Friday, October 30, 2009

The Deserter Debuff and Random 5-mans

WoW's new random cross-server LFG feature has so many caveats and exploits with it that it made for one of the longest walls of blue text I've ever seen in a single post on MMO-Champion. The one that interests me from an incentive design perspective is the use of the deserter debuff.

The idea is that players will be locked out of the system for 15 minutes in the hopes of discouraging them from fishing for better groups/dungeons. This kind of sort of works in battlegrounds because battlegrounds are intended to be run repeatedly. Deserting a match because you don't like how things are looking means spending 15 minutes that you were planning to spend on PVP waiting out a debuff.

By contrast, many players will do the new random daily 5-man feature precisely once per day, because you can only earn top-tier raid emblems once. A good group can clear many heroics in under 30 minutes, but there's no upper limit to how long a struggling group may take.

If you're only in it for the emblems - and the emblems alone brought many people back to 5-mans in patch 3.2 - you weren't planning to do another dungeon run after this one anyway. That reduces the effective cost of deserting, because you can just do your daily quests, auction run, etc while you wait for the timer instead of after the dungeon run ends.

Bear in mind that patch 3.3 will have 16 possible random 5-mans dungeons. Of those, four offer loot that's 1-3 tiers above the rest (the 5-man Icecrown dungeons should be approximately on par with anything up to 25-man TOC), and another handful are quick and easy for even the weakest group (e.g. HVH, HUK). If you don't get a good dungeon, or it looks like you group can't hack it, the incentives say that you should quit and try again. No amount of restrictions and exceptions that Blizzard adds to the system will stop players from doing just that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Warning Players of Irreversible Consequences

Several commenters on my post from yesterday suggested that my idea was flawed because players would be forced to choose their playstyle at character creation - as Jacob put it before they "even understood the consequences of the decision". Independently of the topic at hand, this discussion puzzles me; do developers have a responsibility to warn players when a decision that they're about to make has consequences that the players do not understand?

Irreversible Without Re-rolling
Players have a lot of irreversible decisions to make the moment they click the create character button for the first time. Your race and class affect your gameplay. Your choice of server and faction affects your ability to play with your friends. Even your appearence might affect your enjoyment of a class (I just can't take EQ2's Conjuror's entirely seriously when they have beetles and/or worms tanking for them).

WoW and EQ2 now allow you to change all but your class with paid transactions, but that last one is a biggie. Even if class balance were perfect, with no flavors of the month, no chronically underpowered classes, and none of the latter turning into the former, there are still class roles to consider. Being able to tank or heal - realistically healing in most games I've played - makes a huge difference in your ability to get groups.

Somehow, it's okay for the devs to allow new players to pick DPS classes without warning them that groups will be hard to find, tanks without warning them that your typical raiding guild already has the only 1-2 tanks they need, and healers without warning them about all the social abuse they can expect from unhappy customers. By contrast, in the view of some of my commenters, actually disclosing up front that certain classes won't be allowed to group would be forcing players to make choices before they can understand the consequences of their decisions.

What about wasting time?
There are some merits to the definition if irreversible I used above - current MMORPG's tend to encourage attachment to your avatar, so having to re-roll to fix something you chose incorrectly is never fun. Then again, even the most hardcore exp and item loss mechanics out there don't prohibit players from starting over, so it's actually impossible to lose anything more than time in an MMORPG.

From that standpoint, should there be an in-game means of more fully disclosing the time/reward conditions of content? Perhaps items or achievements that are intentionally so rare that most people will not be able to get them should be labeled as such in the name of full disclosure. After all, what is the difference between wasting the player's time by letting them roll up the "wrong" character and having to re-roll later versus wasting the player's time by having them chase something that they've been misled into believing they can attain?

The guys at Penny Arcade once wrote that the actual gameplay in WoW is merely a means of obscuring the loot table. Perhaps that's a bad thing, especially when abused by a company in the hopes of tricking people into extending subscriptions (though this would appear to be a short-sighted long-term plan). Then again, perhaps allowing players to make decisions that they might regret is actually a powerful and useful learning tool. I suppose that's not the direction that games are going - you'll note that I didn't list any IN-GAME decisions in my list of irreversibles, because there really aren't many these days. Even so, I don't know that you can or should protect players from every wrong choice they could make, even - or especially - if they are actual newbies.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Could Overpowered, Solo-Only Classes Work In A Group Game?

Imagine that a game had two types of classes:

Solo classes capable of completing all of the leveling content on their own, but unable to join any groups and therefore excluded from the endgame.

Group classes that are tuned to require balanced groups (the exact size is unimportant) to complete leveling content, but in return receive double exp/player/hour and are allowed to continue into the group-based endgame.

The balance issues that come with having to balance every class with a core solo PVE skillset and group utility would be gone. So would the challenges of providing solo and group leveling content, since both types of classes would be completing the same content. Meanwhile, the complaint that the solo leveling game does not prepare players to fill their roles in endgame groups would be gone.

Would It Work?
Someone who knows their history might be about to comment that the old school group games like EQ1 and FFXI actually did have some classes that could solo by charming or permakiting mobs. These classes were incidentally not so useful to groups, since their tactics were superfluous with a real tank and healer. If anything, I'd cite that as a proof of concept.

If developers implemented this intentionally, they could balance the leveling experience to be fun for everyone, rather than fun for one group (either soloers or groupers depending on the game) and annoying (grindy or trivial) for the other. There would be perfectly clear expectations so that players don't reach endgame and discover that their classes aren't wanted. Because the characters would be on the same server, group players could have solo class alts for their farming needs. Alternately, the game could use BOE endgame group dungeon loot as a way to encourage solo players to send their cash to group players for their upkeep costs.

The devs would technically miss out on the chance to try and convert a 95% solo, once/month potential group player like myself to the endgame raid gear grind. Then again, it's not like I'm currently able to do group content often enough for that to be an option that I would miss if it were gone. In any case, I don't think that's a huge portion of the market compared to the people who are impacted by the solo -> group playstyle shift at the end of solo-friendly games like WoW, EQ2, and LOTRO.

Solo players would be free to solo, group players would have team-mates who know what they're doing, and devs would save some time on balance and content addition. I'm sure there wouldd be new and different problems with this model, but it seems like it'd be worth considering.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Core Solo Skills For Caster DPS

Whether it's alts in EQ2 or PTR characters in WoW, I've been trying out a relatively wide variety of different classes of late. There is a common thread between the two games in that both are currently designed with the goal that every class can solo.

