the previous level. You could implement the entire PVE game of WoW leaving the players at some fixed level and having mobs be higher or lower levels to scale difficulty. Instead, Blizzard makes the arbitrary decision to increase the arbitrary number by your head after you have completed some arbitrary amount of content - frequently at first to reinforce the behavior and then more gradually over time as the Pavlovian reflex has been established.

This does not, however, make levels the purpose of the game; if all you wanted was to see a number constantly rising, you could just get a stop watch and set it down on your desk. The reason why World of Warcraft is more popular than sitting and staring at a stop watch is that people actually enjoy PLAYING World of Warcraft. If this is the perspective that you're approaching the game with, new content is new content, whether it's located at level 1 or the non-existent level 86. It's your choice not to use it, but that doesn't mean it isn't there.

(You can, as Defty does in the comments here, dismiss the entire old world revamp as "just adding some new text to the quests". That's a matter of opinion that no one can prove or disprove just yet. My belief is that merely delivering the areas presented at Blizzcon would represent a substantial addition to the world, and that failing to deliver on the one primary feature of this expansion would have a nigh suicidal effect on Blizzard's billion dollar cash cow. Time will tell.)

The Purpose of Solo PVE
I find the assertions by both Defty and Elnia that guild talents will kill unguilded solo PVE especially puzzling because the announced talents are either focused on raiding (Elnia seems very worried about the repair bill she racks up while solo for some reason) or are things that actually decrease the amount of content and challenge that you get to consume on the way to the level cap.

Slow leveling is a problem if you don't want to be doing solo PVE at all and are just in it to get to the endgame (in which case, you're probably in a guild anyway). Slow leveling is a problem if there isn't enough content to actually get you through the levels. If you are doing the content because you are enjoying doing the content, slow leveling is a bonus feature, not a penalty for lacking a guild.

(Ironically, guilds with very diverse playstyles might actually have an incentive to split up over guild talents, so the altoholics can have the talents they want and the raiders can have the talents they want, etc. That's a design issue with guild talents, though, not solo PVE.)

Personal Impact
It is true that solo players who 1) do not spend much time on alts, 2) are strongly motivated by working towards rewards and 3) are not willing to settle for incremental gear upgrades obtained from repetitive content will have a bit less to do than usual in this expansion. The truth is, after the way gear has been handled in the Wrath era, I personally fall into that category. I will spend more time in the Cataclysm era on alts than I have in the past, and I might even spend more time away from WoW.

Even so, I don't see how you get from a somewhat reduced number of zones in the expansion to the conclusion that solo PVE, the innovation that WoW brought to the genre in the first place, is dead when Cataclysm arrives. The content that the expansion does deliver will continue to be the shiniest in the business. I will ultimately see the revamped zones, whether it's on a new alt or running by one-shotting things with a level 85 mage. Spending a bit of time tending to an area of the game that has been largely neglected for the last four years will help keep the game around and delivering more content (including more content for me) for years to come.

Returning WoW To Its Roots

Syp and Snaffy spent the most recent episode of their MMO podcast doing a retrospective on WoW. It was interesting to see where the perspectives of two guys who know MMORPG's and have some experience with WoW, but don't necessarily consider it their primary MMO, line up with things I've been thinking about of late. Reacting to the then-rumored Cataclysm expansion, the narrators express surprise to see the old leveling game seemingly triumph over the endgame. I would argue that the picture is perhaps a bit more complicated than that.

The face of WoW in November 2004

WoW introduced the genre to solo PVE and tapped a huge market that had nowhere else to go. After that huge initial investment, however, WoW spent its first four years obsessed with accomplishments. Group content was tuned to be challenging for appropriately geared players (to the point where PUGS would bring double the appropriate number of players and still sometimes fail to complete a 5-man at level 60). The new solo content added in patches and expansions was aimed squarely at players who had already neared or reached the current level cap.

The lesson of the TBC and Wrath eras is that players who do not want to raid are not actually asking for smaller raids. From the Dungeon 2 Set questline to Karazhan, Blizzard believed that players wanted them to bring the full challenge of the achiever-driven endgame to groups that were smaller for logistical reasons. It turns out that players came to WoW and its descendants because they wanted to be able to sign on when they want and play for however long they wanted. Accomplishment-driven mechanics (attunements, gear checks, consumables) flew in the face of what brought so many of these players into the genre in the first place.

And so, Wrath delivered the first installment of a real overhaul, stripping the accomplishment prerequisites from the group game with a dozen 5-mans and entry level raids that were readily puggable by appropriately geared characters. The solo game, however, remained buried behind dozens of levels of accomplishments. The goal of the Cataclysm is, in part, to bring the last four years' worth of improvements to the solo PVE game down to players who have not wanted to pursue the accomplishments needed (55+ levels) to see the fruits of Blizzard's labors in Outland and Northrend.

In short, perhaps the shift isn't really a new direction at all. With four announced raids for the expansion launch, including optional hard modes, there will be much more accomplishment-driven endgame to go around than Wrath had at its debut. Meanwhile, the expansion will return WoW's focus to the accessible solo PVE game that it brought to the genre in the first place and neglected for the last few years. In some ways, the Cataclysm is less of a revolution than a return to the game's original roots. Given that the game can assemble prominent Warhammer bloggers to talk about its impact five years later, that may not be a bad direction to go.

Now if only we could get them to go back to making hats that actually look like, well, hats....

Monday, August 24, 2009

Remaking The World (Of Warcraft) In His (Ghostcrawler's) Image

Looking over the Game Systems Panel notes from Blizzcon, I can't help but think of Elder Game's take on the abortive hunter ammo revamp of patch 3.1. Though there were good reasons to change the system, the results failed to address most of the major issues while leaving the game littered with obsolete crafted and quest reward quivers and ammo pouches. As a veteran of AC2's live team, Eric concludes that this is the sort of thing that the enthusiastic new guy decides isn't going to fly anymore now that they are in charge.

The Crab is correct when he concludes that Wrath era itemization has become a complicated mess. He's also right when he says that the generic 1% crit per point talents are less fun than tree-defining talents like Juggernaut. These are issues that could make rolling new alts to take advantage of the Cataclysm revamp more difficulty.

Though these changes aren't bad in principle, the challenge will be in the implementation and testing. Who can predict where classes will be in terms of power level once you redesign the entire basis of the talent system and simultaneously re-itemize every single piece of gear in the game? If obsolete quivers are what we got from a simple change to hunter ammo, what will fall through the cracks should this ambitious effort fall short?

In the end, it appears that everyone's favorite system designer was not to be left behind as all of his colleagues conduct massive overhauls of their respective areas of the game. The Crab's efforts may not be the most visible - they're not flashy like new races or dramatic like upheaval of the very continents - but he might have bitten off the biggest challenge on the Cataclysm agenda.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Poll Results: Almost All of You Reuse Character Names

Subject line says it all. Two weeks ago, I asked:

"Do You Reuse Character Names In Different Games?"

The results are in. The Aye's have it by a lopsided score of 67-6 (91%).

I don't vote in my own polls, cause that would kind of defeat the purpose (I already know what I think), but I guess I'm in the weird minority - the whole reason why I asked the question was because I didn't want to re-use a name I'd carefully saved two years ago; I'd since used that name for my EQ2 main.

On the plus side, the vast majority of you can reuse character names from other games for whatever new alts you're making if you pick up Cataclysm. ;)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Implications of Cataclysm on Present Day WoW Priorities

Well, Cataclysm - and its decision to prioritize a revamp of old world Azeroth - turns out to be real. Five additional levels, two new races, new class combos for existing races, and massive overhauls to existing overworld zones are all in.

The only trouble is that Cataclysm isn't here yet. Blizzard says it will arrive in 2010, and, based on the patch cycle so far in the Wrath era, I'm going to guess that it will land no later than a year from now. Even so, that's a chunk of time. How will the looming changes affect the value of present day incentives and activities?

Variety for the Alt-o-holic... but not now
The two new races, being the shiny centerpieces of the feature set, are being handed the keys to the proverbial kingdom. Worgen druids are in, with only would-be Worgen Shamen and Pallies left out of luck. Goblins are in, and apparently are spiritual enough to be Shamen, leaving only Pallies (the one combo that would really make me cringe) and Druids off the table.

Collectively, the expansion will add over two dozen new race/class combos. Perhaps the most significant are Worgen Druids, Troll Druids, Tauren Pallies, and Dwarf Shamen, since each of these were previously limited to a single race on their faction. If you wanted to be an Alliance Shaman but just can't stand the Draenei accent, you are currently out of luck. In Cataclysm, you can have an alternative... if you want to wait that long.

Last Chance or First Dance?
It sounds like Blizzard will be keeping the total gut-and-overhaul treatment for zones that are currently vast and sparsely populated with quests/hubs/etc. For example, they said that Elwynn Forest (which doesn't have that much structurally wrong with it) won't be changing much. Other places, like Desolace, Ashenvale, Azshara, and The Barrens are all going to look very different.

This one can swing either way. If you want to see that stuff the way it is today for the last (or first) time, it's now or never. Then again, how many alts do you really want to level? Perhaps you'd rather wait for the new stuff?

I could go either way on this. I honestly don't know where Mankirk's wife is - my one high level Horde character went from Mulgore to the Ghostlands to some combination of Hillsbrad/Ashenvale/Stonetalon and completely skipped the entirety of the Barrens (which I haven't really played in since open beta). However, with all of my alts and heirlooms on my Alliance server, I'm in no rush to sink time into a throw-away alt that I won't be sticking with when the expansion hits. Maybe I'll just ride through on my high level warrior and one-shot all the mobs just to see the quest text.

TBC and Wrath
We have no real indication that these areas are up for a revamp, and you would figure that they have the least need of one. However, there was that pesky rumor that Garrosh will take over command of the Horde from Thrall. That would derail the Wrathgate questline, and the one that introduced Garrosh in the first place in Outland. It's been confirmed that everyone, expansion owner and non-owner alike, will get the revamped zones, which would presumably include the city of Ogrimmar. I'm definitely going to try and do these iconic lines before the expansion, for fear of missing them.

Level 80 gear and heirlooms
Obviously, your heirloom needs/desires are going to vary with your plans for alts. If you're venturing onto the other faction, bear in mind that you will either need to do group dungeon content, max all of the Argent Tourney reps, or do Wintergrasp in order to obtain heirlooms. (I'm suspicious that the currently not-dropped-anywhere Emblems of Heroism may become available through a daily quest in 3.3, but that's speculation on my part.) All of these options basically require a level 80 character.

In terms of non-heirloom gear, the jury is out. With a smaller level cap increase, my gut reaction to the announcement was that Blizzard would go with a greatly diminished gear reset, if any. That would be good if you like to remain on top of the game for longer, but bad if you're looking for solo content that actually challenges you. Perhaps this will be addressed on day 2 of Blizzcon, but it hasn't been touched so far.

My advice is not to change what you're doing because of the expansion; if you're enjoying raiding and happen to collect upgrades, go for it. If you're enjoying 5-mans, even though you're not getting upgrades, go with that.

Other Mechanic Changes
Among other things, Hunters are moving to an energy-like Focus stat and non-consumable ammo, Warlock Soul Shards are getting replaced, a wide variety of specialty stats on gear are getting streamlined or eliminated, and various classes will presumably get various improvements to their quality of life. Then again, there's always something a little bit better down the line, even after the expansion.

What Will I Do?
Overall, I expect to take a Worgen Druid (future flavor of the month, I'm sure) and Goblin Hunter for at least a test drive through the new starting areas. My old Tauren Warrior will get dusted off to see the rest of TBC and Wrath from the Horde side, and possibly Wintergrasp for a gun for the Goblin. My mage will work on the things he was going to work on anyway, and my assorted Alliance alts will probably gather dust for at least the next year.

Overall, it's possible that I will play less WoW total between now and the expansion because I'm waiting for changes. I'm not so nostalgic for the 40's as to try and rush Cheerydeth through to Outland with a revamp looming, and the coming addition of the Dwarf Shaman effectively guarantees that I will never spend significant amounts of time playing a Space Goat. In the long term, though, the reduced time in present-day Azeroth, with concrete plans for characters other than my main once the expansion hits, may prove to be a blessing when I hit 85 within the expansion's first month. It's not like I'm hurting for other stuff to do in the mean time, so I guess that's a good thing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

What the Cataclysm Nay-Sayers Underestimated

By this time tomorrow, the rumors about WoW's Cataclysm expansion will be settled once and for all on the Blizzcon keynote stage. This post, in turn, will either be one of the few things I predict that comes true, or a requiem for an interesting idea that didn't get its chance after all. Having endorsed the rumor as soon as it leaked, I'm betting on the former at the risk of looking foolish if it turns out to be the latter.

On one level, skeptics underestimated the stakes for MMO-Champion. Though I'm sure they've gotten a ton of traffic through all the links over the past week, the site's reputation and credibility are worth far more traffic in the long run. In a broader sense, though, people underestimated Blizzard's willingness to venture out of the "new continent and 10 new levels" box. I count myself among that number - less than a year ago, I didn't think that Blizzard could find the time to do an old world Azeroth revamp.

Much of the reasoning behind my hypothetical expansion idea turns out to have been 100% correct. Instead of standing by it, though, I dismissed my own idea out of hand because there was no way for Blizzard to deliver a significant old world revamp in addition to the usual amount of new content (10 new levels) at a time when the top talent is moving on to Mystery Project 4. On this too, I was correct. I just couldn't think far enough out of the box to imagine that Blizzard would choose to cut back on the requisite 10 additional levels in order to make the time to do the revamp.

Cataclysm's Target Audience
There is, it turns out, a market that is even more valuable than the players who will purchase each new expansion to see what the biggest production values in the business can bring to solo questing this time out, even if they have no interest in the endgame. WoW's biggest potential growth market is in FORMER players.

How many players decided they were tired of tedious travel and sparse quests in the 50's? How many players came for the solo content, left when they met the group-only endgame, and have not seen a good reason to return since with both expansions saving all their best lore for elite endgame raids? How many players simply used up the content that WoW had to offer over the last nearly-five years, and would return for a spruced up trip down memory lane with some shiny new choices to play with?

Blizzard is betting that this is the most underestimated market of all. I won't be lining up to put my money against them.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Minutes 4 and 5 on the PTR's

Based on Xtian's comment on my post from earlier, I took the Shadow Priest for another spin, this time making sure to focus on nuking instead of DOT's. This proved far more effective. I'm still less than fond of having a channeled spell as my bread and butter DPS, but at least I don't feel like I'm doing it wrong anymore. Apparently that tasty passive mana and HP regen that my mage enjoys when a Shadow Priest joins the group is one of those perks that one saves for when one has a tank.