EQ2: Root and Nuke
Looking specifically at classes that solo by casting spells, EQ2 accomplishes this goal by giving each of the casters a core skillset, consisting of a few nuke spells, a root, and some variety of buffs/utility. Beyond that, the majority of each caster's skillset gets rounded out with its niche role in mind; pure-DPS sorcerers get a larger selection of spells (needed for full DPS potential because all of those spells have cooldowns), Enchanters get buffs, CC, and debuffs, Summoners get pets, and the caster Healing classes generally have more durability (better armor plus the ability to heal).

You might expect the Sorcerers to be the best at the root and nuke playstyle, but it turns out that their longer group rotations can't be unleashed on solo mobs because the crucial root spell has a chance to break on any attack; your best bet is to hit the enemy with your 1-2 strongest hits and re-root, while the other casters can do things that won't risk breaking the root with that downtime.

WoW: Just Nuke It
By contrast, WoW has tuned its solo content such that everyone can burst down solo mobs in 3-4 casts. In practice, a pure squishy caster (Fire or Arcane Mage, Destro Lock) kills the mob in 2-3 hits, while a more control based caster (Frost Mage, Balance Druid) takes longer at less risk.

Because everything dies so quickly, many of WoW's casters do not get anything as good as a ranged root. They can afford to take the hits on the chin from an un-rooted mob because the fights are comparatively shorter. If the mobs ever get tougher, the solo advantage will swing in favor of the more hybrid classes in a big way.

(Aside: WoW's comparatively simpler rotations do have the advantage of making it easier to have diversity between specs of a class; you couldn't build something like WoW's Druid, capable of playing as a tank, healer, melee DPS, or caster DPS depending on spec, into a single EQ2 class, because you wouldn't have enough spells to support all of those roles.)

Building From The Core
In some ways, it is a bit disappointing to dig more closely at these systems and discover that you can have tons of classes (9 caster-soloers in EQ2) or specs (9 caster-soloers in WoW, if you don't count LOL-smite priests). Then again, such is the constraint that you have to build around when you have a primarily solo-based leveling game and don't want to end up with no support classes at your level cap.

None of which is to say that all of these classes are identical; in many cases, they play very differently. It just seems like the differences really come out with specialized group roles, where soloing basically boils down to DPS, control, and mitigation/healing.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

When Is A Small Guild A Bad Thing?

Stargrace's new guild just hit level 50 in EQ2, unlocking the larger-sized tier two guild hall. As part of her post, she writes:
I have heard multiple times on channels (especially on Oasis) that there is no room for small guilds, that there are too many people who choose that rout and that they should be merged into larger guilds. I do not think any of that holds true. Smaller guilds have just as much value as larger guilds, and when they work towards a common goal pretty much anything can be accomplished.

Personally, I'm behind her 100%. Two of my three guilds are of the smaller/less-hardcore variety; my WoW guild is actually large enough to raid tougher content, but I don't think they would fall apart if that wasn't possible anymore. So who are these people who hate on the small guilds?

Too Many Guilds?
Feldon's got what seems to be a summary of the complaints in his treatise on EQ2 raid populations. Though SOE has exacerbated the situation with a debuff-curing-heavy raid game that is apparently contributing to healer burnout, the broader population issue applies to just about any game out there. Feldon's guild has 2/3 of a full raid force, and is one of "over 15 semi-casual raid guilds each about 4-8 players away from having a full raid force" on his server.

This leads to a frustrating situation, though I'm not sure it's entirely fair to dump it at the developers' feet; you could fix the debuff thing tomorrow and guilds with 16 raiders still won't (or at least shouldn't) be able to beat 24-man content. I think the point that people miss when they complain that there is "no room" for smaller guilds is that many of the people in those guilds are in a small guild for a reason, and, indeed, would not be welcome in larger, more dedicated raid forces.

(As if to prove this point, Feldon quotes a forum post by a raid leader complaining that he had only two applicants from a specific healing class over a three-month period, and that neither of them could hack it. Is it really a failing in the game's design that the few people who have the skills to heal top-end content and the desire to play high-demand, rare classes choose to join guilds that an actually field a full raid? I mean, yes, technically the holy trinity plus fixed group size are design decisions, but that's not some minor balance issue or content design priority that you can fix with minor tweaks to a launched game.)

Different Solutions for Different Priorities
The bottom line is that the types of guild group you form are going to depend on your goals. If running the latest, fanciest full-group raid is a priority for you, then you should be looking for a guild that can accomplish that goal (and you should probably either be in the top tier of your DPS class or a healer, since most guilds have the requisite 1-2 tanks and at-least-average DPS). If you're going to have fun doing whatever happens to be going on, whether it's at level 20 or level 200, and your small guild supports that goal, there's no fundamental reason why you should have to change.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hotbars, Furniture, and Lots of Dead Lizardmen

Lyriana made it almost through her 73rd level before finally joining a group in EQ2. The current state of Norrath is such that groups don't really seek you out at low levels, and that suited me well enough since I came to see the solo PVE. After my guild formed up a group to seek the Headless Horseman, not knowing that he was actually a contested epic encounter that we would not be able to attempt, we pondered whether there was something else we could do instead.

It turns out that, if you'd like to "Interact with the Flame of Love" in EQ2, you need five companions, so off we went to the Shard of Love.

Adapting to new roles

Above is a shot of Lyriana's hotbars. Without going into too many details, suffice it to say that there are a few buttons there. With a real tank, I don't need to worry about getting the enemy to turn away from me so I can use my flanking attacks, and I have more time to work on things like debuffs. (I also nominally have a health transfer skill, but it was very ineffective, perhaps that was in part because I've got something horrible like 9/350 healing skill, since I can't use that skill on myself.)

It isn't really a problem that my solo experience has done very little to prepare me for a group game that I'm not really pursuing in the first place, but I will concede that there is a bigger issue here for players who are actually hoping to make the jump to group content.

An Instance Full of Story and Furniture

The Shard of Love is a very story-heavy instance, which seeks to explain why the Goddess of Love has not returned to Norrath with the rest of the game's pantheon. The instance was actually added to the game in the most recent content patch, mid-way through the expansion cycle. SOE decided to completely sidestep the gear inflation issue that WoW's new content introduces by not dropping ANY stat-bearing gear anywhere in the instance.