Meanwhile, What's My Main Again? suggested that I try the talent that lengthens the stun duration on the cat's stealth opener by a second. A single second is one of those things that sounds stupid in the abstract, but in this case makes the difference between having the enemy come un-stunned before or after you've shredded its rear to mangled bits.

I still think that I'm more interested in OOMkin than the cat side of Druidism - a good thing since the combination I'm describing isn't even available until level 50 (!) - but adding the stun talent might elevate the spec from "don't bother" to "worth keeping on a dual spec slot".

Druids are the only class that has separate resource bars - a Shaman can dual spec caster DPS and melee DPS, but both sides use the same mana pool, which will be emptied when you click the switch spec button. By contrast, a Moonkin who runs totally out of mana 7 kills into a kill 10 rats quest can shift to kitty form, switch to a feral spec (you shift before respeccing because shifting costs mana, which you would have to regen after you specced), wait 5 seconds for their energy to regenerate, and go. Throw in the utility of being able to go into stealth mode, and this could be well worth the cost of dual speccing at level 40, even on a character that I'm not intending to use for group content.

Meanwhile jumping, clicking storm crow form, and instantly flying off is a very neat trick. So is dying your hair and having your cat form change colors. I can imagine clicking the barber button very frequently on the hypothetical Worgen druid if this is the type of perk I can look forward to. :)

Oh hai, I changed colors.

Even more fun with WoW PTR Premades

Though Blizzard may have helped spoil the expansion announcement by starting the 3.2.2 PTR's when they did, the latest round of testing also offered an unusual opportunity. As is customary, the old 3.2 PTR was not wiped because this was not a major version update. Even better, Blizzard decided to refill the premade supply to get more players onto the PTR's as they go head to head with Blizzcon and a relatively recent new patch on the live servers.

Seven premades and three transfers of my own characters (80 Page, 70 Pally, 62 Warrior) later, I've suddenly got the chance to test drive high level characters from all ten of WoW's classes. Since we're almost guaranteed to get new race/class combos in the expansion, whether or not it focuses on new races and an alt-friendly revamp of old world Azeroth, this is an opportunity that I figured I should not pass up.

Test-driving a class in 3 minutes or less
My testing session from two weeks ago spawned two separate followup discussions, so it's probably only best for me to add some disclaimers up front.

If I do group content in WoW, it's almost certainly going to be on my main character, my mage. That gets me out of testing half a dozen trees that are dedicated for tanking or healing right off the bat. Also, I'm looking at solo content, not sustained group DPS, so I have to worry about taking damage, spell pushback, etc.

All specs for today (except for the Warrior) were tested on non-elite icecrown undead, using the gear the premades came with, without socketing or adding additional enchants since that was time consuming and unnecessary. I did NOT use consensus specs from anywhere, instead making up my own choices based on my (sometimes limited) knowledge of what spells I thought I would be using solo. Overall, I'd guess that I spent 5-7 minutes on setup and 3 minutes actually killing mobs per character.

On to the latest rapid-fire trials:

Shadow Priest (Woshane, as in "Worgen Shadowpriest"):
I've never fully understood this spec in solo combat. I can see where you get an elegant rotation going on a raid mob that someone else is tanking, with all your DOTs adding even more bonuses to your other spells. Solo with the premade, I didn't really have enough time to actually use all of these spells, but having so many DOTS to wait on means taking damage while I wait for the mob to die. I'm probably supposed to rely on PW:S and/or fearing and then mind flaying mobs, but I couldn't figure out how to get this thing working in a way that didn't end up generating lots of downtime and/or forcing me out of Shadowform to heal after a couple of fights. It felt like a drain-tanking Affliction Warlock without the crucial draining part of the equation. If someone can offer me some better insight into this class, I'd love to hear it.

Cat-focused Feral Druid (Nawofera, as in "Nature Worgen Feral"):
Compared to my Subtlety Rogue, I felt like I simply had fewer options. It looks like I'm intended to chain a stealth opener into Mangle (bonus to bleed effects) and Mangle into Shred (the backstab equivalent, does more damage with the Mangle buff up). Problem is, I don't have any reliable way of getting behind the mob for the last step. Maybe it works if you use kitty hop and spam the button in mid-leap, or is this a group-only combo? Regardless, I was unexpectedly disappointed with this class. I feel like I've replaced the various stealth-related tools on my rogue with the option of going out of cat to heal - more versatile (and zero downtime, because the unused mana pool regenerates while you're a cat) perhaps, but less interesting.

Balance Druid (same):
Unexpectedly fun. Last time I tried this class, there wasn't really a good niche for Starfire in combat, so you'd pull with it, root, moonfire and spam wrath until the mob died or escaped the root. Nowadays, both spells are usable, nigh-uninterruptable with talents/glyphs, and there's a talent specifically to encourage players to switch back and forth. All that feels like it's enough to make the spec stand on its own feet solo, at which point the ability to shift out into healing or flight forms is a nice bonus.

One other thing was that the tree feels very crowded. Between pushback resistance, enhancements to the class debuffs, new spells, and general spell power boosts, this was probably the only tree I've looked at where I would even consider something really lopsided like spending 65+ points in a single tree. I guess that raiders avoid the problem by skipping the pushback-related stuff.

Combat Rogue (Gobsneak, "Goblin Sneak", since I picked the Horde premade here):
I'm sure the sustained DPS is great, but it feels, well, less subtle than Subtlety. Also - and this was an issue with the Cat as well - I'm not as fond of energy as a mechanic in a toe-to-toe fight. When I get into a fight, I want to be pushing buttons, not waiting for my energy to regenerate so I can push buttons. I should probably try Assassination instead to see if I like it better.

Subtlety Rogue (same)
This was a very quick test drive to see what lies ahead. The increased focus on stealth and piling on the combo points makes this build feel distinct from other melee specs - I open with four combo points via Premeditation+Ambush, unleash a massive combo attack a few seconds later, and then it's time to mop up what's left of the foe. Shadow Dance is a ton of fun, though I had a ton of trouble attempting to configre the separate action bar; Kidney Shot stun followed by a pair of Shadow Dance Ambush Crits is absolutely nuts. Again, I'll try Assassination later, but I doubt it will dethrone this spec from my Rogue anytime soon.

Fury Warrior (Greenraven, level 62 live character)
Also a brief test-drive to see how the class plays now. With Whirlwind, Berserker Stance, and Titan's Grip, it's a cuisinart of doom. I should probably give Arms a try as well, but I've always disliked that spec because of the potential to go rage starved on a string of misses when single-wielding a 2-handed weapon. See previous comments about wanting to push buttons in fights, rather than waiting for the opportunity to get to push buttons. This character may get dusted off on the live servers just so I can see the rest of the Horde content (e.g. the Thrall questline in Nagrand, which might get removed by plot advancement).