Basically, your drops in the Shard are house furniture (including benches, braziers, and critters) and cosmetic outfit pieces. It's unclear how this decision is affecting the zone's longevity, but perhaps it's not a bad thing to have content in the game that most people will only do a few times.

Mentoring down to the land of Lizards
I also had the time to join the guildies on a visit to the Temple of Cazic-Thule over the weekend. The temple is a non-instanced zone full of group content for characters in their late 40's. Thanks to the game's mentoring system, we were all able to set our level down to an appropriate level to run through the zone with one of the lower level players in the guild.

Because I'd never been there before, I was actually able to rack up a significant amount of experience and AAxp from completing the local quests and killing the local named mobs. Unfortunately, this is one of the game's older quest areas, so there were a number of quests that took a really long time and a lot of killing to complete, even for a full, well-balanced group (including some mentored characters, who are generally more powerful than legitimate players of that level, simply because things don't scale down perfectly).

I don't know that this would be enough to get large numbers of players into the zone on a regular basis - the loot was pretty worthless, even for the level - but it's certainly enough to lure some more experienced players into the area from time to time to help their guildies out.

On the downside, there was a pesky dragon, Venekor, sitting smack in the middle of the courtyard inside aggro range of several quest targets. Apparently this guy, a level 55 x4 epic mob, would have been a pretty major problem at launch (when level 50 was the cap for players). Fortunately, he's not that big of a deal when you've got some level 80 characters in your party who can click "unmentor" and beat the dragon down.

We were a bit disappointed that he only dropped a bit of silver (some raid mobs will still drop their trophies if you outlevel them when you kill them), but at least there wasn't a dragon underfoot anymore. If nothing else, Lyriana can now say that she has taken part in killing a dragon in Everquest II. I'm glad I got to give it a shot the once, even if it isn't something I'll be doing on any regular basis.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dungeon Backflagging and Involuntary Role-playing

If you look at the changes Blizzard has planned for patch 3.3 - gear will be reset for the second time in six months, and reputations will be heirloomed - it appears that they have decided that it is no longer realistic to expect characters to complete all the prior group content after they hit level 80.

You can't get out of gearing up entirely - there's a new random cross-server LFG system to help with it - but they clearly don't think that the backflagging efforts that Jaye is working on in EQ2 are realistic expectations for WoW players. For that matter, EQ2 itself has gone through and heirloomed many of its previously bind-on-pickup loot drops to help players gear their new alts without repeating old content on them.

Involuntary Role Playing
Whether it's sitting AFK watching your character travel, looking for groups, farming for cash to pay routine upkeep expenses, or grinding out levels and gear to catch up with your friends, there often seems to be something the player does not want to do standing in between them and the activity they actually want to be doing.

These activities are, in some ways, role playing; it actually does take your character time to get places, it actually does cost money to repair your gear, and a player who cannot defeat the Lich King's weakest lieutenants won't be very much good against the King himself. That is, however, little consolation when you sit down in front of your computer with maybe half an hour to spare before you really have to get to bed, and you find that precious time eaten up by the minutia of living in a virtual world.

Keen and Pete both lament the loss of role playing from the more recent entries in the genre. They're not wrong, but the answer is not as simple as telling players to go farm more. I'm starting a new job on Monday. The pay is good and the work is interesting, but the hours will almost certainly be longer. Spending more time simply is not an option for me.

Perhaps Keen is right, and the answer is simply that companies should aim lower, in the hopes of attracting a smaller niche crowd where everyone will be on the same page on these sorts of questions. There is limited evidence that the niche crowd is willing to settle for niche-level production values (see all the grousing about Darkfall's graphics, bugs, balance issues, and instability at that game's launch), but it does seem to be working out somewhat for Fallen Earth.

Then again, it does seem like everyone - solo, raid, crafter and PVP - has something to gain from sharing a single virtual roof, assuming that each aspect of the game is actually well designed, and not merely tacked on as a token hope to draw more subscribers. It would be sad to lose the diversity of our online communities, simply because we cannot agree on how hard the logistics should be.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Level 57 vs Level 75

I was struggling to find the time to visit LOTRO's latest retrial, so SOE helpfully decided to make my decision making easier by taking my EQ2 server down for most of the day yesterday. As a result, I spent the afternoon in Middle Earth and ended up hitting level 57 in Moria, before signing in to Norrath and hitting level 75 on my Dirge later in the evening. A few random observations from the extremely rapid flip-flop:

Variations on an Archetype
Allarond and Lyriana have a bit in common - both are melee characters who rely in part on life-draining special attacks to stay alive. On the other hand, Allarond is a Tolkien race (for obvious reasons), wears heavy armor, and specializes in hitting multiple targets at once. By contrast, Lyriana is a winged Fae with stealth, group buffs, and even some crowd control.

Probably the most jarring shift was due to LOTRO's combat pacing. Moria features increased use of healing mobs, who will heal themselves to full health if you do not interrupt them. The only problem is, you might be waiting for your current attack to finish, followed by an auto-attack, between the time when you push the interrupt button and the time when you actually attempt to interrupt the foe. Also, the Champion's interrupt requires a combo-point equivalent, which means you're screwed if the attack you are in the middle of using consumed all of your Fervour.

The bottom line is that, when fighting the healing foes, you need to hold DPS (with at least one Fervour point available) at the 45% mark so you can interrupt the enemy in time, even though this means that the last few percent until they try to heal happens very very slowly. It's a clunky mechanic that feels like you're exploiting the predictable AI (which doesn't know to trick you by trying or heal earlier or later). It's a somewhat jarring design that didn't matter as much before the increased emphasis on interrupts, and I can see why they're planning on changing it.

If you are in a guild with a guild hall, travel in EQ2 is much much easier than travel in LOTRO. You have one-click access to most of the zones in the game (some of them do require that you visit the local druid ring first), and usually some form of intra-zone travel once you arrive. Overall, I barely notice travel times in EQ2.

By contrast, Allarond is still working on his Moria quest deeds, and therefore has a very limited repertoire of "swift travel" points to work with. I have a racial teleport to Bree, a guild teleport to the border of the Shire, and the potential to get another teleport if I buy a house, but within Moria I am limited to a one-hour cooldown hearthstone-equivalent and whatever Invincible Goat routes I'm willing to sit AFK for.