Unholy Blood Death Knight (Cheerydethfo, as in "the fourth")
Having played the original Cheerydeth to level 80 during the Wrath beta, this was mostly a drive-by to visit my old favorite spec, a 34 Blood/37 Unholy hybrid with the self-healing corpse worms from the blood tree and the permanent ghoul minion, third disease debuff, and bone armor out of Unholy. This combination has actually gotten BETTER since they scrapped the talent that turns the DK into a ghoul on death and added a pet-buff that heals the Ghoul (incidentally counteracting the life-draining drawback of Hysteria from the blood tree). I guess that Unholy Blight was probably better when it was a FOURTH disease, but it's not horrible as a bonus effect on Death Coil, and I don't really miss the flappy Gargoyle much anyway. I'm sure it's terrible for group DPS, but it's a ton of fun for solo content with good DPS and massive self-healing.

Beast Mastery Hunter (Worgenseeker)
This thing took like 3 times as long to set up because I also had to manage a pet. I decided to take the spirit beast that Blizzard helpfully put in the premade's stables for a spin, along with a bunch of points in BM and Aimed Shot plus Go for the Throat out of Marksman. In the past, my complaint about Hunters and Locks was that, after having played a Mage, being a ranged DPS class with a pet tanking for you felt like letting an NPC do all of the actually hard/dangerous work. I don't know if the BM Hunter has that problem or not, because stuff was dying so quickly that I barely had time to get a few shots off, much less pull aggro. As with the Warlock, I may have to go pull some elite mobs to actually learn anything about this spec.

Remaining on the to do list
The PTR's are going to be up for another week at a minimum, so I've still got some time to play around with these guys. If I'm going to try everything that I didn't get around to between this PTR and the last one, the remaining specs would be:
Demonlogy Warlock (not expecting to like it due to the pet tanking thing)
Assassination Rogue
Arms Warrior
A bit more quality time with all three trees of hunter (Survival sounds most interesting at the moment)
Perhaps experimenting with more conventional Death Knight specs (i.e. actually trying 51 point talents)

It was a bit of a whirlwind tour, and I'm sure I missed a lot of stuff from sheer lack of knowledge, but it was also a ton of fun to get to take basically the entire game for a test drive. Obviously, no class actually failed to kill non-elite mobs, so it's more a question for me of whether I liked how the playstyle felt, and a general personal preference for limited out of combat downtime over higher DPS but more time spend eating/drinking to recover afterwards. If anyone thinks I've missed something crucial about some of these classes, please let me know - like I said, I've got time to take another crack at these things, and the purpose of the exercise was to learn.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Role of Lore

Allarond just learned to make his weapons spontaneously light on fire. There is good design logic for this. Turbine decided that removing enemy buffs should be an important mechanic in the expansion. Champions got buff-removal added to an upgrade of a bread-and-butter attack skill we've had since level two - my guess would be that Turbine wanted the class to have more utility for balance reasons. Adding an upgraded graphic to the skill is a good way of demonstrating that it now has a new function, which should become the player's top priority when the enemy buffs itself.

(A cynic might also argue that the flashy animation is a way to paper over the relatively small number of new skills in the expansion levels, but I don't know that this is any different than WoW or EQ2's spamming players with new ranks of every spell in their arsenals on a regular basis while introducing legitimately new abilities equally infrequently.)

The problem? This game is set in Middle Earth. I don't remember Gimli's axes bursting into flames as he fought the malevolent ice wraiths of Caradhras. (Actually, I don't remember the malevolent ice wraiths of Caradhras either, maybe Gandalf was busy whining to Aragorn about being forced to go to Moria while the battle raged off camera. Of course, if the game stuck to just foes the Fellowship actually fought during the story, the beastiary would be very repetitive indeed, especially in the context of a game full of "kill 360 of this type of enemy" deeds.)

"You guys seem to care a lot about the lore, don't you?"
My non-gaming wife's comments on my blogging hobby are always interesting, as they offer an outside perspective on our crazy ways. When I woke up on Sunday morning, I found that I'd already gotten a number of comments on my Saturday night post about the lore behind the PTR class/race combos rumored to be part of the new expansion. She skimmed over the comments - substantive discussion too, not one-line expressions of assent or disdain - and remarked that us MMORPG players must be very concerned with our lore.

The lore plays a conflicted role in the modern MMORPG. On the one hand, the lore is the difference between a game where players fight for a cause and an FPS with slow-paced combat and lots of repetitive battles against weak and poorly scripted bots. On the other, the lore of a fantasy world will almost invariably conflict with things that need to happen for gameplay.

Threats - and players - respawn after being killed. Within a matter of hours of gameplay (perhaps days of in-game time), a player gains enough experience that, if they were allowed to do so, they could attack the entire village they grew up in and stand in the middle of the angry mob, shrugging off blows from their former peers before one-shotting the whole bunch of them. The Mines of Moria, overrun by goblins and fouler things than orcs, needs an Invincible Goat Taxi service to allow players to get around in a timely fashion. These things do not make sense, but you cannot make a level-based questing RPG without them.

Resolving the conflicts
The irony, when you're not talking about a licensed IP, is that the lore is a fictional creation of the game studio. If they say that the big bad guy of Warcraft III was actually the black sheep of an entire race of friendly goat people from outer space who would like to join the Alliance, that's precisely what just happened. Most discussion of WoW's notorious zombie plague focused on the griefing aspects of the event, but, as I wrote at the time:
"As always, Lore is crucially important when some Dwarf player wants to be a mage but the lore says that the Dwarves of Ironforge have forsworn arcane magic, but completely dispensable when Blizzard wants to base an event around a plague that no force on Azeroth is able to cure, only to have players dispelling it left and right and respawning as mortals after being killed as a zombie."

That said, I always find it irritating when the developers cite the lore as a justification for something that players don't like (generally because it's a tedious time sink, like travel times). That's like having a discussion on politics and saying that your view is right because your imaginary friend Senator Makebelieve says so.

Under various circumstances, the devs will:

  • Bend the lore with invincible goats or an unusual decision to hold a jousting tournament using real weapons in the middle of the Lich King's territory (though Euripedes has an amusing theory on that one)
  • Strain it to the point of incredulity, with the pack of ravenous wolves that killed and ate the NPC someone sent you to find deciding to leave you to to "retreat" in peace once you fell over
  • Outright break it, with an entire quest line in Icecrown establishing that there is no way whatsoever for the most powerful lore NPC's in Azeroth to cure an infected hero, only ease his pain and prevent him from rising again as an undead monster - this is the thing that most low level healers in the game were allowed to dispel for a week back in November
  • Present it on a pedestal like some revered and immutable commandment from on high that settles the discussion once and for all, if it happens to support whatever they wanted to do anyway

Go Go Invincible Goat!

Perhaps the reason it bothers me is that I'd rather not be reminded of exactly how fictional the lore really is. Trying to come up with an explanation for the lack of Orc Priests, or arguing whether Forsaken Blood Knights work, immerses us in the world. Being forced to deal with the banal at the expense of actually enjoying our hobby, or rounding a corner to be confronted by something that just does not make sense in the context of what we have seen of the world, pulls us back out into reality, where we pay money to developers so they can set up stuff for us to beat.

If this post seems to contradict itself - for example, on the question of whether mechanics that break immersion are good or bad - that's because it does. Such is the role of lore in the mordern MMORPG.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Even More Ways In Which Dogs Are Like MMORPG Players

And now for yet more reasons why dogs are like MMORPG players.

Will jump onto or into everything

I don't know why you all left me at home for your grocery run, just cause it's 90 degrees out. Anyways, I'm bored, and it looks like you guys need help with some stuff in the back of the car, so I figured I'd hop in and help out!