During my session yesterday, I completed a quest deed that allows return swift-travel from the Dolven-View, the major settlement on the West side of the mines, with the 21st Hall, in the center of the mines. I'd previously unlocked the route going the other direction, but Moria quests have a bad habit of sending you back and forth between the two, and there was no quick way to make the return trip. Ironically, I actually prefer this system, where you have to work for the travel routes rather than having them handed out for free, to the WoW and EQ2 model, it just needs one more piece to the puzzle to make it a bit more workable.

Fortunately, Turbine is planning a revamp to the game's reputation system which may include more rep-based teleports - this could largely solve the problem.

Level Up-grades
Level 57 in LOTRO unlocks a new class trait slot, so I had to visit a bard in town to pick which of my unlocked options to fill that with. Otherwise, the level up was automatic - none of my skills need to be upgraded by hand.

By contrast, EQ2 has three whole crafting professions devoted to spell/skill upgrades for every time players level up. Lyriana has already maxxed the tradeskill that makes her upgrades, but the rare loam that she needs for current tier spells is massively expensive due to very high demand; half the classes in the game want a dozen "expert"-quality upgrades each from the same rare harvesting drop. The "journeyman" quality spells Lyriana can make with non-rare ingredients are, in many cases, inferior to the previous tier spells that I am supposedly upgrading from.

So, it was off to the Broker to buy Adept quality spells (which sit inbetween Journeyman and Expert), and, in some cases, delaying the use of my new skill ranks. I'll be slowly upgrading the spells on to Expert level as I obtain the loams to do so.

An extra juggling act
Overall, I'm not sure that I would deliberately set myself up to jump games like this on any regular basis. It's perhaps a bit too distracting to deal with the different combat paces and mechanics. That said, both games ultimately offer relatively comparable experiences.

In LOTRO, I was branching out from the 21st Hall and even formed an ad-hoc fellowship to deal with the bugs at Balin's camp (a quest which is really a bit too tough for its listed level). In EQ2 I paid my first visit to the main camp of the Order of Rime. Both experiences were high quality, fun content.

That's not a horrible choice to have to make.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Exploring EQ2's Night of the Dead

EQ2's Night of the Dead event is up and running. NOTD has been around for a few years now, but I've never seen it before, so it adds up to a lot of new content for me. In particular, NOTD features three solo instance - haunted houses and a new hedge maze - that feature some serious puzzle-solving. Some of these may have required a group in years past, but now they scale to the player's level and are tuned for a single player. I'm looking to run each of my characters through once for fun and profit.

Cosmetic Rewards
Most of the NOTD rewards appear to be cosmetic - things you need to make a haunted house in your player housing, perhaps, or costume pieces. They haven't quite given players the full set of world-building tools, but they've allowed for some pretty impressive decorating.

The other nice touch is that the new haunted hedge maze includes mini-bosses who drop heirloom cosmetic armor. You can get something like 3-4 random pieces of the black cosmetic plate armor set on each run-through, and they're all helpfully flagged with the heirloom tag so that you can run the dungeon on the character of your choice. I wish WoW would allow similar flexibility, but they have instead chosen to tie many of the more onerous meta achievement goals to cosmetic outfit pieces which would be a bit too shareable if they were heirlooms.

Unlike the infamous masks that spoiled the WoW expansion, EQ2's Halloween masks physically replace your head with the subject. In this case, the grizzled evil Overlord Lucan D'Lere, who looks kind of funny when you put his head atop a female fae.

The Contested Horseman
There's also the obligatory Headless Horseman boss. Like WoW's version, he drops halfway decent loot, and therefore has been highly in demand. Unlike WoW's Horseman, the EQ2 version is a contested, non-instanced boss on a 2-hour timer; first group to hit him by spamming AOE on his spawn point gets the loot.

This "contested" boss loot is a relatively bigger and more accepted part of EQ2's culture. That said, it was a bit disappointing to form up in a group with some of my guildies (Lyriana's first time EVER in a group, at level 73) in the hopes of paying the horseman a visit, only to find out that the spawns are basically monopolized by campers.

As with my criticisms of WoW's holiday achievements, I'm not convinced that limited time holiday festivities are really the place to put high pressure content - requirements that might be reasonable when the content is available year round are less reasonable when you've got a very narrow window to complete it; if nothing else, they could have mentioned in their advertising that the boss was a contested epic so that players would have known not to waste their time trying.

Blending Atmosphere and Gameplay
Ultimately, I'm really impressed with how they've implemented this holiday. The scaling content means that I'm able to do the content on various characters and actually collect half-decent exp, on top of cosmetic rewards. I'm not going to do every encounter every day on every eligible character, like Blizzard expects players to do with the daily Holiday bosses that have very rare drop mounts. But I am enjoying seeing all the sights once or twice; just enough seasonal flare to make the holiday memorable without having it dominate the month.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

WoW Halloween Achievements Broken In New And Different Ways

This year, the problem is apparently that certain trick or treat buckets in Northrend are incorrectly flagging buckets elsewhere in the world as already looted. If you need the candy bucket achievement (because you did not complete it last year), and you loot the buckets in the "wrong" order, you will be prevented from completing it. Blizzard says they're working on it.

It's not quite the generic "content failed to reset from previous years" issue that has come up repeatedly, but it makes the case yet again that there are serious problems with tying a long-term achievement grind to time-limited events that change just enough every year to make sufficient scale testing nigh impossible.

On the plus side, this is one of those things that is no longer my problem.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Wrath Dungeon Reps Heirloomed, Nerfed To Ground

From the latest Patch 3.3 PTR Notes:
* The following reputations have been sped up by roughly 30%: Argent Crusade, Alliance Vanguard/Horde Expedition, Kirin Tor, Knights of the Ebon Blade, Sons of Hodir, Wyrmrest Accord
* Sons of Hodir quests now give more reputation overall.
* Top-level helm and shoulder faction-related enchants are now available as Bind-on-Account items that do not require any faction to use once purchased (they still require the appropriate faction level to purchase).
* Reputation commendations can now be purchased for 1 Emblem of Triumph each.

The former change makes sense now that the Emblem of Triumph is the standard dungeon loot; a new level 80 running 5-mans would otherwise have ilvl 245 triumph rewards before they can get at the ilvl 200 faction items.

The latter change relieves alts of the need to repeat the old dungeon rep grinds for best-in-slot enchants that cannot be obtained in other ways. Technically speaking, you still have to have done the rep grinds once per account, so you're only really crying right now if you re-grinded Sons of Hodir rep on alts for no other reason than access to the shoulder enchants.

EQ2 has actually taken the same approach with faction-based crafting recipes; you have to complete each rep grind once per account but the rep reward recipes are now heirlooms. It's as good a way as any to leave the bar for the rep grind high the first time around without really discouraging alt-o-holics. Still, it once again begs the question of whether there is a limit to how fast inflation can happen before players start writing off grinds in the first place to wait for the inevitable nerf.

Updated to add: Blue posts say that they will be working to allow heirloom items to transfer between characters of opposite factions on the same server, hopefully in time for patch 3.3. They are even considering allowing heirlooms to change servers, though that would require more infrastructure work. If nothing else, you could load up a throwaway character with enchants and heirlooms and then send it to another server for a single transfer fee, which is a pretty big change from the present.

Did Killing Speed Break The Quests Of Kunark?

The Rise of Kunark expansion has a mixed reaction among the EQ2 faithful. The expansion raised the level cap to 80, and has a reputation of being a solo quest grindfest. As an exclusively solo player who struggled to find enough leveling content in the 60's, an abundance of solo content sounded like exactly what I'd been waiting for. Instead, I've found that I would rather be working on alts because, frankly, the veterans are right - the quests do feel grindy. What went wrong?

It isn't the basics

In this picture, Lyriana is staring down some yeti-equivalents. She has a quest to kill 20 yetis, two quests to loot crystals that the yetis pick up because they're shiny, and one "writ" bounty quest to kill specifically the brown yetis for reputation and guild status (exp).

Elsewhere in the zone, there's a corner of the swamp with a quest to kill 8 carnivorous plants, a quest to collect 5 dragonflies corpses, 5 worm corpses, and 10 mushrooms, a quest to kill 10 dragon-lizards, and bounty quests for a dozen each of all of the above (plus some random crocodiles sunning themselves in the lake). You go in, you kill and loot everything that moves (plus a few extra if you have the correct bounty quests in your journal, so your guild can get the exp for it), return to town to turn in quests, and move on to the next adjacent area. You could put these quests in WoW or LOTRO and no one would think they were out of place.

In short, the problem with Kunark is not the quests themselves. Having been through 60+ levels of solo questing in EQ2 before I hit any problems, I know that the base game is not the problem. The travel system is fine. There are local rep grinds, but I'm doing pretty well in crafted gear (which is super cheap because the "rare" ore used to make it shares a node with a rare loam that half the classes in the game need for their expert-quality spells, driving supply of the ore through the roof) so I don't really mind that I'm not going to max out any of them.

So what, fundamentally, changed to shift the EQ2 solo experience from fun to grindy?

A quest-rep reward side by side with the crafted gear I've already got.

Tougher Mobs, More Quests
EQ2 features comparatively longer combat than WoW - where my WoW mage kills level-appropriate mobs in under 10 seconds, my EQ2 Dirge typically takes at least double that time now that she's decked out in that top end crafted gear. In fact, the time per mob jumps when you hit Kunark because the solo content was tuned for players who had good gear from when the level cap was still at 60. (They actually toned down the mobs in the first part of the expansion to ease the transition, which previously hit like a truck.)

My guess is that this longer combat does not play well with the increased quest density found in modern solo MMORPG's with faster-paced combat like LOTRO and WoW. The dirty little secret of the WoW-style quest is that you're actually grinding away at random mobs. The quest system hides that fact by carefully making sure that you finish and leave each location just before you start getting tired of it - the quest reward exp compensates you for your travel time as you change grinding spots every 10-20 kills.

With WoW's 10-second mob kills, you can stack half a dozen quests that collectively require 40+ kills in the same small area and still have players in and out inside of 15 minutes. Double or triple that time to account for EQ2's longer combat and suddenly players are looking at 30-45 minutes to finish killing a dozen of everything that moves in that one corner of the swamp.

Implications of combat time on quest design
I spent a chunk of last week creating a new EQ2 Wizard and questing him through the Commonlands, one of the oldest zones in the game for the 10-20 crowd. Much like old world content in Azeroth, it was entirely common for quests to send you running halfway across the zone to kill maybe 8-10 enemies in an area that has no other related quests before running all the way back.

In a game like WoW or LOTRO, I would hate that type of quest, because I'd be done with the killing in two minutes flat and therefore would be spending the vast majority of my time running to and from the questgiver. In EQ2, I'm fine with those quests, because the longer combat means that I'm still changing scenery often enough, but I'm spending roughly the same proportion of my time on combat versus travel as I would in WoW.

This, in turn, may be part of where the Kunark model causes problems for EQ2 vets. SOE appears to have balanced the exp curve with the assumption that players would be doing most of the quests to level. The problem is that suddenly you've got this 30 minute window in which you got some exp for spending the whole time killing mobs and then you got a ton of exp at the very end for basically the two minutes you spent going back and forth to the questgiver.

It's easy enough to skip one quest bonus if you'd really rather stay and grind in whatever random location. Once you're doubling or tripling up on quest bonuses in every single camp of mobs in the zone, attempting to level without doing the quests becomes painfully slow. If you're not careful, that can turn what SOUNDS like a player-friendly convenient pack of 2-3 overlapping quests into a lengthy grindfest. Moreover, you have to plan on doing most or all of the quests, which removes the occasionally illusionary feeling that you're doing what you want to instead of working down a narrow "on rails" checklist.

(Incidentally, I wonder if Warhammer's solo PVE has the same problem, since that game also features longer time per kill.)

The implication, ironically, may be that the part of WoW that EQ2 should be copying is The Barrens, not Northrend. Where WoW needs tightly constrained travel times to avoid overwhelming the short time spent in combat, EQ2 can afford to spread out more into a larger world. The game doesn't necessarily need more overall content per level than WoW offers, but it might benefit from a bit more geographic separation, with fewer overlapping quests that devolve into extended grinding sessions. It will be interesting to see whether the coming expansion to Odus - which doesn't sound like the largest of expansion continents - will allow the game the space it may need.