In games that do not allow player flight, players will attempt to find their way onto, into, or on top of everything. Not because there's any good reason for them to go there. Just because it's there. WoW's flying mounts limit some of the possibilities, though the new hobby is trying to mess with no-fly zones, such as parachuting in on top of the walls in Wintergrasp.

Creative Uses of Game Mechanics

40 lb dog WTB paid race change to cat. Being light enough to sit on top of the chair back without collapsing the couch is an overpowered racial trait!

After screenshotting the above incident to prove that it happened, our dog's couch privileges were revoked. She learned very quickly that she's no longer invited on the couches, and that we will scold her if we see her on there. Unfortunately, like players who find some creative but hard to hotfix terrain exploit that trivializes a boss, she doesn't care that the design intent is that she is no longer allowed to lounge/slobber on every last inch of the furniture.

Really, being a dog owner makes me more sympathetic to the devs when "creative uses of game mechanics" happen.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What Race/Class Combos Would Be Missing From Cataclysm?

My gut reaction to the WoW Cataclysm rumors was to conclude that all races would be allowed to become all classes when the dust settled. I figured that there was no reason to keep any restrictions once you've explained away many of the most prominent discrepancies. Over the day since the leak, though, some of the examples I cited turn out not to be so far fetched. Is Blizzard opening all classes to all races, or have they just gone through and tried to stretch the rules using whatever exceptions they could find without (technically) breaking the lore (a fictional creation that they own and can change)?

Faction Balance
Let's assume for the sake of argument that the 11 new combinations, and only those combinations, are going to be added to the game. Once the lore is accommodating those choices as NPC's, there's no reason to restrict player characters. What would that do to faction balance? Of the game's 10 classes:

3 are open to an equal number of races on each side. DK's and now Warriors will be universal (I'm pretty sure that BE's only lost warriors in the first place due to the pre-Wrath 6 classes/race restriction), and one race on each side (Draenai and Tauren) has previously been ruled too large to sneak in the shadows as a rogue.

After the changes, the Horde will hold a one-race advantage for Warlocks, Hunters, Druids, and Shamen. This could be remedied if the Worgen, but NOT the Goblins, get those classes. Gnomes would be the other no-Hunter race, and it might be argued that having such a large differential between character size and pet size (think Gnome/Goblin + Devilsaur) would be a PVP balance issue. Then again, would they really make Goblins go without hunters?

Meanwhile, the Horde would continue to have a one-race deficit in Priests, Pallies, and Mages. Orcs would be the only no-priest race, Tauren would the only no-mage race. However, there are issues with trying to balance this. Would they really rule out Worgen priests and mages? And is Azeroth really ready for Goblin Pallies?

Even if you conclude that Pallies and Shamen can remain imbalanced for historical reasons, that leaves Worgen with six classes (War, Rog, DK, Lock, Hunter, Druid) and Goblins with only five (War, Rogue, DK, Mage, Priest). More likely, there'd be some overlap (currently the Alliance has an extra warrior and priest, while the horde has extra locks and hunters), because I can't imagine new races in an alt-friendly expansion being limited to a mere 5-6 options (putting them in at least a tie for fewest options in the game).

One strange addition
So it turns out that, while the Bronzebeard Dwarves of Ironforge (all current player Dwarves) don't do Shamanism or Arcane magic, Wildhammer and Dark Iron Dwarves do. I'd also forgotten that the mages in Dire Maul were Highbourne pre-Night Elves rather than High/Blood Elves. Some of the others (Human Hunters, BE Warriors) were only left off because of the old class cap.

Still, what's up with Troll Druids? I don't recall ever seeing any druids beyond the two current races (Tauren and Night Elf). I suppose that the trolls (bosses in ZG, ZA, and ZD) have some ability to change into animal forms under the proper circumstances, so perhaps some off-shoot tribe actually learned how to druid without going nuts and sacrificing their totem gods. Worgen, whose lore is almost as clean of a slate as the Draenai, could also sneak in under the shapeshifting clause.

After the changes, six classes will be nigh ubiquitous, with the remainder (Warlocks, Druids, Shamen, and Pallies) being the classes that would be most impacted by racial culture if restrictions are remaining. As I noted above, there are three classes that will be missing from only one of the current races: Orc Priests, Tauren Mages, and Gnome Hunters. Perhaps arcane power is not really a Tauren thing (though I would have been Horde all the way if Tauren mage had been an option back in 2004), and Gnomes don't care enough about nature to feed a non-demonic pet. But why the hate for Orc Priests?

Speaking of Gnomes, the addition of priests would rescue them from their current status as the only race that cannot heal. This ends five years of oppression, during which Gnomes were the only race that could not organize a single-race dungeon run. Even so, they would still be the least versatile race in the game, with only six class options. (The other race with similar current limitations, the Tauren, picks up two classes at once to jump out of the tie for last place.)

Forsaken Blood Knights are another seeming omission. If you were going to add just one Pally race to the Horde, Forsaken learning to leech off of the baby Mu'ru from their Blood Elf colleagues seems more likely that Tauren spontaneously developing Naa'ru worship like Alliance Pallies.

Summing Up
Overall, my gut reaction to the changes may be been premature. Every non-gnome race would now be missing 2-3 classes (/mourn gnomes who miss out on 4), and most of the omissions make some amount of sense. The Druid thing remains dicey, but I guess that having at least two choices per class per faction is a worthwhile goal. And hey, I've been meaning to try a Shaman, but not all that enthusiastic about A) the Space Goats or B) rolling Horde without access to all my heirlooms and alts, so perhaps I'm just the audience they're after.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Did Blizzard Just PTR-Spoil The Expansion?

MMO-Champion may have the full details of the WoW expansion announcement a week out from Blizzcon. They are aided and abetted in part by Blizzard's inexplicable decision to bring up PTR's for patch 3.2.2 days before the keynote. Among other things, the test patch revamps the Onyxia fight up to level 80, and includes NPC's with eleven race/class combinations that the game currently does not permit.

All Races, All Classes?

A new face on the PTR's

I can, of course, claim credit for the latter. In the comments of my Blizzcon predictions from earlier this week, I wrote:

"It doesn't sound like Blizzard is willing to throw in the towel on lore-based race/class restrictions just yet (this WILL happen, but not as a marquis feature of this expansion), so we can scratch Pallies, Shamen, and Druids and figure that the new races get the other seven classes. /yawn."

When I write something like that, Blizzard tends to make me look foolish in relatively short order.

Now, a few new combinations (one for each race except Draenei, with two Tauren and Dwarves) alone does not prove that they're allowing all races to be all classes. Once you look at the actual list, though, it becomes harder to understand.
  • Dwarf mages were removed during WoW's beta because the lore says that the Dwarves of Ironforge don't do arcane magic - that's the evil Dwarves. Not the hugest stretch, but they clearly did feel strongly about this once upon a time.
  • Dwarf Shaman is a bit more of an issue. The Alliance didn't have Shamen until the Exodar crashed in Kalimdor. Was that really enough time ago for someone to have class changed? Then again, the lore says that Draenei Shamen were founded by a fallen Pally, and Dwarves can be Pallies, so maybe.
  • Troll Druid begins to push it. We've never seen a single druid outside of the two traditional races, Night Elf and Tauren.
  • Night Elf Mages?! Wasn't the whole reason why the High Elves split from the Night Elves a disagreement over the use of arcane magic?
Now you can paper over the last one by doing, well, exactly what they've done on the PTR's, namely introducing a subfaction of Night Elf mages who were sort of a missing link between the Night Elves and the High Elves. Fine in isolation. The lore is Blizzard's fictional creation, and they're free to change it. But really, once you're coming up with excuses to justify such an egregious stretch, why keep any restrictions at all?