In the mean time, you'll find me in the Commonlands, working on my Lol-Kerra-Mage.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rise of the High Pressure Pre-Order Sales Pitch

Aggressive pre-order campaigns aren't really anything new. It's all but standard for companies to offer some sort of bonus outfit, non-combat pet, or other minor bonus to pre-order customers. Case in point, Syp noticed that Star Trek Online preorders through Amazon will come with a free Borg crewman. (No word on whether they will try to assimilate you and/or your ship.)

Most likely, though, Cryptic isn't done yet. They launched Champions Online last month with a preorder discount on 6-month and lifetime plans (including a weird situation in which the plans "sold out" and then Cryptic decided that they'd take money people were extending in their direction after all) and guaranteed access to the Star Trek Online beta. Meanwhile, Turbine just went live with yet another Welcome Back Week in LOTRO, in part to promote at pre-order campaign in which current players generally don't have to pay for the upcoming expansion.

(As someone who juggles a tight time/money budget for MMORPG's, I had made a deliberate decision to let my subscription lapse until the pre-order deadline in case there was free welcome back time to be had. The winner: it's me.)

There are some good reasons for the pre-order model. For less-known games, strong pre-orders might help secure increasingly limited retail shelf space. (WoW is the only major release I can think of that does NOT go to any effort to secure your preorder business, perhaps because they don't need the help.) There's also a psychological hook to getting players to make the decision to purchase; you can cancel a pre-order with most retailers, but that requires you to actively change your mind.

The downside, of course, is that all of this creates a high pressure sales pitch. If you don't sign on the dotted line before the deadline, you miss out. The publisher is counting on the pressure to convert some maybe's into yes'es, but it can also convert wait-and-see into "oh well, missed it". Why would I jump onto Aion or Champions right now, having passed on their pre-order periods? Might as well let the server issues and launch patches settle out; there's sure to be a free trial at some point down the line, so I don't need to gamble $50 on the games sight unseen.

Now we're getting higher stakes. It turns out that the mount that was discussed as part of LOTRO's $20 RMT "adventure pack" is actually a pre-order item. After Oct 31, the pack will only include two character slots and the shared bank (which, in my view, will almost certainly be offered for purchase or expansion through some other venue - who codes that much GUI for a bank that only has 20 slots and will only be used by a small subset of players?). If I'm reading these two seemingly contradictory Turbine quotes correctly, the mount will be banished to a $40 bundle with the expansion (the one that current players generally wouldn't have to pay for) on October 31st. A permanent mount for all of your characters, which bypasses a pair of in-game gold price tags and a major rep grind in Moria proper, is now a pre-order bonus.

If any developers are wondering why us players are so distrustful of RMT, this sort of escalating pressure to spend more more more now now now, better act before it's gone, would be part of the reason.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Harvesting Pet Peeve

In this picture, there are six harvesting nodes. You cannot see harvest them in any less than 90 seconds. Each harvesting attempt takes 5 seconds (less with certain racial abilities, or after you get to higher crafting levels), and, depending on your harvesting skill, can fail (indeed, is more likely to fail than not).

I'm somewhat okay with the chance to fail, even though this "feature" is not present in LOTRO or WoW. Failing and having to spend another five seconds watching the progress bar doesn't actually make the process any more difficult, but there is compensation. You have a chance at a skill point with every attempt (i.e. failing gives you extra chances to skill up), and a chance to harvest lots of any given resource on a single attempt (e.g. 10 common resources and a rare) that gets better as your skill improves.

You have five separate harvesting skills to maintain, four of which are needed in the screenshot. Those skills are capped at five times your level. (Actually, five times the HIGHER of your crafting or adventuring level, but that part isn't that relevant to this point.)

Here's where my pet peeve kicks in. As with WOW and LOTRO, EQ2's early levels go by very quickly. The most recent starting area doesn't even HAVE any harvesting nodes to harvest until players hit level 11 or so (at which point they will be stuck behind the curve at 5/55 in all five skills). The older areas do offer harvesting, but you will still be hard pressed to keep your harvesting skill up to par with your level.

Suddenly, that screen full of harvesting nodes is not a relatively quick string of watching a progress bar for 90 seconds worth of harvest attempts. It's more like three minutes or more of attempts that might lead to 15 skill points. If you're in the dreaded 5 x 5/55 hole, or worse, you're in for easily 30 minutes to an hour of watching the harvest progress bar in areas with trivial foes just to catch up.

Ironically, it isn't that hard or unpleasant to maintain your skill at appropriate levels once you've capped it. It's just odd that the game really goes out of its way to make sure that the single least fun experience in the crafting game is the bare minimal harvesting needed to get out of the newbie areas.

Friday, October 9, 2009

What Does Dual Faction Content Mean For Cataclysm?

Tobold has written a five year re-review of WoW, and has this to say on content:
While there are certainly some bottlenecks, you can play at least 4 different characters (2 Alliance, 2 Horde) from level 1 to the level cap while repeating only very little content.

What Is New Content?
WoW currently offers eight starting areas (1-10/12ish) and probably seven paths to level 20 (both Mulgore and Durotar feed into The Barrens and Stonetalon, and I'm not sure there's enough content there to reach level 20 twice without repeating anything).

The bottlenecks Tobold is talking about start to kick in during the dreaded level 21-58 range. Some of the content is offered by neutral faction NPC's, like the Steamwheedle Cartel, the Thorium Brotherhood, the Argent Dawn, and the Cenarion Circle. In particular, around level 50 I suspect that the Tobold Challenge starts to run into real issues because so many of the traditional zones - Ungoro, the Plaguelands, and Silithus - are populated almost entirely with neutral faction NPC's.

Once you get through to Outland and Northrend, you can get a bit closer to the Tobold challenge; I'm pretty sure you could get through three characters relatively easily, since I'm advancing my Tauren through Outland currently doing almost exclusively Horde-factioned quests. Character number three could really focus on the neutral faction stuff, but I'm not sure that there'd be much of anything left for the fourth guy.

Then again, what exactly are we counting as "new" content? The Alliance guy wants you to kill Old Ironjaw for fur trim on a cloak, while the Horde guy wants you to kill the same wolf to contact the ancestral wolf spirits, but both quests are functionally identical - go hunting for the wolf in question in Terokkar and kill him.

Each faction does have its own signature quest lines (e.g. Thrall and the Mag'har, the Alliance reuniting Muradin and Brann Bronzebeard), but Blizzard has been going out of their way to have more and more content shared between the factions; either you're working for a neutral third party, or the two factions will have identical quests with different flavor text.