In short, it appears that my far-fetched expansion idea may not have been as far off as I thought. If MMO-Champion is right - and it's a credible rumor, emerging at about the right time relative to the con - then this will be an expansion that heavily encourages alts, giving Blizzard time to revamp the remainder of the old world of Azeroth (including flight). New races and new race/class options may increase demand just enough to allow that to happen.

Expect the new expansion to be all races, all classes.

No Gear Reset?
The other half of the rumor is that the level cap will only increase by five levels, and that the Onyxia revamp is only the beginning of the raid content revamp. This is a game changer for itemization, because it paves the way for the next expansion to avoid a total gear reset. A few of the various things that become possible in the context of a smaller level increase:
  • Blizzard is pressed for time, and old content is sitting, unused and ready to go.
  • Between 10 and 25 man loot and hard modes, item level inflation is going to be absolutely out of control by Icecrown. Bringing the level 81 quest reward greens up to that level would be nuts.
  • By extension, the decision to add better loot to existing 5-mans makes sense if there will be no gear reset, with expansion content tuned around higher end gear from current dungeons.
  • Icecrown, like Naxx v1.0 and Sunwell before it, would arrive relatively close to an expansion. A smaller level increase with no gear reset would make that content remain relevant as possibly the level 85 entry level endgame, allowing more players to actually see the end of the Wrath story arc.
  • This also avoids the problem Blizzard faced at the Wrath launch, where there was only time for either an entry level raid OR tougher content and Blizzard felt that they had to choose the entry level. With the older content (Icecrown and recycled stuff) serving as entry level, they will be free to tune the new content for elite players.
  • The talent trees get more and more precarious every time Blizzard adds 10 more points. Meanwhile, Blizzard has shown no interest in adding more than a handful of legitimately new spells each expansion. Five levels means fewer new talent points and fewer levels without new spells.
  • With recycled raid content, Blizzard could conceivably provide a leveling path in raid content. There's no need to disperse your guild into half a dozen five mans if there is raid content that offers good loot upgrades and experience straight from level 80-85.
Will it work?
Overall, if this is how the announcement plays out, there does seem to be a little something for everyone. Group players don't have their gear reset. Alt-a-holics get a vast world of new possible race/class combos, including new races, and revamped content to make the leveling path more polished. Blizzard gets to reuse a ton of content, launching the expansion faster than anticipated for lower development costs while they work on their Mystery Projects.

That said, there are some catches. Will there be as much new leveling content for the 5 new levels as for 10 of the current expansions, or will new solo content for characters currently at the cap get the short end of the stick? Will players, solo and group alike, miss having legitimately new content to go with their revamped stuff, if there indeed will not be a new continent? How big is the demographic that really always wanted to make another WoW alt but never got around to it because they weren't happy with race choices or travel times? If they do balance expansion content around ilvl 200+ epic gear, how will new players who hit level 80 gear up for the new expansion?

Obviously, we can't be certain that this isn't some red herring, if for no other reason than because I have now written about it. (Some of my earlier speculation may end up being relatively accurate, but I guess that's the advantage of the shot-gun approach.) They HAVE to know that people datamine the PTR's by now. If this all holds up, though, we certainly won't be able to say that they just gave us another continent and 10 levels just like the last two expansions. For that reason alone, the Cataclysm sounds like it might be the way for WoW to go.

Is Accessibility Really A Choice?

Via Scott Jennings is yet another "Why was WoW a Success?" interview at Eurogamer. We've seen dozens of these things, but this particular one helped me put my finger on something that I've been trying to express for a while now. Here are some edited snippets from an extended exchange with Tom Chilton:
"One of the core philosophies for the game was that World of Warcraft was going to be more accessible....

There wasn't going to be experience loss on death - that sort of thing. ...

We actually originally expected the game to go into more of an EverQuest-style free-form, where you go out there and you fight monsters until you get to the next level.

"What we found was that all the feedback that we got from our alpha testers was that once they ran out of quests, the game got boring. They were like, 'I don't know what to do any more, and I don't really feel like playing any more once I run out of quests'. We came to that realisation that, wow, this quest thing really works. We need to do this throughout the entire game!"

The Linear World of Quests
That quest system is exactly what is drawing so much criticism from oldschool players today, be they EQ1 vets or WoW players who thought the game was better back in 2004.

Keen complains (amongst other things) about the linearity of the modern MMORPG. This linearity makes Stargrace write that, after a solo-quest focused EQ2 expansion, "I pretty much never wanted to touch another quest again." Tipa writes that "These days, I tend to regard games that don’t force you into certain paths as more of an RPG that on-rails MMOs like WoW."

So why, then, has the "on-rails" model grown to overtake basically the entire AAA MMORPG genre?

The impact of accessibility
The reason the quote from Blizzard jumps out at me is that it offers an explanation for the numbers. MMOG-Chart believes that EQ1 and FFXI both peaked in the 500-600K subscriber range. It's difficult to get a precise apples to apples comparison since Blizzard doesn't like to release the portion of WoW's numbers that are paying trivial amounts on Chinese servers, but the estimate is 4.5 million US and EU subscribers as of January 2008.

For the sake of argument, let's call the difference roughly 5-fold. (This rounds up substantially for the older games, and probably disregards some of WoW's non-China markets, but WoW has the advantages of greater prevalence of gaming-capable machines with internet connections, and more players already in the genre recruiting by word of mouth compared to a decade ago.)

As those of you who played back in 2004 may remember, WoW was hardly the most stable game on the planet at its launch. Five years later, they're still working to dig the level 40-58 content out from the backlog that resulted from their late decision to switch to the pure solo quest model. In short, I would argue that the roughly 5-fold difference in subscribers is not beacuse of the mythical Blizzard polish, massive budgets made possible by sales of 10-year old RTS games, or anyone's dratted little dog. WoW got five times as many subscribers because players who were not able to play EQ1 and FFXI due to the lack of accessibility were able to play - and prosper - in WoW.

To restate the number slightly, I would argue that as much as 80% (4/5) of the modern MMORPG market is playing MMORPG's because the genre now offers accessibility. (Heck, even FFXI has solo players these days.)

A Choice That Isn't
Unwize suggests that the shift to accessibility at the expense of difficulty represents a new "Trammel" in MMORPG development. Ultima Online developers famously offered the option of not being killed and looted by other players, and the community overwhelmingly chose that road. Spinks stirred up a 55-comment hornet's nest back in May by arguing that a player who is online soloing and ignores their guildies' cries for group members causing a "tragedy of the commons", failing to foster the guild community. Both of these views imply choice.

Of course, there's always a choice. Perhaps I could cut a deal with my wife where I'm free to raid two nights a week in exchange for my covering the household stuff on two nights so she can do something else of her choosing. It's just not much of a GOOD choice. Two nights a week would still be under 50% attendence in a guild that raids four nights a week, and this would not leave me time to farm for consumables or gear improvements needed to actually contribute during that time. Meanwhile, the result would almost certainly be less time spent gaming and blogging than I currently enjoy at the end of the night after splitting the housework evenly.