Why does this matter?
The big advantage to shared content is that more players will see it, allowing Blizzard to spend more time on it. A random quest in the corner of one zone that is only used by one faction really can't eat too much dev time, because so few players will use it. By contrast, if you're sending everyone from both factions through the same area, you can afford to spend more time fleshing things out. If you're only going to play one character ever, shared content means more, higher quality choices. If you're going to play a second or a third, you can repeat your favorites while still having some new stuff to shake things up with.

The problem arises if, as in Cataclysm, Blizzard is counting on players to re-roll repeatedly. In the short run, the plan of literally blowing up and revamping large chunks of the old world will certainly freshen things up for longtime veterans. In the long run, though, the question is whether we will see more content that, as with Outland and Northrend, is designed to be used by both factions. When Blizzard revamped Dustwallow Marsh, the answer to this question was indeed a lot of high quality but almost entirely shared content.

That's a trend that could ultimately hurt WoW's touted replayability in the long run.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Incentive Inflation At Work

On September 3rd, I wrote:
"Gear that I worked hard to get six months ago, thinking that it would last for the remainder of the expansion, has been made obsolete by gear that will itself be obsolete in six months, after Icecrown's three-wing 5-man extravaganza arrives.
The next time I'm facing a reputation grind or low drop rate in WoW, the prospect that the rewards will be obsolete in the next patch will weigh far more heavily on my mind."

I own 14 Emblems of Triumph, and was debating whether to pursue six more daily dungeon runs to collect the [Brimstone Igniter] Triumph Wand (the last piece of gear I need for the "epic" achievement) or work on other projects. Various projects for my raptor-riding, flying, potion-mixing Fury Warrior won out.

On October 6th, Bornakk wrote:
"The current plan is to make Emblems of Triumph the "base" of emblems so everything that drops Emblems of Conquest would be changed to Triumph and then the new raid content would drop the new highest emblem along with things like the heroic daily and such.

I'll have those last few emblems in a few days' worth of dungeon runs when patch 3.3 happens. Guess I had my priorities in the right place.

The Sacred Cow of LOTRO's Random "Legendary" Item System

Turbine has a dev diary up describing the changes to the legendary item system in the Mirkwood Miniexpansion. Jaxon has a summary; he and Doc Holiday seem to be pleased.

Superficially, the changes sound pretty friendly to players. We have vague language promising better random legacy traits that we won't be able to evaluate until the system goes live. There will be ways to make non-random improvements to existing weapons, replacing worthless legacies with stat boosts and upgrading the "quality" of important legacies so that they don't cost too much to upgrade. They're also tweaking the exp curve to make lower quality legendary items level faster, while increasing the exp required to level the raid-drop 1st age weapons (think Epic or Fabled quality in WoW or EQ2 respectively). But what hasn't changed?

Legacies are still random
They concede that it's a problem for players not to know whether a weapon is worth leveling until after they level it a bit to see if it picks up a crucial missing legacy. (In fact, they're overhauling the whole legacy pool for Champions because our weapons live or die on whether they get the legacy that boosts DPS for your preferred stance.) Now the strongest legacies are most likely to be handed out when you initially level the weapon.

The catch is that they're not willing to give up the slot machine. There will still be "a small chance" of getting one of the more powerful "group A" legacies later in the weapon's life. Even if you don't get quite that lucky, there will always be the chance that the RNG outdoes itself with the ideal assortment of "group B" legacies. Don't you want to spend time grinding out more exp on that weapon that's almost as good as your current one, just in case?

The Existing Relics are probably still random
Turbine is adding a fourth relic slot and allowing crafters to make relics that go in it. That's great for crafters, since players only needed a single crafted weapon back before Moria, and now they'll need replacement crafted relics every time they switch disposable advance-able "legendary" items. Or at least, that would be the case, except for the minor fact that they have also decided that they're jealous of WoW's self-only crafter perks. Don't you want to grind out a profession for no real financial benefit so you can have the best bonuses?

What they don't say very much about is those other three slots, which will still be filled using the deconstruction pyramid-scheme slot machine. These relics are still untrade-able, so you will have to level and then deconstruct large numbers of items to get them. Don't you want to go level more legendary items so that you can have a random chance to get the all-new tier 9 relics?

(Currently, each tier is made by combining five of the previous tier. If they stick to that exponential progression, a single random tier 9 relic will result when you combine 1.95 million tier 1 relics.)

Most of your item experience will be wiped
Hidden away on the third page is the revelation that Mirkwood-quality (level 61+) weapons will not accept item exp runes from previous content. Runes are the consolation prize for constantly replacing your supposedly "legendary" named advance-able items; you don't just have a random chance of getting relics, you get to transfer some of the exp of your old weapon over to your new one (possibly helping you leapfrog a few levels to figure out if the new one is worth owning in the first place).

If you're using a 3rd age weapon, like the ones that I have access to currently, you're simply out of luck. Your Moria quality runes are good for leveling Moria quality weapons to break them down for relic parts and nothing else. If you happen to have a raid-quality 2nd or 1st age weapon and you maxxed it out at level 60, you can get a Mirkwood rune instead. In case you were expecting a lot of experience out of that deal, Turbine clarifies:
Please note that the Mirkwood heritage rune received from these deconstructions will be a rune of lesser experience value than the Moria heritage rune received.

Don't you love leveling disposable legendary items so much that you're happy to be starting over from zero exp every expansion?

The Sacred Cow: Timesink, Timesink, Timesink, Timesink
I probably wouldn't be so hostile towards this feature if they hadn't misleadingly promoted it with reference to the ACTUAL legendary weapons of the Fellowship of the Ring, which they didn't discard and replace with random items from every orc they killed because these items were actually legendary. Indeed, they initially described the items as "mobile quest hubs", where players would get quests to do things that would improve their existing weapon.

Instead, the primary design feature of this system has been to get players to spend more time working on weapon after weapon without actually having to add new content to support that extra grinding. The changes try to paper over the community's complaints with vague promises that this expansion's weapons will be "better" - of course they will, or players would not abandon their current ones.