Technically, I'm making a "selfish" choice that gets me what I want (more time online) rather than what Spinks wants (warm bodies for group content). Still, where Spinks sees me selfishly ignoring her pleas for a mage, in reality I may need to sign off in 30 minutes, or I might be online but called away half a dozen times to take the dog out, put away the dishes, and start the laundry. (EQ2 allows you to auto-consume food and drink when your buffs run out, and I've actually had to make a point of equipping these items in stacks of 1-2 to make sure that I don't waste too many of them due to being AFK.)

Perhaps I could, in the right guild context, contribute more as a half-time raider than as a full-time non-raider. Given where I am in life right now, though, my "choice" to be a solo player instead of a more group or raid focused player is about as meaningful as my "choice" not to try and become the starting shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. It doesn't make sense for me to pay - both with money and with my limited gaming time - for a game that does not support my playstyle.

The road forward
Though I don't agree with Keen on issues like in-game travel, he's not entirely wrong. There are things in games that have lost some of their meaning over time, and the pressure for accessibility will only continue. There are, simply put, more players who need accessibility than players who would like the accessibility bar set at the toughest level that doesn't actually kick them personally out of the game.

As Eric of Elder Game (a former AC2 dev) puts it in a discussion on the psychology of punishment as a game incentive, players put up with the state of things in years gone by because "players didn’t know of any other game they could go to". In 2004, WoW's travel was along the least punishing out there. The game is even larger now that it was in 2004 precisely because they realized that the old games were actually occupying a niche - for social gamers with low AFK needs - in a yet-to-be-discovered genre of virtual world MMORPG's.

Perhaps developers, even Blizzard, have implemented the choice to add accessibility poorly. However, the alternative - not making the choice and writing off 80% of the potential market - is not much of a choice at all.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Race Changes And Changing Races

WoW is almost certainly getting new races in the coming expansion. They want these races to be able to sell expansion boxes, after failing to include anything for players who are not at least at least level 55 (if they want to re-roll Death Knight, 68 if not) in the current expansion. Look at Penny Arcade's famous take on Blood Elf racials if you want some idea of what to expect.

Meanwhile, SOE is in the process of nigh doubling the number of racial tradition choices in EQ2. The current number is way too small - if you didn't choose one of your race's favored tradeskills, you can already collect ALL of the other options.

I group these two changes together because both are things that are being added to the game that have a RELATIVE effect on existing characters.

As far as I am aware, there will be no specific nerfs to the non-Goblin/Worgen races in WoW. EQ2 is undergoing the process of consolidating its critical strike/heal/spell stats into one universal number, as WoW did in Wrath, which will affect some existing racials, but there's no reason to believe that the existing choices will be getting worse.

In absolute terms, if you did 100 DPS before the changes, you should still do 100 DPS after the changes. In relative terms, though, your existing character might be less appealing when the dust settles - perhaps a new race does 102 DPS, or has some killer PVP special ability, or perhaps you just really love Goblins and would have chosen that race just for the looks.

The Role of Race in MMORPG's
I would not consider race to be a fundamental aspect of either WoW or EQ2. Your faction may determine which NPC's are willing to talk to you, but each of the sides has approximately equal numbers of NPC allies. If Blizzard swapped out my gnome mage for a human one, I would be puzzled by the change in character height, but it wouldn't make any difference in my actual gameplay. If they swapped it out for an undead one - an upcoming paid account service - I would need a new guild, and would need to figure out where the Horde's NPC's live, but, again, minimal impact on my gameplay. By contrast, I'd be in for quite a learning curve if someone swapped the class of any of my characters.

The quirk to race is that it is one of very few things that affect your character but cannot (yet) be changed. If Blizzard nerfs my Arcane spec, I can switch to a different spec. If Blizzard nerfs my racial bonuses, I'm stuck with a decision that I might have made differently, had I known that it would happen when I rolled up the character back in November 2004.

There are good lore reasons, to be sure - you can't really turn a 30 year-old-human into a hundred-year-old-elf in most settings. The system also has some flavor benefits. Perhaps I would like my EQ2 ranger to be a Wood Elf - the only race with a racial bonus to bows. Perhaps I would like the challenge and uniqueness of playing some combination that is not really all that supported by the stats, like an Ogre caster or a Ratonga tank. However, it's not a choice if the change that makes Dark Elves into supreme rogues and Erudites into the optimal casters goes in AFTER I made my race choice (which, I'm told, is precisely what happened to EQ2 players who started before the current racial system was implemented).

What should players expect?
Everything in an MMORPG is subject to change, and has to be subject to change. Bugs and imbalances need to be fixed. New content and options need to be added to keep the game fresh. Obviously, it would be nice if developers made an effort to be as value-neutral as possible when messing around under the hood, but it is not realistic to demand that any portion of the game can never be changed.

That said, because race is not such a fundamental part of the game, I do think that players should have the option of changing their race when significant changes are made. The player with the character in question legitimately leveled that character at some point; if anything, the effort they invested back then might be greater than the effort that would have been required to re-roll today. There is no question that the character might not be able to function, the way there might be if you changed classes.

Of course, players who are dissatisfied with their race choice could always re-roll, but the very nature of the persistent world MMORPG is designed to encourage attachment to characters. It's easy for someone who is still happy with their current choice to say no when other players complain that a patch made their race obsolete. If the next WoW or EQ2 expansion introduced a version of DDO's 32-point characters (which are superior in every way to default characters, but must be unlocked through gameplay on a character who will not be retroactively upgraded), they might take a different view.

A transaction I can support
Overall, I think this is actually a good place to implement paid account services, even though I generally distrust the effect these transactions have on the developer's financial incentives.

Either racial benefits play so small of a role that there won't be any demand, or they are significant enough that players should not be stuck with the effects of changes they could not have forseen when they made their characters. In either case, it will very readily become apparent if the developers start making a point of making a different race overpowered each patch in the hopes of selling more race changes.

Sure enough, SOE is waiting until they finish the racial revamp before introducing their race change service, and Blizzard is restricting their faction transfer service specifically to prevent characters from changing races within their own faction (even if they transfer and then transfer back - a restriction that I personally think is largely moot). I'd expect that even the most desperate studio understands that gutting and overhauling the racial system is a card that can't be played all that often, and that players will expect races to remain reasonably close to their current abilities.

I admit that would be unfortunate if the first level 80 Worgen/Goblins were leveled up on the opposite faction before the expansion, for immediate transfer on launch day. Beyond that niche case, though, I generally think that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

More Early Re-Impressions of Moria

As you may have noticed from my post on the LOTRO lore, Allarond rides again in Middle Earth after I finally cashed in on an insanely good clearence deal for the Moria expansion.

(Aside: I was not expecting to enter my expansion key and receive 30 days of game time - WoW most certainly does not include time in their expansion boxes, and I'd heard that the same was true for most games' expansions.)

Overall, it's been a positive experience. I feel obliged to offer that disclaimer, because this post may come off a bit nit-picky and negative. This is a minor drawback to the game's frequent retrials - I've had plenty of opportunities to come back and notice the major improvements to the game, so those are all old news. Now that I'm actually spending some time in game, I'm free to notice minor and not-so-minor places where the game has NOT improved while I've gone.

The Rigors of Travel

Somewhere on the other side of this ditch, the slope becomes shallow enough to climb. As far as I can tell, the only way to figure out is to run into the wall until you find a spot where you can make upwards progress.

Travel so far has not been too painful. I have a one-hour hearthstone equivalent that I can place at a location where I am questing, and a second one-hour racial swift travel spell to return to the town of Bree. Sadly, my horse will not go into Moria, so I'm going to be mountless for probably the majority of the expansion (there's a rep grind involved in claiming a Moria-capable goat mount).

The game's auto-mount travel system is slow but offers players the opportunity to hop off the ride mid way, using it as a shortcut to get places without fighting the local wildlife en route. I'm still a bit disappointed to find a network of invincible goat taxis in Moria, but I guess I wouldn't like the place very much if there weren't any.

One major feature, which I noted during a retrial, is that one of the outdoor zones in the expansion allows players to unlock nigh-instant "swift travel" routes to old quest hubs through completing the local quest deeds. In practice, this system has worked out very well. I end up unlocking the swift travel routes just as I finish each hub, so it isn't a huge waste of time if I discover that I missed a quest and have to backtrack.

Inventory and Crafting

LOTRO starts new players off with a total of five 15-slot bags, which seems outright generous compared to other games. Then you loot a warg and collect five separate items. The hide is for crafting and the claw is a tradeable item used for a class quest. The paws, the tooth, and the ear are vendor trash, each of which stacks to 10 items. If you're killing a lot of Worgs, you'll end up with a lot of stacks of items. Thankfully, the default UI displays the vendor value of everything you are carrying, so that you can tell what to trash WHEN your inventory gets full. It's often worth pitching a weapon worth 5 silver to make room for a paw worth 2 silver, because you're going to end up with a stack of 10 paws, and you can't stack the weapons.

I wrote about the new crafting guilds during a retrial. LOTRO uses an irritating "critical success" crafting system, where you have to pump out dozens or even hundreds of non-crit items that no one wants to get the ability to have a CHANCE of creating a crit success item that someone might actually pay you for. The crafting guild tackles this in two ways - players can create items that are worth rep instead of vendor trash, or players can use these tokens (the recipes have a cooldown) to guarantee a critical success on certain recipes. This was a huge improvement.

Item Advancement

The article I linked back in November points to the defunct Massive Gamer site - suffice it to say that Sanya Weathers warned me to go and complete the quest line to unlock the use of legendary weapons FIRST and then complete the remainder of the content outside Moria. If you do not do this, you can expect to have to grind out 20K weapon experience, at about 70 item exp per kill after having completed all of the local quests.

Fortunately, I was warned, and had plenty of quests to do outside the mines while I worked on leveling up my new weapon. I can see tremendous potential in this system, which allows you to customize your weapon over time. The only problem is that most of the possible attributes are not very good.

My weapon's bonuses include "rend bleed damage" (I don't even have a skill called "rend", nor anything that specifies that it causes bleeding damage, maybe this is the passive damage proc that spears cause?), damage with a horn attack whose primary purpose is an AOE stun, and two defensive abilities (one active, one stance) that I don't use because they gut my DPS, and every second that I extend combat is another second in which an additional mob, respawn, or patrol may come to kill me. When I "reforged" the weapon at level 10, I was given the choice of one of two new bonuses, both of which were similarily situational. There are a handful of highly powerful and useful abilities, they're just buried on a random table along with a dozen not so useful ones. The end result is that the only good use for my points is to enhance the weapon's base DPS - which is still lower than the crafted weapon I had been using before the expansion.

The thing is that none of this is accidental. Turbine is counting on the miniscule odds of actually obtaining a perfect weapon to provide a continual time sink of replacing your current weapon with a slightly better one. You know, this reminds me of the time that Gandalf vendored Glamdring after getting some random mob drop, and how Aragorn broke down Anduril for parts after beating a raid encounter.... oh wait, no, that's exactly what did NOT happen with the named legendary items that this system explicitly refers to.

No escaping the deed grind

One thing that I hadn't noticed was that my quest log is now 3 slots larger than it used to be. Apparently, you get an additional slot for every 10 deeds you complete. I am very disappointed that Turbine decided to put this sort of a bonus there.

Players will complete the deeds for quests and exploration relatively easily in the course of normal play, but many of LOTRO's deeds are no more interesting than "go kill 300 orcs". Killing 300 orcs is fine when the only reward for doing so is cosmetic, or when the orcs are one of several alternatives for obtaining the reward. The thing is that LOTRO's deeds are tied to "virtues", stat bonuses which stack with gear and cannot be obtained by any other means. For reference, I get significantly more stats out of the traits I have slotted than the "relics" that are socketed in my legendary weapon, or from any two pieces of gear, and none of my virtues are actually capped. Going without virtures is like going without pants - you can do it, but there's no reason why you would want to.

Virtues are currently capped at 10 ranks, even though there are more than 10 deeds that award most of them, so players do not need to complete every single kill deed in the game. They do, however, need to pick at least some of the kill deeds, or forever accept lower stats than players who did not. Once you're done killing 300 goblins in the zone of your choice, it's time to kill 300 animals in a different zone for a different virtue. You can only equip 5 virtues, so you used to be done once you're done with those fifty deeds (some of which were easy quests etc). Now, instead, they're pushing you to keep on going if you want to expand your quest log.

Isn't this "optional"? Sure, in the way that everything in an MMORPG is optional unless you've been kidnapped by power levelers who will shoot you if you don't level their characters for them. That does not mean that the trait grind is a good idea. Being sent around the countryside to slaughter thousands of NPC's with maybe a sentence of explanation of why they need to die is probably the least interesting aspect of the game. Having done so once has frankly taken a huge bite out of my interest in trying other characters, who would have to start the pointless kill grinding all over again from scratch. On top of all that, the system devalues the game's otherwise deep cosmetic title system, as players who want the stat bonuses have to FIRST earn the cosmetic titles.

In short, Turbine should have worked to REDUCE the emphasis on this system. Instead, they realized with shock and horror that some players might be finishing just the traits they needed and then skipping the rest of them, and they had to rush off to find some other incentive to rescue the rest of their timesink. I am not impressed.

What I expected and what I did not
Overall, I did not expect to be thrilled with the state of Turbine's endgame timesinks - I've gotten pretty tired of WoW's versions of the same, and Blizzard's are far more involved than telling players to grind 300 orcs. Traits and reputations weren't enough to keep me interested in the game the first time around, and it doesn't look like continuously replacing "legendary" items will change that part of the game substantially.

One thing I did NOT expect to find was significant challenge in the solo game. I had initially concluded that my Champion had been nerfed, but I've since heard that they actually made a conscious decision to buff mob damage across the board for the expansion. The result has been precisely the sort of solo challenge that I've been missing of late - WoW's solo content is trivial, while EQ2 content tends to jump straight from easily soloable to needing a few group members very quickly.

So far, Moria has been a stretch of pushing the envelope to see what exactly I can accomplish. Even if Turbine's "endgame" does not deliver, and the deed system discourages me from making alts (in fairness, I also did not have a second class I was dying to try in the original game, though the new Runekeeper class from the expansion sounds interesting), it looks like there are easily a few months of quality dungeon-exploring entertainment to be had here. If that's my last word on Moria in a few months, that's certainly not a total failure in my book.