At the end of the day, Turbine's item advancement system doesn't really detract from the game - they've still implemented a high quality experience that I'm happy to play through at least once. At the same time, the sheer disposability of the not-so-legendary weapons removes all incentive to actually work on any of them, when the system is so clearly designed to wipe out as much of that work as Turbine thinks they can get away with, as often as Turbine thinks they can get away with it. Legendary items could have been unique and exciting; instead, Turbine has reduced them to just another timesink.

Monday, October 5, 2009

RMT vs Higher Fees?

It seems that studios are less and less inclined to settle for just a monthly fee.

Last week, LOTRO announced that they're spinning off their new shared bank feature into a $20 "adventure pack", which also contains a mount and two character slots. On the same day, the Star Wars TOR beta EULA disclosed that TOR will have microtransactions, though, in fairness, we don't know for sure that the game in question has a monthly fee. (I'd be shocked if it was outright free-to-play, but it could go with the Guild Wars/DDO/W101 content purchase model.)

Meanwhile, SOE announced that the EQ2 team had been tasked with making an exclusive dungeon as a loot card reward for their online TCG. (Yes, people will buy a $4 online booster pack for maybe a 10% chance of getting a key that lets you run this dungeon for a presumably cosmetic reward ONCE.) In typical SOE PR form, the card game promo team was allowed to declare how cool this new feature would be, while the EQ2 community team was barred from disclosing anything about the contents of the dungeon in question to reassure the community that the best dungeons and loot won't be moving to TCG rewards and Station Cash in the future.

My guess is that the new zone won't be any more out-of-line than existing TCG loot, but the appearance is worse; Blizzard might not have made a Spectral Tiger at all if not for their TCG, Turbine might not have assigned someone to code the shared bank at all if there wasn't additional money in it, and SOE says that they would not have hired the guy who makes the Station Cash furniture and outfits without the added revenue, but one presumes that EQ2's dungeon team would have been making dungeons whether or not there was a new TCG expansion to sell.

The angry forum posters are wrong, as always. Very few will cancel as a matter of principle. A larger number might cancel as a result of running out of stuff to do, when their subscriptions might have been saved had the team not devoted its limited dev time to content that so few players will see. Still, the card game probably brings in more revenue than both groups combined, so SOE doesn't exactly have a strong incentive to change their priorities anytime soon.

Is the Monthly Fee Effectively Capped at $15?
I'm not thrilled with the addition of RMT to subscription games - I feel that they create a conflict of interest where future game design cannot be changed in a way that would hurt item sales, even if changes need to be made. Dealing with that conflict is the price of admission if the game isn't charging a fee to begin with, but this is not stopping subscription games from adding transactions left and right. But what is the alternative?

Like it or not, all games are compared to the production values of World of Warcraft. None of these other games have the revenue of World of Warcraft. Perhaps it isn't fair, but that's life - in order to crack my crowded MMORPG play list, your game needs to outcompete the games already on the list for my limited time and money.

Tobold once suggested that WoW has effectively capped the monthly fee at $15 - there were some rumblings that Warhammer might have a higher fee, and the reaction was so universally negative that even EA decided that this was not a PR battle they could win. I don't think that WoW is the only reason, though "more expensive than WoW" would certainly put some added pressure on a new game to be even bigger and better than the genre's 800lb Gorilladin. However, if Blizzard is responsible, then perhaps they have done the genre a favor.

The $15 monthly fee already adds up to $180 per year. At any given time, you've got a financial incentive to quit the game; if you can finish enough to declare victory and go home, that's $15 you could be spending on something else. Increasing the fee only increases the pressure, and the risk that players have to take on in order to try something new. If studios can't compromise on quality and therefore need to find some way to charge more, perhaps we're better off with RMT.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Gear, Story, and Patch Progression in WoW 3.3

The finale of the Wrath era, patch 3.3, has hit WoW's test server. Though the patch is just in its early stages - only the art is really finished - we can start to get a glimpse of Blizzard's long-term plans.

Gear Progression
Blizzard is working to try and bridge the staggering entry barrier for raid-quality loot - the best in game stuff already has 100+ effective item levels (corrected for quality) over the best leveling quest rewards in the game. The new five-man dungeons will drop item level 219 epics on normal mode and ilvl 232 on heroic. The patch is also apparently planning a pre-Icecrown raid of the week quest to give people an incentive to run old content that incidentally may still contain upgrades for their guildies. Needless to say, I'm patting myself on the back for not having gone too far out of my way to try and milk every last ilvl 219 drop out of HTOC.

Over the summer, I predicted that we could see soloable daily quests in patch 3.3 that award the currently retired Emblems of Heroism. Though Blizzard did open up heirloom items to Champion's seals, we could still see my prediction come true.

Even if ilvl 200 epics, currently available for emblems and at the very end of rep grinds, do become widely available, that's still a staggering difference for Blizzard to balance as they approach Cataclysm. My first gut reaction to the Cataclysm rumor was that the smaller increase to the level cap might allow Blizzard to get away without offering a full gear reset. I just can't see level 81 quest reward greens making the jump to ilvl 300 (deducting two tiers for lower quality) in one fell swoop just to try and keep up. Then again, with 5-man loot hitting ilvl 232 this expansion, it can hardly start any lower for the next one.

Story and Difficulty Progression
Speaking of the new three wing 5-man extravaganza, Blizzard is making an interesting attempt to make the expansion's signature villain more accessible. TBC's lore was all Illidan all the time (until Blizzard needed another patch to kill time until Wrath was ready), but it turns out that Illidan was right when he told non-raiders that they were not prepared.

That said, will an encounter that allows players to visit Arthas and spar for some loot really satisfy that complaint? It's a bit of a step up, but the final battle will still be reserved for raiders, and I'm sure we will all get tired to hearing Jaina and Sylvanus' color commentary after the second time through.

Patch and Expansion Schedule
With only one of the four instances (three 5-mans and the raid) open for testing, this patch will probably be on the test realms for at least the six weeks between now and Wrath's first birthday. Even so, it looks like the rumors suggesting that Blizzard might actually release three content patches in 2009 are still plausible, a massive improvement from the lean days of 2007 and 2008. Turbine, with their planned December LOTRO mini-expansion, may be less than amused.

This will, however, put huge pressure on Blizzard to finish Cataclysm in a timely fashion. Unless they're going to add something major to the patch at a later date, there will be very little for solo players - the current notes just contain some streamlining for very low level alts. In the current marketplace, having Cataclysm arrive any later than the summer actually could cost Blizzard some serious money.